Dring the flight from Swissland to Finnland you were accompanied by the most energetic hysterical little girl of all time. She screamed as loud as she could for the first two hours and last thirty minutes of the four hour flight. She'd best become a singer one day, or all that noise was a waste of time.
Arrival in Finnland was welcoming with its proudly advertised free wifi and abundant power points. Each restaurant offered several sockets integrated into the tables for customers. They even offered wireless mobile phone chargers, which were activated by placing a dongle near marked red dots on the tables - quite a nice feature for travelers.
Helsinki airport also had a Moomin shop: a white hippopotamus-looking animal from a kids book. Moomin is roughly comparable to Miffy or Pingu as a franchise, in that it's incredible popular at home but elsewhere basically unknown. Helsinki airport shops also sold every manor of Angry Birds paraphernalia; there was even an Angry Birds shop! Regardless of AB's flooded commercial presence, the Moomin thingy (not too sure about its gender) seemed most popular and much friendlier.
As a side note: Finnair economy class has crappy food and sleeping in the seats is impossible. It was 200chf cheaper but would not recommend. Airport win; airline fail.
Upon arrival you found some Yen and got a train ticket to Niigata, and then sent an SMS to Naoko. Your horribly expensive NEX train arrived in Tokyo and you still had no reply, so you sent another SMS. Half an hour later you tried calling, and on the third try you were informed you had a wrong number. You tried the landline twice but no one answered. Oh crap... you thought to yourself. You bought some train station sushi and traveled three and a half hours north on the shinkansen to Niigata.
You napped on the way in seats many times more comfortable than on the plane. The train stopped at Echigo-Yuuzawa station (where you did your working holiday in 2006) before arriving in Niigata. You spent a little time looking about the place for someone familiar but eventually gave up and decided to get there alone. You studied the network map and recognised a few of the station names so managed to get a ticket, and them took the next train to Niitsu. The rickety old carriage, full of giggling schoolgirls and serious-looking men reading comic books, rattled slowly through the dark and rain away from the station's huge cement structures towards open rice fields. In Niitsu you asked an old lady about connections to Furutsu, changed trains, and one stop later things looked familiar again. With the help of google maps, you walked in the snowy/rainy darkness to the Watanabe home an tried not to think about data roaming costs.
You found out later the mobile number you had was off by one digit (a 3 instead of a 4) and that Naoko had waited for three hours at Niigata station. It was more amusing than anything else. Something you quickly realised was Japanese and German are both filed under foreign language in your head, and there was no control over which one came out of your mouth. Sentences were an unintelligible mix of both languages. Although grammar was ok, you had forgotten most of your Japanese vocabulary; missing words were replaced with German, English or just a really silly look on your face. Like most things, there was a app for that (dictionary on your phone).
Although you weren't jet-lagged you sure were tired. You had a post-breakfast nap for half an hour, but felt guilty thinking you didn't come to Japan to sleep.
Kamo and Soba
The day was planned around a visting relatives and eating food. You drove to Kamo (where you went to school in 2001) and dropped in to see the grandmother. She's a cheery and energetic lady of 83 living atop a narrow staircase lined with old bicycles and pot plants in a friendly little wooden house decorated with yearly family get-together photos. You couldn't find the year you attended - there were quite a few on the wall after all. She served some coffee and chatted for a while. She's just such an easy person to talk to.
Soba noodles were first on the food-scedule, and so you visited a place in Tsubame. There was a wait for a table but it was entirely worth it - proper Japanese cold soba was really good. This single meal had the caloretic value of an entire day's food, but it was so damn good you had to be polite and finish it all. During the short drive after lunch you fell asleep.
And then desert
The food schedule and serving was unrelenting. As soon as you arrived home, Naoko hurriedly started preparing the next round. After having learnt the previous evening your beloved Japanese steak is prepared with lard, you weren't expecting a light refreshing salad for tea. It looked like everything left over from the previous night was coming back for a second round, and was bringing another full family meal with it. You tried to forget the cakes yet to come (purchased earlier in the day) while eating your steak, sashimi, rice, pickles, miso soup, and a full-blown sukiyaki (hotpot).
Early breakfast to allow for lunch
You ate breakfast strategically early to better prepare for the oncoming waves of generous food serving expected that day. It paid off.
You drove north with Atsuo and Naoko without a navi into rather significant snow. The car fogged up inside to the point you were wiping the front windscreen with a cloth every two minutes. An hour and a half into the two hour drive things weren't looking very familiar. The ancient navi, Atsuo's phone and a printed map were consulted for direction but this still didn't prevent another loop of the block.
