Japan 2007

Ross at Tsukiji Squid at Tsukiji Have a look at the movie of the trip on Youtube.

Here is our itinerary in Google Earth. Click the "play" button in G.E. to see it as a movie.

Ross picked Japan for his birthday trip. We arrived on the 21st of October. As usual, Ross stayed awake the whole time on the plane. I fasted and watched the movie Kisaragi, about a set of obsessive teen-idol fans, which was pretty funny.

At the airport we got our rail passes and cans of C C Lemon. We rented a phone, but did not find it as impressive as last time. (Mini-review of JCR Corp: big rip-off. It cost $150 to rent a phone for two weeks, then three months later we were slapped with $225 in iMode charges, which with phone time and other fees brought the total bill to $500 for two weeks! There must be a better solution for using phones in Japan.) We excitedly wondered if Japanese trains would all have wireless internet access now, but they don't.

We stayed in Ueno at the New Izu Hotel, because it was handy for the airport. We walked around looking for dinner, trying to avoid the seedy Ameyokocho area, and ended up at Ichirokudo. We got our own little cubby there, and a waitress brought a plate of fish to choose from. We picked a flat fish, that later arrived with its skeleton all crispily deep-fried and edible. Yum. We also liked deep-fried fish eggs on kelp, coated in fish-flakes on a stick.

I woke Ross up at 4:30am and we went to Tsukiji fish market. The tuna at the auctions seemed smaller than I remembered (P finds Tsukiji depressing because all that life is removed every day from the sea). There were lots of matsutake about. Ross and I ate at Daiwa Sushi, which I had not been to before. There was not much of a line, and the uni was excellent. Later, on the outskirts of the market, we bought some unagi at a stall which was the first place I had ever had it, back in 1982 or so.

Ross fishing at Ichigaya At the Miyazaki Museum Keeping up the fishing theme, I took Ross to the Ichigaya Fishing Center. This is the place one sees from the Chuo Sen, with old guys sitting close together on plastic crates, smoking and angling. We got two rods and two balls of mealy green bait for an hour for ¥750 each. You squish the bait onto the barbless hook and hope for a big black carp. Ross calmly landed one as I took pictures. We celebrated with cokes, though our hands were fishy. At the end we checked out the mini fish farm, where goldfish were drifted in the bottom like autumn leaves.

From there we rattled over to Shinjuku and Kinokuniya Books, where we got maps of Fuji and Akame, plus I Am a Cat and the latest volume in the Doraemon series. In the warren below, we ate te-uchi udon boiled in their own little automated baskets.

Cruising the Anime City (not really a terribly useful book) recommended a shopping arcade in Nakano near where I once lived, and near the excellent Okajoki restaurant. But the shops mostly sold expensive plastic toys, which do not interest us. So we hurried on to the Ghibli Museum. This was crowded and a little young (crawl-over nekobus), but still fun. We liked the movie (girl goes camping, appeases monsters with apples) and the 3-d zoetrope. The shop was disappointing, but did have the new Earthsea DVD. I resisted it then, but we bought it later and watched it on my laptop -- worst Ghibli movie so far, alas.

News flash: Starbucks in Japan has no WiFi. After that disappointment, we made a dash for the Parasite Museum in Meguro. A ¥600 taxi ride showed us the museum was closed Mondays, so we took a ¥600 taxi ride right back. Then we met our friend Toru near Hachiko. He showed us a fishing game on his phone -- one casts by making a casting motion with the whole phone. Ross caught a piranha, that bit his panda-avatar. Toru left us at Tokyu Hands where we bought a waraji-making kit and some doll's eyeballs.

The famous maguro-steak It was still early, so I took Ross to a bar, Maguroya, in Nonbeiyokocho, that I used to frequent in the early 1980s, and occasionally since. Norio, the owner, chided me for bringing a minor, but it was early, we drank tea, and ordered the specialty: Maguro steak, which is tuna cheeks fried in butter with sansai and black pepper. Fantastic. Norio said that the alley was increasingly popular with foreigners these days -- maybe they like the atmosphere, like an old Ozu movie.

We ate a full dinner at a yaki-niku place on the other side of Shibuya. Ross showed a fondness for the shinzō (heart). Back at Ueno, we ended our long first day with a walk through the park and a geocache.

The next morning we went to the kabuki and saw a show with an amusing pantomime horse. Ross got the audio commentary, but I figured there was no point in me personally breaking the cheapskate habit of decades and actually understanding what was going on.

