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Journeys in Japan – Kanazawa, Ishikawa

This post is way overdue but as I always say better late than never. ^-^ On Christmas, me and my husband went to Ishikawa prefecture to visit the famous Yamashiro onsen and Kanazawa city which is something like Kyoto – old and traditional with lots of streets that look like movie sets.

At first, we went to see Tojinbo – cliffs on the rugged west coast of Japan that are to the present day haunted by various ghost legends. It also remains one of the popular places to commit suicide. According to wikipedia, as many as 25 people (mostly male and mostly unemployed)  a year commit suicide by jumping off these cliffs. I have seen people in uniforms patrolling the area when I was there. I’ve also been told that If you are traveling alone, you are likely to be asked questions by these guards.. So, Tojinbo are very sad cliffs but the view is breathtaking. The Japanese sea is much darker and on that day it was emerald green, quite different from the Pacific ocean that I am used to see.

After the cliffs, we drove to the Eiheiji – temple of eternal peace situated deep in the mountains. That’s when the weather started to change so by the time I pulled over in front of the gates, the area was wrapped in fog and the thunder was rolling every minute or so.

We had lunch at oroshisoba restaurant next door – we were the only customers there because the whole area was closing down for the day. I guess nobody visits old temples after 3PM.

Visiting a 12th century old temple in the middle of thunder with bunch of monks practicing zazen everywhere you go is something of a rare experience. I’ve never been to an active monastery before so seeing all those monks really fascinated me. In winter, they were living in a room with one wall missing, sleeping on tatami mats in their robes, without blankets or anything of the sort. You have to have a lot of willpower to stay in a place like that. I’ve read a lot about Russian monks and hermits living in caves and forests but it was a long time ago, when people were much stronger.. To actually see someone doing it in the time of central heating and video games? That’s really special. Although I am Christian, I felt a tremendous respect to all those young monks on their path to enlightenment.

The main hall had this beautiful ceiling with 250 paintings of birds and flowers. I wouldn’t mind joining the monks for a couple of hours of meditation if I was allowed to stare at it the whole time. ^-^

After Eiheiji, we drove to Yamashiro  – a little onsen town in the mountains.

We stayed at Shiroganeya – an old ryokan that once, probably in the 90ties during the bubble period hosted the royal family. It was recently renovated by some investment group so although it looks rustic from the outside, inside it is all modern and comfy.

The room had many amenities including organic cosmetics, facial masks and several types of Ippodo – high quality brand tea from Kyoto. We could also have a private tea ceremony performed in the main hall by a chatty old woman in a very beautiful kimono. ^-^

The dinner, as always in such places was great – all fish and veggies intricately prepared and beautifully served.

Onsen itself was left untouched by the renovation so it is very old and very tiny. I had to open terrace windows to let all the steam out to be able to see inside. It was raining by then and thunder kept rumbling. I had never enjoyed my bath quite like at that moment. When I was a child, I experienced a couple of very exciting incidents that happened during thunder so I always have these butterflies in my stomach every time I hear it. There was no one else but me so I just sat in a steamy hot water and listened to the rain and thunder till my skin turned bright red. ^-^

In a typical Japanese onsen, there are several types of baths that are usually shifted between men and women depending on time. In the morning, before breakfast I could use an outside bath – rotemburo that was available only to men the night before. Again, there was no one else so I had it all to myself – cold mountain air and hot bath in a beautiful Japanese garden.

For breakfast, we’ve been served a typical Japanese morning spread. This is what is expected of you if you are a Japanese stay at home wife. My husband’s mother cooked it for us when we were visiting and I remember, she had to get up at 6 just to make it ready by 9 – really ridiculous and there is just no way I am doing it! ^-^

After breakfast, we took off and arrived to Kanazawa. The peculiar thing with Japanese traditional towns is that the older it is the more futuristic it’s main train terminal looks. Kyoto station as well as Kanazawa station both look like they belong in Tokyo, 20 years from now. ^-^

The city was much colder and on the verge of snowing so it was a bit of a challenge to explore it on foot but we did it anyway with some occasional stops at coffee shops.

The old part of town is perfectly preserved – some streets and buildings are active to the present day, some became part of an open air museum. One of such places was an old samurai house we visited.

The former estate of Nomura family was used for 12 generations until the feudal system broke down and the building was sold to the industrialist. Now, it’s a part of the museum compound together with it’s artistically crafted Japanese garden – famous for it’s intricate water system and cherry granite bridges and lanterns.

After the samurai house, we visited “21st century museum of contemporary art” – one of the main attractions in Kanazawa city. It held an exhibit of Peter Fischli & David Weiss as well as many permanent exhibits by various artists from all around the world.

I really liked the colorful spectrum by Olafur Eliasson – three plastic screens in yellow, blue and magenta forming a circle maze. As you walk it, the color changes around you. I particularly like this picture my husband took inside the maze because you can see Santa Claus on scooter on the background – kinda adds Christmas spirit to it. ^-^

From there, we went to the Kenrokuen – an Edo period landscape garden with beautiful majestic pine trees. The suspended ropes around them are there for protection against wind and snow.

