The Mount Fuji Mission

Japan Day 12 - Hakone to Kyoto

Many places in Japan have early checkouts (around 10:00 AM) and late checkins (sometimes as late as 4:00 PM), so even though it would be around a three-hour journey to Kyoto (including some generous transfer time), we had some time to kill before our next accommodation in Kyoto would hand over the keys. I had just assumed we would make our way to Kyoto and kill the extra time there, but when we made it back down to the main train station in Hakone, we were greeted by a beautiful, clear, sunny day. Why not kill the extra time here and try again for a sighting of the elusive Mt. Fuji? Our Hakone Free passes were still good, so it wouldn’t even cost us anything.

The closest sighting spot was in the middle of Lake Ashi, so we walked towards the bus stop that would take us around the opposite direction we had gone in the day before. Across the street a big English sign read “Lockers,” and we sighed with relief that we wouldn’t have to carry our backpacks the whole way.

Bus K wound through the valley and around the bases of several mountains. The view was breathtaking now that there was actually something to be seen out the window. I was giddy with excitement from diverting from my meticulous itinerary. I’m usually one to go with the flow and explore once I show up to a new place, so I’m not quite sure how I ended up planning such a detailed journey across the entire country. I had gotten a little bit carried away.

After a few more turns, we noticed that it was cloudy and overcast in the direction we were headed. Shucks. I was still hopeful for a glimpse of Japan’s famous volcano though.

Since we were pros at the whole Hakone loop by now, we zoomed to the front of the line for the pirate boat while the rest of the tourists wandered around with mouths hanging open and lost expressions on their faces. Fletch was a fan of pointing out the “mouth breathers.”

This time the green, Vasa pirate ship picked us up, which according to the pirate ship page on the website, still wasn't a pirate ship. “The Vasa is modeled after the Vasa warship built by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, called 'the Lion of the North' for making Sweden a great military power in the first half of the 17th century, and features elaborate sculptures and carvings.” Pirate ship or not, a dude dressed up as a pirate was walking around for photo opportunities. Oh Japan.

Vasa sightseeing cruise. 

So many crow's nests! 


Since it was a beautiful day, and the weather was finally starting to thaw from the arctic temperatures we had endured for our first week and a half, we found a spot on a bow deck. We were heading into the clouds, but after turning at the right angle, there she was, Fuji-san. She was just a glimmer of an outline, barely visible through the clouds, but there nonetheless, magnificent and overwhelming. A silence fell over the boat. We all basked in her majesty. The moment was spiritual in a sense. And then some loud woman, with a crass, American accent could be heard shouting, “You hear that silence kids? Let’s keep it that way!” Too late, lady, too late. She didn't stop talking after that.

A glimmer of Mount Fuji. I had to play around with the contrast a lot to make her visible in the photo. It wasn't really this dark out. 

Vasa with Mount Fuji in the background. (Image property of hakone-kankosen.co.jp)


The plan had been to sail the circumference of the Lake, and then head right back the way we had come, but hunger set in and the thought of black eggs just a little farther on was too enticing to ignore. So we debarked the pirate ship, or Swedish ship, or whatever it was, at the north end of the lake, boarded the bus that was substituting for the out-of-order ropeway, and wound our way back up the mountain to the famous egg spot, Owakudani. There were several different vendors selling the black eggs, all 5 for $5, so we decided to try a different batch. They weren’t cooked quite as perfectly, but were still every bit as delicious. I wondered if we had just added another seven years to our lives, or if that trick was only a one-time deal.

Now that there was some visibility, we could see that we were indeed on a mountaintop, and there was an incredible view of the sulfuric fumes rising up out of the mountain through various steam vents. The landscape was a desolate contrast from the green valleys full of hydrangeas we had seen below.

Sulfuric fumes rising up out of steam vents.

Hakone Tozan Ropeway.

It was about equal distance to go in either direction around the loop back to our main train station, so we decided to just continue on with our clockwise loop downwards. We boarded the ropeway, and were immediately glad for the decision, because the view was remarkable. Yesterday’s condensation and solid grey view were replaced with volcanic steam vents that eventually gave way to lush green mountainsides and cute little towns, far down below in the valley. This was definitely worth seeing again on a clear day. I had to stand most of the time just to take it all in.

Ropeway ride over the volcanic landscape.

Ropeway ride continuing down the mountain into the lush greenery. 


When the ropeway ended, we boarded the cablecar. We sat at the very end facing upwards, even though the cablecar was transporting us downwards. Quite an odd sensation. The cablecar deposited us at the train, and we got one last beautiful ride along the track through all the fields of hydrangeas, down towards the valley, back and forth across the numerous switchbacks. Hakone had definitely been well worth the visit.

View up the mountain from the Hakone Tozan Cable Car. 

