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Back to Japan!

This year’s vacation has been secured, we’re going back to Japan! Last year we went on a three-week trip where we first visited Kyoto and then Tokyo. We had so much fun last year that we wanted to go back and this time, we’re staying for 1 month! Last time, we managed to arrive during the peak of the typhoon season. Despite what you might think, this actually has some perks. The tourist attractions weren’t especially crowded (even Disneyland was ok!). I’ve also read somewhere that the weather usually turns great right after the typhoon. This was probably the case for us when we were in Kyoto. Completely unaware of the weather, we met the landlady outside the house we rented. She gave us a warm greeting and said that she was “so happy to see us” and that she “didn’t know if we would arrive on time”. Then she said, with a big smile on her face, “oh and by the way, your house is still here!”. She was dead serious.

If you disregard the risk of getting caught in a typhoon, the weather was pretty awesome after we got used to the temperature. This year we hope to repeat the success and thus we booked almost the same dates, middle of September to October.

We haven’t booked any houses/hotels or ryokans yet so if anyone’s got any tip on nice places to visit, please share! We fly to and from Tokyo so we will probably spend a couple of days there. We seriously fell in love with Kyoto so we might go back for a few days. Perhaps a day-trip to Osaka is a good idea? As of now, I’ve got three things on my want-to-do-list.

  • A visit to Hakone Ginyu. This looks like a lovely ryokan were each room is equipped with a private onsen. Onsens are usually public and men and women bath separately. Soaking in the onsen water is a great way of relaxing, and this time I would like to share the experience with my husband.
  • A trip to Kōya-san and Oku-no-in. I imagine this Buddhist graveyard is quite beautiful and peaceful.
  • The Tsumago-Magome hike. A mountain path with traditional wooden inns which hosted travelling samurai lords. Need I say more?

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Tatami mat and tea table

What would you do when you returned from a vacation in Japan and then realized that you simply miss the country? We took care of the problem by trying to recreate certain aspects of the house we rented in Kyoto. Most rooms in the house had tatami floor and it wasn’t hard to fall in love with the thick, soft rice straw mats. Although we liked the scent from the rice straw tatami, we ordered 3cm thick mats made by Japanese washi paper. The main reason for using paper is that we’ve got both friends and family who are allergic to grass.


We got the tatami mats delivered to us a couple of days before Christmas and my husband was a bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle them myself. “It’s alright, you have no idea how strong I can be if I really want something”, I said to him as he was getting ready for work. The delivery man who turned up with the two large packages didn’t look very muscular to me and he juggled them with ease so I thought that it would be a walk in the park for me to carry the mats up to the third floor. I was dead wrong. The weight of the darned packages was 30kg each. Luckily, my neighbour showed up to save the day!

The tea table is a real family project. My parents in law gave it to us since they didn’t really use it any more. My dad offered to sandpaper it (not by hand though, he’s got a machine). My father in law then helped us saw off the legs to make it shorter. I then stained the table in a wonderful dark-brown colour. Last but not least, my husband covered it with varnish to make the surface more sustainable. A lot of work but great result!

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Kaiseki dinner in Kyoto

Our landlord highly recommended that we eat a kaiseki dinner during our stay in Japan. Kaiseki, or Kaiseki-ryori is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner that’s usually quite expensive. However, Mariko-san knew of a place that serves good and affordable kaiseki for ¥5000. Of course, we set out to find this restaurant called “Otaya” but following her hand-drawn map proved to be harder than we thought when it’s dark outside. Luckily for us, we ran into a nice Japanese couple and asked them for help. They didn’t just point us in the right direction but actually took their time to walk us to the restaurant! And when we reached our destination they even bowed and thanked us. I wish people at home would be this kind and caring.

The funny thing is, as we were walking towards the restaurant, my husband said to me, “It would be pretty funny if we end up at the same restaurant we tried our first day in Kyoto”. And yes, this was the exact same restaurant. On our first visit we weren’t sure on how to operate the restaurant’s sliding doors so when we finally stepped into the restaurant, all the guests, waitress and chef looked at us curiously. That day they were fully booked and the same thing happened now but this time we made sure to make a reservation for another night. When we were back out on the street, we heard someone calling “Martin, Nicole!” and it was Mariko-san! She kindly offered to take us to another great restaurant nearby and hungry as we were, we accepted. The place she took us to was amazing! We got a table on the second floor with a view over the small river right outside the house. The service was excellent and the food very good.

Two days later, we returned to Otaya for the kaiseki dinner. We ordered nihonshu to drink and of course the kaiseki. We had prepared ourselves by just eating a light lunch but I still had trouble eating everything. My favourite courses were the pumpkin (I love pumpkin) and the vegetables (never have I tasted so perfectly cooked vegetables).

