food

Avo Pizza, Armadale

Sometimes, I take a break from photographing people and fashion, and work with small retailers to capture their food. It is a delicious gig, to say the least. Yesterday afternoon was spend at Avo Pizza in Armadale, which has newly opened. I’d worked with these guys before in some of their other stores, so everything ran smoothly, as everyone knew what to expect. Their food is genuinely fresh and looks great- not your usual greasy, heavy pizza-store fare.

Check out their menu here!

 

The Day Of Arcades

All through this trip, I knew that eventually it would come to an end. I wondered what I would feel like on my last full day- sad? Rushed? Overwhelmed? Exhausted? When I woke up I just kind of felt blank, like I wasn’t really in a foreign country, but rather, in some kind of dream or half-conscious world.

I had not planned on doing anything in particular whilst in Osaka, so needless to say I had no idea what I would fill my last 24 hours in the city with. i spent a while on Google, trying to find things to see that might interest me, but of course I could only find the most touristy of suggestions- visit Osaka Castle, the Aquarium  the crazily futuristi building in Umeda with the circular empty ball thing in the middle of it. All valid suggestions, sure, but I’d visited them all on previous visits (when I was more interested in checking sights off a list than actually experiencing things), and had no interest in just going to a place to ‘look at it’ for a few seconds, before snapping an obligatory photograph and moving on to the next place. Other websites suggested shopping in the kitchen supplies district, as well as the arcade and food stalls around Namba. Having a few more souvenirs to buy (after promising myself I would do any and all present shopping before the last day), I opted for a walk to the Shinsaibashi shopping Arcade.

There was, as usual, easily accessible transportation to said arcade, but after my trekking, I usually always opted to walk. Plus, the route was easy. After turning down one street near the dodgy looking Dobutsuenmae station, it was pretty much a straight northbound walk along paved undercover streets. It was sunny, so I didn’t mind being out in the open, but I was still weary of the area and clutched my handbag really close to me whenever anyone passed by in the opposite direction. After I’d been walking for maybe 10 minutes, I came across a run-down looking street lined with electronics stores. They were all closed, either due to it being a day off, or because they all simultaneously went bankrupt, I’m not sure. After walking a while, I realised I must have been in Den-Den town- Osaka’s answer to Tokyo’s Akihabara. I remember visiting here when I was younger and draggin my mum through the stores to find a Hello Kitty iPod cover, which I never used due to it being the wrong size for my iPod. It was exciting and bright and busy back then. Now it looked old and creepy and dilapidated.

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Eventually, I turned a corner and wound up near Namba station, close to the Doguyasuji arcade. This place reminded me of Kappa-bashi in Tokyo (it seems that for every shopping area or specialty district in Tokyo, Osaka had its own equivalent.) Osaka is known as one of the food capitals of Japan, and this place was obviously where all the chefs came to stock up on cooking wares and restaurant paraphernalia. The 150 metre arcade is packed full of shops selling these items; everything from thousand dollar sashimi knives to napkin holders for your newly opened MOS Burger franchise store. Even though I had no need for anything here, I spent ages looking in this tiny store crammed full of cutlery, crockery and bento boxes. I could not resist some discounted wooden bentos, and spent literally half an hour trying to choose between two shapes. I would have taken them both, but I really didn’t need both (let alone one), and I knew that suitcase real-estate was at a squeeze. I walked away with a cute circular box made of a light wood. And for only 1000 yen. It would have easily cost 4000 in a department store.

As I exited Doguyasuji arcade, I came out to an open air courtyard, which led to the mouth of another arcade. This one had a lot of food retailers and theatre type buildings, as well as a scattering of street vendors trying to entice passers by with takoyaki, and people dressed in character costumes with abnormally large costume bobble heads. I avoided all eye contact. I went into a store that sold electronics, looking for a gift for my dad, but there was only the same old thing as usual. However, there was a 100 yen store on the top level of the building which I came out of (20 minutes and 1000 yen later) carrying an armful of useless goodies.

I then crossed a road and walked through yet another arcade (Osaka sure love their arcades),  which boasted kaiten-zushi restaurants and ice cream stalls. Coming out the other side of that, I was surrounded by more sushi stores, takoyaki vendors, seafood restaurants, and a giant moving crab. Yes, the giant moving crab that is famous in Osaka, and which is an icon of the city. It’s not as big as I’d suspected, but that didn’t stop the flock of American tourists posing in front of it and snapping silly poses. There were a decent population of caucasians in the area, and I felt silly just being there, so I crossed the river to H&M, where I pretended like I was a girl who knew how to do ‘fashion’ and shopped for some clothing items that would look incredible on when paired with the right fabrics and colour schemes. Yes.