View of a bridge in the valley from the Hakone Tozan Train. 


Hunger was setting in by the time we claimed our backpacks, but it was late in the afternoon by then and we still had the entire journey to Kyoto ahead of us. So we decided to get ourselves as far as the ticket office in Odawara to buy our shinkansen tickets, and then find food with whatever time we had to spare before the train departed. The Tozan train brought us back to Odawara, and we found a ticket office without any hassle. The next train would depart in an hour’s time, so we searched the station for food and stumbled across a soba shop, soba being the buckwheat noodles. Two vending machines outside sold us tickets for the meals we wanted. Inside, the soba was hot and ready to be ladled out on the spot. Finally, numerous standing or sitting tables offered seating for a good sized crowd that luckily wasn’t there at that time. What a great idea for fast food though. No servers necessary, no cashier necessary, just buy your ticket out of a vending machine, present it, noodles are already prepared, and voila, walk away with a hot meal. Fletch pointed out that college towns could be making a killing with such a concept. Plus we both ate for less than $10.

We found our shinkansen platform, and along with it, several very large groups of American high-school kids on field trips. Great, we were heading into one of Japan’s most well-known cities during field trip season. I know this is the pot calling the kettle black, but we had settled into a peacefulness that went along with no one else speaking English. And Japanese people are so quiet in general, that our experience with Japan thus far had been pleasantly surreal. Standing at the station and listening to a bunch of teenagers with American accents, trying to sound smarter than they were, burst our bubbles.

A shinkansen that wasn’t stopping at this station, sped through at full speed like a bullet. It was there one moment, and gone the next, surging through with more power and force than I've seen from even the ocean. There’s a must-have experience that they don’t mention in the guide books. Find a train platform to hang out on until a bullet train rips through at full speed. I’m reminded of a kid’s book we used to read growing up, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, and all she could say was “wow,” just, “wow.”

We sat on our own train for two hours as it whisked us away to Kyoto, once the capital of Japan and still a huge cultural mecca. I had booked a place on Orbitz that was ridiculously cheap, only $60 per night. You can’t even find two spaces in a hostel for that price. And this room was brand new and had two queen beds, which is almost unheard of in Japan. I was prepared for some big catches; the price was just too good to be true. Sure enough, as soon as it was booked, I had received an email from the location that check-in would not be on-site, but rather at a drug store across the street from the train station. Odd, but ok.

We debarked the train, and armed with Google Maps in hand, tried to figure out which exit we were supposed to use to get to the drug store. If you are planning a trip to Japan, always ask which exit from the train station to use. It saves a lot of hassle as Google doesn’t usually catch your location until you have exited the building and found some open-air space. Of course we walked out the opposite direction first before we realized that we were on the wrong side of the train station, so we fought our way back through the rush-hour crowds, over to the other side’s exit. The drug store was close enough to not be too big of a hassle, but the space inside was a closet, cram packed with a million different colored boxes on tightly packed shelves, and not at all ideal for maneuvering through with luggage. I carefully made my way to the back, feeling all the while like a bull in a china shop. The girl gave me the key, and instructed us to get on bus #9.

Bus #9 was easy enough to find. Our stop 20 mins later was another story entirely. No English signs were available on the bus, not even furigana for the station names, which were all strings of way too many kanji characters to keep up with. It was the end of the day, so the bus was becoming more and more jam packed at each stop, with commuters making their ways home from work and school. We had stupidly taken seats at the back of the bus. The exit was at the front. I did my best to play match-up-the-characters at each stop. I was pretty sure ours was next. We stood up with our backpacks and tried to excuse ourselves through the crowd. The isle was packed so tightly with bodies that there wasn’t anywhere for people to move out of the way, despite their best efforts. The driver didn’t notice anyone else trying to get off at our stop after the first person exited, and promptly hit the gas again. We hadn’t even shoved our way through half the length of the bus, and so were forced to wait until the next stop and walk back.

We managed to find the place without too much issue, down a back alley and next to a shrine. This was obviously another one of the weird, Airbnb/hotel room hybrids. We were sensing a trend from many of the places where we had stayed. Entire apartment buildings had been outfitted like hotel rooms, and rented out Airbnb style. Probably a way of avoiding hiring staff and starting a legitimate business. Our room in Hakone had felt that way, this place felt that way, and the place I had booked for our last week in Tokyo looked to be more of the same. What further made these places feel a little sketchy, was the fact that they all came with warnings not to answer the door should anyone come knocking. I had read an article the week before leaving for Japan that the Japanese government was cracking down on Airbnb and had removed 80% of the listings. We were beginning to see why.

