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Josiah's Japan Travelogue #3
Part 2: July 2013
Part 1: June 2013
Monday (1st): Shopping in Ueno

I had kinda wanted to do some hiking today but, after a series of late nights, I just didn't want to get up early to catch a train to the country so instead I set out in the late morning and walked to Ueno. While I'd already been through Ueno park back when I visited Yanaka, I've been wanting to walk through Ameya (Ueno's busy shopping streets). I'm used to going there on weekends and was pleased to see that the crowds are considerably smaller on weekdays. Ameya has a lot of restaurants, along with some hotels and pachinko, but its main focuses are on clothing, accessories, and food. I spent a pleasant couple of hours walking around, got lunch at a 126 yen per plate kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant, and found a new jean jacket that's not only a style I like but was affordably priced as well (something I've been looking for for the past few months).
After that, I took the train to Shinjuku (I can't seem to go more than several days without ending up in Shinjuku on this trip). The main reason was to get a bus ticket for tomorrow's excursion (more on that in a future update) though I ended up getting distracted by a couple of Book Offs I stumbled across along the way (there are actually six of them in the area). On a side note, every time I'm in Shinjuku I see this truck driving around. Apparently it's advertising a new restaurant which features a whole lot of giant robots walking around. Kinda odd, but there are much strange theme restaurants in Tokyo. While walking in Ueno, for example, I passed one themed around a horror movie style prison (not exactly the type of setting that makes me hungry).
I guess that's about it for now. Not a particularly exciting day, but I've got something much more interesting planned for Tuesday and Wednesday...

Tuesday - Wednesday (2nd - 3rd): Climbing Mt. Fuji
Before I get started with the main topic, I should mention that my stay in Japan has been extended, though just a little. See, my parents got a surprise offer on their house in Colorado not too long ago and it looks like it's going to go through (though it's not 100% for a few more days). While they'll likely be getting another place in Colorado, they decided to put most of the stuff in storage and spend the next few months first in Arizona and then Hawaii before starting a house hunt. As a result, I needed to change my plane tickets since, unless the deal falls through at the last minute, they'll be in Arizona when I return to the US. Anyway, while I like Phoenix, the reason I was going to return when I originally planned was that there was a lot I wanted to do in Colorado. Phoenix, not so much (especially since we'll only have one car there, which I probably won't be able to use very often). And, since the fee for changing a plane ticket is the same no matter how much you change it (assuming the cost of the flights is comparable), I decided to add one more week to my stay in Japan. So, now I'm here until the 22nd. As for what I'll be doing during that time, I'm still figuring that out (though I have some ideas).
But now let's get back to the Mt. Fuji. Climbing it is something I've wanted to do for a long time, but I never got the chance on my previous stays in Japan. The reason? The official climbing season is only two months long (July - August). Climbing outside of that period isn't recommended due to weather and such (thought from what I've heard it's generally ok through mid-September or so). Plus, the transportation to the trail heads doesn't run much (if at all) outside of climbing season, so it can also be pretty hard to get there. So, as soon as I knew that I would be coming to Japan this summer, I knew I had to climb Mt. Fuji.
I mentioned in yesterday's entry that I went to Shinjuku to get a bus ticket. Now, there are five different trails you can use to climb Mt. Fuji. The most popular is the Yoshida Trail, which starts at Kawaguchiko 5th Station and climbs the northern face of the mountain. And the quickest and easiest way to get there from Tokyo is a direct bus from Shinjuku station, which runs several times a day during climbing season. On a side note, if you ever want to do the same, the bus station you want is outside of the station's west exit and shares a building with Yodobashi Camera (though Yodobashi has around three buildings there). Without that bit of knowledge, it can be a real pain to find. Also, while you can get a same day ticket in the main office, if you want to make sure you get the day and time you want, you'll need to purchase one in advance, which requires going to their second floor office, which is kind of easy to miss (look for signs).
Anyway, the most popular time to be at the top of Mt. Fuji is early morning, both for the sunrise and to avoid the clouds that often cover the summit later in the day. To pull that off, you can hike up part way during the previous afternoon, spend the night in one of the huts partway up (which typically requires advance reservations) and then finish the climb early in the morning. Or, you can just start late and do the entire hike overnight. My tour book recommended the later, saying the huts are overpriced, crowded, and not very comfortable (which my later observation of them supports), so that's what I decided to do. The reason I chose yesterday night was both to avoid the crowds (by all accounts, the trails can get extremely crowded on weekends and every day once school gets out for the summer (Japan has a later and shorter summer break than the US), so weekdays in the first half of July are supposed to be least crowded. The weather report for yesterday and today was good, so I decided to go for it.
Now that all the explanation is out of the way, let's talk about the climb itself... I took the 5:50 bus from Shinjuku (the second to last one of the day). It arrived a little after 8, leaving me with plenty of time to reach the summit before the 4:30 AM sunrise. Before hand, I made sure to prepare. If you're going to hike Mt. Fuji, you're going to want to bring food, water (and/or other drinks), a rain poncho (or the equivalent), and (if you're going overnight) a decent flashlight. In my case, I got everything except the food at the 100 Yen store. Keep in mind that once you start up the mountain there's nowhere to dispose of trash, so you have to carry it down with you. The other thing you want to do is dress warmly. That was a bit of a problem for me since I didn't really pack any warm clothes for my summer travels. So I basically wore my regular jeans and buttoned up that new jean jacket I got the other day over my t-shirt. Compared to all the people with winter coats, I was a bit underdressed. That said, it actually worked fairly well, though I do have a higher cold tolerance than a lot of people I know. Oh, a stock of 100 Yen coins is also recommended since all the restrooms on the way up charge 200 Yen to use (as far as I know, Mt. Fuji is the only place in Japan that charges for restroom use).
It was dark by the time the bus reached Kawaguchiko 5th Station (the sun sets around 7 right now). My bus wasn't full, by the way, and most of the other people onboard were foreigners as well (makes sense, since most Japanese people would have work or school). There's a big souvenir store at the station, where you can also buy necessary clothing and supplies if you don't have your own, though the prices are a bit high. I took a look around then started up around 8:30. I started at the same time as a tourist couple, and we ended up staying together and chatting most of the of the way to the top. It slowed me down a bit, but having people to talk to was nice and there wouldn't have been much point in reaching the summit any earlier than I did.
While the stars were out, it was still really dark (not that you can really tell from the photo, since my camera has a good flash). The Yoshida Trail starts out easily enough, with a fairly gentle ascent on a wide dirt road. There's a few trees and bushes in parts, but it's mostly just rocks and dirt. Not that you can see all that much in the dark. After a little while, you hit the safety guidance center where there was a guy handing out maps and making sure everyone had a flashlight. From then on, the trail started switchingbacking almost straight up the mountain and gets a lot steeper. It also got a lot more difficult, with many areas where you're climbing up and over uneven rocks (a lot like some of the hiking I've done in Colorado, actually). Of course, this considerably slowed everyone's pace.
Along the way, you'll come across a number of huts. As previously mentioned, you can spend the night at one of them if you made prior reservations. They also have restrooms you can use (for 200 Yen) and many sell drinks, snacks, and climbing supplies (though the prices keep going up the higher you get). A couple even have full on restaurants. Keep in mind that while you're welcome to hang out on the benches outside the huts, you're not allowed to go inside unless you're staying the night there. Even for the restaurants, while you can go inside, you can only hang out if you order something and even then not for very long. The other thing you can do at the huts is get your walking stick stamped. You can buy the wooden walking sticks at the 5th Station and most of the huts have a unique stamp (more like a brand, since it's burned on) that they'll put on it for 200 Yen. It's a rather neat souvenir, but I wasn't sure how I'd get a big thing like that home and I never hike with a stick, so I passed.
For most of the hike, I didn't have a problem with the temperature. It did start to get kind of cold if I just sat around for a while, but while moving I stayed pretty warm (though it did get notably cooler towards the end). While I've been out of Colorado long enough to lose my high altitude acclimation, I'm used to it enough that I didn't get altitude sickness either. And that is a risk when climbing Mt. Fuji. The 5th station is at around 2,300 meters (7,500 ft) above sea level (already a huge change from Tokyo which is right about at sea level) and the summit is 3,776 meters (over 12,000 ft), so it's a huge change.
While I had originally planned to save the food I brought for breakfast, I found myself snacking along the way to keep up my energy (I can normally stay up late without getting hungry, but I'm typically not climbing a mountain when I do so). Climbing at night is a rather interesting experience. Having people you can talk to certainly helps, since you can't see the scenery other than some distant hazy views (while the photo gives things an orange tint, it was pretty much all black and gray in person). The flashlight was a must, especially with all the uneven footing and loose rocks.
Anyway, shortly after the 8th Station the trailed changed back to switchingbacking dirt roads, which was a nice change from all the climbing. As early morning neared, more and more people began emerging from the various huts, significantly increasing the number of hikers on the trail. I reached the final rest stop around 2:30 in the morning and stopped there for a while along with the couple I was hanging out with. The main reason being that, getting to the summit too early just meant sitting around in the cold wind waiting for sunrise. I set out again around 3 AM. At this point, the last part of the trail was fairly crowded. It also started getting steep and rocky again. That said, it was usually still wide enough for me to slip past the slower climbers. I reached the top at about 3:30 AM, making my total hiking time somewhere around 7 hours. That said, the couple I was with were a bit slower than I was to begin with and the woman started having issues with altitude sickness later on, leading to some long breaks. If I had gone top speed, I probably would have made it in 5 - 5:30 hours.
Once at the top, I found a spot to sit (those go fast, by the way, especially the ones with the best views) and wait. While the official sunrise time was 4:30, it started getting light a good bit earlier than that. Just sitting there at the top was pretty cold, but I came to watch the sunrise, so there was no way I was going to miss it. Unfortunately, while the sky had been clear for most of the night, clouds came in around 1 AM, so it wasn't the perfect golden Mt. Fuji sunrise that you hear about. That said, it was still very nice. And, once the sun was up, the views were really spectacular. Once the sunrise ended, people starting packing up and getting ready to head back down, though I made sure to get a picture of myself before moving on. As a note, most of the trails are actually two trails, one for ascent, one for descent.
I was originally planning to take the trail around the edge of the summit and go down on the south side of the mountain, but it turned out they hadn't opened that trail up yet (the signs said it would be another day or two). However, that didn't stop people from slipping past the rope to see the crater in the center of the summit and find some better vantage points. Here's a photo of the sunrise viewing area from overhead. Notice how all the buildings are covered with rocks so they don't stick out too much.
Despite the change in plans, there was one other trail I could get to, the Subashiri Trail. It has a shorter descent than the Yoshida trail, so I decided to give it a go. Now that I could actually see, I can say that, while Mt. Fuji is really striking from a distance, it's not much to look at up close. A whole lot of volcanic rocks and dirt mostly. Naturally, going downhill was a whole lost faster than going up, though I still stopped from time to time to snap more photos of the view. Ever seen those traditional Japanese paintings where the mountains are represented as nothing but silhouettes in the clouds? While this is the type of view that inspires them.
A large part of the Subashiri's descending trail is a fairly straight path of soft dirt and sand. My tour book made it sound like you could sit and slide your way down. I think there were too many rocks for that, but it did make for a pretty quick descent. Here's a look back up the mountain as I was nearing the bottom. The sand path was followed by a relatively short path through the woods (easily the prettiest part of the hike itself, not counting the views from higher up).
Unfortunately, not too long after I started down, my knees began to get really sore from all the climbing, forcing me to slow down and rest more often than I would have liked. That said, despite taking my time, I still made it to the bottom in less than three hours. The only problem was that I reached Subashiri 5th station more than an hour before the first bus. Fortunately there were a couple souvenir stores / restaurants that were open so I was able to get breakfast in the meantime.
The bus took me to Gotemba station, from where I could catch a train back to Tokyo (well, a series of two trains). Though the bus's arrival time at the station synced up horribly with the train's departure times, so I ended up having to wait another 45 minutes. In the end though, I made it back to Tokyo (albeit a bit later than I'd hoped) and took a long nap (something I almost never do) before sitting down to get some work done.
In conclusion, there's a saying in Japan that everyone should climb Mt. Fuji once, but only a fool would do it twice. I can certainly see where that's coming from, especially in regards to going up overnight for the sunrise. Climbing Mt. Fuji was an amazing experience and I'm glad I did it...but I'm in no hurry to do it again.

