I sleepily blinked my eyes open as the sound of zipping suitcases and footsteps surged into my ears.
“Get up, today is a big day.”
I grumbled with great disgruntlement, threw my blanket off my body, rubbed my eyes, and dragged myself to the bathroom.
And then I froze.
Japan. I’m going to Japan.
I squealed with excitement from the inside; euphoria itself shook me wide awake.
I walked up the passenger tunnel into the airplane, pulling my navy blue luggage behind me while bouncing up and down behind the rest of my family.
It was the nine of us, about to experience the same amazing things, about to explore the same breath-taking country together. My mother’s brother’s family of four, my own family of four, and my aunt.
The nine of us.
“Welcome to Narita Airport. We hope that you enjoy your stay in Tokyo,” greeted the friendly voice over the airport’s intercom. However, the large capitol of Japan was not our first stop.
We were heading somewhere a bit of a distance away from Tokyo.
And we wanted to go there as quickly as possible.
And what do you do when you want to get somewhere quickly?
You go as fast as a bullet.
Shinkansen; Bullet Train
It felt spectacularly normal inside the train for something travelling at 320 km/h. Even my dad’s car travelling at 80 km/h wishes that it could present half of the comfort the bullet train provides.
Well, not per se “as fast as a bullet”, but this high-speed monster machine is so reliable for its commuters, the average delay for a Shinkansen is only 36 seconds. International regulations state that something travelling this fast will only be considered delayed if the delay lasts more than 10 minutes.
Oh gosh. It was already ten o’clock, but all was worthwhile when we were greeted with this spectacle immediately after stepping out from the station.
The frost bite bit and the cold winds wounded our skin, so we scrambled into our hotel, which so strategically happened to be directly beneath the Kyoto Tower and 5 minutes away from the nearest train station. Oh, clever mom.
The lack of food places at midnight astonished us and was frankly quite eerie, given our pampered upbringing in a food-filled country. The cruel weather had forced locals back into the warm confines of the indoors, and lone leaves tumbled across the empty square in front of the station.
5 o’clock in the late afternoon and most food places had begun closing for the day as darkness began to fall, so we searched high and low and eventually found a dinky little smoking bar in which we found a room for ourselves to degust delicious Japanese cuisine in.
“I’m bunking in early,” my father moaned as he flopped lazily onto his bed upon entering the hotel room.
“So am I,” my mother groaned at the same pitch as my father.
“Japan,” I squealed excitedly, camcorder in my hand as I recorded everything and anything there was to record.
7 a.m. and we were all gathered down in the hotel lobby, unused to the earliness of the morning. This could be inferred from the way we were yawning drowsily and stretching our limbs.
We boarded the packed subway and breezed past scenes of city life and old Japanese buildings.
We stumbled out of the train station and walked a bit of a distance up a gently sloping hill.
On the way up to our destination we witnessed rickety rickshaws, more ancient Japanese houses, but those were merely specks along the road compared to the marvel we were about to see.
This is what we came for.
Kiyomizu-dera; An independent Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto.
Metal bolts lined the firm wooden pillars as hundreds flocked to the popular site for praying and sightseeing. A view of the entire city of Kyoto was to be witnessed as well as pilgrims and geishas standing in front of the ash wells and statues to pray. Autumn leaves, swaying as the wind made them to, were brilliant splashes of colour against the hillside.
It felt somewhat satisfying and remotely exciting to be contiguous with these legendary women of Japan; the very symbol of Nippon, one of the few links that reaches down into canonical, legitimate Japanese culture.
The thing about Kyoto, is that it is heavily cultural and a centrepiece for scenery. Aside from being a bustling city, it offers a bountiful piece of culture and raw, untouched tradition.
Geisha; Traditional Japanese female entertainers who act as hostesses and whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music, dance, games and conversation.
Conversation is a Japanese art? So do they entertain people purely using conversation? Because that is a skill worth having right there.
Once satisfied with our devouring of the scenery and landscape, we proceeded down the same long winding road and took the train once more to the next stop in our eleven-day itinerary.
Fushimi-Inari Taisha; The head shrine of Inari, located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto.
The foxes guarding each progressing entrance deeper and deeper into the grounds are regarded as messengers, and mostly carry keys as an attribute of their role in the shrines.
Kitsune; The Japanese word for fox. Foxes are a common subject of Japanese folklore.
I grasped my camcorder in my hand and tried to take all of it in – the seamless blend of nature with shrine, and the glorious blend of the red paint of the wood and the warmly-coloured leaves of autumn trees.
Torii; a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto Shrine.