We sat down for a moment to rest after a fun-filled day, and I browsed TripAdvisor to see if there were any good restaurants around for dinner. We appeared to be in a residential area with not much in the vicinity, and the few places I did find were all closing within the next few minutes. We finally decided just to go walk down the main street where the bus had dropped us off. A couple blocks later, we found nothing but conbinis, and so settled for another 7-Eleven dinner. I know in the US that would be equivalent to, if not worse than, a fast food dinner, but in Japan, the convenience stores are stocked with better ready-made food options than most grocery stores have back home. We bought a large assortment of sushi and nigiri and onigiri and brought it back to our room, then called it a night.

In Japan everything is tiny. Would anyone care for a shot of beer? 

We Came for Mount Fuji but Only Found Black Eggs

Japan Day 11 - Hakone

Is it possible to hear the word Japan without an image of Mount Fuji coming to mind? Japan's tallest mountain has long inspired many an artist and poet, and imagery of the majestic volcano is nearly synonymous with the country. It is an active stratovolcano that last erupted in 1708, and a subject of Shinto mythology. Such an incredible natural wonder and yet it had eluded me over the course of three trips to Japan.

Today was the day we were searching for a view of Mt. Fuji. Of course that also meant that it had to rain. I realized that when I planned the trip of course; if I planned one day around viewing Mt. Fuji during rainy season, then it would most assuredly rain on that day. No matter, we were still going to have fun riding around the sightseeing loop on the five modes of transportation that the mountain area, Hakone, was known for.

Equipped with our rain jackets and umbrellas, we hiked back up the steep road to the little train station. It was a much different experience waiting for the train to arrive on a little open air platform, surrounded by nature and quiet, rather then a hustling, bustling station with tens of thousands of people rushing about. We boarded the same train we had debarked from the day before, as we would be continuing along the same route, further up the mountain. 

Tozan Train conductor waiting to start his shift. 

The train continued to switch back and forth up the mountain, through tunnels and fields of bright blue and purple hydrangeas. The clouds were settling down over the mountains so that we were no longer able to see down into the valley. If we couldn’t see the bottom of our own mountain, our chances of seeing Mt. Fuji were looking pretty drear.

At the end of the line, we left the train and boarded a cable car. The cable car brought us straight up the mountainside, at an incline that was obviously very steep. Looking down from our seats towards the back of the cable car was almost enough to evoke a slight sense of vertigo. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the cable car scene in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” The scene was animated, of a little cablecar ascending up the mountaintop where the hotel was located. Perhaps it was animated because they couldn't find a real cablecar steep enough to film. They should have looked in Hakone. The clouds were only becoming thicker, and the visibility decreasing more and more the higher up we climbed.

When the cable car reached the end of its track, we switched over to a ropeway, or gondola as I’m more accustomed to calling such a mode of transportation. By this point the visibility was so terrible that we couldn’t even see the the ropeway ahead of us. The temperature outside dropped drastically, causing the windows to condensate. The condensations didn’t make things any worse though, the visibility was just the same without it. I pointed out the direction Mt. Fuji was meant to be in, and Fletch and I both burst into a fit of hysterics. Suddenly the whole idea of sightseeing with zero visibility seemed rather hilarious. We reached a peak, and then felt the gondola descending again. I was sure that had to be the million dollar view. If only we could see it… 

The beautiful view from the ropeway window. Fletch is pointing towards Mt. Fuji.


The gondola dropped us off at a halfway station that felt as though it were on a mountaintop. We couldn’t see where we were of course. We stepped out and were greeted by cold air and the stench of sulfur and hard-boiled eggs. Even a remote little area on a mountaintop in Japan had a food it was famous for. This area, Owakudani, was known for its hard boiled eggs, cooked in the hot springs, causing a chemical reaction that turned the eggs as black as coal. The smells of sulphur and eggs and the sight of eggs turned black wasn’t exactly appetizing, but it really wasn’t an option to not try something so bizarre. The eggs were sold hot, in bags of five for $5. Standing tables were scattered around, crowded with people cracking away the black egg shells. 

The black tamago.


Apparently to make the eggs, they are slowly boiled for sixty minutes in hot spring water that is 80 degrees Celsius. Iron properties in the hot spring water cling to the porous shells. A reaction with hydrogen sulfide turns the shells black. The blackened eggs are then transferred to a steam container and steamed for fifteen minutes at approximately 100 degrees Celsius to complete the process.

Owakudani's famous, hot-spring boiled, black eggs.


I’ve never been the biggest fan of hard-boiling eggs, but these were surprisingly sweet and delicious and hit the spot. They also gave my teeth a weird, chalky feeling. And according to legend, eating black eggs would extend one’s lifespan by seven years. You never knew an egg could be so exciting, did you?

