Monday, January 22, 2018

Do you want to build a snowman? Do you want to go and play?

When I checked the weather forecast this morning, I saw a possibility of rain turning to snow with an accumulation of 1-3 inches. Having already been here for one previous winter and having only one snowy day (with minimal accumulation), my response was definitely one of "I'll believe it when I see it." It definitely snows in Japan, which we've seen in Nagano and Hokkaido, but just not frequently in the Tokyo area.

Well, now I've seen it and I definitely believe it! And it is significantly more than 1-3 inches! Sadly, Blake is back in Arizona for a family funeral (his paternal grandmother passed away), so he's missing it completely!

It started snowing a little bit in the morning, flurries with big, fat flakes. It started accumulating in the mid-afternoon and there was about an inch when I left for main base, where it wasn't sticking at all, just snowy, wet, and cold.
The view from our balcony in the early afternoon

About two hours later though, once the Officers Club was closing early and our command function (a Hail and Farewell) was ending by default, it was building up there too. Several of us piled in a van and got a ride to the train station, which was much appreciated. The trains were running, thankfully, though with significant delays. I was traveling with a couple of neighbors from our command, so we commiserated as we shivered on the train platform. Eventually, we made it to our station and trudged through the snow that was easily 3-4 inches deep up to our building.

Immediately upon returning, I changed into slightly more practical clothes for the weather (waterproof pants instead of a long tunic and leggings) and Malcolm and I met up with our next door neighbor and their dog, Georgia, for a romp in the snow!
The dog park before our pups destroyed it

My mom requested that I make a snowman for my nephew - happy to comply!
I felt a bit like the snowman kid in the old Campbell's soup commercial

After we got home and I peeled off the wet layers,  Malcolm had dinner and I made myself some popcorn and mint truffle hot chocolate, with which I had my second ever Tim Tam slam (where have these been all my life!?). Just as I was feeling toasty and finishing my hot chocolate, Malcolm decided he needed to go out again for his final walk for the evening. Silly boy.
View from the balcony of the apartment where I'm checking on cats twice a day

We haven't seen snow like this in almost two years, so while this is just daily life for many (and has been for us at times), it felt novel and amazing to me! It's still coming down at press time, but probably ending soon and the forecast high for tomorrow is 50 degrees, so this is probably it for a while again!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

You only see him when you're very young, a magical adventure for you!

Between the holidays and travels and life, I haven't been on a good solo adventure for a little bit. I am quite pleased with opportunities for outings with friends and of course I savor the time I get to spend with Blake, but I also need to do things on my own sometimes. I'm an introvert, after all, and solo time is how I recharge. So, today, I got out on my own for the afternoon and found Fushimi Hakuseki Inari Shrine.

I first found out about this shrine from a local blog I follow call Deep Yokosuka, and they suggested it might be a place you would find Totoro. Since I've finally seen that movie and now that I've been there, I can completely agree with that connection (and have titled this post with a lyric from the movie's English version theme song)!
The back side of the first section - inscribed with who donated the gate and when

According to another source I used to locate the actual shrine, Fushimi Hakuseki Inari Shrine is related to the more famous Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, which we visited over Memorial Day weekend in 2017 (and I failed to blog about) and is known for its 1000s of vermillion torii gates. They both are built in reverence to the deity Inari, the Shinto god of rice.
Foxes are said to be messengers to Inari

This shrine is located near the Taura station in Yokosuka, which is much closer to me than Kyoto! Even though it was reportedly built early in the Showa period (1926-1989), it is still in use today by locals.

My sources warned of its many stairs, and I got warm hiking them even on a cool January day. According to my Fitbit, I climbed the equivalent of 23 flights of stairs to get to the top. It had rained yesterday, so it was pretty slick and maybe I should have brought my hiking boots or walking stick, but I managed.

Ultimately, I counted that I walked through 56 torii gates, which are believed to purify your soul. What's charming about this one was that even though it's not even a century old yet, it's certainly in more disrepair and overgrown than it's more famous Kyoto counterpart. To me, it just added to the magic.
Looking from the top back down the trail - you can see it curve off to the right through the trees

Even though I took my time, I was up and down in a little more than 30 minutes, but the walk to and from the station is about 20 minutes each way. Not a bad walk, but I definitely recommend carrying water.

It was a small outing, but just what I needed today.

The milk flavored ice cream I got on the way home was pretty good too

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Where do we go from here?

On Saturday, January 13, Blake and I embarked on what is probably one of my favorite Tokyo adventures thus far - The Underground Mysteries! It's a scavenger hunt using the Tokyo Metro and nearby sites. You have to find things around the city to solve puzzles and figure out your next destination. They offer the game in both Japanese and English, thank goodness. For the locals reading this, it's available until the end of the month!
Part of a puzzle!

For us, it took somewhere around 4-5 hours, including a couple stops for snacks and lunch (during which we worked out the latest puzzle). We saw a lot of Japanese couples and friends and a handful of Western families doing it as well, and it was always a good sign we were on the right track when we ran into a bunch of other people with puzzle kits doing the same things we were doing.
Puzzle kit! Each participant has to buy one and it includes a 24 hour pass to the Tokyo Metro

Snack break! Cupcake like thing filled with a layer of vanilla custard and a layer of strawberry jam. Yum!
Another part of the puzzle!

Puzzle solving lunch break!
More clues!

My favorite parts were the couple of times we got on a train and didn't know where we were heading. We were just following instructions to get on the next train at a particular platform and go to the next stop or, even better, to follow clues along the way and get off when certain clues were observed. I loved the mystery!
On the train!

Blake's favorite part was a puzzle that involved "reading" some stone pillars of varying heights. He started reading them so fast I stopped trying to keep up and stuck with verifying that his interpretation made sense.

