Sunday, October 30, 2016

Honeymoon in Japan

I think for most newlywed couples, Koreans in particular, honeymoon planning is an integral part of the wedding planning process. For my new wife and I, however, this simply never crossed our minds. Faced with the challenges of getting my family halfway around the world to Vietnam and figuring out how to incorporate two distinctly different wedding cultures into one special day, the honeymoon vacation was simply nothing more than an afterthought. Not to mention, we had more-or-less exhausted the tiny list of countries my wife could visit visa-free on her Vietnamese passport, and it just felt rude to simply say goodbye to my family the day after the wedding while they were still exploring Vietnam. Getting my wife to Korea to live with me would be a major accomplishment. I told everyone we would find the time to take the honeymoon "later"...

Turns out Korea has a nice little holiday called Chuseok, usually falling around late September though it varies based on the lunar calendar. Well, it's nice for expats at least... Koreans are busy at home bowing to their ancestors. With 3 workdays off one could make a 9-day holiday for the low price of 2 annual leave days – a real bargain! Other than the gaga airfare prices you must pay to get off the peninsula, of course...

Since moving to Asia I've discovered my single favorite place to visit on this continent is Japan. I love the food, the cleanliness, the serenity, the quirkiness, the way everything is bewildering but all just comes together to fold you into its harmony. I've wanted to do a big Japan trip for a few years, but I was just a tad distracted by my lovely relationship in Southeast Asia, so not surprisingly most of my trips went there. Japan was a dream destination for my wife, too!

Japan would not be an easy trip to pull off on short notice as, of course, my wife needed the visa. The application form was opaque and confusing, asking us to fill out areas like the "sponsor in Japan". I have one distant acquaintance living in Japan but no one I would feel comfortable asking to be a "sponsor". When the travel agency at work refused to help process the visa on our behalf, citing vague difficulties that other Vietnamese citizens had suffered recently at the Japan embassy, I felt increasingly hopeless. Thankfully my wife has a lot of free time on her hands these days and found a helpful staff member at the Japan embassy who could speak English and coach us through the necessary application steps. Though we had to go through some hoops like photocopying 6 months of my bank statements and getting a travel agent to reserve a cancellable ticket for us, the visa came very quickly – just 1 business day! We couldn't wait to pack and go... our first trip together as a newly married couple.

We took a late Friday night flight to Tokyo on Peach – not a bad low cost airline for our trip. On Saturday morning after a night near Haneda Airport and a big breakfast, we were off to Tokyo! Our luggage went into a locker at a train station – the big lockers are difficult to find – and we were free to explore our first stop, Shinjuku.

Yakitori in Tokyo
It was a lovely sunny afternoon to walk around Shinjuku Gyoen, a little hot actually. My wife loved the big evergreen trees. I loved breathing the clean air and finding some solitude... this type of park simply cannot be found in Seoul. We stopped for some green matcha tea before our next stop – Harajuku.

The shopping street was madly packed on a Saturday and we suddenly felt suffocated by the crowds. We needed to break away and Yoyogi Park looked so close ... at least on the map. In fact, we made a wrong turn and discovered the area north of Harajuku is blocked from the park by the JR Rail tracks. After several kilometers of walking to the park's northeast entrance we realized our mistake! Yoyogi is another huge peaceful green park with massive trees and the Meiji Shrine. We enjoyed seeing a procession from a traditional Japanese wedding at the shrine on a Saturday.

Several more kilometers of walking later we finished our afternoon by finding our Airbnb in Shibuya. Airbnb works great in the major tourist cities of Japan – we found good cozy accommodations at a fraction of what we would have paid for hotels. And all the places we stayed at offered portable WiFi units we could carry around during the day ... a real lifesaver at times! Shibuya is a fantastic area to stay in Tokyo, super hip and vibrant. The famous street crossing is there with masses of pedestrians walking across at every signal. We couldn't help but be tourists taking selfies of ourselves in the intersection!

