Day 18 in Japan: Laid-back lifestyle in Shimoda

We slathered on sunscreen, filled up water bottles and I prepared the cruiser bikes for a day full of exploring Shimoda in the hot sun. Pssshhhhh … as my tire went completely flat. Apparently I broke the already broken (Abhi reassured me of this) crazy old-school Japanese valve stem, attempting to pump up the tires on my cruiser. Abhi to the rescue as he pulled out another bike from storage. Rusted, bent, and a wild skipping chain: it’ll do just fine!

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First destination was the Ryugu Sea Cave formed by coastal erosion and the partial collapse of the cave’s ceiling.

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Hiking in, then back out and all around, we took in the cave views and surrounding coast line from all angles. The turquoise colors of the ocean from above were stunning!

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Locating a trail down to waters edge, we B-lined it to the sand.

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At this point I was kicking myself for not bringing my swim trunks along!

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Sooooo tempting to just jump right in, boxers, shorts and all, but the thought of endless salt water chaffing while cycling brought me back to reality real quick!

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Viola: navigator extraordinaire, plotting our long ride into town.

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Arriving at Perry Road named after Commodore Perry (led his black ships to Shimoda and began US diplomatic relations in 1854).

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Packed with restaurants and cafes, there was not a lot of action on Perry Road as we were still at the tail end of off season in Shimoda and in between lunch and dinner hours.

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From calm, quiet, wisteria lined canals to the hustle and bustle of Shimoda’s small industrial harbor.

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With a solid afternoon of biking, hiking and more biking, we made our way back to the city center of Shimoda where we had spotted a public foot bath the day prior. I expected the natural hot spring water to be, well hot, so entering with caution would have been advisable. Nope, 2 feet, straight in, screaming like a little girl! HOT! HOT! HOT!

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With the sun setting it was back on our cruisers for the journey home after a failed attempt of getting soft serve ice cream. “Sorry, closed, 5 o’clock” as the shop owner dragged in his six foot tall plastic ice cream cone from the street corner. Fair enough I though, until I realized it was only 4:15! Gah! Japan! Thwarted again …

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Burgers, pizzas, fries with Heinz ketchup and smoothies! Restaurants in Shimoda really embraced American fast food style cuisine with a Californian/Hawaiian surf culture vibe.

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An early dinner to round out the day, plus there was no way we were riding in the dark back to our AirBnB with wild boars roaming around. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, we were woken up in the middle of the night by the nightmarish sound of snorting and little hoofs stomping around on our patio! And Abhi said they never crossed the fence line!

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Day 17 in Japan: Onsen soaking in Izu-Okawa and sunset in Shimoda

A early sunrise onsen soak followed by a rainbow assortment of dishes for breakfast, what a way to start the morning at Isaribi. 

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Our hostess that took such amazing care of us during our stay (dishing out bowls of miso soup with spiny lobster).

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With bellies full it was back up to our onsen bath for one last dip and huff of sulfur before departing.

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Less than 24 hours after arriving at Isaribi, the courtesy shuttle driver took us right back to the train platform he picked us up at, and our journey continued on down the Izu Peninsula.

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Welcome to Shimoda! Our next destination to explore, a city of historical importance as the arrival spot for US war ships (black ships) in 1854 that ultimately ended Japan’s self-isolation from the rest of the world and initiated Japan-US diplomatic relations.

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With time to spare before check-in at our Airbnb, we stored our luggage in lockers at the train station and took a gondola up the mountainside for an aerial type view over Shimoda.

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Back down we located a grocery store, stocked up on ingredients for dinner and fetched a cab to our remote Airbnb for the next 2 nights. There the owner Abhi greeted us, took us on a quick tour of the property and let us in to his beautiful eclectic home.

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Abhi prepared his vintage cruiser bicycles for us and recommended we catch the sunset down at Ohama beach, only a 10 minute ride away. He fired off a quick verbal route: “find the gate to cut through the fenced field, make sure you close it to keep the wild boars out of the neighborhood.” Wait, what? Wild boars?

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Sure enough we found the gate that Abhi described, and as we started to make our way across the large, tall grassy field, there they stood! A family/group/sounder, whatever you want to call it, of 3 wild boars! I caught site of their tusks and my heart sank. Instinctively (more like in a fit of panic) I starting ringing my bicycle bell, and even though they immediately took off into the woods, I kept mashing that thing to the waters edge!

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Arriving at Ohama beach, not a soul (or boar) in sight, we parked the bikes, took off our shoes, socks and embraced the surf and sand while taking in the golden sunset. Hard to believe this place will be packed with surfers in another month.