You passed many small villages separated by vast rice fields along the way. The coastal roads rolled on through fishing villages and small forests of pine trees blanketed in fresh snow. After finding the right road it was time for lunch. You ate at a resturant above a fish market with a powerful seafood smell. The restaurant had a good reputation, which it lived up to: the plentiful servings were fresh and really tasty. You ate intentionally slower than normal to enjoy both the food and the view from the huge windows facing the ocean - not that you could see much through the foggy snow. You were not permitted to pay :(
The Senami Onsen is part of a coastal hotel in the north of Niigata prefecture. You've been there a few times - without fail while it was raining, snowing or both - and it still remains your firm favorite. The hotel has never seemed especially busy, which is great if you wanna bathe (mostly) alone. You all took your time washing and bathing both indoors and out, really enjoying watching the mist swimming above the hot onsen water while the snow fell icily on your shoulders. They had a new foot massager this time which made walking back upstairs kinda floppy.
So are you married?
Although you resisted for as long as you could, you fell asleep on the way back. You rejoined the conversation near the city, not long before arriving at her twin sister's house. The house's garden had a pond with half-meter long koi. Inside you gathered around a low table while her two cats jumped playfully about, and had some tea. The family has always been very welcoming and generous, and this time you were given all manor of presents including chopsticks and teapots. You were glad you made the effort to organise enough gifts from Switzerland; they were well received.
With very little hesitation the twin sister asked about marriage, which in Japan is quite ok to (pressingly) ask. You explained the Swiss tax system (married + no kids = more tax) and they gave their consent.
Japanese infomercial koalas
Since everyone had to work, you spent the morning watching very happy koalas advertise car insurance on TV. Niigata sure is a quiet place. It makes sense they have so many animals in their home (fish, crabs, mantis, dog) to keep things lively.
Later in the day you went for ramen, and then to the station to ask about weekend adventures. Most people had been pushing you to visit Kyoto, so you ended up with a bag full of brochures to every temple-tour imaginable. You also picked up some info about the onsen monkeys, who live in Nagano.
You looped past Kamo to visit the grandmother and sister again, just to be friendly. The grandmother gave you a 30000¥ departing gift (giving cash to travelers is normal, but not that much) which was a little surprising.
4am, 3 missed calls, 2 messages, 1 forced entry
Your phone rang a few times during the night. You ignored thinking it was work. After the third very persistant call two messages arrived from Meike: We've been robbed! and The police have caught them. The police called again and explained there had beea break-in, and they were sorry a muddy footprint was left on the bed. There was a little confusion concerning keys, but Steffen and Sandra drove over to sort things out.
Going back to sleep was not really an option with all that excitement. You played on the net for a bit and went down stairs at 6:30 to tell everyone what happened. Even though they were in their bathrobes, breakfast was laid out ready.
10am breakfast, 11am lunch, 3:41 departure
It is obsessive how much the Japanese focus on food. Perhaps it stems from hospitality and kindness, but at a certain point it gets stressful. You felt for retired JPop boy-band members, who's sole career path after singing is being force fed food on TV and saying umai! It didn't seem to matter that you just had breakfast - lunch was planned at 11! You met Atsuo at work and had something pasta related, then headed to Niigata station.
The last four days had been a quick reorientation to Japan. You'd basically got the hang of the language again, just missing a few words here and there. It had been nice to see people again.
5:18 arrival Tokyo
From Tokyo station you walked to your lady's fancy hotel in Roppongi. The streets were crowded with business people leaving work, streaming in both direction. The hotel was rather fancy: the lobby had live piano and smooth saxophone jazz, and the room on the 14th floor had a view over the city.
That evening you both went for a walk underneath the elevated highway to Roppongi and eventually settled on a sushi restaurant for tea. The food was made directly infront of you by a smiley sushi chef, and was exquisite (compared to Western sushi). Meike's mission to come to Japan and eat lots of sushi was going as planned.
Roppongi to Akihabara
The hotel breakfast buffet allowed walk-ins, so joining was not problem. The food was so good you felt obligated to try everything and then have seconds of the best parts. They kindly granted you the executive discount for no obvious reason.
Your lady left for work while you, camera in hand, left for the city. Streets were less colourful than at night; they were now full of robotic-looking suits filing in synchronisity into large buildings. You wore your red jacket, which seemed to bother Japanese business people somehow (a few stares here and there). Maybe the stark colour-contrast made you stand out, or perhaps your lack of purpose made them uneasy. Providing you were free to stay outside and not join them in the big ugly buildings, you didn't care.
