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Finding ourselves in Japan: Part 2

(Traveled while reading Phil Knight's book "Shoe Dog", which also features many trips to Japan)

After we recovered from the first few days of fun and adventure for the kids, we began our “must see” list.

Day 5: Senso-ji Temple

I love seeing places of worship, regardless of the religion.  Usually they tend to hold so much history, art and beauty of a country but also I can’t help but feel the energy shift from the consumerism of the modern world to something that’s supposed to focus more of the inner self.

On the other hand, our kids really don’t enjoy these outings and I’ve dragged them to a whole bunch of temples here in Asia.

But not everyday is going to be Disneyland, so they owe me at least one temple visit without too much complaining!

So that day we headed to Senso-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo (built in 645 AD).  Getting there was equally confusing as the rest of our trip because of signage and our general lack of direction, but after a couple wrong turns, we reached a crowd heading to the temple.

I was surprised to see so many Japanese men and women dressed in traditional clothing, hair styles, and sandals (with socks specifically designed to wear with sandals) going to the temple. This is a “functioning” temple and although I was going to see it as a visitor, many were on their way to worship and receive blessings.

The small alleys that led to the temple were lined with candied fruits on skewers, dumplings, sweet cakes, sushi, ice cream, fried treats, clothes, lucky cats, jade and there were queues everywhere we looked.  We each clocked the items that appealed to us the most and promised to come back that same way so that we could dive in more.

After going to so many temples, many of them start to feel the same, but the things that stuck out most at Senso-ji were the massive red gates (torii) that surrounded the temple, the smoke filled well that was filled with incense and seemed to cover you as you walk around the steps in the temple, along with the worshippers who seem to be trying to “catch” and rub the smoke all over their arms to receive their blessings.   

The temple was clearly a holy site, but it seemed to have less of a quiet pious feel and more of a communal gathering of families and friends, especially on the grounds right outside the temple which sold snacks at different stalls.  But the thing I’ll remember the most is the practice of taking a fortune and tying bad fortunes to these wires on a rack so that you only walk away with good fortune.  I loved that simple practice of creating a way to take the good fortune with you but that there was also a process to leave behind misfortune.  I wonder how that simple act then gets embedded into a society as a way of thinking.

After spending time at the temple, we walked back to the stalls, got some more yen (cash is still king in most parts of Japan) and partook in the yummy treats that were calling out to us.

Our next stop after this was Tokyo train station to buy our tickets to Hakuba in a few days, as we were told it’s quite busy and can be hard to navigate without missing our connections.

That was exceptionally good advice as it was incredibly large, busy and again confusing, but we capped off the day with a delicious ramen noodle lunch in the train station.  So yummy! Our feet were tired but our bellies were happy.

Day 6: Mt. Fuji

By now we were starting to feel the fatigue of being on the go everyday but at the same time, it’s hard to slow down when there was so much to see and experience.  I’m sure the kids would have preferred a couple more rest days, but this day would actually be one of the most relaxing and perhaps my favorite day.

We woke up extremely early so we would have time to eat quickly before heading on a 2 hour car ride up to Mt. Fuji.  Even though we could see the mountain clearly from our Tokyo window, it was quite a long car ride to get close to the top, so we hoped the early start would help us beat the traffic.

I absolutely loved the experience of heading up the mountain.

The juxtaposition of the last few days in the city and then in Disney, with this quiet and serene ride up the mountain felt so cleansing.  I sat myself facing a window taking the entire experience in as we headed up the mountain.

The first spot that we reached was a gorgeous little fishing village called Oshino Hakkai, that has clear springs and 8 fresh ponds.  The village still has some parts that look just as it must hundreds of years ago and we were able to see a glorious view of Mt. Fuji from there.

We got to try these glorious Japanese jumbo strawberries and grapes that had an incredible burst of intense flavor that floored us.

After a really hard time communicating my order to the coffee hut owner, I waited for quite a while to get a cup of coffee, which I think my family thought was insane  (it was just above freezing there), but it was one of the best cups of coffee and most satisfying as the owner and I both tried to communicate what we could with the language barriers.