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Day 16 in Japan: Farewell to the Pyes and Tokyo

Farewell Pyes! Half a year of anticipation since Andrew proclaimed “life’s too short, we’re joining you guys in Japan,” months of planning, modifying and tweaking our route, discovering a unique variety of accommodations, restaurants and activities, and finally seeing all of the hard work unfold into an amazing, unforgettable experience with our friends. The past 15 days sure went by in a flash … and just like that, Andrew and Sarah said their goodbyes and made their way to the airport bound for home.

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Farewell Tokyo! Ourselves completely burnt out from a non-stop itinerary, daydreaming of returning home as well, boarded a train bound for the Izu Peninsula. That odd feeling of suddenly being alone was likely compounded by the completely empty train we were on …

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This was the rest and recoup, tropical beach leg of our trip, and what better way to start things off than a night at an ocean side onsen to soak away our exhaustion.

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Arriving in the small town of Izu Okawa, we exited the train and were immediately greeted by a representative from Isaribi onsen who shuttled us via a courtesy van to the property. Graciously welcomed with a bow by the staff, our luggage was wisped away as we were ushered to the beautiful lobby with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the ocean. There, 2 bowls of maccha were already waiting for us, along with a refreshing breeze of ocean air and the sounds of waves crashing and birds chirping. Breathtaking introduction! Pyes who?!? (kidding guys!)

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And then we were seen to our room …

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Melting away in a pool of sulfurous bliss!

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With the sun setting, we strapped on our yukatas and made our way down to the dining room for our assigned dinner seating.

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No stranger now to the quality and culinary vastness of the traditional Japanese Kaiseki dinner, we were eagerly anticipating a wonderful dining experience. With its proximity to the ocean, Isaribi prided itself on locally caught fresh seafood, and the multi course menu certainly reflected that and did not disappoint. Cheers! 

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Day 15 in Japan: A day in Tokyo

One full day in the city described by Anthony Bourdain as the equivalent of 12 New York cities put together. Time to hardly scratch the surface of Tokyo! Let’s go … 

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First stop: About Coffee Company. A gem of a small espresso bar just down the street from our Airbnb in Shibuya.

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We pulled up a seat at the counter and Viola plotted our route to Shinjuku and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building to take in a 45th floor view over the city.

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Picking up our ride for the day … in my dreams! Walking and subway it is then. The Pyes, probably (and understandably so) sick of us by now, decided to take it easy on their last full day in Japan and complete a few final checklist items in Shibuya. Conveyor-belt sushi, maccha soft serve ice cream, stumbling upon numerous cats in a stroller (they have pics to prove it) and people watching at the famous Shibuya crossing to name a few.

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Arriving at our second stop: the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. 

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CLOSED! The theme of this trip plagues us again. Why would we expect any different? Being a Sunday we had already assumed the government building would be closed, but were reassured of its open hours online. Well just our luck, today, and only today, a small sign at the front entrance indicated the observation deck was not accessible due to electrical maintenance.

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Back to the drawing board, what would we do without cell phones and portable WiFi units?!

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Our third stop was at the Tokyo Imperial Palace.

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We picked up some amazing quality sushi at the basement level of a nearby department store (yes, it’s a thing in Japan) and found a nice shaded spot near the palace to enjoy an early lunch. 3 varieties of tuna: melt in your mouth deliciousness!

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Unable to enter the inner palace grounds, unless a guided tour is scheduled in advance, we took a brief stroll through the open East Gardens.

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Our forth and final stop was in the Asakusa district to visit the oldest temple in Tokyo: Senso-ji.

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By chance we happened to arrive right in the middle of the annual Sanja Matsuri (Festival) that celebrates the founders of the Senso-ji temple. Pure chaos!

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The main feature of the festival are the one hundred portable shrines, known as mikoshi, that are paraded around the streets of Asakusa to bring good fortune.

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Oh, forget the parade, OWL!

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Battling our way through the swarms of visitors, heavy shrines and sweaty bodies carrying them, endless food vendors tempting us (and succeeding) with all kinds of maccha and red bean paste goodies, we finally made it to the Senso-ji temple.

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Back on the subway and just like that our day of exploring Tokyo was already coming to an end.

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Back in Shibuya we regrouped with the Pyes at our Airbnb, went for an evening walk around the neighborhood, even taking in the city lights from above (definitely not 45 floors up though!), and found a great restaurant in the quiet canal district of Meguro to share a final dinner.

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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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