Hakone

Although Mount Fuji lies only 80 miles from the heart of Tokyo, it’s hard to see the mountain from the city unless it’s a perfectly clear day. While I arrived in Tokyo at the end of Mount Fuji’s official climbing season, I still wanted to get up close and see one of Japan’s most iconic landmarks.

Mount Fuji Hakone

If you want to enjoy spectacular views of Mount Fuji without climbing it, the tourist town of Hakone offers almost any activity you can imagine, from shopping and exploring museums to relaxing in onsen (hot spring resorts). Hakone lies in the Kanagawa prefecture of Japan, a little over an hour outside of Tokyo.

Hakone Japan

One of the biggest draws of Hakone is Lake Ashi, a scenic lake formed by a crater near Mount Hakone. The lake offers views of Mount Fuji, boat cruises, and several hot springs resorts. Although I stopped at a point where Mount Fuji was barely visible, the beautiful lake more than made up for my lack of view.

Lake Ashi Hakone

Mount Fuji, peeking out behind another mountain in the distance

Lake Ashi Hakone

Many of the pleasure cruise boats on Lake Ashi are modeled after traditional sailing ships, which you can see to the left.

Many vantage points along the shores of Lake Ashi offer souvenir shops as well. If you’re looking for a Fuji-inspired present or a traditional Japanese craft, make sure to stop by.

Mount Fuji souvenirJapanese souvenir

Mount Fuji souvenir

Mount Fuji coin purses! Aren’t these cute?!

 For beautiful views of Mount Fuji, Lake Ashi, and the surrounding countryside, I highly recommend taking a gondola among the mountains, called the Hakone Ropeway. The aerial lift has several stops around the mountains, ending in a stop right by Lake Ashi. This line is one of the best opportunities for sightseeing in the area, particularly during the fall when the leaves are changing.

Hakone ropewayHakone ropeway

Hakone ropeway

While you can take the gondolas for a round trip, I recommend getting off at Owakudani, or the Great Boiling Valley. Owakundani is a volcanic valley with active sulfur vents and hot springs, which offers even better views of Mount Fuji on a clear day, hiking trails along the vents, and souvenirs. You can definitely smell the sulfur in the air, but it’s pretty cool to walk along active steam vents.

Owakundani

Owakundani

Owakundani

Mount Fuji, from a view at Owakundani

Owakundani is known for its kuro tamago, or black eggs. These are a local specialty food in Hakone, where the eggs are boiled in the sulfur hot springs.  As a result, the egg turns black from a chemical reaction and smell like sulfur. Eating a kuro tamago is supposed to add longevity to your life (seven years for every egg), but be warned: if you eat more than two and a half in seventeen years, there could be dire (and unexplained) consequences. I thought the eggs tasted exactly like normal hard-boiled eggs, but eating one gave me a stomachache later.

Owakundani

Hello Kitty/Kuro Tamago photo opportunity? DUH.

Owakundani

Owakundani

The majestic black egg. Oh, and Mount Fuji in the background.

Owakundani Kuro tamago

Just a normal egg on the inside.

If you’re interested in more manmade attractions, Fujiya Hotel is another Hakone must-see. This historic hotel was built in 1891, and is a mixture of both western and Japanese architectural elements that were popular during the Meiji period in Japan. The beautiful hotel has hosted many notable people and celebrities over the years, including the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller, and the Showa Emperor.

Fujiya Hotel HakoneFujiya Hotel Hakone

Fujiya Hotel HakoneIf you can’t stay overnight at the hotel, make sure to take a tour of its rooms and historic artifacts, and plan to stay for dinner. Fujiya is famous for its beef curry, which is served in its French-inspired restaurant.

Fujiya Hotel Hakone

Fujiya’s famous (and expensive!) beef curry.

I ended my time in Hakone at the Hakone Open-Air Museum, a park full of beautiful sculptures, interactive art that you can play on, galleries, and more. With works by Picasso and Henry Moore, it’s a great way to walk around in the fresh air and enjoy some art. My favorite part was a tower constructed from stained glass, which you could climb up inside and enjoy views of Hakone’s countryside.

Hakone Open Air MuseumHakone Open Air MuseumHakone Open Air Museum

Whether you’re looking for spectacular views of Mount Fuji or just want a break from Tokyo, Hakone offers an activity for everyone. Bring good walking shoes and plenty of spending money, as you’ll definitely want to try more than one destination. Hakone is a perfect place to grab an iconic picture of Mount Fuji, and still have plenty more to do.

Hakone Open Air Museum

Next time I’m in Japan though, hopefully I’ll be able to photograph Mount Fuji from its summit instead.