We browsed around the gift shop for a few minutes. Everything was either packaged food items or cute. Plush Mt. Fujis with happy faces sat on the shelves next to keychains of Hello Kitty hatching out of a black egg. As we browsed, we realized we were still hungry and so went into the buffet restaurant for lunch. The large windows overlooked the nonexistent view.

There was meant to be a second ropeway, back down the mountain to the lake, but that was under renovation and so we instead boarded a bus for the next leg of the journey. The bus wound down the mountain and dropped us of at the station for the cruise. The visibility cleared up a little bit at lower elevation, enough to see there was a lake, but that was about it.

A t-shirt in the gift shop window caught Fletch’s eye, because it was exactly the sort of thing I always made fun of. It said, “The mountain [sic] are calling.” I do love a bad english translation. Obviously I had to get the shirt.

The sightseeing cruise that picked us up looked like a big, ornate pirate ship. Why a pirate ship on a small lake in the mountains in Japan? I haven’t the slightest idea. There were a fleet of three of these ships, and ours was painted blue and named “Victory.” According to the Hakone tourism website, “Victory is modeled after the famous HMS Victory, a warship built in England in the 18th century that took part in many historic sea battles…” so not a pirate ship after all. 

Victory sightseeing cruise. 

A beautiful day for some sightseeing on Ashi Lake.

The fog is finally beginning to lift. 


The visibility was clearing up enough to see some pretty little towns along the shoreline, but not nearly enough to see Mt. Fuji. The boat dropped us off after 30 or 40 minutes and we rode another bus back to the main train station, completing our counter-clockwise loop. Then we rode the train back up to our stop, Miyanoshita. What a fun day of seeing grey skies, black eggs, and blue pirate ships. We made it back to the room and a digital photo of Mt. Fuji mounted next to our door made us laugh and say at least we had seen it. 

Another shot of the hydrangeas along the Hakone Tozan Railway.


Hakone is also well known for its onsen, which are hot spring baths. Onsen etiquette is very particular in Japan. Men’s and women’s baths are separate, because bathing occurs in the nude. You shower off first, so that you’re squeaky clean before entering the hot spring. Most onsens in Japan also have a very strict no-tattoos policy. For Americans, bathing nude with a bunch of strangers doesn’t exactly sound like the relaxing experience that a hot spring visit should entail. Plus separating men and women meant that I couldn’t share this experience with Fletch. Luckily I found an onsen that had private rooms available to book.

Around dusk, a shuttle bus picked us up from the main train station and brought us 3 minutes over to Hakone Yuryo. The grounds were very beautiful and well landscaped, and a deep, peaceful air surrounded the place. It felt like a spa out in the middle of a mountain forest. We checked in and the front desk lady presented us with a basket full of robes and towels, and handed us the key to our private hot spring. I had really just expected the hot spring and a shower in the corner, but when we unlocked the door it was to find an entry area, a sitting room with complementary lemon jello snacks that were rather odd, a changing room with a mini bar, and finally the open air, stone pool, hot spring. Walls along two sides ensured our privacy, and the pool looked out over the mountainside with enough trees to know that no one was peeping in easily. 

Private onsen at Hakone Yuryo. 


We relaxed in the 40 degree water (104 F) for a full hour. The tranquility of the woods combined with the hot water melted away any tension from a week and a half of being on the go and carrying backpacks on and off trains. Ah, bliss.

When our hour was up, we lazily and happily made our way back up the mountain via the train to our room. We stopped at a conbini along the way for onigiri (rice balls stuffed with different fish fillings and wrapped in seaweed). Neither of us were extremely hungry after soaking in the heat, plus we really couldn’t beat a $17 dinner for two. A message from my sister informed us that there had been a big earthquake in Osaka where we were headed in a few days. How lucky that we had missed the one in Sendai after leaving, and now another in Osaka before arriving. Of course Japan experiences small tremors all the time, and they are nothing to be concerned about, but the ones big enough to make the news are capable of doing some damage, and at the very least, altering travel plans.

We settled in for our last night in the Airbnb room. The space was comfortable, with all the right amenities and a satisfactory amount of space for Japanese standards. The futons were even surprisingly cozy, with big fluffy, down blankets to get lost under. Everything about the room could have been perfect, except it offered zero sound proofing from the upstairs neighbors and the outside world. The upstairs unit was big enough to sleep six people, and they sounded like a parade of elephants walking over drums the entire time. Boom boom boom. Outside noise almost never bothers me, but the amount of sound echoing down through the floor was not something there was any chance of tuning out.

A CD player was sitting on the little table, and after inspection we discovered that there was an actual CD inside. How 90’s. I haven’t played a CD in years. We pressed play and a good assortment of hipster music distracted us slightly from the pounding upstairs. And so ended our day in Hakone.

I don't remember where exactly we saw this dude on our walk home, but I liked him. 

