Tokyo 2016 | Day 1: Of hot cocoa, fir cones and our first onsen experience

We are back from our long-awaited, much-anticipated holiday in Tokyo, with some two thousand photos in our possession and eleven days of priceless memories to treasure. We came home to the sobering news of the two earthquakes that hit southern Japan, and together with many others, continue to uphold this nation in prayer.

Quite a few people have expressed interest in our itinerary, especially after seeing our updates on Facebook, so this is the first post in a long series that will chronicle our daily activities in Japan, including helpful links and tips for you to use in your planning. Enjoy! 🙂

DAY 1

We took a midnight ANA flight to Narita Airport, which turned out to be a good choice for us, because the boys knocked out quite soon after we boarded and managed to sleep a good five plus hours before we landed. Downside was that no one got to enjoy the inflight entertainment.

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Our plane actually landed a little early in Narita, so we took our time to slowly disembark and figure our way to the car rental booth (on the first floor, if you’re arriving at Terminal 1). Before the longish drive to the Five Lakes area, our pitstop for this first third of our trip, we fuelled up on some much-needed coffee for us and bagels for the boys.

We collected our Toyota car just outside of the airport. In case you are wondering about car rental costs, a 3D2N rental fee for a 5-seater like ours would cost you about 400 SGD. However, the big killer is the many toll gates you will encounter along your way, and we estimated that the total tolls we ended up paying for those 3 days came up to around 180 SGD (!!!). Also, your designated driver (in our family, that would be the hubs, haha) would need to apply for the international driving permit online before the trip.

That said, renting a car is a HUGE convenience if you are planning a trip to the lakes, because public transport there is limited. We had rightly anticipated that the boys would be tired after the flight and need to take extended naps. Another alternative you can consider is to get to the lakes by train and then rent a car at the lakes for your stay there.

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David spent the first half hour happily drawing in his new sketch book which I gave him for the trip. But he soon succumbed to exhaustion and joined his little brother in la-la-land. I took a short snooze myself! Only poor hubby had to stay awake and keep his eyes on the road and the GPS.

There are many stops along the expressway where you can take a toilet break or just stretch your legs. Not all the stops have refreshment options, though, but our GPS had a little icon which told us which stops had food and drinks to offer. We didn’t want to waste too much time on the road, so we only made one stop during our drive up.

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David was mesmerised by the row of vending machines, and very happy when we let him buy a cuppa hot cocoa, just so that we could watch the clever machine make it from scratch through a hidden camera in the machine. Look how happy he was with his cocoa!! He loved it SO MUCH that he was looking for a similar machine all the rest of our trip. Sadly, that was the one and only one we saw.

Finally after about three hours of driving (and a couple of wrong turns), we made it to our destination. Our home for the first three days of our holiday – Fuji Lake Hotel, right on the shores of Lake Kawaguchiko. We stepped out of the car into crisp, cold air.

The view took our breath away.

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We had decided to splurge on our accommodation for this first part of our trip. Partly because, cheaper hotels were very few and far on the ground by the time we made the reservation in early Jan. Yes, apparently the lakes are such a popular destination that rooms can be booked many months in advance! But the main reason was that we wanted a hotel that offered a private bath, and there were only about three to choose from.

Most hotels in the lakes area, and especially if they are traditional/ryokan in style, only offer guests the option of public baths. Call me a prude, but I still prefer to take my bath in the privacy of my own room. 🙂

Our incredible room came with its own open-air onsen tub for us to wallow in at any hour of the day. The hot water came fresh from the mountain springs and was constantly running, 24/7. If you ask me, it was definitely worth the hefty price tag, because we certainly got our money’s worth! We’re talking about daily soaks in the tubs, at least twice per person, and the hot water never turning cold. And a beautiful view of the mountains and Kawaguchiko lake while you’re relaxing in your bath…

But before our relaxing baths, we decided to make the most of the setting afternoon sun to check out the area around our hotel. Hubby caught his much-needed forty winks while I brought the boys out to explore.

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It was so refreshing to be out in the pure air with nature all around, and the boys collected a whole bagful of fir cones, twigs, dry leaves and pebbles to bring home.

Time flew by, and the fog was quickly coming in. Mount Fuji, which was on the other side of our hotel, was already completely obscured by the fog, so I hustled the boys indoors for their very first onsen experience.