My dad and my mother’s brother, the two professional photographers for the trip, had their fingers clicking away on their camera triggers as they adjusted their zooms to fit the large gates, shrines, statues and trickles of nature. Photography was their métier, after all.
We followed the neat stone paths and arrived at the picturesque, postcard-ready torii path leading up to the inner shrine.
The rows and rows of endless red posts astounded us as we walked through the tunnel of torii. Hierograms were etched at the corners of the posts, two-word inscriptions that symbolized fortune and safekeeping.
So much time and dedication was thrown in to the construction of Fushimi-Inari, building all those beautiful gates in such perfect symmetry. It made me stand back and wonder how much patience the builders of the place must have had, and how much tangible history Japan had to offer.
We walked quite a long stretch and ended up at the inner shrine, a place where people could buy different good luck charms and look at all the different kitsune statues all around. It was a real co-existing complement, for ancient religion, nature and architecture to work in such harmony to provide pleasure for people who might not even believe in any one of the three.
We thought we had seen it all at Fushimi-Inari, the gates and shrines, but once again it had proved us wrong, very wrong. For along the exit route from the inner shrine back to the entrance, exotic autumn trees branched out along the paths to greet us and serene water features graced our coming.
With great reluctance and hesitation, we boarded the train back to Kyoto.
It became crepuscule and as we exited the train station, we couldn’t believe that we’d been as blind as to miss out on all that the mega train station was. Eleven stories worth of escalators shooting up into an almost continuous moving flight of stairs, and a giant Christmas tree towering over all the passing commuters.
Those eleven stories contained department stores and food outlets, as well as little convenience stores and other entertainment shops. Half-starving and half-exhausted, we parted ways for the moment to find food. Grumbling and stumbling, my family collapsed in a humble food shop and ordered the first thing on the menu: beef bowls.
The restaurant had raw eggs for you to crack open into a bowl and dip your beef in, and honestly speaking, I wasn’t quite sure why nobody by far had told me of this revolutionary method of beef consumption.
Satisfied and slightly bloated, we bumbled our way back to the hotel.
“You’ll get that bike, it’s for kids,” my mother told my youngest cousin as we all saddled up onto our bicycles.
We rode on through the small alleys and side roads that winded through the houses and retail blocks. It seemed that not all of us were competent in bike-riding, and so we had not too few inconvenient stops along the way to our next stop. But hey, explorers travel in more ways than one.
Sunlight shone down in narrow slivers between the talk stalks of bamboo as we rode on slowly through the grove. The bamboo leaves formed a thin canopy above our heads and swayed ever so slightly in the gentle caressing wind.
There were little ingots of interesting things through the grove, like little houses, tiny shrines and small businesses, tiny things dotting the landscape; vibrant, intricate details.
I tried to inhale as much of it as possible, to absorb it all in; the atmosphere, the sounds, the sights, the smells – all of it. To feel at one with my surroundings and see it from every different angle, unlike taking a picture – a two-dimensional singularity limited to the four corners of the frame. I wanted something more – a sensory memory worth a million years.
The persimmons burst forth their sweet juices once you broke their skin; they were ripe and freshly plucked from the persimmon trees in the surrounding area. We paused along the pavement to devour the literal fruits of farmers’ work.
These are a whole different classification of what we call a ‘geisha’. These spend hours just getting their hair up into perfect shape, to cake their faces with white powder and special lipstick, as well as donning on their hand-woven costumes. They are the modern ancestors of geisha.
We watched a bunch of elderly folk play lawn golf on the sandy floor of the playground. They had wrinkled eye smiles, thin and distinguished, careworn but not unkind, seeking a recreation to fill up their retirement time by smacking little wooden balls with mallets into little hula hoops. After goofing around on see-saws and swings, we cycled on back into the bamboo grove and tried the other bend in the three-way junction.
“What’s that?” “What?” “In that tree over there.”
A tiny quiet café defied the rules of entrepreneurship by tucking itself inconveniently out of sight from tourists. Little dolls sat in different poses on trees, playing with each other or sitting alone between tree branches, like decorations of a secret garden. “We have fruit cake, and latté, and pizza.” Our stomachs were growling by then, so we thought, why not? The ambience was pleasant anyway.
The whole place felt quite surreal, like a dreamy garden-café where no one could watch us, where the birds twittered around bamboo trees and little lily pads drifted on a pond nearby.
“Do you think we should go in?” On a post standing next to the ticketing counter a jumble of mandarin characters and Japanese ones were engraved, declaring the name of the area proudly in a neat font. “Why not? Cycled all the way in, I don’t expect to come here to be disappointed.” We weren’t disappointed.
Tenryū-ji; The head temple of the Tenryū branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Also unquestionably beautiful.