The Hakone Tozan Train

Japan Day 10 - Tokyo to Hakone

After checking out, we collected some coffee from the Belken Hotel before walking back to the train station. The little coffee machine in the lobby offered “weak coffee” or “hot coffee.” Who drinks weak coffee? After pushing the button for hot coffee, it was reassuring to hear the sounds of coffee beans being ground right then and there, somewhere inside the little machine. Or maybe it was just sound effects. If Japanese toilets could have sound effects, why not the coffee machines? Coffee in hand, we walked the twelve minutes back to the train station, like a couple of hermit crabs under the bulk of our backpacks, while the other tourists waited for a cab. We quietly gloated over our ability to navigate Japan without having used a cab yet.

We kept our eyes open for a restaurant serving breakfast, but nothing was open yet. Tokyo was definitely not an early morning city. This came in handy if you wanted to walk around with fewer people, but walking leads to hunger and as I just said, nothing opened early in Tokyo from what we could see. We made it to the train station without finding a single breakfast restaurant, and so headed down to the basement where, we had come to learn, a city of endless food options would be waiting.

The basement was buzzing with a million other travelers also looking for a morning meal. Maneuvering through crowds with backpacks was not the most comfortable experience in the world, and so we didn’t look far at all. In Japan, most restaurants have window displays with plastic food to show what's on the menu. It’s like those dessert trays they used to have at restaurants, but the entire menu is on display. The first sign of breakfast-type food we found was an omelette stuffed with rice, so that’s what we decided to have. The omelet rice had a lot of ketchup, but overall wasn’t bad. We also split some cheese potatoes that were hot as lava, and a little skillet of shrimp and mushrooms in some sort of garlic butter sauce. It was a lot of heavy food for that hour, but it held us over until the end of the day.

Breakfast at Tokyo Station. 


We found a new SIM card for Fletch who had already burned through his 3 GB of data. I checked on mine too and realized with shock that the Photos app had used up 400 MB in the background, uploading all my photos to iCloud without my knowing. So a tip for all you travelers out there: if you have limited data, be sure to go into the mobile data settings and turn the toggles off for each individual app that isn’t essential. You never know what might still be running in the background. I knew that trick once upon a time, but then got spoiled in Fiji where we could buy 100 GB of data for $25. That amount of data will make your careless. But now I was determined to stretch 3 GB out for the entire month.

We went through the routine of buying tickets, and then rode the shinkansen 35 minutes to a city called Odawara, with far more foreigners than I’d seen so far. We arrived at the most touristy station we had been to yet. There was even an English speaking booth set up for everyone else buying their Hakone Free Passes. We were heading to Hakone, a mountain town known for its views of Mt. Fuji, onsen, and its scenic loop trail you could ride around via five different modes of transportation. They offered a daily pass that included unlimited use of all five modes of transportation. It was a relief to be able to ask the guy behind the counter what time lines stopped running (17:00), and if two days meant two, full, start-to-finish days, or 48 hours. We would be leaving in roughly 48 hours, but spread over three days; we did have to buy the three day pass. It was still a bargain.

The Hakone Tozan Train brought us to the main Hakone station, situated in a quaint little town in a valley between the mountains. A second train brought us up the mountainside, on a ride that was worth the trip to this area by itself. The train had an old fashioned charm about it, and the railway was supposedly one of the oldest in Japan. The track brought us up the mountainside, meaning that the view from one side was down into the valley. Out the other side, the hydrangeas were in full bloom. Bright purple and blue flowers broke up the color scheme of the otherwise luscious, green, mountainside. It was a picture out of a fairy tale.

Hakone
 

There were three switchbacks en route, and at each one, the train would stop, the forward facing conductor and the caboose conductor (or whatever his official title may have been) would bow to their respective cabins, exit the train, and walk the length of the train to switch sides, and we would continue on in what felt like the opposite direction.

Hydrangeas in bloom along the Hakone Tozan Train railway.


Up the mountain we rode until it was time to debark at Miyanoshita Station. This was not a busy train station like the madness encountered in the cities, but merely a set of platforms with two tracks leading in either direction. A steep, quiet, and car-less road was the only exit away from the train station. We carefully made our way down the slope. A little outdoor cafe was set up on the roadside, offering a hot-spring, foot-bath for weary travelers. Its charm nearly lured us in, until we saw all the other tourists being drawn in like moths to a flame as well. The charm suddenly died with the new crowd, and so we continued on down the road in search of our Airbnb. 

Hakone Tozan Train departing Miyanoshita station.

This apple sculpture was designated on the map in a way that both Fletch and I thought it was going to be as tall as a person. We were both very surprised when we walked by and found this. 


