Sunday, April 12, 2015

Photos Announcement

PHOTOS:
https://picasaweb.google.com/sunfishdesigns/

We have been back now for a while and people wanted to know where are the photos. Since I do not have a smart phone, I was unaware that the mobile version did not show the sidebar with the link to all the albums. Also for those just reading the email updates, if you don't click on the website, you do not see the photo albums either.  I have changed the mobile device to duplicate the desktop version - although the print is very small - can't change that until next blog. Next time I will also include album links in the email versions. Plus I will make the type larger.

For now, if you are interested in seeing the photo albums go to:

https://picasaweb.google.com/sunfishdesigns/

Because Picasa does not allow for album grouping, this takes you to all of our albums. They are ordered chronologically by date going backwards. This blog starts with Juno, Blizzard of 2015.  Best viewed on a computer.

If there are any more comments or anything else I can do to improve the next blog, please let me know.  It used to be a lot simpler when there weren't so many viewing options. I welcome any input you may have.

Thanks.  Till next time....

Friday, March 27, 2015

Be It Ever So Humble.....

waiting for spring
There's no place like home. Finally made it into the house at 2 am! Everything ran like clockwork until we got to New York. You would think we were in a third world country. Vietnam did better than what was going on at customs at JFK airport.  We were rushed through, because it looked like we might not make our connecting flight from Jet Blue (the other side of the airport, of course). After having rushed like hell to get through customs, pick up the luggage, recheck the luggage, and then find the flight to Boston - guess what? Yup, delayed.

Jet Blue was packed with kids coming home from spring break. The waiting area was small and it got crowded pretty quickly. Our flight was supposed to leave at 8:45. The announcement was that the crew was late - coming in from another flight from the who knows where. How crazy is that, having the crew on back to back flights with no time in between. Eventually, they started boarding - that took about 45 minutes with all the crap people travel with to push into the overheads. As soon as everyone was seated, on came the announcement that we would have to wait at the gate until 10:00 - ground visibility problem in Boston - it was only 9:15.

Well, I was up and out of my seat in record time. Not going to sit in a tube for 45 minutes. The crew wasn't sure what to do with me. But the captain was a doll and said he would stay outside the aircraft with me and make sure I was alright. At 10, he announced that we could leave the gate but we would be taxiing for about 50 minutes and in the air for 38 minutes. Could have driven to Boston by then. Landed fine, but then there was confusion as to where the baggage was going to be coming out. We went back and forth a couple of times between carousels. Really??? Coming from Japan, all this seemed incredulous to us. Their systems run much more efficiently. Avoiding JFK whenever possible in the future.

At least our car service guy was there for us when we came outside. Opened the door a little after 2 in the morning. Twenty-eight hours to get home. Oy! Bed felt like heaven and we slept for 12 hours. Diane bought some milk and bananas for us, so there was cereal for our mid-afternoon breakfast. Just finishing the wash. Still trying to get the mud out of the biking gear from Vietnam - that many take more than one wash.

Going to the Mexican restaurant for dinner - hope Diane and Tim join us. Well that is it for this SunFish Travels adventure. No idea where it will be next but stay tuned.  Thanks again to all of you who wrote and commented. Thanks to all of our hosts and family and friends, new and old, that we stayed with along the way and those that watched our house while we were gone.

It was a great journey - one we will remember for a very long time.

Till next time....


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sayonara Japan

Getting ready to leave. We had breakfast in our room with a beautiful view of the mountains. It is going to be a very long day, but it is time to go home. We are weary and long for our own bed. I used to include toilet in that but I have to say, I am going to miss the toilets of Japan. They are clean, neat, always have paper, free and usually heated. Also going to miss the coffee vending machines. Sorry we didn't discover them earlier. 

