Japan Trip Highlights – Part 3

Wednesday August 5, 2015 | Culture Travel

Japan

As I reflect back on our trip to Japan, I realize how much the experience has influenced me. Not just in how I constantly want to eat Japanese food now and how I’ve even begun to cook Japanese recipes (I never cook)!

Honestly, the trip was eye-opening into how Japanese culture holds great respect for harmony and striving for the ideal, for “the greater good.”

And maybe I’m looking into my experience through love goggles and I’m waxing poetical about a Japanese culture that I want to be true so I invented it in my head.

Maybe the only way to find out is to actually just live there for a few years (yes please)!

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But in any case, I am very happy to take away something that has embedded itself into my spirit.

So without further ado, here is the third part of our Japan Trip Highlights!

TOKYO

We made it back to Tokyo right before our JR rail passes expired.

A word about the bullet trains

Bullet Train

I was very impressed.

Not only because the trains travel at dizzying speeds. I was blown away at how they arrive and leave exactly on. the. dot. of when they’re supposed to.

It helps that people line up patiently instead of elbowing and fighting their way to get inside. A telltale sign of a civilized society!

We didn’t know this the first time we took the train, so we cut our way to the front.

Then when we saw the line of people quietly waiting behind us, we realized we were the a$$holes.

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We stayed at the Park Hotel Tokyo which features rooms painted by various artists.

The view from our hotel was spectacular, especially at night.

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Our other lost in translation moment happened while we were wandering in Shinbashi, where businessmen go to eat and drink after work with their colleagues.

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We were starving and desperate and couldn’t find a single restaurant with any english at all on their menu.

So we resorted to our trusty strategy of pointing and making noises. And it worked!

Other highlights

  • We welcomed the rain that came the following day. Up until then we had been lucky to have warm, sunny weather.
  • Our last full day in Tokyo was dedicated to shopping. I purchased a set of hand-made makeup brushes I’d been coveting and a pair of wide-legged culottes that have been popular in Japan and are now just starting to make their appearance here.

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  • We met up with a family friend in Roppongi Hills. After a delicious lunch together, we enjoyed chatting and having coffee at a Starbucks. Matcha tea latte at a Japanese Starbucks is the real deal.
  • At night walkings along the high lines of Shiodome, I spotted a cat! Of course, I tried to throw a piece of food at it but it ran away. Then as we walked a little bit further we heard a bunch of meowing kittens hidden in some bushes. Which drove me into a frenzy.

 

KAMAKURA

This was our last day in Japan! And it was perfect…

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Kamakura is a cute little beach town just south of Tokyo.

It makes me think of the beachy area where we live right now in San Francisco. Except Kamakura is probably not as prone to foggy weather.

If I lived in Japan, I would probably live in Kamakura.

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While walking around, I couldn’t help but notice a slight obsession with all things California. Which I thought was cute 😉

There are surfers paddling around the beach and many of the restaurants feature California cuisine.

We even ate tacos! All I’m gonna say about that is: Nice try.

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We visited the Daibutsu / Big Buddha statue. This enormous statue used to be housed inside a temple until an earthquake destroyed the temple.

Now he’s just out in the open. I guess the big guy wanted some fresh air.

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For the equivalent of 25 cents you can go inside the Big Buddha and have a look around.

Lunch for me was the perfect summer vegetable soup with chicken. I would eat this everyday!

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And of course… but of course… we had tea time.

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Then for dinner, we met up with a friend who I had known from our days living in Cameroon. We had been Peace Corps volunteers and she had been a JICA volunteer who came on around the same time that we did.

The last time I saw her, we were hanging out at a bar in Yaoundé!

It was surreal to meet up with her and laugh about the funny things that happen only in Cameroon, all the while speaking French to each other. Je te dis que eh!

We drove to a nearby island, tried to find snacks made of baby octopus, watched the sun set, spotted a bunch of cats, had oden for dinner and drinks at a traditional place where you eat yakitori while standing up.

