DISCLAIMER

"To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield"
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1833

"live deep and suck out all the marrow of life"
- Henry David Thoreau, 1845

"Some guys, they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up,
And go racin' in the streets."
- Bruce Springsteen, 1977

"...to the heart, there's no time for you to waste.
You won't find your precious answers now
by staying in one place."
- Frank Turner, 2009

"The best things in life aren't things.
They're living and breathing."
- Michael Franti , 2011

"I owned every second that this world could give,
I saw so many places, the things that I did"
- Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, 2014

All written content and photos by Rob Fulfer unless otherwise indicated.





Thursday, June 22, 2017

J-A-P-A-N-!-!-!

12.6K+ miles! Wow! Thanks, Waze App!
Saturday, April 15 -  We began our officially longest vacation ever today with a flight to Denver, a short layover, and then on to Tokyo, Japan.  We flew United which has been in the news lately with some really crappy customer service, but we had no problems.  We took a roomy Dreamliner from Denver for 12 hours to Tokyo.  We were able to watch free TV and movies on our phones through the plane's wifi which was really nice.

Sunday, April 16 - We landed at Narita Airport which is a fair distance outside Tokyo and took an arranged shuttle to downtown to our hotel for the next few days, The Centurion Grand Akasaka Hotel.  This was a quirky little place (they had birds in the lobby and would rent you nail clippers) and our room was tiny, but we did have a queen-size bed and actually grew to really love the place (awesome shower, more awesome bidet and fresh kimono robes every day).  The Akasaka neighborhood we were in was great and walkable with lots of food choices and very close to a subway station.

Our first food (and beer!) was a short walk from our hotel to the Yona Yona Beer Works where we had some good craft brews and some excellent house-made sausages including our favorite, the edamame bologna.  We took it easy tonight and turned in early after a little local exploring so the jet-lag wouldn't creep in on us.

Japanese bidets are the best!!
The little street our hotel in Tokyo was on was lively, authentic and colorful.
Monday, April 17 - After a good night's sleep and nothing on the schedule today, we had our excellent complimentary breakfast at the hotel (eggs, bacon, sausage, the whole Western smeil).  We decided to go test the subway system since it would be vital to move around this city where cabs are very expensive.  It turned out that the subway was fairly easy to navigate since they use numbers and colors for stops in a simple, logical way.  We headed over to the Ginza neighborhood where we were meeting a food tour later tonight.  We found out that there is a great shopping  in this area and a lot to explore including the famous, huge and amazing Tsukiji Fish Market.
Businessmen, ladies and senior citizens all belly up to the food bars scattered throughout the Tsukiji Fish Market where just about anything and everything (alive or dead) is available to eat there or take home.
A little rain fell as the evening approached but the beauty of this modern city remained. We met  up with our small food tour group back over in  the Ginza district.  We had three stops on this interesting and (mostly) tasty tour.  First  up was a  yakitori restaurant where the grilled chicken on a stick was delectable, next was a  daifuku sweets shop where the tasty delicacies are made with sweetened bean paste instead of sugar.  Our last stop was very interesting (and very popular here since there were 75 restaurants doing the same thing in this one area), but  we were not the biggest fans of monjayaki which is basically a cabbage-based pancake cooked at your table either by the diners themselves or the waiter/waitress.  


Tuesday, April 18 - We awoke to more rain today, but it pushed out just in time for a morning city tour of Tokyo.
Godzilla?  It seems there was a small (4-something) earthquake off the coast of Tokyo this morning, but we didn't feel a thing (thank goodness), unlike a few years ago in Milan, Italy, where a large, deadly quake sixty miles away awoke us from our sleep.

Fresh kimono robes every morning!!  We love our little hotel!!

The first stop on our morning city tour was Tokyo Tower which is actually just a bit taller than it's famous sister over in Paris.
With the rainy weather breaking, the views from atop the Tokyo Tower were stunning.