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From “Mummy! It’s too hot! I can’t do it!”, it became “I don’t want to come out. Can I stay here forever? Please?” 

When it was my turn, I took some time to slowly get used to the hot water, but once inside, it felt SO wonderful to just lean back in the tub. Especially with the cool air wafting in from the window. If I had to describe the experience, it was like being enveloped in a cloak of warm comfort and peace…

I think I could have stayed in there at least an hour, but it was fast-approaching dinner time. We had planned to drive to nearby Chureito Pagoda to catch the sunset, but the fog looked like it might spoil our plans. After talking to the hotel staff in my disjointed mix of minimal Japanese and simple English, we gathered that it would be a pointless trip. Apparently, the fog in this area can be very unpredictable. Some days, there is no fog at all and clear blue skies all day, but most days, there is at least a little fog, especially in the evening.

But hubby was game to try anyway, so we trundled along slowly with the headlights full-on, and made it to our destination.

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So. Well. We made it this far. At least, we saw our first cherry blossom tree! Had to snap some foggy pictures to remind ourselves that hey, we tried. After that, we drove slowly along the streets looking for an interesting eatery. To be specific: Something udon, something traditional and authentic. We passed by several fast food joints and posh restaurants, before we found this gem.

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We loved the black soup, which is his specialty, and Daryl was psyched to have a plateful of veggies to devour with his noodles (David wasn’t too happy about that though). It’s a rather small restaurant, with just four tables inside, but cosy and warm and homey. Mismatched cutlery, gingham table cloths, cushions on the floor. Perfect.

The owner couldn’t speak any English and had no English menu, so it was a little difficult deciding what to eat. I tried to read as much katakana as I could! But we were very happy with our feast, which was served up fresh and piping hot in just under 10 minutes! Incredible when we realised that this is a one-man show, from our limited conversation with him later on. Yes, he cleans the place, cooks the food, washes the dishes, takes orders and rings up the bill. All day, every day. How inspiring and precious.

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That feast above, and two cups of coffee not pictured, cost us just 1100 yen = about 14 SGD. But what we love most about the food in Japan is that so many of these meals – if not all – are made with such love and care. It’s something that distinguishes cooks in Japan, this diligent care in food preparation, (from the use of aprons in the kitchen to the use of separate utensils for various purposes) and attention to detail (from the steps taken to prepare each dish to the way the dish is presented). Watching them cook is already joy in itself!

And this is not just something you see in the high-end restaurants, but in any random eatery you hop into off the street, as well as in any Japanese home. Cooking is not a harried, stressful chore to be accomplished. It is a vital part of every day life, an activity to be enjoyed and done well. Coming home, I am so inspired to bring more than just my two hands to the kitchen for meal preparations. Japanese cooking teaches me that the kitchen is as much a home for the heart as for the hands.

Ending off this post with a little misconception I’d like to correct.

Many people seem to have the impression that food in Japan is expensive. But we say, it’s really not. It’s all about where you choose to go and what you choose to eat. To be honest, I’d say that you can get good food ANYWHERE in Japan – you can walk into any cafe off the street and I can bet you’ll be happy with your meal. Of course, there is good food and there is Michelin Star-quality awesome food to be found, but if you’re like us, “good food” is quite enough for you. 🙂

In the city area, there are many eateries that use a vending machine kind of system, where you choose your meal, pay for it, get a meal ticket, and then give your ticket to the cook to claim your freshly-prepared meal. In such places, you can easily get a full meal for around 500 yen (or even cheaper), which works out to 6 SGD. Maybe not as cheap as our local hawker centres, but I wouldn’t call it “expensive”.

If you prefer to dine in the slightly-more-atas-but-still-affordable restaurants in the shopping malls, a meal for a family of four would probably set you back about 3000-5000 yen, which is about 38-65 SGD. Most of our family’s lunch and dinner meals on this trip cost us around 1500-2000 yen (18 – 25 SGD), and we didn’t eat in any shopping malls during our time there. Then again, we are none of us serious foodies, and much prefer to spend our moolah on visiting as many places as we could, almost-daily ice cream cones and the occasional shopping!

Stay tuned for more of our day-to-day adventures, travel tips and photos!

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