The final note – week 124

December 29, 2016

We left Japan on December 29. I am at a loss of words to describe how sad I feel. These past 124 weeks have been the best weeks ever!

img_0103
Some of the boys at Linus’ and Leonard’s sayonara party

We have been up to quite a lot of travelling and exploring over the past weeks followed by a long string of Sayonara parties. Lilo started with a Karaoke afternoon with her friends. The week after the boys had invited their friends from both schools for a final round of playtime. In the evening we had our adult Sayonara party without children – the great one without any pictures!
The last weeks felt like a never ending reunion with friends over and over in order to say good-bye again and again. We hope it’s going to be a “see-you-soon” with most of our friends as I plan to return to Tokyo for work and we will keep on promoting Nuremberg as a travel destination!

img_0096
Kindergarten friends: Leonard & Linus, Theresa & Tailor, Roma & Pearl

Now it is up to us to move from the last Thanksgiving in Tokyo with Ditte and Jesper to the first Thanksgiving in Nuremberg or Copenhagen with them. Or to turn a Kyoto day trip with my friend Sarah into a hiking day in Franconian Switzerland one day soon. We will find a new piano teacher and organise a concert for all of her or his pupils at our house, hoping to recreate some of the warmth, the laughter and international exchange we enjoyed so much at Susan’s and Hwan’s house. We are already looking forward to finally seeing Tybee island and to spend some quality time with all the Sheltons. And we are also looking forward to having lots of our friends and our children’s friends coming to see us in Nuremberg.

But despite the sadness about leaving Japan, there is so much joy about being back in Europe! Because we are close to our families and friends again. We can look forward to so many reunions! We will move from Sayonara party mood to reunion party mood! We already checked out the ICE connections and the Nuremberg airport flight plan. It all looks very promising. And we already have a car! Now the planning will start! We have already been to Mainz for New Years Eve, Ingolstadt will follow next weekend. Hamburg, Brussels, Würzburg, Munich, Berlin, Düsseldorf, Bonn, Stuttgart, Basel – get ready, we are on our way!

I will certainly miss my work with Canning and my network at FEW. Today I requested my tax number with the local tax authorities to set up my business in Germany. Next step is to create my professional network in Nuremberg / Germany. I will keep you posted!

The last days in Japan were actually quite stressful as we managed to be in Hokkaido when they had the heaviest snow in 50 years! We could not return to Tokyo as planned on Thursday early afternoon. We finally managed to get on a plane on Saturday evening. Travelling with a low cost carrier with an exclusively Japanese speaking staff might be cheap, but in case of trouble you are completely lost. At least we did not have to spend the nights at the airport like some other 6,000 people who got stuck as well.

Apart from the struggle to get back home, Hokkaido was wonderful. We stayed at the best hotel we ever had in Japan. Spacious Canadian blog houses with a restaurant in the centre of the premises. To our surprise we were picked up from the bus stop by Gudrun and Jürgen a German-Austrian couple who manages the hotel. With Gudrun being from Würzburg, the children heard the Franconian dialect for the first time. “Why does she talk in this funny way?”, was one of the first questions. They better get used to it!
The perfect powder snow certainly came after we left, but the slopes were in great condition and skiing was really fun. We had two days without the children as they attended ski school and spent the last day all together. By now, I have to speed up if I am in the lead as the kids will easily pass me. Especially Leonard is completely reckless going downhill and he hardly ever falls. It will become more and more challenging to go skiing with them in the future.

Hokkaido.jpg
Blue sky and Mt. Yotei

When we returned home, the packing of the house had already started without us. We arrived right in time for Christmas eve and on Christmas day we just had time to unpack the presents. Breakfast took place while the movers were taking down the pictures from the walls around us. Quite a surreal experience! We moved to the ANA intercontinental in Roppongi in the afternoon and enjoyed the last days in Tokyo with gorgeous breakfasts in a familiar neighbourhood close to our friends. And we had more sayonara parties……

img_0181
Farewell lunch with the Sheltons

 

This is the final blog post from Tokyo. Thank you all for following our adventures over the past two years. Returning to Germany after almost 11 years means that we are currently experiencing the reverse culture shock. But the German TV makes you feel at home right away as nothing has changed. They are still showing “Deutschland sucht den Superstar” – the German version of “American Idol”.

Some fun facts about Germany:

People are allowed to smoke everywhere – and they do. Streets are paved with cigarette butts.

