January 29, 2016

Yokohama

For years, I’ve been telling people how much I like Yokohama. After my first Japan trip, I said "a post on Yokohama is coming soon!" but I guess I never got around to it. Until now! I stayed there for my birthday and New Year's, and it was an enjoyable time.

Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan, after Tokyo of course. It’s an important port, a beautiful waterfront city, and home to one of the largest Chinatowns in the world. This is probably a great city to go on dates- you’ve got pretty boardwalks, a casual amusement park, lots of benches to snuggle on, and plenty of good food! And it’s less congested than Tokyo. Here are some highlights.

Minato Mirai 21

Minato Mirai 21 is Yokohama's central business district. It's a lively area, with two major train stations, Pacifico Yokohama convention center, various museums, Cosmo World amusement park, Queen's Square shopping mall, and office buildings like the iconic Landmark Tower. The ferris wheel at Cosmo World is my favorite. It's called Cosmo Clock 21, and is beautifully illuminated at night.


Yamashita Park is a waterfront area popular with families and couples and anybody who likes a park with a great view of the bay. There's a wide path along the water, boat tours, and a large grassy area where kids and pets can run around. It's just a pretty area overall, and you can't miss the Yokohama Marine Tower, an inland lighthouse with an observatory.

Marine Tower

You have to stop by Chinatown. There are so many dining options, from sit down restaurants to take-out counters for steamed buns and and dim sum. It seems like roasted chestnuts can be found every fifty feet, and there's plenty of shopping. There's also a large temple you must visit - my nighttime pictures aren't that great, so I pulled an instagram photo from a couple of years ago.

Soup dumplings- cheap and delicious!
A photo posted by Victoria (@phoqueenv) on


Yokohama is so fun. If you're ever there, I also want to recommend Spa EAS for a wonderfully relaxing time. They have great baths and saunas, my favorite being the open-air oxygen bath! It's affordable and only a short walk from Yokohama Station, and I liked it so much that I went twice! I wrote a lengthy Yelp review about the whole experience if you're interested. In Yokohama I also recommend visiting Sankeien Garden, but I have so many pictures from that visit, I'll cover it in a separate post. Bye for now!

January 20, 2016

Finishing the Hakone Round Course

Once upon a time, a girl embarked on her first ever solo international trip. She wanted to see the famous Mt. Fuji, and heard that one popular way to see picturesque views of the majestic mountain was to visit Hakone and complete the "round course." Hundreds of people visit Hakone daily and travel around the scenic resort area via train, cable car, ropeway, sightseeing boat and bus.

But the girl was unexperienced and didn’t plan very well, spending too much time in one place and not leaving time to account for unforeseeable issues, like part of the ropeway being replaced with (slower) bus service. In the end, she ran out of time and returned to Tokyo without knowing what Fujisan looks like in person.

Fast forward two years. I am the girl. Like you haven’t figured that out. But this time, I was going to finish the Hakone round course if it was the last thing I did! So I returned, and just like two years ago, I took the train from Hakone Yumoto to Gora, and then the cable car to Sounzan. From then on, things were a little different.

Cable car
Sounzan

Spoiler alert: I still didn’t get to see Fujisan.

Since turning 27, I’ve moved from the mid-twenties group to the “almost thirty” group. I like saying it because it freaks my mom out. Yeah, your baby is getting old! But being older and more experienced in travel, it doesn’t bother me as much when things don’t work out. Last time, the final part of the ropeway wasn’t working, and this time, the first part of it wasn’t working, so I took a bus to Togendai instead. Times have changed. I’ve accepted that the ropeway is often unable to operate depending on weather conditions - after all, it runs over Owakudani, an area of volcanic activity!


From Togendai, I would take a sightseeing boat across Lake Ashi to Hakone-machi. That would be my final opportunity to see Fujisan from Hakone. But I’ve realized that Hakone is not the best place to see Mt. Fuji, because the view is so dependent on the weather. The boat was fun to ride on, looking like a pirate ship and sailing peacefully down the valley, but when I looked up at the sky, I realized how cloudy it was. I never had a chance of seeing Fujisan that day.

Pirate ship on Lake Ashi
All aboard!

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the world. There was still much to see that I’d missed during my first visit. I stumbled upon Hakone Sekisho, the old Hakone checkpoint that has been turned into a museum. Back in feudal times, the shogunate set up these checkpoints (sekisho) along major roads in order to defend the capital, Edo. Hakone Sekisho was one of the largest and most important. One of its main roles was to prevent weapons from entering Edo, while stopping women and children of feudal lords from fleeing. However, this checkpoint did a poor job of inspecting weapons and severely inspected "outgoing women."