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There were multi level H&M stores right across from each other, so I visited  both, wondering if they were exact replicas. But they had different stuff, and I actually bought things from each one, feeling a bit silly when I went up to the second check out with a H&M bag already in my hands. Then, feeling to westernised, I went across another canal and down to Don Quijote, the crazy store full of all kinds of random stuff. But today it didn’t spark my interests.

On the same side of the river as DQ, was the head of perhaps the longest shopping arcade I have ever been to. This was Shinsaibashi, packed full of discount stores, high end fashion stores, drugstores, and every other kind of retail business you could possibly think of. I wondered in for a little while, then decided that I’d better find some lunch before getting too deep into the arcade. So I headed back to the area near H&M, where I saw the athletic man sign with is another famous thing to ‘see and take a picture of’ in Osaka. I did not take the obligatory photo.

I had lunch at a kaiten-zushi place, which was full, but I got a seat easily. This sushi train had two layers, and I spent a while looing at everything going past before taking a few plates to munch on and making some green tea. The lady sitting next to me offered me a hand towel, as I couldn’t reach them, and so we were instantly friends. I took a few things from the conveyor belt, and then ordered salmon nigiri direct from the chef… 3 times. They never seem to have it on rotation, but I didn’t mind asking because it was much fresher and tastier that way. The lady who was not officially my friend said goodbye and left, but returned moments later to give me a coupon for one free plate of sushi. I said thanks, and then she disappeared out the tiny door again. A few moments later, I decided to press the red button so that the staff could tally up my bill by counting my plates. I went to the check out and offered up the coupon I had been given. I was then given a new coupon as thanks for visiting the shop on that day. I planned to pass it on to someone coming into the store as I left (just like the lady passed it on to me), but after loitering for a few minutes, nobody looked interested in going in to eat, so I just stuffed the coupon in my pocket and kept going.

I felt like some salad to finish off my lunch, so I made my way to a combini to get a little cheap one. On the way there, a Japanese man began walking in synch with me, then said in English ‘excuse me.’ I thought he might have wanted directions or to ask if he could practice his English, so I stopped and said ‘yes?’ Then he said, ‘excuse me…. I love you.’ And so I thought that this was some English he had learned off an advertisement or TV, and wanted to try it out on a foreigner without knowing the meaning. But then he added on, ‘excuse me, I love you….. one date, how much?’ And I realised he thought I must have been some kind of hooker!! So I turned away from him and sped up saying ‘NO, NO, NO, GO AWAY,’ and hot-footed it into a convenience store to seek refuge. Luckily he didn’t follow me. I bought a salad and ate it sitting in the sun, and a little girl watched me really intently. Her parents thought it was hilarious.

As I was heading to the combini,  I had spotted an ice cream stall selling soft-serve in flavours I hadn’t had before. Even though I was full, I knew it was probably the last time I was going to get a softcream, so I went up to the lady manning the stall and asked if I should get red bean or chestnut. She apologised that chestnut was unavailable, so I chose red bean instead. It was ok, but kind of too sweet in comparison to normal softcreams. I should have stuck with my old favourite, vanilla and green tea mix.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter ice-cream, I walked all the way down the next arcade, stopping to look in jewellery stores, visit Loft, Tokyu Hands, and a mega-concept Daiso one last time and to buy some pants at GU. I think I bought other clothing items as well, but I can’t really remember. I waked for hours, then decided I’d better get some food to take on the plane tomorrow, in an attempt to avoid airline food. So I went to a a department store basement, but ended up coing out with only a sweet potato and azuki bean sweet.

I also had to go back to the shopping area near Osaka main station to buy my sister’s birthday present (I cursed myself for not buying it the first time I saw it), so I took the subway, changing once, and then went to Loft to get a set of babushka sock monkeys. There, I also went to two department store basements to buy plane food, asking each vendor if the food would be ok to eat tomorrow. Most said no, but I bought it anyway. There was so much to choose from and I wanted it all. So I scrapped my idea of having dinner out, and instead bought all my favourites to have a feast in the hotel room. I also spent ages chatting to this lady selling ‘innovative rice,’ about my trip and going on planes. She was lovely.

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I stopped at the an-pan store one last time to buy my very last an-pan (I chose curry-pan and pumpkin), and then I trained back to the hotel in dodgy Dobutsuen-mae.

Last night I discovered that there was a microwave just outside my room, so I was happy I didn’t have to go down the lift to heat up the goodies I’d bought. I ate like a monster, somehow growing this insatiable appetite. I had sweet beef and onion on rice, and three kinds of vegetable. I had intended to eat half and have half for lunch tomorrow, but I just ate everything and decided to buy a salad and onigiri in the airport before departure instead.

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Then I still wanted to eat, so I had curry pan from the an-pan shop. It was incredible, and I literally could have eaten 3 more of them. I bet they are really bad for you. But it is so hard to find an-pan with beef curry and not pork curry, so I had to get it. Then I ate the sweet potato and azuki thing I’d bought near the arcade. It was covered in sesame seeds which were tasty and went all over the place.

