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Japan #33 – Then and Now

Considering I lived in Japan for the 1996-1996 school year and then returned in 2001, I still had a 23 year gap between last trip and this trip. I was constantly comparing Japan then and now. The first obvious difference was the advancement of technology. Last time I was here in 2001, I was checking into internet cafes and paying by the minute. In 1995 I bought a fax machine! Yes, a fax machine…There were no smartphones, no google translate or google lens and of course, no GPS maps program of any kind. Travelling has definitely gotten easier in that regard.

Anime, and Pokemon were a thing, now that industry has really exploded. Akihabara ( Electric Town in Tokyo) was unrecognizable compared to 1995.

When I lived there in 1995, I was stared at almost everywhere I went. Sometimes strangers would ask to take photos with me on the train or in the street, and then ask me for my address and then mail me a copy of the photo they took. It was a bit weird, but it was a common occurrence. Now, no one even blinks when I am walking around; maybe it is because I am a middle-aged woman, rather than a 24 year-old with long crazy curly hair. I have definitely noticed more foreigners, especially foreigners wearing the hijab. I think as a society, it seems a bit more open now.

Another observation is about the toilets. In 1995 there were still many squat toilets still in public washrooms, this trip I only came across two or three. Now there are not only mostly sit-down toilets, but most are also very fancy with light up control panels controlling many options for bidets, including temperature, angle and intensity of spray. Many automatically start with sounds to cover up your sounds, or to help you start peeing, and many automatically flush when you stand up. These were not only standard in the hotel rooms, but also in regular public bathrooms.

Another surprising observation is that it is less expensive than I remember – especially accomodation. I think it is cheaper now than when we were here in 2001 – at least the hotels and airbnbs. I heard that this was by design as Japan is trying to attract tourists again, post COVID after being closed for so long.

Overall, I am so grateful to have had this opportunity to go back and have this incredible adventure. For those of you who managed to stick with me and my blog for the whole time…Mazal Tov on making it through my 33 posts even though I was only away from home for 19 days. This was not a typical first-timer trip to Japan obviously. Our trip in December if we end up going with the whole family will look very different. If anyone does want to plan a trip to Japan, I would be happy to help.




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Japan #32 Streethole covers

As I travelled around Japan, I started noticing interesting streethole covers – Some were covers for sewers, others for gas lines, etc. Here is my gallery of interesting street hole covers.

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Japan #31 – Last day in Tokyo

I woke up a little later than usual, repacked all of my bags and decided that I needed to go back to UNIQLO. I looked online and saw there was one fairly close by bus and walking. As the one widow in my room was frosted, I had no idea what the weather was like. When I got downstairs, I found it was raining, so I went back up to get my umbrella. Then the wild goose chase started…I tried to get on the bus going the wrong direction, but thankfully I asked the driver before I got on, and of course I had just missed the other one.

When I finally arrived at the UNIQLO location, it was a hospital. I double-checked the address I had put into google maps and sure enough, it was a tiny shop in the hospital lobby – not what I was looking for. all of the other stores didn’t open until 11am. So I took the bus back to my hotel in the rain.

I stopped for breakfast at a small counter-style restaurant next to the hotel that I had checked out last night. I found a great fish/veggie options which was surprisingly delicious and cheaper than I could have gotten at home for the same thing. I think it cost about $5.50 CAD.

While trying to read the instruction on how to open the salad dressing, I ended up doing it wrong and spraying it all over my clean shirt and pants -glad I hadn’t checked out yet and was able to easily change into fresh clothes. Unfortunately my other shirts were dirty so I put on a t-shirt that I had bought for Aubrey 🙂

At the airport, I finally had Ramen. I had had udon, and soba several times, but hadn’t managed to find pork-free ramen. I found this ramen that said 100% chicken – I ate around the pieces of chicken, and was able to check that last box off my list. I will definitely have to make miso ramen when I get home. A nice end to a great trip. I will still post a couple more reflections – I will probably write them on the plane. I need to head to my gate now. Sayonara Japan – it has been a great 18 days with you! Now for the long journey home…

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Japan #30 – Leaving Kurashiki again to say sayonara to Tokyo.

