Japan: The Most Relaxing 24 Hours in Hakone

After a busy four days of shopping and running around Tokyo, Amanda had planned a relaxing 24 hours in this small resort area outside of Tokyo called Hakone. Hakone is known for their natural hot springs and the area has tons of hotels built on top of these springs with world renowned spas. Sounds good! The setting was beautiful, the service was impeccable and we have since been remarking that it was one of the best 24 hours of our lives.

Hakone train station

The station with the beautiful foliage

Kai Hakone

Lobby, with espresso machine. I came here to ponder life’s mysteries when Amanda took a lot longer in the spa.

Kai Hakone

The old mixed with the modern


Kai Hakone
Kai Hakone

Upon arrival, the concierge led us to the lobby seating in order to present us with our hot towels (for hand washing) and our welcome drink. After an appropriate amount of solitude, the concierge returned to complete our check-in, confirm our dinner and breakfast reservation times and process Amanda’s “no raw fish” request (she kept saying sesame instead of sashimi…they finally resolved the translation error).

During our stay we had to be in uniform (yukata) at all times. When we arrived they gave these robes and slippers to wear. The robes were nice, but I found the slippers to be uncomfortable, mainly because there was no real way to discern what was the left food from the right. I still don’t know if there was an answer, or if the slipper was designed to be available for either foot and comfortable to neither. Also, when you arrive at a hotel in Japan they send a little friend with you around your room for like 10 minutes showing you everything you could need. “Here is the kettle, here is the wall outlet, here is the bed, here is the toilet, here are your towels, this is the phone, this is the button you press to ask us questions should you have any after this 15 min walkthrough of your room” etc. It was kinda charming at first, but not so much after you’ve checked in to 3-4 places in the past 8 days.

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The more you look at them, the less sure you are as to which one is for which foot. A zen exercise perhaps?

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The shogun assesses his kingdom.

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In the basement of the hotel was the reason we came here: the spa. Natural hot water, a sauna and a cold water dipping pool. The Japanese love their baths, and I am now a total convert. When Amanda and I build a house we are totally going to make a big bath in the basement. And as with everything there is a set ritual for the bath–or at least there was for the guys side. I’m sure it was similar on Amanda’s side of the spa. You come in, disrobe and go to this little shower room and sit naked on a little stool and clean yourself off with a shower-head and bucket. Once you’re clean of all of life’s dirt you are ready for the soak in the bath. And it was glorious. Half-inside, half-outside with the crisp fall air around you while you are submerged in 100 degree water, floating around with small woodland creatures looking in at you. Awesome.

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My little sakura blossom


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The next day we had to leave, which was sad. This hotel had a long windy driveway, and when our hostess put us in the cab we watched with sadness as the hotel slowly wound out of our sight. But during that 45 second climb up the hill, our hostess did not cease her bowing to our cab and we rolled away. Japanese hospitality rocks!

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Japan notes: the toilet

One of the things that surprised us about our trip, was how much we’d be talking about the toilets upon our return. We love to remember those warm seats, a strange yet wonderful extension of Japanese hospitality in pretty much every public and private facility you’d enter. And we’re not the only ones who love these toilets. A colleague of mine who’s married to a Japanese woman tried to procure one of these magic toilets for his Austin home after a number of visits to her homeland. His electrician and plumber finally talked him out of it… 

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A bit intimidating at first, we soon looked forward to our brief rest stops throughout the day. The buttons usually had enough symbols to instruct you on proper usage. But, alas, sometimes you just had to experiment. So, what all do they do? They can do anything from: heat the seat, play water noises, emit white noise-cancelling sounds, automatically flush, offer washing & drying cycles and even call for emergency help! Brilliant!

Japan Stories: Food

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Not gonna lie: we were worries about food leading up to our trip to Japan. We like sushi and tempura and fish and rice fine, but every day at every meal for 10 days? We were nervous. But turns out we didn’t have to be nervous about anything…well, almost. Japan has some weird notions about breakfast, but we’ll get to that later.

Packaging

Our first impression about Japanese food was: adorable packaging. (Well, that was probably Amanda’s first impression, being the visual design thinker that she is.) Everything is so intricately, excessively packaged, even in 7-Eleven corner stores (which are everywhere.) Second impression: Japan is the land of snack food. You just pick up whatever looks tasty from a street vendor, a small little cafe or boulangerie and get ready to enjoy your perfect little snack. And the cafes and boulangeries rival Paris in their frequency and quality of bread–well, white bread, pastries and croissants. Good luck finding fiber in Japan (but that’s probably another post.) But you could survive traveling in Japan without ever setting foot into a sit-down restaurant, and only buy snack foods, noodle bowls or whatever looks tasty as you walk around. That being said, you can BUY it on the go, but heaven forbid you should EAT it on the go. This is apparently a faux-pas in Japan. You must find some bench, seat or preferably, a park and eat your food there. Nice for life, but not so good for being tourists. We decided to retreat under the banner of ignorant-tourist and eat on the go anyway. We’re sorry Japan!

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bread

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The practice in these bakeries is to take a tray, fill it with your selected baked goods that are arranged in bins around the perimeter, and then take the tray to the counter where they will double, triple bag them for you (separately, of course). And add the wet napkins packaged in sealed bag. And then add a sticker. And another bag. Germs will never get to that food! But, it’s a good thing you have all those bags, because you will be carrying around your garbage for most of the day until you locate a garbage bin.

