Monthly Archives: April 2014

Exploring Legends in Takachiho – Kyushu Road Trip Part IV

Mother nature never ceases to amaze me. There is so much raw beauty in the world that sometimes it’s easy to see where fantasy writers come up with their inspiration for magical lands. Certain places on this earth that feel like they’ve been plucked right out of some far away mythical land; Takachiho Gorge is one such place.

Takachiho Gorge (高千穂峡, Takachiho-kyō) is a narrow chasm cut through the rock by the Gokase River. The nearly sheer cliffs lining the gorge are made of slow forming volcanic basalt columns which resemble the scales of a dragon. IMG_3038

Do you know the scene in from The Lord of the Rings where the fellowship is paddling down a beautiful river with steep cliffs on either side? Remember that moment of utter awe at the grandeur as they float through the entryway guarded by 2 statues? That is what entering Takachiho Gorge in our little rowboat felt like. IMG_2966 IMG_2901

But before I get carried away singing the praises of Takachiho, let’s backtrack to the beginning.

We awoke very early that morning, gobbled up the delicious and beautiful breakfast our hostel provided, and made a beeline to the boats at Takachiho Gorge. We parked our car in the small parking lot next to the boat rental company for 500yen. Over time I have learned that one of the keys to enjoying traveling in Japan is to figure out the most popular tourist activity (or the place you are the most excited about) and get there eeeearly, before the hoards of tourists descend and transform a tranquil environment into a chaotic pandemonium.

For us the activity we were the most excited about was the row boat experience through the gorge. I knew that if we didn’t get there early we would spend our precious 30-minute time allotment fighting to manoeuvre through throngs of boats. Not appealing in the least. I wanted to feel the magic of that gorge, and appreciate its splendour without stress. The boat rental, if you go early, is definitely something I would recommend.

Boat Rental Information:

  • Hours of operation: 8:30-5:00pm (last boat rental time 4:30pm)
  • Cost: 2000 yen per boat for 30-minutes (maximum of 3 people per boat)
  • Open every day (unless water levels are dangerous)

The company is pretty strict, we were made to don dorky life jackets, only one person could man the oars they explained, they also made us promise to not switch seats, told us what time to return and because we were 4 people we had to rent 2 boats (1000 per person is still a steal in my opinion for the experience).  I personally appreciated this no-nonsense experience as it made getting on the boat a very quick process, 5 minutes tops! If you don’t speak Japanese don’t worry you’ll be fine.

We saw packets of duck food for sale and each boat decided to purchase some. I have no shame in admitting I love feeding ducks now as much as I did as a small child. It’s the little things in life right? Lizzy and I climbed into the boat after debating who would row; we ultimately decided, although I felt guilty she’d do all the work, that because my camera was nicer I should be the one to take the pictures.

We hopped into the boat and instead of heading straight to the gorge, we got a little distracted by our new feathered friends who swam over like miniature greased lightnings to quack ‘good morning’ to us. They knew where breakfast was to be found the smart things. I won’t lie that at the beginning our attention was solely focused on feeding those adorable ducks.

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Once the food was gone, with identical gleeful grins on our face, Lizzy paddled us off to have our adventure. “Captain Lizzy” did a great job navigating. IMG_2908 IMG_2947 IMG_2906 IMG_2955When our 30-minutes was up far too soon I felt very sad to leave Takachiho Gorge behind. Luckily there was lots more to be excited about that day. Next we walked the length of the river up to the Takachiho Shrine which was a really nice 15-20 minute walk.

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That big tree got us pretty excited for Yakushima. What can I say I like big trees and I cannot lie….sorry that was a really terrible joke, I just couldn’t resist.

After a quick exploration of the temple grounds we walked back the way we came (we needed to get back to our car) and hunted down the #2 recommended viewpoint of the Takachiho Gorge (#1 is inside the gorge on the boats). It’s from up above which is really nice. IMG_2978

After the Takachiho Gorge, we went to explore the birthplace of my favourite legend and a very famous “power spot” in Japan.