There was only one main road in the little area, and so we found our lodging without any issue. A cute little building, simply called “Guest Villa,” had a downstairs and an upstairs apartment. We had the downstairs unit, and opened the door to find a studio area with two futons. Not the kind of futons that we are accustomed to in America, which fold up into a couch during the daytime, but mats that roll out onto the floor and can be stuffed away into a closet during the daytime. The bathroom was clean and spacious with all the same amenities you’d find in a hotel, and there was even a coin-machine that was a combination of a washer and a dryer, all in one. The place was obviously designed to be rented out, hotel-style, and not someone's home.

Deciding to rest for a while, we turned on the TV to see what fun Japanese channels we could find. We spent a while watching a doctor drama called "Black Forceps". Even though we couldn’t understand the language, the plot was all to easy to pick up. A young, punk kid with a brilliant mind, was really a better doctor than everyone else, but completely arrogant, and so had to learn to get over himself and find his place. When we tired of the doctor show, we found a news channel that reported an earthquake in Sendai had halted all the trains. We were lucky to have left that area before our travel plans were affected.

We eventually ventured back out to explore the little town area and its one main street. We walked across the street to 7-Eleven and found the equivalent of a Japanese biker gang in the parking lot. That was fairly amusing. When I think of Japanese people, I don’t usually think of hard-core motorcycle riders dressed up in black leather. Walking the road, Fletch also pointed out several high-end cars, much fancier than the cars we had seen in any of the cities so far. Hakone was appearing to be the Aspen of Japan.

It was nice to be out of the city, away from concrete jungles and too many people. The mountain air and natural beauty were refreshing. Hakone would be a perfect stop for a couple days.

As we wandered around, we passed by the same white couple twice, and so finally stopped to chat and introduce ourselves to our fellow travelers. It's funny how when there are fewer people around, everyone becomes friendlier. They were from Belgium, and had arrived the day before. Despite their limited time in Hakone, they told us several places we should check out and pointed out their favorite places on a nearby map like they had been there for ages. Enjoying the chat, we mentioned sushi for dinner, but they said that was out of their price range. So getting hungry, we parted ways and went off in search of the sushi restaurant that had been recommended in the apartment’s welcome book.

The sushi restaurant was indeed expensive. $20 for an assorted plate that would hardly be more filling than an appetizer. We should have trusted the other backpackers. A quick web search brought up a restaurant half a kilometer away that appeared to have a good selection of foods. We headed off in that direction, stopping to look at other menus along the way. One of these places was a ramen shop, with a new-looking sign carved out of unfinished wood, and black calligraphy spelling out its name. Its simple elegance was inviting, as were its prices. And looking through the window, we saw our new Belgian friends seated at the bar.

I like the simplicity of Japanese restaurants. Instead of having a menu the size of a phone book, there are usually only a handful of dishes to choose from, all varieties of the same kind of food. A Japanese restaurant in the US would offer every type of food we associate with the country: sushi, udon, tempura, gyoza… but in Japan, you would rarely find those all in one spot. In Japan, restaurants are much smaller, and just focus on a single type of food. That food is mastered to perfection. The place we were sitting at had a couple different ramen dishes, and a couple other soupy type dishes. Rather than trying to order ramen with no meat (it usually comes with a nice slice of fatty, roasted pork), I ordered a soupy dish with fish to try something new. Apparently sensing that I had no idea what I had ordered, the chef leaned over the bar to show me the bowl of little teeny tiny white fish, the size of orzo, and asked if it was ok. I smiled and nodded and soon was handed a bowl of rice covered in the shirasu, along with a bowl of broth on the side. I just assumed to pour the broth over everything else, and greatly enjoyed the hot meal that was a little bit sweet and a little bit bitter. The combination of flavors was perfect and immensely satisfying.

Boiled shirasu bowl and soup. 

After dinner, we walked back with the Belgian couple and stopped for a chat in front of their hostel. They mentioned hiking somewhere to see fireflies. Apparently there was a window of only a couple weeks during the year when the fireflies were mating. How lucky that we were in this area, at just the right time, both for the hydrangeas and for fireflies. We told them where to find us should they decide to go for the hike and then headed back to our room. They never showed, and so we called it a day.

Travel Day Interlude

Japan Day 9 - Sapporo to Tokyo

Fletch and I were getting into the groove of packing up and checking out every couple days. We did just that and checked the train schedules heading back down to Tokyo. Most of the trains in Japan run hourly at the least, but for that eight hour journey, our options were slightly more limited. Our choices were 10:44 or 13:30. We opted to try for the earlier itinerary, just incase anything funny happened where tickets were sold out. Best to have 13:30 as a backup option.

