10 day hiatus because the Great Firewall of China is real… I’m so sorry!

Hi guys,

Tomorrow I’m flying from Daegu to Beijing which I’m really excited about! I have had the best time in South Korea but I am behind with blog post uploads because travel is so fast-paced right now. Expect upcoming posts to be linked to Kyoto, Osaka, Seoul, Jeju Island and Daegu. I planned to be writing and then uploading immediately (as I normally do) whilst in Beijing, Xi’an and Guilin.

BUT THERE’S ONE SMALL (ACTUALLY KIND OF BIG)¬†PROBLEM…

I can’t access WordPress from China. It’s blocked.

Alongside Facebook, Google, BBC News etc… okayyyy.

So what I plan to do is write as many blog entries (and save them onto my laptop) as possible and then when I touchdown in Hong Kong around the 10th November, upload said backlog of entries.

Sorry about this-I tend to prefer staggering what I write but please bare with me ūüôā

I am so incredibly touched and grateful for your support and readership.

See you in November!

Livi

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Veggie bites: a few of my favourite eateries in Tokyo and Kyoto

Hi guys,

Building on from my last blog post (the struggle is real), I have decided to compile a list of my five favourite Vegetarian-friendly (and/or Vegan friendly) eateries in Tokyo and Kyoto. Osaka unfortunately does not rank as, although it was visited, we seriously struggled to find any palatable vegetarian places here.

So here are my top 5- I hope you find them somewhat useful ūüôā

Number 5: Apprivoiser, Kyoto

This wholefood caf√© scores points with it’s light, ambient interior, cute material covered menus and, most importantly, very yummy hot vegetable sandwich.¬† In addition, it was only two minutes down the road from the Rich Kyoto Hotel where we were staying. Although not providing an abundance of choice for vegetarians, they also offer a vegetarian curry and their breakfast menu offers granola as a veggie-safe option. The vegetarian sandwich itself varied in terms of ingredients both times I visited; both times the caf√© used thick, fresh white bread but the first time, it was filled with seitan (a wheat derived mock meat) marinated in ginger and soy sauce and the second time, it was filled with sweet potato and other root vegetables (my favourite variation of the sandwich). For those of you that are happy to eat meat, my friend seriously enjoyed his croquet monsieur. They also serve a really excellent mandarin juice for those with a citrus sweet tooth.

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The café front                                                                                  Owl menus

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My first hot vegetarian sandwich¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†My friend’s croque monsieur

 Number 4: Senjo Homemade Gyoza Shop, Tokyo

This dumpling haven may be a bit difficult to find but is a valuable needle in a haystack for any vegetarians in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. Run by the most lovely Taiwanese lady who speaks some English and has an unbelievably comprehensive understanding of vegetarian and veganism (upon finding out I was vegetarian, she proceeded to check if I ate egg), food here is incredibly reasonably priced. You can grab a vegetarian set dinner or, if you eat meat, a regular set. This tends to include seaweed soup, sticky rice, a red pepper and egg dish and a selection of gyozas filled with whichever fresh vegetable ingredients the owner has in her kitchen. Jasmine tea is complimentary and since the restaurant is very small and narrow (with only two tables inside), takeaway is also an option.

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A vegetarian set meal                                                                 Mixed vegetable dumplings

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The boards lining the wall of the gyoza shop filled with food posters

Number 3: Café Matsuontoko, Kyoto

This completely Vegan caf√© seems popular with locals and tourists alike; in spite of the dark, wooden interior, the food warms you up and impresses- so much so that my meat-eating friend considered the food to be “a stellar example of Vegan food being perfectly capable of tasting good”. Needless to say, you are spoilt for choice regarding the menu but the things I ordered when I ate there were the burger special (a teriyaki tofu burger with French fries and salad, my favourite dish there) the first time round, and a seaweed, potato creamy ragu pasta the second time I went. My friend went for a fried miso burger the second time we visited. Food is freshly made¬†and tasty,¬† fusing Japanese flavours with Western dishes. and the caf√© itself is not difficult at all to find (central to the downtown Kyoto shopping area).

