TravelThursdays

Hakone: Hakone Kimono Rental & Hakone Suimeisou

01:00

Just like your average tourist to Japan, I wanted to stay in a ryokan, soak in hot spring water, and rent a kimono to wear during my trip. So basic, I know.

I don't care.


Luckily, I managed to squeeze all that into my first Hakone trip ever last year in December 2017!!!



Don't we look nice.  ;)

But first, to travel from Tokyo, Shinjuku Station precisely, to Hakone-Yuumoto Station.

In Tokyo, I bought the Odakyu Hakone Freepass for 2 days 1 night, and topped up a little extra to take the Romancecar to Hakone. It was a more luxurious and faster way to get to Hakone, and I just wanted to experience it at least once.



Of course, I was a sucker for the Romancecar lunch box (bento), and bought it immediately just so I could keep the train lunchbox it came in.

Japan is very good at getting me to spend my money.

I got to Hakone-Yuumoto station in 75 minutes, as advertised. After I found Hakone Suimeisou, my ryokan for the night, I quickly got on the bus to get to the Hakone Sekisho Ato bus stop, where my Hakone kimono rental place was located.

When I researched kimono rentals in Tokyo, much to my dismay all the Tokyo kimono rentals that I could access were just... expensive, or had ridiculous rental hours for exorbitant prices.

I was just about to GIVE UP when it struck me I could try to find out if Hakone had kimono rental services, though I had never read about that before.

I did a quick Google search, looked through a bunch of websites, and that led me to... the Hakone Sekisho Tabimonogatarikan

A mouthful, I know. I learned that the Tabimonogatarikan, located near the Hakone Checkpoint Atoko, recently started offering kimono rental services in early 2017.

Score! 

A very lovely Hiyoshi-san, who replied my Facebook messages, greeted me as soon as I stepped into the Tabimonogatarikan building and turned right towards the kimono rental area.

Tip: Please go to the toilet before you put on a kimono, because it will be VERY HARD TO DO SO once you're wearing one.

Each of my friends got assigned their very own kimono helper after we chose our kimono and obi. Within half an hour we were ready to explore Lake Ashi, the Ancient Cedar Avenue, and Hakone Shrine for the next few hours (without going to the toilet even ONCE, because it was impossible to walk long strides in our geta-slippers, let alone be able to maneuver toilet seats and the like).


Worth it, though.

If you ask me, Hakone is a GREAT place to be able to rent kimono, just for the pictures alone. I only wish we could have seen Mount Fuji more clearly (it was hidden by clouds most of the time), but the pictures I got were more than satisfactory (you bet I took A LOT of pictures of myself in kimono, since I didn't know the next time I'd get to wear one again).


First we walked along the Ancient Cedar Avenue, with cedar trees planted in 1618 (!!!) to provide shelter to samurai and travelers going between Edo and Osaka. I would have appreciated the historical significance a lot more if I wasn't trying NOT to fall.

It turns out I am not very good at walking on smooth roads in geta, let alone rocky ones.

However, it was worth it because a bunch of tourists going by told us that we were pretty. Behold, the power of the kimono.

We also took the sightseeing boat on Lake Ashi by doing one loop around the lake, before going back to visit Hakone Shrine in our kimono.





Many, many Instagram-worthy pictures were taken. A few other tourists also grabbed hold of us to take pictures with us, because we were one of the very few groups of people actually in kimono in the area, surprisingly.

At Hakone Shrine, I prayed for a couple of things, one of which failed to materialise. I'm not so sure about the other, too, but I guess we'll see...

... at least I have nice pictures of myself at Hakone Shrine, if I do say so myself (I DO say so myself).

Mount Fuji also finally appeared to us in the late afternoon, and I quickly snapped a few more pictures!



Sigh. What a lovely, relaxing day that was, despite not being able to answer nature's call for a few hours (aka no guzzling of water).


As we walked back to return our kimono, WE SPOTTED A PET OWL IN HAKONE!

Disclaimer: please don't have owls as pets, though. Seriously. Especially if you live in the city.

It was tied to a bike, and the owner came out and agreed to let us take a picture with his owl, which also obliged by looking at the camera.