Then it was off to Mt Fuji! Ross particularly wanted to climb Fuji-san, and I had some misgivings since the mountain closes on the first of September. True, I had climbed it six times, never in season. But now we have the internet, and I found a site listing all the recent climbing deaths there ... I figured I was a good candidate for a heart attack, and did not like the idea of Ross being blown off, either. But what a thrill when the mountain came into sight as we rode on the tiny Fuji-Yoshida line. I grabbed Ross's knee and said "There it is! It's so BIG!" In my life I have had the luck of a few sudden Fuji-sightings. This time it was with my son. I wish you, reader, a few such shining moments.

"David" from the Inn Fujitomita picked us up in his van. This Inn (see review) had great rooms, food and bath. Ross loved the tanzen coat that goes over a yukata -- this provided a shopping experience later.

Fuji sunset

We started next morning at Fuji Sengen shrine, whose spreading cryptomeria were familiar, although they seem to have a lot of bark grafts now. Ross not only knew what the water hammer was, but informed me that it served to scare away deer. When we tossed coins into the temple and leaned over to pray, our backpacks set off an alarm.

The little temples and mossy statues along the hike reminded me of scenes from Spirited Away.

Fuji Sengen shrine Cryptomeria Monkey Do not set the tanukis on fire! Mossy Shrine

At the second station we met some old gents collecting mushrooms. At the third station I reminisced to Ross about camping there 25 years ago. The ogre tree was still nearby.

Third Station 1982 Third Station 2007 Ogre Tree

Contrary to what our innkeeper said, the hut at Satogoya was closed. We decided that we did not have time to summit, so we walked to the touristy road terminus and ate a lot: chashumen, curry ramen, yakisoba, gyoza, coke, beer, melon soda. Then we dawdled up the mountain, waiting for all the workmen with diggers to go home, and camped by the sixth station, on a moldy tatami that was lying there. There was a great sunset -- the mountain's shadow elongated across the clouds, until, at the final instant, there was a shadow-Fuji on the horizon.

Fuji Cake Warning Fuji Shadow Shadow Fuji

The next day we overslept a little. We could hear, and see, whirring rock-fall in the neighboring gully (I hope this comes through on the video). We met one person coming down, in red gore-tex body suit and with an ice axe! We reached the top around 11:30 (and claimed the virtual geocache). Ross was well ahead of me -- I stopped a lot to pant. We sat around eating, drying and adding layers while it got colder and darker and started to snow.

Fuji Torii Fuji 3000m Red Lava Eating a rice ball at the top Brass mountain Temple dog and frozen hair Fuji Torii Moss moustache man

We walked around trying to find kinmeisui spring but there was no visibility, and Ross's hair froze. So we went down, and down, and down. I wanted to go back to Fuji Sengen shrine and film some more video, and Ross uncomplainingly walked until it got dark. I was unaware that his toes were all bloody. Even five months later the nails have not fully grown back. He gets this lack of complaint from his mother.

At Nakanochaya the proprietor took us back to Fujitomita Inn, where we had a very welcome bath and dinner. I was so tired that I was actually unable to finish the food and even the wine! As we lay on our futons we could see the mountain outside our window, clear in the moonlight.

Dinner at Sansuien Chinese salamander Iridescent worm Pheretima sieboldi Now, something that I was determined to do on this trip was to see giant salamanders. Years ago, I had seen one at the Osaka Aquarium. So we took many trains from Fuji-Yoshida to Akameguchi in Mie prefecture. On the way I phoned the Salamander Center and asked if there were a ryokan nearby. They recommended Sansuien Onsen, which is some distance away. If you want a hotel right by the entrance to the falls, try the Akame Green Village, which looked nice.

Sansuien is very posh (¥16,000 each) and we had our own little hut with several rooms. The big onsen was a toasty hexagon, and there was an outdoor one, too. There was a lot of water everywhere, and we saw river crabs and little salamanders. The food was fairly good, but suffered from the long walk to the main kitchen. (We learned that the waitress's child had gone to NYC to study hip-hop.) The best dishes were the hoba miso and a broth of matsutake with lime. Other decorative items were rightly dismissed by Ross as "stale balls of paste". Breakfast in the main building was nicer -- milky hot miso soup.

We got a ride to the salamander village and were immediately met by an urbane and eloquent man who told us about everything, arranged for a tea-shop lady to watch our bags, and then disappeared. The photo at right is actually a Chinese salamander - the Japanese Andrias being too well camouflaged to come out clearly. We had no hope of spotting any as we hiked around the waterfalls in the rain. You can see why the waterfalls are more heavily promoted to tourists than the blobby salamanders, and we were hard put to find any salamander souvenirs, settling finally for some blobby chopstick rests.

