Here’s the last part of our Japan trilogy: 2 nights in Obuse in the mountains – they call them the Japanese Alps! – and 5 nights in Tokyo to finish it all.
Obuse is a small town 1hour away from Nagano (where the Olympics took place several years ago), 4 hours away from Tokyo by train. It’s easy to reach yet it feels so far away. It is real rural Japan, with some of the best chestnut delights in the country, old sake breweries, apple orchards and snowy peaks all around. Our base was this beautiful small hotel owned by a famous family in Obuse who made its fortune in sake brewing. The contrast of our hotel’s modern design and architecture with the traditional town of Obuse was typical of Japan’s many harmonious contradictions.
Obuse’s fame starts with being the home to Katsushika Hokusai, one of the greatest Japanese artists (you surely know his most famous work, the wave, which has been my default Mac screen saver for years!!). Unfortunately, Hokusai’s museum was closed when we visited, so we took some walks around, at the pace of this tranquil town (everyone noticed us of course, the only foreign tourists in town, and with 3 children running around no less!).
We shopped at the local deli, communicating as best as we could with the lovely owner from whom we bought honey, ginger-sesame dressing and other (very heavy) food jars. If you are nearby Obuse but not sleeping there, try at least to have a meal in The Club restaurant of the Masuichi hotel; it’s delicious with a perfect attention to detail.
We took a day-trip to the hot-spring town of Yudanaka (only 1 hour away by train from Obuse) to see the snow monkeys. This was going to be our children-centric day but judging by the number of monkey photos that Ceki took, I suspect that he had as much fun as the children!
The hike to get to the spring is very pretty, up through the forests but don’t forget to bring a baby carrier as a stroller won’t do you good there.
And at the end of that day, we went back to Obuse (a much more charming base than Yudanaka) where the children sipped apple juices from the local orchards, while we tasted sakes at a local brewery. As it should be.
And off we went to Tokyo, knowing this was the last stop of our Japanese tour, ready to take it all in after 2 weeks of traveling around…
I could go on and on with everything that we did, saw, tried and tested in Tokyo but I’ll only talk about what we loved the most:
3 places to eat:
– Bentenyama Miyakozushi: this small restaurant near Tokyo’s famous Sensoji temple, in the neighbourhood of Asakusa, serves unusual sushis, all made in the tradition of the old-Edo period i.e. they’re mostly cooked and must be pressed in the palm of one hand (no sea urchins or salmon roe for example). We arrived without a reservation and had to insist to be seated (please! hungry children!). We were squeezed in a small table at the back of the room and felt awkward, at first, among the Japanese loyal customers. Funny enough, as the children became louder, the waitress and the chef gave us more smiles and attention. Was it to have us leave as soon as possible? I prefer to think that they were intrigued and loved having us there, and he prepared some of his best sushi ever just for us.
Ps: Amalya would not take off her kimono in Tokyo
– Kagura in Akasaka: one night we left the children with a babysitter and had a tastebud & visual feast at this michelin starred restaurant. It came recommended by the lovely Abi from AbilovesJapan (thank you Abi for helping us find an English speaking babysitter last minute and at a 10th of the price of the hotel’s!). I cannot describe that meal (yummy! minimalist at its best! unusual! elegantly relaxed! out of this world!). It was just perfection.
– Kakigori shaved-iced desserts at Himitsudo in Yanaka: This was such a treat and a discovery (another gem of an address shared by a special friend *_*). We felt like locals, queuing with them at snack time to indulge in the lightest and fluffiest shaved-ice desserts with all the toppings possible. Mine was strawberry topping, the best.
1 place to have a drink:
if you have a babysitter for only one night in Tokyo, I’d say..look for Bar La Jetee (ask your hotel to print a map..even our taxi could not locate it). It’s a tiny tiny bar up a steep staircase in the legendary nightlife district of Golgen Gai. It’s run by a charismatic lady named Kawai Tomoyo who is probably friend by now with every movie director on earth from Tarantino to Godard to Coppola. The kind of place you do not find anywhere else in the world.
1 place to sleep:
We rented our place in London while we were travelling in Japan (merci Kid & Coe!) so we allowed ourselves to indulge at the famous Park Hyatt Hotel. We loved every second of it (the breakfast! the service! the swimming pool!..except perhaps the top floor restaurant, a bit too touristy..). Yes, it’s the hotel from the movie Lost in Translation and it has the most incredible views over the city.
Ps: I did not find any appealing airbnb in Tokyo (maybe due to the busy season we were in?), but here are some reasonably priced (Tokyo-speaking) & well located alternatives that came well recommended: Cerulean Tower, Flex Stay Inn, Excel Tokyu.
2 places to shop:
– It’s out of the way but I bought some beautiful little homewares at Slow Craft & Brocante, in the gentle neighbourhood of Yanaka (where we had the ice-creams above). I enjoyed walking around in the area, filled with old wooden houses and mothers riding their bicycles home with the children. It’s a bit out of the way from central tokyo but it’s also what made it special.
Ps: this was my little Lior squeezed like a sardine in the rush hour of Tokyo’s subway..but at least he was not standing on his feet like all of us!
– Cabane de Zucca: I used to drool over the shop in Paris when I was a student, but it’s closed now and you can only find the brand in Japan. Simple lines, beautiful fabrics, timeless designs: the way Japanese designers do it so well. The Aoyama flagship store is in the heart of trendy Tokyo, and near Omotesando which is a famous area for fashion.
1 place to visit:
– The Studio Ghibli museum: Whether your children are fan of Hayao Miyazaki or not, this is a fantastic place to visit and learn about the art of making animated movies (and a less commercial alternative to Universal Studios in LA if you ask me!). And if you don’t know his movies, these are some of our favorites: Totoro, Ponyo, Nausicaa, Kiki’s delivery Service, Princess Mononoke…
Some afterthoughts on what amazed me in Japan:
– The sense of respect and politeness that prevails.
– How organised and clean everything is. For the neat-freak + the control-freak mom, this is paradise!
– It is a completely misconceived idea to think that it is tricky to travel around Japan as a foreigner. Everything is perfectly well indicated, and translated in English. As a matter of fact, I have never traveled to a country where indications are so well explained. There are elevators everywhere in the train stations, clean toilets all around. It’s very easy.
– It is very easy to order food in restaurants as the menus usually come with photos. So you just point out the photo that makes you drool the most, and you eat it. And if it’s not what you ordered you’ll get to try something new every day!
– Food is quite easy on the children, soba noodles, rice balls, a piece of grilled fish and white rice. Milk & yoghurts are available in any convenience store and there are plenty everywhere so I would usually buy a bottle of milk, a few yoghurts and fresh fruits before we would arrive in a hotel.
– Everything and absolutely everything is written in braille, as it should be.
green tea Kit Kat anyone?
It seems like every year Amalya gets to spend her birthday in a different part of the world, as we love to travel faraway during the long Easter holidays.