Anniversary in Japan

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Jeremy and I never had a honeymoon as such. When we got married in 2000, I was still putzing around as a student and he was just embarking on a career as a freelance web guy, so we really didn’t have the means to jet off on vacation. We were also preparing to move from Germany to England, so our resources (both monetary and mental) were tied up in the logistics of international relocation.

We took what I’ve always considered to be our first “real” holiday in 2003, when we went to Bologna for the first time. In retrospect, I’ve come to view that trip as a kind of delayed honeymoon, and Bologna has always held a special place in my heart because of it (and also, obviously, because it’s an amazing city with some of the best food on earth). In 2009, we flew back to Bologna to celebrate our ninth wedding anniversary—an uncharacteristically spontaneous action on our part, and one of the few times we’ve gone away just for the sake of it and not for a web conference.

Thanks to web conferences, Jeremy and I have been able to travel around the world in a way that I could never, ever have imagined us doing when we were still newlyweds. In doing so, we manage to rack up a lot of air miles, but we never seem to be able to use them when we need to—e.g., when Jeremy’s conference travel is paid for but I need to buy a plane ticket to accompany him. So last year, in another surprisingly spontaneous maneuver, Jeremy decided that we should see where our air miles could takes us and when, and then buy tickets and go—just for the sake of it.

So, on January 10th of this year—two days after our 15th(!) wedding anniversary—we found ourselves flying first class(!!) to Japan(!!!) for a week of food, drink and sightseeing. We fell in love with Japan on our first trip there back in 2008 (for a conference), so I was jittery with anticipation as our departure date drew closer this time around—and when I glimpsed the snowy Mt. Fuji on our approach to Narita airport, I thought I would jump out of my airplane seat in excitement. I couldn’t believe we were back.

We started our trip in Tokyo, with two nights at the charismatic Hotel Okura: built in 1962, name-checked by Ian Fleming and Haruki Murakami, filled with be-hatted bellhops running to and fro—and due to be torn down this autumn and replaced with a bland high-rise. We got in just under the wire. And even if, in my ultra-jet-lagged state, I kind of wished the helpful be-hatted bellhop who led us to our room and insisted on demonstrating every. single. feature. of the lighting, heating, and automated curtain system would just leave us to our exhaustion, I appreciated the level of service and the old-school vibe (and, afterwards, the very, very comfortable bed).

Hotel Okura

We didn’t even have to leave the hotel for dinner that first night; Okura has multiple restaurants and bars, including a branch of Kyubei, a very respected sushi place. We dined on twitchingly fresh fish in refined surroundings, then donned our coats for a chilly postprandial stroll through the neighborhood—and, of course, found ourselves in a smoky yakitori joint near the train station, drinking cold draft beer and eating things on sticks. It was a great way to ease ourselves into Japan for a week.

We kicked off the next day with some outstanding coffee and then, perhaps somewhat rashly, decided to have our first bowl of ramen as a sort of mid-morning snack. We nipped into to a place around the corner, worked out how to use the ticket vending machine to order the smallest bowl of ramen possible, perched ourselves at the counter, and awaited our steaming bowls of noodles.

What we didn’t know is that we had stumbled into a branch of Ramen Jiro, a local chain that is very much its own thing in the world of ramen (just Google “Ramen Jiro” and you’ll see what I mean). The handmade noodles were thick and springy, the addictively salty broth was cloudy with pork fat, the bean sprouts and cabbage were piled high, the raw garlic topping was unexpectedly delicious, and I plowed into my bowl with gusto, slurping and splashing along with everyone else at the counter—until I got barely a third of the way through, when I thought, “I have to stop eating this now, and I don’t think I will ever need to eat again.”

Ramen Jiro

I wasn’t really hungry again for about three days.

After our trial by ramen, we rendezvoused with a friend and Tokyo resident Craig, who had kindly agreed to show us around. The weather was glorious, and we had a delightful day strolling the streets of Tokyo, popping into bookshops and cafés, sneaking onto the top floor of the Ritz Carlton for amazing views of the city, enjoying a relaxed dinner with outstanding soba noodles (turns out I was able to eat more noodles that day after all), and ending up in the cozy and quirky Bar Martha, where I had an excellent Japanese whisky and we made sure not to laugh too loudly lest they kick us out (I’m not even kidding).

