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Journeys in Japan – Karuizawa, Kusatsu onsen

Karuizawa is the place I have always wanted to visit ever since I learned about it from a cheesy Japanese TV drama that I used to watch to study the language. It is the famous retreat area for Tokyoites with lush greens and mild climate although when we got there, there was nothing mild about the scorching sun and humidity in the air. However, once you hide in the shadows of the forest, you can at last taste the delicious coolness Karuizawa is so famous for in summer.

The main street of the city was lined with various cafes, boutiques, bakeries and souvenir shops mostly selling tasty produce like jam and honey and the art works of local craftsmen. None of the stuff was cheap. The average lunch price at a restaurant or cafe was around 1500 yen.. More, if a restaurant was visited by someone famous like John Lennon. ^-^ Although if you don’t need to sit at a terrace or inside an air-conditioned room, there are plenty of choices of street food like German sausages, Russian piroshki, ice cream and amazing french bread.

There was a huge Ghibli animation souvenir shop on the main street. I spent half an hour browsing through different toys and character goods and ended up buying absolutely nothing… Always happens to me when I am given too much choice – I get lost!

On the way from Karuizawa to Kusatsu onsen, we visited beautiful Shiraito waterfalls (White thread waterfalls). The water was so cold I couldn’t bear to keep my feet in it for more than a minute. Such contrast in temperatures is really astonishing!

The smell of wet forest is really something special. I love it so much because it brings back so many memories from my childhood. It was just so peaceful to sit on a fallen tree, watch the dance of water falling down, enjoy the coolness of the air and smell the incredible aroma of wet soil and leaves…. I want to go back to that place so badly..

When we arrived to Kusatsu onsen it was already getting dark so we took a quick tour around the area visiting a small Kusatsu shrine at the top of the hill and trying delicious rice cakes with hot green tea at various “omiyage” shops along the way.

The main street of Kusatsu village had a huge reservoir of volcanic onsen water. The smell was excruciating – something in between a rotten egg and cat’s pee. But knowing that this horrible smell was just minerals that are so good for the body, it was kind of OK to bear it at least for a while.

People around were walking in their yukata which really gave a whimsical feel to the whole scene. I could easily imagine myself in the last century watching a small town scene unravel in front of my eyes. If you are fluent in Japanese, you can also enjoy a “rakugo” performance – traditional Japanese stand-up comedy that takes place in onsen.

At the main village square, there was a big pool of scorching hot onsen water for feet. Kusatsu is really famous for the hotness of its onsen water. It was so funny to watch Japanese tourists sitting by the pool, trying to ease their feet into the water and screaming “Atsui! Atsui!” – Hot! Hot! every second or so. My husband tried some Zen techniques he learned earlier which helped him keep his feet in the water for several minutes. ^-^ I could only do several seconds. ^-^

This was our ryokan – a very nice place with amazing personnel and rooms overlooking the hills.

We rented a private rustic rotemburo but the water was too hot. I guess I would really appreciate it in winter. In summer, it was unbearable. So instead I just sprinkled the onsen water on me and enjoyed a good massage. ^-^

The dinner was of course amazing. I just love onsen food – all vegetables and fish and everything is so fresh and delicious.

I visited the public rotemburo after hours so there was noone inside – yay! I liked it more than the private rotemburo because it had different baths with different temperatures and minerals. Also it was bigger and in the night the air was cooler so I could finally enjoy a little soaking in the water.

The next day, we decided to drive towards Nagano and see the famous Yugana volcanic lake high in the Shirano mountains. The road to that place was tough – not only it was a mountain serpentine road, it also was poisonous at times. Here and there, there were danger signs that advised drivers to drive fast and close all windows because the smell from natural onsen reservoirs in the mountains had too much chemicals in it to make you dizzy and lose control of the steering wheel. Plus, the smell itself was just pure evil. I have no idea how people on mountain bikes were passing through that area..

The volcanic lake was beautiful, same color as the mountain lakes in Patagonia. I saw a couple of deers on the peaks of the mountains near the lake. It was amazing being there and watching all that grandeur beauty in its untouched form.

After volcanic lake, we drove to a little town called Obuse to check the works of famous Ukiyo-e artist Hokusai.

In the Edo era, Obuse was a center of local commerce with trade routes to the Kanto area and West part of Japan. In response to the growth of economic activities some influential literary men and artists came all the way from Kyoto and Edo bringing high culture to the little town. Katsushika Hokusai – famous master of Ukiyo-e was one of them.