If you go shopping, you need to bring your own bag. Even to places like H&M. A good initiative to reduce plastic waste, we just need a little adjustment coming from Japan.

Fruit and vegetables are really cheap.

People talk to each other. Strangers talk to you in restaurants, bars, cafés, shops and on the street. Even children talk to adults they do not know. People look you in the eye when they are walking past you in the streets.

Dust bins are everywhere in the streets, still waste is everywhere, too. Tokyo has no bins, but also no waste in the streets. How come?

It’s really hard to find something to drink when walking in the city. Almost no supermarkets, no “Kiosk”, no VENDING MACHINES! I really do miss them.

I am not sure it is a good thing to understand everything that is being said around you.

Travel time – week 117

November 9, 2016

What a day! I am speechless and sad about the result of the US election, and it might not be the ideal day to publish my blog post about travelling. But on the other hand, life has to go on and I decided not at all to be impressed by racist, demeaning or bullying behaviour. The contrary, I think we do need to focus even more on respect and care for each other, diversity, freedom, generosity and creativity. Instead of being a paralysed observer I wish to stand strong and to double my efforts to teach my children how to live a fearless life in love and respect. I believe that fear is our worst enemy. People who dare, don’t vote for people like Trump.

I’ll tell you what freedom is to me.
No.
Fear.

(Nina Simone)

So here is my blog post:

Every time we move to a new country we do the same: in the beginning we explore a lot, we do sightseeing, explore the different neighbourhoods, find restaurants we like and places for the children to play. After a few months, we stop exploring and sightseeing, we return to the same restaurants and the same parks. Our list of places to visit slowly grows over time, but we postpone the trips as the opportunities for visiting seem to be plenty in the future. And then comes the day we have to move and we realise how much of the country we did not see.

Even though we have been trying very hard not to fall into the same pattern in Japan, the list of places I wanted to see and did not go to remains quite long.

We will soon have to move on, even though we do not know exactly where and when. So in the coming months every opportunity to travel will be used to tick off places on the list.

Beijing

lama-templeTwo weeks ago we went to Beijing, China. It was a really nice experience, much nicer than I expected it to be. Maybe it is helpful to travel somewhere with very low expectations and then be surprised about how wonderful it is. I had heard so many stories about the pollution, the rudeness of people, the dirty toilets, the bad quality of fruits and vegetables (or rather their overload on pesticides and fertilisers), that for a very long time I was quite reluctant to travel to China. But on the other hand I was also curious to go. And being at such a short distance to China made the trip easy and affordable. We found that pollution is indeed very bad. We were lucky that it rained on our second day. It meant visiting the Forbidden City in the pouring rain and being completely drenched at the end of the day, but the rain cleared the air and we had perfect blue skies on the following two days when visiting the Great Wall and the Beijing Art district. On our last day, day 3 after the rain, the sky was grey again and visibility was extremely low.

great-wallRudeness is of course relative and as in Japan people are hardly ever rude in any way, we are very spoilt. With regards to the Chinese, I would like to replace rudeness by directness. Because what we experienced in the positive and negative was a very direct verbal or non-verbal communication. In the positive sense that meant that people would help us to find the right bus stop by pointing or almost pushing us to where we needed to go or that they were ready to say that they cannot help us or that something is simply not possible or available. In Japan people avoid saying “no” in your face and they are always trying to help or find someone to help which can sometimes take some time or create awkward situations, because in the end you feel like they have gone miles out of their way even though a simple “no” would have been perfectly fine and you would have moved on to the next person to ask for help. I found the Chinese way quite refreshing. Less refreshing was the directness in them staring at us. In Beijing there seem to be much less foreigners than in Tokyo. In many places we were the only ones. And among the few foreigners there were hardly any kids. So our three blond children were an attraction and we are on so many pictures now, we lost count. I also thought that most of the people who took our pictures are only-children due to the one-child policy, so seeing siblings might have been even more interesting to them. Even the children started feeling ill at ease because everybody was staring at us all the time. They also got to the point where they refused to pose for pictures with Chinese families.

Regarding the toilets, we did indeed find a few dirty toilets, but most of the time they were perfectly fine. We just had to get used to the fact that most had no toilet paper and that the toilet paper is thrown into bins and not flushed, which causes a bit more smell.

We ate excellent food most of the time, but of course we have no idea how high our intake of chemicals was during our stay.