We never know how any trip is going to turn out. But, looking back, we did really well with our Japan plans for not being on the tour bus. Tokyo was a whirlwind. Our ryokan in Arashiyama was worth every penny. Kyoto was beautiful and the temples a site to behold. It was great staying with Jonni and getting out of the city. I was concerned it would be too much to go back and forth, but it was really very convenient, and he made it even more so by offering to drive us to and from the station. And Hakone - Hakone was the icing on the cake! Never did I imagine we would enjoy it so. I totally recommend it to anyone visiting Japan. 

Had some time to kill, so we went back out to the garden. Took some more photos. Petted the koi. Rang the bell at Happiness Hill. At the waterwheel, we had our final Jerry B. travel memorial. Going to let the poor guy rest from now on. It is still early - guess we will make our way to the train station.

Arrived at the station early. I guess we always have to wait somewhere - so now we will wait at the Yumoto Station - where we are right now. We are watching all the crowds head up to Gora (where we were yesterday). So glad we did it our way. Somehow we managed to escape the hoards of people, again.

The 12:20 Romance Car came right on time. In retrospect, we could have boarded the earlier train since no one ever looked at our tickets. But being the good doobies that we are, we waited for our train. The ride was a comfortable hour and a half. Ordered a box seafood lunch which was, once again, pretty delicious. Don't think we had a bad meal yet. Didn't lose any weight on this trip no matter how much we biked or walked. Pulled into Shinjuku station - went straight to the west gate, like we were told, and viola! there was an airport limo bus waiting. We had reservations for the 2:20 but they took us on the 2pm no probem. Bus was another comfortable hour or so trip - no hassles and drops you right at the departure terminal.

Checked in and we are now sitting in the Sakura Lounge - I'm sipping wine and preparing for the 13 hour flight home.  Flying into JFK because they do not offer Premium Economy on the Boston flight, unfortunately. So we will do our 13 hours in comfort and take the hour and half JetBlue flight to Boston. Should get in around 10pm. Car service will pick us up. Hope to be all tucked in by 11:30 - midnight the latest.

Next time... Be it ever so humble..






Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Fujiyama!

Before I begin today's adventure, I have to write about last night's dinner. Since everything else we wanted to go to was closed, we took the advice of the information lady. She told us of a traditional Japanese restaurant around the corner from the hotel. Since it was beyond a construction site, I am not sure we would have found it on our own. There claim to fame is the Japaese yam. They make a sort of gruel paste that is poured over rice. We also chose the dried fish which was very good. Although the food was not seasoned a lot, it was all very tasty. Definitely a new experience for us.  After dinner, we went back and filled up the bath with natural hot spring water and had a well deserved soak before bed.


OMG, Wow, amazing, awesome, magnificent, majestic - there are just not enough adjectives to describe today's beauty. It started when we opened our eyes to bright blue skies. Things were definitely looking up from yesterday's gloom. We didn't want to waste a minute of sunshine, so we dressed and went down to see what breakfast was about.

Well, it didn't take us long to figure out that we were paying far too much money for very little food that we wanted to eat. Talked it over with the front desk and had them remove the breakfast plan. Turns out they were charging close to $50/day for the breakfast. Initially, I had booked the breakfast thinking that the hotel was in the sticks somewhere. Turns out it is very close to lots of shops and cafes. Pastry and coffee will do just fine. Speaking of coffee, I know I mentioned the beer vending machines. Well, yesterday we discovered that all the coffee vending machines actually give you hot coffee. We thought they were all a kind of rocket fuel, Red Bull thing. But, in fact, they are different kinds of coffee - black, latte, milk, sugar, etc. Of course, usually we can't understand which is which, so we just pick one and hope for the best. They all taste great and are pretty cheap.  

It was smart getting an early start, there were hardly any people around. We took out our Hakone Free Pass and got aboard the local railway station which takes you to the cable car which takes you to a gondola (or ropeway, they call them) then another gondola and another gondola which eventually takes you down to the lake for a boat cruise. You then reverse the process to get back. The views of Mt. Fuji were just incredible. The sky could not have been clearer. At the top, at Owakudani ,there are many hot springs. They are famous for their black eggs. They are boiled in the natural spring water so they turn black.