Then, we crossed Umenohashi bridge to the Higashi-chaya – an old tea house strip, north of the Asano river.

That’s when it started to snow so I had to put down my Lumix and take pictures with waterproof Sony camera which was accidentally set to a low resolution so the following pics aren’t very good…

Higashi-chaya has around 80 old wooden 2 story Japanese style restaurants, tea houses and souvenir shops – not the kind that sell paper fans and refrigerator magnets but the original art studios where you can buy beautiful jewelry, pottery and organic cosmetics made by century old recipes.

There are several famous tea house areas spread around the old part of town but we could only see two because of bad weather. The second one, we went to was on the south side of Asano river and it was called Kazue-machi.

Where Higashi-chaya is the main sightseeing spot that accommodates a lot of tourists, Kazue-machi is more private and doesn’t accept first visit customers. Unless you receive a recommendation or an invitation from a patron, you are politely denied any service.

Our last stop, before going back to the station was Oumicho market that had lots of really great sushi restaurants. It also sold seafood – crabs in particular, herbs and vegetables – very similar to Kyoto market near San-chome. You could also get rare delicacies – typical for that particular part of Japan but not available anywhere else. Ever since I started living in Japan, I involuntarily adopted food freak culture looking for deli instead of souvenirs on my travels. Even coming back from my trips to Saint Petersburg I recently bring nothing but food – pickles, dairy, sweets etc. ^-^

Then, we had a coffee at Nikko Kanazawa hotel’s lounge. They had those big windows and little tables with cozy sofa chairs next to them so you could drink your coffee and watch snow outside falling down quietly. There was Christmas music on the background and a Christmas tree near fireplace – I just love places like that.  I finally had my white Christmas after years of snowless eves in Tokyo. ^-^

LUMIX G VARIO HD 14-140mm – my new lens!

Ever since I returned from my trip to Patagonia, I have been dreaming to buy a new zoom lens for my Lumix GF1. I went on an epic trip to the end of the world with 20mm pancake lens – what was I thinking? I missed the opportunity to take truly amazing pictures of wild animals because they were too damn far away from me..

Of course when researching various zoom lens, I realized that the one that I want 14mm-140mm costs over 700USD. Luckily, my husband – the smart guy that he is helped me get it for only 300USD. What we did is basically this: I bought GF2 camera lens kit – a new generation of my camera with 14mm – 140mm lens as a set for 1000USD, then we sold the body for 700USD at yahoo auction Japan and voila! I got my lens for 300USD – sometimes the ridiculous side of Japan works to my advantage. ^-^

So today, I took my new lens out for a walk in Meguro. It is a bit too dark too shoot indoors but outside it does magic. Here, I am posting a couple of pictures I took with 10x zoom like this tower mansion (…yes, that is typical Tokyo sky ^-^)

This picture was taken with 5x zoom – paparazzi style! ^-^

This is the traffic light above the highway – also 10x zoom. With plenty of light, the sharpness is amazing!

Delivery mopeds – 5x zoom

Early sakura in “Rinshi no mori” park in Meguro – 5x zoom.

Walking in the park – 10x zoom.

This one is my favorite – I didn’t have to kneel down or bend to take this picture.

And speaking of the wild animals – I got the shot of my first one! ..Only it seems to be someone’s pet – according to the Facebook statuses – not uncommon in the central Tokyo. ^-^

I guess the zoom on my lens is still kinda small to take a good picture of the moon but the ornament on a roof 5m high? No problem! ^-^

So, to sum up I am very excited about my new lens especially because it also takes good video with a super fast auto focus. I am all set for my Spring trip to Kyoto. ^-^

Hot wine, milkshakes and bard songs – my winter holidays at home

The next day after my trip to Sapporo, I flew back to Saint Petersburg to spend the New Year holidays at home with my family. Thanks to my brother, who canceled his vacation plans just to spend time with me, I had the best 10 days one can have in winter, in Russia, in a freezing cold and a pitch black darkness.. ^-^ For my city, it is pretty normal not to see sun for days. The skies are constantly covered with snowy clouds so instead of bright daylight, we have grayish glow for a couple of hours each day that separates the morning darkness from the evening one.. When I was in University, I had to be on campus by 9 each day – it was still dark. Then, I had 6 or 7 90 minutes classes so by the time I was out, it was already dark. For 4 years of University I hardly ever saw any daylight in winter. ^-^

As you may know, we celebrate Christmas after New Year, on 7th of January so the city was still decorated and all lightened up! ^-^

To my surprise, the neverending construction near the Finland train terminal was finally completed and it turned out to be the biggest shopping mall the center of the city has ever seen with multiplex cinema, cozy cafes and all the European brand shops I could only wish for 10 years ago.