We saw iridescent worms over a foot long. If anyone knows what these are please email me. [ Helpful YouTube user gewunden says this is Pheretima sieboldi. Old Philipp Franz catalogued a lot!]

Ninja train Pink ninjas At this point were not so far from Iga-Ueno, famous for pink ninjas. Top tip: if you arrive by Keio Line, get off at Ueno-Shi (where you see all the stuffed ninjas), not at Iga Ueno (which joins with the JR line). You will just have a long bus ride back into town, though our bus driver was pleasantly chatty. We stayed at the Frex Hotel, which is several minutes walk north from the park, in a strip mall area. It had internet access at least.

The ninja tour starts with a house with a lot of trap doors. The pink guide, who is totally invisible against a background of hibiscus or watermelon, asks for volunteers to try a secret rotating panel. Of course nobody does, not even your own son. Then they ask for gaijin volunteers, so I clumsily disappeared and reappeared.

Later, a western woman in a leopard leotard introduced some ninja fighters, who made a nice performance. Then for a few yen, you get to throw some real shuriken. I enjoyed watching Japanese moms do so at their children's request. We bought shuriken senbei as omiyage.

Basho was born here. We saw his museum (mostly texts) but it was too late to see his birthplace or hermitage. Was he a ninja, I wonder. We got many stamps for our diaries, and saw the castle.

The ninja frog jumps into the pond without a sound.

Yamadera Basho and Ross We saw Basho again the next day at Yamadera, after a bullet train ride or two (during which Fuji was visible -- at one point people were lining up at the window to take pictures). I went here many years ago with Ross's mother, long before she imagined that title, and remember camping in the woods, then watching her bathe in the river, wearing her clothes unfortunately.

It was not so exciting this time. There were lots of tourists, particularly Chinese for some reason. The monks were gruff, although one at the bottom did put some calligraphy in Ross's diary. After the tour buses left, the town closed up tight, and as its three hotels were full, we went back to Sendai and stayed at the Comfort Hotel, which we really liked. It had a coin laundry and breakfast included free rice balls.

We ate at the nearby Tofuro restaurant, another place with cubbies. They made their own tofu, and we got one dish that was incredible dense creamy ball of it, with syrup and wasabi. Ross also liked the soba dumplings with ice cream. I liked a yaki-onigiri with camembert and small fish.

Hizo - sliced salmon-head pickle Sapporo Beer Hall Next stop was Sapporo, to spend time with my old college room-mate David, his wife Mie, and his young son Aquila. We stayed at the Keio Plaza.

Mie laid out a spread at their place, including a special item for me -- the weirdest food she could find: hizo, sliced pickled salmon-head.

We took Aquila to Moerenuma Park.

I got to attend David's fascinating lecture on the Far Eastern Republic. I even did the reading (chap 16).

Ross and I bagged another virtual cache here.

Ross and I browsed various used bookstores, frustrated as usual by their short opening hours. At Kinokuniya we got Brave Story, which Ross says he enjoyed. I bought Wrong About Japan, about another father-son Japan journey, but found it rather thin and poor.

One evening we went to Sapporo Beer Hall of fond memory. In my 20s I went there during the Snow Festival with my friends John and Suzanne. We ate so much lamb and drank so much beer that I fell asleep in my clothes at the hotel and woke up with tatami-face. This time we were much more sober. I had forgotten how much grease is in the air. Fortunately, big plastic bags are provided for storing some items grease-free.

Next, David took a few days off to come with Ross and me to Shimokita Hanto. We awaited him on the train, with our heads out the window. He sprinted up the stairs and boarded at the absolute last possible second. He has this in common with my current room-mate Patricia.

Squid boat Dinner at New Yagen Hotel On the ferry from Hakodate to Oma we enjoyed watching the bright lights of the squid boats. David napped in the tatami interior, which was just as well as he did all the driving to Yagen. The girl at the car rental told us that the Red Sox had won the series.

At first we drove right by the New Yagen Hotel because it does not look quaint. But it was still a pleasure. I envy the aged Japanese, who ride around in buses to various onsen like this, chat and soak themselves in the bath, then have great food.