Kamikochi

Kamikochi.JPGRight after our return from Beijing and one day of work, I went on a two day hiking trip to Kamikochi with Ditte and Laura. Kamikochi is a natural park in the northern Japanese Alps. You can only access the park by bus. The bus goes through a tunnel and once you get out on the other side, you feel like being in a different world. The changing autumn leaves, the clear blue sky, the higher rocky mountains and volcanos and the lower tree-covered mountains form an incredibly beautiful scenery. On the first day we walked along the river in the valley, on the second day we woke up to fresh snow on the mountain peaks and had to learn that one of the hikes we wanted to do up on one of the volcanos had just been closed the day before as the season is coming to an end. So we went up the last open hike up to reach the hut on 2170 metres which was just about to be closed down for winter. Apart from the great company and the delicious food in our Ryokan, I really enjoyed this hike as it cleared my mind and I found answers to a lot of questions that have been bothering me for quite a while.

It’s a bit difficult to get there as it is quite a ride by train or car, but it is absolutely worth going. It is one of the most beautiful places I have been to in Japan.

Naoshima

After a half-day break for the parent-teacher conferences at the boys’ school, I left with them in the afternoon to go to Naoshima, an island in the Seto Inland Sea in the south of Honshu. We made the first part of the trip in the afternoon, then spent the night in a hotel in Okayama and continued the next morning to Naoshima where we spent the whole day wandering around the island and visiting the different art projects and museums. In the evening Mark and Lilo arrived, because Lilo did not want to miss her last Japan day at school so they left Tokyo on the Friday at noon.

DSC_3077In the mid 80’s Naoshima turned from a fishing island into an art centre for modern art. This development clearly saved the island and many young people from moving away to find jobs in the bigger cities. It attracts over 400,000 visitors per year who come to see the many art projects, exhibitions and museums. In addition you have nice beaches and a beautiful landscape with a great view on the Inland Sea which looks like a bigger, more expansive version of Halong Bay. Unfortunately many islands are much more industrialised so that the beautiful views are sometimes spoiled by cranes, big machinery, power poles, etc.

A great place to go for a long weekend, but if you would like to stay on the island, you have to book quite in advance.

DSC_3049
The boys and the ladies

We already know very well that Leonard really likes to talk – or should I better say, give speeches. We have seen people (strangers) on the beach in France trying to get away from him after a while, but he just kept on talking or walking next to them while giving them some insights on the life of crabs or similar.
On our day trip to the Great Wall, we shared our lunch table with a man from New York who was travelling with his mother. I do not think that Leonard took more than a bite of his lunch as he explained Pokemon Go to this guy and summarised some of his favourite Netflix series. He was talking non-stop.
In Naoshima we met two ladies at a coffee place and he decided to sit with them – Linus followed him after a while – and to chat with them. I was quite thankful for this time-out, but I could not really stop listening to his conversation. He is amazing, I love how he is able to share his passion for the things he is interested in. And as he is friendly, even polite, and attentive he easily finds his audience.
It reminded me of an evening with my cousin Martin in Mallorca in May 2014. We were out for dinner together and Leonard sat next to Martin. He started every sentence with “Martin, ….”. It was not possible to have any other conversation going on for longer than about 2 minutes. After about 1 1/2 hours my cousin said to me that he had never ever heard his name as often as this evening.

A personal note – week 115

October 25, 2016

Life is a journey – and as trivial as it may sound it is simply true. Since we came to Japan I have been on a special journey: A journey to myself. To find out what I really like, what really motivates me, what I am devoted to. And step by step I come a bit closer to it. Every day. This trip has no terminus.

It started already before we took the decision to move the family to Japan. I already knew months before that I needed some change in my life. So the idea to give up my job and to move countries (again) was more than welcome. But this time it would be different. I would be an expat spouse to begin with. On a nice expat package. It would give me the freedom to explore.

And explore I did.

Over the past two years I constantly was lucky enough to meet many interesting people who would then connect me to their network, who would share their ideas with me, who would inspire me, trust me and laugh with me.