From a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Tenryū-ji’s abundance and its intimacy with the colours of the sun constantly bring forth technicolor of natural harmony and undisturbed peace. The ducks waddling far off in the pond under the shade of the trees hummed along to the sound of water trickling into the pond from a small stream. The pictures speak for me, and serve as a constant staggering reminder of the beauty that Mother Earth has bestowed to mankind.
We returned our bikes to our rental shop (for they were due) and made our way to the famed Iwatayama Monkey Park down the shopping street, crossing the also famous Togetsukyo Bridge on the way.
Arashiyama Monkī Pāku; a commercial park, specializing in public monkey observation, located in Arashiyama in Kyoto, Japan.
Monkeys, like humans, are suspected heavily in the science community to be our relatives in our biological classification. They have highly developed brains and are known to socialise a lot like humans do.
To have the level of physical interaction that the monkey park provides between human and monkey is a thrilling sensation. The danger of the beast attacking you and the curiosity of something that is so brilliantly smart for an animal – perks the mind of someone visiting the park.
Tired and hungry, we roamed the shopping street of Arashiyama and found a disappointing selection of food stalls. Most, if not all of them, were selling traditional matcha ice-cream. After combing through a kilometre of the street, we found a spangly little restaurant nestled between two other shophouses.
On the same trains that brought us to Arashiyama, we headed back to Kyoto station. Bearing ample time left to spend, we decided to take a good look of the city from Kyoto tower.
Through the freely provided high-power binoculars that stood at regular intervals around the observatory, we had a good look up close and from far into the lives of the Japanese through the eyes of an eagle. Peering into the homes of unsuspecting people doing things like having home-cooked dinner or watching television gave us a chock-full more insight into a Japanese’s everyday life. As solid proof of our being there, we snapped a few photoshoot-worthy shots of ourselves with the whole of Kyoto behind us.
Early in the morning and the city is already astir. Office workers in unchanging black suits bustle around, slipping their little black briefcases into taxis or cars as they hurry off to work diligently. High school students, with headphones thrown over their ears and slick jackets to mask their uniforms, scamper into the trains zooming in and out of the platforms. Already neon lights are flickering on to illuminate dim passageways, making way for the dawn of a new day in the city.
Luggage wheels bounced up and down over tiles.
I rubbed my eyes and stretched my legs.
The train popped in and out of dark tunnels like a child playing peek-a-boo, and zoomed across rails winding in between apartments and other tall buildings.
We crossed the Osaka border a bit before noon.
Kaiyukan; An aquarium located in the ward of Minato in Osaka, Japan, near Osaka Bay.
The cruise and museum tickets came in a promotional package, and we decided, why not?
Because the cruise was already preparing to leave the harbour.
Our footsteps thundered up the gangway as we boarded the masterpiece of a cruise ship, the Santa Maria. The ship’s course was set for a loop around the stunning Osaka Bay, where famous bridges towered over all as we sailed below them.
My cousin and I ducked below glorious masts and ran across the poop decks and scurried down spiralling stairways and twisting hallways, combing through the ship furiously, exploring everything. Intricate and meticulously little details like cannons and minor state flags were hidden all over.
We ascended a particularly narrow staircase that people were hurrying up and down from. When we pushed our way and ended up at the top, we were positively chilled to the bone. Strong bellowing winds mixed with the cold air froze our cheeks and left us frosted.
We were standing at the bow of the ship, at the tip where Santa Maria sliced through the waves and the wind. The centre point of attention and the head of the ship, we felt like kings. An eyesome of the Osaka Bay stupefied us.
The ship moored by the harbour and we strolled down to the aquarium. Named as one of the largest indoor aquariums in the world with 27 tanks holding a staggering total of 10,941 tons of water, the aquarium prides itself in being one of the most visited tourist attractions in the whole of Japan.
The otters greeted us with their foul stenches but cute faces as we stopped by their habitat.
Dolphins dived deep down and resurfaced just as quickly with their jet-quick swimming.
Trainers in their wet suits and buckets of fish entered the aquarium, and the dolphins displayed a handful of tricks to the audience ogling behind the glass.
In the Amazon-themed section of the aquarium, fierce piranhas flashed their sharp sets of teeth while alligator gars glided past in the water, unblinking.
The smartness and cuteness of the sea-lions were undeniable as they obeyed every command of their trainers who also fed them little sardines as treats.
King Penguins waddled around as they puffed their shining yellow breasts, beaks held high like true royalty, besides from the fact that they were trapped behind a wall of solid acrylic glass.
