Category Archives: Where we’ve been

Finding peace in the big city – Todoroki Valley & Little Venice

Tokyo never sleeps. It’s always been one of the busiest cities in the world. Luckily, this city has a valley in the city and it’s just 20 minutes away from Shibuya station Todoroki Valley is located in Setagaya area, and as I googled more, I learnt that the valley has a small river which runs along the trekking path and also a couple of small Japanese shrines at the end of the trekking course. Also, the valley is pretty close to a famous suburban neighborhood called Jiyugaoka. I heard that in Jiyugaoka, there are many delicious bakery shops and sweets shop scattered around the area. And, they also have a “Little Venice” which sounds like an interesting spot for photos! So, the plan starts at Todoroki station and moving to Jiyugaoka for afternoon sweets, followed by strolling to Little Venice before saying goodbye. However, we changed the plan a little bit and it turned out that it was a really good Sunday stroll

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The trekking trail runs along a small river.

A couple of small shrines and statues were seen along the pleasant walk…

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Though it’s spring already, we still feel the touch of autumn.

As we went up, there are bigger shrines…

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And a pleasant surprise awaits us at the end… a coffee and soft-cream vendor!

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Actually, we had planned to take a train to Jiyugaoka station that is 3 stops away but the weather was so nice so we decided to walk instead. It was great decision 🙂 Jiyugaoka neighborhood is known as  one of the best neighbourhoods to live in Tokyo. There are many zakka shops (handmade and knickknack goods) and delicious bakery shops in the area. It’s truly a great place to stop by and had a cup of coffee on weekends. This time we went to a place calls “Sweets Forrest” that has 5 or 6 dessert shops in one place.

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Jiyugaoka famous walk way to Sweets Forrest.

Upon reaching the entrance of Sweets Forrest, we face one of life’s most difficult decisions! Which shop should we go for this time?

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Super “kawaii” rabbit mascot is waiting for us on the way back.

After we had our fill of sweets and desserts, our next stop is “Little Venice” which is around the station. The place looks like a miniature of Venice canals and of course, a Gondola! Unfortunately, the gondola was out of service for now. Actually, this place is surrounded by cafes and pet shops, however, it’s pretty small that why it’s called Little Venice. There weren’t many shops opened on that day but we got beautiful pictures.

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On our way back to the train station, we found a quiet small shrine, which is out of the plan. The shrine was very peaceful and tranquil. It’s a good decision that we paid a short visit there.

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Discovered a new getaway spot in the city, made new friends and had lots of talk and laugh together – It has been a really good Sunday. When I need to take a break and find a peaceful place, Todoroki Valley will come up on the top of my list for sure!


by Jan. C

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Escape to a deserted island, Sarushima

We are always on the lookout for new and interesting places to visit from Tokyo, and were excited to learn about Sarushima from this article from rocketnews24.com. WOW, what a pleasant surprise!

1) A deserted, all-natural island and…
2) An atmosphere that just like the one from the famous Miyazaki animation, “Castle in the Sky – Laputa”

That’s like all things good wrapped in one bundle. Well, we just had to make a trip there! And off we did!

The island is located in Tokyo Bay, but is part of Yokosuka city. Yokosuka is known as the town of little U.S. due to the large number of US Navy bases in town. The atmosphere in this town is quite different from the typical Japanese town anywhere else!

"Navy burger" at TGI FRIDAYS...American-sized big burger!!!
“Navy burger” at TGI FRIDAYS…American-sized big burger!!!
Near by the port, there's an old battle ship, called Mishima. Now this ship is used as an exhibition.
Near by the port, there’s an old battleship, called Mishima. Now this ship is used as an exhibition.

From Mikasa port in Yokosuka, it is a short 10 minutes boat ride to Sarushima. That’s much closer than I had expected!

Escape to the deserted island.. only 10 minutes away! :P
Escape to the deserted island.. only 10 minutes away! 😛
As read on the Internet, the atmosphere on the island is exactly what I imagined Laputa to be like!
As read on the Internet, the atmosphere on the island is exactly what I imagined Laputa to be like!