I changed my plans a little bit because Erez’s new hiking shoelace broke. Not sure how it happened, but he tried to fix it and it made it worse. I had the receipt (I forgot leave it with him). I checked out of the hotel, and then headed for a chai latte in Tully’s cafe again so I could use their fast wifi. My room wifi was inconsistent, so it made it difficult sometimes to efficiently upload photos. Besides, I had to check out. As soon as the store was open I went in and talked to the salesperson who remembered seeing us the day before.

With my Broken Japanese and the salesperson’s non-existent English, 15 minutes later, it was all sorted. Now I could head to Tokyo, albeit a tiny bit later than planned. On the way to the station I had passed this dapper looking sculpture from above many times, but never really had a chance to stop and look, so today I did – to my surprise it was of Hans Christian Anderson – apparently the other sculptures around the clock tower were characters from his stories. I am glad I took the time to find out.

The trip back to Tokyo went fairly smoothly, I made my connections ok, and this time I realized that having a non-reserved ticket did not tie me to a particular train, so there was less stress about catching a certain one.

A Shinkansen leaving the station (slowly). When one barrels through at top speed it takes your breath away.

Here are a few observational photos from my journey and when I first arrived and wandered in my hotel neighbourhood.

An amazing shirt worn by a man in the station – I want one 🙂

Shinagawa station when I got off the Shinkansen (bullet train)

Outside view when I got out of Hamamatsucho Station to walk to my hotel. Notice the living green wall at the bottom of one of the buildings. It is called “The World Trade Centre”.

To check in, I was directed to a machine, but the staff mostly did it for me.

Originally, I thought that maybe I would take the evening to chill out and work on my blog and take it easy before the trip home, and then I decided…Who am I kidding? I have one night left, I am going to enjoy it, even if the forecast is for rain :). I packed up my umbrella and my small pack and hit the town…

I researched a few vegetarian restaurant options and found an interesting one not too far away by train, in Ginza. I walked by this sushi bar inside the station that I had seen on my way to the hotel, so I decided to stop there for a pre-dinner meal (it was fairly early – maybe 3:45pm). Wow – it was delicious!

The above Aburi (torched fish) was really great.

This billboard was emblematic of my trip, then I noticed it was for Tokyo Disneyland. The dot on the “I” should have been the giveaway.

The restaurant was in the Ginza Shopping district. Wow has it ever changed in 28 years!

In the photo below is the UNIQLO flagship store. It was huge! This is just the front that you see in the photo – it extended most of a block – it is 4 floors of only Uniqlo and then has a bonus Daiso (100 yen store) and a few others on the 5th floor. The 6th floor is food 🙂

I am not a shopper, but I had fun browsing there, picking up a few last minute things to bring home, now that I didn’t have to carry my purchases around with me for three weeks, and now that I had Erez’s bag to check.

A couple of photos from the Daiso store:

Here is the Kura Revolving Sushi Bar on the 6th floor – I would have loved to try it but I was still too full from the excellent sushi I ate in the station.

Cool Mikimoto building:

Next I found the 2Foods vegan restaurant. I don’t know what kind of witchcraft was involved, but it was really good – usually I do not like vegan cheese, but this was great.

Next, I hopped on a train and tried to find an illuminated garden that I saw in some of the promotional materials in my room. It was at the Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa. I didn’t realize that there were many different Grand Prince hotels, all having slightly different names, all owned by the same company. It took a bit to find it, but when I did, it did not disappoint. Here are a few highlights:

This was in another part of the hotel complex – I guess an intact historic building with a vintage car parked out front.

More observation photos on my way to my next destination – the Tokyo Tower:

Zojoji Temple – I wish I had been there this time in the daylight – I probably have pictures from 28 years ago though – will check when I get home. It was pretty eerie at night with no lights.

