Japan travel log #1

During my Japan trip, I’ll be posting updates every few days, time permitting. It’s a nice way to reflect and capture some stuff going on.

Day 1

Arrived in Tokyo via Vienna & Frankfurt. First leg impacted lightly by airport personnel strike, then voluntarily bumped to alternate route.

Michelle in Vienna

Taking a first break in Vienna after we bumped flights.

Playing a game of TCP/IP with my bag that never left Berlin for the first leg, but joined me on leg 3 from Frankfurt to Tokyo. (Having watched Gattaca, In Time and just earlier an episode of the BBC version of Sherlock Holmes, I felt a strong urge to go suit shopping. Luckily, none are available on the plane.) Incredibly long travel day (26 hours, maybe?), and running on two days with about 4h sleep each. Dead on my feet. Pulling into Shinjuku Station, a small ramen shop awaits. A bowl of Tonkutso and a cold Asahi later the world looks much better; one shower in I feel alive again, just in time to jump on a late night conference call before taking a little exploratory walk around the block.

M. and I debated whether emails should be replied to, or shelved during a vacation. That said, was very happy that between the two of us we brought two laptops, two smartphones, a large array of power plugs and a LAN-to-USB mac adapter to work around the hotel’s technical restrictions.

Day 2

Kickstarting the day with a quick coffee from an impressive slow drip machine that came with a tiny cup of milk.

Slow drip

Slow drip.

Japan 2012-Shinjuku Cafe

Tiny cup is tiny.

Ran errands in Shinkuju. Of the odd shopping list, surprisingly it was particularly easy to find a quick drying travel towel, but impossible to spontaneously get a prepaid data plan. We had good recommendations — along with a headsup that the Japanese telco environment is still pretty hardcore and aimed at lock in — but even prepaid data plans need to be ordered a week in advance. Mind blown again by the length people go to to help foreigners despite the complete language barrier. Also, mildly surprised at the total lack of culture shock otherwise. Guessing it’s city thing – drop me in any major city and I’m good to go. On the country side, different rules apply.


Arriving at Mount Fuji

Jumped on a train to Fujikawaguchiko, a small town of some 26.000 population at Lake Kawaguchi (Kawaguchi-ko), one of the Fuji Five Lakes. Outside our window I can see a small street, a row of houses and — Mount Fuji. Or as he’s called in Japanese, Fuji-san. It’s a small town, and off-season. It’s still crisp here, cherry blossom is still ways off, and the town is mostly empty. Nature hasn’t crept back out of its hibernation, even though first signs of spring are there if you look closely. We’re at 800m above sea level, about 3.000m more to go to the top of Mount Fuji, which isn’t open this time of the year. Tours up there only go July through August. A long stroll across town and along the lake bring us to a small sushi restaurant where the elderly shopkeeper, upon determining that we don’t share even a bit of common language, to feed us with a mixed set of sushi, mussel soup, and green tea. Lots of nods and thankful bows later, we head back to the hotel for some shuteye.

Day 3

The weather in our little town is spectacular. It’s sunny, and the morning sky is clear. We rent bikes and ride them around Lake Kawaguchiko. Every few minutes we stop to take pictures. Mount Fuji is a fantastic, impressive sight. I imagine it just never gets old. The street around the lake is easy to ride, and along the way we stopped at a little cheese cake place. No English spoken, but some finger pointing lead us to fantastic roll cake and blueberry-orange cheesecake, or something, and a good cup of coffee out in the sun. Finishing the quick round around the lake we jumped on the cable car that in best Japanese fashion is decorated with a rabbit and potentially a beaver. My heart is beating, I can’t tell if it’s my fear of heights or something else. Up on the mountain, the viewing platform allows for the most majestic sight of Mount Fuji yet. I can only guess how beautiful it must be once all once the cherry blossom is on for real; but even with the trees free of blossom, the view is breath-taking. I’m nervous as hell. I pull Michelle aside, away from the tourists, and stammer something I can only assume was unintelligible. Then I got down on a knee and propose. My heart jumped a couple of beats I’m sure; then she said yes and I could breath again. We’re engaged.

Fuji-san, you’re the witness, I’m counting on you.


A quick hike back down and off to the onsen to soak in hot water for an hour before hunting some food. Turns out the town is small, as is the choice, and a slightly greasy looking Chinese place serves us some fantastic Szechuan mapo tofu and some drinks. Thanks again for all the nice words!

Day 4

Early on we leave for Kyoto. Two train changes and one Shinkansen ride later we get to Tokyo to a tiny Gaijin house, a room in a shared house that we just happen to have to ourselves. Exploring the city, it quickly becomes clear that Kyoto’s reputation as one of Asia’s most interesting cultural centers is well-earned. Note that with 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and tons of temples and shrines, Kyoto is one of the world’s most culturally rich cities.


Dramatic light at a temple garden


Narrow streets with wooden houses

A brief walk shows lovely old wooden buildings in narrow streets – alleys, really – and leads us to an antiques place. The things on sale? A mixed assortment of vintage, mostly European Inverness coats, hats, suitcases, figurines (Mickey Mouse from the 1930s, I’d guess?), jewelry, cups, postcards. A lovely, lovely, lovely shop, and if it weren’t for transportation and budget I would’ve loved to take home half of it. Luckily, the cult of less won’t allow that, so I’m saved and we leave with a smile on our faces.

Just around the corner we see a few hand-printed paintings, and a sign in awkward, but kinda cute English, and pop our heads in.

Ukiyo-e Meister Ichimura Mamoru

Ukiyo-e Meister Ichimura Mamoru

It’s a very small printing workshop run by the elderly Meister Ichimura Mamoru, a woodblock printer. He’s a master of the ukiyo-e art, and he shows us how he prints layers upon layers of colors until his prints are finished. Among them are quite a bunch of Hukusai‘s masterpieces, like the well-known Great Wave off Kanagawa, and many others. I’m sure Hokusai would’ve loved this, after all he spent a good deal of his life teaching others how to paint and print. The picture I got has about 10 layers of color, and I couldn’t be more happy about a piece of hand printed art that I’ve always been a fan of. (Show address on Google Maps)

Ukiyo-e Meister Ichimura Mamoru

Ukiyo-e Meister Ichimura Mamoru in his print shop.

A short walk through a temple park, and we dive into a backyard cafe, Café Opal. After sitting down on quite low chairs, we notice it’s Europe-themed, or at least Western-themed. It looks a bit like a bit more upscale version of a Berlin hipster bar, only that there are no beer-drinking hipsters with their feet up on the table. The quiche is fantastic, as is the coffee. Old town Kyoto is stunningly beautiful, that much is clear even after just a few hours. Plenty to explore over the next couple of days. For now we hunt food and get some sleep. I pretty much lost track of weekdays – the vacation is doing its magic – but tomorrow is going to be a day packed with exploring.

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