Sunday, March 8, 2015

Day 17: Home

Check out the Trip Advisor page for Toronto, and you will read:

We've heard Toronto described as "New York City run by the Swiss," and it's true—you can find world-class theater, shopping and restaurants here, but the sidewalks are clean and the people are friendly.

Exciting as travel is, I’m happy to be home.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Day 16: Familiar Environs

It is fitting that it is lightly raining our last day in Tokyo. This is a damp country at this time of year, and rain has been pretty frequent.  A light rain also works as pathetic fallacy, for the artsy types out there – a somber mood for the conclusion of this trip. Light enough rain makes for great running, and we were intentionally close to the Imperial Palace grounds for another run where Tokyo runs.

I wish we had known there was a race this morning! Near as I can tell it was a 5km, right around the marked path.  Pretty small, but it would have been fun.  As it was, we ran alongside some of the slower runners in the race.  At least, I ran alongside them.  Mindy was doing a workout, so she pretty much blew away all the runners who were still on the route by the time we caught up to them. As for me, I’m ecstatic that less than a week after Lake Biwa, I can (more or less) comfortably run 16km – not too slow, either! (I have a 5km race next week-end, so my recovery is important.) I guess it goes to show how much easier it is on the body to race 37-38km and then cruise in for the final ~5km than to race 42.2km.  Good thing I wasn’t wearing racing flats at Biwa!

After cleaning up, we made our way to Tokyo Station one last time to catch the train to Narita airport.  Toronto can learn a lot from Tokyo’s reliance on rail transit!  On-time, clean, and available to take you anywhere – I know the UP line (Union to Pearson) is a step in the right direction, but here’s to hoping John Tory can put his transit plan into effect.

And then the fun of time travel.  Our flight departed Narita airport in Tokyo shortly after 5pm in Tokyo on Saturday, and landed in New York before 4pm on the SAME DAY! I still get a kick out of that. (I also get a kick – or something – out of the fact that Mindy was allowed on the plane with matches in her carry-on baggage. Aren’t those on the prohibited list?) Coming out from JFK airport, Mindy and I were struck with the stark contrast between the two subway systems. Tokyo is clean and well-maintained, and New York?  Well, let’s just say we figured that any Japanese tourist would be immediately homesick! Nevertheless, this is more what I am used to in Toronto, and I am excited about our evening in New York City after a morning in Tokyo and a day of travel.

First off was run #3 of the day; the 16km was divided into a 3km shake out run before breakfast, and then 13km after breakfast; once in NYC, we dashed out for a quick 4km through Central Park.

Then Mindy and I made our way to one of my personal favourite restaurants in Manhattan: Candle 79. (It was a toss-up between that and Basso 56.) Another excellent dinner, though this one was definitely not Japanese style. I guess I'm still in a good and friendly mood, because we made "friends" with the couple at the table beside us - Michel and Lauren.  In this case, we may actually have something to do with these people in the future; Michel has my email and said he wants running tips.

Tomorrow we return to Toronto and even more familiar environs. And I have a lot of laundry to tackle from this trip! Now it is time for bed, as the alarm is going off at 3:30am...daylight savings time.  It'll feel like 2:30am!  Good thing we both slept on the flight over.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Day 15: Doing the Jig

After ten hours of sleeping, and absent the migraine, Jigokudani Onsen seemed a little more inviting. As we had declined the opportunity the night before to try out the outdoor hot pool, Mindy and I got ready to head out before 7am, catching the sun lighting up Jigokudani valley – before tourists showed up in droves for the monkey park across the river.

Onsen etiquette is that you don’t wear a bathing suit, even when in mixed company.  Of course, reviews online talk about how rare the mixed gender baths are; how they are only in the most isolated and hard-to-reach areas.  Like, perhaps, a place that requires several hours on a train, then a bus, then a 2km hike through a mountain pass. When in Rome……consider the tourists who will be showing up shortly across the river.  Mindy and I broke etiquette.

We also had a third wheel…!!!

Notwithstanding our faux-pas, we were enjoying a “real” onsen.  That is, the original Japanese onsens were those fed by naturally occurring hot springs.  Most public baths which market themselves as onsens in Japan today are simply modified hot tubs, but Jigokudani is the real thing.  

Steaming hot water from natural underground reservoirs is piped in for the baths.  How hot?

When the staff member came out to cook the eggs, that proved another value to Mindy’s bathing suit.  That might have been really weird otherwise…. To be honest, the eggs were only soft cooked, so I can’t say I’ve eaten eggs cooked in my own bath water.  It might be a good thing I not say that.