Shibuya is a great place to meet a local acquaintance for dinner. My business school classmate Hiro lives in Tokyo and knew a great yakitori place to take us to. It was a place with about 20 seats and menus in Japanese-only ... my wife and I would have been unable to eat here by ourselves. A wonderful meal! And what a way to start our trip.

For Sunday in Tokyo we started in late morning in Azakusa and made our way to the large crowded Sensoji Temple. I enjoyed all the burning incense but wish we had made our way here a little earlier to avoid the crowds – my wife and I are not good at waking up early when we're on vacation. My wife loved the neighborhood, browsing at all the small shops and trying the fish-shaped waffles filled with red bean. I also loved seeing the local Japanese ladies in their lovely kimonos out and about taking pictures. For the afternoon we toured the Imperial Palace Garden. My wife was sad that she couldn't visit the actual palace itself but she greatly admired the vast space and all the various types of trees that she had never seen back home. Ueno Park afterwards felt disappointing by comparison. After dark we walked through the bright lights of Ginza, but a light rain started falling and we decided to end our day with some food court sushi and edamame back in Shibuya.

On Monday morning we found a great city view at the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, much better than Tokyo Tower – and free! Plus when you tire of the view it is an easy place to sit down and enjoy a coffee. We had finished Tokyo sightseeing and we were off to the onsen hot springs of Hakone, about a 2.5-hour train ride from Shinjuku Station. We wanted some R&R away from the city and we were hoping for a view of Mount Fuji.

Unfortunately due to its proximity to Tokyo, Hakone is crazy-expensive. The traditional ryokan we stayed in was about $180/night and felt rather dated, but at least it had two private onsen rooms for guests to enjoy. We were served dinner and breakfast from the floor of our room and it was a real treat! We dressed in yakuta robes and feasted on fish, tempura, green tea and tasty mochi. Sleeping on the floor wasn't the most comfy but certainly much easier than in Korean hanok houses – the futon pads we laid on felt soft and pillowy. And the hot water of the onsen felt wonderful for our tired legs after all the walking we did in Tokyo.

The mountain setting of Hakone was lovely but unfortunately our 2 days there were marred by overcast skies and some rain, so we couldn't take in any of the breathtaking scenery and couldn't see Fuji. We did a little exploring by bus on Tuesday and I would recommend the Hakone Shrine near Lake Ashi. But on a rainy day there wasn't much to see, so we returned back to Odawara and rode the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. Super fast but otherwise not extraordinary.

If there is one must-see destination in Japan it's Tokyo. If there is a second must-see destination this is almost certainly Kyoto. Tokyo is enormous and has tons of neighborhoods to explore, but Kyoto has the history.

On Wednesday we headed for Arashiyama to see the famous bamboo forest. So many majestic tall skinny trees... the place actually can feel semi-dark even on a sunny day. More than the bamboo forest though my wife loved walking around the neighborhood and viewing the boutique shops. Then we really started temple-hopping in earnest. Kyoto is a city of temples, the whole place has sprouted up around them. You can't help staying more than a few minutes on a public bus without seeing a temple or Shinto shrine pop up somewhere. And often the temples off the beaten tourist path are more refreshing... more Zen to be found when you're not surrounded by mobs of loud, photo-hungry Chinese tourists. We started at Seiryoji and the outer entrance of Tenryuji in Arashiyama... it was only the beginning.

We spent the afternoon in Nijo Castle, which I had seen during for a nighttime cherry blossoms exhibition during my first Kyoto trip. The large grounds were also wonderful during daytime and quite enjoyable without the cherry blossom crowds. In the early evening we wandered around Higashiyama and viewed the shops. Kyoto unfortunately does not have much going on after 5pm when the temples close. You really can just walk around in the twilight until you get hungry and find a restaurant for dinner. One exception is the Yasaka Shrine, beautifully lit up in the evening. We walked around and after leaving found a historic udon restaurant in Gion. We went geisha hunting and did spot one putting her client in a taxi and waving goodbye.