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It took us about 1-2 hours to walk around the island. Pretty good for some easy hiking!
It took us about 1-2 hours to walk around the island. Pretty good for some easy hiking!

Even though it is just another Sunday, discovering a new place and meeting and laughing with friends from all over the world made a perfect holiday for me. It was relaxing to get out of the city and enjoy the timelessness of the forests of Sarushima.

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And apparently, I heard that it is possible for us to have a barbecue in summer… Isn’t that a great reason for us to go back again? 😛


by Tammy Fukaya

 

Exploring Nokogiriyama and the largest Buddha in Japan

Contrary to popular belief, the largest Buddha is not located in Kamakura or Nara, but in Chiba.

After meeting at the train station at 8am, we headed over to Kurihama station, which took about an hour. From there, we took a ferry across the Tokyo Bay, which took us to the Boso peninsula. We opted to take the ropeway up and down the mountain, rather than to risk getting lost.

Traveling in a tiny cable car was exhilarating and kind of scary! We were stuffed in a box but the views were worth it. We were up that mountain in a matter of minutes.

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Even with the cable car, the path was mostly uphill, with more stairs than I cared for. But we stopped by the visitor center to grab a traditional Japanese meal and set off. The first path took us to a 30m high wall carving of Kannon, named Hyakushyaku. We got a nice tourist take a group picture, but unfortunately the head of the statue got cut off in the shot.

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Next, we made our way towards Nokogiriyama, or Saw Mountain, named after its profile that protrudes out of the mountain.

Though a bit cloudy to see Mount Fuji, this area did allow us to view panoramic views of the bay.

On the way to the Daibutsu, we came across hundreds of hand carved arhats. Surprisingly, many had different poses and facial expressions.

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Finally! We reached the Daihbutsu.

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Japan’s largest pre-modern Buddha, nearly double the size of large Buddhas in Nara and Kamakura

A bunch of us also bought charms and darumasan at a nearby vendor.

On our way back, we wandered around the beach.

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All in all, visiting Nokogiriyama was a nice getaway from the city. Though a bit confusing to explore, good company and the spectacular views made it a wonderful adventure.


 

By Erika

4 days in Hakuba for the non-skiier!

Winter time, and some of us are thinking of ways to spend the short and cold days. If you are into winter sports, there are plenty of ski-grounds you can visit on a day or weekend trip!

Hakuba, in Nagano prefecture, is a ski village in the Japanese Alps, famous for its powder snow! It served as the site for the 1998 Winter Olympics. Today, it is a popular ski village, offering many options in the numerous ski resorts! It is easily accessible from Tokyo via a direct bus. It may not be the most comfortable option, but it is economical and saves you the hassle of having to change trains. If you are on the JR Pass, you may consider taking the train to Nagano or Matsumoto before changing to a bus or local train respectively.

Be greeted by the beautiful snow mountains of Hakuba the moment you step out of the station.
Be greeted by the beautiful snow mountains of Hakuba the moment you step out of the station.

So, now you may be thinking, if you don’t snowboard or ski, there is probably not much in store for you. Well, if you are looking for a short getaway from the city, here’s our suggestion of what you can do in Hakuba!

Day 1: Tokyo – Hakuba 

Set off early in the morning and catch the highway bus bound for Hakuba. Notice the change in scenery as you leave behind the city and its skyscrapers onto the highway, and finally into winter wonderland.

The ride is about 5 hours and depending on when you leave, you may be able to squeeze in a night ski session if you are interested. If not, have a wander about town. There are several night shuttle buses that take you to different parts of town.

The night lights at Echoland
The night lights at Echoland

Happo Town: One of the most popular accommodation option, this area is situated at the foot of Happo One Ski Resort. There are many accommodation, restaurants, shops and a Lawson convenient store within walking distance. The visitor’s center is also in the area. Probably the most happening part of town.

Wadano: Right next to Happo Town, this area also has a fair share of restaurants and accommodation, especially for skiiers heading to Happo One. There are a few onsens in the area.

Echoland: Located a little further, in a quieter area of town. It is about 10 mins ride away from both the station and Happo Town. There are a handful of restaurants in the area, as well as an onsen.

Day 2: Hit the slopes! 

