Spring Road Trip: Fukushima

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My second weekend of “Kenji-absence” was spent mostly cleaning and resting, but the third weekend I decided I wanted to get out of the house, and planned a small road trip with two friends, Amy and Sarah, to Fukushima and Yamagata prefectures up north in the Tohoku region.

Fukushima has the unfortunate privilege to be famous in the western media due to the nuclear plant meltdown that happened after the earthquake and tsunami three years ago, but beyond a very small area, the prefecture actually is a really great place! As long as you stay out of the radiation zone that is. Since we weren’t going anywhere near there, we weren’t worried at all.

Our first destination in Fukushima was the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu, a city full of samurai history, with a great castle, some museums, and an old area of town with samurai residences. We started off pretty early in the morning driving up there, about a 3 hour drive. We visited a post office, ate some lunch, then went up to visit the castle and grounds. We also saw a nice, if small, garden in the city, before heading south toward Ouchijuku. Ouchijuku is a post town from back when travel by most people was regulated to foot travel only. So you had to have frequent towns along the roads to accomodate travelers with food and places to stay. Ouchijuku preserves that old style town with thatched roofs and no power lines (a rarity in Japan!). It is a really awesome looking place!

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Cherry blossom-lined streets in Aizu-Wakamatsu

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Lunch!

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The castle area provided some fantastic pictures of the cherry blossoms

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And pictures of us too!

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A few more

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Inside and around the castle

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Oyakuen is a nice garden with a big pond in the middle, and features over 400 varieties of herbs

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There weren’t a lot of flowers yet, but a few nice daffodils

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And some cute ducks too!

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Then on to Ouchijuku

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Good cooling method

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Lots of fun shops selling all sorts of things

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We had to get some ice cream… I got “soba” flavor, buckwheat noodle! I don’t like the noodles themselves much, but I like the flavor in other things!

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These cute okiagari dolls (named because their bottoms are rounded so you can’t knock them over) were super cute… I got two little ones! And I love the Fukushima postcard of them too!

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From the top of the small hill, and another post card!

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Back down into town to check out the tiny museum

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And getting a cute akabeko doll as well to finish up the shopping

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Before checking out the tiny little shrine on the outskirts of town

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Carp streamers up for Children’s Day in May

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Fukushima postcard set

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And the cute akabeko character stuff I got at the garden today!

From there, we drove into Yamagata to stay the night in Yonezawa, which will be included in the next post. Fukushima was lots of fun… I want to explore more there again!

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Hiking Mt. Myogi

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The weekend right after Kenji left, I went hiking on Gunma’s Mt. Myogi with a new group of friends. The trip was organized by my friend Daniel, but I didn’t know anyone else going. However by the end of the hike, we were all fast friends and promising to go on many more hikes together in the future! It was such a wonderful day, and just a really great group of people!

We started off gathering at a local train station to get all the people who came by train into the cars of the three drivers, me included. Scott also came, and brought Naomi and Ibuki, but they didn’t plan to go very far, just up to the first arch. We parked nearest our trail entrance, then after spending some time getting stuff together and using the restroom, started up the path.

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Getting ready to conquer

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Our plan was to take the intermediate level blue line in the middle, which is a good trail because it has optional chain areas to heights for the more adventurous, but also easier parts for the less-experienced.

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Naomi and Ibuki on the way up

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Our first arch

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Stopping for lunch about 2 hours in

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Group pictures! The one in the middle was everyone’s favorite

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Making new friends on the trail!

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And some nice views… that’s Daniel in the second picture, looking like he’s King of the Mountain!

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Chains, stairs, and challenges

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Some flowers here and there on the trail

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Panorama on the trail

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A few people had to leave early, so I went with them to drive

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My legs were SERIOUSLY happy when we finally hit the shrine on the other end of the mountain… it was a long 5 hour hike!!

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But we weren’t done… there were still stairs!

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Some cherries were still blooming, so I got some nice pictures

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Yay flowers!

