Whoa! I can’t believe everything has gone by so fast! Its been over a year and I’ve done so much. But I haven’t been posting about it! But I used my social distancing time to catch up. I made a bunch of new posts starting all the way back to the beginning of summer 2019.
I also have set up my phone so it will be easier to post more small updates more often. I plan to get more things online more often. But lets kick things off with links to all the catch up posts.
Yes I’m safe and yes I’m healthy. 新コロナウイルス (Shin koronauirusu) (New Corona Virus) has been a thing in Japan long before it hit Europe or America. Its definitely a big deal here. At my company we have been working from home since mid February. 東京 (Tōkyō) is not shut down like many other cities are… yet. But things are definitely slower. 小池さん (Koike-san) the Governor of Tokyo is now warning people to stay home or possibly face a total shutdown like the rest of the world.
But for now I am mostly taking care of my plants and working from home. You can see my work from home set up and view below. I occasionally go out, I just always avoid rush hour trains. If its not raining, I sometimes even ride my bike to the office. I always wear my mask and wash my hands. Most restaurants and shops have a bottle of hand sanitizer at the front and I also carry my own alcohol wipes just in case. In general, it has not been so bad here and I’m hoping that things are going to stay calm in Tokyo.
作並温泉 (Sakunami Onsen) is near 仙台市 (Sendai) in (宮城県) Miyagi Prefecture. Sendai is about a 2 hour train ride from 東京 (Tōkyō) via 新幹線 (Shinkansen). This Shinkansen is the newer, faster one compared with the one I took to 京都 (Kyōto). You can see this in the speedometer app screenshot 🤗.
This was another low budget overnight trip. My friend and I found half price Shinkansen tickets to Sendai. The 旅館 (Ryokan) (Japanese Style Inn) had cheap prices including dinner and breakfast. I think the total spent on the train and hotel was ¥20,000. One major advantage of this onsen over 万座温泉 (Manza Onsen) was that Sendai is a major city. So there is something to do other than sit in the onsen. I spent a few hours in Sendai as they are known for having cheaper, fresher fish for お寿司 (Sushi) and famous for 牛タン (Gyū tan) (Beef tongue). I definitely enjoyed the super fresh sushi 🍣😋.
The onsen itself was really nice. The only bath was large and outdoors. And, again, I was lucky enough to be there when it was snowing. There is something about the hot spring water and the steam and the snow and the cold air that is just magical and so relaxing. Also this bath is pretty unique. Its called 岩風呂 (Iwa furo), a natural stone bath. So instead of it being made from tile and wood, its made of stone. Its a little more rustic feeling.
Also, this trip happened right in the middle of Corona getting serious in Japan. It was probably a bad idea to go to place with a buffet dinner and breakfast, but, oh well 🤷♂️. I made it out alive and healthy. Things have definitely gotten more serious since then and now there’s no travel planned 😭.
横浜 (Yokohama) is where the main China Town is in 東京 (Tōkyō). Well technically its not in Tokyo. But its within commuting distance. Some friends and I went to go check out the Chinese New Years festivities. We had some good food and watched the dragons collect money from the local businesses. It felt pretty similar in size to the same celebration in San Francisco. We spent a few hours there and then went home. It was also the first days of the Corona virus. Japan had a few cases but it was nothing huge yet. But already people in Tokyo were starting to get worried.
One of the most popular New Years destinations in Tōkyō is 明治神宮 (Meiji Jingū Shrine). In 3 days around New Years the shrine gets 3 million visitors. I was a bit worried that it was going to be absolutely crazy, like fireworks were during the summer. But it was amazingly orderly and well organized. I arrived at around 11pm. I was in the main crowd when the drums for New Years played. I got to the actual shrine and threw my coin in around 12:45. After that were the typical Japanese festival foods. Also on New Years the trains ran all night so there was no fear of being left stranded. It was definitely a great way to ring in the new year.
Now that its winter again I wanted to go to a proper winter onsen with snow and everything. My friend and I found an amazing package deal for an overnight trip. It included 1 night, dinner, breakfast, and direct bus transport from and to Tokyo for ¥18,000.