So Good So Fast

Restaurants were awesome and our biggest takeaways were that they served you food SO FAST. We went to this one soba noodle place (that had been going on since the 1400s!) and the food was there in at least a 3rd of the time in restaurants over here. Even at this specialty burger place the food came pretty quick (and we were pretty happy to have a burger after a few days of rice, saucy-meat and limited veggies.) Oh, and you don’t tip or else they think you left money by mistake. And you’ll be in and out in an hour, tops.

JAP_pancake2-smOne of Amanda’s favorites: Okonomiyaki: Japanese “pancake”

Then there was the sushi and sashimi.

Hakone-dinnerKaiseki meal menu at Kai Hakone

We decided against making the famous 4am trek to the Tsukiji Market (Tokyo fish market) to procure the freshest of sushi and sashimi. So, our first experience of the delicacies would be during our Kaiseki meal at our Hakone resort hotel. Amanda was prepared to decline, Sumimasen, Sashimi wa tabemasen.  But, I, Graeme bravely ate it all: Eels, scallops, tuna, salmon, rainbow fish, these little pink round egg looking things. (Edit: turns out they are salmon eggs. Joy.)  Washed it down with my first sake ever, as well. There was a nervous 3 hours post-meal where I was closely monitored in order to see if I was going to burst or barf or feel nasty, but I felt fine. There was a bit of a rumbly moment in the sauna that night, but I pulled through like a champ. As someone who has come from a less than oceanic province  my knowledge and tolerance of fish is pretty limited, but my horizons have expanded a wee bit thanks to this trip. We unfortunately forgot our camera for the meal, but Amanda made little sketches of each dish on the rice paper English menu.

Japan doesn’t really do breakfasts.

Oh, I mean they have food at the beginning of the day, but they just have the same food they’d have at any other time of day. Fish. Rice. Soup. Salad. This was hard for us. We either had to degrade ourselves and go to some western looking cafe that heavily advertised Western Breakfast Panini, or a Starbucks with all the other tourists and sheepishly not make eye contact so as to not admit our weaknesses. It was relatively ok when breakfast was in our control. We could go to a corner store and get some yogurt, find a pastry and talk about how we would murder a bowl of Bran Flakes when we got home. But at our super nice fixed menu hotel, the realities of Japanese style breakfast was unavoidable. Also unavoidable was Amanda’s expression. Rice, steamed fish and soup. No fiber in sight! How do the Japanese poop! (Besides, in supreme comfort.) We broke down on day 3 and bought a huge bag of muslix from the grocery store and peppered that stuff into every meal.

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The Japanese breakfast menu at Kai Hakone

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JAP_11_1074-menuThe breakfast menu at Kai Hakone

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food-roundFrench Onion Soup (Elle Cafe), Coffee, Tea Ice Cream, Street food at its best: warm, hot off the grill, gooey rice/bean ball.

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Vending Machines

A sensually-rich experience. But how does that coffee taste?

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SXSW Diary: Day 3

“If you’ve already bumped into James Franco while eating something with salsa on it and somehow have a fully charged phone, you’re doing this right.”

Sunday was another exciting day in Austin. We started with some Rainey Street sight-seeing and Blackberry testing. Ate some freezies, even though it was really too cold for freezies. We chased down the TaskRabbit van for some Amy’s Ice Cream. Still too cold for ice cream. Back to the house for some lunch and rest because directly after church we’d be heading to a very exciting Design Throwndown hosted by PointRoll. In this party, designers from the USA, Australia and France battled it out on a stage to tell the story of a banished Pluto returning to the Milky Way Galaxy through design and illustration. And all this to the soundtrack to some very cool DJs called RAC. I know, it sounds wacky, but it was really fun. But, a little cold. We were underdressed and longed for hot drinks and a fireplace.

On our way home, we crossed through the Republic Park (3rd/Guadalupe) and stumbled upon some cool interactive art installations. I hope they’ll be here all week.

Ice Cream

Design ThrowDown

 

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Design Battle

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But he doesn’t know the territory!

I (Graeme) have started a new job at Veritas Academy, an awesome little school here in Austin. I’ve been teaching Grade 10 and 12 English Literature and the students are great. But it’s been the out of class time stuff that has been the best. Amanda and I are meeting lots of people who we think are going to be good friends for a while.

Recently the school put on a musical–The Music Man! If any of you know the play you know that there is a rather humorous introduction to the play done by a bunch of traveling salesmen. Well, we brave male teachers decided to take this head on. Enjoy!

I should grow that ‘stach for reals.

How can I live without you?

In honor of our pending move to Austin, TX, we officially close the wonderful “Dutch” chapter in our adventure book.

Amanda & Graeme in a straat

Amanda & Graeme in a straat

 

1. Pesto from Noordermart

pesto @ Noordermart

pesto @ Noordermart

2. NS trains, GVB trams

3. chocolate cake from Jordaan bakery

dessert #2: carrot cake, blueberry cake, chocolate cake

4. Appleschnitt from Kuyt Pastry

Kuyt Apple Schnitt

5. Vondelpark

video here

6. beautiful bike paths, highways, street lights

7. the Dutch mayonnaise, milk, butter, eggs, cheese and yogurt

8. the bread

9. Damas and Heren…

10. Poffertjes

11. type, type, beautiful type everywhere

I amsterdam