The Tokyo Tower was worth the walk – it was a warm night and it was beautifully lit up. I think last time I was there during the day.

There was a whole hangout area around the base of the tower which I don’t remember seeing before. There was an amazing looking crepe place – even the plastic food looked good, but I was already too full from my other two meals. This double decker bus was an eating area 🙂

You can see how humid it was by my fuzzometer:

I was walking away from the tower, turned around for one last look and the lights had totally changed so I had to go back.

Overall, a great night out and about. I think I milked enough out of my last evening in Tokyo. I got home around 11:30pm, and I was still vibrating with energy for quite awhile.

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Japan #29 Erez and Ema Adventure Part 5 – Innoshima Navy Castle, journey back to Kurashiki and the end of our adventure together.

We started out the day with a spectacular breakfast. So many items! Delicious!

After breakfast, when we checked out, we asked the front desk about a taxi so we wouldn’t have to start the day with a 35 minute hike to the bus stop. To our surprise, the gentleman from the front desk offered to drive us which was great! We hopped on the bus and headed towards the Navy Castle.

On the bus, there was a lady who we are pretty sure was deaf who struck up a conversation with Erez. They were communicating through hand motions while I was trying to sort out which bus stop we were supposed to get off at. I first made contact with her when she was concerned that someone had left his cart at the back of the bus. I think he left it there on purpose for a moment, and I tried to tell her that, but she was adamant about getting him his cart and helping him off the bus with it. Very helpful lady. I think Erez enjoyed his interaction with her as well, even though he is not sure they were talking about the same things 🙂

We got off the bus, and started trying to orient ourselves so we would walk in the right direction. It was of course at the top of a rather large hill. We confirmed with some people who were at the bottom that we were going the right way, and then one of the men ran after us to give us a free Mandarin – so sweet of him! It is a special orange called a Hassaku orange which is specifically grown on Innoshima. It was delicious!

Of course, walking up the hill there were many interesting things to see:

Below is the view of a cemetery and one of the shrines from the ascent to the castle.

Now when we heard Navy – we thought it was the Japanese Navy, but it was not exactly. This was a museum of the Murakami Kaizoku Pirates who controlled the waters and defended the land around the Seto Inland Sea from the Muromachi to the Sengoku period (approx.1338-1590). They built many temples, shrines and castles, including the one we had hiked the day before. Their role was to act like the coast guard kind of, in cooperation with the local feudal lords.

View from the ground:

View from inside the “castle” (note: the castle was built is 1983 to house exhibits for the museum):

The Museum was so interesting – they had many artifacts from the Murakami clan like armour, chainmail, and very ornate helmets. There was a lot of documentation that was preserved including calligraphy scrolls, maps etc.

We also learned about the Innoshima Suigun Festival that is held every year to honour the memory of the Murakami Clan and their accomplishments. It is broken into three parts – the first is called the “Island Festival, and people dress up and parade in Warrior costumes, usually at the end of July, or beginning of August. The second part is the Sea Festival where people have a large scale dragon boat race in replica boats from the time (photo from the museum exhibit)

The final Festival is called the Fire festival and is described as follows on the Japan Travel website:

“As night falls, fires are lit and everyone’s attention turns to the beach as historical reenactments begin. The whole event is meant to the represent the triumphant return of the suigun warriors dressed in samurai armor and the joyous reception provided to them by the villagers who have kept the home fires burning while they were away at sea.

Things start with the reenactment of the return of the boats, followed by samurai pirates marching up and down the beach, and the parading of huge torches which sometimes clash creating showers of fiery sparks.

The whole evening ends with more drumming, the punching of fists in the air of the assembled suigun warriors and an impressive 15-minute fireworks display over the sea.

I wish I was here during that time because that sounds epic!