Let's go skiing!
Let’s go skiing!
It doesn't take a pro to be able to appreciate this beautiful surroundings! (And it's on the beginner's course, I swear!)
It doesn’t take a pro to be able to appreciate this beautiful surroundings! (And it’s on the beginner’s course, I swear!)

Well, the truth is you can’t say you’ve been to Hakuba if you ain’t gonna try skiing or snowboarding! Most accommodations can help you with rental gears and wear, and there are free shuttle buses to the ski grounds. Alternatively, you can also do the rental from the ski grounds. There are also plenty of ski schools offering lessons (both group and private) in English, so fret not!

We recommend Hakuba Goryu + Hakuba 47 for beginners! You can get a day-pass for both ski resorts and they are connected by bus and by the chair-lifts. Don’t forget to take the gondola up to the restaurant at the top for lunch with a magnificent view!

Day 3: Snow Monkey + Zenkoji, Nagano 

This seems to be a popular side-trip for visitors staying in Hakuba. There are many tour operators running bus tours from Hakuba to the snow monkey park and Zenkoji temple in Nagano. Alternatively, you can also hire a taxi for the day. Generally it should be about 10,000yen per person.

Even the monkeys are cuddling for some warmth!
Even the monkeys are cuddling for some warmth!
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The monkeys enjoying their soak in the hot spring.
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Mama Monkey enjoying her time with the kids.

As touted in the advertisements, the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is the only place in the world where you can see wild monkeys bathing in pure hot spring water. Indeed, I have to agree that the monkeys are irresistibly adorable and human-like in their behavior and watching them having a good time in the hot spring makes me want to jump into one too (not to mention the cold weather)! There are about 200 monkeys living in the mountain and the souvenir shop at the entrance has lots of interesting trivial about them. Most of the bus tours from Hakuba will arrive at around 10:00~11:00, so if you want to avoid the hoard of tourist, it’s best to go around lunch time!

Zenkoji Temple, looking very grand from outside.
Zenkoji Temple, looking very grand from outside.
A series of Daruma for the New Year at Zenkoji Temple.
A series of Daruma for the New Year at Zenkoji Temple.

Another sightseeing spot that is often paired with the monkey park is the Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, one of the most important and popular temples in Japan. Unlike other temples, you will notice that Zenkoji has very luxurious ornaments. But the most interesting thing about this temple is that there is an underground chamber  in which you have to walk in darkness in search for the “key to paradise” along the passage.

Outside, there is a shopping street leading up to the temple where you can find many souvenir shops and restaurants selling local cuisine like soba noodles and oyaki dumplings.

Day 4: Snowshoeing and other snow activities! 

Back in Hakuba, it’s time to try out other snow / winter activities. Even if you are not inclined to going down the slopes at fast speed, you may develop a liking for hanging out in the soft powder snow of Hakuba.

Snowshoe equipment. Checked.
Snowshoe equipment. Checked.
Snowshoeing through the forest on soft virgin snow.
Snowshoeing through the forest on soft virgin snow.

Guesthouses and ski schools or operators can arrange for activities such as snowshoeing or snow-mobile rides, with equipment provided. Snowshoeing usually involves taking the gondola up to the mountain top and walking through the forest and pristine snow to a look-out point with a panoramic view of the surroundings. The guide may also explain to you about the animal tracks or activities, and offer you a mug of nice warm hot chocolate.

A breathtaking view awaits you at the end of the snowshoeing hike
A breathtaking view awaits you at the end of the snowshoeing hike.

For the more adventurous, you may want to go on the snow mobiles or snowrafting for some speed and thrill.  There will be a safety brief and a quick introduction to the basics of driving a snow mobile. Riders can then choose from a variety of courses, whether through the trees, or on wide open snow fields.

End the day with a nice soak in one of the many open-air hot springs in Hakuba town, enjoying your last night in winter wonderland Hakuba.

