Japanese castles are very different than European ones. In Europe, many castles are large and grand with exquisite paintings and decor. In Japan, castles are made of wood and stone and are more simple in nature. We had the chance of visiting the Nijo Castle (Kyoto), Osaka Castle, and Himeji Castle.
The Nijo Castle was built in 1679 and housed the Tokugawa shoguns. The main castle is made of beautiful dark wood and is all on one level. The palace features large rooms with murals of nature and animals painted on the walls. One interesting feature of the castle is the hardwood floors. They are called “nightingale floors.” When you walk on them they squeak like birds.
The Osaka Castle was restored and now serves as a museum. Inside there is art, videos, and artifacts from Japanese culture surrounding the time the castle was in use (1583–1868). The top of the castle gives a 360 degree view of Osaka.
Himeji Castle was very impressive. This castle is also known as the “White Heron Castle” as it looks like a bird in flight. This castle is classified as a UNESCO Heritage Site as it is a great example of 17th century architecture. Aside from the castle, there were several other structures and gardens to visit. We could only imagine how beautiful it would look in the spring with cherry blossoms all around.
Kyoto is a beautiful and culturally rich city. It was spared from atomic bombing during WWII, which left a lot of historic Japanese architecture preserved. What is most impressive was how Kyoto integrates the old with the new. For instance, the city has many places to rent a kimono for the day. Their goal is to keep traditions alive in a culture that is embracing more western ideals. This example is also made through their food such as the many ways to serve tofu or the incorporation of green tea (matcha) into sweets. We took about 3 days to explore what Kyoto has to offer.
This area was on my top list of places to visit in Japan. I have read the book Memoirs of a Geisha at least three times. I love the mystery of this profession as well as the dedication women have toward becoming a cultural performer. We took an evening walking tour (with a fantastic guide) around the area. Gion is one of the districts that has really been preserved. Lucky for us we spotted two Geisha on their way to work. What are they like in real life? Perfect hair and accessories, elaborate make up, and exquisite kimono and obi. It was a little strange to see these women out on the street, as I have only read about them. They seemed like swans in a sea of mallards.
This area is on the outskirts of Kyoto. It is known for its monkey park, bamboo grove, and the Togetsukyo Bridge. The bridge was underwhelming. Maybe it is a great scenic spot in the fall (when you can see the foliage), but in the winter it was just a way to get to the monkey park. The monkey park was excellent . You hike up to the top of a hill and right in front of you is a clan of monkeys! These monkeys can only be found in Japan and the adults were quite large. I would say the size of a toddler. The monkeys were very cute, especially the little babies. We got quite mesmerized and watched them for about 45 minutes. After the monkeys, we went to check out the bamboo grove. There is a short path you walk down and bamboo towers above you. It was interesting feeling like we disappeared from the town for awhile.
This is a delicious shopping arcade to walk down. Everywhere we looked there was delectable goodies to try. This market has a significant number of stalls stocked with seafood, sweets, and fried items. The hard part was selecting a few things to try. We stuck to the seafood and fried octopus balls (okonomiyaki).
Just across the Kamo River from Gion is Pontocho Alley. This was another area known for tea house with Geisha entertainers. Currently, this small alley is lined with restaurants and bars. We heard in the summer they build decks out over the river so that you can dine alfresco. Since it was winter we selected a restaurant that was well heated and offered a set menu of Japanese cuisine. This meal paired with some local sake = 2 happy people.
We did venture to the many shrines/temples in Kyoto, but those pictures will have to be saved for another post.
The area of Hakone makes for a great day trip from Tokyo when you want some peaceful serenity. It was on our way to Kyoto, so we stayed the night.
The best thing about Hakone is the view of Mount Fuji. Our first sighting of the iconic mountain was part of the backdrop of Lake Ashi with a Shinto shrine on the shore.
We took a bus from our hotel to the lake front, a boat ride across the lake, and a ropeway to the top of Owakudani, a smoking volcano. Throughout all of this the majestic Mount Fuji was looming in the distance. We couldn’t take enough pictures. To get back to our hotel we took a cable car and a train down the mountain. So aside from great sights the day was also filled with many modes of transportation.