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Then it was time to pack.

Exhibit One: Everything being everywhere (but neatly organised into groups)…

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Exhibit Two: Packing level: expert.

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Let The Hiking Begin

I can’t believe today. It seems kind of surreal, but at the same time it was all too real. I’m sorry if I don’t make sense in this post, my whole body is tired and my brain feels like it has turned to sludge.

Today was my first day of hiking the ancient pilgrimage route of Kumano Kodo. I can’t remember if I’ve explained this previously, so I’ll give you a quick rundown. The collection of hiking trails, called Kumano Kodo, are over 1000 years old, and are part of a route that pilgrims used to take between Kyoto and the Kii Peninsula. People from all demographics and socioeconomic backgrounds used to (and still do) make these spiritual journeys. The routes connect the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano, and it was the goal of ancient pilgrims to visit all three. The routes all have different names, and I am travelling the Nakahechi route, which is mountainous and cuts across the peninsula from west to east. All of Kumano Kodo’s routes, as well as the three main shrines are UNESCO world heritage sites. The pamphlet calls Kumano Kodo a “spiritual place of self discovery, purification and healing.”

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Last night I kept dreaming that I had missed the bus and that I wasn’t allowed to walk the route I wanted to. I also had this one dream, which I was so sure was real, that I woke up and another person was sleeping in the room on a futon next to mine. He was a weird red-haired hippy, so I was glad that it was, in fact, a dream. I must have been way more anxious about this hike than I expected, because I woke up at 3am, 4am, and 5am, before giving up at 6am and getting out of bed. I could have waited another hour and got the 8am bus, like I’d planned, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, so I just got up. I checked out and walked to the bus stop at the front of Kiitanabe station. From there I caught the 6:50 bus to Takijiri, where the Nakahechi route begins. On the bus I felt tired and yuck, and wondered what the hell I was thinking going on a 4 day hike. At that point I would have rathered a 4 day sleep. The bus ride took about half an hour, and followed a river that snaked around the mountains. I struggled to keep my eyes open and cursed my overactive mind for not letting me sleep last night.

When I got off the bus, the cold air hit me like a punch in the face. The temperature felt so much lower than it had outside the train station. I was glad I had layered up, but I had to dig out my gloves and put them on as well. I crossed a bridge to Takijiri-oji, the shrine that marks the start of the Kumano Kodo Nakahechi route. There was a little sheltered area with wooden tables and benches, and I sat there to eat my breakfast and drink the coffee I had bought from a vending machine near the train station. After that, I went over to a vending machine next to the road (the last one I would see for a long time) and bought another coffee, just because it was hot and I wanted to hold it and warm up my hands. I drank it too but it didn’t make me warm inside, and it tasted terrible.

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Fuelled with food and slightly more awake (thanks to the cold, not the coffee), I started my very first pilgrimage. I put some money in the box and made a prayer at Takijiri-oji (because I felt like you’re supposed to), then passed by the shrine to the route. A wooden post stated the name of the route, and the word ‘START.’ Throughout the day, I would come to love these markers, as they are located every 500 meters, and are marked with ascending numbers. Because I didn’t really know how fast I was traveling, the markers helped give me a sense of distance as I walked. It also felt like a small achievement each time I reached one, like I was completing a series of small challenges (all with the same goal; get to the next marker.)

The trail didn’t start off gently. The rocky, root-laden path went steeply up the side of a mountain, and after only 15 minutes I had climbed 300 meters. By the time 30 minutes had passed, I was really hot, and had to take off my jumper, coat, and scarf. I ascended for almost an hour before I got to go downhill, but even that didn’t last long before I had to go up again. The landscape was ridiculously beautiful, with tall cedars towering over me, and deciduous trees clustered along the trail. The ground was sometimes rocky, and sometimes covered in tree roots, and in some areas pinecones and pine needles littered the trail. I had to keep stopping, not because I was tired, but because I wanted to look around at the scenery, which was impossible to do whilst walking, as I had to keep my eyes on the ground to avoid falling flat on my face.

I won’t describe every twist and turn of the path I walked, because that would just be boring to read, and I think it would detract from the purity of my journey as well. All you really need to know is I walked through different kinds of forest, and across the occasional road, following the 500m markers and looking at different ‘significant sighs’ along the way. Kumano Kodo is dotted with little shrines and ponds and other areas of historical cultural significance, and this enriched the hike for me. It not only gave me extra distance markers to look forward to, but it made the journey more exciting and interesting.