You can see Mt. Fuji from the gondolas, at Owakudani, and from the boat cruise. The views are just beautiful. We could not have asked for a better way to end our adventure. Having the pass made going through very easy - no stopping to get tickets along the way. There were few tourists when we left, but as we started the coming back the crowds were growing - so were the clouds. You could see the clouds starting to surround the mountain. We hit it at the perfect time.


We went back down to Gora, where you pick up the first gondola, and stopped to have lunch. Found a small Japanese soba place that was cheap and excellent. Next, we got off the train a station before ours and thought we would go to the Open Air Museum. Big bucks for this, so we opted out. The sun went in and it was a bit too cold to pay a lot of money to walk around outside. Maybe next time. Took the train back to the hotel. Sun came back out so we took advantage and walked around the gardens and green house of the hotel.

Now resting before going out to dinner. Hope to get into the tempura restaurant since the sushi place is closed. We'll see.

Best meal ever!! This place is simply amazing. It is a small mom & pop operation. She runs around serving and taking orders and he quietly cooks the tempura (without getting a bit of grease anywhere near him). We were fortunate to get the last two seats at the tempura bar to watch the master at work. Everything was so very fresh and tender. All fish, so we didn't have to worry about pork or chicken. It was a set menu which consisted of shrimp, eel, squid wrapped in mint, asparagus, baby corn, mushroom, Japanese plum, and scallops (which were to die for) all fried in a tempura batter that was the best we have ever tasted - plus miso soup, pickles, and rice. Now we are grateful that the sushi restaurant was closed. We would have by-passed this place. Truly a wonderful evening to top off a wonderful day.

This is our final good-night from the Far East. Be back home tomorrow night. 

Next time...Sayonara Japan

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Going to Hakone

We are now comfortably settled in our new and last room of this long sojourn. Jonni drove us to the station this morning. It was tough saying good-bye. I feel we became fast friends in a short amount of time. He really appreciated the sea glass from our beach and immediately displayed it on his Japanese fountain. Perfect place. We would love to have him come visit us, but I doubt that will happen. He likes the world coming to his door.  And his door is very, very nice indeed.

Got into Kyoto with plenty of time to get our tickets for the Shinkensan train (our last bullet ride) and pick up a snack for the two hour ride. The highlight of the journey was when we passed Mt. Fujiyama. Stunning view and I was able to get a decent shot traveling at over 200mph. Fortunately, the sun was out. It has been mostly cloudy and pretty cold all day. 



Our stop was Odawara where we transferred to a bus that took us up the mountain to Hakone. The bus drops you pretty much in front of the hotel. Arrived at around 2pm. This place is large. It is one of the oldest hotels in Japan, founded in 1878. Some of the famous guests have been, Charlie Chaplin, Nehru, Helen Keller, John Lennon, just to name a few. We checked in and were shown to our room. I was pretty disappointed because we had a great view of the air conditioning units. Asked to get the room changed for a higher level. The bellhop said she would look into it while we had lunch.

Went downstairs to the Grill Room for lunch. The food was good but very expensive. We are going to try to eat outside the hotel from now on. Our room does come with breakfast, so that'll be ok. Stopped by the desk after lunch. There was another room available but in another part of the hotel. Fine. The view is wonderful and the price is a lot cheaper - guessing John Lennon didn't stay in this room. So far, so good. It is quiet, which is good, considering there are many, many people here. Two big groups came in just after us.


Having gotten the room situation settled, we ventured outside to see what the area had to offer. Passed a couple of little restaurants. Unfortunately, the sushi place we read about is closed for the two nights we are here. There is a tempura place and a traditional Japanese restaurant that we will go to tonight. Nothing fancy and we talked them into swapping the pork portion to tofu.

