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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