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More flowers around our onsen

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Some cherry blossom ice cream while I waited for everyone to finish

After we’d washed off in the onsen, Daniel drove back with me to drop off my car, while everyone else rode the train into Takasaki to get some dinner. Daniel and I joined them, and enjoyed a great night before everyone headed back home by train!

It was a great hike, but I was SO SORE for the next few days! Definitely got quite the workout!

New School Year at Higashi JHS

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A few days after we got back from Europe, it was back to work for me! The new school year in Japan starts in April, so on the 7th, I attended the opening ceremony for the new school year, as well as the entrance ceremony for all the new students starting middle school this year. It is a pretty formal occasion, and a huge deal for the students. The weather was very nice, if a bit windy, so the gym also wasn’t super cold like usual. All in all a good, if long, day!

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We started the morning with the opening ceremony and new school semester ceremonies

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All the new teachers introduce themselves, and the students also find out their homeroom teachers for the year

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After lunch, waiting for the second ceremony to start, I took some pictures of the trees in bloom around school

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Congratulations messages from students and teachers

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The gym and school

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The brand new students coming in at the ceremony

Ceremony days are always exhausting, then it takes classes awhile to start because of all the maintenance stuff the students have to do, such as testing and new books/materials/etc, so it was a pretty boring week for me.

Europe Trip: Istanbul

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Our last city of the trip was Istanbul. We took the overnight train from Bucharest (frankly an awful experience I will never repeat!) and got into the city in the early morning. Our first hotel was great and actually had our room ready, so we showered and rested before heading out to sightsee!

Our first stop on Day 10 was the Sultanahmet area, where the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia are the most prominent buildings on the skyline. These two buildings are HUGE and beautiful! We visited the Blue Mosque first, then the Hagia Sofia before a lunch of meatballs, then went on to the Archaeological Museum in the Topkapi Castle grounds. At that point we were pretty tired, so we went back to the hotel for a nap, which turned out to be longer than we had planned! So we just had dinner and drinks at the hotel before relaxing and going back to bed.

Day 11 started off at the amazing Basilica Cistern, then to Topkapi Palace, where we saw the harem and walked around the beautiful and extensive grounds. I wish we’d have spent more time there exploring, but I wanted to see the Mosaic Museum since we’d missed it the day before. Unfortunately, it was closed, so we just saw a little of the Arasta Bazaar, then walked back through Sultanahmet before getting to our hotel in time to check out. We took a taxi to our last hotel, the Park Hyatt, checked in, then walked to the Taksim street in the afternoon and evening. We saw the Galata tower and some great sunset views of the city, before walking back after some shopping. It was a long day!

Our final full day was spent exploring the Galata Bridge, spice bazaar, and grand bazaar, where we bought a few (probably overpriced but oh well) souvenirs, and enjoyed the atmosphere! We tried one more time to get to the Mosaic Museum, but it closed early, so again we couldn’t… but we did spend more time at the Arasta Bazaar at a great store that sold bath goods. We were pretty tired from walking around all day, so we went back to the hotel and just ate in the area, and did some shopping at the City’s Mall nearby.

And our last day we spent just walking around and relaxing in the morning, before checking out at 2 and heading to the airport. We flew back to Japan again in business class, this time Turkish Airlines, which was pretty fantastic! And then went home exhausted to sleep for a long, long time!

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Our first hotel, the Doubletree near Sultanahmet

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Cats and tulips!

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Got a quick kebab snack and attracted the attention of an interested kitty

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Then hit the square between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia

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Inside the Blue Mosque which was pretty overwhelming it was so big

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The back outside

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To the also very huge Hagia Sofia

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To Tokyo!

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Then some meatballs for lunch

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And then baklava and Turkish tea for dessert at the cafe in the Archaeological Museum!

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On our way to the museum

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Some of it is under construction, but I really liked the bottom floor of the museum, and the tile museum across the way… the upstairs though, they really need to redo.