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The outside of Café Matsuontoko                                          The burger special set (teriyaki tofu burger)

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Ragu Spaghetti (a Japanese twist on an Italian dish)

And finally, my friend and I argued about how to order these top two but you know, it’s my blog (I say in total jest… I have to be honest- both were excellent).

Number 2: Maharaja, Kyoto

Located near Gion Shijo Station, this Indian restaurant wowed in every way. Bollywood movies played in the background (I’m a fan already), the staff were really friendly and, best of all, the food was some of the best Indian food myself and my friend have ever¬†eaten. Portions were ample, and I seriously over-ordered with a delicious garlic naan, cleverly spiced vegetable pilau rice¬†and beautifully creamy veggie korma. My friend went for keema naan, butter chicken and pratta. He also enjoyed the Mango Lassi but I can’t say no to Singha beer with a curry ūüôā Note that the restaurant is at basement level but the sign outside doesn’t make it too difficult to spot. This was the first time I left a restaurant in Japan with a food baby.

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Garlic naan, beer, pratta and butter chicken               Veggie korma and pilau rice

Number 1: Falafel Garden

I can’t help it- I’m a total sucker for a good falafel and these were absolutely fantastic! Located down the road from Demachiyanagi station, this Israeli Caf√© and Restaurant was incredibly popular with locals and became very full very quickly. Whilst this meant service at times was slow, the food more than made up for this. Falafels were the best I’ve ever had with a really lovely bite (I chose for mine to be served in pitta with salad and a homemade dressing), houmous was rich and flavoursome, the crispy pitta (though a bit oily for my friend) was spiced to perfection and the baklava bites we had for dessert were very yummy! Note that although this place is veggie-friendly as opposed to completely vegetarian or vegan, the menu clearly labels vegan dishes. Easy to find, good ambience, and a meal that kept me very satisfied despite not being able to find a restaurant to eat dinner in when I got to Osaka (thank goodness for Pringles and fruit).

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The outside of the restaurant                                                   Lunch falafel in pitta

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 Baklava

And if you end up in really dire straits:

1) Look for a nearby Irish pub. I know this sounds absolutely ridiculous, but as well as being guaranteed Guinness (if you like it that is, not for me but it is popular in Japan), you will get chips and onion rings. And when you’re hungry, beggers can’t be choosers.

2) Check out Brown Rice in Tokyo. I’m not saying the food here was bad because it’s not- it was fresh and well made. But it will leave you hungry, and the food is expensive for what it is. This is a vegan restaurant strutting around as a macrobiotic health food place, rather than a genuinely comforting place to get filling vegetarian or vegan food. Also note that the restaurant is hard to find- it is located behind Neal’s Yard Remedies in a rather plush area of Tokyo- Omotesando (we were there to visit Nezu Museum).

I hope that was of some help. This is just my own personal opinion, but Kyoto was by far the best of the three parts of Japan we visited in terms of catering for Vegetarians or Vegans. Incidentally, it was also my favourite part of Japan so if you like, keep an eye out for my upcoming Kyoto blogs regarding attractions there- I would be very grateful ūüôā

Thanks for reading!!!

The struggle is real: attempting to survive as a Vegetarian in Japan

Hi guys,

I’m writing this from Jeju Island where I’ve just arrived. Seoul has been manic so I haven’t had the chance to blog for a few days (apologies for that). This entry in itself was one I wrote a¬†while ago in Hakone but I was having massive doubts about whether to upload it or not. In the end, because of how difficult the Vegetarian situation was in Japan, I decided to upload this but please note that it is a personal view- I may have just been unlucky and Japan¬†in¬†itself is wonderful in so many other ways.¬† I found people to be amazingly polite, transport to be incredibly efficient, unbelievable cleanliness¬†in most places¬†and fascinating culture. But here is what I found to be Japan’s biggest flaw…

When you travel, you need fuel. You are running around like crazy and, for me, food is a form of comfort. I don’t want to be running around with those awful, aching hunger pangs or feeling weak from a lack of calories. In Japan, for the first time ever, I find myself really flagging. In a country where Buddhism is a main religion (and granted, there are some temples you can eat at, though these are few and far between and costly), this lacto-ovo vegetarian (who eats both dairy and eggs) cannot find “safe” food in a vast majority of places.