Be amazed by the beauty of snow-white Hakuba
Be amazed by the beauty of snow-white Hakuba

Sagicho Festival at Oiso, Kanagawa

We were going to Oiso on January 11th 2015 to see a Sagicho Festival 左義長 or Dondo Yaki どんど焼き  (a kind of bonfire festival) that was held on Oiso Beach in Kanagawa. We met at Shinagawa station and went by the 3pm train to Oiso Station. The beach weren’t so far from the station (about 15 minutes walk) and nearby the beach entrance, we were greeted by locals with some soup and snacks to warm up our bodies. As it was near the beach, it was really windy and cold for most of us! According to the locals, this is the first time they have seen foreigners at this event! They were just as surprised to see us, as we were to visit this secret festival! We felt really honoured to be there!

At 6pm, we started to heard to the beach. There were many pyramid-like structures made from grass and decorated with lucky charms from the past year. The locals will bring their old charms from the previous year and decorate it here over the new year. We waited there until they lit the fire to the structures. We were given mochi (rice cakes) to on long bamboo sticks which we can use to BBQ the mochi around the fire. Just imagine, instead of marshmallows, we were BBQ-ing mochi. It was the first time for most of us and it was fun!  It seemed like a pretty small-scale festival, and there were not many food stalls unlike the other big festivals. There were only 3 yatai (food stalls) but it was the locals’ hospitality and warmth that completed the festive mood!

The real fun began when the festival started. With the fire, it became pretty warm (of course) and there were so many people gathering around to pray and to join in the festival. After the fire was kindled, some men wearing only the traditional loin cloth went into the water to do pull some kind of rope, which I think was attached to the mikoshi (portable shrines that are common in traditional religious festival). When they are done, they head back to the shore, singing and drinking sake. It was a pretty interesting sight to behold! I cannot imagine how they actually withstand the cold weather and water!

That’s pretty much what happened in the festival. It was hard for us to really understand the background and history since all the information are only in Japanese and the locals couldn’t speak English. Nevertheless, it was one of those times when experience transcends the language barrier. Just being there, experiencing the festival, interacting with the locals and taking it all in was really fun!
Here are some photos of our journey ☺

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By Marco TJ.

The many faces of Tokyo

Everyone’s image of Tokyo is that big metropolitan city, sky-scrappers, anime town, insanely-crowded scramble crossing, shopping, eating, partying… Over the weekend, we embarked on a trip like no others before! We had boarded the JR Yamanote Line, the famous loop line that goes around city, and explored the city in depth! We plunged into the quiet residential neighborhoods, walked down the narrow streets, peered into tiny little shops, went into the enclaves and experienced a different side of Tokyo!

We bought the JR Tokunai Pass which cost only 750 yen and gives you unlimited rides on the Yamanote line, making it a cheap and fun way to explore the city! So off we go!

Here is a map from JR East, with recommended attractions along the Yamanote Line.
Here is a map from JR East, with recommended attractions along the Yamanote Line. Reading on, you may noticed that we didn’t visit any of the above places at all, with the exception of Harajuku, where we went with the sole purpose to search for Japanese youths in the Coming-of-Age kimonos.
Off we go!
Off we go!

Station #1: Nippori Station

This area is said to be reminiscent of the old Tokyo, with its narrow streets, old houses, shrines and temples. We arrived at 9:30am, a little too early for the shops, but we could enjoy walking down the quiet narrow streets, something different from the hustle and bustle of the big city. We walked down Yanaka Ginza Shopping Street, which was lined with shops and bakeries.

Walking down the narrow street of Yanaka Ginza Shopping St.
Walking down the narrow street of Yanaka Ginza Shopping St.
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It’s quite rare to find a shop selling items from bamboo-weaving!
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This little shop customizes the hanko, the stamp bearing your last name, with cute little characters!
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Nippori is also famous for its stray cats.. Perhaps that explains this cat-themed shop?
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Notice how this bakery claims that their oven “is made of volcanic rock from Mt. Fuji”? Now, that’s got my curiosity!
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Another shop selling beautiful Japanese crockery
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A tiny little temple (shrine?) found along the streets, wedged between two houses. It’s quite rare to see such temple in the big city!

