June 2, 2009

Birthday Weekend in Hikone

I just got back from a weekend trip to Hikone. I turned 27 on Friday and thought it would be nice to go on a short trip with Alana. It had been a while since we last saw each other and this may have been our last opportunity to travel together in Japan before we leave.

Hikone is a small castle town located on Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan. I took a bus up to Osaka on Friday and we took the train up in the morning. It's fairly close to Osaka. We arrived and decided to stay at a ryokan rather than a hotel. Alana helped make that happen. I tend to be too frugal for my own good. Ryokan are more expensive than hotels but are more traditional. After we made our reservation, we went to the port and took a ferry out to Chikubu Island. It's the largest island on the lake (I think) and has a shrine and a temple. The latter is part of a pilgrimage of temples in the area. I think we were the only foreigners there. Lots of Japanese tourists and pilgrims. It was short but nice. The weather was nice for a boat cruise. Overcast and cool. The mountains around the lake were shrowded in mist and rain. It was nice.

By the time we made it back to shore, the skies had cleared up. We went to take in the castle. Lots of walking and pictures and souvenirs later, we decided to skip the castle gardens since it was starting to drizzle. Instead we went to the New Old Town. It's a section of the town that has been renovated to resemble a street of traditional merchant houses. All for tourists of course. And that's what we were. So we spent a while getting more souvenirs. Then we called and our ryokan sent a London cab to pick us up.

Then the night of luxury began. Our room was very spacious. With a large tatami room and an adjoining sitting room. Toilet and shower rooms as well. We scheduled dinner and went for a walk. When we came back, we went to our room where we were served dinner. It came in several courses and was delicious. Of course, it included many of the specialty foods of the area and was beautifully presented as are most Japanese meals.

After dinner, we went down to the onsen while they cleared dinner and set out our futons. The onsen is separate for men and women. About 12 people can fit in each section. But we each had our bath to ourselves. It was so nice. I did several cycles of sitting in the hot bath and then cooling off with a cold shower and then sitting in the jacuzzi section.

After our baths, we relaxed with some sake, music, and a little shodo. (Shodo is Japanese calligraphy.) Well, we had shodo sets. Someone just gave me one as a present and Alana bought one at the castle. They include a mini-stone suzuri and a block of ink. You add a little water to the suzuri and then rub the ink block in it to create black ink. There is also a mini-brush. I think the travel sets are usually used for writing messages and wishes on various papers and boards when traveling as a pilgrim. But we used them to draw pictures. It's fun because you can control the depth of color by adding more or less water.

In the morning, I had another bath in the onsen before they served breakfast, again in our room. It was lovely. Very fresh and tasty. Even the fish with heads and the miso soup with shellfish. Yes, that's breakfast in Japan. ;)

We were taken by the ryokan's cab to the train station where we deposited our bags so we could go see the garden which we had missed the day before. We almost didn't go, but we were both glad when we did. It was so calm and beautiful. We took many, many pictures. We stayed for tea and a sweet in the tea house above the pond. It was delicious. It also gave us an opportunity to write out postcards to each other. See, a teacher gave me a bunch of cool stamps before he left for another school in April. And then I always want to buy post cards when I'm on a trip, but not necessarily to send to other people. So I had the idea that we should send each other the post cards we want. That way we can keep our own post cards and the stamps actually get used and can also be seen later as mementos. And best of all, you get a fun message from your friend. So we spent a good while doing that.

Then we made a stop for a couple more souvenirs before heading down the lake to Otsu. It's the gateway city to the lake from the direction of Kyoto which is only 10 minutes away. Shiga prefecture has a sister state relationship with Michigan. So in addition to some university exchanges and other connections, Michigan gave Shiga a riverboat. Sure, it's on a lake, but still it was so touristy and fun. Guess what! It's called "The Michigan"! We of course had to ride it. It was a nice hour cruise around the lake. This time different, but still, perfect weather for a cruise: sunny and breezy. We enjoyed some sake on the top level of the boat as we went around a bit of the lake. After our ride, we of course bought some Hello Kitty "The Michigan" souvenirs and a picture they took of us as we were boarding the boat.

Next was PURIKURA. Have I mentioned purikura before? It's short for purinto kurabu, which as I'm sure you can tell is the Japanesified version of print club which means those machines where you can go in with friends and take several pictures of yourselves together. The Japanese machines are AMAZING!! After you take the pictures, you can use pens and special software to add pictures, stamps, and messages. They are great.

Then we walked down the lakeshore in the green space. We found the restaurant that the train station information woman told us about. We mentioned vegetarian and she said we might try this place. We thought that meant they would have a couple veggie dishes (which often include fish in Japan; on the whole, they don't really get the idea of not eating any animals). To our surprise, the whole menu was vegetarian. So she could order anything she wanted to. Unfortunately, we ordered foods that apparently took 2 hours to cook. So it ate up a lot of our evening time. But it actually worked out for the most part. We did have to rush a bit, but by the time we left the restaurant it was sundown and one reason we wanted to come to Otsu was to see the fountain at nighttime as was suggested. So we were able to do that on the way back to the station. It was quick but worked out.

At the station, we had to say a really quick goodbye since I misunderstood the ticket agents and they got me tickets for the VERY next train which was literally two minutes from when they handed them to me. That meant I had to run to Alana who was just opening our locker, grab my stuff, hug her goodbye, and then run for the train. But I did get to ride on a Shinkansen for the first time. I didn't get a reserved seat but was lucky enough to get one in the unreserved car. It was amazing to get home after only 2.5 hours of travel rather than the standard 4.5 whenever I go visit Alana in Osaka and I was even further away than that.

Now, I'm back to work and real life, which means school and figuring out the details of my plans for the 2 months between now and getting back to America. 2 months!!!