Went down to the train station to see if we could exchange the Hakone Pass we bought for tues and weds to weds and thurs - it was just too late and cold to do anything this afternoon. Plus the ticket would be good for part of the train ride home. But unfortunately, they would not exchange the ticket. Guess we lost out on that. Didn't think it through enough. Just can't think of everything. Tomorrow we will have to take advantage of the one day we have. Really hope it warms up a bit or at least the sun stays out. There are hot springs in the hotel. In the event it is too nasty to brave the elements, we can enjoy the pools.

Right now it is looking to be a very nice sunset. The clouds have broken up and the last bit of sun is shining on the mountain tops. I hope that is a promising sign.  Till tomorrow.

Next time... Hakone Free Pass

Monday, March 23, 2015

But Wait There's More Temples!

The temperature dropped 20 degrees today so we were lucky to do what we did. Got into Kyoto
around 10ish and took the JR to Fushimi Inari Shrine. It was good we got there early because it was pretty much tourist free. We walked to the top in about 45 minutes and the crowd thins considerably the higher you get. It was a wonderful experience with stunning views. We were fortunate that the weather was still nice and the sun was shining.
One of Kyoto's oldest (founded in 711 AD) and most revered Shinto shrines, Fushimi Inari serves as the headquarters for all the 40,000 shrines dedicated to Inari across Japan.
Originally the god of rice, Inari now governs the modern equivalent: success and prosperity in business. Fushimi Inari Shrine draws thousands of businessmen and tradespeople seeking blessings for their enterprises, especially at the first prayers of the New Year.Fushimi Inari is noted for its remarkable sight of some 10,000 small torii (shrine gates) that arch over a long path up the hill behind the shrine. It takes about two hours to walk along the whole trail, and there are nice views of Kyoto from the top.
Donated and inscribed by businesses and individuals thankful for their prosperity, the long tunnel of torii is one of the most iconic visions of Kyoto.
Coming down you wind up at the Japanese food court. We tasted the king crab, the rice balls, and the fish-shaped waffles stuffed with red bean. For lunch, we went into the grilled eel restaurant which was to die for! We had been looking some Japanese chopsticks (which are different than Chinese or Thai) and we came across a chopstick store. Picked out a couple of pairs and got a free monogram. Very cool.

It was now time to move on to our last Kyoto attraction on our list, To-ji Temple. Geoff thought we could get off a stop before Kyoto Station and take the bus across to the temple. So we tried that. The train dropped us off in a small town and no one had a clue as to where a bus stop might be. So we walked and walked. I even tried the gps but it led us to another train stop. OK - I cried UNCLE! The sun was gone and the temperature dropped like a bomb. I had on about 4 layers of clothes. We grabbed the first cab we saw and viola, we were at the temple.

Quite honestly, outside of the 5 tier pagoda, the temple site is not as impressive as the others. But it was still nice to walk around - absolutely no tourists at all here. 

Toji Temple (東寺, Tōji), literally "East Temple", was founded at the beginning of the Heian Period just after the capital was moved to Kyoto in the late 700s. The large temple, together with its now defunct sister temple Saiji ("West Temple"), flanked the south entrance to the city and served as the capital's guardian temples. Toji Temple is one of Kyoto's many UNESCO world heritage sites.
About thirty years after the temple's establishment, Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, was appointed head priest of Toji, and the temple became one of the most important Shingon temples besides the sect's headquarters on Mount Koya. Kobo Daishi also added many of the large wooden buildings that stand on the grounds today.The Kondo Hall, one of Toji's original structures, is the temple's main hall and largest building. Destroyed by a large fire in 1486, the building was reconstructed in the early Edo Period in a contemporary architecture style and houses Toji's main object of worship, a large wooden statue of the Yakushi Buddha, flanked by his two attendants, the Nikko and Gakko Bodhisattvas.
Just next door stands the Kodo Hall, which was added in 825 by Kobo Daishi and served as the temple's lecture hall. It too burned down in the 1486 fire, and was subsequently rebuilt in its original architectural style. 
Across from the Kondo and Kodo stands Toji's five storied pagoda, which was originally erected by Kobo Daishi in 826. It stands 57 meters tall, making it the tGoallest pagoda in Japan, and has become a symbol of both the temple and Kyoto as it can be seen from many places across the city. The ground floor of the pagoda is irregularly opened to the public and houses four smaller Buddha statues.
Walked around and sat with the koi for a bit. Decided to walk back to Kyoto Station and take the train back tot he house to beat the afternoon rush hour. We had asked Jonni earlier if there was a good sushi place around. He suggested just going to the market and picking some up and eating at the house. That idea appealed to us a lot. Got to the station and called Jonni. He came to pick us up and drove us down to the market. This place was huge. Sort of a department store with a super stop and shop inside. Geoff and I loaded up on sushi and I grabbed a bottle of saki as well. We were good to go.