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Archaeology Museum

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And the Iznik Tile Museum

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Dinner at the hotel

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And breakfast the next morning… seriously the honeycomb was SO GOOD! Especially with simit. I wanted to eat it every morning!

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Day 2 at the Basilica Cistern

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Loved the Medusa heads!

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And back to Topkapi Palace

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Strait to the Harem with all its amazing colored tiles

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It was really beautiful inside and out!

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But the rest of the palace was nothing to sneeze over either!

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Us at the palace

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Arasta Bazaar for our failed try at the Mosaic Museum and some spices there

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Our Park Hyatt room and private Turkish bath area!

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Walking to Taksim, we came upon a park of cats, all of which loved Kenji

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Taksim square and street

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And Galata Tower and views at sunset!

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Dinner at a sushi restaurant… the “Istanbul Roll” was good!

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We finally had the wine we bought in Budapest

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Breakfast the next morning… more honeycomb!

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Parks, flowers, and flags on our way to Galata

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He tried to overcharge us, but we held firm!

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Getting some pomegranate juice at Galata Bridge

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Galata Bridge and New Mosque

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At the spice bazaar

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Quick lunch before the Grand Bazaar

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Grand Bazaar and lanterns

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Back around the Hippodrome, trying for the Mosaic Museum one more time… didn’t work out, but I couldn’t resist the cats, and Kenji couldn’t resist more ice cream!

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And we even had Mexican food that night!

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Turkish Airlines lounge at the airport… so much good food to choose from!

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And the fantastic Turkish airlines business class!

Istanbul was so much fun… we missed a lot, but just like other places on this trip, it gives us a good reason to go back for more!

Europe Trip: Bulgaria

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On Day 8 we took a private car tour to Bulgaria that we had found through the tourist office we had stopped at our first day. We were originally going to spend the night in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria, but with the hotel mix-up we decided to skip that and do a day trip instead. I think it really worked out well, because not only could we see Veliko Tarnovo in the tour, but also were taken to a rural mountain monastery, as well as a nearby town too. So we got to see more, and by car with a guide, who was great!

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At the mountain monastery after crossing over into Bulgaria by car in the morning

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Pretty purple flowers were everywhere

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Nice views from the caves

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Pictures weren’t allowed in the church in the rocks, but there were some wonderful old murals inside

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And we enjoyed just getting out of the big city and walking the paths around

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There were lots of bracelets tied to trees all over Bulgaria… apparently it is a folk tradition that girls wear the handmade bracelet for a month before spring, then tie it to a branch for good luck! So neat!

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Then it was on to Veliko Tarnovo to grab lunch

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Our guide Andrei

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Lunch was really yummy!

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Then we walked to Tsarvartes Fortress

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It is a really old fortress that used to protect the town and area

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And of course it commands some great views of the countryside!

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Inside the redone church was creepy though…

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We were glad Andrei took some pictures for us!

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Finally we went up to a small town just a few minutes away from the fortress, which is popular with tourists in summer

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It really reminded me of Japan’s Taketomi island with its walls and sand roads

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More bracelets and flowers

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The rain was rolling in, so we wrapped up and headed back to Bucharest!

I wish we’d had more time in Bulgaria, it seems like a really great place! Maybe we can see Sofia next time!

Europe Trip: Bucharest

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Day 6 continued: We arrived in Bucharest, Romania after a long train ride around 2 in the afternoon, and after dropping our bags off at the hotel, went and had a yummy pizza lunch. However, when we got back to the hotel, they told us there was a mistake with our reservation, and we had reserved two nights starting from the NEXT day… uh oh! We talked and considered, and decided to get a hotel in Bucharest that night, then stick with our original two day reservation and instead of spending a night in Bulgaria, take a day trip there instead with a tour. Although it was a mistake, I think in the end things worked out for the best.

So after we checked in to our first room, we just walked around the area a little, had dinner at a pub near the hotel, then went to bed.