The next morning, before leaving for Kyoto, we treated ourselves to (read: I forced Jeremy into having) the apparently famous French toast in the gilded Orchid Room of the Hotel Okura. It was an eggy butter-bomb and I loved every eye-wateringly expensive bite of it. I was sad to say goodbye to the old Okura, but excited to be returning to Kyoto, which had stuck in my mind from our last trip as one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been. We got to the train station in Tokyo, reserved our Fuji-side seats, bought our bento boxes, and settled in for the two-and-a-half hour trip to Kyoto.

Fuji-san

And this is when things started to go slightly wrong. Whether it was the noodles from the day before, the rich and eggy French toast from that morning, or the rocking and rolling of the speeding bullet train—for whatever reason, neither one of us was particularly hungry, but we forced ourselves to eat our fishy bento lunches anyway. We didn’t felt great after that, but we made it to our hotel in Kyoto and enjoyed the coffee and little homemade cookies that were served to us when we checked in.

Thinking that we were just getting hit by jet lag, we decided it might be a good idea to lie down for a while before going out to forage for dinner. Several hours later, feeling even worse than before, we dragged ourselves into town, went to a Starbucks for some peppermint tea, and went straight back to the hotel for a long night of tossing and turning, freezing and sweating, sleeping and waking. It was miserable.

I still have no idea what was wrong with us (and whatever it was, Jeremy had it much, much worse than me—I was seriously concerned for him). We didn’t have any of the gastric symptoms of food poisoning, so maybe it was just some 24-hour bug on top of a weird diet and time-shift exhaustion. Whatever it was, I was feeling well enough the next morning to crawl down to breakfast for some tea and yoghurt and eventually walk to a nearby shrine, leaving Jeremy to sleep for a few hours more at the hotel.

Shoren-in rock garden

And at this point, I have to give a huge shout-out to the wonderful, wonderful Hotel Mume. The tiny hotel is beautiful in itself, tucked down a quiet lane lined with antique shops and backing onto a small river. There are only seven rooms, so it’s more like a boutique B&B than your average hotel. The fresh breakfast every morning is delicious and tranquil, and there’s a happy hour every evening (though we never got to partake of it).

But it’s the staff, more than anything, who make this place remarkable. From the moment I made the reservation online, the manager offered to help make travel arrangements for us, or book tables at restaurants, or recommend things to do and see in and around Kyoto. And when we were actually in the hotel and Jeremy fell ill, the staff couldn’t have been more helpful: they brought tea and breakfast up to him, offered to take him to the doctor, continually asked after him, and generally just expressed so much genuine kindness and concern that I was moved to tears (I was moved to tears again when we left and the entire staff stood in the street and waved at us until our taxi was out of sight). As Jeremy said, if he was going to be sick anywhere, at least it was there, where he was in good hands. I’d never sent a thank-you note to a hotel before, but I’ve sent one to the Hotel Mume. It’s a truly special place.

Hotel Mume

Through the passage of time and the ministrations of the hotel staff, Jeremy had mostly recovered by the afternoon, so we were able to go into town and even snack on some Kyoto pickles and peppery chicken wings at Nishiki Market. That was all we managed to do, though; still feeling run down, we hibernated in the hotel that evening. We didn’t have dinner again, partially because we weren’t hungry and partially because I was so exhausted by about 6 o’clock that I couldn’t move from the bed. We tried to watch some TV, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I was drowsing at about 9 when it felt like a truck went by outside, shaking the walls…and the bed…and the entire hotel…and then I was up like a shot.

“What the &%$ was that? Was that an earthquake?!”

That was an earthquake—a very brief and mild one, but enough to shake off any vestige of sleepiness. When I went downstairs a short time later to get some tea brought up to the room, I remarked on the fact that the earth’s tectonic plates had just shifted, and the hotel manager said, “Oh, yeah, that happens all the time.” Indeed. It wasn’t my first earthquake—that honor goes to the quake I felt as a kid in Germany, when I had the remarkably clear and terrifying vision that a UFO had burst out of the ground nearby (I don’t even know…)—but it was quite exciting nonetheless. Maybe too exciting for my taste.

Our original plan had been to spend one day sightseeing in Kyoto and then take a day trip to Koyasan, which I really, really, really wanted to see (especially in the snow). But between the illness and bad weather and everyone telling us that a day trip to Koyasan was going to be reeeallly loooong and grueling, we decided it made more sense to stay in Kyoto and see all the things we hadn’t managed to see because we’d felt too sick and tired.