To start with, we were lucky that Anne Good was assigned to give us a two day intercultural training upon arrival in Japan. She not only invited me to join the Women Start Up Club in November 2014 when I was thinking about setting up my own business. As a coach, she also supported me in getting everything done from website and business plan to templates and proposal drafts. It was a very intense time from March to mid-June 2015, but I enjoyed so much working on my own project. Anne was also the one to get me into contact with Canning Professional where I applied for a trainer job and got it in June 2015. It is a great place to work. It offers flexibility, a reasonable trainer fee and the possibility to develop my skills through their internal STAR programme. But most importantly, I learn every single time I teach my Japanese participants. They come to improve their presentation skills, meeting skills or negotiation skills and when they leave they have allowed me to take a very close look at the Japanese approach to work and life. Their questions during the training or their behaviour in role plays are sometimes mind-blowing to me as some of it is so far off anything that I can imagine. Every training I deliver equips me with new knowledge and a new set of questions to ask my next participants. We laugh a lot while we share our moments of astonishment or incapacity to react appropriately in cross-cultural encounters.

Joining the Women Start Up Club made me curious to join the monthly meetings of the umbrella organisation FEW (For Empowering Women). A true treasure box of incredible women from all around the world who are curious to learn and generous to share. What amazes me every time is that in this circle we do not only share success stories or the current challenges we are facing, it is also a safe place to share failure. Since January 2015, FEW has been my monthly fixed date I was looking forward to from one meeting to the next. In October 2015 I was very lucky to win a 12 week Dale Carnegie training course “Effective Communications & Human Relations – The 5 Drivers of Success”. I won this class in a lucky draw at a FEW meeting as sponsors offer monthly give-aways to support the members. Usually it’s a Yoga session, a book or a product voucher. I won a training worth 200,000 Yen! Unfortunately it meant missing out on some FEW meetings as dates overlapped.

Around that time I had also decided to take the next step in making my trainer existence more professional. Even though only a minority of the trainings I deliver are intercultural trainings, my focus and my passion is on intercultural work. Even before moving away from Germany in 2006, I used to work in multi-national teams and / or in national teams as part of an international project with all the intercultural challenges you face working across cultures.
My subsequent experiences in Belgium and Switzerland have taught me a great deal about dealing with cultural differences on a personal and professional level. I felt I had gained enough experience to share and to prepare Japanese employees to face those intercultural challenges in their daily lives. On the other hand, as I already said before, it enables me to constantly keep learning and to fill a very large box with examples and experiences to share in the future.
In January 2016, I took a two week train-the-trainer course in Bangkok to become a certified intercultural trainer. Beginning of October I finally had my exam here in Tokyo!

Most of the above aimed at my professional development. The Dale Carnegie course was a bit in between. Even though the course’s title is quite cheesy, sounding like a cheap guidebook to success (and what does success mean?), the training touches your core. It is all about who you are, how you relate to others. About vulnerability and how to appreciate others. It was a very good step for me into the right direction. I had to rethink my relationship building skills and what really mattered to me. I needed to revise my condescending prejudgement of people who do not think the same way I do. I needed to understand that the professional me may have a lot to be admired, but only little that gives my life a true meaning or heartfelt connections with others.

14711188_10154748610770809_6807698348004929329_o
Gankaen Ryokan

The next step I took in April when my friend Sarah Furuya recommended the Shine programme to me. A three day programme focussing on empowerment, leadership and personal transformation, it helped me to really focus on what is important to me. I could build on my learnings from the Dale Carnegie training and experience an extra ordinary and very intense three days filled with passion, enlightenment and joy. It made me question all the labels that I used to decorate myself with: working mother, entrepreneur, business woman, wife, friend, daughter, sister etc and made me ask myself who I am without those labels.

14712648_10154748609285809_3304371428878653816_o.jpg
Drawing in the garden

Loosing all the labels continued in 2016 with wonderful Sarah Furuya and Divya Marie Kato and their idea to gather women in their Rise programme. “Breaking Bread” was an invitation to a delicious dinner with Divya, Sarah and four women who did not know each other. No labels allowed all evening. No talking about “I am [professional title] or “I used to work as …” We were getting right into a meaningful conversation about what is important to us. A very interesting experience, just try to tell your life to a friend without mentioning a single job or company!
Just a few weeks ago I spent two days with Sarah and Divya and nine women in a Rise retreat in the Japanese countryside. The Ryokan we stayed at was a fantastic place with a history of 300 years, a beautiful garden, excellent food run by a mother and daughter. We spent two days drawing, talking and again loosing all the labels. A circle of women creates a very special power to me. Over those two days I was overwhelmed by the openness, the strength, the kindness and the generosity I felt among those women. Many eye-opening moments for me and many outbursts of joyful laughter or cleansing tears within the group made these two days a very special experience.

