Day 14 in Japan: Matsumoto to Tokyo

Our last half day in Matsumoto started with an awkward morning intrusion by the Airbnb property manager calling out “good morning” as she walked through the house, only to ask us what time we were checking out, followed by an even more awkward request for a group photo taken with her camera. When we asked for a similar photo with our camera her attempt was so half-assed and blurry it was hilarious! Delete!

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Once checked out we hunkered ourselves down at High Five Coffee Stand for our morning fix of caffeine, WiFi and Big Lebowski references?!

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With no real plans in place, besides a visit back to Chef Makoto at The Source Diner for lunch, we strolled through the former well preserved merchant district of Nakamachi with its white painted buildings.

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11:30am and it was time for a hearty dish of beef over rice. More stories, more laughs and as we had exchanged Instagram accounts the night before, even a compliment from Chef Makoto about Sarah’s yoga abilities!

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This guy right here! Thanks for making our visit to Matsumoto so memorable and unique.

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All aboard the limited express Azusa train bound for Tokyo. Our Japan rail passes were well worth the cost for the amount of travel we have done on the JR train network.

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Goodbye to the quaint calmness of rural Japan and hello to the overwhelming crowds of 13 million people in Tokyo, as we caught the local subway from Shinjuku to Shibuya: the district of our Airbnb apartment for the next 2 nights.

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Once settled in to our apartment, Andrew made it clear he was pursuing his one and only request from the trip: have a barbershop experience in Japan. It was now or never! Having previously narrowed his search down to a few barbershops, a quick exchange of text messages had us (well specifically the boys) speed walking to the nearby district of Harajuku to Wolfman Barbershop. 

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After a few moments of uncertain, potentially lost in translation waiting, the owner of Wolfman arrived back at the shop and so began Andrew’s Japan barbershop experience.

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The girls eventually caught up, found a great spot across the street to share a few beers and people watch at Deus Ex Machina, and patiently wait for Andrew and his 1.5 hour over the top grooming extravaganza. At one point I checked in on him having a full on head and facial massage! 

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A few pictures together, exchange of Instagram accounts and barbershop stickers, and Andrew settled his heavily discounted services (that barber connection you know). Now let’s go eat!

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Remember that ramen competition?! Andrew and Sarah the judges. Viola’s choice was back in Osaka. Well this was my beyond words flavorful, and equally artery clogging submission: a small ramen restaurant in Harajuku. Double the pork belly please!

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With our stomachs full of noodles, we made our way through the streets of Harajuku, picked up soft serve ice cream and ended our evening paying tribute to Hachiko: a true symbol of loyalty in Japan.

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Day 13 in Japan: Hiking Tsumago to Magome

The agenda for today: completing the 8km section of the former Nakasendo route between the historic post towns of Magome and Tsumago. Constructed in the 1600s, the Nakasendo route connected Edo (modern day Tokyo), with Kyoto and Nara.

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An hour train from Matsumoto and a short bus ride up the mountainside to bring us to our starting destination of Magome.

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Even in the middle of nowhere, in a small post town of the Kiso Valley, surrounded by deep history and culture, one can still find a hipster coffee shop: Hillbilly Coffee Co. 

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So many unique treats tempted us as we walked past the various stalls lining the main street. Rice cracker with seven spice, check! Steamed root vegetable filled sticky bun, check!

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A simple yet satisfying mushroom soba soup for lunch hit the spot.

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Fueled up, we left the tourist comforts of Magome behind and embraced the rural setting as we embarked on our hike to Tsumago.

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Entering bear country! Clang, clang, there were numerous metal bear bells along the trail, and of course I made sure to put some effort into ringing each and every one.

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A quick stop at the 250 year old tea house for a sip of warm green tea (as if we weren’t hot enough already!) and of course Viola could not resist saying hi to a furry friend.

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Halfway there! Walking the steep stone paved pathway laid centuries ago and taking in the various streams along the trek.

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Arriving in Tsumago. There was definitely a more sleepy, quiet feel to this well preserved post town.  A quick exploration of the main street and it was time to get ourselves back to Matsumoto.

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Transportation in and out of Tsumago is very limited, so when a taxi appeared at the bus stop and gave us a reasonable quote for fare back to what we thought was the main train station at Nakatsugawa, we celebrated our luck! Unfortunately a minor pronunciation difference led us the opposite direction to the small local train station where we endured a slow 2-hour train ride back to Matsumoto. The only saving grace: Andrew running across town with minutes to spare, finding a random convenience store, and stocking up on a variety of junk food for a mini-donut and fish flavored chip binge session on the train.

