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Posts from the ‘Travel’ Category

Journeys in Japan : Karuizawa and Matsumoto

I am recently super late on my travel posts. The volume of photos is one of the reason. The other, I want my posts to be informational and useful to those who travel and that requires a lot of research which almost always throws me into a stalling mode. But with all the posts on fashion that I did these couple of months, I am on the verge of being labeled as “fashion blogger” so I decided to pivot my focus and get down to the posts about the trips I took this year. ^-^

In June, we took a trip to Karuizawa with another Russian family and rented a cottage together. It is not so expensive to rent a family-type cottage in Karuizawa but if you do it with another family, it is even better. ^-^ The one we chose (Highland resort, Kita Karuizawa) had two bedrooms with three beds in each room – absolutely perfect even for families of 4. ^-^ Plus, there is a big sofa in the living room.

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There is a designated space for barbeque in the area but if you have your own equipment, you can also do it on the porch of your cottage. All you need to bring is the grill or brazier, skewers and coal, the rest is provided within the cottage – pots, plates, glasses, cutlery along with the fridge, rice cooker and toaster. Bedlinen, towels and hairdryer are there too.

My friends were originally from Uzbekistan and of course knew a thing or two about how to make a perfect barbeque spread. They did lamb, pork and beef for us and chicken skewers for the little ones.

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After dinner, we went for a little walk around the forest. The sunset was breathtaking. They say that if the skies are pink, the next day is going to be wonderful and it really was. This trip to Karuizawa was one of the best ones and my son had so much fun, I am sure it will leave a positive print on him even if he won’t remember it.

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We played a little bowling. I am still amazed at how a 1.5 year old could lift heavy balls and throw them in the right direction. We give so little credit to babies, yet they prove us time and again how smart and creative they are.

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Although the rule of not stepping on the lane with your street shoes on (or not at all!) was beyond his comprehension. ^0^

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On the morning of the next day, we went to おもちゃの王国 (The kingdom of toys) – a magical place where children of all ages can enjoy not only various toys and attractions but also play sports, trek forest, swim and try different crafts.

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If it is too hot or cold outside, you can always hide in one of the indoor areas and play with wooden toys from different counties, roleplay with hundreds of various dolls or build your own city at the Prorail train wonderland. There is also a restaurant area with kids menu – not much variety there but you do have a choice between a bento with hamburger, sausage and potatoes and a bowl of udon (wheat noodles). There are also ramen, curry, fried chicken and I think pasta.

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After the amusement park, we headed to Hoshinoya – a beautiful contemporary resort from the famous chain of luxury hot springs. We couldn’t afford to stay there but the hot spring itself was quite affordable. For 1300yen (750yen for children) you can use any of the indoor or outdoor baths for the unlimited amount of time. I went there around 2PM with my son and there were only a couple more people. The bath was surrounded by trees with birds singing in them. It had a couple of small waterfalls and lots of sitting stones for sunbathing. My son loved it so much, he didn’t want to get out. We were sitting in water hugging each other, singing and watching dragonflies above our heads. That was the absolutely perfect moment I carefully stored in my memory to cherish for the rest of my life.

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From Karuizawa, our little family headed East to visit Matsumoto – a beautiful preserved city in Nagano prefecture.

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We decided to stay close to the center at a small but very stylish Matsumoto Marunouchi hotel.

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Upon checking in , we took a walk on Nawate street – an old-fashioned shopping district running along the river that hosts a lot of small antique galleries, eateries and my favorite of all – used book stores. The city is famous for its soba – buckwheat noodles, wasabi and raw horse meat – everything is of course produced locally with wasabi farm being the largest one in the world. Unfortunately, traveling with a 1 year old we couldn’t try any of these things. With soba shops, they almost always only sell soba in there and he never tried it before. The risk of an allergy reaction was something we didn’t want to deal with while traveling. So instead, we went to a good old family-type restaurant with an open salad bar where my son suddenly discovered his passion for free veggies and ate like three plates of mini tomatoes, cucumbers and baby corns. ^-^

By the time we got to Matsumoto-jo – the main attraction of the city and one of the biggest castles in Japan, it was already closed but we got to enjoy its exterior grandeur as well as beautiful sunset in its garden.