And I guess this highlighted to me a huge cultural difference- you go to a restaurant in the UK, any restaurant, and there’s at least one vegetarian option. Even in a fish and chip shop or steakhouse (not standard places for a vegetarian to visit) often you’ll see veggie safe cheesy chips or a veggie kebab, or a grilled pepper, halloumi burger or risotto as vegetarian options in a steakhouse. Not so¬†in Japan.

Vegans would not cope out here unless they never ate out (this is in the Ikebukuro region of Tokyo, a commercialised area with every other shop front being a restaurant). Vegans would also struggle in Osaka. And perhaps if they ventured to other regions of Tokyo, they’d cope on raw, microbiotic food marketed to the masses as healthy. Not tasty food. Just calorie-orientated. Just safe.

And for Vegetarians, food-wise it is close to a personal hell. Why should I have to plan my schedule around being able to obtain something vegetarian?

What if my religious beliefs forbade me from eating pork or seafood or milk and meat together? (they don’t, but hypothetically speaking).

And what if I was gluten-free or allergic to nuts or lactose intolerant?

It feels like, unless you eat everything (and by everything, I mean a lot of meat and fish), Japan punishes you for choosing a different diet. And I’ve chosen and maintained vegetarianism for 17 years (none of my family are vegetarian- just me- just a personal choice).

I wouldn’t dream of telling people that they should become vegetarian and will happily watch friends tuck into roast lamb and goose-fat cooked potatoes without feeling anything (except maybe amusement if they really love their food or have little quirks when they eat).

The crux of the matter is that food is¬†a form of happiness for many. And the struggle to find safe noodles, any form of potato or pasta (that doesn’t have meat or seafood in it), a legitimately “safe” form of bread (hotdogs are common, or ham in bread, or chicken…) leaves you feeling so despondent. You’re not meant to tip in Japan, but one day in¬†Tokyo I was so grateful a restaurant removed all their animal product from one dish on their vast menu (the only one that actually looked vegetarian), that I had to leave extra and insist the lovely waitress take my money.

There was also a piece of chicken in what was meant to be a mixed vegetable dish (only one piece, and my friend who is not vegetarian confirmed my suspicions and thought it fell into my dish by accident) but this was after we were assured that my meal was vegetarian (and we used a Japanese phrasebook for this). This still left me paying for a meal I then refused to eat (thanks watami).

Where I stayed one night in Hakone¬†had six restaurants in the¬†reception/ground floor¬†area. Six. Yet no vegetarian options bar a steamed tofu side and seaweed soup at the Japanese restaurant (this with sticky rice was an incredibly¬†insubstantial amount of food and very overpriced). And the irony is that vegetarian food is not hard to make. You don’t have to add meat to everything- a restaurant could offer vegetarian food by using a vegetarian stock base and then separating half the mixture into one bowl¬†and adding whatever meat or seafood they wish to the other half of the mixture. And this would incur no extra cost but still allow for a vegetarian option to exist.

Japan: I love your people, vibrancy, politeness and efficiency and the huge amount to do in Tokyo. Also, some credit needs to be given to Kyoto for having a couple more vegan restaurants than Tokyo or Osaka (though to be fair, that was really not difficult considering the lack of veggie-friendly places in both of the latter cities). But Vegetarians be warned- the struggle to find things to eat has caused me a lot of undue stress and genuine frustration and disappointment.