Station 2: Ueno / Okachimachi 

With the shops beginning to open for business, we left behind quiet little Nippori and headed to Ueno, where we walked along the tracks to Okachimachi. Along this stretch is the famous Ameyoko-cho, which was bustling with shoppers. There is a strange combination of shops… Don’t be surprised to find the fresh seafood stand next to the the handbag bargain shop, where everything goes for ¥3,000, or the kebab stand next to the sportswear shop. It seems like there is a shop for everyone!

A vast difference from Nippori, this area is bustling with activity! The maze of shops should be able to keep the shopper in you entertained for an hour or two!
A vast difference from Nippori, this area is bustling with activity! The maze of shops should be able to keep the shopper in you entertained for an hour or two!
Kebab shop with the aroma of roasted meat
Kebab shop with the aroma of roasted meat
You can also find shops selling dried products...
You can also find shops selling dried products…
All kinds of fresh seafood!
Or all kinds of fresh seafood!
And if you are hungry, you can choose to have some seafood on the spot!
And if you are hungry, you can choose to have some seafood on the spot!

Station 3: Harajuku 

We went halfway round the Yamanote Line to Harajuku.. not in search for fancy cosplay or the latest fashion trend in Tokyo, but in hopes of seeing some of the youths from the Coming-of-Age ceremony at the Meiji Shrine. The vibes from the temple grounds seem to be a world’s different from the busy Takenoshita-Dori on Harajuku, famous for its crepe stands, shops filled with Tokyo fashion, and cosplayers. It seems like a really strange juxtaposition to have the temple and shopping street right next to each other.. but I had to remind myself that anything is possible in Japan!

The Meiji Shrine is busy with people praying for the New Year! We joined in too to receive our blessings. ^_^
The Meiji Shrine is busy with people praying for the New Year! I joined in too to receive our blessings. ^_^
Entrance to the Meiji Shrine, with New Year blessings.
Entrance to the Meiji Shrine, with New Year blessings.
On the way to the Shrine, we see these lanterns, sake and wine barrels donated by various companies for the new year!
On the way to the Shrine, we see these lanterns, sake and wine barrels donated by various companies for the new year!
Beautiful young ladies clad in the Furisoude (long-sleeved kimono) for the Coming-of-Age Ceremony. Congratulations!
Beautiful young ladies clad in the Furisoude (long-sleeved kimono) for the Coming-of-Age Ceremony. Congratulations! (Photo courtesy of Neelu.) 
We also chanced upon a wedding ceremony in the shrine! How lucky!
We also chanced upon a wedding ceremony in the shrine! How lucky! (Photo courtesy of Neelu.) 

Station 4: Takadanobaba

We headed to Takadanobaba, an area populated by the students of Waseda University.  Walking along the streets, I noticed that the roads here are wider, compared to Nippori and Ameyoko-cho. The shops are also busier, with restaurants catering to the student population.

As it was a public holiday, we couldn’t go to the university canteen for lunch. However, we did find many small shops with relatively cheap food for lunch!

Walking along the wider and newer Waseda Dori, the street leading to Takadanobaba Station.
Walking along the wider and newer Waseda Dori, the street leading to Takadanobaba Station.
We settled for Monjayaki and Okonomiyaki for lunch in a small shop called Mu no Shison
We settled for Monjayaki and Okonomiyaki for lunch in a small shop called Mu no Shison
Our okonomiyaki after it's done!
Our okonomiyaki after it’s done! (Photo courtesy of Neelu.)

Station 5: Sugamo

Also known as the Harajuku of old grannies, this area is known for its shops catering to the older generation. Here you can find the famous Aka-Pants (red underwear) shop, meant to bring good fortune to the wearer! Also, there are plenty of traditional Japanese snacks, such as the Shio-Daifuku, a salted mochi.