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Arriving back in Matsumoto with the sun already setting, Viola and I had just enough time to make our way to the Matsumoto castle for a walk around the moat and a few pictures, before meeting up with the Pyes for yet another amazing steak dinner. The beef in this region of Japan is unreal!

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Day 12 in Japan: Trains, trains, trains, Matsumoto

6:30am still half asleep, we dragged ourselves out of bed to observe the morning prayers of the monks at Shojoshin-in. That is all of us, except for one Viola, who was more than happy to abide by the “optional” clause and stay put in the warmth of her futon. Close to an hour of melodic chants, dongs, clangs, and we were back in the dining hall for another assortment of vegetarian dishes for breakfast. Today was the longest travel day on the entire trip. Train, after train, after train. 6.5 hours of trains in total to be exact, to get ourselves off of Mt. Koya and to our next destination of Matsumoto.

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“You live in Canada?! And you go to Matsumoto! To see mountains?! Bahahaha” Apparently an older Japanese couple talking with Andrew were in stitches over our next destination choice.

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This pretty much sums up our day. And yes, he slept like this for close to an hour!

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What better way to perk up a bit than a cappuccino in Osaka during a “layover” before catching the next train onwards. Did I mention that we also had our first McDonalds of the trip? Oops, I’ve said too much!

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Arriving in Matsumoto!

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Our AirBnB for the next 2 nights in a quiet residential area of town.

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By far the highlight of the day, and arguably one of the top highlights of our trip, was when we stumbled across The Source Diner for dinner and pulled up a seat at the kitchen bar. Chef and owner Makoto treated us to an amazing assortment of dishes as he prepared and cooked everything in front of us, sharing stories and laughs about his career (learning to cook on the job in NYC), life and culture in Japan versus NYC, and a bit of everything else in between.

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Day 11 in Japan: Koyasan temple stay

A 1.5 hour train ride through forests, hillsides, isolated villages and towns, a steep funicular ride up the final ascent of Mount Koya followed by a short bus ride, and we were out of the big city of Osaka and had arrived at one of the most sacred Buddhist sanctuaries in Japan: Koyasan.

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The highlight of visiting Koyasan is being able to spend a night in one of the 50+ temples that offer accommodations. Ours was the beautifully landscaped Shojoshin-in.

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Making our way to the simple yet breathtaking 3rd floor rooms, tripping all over our polished, slippery and ridiculously loose indoor slippers, at one point watching as they rolled down the stairs, we had to laugh as even the most traditional, old Buddhist temple had a touch of modern Japanese technology: a mini luggage elevator.

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Warding off full blown hangry after missing lunch by about 3 hours, the Pyes opted for a warm, hearty donburi style meal in town (and as Andrew tells me with miso soup, just what we needed), while we succumbed to the far more sophisticated cuisine of prepackaged cold noodle salads from the convenience store. Sarcasm? I don’t even know the meaning!

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A late afternoon of exploring the many temples, pagodas and torii gates of Koyasan and it was time for dinner back at Shojoshin-in. With Yukatas strapped on, we left our slippers of doom behind and made our way down to the dining hall. There we were presented with an assortment of colourful dishes full of vegetarian delights prepared by the cooking practice of Japanese Buddhist monks known as shojin ryori.

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Buddhist temple or Jedi training academy? Either way, the grounds here at our temple stay were amazing.

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A late, dark, eerie walk through the 2km cemetery path, past over 200,000 tombstones, towards Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum (founder of Koyasan and the Shingon sect of Buddhism that is said to be inside in a state of eternal meditation since year 835), with shrieking animal noises that had Viola and myself running at one moment to catch back up to Andrew and Sarah, a spider as big as my palm back in our room as we changed for bed prompting a 911 emergency text to Andrew to come save us, a thunderous hammer from the heal of his leather Wolverine boot sending multiple fragments of body and leg across our tatami mat floors disturbing the complete silence throughout the temple, yeah, no wonder I was afraid to fall asleep!

Day 10 in Japan: Travel day from Kurokawa Onsen to Osaka

An early morning soak in our onsen bath before breakfast and another soak after breakfast, we had to take advantage of every last minute! Today was going to be a long travel day as we needed to get ourselves from Kurokawa Onsen, in the southwestern part of Japan, to Osaka, in central Japan.

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Nothing like dehydrating yourself in the morning with coffee and boiling hot onsen water.

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Though not as extensive and intricate as our Kaiseki dinner last night, breakfast was still a feast. Fish, vegetables, tofu, rice, 2 types of soup, eggs cooked in onsen water; everything was placed on the table at the same time. A bit overwhelmed, our strategy was to finish one dish at a time. Baby steps.