Thursday (4th): Getting Things Done

I really didn't do anything too exciting today. For one thing, I was still pretty sore from hiking Mt. Fuji. For another, it was supposed to rain a lot (though it really didn't). So instead I did some shopping and get some work done. Other than remembering how awesome Pepper Lunch (a Japanese restaurant chain) is, I just didn't do anything worth writing about. But here's a little RJC so this day's post isn't entirely empty.

Random Japan Comment: Chess Pieces
One of the things I tend to spend a lot of money on in Japan is figurines of characters from my favorite games and anime. Want to know what's popular in figurines right now? Chess pieces. As in, sets of figurines that double as chess pieces (they each come with a base with the symbol for their piece marked on it). And it's not just one series or anything either. One Piece has three series of chess pieces, Persona 4 has one, Hunter x Hunter has one, and there are plenty of others too. What I find most interesting about this new trend is that, to my knowledge, chess isn't all that popular in Japan. That said, they're cool figurines regardless and, if you get enough of them, you could put together a pretty awesome chess set.

Friday (5th): Tanabata in Hiratsuka
Tanabata is a Japanese holiday celebrating the meeting of the lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi (the stars Vega and Altair) who, according to the myth, are only allowed to meet once a year so they don't get too distracted from their work. The date actually varies depending on where you are, but a lot of the country celebrates it on and around July 7th. People celebrate by holding festivals and tieing papers with wishes onto bamboo.
This is the first time I've been in Japan over Tanabata, so I wanted to go to a festival if I could. Fortunately, one of Japan's largest Tanabata festivals is held only about an hour away from Tokyo, in the city of Hiratsuka. Their celebration lasts for three days (today through Sunday) and, this being the opening day, was the day when they held the parade. I arrived a bit early, while some things were still being setup, but even so the decorations were hard to miss. After a bit of wondering around, I found my way to the stage where the opening ceremony was about to start. It was mostly made up of various city officials talking about the festival, but they also had a singer and introduced three girls who had been chosen to represent Orihime. They were the ones who led the parade shortly after. There were a lot of groups in the parade, all dancing to that song. Some people were from various clubs, others businesses (I wonder if employee participation was mandatory), and then there were the really cute preschool kids.
After the parade, I set off to explore and get some food. A lot of streets were blocked to cars for the festival. Near where the parade started, there was a long stretch of road lined with what I've come to recognize typical Japanese festival booths. They include snacks like yakisoba, various things on a stick (meat, cucumbers, squid, etc.), assorted sweets, and the like. There are also games like gold fish scooping and cork gun shooting. I hadn't eaten much yet that day, so I started snacking my way around. First off, I found a type of taiyaki I'd never seen before, which has an open mouth design so they can stuff different things in it when you order. I also picked up one of the aforementioned cucumbers on a stick and some really awesome yakitori.
But the festival booths were just the start. After that, I headed to the highly decorated shopping streets. The festivities spread over multiple streets and, aside from the elaborate decorations (featuring both traditional and modern elements), the stores all got into it as well. Most of them had booths on the sidewalk selling all sorts of food and drink as well (I got a steamed bun and a rather interesting mix of frozen strawberries and some diary product (I couldn't figure it out for sure, but it tasted like goat's milk), among other things). Quite a lot of the stores were having sales as well.
While I was exploring, I spotted a shrine and decided to duck away from the festival for a few minutes to take a look. Hiratsuka Hachimangu Shrine was worth the visit. While not as elaborate as some, it's a very nice shrine and the grounds had a little island garden shrine which (though you can't really tell from this photo) seemed to be a favorite hang out for the local turtle population.
I returned to Tokyo around mid-afternoon. I could have stayed longer, but I need to get some work done and I'd finished walking through all the main festival areas. I'd highly recommend Hiratsuka's Tanabata festival if you're ever in the area at the time right. I've been to various other Japanese festivals before but none were anywhere near this big. If you're looking for food, shopping, or just a fun festival atmosphere, they've got it all.