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Since we were already in the gate city to Japanese alps, we couldn’t help but visit the Azumino national park – beautiful area in the footsteps of mountains with a gorgeous view and a lot of entertainment for children including trampolines, stilt-walking, exploring woodland trails and making local crafts.

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Our last stop was the very stylish Chihiro art museum that displays hundreds of work of the famous Japanese illustrator Chihiro Iwasaki. There is a baby area with wooden toys, children’s books library with tables and chairs to sit and read away. There is a stylish restaurant with an outdoor area where you can also take any of the books and read during your lunch. There are swings and small toys available as well. At the museum shop, you can buy the works of Chihiro Iwasaki as well as many other books including some foreign titles. There are also candies and cookies with the famous illustrations that make wonderful gifts.

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As always thank you for reading and stay tuned for the absolutely wonderful hot springs trip we took at the end of the summer in Izu.

Journeys in Japan – Nasu, Tochigi

This was my first trip after giving birth to my son. In May, we took him to a hotspring in Nasu, Tochigi prefecture.

Before arriving at a ryokan, we stopped at Ashino stone museum – the Stone plaza that was constructed from an old warehouse by a famous contemporary designer Kuma Kengo. Japan is very unique in this way: in the middle of an utterly rural area with nothing but rice fields and muddy roads there is a true gem, astonishing piece of art that should belong in a big city. I was really impressed with the museum’s architecture and curated collection of light and shadow.

Cider by the window

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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. ^-^

Accidentally in love

For winter holidays, me and my husband spontaneously decided to go to Bali. I have always wanted to go there but somehow Thailand was always an easier choice..  Come to think of it, there isn’t much difference in traveling distance or price.. Bali is even cheaper, now more than ever because of strong Yen.^-^

So the reason why we took off without an elaborate advanced planning (something we always do and are notoriously famous for) was because we found a very rare mileage deal for Tokyo – Singapore – Tokyo. Such deals don’t come often and certainly not for the New Years.. Once you are in Singapore there are so many cheap budget airlines available – you can go anywhere you want for like 100$. So, we chose Bali. ^-^

Unfortunately, the New Year falls to the monsoon season in Bali so the weather was pretty much always on the verge of rain. We had a couple of sunny days that however always ended up in late night showers… Other days, the shower would start in the morning, then stop by lunch but once we go out to the city, it would start again locking us up in one place for a few hours.. I do enjoy this kind of weather  – the heavy lead-colored skies, the urgency in the air from rain about to burst through the skies, the quiet moments in between thunder strikes…However, when you are on one week holiday bad weather is something you usually hope to avoid.. But in the end, it didn’t ruin our perfect getaway and if anything, made it even more enjoyable because it gave us a sense of adventure and an opportunity to focus on something else besides getting sunburned at the beach. ^-^

So we chose two places to stay in Bali. Our first destination was Seminyak which is located north to Kuta – area famous for its wild parties. If you want to get the taste of a busy nightlife but avoid the crowds of people in a semi-constant state of blackout drinking and partying  – Seminyak is a good choice. It wasn’t too crowded or too deserted. A lot of foreigners were as good as locals, staying there with their families, riding scooters, walking their dogs, doing groceries at the supermarket.. I reckon a lot are living there. The main street of Seminyak was lined with legal offices offering visa extensions. ^-^ During my stay I haven’t met anyone who would be on the same short schedule as me. Whenever I was asked about the length of my stay, my reply was always met with the same amused look – “What? A week? That IS very short!”. What can I do? There simply aren’t longer holidays in Japan. ^-^

Seminyak is relatively big. The main street runs long and harbors plenty of cute little restaurants, art galleries and shops.  Wherever I go I am always on the hunt for local fashion and interior designers and I was pleasantly surprised to find both and with a very strong voice and amazing quality. Unfortunately I was too absorbed in window shopping to take any pictures but here are some links to the shops I liked the most:

Biasa http://www.biasabali.com/index.php?/collections/for-her/

Ali Charisma http://www.alicharisma.com/fall-winter.php?id=13

Lily Jean http://lily-jean.com/collection.php

Magali Pascal http://magalipascal.com/

As for the restaurants, we tried different ones each day. Most of them had outside terraces and many were directly on the beach. The very first day, we had dinner at this cozy restaurant which was located on the “sacred” part of the beach. There are special places in Bali which are designated for religious rituals and processions so at that particular part of Seminyak beach, it was prohibited to swim. Of course, some middle-aged Russian tourists in skin-tight shocking pink Speedos were swimming there anyway… Oh well.. For every rule, there is at least one Russian breaking it.. ^-^

Besides the “designated”places, there are religious offerings everywhere you go. They are literally scattered around on the pavement, on the road, in front of shops and restaurants, inside too. More than half of them end up being smashed or stepped on so the overall look of the street can sometimes look messy but I liked the determination with which Balinese people continued preparing those offerings. I like when people are dedicated to their beliefs. I respect that.

That evening, we drank our Mojito and watched the most amazing sunset I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t painted with happy colors. The sky and ocean were dark and heavy but the sunlight was shimmering gold. The clouds didn’t move at all.. They were just slowly melting into the purple sky.  We sat there on the beach and watched the dark ocean till we could see no more. Then, we returned to our hotel.

In Seminyak, we chose to stay at La Villais spa & villa resort which was only a few minutes walk to the main street and 10 minutes to the beach. Surprisingly, not so many resorts in Bali have their own access to the beach (something that is quite common in Thailand). It might be different in Nusa Dua (manicured South-East part of Bali) but in Seminyak-Kuta area, only a few of the hotels where located directly on the beach..^-^

But I really loved our hotel. It was very private and secluded. Each villa was completely isolated from each other. We met other guests only during breakfast in the morning or by the main pool area.

Our villa had its own pool and it was quite big, at least in comparison to the other villas with plunge pools I found on Trip Advisor. The bedroom was in one building and the living room with kitchen was in another. The wall facing the pool garden was missing which was both unusual and exciting at the same time. I have never lived like that before but I really enjoyed it, especially my evenings sitting on the sofa, drinking Balinese ginger tea and watching the rain outside.

There were several Frangpani trees in our garden that not only smelled incredible but also showered our pool with its beautiful flowers every time it rained.

I stayed in the pool as much as I could, sometimes till the skin on my fingers turned white. I love water and I love feeling weightless.  I couldn’t get enough of it.

So the mornings, we stayed at out villa and enjoyed the sun or went down to a spa if it was raining. Spa was really amazing. It was cheaper than in Thailand and I could mix my own fragrant oils. ^-^ In the afternoons, we went exploring the town and its cuisine. We checked out all the hip places recommended by Timeout. It allowed me to observe the locals (Balinese and foreigners). I like watching people and contemplating their stories. There were a lot of Russians there – surfers, families, models on holidays…

A funny fact about my husband. He doesn’t really like taking photos (read: obsessed with photos like me) so every time I want one, I need to ask him for it. Except when I am drinking.. If there is a cocktail in my hand, he is compelled to take a picture. ^-^ So I have an extensive collection of such shots but I swear I am not an alcoholic!! I think it’s just his idea of a perfect vacation picture.. ^-^

By the way, that chubby tattooed man with a pierced ear behind me was Russian.. The night we went to an Italian restaurant, there were 4 tables speaking Russian!!! It felt more like Odessa than Bali… Oh, and another funny thing. Whenever I wanted to say something to my husband in private I would use Japanese or Russian. Only it was never really in private! I swear every Balinese waiter, driver or shop owner I met was capable of speaking one language or another!! I got into so many embarrassing situations thinking they didn’t understand me!!! Never, never underestimate people working in hospitality business!!!

Another day, we had dinner on the beach at a gorgeous restaurant called “Breeze”. The staff was amazing. They addressed us by our names and were very friendly and chatty. One waiter was a painter from Ubud who used to live in Japan!! ^-^ The food was absolutely amazing! I had the best gazpacho I’ve ever tasted, even better than the authentic one I tried in Madrid. I was in heaven!!! Of course we also tried Indonesian dishes like Nasi goreng (fried rice with meat, tofu and veggies) and bunch of other stuff – they often serve an assortment of local delicacies on one plate (aka tourist plate) and then explain each one of them but it was just too much to remember.. Everything was soo good though, the right amount of spicy and sweet!