The first of these was right near the beginning of the trail, and is called Tainai Kuguri, and was a narrow passage through a rock that you were supposed to climb through to prove you faith. Women who passed through were supposed to be granted easy delivery of a child. It looked dark and claustrophobic, but I thought, what the heck, and entered the cave. But I couldn’t fit through the tiny exit hole because my pack was too big, so I had to turn around and walk around the passage. No easy labor for me.

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Today consisted of mostly up hill climbing, and a lot of walking on narrow trails that hugged the mountain on one side, and dropped steeply into the valley on the other. Of course there were no hand rails or safety guards, and I kept trying to imagine what I would do if I did just fall over the edge. There were also some incredibly steep parts where I had to climb almost vertically. At some points, I completed a near vertical climb, only.to look up and see another one of the same steepness in front of me. I had a lot of ‘are you kidding me?!‘ moments. I also quickly learned to assume that if I couldn’t see where the trail was leading, it was probably headed for the steepest possible route.

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I came to my first small town at around 9:30, where I visited Takahara Kumano Shrine, and wrote my name in the book there. I was sweaty and smelly after climbing vertically, and I felt like one of those people in a bad 80’s aerobics videos. I took my time to look around, because I had plenty of time to spare. According to the pilgrims timeline, I wasn’t supposed to have reached this town until around 12:30. I was 3 hours ahead of schedule. The town had this amazing lookout point, from which you could see all the surrounding mountains. It made me feel like I had come a long way, because it looked like I was very high up. I took some photos, then some helpful locals showed me where the next part of the trail was, (even though it was clearly signposted) just to make sure I didn’t get lost. That’s another thing I forgot to mention. Aside from the 500m markers, there are frequent signs stating that you are still on Kumano Kodo. And every wrong path that (even slightly) looks like it might be the right way has a sign that says ‘Not Kumano Kodo.’ Its very handy.

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After the town, I walked through more forest, passing a few statues and a pretty lake, and continuing to go up. At this stage, I felt really fatigued, and found myself wondering why I thought this was a good idea. My pack felt heavy and my legs were a bit tired, but most of all I felt a bit sick. My mind had started to plateau and think in circles as well. I thought maybe I needed some sugar, so I ate what I thought was a hard caramel, but what turned out to be some kind of sweet bean that tasted a bit like chocolate. I was presently surprised. I thought about my dad and my grandfather, both whom would be proud if I completed my hike, and who wouldn’t want me to give up. That spurred me on, as I wanted them to be proud.

I passed a few other walkers, who I chatted to briefly, and before long I had reached the remains of Uwadawa Tea House. I couldn’t actually see any ‘remains,’ as such, but there was a nice green forest with a few tree stumps to sit and rest on. I didn’t know it until later, but this was the highest point of my ascent for the day (at 688 meters.)

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After reaching that point, the trail began to go downwards, much to my delight. I found a second wind, and began to enjoy the hike a lot more. I somehow had energy again, but my pack still felt really heavy. I guess I had reached the ‘hikers zone.’ Like after you’ve been running for a long time and you don’t feel pain anymore- something like that. I felt like I was covering ground more quickly too. At one point, I was dead certain that a wild animal was following me, and kept pausing to listen or spin around quickly to catch it in the act. I half expected to see a wild boar standing next to a tree looking at me, but of course there was never anything there.

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I passed a river and crossed it several times on these cute wooden bridges. The trickling water was so clear, and I wondered if it was cold. I also reached marker number 22, which I thought was cool because it is both my birthdate and my age. That called for a daggy photo. I was also excited to be up to the 20s in the marker count.

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I got to a roadside rest stop, which had an actual shop and also a few vending machines. I considered having lunch here, but decided to walk to the next ‘attraction’ on the map and stop there. That next thing was a cute statue of a guy with two horses. I ate my lunch on a bench in front of them, enjoying both the food and the peace of the forest. For lunch I had a salad (which I had added extra edamame to), two salmon nigiri, and the pressed salmon sushi I had bought in Kyoto yesterday. This was wrapped in a leaf, and preserved so that it was ok not to refrigerate. Then I ate the anko mochi that I still had left from Takamatsu.

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It took me only five minutes to reach Chikatsuyu, the next town. A lot of people who walk the Kumano Kodo stay here overnight before continuing the hike the next day. Not me though, I was just passing through. I visited the small Chikatuyu Oji, then wanted to use the ashi no yu next door, but it was closed. It was only 2pm, and it would only take about an hour to walk to where I was staying, so I had a look around the tiny town, and came across a collection of shops selling souvenirs and local food products. I bought a purple sweet potato daifuku to take with me on the trail tomorrow. Whilst I was in the shop, it had began to rain lightly. I thought I might wait it out, but it only got heavier and showed no signs of passing. I had been warned that today’s weather might not be great, and so far it had been ok, but now the forecasted rain had caught up to me. Never mind, I had a plan. Using a plastic raincoat I’d bought ages ago at a convenience store, I constructed a very clever rain cover for my backpack. The backpack kind of ‘wore’ the coat, and I used to buttons to loop the ends up and underneath the bag. The hood protected the part near my neck, and I tied the arms together above that to secure them in place. I was very proud of my creation. Armed with my new backpack accessory, and an umbrella to keep myself dry, I headed back to the Kumano Kodo road and continued towards Tsugizakura.