The second stop on the tour was the Imperial Palace, or at least the outer moat around the Imperial Palace since this is about as close as you can get to it.  The guard-houses on each corner were so stunning that it's hard to imagine how beautiful the palace itself must be.
 Ok, look, this is how it all went down.  You judge for yourself...our beloved Nashville Predators were down 2-0 and the end of the second period to the Chicago Blackhawks while we were a half a world away at our last stop on the city tour, the beautiful Asakusa Kannon (Senso-ji) BuddistTemple, and so I simply,and respectfully, waved some prayer offering smoke over my Preds hat and asked Budda for a little help. We won 3-2 in overtime and went on to sweep the series from one of our greatest rivals. And then went on to play for The Stanley Cup. So think what you want...


No, Ashlee, you can't bring this lantern at the Senso-ji Temple home for the back yard...way too hard to pack.
After the tour was over, we went back to the Imperial Palace park and gardens and wondered around for hours.  We found even bigger, deeper moats on the other side of this gigantic area of green amidst this bustling city.

Wednesday, April 19 -  We got an early start today for a full-day tour out to the Mt. Fuji area a couple hours  bus ride from Tokyo.

Budda was working overtime again today I think!  Our tour-guide said clear views of Mt. Fuji are pretty rare since the gigantic mountain basically creates its own weather systems and the top is often shrouded in clouds.  Well, we had a clear view almost all day and this was our view for lunch.  We also rode our tour bus over 6600' up Mt. Fuji almost to the snowline. 
After lunch we also took a boat ride on Lake Kawaguchi for more spectacular views of Mt. Fuji.
And finally, we rode the Mt. Kachi Ropeway to the summit for even more fantastic views of its gigantic neighbor and the city of Fujiyoshida below.
Another thrill for us was riding the bullet train (shinkansen) back from the Mt. Fuji area to Tokyo.  We are not sure how fast we topped out at during the trip, but our WAZE app captured our speed at 147 mph at one point.



Thursday, April 20 - Happy Birthday to me!!  Let's get on the boat!

I woke up 50 years old today, but feeling like I was 20 with the anticipation of our big cruise we would start today.  Before our ride to the Yokohama port arrived at our hotel, we had a little time to kill and took a quick subway ride over to the famous Shibuya Crossing, the busiest crosswalk in the world, even though it wasn't super-crowded while we were there. 

It just so happens that my birthday falls around the same time that most of Japan is celebrating spring with flower festivals and, of course, their famous blooming cherry blossoms.  We were lucky to secure a room aboard the quickly SOLD OUT Princess Diamond cruise ship for a circumnavigating trip around the main island of Japan plus a stop in Bussan, South Korea.  

Friday, April 21 - We spent the day at sea today heading south and curling around the main island until turning due north.  There was plenty to do (and eat) on the boat and our day just flew by.
The Diamond Princess is a large, beautiful ship.  This was our first time on a Princess cruise and we were happy with the food, the service and the amenities throughout the boat.  We found out pretty quickly that we were two of the very few Americans on board.  Lots of Aussies, Englanders, some Russians and about half the cruisers were Japanese.  
Our first night at dinner was formal and we met a nice couple from England at our table.  The fun and fancy night was capped off with a cool champagne waterfall in the main atrium.  

Saturday, April 22
-  Our first port on the cruise was the bustling city of Busan, South Korea. Time to mark another new country visited off the list!  We had arranged an excursion with the cruise line that included a visit to the amazing Ja-Gal-Ch'i Market and also the solemn Beomeosa Buddist Temple outside town in the Geumjeonsan Mountains.

Coming in to the port of Busan, South Korea.  Love the little lighthouse on the rocky island on the right.

The Beomeosa Buddist Temple was partially under some restoration construction, but my favorite part of the entire place were the three beautifully elaborate gates you had to pass through to get to temple as you climbed steadily up the mountain grade through them.  The photo above is of the first one.  
Our biggest disappointment from visiting the jaw-dropping Ja-Gal-Ch'i  Seafood Market in Busan was that we just didn't have enough time here.  The vast amounts of live sea creatures (some recognizable, some not)  for sale here to take home or have cooked right in front of you was astonishing.  I wish we had not been rushed through so we could have had some fresh flounder prepared for us right there...next time?  
Immigration going to South Korea and then coming back to Japan was incredibly slow and tedious on the boat.  This stamp is our only proof we were even in South Korea since they never stamped our passport...weird.  

April 23 -  The next morning we arrived at our next stop and first Japanese port in the quite morning solitude of the harbor at Sakaiminato, Japan.  Cruising seems to be fairly new in Japan because all the ports we visited were fairly commercial in nature and not anything like the Caribbean ports we've been to that are all about tourism.