Cleaned up after the outdoor pool, I poked my head out one last time at the bath where we had been moments before:

Were they waiting for us to leave???  Too shy to join us without their bathing suits? Turns out that our lodging was directly along the monkeys morning route, and in the course of just a few minutes we had dozens of monkeys passing within arms’ reach!

Before the last monkeys passed, we retreated inside.  Ryokans provide amazing insight into traditional Japanese lifestyles, but they are not hotels.  Breakfast is served at a set time, and if you miss it….there are no restaurants nearby! We enjoyed a breakfast reminiscent of dinner the night before, and this time I enjoyed it.  I am really digging traditional Japanese cuisine! I think I want miso soup for breakfast every cold, damp day. Then we ventured across the river again for more monkey-watching. This time, we went straight to the monkey onsen (this one dedicated to monkeys) to catch a better look at the monkeys bathing in the hot spring.

Jigokudani advertises that it allows humans to observe monkeys behaving naturally, and that it is the one place in the world where monkeys bathe. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. The park spreads food on the snow every morning, and sprinkles more in the warm pool reserved for monkeys. Does that mean the monkeys would never venture to the hot springs without that?  Probably not.  After all, the monkeys were coming to the valley before the park ever existed.  At the same time, the monkeys are not exactly wild. So much human interaction, and a feeding schedule aligned with tourism…Perhaps this is just a “less controlled” version of what is available at Iwatayama. Nevertheless, I loved seeing those nearly-wild monkeys up close!

As we prepared to leave Jigokudani, Mindy engaged our host in conversation about his retreat. (I can’t in good conscience call it a resort, as that seems to imply luxury.) He was born and raised in that house, and has never left.  The property has been in his family for 150 years, and it’s all he’s ever known.  Helps to put the whole thing in perspective – the crumbling structure, the ragged and tired look…. For whatever it’s worth, here’s my two cents on the potential of that property.  No matter what, it will offer an experience unlike anything else in the world. Spruce the building up – a good, solid face-lift.  Offer a proper lunch menu to cater to the tourists at the monkey park.  The park doesn’t sell any food, and the nearest restaurant is a long walk away. Invest the time and energy required to make it a tourist attraction in its own right, and it will pay off.

A 2km walk through an icy path, a bus, a train, and finally we arrived at Nagano station to catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) back to Tokyo. Returning to Tokyo feels wonderfully familiar, and so it is a great conclusion of this Japanese experience. (Given that by this time we were planning the New York leg of the trip, I found myself forgetting that we were still in Japan, and not already in the USA.)

While the Japanese seem fitter and healthier than their North American counterparts – certainly no obesity epidemic here like in our part of the world – they don’t seem to embrace walking.  From Tokyo Station, I checked in with a ticket agent to orient ourselves toward the hotel.  He replied that was too far to walk, and we’d need to take a train.  “But it’s just down from Tokyo Station” I replied.  “Not Tokyo Station” he responded, and proceeded to direct us to the Yamanote train line to get where we wanted to be.  Thanks to the JR passes, we walked right back in and headed toward the train.  The Information Desk staff tend to speak fluent English, so we took a moment to confirm our route to Tokyo Station.  ‘This is Tokyo Station” she explained.  Once again I pulled out the map to show where the hotel was….”Too far to walk.  I would estimate 30-40 minutes of walking.” It was less than a mile away…..

We took the train one stop to get a tad closer, and began our (now 1200m) walk.  Slightly disoriented, we stopped a well-dressed couple to ask for directions.  For the third or fourth time since we’ve been here, they simply offered to walk us to the hotel.  Then the man had to stop and ask for directions…. For goodness sakes, Tokyo, start naming your streets!! Named streets or not, the couple found our hotel and seemed as happy about it as we were.  One good turn deserves another, so I promise the next time someone asks me for directions and I have a few minutes to spare, I won’t just point them in right direction; I will take them to their destination.

G&V restaurant was our destination for dinner – advertised on Happy Cow as a vegan, macrobiotic take on Japanese cuisine.  I looked up the route at our hotel and….took us entirely in the wrong direction.  This was only the third time I have taken us on the wrong track in the two weeks here (and Mindy has made it clear that she prefers not to be responsible for holding the map), so I don’t feel too bad.  As no-one was offering to walk us to the hotel, this time we just jumped in a cab.

The food was delicious! Fresh vegetables, lightly fried soy nuggets, an amazake cocktail (fermented rice (amazake) with differently fermented rice (sake) makes for such a tasty mix that I am bringing the ingredients home), and coconut cream ice cream.  More Japanese food that makes me so happy!