Day 7 was our first full day in Bucharest. In the end, though, we spent it rather leisurely, walking around the hotel area a little bit, as well as the Old Town area before having dinner there. We didn’t see much, but many flowers were blooming at all the parks around the city, so we got distracted by enjoying the warmer weather (finally!) outside in the parks instead of sightseeing inside any museums or churches.

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Changing into Romanian money from a bank near the hotel

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Romanian Athenaeum near the hotel, now the home of their philharmonic orchestra, so we couldn’t see inside without tickets

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It was such a beautiful day, we really just wanted to walk around and enjoy it!

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And of course, pizza was good!

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The food at the bar was super good, even if it was really smokey inside!

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In the morning, just walking around the area… there were a huge amount of cars!

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Lots of interesting buildings and monuments to look at

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As well as many orthodox style churches

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And parks and flowers, of course!

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Smoothies and sandwiches for lunch

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And more buildings

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… and more parks!

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The second-largest parliament building in the world, eclipsed only by the Pentagon.

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Old town area

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Dinner at Caru cu Bere… we had veggies too, not just meat and beer. I just didn’t get a picture before we gobbled it all up!

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Stavropoleous church

Day 8 was spent in Bulgaria, which gets its own separate post, and Day 9 was spent getting some sleep, checking out of the hotel, and on the train to Istanbul. So nothing really interesting, just a few train pictures:

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Overnight train Bucharest to Istanbul

Europe Trip: Budapest

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Day 3 continued: We arrived in Budapest in the early evening, and after checking into the hotel, didn’t feel like going far or fancy for dinner, so we just ate at restaurant we found randomly walking along the river. Kenji had goulash, which he really loved a lot. Unfortunately, his cold was getting worse, probably due to the rainy cold weather that had blown in, so we didn’t stay out or do much.

Day 4: In the morning, Kenji was still not feeling well, so I went out to get some breakfast for him, and also just walked around for about an hour until he was feeling good enough to get up. Once he’d gotten ready, we took the tram down the river to the Great Market Hall, where we shopped for souvenirs and got some lunch. After that, we walked up Gellert Hill to see the monument and citadella at the top, and for some fantastic, if misty, views of Budapest. Finally, we walked back the other side of the river and back around to the hotel for a break before dinner.

This was our first “so-so” day, I’d say mostly because Kenji wasn’t feeling well, and the weather wasn’t great. But the views of from our hotel were really beautiful, especially that evening as the clouds finally started to clear and we got a nice sunset!

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Kenji’s goulash

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Central Market Hall

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Gellert Baths at the foot of the hill

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Gellert Monument, at the start of the walk up the hill

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Lots of stairs

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But great views when we got up there!

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Had some hot wine to warm up

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On the way down

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Greek for dinner! I had really been craving it!

Day 5: This day wasn’t a full day in Budapest… we could sightsee into the early evening, but then we had to get to the train station to catch the overnight train to Bucharest, Romania by around 7pm. We spent the morning walking over and around Buda Castle, and also visited the Fisherman’s Bastion and the awesome Matthias Church. After a break at the hotel and a so-so lunch, we walked to St. Michael’s Cathedral, got some amazing rose-shaped ice cream, then also looked at the Parliament building, before heading back along the river to the hotel to grab our bags and head to the train station.

Not only was this day so much nicer in terms of weather (though still cold), I really loved the beautiful Matthias Church a lot! The inside was painted really wonderfully, but it was hard to capture with our cameras all the colors and details! I also liked the rose-shaped gelato we had at the Cathedral… if they brought it to Japan, it’d be an instant hit!

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Heading across the Chain Bridge to Buda Castle

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Views of the Parliament building from the bridge

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Buda Castle… we didn’t go in to see any of the museums, but the outside was nice!

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Guards guarding… something

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Smoothie snack on the way to the church

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Walking along the streets of Buda

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Matthias church with its amazing roof

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And beautifully painted insides!