That evening, as we were drinking our coffee and munching on a triple chocolate cake (courtesy of a guy sitting next to us who got a surprise birthday cake from his girlfriend! Yeah, the whole cake!!!), the air exploded with a loud rumble and within fracture of a second the rain poured down. It was like a curtain of water, I could hardly see in front of me. The lightning stroke every minute or so and the rumble was getting louder and louder.. A sane person would wait it out or call a cab. Me and my husband, we decided to walk back to our villa without an umbrella! I completely ruined my Tory Burch sandals but I couldn’t care less. Running down the dark street in an alien country under the pouring rain was quite a liberating experience! I wanna do it again!!

Our second destination was Ubud, a small village located amongst rice paddies and steep valleys. It is Bali’s major arts and culture center harboring many amazingly talented painters, dancers, wood carvers, designers and musical instrument makers. Ubud is also famous as a place to gather medicinal herbs and plants. You remember that Medicine man from “Eat pray love”? He was living in Ubud. ^-^

In Ubud, we stayed at Kamandalu resort which was gorgeous but very Japanese-oriented. Everyone spoke the language and everything in the room was written in Japanese. I mean it’s nice, thank you but I kinda want to get away from it!! Next time, I will stay at a family-run B&B and will make sure they don’t speak Japanese or Russian. ^-^ But apart from that, everything was perfect! Beautiful chalets with views to the rice paddies, nice landscape design and amazing kind people.

It’s funny how we chose this hotel because it was almost the only one with a pool in Ubud and yet we didn’t use it at all. ^-^ It was raining the entire time we were there so instead I cuddled with a book on a chaise longue with parasol in front of it and watched the rain… and occasional middle-aged Russians in skin-tight shocking pink Speedos swimming in the pool like no weather is ever bad enough. ^-^

So because it was raining, I spent a lot of time at Kamandalu spa. I ALWAYS feel nervous when someone is washing my feet or serves me tea while kneeling down but somehow it felt amazingly comfortable in Bali. You know how Japanese people are always polite regardless of whether they mean it? Well, Balinese people are also polite but you can feel true sincerity behind their smiles. They are radiating with kindness and you can feel it is for real.  I mean I still would prefer them not to kneel in front of me but they handled themselves with such ease and confidence , I had no choice but to relax and let it go.  ^-^

Ubud has the main street called Jalan Raya Ubud that is the address for the majority of Ubud’s art galleries, batik and paper shops, bookstores, jewelers and the coziest cafes. I was blown away but the variety of silks and candles and woven baskets.. I wanted to buy everything.. A little word of advice! When going shopping in Ubud, NEVER bring your husband. He spoiled the whole experience by constantly reminding me that I didn’t need a trillionth candle holder or pillow case.. Well, yeah I don’t need them – I WANT them!!

Everything was so cheap AND I was allowed to negotiate the price. Now that I am back to Tokyo, I curse myself for not buying more of that delicious mango jam and lavender bath salt…and the silk scarfs..and banana leaf paper…and candles… Ahhh…

The main attraction at night was to go to one of those amazing dance performances at Puri Saren (Ubud palace) or Puri Saren Agung (Water palace).

My friend Mia is a professional Balinese dancer so I already knew that I wanted to watch Legong dance because it is the one performed exclusively by girls. We saw it at Ubud palace and then again at this beautiful water lily palace the next day.

There is a terrace restaurant called “Lotus cafe” right in front of it so you can actually have dinner while watching the dance performance. Or, you can go for the best seat at Starbucks next door that also had a huge terrace facing the pond.

We chose the restaurant because it was our last night in Bali. Here I am with the cocktail.. again… ^-^ Where is all the food? I don’t have a single picture of anything we ate… I tend to forget to take pictures when I am having too much fun..

Other dances we saw were Barong (a dance of Lion and monkey) and Kecak (a trance-like chanting ritual).

That night, we made friends with the local guy who took us to the airport the next day. His name was Wayan which means “first”. In Bali and some other parts of Indonesia, names are decided based on birth order, regardless of sex. There are only three more names used and you can guess what they are. Yep! Second, third and fourth – Made, Nyoman and Ketut. If you are a fifth child in the family, your name will be Wayan Balik which means Wayan “again”.  Fascinating, isn’t it? ^-^

On our way back to Tokyo, we spent one day in Singapore. I really wanted to see my friend Anastasia who moved there from Tokyo a year earlier. We met at Clarke Quay and had dinner on the river not far from the Fullerton hotel.