We bought our tickets without any issue, and then set about trying to find a quick breakfast. Fletch’s observant eye spotted bagels from a mile away. You don’t often come across bagels in any of the countries where we have spent our last five years. I wouldn’t eat them every day, but when you haven’t had one in months or maybe even a year, you sure do begin to crave that warm, toasted yet chewy bread smothered in creamy cheesy goodness. We even managed to find the cream cheese, which wasn’t half bad considering my experiences with Japanese “cheese” have been questionable to say the least. I texted Jon to let him know where we were, and Fletch went to find coffee. Jon found us and we said our goodbyes, then rushed over to our platform to begin the eight hour journey and two train rides back to Tokyo.

When our first train arrived at Shin Hakodate Hokuto station (it’s really fun to say), I went through the ritual of heaving my backpack over one shoulder and then the other until it was situated squarely on my back. The strap of my dive computer, which I was wearing as a watch, must have caught on the strap of my backpack and broke. Luckily I noticed right away and found the computer, a valuable possession that I would have kicked myself for the rest of the trip and probably eternity if I had lost. The strap could be sent in to be fixed, but I was disappointed to be left without a watch. You don’t realize just how often you glance at them time until the time isn’t there to glance at anymore. I realize that no one wears watches anymore, but perhaps you can relate to that feeling of when you leave your phone behind and continuously go to glance at it, only to find it’s not there.

I bought us some bento boxes at the station before boarding our second train. One of the boxes was shaped like the shinkansen, and looked just like a toy train, except it was stuffed with delicious fish. I stared at it for a long time, wanting to get it for the novelty, but at the same time realizing that it would probably just end up taking up space in my bag. This is why I rarely buy souvenirs anymore. I have fun looking around gift shops, and then come to the conclusion that nothing is worth the space. That’s what five plus years of traveling will do to you.

At 7PM we arrived at Tokyo Station once more, and walked to the Belken Hotel Tokyo this time. This hotel turned out to be in a more residential area. It had been one of the last places I’d booked, and so there hadn't been many options left by that point. The room was 12.5 square meters (135 square feet), and the bed was surrounded by walls on three sides. This was the cramped room that all the Tokyo TripAdvisor reviews had warned about, and this wasn’t even the smallest room available. I said it already, but it’s worth repeating. Always read the square meterage when booking a hotel in Japan.

A giraffe we encountered on our walk to the hotel.


You’d think that the cramped space would have inspired us to flee, and spend as little time in the room as possible, but it seemed to have the opposite effect. Once we were all nestled in, the thought of maneuvering out of the shoebox and back in again seemed like way too much effort. So we decided that we weren’t hungry and spent the rest of the evening laying sideways on the narrow bed and watching Netflix.

Black Slide Mantra

Japan Day 8 - Sapporo

Our morning coffee was interrupted by the sounds of music drifting in through the window. The thermostat on the apartment’s heater didn’t work, and we were keeping the window open to cool it down, even though it was still brisk out. I ran over to poke my head out the window, and noticed a small parade making its way down the street below. Day two of the Hokkaido Shrine Festival was apparently in full swing, and how fun to be able to sit and observe from above with a cup of coffee.

Parade making its way down the street below us. 


We met up with Jon for lunch one station over, and he led us to a restaurant that served something called soup curry. I had never heard of soup curry before. The guide book only mentioned miso-style ramen as a culinary specialty in the region of Sapporo, but Jon informed us that Sapporo was the only area of Japan where soup curry could be found. When he mentioned twenty different varieties of vegetables on top, I was sold. The first shop we tried had a twenty minute wait, and so very hungry by that point, the three of us kept walking. We found a second place, and after being seated, followed the steps in the menu: choose a broth, choose a rice bowl size, choose a spice level from 1 to 6, and finally pick some toppings. Of course I went for all veggies and added on some extra avocado. The meal that came out was exactly what I had been craving, a spicy flavorful broth, full of perfectly cooked veggies, each slice of vegetable better than the last. That was definitely my favorite meal I had eaten so far, and it was something I had never even heard of.

The three of us walked Odori Park after lunch, which was a beautiful green area, a block wide, and several blocks long. The main parade for the festival was supposed to be coming through here. We wandered around the park for a while, catching up and passing the time, and then got the grand idea to look for the parade from the observatory deck of the TV Tower, which was located on one end of the park. TV Tower was a quirky little tower, with a lot more character than JR Tower, even if it wasn’t as high up. JR tower had been a lot newer and more sophisticated, with an observation deck at 160 meters. TV Tower, with its 90 meter observation deck, packed more charm and character, but without any space to relax. Metal beams criss crossed diagonally from floor to ceiling, meaning that even someone my height had to watch their head.