Needless to say, I spent a lot of time there – shopping, watching movies, drinking milkshakes and spying on the cool crowd or at least everyone seemed cool and tall and blond to me… Either I have been in Japan way too long or our folks cleaned up real good… Big shopping malls are still kinda new to Russia.. We are used to department stores but the building where you can spend all day? – that is something of a boom right now so you can spot a lot of young Russians in cool fedoras and leather leggings there… Ah, I wish I was 17 again…

This is at my new favorite cafe inside the mall. Living in Japan for so many years, I have forgotten all about how fun it is to eat your cheese pancakes with sour cream and raspberry sauce on the side of a half a liter triple cream milkshake! I haven’t had this much calories in one take for a very long time! ^-^

The annual Christmas bazaar was at the Alexander square and as always with a lot of traditional street performances, hot wine and honey cider stands, ice skating ring and attractions for kids. As much as I love the merry-go-rounds, I went for the hot wine. :)

And this is me trying on a tacky Russian winter hat made specially for foreign tourists. Actually, my brother ended up buying it for me so if anyone is interested – all yours.  ^-^

There was a very impressive illumination show at the Winter palace square with music and lasers that made the falling snow sparkle like pixie dust.

My cousin Andrey has finally finished his new house so we went to see him and his family at their brand new home on the island.

My little niece started walking and talking and she is so adorable.

She introduced me to her favorite cartoon called “Masha and the bear”. It is a 3D version of a traditional Russian fairytale with a modern spin to it and it is absolutely hilarious. You can watch all 14 series online!

So on Christmas, we chose a small church in the Alexander park in Pushkin. There, on the background is the grayish glow that I mentioned earlier – the picture was taken at noon. ^-^

After the service, we went for a little walk around the park and then had Christmas lunch at my brother’s favorite restaurant called XIX century which was right in front of the church. I had a mushroom soup and Alex had borsch, then we both had pancakes. I couldn’t wish for more. ^-^

In the evening, we went back to the city to visit a new art gallery “Floors”. They had a nice little exhibit called “The accomplishments of Soviet design” that displayed the works of interior designers, industrial poster artists and modeling engineers.

I recognized a lot of items from back when I was little like a meat mincer that my grandma used to have at Dacha or the “sea battle” video game that used to stand in the lobby of a movie theater in my neighborhood. My brother even discovered an old automobile simulation game that he wanted so much as a little boy. ^-^

The next day, my best friend Anna had a party at her house. She has cut short her vacation in Italy just to spend her birthday at home with friends and family. ^-^

She brought a lot of tasty Italian delicacies and wine and made my favorite Napoleon cake from scratch, even the little macaroons on top.

Her mom is retired now but she used to be a surgeon and now teaches surgery at the first Medical. She is a true leader and her voice – I mean those loud girls at 109 department store during the sale season are nothing in comparison. She is VERY loud and very bossy so I just couldn’t say no when she made us all drink dirty martini and then play silly games I haven’t played since the first grade! ^-^

Have you ever had these kind of moments when you experience something out of ordinary and then it happens again in the very same day? I came back home and saw my family playing a board game!

It was some financial game my brother got for free from a bank as a New Year’s present. So we drank beer and played it through the whole evening. I, of course kept loosing because after several glasses of martini and being spun with my eyes tied I just couldn’t keep it straight. ^-^

Then, the day after, I also met with Marina – my overachiever friend.

She knew exactly where to take me – our favorite coffee shop with the best milkshakes ever!

In the evening, I also visited my aunt who just came back from Finland and brought tons of delicious seafood including my favorite fly-fish caviar.

It was also the first time for me to see her famous porcelain portraits of the family. These painting were done in an old XVIII century style but faces were taken from recent photographs so from left to right clockwise are my grandfather, my uncle, my father, my niece Polina, cousin Liza, aunt, grandmother and cousin Andrey. This is really amazing, I wish I took a better picture..

Then, we also went to a new ski park just outside Saint Petersburg called Tuutgari. It was really cold that day but with two liters of Anna’s dad’s special hot wine we were all set. ^-^

So basically, boys were skiing and we, girls were snow tubing.

My mom was the toughest of us all making her way up faster than anyone else. ^-^

It was a lot of fun but the guy at the top kept spinning me so after a few times of sliding down the hill I got pretty disoriented. ^-^

I also tried ice skating for the first time in my life. It turned out to be quite easy, not very different from rollerblading.

At a local cafe, I discovered my new passion for traditional old Russian guitar songs, something I was never interested in while living in Russia. There were two guys with guitars, some snowboarders who just came in and started playing. They were really good and played many songs I remember from my childhood like the one from the Bremen musicians

or this one, my mom’s favorite

It’s funny how I re-discover Russian literature and music now – something I was really opposed to at school. At 15 I was reading Fitzgerald and Bukowski instead of Ostrovskiy. To me, he was an example of everything that was wrong with the Russian program at school. But then, 15 years later, already here in Tokyo I read his “How the steel was tempered” and I really loved it. And with music too. I mean, bard songs.. really? Better Robbie Williams than Okudzhava! But now I really love it! I guess, the grass will always be greener on the other side…or maybe everything has its own time?..