Try Yoshino in the winter?

We ended up going to Yoshino by complete chance. We received a message from a good friend earlier this month after she realized she had double booked some events of her own. The opportunity to get a tour going to Yoshino got scooted over to us and we took her up on it right away.
We had been to Yoshino on a previous trip, but that was only during the peak season, known for its incredibly pink cherry blossoms and many eager beavers wanting to try the sakura mochi under the trees.

This time, however, it would be in the middle of winter, which we soon realized was not even as half as popular during the blooming spring.

Although we were informed on the basics, the exact purpose for us being there were still unclear.

The journey to Yoshino was not as long as the distance our friends warned us about. After a couple of transfers and naps in the train, we were there.
We arrived first and found our tour guide waiting for us in front of the ticket gates of the station.
I remembered this place filled with lines upon lines of backpackers, all wearing hiking uniforms and carrying gear that seemed to come from the exact same store.

We were greeted by a pleasant smile and a brief rundown of what the next two days would be like.
The rest of the group slowly started to trickle in with the exception of one that would join later.

What they explained to us is that we were part of a trial tour, with the group promoting it called the Working Group. Those in the group were all business owners from different shops, restaurants, and other professions from the area. All of them had been born and raised in Yoshino and were school mates from elementary school. They all came to greet us at the station, eager to begin the day. It was quite the welcome. What would be was to give feedback, so they can get more people interested in what Yoshino has to offer outside of Spring.

After putting all the luggage in the car, we started the trek up the mountain. Along the way we got more acquainted with the guides and the area. They gave us random tidbits of information about the scenery along the way.

-The cable car there is the oldest in Japan.
-The elementary school is no longer standing, but all students that graduated would plant a cherry blossom tree.
-The tradition of planting started years ago and now you are able to see roughly 20,000 cherry trees from the top.

We would do our best to stick to the schedule, with a nice lunch awaiting us after a bit of talking at the gates in front of the temple.
We found the founder of Shugendo, En no Gyoja, right before the metal torii gate at the start of the tour. He was an ascetic and mystic, banished and banned because of the power he was said to have had.
His statue was everywhere, greeting us and guiding at each corner throughout the trip.

We walked up slowly to the main road that had shops filled with various sakura knickknacks and foods that also continued the theme.
We were able to taste test some sake that was being sold in the shop. The older gentleman seemed to be pleasantly taken aback by the sudden group that invaded his shop.

The weather was gorgeous and a godsend. It was supposed to snow that day but mother nature seemed to postpone the bad weather until we would leave the mountain.
In the warm sun we walked to the first shop to have lunch.

The restaurants name was Yako Sushi.
It is a soba restaurant that offers various meals with Saba or Salmon. The restaurant also accommodated to the diet my sister and I both share: vegetarian. They prepared a special plate for the both of us: switching the sushi wrapped in kaki leaves to delicious inarizushi.

We have not eaten such a hearty meal in a while, and left the shop in good spirits, ready to take on the rest of the day.

The first temple we found ourselves approaching sat majestically on the edge of the hill: Kinpusen-ji, founded by En no Gyoja.
It seemed so different from when we came two years ago in April when it was filled with tourists and energy. This time, quiet and people-less, we were able to see the temple clearly.
We would be coming here again at 6:30 the following morning for prayers.

The next thing that was awaiting us was the Kuzukiri experience at one of the local shops that sold it in different shapes and forms.
For those that are reading, I would love to explain all that we learned over the two-hour workshop, but would love it even more for you to go and experience it yourself.
In a nutshell, we got a science lesson, a cooking demonstration, with the cherry on top being us having a go at being the chef. We were able to learn about the Kuzu plant and then eat all of the delicious sweets throughout.

This particular shop can be found online at : http://nakasyun.com/

After the deliciously educational experience, we hopped back into the car to our accommodation for the night.

Dinner was at seven, so we had time to check out the bath area and our rooms. The sitting room was upstairs and we relaxed and drank roughly 100 cups of tea until the van picked us up to go to dinner.