Hello, little one.

The sun set early in early December, so by the time we got back to Hakone Suimeisou around 6pm plus, the sky was dark.

In Hakone, too, I scored something I wanted to eat but couldn't find AT ALL in Tokyo city itself. Thanks, tourists. I know it was you all.

Courtesy of 7-11 Hakone, I bought...


The much toted, much raved about Nakiryu 1-Michelin Star Tan Tan Noodles in a cup. All I can say is, these are surprisingly good for cup noodles.

I do have to say, though, I wonder how tourists cook these without knowing the kanji. There are 3 packets inside, 2 of which have explicit instructions on "ADD ONLY BEFORE SERVING". Otherwise, the soup may come out too thick the longer it is mixed and heated up inside.

At Hakone Suimeisou, I took the Japanese-style room with open-air bath, along with dinner and breakfast for the 4 of us. It came up to ¥18,750+, almost RM700.00 per person for one night's stay - a considerably cheap ryokan experience, compared to the others that I've looked at.

I don't have pictures of the room (or even the open-air bathtub, but I can say it looks pretty similar to the ones on their website), BUT DO I HAVE PICTURES OF DINNER AND BREAKFAST FOR YOU.

Behold!

Dinner ala Hakone Suimeisou






We stepped into the dining room, and practically gasped at the spread laid out before us. I don't like raw food (neither does the person next to me), so we were talking about how we'd give all the raw food to the two people who do like raw food.

Unfortunately, there was just too much food for our kaiseki dinner. I did try some of the raw food, which were okay but still not my thing.

The nabemono (one pot dish) food was REALLY good. I don't normally like steamed prawns, but this one was sweet and succulent. Japan, what magic do you use? I also liked the beef tataki, but unfortunately as this is a kaiseki meal, there were too little slices of it. Sigh.

All in all, a kaiseki meal is a great experience, but I don't think I'd do it again just because of the food wastage I am likely to occur, due to the large amount... unless I'm eating with someone who has an extraordinarily large appetite.

Breakfast ala Hakone Suimeisou

Breakfast was also a much more extravagant affair than I'm used to. To me, breakfast normally comes in one bowl. This breakfast, however...





Not one bowl at all.

The lightly fried saba fish. The warm miso soup. The onsen egg.

Perfect. Just perfect. Although, also too much for breakfast.

The staff at Hakone Suimeisou, mostly elderly, did their best to accommodate us. Please note that they do not understand most English, but they are certainly friendly. I read some reviews online complaining about how the staff didn't understand English and therefore couldn't explain the dishes served at kaiseki, to which I have to say...

YOU ARE IN JAPAN, SURELY YOU CAN RESEARCH THE DISHES YOURSELF ONLINE. 😑

I wouldn't go to Korea and complain about Koreans being unable to explain to me in English (or any other language that I understand) about their customs/ traditions, as I am capable of comprehending that the world does not revolve around English speakers.

But I digress.

Frankly I wish I could have stayed another night, because I spent too little time in the bathtub, but budgetary constraints and all that.

The next day Hakone was gloomy as we checked out, perfectly capturing how I felt about leaving. We left our luggage in the ryokan still as we explored one more place before heading back to Tokyo - Owakudani.

On a clear day, we could have seen Mount Fuji clearly from Owakudani, but it was so windy that day I could only manage one picture. It was the only day in Japan that I broke out my windbreaker, too.



Owakudani, in an eggshell (😅) is famous for their black eggs (boiled in their sulfuric hotsprings). One egg is said to extend 7 years of life. I also had black ice-cream, as well as black ramen at Owakudani.

The place of my goth dreams, clearly.

After my December 2017 trip, I have realised I much vastly prefer places like Hakone and Kamakura as places to visit this time.

These places were also besieged by tourists, but definitely at a lesser rate compared to the city itself. I've been in Japan once every two years at least since 2011. Each time, I can see that Japan's campaigns to drive tourism is succeeding even more and more.

I think it's great for their economy, but mass tourism will also bring in certain problems, like destruction of their attractions - people breaking off cherry blossom branches for photo opportunities, for example. I've started to look at attractions in Japan that are off the beaten path, just to avoid running into such tourists.