If you want to see Japan (it has a lot to offer), Veggies or Vegans check out Happy Cow, an excellent vegetarian app which is applicable worldwide, and maybe Trip Advisor as well.

But don’t expect too much.

And don’t expect it to accommodate for you in the same way that Hong Kong can and China (I’ve been told by many people) will.

Because there’s only so much gorging on sugary “safe” baked goods in Starbucks a girl can take. And incidentally, I still lost weight in Japan because of the food situation- despite eating unhealthily as a form of sustenance.

Amongst a lot of the bad, Japan does have a few hidden gems to eat at (especially in Kyoto) should your diet vary from the Japanese¬†norm. If you want me to do a post about them, please comment or give this post a like. Otherwise my next entry will be about my favourite part of Japan- Kyoto- and it’s subsequent attractions.

Thank you very much for reading!

Spontaneous sightseeing in Odawara and watching Japanese football in an Irish pub

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If you told me that during one of my days travelling, I’d stumble across a strange place in between Hakone and Tokyo and, this being¬†totally unplanned,¬†would lead to one¬†of the best days I’ve had in Japan so far, the¬†organiser in me would have snorted. But alas, my friend and I found ourselves in this strange place called Odawara on a “travel” day (getting back from Hakone to Tokyo), decided to have a roam around¬†and subsequently¬†gatecrashed¬†a festival filled with locals, saw a castle, and got drawn into a Japanese football game¬†whilst eating some of the best pub food I have ever eaten. This is the story of the day that makes me smile the most out of all my “Tokyo days” (next posts will be on Kyoto). This was the day we discovered Odawara.

The morning started off really well- we were checking out of the Hokane Kowakien hotel and had some breakfast/brunch (a lot of days we’ve skipped this meal due to an early start or sheer tiredness).¬†And this might sound really melodramatic, but being able to have toast with butter and strawberry jam was a total luxury for me (especially due to the struggle to find vegetarian food). And I caved into temptation and got an √©clair. After my friend indulged in an overly cheesy pizza and we were both feeling nicely stuffed (again a contrast to the hunger pangs I’ve had at times in Japan), we walked to the local train station and hoped onto a train to Odawara, with the intention of heading straight back to Tokyo.

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We found Starbucks in Odawara with the intention of getting some wi-fi and looking up what we could do in this completely novel place. And we failed- there was no wi-fi in this branch.¬†However, we soon stumbled across¬†a map at Odawara station which¬†listed some local attractions and my friend mentioned how the Soshu Odawara Castle rang a bell and maybe we should check it out? So we left the station and my initial first impression was… meh.

But then we walked on, and we found a brilliant bright orange building, an irish pub called Celts (my friend joked “we’re going there” and I laughed at the time),¬†a caf√© in a department store which served “safe” veggie food and finally, best of all, a gorgeous lake with a bridge leading across it and the sounds of people and music drifting from the archway on the other side of the bridge.

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A street in Odawara                                          The orange building brightening up our day

 

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The pub. More about that later ūüôā

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Standing in front of the bridge leading to the people and noise…

Upon entering the archway, the dulcet sounds of a Japanese rock band met our ears. Heaps of local people were milling around-watching the band, eating, shopping and chatting to each other. Although we were obviously tourists, the people and ambience were incredibly friendly.

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Entering the festival                                           The Japanese rock band at the festival

My friend and I picked up a soda we had found at one of the festival stalls (the same kind of soda we had in Asakusa- see Tokyo Time Part 1 blog entry if interested) and meandered around the stalls which displayed an array of items including glass bottles (like cola bottles) shaped as vases and a number of kitchen items. Such items in particular were coveted by my friend, who said he would have brought them were he heading straight back to Hong Kong (our next country is instead South Korea).

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A gate belonging to Soshu Odawara castle in their garden/back entrance

It materialised that we had arrived at the Soshu Odawara castle through the back entrance. As we walked through the gardens, we came across these little fellas:

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Makes a¬†change from Carp ūüôā¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†

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 The pathway towards the main castle

We eventually came across the castle itself: a huge, cream coloured, Japanese style building.