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Fisherman’s Bastion

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So-so lunch at a random cafe, but we did get to try the (very strong!) Hungarian palinka alcohol drink! I can’t remember which flavor we got though…

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Cathedral

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Awesome rose-shaped gelato, you could choose 2-3 flavors. I got salt-biscuit and pistachio, mmmmmmm

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Parliament building up close

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Along the river back to the hotel

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Intercontinental Budapest

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Hungarian forint! Our first non-Euro currency

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Train to Bucharest

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Our sleeping cabin

Our night on the train wasn’t bad… the food in the dining car wasn’t great, but we had some snacks and water provided, so it wasn’t horrible either. We didn’t get the greatest sleep during the night, and were woken up by passport control as well, but the next morning was pleasant.

Day 6: My original plan was to get off the train before Bucharest, in the Transylvania region of Romania at a town called Sinaia, to see some castles. However we decided to just rest up during the morning and head strait to Bucharest. The train was a bit late, so we didn’t get to the hotel until around 2pm. That story will be continued in the Bucharest post next!

Europe Trip: Bratislava

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Day 3: We checked out of our hotel the morning of our third full day, and headed to the train station to buy our tickets onward. We decided to spend a few hours in nearby Bratislava, Slovakia, before continuing to Budapest. It turned out to be a good decision despite the somewhat rainy weather, as we both really liked the city!

Because it was a Sunday, many buildings and churches were closed, so we really just walked around and enjoyed the atmosphere. Bratislava is a really colorful city, which buildings painted all different pastel colors. There was even a very blue church, called St. Elizabeth’s which was fun!

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At the train station

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Walking around the city center

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Lunch was really great at a cute restaurant called Prasna Basta. The beet soup was really good!

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More city center

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I think this was called St. Michael’s Gate

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The Blue Church

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Flowers in the rain

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At the river

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Looking up at the castle Hrad

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Quite the walk to get up there…

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Nice views from the top, though!

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We stopped for cupcakes and coffee on the way down

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There were lots of interesting statues and details we really liked in the city

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Walking back to the train station to head on to Budapest

Europe Trip: Vienna

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Finally, finally, FINALLY getting to update this blog after a very whirlwind few months! This is Post #1 of my Europe trip, and we’re starting in the lovely Vienna!

Day 0: Kenji and I started our trip flying business class on Scandinavian Airlines to Copenhagen, then a codeshare of Austrian Airlines to Vienna. We arrived pretty late on the first day, so went strait to the hotel, the Hilton Vienna Danube, and then to sleep.

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Waiting for our flight with some drinks and snacks in the ANA lounge at Narita airport… we ended up visiting our usual United lounge too!

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Settling into our seats in SAS business class! Turkish Airlines was better, but still trumps economy any day!

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Menu and some food!

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At the SAS lounge in Copenhagen in between flights

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We actually got another yummy meal on the quick flight to Vienna, too! Wheeee!

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Arriving at the airport and catching the train into the city

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Our first hotel room

Day 1: We woke pretty early in the morning, really before anything was open, so we went upstairs to the business lounge for some breakfast since our room gave us access. We planned a little of our day, went to the concierge for some reservations, then headed out.

Our first day’s plan was to see the Morning Exercises of the Spanish Riding School for about an hour, then walking down Graben avenue to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, followed by a bit more walking to Karlskirche, and plans for dinner at the famous Figlmuller that evening. We mostly followed the plan, but took it a bit easy on the sightseeing as we were still tired, and Kenji still had a bit of a cold.

Of the day, I really loved watching the horses at the Spanish Riding school, but Kenji quickly got pretty bored, like I figured he would. It isn’t terribly interesting if you don’t know what they’re doing, but I could have watched all day!

My most favorite place, though, was definitely Karlskirche. Right now it is undergoing renovations on the inside which allow you to take an elevator, then some stairs, all the way to the top of the dome, allowing you the unique chance to see all the paintings and details up close! It was a really special experience.

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Lounge in the morning

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On the train

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On our way to the Riding School

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Spanish Riding School… unfortunately, you can’t take pictures inside

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Behind the school

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Grabbing a quick drink

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Then lunch and dessert at Cafe Central

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Before heading down Graben

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To St. Stephen’s Cathedral, with its interesting tiled roof

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Inside was a little dreary

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But up on one of the towers was a great view!