Saturday (6th): Quick Tokyo Tour

After I got out of services today, Hoshino (you may or may not remember him from my previous Japan travelogues) invited me out. He tends to like taking me to different areas around Tokyo and playing tour guide, and today was no different. First, a matsuri in Iriya. Oddly enough, it wasn't a tanabata celebration but rather a matsuri celebrating when a certain flower starts to bloom (did you see all the potted plans for sale in that photo?). I hadn't heard the name before but I think it's a type of morning glory. Here's a picture of Hoshino at the same matsuri. We didn't stay there too long though before continuing on to Uguisudani. It was a nice area to stroll in, and seemed to have a lot of good restaurants. I may have to go back there and take a more leisurely look around in the future if I have time. After looking around a bit, we stopped at a really good curry place for supper. Then it was off to Shinjuku where he showed me a couple of stores specializing in rare CDs (of US and European groups mostly) before we called it a night. Nothing too exciting, but it was nice hanging out with him for a bit.
Oh, is it just me or is this magazine I spotted on the way back kinda strange?

Random Japan Comment: Taking out the Trash
Did I ever talk about this before? Anyway, at all my US apartments, taking out the trash is a simple matter of tossing a bag in the nearest dumpster whenever I need to. At my parents' house, we've got a spot outside with a few cans and when a bag is full it goes out and into the can. At both places there are also recycling bins (usually paper and assorted glass/plastic/metal), which I can put stuff in when necessary. Of course, there's usually only one pick-up day a week, but that doesn't really affect when I can put the trash out and overall it's really not a big deal, even if I make a mistake.
In Japan, however, putting out the trash properly is one of the most important things when living in an apartment building or neighborhood. First off, there are several different categories of trash: burnable (paper, food, cloth, etc.), non-burnable (non-recyclable stuff that doesn't fit the other category), recyclable plastic (all kinds, though you're expected to prepare it by washing and drying it, taking off any labels, lids, and the like, and crushing it), other recyclable stuff (at very least, it generally needs to be bagged separately and prepared similarly to the plastic). Generally, trash from each of these categories goes out on a different day. Some might be picked up multiple times a week, others just once a month. You're supposed to use official garbage bags and put your garbage out the morning of the pickup, not the evening before, earlier in the week, or the like. All the specifics can vary considerably by neighborhood.
If you think that sounds needless complicated, it totally is. And it can be a real pain if you find yourself stuck with a bunch of one type of garbage that you can't dispose of for a while. But it really is a big deal here and I've heard stories of people in various neighborhoods going so far as to track down and confront people who put out their garbage incorrectly. I've also heard of some places where no one seems to care, especially when it comes to proper days. But anyway, if you're ever going to live in Japan, just keep in mind that this is something you need to pay some serious attention to.

Sunday (7th): Flea Markets

Did you know that in Japanese flea markets are called free markets? Since the two words are pronounced almost the same in Japanese, I think they just got mixed up ages ago and now no one knows that they have the wrong word. Anyway, today I finally got to go to the big almost weekly flea market at the Oikeibajo racetrack. It's pretty much as I remember it, a huge mix of just about everything. Being a flea market, you never really know what you'll find. I didn't buy much, but I did have fun browsing. Oh, I should probably mention that I walked most of the way there. Other than that my route skirted the Tsukiji fish market (I should go to that area for sushi some time), there wasn't anything too amazing on the walk but it was good exercise. Though, had I known how hot and muggy the day was going to get, I probably would have taken the subway.
After that, I had to swing by Shinjuku (as I said before, I just can't seem to stay out of Shinjuku on this trip). Since I recently extended my trip, I figured I'd have to spend the last week in a hotel but, as it turns out, I was able to keep the apartment for another week so I had to go in to the office and pay for the additional time. I stayed in Shinjuku long enough to grab lunch and say hi to a friend who works in a coffee shop there (just hi though, it's an extremely busy shop).
Since it was still fairly early in the afternoon, and it was on my way, I figured I might as well swing by Akihabara and check out the flea market going on there as well. It only happens once a month or so, and isn't all that big, but it's not a bad place to look for certain types of figurines. I got a great deal on a couple Persona 4 ones I've been wanting.

Random Japan Comment: Coffee Shops
While you can always buy coffee or tea from a vending machine, Japan has its fair share of coffee shops as well. Starbucks is fairly popular here and not much different than it is in the US, though the pastry and special drink selection vary slightly and cups seem to be a bit smaller. But there are several Japanese coffee shop chains as well. All of them have your basic hot and cold coffee and tea drinks, though the menus vary a bit beyond that. I'm not going to give a complete rundown of all of them and, seeing as I only drink the teas (no special reason, I just don't really like coffee), I probably couldn't do a very good job of it anyway. But I will note that Veloce is the cheapest, with their drinks often costing 200 - 300 yen less than everywhere else. As a trade-off though, I don't think their drinks are as good as the ones at most of the other places. Most of them come unsweetened though (you get a packet of some type of sweetener, depending on the drink, to mix in), which could be a plus if you're on a diet. Dotour, on the other hand, makes the best green tea latte I've ever had. While I can't be sure if they have sort of special ingredient that contributes to flavor, it does taste like they use a higher grade matcha powder than the other shops. But hey, don't take my word for it. Try them all out and see for yourself, it's more fun that way.

Monday (8th): A Pair of Gardens
If you haven't noticed, I've been trying to do some shorter touring days lately. The reason? Well, I have a story I was hired to write that needs to be finished in the not too distant future. I was originally thinking that, if I didn't have much time to work on it here, I could still get it done after returning to the US but now that I extended my trip, that would be cutting things way too close to the deadline, so I'm trying to end some of my touring days by mid-afternoon so I can get some serious work done afterwords. So far, that's been working out fairly well.
Anyway, I originally wanted to go for a hike today but the weather report was predicting thunderstorms in that area so I postponed it until later in the week. Instead, I decided to go see a garden here in Tokyo. Rikugien Garden is a nice traditional Japanese garden, designed to recreate scenes from various famous poems back in 1702. Not knowing much about classic Japanese poetry, I really can't comment on that aspect but it is a pretty garden with quite a lot of bridges and an oddly shaped rock in its pond, supposed to resemble a sleeping dragon (I can kinda see that).
Since it was nearby, and they were selling a combo ticket (though it only saves you 50 yen), I decided to go to Kyu Furukawa Garden as well. It's a newer garden (from the late 1800's) and is most notable for the big Western style house it surrounds. There's a Western style rose garden right by the house, but this is really the wrong season for that. That small Japanese garden was nice though.
After that, I just did some quick shopping then came back my apartment to get some more work done.