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All packed up we had time for one last soak before checking out.

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Since first tasting them yesterday, Andrew had one thing on his mind before leaving town: cream puffs. And not just one cream puff for himself, but 2, convincing us that he’ll save one for later. Later never even stood a chance!

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Our day of travel started with an hours drive straight east to the coastal city of Beppu, where we dropped off our Toyota Roomy conveniently next to the main train station. First time driving on the opposite side of the road and no major dings, scratches or incidents. This little fella certainly fared better than our rental car in Croatia.

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All aboard the vomit maker! With hard wood floors and maroon coloured leather, this 80’s luxury blast from the past was definitely a rough, jarring ride. Thankfully after about an hour we transferred to the silky smooth shinkansen (bullet train) for the final leg of the trip to Osaka.

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Arriving at our AirBnB for a night in Osaka just in time to catch some dinner. Andrew skipped right past the I could eat and the hangry stage and went straight to the, well this:

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Our apartment was across from the popular Dotonbori street, full of restaurants, shops, side walk vendors and people. Lots of people.

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Ichiran Ramen in Osaka: Viola’s choice for best ramen in Japan from our last trip. My favorite was a ramen restaurant near Harajuku that we’ll revisit during our stay in Tokyo. Meet our 2 judges: Andrew and Sarah. No pressure guys, but there’s a lot on the line!

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Someones in a good mood even with a 30 minute lineup out the door.

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Once inside, insert your money into the machine, press the button corresponding to your broth/noodle choice, and out shoots a ticket. Then continue pressing any additional buttons corresponding to toppings such as eggs, meat, mushrooms, etc and out shoots more tickets as your money counts downs. Finally any beer? Sake? Even more tickets until your realize you just burned through all the money you inserted. Is this what playing the slots feels like, cause this was fun!?!

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All tickets collected, we moved to the waiting room where we stood in front of an illuminated board of lights indicating seats available. Once 4 green lights appeared together we made our way upstairs and found the corresponding neighbouring cubicles ready for us. That’s right, cubicles. Once seated a small screen door opens with hands reaching through to collect your tickets. 5 mins later the screen door opens again and your meal is delivered. Such a personal experience.

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Slurp, slurp, slurp … Viola was in ramen heaven. The judges were also thoroughly impressed with the rich, spicy flavour of the broth and firm, delicious noodles.

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Stuffed, satisfied and tired from a day of what became known as #trainlife, we aimlessly wandered the streets of Osaka, taking in the bright lights of the city as a group of 10+ full sized Mario Go-Karts with dressed characters ripped past us on the street. Oh Japan!

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Day 9 in Japan: Aso valley and Kurokawa Onsen

This morning we were presented with a filling Japanese style breakfast consisting of miso soup, fried fish, pickled greens and rice topped with scrambled eggs. Chi Chi also treated us to coffee brewed via the siphon technique (clearly a hobby of his as he had a small room dedicated to coffee equipment).

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Emerging from the hobbit sized door of Chi Chi and Ka Ka’s farmhouse for the last time.

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Gi Gi the dog. Very old and blind according to Chi Chi. But so darn soft and cute.

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Chi Chi and Ka Ka left each one of us a Japanese folding fan as a parting gift and were ecstatic when we posed for a picture together with our fans. Chi Chi unknowingly had his iPad set to burst photos, so combined with the several times he pressed the shutter button, he must have well over 50+ photos of us! Now he’ll never be able to forget his favorites: Sarah-san and Brad Pitt-san (Andrew).

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A final farewell to Chi Chi and Ka Ka. They hosted an unforgettable cultural experience and showered us in kindness. It was sad to say goodbye but they continued to make us laugh right to the end as they ran alongside our car shouting and waving as we pulled away from the property.

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Driving through the Kumamoto and Aso countryside we came across an odd dilapidated roadside style amusement park. Go-carts, sledding down AstroTurf hills, free range goat petting. Disneyland better take note as the competition is coming in hot!

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Our first planned stop of the day was the incredibly long staircased and equally long named Kamishikimi Kumanoza Shrine: hailed as a power spot to feel the earth’s energy and recharge the spirit.

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Our second planned stop was to visit the active crater of Mt. Aso, but continuing on with the theme of this Japan trip it was unfortunately, or thankfully for us, closed, due to high levels of noxious gases. Either the attendant at the gate informing us it was closed was drunk off his rocker, or the volcanic fumes were getting the best of him, but his face was so swollen and red it looked ready to blow!