The Hakone and Kamakura I saw were filled with tourists, but I could still feel a unique human warmth I could no longer feel in places like Harajuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, and the like.

From the kind Hiyoshi-san at Tabimonogatarikan to the people in Kamakura that I met, their genuine interest and enthusiasm in welcoming/ helping foreigners like me are one of the reasons why I love returning to Japan.

The next time I return, I hope that I will be able to go to more places in which I can feel this human warmth still.

Thank you, Hakone. I would love to come back again.

TravelThursdays

Kamakura & Enoshima One Day Trip

14:16

IF I have to pick a place to live in in the Greater Tokyo Area, I would pick Kamakura to live in.


The laid-back vibe of the seaside city and people, coupled with the fact that it's just an hour away from the bustling and overwhelming city of Tokyo, makes it an attractive place to live in. The people of Kamakura also feel genuinely friendlier, though I imagine they might not be very pleased about their touristy status on the weekends. 

I went to Kamakura on a Monday, utilising the Enoshima-Kamakura Freepass from the Odakyu Line. Odakyu has an office at Shinjuku station, staffed with people who speak English/ Chinese/ Thai and so on. At the same time, I also bought the Hakone Freepass, so both set me back around ¥8,000 or so.

I've always wanted to visit Kamakura - it was a place that was often mentioned in my Japanese classes in university. Just being able to sit in an Enoden, looking out at the sea views, and knowing that I'm finally visiting the place I've pretended to visit in role-playing classes was pretty... magical. 

For Kamakura, I had my itinerary planned out like this:

1. Kotoku-in, the Great Buddha temple,
2. Hase-dera, Goddess of Mercy temple,
3. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine,
4. Good Mellows burger cafe for an early dinner, and 
5. Enoshima.

It was a good mix of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrine, plus some light sightseeing. If you're taking the Odakyu line, do remember to check when the last train departs, otherwise you'd be stuck in Kamakura (all things considered, not such a bad thing to be, but still). 

When I got to Kamakura, my first concern was food! I checked TripAdvisor, and many reviews were raving about the Turkish kebab store in Kamakura.

Me: "Ok?"

Being a sheep, of course I went to try it out.


Honestly? The owner is worth meeting just as much as his kebabs are worth eating. He was such an exuberant character, laughing and chatting away with us. He must have quite the story, along with his wife, to decide on setting up a tiny (and it WAS tiny) kebab store in Kamakura, along the touristy street that led up to Kotoku-in.

I got the kebab sandwich with mixed sauce. It was a pretty good pick-me-up snack - you can even have the kebab with rice if your stomach allows for it.

When I was eating inside, an Asian couple (South-East Asian of Chinese origin, from their accent) came by and started questioning the owner on what he sold in English. The owner, in a *friendly* manner, pointed to his menu and said:

"You can't read?"

😂

Some extra sensitive soul may find this rude, but hey, man has a point.


Even though I really wanted to see the bronze Buddha statue, once I got into Kotoku-in there really wasn't much to see. For an extra fee, one could go under the statue to have a look around at the foundation, but it didn't have an appeal to us.

I did, however, find the English descriptions for the charms sold to be hilarious (I can think of several people I want to buy senility prevention for...). I bought a charm for "money attraction" (because girlfriend needs money~).

There was also Buddha beer sold on the premises.

I love Japan.

I vastly preferred Hase-dera as a temple to visit. It was bigger in size, and had more elements of nature to look at, with koi fishes and trimmed trees, and the cutest statues.








Look at that sea view! There was also a vegetarian restaurant in the premises, a museum on the Goddess of Mercy, underground caves to explore, and more steps to hike up for a higher view point.

I got a fortune at Hase-dera, too,  named the "nagomikuji". It was basically a slip of paper which I selected from a small box, and had to dip into a bowl of water in order for the words to reveal themselves.

I got good fortune for the year in terms of work, academic (hahaha), love (apparently I'll be having an exciting meeting in 2018, which I'm still waiting for...), and health.

Oh well, we'll see.