According to legend, the sun goddess Amaterasu was upset by her brother’s cruel pranks. So she decided to hide herself away in a cave, she refused to come out, thereby denying sunlight to the world.  Worried for the sake of the world, the other gods and goddesses searched high and low to find her hiding spot. Eventually they found her cave, but she refused to come out. The gods and goddesses tried everything they could think of to lure her out, it was to no avail, until one of the goddesses decided to dance in a ridiculous way which made all the other deities laugh. Amaterasu grew curious about what they found so funny and at long last decided to come out, thereby returning her light to the world.

About ten kilometers outside of central Takachiho, the Amano Iwato Shrine (天岩戸神社, Amano Iwato Jinja) was built near the cave where legend says the sun goddess tried to hide. Although tourists cannot enter the cave there is a nice pathway along the river leading to a shrine built nearby this cave into the rocks.IMG_3088 IMG_3125 IMG_3128I can say without a doubt that the Amano Iwato Shrine is one of my absolute all-time favourite shrines in Japan. The reason why is that it was like no other shrine I have ever seen in this country. Also, I had read that this shrine is one of the strongest “power spots” in Japan, but it wasn’t until I was there that I understood what people meant.  I’m normally not superstitious…and I can’t describe the feeling properly, but what I will say is that a visitor cannot help but feel a strong aura of power.

Perhaps this feeling came from the awe looking at the thousands of tiny stones stacked upon one another (called “iwasaka”) by worshippers that were everywhere you looked. An iwasaka was made in ancient times during worship to invoke the presence of a deity.IMG_3078 IMG_3112 IMG_3103 IMG_3123

Heather and I had a real blast scampering around the river taking pictures of these tiny stones. Eventually though, there are only so many photos you can take, we hopped back in the car to return for dinner at our hostel. We all packed our bags for Yakushima as we were leaving early the next morning, and then I napped a little while my friends relaxed as I had come down with a bad cold by this point after Nagasaki’s rain. I really have terrible luck when it comes to planning major hikes.

That evening, I had read on Japan-guide.com that there was a special dance performance held every night at the Takachiho Shrine from 20:00 to 21:00 for 700 yen.  The dance performance done by masked dancers reenacts the legend of the sun goddess, and is about 1 hour long. It’s purely instrumental so don’t worry if you can’t speak Japanese! If you’re a foreigner the people at the front door also will give you a sheet of paper explaining the story in English.  It is held at the Yokagura performance hall, just a few steps from the shrine’s main building. If you drive to the shrine, there’s a large parking lot from which all you have to do is follow the tiki torches. Be sure to get there about half an hour early as it’s a small venue that fills up fast, and you definitely want to be close to the front! We got there at 7:30 and got great seats.

Here are a few shots from the performance! I had a serious obsession with those masks; aren’t they just incredible?!

IMG_3133 IMG_3135 IMG_3136 IMG_3154 IMG_3146 IMG_3155The final scene of the play was by far my favourite as it was interactive with the audience. The story is about a man and wife who decide to enjoy drinking sake one night, things get a little tipsy and they approach people in the audience with a wiggle of their eyebrow (if you know what I mean *wink wink*) to the shock and anger of their partner.

The wife approached a really cool dude in the audience who made everyone laugh playing along. He was such a good sport, even smiling as I took his picture and he gave me a wink! I’m not kidding when I say I’ve never laughed that hard at a play in my life. It really helped that the guy was directly in front of me so I had the perfect front row seat to the hilarity. 
IMG_3161IMG_3162 IMG_3163Uh oh! And there came the husband to whisk his naughty wife away back to their bed.We left the performance in high spirits with huge smiles.

I really recommend Takachiho because as you can see on the map everything is relatively close together so it’s easy to see the major highlights in one day. Plus while you’re here it really does feel like you’ve stepped into a page straight out of a Japanese legend. I hope everyone who visits Takachiho can enjoy exploring the legends of the area as much as I did!  Takachiho Map

 

 

 

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Onsen Hopping In Kurokawa – Kyushu Road Trip Part III

For foreigners onsens may be just about the most terrifying thing to exist in Japan. At least they were for me. Bathing naked with other people?…I was expected to bath naked surrounded by strangers!?!