We met some very interesting local people, particularly this one guy who was a musician and introduced himself as the “King of Shocking” which if I understood him correctly was also a play on the word “erection?”

On this night which was our last, I got to fulfill my one true wish of singing karaoke!

And if I could have, I would have stayed up all night singing.

Crooning to Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” was a fitting way to end the evening right before catching the last train back to Tokyo.

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TEA CEREMONY

One of the most captivating experiences I had in Japan was sitting in a tea ceremony in Kyoto.

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One of our friends arranged for us to have a tea ceremony at WA Experience Kafu.

Kafu is a cultural center that holds lessons on traditional practices such as calligraphy, kabuki, and traditional Japanese cooking.

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Kimi, the lady who performed the ceremony, was very friendly and explained different aspects of the ceremony in english.

What I learned delighted me.

Tea ceremony is “meditation in motion.”

While you enjoy a simple cup of tea, you are also meditating on harmony with those around you, harmony with nature and even with the objects that you use to perform the ceremony such as the cups, the bamboo spoon, the whisk and the water.

The matcha by the way is quite strong, so you must enjoy a little sweet treat before you drink the tea. On this day, we got to enjoy a cooling summer sweet.

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When it comes to the details of the ceremony, no detail is too small to be appreciated.

From the motion of whisking the tea, the hypnotic sound of fabric ritualistically dropped on the floor, the way the “front” of the bowl faces before, during and after you drink, even the pattern that the matcha foam leaves behind after you drink it up. Everything has significance.

There are many styles of performing tea ceremony. Kimi has been learning and practicing under a grand master for years. And the style that she performs is one that had been handed down through generations of samurai.

Sadly, tea ceremony, like calligraphy and kabuki is becoming a lost art.

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At the closing of the ceremony, Kimi’s final touch was to refill the pot with water in honor of the next person who will use it.

If everyone thought and acted like that, I think we could probably save humanity.

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If you are in Kyoto and are interested in sitting in a tea ceremony, I would highly recommend having it done at KAFU.

The experience felt more like a private ceremony since it was just Oliver and me sitting in that day.

As I mentioned previously, we left the tea ceremony feeling refreshed, relaxed and at one with the universe.

A feeling all too fleeting.

Japan Trip Highlights – Part 2

Tuesday July 21, 2015 | Culture Travel

On to the second part of our trip in Japan!

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May is supposed to be a good month to travel in Japan because the weather is still pleasant enough.

But as we moved farther south and farther inland, the climate became noticeably hotter and more humid.

Which was fine because we never feel that kind of weather here in San Francisco, aka Sweater Weather Land. And it’s something that I miss from time to time.

KURASHIKI

When you arrive in Kurashiki, the main city itself is nothing special.

Instead, you should make your way to the picturesque historical area.

You’ll know it when you see it because it’s lined with willow-draped canals and old warehouses.

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We loved exploring the narrow alleys.

And discovering the various small shops that specialize in handmade crafts, from ceramics, bags, hats and fabrics.

I was enamored with this hat shop called Chapeaugraphy.

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The one on the left is so cat in the hat!

Most of the shops we visited specialize in a trade that has been passed down their families for generations.

It seems artisanal craft has long been appreciated in Japan way before the rise of the hipsters 😉

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We arrived in town later in the afternoon, so we didn’t do much other than sightseeing.

And stopping in a teahouse for afternoon tea.

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Other highlights:

  • Stopping by the post office to ship off some packages, one to Scotland and the other to Istanbul. Of course no one spoke a lick of English. It took one hour to sort it all out, but the lady helping us was very patient and determined!
  • Dinner was another lost in translation moment. We found ourselves in a restaurant with absolutely no english and no pictures on the menu. We had to resort to pointing our finger at random items on the menu and hoping for the best.
  • My beautiful blue floral-print parasol! Which I then left behind in a taxi not so long after (T_T)

KYOTO

The three days we spent in Kyoto was a very special time during our trip.

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Not only because Kyoto is a city endowed with natural beauty and rich in history, culture and cuisine. But also because it happened to fall on our one year anniversary.