We got slightly lost on the way to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine due to not being able to read Google Maps (also, Internet connection was TERRIBLE in Japan, ugh never using Travel Recommends again), but it was fun to see how Kamakura residents lived. There were poodle-shaped mailboxes, clean drains (the water in their drains are CLEAR!), and even an Amish cafe.

Kamakura is just full of interesting surprises.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu was crowded, filled with tourists even on a Monday (lots of school kids around, for some reason). We were practically shooed away after we were done with our prayers at the shrine by a shrine guard, so it didn't feel THAT tranquil.

Not sure if early December is a good time to visit Japan, what with people having school holidays and all.

However, nature in the shrine was at peak autumn sighting, to make up for the crowds.

It was gorgeous!



So dreamy. So magical (especially with light filters). I love autumn.

We then walked from the shrine (there was so much walking involved in this trip, and YET I still gained weight, must be all those late-night ramen...) to Good Mellows, another place TripAdvisor recommended me.

A burger joint near a park and facing the sea, we were the only ones there in the late afternoon on a cold autumn day. I imagine it would have been a livelier place in the summer, when surfers could come by and sit outside on the patio.


The staff was friendly, the couch was comfortable, and the burger and fries were yummy. I would definitely go back if I lived in Kamakura.

There was JUST enough time to go to Enoshima, and to get back before the last train departed, so off we went. There was a 1.4km walk from Enoshima station to the actual island itself, so we definitely burned off our burgers in the to-and-fro.

Enoshima is famous for its public baths, but we didn't get to go to any. There was winter illuminations in Samuel Cocking Garden, so we walked some more to get to the top (sometimes, I feel Japan is not a country for the unfit...).

The winter illuminations were pretty, but the view of Kamakura from Enoshima was prettier to me.




I WANT TO LIVE HERE. 

The main attraction of Enoshima to me, wasn't in the public baths or the illuminations. Oh no. The main attraction of Enoshima in autumn, to me, was... the cats.



There were just so many plump cats dotted around the island - we counted at least six or seven. They were also friendly, and allowed humans to touch them.

SO FLUFFY.

This one... even jumped into my lap as I sat down.


The cat gods love me. T_T I LOVE YOU TOO.

I can also confirm that the cats in Enoshima/ Kamakura are so much friendlier than the cats in Tokyo (much like the people, haha). I found another plump cat in Tokyo and it just ran away from me, WHEN ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS TO LOVE IT. WHY WON'T YOU LET ME LOVE YOU.

My verdict on Kamakura? I wished I had decided to spend a night there, instead of doing a rushed one day trip. I can see myself sitting leisurely in Verve Kamakura, or the gorgeous Starbucks Kamakura, and just people-watch all day while reading a book, or hiking, or exploring more of Enoshima in the day, or just hunting for more cats to love. ❤️

I'll definitely go back to Kamakura.

TravelThursdays

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Dec 2017

12:55

I love Japanese gardens and parks. 

Well-kept, well-loved, and well-cleaned. What's not to love? They're gorgeous spaces to feel recharged in, and have I mentioned THEY ARE CLEAN? Civic-minded people ARE THE BEST.

Mini-rant: I like hiking in my home country, but I have to say I'm always disappointed to see rubbish and garbage left behind by other fellow hikers which I often see on each hike. Once I saw a family break off the top of some tree branches to get a better view from their picnic spot. For the love of nature, WHY?! 

In early December, I wanted to see autumn leaves. It was one of the MUST-items in my travel list, so on 2nd December 2017 I made my travel mates go to Shinjuku Gyoen. It was a 10 minutes or so walk from Shinjuku Station, and admission tickets are sold from the vending machines stationed outside the garden gates.

Fact, not opinion: Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is well-worth the ¥200 admission fee.


Look at that ground. Spotless except for leaves. 

The autumn leaves were still in full swing in early December, and we all marveled at this wondrous creation of nature by taking lots of pictures (when you come from a tropical country that is sunny/ rainy all year long, all of this is extra marvelous).


There's just something about well-maintained parks and colourful dying nature that puts a big smile on my face.


Traffic light ala nature.