We asked our waitress for directions back to our hotel and she – you guessed it – walked us there. So kind and thoughtful, generous….and maybe, just a teeny bit, the knowledge that directions are nearly impossible when there are no street names and nobody seems to know where things are if they haven’t already been there.  Here’s the reality of the situation: cab drivers get lost despite Japanese addresses and GPS systems; bus drivers are only vaguely familiar with addresses on their route; and our delightful server walked us to the street where she thought our hotel probably was, but if it wasn’t this one it definitely was the next one.  She had looked up the hotel online and had the address in her phone as she guided us! (She was right – it was the first street.)

Another adventurous day gone by, and one day closer to the daily grind of my routine life. I’m looking forward to tomorrow in Tokyo, and then more of tomorrow in New York, and I don’t mind the idea of returning to my life after that. Travel is wonderful, but it is fatiguing, and I’m ready to stay in one place for longer than two nights.

Day 14: Leverage the Investment

We bought these JR passes for a reason, I suppose.  Yesterday afternoon, we trekked from Nara to Hiroshima – about three hours of transit by train, including the lightning fast Shinkansen. This morning, starting at 6:19am, we are doubling our trip back, going from Hiroshima to beyond Nagano.  It’s making for a long travel day, but – for me, anyway – it will all be worth it.  Standing in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima was an experience I would not have wanted to miss. As for this afternoon, I think the onsen and snow monkeys will erase any hard feelings about a long day!
Earlier this week, Mike (from Osaka) had recommended Himeji Castle on our way to or from Hiroshima.  Given the tight timelines and long commutes, we decided not to stop.  However, like our view of Mount Fuji, we saw Himeji Castle from the train.  Does that count as a sightseeing stop? What about beautiful views of mountains from the train?

I’m a big fan of “small world” experiences when traveling. Perhaps because traveling reminds me how big the world is, and these kinds of things make it all seem a little less daunting.  Mindy and I had a very forgettable experience in Koyasan – we bumped into a couple of German tourists and chatted for a few minutes about our respective Japanese experiences. There we were in Shin-Osaka station (nowhere near Koyasan) and who should we bump into heading to the train to Nagano?  One of our new German “friends”.  (Quotation marks because, small world or not, I never expect to see that “friend” again.)


I started writing this entry on the way to Jigokudani Onsen near Nagano.  I firmly believed it when I wrote “I think the onsen and snow monkeys will erase any hard feelings about a long day”. Then we travelled for six hours on trains, then a bus, then walked through an ice covered mountain path…

 …and across a makeshift bridge…

…only to come upon a dilapidated building with monkey scat lining the walkway, and tattered tarps fluttering in the wind across the entrance.  What the…?? “Underwhelming” to say the least.

We passed a few unusual mementoes in the “lobby”. (A Japanese viper and a preserved swarm of wasps.)

Quite simply, I was none too pleased with this ryokan as the host showed us to our simple, Japanese style room.  And then we looked out the window:


Alright, my enthusiasm is returning.  I mean, this place is pretty bare bones, but we’re not actually here for the accommodations, we’re here for the monkeys. We threw our stuff in our room and went the 100m across the river to the monkey park. (Once again the location of our ryokan paid off, as ANY other accommodations would have involved a 2km walk just to get to the monkey park.) Snow monkeys eating, grooming, tussling…. They were everywhere!!

You can see from this last photo just how close the ryokan is to the monkey park! (Yes, that building that looks like it was built in 1864…because it was…is our ryokan.) Hint: I was in the monkey park when I took that photo....

The monkey park closes at 4pm; however, you don’t have to leave right then.  You can hang out for a while longer if you like looking at the scenery, and not the monkeys.  Although these monkeys are semi-wild (the monkey park sprinkles food on the ground to facilitate monkey foraging, and the monkeys are clearly used to people around them), those monkeys still follow a regular routine.  Every afternoon, shortly after 4pm, these monkeys return to their sleeping grounds – steep cliffs and tall trees higher up in the mountain.  Japanese macaques do not make nests.  Instead, they find a new branch each night and sleep curled up against their family – often holding hands. I wish we could have seen them sleep!

We had good intentions of taking advantage of the outdoor hot spring bath in the evening, looking up at the stars.  Instead, I was crippled by a migraine and barely made it to dinner.  I was unable to enjoy the food (Mindy did enjoy it, so I suspect it would have been really good if I hadn’t felt nauseated), and then I stumbled into bed by 7:30 to sleep. I had already napped for 40 minutes before dinner…..