We stayed at an Airbnb apartment located by the Kamo river right across from the historical Gion District.

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Air Bnb Kyoto

The best part about our apartment was that it came with two bicycles!

We arrived in the afternoon, dropped our things off and immediately went on a bike ride.

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So the first thing that struck me about Kyoto is the river culture.

People sit and lounge next to the river, which made me think of Paris and how people there relax and picnic by the Seine river.

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The second thing that became evident is the overwhelming number of temples and shrines that you can visit!

Although we admired all the temples we got to visit, by the end of our trip in Kyoto we had gotten to feel “templed out.”

Our first full day in Kyoto was sunny, hot and humid.

We took a bus to the bamboo grove in Arashiyama.

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Even though the area was crawling with tourists, it still was worth it.

Just to find a moment of stillness, and listen to the creaking of the trees and the rustling of the wind…

Also the light filtering through the bamboo tree tops makes for dreamy photos.

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There are several shrines and gardens in the area which you can pay a small fee to visit.

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Once we’d had our fill of the bamboo grove, we stopped at a cafe for tea and cake.

By this point tea time had become a strict ritual for me. Much to Oliver’s dismay 😉

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There were these spongy green tea cakes that I loved.

And the iced green tea was a refreshing summery take on an ingredient that kept showing up in different forms.

I admire how Japanese serve food based on the seasons. They also have great pride in locality. Every new city and town we visited had their own regional delicacies.

After Arashiyama, we escaped the heat by getting massages (hello honeymoon!).

Once the day had cooled off into the late afternoon, we walked around the Nishijin neighborhood and floated in and out of the cute little shops.

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At night, we walked through the narrow alleys of Pontocho looking through the different menus.

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Kyoto

We looked for a restaurant with a view of the river but many were either way too expensive or served only drinks and fried foods.

In the end, we still ended up getting ripped off. The food was good, but we had to pay a cover fee. Which seemed senseless. I mean it was a restaurant, not a club.

Many restaurants in the Pontocho area charge a cover fee so be wary of that.

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The following day, we sat in a tea ceremony…

I won’t write anymore about it here, because the tea ceremony deserves its own write-up.

I’ll just say that it gave me greater insight into Japanese culture’s deep respect for others and for harmony with nature.

After the tea ceremony, I felt like a different person. More relaxed and appreciative of the little details around me.

Of course we knew this calm would not last, so we headed to the nearest temple for another dose of zen.

The Heian-jingu temple has a large beautiful garden. When we visited, the iris garden was in full bloom.

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Side Note: Some high school students interviewed us for a class project and asked as what we liked most about Japan. We said we liked how everyone is so polite.

Then they asked us what we liked least about Japan. At first we had a hard time coming up with an answer. But then thought of the one thing that’s a little off.

So when you take a bus in Kyoto, you have to enter from the back and exit at the front, paying on your way out.

Well, I think this system kind of sucks. Especially if the bus is crowded. But I’m only bringing it up because the students asked me 😉

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As I said, we visited a lot of different temples so I won’t mention them all here.

But the red torii gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha are very iconic and deserve to be highlighted.

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For dinner, we ate at a restaurant in Kiyamachi and sat next to a large window overlooking a beautiful canal.

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We had sukiyaki which is a Japanese stew type dish that’s served in a hot pot and piled with vegetables and meat that you slow cook. It’s similar to shabu shabu and just as yummy!

On our last morning in Kyoto, we dropped our bags off inside a coin locker and headed off to our final temple.

To get to Daikakuji temple we ended up having to walk through narrow streets and quiet neighborhoods full of cute little houses.

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Right outside of the temple is a pond.

It’s filled with a whole army of koi that follow you around begging for food with their gaping mouths.

We then meditated inside the temple by the rock garden.

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Right as we were leaving Kyoto, we found the best food!

It was at a restaurant that serves traditional fermented food, called Kamoshika Café.

Ok, fermented foods like natto and random pickled plants may be an acquired taste for most people.

But I luv it.

Luv it.