The centrepiece of the Kaiyukan, the very pride and joy of the aquarium, is the monster of a tank situated in the heart of the building. It is 30 feet deep and holds 5,400 cubic metres of water and a variety of fish including manta rays, sharks, and a whale shark. Little fish swim in schools while the larger predators glide unwaveringly through the water ominously, a graceful spectacle for all to behold.
Tiny little anchovies swam around a rock endlessly as they played a never-ending game of follow the leader, and they sadly never realised that they were following themselves all this time.
In the darker and deeper part of the aquarium, little creeps and quirks greeted us in their moody tanks, barely moving as they watched humans silently. The majestic giant Japanese Spider Crab waved to us from its moody tank.
“Quickly! Tell daddy to come to the Mermaid Café now!” My mom instructed me as I bumped into her while gawking at the fish. I ran up the pathway back to where my dad had set his tripod up to take pictures, and dragged him along with me as I rushed to the Mermaid Café, situated halfway through the aquarium. “What is it?” He asked between short breaths. “I don’t know, mummy asked me to bring you there.” We stumbled into the café, wondering what all the fuss was about. Then we saw everyone, mouths ajar as they stared, stupefied by whatever was outside the window. And then we realised. Light breaking forth from the clouds, little silvers of golden ray finding every gap to shine through, a glorious sun setting on Osaka Bay. Highlighting the clouds, golden linings found their way across the edges of the clouds. Heaven decided to smile upon us that day.
We were taken aback as the aquarium offered even more for us to see. In the tropical-themed section of the building, lethargic sloths inched their way across their elaborate wooden playground as they chewed on large leaves at a rate of one snail per minute.
Four furry otter siblings zipped about their little enclosure playground as they torpedoed through their little pools and held leaves and seashells in their tiny hands. One of them fell asleep next to a glass panel, and the rest followed, stepping on one another in a furry attempt to sleep on top of the otter pile. Adorableness maximus. Spotted seals loafed lazily in their own enclosure, their little fat heads bobbing on the water surface while the rest of their bodies hovered below the water, like sleepy icebergs.
To round up our walk through the aquarium, there was a humongous ‘touch pool’ near the exit of the aquarium.
Little Whitespotted Bamboo Sharks and large Manta Rays lazed around the shallow pool as many gathered around to get a good feel of the slimy but smooth Manta Rays and the rough, hard skin of the Bamboo Sharks.
We made our way back up, stepping out of the doors of the aquarium, into the cold night’s fresh air.
Dōtonbori; A popular nightlife and entertainment area characterized by its eccentric atmosphere and large illuminated signboards, that runs along the Dōtonbori canal.
Men, women and their children walked about with long coats draped over their shoulders, speaking intimately in rapid-fire Japanese while window-shopping. Luxurious Japanese brands and other smaller local shops sold all kinds of things – bags, clothes, groceries, and most importantly – food!
We contemplated the different kinds of Japanese food we saw along Dōtonbori. And then we thought, why are we in Japan, trying beef bowls and ramen, but not even sushi? Sushi, succulent in rice wrapped with seaweed and delicious toppings to add? And so it came the decision to eat sushi for dinner.
Plates of raw salmon, salmon sushi, grilled chicken slices, beef, soft-shelled crab, noodles and other kinds of delectable sushi soon filled the two tables we occupied, and were as quickly gobbled up as they were put there. There’s nothing quite like traditional Japanese food in a traditional Japanese restaurant, and the sense of satisfaction after the consumption of artfully conjured food was immense.
The train station this morning had a little drop-by restaurant where busy commuters would quickly do a pit stop before heading off to work in the morning.
A queer machine dispensed food tickets when you inserted money, and you would then head over to the chefs where you would collect your food once ready.
Shika; Deer, ruminant mammals forming the family Cervidae. The Sika Deer found in Nara Park are native to East Asia. In Nara Prefecture, the deer are known as ‘bowing deer’, as they bow their heads before being fed special shika senbei (鹿せんべい, called “deer cookies”). However, deer bow heads to signal that they are about to headbutt.
How can one visit Osaka, without saying hi to the friendly deer in Nara Park? Lovely, graceful beings with lush brown coats grazed slowly on the fields of their sanctuary in Nara. The fawns gathered around the stags in the blissful assumption of safety. Some, when tempted, would approach you cautiously if you are holding a bag of deer cookies sold by vendors in the area. Other less-patient buck deers may ram you in the legs using their strong skulls.
Of course, we had to get a few thin deer cookies to lure the deer closer, so we could take pictures. The smaller does gathered around us warmly and nuzzled their noses against our hands as they crunched the biscuits up with crisp, gentle noises. The larger bucks, however, rudely blessed us with painful headbutts all around. We hurried out of the park once finished with our biscuits, slightly intimidated by the vicious bucks.