万座温泉 (Manza Onsen) is in 群馬県 (Gunma Prefecture). Its pretty close to 草津温泉 (Kusatsu Onsen) that I visited earlier in the year. It was such a great trip. Such an easy way to get out of the city for 2 days. All I did was sit in relaxing hot spring water and watch the snow fall around me.
紅葉 (Kōyō) is when the leaves start to change before falling off in winter. Some of the trees turn beautiful shades of brown, orange, red, etc. This is almost as big a deal in Japan as 桜 (Sakura) when the cheery blossoms bloom. Its just the fall version of it.
I went to 京都 (Kyōto) for this and it was an incredible trip. It was my first time riding 新幹線 (Shinkansen), the bullet train. Its a “thing” to get 駅弁 (Ekiben) (train station bentō) before getting on the train. It was definitely a fun experience.
Kyōto is the old capital of Japan and its a vert different place than 東京 (Tōkyō). Its hard to describe, but maybe I can say its more “preserved.” There is a lot more emphasis on temples and shrines and parks and older stuff than in Tokyo.
But the star of the show was the Kōyō. The changing colors were so beautiful and the night displays were my favorite. Take a look at the photos below.
Also, I thought it was funny that for night displays of Sakura, there is a special name for it: 夜桜 (Yozakura). It basically just means night sakura. But for Kōyō, its just called ライトアップ (Laito Appu) or just saying Light Up in Japanese English. 🤷♂️
Sometimes something quite small but also quite impactful will happen. When I was taking the train to 青梅市 (Ōme city) to visit the sake brewery I was met with this image from the train window. Somehow the magic of taking the local train that I use every day to get home and seeing this blew my mind. Yes, its about 1.5 hours past my house, but still, its not far before you end up in a place with such amazing natural beauty.
One of my friends has the benefit of working for a tourism activity selling company. They occasionally get free tickets to do fun activities. On this one went went took the 中央線 (Chūō line) train that I live on about 2 hours past my house and we ended up in an amazing forest in western Tokyo in 青梅市 (Ōme city).
The 澤乃井 (Sawanoi) tour was really cool. The brewery itself is over 300 years old and was pretty interesting. As with many things in Japan its a cool mix of old and new. The building is 300 years old but the equipment and techniques are all modern. Afterward we went across the street to their tasting room and restaurant. We tried many styles as well as we had an a really tasty lunch. Lastly, we explored the small temple on the other side of the river from the brewery.
Also, don’t forget to know your terms 🍶
Taipei is probably the closest destination from Tokyo; only 3 hour flight. This was the first time I had visited Taiwan. Its definitely a neat place with cool things to see. Its also a very cheap travel destination. I don’t have a huge amount to say so I’ll just let you look at the photos.
I went to my first sumo match. It was fun and interesting and definitely unique. As I’m not a sports fan in any way, I probably won’t go back again. That said, I’m happy I went once. The building its in is called 両国国技館 (Ryōgokukokugikan) is very unique. Its a modern building building but has elements of older Japanese architecture.
I was surprised that the matches ended so quickly. They’re rarely over 10 seconds or so. Also, the time I went was relatively unique as one of the wrestlers was retiring. There was a long ceremony to celebrate his career as a wrestler.
Japan normally gets typhoons (hurricanes) in the summer. This summer was no exception. However, unusually, two strong ones hit Tokyo directly. This is not normal. Most of my friends told me Tokyo usually gets the edge of one per summer not two big direct hits. I was in Tokyo for one of these and it was definitely scary. It woke me up with the wind noises and such. But it was mostly uneventful in Tokyo. The more rural areas were hit pretty hard but Tokyo was fine. Some of the trains started a little late on Monday morning. But other than that, we all just went to work the next day as if nothing happened. 👨💻
(When watching the video turn on the audio so you can hear the wind. This video was taken in my apartment around 4am when the Typhoon woke me up.)
Just a short post about driving in Japan. My friend and I rented a BMW and drove about 5 hours to Kusatsu Onsen. Driving here is not really that unique of an experience. Driving on the other side is fine. The freeways here are called expressways and they’re more like super extensive toll roads. Cars are equipped with an ETC card reader. In the BMW you install your ETC card in the rear view mirror. People normally get ETC card when they sign up for a credit card and it just bills to your credit card. I didn’t keep track of the total for toll roads but I think in 5 hours of driving we probably had to pay about ¥6000 ($60) in tolls.