Tuesday (9th): Hiking to Lake Yunoko
Remember when I met up with my friend Aika in Nikko? Well, she said I really should go see Yudaki Falls. Or is it Yutaki Falls? I haven't seen it written in hiragana and from the kanji it could be either one. Plus, the maps and signs can't seem to agree on one spelling... Maybe I should just say Yu Falls. I mean, taki/daki means waterfall, so saying Yudaki Falls is kind of redundant... Well, anyway, the Nikko Tourist Association's web site says Yudaki, so let's go with that for now.
Getting back on subject, Aika recommend I go see this particular waterfall, which is a bit past Nikko. She also mentioned that, though she hadn't done it, there was a hiking trail nearby as well. So, before leaving Nikko that day, I stopped by the tourist office and picked up a hiking map and bus schedule, which I used to plan out a day trip. Today was finally the day I put it into action and wow, what a hike it was.
It started with a train ride to Nikko. Well, to be more accurate it started with a mad dash to the train station to catch said train. I made the mistake of checking my e-mail that morning before leaving and there were a couple I needed to reply too... Long story short, I left the apartment later than I'd planned, gambled on a run to a different subway station, and managed to make the train to Nikko with less than a minute to spare (I suppose I could have waited for a later train, but I didn't want to start the hike too late). After arriving in Nikko, I got on a bus heading further into the mountains. Shortly after passing Lake Chuzenji (which I visited during my first stay in Japan, see the entry for the 8th), I got off at Ryuzu no Taki.
Turns out, Yudaki was only one of several waterfalls on my planned hike. I started at the bottom of the beautiful Ryuzu Falls. That's actually one waterfall, not two, it just splits near the bottom. Since I hadn't really had a chance to eat (thanks to the aforementioned mad dash for the train), I decided to get a snack and couldn't resist trying out the yuba (tofu skin) flavored ice cream. It wasn't bad, though not a favorite either. It wasn't very sweet and actually tasted a lot like some soy ice creams I've had.
Anyway, it turned out the part of the Ryuzu Falls in that photo is only the very bottom. My hike started with a staircase following the falls up quite a ways (that photo is also only a small part as well). From there, the trail entered a peaceful forest, where it stayed for quite some time. The river was never far away, really enhancing the scenery and featuring a number of tiny waterfalls. And, if you can't tell from the photos, the water was incredibly clear. Really, I can't understate just how pretty the hike was, and this isn't even wildflower season. I wasn't alone on the trail, though most of the other hikers seemed to have started at the other end. Being a weekday, there were a number of older people, but actually the vast majority were school kids. I must have passed a couple dozen groups of elementary and junior high kids over the course of the hike.
Random side note: Maybe a third of the kids greeted me with "hi" instead of the Japanese "konnichiwa" (amusingly, a couple of kids actually seemed rather shocked when they said konnichiwa and I replied with the same). The teachers, however, all said konnichiwa. So much for encouraging their students to practice their English...
After a while in the forest, the trail entered Nakazuka, a sort of marshy area. Fortunately, there were wooden walkways throughout the entire section. Despite the change of scenery, I was still following the river upstream. There were actually a couple types of wild flowers in bloom in this area, along with the occasional group of butterflies. And there weren't nearly as many trees, which allowed for some great views of the nearby mountains. Eventually though, the path headed back into the forest, which is where I stopped for lunch (along with a few other hikers and a lot of school kids).
After a bit more hiking, I arrived at Yudaki Falls, which was as impressive as Aika said it would be. While there was a bus stop there, I wasn't done hiking yet. After watching the falls for a bit, and getting a snack at the souvenir shop, I continued on the trail, which involved climbing a steep flight of stairs up to the top of the falls. What greeted me there was a view of the breathtaking Lake Yunoko. I'm not entirely happy with the way my camera handles panoramas (my only real complaint with it), but this one turned out fairly well and you just have to see the entire thing. The water was crystal clear, with perflect reflections. You really can't ask for a more scenic lake. The trail splits there, letting you walk around either side of the lake. I took the eastern route, eventually arriving in the little town of Yumoto Onsen.
It's a resort town, though a small and quiet one. There are onsen (of course), and I passed an area with steaming sulphur water when checking out the local shrine and temple (though they have a lot of history, neither is overly impressive to look at). But the town is also known for fishing, bird watching, and, in the winter, skiing. There were more butterflies too.
It was around mid-afternoon at that point. If I wasn't looking at a long trip back to Tokyo (1 hour on the bus followed by 2 hours on the train, not counting waiting times), or didn't care how late I returned, I actually could have kept going. There's a fairly lengthy trail leaving Yumoto Onsen which goes north past a smaller lake and eventually loops back to Kotaku Pasture (the return bus passed it, they have cows, which you don't see nearly as often in Japan as you do in many parts of the US). But I didn't want to get back too late since I had work to do on that story I'm writing.
But anyway, I highly recommend the hike. Overall, it's one of the most scenic ones I've been on in a long time and there's a good bit of variety. Plus, while it's a decent length, the only particularly strenuous parts are when you're climbing up the stairs to the top of the Ryuzu Falls and Yudaki Falls (and you could avoid that by starting from Yumoto Onsen), so it's appropriate for just about all ages and fitness levels. I'm really glad I went, and I'm sure you'll be as well.

Wednesday (10th): Some More Exploring in Tokyo

Wednesday (10th): Some More Exploring in Tokyo
I'll say up-front that today wasn't one of my better touring plans, so this will be kind of short. One of my tour books talked about how interesting the shopping areas around Ogikubo and Nishi-Ogikubo stations were. And, since they weren't too far from a couple other places I wanted to see, I planned out a sort of walking loop through the whole area.
Gonna have to say though, the book was rather off in this case. While both stations have some decent shopping streets nearby, there really wasn't anything special about them. If you want nice shopping streets in Tokyo, areas like Ueno, Asakusa, Nakano, and Yunaka are far better choices. Though Ogikubo station does have an onsen right nearby. It's called Nagami no Yu and features a few kind of interesting baths (one uses carbonated water, one or two recreate the water from famous hot springs in other parts of Japan, and one is filled with little stones) and a number of saunas (though some of them cost extra). Anyway, it's nice enough but I like Odaiba's Edo Onsen a whole lot better and it's about the same price.
After leaving the stations, my walk took me through some quiet residential areas, a rather nice park, and eventually to Kami-Igusa Station, which is notable for having a Gundam statue outside of the south exit. The reason? It seems Sunrise Studios (the animation studio behind the Gundam franchise) is based in the area. It's a neat statue, though now it really can't compete with that life size Gundam I saw at Diver City.
Heading south from there, I ended up at the Suginami Animation Museum, which was the best stop of the bunch. Its main area features a timeline of notable anime and a number of exhibits on how anime is made, from planning, to drawing, to sound, and even the 3D modeling used in some newer shows. Even better, there are good English translations for most of the material. There's also a special exhibit area which changes periodically and lacks English. Right now, it's mostly about the original Astro Boy (called Tetsuwan Atom in Japan) show from the early 60's and has some some original artwork and storyboards. They have manga library and a screening room (which was showing old Astro Boy episodes) as well. Plus, the entire place is free.
So, all in all it wasn't one of my better touring days, but the museum was cool and there wasn't anything about the day I particularly disliked either. Plus, I was able to stop in Nakano for a bit on the way back (since I had to switch trains there anyway), so that was fun.