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Our third stop was the Daikanbo lookout point with the Aso valley below and launching point for an RC glider competition taking place.

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Our final destination for the day was the onsen (hot spring) town of Kurokawa Onsen. We made a brief stop in town to sample a variety of famous treats. Andrew lost it over the fresh, crisp cream puffs, whereas I loved the mochi pancake sandwiches. Time to check in!

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Here we treated ourselves to Japanese styled tatami rooms with private onsen baths at the riverside Yamamizuki inn. The smell of sulfur was only a minor caveat as we soaked and melted away into pure relaxation with the river rushing by below us.

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6:30pm sharp, our assigned time, we entered the dinning hall and were shown to our private room with tatami mats and a massive wooden table able to accommodate at least 10 people. The first 2 courses of our traditional Japanese multi course Kaiseki dinner were already on display ready to enjoy. Almost 2 hours long, 11 courses in total, plate after plate arrived in a methodical rhythm. Vegetables, tofu, sashimi, soup, tempura, cooked fish, steak, more soup, and a dessert choice of maccha ice cream or earl grey pudding. Our yukatas (casual kimonos) that we wore to dinner were bursting at the seams!

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After dinner Viola retreated to our private onsen bath while Sarah, Andrew and myself went to our respective women only and men only public baths. The baths were large and beyond beautiful in landscaping. Large boulders, lush green areas, a waterfall and river tastefully illuminated as if glowing. And they were HOT! Seriously HOT! Without going into too much detail picture 2 modest western guys, standing barely ankle deep, butt naked (no bathing suits allowed in onsen water), covering ourselves with our hands as we suffer in pain from the heat, unable to move and go any deeper, just laughing uncontrollably at the situation …

Day 8 in Japan: Takachiho and the ceremonial dance of Yokagura

The morning started with us strapping on our newly gifted Hanten (coats) and sitting down to a western style breakfast of eggs, toast, baked potato, fruit and yogurt, compliments of Chi Chi and Ka Ka. Oh and almost forgot the American oldies blasting on the record player again for us (we did attempt to turn it down at one stage but this just left Chi Chi confused and he proceeded to turn it back up). When in Rome! As we loaded up the car for a day of exploring, they came to see us out and snap a few pictures together.

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Our first destination was the town of Takachiho, popular for its breathtaking gorge and numerous waterfalls that can be taken in by means of a rental row boat. At least these were the pictures online that Viola fell in love with when she did her off the beaten path searching for places to visit in Japan.

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Unfortunately the usually crystal blue waters were brown with sediment from the heavy rain fall the region received prior to our visit, and due to the high water levels and fast moving current, the boat rentals were closed. Double whammy! Definitely disappointing.

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Don’t let the smiles fool you! We just wanted some darn row boats, okay, and blue water, row boats and blue water, not too much to ask?!

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Might as well leave our mark. This reminds me of the locks in Paris (that ultimately were cut off the bridge).

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Before leaving town we confirmed the location of Takachiho shrine, the performance site of Yokagura (more on this later), nestled between a set of old growth cedar trees.

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We continued our day of driving the countryside and made it to the coastal city of Hyuga, located on the opposite end of Kyushu from where we arrived yesterday in Kumamoto. With no specific destination or attraction in mind, we simply took in the natural beauty of the coastline (notice the cross formed by the rocks below at the Sea-Cruz: where wishes come true).

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Dinner was at a highly rated tonkatsu (pork cutlet) restaurant in town. Flaky and crisp breading, high quality tender pork with no fatty gristle, rich and thick katsu dipping sauce, Viola knew how to find a restaurant that would win Andrew and myself over! Meat!

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A sunset drive back to Takachiho to catch the evening performance of Yokagura.

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According to the programme for the evening, Yokagura is a national important intangible folk cultural property, whatever that means but sure sounds serious, comprised of 4 dances that give thanks for a good crop and pray for a huge harvest. The hour long performance was entrancing as various deities danced on stage to a repetitive and sometimes out of tune drum and flute beat. More impressive was seeing 200+ mainly middle aged to older Japanese, sitting on the floor (tatami mats), cross legged in suits and dresses, tightly packed in together and not fidgeting at all. We definitely stood out in this crowd!

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The performance ended around 9pm and with the hour drive back to our AirBnB we expected to be sneaking in to our beds quietly. Boy were we off, as Chi Chi and Ka Ka welcomed us back to their home with large slabs of roll cake and warm green tea! Sugar and caffeine before bed? Grandparents just love to spoil.