We took another cruise-ship-booked bus tour inland today out to the Tottori Flower Park, one of the largest flower parks in Japan.  Mt. Daisen makes for a beautiful backdrop as well.
When we got back to the ship we jumped into our swimsuits and headed to the back of the boat where the public hot-tubs were not being used at all.  Yes, the temps were a bit chilly, but that made the warm water feel all that much better.  This was quite a memorable sunset to say the least.
Sunday, April 24 - Hello to the Port of Toyama!
This Starbucks in Kansui Park in Toyama has been awarded for some of the world's best service and maybe it should win for the best backdrop too!  Wow!  

Lunch in Toyama was provided with the tour and, buddy, it was AUTHENTIC!  This little pickled squid  that was in our bento box was a bit rubbery, but we managed to get them down.

After lunch we took a short bus ride from Toyama to the town of Tonami which is famous for its Tulip Festival at the Tonami Tulip Park.

The Netherlands don't have much on the Tonami area of Japan with its large and beautiful tulip farms

The huge Tonami Tulip Park and Festival was amazingly beautiful and fun.

Monday, April 25 - Next stop: Akita, Japan
Our first stop today was north from the port of Akita to the overlook atop Mt. Kanpuzan of the dramatic Oga Peninsula.  While the rotating observatory was a bit dated and the windy and cloudy weather wasn't cooperating completely, it was still kind of an amazing place to visit and we had a great time.

We weren't really sure about our second stop today which was the Namahage Museum,  a cultural experience of the  regional folklore of "demons" who burst into homes around New Year's demanding sake and food in exchange for good fortune for the family that year.  It seems each village had its own specifically designed Namahage and this museum has recreated/preserved dozens of them.  The one above was our favorite since it was Nashville Predators colors!    

After touring the museum, our group gathered inside this beautiful replica  of a  typical historic  Japanese home for a Namahage dramatization that was a lot of fun to witness live and in person.  Yes,they are a little scary, but their intentions are good and they only hope to scare away the bad spirits from your home...and drink a little sake...
We got back to the port of Akita in the late afternoon and since the boat didn't leave until late that night, we headed into town for some exploring and maybe some authentic dinner.    Our goal was to find some miso kiritanpo (rice on a stick) which this town and area are known for.  After searching through a large mall area with a huge food court (but no kiritanpo), we pulled up a picture of it on our phone and asked a local.  She pointed us to a small place nearby and we bravely went in and had a weird and wonderful experience...

This is our waiter at the tiny kiritanpo restaurant we found.  He didn't speak a word of English, but through hand signals, menu pointing, phone photos and smiles, he figured out what we wanted and delivered it in a timely manner along with saki and beer (no problem communicating those two things!).  Our table was inside a private  wooden booth with a curtain.  So very charming and unique! 

This is the outside of the tiny restaurant in Akita.  We have no idea what it is called but we had a great time and some wonderful memories from our visit here.  It was only after going in and eating and then coming back outside did we notice the kiritanpo illustration on their sign.

Back at the Akita port before the boat left, we rode the elevator to the top of the beautiful Selion Tower for some excellent nighttime views of the city and our ship.  This place also had the most amazing gift-shop in the bottom of it and we loaded up on goodies for us and our family and friends.    I am not a shopper at all, but I have to say that Japan is the best place we have visited in terms of shopping.  Almost all the shops we visited had unique items of high quality.  As an example, see Ashlee's awesome  growing collection of hanging doo-dads she found at each of our stops representing the areas we were in:  an Akita dog, Hello Kitty with a kiritanpo, Hello Kitty dressed up as a Namahage,  a squid and a tulip.  

Tuesday, April 26 - Welcome to Hakodate, Japan 
Our first tour stop was the Hakodate Morning Market Square, another amazing seafood market.  Here's Ashlee with some squid-ink ice cream...no it did not taste fishy.  For all we know it's vanilla ice cream with black food coloring in it to make it look gray, but the locals swear that it's squid ink.   So be it!  
Next stop was a ride on the aerial tram to the top of Mt. Hakodate to see the unique hour-glass shape of the city below.  We came to find out that everything in the center is actually reclaimed land from the sea.  We took a stroll through the historic Motomachi District nearby to finish our day tour.