Back at the house, I threw in a load of wash. Jonni left to go to work - should be back about 9, so the house is ours. Feels good to stop moving for a while. We had a great time exploring Kyoto and spending whatever time we could with Jonni and being able to see a bit of life outside of the city. We were also able to discretely leave a bit of our dear friend, Jerry B. at all of the temple sites we visited. 

Tomorrow we are off to Hakone. More trains and timetables. We spend our last two nights there before making the long journey back home. But now it is sushi time!

Next time.... Going to Hakone

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Back to Kyoto

Got an earlier start this morning. We were showered, fed, and out the door by around 10ish. Took some pix of Jonni's house. He was kind enough to give us a lift to the train station. Bright sun this morning, the day turned out to be quite warm until about 5 or so.

Got to Kyoto Station and bought our 2 day bus and subway pass. Took the subway and a bus out to our first destination, Kinkaku-ji Temple - the Golden Temple.

Kinkakuji (金閣寺, Golden Pavilion) is a Zen temple in northern Kyoto whose top two
floors are completely covered in gold leaf. Formally known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408. Kinkakuji was the inspiration for the similarly named Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), built by Yoshimitsu's grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, on the other side of the city a few decades later.

Kinkakuji is an impressive structure built overlooking a large pond, and is the only building left of Yoshimitsu's former retirement complex. It has burned down numerous times throughout its history including twice during the Onin War, a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto; and once again more recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955.
I should point out that Buddism is filled with superstitions. For a few yen, you ring the gong for luck, or pick a number with a fortune, or light a candle, touching wooden balls, tossing coins into a pot, throwing water around is also very popular.  For whatever the reason, this is seen throughout all of these temples and shrines.

Got on the number 12 bus that took us directly to Nijo Castle. 
Nijo Castle  was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the firstshogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867). His grandson Iemitsu completed the castle's palace buildings 23 years later and further expanded the castle by adding a five story castle keep.
After the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, Nijo Castle was used as an imperial palace for a while before being donated to the city and opened up to the public as a historic site. Its palace buildings are arguably the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture of Japan's feudal era, and the castle was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994.
Nijo Castle can be divided into three areas: the Honmaru (main circle of defense), the Ninomaru (secondary circle of defense) and some gardens that encircle the Honmaru and Ninomaru. The entire castle grounds and the Honmaru are surrounded by stone walls and moats.
Back to the subway, and got out in the Gion District.
Gion  is a district of Kyoto, Japan, originally developed in the Middle Ages, in front of Yasaka (or Gion) Shrine. The district was built to accommodate the needs of travelers and visitors to the shrine. It eventually evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan. The geisha in the Gion district (and Kyoto generally) do not refer to themselves as geisha; instead, Gion geisha use the local term geiko. While the term geisha means "artist" or "person of the arts", the more direct term geiko means essentially "a child of the arts" or "a woman of art".
We wanted to walk around the streets, but there were so many people, we took a few pix and continued walking to our next destination, Kiyomizu, the pure water Temple. But first, we needed lunch. Walked in and out of several restaurants. Most all served mostly pork and chicken - with no English menu, it is hard to order. Finally came across a fast food Japanese style place and we were able to order a couple of bento box lunches. I got salmon and Geoff got the mackerel. They were fabulous and cheap!