OTAYA: http://otaya-kyoto.com/

1) Fig and cheese with miso dressing

2) Soup with fish and lime

3) Sashimi (tuna and some white fish I don’t remember). The purple flower petals were supposed to be put in the soy sauce together with the wasabi

4) Grilled mackerel with chestnuts, ginkgo seeds and lime

5) 20 different vegetable with dipping sauce

6) Mashed pumpkin “dumpling” in a thick sauce

7) Sushi and miso soup

8) Crème brûlée

When we were about to leave the restaurant, the waitress congratulated us on getting married and gave us two beautiful coasters she’d made. I think it’s wonderful how a complete stranger goes out of her way to make you happy. A little kindness really goes a long way :)


Alice in Wonderland restaurant in Tokyo

When it comes to weird themed restaurants, Tokyo is the place to be. How about a Ninja restaurant? Or perhaps you’d like to dine in a freaky prison mental hospital? Or why not bring out your inner fisherman and catch your dinner, at the restaurant? Personally, I’ve got a weak spot for Alice in Wonderland so we decided to pay a visit to one (Shinjuku) of the (I think it’s) 3 Alice themed restaurants in Tokyo. Just finding the place was a challenge in itself but as always, I asked a nice woman if she could help me. At first I tried asking if she knew of the Alice in Wonderland restaurant but she didn’t seem to understand much of what I said. Instead I tried my best Japangrish, that is to say, speak English with the sounds used in the Japanese alphabet. I was pretty pleased with myself when I nailed the pronunciation of “Arisu in Wondarando” and she immediately understood what we were looking for. She was really surprised to hear that there was such a restaurant nearby and asked me several of times if she had heard me correctly. Meanwhile we were talking, some of her friends showed up and assisted in the search for the elusive restaurant. After much laughter and searching on their phones, they gave us directions to the basement floor in a nearby house. Judging from their reaction, I wouldn’t be surprised if we just found the restaurant some more visitors.

We walked all the way down to the basement but where was the restaurant? Of course it was hidden under the stair behind a sliding door that looked like a book. Inside the restaurant, the tiniest little waitress, dressed up as Alice, lead us to our table. She then heaved up a large book on the table containing the menu and also kindly told us about the special recommendations. We ordered drinks from the special recommendations menu and the rest from the regular menu.

Everything on the menu had names inspired by Alice in Wonderland, like Mad Hatter or Caterpillars and Alice of course. We ordered bread with avocado/scrimp dip and a caterpillar (avocado) on rice that also came with some sliced tuna + two different desserts. The portions were quite small and perhaps a bit on the expensive side but very tasty. All in all, this restaurant was a great experience! If only we had found it earlier, we would have stayed longer (I think they close at 23).

Website: http://www.alice-restaurant.com/ehon/

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Tokyo Disney Sea

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always wanted to go to Disneyland but never had the chance until now. Before the we left for Japan, I did some googling and as it turned out, there are not one but two Disneylands in Tokyo! One ordinary Disneyland and one called Tokyo Disney Sea. The latter was supposedly centered around water with areas inspired by steampunk and Jules Verne. Steampunk and Disney all at once, could it get any better?

The Mediterranean harbour, with volcano and all.

The Mediterranean harbour, with volcano and all.

You sure you're still in Tokyo?

You sure you’re still in Tokyo? (American waterfront)

We were warned beforehand that there probably would be a lot of people at the park so we decided to go there on a Tuesday. This particular Tuesday, the weather gods had decided that clouds + drizzle was a good idea. I think both the fact that it was a weekday and the weather wasn’t perfect contributed to keeping the number of visitors low. However, drizzle in Tokyo when it’s around 25 degrees means that the water dries pretty much instantly so for us, it was a non issue.

Was Tokyo Disney Sea as amazing as I imagined it to be? Both yes and no, I’d say. First of all,the scenery was amazing! Never in my wildest dream could I imagine that they would build a freakin’ volcano or recreate Venice with gondolas and all. I swear, Agrabah (yeah, they’ve built that as well) even smelled like it hosted camels!

Scenery-wise, I really liked the steampunk inspired areas, Port Discovery and Mysterious Island.

Secondly, I was expecting more roller coaster rides that would make me scream of joy and excitement. There were definitely fewer rides than I expected and they focused more on being visually appealing than speed. It wasn’t bad, just not what I was expecting. My favourite ride was, without a doubt, Tower of Terror. Since all the storytelling and everything was in Japanese and I understood like 10%, I was constantly surprised. I don’t want to spoil the experience for anyone so I won’t say anything more other than it was pretty darn epic.

Many of the rides were made for small kids which became painfully apparent when we squeezed us into a small roller coaster in “the little mermaid” area. We made it but it was a close call for my husband. :)

This is the entrance to the little mermaid lagoon.

This is the entrance to the little mermaid lagoon.

Inside the mermaid lagoon (or rather, cave).

Inside the mermaid lagoon (or rather, cave).

There are a couple of restaurants serving Japanese food aimed for families so I wouldn’t say that the menu was super exciting. But I love ebi tempura (fried scrimp) so I was happy anyway.

Mmm... Bread (!!), fried scrimp, seafood salad, cake and tea

Mmm… Bread (!!), fried scrimp, seafood salad, cake and tea

Before going home, we went for one last “ride” that was inside the Titanic, namely “Turtle Talk”. The audience sat down in a large room, much like a cinema where the animated turtle from Finding Nemo showed up. The cool thing was that the turtle was actually talking to the audience in real-time. As usual, I understood like 10-20% of what everybody was saying but still I enjoyed it. Only problem was that I was a bit afraid that the turtle would decide to talk to the only two foreigners in the audience, but we got away with just watching *phew*.

"Titanic" at night, quite a view.

“Titanic” at night, quite a view.