And the journey goes on!

And in a more physical sense we are off to China tomorrow to explore Beijing!

Back in wonderful Japan – week 109

September 15, 2016

DSC_2648
Lilo in new uniform

We are back from our summer vacation for 5 weeks. Lilo is now a proud middle school girl and the boys are first graders. It is amazing to see how Lilo embraces her new school life. She is highly motivated, full of energy, takes responsibility for all her stuff, needs no reminder to do her homework, …. And in addition to all of this, she is so much nicer to all of us. Even to the boys. She has started doing homework with Leonard and all of a sudden he does not complain about homework any more and gets it done much faster than before (which means with me).

Despite the fact that the boys have to get on a bus to school at 7:10 am, they are also highly motivated to go to school. They are both enjoying it a lot. Especially the swimming classes which is also due to the fact that they are allowed to jump into the water which is generally not allowed in Japanese pools. Linus is a quick and easy learner. He reads very well in English so that we started reading German at home and he is doing really great. He likes to be neat, have his things in order and wants to be a good student. He told me he had no mistake in his last (first) spelling test. I haven’t seen the test yet, but I believe him. Leonard might not even have realised that there was a test. He is a little bit slower in reading and he is less interested in neatness. But his social skills are very strong. The teacher suggested that he should become the class leader. That definitely resonated with him and made him very proud.
The other day they had a class discussion about which responsibilities / small jobs everyone in the class could take in order to make life easier for everyone. Jobs like cleaning the whiteboard or storing the crayons, arranging the books and similar were discussed. Leonard suggested that it would be good to have someone tall who could reach things on the higher shelves for everyone and also store things away. Great idea, said the teacher. “This person could be me”, said Leonard, being the tallest in his class.

It feels so good to be back here, even if we already had some typhoons and some smaller earthquakes. Even if cooling down in the evening still meant 24-26 °C for the first four weeks after our return.

DSC_2655

Two weeks ago I went to a very nice flea market – one of my favourite things to do. In one of the stalls I discovered a pair of old kokeshi dolls which looked really different to the ones you usually find. I fell in love with them immediately, but looking at their price tags (each was marked 6,800 Yen) made me hesitate. The vendor told me that they were very old and that I could have them for 5,500. When I was about to leave, he went down to 5,000 Yen. When I walked slowly away, I thought about the many times that I regretted not having bought something I really liked and how you can never find the things again elsewhere. So I decided that I could as well invest my money into something I really like. The vendor  packed them for me, I handed him 10,000 Yen and walked away. After a few metres I felt someone tapping my shoulder: “Sumi masen”, the vendor smiled at me and held out 5,000 Yen. His price was for the pair!

 

Last week we went to the Ninja exhibition at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. If you have not seen it, go! It is a wonderful playful experience. It is still on until October 10. Ditte and I queued in two different lines and bought our tickets. Both of us stating: “Ninja exhibition”. When we wanted to enter the exhibition, I was told that I did not have the right tickets. We then discovered that Ditte had paid about 4,500 Yen for her tickets, but I had only paid 1,500 Yen. There was a short tense moment in our discussion between the two families about who had said what to order the tickets and what to do now, but the guy at the entrance control just took my tickets and asked us to wait a moment. “Chotto mat-te kudasei”. A few minutes later he came back with the correct tickets. I took my purse in order to pay the difference, but he just bowed and asked us to proceed, apologising for the inconvenience. Speechless – this customer service just leaves me speechless.

 

 

Holiday season: Europe – weeks 100-104

August 19, 2016

On July 6 we left for our summer break in Europe. Three weeks in Brittany and one week in Germany. Same as last year, I immediately went on a goat cheese / bacon diet, which means that at least one meal a day had to include one or both of the above. Same as last year, I started observing the differences to our Japanese daily life.

In order not to repeat last year’s observations, I keep my list very short. I would like to mention two things:
1. service culture in restaurants
2. obesity in children (and adults)

13912472_10210260705981944_3324892665683477077_n
Feeding the animals before dinner

Having completely adapted to the Japanese service culture, we had some difficulties dealing with the French (and German) nonchalance when it comes to service. As a guest in a French or German restaurant you really have to make an effort to make yourself noticed by the service unless the service person has decided to attend your table. You can easily spend 15 minutes at your table before anyone comes to take your order for drinks. Unfortunately the custom of bringing a glass of tab water to every guest as soon as they are seated is unknown in both European countries.