Here is the URL for the Japan Travel site if anyone is interested in seeing photos and to learn more:

There was a lovely small Buddhist temple at the base of the mountain where the museum was:

Then we started the trek back to Kurashiki – and as usual, it was a journey. Google Maps was convinced that we had to walk 35 minutes in the heat of day, on the concrete to catch our bus. It also led us astray in the morning. It was like the bus we took didn’t exist according to google maps. We checked the closer bus stop and figure out there was a bus, talked to the driver, he advised us where to transfer (hint – not where google wanted us to go). At the transfer point, we saw a couple wearing t-shirts with matching slogans on them – I managed to sneakily get a photo of the husband.

Solid words to live by in my opinion…

We also tried some hilarious “food” from a vending machine:

Here is Erez and the bridge

We got back to Kurashiki around 4 and I checked into my hotel. We then headed to the outlet mall to shop for some outdoor stuff that Erez needed – raincoat, rain pants, and some hiking shoes. He has committed to two hiking trips with his coworkers and was planning on wearing his Blundstones. I have tried to buy him hiking shoes in the past with great difficulty – we always gave up. It took him an hour to choose a pair, but we finally bought him some.

We finished off our night at an okonomiyaki restaurant. Okonomiyaki is a giant savoury “pancake” with shredded cabbage and other vegetables as well as seafood and meat. Erez ordered the “special” one which basically has everything but the kitchen sink in it – and was advertised as 1.5x regular size. I ordered a vegetarian one. It was HUMONGOUS – we could have shared one. The pictures do not really convey how big the plates were. We felt guilty leaving food on our plates, but Erez doesn’t have a fridge in his dorm and I was leaving in the morning.

This was mine:

This is Erez’s

All good things must come to an end. We said goodbye at the bus station. I miss him already, but am so excited that he is having this adventure. He told me today that he is going to play at an Ultimate tournament on a beach on June 8th with a team here- so that’s really exciting 🙂 I am also so glad that I got to accompany him for a few days on his journey here.

Tomorrow I head to Tokyo and then home on Tuesday. Hard to believe it is almost over…

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Japan #28: Erez and Ema Adventure Part 4 – Getting to the Ferry and the arriving at Hotel Innoshima

Our next leg of the journey involved a 20 walk to the ferry pier. As usual there was lots to observe – here are a few shots from the road.

We were very early so we hung out in a waiting area in a building, and took the time to cool off and sample some of the strange drinks from the vending machine. Finally our ferry arrived. It was full of school kids.

It took about 20 minutes to get to the port where there was someone from the hotel waiting to pick us up. In this hotel there weren’t any private showers in the rooms, only a public bathing area with a hot pool. It was not a natural hot spring, but it was a large public bath with a beautiful view. The baths were segregated by gender, no private baths at this hotel. I didn’t give Erez the full rundown before he went in as in the past, there had been English signs to help explain the process. Oops, not at this one. The only thing he knew was that you wash yourself before you soak in the hot bath. I also forgot to bring our small towels that are needed in the public bath for washcloths and of course covering up if you choose to. It is a very small towel though – it doesn’t cover much of me, that’s for sure!

Us in our yukatas ready to freshen up:

I was fortunate in that I had the place to myself. (I forgot to mention when I first wrote this post that in the public bath, everyone is naked – let’s just say I don’t exactly look like everyone else – not that it matters at all to me at this point in my life) In the room was a large hot bath, a cold plunge pool and a sauna as well as a shower area. I took my time and washed, did my hair, soaked and did the cold plunge. I did not think the sauna would be wise after I overheated on the hike. Just after I went back into the locker area, another woman showed up and then a few more. – it seems I beat the busy time.

Erez had a different experience. There were several men coming and going, and the writing on the front of the hair products was mostly rubbed off, so he had to ask someone which was shampoo, conditioner and body wash. Also they pointed out the fact that he did not have his mini towel (no opportunity to cover anything) Overall, he was able to use some of his Japanese skills, and learned his way around for the next time. We had a good laugh when he came out eventually.

We had a delicious traditional dinner set and then watched the sunset from the fire escape. Beautiful!

This was my veggie tempura set:

We also did an hour of Karaoke which is always fun. The hotel had a decent selection of English tunes we could sing.