A tad exhausted and basically starving, the roaming tourists scoured the area for a long time in search of a decent food establishment. And alas, after about three-quarters of an hour of wandering around to no avail, we stumbled upon a neat little lunch café posted not too far from the street on which the park was situated next to.
Little hotpots of freshly steamed Japanese rice with cooked pork were placed one by one in front of us, and also bowls of fresh ramen noodles in their thick, long strands. It was unique, something completely different, and refined to satisfy even the last tastebud on one’s tongue.
It seemed that there was a bit more to Nara than just the deer, for it was a botanical and cultural sanctuary as well. Following a path that led deeper into the heart of Nara, we found a lake in the centre of which rested a beautiful pavilion, undisturbed apart from the birds that often flew there for shelter.
The sky was hastening to end the day as the sun quickly sunk down and the darker shades of blue quickly overlapped the paler ones. We took the train back the the hotel quickly, and arrived just in time for nighttime.
After a bit of a rest in the hotel, we came back out onto the streets of Osaka to explore. You see, the hotel in which we were staying in stood among malls and departmental stores with their ever-glowing neon signs. Our stomachs growling yet again, our rest stop in our hotel putting three hours between us and our lunch, we headed into a building once more to look for food.
Some of us wanted sushi, others wanted ramen; and a few of us wanted to have a beef barbecue. So in the end it was decided that we should split up into two groups: my father, mother, myself, and my cousin would visit the glorious beef place. The other five would have dinner in the ramen place.
I can’t speak much for group two, but in my opinion (and quite blatantly obviously) group one enjoyed ourselves much more.
We left satisfied, and the grins on our faces shone brighter than those of group two. With bloated stomachs and bursting belts, we rolled our way back into our hotel rooms.
We refuelled for the night and woke up with our hair tousled, yawning loudly. It was time to proceed to a new destination, with new people, sights, sounds. A new, unexplored part of Japan.
As was the usual and quickest mode of transport, we took a bullet train ride there.
Hakone; a town in Ashigarashimo District in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan.
We walked around and had our brunch in Odawara Station, the gateway to scenic Hakone and a bustling mix of people trying to catch their bus or train. Proceeding to the basement level to grab a few snacks, my mother hurried us and pointed toward a bus terminal right outside the glass sliding doors.
“We’re about to miss our bus! Hurry!”
Fate let us down this time, as we dashed through the glass sliding doors too late and saw the bus leave the terminal with a roaring engine. We sat down at the terminal, let down and slightly moody. Us children entertained ourselves with a series of hand games while the adults discussed the itinerary.
“Here it comes,” somebody said as bus 54 rolled into the terminal, half an hour later. We lugged our large suitcases up and rolled them to the back, occupying at least a third of the bus. The bus driver shouted loudly at the traffic-control officer beside and the officer pounded the side of the bus in reply. The bus drove off.
We laughed heartily about our misfortune with the bus incident on the ride to our hotel, and gawked with wide eyes and even wider mouths at the scenery that mother nature beheld in all its glory. Cascading waterfalls, rocky mountain facades, branches of pine trees sticking out into the road like long arms – I reached for my pocket to whip out my phone, to forever log my memories in a series of pictures…
To realise that I didn’t have it with me.
In a daze of confusion and silent internal panic, my hands rummaged through all the pockets of my clothes and scavenged my bags. My head turned this way and that, scouring the floor of the bus for a bright blue phone case. But alas, no result.
In less that a minute the entire bus started searching their own pockets and bags for my phone, even the middle-aged tourist couple and the two young Japanese girls I had never met in my entire life. Everyone was checking, everyone was helping. Despite the earnest efforts of everyone else, my phone was not to be found.
Pouting and leaning my head against the glass windows of the bus, the scenery was seemingly shrouded in a filter of black and white as I thought about all my lost and valuable information in my phone.
The bus rumbled to a stop not too far from our hotel, and we dragged our suitcases through the fresh, biting-cold air and into the warm, welcoming air of the hotel lobby.
In the lobby, we deposited our bags and luggage into the capable hands of the hotel staff, who would see that they got sent to our next destination for our trip before we got there, saving us the unnecessary hassle of dragging our bags everywhere we went.
Beyond the lobby, through a glass backdoor of the hotel, visitors can enter a courtyard, of which there is a rickety old dock with a pavilion for lovers, looking out into nothing less but this:
With Mount Fuji in the distance, Lake Ashi was spread out vastly and consumed all the low-lying areas between the mountains. Little boats with their triangular sails drifted slowly across the lake. Once in a while, a magnificent ship, a Hakone Sightseeing Cruise, would break the gentle waves and send much larger ones in its wake.