We really enjoyed doing this together too - what would stump one of us was usually solved by the other and we just generally make a really good team. As much as I am into solo adventures sometimes, this wouldn't have been a good one. I am also grateful for the opportunity to work on navigating the Tokyo Metro without our smart phones! Instead, we only used the map and clues provided. The Metro alone isn't too bad, but you add the JR and Keikyu lines and other municipal and private train companies, it leads to a whole bunch of options that really confusing really quickly. Smartphones are a lifesaver for sure, but it's nice to do it without one when we can.
Not great on the detail, but one of the final clues!

If they do another one this fall (and I'm subscribed to their email newsletter to find out) - we are in!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

I'm tired of monkeyin' around!

In one of our many efforts to be proactive about seeing everything we want to see in Japan, Blake and I took off for a little weekend mini-break the first weekend in January to Nagano prefecture. Nagano city hosted the Olympics in 1998, and there were nods to the 20th anniversary present around town.

We left early Saturday morning, took a couple of regular trains to Tokyo, then boarded a shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano. On this leg of the trip, we learned how to find seats on the shinkansen when you didn't buy your tickets early enough to reserve a seat. Fortunately, we found seats together and were in Nagano in no time.
View from the train

Our first stop was Zenko-ji Temple. Actually, that's redundant, even though you'll hear it a lot - (Name)-ji Temple. Ji actually means temple. So, it's like saying ATM machine. But back to the temple! Zenko-ji is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan - according to legend, its golden triad was the first Buddhist image to arrive in the country from the Korean peninsula in 552. After some dispute between warring clans, it was rescued by a man named Yoshimitsu Honda (whose name reads as Zenko in Kanji) and enshrined in Nagano. The main hall currently dates from 1707.
Main hall of Zenkoji

We had arranged for a free guided tour from a volunteer, which we really appreciated. After visiting 14 temples earlier in the week, I was definitely feeling a "templed out" and she helped us learn some new things and find the top things to see within this complex. One such experience was a walk down underneath the altar in the main hall, passing through a pitch black tunnel with our right hand on the wall, searching for the Key to Paradise. One touch apparently ensure eternal salvation, so I guess we're set! This is still a very active temple with many pilgrims attending it throughout the year.
Inhaling the smoke from the incense is meant to purify the soul

Roku-Jizo (Six Jizo) each representing the attendant to the six worlds after death - realms of hell, starvation, beasts, carnage, human beings, and heavenly beings

Ringing this bell marked the beginning of the 1998 Olympics

A statue representing Zenko carrying the triad to Nagano

At this point in the journey, we learned about how to buy shinkansen tickets in advance from the ticket machine at JR stations (super easy when you can press the English button first!) and got all our tickets for the rest of weekend arranged. Also helpful, since a lot of the public transportation in the Nagano prefecture does not accept the prepaid train cards we use at home. Then, it was time for a quick and delicious lunch of katsu-don (tonkatsu or fried pork cutlet over rice) and then north to the snow monkeys!

We were picked up at the train station by our ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) and after checking in, they dropped us off at the snow monkeys! It was about a 25 minute hike in, and we definitely scurried as much as we could despite the snow, since the park was closing an hour later, but we made it and it was delightful!
Snowy trail to the monkeys

As we hiked back down, the snow started in earnest, but we missed the bus (and didn't want to wait more than an hour for another) and chickened out in calling a cab with the language barrier (hailing one is fine), so we just hiked all the way back to the ryokan and were rewarded with a beautiful view of the snowy town in the twilight.
It was a little snowy

Once in our room, we warmed up under the kotatsu (heated table), changed into the provided yukata, and wore them to our traditional Japanese dinner.
Suminoyu Hotel - our ryokan


We had an menu in English to help us know what at least most of it was, and we at least tried all of it (except the plum wine).

After dinner, we went to the onsen on the top floor of the ryokan. It was small, with just one bath inside and one outside, but we each had the place to ourselves (still separated for men and women) and it gave Blake a chance to finally try one! I especially enjoyed the outside. It was night, the snow was falling and collecting just outside the tub, which was made of stone. The snow was falling on my head and shoulders, and as I leaned over the edge and looked out over the town below the partition, the snow fell on my back. I felt like a snow monkey myself, and it was magical! We actually could have walked around town (called Shibuonsen) and tried nine different onsen with different healing properties, but we were just too tired from a very long day. Being exhausted made it pretty easy to fall asleep on the futon on the tatami floor of our room.
They made up our bed while we were at dinner

Sunday morning, we enjoyed a Japanese breakfast before getting a ride to the train station and heading to Matsumoto.

We had the best seats on the train! The train engineer was actually in a compartment above our heads, so as not to impede our view. I called my nephew and Eilonwy's kids on video chat to let them "vroom" with us! We had spotted these seats on the train on Saturday, so we made a dash to them on the train back.

Our destination for the day was Matstumoto Castle - the most complete of any of Japan's historical castles - and its history dates back to 1592. The castle keep still stands, which was for use by the samurai defending the castle, and it was a bit of a challenge to climb all the stairs which were more like ladders, but it was worth it!

View from the top of the keep

Taikoman Gate

We also enjoyed the Matsumoto City Museum, since we had some extra time.

The legend is that the seven lucky gods arrive in a boat every year - this used to be paraded through the town in celebration.

Our train back wasn't for a little while, so we decided to have lunch at McDonald's (I did try the ginger pork burger to make it interesting!) and relax there. The upstairs of many fast food places in Japan are popular for eating and just spending time, maybe or maybe not being productive. We talked a lot and played Carcassone on the iPad. Others were napping or studying or reading, so we were in good company. The train ride back was also relaxing - it's really nice not having to drive or navigate.

It was definitely a full and fast weekend, but we loved it!