It’s pretty amazing what is possible to communicate if both people are willing to try to get to the general area of understanding even if you never get to a precise word or sentiment.

We then traveled further up to Fujisan temple, which was a temple set in the woods below Mt Fuji.  You could feel the majesty, the peace and the beauty and understand instantly why it drew so many artists to its grounds each year.

I instantly wished that we were there in the springtime, imagining how incredible it would be to spend a long period of time walking around this temple.

We needed to keep traveling up and our next stop would be the 5th Station, which is the highest point of Mt. Fuji that you can go without climbing.  We were warned that it would be -10C at this station and our guide asked if we were prepared for that.

We said yes.

And we were not prepared.

What we quickly found out was that my little family had gone completely soft living in Singapore and we were in no way ready for that kind of wind and cold! Where were my Uggs? My hand warmers?  My thermal underwear?  We definitely needed way more layers!

Well it was too late to turn back now, so we got out to see the views and take the obligatory family pic that took so long to get right and stare in awe at the beauty before us.

After we thawed out a bit inside, we headed back down the mountain to the Fuji Five Lakes for a great sushi lunch, but since it was so cold we opted out of going boating. Couldn’t believe how many people were paddle boating on the lake in this weather but there they were.   I could barely feel my feet!

However, there was a lovely flower garden on the opposite side of the lake that touted some of the best ice cream, so my group of ice cream fanatics forgot all about the cold and we capped off the day with ice cream and a serene ride back to the city.

Day 7: A bookstore, a crosswalk and back to Ginza

Our last full day in Tokyo we decided to head to a Tsutaya Books Daikanyama, a children’s bookstore that I had read was really cool and my husband had been talking about this crazy street crossing that’s supposed to be one of the most transversed in the world.  The kids were not at ALL excited about a crosswalk, so we let the bookstore trip headline the day.

We had to go a bit further out from the city center to get to the bookstore which was in Shibuya City.  It reminded us a bit more of the suburbs with quieter smaller streets , little boutiques and stores lining the streets and we had to take a commuter train to get there since it was out of the inner subway system.

We were all delighted to get a bit of the breathing room and my daughter claimed that this is where she would live when she comes back to live in Tokyo…say what?  Yes, my 9 year old is already making her escape plans.  I knew she was an old soul the minute she was born, but this is getting ridiculous.

Anyway, we found the bookstore without too much fanfare and were instantly delighted to see all of the cool Japanese titles, games, books and magazines.  We roamed around for a bit as the kids each chose 1 item with their Christmas money from their relatives.   Once we finished there, we headed back to the shops to buy some snacks and hoped to dip into this ultra cute cafe that was completely empty beside the queue outside, but were told that they were completely booked, to which my 7 year old replied quite loudly, “how can they be booked when they are completely empty!” Oh little one, you’ll learn, you’ll learn.

So off we went to the Shubuya crossing!

Over 2300 people cross this street every 2 minutes and it isn’t just a four corner crossing like in most large cities but also has these crazy big diagonal cross walks.  So as soon as the car traffic came to a halt the real traffic began with a frenzy of people crossing in all directions.

If we were in the U.S or Europe, I would have been frightened that we would get trampled or have our wallets lifted, but this was controlled chaos at its finest. Not one person bumped into us, not one scuff of our shoes or need to jump out of the way.

Everyone did their homework and knew the assignment.

Walk like your tail was on fire but never bump into ANYONE.

I don’t know if Covid made that an even bigger must, but I was shocked to see after we crossed a couple times that we were not just fine, but how orderly the insanity was.

Our kids thought it was funny only because they were laughing at how their parents actually came all this way to walk on a CROSSWALK?!? One more piece of evidence that proved how weird we are.

Day 8: Headed to the slopes!

This was an exciting day for many reasons.  First, our kids have never gone skiing so this would be a new experience for them altogether.  We also were really looking forward to this winter activity after so many years of constant summer weather. And lastly, since my husband and I haven’t gone skiing in so long ourselves, we were looking forward to seeing how much we forgot or remembered.