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Soshu Odawara Castle- the first views you get

We paid 450 yen each for tickets around the castle and walked through a number of the levels. Exhibits were very interesting but photography was unfortunately prohibited in some places. We climbed the stairs right to the top of the castle and managed to get some pretty decent views of the Odawara area.

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Odawara from the top of Soshu Odawara Castle

By this point, we’d got hungry and because of how difficult finding vegetarian anything is in Japan, my friend suggested we head to the Irish pub. So, with expectations low (because I guess the patriot in me could not see how a Japanese Irish pub would be any better than a British or Irish¬†pub) we headed to Celts.

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And yes, I was impressed. Very. I enjoyed the Japanese football in the background (although there were times where it was painful watching the teams play- very few goal attacks), I enjoyed my Gin & Tonic (there gets to a point where you don’t fancy Kirin beer) and most of all, we both loved our food. Who’d have thought chips covered in herb with a¬†basil mayonnaise dipping¬†sauce on the side¬†would be such a comfort? Add to that some onion rings (for me) and deep fried mushrooms (my friend) and we both left the pub feeling very happy. The only slight downside is that you can smoke in pubs in Japan so, for me anyway, the passive smoking was not¬†great. But it was a small price to pay for the friendliness and comfort food.

We headed back to Odawara station where were due to get the bullet train back to Tokyo (and yes, that impressed me too- less so my friend who had seen it before). Like the name suggests, watching the train travel past the station created a visual blur and the journey itself was rapid and pleasant.

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The bullet train in action

Having re-checked into where we were staying in Ikebukuro, we decided to go to Senjo Homemade Gyoza Shop (veggie safe but with meat options according to Vegetarian app¬†Happy Cow). This small restaurant (like a narrow shoebox) had two small tables squeezed into it, a kitchen and posters of glorious looking Taiwanese food. Also, the lady who owned it was amazing: super maternal and understanding. Anyone in Japan who beams upon hearing I’m vegetarian, checks whether I eat egg (I do)¬†and comments on my smile¬† (bonus)¬†is someone I become instantly grateful towards and fond of.

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The food board                                                                                My fixed meal

She brought out lovely Jasmine tea, made me a vegetarian fixed meal (650 yen) and my friend a standard fixed meal and we ate sticky rice, soy plum sauce, a red pepper, spring onion and egg dish and these amazing multi-coloured gyozas (filled with meat for my friend and vegetables for me). She refused to accept a tip and asked us to come back (which we did- the next day). It’s so lovely to meet people who genuinely take pride in seeing others enjoy their food (my travel companion- who is an excellent chef- also does this) and the meal itself provided the cherry on top of what was a really lovely day.

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Happiness ūüôā

A visual walkthrough: Nezu Museum and Happo-en Gardens

Nezu Museum gardens and inside Nezu Museum (this image is the final picture of this section)

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Happo-en Gardens

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Below is a Happo-en bonsai (aged over 500 years old)

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NOTE: please do not use the following images without explicit permission from me. I know I have minimal control over this, but I chose to do a visual blog to share the sights that met my eyes in both gardens and therefore did not want to watermark since I worried this would take some authenticity away from my photos.

Getting Naked in a Japanese Hot Spring. Twice.

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The front entrance of the Oedo Onsen Monogatari

After our morning at Mount Fuji and afternoon at Owakudani sulphur pools and the Hakone ropeway (see my previous blog post if interested), we headed on to Hakone itself to try an onsen. In Japan, hot springs (or to use the Japanese term: onsen) are both prevalent and popular, and can include indoor or outdoor baths. There are also often sauna or steam room facilities located nearby and the hot springs themselves traditionally link to sulphur vents in the Hakone area.