Mount Fuji Hakone

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Osaka

Osaka is the second largest metropolis in Japan, and is located in the Kansai region about 3 hours away from Tokyo by bullet train. It’s the capital of Osaka prefecture as well as the largest part of the Keihanshin metropolis, which is composed of the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe.

Via Flickr

Via Flickr

 Historically, Osaka is the commercial center of Japan and was the country’s center for trading rice in the Edo period. Today, Osaka still functions as a major center for the Japanese economy and is home to several important electronic companies, including Panasonic and Sanyo.

Osaka Skyline via Flickr

Osaka Skyline via Flickr

 Although I didn’t spend much time in Osaka, this is one city that I definitely want to revisit. Because Osaka is also known for its food, I began my travels in Dotonbori, a street in the center of the city that is famous for its flashing neon signs, dozens of restaurants, and regional cuisine.

Dotonbori OsakaDotonbori OsakaDotonbori is a huge tourist attraction and the main destination for food travel in the Kansai region. Here, you can try many cuisines such as takoyaki, okonomiyaki, udon noodles, and sushi. We visited a well-known takoyaki restaurant and spent a half hour in line just to try it!

Dotonbori Osaka

Takoyaki restaurant in the Dotonbori

takoyakiOsaka

Takoyaki

Takoyaki lights!

TakoyakiIn Osaka you often hear or see the word kuidaore, which literally means ““to ruin oneself by extravagance in food.” This is exemplified in many local proverbs, particularly ones that compare the city to Kyoto. One old saying says that while Kyotoites spend all their money on shopping and kimonos, Osakans are ruined by spending money on food.

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Zubora-ya

Zubora-ya, a famous pufferfish lantern outside of a fugu restaurant

And with so many delicious options, it’s easy to see how.

Dotonbori Osaka

If you need somewhere to walk off all the food in Dotonbori, Osaka Castle is another popular tourist destination and a beautiful history site. Surrounded by Osaka Castle Park, the castle is one of Japan’s most famous buildings and played a major role in uniting Japan during the 16th century.

Osaka Castle Park

Osaka Castle Park

Osaka Castle ParkOsaka Castle

Osaka Castle was built in 1583 under orders of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, a territory lord and general who is revered as Japan’s second great unifier. While it was burned down in several battles, the castle was rebuilt in the early 20th century and is considered a symbol of Osaka.

Osaka Castle

The castle is open to the public, and contains a museum inside with many artifacts and displays about the 16th and 17th century. On the 8th floor, you can also enjoy amazing open-air views of the city.

Osaka Castle

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DSC_5434Osaka also offers attractions for all ages, including the second largest aquarium in the world, traditional theaters, shopping districts, an enormous Ferris wheel, and more. Plan to stay for a few days, and make sure to bring plenty of money for food. You may leave a few pounds heavier than when you came, but with so much to try and do, it’s definitely worth it.

Osaka Castle

Osaka CastleI’ll be finishing my tour of the Kansai area next week, but thanks again for reading! What kind of travel destinations do you prefer, historical or modern?

Nara Prefecture

Although I spent most of my time abroad in Tokyo, I had the amazing opportunity to check out other famous cities and areas in the Kansai region of Japan. One of my favorite places to go was Nara, a small prefecture and city about 3 hours away from Tokyo by bullet train. Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784, and lends its name to the Nara period.

While the city itself isn’t much to look at, Nara is rich with history, particularly when it comes to temples. There are 8 temples, shrines, and ruins in Nara (known as the Nanto Shichi Dai-ji), which remained powerful even after the capital of Japan moved to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto) in 794.

Nara Park Nara Japan

However, my favorite part about Nara was…the deer.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Hi there!

Yes, that’s right. I said deer. According to local folklore, deer in Nara became sacred after one of the four gods of the Kasuga Shrine appeared on a nearby mountain riding a white deer. From then on, the deer were considered to be divine, and killing one was a capital offense punishable by death. Although the deer were stripped of their sacredness after World War II, they’re still considered National Treasures of Japan.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Whutcha doing?

Sika Deer Nara JapanToday, the miniature Shika deer can be found wandering around Nara Park and on some temple grounds. They’re extremely friendly and can be pet (although you might want to wash your hands afterwards).

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

You can also buy stacks of rice crackers from vendors along the road and feed the deer from your hands. Just be careful though- once the deer know you have food, they won’t leave you alone. I was stalked by a deer for a good 15 minutes, and when I wouldn’t keep feeding him, he head-butted me several times.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

This deer knows what’s up. He’s stalking one of the cracker vendors from behind.

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Here’s my stalker deer friend literally moments before he head-butted me. Notice the sheer terror in my face.
Don’t worry though, I survived.