At night the area seemed even more Spirited Away-esque with only the lights peeking out of the little shops and houses along the way to light our path.
Sakanaya was a cozy shop with the main options of dishes being either fish or freshly hunted boar meat from the area.
Both fantastically prepared I’m sure, but not choices for us.
Thanks to the wonderful cooks, however, a gorgeous vegetarian meal was prepared for us.
One thing we were very surprised by was how much they were able to cater to our food restrictions, and did it with complete flair.

After a lot of laughs, discussion, and jokes at the dinner table, we headed back to the hotel.
We had an early day the next morning, so we topped off the evening with Reylia leading a small yoga session with the people in our group.

One by one we all took our baths in the nice private ofuro. With our bodies all warmed up, we tucked ourselves into the futons they prepared for us. We had a great day behind us and only hoped we would wake up tomorrow at 6:00 on time.
———

Thankfully we did manage to hear the alarm. The sun had not yet risen. The chill air and silence in the room made an eerie pair, but slowly there was ruffling from the rooms across from ours — the others were emerging as well.

The morning prayers at Kimpusen-ji temple are held every morning, rain or shine at 6:30 in the morning.
They warned us ahead of time that the old wooden floors would be freezing, so bringing an extra pair of socks would be best to protect your feet from the cold. Sadly, we did not heed the advice and were left to putting Kairo(カイロ)in our socks.

The service was fascinating and like no other prayer service.
It started with a session of mantras with meanings that could not be made out by just listening. Sandwiched in between were more personal prayers for the people that were effected by the disasters in the past and for the people that are visiting the temple.
They gave us prayer books that we fumbled with and tried to follow along to what was being chanted. Quite tasking on the brain.
After a walk around the inside of the temple accompanied by more chanting and bowing to the deities, we said our thank yous to the monks. We were hungry and ready to scarf down our breakfast.

Nothing was better for that chilly morning than the ocyazuke they served. Warm porridge-like texture along with rice, tsukemono, and miso soup. A nice well-rounded Japanese breakfast right in front of us to dive into.

After picking up our bags from the hotel, we were informed that there would be a three hour hike in front of us.

We would go through various temples and then do a small purification ceremony to get any evil spirits out of us.

We visited various temples in the area with explanations on how many aspects of Shugendo were handed down from India. Although there are different parts that aren’t similar anymore, some offerings and ways of worship are identical.

Before heading to the last temple of the trip, we visited a small hut that monks come to purify themselves at. The ritual goes that you have to take your right hand and lay it on the thing in the middle and with everyone circling it in the dark while chanting. They closed the doors behind us and before we knew it it was pitch black. The man started and had us repeat what he had said. We circled it three times with people in the group poking each other and trying to give the other a scare. The ceremony ended with a loud gong that almost made us shit our pants. That was when the evil spirits are said to flee from your body. I wouldn’t be surprised. The sudden sharpness of the gong would shock anything out of anyone.
We made our way out of the hut and down the snowy path.

The second temple we visited apparently helps in aiding those prayers that hope for children and women that are infertile. We all laughed when one of us piped up with the line, “Yup! Sounds good to me! Let’s all get pregnant!”
One of those you-had-to-be-there hilarious moments.

We were thankful that the weather held up throughout the trip. Although it was still cold, the lunch that we had helped with that immensely. We popped into a tofu shop, famous in the area for having tofu in all their meals and foods. We received a little nabe on our tray so that we can slowly heat up the tofu ourselves. With a little dip in some ponzu sauce, you got a surprisingly filling meal. We topped it off with – of course – tofu ice-cream. Just plain heaven in the mountains of Yoshino.

The day was slowly coming to an end. We would have a conversation over coffee and cake for feedback.
Before that, however, they suggested one last treat to top off the experience: a dip in the one and only onsen in town. The guys decided to be squares, so it was just us girls who got in and soaked up the water from the rotenburo.
Sitting in the ofuro relaxes, refreshes, and brings about interesting conversation.
We had limited time before we would have to head back for the feedback session, but we managed to fit in some discussion about how a certain temple still doesn’t allow women up to the top. There is naturally a lot of debate around the topic and we went back and forth shooting down the reasons that the people in charge stand by.

After getting out of our birthday suits we headed back to the car. It seemed it had rained while we were enjoying the bath, and as soon as we step foot in the coffee shop, it started to rain once again.