The road to Tokyo station was through the diplomatic and government offices district. The area had wide roads and seemed very serious. One man had set up a standing microphone infront a some official-looking building and was shouting at the offices. They should be ashamed of themselves, or something. It was probably anti-nuclear protest. The roads led to the Tokyo Imperial Palace which, according to a servey done in the 1980s, had a higher value than all real estate in California combined. The surrounding park covered a wide, but unfriendly landscape of fenced-off evenly spaced cherry blossom trees. Other than some guards and one single sparrow, in Winter there was no life there whatsoever.
Tokyo station is comparable to a beehive: buzzing with busyness and brimming with busteling businessmen making beelines through tight tunnels. If you dare stand still you'll be swallowed by the swarms of people. Visiting the station is unavoidable as a tourist - if only at arrival and departure - and can be quite stressful if you suffer claustrophobia or agoraphobia. Best to bustle on.
Taking small back streets running in the shadow of the main train line, you wiggled through to Akihabara - the electronics district. Akihabara is home to several Tokyo oddities: multi-story electronic shops, multi-story geek shops (cosplay, figurines, models), and multi-story sex shops. Generally, the higher up you go, the weirder and more expensive it gets. For example: ground floor sells mobile phones, model trains and sexy lingerie; while the top floor sells 50k+ audio systems, Nazi uniforms and anime character replica vaginas respectively. It is worth visiting for shock value alone - you are under constant visual and aural assault. After two hours you needed a time-out. You bought a Crunch Dog usb stick (a dog with abs that does sit-ups when plugged in) and moved on.
Ueno to Asakusa
You walked from north Akihabara towards Ueno along backstreets using your fancy iPad map to navigate. Less than two city blocks away from the epileptic fit-inducing electric shops, the skyline fell to low level housing and small businesses. The streets were long and narrow, sometimes with pedestrian space but usually the roads were shared with the minimal traffic. Blocks of tightly packed houses were only distinguishable from each other by the occasional collection of half-dead pot plants sitting outside, and it all looked grey and depressing. Perhaps this was where innercity businesspeople come to sleep/die, and leave abandoned during daylight hours.
The business density slowly increased the closer you came to Ueno. After maybe an hour walking, you came to a main road lined almost exclusively with funeral-related shops. They sold stones and urns of all sizes but everything looked the same. Nearby you discovered a traditional Japanese porcelain/pottery shop selling very expensive tea cups which was nice. Immediately following this intersection was Asakusa, where things came back to (commercial) life and there were people everywhere.
Asakusa has lots of big temples and the surrounding architecture has a mocked-up old-timey vibe. Shops sell wooden and woven sandals, chopsticks, tea pots, good luck charms and random trinkets. Asakusa is the traditional stuff part of Tokyo. The path leading up to the main temple was lined with stalls brightly decorated with red and while baubles hanging from bendy branches, which only avoided looking cheap due to the lively atmosphere of thousands of people bumping through. There were groups of giggly students, traditionally dressed women part of some kind of ceremony, and older couples squinting at their digital camera displays. The temple looked unchanged since the first time you visited eleven years ago: lucky charms were being sold, incense was being burnt, hundred yen coins were being thrown into big wooden boxes and prayers made. Visiting was a popular as ever.
Homeless areas and bonsai trees
After having crossed Tokyo city from south to north by foot, you turned back for the hotel. Along the way you made stops for souvenirs (chopsticks and bonsai trees) until your backpack was full. There's just too many unique things here to carry home.
Ueno park behind Ueno station seemed worth visiting since it looked so big on the map. In Winter it was actually depressing to visit: most trees were bare and the park was used primarily as a pedestrian thoroughfare, and secondly as a homeless camp. Each homeless man had constructed himself a makeshift enclosure of cardboard boxes, more or less fencing themselves off a tiny camping ground. Regular pedestrians and homeless Japanese seemed to exist in parallel dimensions invisible to one another - no one made the tiniest of glances through the social barrier, and kept eyes to the ground. Also, why is it only ever homeless men and never women?
Past the park was an outdoor shopping arcade of bright lights and loud salesmen. People had knocked off work and were out to feed, and the shop keepers were yelling into the crowd how good their food tasted or how discounted their watches were. Strangely, after the umbrella shop up until the bakery were about twenty golf shops. Maybe golf is perceived at the most enriched free-time activity available, so very popular amongst the time-poor. Considering the idiotic hours people work in the city maybe the homeless are not the poorer class after all.