Initially, the procedure of bathing in a hot spring sounds fairly akin to bathing in a Jacuzzi in the UK (at least it did to me at first). But in spite of some similarities, there are a few rules enforced in a Japanese Hot Spring which set the two apart; for one thing, if you have a tattoo (no matter how big or small), you are prohibited from entering a hot spring (or at least one which upholds traditional values, and most of them do). This is because tattoos are associated with gang culture (yakuza) in Japan. In addition, concerns over swimwear are irrevelant because bathing in a Japanese Hot Spring requires you to go completely naked. It is important to note also that the onsen are split by gender (an onsen for females to access, and a different hot spring for men to use).

The first onsen to visit was an onsen inside the Hakone Kowakien, the hotel which provided our post-Mount Fuji tour accommodation. On the two beds in our room, fetching yukatas (blue and patterned) were provided, and people wear these around the communal areas of the hot springs.

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The hotel yukata. High fashion ūüôā

Near entry, a sign specifies how you are forbidden to enter if tattooed, drunk or pregnant. For the most part, when I swim at my local public swimming pool at home, it is natural to change in a cubicle and for people to have a generally more conservative attitude regarding getting changed. Though swimming and bathing in an onsen are two very different entities, the Japanese women in the changing room¬†had no reservations about being naked¬†and there were no cubicles to change in. In spite of the sign outside saying that you should bathe “au naturale”, an Australian women I had met on the tour earlier in the day refused to take her white bikini off and seemed surprised when I complied with the onsen rules. But to be honest, you‚Äôre going to draw more attention to yourself in an onsen if you wear swimwear than if you don‚Äôt. And in the second onsen we visited (more about that later), you were explicitly forbidden to enter the hot springs wearing swimwear. I know this because another lady tried to take large towel into the bathing room instead of a small one (to cover up) and was told she was only allowed the small towel in the onsen. So I dread to think how the onsen attendant would have reacted if the same lady tried to enter the bathing room in a swimsuit.

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The “not allowed” sign in the second onsen, Oedo Onsen Monogatari

At Hakone Kowakien (the first onsen visited), the hot spring itself is a medium-sized rectangular pool, with glass windows on one side overlooking lots of plants. The pool itself was heated to 41.9 degrees Celsius and before entering the pool, you wash yourself using metal bowls dipped into warm water (in a kind of wooden washing station). The mood at this hot spring was much more quiet and relaxed, and there were only three other women bathing when I entered the onsen room. After twenty minutes, I was looking a bit lobster like (my skin reacts fairly quickly to heat) and I decided to get out of the pool. The washing station at both onsens involves sitting on a stall (in a line of women also sitting on stalls) and washing your hair and body using a shower head whilst seated. Each station has mirrors, and shampoo and body wash are visible in large cylinder containers. After that, you can either change back into clothes or back into your yukata to head back to your room.

My first hot spring experience, though not overly traditional due to being an artificial hot spring in a hotel, gave me an idea of what the onsen process was like. But the second hot spring we visited (back in Tokyo) was very different as well. This onsen was called the Oedo Onsen Monogatari and is the Thorpe Park of the onsen world (in my opinion). Though it appears to be catered more towards tourists with an arcade, food court, foot bath, relaxation rooms, complimentary green tea and photo booths (this is in the communal part of the onsen, where both males and females allowed), it actually had a large number of locals as well. Here, children can also bathe and entertainers put on shows for the children in the central communal area. The process begins with choosing your yukata (I went with for white with a pink and red pattern on) and selecting a coloured sash to tie around your waist (red was my favourite). Both girls and guys can choose between a range of colours and patterns. Next, you separate into female and male changing areas to put on your yukata (instructions are explicitly given on welcome leaflets regarding how this should be tied). I met up with my friend in the communal area and we went out to the foot bath (also communal) to chat and relax. We also had some green tea. Since pictures are allowed in the communal area of the hot springs, so below are some photos I took at the Oedo Onsen Monogatari:

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The communal area                                           The arcade just off of the communal area