The biting, mint-fresh air numbed our cheeks and reminded us of nothing less than the chilly air that battled our tender skins back on the Santa Maria in Osaka. It wasn’t too long before we were forced back into the warm comfort of the hotel’s synthetically-produced atmosphere. The sun was falling behind the mountains anyway.
Something proved to us that it wasn’t all scenery and sights in the lovely state of Hakone. Food was to be had, and delicious, fresh food at that. Aesthetically pleasing, tastebud-stimulating, heartwarming food.
The restaurant across the road from our hotel was run by a single lady. At first we thought the place was closed, as we saw no one at the counter. But soon, as if on cue, the lady popped out from behind the counter, and offered us a nice, long table to sit at.
The thing about Japanese dining is that chairs aren’t always needed. Sometimes sitting comfortably on the floor whilst eating on a dining table might just be the thing for a large family dinner, or even a close, intimate gathering of souls. It really is a fascinating culture, and it really saves on the expense of chairs.
Rice bowls of tuna, salmon, eel, fish roe, sea urchin and many other sea-dwelling delicacies soon lined the table. Side dishes including pickled vegetables, chills and other little saucers of unidentified yumminess filled the remaining gaps on the table, setting the mood for a right family feast.
“I’ll take a picture of this,” I thought.
“Crap, I lost my phone,” followed quickly after.
Cryptomeria (literally “hidden parts”); A monotypic genus of conifer in the cypress family Cupressaceae. It includes only one species, Cryptomeria Japonica. It is endemic to Japan, where it is known as sugi (Japanese: 杉).
A light-hearted stroll among the towering, old, ancient trees that stand as glorious reminders of the wonders of Mother Earth was just the right start to our day.
The morning dew had already glistened the hard bark of the trees; it made the leaves shimmer, the ferns at both sides of the gravel path reached out to us.
A bit further down the avenue, across the road, was Onshihakone Park, a reserved sanctuary for nature, covering a small section of Lake Ashi. Wooden fences lined the paths where locals and tourists would walk on, beautiful small stone bridges spanning across small streams where koi and black fish darted about, lily pads providing shelter for them to hide under.
Flowers of different kinds blossomed freely, as the humble park stood in silence, listening to the birds chirp and the fish splash.
“Oh no,” breathed my mom, in a panicked, sudden spur of realisation, “The cruise! It leaves in ten minutes!”
Flustered and frankly quite bewildered, we all grabbed our bags and sent our fasters runners to the cruise to make sure that it didn’t leave without the rest of us. Sprinting along the curved road, past the hotel and onto the docks where the cruise ship was moored, we scampered up the gang plank before the ship left without us.
We seemed to have a certain reputation among ourselves for being late to sea voyages.
The ship set sail at once, gliding steadily on the surface of Lake Ashi, giving us the best views of Fuji and its surrounding mountain companions. Even the little shrines nestled on the sides of the lake seemed quaint and peaceful. Other ships sailed past slowly in greeting, their sails flapping in the wind like hands waving hi from one ship to another.
Not too far from the docks where we took the cruise was the cable car entrance, which brought us up to a dizzying height above the mountains and the dense foliage which covered the entire area in a blanket of colours ranging from green to yellow to orange to red.
We peered out the thin glass windows that separated us from the thin air outside.
Ōwakudani (lit. Great Boiling Valley); a volcanic valley with active sulphur vents and hot springs in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. It is a popular tourist site for its scenic views, volcanic activity, and especially, Kuro-tamago (黒卵, lit. “black egg”)
The peak of the mount had little steaming craters everywhere which reeked of the infamous stench of sulphur, giving off the unpleasant odour of rotten eggs. If the stench had not already made you double over, the biting frost of the mountaintop would have.
Still, Owakudani was a pleasant surprise.
Normal, uncooked eggs were dipped into the craters by local food sellers and emerged black in colour, a curious phenomenon that made us think about whether the eggs were really safe to eat. Fortunately, our growling stomachs managed to convince us to try some, and the decision to eat them was the right one.
After a hearty meal at a nearby food stall, we took a little bumbling tram down to the base of the mountain, where my mother found an “open air museum” and decided we should visit it.
At this point of time I was hesitant and very unsure about visiting a museum while on holiday. Sure, it was a “contemporary art” museum and might cater to my artistic tastes, but I felt that we really should be heading out there into the unknown instead of wandering around art pieces I could easily browse at my own viewing pleasure on the internet.
Groaning and moaning but not really showing it, I stuffed my hands into the warmth of my pullover’s pockets and trudged in with the rest.