I had been going really well up until this point, because I got lost for the first time all day. The road split into two, and you could follow either path because they would joint up again after 200 meters or so. But I couldn’t find the joining up bit. So I walked around for ages trying to work out where I was meant to go (and I saw a real live monkey come out of the forest and into someone’s garden!) Eventually I went back to the place where the paths split, and worked out that I had actually been going the right way. So I had wasted half an hour being dumb. But never mind, I was still ahead of schedule.

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I walked up a paved road, then turned onto the Kusuyamazaka trailhead, which was the last main stretch before reaching my accommodation. This trail went up hill through forest, then continued along a road. It was kind of fun walking along in the rain, and the mountains in the distance looked so beautiful with cloud and mist rising from them in delicate tendrils. I passed some tiny shrines and a few small houses, and then I was kind of near the minshuku where I would stay. I saw the small wooden sign by accident, and walked carefully down some stone stairs to reach the minshuku. I was actually really surprised that I had made it. I’d actually covered that huge 18.2km in under 8 hours (which doesn’t sound impressive, but you have to remember that it wasn’t flat terrain!) I was so happy and a bit relieved.

When I got near the entrance of Minshuku Tsugizakura, I stopped for a moment to admire the view of the distant mountains. The minshuku is on the side of a mountain road, and so the view was amazing. The owners were obviously expecting me, because when I arrived, the woman (who I’ll call Tsugizakura Okaasan) ran out to greet me and grabbed my heavy bag from me. She showed me the kitchen, toilets, and Japanese bath, then led me to my private tatami room, where she invited me to sit and rest. I filled in a check in form, and Tsugizakura Okaasan brought me hot Japanese tea and some homemade kinako mochi which was delicious. She asked me what time I would like dinner and breakfast, and then left me to relax in the warm room. I liked that the rug under the table was heated.

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I sat and just let my tired legs recover, whilst I listened to the rain falling softly on the roof. A bit after 6, I went into the bath to soak out the tiredness from my body. When you have a Japanese bath, you need to shower first and rinse all the soap off, and then you can get into the water. I heated the bath to 46°, which was perfect to sit in and relax. I was as red as a lobster when I got out, but I was also nice and warm. I went back to my room and changed into a t-shirt and turned off the heater. At one stage, I heard the only other guest arrive at the minshuku (its only big enough for two guests.) He just stood at the entrance and yelled ‘sumimasen‘ about 10 times, getting louder and more impatient each time. I never saw him, but I knew I didn’t like him. He sounded mean and rude. In my head I refered to him as ‘the sumimasen guy.’

At 5 to 7, there was a gentle knock at my door, and Tsugizakura Okaasan asked if I was ready for dinner. I was actually quite hungry, so I was very excited to see what I would be eating. I was not disappointed. A beautiful paper placement was laid in front of me, along with some exquisite little dishes that were tiny and brightly coloured, and a little glass of homemade umeshu (plum liquor.) Tsugizakura Okaasan also placed a kamameshi cooker in front of me, and showed me the rice and mountain vegetables inside. She then closed the lid and lit a little fire underneath it, and told me not to open it for 30 minutes not even to peak.

I ate happily, and Tsugizakura Okaasan returned with a pot of ocha, and the next course. She explained that dinner was kaiseki style (lots of small, intricately detailed dishes), and would consist of 8 courses. Oh boy!

After the first dish was a clear soup and some marinated raw tuna with pea shoots, which I was instructed to eat rolled up in crispy nori strips. Then I had a tiny whole fish and a homemade tofu thing with vegetables, shrimp and hijiki inside. Then there was some chicken and vegetables,which I cooked on a mini hot plate above a flame, and.dipped into special miso dressing. That was followed by crab and cucumbers wrapped in thin omelette, and served with wakame and broth. Finally, I had a colourful collection of pickles and a tofu and mushroom soup, which I ate with the kamameshi. After all that food, you can probably guessed that I was incredibly full. But there was also a dessert course, which was orange sherbet with tsubaanko, served on top of a fresh orange slice. I absolutely loved every single dish.

Tsugizakura Otoosan (the male owner) came in to talk to me, and I thanked him so much for the delicious food (he was also the chef.) We talked for a short while, and he praised my Japanese, then he had to go and answer a customer phone call. Tsugizakura Okaasan came back and cleared away the dishes, then laid out my futon for the night. It was only 8, but I was already very sleepy. I studied my route options for tomorrow, and asked Tsugizakura Otoosan‘s opinion on which way would be the best. Then I brushed my teeth and climbed into my comfy futon, where I think I fell asleep in about three minutes flat.