Random Japan Comment: Avoiding the Sun
In Japan, you'll likely see the occasional women walking with an umbrella (technically a parasol, I suppose) on a sunny day. For a few, it's a fashion statement, some might do it just to try and keep cool (summers in many parts of Japan are extremely hut and muggy), but for most it's to avoid the sun. See, by traditional Japanese standards, it's pale, not tanned, skin that's considered the most beautiful, so some women go to great lengths to avoid getting any sort of sun on their skin. For a more extreme example, it's not too uncommon to see a Japanese woman sitting on the beach in Honolulu wearing long pants, a long sleeve shirt, gloves, and a sun hat. In my opinion, dressing like that that entirely defeats the point of going to the beach in the first place, but to each his own I guess.

Thursday (11th): Getting Things Done

From a travelogue prospective, there really isn't much to say about today. I spent the morning getting assorted things done. After that, I went out to try and find a particular place...and completely failed at that so I ended up doing some shopping and getting more work done instead, making for a moderately productive but in no way exciting day. So here's a RJC instead of a travelogue.

Random Japan Comment: When to Visit
Now that I've been here for a decent part of the summer, I have a good feel for all the seasons here in Japan. Well, in the Tokyo and central Japan area anyway. So here are some quick thoughts on them in relation to good times to visit. Once again, keep mind mind that the extreme north or south of the country (and higher elevation areas) will be different.
Spring (March - May): In many ways, this is probably the best time to visit Japan. The temperatures tend to be quite pleasant (though having a light jacket would be a good idea) and it doesn't rain too much. Even better, you might be able to hit cherry blossom season, which is as beautiful as it is fleeting. On the down side, it's a really popular time for both foreign and Japanese tourists, especially during the Golden Week holidays. As a result, attractions and trains will often be crowded and hotels can book up far in advance.
Summer (June - Aug): Early to mid June through mid to late July are the rainy season so expect a lot of cloudy and/or rainy days. On the plus side, this often keeps the temperature fairly decent and, since it's not a very popular time to travel, the crowds shouldn't be too bad. Be sure to carry an umbrella though (actually, you should probably do that all year). After the rainy season ends, you can expect a lot more sun...along with extremely hot and muggy weather. That can reduce crowds a bit, but it can also be rather miserable if you're not used to it. Though you can escape the heat by going up high enough in the mountains, so that's always an option. Keep in mind that summer break typically runs from mid to late July through August, so transportation and attractions tend to get a lot more crowded during that time, though there are also lots of events and festivals during that time as well. One last thing of note is that July - August is the only time of year you can climb Mt. Fuji, so if you're determined to give it a try, your time frame is rather limited.
Fall (Sept - Nov): The temperatures start to drop to more reasonable levels in mid to late September and it usually doesn't rain too much. You don't have the spring cherry blossoms, but overall this is a pretty good time to visit Japan.
Winter (Dec - Feb): While Tokyo itself rarely gets any snow, some of the surrounding areas do, especially if you start going up in elevation. If you bring a good coat and don't mind the cold, this actually isn't too bad of a time to travel, at least so long as you don't plan to do any hiking in the moutains (though skiing becomes an option). The snow can make for some beautiful scenery as well. It's worth noting that just about everything in Japan shuts down for anywhere from one to four days for new years, though watching people make their first shrine visit of the year can be fun if you're willing to brave the crowds, as can the post new year's sales. Also, if you can't make it for the cherry blossoms, the ume (Japanese plum) blossoms (which generally start blooming in February) are quite beautiful as well.

Friday (12th): Hiking Mt. Ono
Today, I decided to give that hiking book another try and hike around Lake Tanazawa and up Mt. Ono. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of those days where nothing seemed to go right. Things started out ok, with me getting on the train and heading out to Matsuda, where I was supposed to take a bus to the start of the trail...and that was when everything began to fall apart. Apparently, the book neglected to mention how infrequently the necessary bus runs (or maybe it's just outdated). There were two really early busses that I missed and I would have had to wait around three hours for the next one. So I decided to take the a different bus (which was was only a forty five minute wait) as far as I could and see if the busses were more frequent there. They weren't, so I ended up walking to the next train station. From there, I noticed that I could catch a train to the end point of the hike fairly easily so I decided to do that and go backwards. Problem was, it was a weird type of train I've never been on before where you can only enter and exit from certain doors. I didn't realize that at first, and missed my station as a result. And, since I was way out in the country, the trains didn't run all that often so I had to wait 40 minutes for the next one.
In the end, I did finally make it to the tiny town of Yaga, which was supposed to be the end point of the hike. Half the town is rice paddies, which I did find rather scenic. I considered doing the entire hike backwards. Problem is, due to the highly infrequent bus schedule that started all my problems, I figured that would most likely end with me stuck by the side of the road for a couple hours waiting for a bus. So instead, I decided to hike to the top of Mt. Ono (about the halfway point of the original hike) and then backtrack to Yaga and catch a train. So I started walking up the mountain, past some small tea plantations, and up, up, up though forests, gardens, and tall grass... That said, it wasn't anywhere near as steep at Mt. Fuji or Mt. Mitake. Unfortunately, it was a whole lot hotter. Despite this being a mountain hike, the elevation wasn't all that much higher than Tokyo, so the temperature was similar, and rather miserable.
There weren't any other people hiking (considering how hot and muggy it was, I can't blame them), but I did see a frog, some lizards, and cows. Personally, I think having a small pen for cows way on top of a mountain is kinda strange, but there they were. The views from the top of the mountain were nice...except that it was extremely hazy today, which put a serious damper on visibility.
Going down the mountain was, unsurprisingly, a whole lot quicker and easier than going up. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite quick enough and I missed the return train by about five minutes, leaving me sitting at the station for another forty. So yeah, not one of my better days. The hike, or at least the half I did, was pretty but really not good for such a hot day (not to mention the haze) and the bus schedule in the area makes doing the entire thing rather complicated.

Saturday - Sunday (13th - 14th): A Slow Weekend

I actually don't have too much to say about either day this weekend. Saturday night I did walk around Odaiba a bit with some people I know, but we just chatted and ate, nothing that needs a long write-up. But hey, there was a Monster Hunter event going on. I don't play Monster Hunter, but the giant dragon was cool. The night time view was also quite nice.
And Sunday? I actually ended up spending much of the day working on stuff. I was originally going to meet up with a friend, but she wasn't feeling well so it all fell through at the last minute. By that point it was a bit late to do anything big, so I just walked around a bit, played some music games in an arcade, came back, and worked on that story for a while. Rather disappointing, but that's just the way things go sometimes and at least I got a decent bit of work done.

Random Japan Comment: Towels
I already mentioned how some women carry a parasol during the summer to stay out of the sun (for comfort and/or fashion). Well, that doesn't help if you're a guy (I've yet to see a man with a parasol) and plenty of women don't want to carry parasols around either. So what's another option? Well, a lot of people carry around a small towel or wash cloth. They mainly use it to wipe the sweat off their face, arms, and the like, though I've seem some people douse it in water in a sink or one of the rare water fountains and then wring it out over their face as well. While I think the parasols are going a little too far, the towels don't seem like such a bad idea, especially in such a damp climate. Alternately, I've also seen people use a packet of wet wipes for the same purpose. If you're going to be in Japan during the summer, it might be worth considering doing one of the two. Or, if you want to take a wait and see approach, you can always pick up a simple towel in any 100 Yen store once you're here.