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To be continued!

Japan Trip Highlights – Part 1

Thursday July 9, 2015 | Culture Travel

Wow! It’s been over a month since we came back from our Japan trip and it’s just now that I’m finally sitting down to blog about it.

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As someone who grew up obsessed with anime and Japanese culture, I’ve always wanted to travel to Japan. So when it finally happened, it felt like a dream that was too short-lived.

And now that I’m back, I miss it sooo much already…

I want to go back. And stay there. Forever.

Of course, part of this feeling is due to the fact that we were on vacation mode. So we were feeling super relaxed.

Then again, it’s because Japan really is that awesome. The food is good, everyone is polite to absurd levels, I felt super safe and just never had to stress about getting up in someone’s face for being a jerk.

This was also our honeymoon :)

Planning our Itinerary:

We planned our itinerary by first talking to friends and people we knew who knew Japan.

We also got our hands on the National Geographic Traveler Guidebook to Japan, read up and picked out places that were interesting and matched our friends’ recommendations.

Originally, we considered going up north and taking a sleeper train to Hokkaido but that would have taken up the whole trip. So in the end we decided to travel southwest along the main island of Honshu. This allowed us to see a more diverse side of Japan.

By the way, the JR Rail Pass is really amazing. It allowed us to quickly and easily travel pretty much wherever we wanted.

I’m so glad we found out about it because you can only purchase it ahead of your trip, outside of the country and only if you have a foreigner passport.

Anyhoo.

This was how our Japan trip played out:

Day 1-3: Tokyo
Day 3 (half day): Hiroshima
Day 4: Miyajima
Day 5: Kurashiki
Day 6-10: Kyoto
Day 10-11: Back to Tokyo
Day 12: Day trip to Kamakura

And here are the highlights of the first half of our trip!

TOKYO

Ohmygod. Tokyo really is one of the most unique places I’ve ever been to.

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Everything felt completely novel, thrilling and so darn funny.

At times we felt like we were in a sci-fi movie from the 70s. Other times, like characters inside a video game.

But always, we felt immersed in a long rich history of tradition and culture.

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Our first few days were spent reuniting with old friends we’d amassed from random times in our lives.

And then we explored Tokyo together.

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It sounds almost like a caricature, but during those first few days we experienced an earthquake, ran into sumo wrestlers at the fish market in Tsukiji, and saw three geishas get inside a taxi.

Apparently, geisha sightings in Tokyo are quite rare nowadays.

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Other Tokyo highlights:

  • Our first “breakfast” in that crazy ramen restaurant in Shibuya. You order your ramen by pushing buttons on a machine, and then you sit in these stalls with dividers between you and the next person. Supposedly, this is done so that you can stay hidden while you slurp away at your soup.
  • All the amazing food that we ate. Mmm.
  • Even their 7-Elevens had great food.
  • Everything beeped, chimed and talked to you. From elevators to cars and washing machines.
  • The maid cafe in the geeky district of Akihabara. Not gonna lie, that maid cafe was a real rip-off. But nevertheless, we had a riot of a time.
  • Visiting my first cat café in Shinjuku. Meow!

HIROSHIMA

After three days in Tokyo we took the bullet train to Hiroshima.

It was our longest train ride. About 5 hours. We deliberately did this so that as we made our way back to Tokyo, our train rides would get shorter and shorter.

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By this time jet lag had really taken its toll on me.

But since we were only in Hiroshima for one afternoon, I had to snap out of it and drag myself out of the hotel to check out this city whose history has always haunted me.

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We first visited Hiroshima Castle. You can climb to the top of the castle and get a great view of the city.

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It’s quite impressive considering that it’s actually a replica of the original castle.

As you may have guessed, the original castle was completely destroyed by the atomic bomb in 1945.

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Today the city of Hiroshima is very modern and rather indistinct.

Save for the dark remnant of history in the form of the Atomic Bomb Dome.

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On August 06, 1945, the first atomic bomb ever to be used in war was dropped over Hiroshima.