We returned to the top of Mt. Hakodate for a night-time (and MUCH more crowded) view of the same hour-glass before we headed out on the ship later that evening.

Wednesday, April 27 - Our last new port of the trip: Aomori, Japan - Why not save the best for last, right?  This turned out to be my favorite stop on the cruise.  We had seen a few cherry blossoms on our trip up til now, but here's where you come to really see them in all their glory and they were breathtaking as is this entire area.

Hirosaki Park:  A short drive inland from the Aomori port.

The famous Hirosaki Castle with Mt. Iwaki in the background.  This picture takes itself.
Another interesting stop today was the Neputa Festival Exhibition Hall where several  intricate and beautifully designed wood and paper floats are stored and are on display for viewing.  These hand-held floats are used in the annual summer festival.   We also got a music demonstration that was impressive.

Thursday, April 28 -  This was our last full day on the cruise and we were at sea all day continuing our loop around the main island of Japan and heading back to the port at Yokohama.


Our last day at sea was full of activity including a double-entree for me at dinner with my own surf-and-turf design of a NY strip steak AND a filet of kingklip (first time for me on this type of eel/fish and it was tasty).   We had a great time with the staff who were super-friendly and accommodating.  Our favorite was Franco who was in charge of all the wait staff and the dining room.  He's about 5' tall with a shaved head and a heavy Italian accent.  His opinion of the Japanese ports was less than impressed since as I mentioned they are fairly commercial.   Since he can't always leave the boat during stops, his problem was that if "I, ah, step out on, ah, the deck and whattamagonnalookat??!!"  His delivery was so funny, but you probably had to be there to appreciate it.
We were offered a  behind-the-scenes tour of the  ship's gigantic kitchen and food-prep area which was very interesting.  I mean whomever carved these melons is a real artist! 
We were troubled to hear that the day we were visiting South Korea on our cruise, North Korea was up to its old tricks again in the region.  Fortunately, it was just more  bloated saber-rattling and we were in no real danger.  You just can't let the troubles of the world slow you down from exploring it as much as reasonably possible.

Friday, April 29
-   We got off the boat today and had another full day in Tokyo to enjoy this fantastic modern city.

Our arrival back into Yokohama Bay was early and we got up with the sun to enjoy it.
"Someday in the sky, we'll see the same sun on the rise,
Wherever you go, far as Tokyo
I can say, I'll see you again..."  -
LP,  "Tokyo Sunrise"
For our one night back in Tokyo we decided to stay in a different area with a different perspective...and what a lovely perspective it was.  This is the view from where we were staying,  The Grand Nikko Hotel in the Odiaba District, a made-made peninsula across the bay via The Rainbow Bridge from downtown Tokyo made of "garbage and dirt" as one local described it.  Well, it's a pretty nice mound of garbage and dirt with great shopping, lots of open areas and parks, and even it's own Statue of Liberty...do you see it?

Here's it is up close.  A 1/40th replica of the one in NYC given to Japan by France back in 1998.
Getting back to shopping...yes, shopping...like I said, it's awesome in Japan.  These fancy vending machines are everywhere and they are full of fun surprises for a small price...yes, they are for children and we were getting them for our niece...no honest, we were!! 


We had  to grab some weird Kit Kats while we were here too.  Japan is known for exotic flavors of the American treat, but you can only get them here.  These wasabi ones were not as spicy as you think and were rather sweet...because, hey, it's still candy.  Prices were reasonable with about a 1 to 100 ratio from the American dollar to the Japanese yen. 


The fun Odiaba District really lights up at night in so many ways.  


I ate local to the end with my last meal in Japan being this tasty pork ramen.

Saturday, April 30
- Sad, but a little homesick as well, we left Tokyo today with just a short layover in Chicago and were home for 7 PM on the same day...the beauty of traveling backwards!  This was one of those great trips that we hope isn't once in a lifetime, but if it turns out to be it was pretty amazing from start to finish and a great way for me to start the other half of my life (note the optimism!).  It's a beautiful, interesting country with warm, friendly people with history and culture on their side.  Arigato, Japan, for a wonderful time and so many fond memories!