The area is also famous for its kuri – chestnuts. We tried everything – chestnut cakes, chestnut ice cream, chestnut wine.. We also bought lots of chestnut souvenirs for our families. ^-^ The town itself was pretty. It reminded me a little of Kanazawa – old commercial buildings preserved in pristine condition and still operating. I really admire Japanese for cherishing their traditions and finding the perfect balance between old and new.

 

Amazing Italian restaurant on the main street where we enjoyed lunch before heading back to Tokyo. ^-^ I love the places that are touristy but not crowded. I can’t really imagine a nice restaurant in Tokyo with 20 empty seats on terrace. That would be pure miracle. ^-^

Christmas in Tokyo

As promised, I took my new Sony camera for a test shoot in the evening. I decided to go around Tokyo taking photos of Christmas illumination. These are my most favorite spots.

Christmas tree at Villa Fontaine hotel in Shiodome

Me and the girls at Austrian embassy Christmas bazaar

Roppongi Hills Christmas bazaar

They are selling delicious German food all through December so if you want to try some pretzels with beer or white cheese sauce pasta, head to the bazaar in front of Toho Cinema.

This is Christmas village decorations at Shiodome

Beautiful Caretta illumination. You can see how it looked two years ago here.

Shiodome from Yurikamome line

Odaiba skyline at sunset

Keyakizaka street illumination at Roppongi Hills. This one is right in front of entrance to the TV Asahi. When I was passing it, the familiar smell of the lobby hit me. I used to go there for three and a half years every Saturday evening for live broadcast of Sma-Station. That were super fun times because I got to hang out with my best friends and get paid for it. ^-^

Keyakizaka street, in front of new Michael Kors shop. A strong earthquake hit at the moment I was taking this picture. It felt like the train was passing underground only there is no train there so I was very puzzled at first. Then, a minute later I got all these Facebook messages with people screaming “Earthquake” and that’s how I realized what it was. When you are outside, you can’t really comprehend if it’s a strong one or not. Apparently it was the strongest and longest one since 3/11 earthquake last year. Luckily, the trains didn’t stop for too long. I was able to get home without any trouble.

Armani store at Keyakizaka street

Beautiful LED lights

I discovered this great “star” effect while playing with blur function on my Sony. If I make it really sharp and hold the camera still, it creates these beautiful stars out of light.

Self-portrait using retractable screen. Again, I look like a tourist here.. Need to get some tips on how to pose from my friend Laura..

Louis Vuitton store at Keyakizaka street

Illumination at Mori garden in front of TV Asahi

Tokyo tower from Roppongi Hills

66 Plaza Illumination at Roppongi Hills sponsored by Suntory whiskey. You can try various whiskey samples right next to it.

Midtown illumination

Christmas decorations at Midtown

Trees in front of Ritz Carlton hotel at Midtown

Starlight garden illumination at Midtown sponsored by Emirates airline

Christmas tree in front at Midtown

Sakura illumination at Meguro river sponsored by Mitsui residential. It is run on used cooking oil – very cool!

So I am extremely happy with my new camera. It takes amazing night pictures that are sharp and bright. I think I made the right choice although I still feel quite sentimental about parting with my old Lumix GF1…

Birthdays in 2012

This year has been extremely busy for me and that is why I haven’t been updating my blog as often as I would have wanted. But now that I have a little bit more time on my hands I can finally sort out through hundreds of photos that I took at various events and post some of them here. This one is about birthday parties that took place this year.

First, there was Shelly’s birthday right after Golden week. It was a beautiful party at an upscale private dining place in Nishi Azabu organized by her agency. There were a DJ and champagne tower and funny games and lots and lots of guests. ^-^

One of the guests was Rola – the current IT model/talent. She was very bubbly and funny and at times silly but that’s what sells in Japan so she was doing a great job.

I took this photo when girls were playing the game “Who knows Shelly the best!” They were getting Shelly dollar every time they answered a question correctly.

This guy won the main prize – a pair of tickets to Disneyland. Nice!

Then, there was Gow’s birthday party/live performance at Ginza Roots. It was also amazing, very posh and so so crowded. Gow has a lot of friends. Whenever we go out together, somebody always stops us on the street to say Hello to her.

Many of her talented friends performed for her that night including Girls’ talk, David, Mathew from Fox TV, beatboxer Kazu and a band of musicians.

Gow sang too – of course she was the best of them all.