Shinjuku Gyoen covers a vast land, and even though it's a tourist attraction, it's still large enough for people to find themselves alone in some spots. There were stretches of time where I just enjoyed the crunching sounds of of fallen leaves under my feet, the occasional calls of birds, the rustle of the cool wind air, and practically nothing else - no humans talking, no cars driving by, no beeping alarms...

Bliss.



I adore autumn. It's my favourite season.



I don't know if it's nature making people nicer, or just Japanese people in general. There were a few Japanese middle-aged to senior men walking around toting large cameras taking pictures of scenery, so I caught up to one and asked if he could help me take a picture of my travel group.

Next thing I know, he's already telling us to stand in position, pose well, kneeling on the ground with my camera, and taking several pictures from several angles.

So, pro-tip from me: next time you want a Japanese person to take a picture for you, aim for the ones holding huge cameras that can probably commit murder if you hit someone on the head with one.

All in all, Shinjuku Gyoen was a lovely spot to spend two to three hours in. They also have rotating exhibitions and organised garden walks.

Do go if you love nature, and civic-minded people. You'll leave feeling extremely happy, I promise.

TravelThursdays

Sanrio Puroland | Gudetama Land

01:00

It's been two months since I've been back from Japan, and of course... I still miss it very much.

I've been privileged to visit Japan once every two years on average. I joke that all my salary, paltry as it is in terms of global currency, is only to advance Japan's economy.

Last year in December, I finally fulfilled one of my dreams of visiting Japan with two of my closest colleagues. People often ask me why I always go back to Japan, to which I have to say...

"There's always something new to explore in each corner, in each season." 

I generally don't mind going back to the same places in Japan over and over again, because they are always thinking of ways to update to suit the season. With pop-up restaurants, revolving exhibitions in museums, and etcetera, it's hard to be bored in Japan.

Plus, there's always some place to visit which I had not visited before, such as...



Last year was the first time I flew into Haneda Airport, actually. I've always favoured the Kansai areas in Japan, and when I went to Tokyo before, I just took the bullet train from Osaka. This time around, all 9 days of my trip was solely in the Greater Tokyo area, which gave me time to visit slightly out-of-the-way attractions like Sanrio Puroland.

As soon as I stopped off in Tama-Center Station, this ceiling greeted me. Clearly the top attraction of this place was Sanrio Puroland, which I wanted to visit for...


...this.

I... am not the biggest fan of Hello Kitty.

I do like Sanrio characters, especially My Melody, but I've never been particularly captivated by any of their characters until... Gudetama appeared.

My Japan trip of last year can also alternatively be called "The Trip Where Gudetama Made Me Spend More Money  Than I Really Should".

I didn't even need to be personally in Japan to have Gudetama make me spend money. A friend of mine went to Japan in late January, and asked me if I wanted to have the Gudetama tamagotchi which came out in late December.

Well.

DUH.

This appeared on my Instagram post as of February 1st 2018: 


Congratulations, Sanrio, you have officially found a way to make me spend more money in Japan, instead of just sticking to my usual Disney/ Ghibli merchandises.

From top-left in clockwise direction:

1. A ¥500 picture from Gudetama Land in Sanrio Puroland,
2. A ¥700 squishy keychain from Owakudani in Hakone,
3. A ¥300 gacha Gudetama macaron from Gudetama Land,
4. A ¥800 Little Twin Stars x Gudetama cup-hanger,
5. A coaster from Gudetama Cafe in Ikebukuro,
6. A ¥1,860 (after discount) Gudetama tamagotchi, and
7. A postcard from Gudetama Cafe in Ikebukuro (I'm pretty sure I spent ¥2,300 on food and drinks there).

😨

So much for self-control.

But I digress.

When I finally went into Sanrio Puroland, the first thing that struck me was that there were way less tourists than I expected. Most of the people were Japanese mothers with their children, young Japanese families, and giggly Japanese girls in their late teens and early 20s.

The other thing that struck me was that... Japanese girls seemed really into DSLR cameras with extremely expandable lenses. One petite Japanese girl zoomed in at a show with her camera, and I think the length of that expanded camera was half her size.