TV Tower, Sapporo


In Japan, everything must be made cute, including famous landmarks. Therefore, any place you visit in Japan likely has a cartoonified version of itself. The cartoon version of TV Tower somehow ended up looking like a traffic cone with a creepy pedophile mustache. TV Tower wasn’t the only disturbing plushie hanging around the gift shop. Apparently the mascot of a nearby town was a terrifying bear face bursting through a melon, given that the town is renowned for its brown bear habitats and cantaloup melons. Nearby Sapporo stole the bear image and had it bursting out of things that were more Sapporo-famous, such as corn and crab claws. Everything from plushies, to key chains, to socks could be found with the creepy bear emerging from something a bear just should not be hiding inside.

Cartoon TV Tower (Image found on Google)

Scary bear mascot (Image found on Google) 


The observation deck provided us with zero sightings of the parade, so we made our way back down and wandered around Odori some more. Crows, bigger than I had ever seen anywhere else, mocked us and cawed as we passed, eying us suspiciously. The chilly air with the sounds of cawing made it feel more like late autumn than the beginning of summer. We noticed one especially large crow trying to steal food from a couple sitting on a park bench, so Fletch, excited by the discovery that the crows were accustomed to people, sat down on the next park bench and waited. One crow landed on the spot next to him, eyeing him greedily to see if any food was around. The crow who had been stealing from the other couple flew over and landed on the back of the bench behind Fletch’s shoulder. He slowly picked up a morsel of bread someone had dropped on the ground and offered it to the crow. The crow took it and flew off again, and Fletch, amazingly, walked away with all ten fingers.

Just hanging out with some crows...


We hopped over to 7-Eleven for drinks. I’ll stop mentioning the drink runs eventually, but those first few days, every trip to the convenience store surprised us with new oddities you just don’t see anywhere else. This time around we discovered that you could buy a cup of ice for $1, which was quite convenient if you wanted to buy a drink from the non-refrigerated section, which I did. I’m embarrassed to admit that I spent a whole dollar on a single-use plastic cup full of something as cheap as ice, but the novelty was almost worth it. The kiwi drink on the other hand was disgustingly sweet.

If you read the Odori Park section of the Japan Lonely Planet book, it says, don’t miss Noguchi Isamu’s elegant Black Slide Mantra. Nothing about where to find it, or what it even is, just not to miss it. I had filed that odd tidbit of information in the back of my head and forgotten about it, until our park wanderings brought us to a large mound of black stone, polished and carved into an elegant spiral. Before I could even comprehend what the sculpture was, Fletch was disappearing behind the back of it. He reemerged at the top, and slid around and down, as happy as a little kid. Black Slide Mantra was a literal slide. How nice to combine art with something fun and interactive in the middle of a park. Nearby was another slide of sorts that looked more like a bank of snow. I probably shouldn’t have slid down either wearing white pants, but I had already been wearing them for far too many days in a row due to the cold and my poor packing ability. A little bit of childish fun wasn’t going to make them that much worse.

Black Slide Mantra, Odori Park

Sliding down the pretend snowbank, Odori Park 


The three of us wandered over to another scenic park area where no one else was around. We found a park bench next to a lake and sat down under a red, Japanese maple tree. As we visited, we watched as turtles poked their heads out of the water to see who was in their midst. Pigeons strutted around on the shoreline, jutting their heads back and forth with each step like a chicken. Shadows from some very large fish in the lake silently floated past. We slipped into another world for a short while there, at peace with the pretty view and the absence of other people.

Scenic lake view in Sapporo, Japan


When we were ready to replenish our drinks, Jon led us to a little craft beer bar with 33 beers on tap. We had given up on finding the parade by that point. I opted for a flight, which wasn’t preset, but just choose whichever beers you want off the menu. I wish I could say if the beer was decent or not, but unfortunately I’m not much of a beer drinker. It all tastes very similar to me. I know, that’s blasphemy coming from someone from a place with as many craft breweries as Colorado. I can say that my favorite was a concoction called Bitches Brew, and that the atmosphere had a welcome laid back feel in contrast to the rigid structure to which the rest of Japanese society conforms.

Jon brought us to a soba and tempura shop for dinner. It was quite late, as we had spent a good amount of time drinking beer. At that late hour there was only one other patron in the restaurant, a fellow westerner. Noticing the table of other white people sitting down, he tried to start up a conversation and asked where we were from. Niceties under way, he offered us some help ordering in a very thick, French accent. “Whatever you order just don’t get that.” He said, motioning to his full plate he had pushed away with a disgusted look on his face. It was cold soba, which I am actually a fan of. I almost ordered the exact meal, just out of spite. French people: always dissatisfied and in need of something to complain about. In some areas, it’s not as obvious, but in Japan, where everyone is polite, and chefs take great pride in their food, his helpful little tip really stood out as rude. My travels have led me to stereotype pretty much everyone. Apologies.

Hot soba and shrimp tempura


Still a bit tired from the previous night out drinking, we said our goodnights after dinner, and headed back to our little apartment in Nakajima Park.