As I had never been exposed to this veritable nightmarish situation in Canada, had it been socially acceptable to not shower for 3 sweaty hot days during that English summer camp, I probably would not have entered that first onsen. I was so shy that even changing rooms at gyms back home made me blush fire engine red and make steam come out of my ears. For years my friends had often ridiculed my prudish tendencies in the gym changing rooms as I struggled to get dressed underneath my other clothes. I was that perfectly awkward duckling about being naked around other people. To this day I can still remember trying not to have a panic attack the first time I was forced to use an onsen in Japan, with a group of foreigners whom I had met for the first time that day.

Looking back, I realize I was a total prude and I’m glad I’ve changed. Once I learned the complex etiquette of onsen bathing and realized that no one really gave a damn what I looked like naked I began to grow more relaxed and enjoy this strange but wonderful ritual. Ironically for a person who thought “I am never, ever, ever going to be comfortable bathing naked with a hundred other women around me!” onsens will be the thing I miss the most about Japan. My friends and I have often joked about constructing an onsen in our backyards when we return to North America and traumatizing our neighbours with our naked bathing ways. As much as I say we’re joking, there’s a small part of us that is totally serious. We don’t refer to our onsen dates jokingly as “happy naked time” for nothing, I genuinely look forward to hanging out with my friends at onsens nowadays!

Before Japan, I used to be incredibly insecure about my body.  However, after 3 years of seeing naked women bodies in every way, shape and form, onsens have given me a priceless gift: I finally feel comfortable in my own skin.  Thank you Japanese onsens, you’ve forevermore made me a stronger, more confident woman.

An onsen (温泉) is a term for hot springs in Japanese, though the term is often used to describe the bathing facilities and inns around the hot springs. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens and they are very popular tourist destinations. The majority of onsens are gender separated, with women bathing only with other women, and men bathing with only other men.  

For me, an onsen is a sanctuary of peace and serenity. A place I can escape the chaos and stress of life and rediscover myself. After several days on the road I was really looking forward to visiting the famous Kurokawa Onsen Town. This town is one of Japan’s most attractive traditional hot spring towns and is located in the middle of Kyushu near Mt. Aso. The atmosphere is lovely, and very peaceful with traditional buildings lining the streets, a beautiful river flowing through the middle and people walking around in yukata. IMG_2841 IMG_2842IMG_2844

It was like stepping into a story from long ago. We went to the tourist information centre for a little information. There are about 20 onsen houses in this area and we were overwhelmed by all of our choices.  We were a little short on time, as we needed to check into our hostel in Takachiho in only a few hours, so we decided to only visit 2 onsens. The entrance price for each was about 500 yen.

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After this point no cameras allowed, sorry! The onsens were great, but we definitely were in for a bit of a surprise. We had gotten more than a little cocky, I won’t deny that I totally thought I had the art of onsening down, until we walked through the doors and looked for the showering area (you’re supposed to shower and clean yourself before putting so much as a toe into the baths) only there wasn’t one! We were so confused! We looked around, tried opening doors that were just “fake” doors pretending to be real, and shrugged our shoulders. It looked like that was all these onsen were, a bath.  Yet I was a filthy, greasy little disaster desperately in need of a shower so I really felt bad entering the baths. Just goes to prove that no matter how long you live in a foreign country you will always run into funny situations where you honestly don’t have a clue what to do. Just smile, learn to laugh about it, and follow the locals! If you do, everything will be ok. IMG_2857 IMG_2859Rather short post I know, but it was a rather short adventure.

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Learning To Go With The Flow In Nagasaki: Kyushu Road Trip Part II

Sometimes fate has something different set in store for you than what you want. As my dad would say “Tough luck buttercup!” He’s right; sometimes it is tough, especially when traveling and you only have one day to do something and zero luck on your side. In situations where things aren’t going as perfectly planned, I’ve taken to muttering “Hakuna matata. Hakuna matata. Hakuna matata!” under my breath. It’s a motto sure to put me in the right mindset, it’s not an outcome that’s important but the journey. I’d rather look back and laugh at bad luck than sweat the small stuff. It’s a lot easier too when you have good friends to laugh over your misadventures with. Timon and Pumba really were right when they said Hakuna Matata is a wonder phrase and not some passing craze. It’s stuck with me from my childhood and it really is a wonderful life philosophy.

hakunamatataWe woke up in Nagasaki to a downpour that was guaranteed to last all day. Every time I felt like grumbling that my feet were soaked and I was cold I reminded myself that I would far rather it have rained on us in Nagasaki than in Sasebo when we were sailing. It’s good to be thankful for the good weather on days when it mattered the most.