The most important thing to mention about driving in Japan is how incredibly SLOW it is. The speed limit on the expressways is 80KPH!!! Even the “fast” people only go 100KPH! And on surface streets and mountain roads its even worse. Speed limits of 40KPH are normal. Its pretty infuriating and it takes forever to get anywhere. Best to take the train 😂.
My friend and I rented a car and took an overnight trip to a cool place in the mountains in 群馬県 (Gunma Prefecture). We were nearing the end of summer but 東京 (Tokyo) but it was still super hot every day. Normally, 温泉 (onsen) are not big in the summer because its already hot. But because this was in the mountains, it was a much appreciated break from the heat. It was still t-shirt-at-night weather but much cooler than home.
Aside from weather, this place is just so cool. There is hot spring water through the wooden channels in the middle of the town. A long time ago, those were used for cooking food and other normal tasks. Now they’re just for tourists. And the hot water is not limited to there. Of course it feeds all of the onsens, but I also came across more than 1 hot river flowing through a park or down the mountain. Kusatsu is definitely a neat place.
Another summer festival I went to. This one also takes many forms because each place has their own. 高円寺 (Kōenji), a few stations from my house. Koenji is known for their Awa Odori and it definitely did not disappoint. There is a very complicated route throughout the city; sometimes on tiny streets and sometimes on large streets. Then there are many groups that go through each with their own outfits, instruments, music, and dances. They go all day through the route. Its incredibly cool!
Summer is full of festivals. 盆踊り (Bon Odori) is one of them. Each place has their own version of this with their own dances and songs. This one was in 下北沢 (Shimokitazawa) in 東京 (Tōkyō). It was a very casual family gathering. The people on the platforms would teach the crowd how to do the dances and then everyone would participate.
Summer fireworks is a big thing in Japan 🤷♂️. Every place will have some sort of fireworks, often many times over the summer. I think it makes sense. When the sun is out, its so hot and humid, its impossible to do anything. This is everyone’s chance to go out and enjoy being outside. Its still unbelievably hot. The cool young people dress up in their 浴衣 (Yukata) and go outside. I went to the big one in 隅田川 (Sumidagawa). It was insanely packed; you basically could only move with the crowd, not on your own. But it was fun. Next summer I’ll go to a smaller one 😂.
(Sorry, I don’t have the best photos, it was too busy to have my phone out all the time)
This is my second time going to Hong Kong and I just love this place. Hong Kong is one of the closest destinations from Tokyo, only a 5 hour flight; and the flights are pretty cheap. The buildings there are just amazing. With no earthquakes and insane population density, the buildings are super tall and super skinny. Then you add Victoria Peak into the mix and you have super tall buildings going up the mountain. But its not just buildings, I also think Hong Kong is a good place to visit if the quiet orderliness of Tokyo is getting old. Hong Kong is louder and more whacky things are happening as well as a lot grungier. When you take all this and add in some good dim sum, the combo can’t be beat.
Hanamic picnic at Kinuta Park
Night hanami at Kudanshita
After dinner sakura pic in Harajuku
Hanami with coworkers in Naka Meguro
At the river behind my apartment
When I came to Tokyo the first time in March 2018, it wasn’t quite cherry blossom season just yet. Sakura (cherry blossoms) is very hard to plan ahead of time. It comes and it goes very quickly. I was really excited to get to experience it this year. All of Japan rallies around it. Its almost like Christmas in the US. There’s lots of seasonal products: sakura lattes, sakura beer, sakura everything. I had never heard the word before but everyone started talking about hanami. It translates to “flower viewing.” Normally a Hanami is a picnic in the park below the sakura but it also be just a walk through them as well. Because its Japan, the picnic also involves a lot of drinking. I saw many people barely stumble into their taxi 🥴. The other new word I learned was yozakura: It means night sakura… yes Japanese has a special word for sakura at night😂. The night hanamis were really fun. Everyone just walks with their friends and a drink in their hand. Its really casual and really fun. Its pretty much all over now, but it was a great first season for me. Take a look at all the photos above.