This turned out to be a very good decision: Despite the cold, rainy weather, Jeremy and I had a great day visiting temples and attempting to eat ramen again and spending more time in the food market and, finally, going to Aritsugu, where I bought a lovely carbon steel santoku knife and had my name engraved on it. That evening, we strolled the magical streets of Gion and even managed to eat some dinner (for the first time in days) at a cozy izakaya recommended by the hotel. We were finally back on track.

Kinkaku-ji

We returned to Tokyo the next day, but not before spending several hours exploring the Southern Higashiyama area of Kyoto, with its winding streets, old houses, enormous temples, and really good coffee. On the bullet train back to Tokyo, I wisely forewent the bento box in favor of potato chips, cold green tea and more amazing views of Mt. Fuji. Back in Tokyo, we checked into our room at the Cerulean Tower in Shibuya (where we had also stayed on our first trip in 2008) and headed straight out to a Belgian beer bar to meet up with our friend Oli and several other local web geeks for an evening of frites, Japanese craft beers and geek talk.

The following day was our last day in Japan, and we spent it by just strolling around Shibuya, Harajuku and Omotesando, drinking in the atmosphere (along with a lot of caffeine). After not having eaten properly for days, I was starving and craving sugar, so we started the morning in the tiny, Hawaiian-themed Sunday Coffee Stand, where I devoured a cinnamon sugar donut and knocked back a coconut latte in about 10 seconds flat. It was bliss. Thus fortified, I dragged Jeremy into the overwhelming and awe-inspiring Tokyu Hands to goggle at the kitchen supplies and look for mameshibas (of which I found NONE—very disappointing). We moved on to a café where they make their own mozzarella cheese, we had more coffee, we looked for doggies in Yoyogi Park, we ate the lightest, crispiest pork katsu I’ve ever had, we drank even MORE coffee, and finally we wended our way back to the hotel, where we were treated to a glorious sunset with Mt. Fuji in the distance.

Mt. Fuji again

The Cerulean Tower has a bar on the top floor, so before going to dinner we dashed up there for a quick drink—and somehow managed to snag the best seat in the house, a table for two overlooking Shibuya crossing 40 floors below. One of my favorite things in the world is to sit in a sky-high cocktail bar, drink in hand, looking out at a glittering cityscape (what can I say? I’m a woman of decadent tastes). And when the drink is a very well-made Manhattan, and the city is Tokyo—well, let’s just say it was a really good moment.

Manhattan over Tokyo

Appetites whetted, we walked through the chilly night to a grill-your-own-meat restaurant that had been recommended to us by friends. It was fun, cozy, friendly place, and we ordered plate after plate of marbled, succulent Wagyu beef to cook on our own little charcoal grill (the waiter must have thought we hadn’t eaten in days, and he wasn’t far off). We washed it all down with a frosty beer and then wandered back through the bustling neighborhood, peering in at folks lining the counters of tiny oyster bars and yakitori stands, eating and drinking, enjoying their Saturday night just as we were enjoying ours. It was the perfect way to end the last evening of our trip.

We got up early the next morning and watched the sun come up over the city as we packed our bags. I felt a twinge of melancholy on our taxi ride through the still-quiet streets to the airport, but I also knew that we had made the most of the vacation, even hounded by jet lag and illness. On the morning of our last full day in Kyoto, when we were still feeling ropy and I had given up on going to Koyasan, I had a moment of distress lying in bed, thinking about all the things we weren’t doing because we didn’t feel well, all the foods we weren’t getting to try, all the places we weren’t getting to see. I felt the panic rising in me as I tried to mentally map out how we could squeeze the absolute most out of the next fews days to make up for it, to have something to show for ourselves after a week in Japan.

Misty

But the calmer, more grown-up side of me quickly intervened. I remembered who this trip was for: it was for us and us alone, and it was about what we wanted (and were able) to do, not about what pictures we took, what sights we ticked off a list, or what stories we had to tell others. All that mattered were the stories we would have to tell ourselves afterwards—and I didn’t want those stories to be “Remember how stressed out you were about not getting to see everything in Kyoto?”, I wanted them to be “Remember what a nice day we had in Kyoto, even though we didn’t feel so good?” I realized it was silly to have regrets about things we couldn’t do considering all the things we could do, or even just considering where we were and how we had gotten there. I lay there and thought to myself: “We’re in Japan” —and that alone was enough. Just being there, with Jeremy, was all I could ever ask for.

Me and Jeremy

It was a wonderful anniversary trip.

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