One of my last wishes on this trip to Japan was to view Mt. Fuji.
A beautiful quote I read this morning has inspired this last Japan post:
“Travel knowing where to look, but not what to see.”
I came to Japan with a few ideas of where to go on this journey and my experiences the past few days here has left me finding joy in the most unexpected places. 🙂
This is one of the truly beautiful, and intangible gifts of travel.
To begin, let’s start with my trip to Mount Fuji.
Viewing Mount Fuji: Hakone Free Pass
I planned a trip to Hakone, which promised Fuji views and endless options for luxurious hot spring resorts. For a good deal, I bought the Hakone Free Pass, which includes roundtrip train tickets to Odawara, and limitless travel around the Hakone area.
http://www.odakyu.jp/english/deels/freepass/hakone/I invited my friend Brian, a U.S. Navy pilot from the Midwest, to join me bright and early on New Year’s Eve, to take the train from Tokyo to Odawara.
Sunrise views from the trainThe recommended route we took around Hakone was as follows:
- train to Odawara
- bus to Lake Ashi
- scenic cruise on Lake Ashi
- ropeway through the mountains
- cable car ride to Gora
- bus back to Odawara
- train back to Tokyo
Hakone is very touristy, and with a quick flash of my free pass, I found navigation around the area to be incredibly easy. 😀
We arrived at Lake Ashi after three hours of travel, and took a walk around the ports of Motohakone and Hakone-machi.Nearby, is the Hakone Shrine, with a grand torii gate overlooking the water’s edge.Towering cedar trees, and a long cobblestone walkway lined the path leading to the shrine.Miraculously, as we began walking to the dock, snow flakes began to fall. Absolutely perfect! 😀From Motohakone, we boarded a pirate ship, with stunning views of Mt. Fuji and the torii gate.The ship cruised the lake and finally docked at Togendai, where we hopped on the ropeway toward Sounzan.Bless! They even provided handwarmers on the chilly winter day.Throughout all the means of transport, we were surrounded by nothing but trees and mountain ranges. With Mt. Hakone’s multiple peaks, it was pure bliss for us nature lovers. ❤The end of the ropeway also offered prime Fuji views as well. 🙂Now, more recently, a portion of the ropeway has been closed due to volcanic activity, so we boarded a short bus to the next stop in Sounzan.I could even see smoke coming from a vent on the hill, and smell sulphur in the air. Better to be safe than sorry! Next up was the historic cable car ride to Gora. Beforehand, we even tried the new-age Japanese vending machines, with cold drinks in blue and hot drinks in red.This can of coffee was scalding hot, but also a great way to keep warm and toasty on this frigid day. 🙂After touring the route, we decided to visit a unique hot spring that I had read about on the internet.
Yunessun Themed Spa: Bathing in Red Wine
Yunessun Spa at Hotel Kowakien has 15 themed hot pools, filled with everything from coffee to tea, and wine to sake. Absolutely absurd and a must-do if you are here.They even have attendants come by periodically to dump pure wine, sake, coffee or tea into the pool, and also into your palms to drink. 😉
Visitors received a caffeinated shower as buckets of incredibly aromatic coffee were poured onto them. Apparently, all very good for the skin. 🙂The spa has thermal pools both inside and out.They even had snazzy bracelets, with a locker key tucked inside, so you could purchase snacks and gifts without carrying around your wallet.For a second, we felt like we were back in the Midwest.
Although this was Japan, everything felt so familiar. Kids were running around the deck and splashing one another. Parents were lounging on the chairs, reading books. Everyone was laughing and smiling. We may not understand the language, but these were all universal signs of happiness. 😀
After a long day, we grabbed the bus back to Odawara and had a nice meal of Japanese chicken and egg over rice. So tender, with a delicious scallion chicken broth.
New Years in Yokohama, Tokyo
From there, we headed back to Tokyo to ring in the new year. 😀
My friend lives in Yokohama, near the naval base, so we stopped at a wine bar there for a drink on our way out.