After Karaoke, we settled in to chill for the rest of the evening. Erez went out to make a couple of phone calls as he had wifi (at his dorm there is no wifi and he is almost tout of data until next month), and I ended up falling asleep before he came back.

Here is the monk statue in the courtyard in front of the hotel lit up at night:

Also, we kept seeing posters for this festival in July and we couldn’t stop giggling over it – we need to do some research but I am pretty sure it is not what we think it is, I hope something was lost in translation…

***After some research, Porno Graffiti is the name of an alternative rock/power pop group from Innoshima. They are famous for doing music for many movies including anime. Maybe this is an exhibition about them? Stay tuned. (Name came from an album by the same name by the band Extreme.)

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Japan #27: Erez and Ema Adventure part 3 – Mt Shirataki

After we finished at the Innoshima Flower Center we found the starting point for our hike up Mt. Shirataki. The internet said it was about a 30 minute climb if we took the flower line route. We decided to take the more interesting route. It took quite a bit longer, but not sure exactly how long. We consulted the map and changed our path several times – one time we decided to follow the path to the “Inner Sanctuary” it was rugged, involved some scrambling up rocks at times, sometimes going through unmaintained trails through rock formations, and it was a lot of fun.

The overgrown trail we started on.
Erez consulting our old-fashioned paper map.
Scrambling up the rocks to get into that cool rock arch. I sent Erez ahead to get this cool photo.
Apparently this is what the Inner Sanctuary looks like
First major lookout – stunning!
Of course when we neared the top there were more steps with no shade, but I knew we were in the home stretch.

It was very hot and humid, so I got a bit overheated. By the time we got to the top I looked like a bright and shiny tomato. It was worth it ( this photo is untouched- I was really that red!)

View from the top of the Buddha complex
View of the bridge
Erez doing tree pose
On the way down we went through part of a bamboo grove
Erez trying to take a photo of a lizard
Back in the town trying to find our next bus…

I will write about the next part of our day (taking the ferry to our hotel) in the next post.

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Japan #26 – Onomichi and the Innoshima Flower Center.

Erez and I woke up to a spectacular view of the water from our hotel room.

We were planning on heading directly by bus to one of the islands, Innoshima, to see a couple of attractions, go for a hike and then head to our hotel on the far side of that island. There are many islands and they are currently linked by a series of beautiful suspension bridges. Cycling the Shimanami Kaido (the route through several of the islands) is approx 70km. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, an experienced cyclist could complete the circuit in about 4 hours if they just do the cycling part. A leisurely cycle while taking in the scenery and stopping at local tourist spots along the way, will take at least 10 hours. We saw many people cycling along the way, both Japanese and foreign, some serious cyclists, and some just leisurely enjoying the journey.

We checked out of our hotel and headed to the bus station, exploring the neighbourhoods on the way.

Onomichi’s version of the Walk of Fame
While scoping out breakfast options, we came across some more hilarious “combini” food (food bought from a convenience store). Here is a hotdog bun filled with pasta 🙂
There were several of these “monster” seaweed and rice sandwiches .
Birds in a nest in the bus station.

On the way we noticed a ropeway gondola, so we decide to deviate from the plan and check it out. I mean, I am always up for a scenic gondola ride up a mountain 🙂 There was a lot we could have seen while up there, and then made our way back down leisurely, checking things out, but we wanted to save our time to see more once we got to the island. That being said, the gondola ride was scenic and the views at the top were breathtaking.

The station had a resident cat who hangs out – we also saw two memorial plaques for previous station cats with their dates. Erez tried to pet the current station mascot who seemed pretty indifferent to the attention.

Memorial to the two previous cats

Here a a few photos from the journey up and then back down.

View from the gondola

At the foot of the gondola there a was a temple we quickly checked out.

This was an incredibly ancient tree, this photo does not do it justice. The trunk was so thick and its canopy was so majestic.
“Cleansing” station at the entrance to the shrine

After our detour up the mountain, we caught the bus. To get to Innoshima we had to travel through another island called Mukaishima Island. (Actually, the word “shima” or “Jima” means island). The trip to our first stop, Innoshima Flower Centre took approximately 45 minutes, and then we had a bit of a walk from the bus stop to the Flower Center.