Near Tokyo station you found a nice looking bonsai tree, and talked to the florist about how likely it was it'd make it through customs. She wasn't convinced, nor did she have a practical-sized box with which to carry it home. You arrived back at the hotel about an hour later than planned; keyless Meike was waiting at the door.
That evening you visited Asakusa with your lady. You took the subway from Tamaikesanno Station, which can be creatively translated to Meike san's station. By night it looked very different: completely deserted apart form the homeless shacked up in cardboard boxes.
Shibuya to Shinjuku
Shibuya is Tokyo's hip(ster) central. It is perhaps the only place in Tokyo you can dress however you want without attracting attention; the cross-dressing punk-metal hippie, or the pink fluffy princess in combat boots and bunny ears overshadow you every time. Shibuya has the sensory overload of Akihabara without the electronics and porn. They are replaced by trendy clothing shops and love hotels. Somewhere in the middle there's place called Love Hotel Hill - the name owing to its high number of love hotels (quickie rooms) for couples with no alternative space to copulate. Nice to visit (Shibuya, that is) but exhausting.
Walking north from Shibuya through small laneways of fashion designers' micro-boutiques you came to a park with, seemingly, no way in. The park was an elevated landscape surrounded by a moat of main roads. After finding a way inside, there was nothing but bare trees, snow and hundreds of homeless. The park was not welcoming at all and appeared engineered to be a holding pen for patrons. Even armed with a map, you struggled to find the way out.
Past the horrible park were overpasses tangled in rail lines tangled in walking paths. Some cars had parked on an off-ramp, motors running, with people sleeping at in the drivers seat; perhaps this was a circumvention of no-parking/resting laws. After a small unwelcoming residential zone, you arrived in Shinjuku - the new business centre of Tokyo. The buildings were ugly, and the people looked very serious and unfriendly. You walked as far as the station, which was dirty and plastered with styleless big brand billboards, then got the hell outa' there.
After a little rest at the hotel Meike finished work and you traveled several kilometers underground toward Tokyo station. On the platform she was amused at the shinkansen's cleaners, who lined up after tidying and bowed to the passengers. Shouldn't we be thanking them?
Nagano was just under two hours from Tokyo. You booked your connections and hotel through the Japan Rail office, which seemed to be the easiest but not necessarily the cheapest way to ge there. The hotel was opposite Nagano station and a bit unimpressive, considering you had just come from the Intercontinental. The man at reception, much like everyone Japan, needed a few fluent sentences to convince him you understood Japanese. His fumbling with English was perhaps kindly meant, but tiring.
Compared to high-class Tokyo breakfast, basic Nagano hotel breakfast looked like leftovers. It just dawned on you how quickly you had adjusted to fancy food. You took the express train to Yudanaka, who's front carriage had a front-facing panoramic window. You suspected this train was commissioned for the winter Olympics. Although 98' doesn't seem like so long ago, the train looked aged but was still comfortable. Yudanaka had a group of volunteers waiting to greet and direct foreigners no their onward journey. Again, these were more Japanese people refusing to acknowledge your conversational Japanese was better than their woeful English. One man worried himself that Meike's shoes were unfit for the difficult treck through the snow. You played the we're from Switzerland card - a universal pass for anything mountain and snow related - but he wasn't convinced. Yudanaka was a small, sleepy town of houses softly puffing steam from their chimneys. The only unlikely excitement was the Monkey Taxi waiting at the station, which was probably not driven by monkeys at all.
A short bus ride took you to the edge of the forrest. There was a short forty minute walk along a narrow snowy path through a steep-walled valley to the monkey onsen. Along the path were several steamy streams of warm water, and the whole valley blew softly with sulphur-scented clouds. At the end of the path was group of small wooden houses perched on a rock above a bend in the river, and two half snowed-in motorbikes. It must be serene to live there with no cares, bar the occasional need to clear the icy paths. A little higher was a wooden cabin with a small admissions window and kindly, somewhat distracted caretaker. Two adults: 2000¥.
The first two monkeys were sitting under the steps below the cabin taking turns grooming one another. You were happy to see two monkeys... until you looked around the corner and saw the other eighty. The place was swarming with Macaques: bathing Macaques, playing Macaques, foraging Macaques, frisky Macaques. There were a few down by the river curiously looking under chunks of ice and huddling against a warm water pipe. Some monkeys were digging in the snow on the on the opposite side of the valley. Most monkeys were milling in and around the main monkey bath, either red-faced and looking dazed from heat in the water or sitting on the edge picking through their friends fur. Not a single F' was given as the visitors poked big lenses and mobile phones cameras in their faces.