She said it was tough to get used to Singapore mixed cuisine after so many years of living in Japan.. Everything is much more oilier and spicier… But the restaurant we found was very good.

After dinner, we went to the bay to watch lazer show, a novelty attraction of Marina bay – newest hotel on the town. Again, Starbucks was the place with the best view and it wasn’t crowded. I don’t really know Starbucks without a crowd. In Japan, it always comes with it.

I have been to Singapore several times so I didn’t do any sightseeing this time. In Bali too, I decided not to waste any time sweating inside tourist buses but instead experience life of a local – slow and very very relaxing. As much as me and my husband are determined to do it every time we travel, we usually fail to escape the pressure of seeing this and that. This time, we completely let go and enjoyed a real vacation – doing absolutely nothing at all!!!

So, it was a very short holiday but it completely rejuvenated me.  I am already planning my next trip, thinking of places to go and things to buy (yes, I want Balinese furniture, I can’t stop thinking about it). I understand fully now why my friend Mia is so crazy about it.. You can’t help but to fall in love with the place, the culture, the lifestyle and above all the people. ^-^

Journeys in Japan – Nagoya & Mie prefecture

This is a post on my trip to Nagoya and Mie a week after the events of March 11th. Originally I was supposed to go to Kyoto but with everyone fleeing to Kansai, it was impossible to get any train or even bus tickets. A night bus to Nagoya was practically the only option. I have been to the city only once before on a business trip that was so short I couldn’t even try Nagoya’s famous “tebasaki” – chicken wings. So, I took the opportunity to visit it again and since I was in that area – also see the attractions in the neighboring Mie prefecture.

Japanese night bus is a great way to travel when you are on a budget. It is three times cheaper than Shinkansen – bullet train and it is less affected by heavy snow, rain or earthquake that almost always make the trains stop.  The buses usually depart in the evening and stay at the highway rest area for a couple of hours to arrive to it’s destination in the morning. I used to ride those a lot back in the days when my husband was studying at Kyoto university.

They are quite comfortable especially for female travelers that have designated single seat area with curtain partitions that guarantees privacy. Each seat can recline to an almost horizontal position and there is also a support shelf for your feet and ankles that you can lift, turning your seat into a bed. The only downside is the lack of sufficient space to actually use the chair to it’s full capacity. If you recline all the way to the back and a person in front of you does the same, you become completely trapped in your seat for the rest of the trip. If you need to go to the toilet, well.. let’s just say you either have to demonstrate some gymnastic abilities or wake that person in front of you and ask to let you out. ^-^

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Journeys in Japan – Atami

On the last days of Golden week, my friends and I went to Atami – a small hot springs town in Shizuoka prefecture, roughly in between Hakone and Izu. I always pass it on my way to a more exciting destination never realizing that Atami has also a lot to offer. I was indeed pleasantly surprised that this once glamorous (back in the bubble days) resort is still quite fun even though it doesn’t look this way at a glance – old hotels, outdated theme parks and closed pools may look sad to anyone but it still has a beautiful Sun beach, gorgeous Japanese and English gardens, nice hot springs and seafood to die for. ^-^

It is only 1 and a half hours away from Tokyo. We took Tokaido line train from Shinagawa and got out at Odawara first to see the famous Odawara castle.

With a typical Japanese castle, as much as it is gorgeous from outside, there is pretty much nothing to see inside – usually a small permanent exhibit of ancient swords, scrolls and kimono and an observation tower with a view to the city. Odawara castle was no exception – it fit right into that pattern all the way to the Hello kitty souvenir doll dressed as a samurai.. ^-^ But I liked it anyway because the exhibit was well put with a lot of explanations and historical maps.

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Patagonia state of mind – Part 4. Torres Del Paine

After an almost half a year break, here is the continuation of my story about my big trip to Patagonia I took last year.