This place was the size of a closet. The quintessential townie bar we’d find back home. Two ladies and a gentleman were at the bar drinking some beer and watching a Japanese game show, popular on New Year’s Eve.The ‘wine bar’ had only three types of wine, but all enjoyable.The bartender wore a classy suit vest, and in my opinion, could have been Frank-N-Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show. With his manicured appearance, and strangely sexual mannerisms, he chopped an ice block and meticulously mixed my friend’s gin cocktail, even offering us a complimentary shot of spiced rum- their number one seller. 🙂As we sat there, watching everyone laugh and joke with each other, we felt this sense of camaraderie. We may not understand the language, but their smiles and acts of kindness were universal. A truly great feeling.
Just like locals. 😉 From there, we headed to the port of Yokohama for the countdown to the new year. We had the anticipation of awe-inspiring fireworks, in this electronically savvy megacity.As we walked from the station to Tokyo Bay, we past a neon ferris wheel counting down to midnight, pimped out cars blasting Latin beats, and even spotted some light-up shoes.As we waited near the gorgeous red brick warehouse, the crowds began to form. Lots of excitement and happy hollering heard from all. 😀Everyone gathered ’round, from various countries, with the same joy and excitement of ringing in the new year. 😀
As we counted down to midnight, the anticipation reached a very anticlimactic end. We were met with probably the most pitiful display of fireworks I’ve ever seen. Hah. Literally two minutes of firecrackers and whirly sounds. I could’ve outdone them with some DIY fireworks back home. Hah.
My words of optimism during the video. “Maybe it’s just like a warm up.” Hah. 😛
After less than three minutes, everything ended, and everyone packed up to leave. All we could do was laugh, and everyone around us as well. 😛
What we gained from that night, may not have been the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ of gorgeous fireworks, but a sense of togetherness found between groups of people from different parts of the world. The feelings of happiness found on everyone’s face was enough to lift my spirits. 2016 was going to be a great year. 😀For my last few unaccounted days in Tokyo, I spent my time in Nippori and Ueno- both lesser known districts of Tokyo.
Nippori’s Yanaka neighborhoodMany houses hung a traditional ‘shimenawa’ or wreath made of rope, to ward off evil and secure good fortune for the coming year. This neighborhood is also crazy about cats, since they are also seen a sign of luck, especially ‘maneki-neko’, the beckoning cat. Around the new year, Japanese people also purchase ‘fukubukuro’ or mystery bags filled with discount items. I didn’t want to buy any more stuff, but I did walk around Tokyu Hands, a store known for its creative goods, to see what they had to offer.
Sushi candles, Star Wars heels, and Kitty Red Riding Hood Panda facial masks, Anime ads, and a chic medical maskHorseradish Kit Kat bars- Gross! The sign says it all. That is so Japan. 😛Next to Nippori, is the neighboring Ueno district.Tapas in the Ueno district. (wagyu beef, potatoes, squash and white fish)
Now, other than an unconventional dinner of tapas in Ueno, I ate dinner most nights in my hostel’s communal kitchen.I was staying at 3Q guesthouse in Nippori, which housed travelers, international students, and even Japanese locals alike. For example, my roommate was Shu, a student from Shanxi, China, who was studying the phonetics of Mandarin Chinese at a university nearby.
Likewise, Japanese locals also lived in the building, and one night, this old man sat down across the table from me to eat his noodles. He looked at me, gave me a nod and a smile, and we both sat together slurping our bowls at the table. We could not converse, but everything felt strangely comfortable. A sense of unexpected joy and togetherness over a shared meal.
This is not where I expected to find myself in Japan, but I couldn’t have been happier where I ended up.
I watched families walk their dogs and ride their bikes through the park. I shopped in the local market and sat many hours on the metro, watching people make their way to work. We may come from different backgrounds, but at the end of the day, we’re more alike than the differences that divide us. This is one of the beauties gained from travel. 🙂
You may travel to see beautiful sights, but what inspires you to continue traveling is more about the unintended experiences you have, the people you didn’t expect to meet, and feelings of joy found in the most unconventional places. Be it in a local bar, a gathering crowd, or in a communal kitchen, sipping noodles with a stranger, you realize the world is beautiful place.
Happy New Year everyone. Whether this post inspires you travel or just restores your faith, may the year ahead be filled with laughs, love and unexpected joy for each and every one of you. Until next time. 🙂