One of the houses we passed along the way
There seems to be some small scale farming in this neighborhood – many homes had quite large gardens considering the population density.
Vertical tomato garden using bamboo polls and medal poles across. I may try this in my own garden this year 🙂
Ornate house details
Random stained glass art we passed on the street.
Ancient looking natural lantern at the side of the road
Gigantic beetle swimming in one of the roadside Japanese style toilets.
One of the bikes parked in from of the Flower Center with a disc clipped to the back.

Admission to the Flower Center was free, and it seems that it has been a bit neglected – maybe because of post-COVID situation? maybe because of the season? There was evidence of some rejuvenation, perhaps in time for the summer tourist season. It was still a pleasant place to hang out, but certainly did not quite live up to the pictures I had seen online before. There were large open green spaces as well as several large greenhouses.

Flower pillar with view
Green space with greenhouses in the background – maybe a good place for a wedding reception?
Erez with one of the few beds that was actually planted already – it seems they were in the middle of planting many more.
One of the many mosaic murals created in cooperation with local schools.

After refueling and rehydrating, Erez and I went in search of our hiking trailhead.

I will put our hike in a separate post. 🙂

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Japan #25: Erez and Ema Adventure Part 1 – Arriving in Onomichi

I met Erez at my station and we quickly stored the giant hockey bag I was going to take home for him, having replaced it with a sleek proper travelling backpack. After taking care of this, we got on the train from Kurashiki to Onomichi in the Hiroshima prefecture. We accidentally got on the wrong train ( it came three minutes before ours and we got on it, assuming it was the one we were waiting for). While consulting the map in the train car, a fellow passenger offered his help and confirmed my plan B of taking the train to the end of the line and then switching. He was an American teaching English at a high school in Fukuyama, and was on the train with a classmate of his from university who was visiting from the States. It was interesting chatting with him and his friend about their experiences studying abroad in Japan a couple of years before, as well as his experience of now working in a high school. At the end of the journey we exchanged names, and when asking what kind of name Erez was, we established that we are both from the same tribe 🙂 He says that he doesn’t really practice, but as it was Friday night he wished us a good Shabbos as we were heading our separate ways. Another wandering Jew…

We arrived in Onomichi late, but even in the dark, the views looked pretty spectacular, I couldn’t wait to see what they would be like in the light of day.

Erez had heard from some coworkers that this area had a bit of a pirate history, and we started to see some pirate motifs right away, although we are not sure what this was about.

We settled into our hotel and tried to get a good night’s sleep – we needed our strength as I had lots planned for the weekend, and it had been a long week already for both of us.

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Japan #24: Last day in Kurashiki

Today I had a sort-of repeat of another day on this trip. I set off on a 30 minute walk to find that where I ended up was not the shrine I was looking for. It was still nice and I always like wandering the streets away from the tourist area observing life around me, but it was quite humid and the hour return trip made me feel a little bit wilted.
Here are some photos and videos from the walk:

When I came back to the tourist area, I sat down for awhile and slowly ate a shaved ice treat to cool myself down. It was a magical shaved ice treat as it never melted! It stayed frozen all the way down to the bottom of the cup – remarkable.

I wandered the historic quarter for awhile and then decided to return to the museum I missed out on yesterday.

The museum had a large collection of ornate wood block prints. Most were by the artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi. The prints were unbelievably detailed – I could have spent 30 minutes looking at each one individually. I really enjoyed the exhibit but I was not allowed to take any photos. You can look him up if you are interested. The building it was housed in was also very interesting. I had to wear slippers and I was directed through a series of tatami rooms on different floors of the building. I really enjoyed this museum.

Here are a few more photos from my wanderings on Friday: First the famous Ivy Square.

Now I am waiting at the station at dusk for Erez to arrive so we can start our weekend adventure 🙂

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