It was hard to think of very good advice or talk about things we wish had been done differently because we had such a pleasant time. Nevertheless, we all took our turns in expressing our ideas and our newfound view of the area.
The delicious cake and coffee at the log cabin on top of Yoshino mountain wrapped up the day nicely. Everything had gone smoothly, and we got on the 5:07 train going back home. We shook hands, took pictures, and bid our farewells to the wonderful Working Group that let us experience such a fantastic weekend.

We got to know lovely people that we probably wouldn’t have met otherwise and shared this memorable trip together.

Gradually our new friends took their separate ways, and we made the hike back to our house.
We came home, made a green smoothie, and went on and about how cold it was.

Mr. Morita brought potatoes

The first week of June is almost ready to bid us farewell. I woke up early this morning and grabbed my laptop first thing to check my messages and Facebook. Although I have a number of goals from here on end, I would say that killing my reflex of immediately reaching for my electronics would be high on the list.

Because we have been having lovely hot weather recently, I decided to take up a new challenge: Planting potatoes! I have been told that even if you have never worked with vegetables, the potato plant is a great place to begin. I bought healthy soil, followed the instructions I found on the internet, and after a month I was pleasantly surprised to find actual plants coming out of the ground. I showed them off to whoever stepped in the door and talked with neighbors to see if they could give me some tips. I was hoping to harvest my first crop this year, but after a trip to Korea I came back home to my house to find potatoes that had been long neglected while I was away. There was absolutely no rain while I was gone, and the potatoes started to rise out of the dirt, exposing themselves to the hot sun.

I was sad at the possibility of my potato planting efforts being in vain. However, as I was walking back home from the station this past week, I saw mypotato neighbor Morita-san walking up the mountain ahead of me. He lives two minutes down the hill and he loves to talk about gardening.  I ran up the mountain to catch up to him. In the beginning of my potato planting adventure, I mentioned often to him that I started making use of the big plot of land that I have. He would give me loads of advice and was excited about my new hobby. I was sad to have to let him know this time about the bad news. He immediately invited himself over to the house and told me he would check on them and give me a diagnosis.

He jumped right in and started covering the potatoes with dirt. He instructed me that no matter what you do, you have to hide them from the sun unless you want to eat very bitter vegetables. After a few minutes, he bid his farewell with a, “帰るわ! Kaeruwa!”, and left as quickly as he came.

I followed his instructions and covered my precious potatoes with dirt and weeded the garden. I thought that that would be the end of gardening for this week, but this morning I heard a loud pounding on my front door at 8:00 AM. Who would that be at this time? My sisters? My mom?

I let out a timid, Hello? with no answer and slowly opened the door to find Morita-san with gloves and a little bag in hand. I was surprised to see him so early. He had come again to help with the garden and also had brought new sweet potato plants to grow. After working in the garden for a bit, he explained to me what I had to do, and again was quickly on his way.

After he left I watered my new sweet potatoes and headed back into the house with a smile on my face. I now have something better to do than going straight to the internet in the morning: working on my new potatoes from Morita-san.

Mr. Sunny, I can’t thank you enough

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This will be my 6th post in the series ST-Bound with the ST standing for Singapore and Thailand. I had a lot of adventures and one blog post wouldn’t cut it. Check out the past ones here for the one you are about to read to make more sense:

1.My Indian Friend, The Salary man, and Mr. Lebanon 2.The Feeling of Arriving 3.I shall call this post Emily 4.This Table is Reserved  5.High Expectations of the Bus Driver


From Singapore to Thailand, I chose to take the bus instead of the plane. With a lot of trouble throughout the night, I had only gotten two hours of sleep. I finally stepped off the bus at 10:00 in the morning and found myself in a bustling city. Locals frantically tried to get us into their cars, doing their best to convince us that their way would be the cheapest way. Looking around I saw food stalls, other tourists and curious people who kept staring at our group.

With quick goodbyes to my bodyguard friends, I got a couple of watercolor sketches ready and passed it to them as a thank you. I scribbled my name on the back of both in hopes they would find me online. I jumped on my bus and waved to their backs.

Thirteen of us including the drivers got packed into a small van with all of our luggage. I felt like I had been crammed into a can of sardines. My backpack stole half of my seat, leaving one of my legs dangling while the other sat firm in the gap by the sliding door. Although I was fairly comfortable, sitting a few hours in that position without moving made my legs swollen without my noticing. I got the shock of my life when I looked down to find my feet looking more like an elephant’s than my own.