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Arrival: 4 pm
Breaks: ~1 hour
Time Spent Walking: ~7 hours
Distance Travelled: ~18.5 km

Kawagoe aka “Little Edo”

I slept for 9 hours last night, but woke up tired and groggy. Yesterday was hard and draining and depressing, and I didn’t want to do it again today. It was dark and gloomy and cold in the apartment, which didn’t help my motivation, but outside was sunny. I have to open the curtain and look up and kind of left to see the sky from my room. There’s a tiny patch of open sky there, which I use to read the weather. I had to give myself a mental slap in the face. I am in Japan. I am on holiday. I should be making the most out of every second here, not building a futon nest to never emerge from. Sometimes things turn shit, but we have to keep going. If we stop it is all over. We all make choices in life, some big and some small. But we need to take responsibility for those choices, and the consequences that arise from choosing them.

Sorry for being all philosophical and emotional. I’ll stick to topics related to Japan and photography now.

I packed a salad bento and walked to Tabata again. I prefer walking to this station over Nishi-Nippori for two reasons. One, it’s closer. And two, it has the best smelling bakery I’ve ever seen (smelt?) in my life. Japanese are big on bread bakeries, the kind where you go around armed with a tray and tongs, and make selections in your own sweet time. There are, of course, small loaves of white and wholemeal breads (usually very tall, and cut into 4 or 5 slices), but most of the shelf space is filled with creative sweet and savoury breads, pastries, buns, and deep-fried breads. There are fruit breads, chocolate breads, cheese, curry, cream- anything you can think of, you can get it in bread form. I’ve seen melon bread shaped like a turtle, and black sesame and red bean bread made to look like panda faces. I think you get the idea. Anyway, this particular bakery at Tabata smells incredible ALL THE TIME. I wish I could bottle the smell and bring it home with me. I’d pay good money to have that scent in an airwick dispenser in my room. I can’t even describe it. It’s sweet and warm and light, its cute somehow. In any case, I always walk slowly past the bakery to breathe in as much of the bready air as possible.

From Tabata, I took the Yamanote line to Ikebukuro, where I had to change to an express train on the Tobu line, which would take me to Kawagoe. Since I had to exit the ticket gate at Ikebukuro, I had decided that I’d get a hot coffee there, as well as an onigiri to have with my lunch. I have this growing conspiracy that when there’s something in particular that I want, I can’t find it anywhere. But when I’m not looking for it, I see it everywhere. This theory came into play at Ikebukuro. Find a convenience store and buy an onigiri? Should be no problem in Tokyo, right? I walked around for 10 minutes before I found one, and they didn’t have the type of onigiri I initially craved. Secondly, find a chain cafe for coffee (Starbucks, Excelsior, etc.) Nope, none of those either. I eventually found a Lotteria, which us a coffee and sandwich chain, and had a latte there. It was obviously made with an instant coffee machine, because the froth wasnt smooth, and had splashed over the edges a bit. Plus it didn’t really taste like anything. But it was cheap and it warmed me up, so I didn’t care.

So I went back into the station (passing two convenience stores and a Starbucks on the way- of course) and got on a train that I hoped was headed for Kawagoe. It didn’t stop at any stations for about ten minutes, and I thought I should probably ask someone if it was headed in the right direction. Luckily, it was. It got to Kawagoe really quickly.

Now, after briefly reading about it online, I expected Kawagoe to be one of those small, remote towns. The kind where the streets are lined with tiny noodle and sembei shops, run by elderly couples who’ve been using the same recipe for decades. A place where there are lots of open spaces and ancient shrines, and hardly any people around. A place kind of like Takaosan, or Hakone.

Wrong again.

I should really know by now that nothing ever turns out how I expect it to. I exited the sizeable station, and found myself at a huge multi level bus terminal, surrounded by department stores, 7/11s, and crowds of people. I seemed to be the only foreign person around, which I kind of liked. I picked up a map of the area, then spent a little while in one of the department stores called Altrè, where I bought a ring and some super cute mini inari. I’d never seen mini inari before, and at 98 yen for 2, how could I resist? But of course, I didn’t come all the way to Kawagoe to shop.

Kawagoe is special because it still retains some of its Edo period charm. There is a whole street which houses shops with Edo-style warehouse facades, and so visitors are able to imagine what the city might have looked like ‘back in the day.’ Kawagoe is, therefore, supposedly known as ‘Little Edo.’ There is also something called Kashiya Yokochō, or ‘Candy Alley,’ which is a tiny alley lined with traditional candy stores. Some of the stores, originally from the Showa Period, still exist. As well as that, there are a handful of temples and shrines to visit.