Monday (15th): Art and History
My sschedule for this week has been a bit up in the air from the start, seeing as I was originally going to be returning to the US today (now I'm leaving next Monday instead), and then there was yesterday's last minute change of plans. Plus, I'm rather determined to put the finishing touches on that story ASAP. Anyway, my plans for today were fairly non-existant. At first, I was thinking it would be a mostly work focused day. Except that's what yesterday ended up being. Also, today was one of those holidays that no one celebrates but a lot of schools and companies shut down for (which I completely forgot about until yesterday), so I thought maybe I could do something with friends, but that didn't work out. In the end, I decided to go to a museum for a change of pace. Normally, most museums, gardens, and other attractions are closed on Mondays...except when said Monday is a holiday, in which case they close on Tuesday instead.
Anyway... I ended up walking to Ueno, passing through Ueno Park on the way. The lotus plants in the pond have grown a lot since I was last there and some of them have started to flower.
After stopping for a bit to enjoy the scenery, it was on to the museum. There are several good ones to choose from (all of which I've talked about in the past), but I decided on the Tokyo National Museum.
I've talked about the Tokyo National Museum before and it's probably the best place to go if you want a very broad sampling of Japanese art (with some bonus history lessons thrown in). There are statues, metalwork, laquerware, pottery, textiles, various types of paintings, and more. There's even armor and weapons. (Speaking of weapons, the sword in that photo was forged by Masamune, a legendary Japanese swordsmith from the late 13th - early 14th centuries whose name should be familiar to many fans of Japanese games and anime.) And all that is just in the main gallery. There are also gallerias featuring relics from ancient Japan (as in, before the Japanese culture was really developed), assorted art from other Asian countries, and more. While there are museums with larger collections of any single type of item, the Tokyo National Museum's overall size and variety really can't be beat. Plus, quite a lot of the signs have English translations and, unlike most museums, you're allowed to photograph most of the items on display. They also change the displays every so often, so there actually wasn't much I remembered from my previous visits.
After finishing in the museum, I got a late lunch then decided to go visit a botanical garden that had been sitting on my list for quite some time. Unfortunately, either the tour book I got the information from gave really poor directions or I missed copying down the last couple of steps so I never did get there. I did stumble upon a nice park though (right near the Ghibli museum, actually), so I walked around there for a bit instead.
Finally, I decided to pay one last visit to Nakano, since I had to switch trains there anyway, then headed back. Here's one more picture, it's of a bridge I often cross on the way back to my temporary apartment. Aside from being lit up in a pretty blue color at night, it also gives pretty good views of the Skytree to the north and the river to the south.

Tuesday (16th): Mitama Matsuri

Today had one of the best weather forecasts for the entire week, so I was originally thinking of going to a theme park or something similar. However, a couple things changed my mind. First off, I was very nearly done with the first draft of my story and, after not really having a chance to work on it yesterday, really wanted to finish. Second, I happened to hear last night that this was the last day of Mitama Matsuri, a big festival held every year at Yasukuni Shrine. Actually, this particular matsuri is four days long, and I kinda wish I'd heard about it earlier in the week... But anyway, I wanted to go, and that would give me plenty of time work too. So, after doing a bit of shopping (needed to get something for a friend), I spent a few hours writing before heading out to the matsuri.
Before getting started here, I should probably mention that Yasukuni Shrine is dedicated to honoring those who died serving the emperor from the Meiji Restoration up through World War II (mostly soldiers, though factory workers, aid workers, and other related people are also included). There's actually a bit of controversy surrounding it, as some of the people whose names are listed there are considered to be war criminals. That aside, it's also a large and fairly popular shrine and features a number of festivals throughout the year. Mitama Matsuri is one of the largest and is a festival to honor the spirits of friends and family who have died (whether they're among those commemorated at the shrine or not). Despite that, it's quite festive and not at all somber.
Anyway, I arrived around 4:30. The long path leading up the shrine was lined with lanterns (once again, the text on them is advertisements) and all sorts of food and game booths. Despite it not being a weekend or holiday, there were a lot of people around, including quite a lot of students right out of school and girls in kimono (along with a smaller number of guys in traditional dress). In addition to the food and standard festival games, there were a couple of haunted houses as well. As far as I can tell, the main purpose they serve is to freak out your girlfriend and put her in a clingy mood, though there were some families and groups of girls who went in as well. The places looked pretty hookey, but it was kinda amusing standing outside and watching people freak out as they entered and exited.
Naturally, I did a lot of snacking as I made my way around (highlights for me included various types of meat on skewers and yakisoba). Eventually I made my way towards the end of the path and Yasukuni Shrine itself. The shrine area was actually the least crowded part of the festival but, aside from the shrine itself, they had various performers on stage (mostly targeting an older audience), a whole lot more lanterns (these with people's names on them), and a display of various artwork and poetry.
I decided to hang out at least until after all the lanterns were lit, and I was still hungry, so I headed back to the main path and watched a bit of the dancing which had started up. Or tried to, anyway. The later it got, the more people showed up, until it seemed like we were trying to set a record for the number of people crammed into a space of a given size. At this point, navigating the festival became less about wandering around, and more about hoping the part of the crowd you were in was going in the direction you wanted. Fortunately, the crowds were still thinner back at the shrine and, as the sky got darker, the lanterns started to light up the night, making for some really pretty scenes.
All in all, it was a really good matsuri with a lot of stuff to see (and eat!). The crowds got a bit ridiculous later on, but it was a still a lot of fun.

Random Japan Comment: Matsuri
A matsuri is a festival or celebration. Some are directly tied to major holidays (such as Tanabata or Obon), but the majority are unique to their particular town or city and celebrate various local traditions, times of year, events, or the like. Many date back hundreds of years, though there are plenty of newer ones as well. They generally take place at and around a shrine or temple, but may be centered around shopping streets, parks, or other areas as well. They take place all throughout the year, though the majority seem to fall in July and August (often related to the Tanabata and Obon holidays).
Every matsuri has its own traditions but they generally feature carnival like booths offering food and/or games (which I'll talk about more in a future RJC), traditional Japanese dances (often accompanied by taiko drums), other performances (both traditional and modern) such as singing, dancing, plays, and parades. Fireworks (large and/or handheld) are also fairly common.
So who goes to matsuri? Just about everyone, really. Though they're especially popular with couples on dates, school kids, and families. Many are only attended by locals, but some of the more famous matsuri attract tourists from all over the country. The size varies significantly. A matsuri may be just a handful of booths and a few hundred local attendees, or it may cover several major streets and have tens of thousands of visitors. Either way, traditional Japanese matsuri can be a lot of fun and I highly recommend visiting some if you ever have the chance.

Wednesday (17th): Wandering Around
Due to a pretty iffy weather forecast, my options for today were a bit limited. I started out by walking to a movie theater and watching the new Pokémon movie (the one featuring Genesect and Mewtwo's new "awakened" form). I'd say it was fairly average, as far as Pokémon movies go. Moderately entertaining, but a bit lacking in common sense, proper pokémon attacks and power levels, and the like. As far as my language skills went... I'd say I probably understood around 70% of the dialogue (at least as long as Meowth wasn't talking, his accent makes things really difficult) and had no problem following the plot. I had forgotten how expensive movie tickets are over here though. Japanese theaters don't have matinee pricing, and a regular ticket was around $18 (with 3D movies having a surcharge, just like in the US).
After the movie, I was originally planning to go to a museum but the weather was ok (for the moment) and I was in a walking mood so I took the subway to Aoyama and walked from there to Harajuku and then further up to Shinjuku. It was a pleasant way to spend a few hours, but didn't leave me with too much to talk about. I did pass the Akasaka Palace though, which I hadn't seen before. It's a former imperial residence which has since been used to house visiting dignitaries. On a completely different note, after taking a wrong turn in Harajuku later on, I stumbled across an entire store dedicated to Evangelion, the ground-breaking classic anime (later expanded into games, manga, and a recent movie reboot). It's actually not one of my favorite series (I think the ending in particular is a mess), but it was very influential and is still quite popular.
And that about does it for today. I was going to do a RJC on matsuri booths, but it's late so that will have to wait for later.