Thursday was our tour of the temples in northwest Kyoto. The city is sprawled out and the famous temples are all over so you really need to plan your days carefully if you want to see every temple on your list. We started at Ninnaji and worked our way to the famous rock garden of Ryoanji. We found a nice coffee shop nearby and then continued our walk to the gold-covered Kinkakuji Temple. I had a bad feeling when I saw all the Chinese tour buses outside that we were going to be in for a rough afternoon, and indeed it was. Though the place is spectacular, just about any tourist destination in the world can be ruined by masses of Chinese! At least we patiently fought through for a couple nice photos... the place wasn't anywhere near as quiet as the photos looked!

After that mess we ran away to Daitokuji, so quiet you could hear your own footsteps and we felt self-conscious not to raise our voices. The peace and quiet was so welcome after the disaster of Kinkakuji... thank goodness Daitokuji is just a local temple and not in any Chinese tour guide books! Again you run out of things to do in Kyoto after 5pm so we took a twilight walk along the Philosopher's Path before retreating to our Airbnb for a home cooked meal. Japanese food supermarkets are quite nice, BTW!

Really had to fight for this picture at Kinkakuji
Friday was our last day in Kyoto and we still had a long list of places to see, but I knew no visit to Kyoto would be complete without seeing the vast Fushimi Inari Shrine. Once you get past the main temple you are faced with what feels like a never-ending climb in the woods under iconic orange arches. If we had more time or my wife was a more adept hiker perhaps we could have hiked the whole thing – I think we made it 2/3 of the way up which itself was quite a workout. Lots of Chinese tourists here too, but if you hike uphill long enough you eventually escape them! We refreshed with coffee and walk to Tofukuji, then a bus to Nanzenji to admire the aqueduct. We wrapped up our whirlwind temple day at Kiyomizudaera, not an easy place to reach as you face a long uphill hike from the nearest bus stop, but well worth it.

On Saturday we took an easy train ride from Kyoto to Nara. Thankfully Nara is an easy day trip as the areas worth seeing are all in a compact area around Kintetsu-Nara train station. I put Nara on the list of places to see because of the famous wild deer walking around Nara Park, which my wife loved! Unlike the deer back home, which are scared of people, these deer are always approaching you looking for food and most are quite petable – though be warned that some are a little attack-minded when hungry! My wife loves cute animals and she could not get enough of these Bambis. There are hundreds of deer for miles. Everything else in the area – museums, temples – was a sideshow. My wife didn't want to leave, even though a couple deer did bit her! (Gently, of course)

Osaka is Japan's #2 city and more edgy than Tokyo. It is not a place with great historical sites, but rather restaurants, nightlife, and shopping. We came to the Dotonbori on Saturday evening after our day in Nara and sampled takoyaki on the street before finding a nearby teppanyaki restaurant that served the delicious okonomiyaki savory pancake, washed down with a refreshing beer. After a big meal we walked off a few calories along the canal and my wife was mesmerized by the tax-free shops. We could have easily spent the whole night here if we were looking for a drink or a nightclub, but my wife is not particularly into either.

On Sunday, our final day in Japan, we saw the one must-see historical attraction in Osaka – the Osaka Castle – tall and majestic and with a nice city view at the top. Also the grounds make for nice walking and we saw many student performances. There was also a judo tournament in one of the nearby buildings. Unfortunately Osaka didn't have much else to offer. We went to one of the local malls but felt overwhelmed – for the first time on the trip I felt tired and hungry and grumpy.

But the last dull afternoon in Osaka didn't sour our Japan trip. What a wonderful place to explore as newlyweds. So many foods to try and places to visit. I finally got the big Japan trip I was craving and I'm so glad I was able to share the time with my new wife. It's a trip we will never forget.

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