In the evening we went to an “onsen” or hotspring to relax. Hakone has many options in regards to hotsprings. We went with the one our hotel recommended because of the variety of hot pools. There were indeed a variety of pools of varying temperatures from about 36-44°C (96-111°F). There was also an intensely hot steam room. The entire ambiance of the place was extremely natural, from the rocks in and around the pools, to the fact that everyone was NAKED! Yeah! An important detail to keep in mind. Genders are separated as soon as you enter the locker room. You can shower and use your “Japanese style” mini towel before heading to the pools out under the stars. Upon entering this locker room, it became quite evident that I wouldn’t be needing my bathing suit. To be honest, I would have felt more awkward wearing it. As the saying goes, “When in Rome…get naked in a hot tub with strangers.”
Overall, it was a great stop on the way to Kyoto. It was a nice change from the sprawling city of Tokyo with some natural beauty and relaxation.
PS… Keep in mind that the town closes down in the evening, which left only a few options for dining or drinks.
Currently, my husband and I are in Japan. We are really loving it. The people are lovely and the food is fantastic. Before we arrived I did a little research about yarn shopping. I was pleasantly surprised to find a few sources to locate yarn stores. I used a list from Travel Knitter as well as Knitmap. Just my luck there was a craft store about 1 km from our hotel! The description sounded like this place was a crafter’s heaven.
Okadaya is located off the Shinjuku metro stop across from “Godzilla Road.” Okadaya stocks fabric, yarn, buttons, sewing notions…etc. I headed right for the yarn floor (Floor 5). The area was spacious and there was quite a selection to choose from. I also appreciated that the staff didn’t hover, but when I had a question they were friendly and helpful.
Most of the brands stocked were new to me. There were European brands as well as Japanese. I loved that they had all of the yarn out for petting! Okadaya’s stock was mainly wool, but I did manage to find some cotton yarn. I have two more knit tops that I want to make for summer. I purchased NaturaXL (aran weight) and Natura (fingering weight yarn).
My husband was with me and asked for some more hand knitted socks. Funny how whenever I go to the yarn store with him we walk away with a skein for him too. He found a pretty cool sock yarn by Opal. They took famous paintings and applied the colors to the yarn. My husband chose the colorway inspired by Le Café, le soir as he is partial to blue.
I also remembered that my Blaster sweater still needed some buttons. I went down one floor down to the button section. With so many choices I really had to stay focused. I ended up choosing buttons with a green and blue mosaic. I am not sure if they are the best fit. If they don’t work with my Blaster sweater I am sure I can find something else to knit up to go with them. 😉
Okadaya was a great experience. The shop had good prices (as compared to yarn prices in the US) and a variety of items that appeal to all crafters. Despite not specializing in yarn, I left feeling excited with my new purchases.
Until Next Time,
If you are interested in learning more my about our travels in Japan please visit Smithberrys Abroad.
Chinese New Year (aka Spring Festival) is here! We decided to head out of China to avoid the chaos. For the next two weeks we will be exploring Japan!
Japan has been on our must see list for years. Thankfully getting there is much more convenient now that we live in China. Tokyo is only a 4+ hour flight away. We flew into Narita airport and took the JR train into Tokyo. We were super impressed with the efficiency, cleanliness, and customer service of the JR staff. They spoke great English and were very kind when helping us. In fact, customer service was incredible everywhere.
Tokyo is a sprawling city with the greatest population in the world (~36 million people). Therefore, skyscrapers are a must! To get a great view of the city we highly recommend heading up to the 45th floor observatory in the Tokyo Government Building. It is free and you get great views of the city.
The food in Tokyo was insanely good! We were eating 6 times per day ( 😁😳) just to get a sample of it all. We tried sweets, crepes, beef, sushi, and udon to name a few. The food choices outside of the Tsukiji Nippon Fish Market were fantastic. By far some of the best tuna we have ever had.