Thursday (18th): Cars, Legos, and Monsters

Once again, the weather forecast wasn't all that good in the places I was thinking of going, making me a bit hesitant to commit to a big day trip. Plus, while I finished the first draft of my story, it still needed a couple rounds of proof reading. So, I decided to spend the morning working on that and grading material for the online classes I'm teaching. Not very exciting, but I did make really good progress.
Around lunch time, I was getting pretty hungry and decided I'd go eat at Tsukiji, since I hadn't been there yet on this trip (other than walking by it a while back). So I got the some sushi and walked around a bit. Aside from fish, it's a good place for kitchen items and the thick egg omelets they use for tamago (egg) sushi. Actually, one store was selling a large piece of omelette on a skewer kind of like a popsicle. I got one, which was topped with a mix of soy sauce and grated daikon. Kind of a strange snack, but good.
Once I was finished there, I wasn't quite sure how I wanted to spend the rest of my day so I decided to go to Odaiba, since there's a lot of options there. I didn't get to the Venus Fort mall on my last couple of visits, so that's where I started. It seems Toyota still has their giant car showcase. While I don't think I'll be needing a new car anytime soon, if I ever do need to spy on or kidnap someone, I found the perfect vehicle for it. To be honest, cars aren't really my thing, but they still have some neat stuff in the showcase. For example, I got to test drive a prototype personal transportation device. It's fun to drive (and could be a precursor of the chairs everyone uses in WALL-E) but, due to the size, I can't really see it replacing bikes or anything like that. The classic car museum is still around as well. Once again, cars don't especially interest me but I'm pretty sure anyone who likes classic cars will love the place.
After checking out the cars I strolled though the mall itself a bit. I've talked about Venus Fort before, so I'm not going to describe it again. Gotta say though, the Lego store there is always worth a visit. Even if you're not shopping, the fan-made models they have on display tend to be pretty impressive. Makes me wish I had all my Legos at my Florida apartment so I could build some cool stuff...
Since Diver City was right nearby, that where I went next. The Jump Store there currently has a display to celebrate Shonen Jump's 45th anniversary. Aside from this Goku statue, they have original congratulatory drawings by the creators of as least most of Jump's current series on display. Unfortunately, you can't photograph them. Other than checking out the Jump store, I also happened to spot a clothing store with a shirt I'd seen in Harajuku the other day. I'd kinda wanted to get it then, but the store didn't have my size. Well, this store did, plus it was on sale for the half the price, so that was a pleasant surprise.
Finally, I saw that the nearby movie theater was playing Monsters U in English, so I ended up grabbing a quick meal and watching the movie. Not the most "Japanese" thing I could have done, but it was fun and it's one less movie I'll need to see once I'm back in the US (rather unusually, there's a quite number of movies out right now that I want to see).
So, all in all, a fairly low key day, but Odaiba is always fun (and has great views) and I've got bigger plans for Friday and Sunday, which are my last two days to tour before returning to the US.

Random Japan Comment: Matsuri Food
The food stalls at matsuri are a lot of fun. What you'll find varies a bit based on location, time of year, and the like, but here's a summary of the more common matsuri foods.
Yakisoba: Stir-fried noodles (different than normal soba noodles), cabbage, pickled ginger, sauce, and occasionally other vegetables and/or some kind of meat. Always a good, and filling, choice. While you'll find yakisoba at lots of Japanese restaurants in the US, in Japan it seems to be reserved mostly for matsuri and restaurants with in-table grills.
Takoyaki: Balls of batter, veggies, and octopus. Since I don't eat octopus, I can't really comment on the taste, but they are popular.
Okonomiyaki: Occasionally called Japanese pizza (though the ingredients have nothing in common), okonomiyaki is a round and flat (though often rather thick) item made with flour, cabbage, ginger, yam and a whole lot of other stuff (exact ingredients vary considerably) then topped with various sauces and bonito flakes. It's not one of my favorite Japanese foods, but there's so much variety that you can probably find a kind you like.
Grilled Meat Skewers: Aside from a whole lot of variations of yakitori (made with all different parts of the chicken), many booths also offer skewered pieces of steak or pork. They're hot, delicious, and a personal favorite. As a note, when ordering you'll often be asked if you want you meat cooked with shio (salt, often seasoned) or a teriyaki type sauce. Both are good, so it really comes down to personal preference. There's also squid on a stick...but I can't comment on that one.
Karaage: Japanese fried chicken (boneless white meat, usually). While I think the batter is a bit different than the stuff you usually get in the US, fried chicken is still fried chicken. Good, but not all that unique.
Potatoes: There are a few variations here including baked potatoes with butter, french fries, and thinly sliced fried potato on a skewer.
Kyuuri: Japanese cucumbers on a stick. They tend to be iced and salted. I like to eat them straight, but many booths have spreads you can put on them if you prefer.
Taiyaki: My favorite fish shaped pancake stuffed with red bean paste (or occasional other fillings). Alternately, instead of taiyaki you may find dorayaki (more or less the same thing, but with the stuffing folded in a round pancake), or other variations with similar ingredients but different shapes and sizes.
Candied Fruit: It's fruit in a fresh candy coating, how much more can you say? Strawberries seem to be the most popular choice, but the exact fruit selection can vary a lot.
Chocolate Covered Bananas: The name says it all.
While the items listed above are what I'd call the most common matsuri foods, they're really only the beginning. Corn on the cob, ice cream, crepes, bubble teas, oden (at least in the winter), doner kabobs, and many more items show up quite a lot as well, not to mention the various local specialties that can appear.
One thing to note. Larger matsuri can easily have several booths selling the same type of food. However, they tend to all charge the same price for pretty much the same amount (Japanese aren't all that fond of cut-throat competition), so if you do end up comparing multiple booths, focus on how good the food looks and what flavors/ingredients/etc. are available at each one, rather than price.