 

At parties like this I meet a lot of people that I don’t normally see like Natalie and Clara. We used to work together on various TV shows and modeling jobs..

For my birthday this year I didn’t have any party. I hate throwing parties for myself and I hate asking my friends to do it for me. Instead, I had a romantic date with my husband and it was all I could wish for. It was one of the biggest storms that day with all the TV stations advising people to stay indoors. Instead of taking the advice, we rented a car and drove to the ocean. Crazy I know but it was so damn romantic. The stormy ocean is beautiful, rain is beautiful plus it always rains on my birthday so it was nothing new. ^-^

After spending half a day at the beach, we drove back to the city to Odaiba to watch “Bourne legacy” coz this movie series has a special place in our hearts. We both love it because it takes place in Europe and it is real with old-fashioned phones and logistics and operations – no sci-fi bullshit like virtual screens and immediate satelite access and people who just happen to conveniently know stuff “just because” like in other Hollywood movies. Of course I didn’t like it that much without Matt Damon in it but I enjoyed it anyway.

After the movie, we got back into our car and drove home. Only instead of heading towards the rainbow bridge, my husband stopped in front of Tokyo Nikko hotel where he secretly booked a room with the view to the bay as a surprise to me. I always wanted to stay at that hotel because it has this huge windows overlooking the best of Tokyo’s skyline and my favorite park is right in front of it. I was so happy to finally realize that dream.

The room was amazing. From our balcony I could watch the storm unraveling in the bay. It was breathtaking.

We had champagne and chocolate cake and I got yet another flower bouquet. It was amazing.

In the morning, the bay looked so peaceful after the storm. I woke up early and just sat on the balcony half naked watching the sunset and eating my chocolate cake. ^-^

We had breakfast in my favorite park in front of hotel and then headed home. It was the perfect birthday date.

Last week it was Laura’s birthday. Unfortunately I couldn’t be at her birthday party but I met her a couple of days ago for a private birthday date in Odaiba. I am so happy she loved the dress I gave her. I was having my doubts especially after all the friends I sought advice from confirmed that it wasn’t her style.. A little black dress won’t hurt anyone’s wardrobe even if one prefers to wear color most of the time. ^-^

By the way, these are the pics I took with my new Sony. I absolutely love how sharp they are. I didn’t even use any surface to station my camera on when taking these photos. These are just snaps I took while walking – simply amazing. ^-^

Autumn in Tokyo

A couple of weeks ago, I went to one of my favorite parks in Tokyo – Mizumoto park. It is really big and amazingly beautiful in every season. Me and my husband had a picnic there and then took a long stroll in the forest along the pond. These are the last photos I took with my Lumix GF1 before selling it. I decided to try new Sony Nex-5R instead. ^-^

This little creature kept jumping on my husband. He either took liking in him or considered him to be hostile. I couldn’t find its exact name but I am thinking it is some kind of cricket? It made similar sounds. ^-^

From here are the pictures I took with my new Sony Nex-5R. I went to Shinjuku Gyoen park the other day to test it.

The display can turn 180 degrees so now I can see myself when taking pictures. My friend Laura is really good at such self-portraits. Me? I look like a tourist no matter what… I seriously can’t figure out my good angles even when I look at myself… ^-^

With Sony I can control the level of  blur on the background which is good because I sometimes want both myself and the background to look sharp. Here I tried to take a closeup of leaves and it blurred the background behind them beautifully. I am very happy about this particular function.

Ginkgo tree is considered to be the symbol of Tokyo. It is literally everywhere and the smell from it’s seeds is sometimes overwhelming but I so got used to associate it with autumn in Japan that I don’t really mind anymore.

The weather has been quite warm this autumn so the leaves are just turning yellow and red. Some of the trees are still as green as they were in summer. I just love the contrast.

It was the first time for me to visit Shinjuku Gyoen’s green house. I usually just go straight to my usual spot by the water to read book or have a picnic. I almost never explore the rest of the park. The other day I had a lot of spare time so I decided to finally check the green house.

Little tip for those who suddenly gets cold in the park – green house is an ideal refuge from freezing weather. It was so warm and moist and it smelled like orchids. A great place to warm up and enjoy exotic flowers.

Overall I think I am happy with my new camera. I obviously need  to practice taking more than mediocre pictures but the quick snaps are quite stunning as well. I am hoping to go take evening pictures today. This camera is advertised as the one being particularly good at it. Let’s see!