Then there was the value of fantasy. In the Akiabara district it was video game heaven. Everywhere you looked there were game shops and centers. We went to Super Potato to check out the vintage games from our childhood. Super Mario anyone? How about a Tamagachi!?
We also visited one of the specialty cafes in the Harajuku area. There are cafes such as the Cat Cafe, Maid/ Butler Cafes, and monster cafes. We decided on Harry’s Zoo Cafe. We got to hold hedgehogs, bunnies, and watch some otters play. There was something so soothing about holding a fuzzy bunny in your lap for awhile.
The best fantasy option of them all was the Robot Restaurant. Almost everyone we knew that has been to Tokyo recommended this place. We had seen videos of it, but were hoping it lived up to the hype. It was by far the most colorful and overstimulating experience we have had in our lives. Everywhere we looked during the show there was something going on. There was lights, music, singing, and of course robots. We left feeling our endorphins shooting through our bodies at a crazy speed. What did we just witness? Whatever it was it was AMAZING!
Shenzhen is a city of ~11 million people located in the south of Guangdong. It sits right across from Hong Kong. Shenzhen has been described as the Silicon Valley of China. It is well known for its wholesale electronics markets. There is a whole block (Metro Stop: Huaquing St) devoted to everything electronic. We wandered into one such market, which had 7 floors of everything from screws to drones. We managed to buy two power banks, headphones, a Go Pro attachment, and a Bluetooth speaker for around $60 USD. The items aren’t always authentic, but they are pretty good quality. The city also promotes entrepreneurship in the tech sector. We watched this documentary before we went to Shenzhen. It covers how the current technology scene has developed over the last 30 years.
Shenzhen is also know for discount shopping and theme parks. Our hotel was located close to the Dongmen Pedestrian Street. This area was lined with shops selling pretty much everything. Out highlight was peering at the snack assortments. Duck tongue anyone?
Another great spot to visit in Shenzhen is Window of the World. It is a sizable theme park that houses replicas of famous sits around the world. This park had the perfect amount of kitsch. Some of the replicas were quite impressive while others were just too much. Since it was winter, the park wasn’t that crowded. This made it ideal for picture taking.
Shenzhen is a bustling city situated between its larger counterparts Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Although it does not boast many cultural relics or historical sights, it offers a glimpse into the future of China.
We entered the front doors. This is it! An arched ceiling went back as far as I could see. In front of us was a crowd of people taking photos. We walked forward and joined the crowd, cameras out and ready. There they are! The Terracotta Warriors that I’ve seen on television and in pictures were really here in front of me. There were many sights I’ve seen that were disappointing because of all my high expectations, but not this. I was thrilled to finally be here and see the image just as I had pictured it.The first emperor of China, who essentially unified the dynasties of the time creating the Qin dynasty,wanted all his riches and servants to join him in the afterlife. Of course, the best way to do that was to make several tombs for different groups. The three that have been excavated so far are where he put the terracotta warriors who could protect him. Interesting fact: each of them (there are thousands) are unique in facial expression, uniform, hair, etc. There are over 50 other tombs yet to be uncovered for things like servants, treasures and of course concubines. “But wait, what if people find out about all of this treasure after I die?”, thought the emperor. Simple solution, “Just make sure my son, who oversees this project’s completion, has all the workers (300,000+) who made it killed.” Despite the emperor’s misguided thinking his idea for a tomb was quite remarkable. We went to a Tang dynasty music and dance show that was full of elaborate costumes, set designs, and my favorite, a little kung fu flair.We also checked out a 1500+ year old Buddhist temple with a 7 story pagoda called the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.We couldn’t miss walking along the ancient city wall, and checking out the bell tower and drum tower. We got to see them both in the morning and at night. A final highlight was wandering the crowded streets of the muslim quarter where people sold all kinds of interesting treats from goat feet, to fried squids, to tasty sweet treats.
Xi’an is a great 2 day trip in Northern China. Just be prepared for the smog. While we were there the AQI level got as high as 362 (hazardous). In many of our day photos you can see the grey sky and heavy smog in the background. It was pretty terrible. Hopefully, new initiatives will help clean up the air and make Xi’an an even better place to visit.