You stayed for a while watching the monkeys play until your toes got cold. After some hot cocoa in the cabin, you walked back down the valley and caught the bus back to Yudanaka, and the slow train back to Nagano. Slow regional trains stop at every stop, during which all doors open to let the cold Winter wind blow through. The engineer (driver) darted from his cabin onto the platforms at every stop to open station doors/gates, then bowed and thanked each passenger before getting back on board and closing the doors. The Japanese have a funny way with courtesy, that sometimes their over-attentiveness to certain things (politeness, helpfulness, etc) can leed to being inconvenient or outright bothersome to everyone else. Country trainlines are just one chilly example.
Nagano has a happening and a non-happening side of the town divided by the train line. Tea was at a cheap little rahmen shop, and was followed by a Japanese crepe: like a normal crepe with ten times the whipped cream. Nagano city was a lively as you could expect for a small town in the country, long forgotten since the Olympics. It was very tidy and nicely layed out but rather quiet.
After a little breakfast at the hotel you two went for a walk about Nagano. In one tiny tea shop - Nagano has a loooooot of tea shops - you met a chatty lady who told you about a festival currently happening at the temple, since 6am apparently. You wandered up the main road, stopping along the way to look inside interesting little shops, then found the temple gate. The temple was actually quite impressive: wide and open with plenty of space, and filled with hundreds of people enjoying the festival atmosphere. Japan has something, that tradition is not lost through the generations and young people are genuinely interested in taking part. If for nothing else, taking part for the Sunday outing and festival food.
You found a relaxed cafe of sorts which also served basic Japanese curry rice meals, and had some cocoa and cake. The shinkansen back to Tokyo was painted with onsen monkeys and penguins, and the ride was relaxing. Back in Tokyo you went to your lady's next hotel, the Ceruliean in Shibuya. Your lady had requested a hotel near the main station, which this wasn't. Considering the hotel was in the hip district overlooking the busiest intersection in the world, and the room was on the 22nd floor with a view out over the city - the location was just fine.
Shibuya from above
That evening you wandered about Shibuya for and bit and found an underground udon restaurant for tea. The food was best described as blunt, as in smacked down and served up fast. Your lady requested the simplest udon bowl they had which was a mistake, since it contained special eggs. Se had a long wait and it was barely edible, but never mind. Sihbuya is best observed at night from above. You found a window seat in a coffee shop overlooking the main intersection and settled in for some people-watching. The intersection outside Shibuya station is said to be the most pedestrianized space in the world. All traffic lights go red simultaneously and the roads flood with people. For about thirty seconds it's a turbulent sea of complete chaos, and people continue to trickle across even after the lights change. Eventually, the last few do a mad dash in front of impatient taxis and the traffic streams through once again. The stragglers looked a bit like pidgeons, stupidly surprised something was shoeing them away.
Spew, spew, Harajuku
You must have eaten some dodgey food and caught a virus because neither of you could keep anything inside until that afternoon. Although you could sweat it out on the 22nd floor in bed, your lady was required at a supplier meeting. You can only imagine how nasty it was to be the center of focus - the only girl, only white person, only foreigner - while holding back the spews.
All you managed was a little walk from Shibuya to Harajuku Takeshita St. - the outrageous clothing street - and back to bed.
Holiday misadventure trifecta
You took the Ginza line to Tokyo station, the Narita Express to the airport (kuukoo) and, thanks to a lucky upgrade, flew home business class.
This short trip to Japan had all top three typical holiday misadventures: burglary, food poisoning, and on the way home lost luggage. It sure was fun.
Very little was stolen from your apartment in Swissland. They were professionals apparently, looking for cash and jewelry. A neighbor had reported the break-in and the police caught them shortly after. Your lovely lady had the lovely idea to give your neighbor a potted flower as a thank you present, but wasn't sure which neighbor. Assuming it was the pair opposite the bedroom window where the break-in occurred, you waited until one evening when they were home and just tapped on their window. This surprised your easily-frightened female neighbor, who proceeded to run around her apartment screaming. The boyfriend came to the rescue and things settled. Highly amusing.
A while later you discovered your swimming pool passes were missing, which the police coincidentally found that same day in a burglars wallet. The curious part was the criminals choose to take a pool pass over a credit card, which was sitting next to it. Perhaps they wanted to go for a swim?