In Germany we were very early at the restaurant because the children wanted to join the feeding of the farm animals on site. My parents chose a table on the garden terrace while the personnel was finishing the preparations. It was a warm summer day and my parents who are around 80 were left without any attention whatsoever. When we joined them more than half an hour later, no-one had offered them even a glass of water. Even though we arrived before the official opening time, I found this a bit tough.

DSC_2496
Off to the pool with Patrick

My next observation: fat children! I was shocked. Not so much in France as there were only a few chubby ones, but they were rather the exception. The German public pools in the Black Forest and Westerwald revealed the drama. It seems like a little overweight is the rule, fat is common and slim is the exception. And of course the traditional public pool menu consisting of ice cream, french fries, the complete Haribo collection and soft drinks does not help.
And it is not that I would not see children in swimwear in Japan. But if you go to the beach here, you rather feel like attending a beauty contest where everyone is in perfect shape. Including the children.

But let’s focus on the positive – the goat cheese, the bacon, the wine, the abundance of fresh fruit at decent prices! Buying a watermelon for 1,78 Euro feels very good compared to not buying a watermelon for 3,500 Yen (ca. 30 Euro)! Or buying a whole box of peaches (25 pieces) for the same price I pay for about 3-4 in Japan. What a feast of fresh fruit we had!

13775831_10210076283811505_5039386993573649343_nOur favourite place, Lesconil, was at it’s best. Only 2 days of rain and quite a few days with temperatures around 34 C. For the summer classes Lilo decided to try windsurfing for the first time and she managed really well. The boys had their last summer class with mixed activities before they start the sailing classes next year! We had a great week on the water with Lilo and me ending up doing stand-up paddle for two days as there was literally no wind to surf.

DSC_2399
True love

Seeing our friends, the Biger family from Plobannalec again, having Steevelle staying with us for a week and having Marna and Alva over for another week, made the holidays almost perfect. The only sad thing was that Mark had to leave after only 10 days.

 

 

IMGP3246
Fetes maritimes internationales Brest 2016

After so many summers spent in Lesconil, we are developing certain routines. In the meantime we know which Circuses are worth seeing, which restaurants change their menus often enough for us, where to buy the best wine, the best cheese, when not to go to the beach, what to explore (still!) in the region. We all are looking forward to many more vacation weeks in Lesconil.

DSC_2403
La Torche

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to the differences between Japan and Europe, I also noticed some differences between the French and the Germans. Going on longer train rides with three children and even more luggage in both countries, brought some differences to light. Train personnel in both countries is very friendly most of the time – exceptions on the German side where the many delays stress passengers and DB employees alike. Not all of them were able to cope with that. The French trains all running on time, most passengers having their tickets already checked at the beginning of the platform, turns French SNCF employees into patient and friendly communicators. But they would not lend you a hand when getting on or off the train with all your kids and luggage. Neither do other passengers. Everybody for themselves seemed to be the motto. But at that point in time I only noticed that nobody helped, but everybody waited patiently for me to move on, nobody complained or tried to push past me.
On the French trains, we did not have any conversation with anyone. Even though people looked at us when hearing a mix of English, French and German spoken between us, it did not trigger a conversation.
Getting on and off the trains in Germany, I hardly ever had to carry all the luggage by myself. Not only did other passengers help us to get on and off, the train guards or ticket collectors were always ready to help, too. Having no internet connection with my Japanese phone, other travellers looked up alternative connections for me and gave recommendations as on which station I should change trains in order to avoid a change of platform etc. People were really quick at storing the heavier luggage in the overhead shelves for me or offering to look after our luggage while we were searching for our seats. Overall we had many shorter and longer conversations in all of the trains. Some triggered by the delays, some by the overbooking of seats, and many triggered by the fact that we spoke a mix of languages.

 

 

Holiday season: Hokkaido – week 99

July 15, 2016

IMGP3204
Lake Mashu – rated one of the most beautiful lakes of Japan. Shores are completely inaccessible.

Travelling Hokkaido with the family end of June was a wonderful opportunity to escape from the Tokyo heat and humidity and to spend a week in decent summer temperatures. Arriving in Sapporo by plane, we spent a day exploring the city and then went on heading east across the island to the lakes Kussharo and Mashu. On our way back to Sapporo we stopped over at lake Akan.