The entrance to Jizo-Dori shopping street.
The entrance to Jizo-Dori shopping street.
A temple outside Jizo-Dori, dedicated to the 6 Jizos... I'm not quite sure about the history.. >_<
A temple outside Jizo-Dori, dedicated to the 6 Jizos… I’m not quite sure about the history.. >_<
Can you make a guess what this is???  So... it turns out that the mascot for this area is Sugamon, a duck named after the area. And it is said that if you touch Sugamon's butt, it will bring you and your family blessings and good health! So... instead of having people chase after Sugamon, they have encased Sugamon's butt here for everyone! How... strange!
Can you make a guess what this is???
So… it turns out that the mascot for this area is Sugamon, a duck named after the area. And it is said that if you touch Sugamon’s butt, it will bring you and your family blessings and good health! So… instead of having people chase after Sugamon, they have encased Sugamon’s butt here for everyone! How… strange!
Bringing in the new year!
Bringing in the new year!
The famous Aka-Pants shop!
The famous Aka-Pants shop!
Handmade Japanese snacks
Handmade Japanese snacks
Shio-Daifuku (Salted mochi..?)
Shio-Daifuku (Salted mochi..?)
Kokeshi (Japanese dolls)
Kokeshi (Japanese dolls)
Traditional umbrella shop
Traditional umbrella shop

Station 6: Shin-Okubo 

Stepping out of Shin-Okubo station, I had to do a double-take as it felt like I was in Korea! Known as Little Korea, the street was lined with shops selling K-pop merchandise, Korean cosmetics and Korean restaurants! And we could also hear the passers-by speaking Korean. It certainly felt different from the usual Japanese neighbourhood!

Wide streets of Shin-Okubo lined with Korean shops!
Wide streets of Shin-Okubo lined with Korean shops!
You can find all sorts of Korea-related shops here!
You can find all sorts of Korea-related shops here!
Countless K-pop celebrities merchandise!
Countless K-pop celebrities merchandise!
We ended the day with a meal at the Korean restaurant, served by Korean staff. Definitely feels like we are in Korea!
We ended the day with a meal at the Korean restaurant, served by Korean staff. Definitely feels like we are in Korea!

Although we only covered 6 out of the 29 stations, it was interesting and insightful to see a different side of Tokyo! I’ve always believed that walking is the best way to explore the city and what better way than to start with the neighbourhoods along the Yamanote Line?

Thanks to everyone who stayed with me from the beginning to the end! It was a great day!
Thanks to everyone who stayed with me from the beginning to the end! It was a great day! (Photo courtesy of Amani.)

 

The World of Ramen and Cup Noodles

A few weeks ago, we visited the Cup Noodles Museum and Ramen Musuem in Yokohama. To get there, it is just a short 30 minutes train ride from Tokyo city to Minato Mirai Station, followed by a short walk through neighboring attractions such as the World Porters Shopping center and Cosmoworld.

First stop, Nissin Cup Noodles Museum! Nissin is a famous household brand, not only in Japan but also in many Asian countries! Over the years, Nissin has come up with many different flavours, including Tom Yam, Clam Chowder, Cheese Curry, Chicken Gratin.. and the list just gets whackier!

This is just a portion of all the products Niisin has made!
This is just a portion of all the products Niisin has made!
The History of Nissin
The History of Nissin

Though small, the Cup Noodles Museum was a fun and slightly inspirational. The museum explains founder Momofuku Ando’s experiences and troubles before the success of the cup noodles. And as we all know, the revolutionary 3-minute cup noodles is a part and parcel of everyone’s lives – as a late-night supper, post-drinking snack, a quick lunch, or just a comfort food that reminds us of the typical Asian noodle soup!

Immensely satisfied with our packs of cup noodles!
Immensely satisfied with our packs of cup noodles!

Of course, making our own personalized cup noodles was the best part of the trip. It costs an additional 500 yen, but we could make our own cup noodle from scratch, design the “cup” and take it home… to eat (although it seems like such a shame to eat this truly only-one-in-the-world ramen >_<)! There’s also a food court on the fourth floor, with yummy noodles from all over Asia.

Ta-Dah!!! Our creation!
Ta-Dah!!! Our creation!

Next, we headed over to the Ramen Museum in Shinyokohama. The interior is made to look like Japan during the Showa period. It provides pretty interesting information about the history of ramen and how different ramen originates from different areas in Japan! At the end, there are about 7 shops where you can try the different kinds of ramen!

Piping hot bowl of Ramen to end the day!
Piping hot bowl of Ramen to end the day!
This is definitely the trip for ramen-lovers!
This is definitely the trip for ramen-lovers!

By Erika Ozaki