The trip to Hakuba included a cab ride, bullet train, bus ride and passenger van, so we had to time everything correctly so that we didn’t miss our connections.  The hardest part of it all by far was Tokyo station.  Even with purchasing our tickets days ahead, we were completely lost when trying to find the right track going the correct way and the station was beyond packed.  We luckily found a station manager that spoke enough English to help direct us and made our train just in time.  Phew!

Once we were on the train, we couldn’t get over the luxury of the bullet train ride or the intense speed of travel.  Having never experienced this before, I felt like a little kid on their first train ride, but I didn’t care.  It was so cool.

Beyond that it felt like the best way to travel and only made me wish we had access to these in the U.S. as commonplace as it is in China and Japan.  Hopefully someday…

Anyway, once we arrived in Hakuba, we were taken to our cabin and the kids could not wait to get out into the snow.  We had to promise them they would be able to get into a snow ball fight soon as soon as we tried on all of our ski gear.

This is the part of skiing that I absolutely didn’t remember or perhaps didn’t feel as arduous when I only had to get myself ready instead of an entire family.  The getting ready process alone had me second guessing this activity…

Yet, the kids were happy because they were able to throw themselves into the snow piles, make snowmen, build mini forts and snowballs.  My son was almost shocked at how cold snow is! Smh!

Day 9: Learning to ski..

This part of the trip unfolded as many people would guess.

The kids learned the basics of how to ski pretty much in one morning.  Our daughter took to it so fast, my son took a bit more time but by the end wanted to race everyone and us adults were much less confidant after many years off the slopes and much more concern about breaking something.

I actually felt pretty good in the beginning but got spooked after a few falls.

But it’s amazing to see the sense of certainty in children, which seems to practically lift them from a complete novice to active confident participant.  My husband and I only wish we had that part of us back, but I feel we’ve seen too many bad stories and freak accidents to have that again.  All we can do now is practice and pray.

The day progressed as you would expect, with each run we gained a small percentage more of confidence in out ability to make it down, not feel as spooked or able to find another way to control our feet and posture.

Then the kids instructor gave us a quick break and broke the news to us…she thought we were ready to head down the mountain.

Umm, excuse me, come again?  Not this huge mountain right here?  Surely there is another hill that we can try.  Perhaps the one we’re already on?

Do you think we are ready? All of us?  I ask as my family looks at her with a whole lot of doubt.

So we had 2 options, wimp out and take the chair lifts back down or suspend our disbelief in our own skill sets and trust that this instructor was not going to get us killed.

It took us almost an hour and 20 minutes to get from the top down, as we skied as a group, stopped for any fall and took some much needed breaks from fatigue.  But the memory for me won’t be about how great we looked skiing down this mountain, only the fact that we all did it, regardless of how hard it was or how many times we had to stop and start.  It was the fact that we persevered and had this great accomplishment to point to anytime we think about the first time our family went skiing.

The rest of the trip was filled with hot cocoa, incredible comfort food from The Rabbit Hole, snowball fights, a hot springs experience and lots of soaking of our very tired bodies.

I don’t know if skiing will be “our thing” but it was an experience that I am looking forward to having again with this foursome.  Maybe next time snowboarding lessons!

Last moments in Tokyo

The rest of the trip went by too fast.  We were so desperate to hold onto it all but knew we’d have less than 14 hours before we took off.

Surprisingly, we arrived back to the same hotel to find that we made it just in time for high tea.  What we experienced was an explosion of strawberries in every possible way that you could consume a strawberry treat.  Sweet treats that were held together with intricate design, pink platforms that had every treat portioned perfectly for the moment, champagne wishes and caviar dreams.  These sweet and savory dishes could put any wedding to shame.   

The last order of the day would be going around the city one more time, peeking into the stores, taking in the city energy, eating a great dinner and packing up.

As we tried to get all of our things together for our flight back to Singapore, the enormity of the experiences we had during that trip settled in.   All I could feel was this immense gratitude that we were able to take the trip at all, never mind packing in so many rich experiences with two young kids.

Travel will never get old for me.  I love it so much for the experiences we have but also because I am so aware of how special it is that we are able to see, feel, hear and taste all we could within a new country.  It’s opened us all up and only made us want to see more and share our perspective with others.

Already planning for my next trip back… :)

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