First we went to Glover Garden which, due to it’s location on top of a hill, lets you see a stunning (if slightly rainy) view of Nagasaki Harbour.  It’s a romantic area which retains the atmosphere of a foreign settlement area. It’s definitely more impressive to Japanese tourists who may have never seen a western style garden but it’s definitely a nice stroll for foreign visitors too. For only 500yen a ticket, I’d recommend it!

IMG_2788IMG_2796 IMG_2792 IMG_2794While strolling around this pretty garden keep your eyes peeled for the two love stones, it’s said if you find them you’ll be lucky in love. One of them is on your way out by a bush covered in heart shape prayers. I’ll let you try and find the other one by yourself though *wink wink*
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Thoroughly cold and wet by this time, our group took the trolley to Chinatown for a well earned feast of piping hot and flavourful Chinese food. This is something I’ve really missed in Fukui, and I know that when I get back to Calgary in 4 months one of the first places I’m going to beg my family to go is for dim sum at the Silver Dragon.

IMG_2803 IMG_2804 IMG_2805 IMG_2806I’m drooling just thinking of how good everything was.  Just a heads up for other visitors to Nagasaki’s Chinatown, it was much smaller than I expected. Don’t budget a lot of time here, unless you’re eating in the area. In total we only spent about 45 minutes including our meal. My #1 recommendation in this area is the speciality of Nagasaki “kakuni manju” which is a fluffy steam bun wrapped around a thick and meltingly simmered piece of pork. I honestly could have eaten 10 of them, in hindsight I wish I had eaten more than just one. Nagasaki Kakuni Manju

With our stomachs happy and content we gathered our courage and headed out once again into torrential downpour and to face the emotional challenge of the history surrounding Nagasaki’s bombing. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum is arguably the most famous ‘attraction’ in Nagasaki, although I personally can’t justify in my mind calling it an ‘attraction’ because to me it’s a place filled with such sad memories. While it can be incredibly depressing to visit, I do believe that it should be visited by anyone who travels to Nagasaki. It’s a lasting reminder to present and future generations of the horrors of atomic bombs and why they should never be used ever again.  As the memories of World War II are fading into history Hiroshima and Nagasaki have made it their mission to inform future generations about the horror of war, the terrible reality of nuclear weapons, and importance of peace.  They consider it their duty to ensure the horror of nuclear war is not forgotten by the world. This philosophy to preserve lasting reminders of terrible historical sadness and efforts to build such museums and monuments in my opinion takes great strength and courage.

I had visited the Hiroshima Peace Museum a year prior to this trip with my friend Nicole. It was an interesting coincidence that I would visit the second bomb museum with her also, something neither of us had expected. We both commented on how different the effects of the two bombs were. Having been to one of the museums, and knowing what to expect emotionally, made the emotional turmoil I felt easier to process somehow. The last time I walked out of the Hiroshima Museum I had to sit on a park bench for half an hour feeling emotionally numb from the information I had learned and struggling not to cry. This time was difficult, but not as difficult if you understand what I’m saying. IMG_2822

At 11:02am on August 9th, 1945 the explosion of the atomic bomb Fat Boy devastated Nagasaki. The ferocious heat of this particular blast indiscriminately slaughtered thousands. For me personally it’s always seeing the photos of mutilated and burned children, mothers holding wounded babies and school grounds which had been full of young students completely obliterated by the blast that truly breaks my heart. The words of survivors will haunt my memories for the rest of my life. I can’t even begin to imagine what the people of Nagasaki went through, the hell they miraculously survived to only have to struggle to survive a new life without their loved ones.

The one fact that really stuck home, at least for me, while walking through the exhibit was understanding the degree of heat released by the bomb. It is said that when Fat Boy exploded over the city it was like a second sun was created. This can be seen in the way shadow images were ‘burned‘ onto solid surfaces. A ladder and man stood in front of this wall when the explosion happened, afterwards all that remained was a shadow image burned onto the wall, as seen in the picture below.  Let the implications of that fact sink in, trust me it will haunt you for a long time. The museum contains collections of everyday items that melted from the heat of this explosion: coins, glass bottles, toys…

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After our time in the peace museum, we were all in desperate need of fresh air to sooth our minds. We climbed the stairs to the peace park and went to see the famous statue and reflect.