 

 

IMGP3211
Discovering Ainu culture at lake Kussharo

Having heard nothing but praise about Hokkaido’s exceptional beauty, our expectations were quite high. Imagine a mixture of Brittany, Eiffel and Allgäu and you pretty much get what we have seen of Hokkaido! I think the most amazing things are the wide open space and the deep green of the vegetation. Endless plains, green hills and fields and very few settlements. The many active and inactive volcanoes make a spectacular skyline.

Travelling outside of the Kanto region in an area that is less prepared to receive non-Japanese tourists, also comes with some challenges. Food is generally not available around the clock. Restaurants do stick more strictly to the opening hours. There is no coffee shop, 7/11 or family mart at every corner. Menus are not available in English. Finding an ATM can take a while. People hardly speak any English – even though we had some pleasant surprises!

Despite the above, we had a great time and felt welcome anywhere we went. Everybody tried their best to speak slowly, so most of the time we got along nicely.

I don’t know what it is with the choice of our hotels. As in Nikko, we ended up in hotels with a general wake-up call at 7 am! In Kawayu Onsen as well as at Lake Akan, we could not ignore the loud speaker announcements informing us about the breakfast hours. I have to ask someone Japanese why this is the case. In times of mobile phones everyone is able to set their personal alarm – so why waking up everyone?

 

 

Travelling Japan – week 87

April 20, 2016

Once outside of Tokyo you find everything from historic buildings to breath taking nature, from modern architecture to nondescript if not to say ugly, from very gaijin focused services to very Japanese oriented ones.

Over the past weeks we travelled around a bit, mixing city tours like trips to Kyoto and Nikko with shorter excursions to places close by like Kamakura (again!), some shrines and temples in the outskirts of Tokyo and not to forget Disneyland!

Kyoto
I can hardly imagine what this city looks like in high season. It seems hard to believe that even more people fit in the streets, buses and trains. We went on a – off-season – weekend before the cherry blossoms bloomed and at times it felt like being at Shibuya crossing.
Kyoto has around 16 temples and shrines that are rated as World Heritage, plus some castles and many more temples and shrines. I think you can easily spend two weeks in this city discovering the many sights, theatres and museums.

Kyoto 1
Kinkaku-ji temple
Kyoto
Fushimi Inaritaisha Shrine

Unfortunately we could not venture into the Gion district after dinner as the children were too tired from walking all day, so we spent our evenings in our tiny (really tiny!) hotel rooms. We only had Saturday and Sunday to visit this wonderful city which means that we definitely need to come back to see more. I may have to go by myself as Mark found it “too Japanese”!

 

 

M H KamakuraKamakura and Enoshima aquarium
This time, we not only went to Kamakura to see the big Buddha, but we continued the trip to visit the Enoshima aquarium. Definitely worth going with kids. They have a very nice unexaggerated Dolphin show and an amazing jelly fish exhibition. We are already planning to go back in summer as the aquarium is located on a wonderful beach with – if the weather is clear – an impressive view of Mount Fuji just across the sea.

 

 

Hasen
Gate keepers

Tsukinomiya Shrine and flea market
A wonderful way to spend half a day is a visit to the Tsukinomiya Shrine on one of the days they hold the flea market in the adjacent park. The shrine does not have the traditional tori gate or protective lions; instead it has a pair of stone rabbits. The shrine is called Tsuki Jinja in short by people of Urawa. “Tsuki” means the moon in Japan, and in the old days people believed a rabbit lived on the moon. It is a wonderful location for a flea market especially during the Hanami season as there are plenty of cherry trees in the park. There is also a playground in the park where you can leave the kids while walking around searching for some old Japanese treasures.

Nezu museum
A little bit hidden at the Southern end of Minami Aoyama is the Nezu museum with its wonderful garden. A real discovery!

Nezu museum garden
Nezu museum garden

 

Nezu Shrine and Ueno park
Hanami hysteria is best to experience when visiting Ueno park. Thousands and thousands of people come to see the cherry blossom and pick-nick places are set up all around under the trees. The Japanese style is a blue plastic cover spread on the ground. People bring their bento boxes and their beers and sake. Most of them get horribly drunk and some pass out on the benches or the ground. Very funny to see the usually so well controlled people in such a state!