There were pretty interesting pieces in there, I’ll have to admit. They were impressive to an extent, and the best part was that they were interactive. We went up to them and took silly pictures.
Having being slowly frozen for the trip so far, when we saw the words “Outdoor Hot Foot Bath”, we scrambled to the bath and removed our shoes and socks, and submerged our feet in. It was heavenly.
Across its spacious grounds wound pathways and artwork, bringing its open space to life with the free expression of human creativity, alive in contemporary. Chromatic blends fused with curves and edges of solids, infusing artwork into the nature of the valley.
How does human nature portray its mental confines of daily life, regardless of its unreality? Like a prisoner in jail, human nature’s instinct when it comes to the illusion of liberty is art; the true meaning of self-expression.
Hills bounced up and down around the museum, delighting in the presence of the sentimental; the intrigued.
Strangely bucolic and uniquely eerie, humanoid forms twisted their way around the gardens, my boiling pot of emotions inside me twisting with their form.
Evening dipped in with the sway of the trees and the statues came to life with the darkness, shadows dancing across the open fields. Picasso’s work stood in the glass confines of an indoor exhibit, portrayals of his attempts at letting his expressions fly free across the canvasses and ceramic works.
“Give me a museum, and I’ll fill it.” -Pablo Picasso
An enormous wooden structure occupied a circular area in the space, a dome constructed by stacks of wooden blocks. Within hid a certain surprise, the pronunciation of childhood and all its joy.
My eyes, windows to my soul, swallowed inviolable feelings expressed by the artists through their pieces, and I was touched, if nothing. I decided, as we left the museum, maybe buying the museum ticket wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Taking the tram back to the main Shinkansen interchange was easy enough, just a few stops away from where we were. From there my family decided to take the chance to go back to Odawara station where I’d lost my phone two days ago, in the off chance that we might find it. The five other explorers, my cousins’ family and my aunt, took a train straight to Tokyo where they would wait for our return.
I wasn’t feeling too optimistic on the way to Odawara, if I had to be honest. In Singapore, losing your phone meant that it was time to get a new one. No point searching endlessly for something that would have easily been nabbed by a crook looking to earn some quick cash.
But my family stood by me, and success prevailed.
“Phone? iPhone?” I asked the food seller in the basement of Odawara station. In response, she pointed eagerly to the next food stall, suggesting that we ask the seller there instead.
We did, and in turn she pointed to a large set of double doors leading to the back route of the station. In that direction we headed, a group of tourists unsure about the nature of the Japanese, but taking the risk of blind trust.
“Phone?” We asked the security officers sitting in their air-conditioned lounge in the loading bay. Their eyebrows were furrowed, eyes squinted, like they didn’t understand us. Of course they wouldn’t.
My mother whipped her phone out and used Google Translate to say, “My son is missing his blue-casing iPhone. Have you seen it anywhere?”
Immediately their eyes lit up, two officers started chatting animatedly between themselves, and one of them scurried over to a long row of drawers where he unlocked a drawer with a key.
Pulling it out, he extracted a ziplock bag, within shimmered a glint of sky blue. I believed for the first time in a long while I glimpsed the sweet sight of hope.
I teared incessantly, I could feel my cheeks become hot, my fingers quivering in excitement as I gingerly received the phone back.
“A…-Arigato…” I stammered, my eyes gleaming with the light of a billion suns. I bowed repeatedly and signed off the list of lost and found items they had, and breathed deeply. I exhaled, my worries and cares gone with my breath. I believe I just did what people call a “sigh of relief”.
The bustling, bee-lining life in Kyoto was nothing compared to the constant rushed scampering one in Tokyo. At daybreak the oiled machine routine of Tokyo’s residents started, people dashing about the train stations and bus stops, grabbing hold of every sliver of time they had.
Tsukiji Market; the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and also one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind.
We pushed past the people as we made our way to the famous Tsujiki Fish Market, a one-of-a-kind wet market that specialized in the sales of not only fresh-from-the-port fish, but also a billion other kinds of seafood.
Mussels and clams piled up into enormous mountains and octopus tentacles curled around one another as they lay in Styrofoam boxes; sea urchins and sea cucumbers were displayed by the dozens. Salmon, eel and tuna in thin slices tempted us.
Fishmongers skilfully cut away the cheeks of the scarily huge fish heads, professionally making sure no part of the fish was wasted.
We ordered bowls of rice and seafood at a nearby foodplace and ate a hearty meal. We didn’t like the sea urchin, though.
The next thing to do on our itenary was to head straight to the Shinjuku Gyoen gardens, but we overlooked one small detail: the garden doesn’t open its gates on weekends.