Our food came quickly. The first impression was of the shockingly retro tableware. One dish in particular, a pink and spotted one visible in the pic at right, came to be known by us as "Barbie's bidet". That evening it had a fizzy, mushroomy thing in it -- we worried about Barbie's health. A further novelty was rice that had somehow been toasted/popped in its stalk. We were on the autumn/winter cusp for the cuisine. David brought wine.

Ross opened all the windows at night, as is his way. It was Halloween.

In the morning I accessed the wireless in the lobby, to be surrounded by Sony businessmen remarking on my Vaio. A Mr Nagaaki was selling dried squid, apple candy and other delights and was particularly friendly. It reminded me of the Old Days when foreigners were treated absurdly well, like celebrities. I always enjoyed that!

David very much wanted to visit Osorezan. I had been there long ago with Patricia, and told him it was too creepy. David thought that was great for a scene in a book he was writing. I said that I did not mean creepy ha-ha, but creepy creepy, since it is about the spirits of dead babies, and their toys are left among the steaming sulphur vents. But that only made him more enthusiastic.

On the way in we found an excellent geocache in the autumnal swamp by the lake.

We had the place pretty much to ourselves, as it had officially closed the day before.

Osorezan Osorezan lantern Urn Eroded figure Sulphur Coins Figure Figure Erich and David at the lake

Then a storm brewed up and we took shelter in the souvenir shop, where we had ramen and soba. Ross liked the sweet mochi with beans. We stocked up on more incense.

Kappa no yu rotemburo Kappa no yu sign Back at Oku Yagen we found the first kappa-no-yu rotemburo quickly. Not only was it hot, and outdoors, and decorated with a kappa statue, but it was free, too. Up the road a little way on the other side was a commercial bath, screened, segregated, a bit hotter with a view of a bigger river. Afterwards we bought little towels, and rice balls, and then hiked up to a woodcutters' shrine.

David drove back for a nap while Ross and I hiked down the river. Along the way we found yet more simple outdoor baths, and views, and waterfalls. This is a very nice area.

As dusk fell we heard strange gobbling, crooning and singing. A troupe of monkeys was high in the trees across the road. We watched and filmed until it was quite dark.

Back at the hotel we had...more baths! It takes a lot to get us clean. The winter dinner menu had more fish, and uni rice. We had more wine and watched a DVD on the computer.

Daikon drying for pickles Very fresh tuna In the morning after yet more baths and a fancy breakfast (broth cooked on shells, yudofu) we hurried back to Oma to return the car and catch a ferry that David had found, which would hug the coast and visit obscure inaccessible towns on the way to Aomori.

We had time for lunch, so I picked a place that advertised a tuna bowl. It seemed kind of pricey, but was meltingly delicious. The restauranteur explained that this was the first of the winter catch, fresh from the boat! From here tuna would be shipped on to Tsukiji. So this was the freshest maguro we are ever likely to eat.

The air outside was salty and wild, and made drying fish strips flutter. So it was not a huge surprise that the car rental ladies looked at us pityingly and said there was no Aomori ferry. David gallantly decided to drive us all to Mutsu, where we caught trains in different directions. The last we saw him he was editing his wife's dissertation.

Pikachu The closest we got to a maid cafe Back in Tokyo we stayed at Ryokan Ryumeikan-Honten. We ate at Jusanya which was understaffed that evening and a bit slow.

In the morning we met up with Joe, an old friend from English-teaching days. Then Ross and I did some speed-shopping in Ikebukuro at the department stores and the Craft Center. We got a tanzen and numerous pots. Then we raced to Itoya in Ginza for a stationery fix. Then I grabbed a tiny amount of time used-book shopping in Jimbocho.

In the evening we met Toru again, this time with his nephew Ryoto, who is Ross's age. We toured around Akihabara, with Ross suddenly eloquent and deep in conversation about anime and manga. We wanted to try a maid cafe, but could not find any. I have my suspicions that Toru was not keen on finding one -- perhaps they are seedier than I imagine. Instead I took them to staid old Yabu Soba.

After that Ross and I walked to Yasukuni shrine in the dark, searching convenience stores for these fantastic chocolate mochi that we had eaten earlier in the trip. It was time to stock up with food to bring back to everyone at home. Luckily, at the airport we found chocolate mochi and sweet-potato cakes and banana pies and miso-garlic and enough other boxes to fill a whole check-on bag. Too bad the mochi went stale pretty quickly.

Ross at home Back home, Ross made his waraji despite the instructions being in Japanese. Here he is in his yukata and tanzen, with a few sticks of the incense he likes to burn.

He looks ready for another journey.

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