Hanami hysteria Ueno park
Ueno park

nezu shrine

The Nezu Shrine with its little red toriis is very special and one of Japan’s oldest shrines. Nezu Shrine is set in lush greenery, with ponds of carp, pathways that are tunnels of small shrine arches, and elegant, beautifully colored, wooden structures that reflect Japanese culture in all its age and beauty. We were a bit too early to see the Azaleas, but right now is actually the best time to go and see thousands of Azalea bushes bloom.

 

 

Edo-Tokyo open air architectural museum in Koganei park
Our first Hanami pick-nick we had at Koganei park in the North of Tokyo with our friends from Germany and Switzerland. It was just the beginning of the cherry blossom and we found this really nice spacious park right next to the open air museum we planned to visit. The open air museum gives you great insights into different architectural styles and periods in Japan over the past 200 years. You can visit traditional houses, villas (Western and Japanese style) as well as shops and workshops of all kinds.

Koganei park
Koganei koen

The toughest week ever: Disneyland and Edo Wonderland within 5 days
L A DisnelandThere is a first time for everything. So this was our (the children and my) first visit to Disneyland. And to be honest: it probably was my last. Even though we had a fun day, I was quite disappointed, because until our visit to Disneyland I had not understood the difference between a theme park and an amusement park. You go to the theme park to meet your favourite (Disney) characters, buy tons of merchandising and eat expensive junk food. Eventually you take a ride on one of the roller coasters if you are patient enough to wait for approximately 2 hours on a busy day (like the day we went there). Basically you pay a lot of money to live the experience. You don’t pay firstly for the roller coasters – which was my main point of interest. An amusement park is a park where you have extraordinary roller coasters and expensive junk food with some merchandising here and there. From now on we will focus on amusement parks! Nevertheless we had a fun day and the children were very excited and did not mind waiting times or not doing the roller coasters.

LLL Edo wonderlandEdo Wonderland is a different experience as you can dress up as people from the Edo period, and you can see Ninja shows, traditional theatre and a parade of people in wonderful costumes. The food is much much better than in any park we’ve been so far and the merchandising goes from cheap crap to nice and valuable stuff.

Nikko
Nikko is a nice little city and home to some of the most spectacular shrines and temples as well as the imperial summer palace. Instead of running you through the sightseeing, I would like to share our hotel experience with you.

Our hotel was on the cheaper side of available hotels, a bit away from Nikko, closer to Kinugawa Onsen. A nondescript building from the outside, the inside kept the late 80s alive. The Japanese sense for maintenance was clearly visible as everything inside the hotel was in clean condition. Traces of usage all across the place, but everything clean and functioning. No renovation work since its opening 30 years ago, it seemed. The hallways reminded us of prisons with their light grey linoleum floors, the off-white walls and the off-white metal (!) doors. Apart from fire extinguishers there was no decoration or furniture.

The rooms were spacious with three Western beds and a Tatami floor section. The tincy bathroom was not to be used (only the sink for teeth brushing). I think the plumbing has also never been redone so using the bathtub was out of question. But they had three different Onsens (hot spring baths) on the ground floor.

The dining / breakfast room was the usual: far too light, atmosphere and furniture as in a youth hostel (see earlier posts). Dinner was served at from 6-7 pm, breakfast between 8 and 9 am. The first morning at 8:30 we had a knock on the door: a lady reminded us of the breakfast I had ordered for me and the kids.

When checking in, I had asked how much the breakfast was and if they had reduced prices for children – assuming a breakfast buffet. The receptionist was a bit surprised about my question, but reluctantly agreed to a reduced price for the children. So no problem there. The breakfast turned out to be a fixed set menu with salad, grilled fish, tofu, miso soup, rice, pickles, omelette etc. – the usual stuff. Linus and I were happy, Leonard ate everybody’s grilled fish and Lilo ate the rice asking where the next bakery was. So now my question: Why would you give a children price if you serve exactly the same amount of food to everyone? The answer is quite simple: The receptionist did not really understand my question for a reduction as breakfast is the same for everyone. But because I was asking for a reduction and I am the client, they gave me one to make me happy. Welcome to Japan!

Fun fact:

The most surprising thing during our stay in this hotel was the 8am wake-up call over loudspeakers in and outside the hotel. No way you could miss this one! I wonder what the neighbours are thinking about this, because of course the wake-up call comes everyday of the week, even on Sundays! Basically the hotel needs to make sure that you wake up in order to be able to take your breakfast before 9am.