This was a really interesting place to visit. The buildings have been restored for authenticity, and there's a great view from the guard tower! There's also an exhibition hall for more history.

Great view from the guard tower!

I wandered through the Onshi Hakone Park, and as the sun set, witnessed an amazing view over Lake Ashi. The Hakone Detached Palace is a highlight there, but it was closed by the time I arrived.

Hakone Detached Palace
Panorama!

It was getting dark, so I decided to call it a day. I walked down the path of ancient cedar trees over to Moto-Hakone, where I took the bus back to Odawara station. Finally, I had finished the round course! My life was complete! Well, not quite.

Moto-Hakone

Fujisan continues to elude me, which I’ve made peace with. I still had a productive, enjoyable day full of culture and nature. I’ll see it one day, maybe in the spring, behind some cherry blossoms! Or you know, whenever.

January 13, 2016

Tokyo Loves Star Wars

It seems like everyone is obsessed with Star Wars. I wasn’t. I watched the prequels as they came out (I love Natalie Portman - anyone who hasn’t seen the Natalie Rap from SNL is missing out), but I only saw the original Star Wars in its entirety last year when my dad said, “YOU HAVE TO WATCH IT.” I’m not sure why it took me so long. I remember back in high school when I had a summer assignment for an honors class, we had to write a paper on either Romeo and Juliet or Star Wars…and I picked the former. I don’t regret that because of Leo DiCaprio, but still…

Anyway, when I was in Japan, it seemed like Tokyo had Star Wars fever. I can’t tell you how many posters I saw for The Force Awakens all over the city. Of course, Star Wars is well-known internationally, but Star Wars and Japan have a close relationship since George Lucas drew inspiration from the films of legendary director Akira Kurosawa when he made the original trilogy.

Jen’s friend KT and I went to visit the Nippon Terebi (Nippon TV) building because KT said that sometimes there's cool stuff to see. Indeed, I got to see some huge posters for shows that I was watching. But even more fun was a free Star Wars exhibition, containing a variety of props, photo ops and art.

We received a small movie poster as we entered!
Movie poster signed by the cast.
Rey and BB-8!
The bad guys.
Star Wars shogi set!
These traditionally styled paper creations were amazing. 
Kylo Ren and Rey panel screens!
There were maybe 15 different BB-8 artist renditions.
Everyone's obsessed with BB-8!
Pink "Barbie-8" in the top right.
Very cool painting.
R2-D2 straight chillin' outside of the exhibition.

Needless to say, that was a really fun exhibition. We got to see some high quality props and artwork, and people were really into the spirit. One adorable little kid was even walking around in a Darth Vader costume! Now bitten by the Star Wars bug, I actually saw the movie that night. And that's why I'm now obsessed with BB-8. It's so cute though!!

Seriously, this city was feeling Star Wars. A few days later, I was hanging out in Roppongi and strolled into another theater to see if there were any fun movie posters. I found this life-size BB-8 and a huge model of ANA's Star Wars plane!


When I went home, I went with my family to see The Force Awakens a second time. It's a great movie, so I think it all this international hype is deserved!

January 9, 2016

Kamakura, Part 2: Hase-dera & Tsurugaoka Hachimangu

Hase-dera, also known as Hase Kannon Temple, was the first big temple I visited in Kamakura. It houses a large, 9m tall wooden statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, and the grounds are absolutely gorgeous. The temple is built along the slope of a hill, where at the base is a lovely garden.


When you climb up the hill to the main hall, you are treated to a stunning, serene view.


There's also a cave on the grounds, which consists of a winding tunnel with low ceilings. It houses statues and devotionals to Benzaiten, the sea goddess.


From here, I saw everything described in my first Kamakura post before heading to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, an important Shinto shrine that greatly reminded me of the beautiful Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto. Right in the center of Kamakura, it was the last place I visited before returning to Tokyo, which was perfect because I didn't think anything could top it. It was classically Japanese, and a lot of people were there in kimono.


I drew a fortune in English for kicks, and I literally got the worst result. "Kyo" means "curse," so...sucks to be me! You better believe I left that fortune behind.

OUCH.

The view from the main hall was pretty cool, looking down at the streets of Kamakura.


I had a great day in Kamakura, starting out at Hase-dera and ending at the lovely Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. I saw so much and got some cool souvenirs! I hope you enjoyed the pictures in this post. These two beautiful locations are absolute must-sees when you visit Kamakura.