Improvising, my mother suggested that we should head to Shinjuku to shop instead. The shopping district was buzzing with fashionistas and teenage hipsters looking for a good style. Large departmental malls rose in tall columns everywhere, offering much within their walls.
Not much could be said about Shinjuku; it was just another shopping district, yet so distinctively atmospheric.
Night fell and we wandered around to find somewhere decent to eat. After not too long, we settled at a place with delicious beef bowls, Yoshinoya. Neatly presented with raw eggs to deep your beef in again, we tucked in.
Ueno Market; An open-air market in the Taito Ward of Tokyo, Japan, located next to Ueno Station.home to over one hundred and eighty one shops, which sell products ranging from fresh food and fish to clothing and time pieces.
Winding through alleyways and large spaces, we combed through the confusing pathways in the market, awnings stretched out far from shops at the sides of the pavement. Ranges of bags, jackets, clothes, and especially food were prevalent, and tenders of the stalls stood on chairs with megaphones, announcing the prices and varieties of their goods.
My family settled down in front of a stall selling long legs of Alaskan crab and juice meat skewers. After a long day of shopping, good food was greatly deserved, and good food was gotten.
After which we headed to a quiet reserved place just off the border of Ueno Market, passing through Shinjuku once more. Roughly made stone paths defined the rustic charm of olden Japan. A dojo stood silently off the beaten path, containment of its ancient roots to Nippon.
Kyudo (lit. Way of the Bow); the modern Japanese martial art of archery.
Where the path came to a stop further down the hill laid Shinobazu Lake in the bay, skyscrapers providing a modern contrast against nature of old; lily pads blanketed the lake surface, small black fish darted about in the water.
We wandered around Shinjuku on the way back to the hotel, and headed for a famously known Japanese retail store called Tokyu Hands.
It specializes in innovative products, ranging from custom stickers to unconventional household goods. Six stories tall, shoppers looking for a good run with their money can look forward to an endless range of products.
“Do you want to go to Disneyland?” My dad asked my mother and aunt.
“No, we’d rather stay in the hotel. Maybe walk around a bit. We’re too tired,” they replied.
So nine of the eleven explorers took the train straight to Disneyland.
Even the Disney-themed train on the way there had us amazed.
I had never been to Disneyland, you see, and the one at Tokyo was something of a miracle to me. Light-hearted orchestral music played softly in the background while mascots roamed around, taking pictures with cute little children and equally young-at-heart adults.
Cinderella’s castle stood tall and proud, the centrepiece of the park, the joy of the people. Its looming spires and strong stone walls are the icons of Disney, the trademark symbol in the opening sequence of every Disney movie.
Rides were aesthetically pleasing as the rest of the park was; a great big deal of effort was put into the design of rollercoasters and joyrides alike.
Since Christmas was the festival of that time of year, the entire park had bells, faux snow, and other Christmas decorations. Disneyland even had its own towering Christmas tree!
Queues were not much of a chore since there was so much to look at while we were waiting; little posters and quirks made waiting easier for many of us.
Even the food, albeit expensive, was great. Mickey mouse ice cream and large turkey legs filled our stomachs, and we had to wait a little while before we could take another ride.
The day parade was filled with an infectious atmosphere, one that made you want to jump up and sing and dance. Disney, oh, Disney. You never disappoint.
The best part of the whole day was the night parade. Disney characters clad in neon suits shone brightly at night, dancing and singing, bringing the park to life.
Fireworks gleamed brightly at night as they lit the night sky up, exploding across the chromatic spectrum, leaving sparkling trails behind, leaving everyone to ooh and ahh.
On the way out, the Christmas tree glowed with all the golden Christmas lights, round balls glistening with the reflections like disco. Magical and alluring, we quickly snapped a picture with it.
Contented and dizzy with happiness, we left Disneyland feeling young again.
Odaiba, the seaside bay at which our current hotel was located, had a large Ferris wheel rotating slowly on its axis, looking down at us as we explored the bay. Feeling slightly moody because we would be leaving Japan in a matter of hours, we snapped as many pictures as we could before our sweet moment of happiness could end.
Alas, the time came for the Explorers to end their magnificent expedition. We were blessed with good weather, safe travel, despite several hiccups along the way. Embracing the true Japanese spirit of indulging culture, fusing that with nature and modern technology, our exploring did the talking for us.
Who knows where our next journey might take us? Through the thick and the thin, the spirit of adventure and travel prevails, especially for the eleven Explorers.
As the famous Ernie Harwell once said,
It’s time to say goodbye, but I think goodbyes are sad and I’d much rather say hello. Hello to a new adventure.
Wong Khai Leong
Wong Chooi Ying
Wong Lai Fong
Wong Lai Peng