I headed out happily towards what I thought was the main centre of town. But obviously, because its me, I was going completely the wrong way, and ended up at the freeway back to Ikebukuro. So I turned around, learned to read the map properly, and eventually came to my first stop, Kitain Temple. This was quite a large complex, and I spent a while exploring all the different areas and hidden features. It was very peaceful and very beautiful. And there were lots of different little seating areas, which would have been perfect to sit down and eat at, had it been lunch time. I really liked a tiny inari shrine, which was on a little island in the middle of a pond, and which could only be accessed by an arching red bridge. There was also a closed off section containing hundreds of little people statues. These were representative of Buddha’s disciples, and I was pretty sure you had to pay to go in, so I just took some photos through the gaps in the fence.

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Next, I made my way towards a shrine near the base of Kurazukuri no Machinami (the old warehouse district.) On the map, the grounds looked big enough to have somewhere to sit down and eat lunch. As I made my way towards it, I passed a few more shrines, as well as shops selling udon and yaki-dango. There were little spurts of sakura all over the place. More and more are appearing every day. They are going to be so beautiful when they are all in bloom. I’ve never been in Japan to see the cherry blossoms, so I’m excited to finally see them! When I got to the shrine where I planned to eat, I walked around the grounds briefly, then found a bench to sit and eat at. I’d packed a cabbage and bean salad with sesame dressing, as well as the leftovers of two pre-made salads that I’ve been munching through in batches. They were the mushroom, bean and nut one, and a hijiki and edamame one with finely shredded chicken. So good! I also had the ebi-mayo handroll that I’d bought this morning, and one of the mini (bite-sized) inari that contained chestnuts. The handroll was fun, because it’s packaged in a special way so that the nori doesn’t touch the rice until you are ready to eat it. This stops it going soggy. Genius! This was also tasty, but contained a lot of mayo, and not a lot of ebi.

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Whilst I was eating, I watched a little boy chase pigeons. He came right up to me, then noticed me and looked terrified. His mum, following close behind, encouraged him to say hello, but he looked to afraid. But a little girl sitting in a bike seat with her mum (obviously they all knew each other) yelled out ‘konnichiwaaaa.’ I watched them all for a while, as they walked around the shrine and the mums chatted. I worked up the courage to ask the kids to come over to where I was sitting, and then I gave them each a clip on koala. The little girl loved it, and the boy was scared of it. The girl knew what it was, ‘koara-san da yo!’ I talked to the little girl and her mum for a while, and they asked me about where I was from and what I was doing in Japan. I asked if they lived nearby, and they happened to live in a building just behind the shrine. So I got out my map and asked where the most interesting places in Kawagoe to visit were. After a few recommendations, I set off again, waving to the kids who were clutching their koalas with glee.

I walked up the main street of the old warehouse district, and was offered a sweet bean coated in some kind of dust to eat. Shops selling all kinds of flavoured beans (both sweet and savoury) are also really popular in the more ‘town like’ areas. On the next block, I was offered some taiyaki on a stick. Except this was shaped like a turtle, not a fish, and was filled with sakura and mochi. It was delicious, so I had to by some. They tasted like cinnamon. There was a window at the front of the store where you could watch them being made, and there were six different kinds you could buy. I bought a mixed box to give my friend’s family, as well as a sakura one to take home for myself.

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Next, I visited the historical bell tower, which is one of the famous landmarks of the town. The tower was rebuilt in 1894, after the Great Kawagoe Fire of 1893 had destroyed the previous structure. It actually still works, and chimes 4 times a day. Nearby, there were stores selling purple sweet potato ice cream, manju, and other sweet potato products. And I found ama-zake! I tried this sweet sake in Kamakura, and have been hunting for it in supermarkets ever since. The store owner questioned of I knew what it was and actually wanted to buy it, which I thought was funny.

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Next, I crossed the street and stumbles upon a temple with the most perfectly manicured garden I have seen. I tried to capture it on camera, but it just didn’t do the place justice. The plants were perfect, the raked stones were perfect, even the placement of the ornamental rocks was perfect. It was so beautiful, I spent ages just staring at it like I’d never seen a plant before. But eventually I had to leave, because there were other things to be seen. One day I would like to have a garden like that, but I would be lazy and bad at maintaining it, so it would never look as good.