We then separated into our respective hot spring changing rooms. The female changing room was far busier than the one at the hotel, with attendants here being very strict on onsen rules but also being very helpful towards the singular Western girl in the room (hi) who had no idea where she was going in this brand new hot spring facility. Similar to the onsen inside the Hakone Kowakien, this one had a wooden stand full of warm water to pour over yourself before entering one of about eight potential hot spring pools inside a large hall. These ranged in temperature from 28 degrees Celsius to 42 degrees Celsius and also ranged in size- some are more like a Jacuzzi, others are the size of a small children’s swimming pool. The norm is to wrap the small towel you are given around your head when you are in the onsen (so it stays dry) and then to use it (I guess) to maintain some form of modesty when walking around (but it really isn’t a large enough towel for that to work- think the size of those face or tiny hand towels you can buy from Primark and you’re not far off).

The outdoor hot springs were my preference. Here, instead of simply being wooden pools, the bathing areas are surrounded by rocks and (again) plants, and the cooler air provides a nice contrast to the warmth of the water. Bathing outside was also far less busy, though this hot springs was generally less peaceful since many visitors were bathing in groups and therefore chatting whilst relaxing. Should you wish, you can also use a steam room but I‚Äôm not a fan so chose not to do this. After bathing for a while, I met up with my friend in the communal area. By this time, it was early evening so after a snack, we decided to head out to the foot bath again. Brief pause for something my friend noticed- you are not meant to enter hot springs drunk but the Oedo Onsen Monogatari facility serves alcohol in the communal area so technically that doesn’t really make much sense. But it’s good if you fancy a beer.

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The bridge leading to the foot bath stream         The foot bath stream

And the brief period of time we were outside that evening was a good moment within the Tokyo part of our travels. I had no camera with me and, without sounding lazy, didn‚Äôt want one (it lay locked in the changing room). I love taking photos (hopefully you can see it from my blog posts) but sometimes it‚Äôs better to just hold an image in your mind from memory. So I thought maybe I could describe the scene to you instead. The sky had transitioned from an inky blue nearer to black, and a wooden hut adorned with fairy lights held visitors who wanted Garra rufa (a.k.a. doctor fish or nibble fish) to eat away the dead skin on their feet (I know, not sounding that pleasant so far but bear with me please ūüôā ). Behind this cute little hut, a high rise building provided a reminder of Tokyo‚Äôs primary identity as an urban city yet in the foreground (which dominated most of the line of vision) lay vegetation and a stream of clear water. The path to walk along (or the foot bath) was adorned with different shapes and sizes of rocks, rooted into the ground and providing different levels of comfort and tension as you follow the bends of the footbath. Swirling above the rocks is water at a range of temperatures-from lukewarm to very hot- with the steam dancing under the small but strong specks of outdoor lighting. Wooden benches lined some parts of the foot bath stream and gentle rain drops cooled our faces as our feet and ankles were submerged in the water, hands gently holding our Yukatas at knee level. This was the literal calm before the storm, the beauty before the fury of the typhoon that we knew would hit Tokyo that night, and we sat under large clear plastic umbrellas (courtesy of the onsen) drinking in the ambience.

For 10 minutes, we sat in silence. It was gloriously peaceful. And even when more onsen visitors threatened to burst the bubble and joined us outside, talking and laughing in their groups, all was fine. Because this was just a little burst of energy adding to the oasis.

I could have stayed for hours but it was the more sensible thing to do to head back to Ikebukuro before the typhoon hit.

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The view from Oedo Onsen Monogatari (having left the onsen) pre-typhoon

Did I enjoy my two hot spring experiences? Yes. But were they a favourite for me? Probably not, although I know that the Oedo Onsen Monogatari was a favourite for my friend. It’s something to experience which is very typically Japanese and is rewarding for anyone who wishes to submerge themselves more into Japanese culture (and some very relaxing water).

Seeing Mount Fuji and our first (and only) organised tour day in Japan.