Having been recharged with some food we were ready to tackle the mountain up to the temple. The walk up is filled with shops, cafes, demonstrations, and lots and lots of free samples of candy. The Japanese love their sweets. I think you need all that sugar to make it to the top. This was by far the most crowded.  
Kiyomizudera (清水寺, literally "Pure Water Temple") is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan. It was founded in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall in the wooded hills east of Kyoto, and derives its name from the fall's pure waters. The temple was originally associated with the Hosso sect, one of the oldest schools within Japanese Buddhism, but formed its own Kita Hosso sect in 1965. In 1994, the temple was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.
Kiyomizudera is best known for its wooden stage that juts out from its main hall, 13
meters above the hillside below. The stage affords visitors a nice view of the numerous cherry and maple trees below that erupt in a sea of color in spring and fall, as well as of the city of Kyoto in the distance. The main hall, which together with the stage was built without the use of nails, houses the temple's primary object of worship, a small statue of the eleven faced, thousand armed Kannon.
 
The Otowa Waterfall is located at the base of Kiyomizudera's main hall. Its waters are divided into three separate streams, and visitors use cups attached to long poles to drink from them. Each stream's water is said to have a different benefit, namely to cause longevity, success at school and a fortunate love life. However, drinking from all three streams is considered greedy.
We walked through and drank from the water cup, choosing longevity. Made our way back down the mountain. This was the last site for us today. I have to say that I find the temples absolutely awe-inspiring. Even the castle, was nothing like castles you see in Europe. These are beautiful structures with strong wooden bones, built on stone, and surrounded by fragile rice paper and bamboo. A true contrast in materials. The buildings are sparse and simple. No elaborate decor like the pagodas of Thailand or Vietnam that we had visited. Unfortunately, there are no cameras allowed inside the buildings, so I can't share those images. There is a great sense of peace and tranquility throughout. Even with the tourists, the flow still moves along. 

At the bottom, we stopped to get a cup of coffee and figure out what to do next. By the time we left, our beautiful blue sky had turned into a rain shower with gusting winds! Walked up to try to catch the bus back to Kyoto station. It was close to five and even though it is Sunday, the streets were packed and the bus was jammed full of people. Not getting on there even if I could.

The rain was still coming down, when we found a stranded umbrella. Picked it up and started walking to the station. It was way too far to walk, so we stopped at the next bus stop. A few passed us - no room. Finally one stopped and Geoff and I were the last two sardines that could squeeze inside. The door barely closed. Of course, this turned the bus into an express, since it couldn't pick up any more people. 

Made it back to the station and roamed around trying to find a place for sushi. No luck, but did find the famous Kyoto staircase. And we got a kick out of the Japanese MacDonald's eating stations. The station was absolutely packed with people and it was getting too cold to walk around outside looking for a place to eat, so we decided to just take the train back and hope for the best.

Got back to Sakamoto, and there was a nice little restaurant across the street from the train station. No English, but we think it might have been a Chinese restaurant, Japanese style. We had quite a time figuring out what to order, when the waitress finally brought out the pictures. We wound up with shrimp and cuttlefish tempura. Running short on cash, so we were lucky that they took credit cards. 

Next we had to get a cab back to Jonni's. He went out tonight so he couldn't pick us up. We needed to know how much it would cost, to make sure we had enough yen. Well, you can imagine how this conversation went. After about 10 minutes, we all decided it should be about 850 more or less. Great, we had 1000 left. The fare was 930. 

Home at last after another long day of being a tourist. This can be pretty hard work sometimes. One more day and we will go back to Kyoto for a couple of more must-see temples. Then we are off to Hakone, where I hope the pace will slow down some.

Before saying good-night - a big Happy Birthday to a very special two year granddaughter, Tali.

Next time...But wait there's more temples!