The deer are also extremely intelligent and have been known to wait at stoplights before crossing the street. You can even bow to the deer, and some will even bow back! I had an elderly Japanese couple laugh at me when I tried this, but once I walked away, I saw them trying the same exact thing.

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

Like I mentioned earlier, Nara is home to several important temples and shrines in Japan. I visited Todai-ji, a large Buddhist temple complex. Todai-ji is known for its Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden), which was the largest wooden structure in the world until 1998.

Todai-ji Nara Japan TempleDSC_5086

Todai-ji also houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, which stands at almost 50 feet tall. The statue was completed in 752, has undergone several restorations and repairs since then.Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Guardian of the Great Buddha

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

At the Great Buddha Hall, visitors can see the many statues, purchase ema, and visit a small gift shop with deer paraphernalia.

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Japanese ema (prayer plaques)

Todai-ji Nara Japan TempleNara may not be as exciting as downtown Tokyo, but it still has plenty to do. Check out ancient Japanese history, enjoy a relaxing day in the park, and pet some deer. Just make sure to bring some hand sanitizer, and plenty of money for rice crackers.

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I’m staying in the Kansai area for next weeks Travel Tuesday, so make sure to keep an eye out! Until then, thanks for reading and enjoy!

Ueno

Two weeks ago I took you to Asakusa, a traditional Japanese district in the northeast reaches of Tokyo. Today, I’m heading to Ueno, a nearby district that showcases some of Tokyo’s best points of interest.

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Ueno is home to a wide variety of activities and is a particularly appealing destination for tourists. This district is home to a huge park, ponds, a zoo, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, a major concert hall, and many well-known museums, all within walking distance. Whether you’re looking for a nice nature walk or want to learn more about Japanese culture, Ueno definitely has something for everyone.

Walking in Ueno Park

Walking in Ueno Park

DSC_0550My favorite part about this district was Ueno Park, Japan’s first and most popular public park. Ueno Park surrounds Shinobazu Pond, a small body of water with extensive lotus beds and marshlands. As you walk along the shoreline, you can see many varieties of birds that have taken shelter in the marshlands, as well as carp, turtles, and other wildlife. Ueno Park is also home to a huge population of feral cats, who you can see slinking around under the trees.

Shinonazu Pond

Shinonazu Pond

Huge carp in the pond

Huge carp in the pond

One of the many feral cats that call Ueno home

One of the many feral cats that call Ueno home

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Check out how mossy these turtles are!

Check out how mossy these turtles are!

DSC_0579Although I didn’t get a chance to see them, Ueno also has over 800 sakura trees. From the end of March to early May, thousands of people flock to Ueno park for hanami (flower viewing) to see the beautiful cherry blossoms throughout the walking paths.

Thousands of people in Ueno for the flower viewing, or hanami

Thousands of people in Ueno for the flower viewing, or hanami

Vendors along the walking trails in Ueno offer a variety of street foods during hanami

Vendors along the walking trails in Ueno offer a variety of street foods during hanami

The park itself is also home to several Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, one of which sits on an island in the middle of the pond. At the temple, visitors cleanse themselves with water, purchase incense to burn, find out their fortunes, or even leave prayers behind in hope that they’ll be answered. I’ll cover some of these practices more in another post about religion, but until then, enjoy some of the pictures from that area.

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Before entering the temple grounds, guests purify their hands and mouth using water provided in a small fountain

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Visitors can purchase sticks of incense to burn while they pray.

Visitors can purchase sticks of incense to burn while they pray.

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Japanese ema (Shinto prayer plaues). Visitors purchase an ema and write a prayer on it, then hang them up at the shrine where the gods can receive them

Japanese ema (Shinto prayer plaques). Visitors purchase an ema and write a prayer on it, then hang them up at the shrine where the gods can receive them

DSC_0525If you’re in the mood for more nature, Ueno is also home to Japan’s oldest zoo, which opened in 1882. For around $6 visitors can see over 2500 animals and 450 species, including giant pandas, giraffes, hippos, tigers, elephants, and more. Ueno Zoo is definitely a popular spot for families, but I think that no one is ever too old to enjoy a zoo. I know I did.

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This monkey was not pleased to be photographed.

This monkey was not pleased to be photographed.

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This guy…

Ueno also showcases a dozen different museums, including the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Nature and Science, the National Museum of Western Art, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and the Shitamachi Museum. It’s a great place to visit to learn more about Japanese art, or even the history and culture of Tokyo.

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DSC_6571DSC_6164It’s easy to make a full day of travel out of Ueno’s attractions, but before you leave, make sure you try one of Ueno’s specialties: panda pan. It’s a great way to leave Ueno on a sweet note, especially after a full day of walking.

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What was your favorite part of Ueno? Thanks for reading, and let me know in the comments below!