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Posts tagged ‘travel’

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. ^-^