The dome of this building managed to retain its structure despite how the blast came almost directly from above.

Today, the skeletal structure of the Atomic Bomb Dome is part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. As a symbol of peace, it’s a sobering reminder that nuclear weapons are still very much around.

There is a book that I read in college called Hiroshima by John Hersey which recounts the horrific experiences of people who survived the bombing.

I will never forget some of the descriptions in that book.

If you can stomach it, read it. Because this should never happen again…

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Later that evening, we met up with a friend and had Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (“as you like it” pancakes).

Other Hiroshima highlights:

  • Taking a taxi from the train station to our hotel not realizing it was literally at the back door of the train station. We were exhausted, ok?
  • Strolling along the river as the sun set.
  • Window shopping on Hondori Street.
  • Sipping matcha tea latte at that really cute café.
  • The Hiroshima train station and its exciting array of made-in-Hiroshima makeup brushes. You know the ones… kumanofude, chikuhudo, etc.
  • Quizzing our friend about what Hiroshima people think when looking back at the war and the bomb.

MIYAJIMA

This was my favorite place!

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The island of Miyajima is best known for the red gate which seems to float on water during high tide.

It also houses the famous shrine Itsukushima.

To get to the island, we took a train from Hiroshima and then hopped on a short 15-minute ferry ride.

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When we arrived, we had a delicious lunch and then walked around the town a bit.

The town is small and touristy, but not in that annoying campy way.

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There are several nature trails with breathtaking sights.

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Later that afternoon, we took a shuttle to get to the cable cars which took us up the mountain.

This was followed by a second cable car ride.

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Once we got to the top of the mountain, we realized it wasn’t the top of the mountain and that we had to go on a somewhat arduous hike.

But once we were for real at the top, we were rewarded with the most spectacular views.

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From that vantage, I got a glimpse of where Japanese get their reverence for nature.

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The scenery looked straight out of traditional Japanese paintings.

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Funny thing happened…

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I wanted to find a quiet spot to meditate.

But then this loud-mouthed european guy talking on his cellphone was really killing the mood.

Like what? You hiked and came all this way to the top of this freaking Unesco World Heritage site, you’re surrounded by breathtaking scenery and all you wanna do is blab on very loudly about work and synergy and net profit? Ugh. Go home.

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We stayed in a ryokan inspired guesthouse called Mizuha-so located right across from the aquarium. It was lovely!

When we arrived, they gave us traditional matching yakata to wear.

We probably looked adorable. But sadly I didn’t get any photos of us together because Oliver kept avoiding the subject.

While waiting for dinner, we helped ourselves to some tea and cakes. That was a mistake.

Because the dinner was a 14-course dinner that became a long, achingly delicious marathon.

Seriously. We were in pain. But we could not. stop. eating.

I cannot rave enough about how amazing the food was! Everything was carefully prepared and beautifully presented. The food was fresh and the selection featured a diverse array of local cuisine.

The lady who owns the inn and her staff were friendly and made us feel quite comfortable during our stay.

Breakfast again was another long, carefully prepared affair.

At the end, we were expecting the bill to be astronomical but it was actually quite reasonable.

If you are visiting Miyajima, I highly recommend that you stay at Mizuha-so!

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The next morning, we had a little more time to visit the different shrines and temples.

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We even got to watch a traditional wedding happen at the Itsukushima shrine.

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Then there were the deers of Miyajima.

You could almost believe they are domesticated…

Right up to the point they nip you in the finger and then steal your lunch.

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Other Miyajima highlights:

  • The old wooden temple on the hill next to the pagoda. It’s airy, spacious and quiet. The perfect place to meditate.
  • That cute little old man who was so slow at selling me my hat.
  • The time that deer almost ate the paper I was holding in my hand, which had the address to our hotel.
  • The freshly made star-shaped cakes filled with red beans. Mmm.
  • Taking a quiet walk together at night, in our yakatas and wooden clogs.
  • Sitting on that bench and looking at the torii gate in the moonlight.

Next up, Part 2 of our Japan Trip Highlights!