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When researching Japan, seeing Mount Fuji was something that seemed very appealing; though not experienced enough (nor, to be honest, within the budget) to do any of the actual climbing, we decided the best way to be able to get to the volcano was by coach tour. This is because getting there alone would have incurred much higher room and transportation costs.

This in and amongst itself was a new experience for me; waking up at 6:30am to make our way to the Hotel Metropolitan- the tour meeting place (as lovely as it is, staying there would have been ridiculously over-budget, especially considering how expensive Japan is), we clambered onto the coach. We faced an early disruption in the form of the couple sitting behind us, of which the women was coughing frantically¬†on automation every 30 seconds to a minute. Neither of us had any cough syrup on us and¬†needless to say after 5 minutes, we had uprooted to the empty back seats of the coach ūüôā

Arrival at the coach station was manic, with people jostling in different directions to find the coach they were actually meant to be on. We had to hunt down the Mount Fuji/Hakone bus, but another guy on our initial transfer coach, for example, was off to have a sushi making session. Upon reaching the coach, we were greeted by a larger than life tour guide called Makoto. He was knowledgeable enough, but made (what I found to be) some pretty unsavoury jokes (suicide forest and perils of climbing Mount Fuji). The initial part of the journey, though long, was actually fine upon discovery that the coach had wi-fi connectivity, but also being able to gaze out at different parts of Tokyo and then (after some more roads) look out at the Mount Fuji area.

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The road on the way to Mount Fuji                      The view from the service station (on the way)

Timing was crucial that day… too foggy and we would not be able to see the views from around Mount Fuji. Rainy, and the large amount of grey and blue in the landscape would have been lost behind a veil of drizzle. Thankfully we got lucky. The sun was shining upon upheaval from the coach, the air fresh, and the views- a beautiful azure coloured sky providing a backdrop to the mountain/volcanic range- were wonderful.

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Mount Fuji (the peak from a distance)                At M. Fuji- the view

We walked around the souvenir and on-site shops, whereby items as diverse as Fuji canned air (which my friend wanted to buy) to walking sticks and cajoles were being sold. Each of us was given a lucky bell charm, which apparently links to Mount Fuji (I‚Äôm ashamed to say I just can‚Äôt remember how). We climbed up towards a shrine, whereby you can write a wish plaque and attach it to the shrine, with the hopes that a goddess will grant said wishes. My friend had already done a similar thing in Hong Kong on a Wishing Tree but since I had never done this before, I wrote my wish in chunky black permanent marker and dated it. So if I‚Äôm ever fortunate to have¬†my bullet pointed dreams become reality, I guess I know who to thank ūüôā

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Holding my wish plaque

We also enjoyed mucking around in some random tunnels (because essentially, travelling aged 21 is an excuse to be big kids- my friend being the pun-loving little brother, and me- the bossy older sister).

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¬†¬†Someone is happy to be at Mount Fuji…¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Tunnel time!!!

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The view that lay beyond the tunnels

We moved on from Mount Fuji just as a murky grey fog was starting to completely obscure the scenic views. Lunch was at a café type place whereby I was accompanied in my vegetarian meal choice by my friend, who was sweet enough to go for the same dish so that there would be no confusion on the part of the tour company. It wasn’t for me, the eight green grapes were okay and if the tempura wasn’t cold, it would have been nice but I think it’s fair to say that we were both very hungry when we moved on. Next was meant to be a boat trip (the Lake Ashi Cruise), but a timing mix up meant we went on the Hakone ropeway (a cable car system) and then arrived at Owakudani sulphur pools first.

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From inside the cable car at Hakone ropeway

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A view of Hakone ropeway from Owakudani sulphur pools

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The Owakudani sulphur pools from the viewing deck

It was pretty impressive but after a few photos there wasn’t loads to do. The cable cars and Lake Ashi cruise were also nice, but not especially unique to Japan. All in all, it was good to be able to see Mount Fuji, but the rest of the tour was just not as memorable (although some of the people we met were).