With the indoor theme park being moderately packed, I could get on most of the rides without much waiting, such as the Sanrio Character Boat Ride, and the ~My Melody & Kuromi~ Mymeroad Drive.

With it being December, Sanrio Puroland embraced the Christmas spirit in their decorations and shows. I watched a show about how the Tree of Wisdom accidentally ate the phonetic "Su", so Hello Kitty and friends couldn't celebrate KurisumaSU as SU was missing.

😂

I clearly am too old to take this event as it is, because I kept thinking "but there's still a SU in KuriSUmaSU, why is it only the last SU that is missing? What's so special about the middle SU? Is it protected by the other syllables?"

I can't say that I really enjoyed Sanrio Puroland - mostly because I am not young...er/ the target audience/ I only like a couple of characters - but Sanrio Puroland clearly knew that they had another target market to please. After meandering around Sanrio Puroland, I finally found the one spot in the theme park I was REALLY eager to visit.

May I present to you...

Gudetama Land.




The premise of Gudetama Land was that you were a visitor, and you had to have a Gudetama Passport for you to go in. There was a receptionist area in which you got your Passport (one for each group only), and your name and gender would be keyed in.

Then. in Gudetama Land, you had to play various mini-games in order to complete your tour of Gudetama Land, and scan your Passport each time at each game section so that they knew it was you.

There were places where you had to take pictures with figurines of Gudetama...


...and places which were not mini-game areas, but I still had to take pictures anyway BECAUSE LOOK AT THIS.


Enjoyment of Sanrio Puroland immediately went up upon stepping into Gudetama Land.

At the end, after completing all the mini-games, you could go back to the first area with the two pilot Gudetamas, and scan your Passport again to prove that you've completed all the games.

I did exactly that, and this voice blared out from the speakers saying:

"Miss, it's great that you're so hardworking (in completing all the games), but don't you have better things to do?"

Thanks, Gudetama.

😂

I still love you anyway.

Really, I should add the Sanrio Puroland entry ticket price of RM70 to my  "The Trip Where Gudetama Made Me Spend More Money  Than I Really Should" list, since I only really perked up upon reaching here due to my interests.

I DID, however, find the cutest character available to take a picture with. 😍

When I was watching the Kurisumasu show, I kept thinking this one character named Cinnamonroll was the cutest thing ever (Gudetama didn't participate in the show, probably because being lazy and cynical doesn't fit with Christmas's image...). The costume was tiny and small, much shorter than me (and I'm already short to begin with), and I kept wondering how tall the person inside the costume was.

When I was done with Gudetama Land and was about to leave, I spotted an upper level where I had not explored yet. Off I went... and this I found.



😳

IT WAS SO CUTE (and yes there was a person inside it, but I have no idea how).


When I went up to it, it bowed to me and I could not maintain any composure because... how could something be so cute. T_T

I was saying to my friend that "so now I know the best way for me to actually want to hug a stranger is to have that stranger wear a cute costume beforehand that ensures none of our skin actually touches, also costume must be C-U-T-E".

That was a great end to the four hours or so that I spent in Sanrio Puroland. Technically I could have waited for more parades and shows, but I just wasn't that interested after Gudetama Land. I was also REALLY exhausted from having a red-eye flight, and just wanted a bed.

I do have to mention one thing I really liked about Japan, which happened in Sanrio Puroland. It was an indoor theme park that was clearly geared at extremely young children, but I rarely heard shouting by parent or child. There was small instances of crying, which was hushed up quickly after or disappeared somewhere else.

When I was in line to meet Cinnamonroll, a young child ran excitedly past me, and her mother immediately dragged her child back into her place in line, apologising to me as she did so. She then told her child gently but firmly that "we should wait for our turn patiently in line, because other people want to meet Cinnamonroll too".

😊

I was REALLY impressed with this level of parenting skills. If only it was enacted all over the world!

I won't say that I'd want to come back to Sanrio Puroland again (not the way I'd love to revisit Disneyland/Sea every time), but it was a pretty pleasant way to spend a few hours on a tired first day for a trip - no rushing, no huge crowds, no inconvenient incidences.

Now, if they expanded Gudetama Land though...