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We were pretty exhausted, wet and cold by the time we finished. We decided to call it a day and head in for a nap before the nighttime festivities. Honestly had I been left up to my own devises I probably would have spent my Saturday night a little something like this…

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 3.28.54 PMYet, knowing full well how I always think through my stomach, my friends successfully lured me out into the miserable rain once again with the promise of spicy Jamaican food. I fell for it hook line and sinker, little did I know what tricks fate had in store for us that evening….

Luckily I was still in a hakuna matata mindset because you honestly wouldn’t believe the trouble we ran into! It’s hilarious in hindsight just how wrong everything went! First we tried to go to a Jamaican Restaurant only to discover when we arrived the restaurant was actually just a Japanese restaurant that had been mislabeled somehow. After that we attempted to go to a fun-sounding bar yet when we arrived via taxi the bar simply didn’t exist any more! WTF!?!?! How does a group of travellers have luck THAT bad you ask?  Good heavens I have no idea. Hakuna Matata turned the night around though and we somehow, miraculously, had a great night out.

When we arrived at our exciting “Jamaican” restaurant we knew instantly is was not Jamaican. It was a very old and traditional Japanese style restaurant….and unfortunately for us very much not what we were in the mood for.  We had found the recommendation on Trip Advisor (a very trustworthy travel resource, no?!?) but this goes to show you even the best research can be wrong. I felt terrible at the idea of just mysteriously standing up our reservation, and the lady inside kept looking worriedly at us and wondering why we were huddled outside in the rain instead of coming in. I timidly walked inside an with my only so-so Japanese attempted to explain the confusion and apologize for so suddenly cancelling. She just laughed, accepted my apology, and passed me onto a nice Japanese lady who spoke English fluently so she could recommend another restaurant.

I chatted with this new lady for a bit and she told us she owned a Spanish restaurant right around the corner if we were interested in that cuisine instead. I conferred with my cohorts and we all agreed Spanish tapas sounded amazing! We were unbelievably lucky that at the exact moment we were in a pickle at the restaurant she had just happened to have popped over to pick up some fresh seafood!

We followed our new friend like little drenched ducklings down the street to her restaurant. We opened the door, and if my memory serves me right, I am pretty sure I squealed in delight. It looked like a fantastic restaurant and after eating there I honestly can not rave about it enough! Ironically as it turned out we were very lucky to have been unlucky, if not we never would have stumbled upon this real gem of a restaurant. Murpheys1

The Spanish restaurant is called Muckey’s Bar and if you’re a foreigner living in Japan it’s the next best thing to a vacation in Spain. We couldn’t help ourselves and just kept the food rolling in. Everything looked so delicious we ooohed when it was presented and sighed in satisfaction when biting into.

First up was the chips and salsa, which just exploded with tangy-spicy goodness.Muckeys

Followed by an assortment of foreign olives and Nagasaki olives (I had no idea olives could grow in Nagasaki!)muckeys2

By this time the good times were in full swing and we were all pretty darn happy. I ordered a citrus mojito made with brandy that definitely tickled my tastebuds and I felt so giddy I could burst! Or maybe that was just my tight slinky dress that was ready to burst from all the food…Muckeys5

Heather ordered the dish which won the award for best item on the menu in our opinion: carrot, walnut and citrus salad. I am really determined to replicate this salad. I plan on it being the ace up my sleeve for future dinner parties.muckeys6

For our main dish we ordered 2 plates of chicken and clam paella. Perfection in a bowl, we all agreed.muckeys3 Muckeys4

Our final dish of the night was a real indulgence: garlic-stuffed mushrooms swimming in brown butter oil sauce.  Nicole was in heaven and we had to order more bread so the ambrosia sauce wouldn’t go to waste.photo1

Thanking the restaurant profusely for the delicious food and fantastic service, we climbed into a cab and took off for the next destination. The bar we researched sounded like an amazing place, located on a permanently moored large old boat in the Nagasaki Harbour famous for serving unique cocktails created by a cocktail mixology expert.  Who wouldn’t want to go, thanks Wikitravel for the great recommendation! Wrong. We arrived at our destination…but there was no boat…where was it? It had closed down 3 years previously! We were in a real pickle, for a second time that evening!