The next day, after settling in Puerto Natales, we took a journey to Torres Del Paine national park which is very different from what we are used to call a park. It is a 242 thousand hectares area on the Seno de Ultima Esperanza, enclosed by the Paine massif which is an eastern spur of the Andes mountains. The park was declared a World biosphere reserve by UNESCO. It also takes approximately 7 days to see everything. We had only 7 hours.. ^-^

To get there, we boarded a bus early in the morning that took us through the never-ending landscape of rural Patagonia – mountain massif on the horizon, big heavy clouds torn by strong winds, low vegetation steppes with occasional sheep and horses for two straight hours.

Our first stop was Cueva de Milodon – a massive prehistoric cave where the remains of an extinct giant ground sloth were discovered in the 1890’s.

We followed a 15-minute trail to the entrance of the cave – that’s how far in we could go without special equipment. A path looped through the interior of the huge cavern that allowed us to see stalactites and other minerals that have been there since prehistoric times.

Then, we drove further into the park entering from the Laguna Amarga gates. It is a good place to start trekking because that’s where wild Guanacos can be observed at a close distance. They look very friendly which is very deceiving because they don’t let you get closer than they feel comfortable with and they don’t accept any kind of food.

That’s beautiful Pehoe lake with dazzling turquoise glacial water.

And lago Toro with cloudy, milk like water.

Both phenomenon happens due to rock flour suspended in their waters. Rock flour consists of fine-grained particles of mountain rock, generated by mechanical grinding of bedrock with glacial erosion. I’m not sure if it’s correct explanation but I was told that the unbelievably blue water is the result of this glacial dust reflecting the sun.

The weather was beautiful – sunny and warm but because of super strong high-altitude wind I had to wear a fleece and two jackets – down and windbreaker. The French valley where we stayed for quite a while observing the mountain massif was particularly windy. At some point, I had to look for something to hold on to. The funny thing about Patagonian weather is that it changes almost every minute due to Patagonia’s closeness to the Southern ice field and Pacific ocean. It can be sunny and windless one second and the next it can rain on you and sweep you off your feet. That’s actually what happened to me on my journey to Fitz Roy but that’s another story. ^-^

Our ultimate destination was of course Los Cuernos.  Tectonic movements that took place some 12 million years ago sculpted these mountains, giving them the shape of  horns.

The trees in Patagonia all look like they’ve been created by Tim Burton. Strong winds bend them into these tragic looking shapes.

We walked through Magellanic subpolar forest to arrive at the spectacular waterfall – Salto Grande linking the two glacial lakes Lago Nordenskjold which lies in front of the Cuernos (the horns) and Lago Pehoe.

After the waterfall, we had lunch at Pehoe barbeque – a little wooden cottage that served delicious meat and cold Astral cerveza. Astral is the best beer I’ve ever had because it is mild and has the taste of berries. If only I could buy it here in Tokyo…

After lunch, we hiked about 2km crossing the river Pehoe to the Lago Grey and it’s icebergs. At the top end of the lake was the huge Grey Glacier marking the end of the southern Patagonian icefield.

It was the first time for me to see iceberg with my own eyes. I tried to catch  some small pieces of ice floating in the water – they were crystal clear.

The huge area in front of the Grey lake was once filled with water but because of the glacier movements, it left the valley and moved elsewhere.

Our last stop before heading back to Puerto Natales was Laguna Verge with beautiful blue water. By that time, me and my husband were pretty tired from all the walking against strong wind and my hair was in one big dread. ^-^ Only half of the other tourists went out of the bus to see the lake. I guess Torres del Paine is a hard nut to crack for inexperienced tourists like us. I wish to return there one day and do the full W circuit 7 day hike because all the trekking that I did since that day proved I can totally do it. ^-^

Oh and here is a short video I took in the park, showing just how strong the wind was.

Next post is going to be about Argentinian part of Patagonia and our stay at El Calafate. ^-^

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. ^-^

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?..

imovie 11 rocks!

I have finally found time to play with iMovie 11 – an apple software that allows you to make movies in a matter of seconds. It has this exciting new feature called movie trailer that helps you create your very own Hollywood style trailers. I’ve used some footage from my Christmas trip back home to make a sample! So without further ado I present you “Christmas at home” a movie by tokyoholic. ^-^

You can also watch a better quality version directly on youtube! ^-^