Friday (19th): Chichibu
Chichibu is a mountainous area an 80 minute train ride from Tokyo. It's popular for a variety of outdoor activities, including hiking and rafting. For devote Buddhists, there's also thirty some temples you can visit on a pilgrimage route (much easier to do than the 88 temple pilgrimage on Shikoku). I was planning to go the last time I was in Japan, but it was another trip that was canceled due to the earthquake. Chichibu also has two famous festivals. The biggest one is in early December, but they also have the summer time Kawase Matsuri this weekend, making it the prefect time to go.
The easiest way to get to Chichibu from Tokyo is via a limited express train from Ikebukuro. Normally limited express trains get pretty expensive, but this one is surprisingly affordable and took me right to the main part of Chichibu. It's a small city, but a rather nice one thanks to the focus on tourism. I started out by walking to Chichibu Shrine. Later in the day, it would become the center of the matsuri but, at the moment, it was pretty quiet. I'm glad I went when I did, I wouldn't have been able to get a good look around once the matsuri started and it's a really nice shrine with a number of impressive carvings.
After that, I hopped on a local train for my next destination. My eventual goal was Hashidate Temple but, due to a wrong turn and some interesting looking spots on my tourist map, I took a few detours along the way. I first passed this little mountainside shrine (it wasn't marked on the map, but it's still kinda cool). Chosenin Temple was next. It's a nice enough temple, but there's nothing all that special about it. I did spot a nice water lily though.
The Urayama Dam was visible for much of the walk to the temple, so I decided to stop there as well. There was a path to the base of the dam, but I could see it pretty well from where I was and the map said there were good views of the town and Chichibu Sakura Lake from the top, so I followed the road up the hill instead. As it turns out, you can actually walk all the way across the dam and, as promised, the views are quite nice. Of course, after I got up there, I found out that they have an elevator which goes back and forth between the top of the dam and the base, which would have saved me quite a lot of walking. Or, if you really want some good exercise, there's also a staircase.
Moving on, I finally made it to Hashidate Temple. After grabbing a quick lunch in a nice soba shop nearby, I started to look around. The temple itself isn't all that amazing but what makes Hashidate special is the cave next to it. For a couple hundred yen, you can take a hard hat and make your way through. And you need the hard hat (I was being really careful and still banged my head twice. You also need to do a lot of crouching. The passages through the cave are low, narrow, and require a lot of climbing. Personally, I thought that made it rather fun, but if you're especially tall or a bit chubby, you may want to pass.
After exploring the cave, I returned to the nearest train station. Unfortunately, it was quite a while until the next train, so I decided to start walking instead. That particular part of the town isn't anything special, but I got a nice view of the nearby mountains. I made it to the next station in time to catch a train back to Chichibu station. There were a lot of other things including shrines, temples, and waterfalls in the outskirts, but I wanted to make sure I got back in time for the festival.
Now one thing the matsuri I've been to in the past have been missing is giant floats. Fortunately, they're the main feature of Kawase Matsuri. By the time I returned to downtown Chichibu, the street was lined with booths and teams of people were getting the floats ready to go. I spent the next couple of hours walking around the festival and watching the floats start their routes through the city. They all took different routes and left at different times, and all were accompanied by the sound of taiko drums (the drums and drummers are actually hidden in the lower part of the float) and a traditional Japanese flute (played by a guy walking behind said float). Oh, did I mention that these floats don't have engines? Instead, they're pulled down the streets by people with very long ropes.
Eventually, after having my fill of festival food, I decided to follow one of the floats and see where it was going. It was a long winding route, but my float eventually ended up at Chichibu Shrine, where a few others had already gathered. Eventually, all eight of them arrived and lit their lanterns (with real flames no less, no electricity). Once they were all there, there was a ceremony which involved raising a large pole with a little mini-shrine on it and, after that, the floats started getting ready to leave (with just as much fanfare as when they arrived).
I watched the first couple leave, then decided it was time to move on to see the fireworks show. I wasn't entirely sure of the location but, fortunately, fireworks are pretty hard to miss. While I think it would have been nice if the show was a little faster paced, it did have some rather neat fireworks.
On a side note, the Kawase Matsuri is actually two days. On the second day, there's a different parade where a small portable shrine is carried to, and then washed in, the river.
I left a little before the end of the fireworks show to ensure I didn't miss the last express train back to Tokyo (I'd have risked getting stranded halfway back when the trains stop for the night if I did).
Overall, Chichibu is a nice area, it was a fun matsuri, and I enjoyed watching the floats. I'd be up for going back sometime to see more of the sights and do some serious hiking.

Saturday (20th): Friends and Fireworks
As usual, Saturday meant going to synagogue. Just about everyone was there and it was great to see them all one last time before returning to the US. They mentioned a big fireworks festival in Arakawa was taking place later that night, so I had my evening plans. Unfortunately, only four of us (myself included) ended up going. Some people had work and others were just too tired (despite it being a 7:30 show on a Saturday night). And of the four of us, Eunbee had plans to meet people and Yehoshua had to go get his cameras, so it ended up just being Hoshino and I for most of the outing.
We got there about an hour early, navigated the busy streets and occasional festival booths, and eventually came to a river bank. As sunset neared, it started to get really crowded. And then the show started. Like the show I saw the previous day in Chichibu, they had a lot of special fireworks (smiley faces, multi color, animal shaped, etc.). It was also a lot more intense than the Chichibu show, making it one of the better ones I've seen.
After the show was over, we met up with Yehoshua at a restaurant and hung out and talked for a while. Well, we did eventually... Thanks to the crowds, getting from the riverbank back to the station took a rather ridiculous amount of time. But it was a fun night regardless.

Sunday (21st): Last Day
I avoided committing to anything for this day too far ahead of time, since I was hoping to hang out with some friends. Unfortunately, that didn't end up working out. I thought about going to an amusement park that's been sitting on my to-do list, but I would have had to leave pretty early which, combined with how late I'd gotten back the previous night, would have left me with only several hours to sleep (after several late nights already). Plus, since it was a weekend, the bus tickets were sold out and the train was pretty expensive. In the end, I decided to keep it fairly low key and just do a few fun things in Tokyo. I started out with one more visit to the big flea market. After that, I was originally planning to do some stuff at Odaiba but Ida (a friend who hadn't been able to make it to services the previous day) e-mailed and asked if I wanted to meet up for a bit so I went to Shinjuku instead (again with Shinjuku). We got to talking and ended up just chatting and strolling around Shinjuku for the rest of the day. Not really a big exciting ending to my trip, but a pleasant way to spend the day none-the-less.
Finally, it was back to the apartment to pack and otherwise start getting ready for my departure the next day.

Random Japan Comment: Smoking
While a lot of Japanese people do smoke, and there are still a decent number of cigarette vending machines around, the situation for non-smokers has improved a lot since I first went to Japan. For one thing, quite a lot of restaurants are either entirely non-smoking or at least have non-smoking sections. Non-smoking hotel rooms are pretty easy to find as well. But the main improvement is that smoking is now banned on many (possible all) public streets except in designated smoking areas. Of course, they're some people who don't listen but, for the most part, smokers obey the rules and help keep the air clean for everyone else, which is greatly appreciated.

Monday (22nd): Leaving Again
My flight was at four, which left me with time to clean the apartment prior to the move out inspection and get some gyuudon before heading to the airport, where I was able to stop at a last kaitenzushi restaurant as well. I have to say, Narita is one of the nicer airports I've been do. The selection of shops and restaurants is nice (especially before you go through security) and the lines have always been minimal. They're not quite as picky at the security station either (I was able to keep on my shoes and leave non-metal items in my pockets). Other than that, my flights back went well, despite an overly long layover (made even longer by a flight delay) in the San Francisco airport (which isn't nearly as nice). Oh, and here's one last picture. It's not my plane, but I'm kinda curious about where it was going...
This trip to Japan was certainly a bit different than my previous ones. It was a lot shorter for one but, since I wasn't working, I was able to do a rather ridiculous amount of stuff. I was also far more centrally located than ever before, which was really convenient and allowed me to walk to a lot of different parts of Tokyo and get a better feel for the city as a whole. While a few things didn't work out as well as they could have, overall it was an awesome trip and I'm glad I went.
Once again, I'm going to miss it. I really do love Tokyo and Japan as a whole. I'm still not entirely sure I'd want to live there long term but, if I found the right job and a decent apartment (one with multiple rooms and maybe an oven) I'd be willing to give it a try. I've still got lots to see and do in Japan. Though, on my next vacation there, I'll probably spend less time in Tokyo in favor of some far off areas I've yet to see. But whether it's just another vacation or something work related, I'm looking forward to returning.

Part 1: June 2013