I thought that I would be without friends for the remainder of the trip, but I started chatting up the man sitting next to me. They were also on the first bus, but I did not realize that all nine of them were on a family vacation together. I did not converse with them the whole way to Thailand because I didn’t think they could speak English. I was happy to have been forced into such close quarters, having the excuse to make more formal introductions.

He was a young man with a sweet smile. He wore black rimmed glasses and spoke earnestly. His wife was younger than him, my age. If memory serves rightly, her name was Ayu which means “Beautiful” in Malay. It could not have been a more appropriate name.

I spoke mostly to the husband because of the positioning of the seats. While he and his wife spoke English, the rest of the clan could only pick out words. At the one and only rest stop, I was happy that they invited me into their group and shared their spicy coconut snacks with me.

Upon getting back on the bus, I shared my story and background with him. He also shared his and we enjoyed a couple of hours of conversation. He expressed his worries about Singapore and the direction it is taking. From a tourist or expat point of view, everything seems normal. However, if you have a middle-class job the salary just doesn’t cut it for all of the living expenses. Although the people of Singapore seem content, there is a fault line underneath the surface. Shops in Chinatown and Little India close down because of the cost. People cannot keep up, forcing them to go to neighboring countries. His prediction was that in the future, those lower-class areas will be wiped out completely, leaving room for the rich to move in.

Whether what he spoke of is true or not, it was interesting to get an insider’s point of view for the first time.

Though the last bus driver was a nightmare, this part of the ride probably was the most dangerous. The speed limit was 80, which I am sure most people exceeded. The ride was like a video game, barely dodging the cars as they came by, or going into opposite lanes with cars coming head on. If you could drive on that road for even half an hour, you could drive anywhere.

I alternated between talking, sleeping, and staring out the window. Looking out, I noticed that all of the trees were incredibly straight. I was informed later that they are all farmed for their rubber.

Cows were also everywhere along the way. I saw beaches, advertisements, photos of the king, dirt roads, dogs roaming — everything I would expect Thailand to be. Similar to how I remembered Bali, but with everything in Thai writing. To my eyes it looked similar, but the air was different. Something about the people was different. I would have to go there more to see if I could differentiate the countries.

The family was able to get driven right up to their hotel while I would have to find another taxi to get to my Villa after reaching the main drop-off point. We exchanged goodbye’s and wished each other luck on our travels. They dropped me off at a busy street and I had the challenge of making deals with some locals to get another ride to my hotel. I kind of knew the drill — never take the price they suggest initially. Being physically and mentally exhausted I could not get it down too much, but I couldn’t be bothered to work harder for a local price.

My final driver was everything I wanted my first bus man to be:
He was slightly over-weight.
He took his business seriously.
He had no problem finding my destination.
He was soft-spoken.
He answered my questions as best he could in his limited English.
He had a kind smile.
His name was Sunny.

When I got to my Villa, I kissed the ground. I couldn’t believe it — I got there in one piece with an added bonus of being mentally sound. And it was all thanks to the Malay Bus Driver, My Singapore Friends, and Mr. Sunny.


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I always make promises

I am coming back to my writing as if I am coming out of a hazy dream. I can say the same for all my yesterdays, but more so for the past two weeks because they were out of the ordinary of my so-called everyday life. I was not working and was on vacation.

It is not a bad thing to let yourself decide to take a break, but when you discover yourself being tired from even the vacation, it is a dreary thing for your body and soul. While beautiful things happened and many laughs were shared on various occasions, I feel a great need in myself to travel and leave behind a life that I have seem to have outgrown. I do not mean that when it relates to people, for all those that I know never stop challenging me in positive ways. I, however, seemed to have stopped challenging myself.

I constantly make promises in what may seem to be honorable endeavors, but instead of falling though, I fall down and always take five steps backwards when not even two were taken.

Coming back home from Tokyo and Nagano, I had spent a total of twenty hours of train travel alone. Along with those twenty hours came with a lot of contemplating. I do not know if the intense thinking will manifest itself and provoke a positive change in my life, but I can only hope that it will.

I can only hope.