In the end we were saved by a kind man with an enormous curly afro which was white as snow and dressed entirely in red. It sounds so surreal it sounds like I’m making it up just to have a good story, I am well aware.  But I’m telling the complete 100% honest truth. It was our own personal version of Alice in Wonderland. We followed our “white rabbit” and he led us to a bar called Crazy Horse.

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The whole bar was covered in famous English music bands’ memorabilia and photos of foreigners who had come over the years. We sat down, ordered a round of Guinness beers (a real rarity in Fukui), and struck up a conversation with two nice guys from Ireland living in Nagasaki which carried us well into the night. We even got our picture taken and put on the wall! photo3

Even though it seemed in hindsight that nothing that day went as planned, I still look back on our day in Nagasaki fondly. Things have a way of working out when you roll with the flow. Next time you feel like fate and the world are against you try to remember the wise words of hakuna matata and smile!

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Sailing in Sasebo: Kyushu Road Trip Part I

I have learned 3 things about road trips: (1) Good music is essential (2) Fun mates make the hours fly by and (3) logistics can be your worst nightmare. My good friend Lizzy and I had been planning this trip for nearly a year, a last hurrah for our time here in Japan if you will. It’s hard to believe sometimes that it’s only 4 months until I fly home to Canada!

So when the Japanese school term’s spring break finally dawned it was exciting to ditch the research & planning stage and hit the open road. It was time! “Let the adventure begin!” I exclaimed to myself as I scuttled out of school as fast as my long legs could take me. We packed up the car, crammed the 4 partners in crime inside (myself, Lizzy, Heather and Nicole) and took off in Lizzy’s famous little car “The Green Gatsby” for a 12 hour drive.

Our first stop on our 10-day road trip was Sasebo, home to the famous 99 Islands (Kujuku Islands).IMG_2746

Interestingly enough, although the name would imply there are 99 Islands, there are actually 208 tiny islands in this area. A long time ago in Japan, the number 99 was used to express something large and uncountable. Sailing through the islands is a popular tourist attraction and the entire reason we traveled to Sasebo.

You can ride the leisure boat The Pearl Queen that tours the Kujuku Islands from Saikai Pearl Sea Resort. The journey takes 50 minutes. As your magnificent ship zigzags through the islands, you can observe the islands up close and daydream about life as a pirate. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact I watched Pirates of the Caribbean 5 bazillion times (when I was younger!), but I would love to have a ship of my own one day, a life on the open sea would be amazing. After weeks spent in the office working on paperwork the wind blowing through our hair and sunshine on our faces felt pretty damn nice!

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After our adventures on the high sea we grabbed a cup of jo from the Badass Coffee Company. It was pretty badass indeed!Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 1.08.58 PM

Happily caffeinated we trundled off in the Green Gatsby to the Ishidake Observatory for a 360° panoramic view of the islands. It’s a spectacular view and a great place to take a few pictures. It’s only about a 8-minute drive from the harbour; you can reach there by driving up from the side of the parking lot of the Sasebo Zoological and Tropical Botanical Garden, and walking up the mountain path for a few minutes. Easy peasy!

IMG_2750IMG_2754IMG_2758I was pretty surprised to discover that Sasebo was such a big city! I honestly was imagining a small town in my head when we did the planning….oops! Being adventurous certainly worked up my appetite and we all agreed we were starving. One of these days I’ll learn I am not a robot who can survive on only coffee…one day…perhaps. We decided to try and find a supermarket and grab supplies for a picnic.  Heather found a perfect place to hanami (cherry blossom party) it up and we lounged around in the sunshine relaxing and eating for hours. Hanami Hanami2 photo3 photo4

Just as I dozed off for a wee nap the cutest little boy came to chat to us in English. We were more than a little startled (where was his family?! How did he speak English so well?!) but ended up having an adorable conversation with him about all sorts of things. He said some pretty profound things for a 5-year old, I was impressed. IMG_2760 IMG_2773It was a wonderful end to a wonderful first day!

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