I kept walking towards the end of the main street, stopping at a few shops and shrines along the way. Then I turned right and headed to Hikawa Shrine, one of the places that the mum in the park recommend. This place is known to be good for relationships and love. People go there to pray for strong love with their partner, or to make an offering in the hope of finding a girlfriend or boyfriend. I wanted to visit this shrine to pray for strength in my own relationship. Its hard being away from that person you love for such a long time. So I cleansed my hands and mouth with the water, and visited each area of the shrine. Next to the main shrine, there was a whole tunnel filled with ema (prayer plaques), which looked beautiful because it was so full. Behind that was a selection of inari shrines, about 5 in total, lined up next to each other from largest to smallest. At the main shrine, I threw money in the box, clapped, bowed and prayed. This might sound silly, but that was the most connected I’ve ever felt with religion. I’m not religious, as I think I’ve mentioned before, but I’ve been feeling very… I don’t know, something, as of late. Spiritual isn’t the right word. Connected, I guess describes it better. I can’t really explain, I just feel different. More alive and real somehow. I guess it’s a personal feeling that can’t really be expressed with words, or conveyed properly to someone other than myself.

I wanted to buy one of the lucky charms from the shrine (the word ‘charms’ makes them sound tacky, but they’re not), but I didn’t know which one to choose, as I didn’t understand the kanji that described their meanings. So I asked a mother and daughter what I should get to keep an existing relationship happy for ever. They helped me choose a charm, but for it to work, I had to buy two (one for me and one for my boyfriend.) I had them blessed by the shrine maiden selling them.

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Feeling a lot better and happier than yesterday, I left the shrine and walked along a river towards the sports arena. The river looked really good on the pictorial map (hand drawn, not photographic), lined with beautiful cherry blossoms. In reality, there were trees, but they were bare, so it wasn’t as beautiful as I had expected. Again, expectations vs reality. Near the sports place, there was another small shrine, next to a park and a playground. I walked through, passing under some pink and white cherry blossoms, and past a group of labourers who were having a break, sitting on the kiddy animals in the playground. Next to that was Honmaru Goten, the only surviving building of what used to be Kawagoe Castle. The castle was originally built in 1457, but is all houses now. A little further down the road were some castle ruins, which were supposed to be old torrents. It was basically a patch of dirt and a rock at the top of some stairs.

Next, I walked back towards the warehouse district, stopping occasionally so watch the local school kids play, or to look in a shop window. I headed to the famed ‘Candy Alley,’ which I mentioned earlier, but it wasn’t all that exciting. There seemed to be more cake being sold than candy, but the tiny street was charming all the same. After that, I walked back towards the station, taking the back streets, just incase I came across anything interesting.

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Just before the station, I had to wait at a railroad crossing whilst a train passed, and I saw a lady get whacked in the face by a pole and knocked off her bike. See, at the crossings, there are boom gates that come down to stop people and cars crossing if a train comes. You’re meant to stop when the bells start going, but some people decide to sprint under before they close completely. This lady was riding a bike, and almost made it under before the gate came down. But it hit her square in the face, and she pretty much did a backflip off the bike, landing on her back on the ground. So not only did she get hit right on the nose, but she landed badly on her back. She wasn’t young, either. I helped her up and another lady helped pull her bike up from the ground. We asked her if she was ok, and she said yes, but kept touching her nose, perhaps to check for blood. The fall looked really painful, and I felt sorry for her.

Near the station, I looked in a couple of department stores, and refrained myself from buying 3 pairs of shoes and another pair or pants. As well as countless things such as bags and vertical house-shaped tissue dispensers. Then I got the train back to Ikebukuro (and had to wait ten minutes for a train to arrive. That’s the longest wait in history in Tokyo!) I bought a few food supplies before heading back to the apartment, where I cooked up a quick dinner because it was already past 8, and I was really hungry. I had leftover tsukune-don, with some veggies that I cooked, and some other leftover veggies, and a miso eggplant from the department store. Then I ate the sakura turtle that I bought earlier. I was going to save it for tomorrow but didn’t have the willpower to do that.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Tomorrow is going to be good weather again, so I’m going to re-visit Takao san and do some hiking. I’m so tired right now, it really takes ages to go through all the images from the day. Luckily I know it doesn’t take long to reach the mountain, so I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn.

Due to yesterday’s lack of imagery, here are some more things I saw today that I found funny, interesting, or just plain amusing. Enjoy.

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Tessa

My sister is worried I’ve forgotten about her because I am yet to mention her in my blog. So I’ve dedicated this whole post to her. Hello sister.

For dinner I had all the things that Tessa doesn’t like. Japanese salad, Japanese bean and hijiki salad, Japanese simmered vegetables, and Japanese yakitori (I went to a different yakitori vendor on the way home. Their negitori wasn’t as nice as last night’s (onions and chicken) but the tsukune (chicken balls- the meatball kind, not the male anatomy kind) was delicious!

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For dessert I had daifuku with an icecream centre. Holy cow! They were crazy good! Luckily I’ve already showered and am warm and cozy, otherwise I would go back to the store and buy out their entire backstock of these babies. It’s pretty much a ball of icecream wrapped in a thin mochi skin (pounded sticky rice.)

I’m so glad I’ve seen these in Australia before.

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