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The to Karlskirche, after grabbing some cough drops for Kenji

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Karlskirche

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And only a small fraction of the tons of pictures I took of the inside

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I loved how at the bottom of the church, all the details and marble was real, but as you went up, it became painted, including all the marble!

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Thankfully we reserved at Figlmuller, they were busy as usual!

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The famous GIANT weinerschnitzel which I couldn’t finish!

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Figlmuller

Day 2: We started off our second day almost more tired than the first, due to a nap we had taken the previous day which messed with our sleeping schedule. We still got off at a decent hour, heading back to the area we were in the previous day to see the Imperial Palace Apartments, Silver Collection, and Sisi Museum. From there, we went to the Kunsthistoriesches Museum Cafe for a snack, then explored the museum. Kenji was too tired by that point to see Schonbrunn Palace, so we went to a late lunch at Plachutta, before going back to the hotel to rest up. We had planned to go out later, but ended up staying in the hotel.

The best part of the day was hands down the Kunsthistoriesches Museum, which ended up being my favorite museum of not only this trip, but of all I’ve seen in Europe! Their special Faberge egg exhibit wasn’t the greatest, but the permanent exhibits, especially the sculpture collection and Egyptian collections, just blew me away. They were wonderfully curated and certainly set the bar high! Plus, my favorite European artist Diego Velasquez also had a lot of his portraits there as well.

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Morning at the hotel

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Waiting for our train

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Goofing off before hitting the Hofburg

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Imperial Silver Collection, which was not only silverware, but table settings in general… loved these flower plates!

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Sisi museum and imperial apartments weren’t bad, but for the most part you couldn’t take any pictures

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Kunhistoriesches Museum entrance and cafe… the kaiserchmarnn was good, but too big for me to finish!

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European painters gallery

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A whole room of Velasquez!!

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Beautiful sculpture gallery

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Loved this tile

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And the fantastically painted Egyptian Gallery! WOW!

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Also liked the Gallery of Eastern European Religious Icons and Art

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Outside the museum, but we’re actually facing the Natural History Museum

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Tafelspitz and beer at Plachutta

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And leaving Vienna the next morning for Bratislava

I really liked Vienna, but we just didn’t get to do and see as much as I’d hoped, due in part to tiredness from jetlag, but also because Kenji was getting over his cold, and got tired easily. But I guess that means it is just a good excuse to go back!

Tokyo

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We were still a little stir-crazy, and since our Europe trip is in less than 2 weeks and we wanted to get some errands done, we headed to Tokyo on Sunday morning for the day.

First stop was Shinjuku to get our cameras cleaned at the Nikon Salon, and some watch batteries replaced at Yodobashi Camera. We also at lunch at a good Chinese place around Yodobashi while we waited for the cameras and watches to be finished.

Then it was across the city on the Chuo line to Ochanomizu, where we walked a few minutes to Yushima Tenjin shrine. This is our second time coming here for the plums. I really like it, and they had some nice blooms this year!

After that, we walked a few more minutes to Ueno Park to see if any of the sakura were blooming early, and to check out the newly renovated Toshogu Shrine, which has been under construction for just about the entire time I’ve lived in Japan. The contrast of gold to dark black wood is very nice, and it is a beautifully done job.

Dinner was at TGIFridays in Ueno, our last food splurge before Europe at the end of March.

It was a fun day!

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The usual view from the Nikon Building

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Homemade Chinese noodles and dumplings for lunch! Yum yum!

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From Ochanomizu, following the pink signs

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Yushima Tenjin

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The plum motif is found everywhere in this shrine

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Last day of the plum festival, so there were many food stalls and people enjoying them

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And of course, some beautiful plums

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Crowds

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Roof of the main shrine with white and pink blossoms

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Bridge and a tea ceremony

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Two pictures I especially liked

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Kenji and plums

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Next up was Ueno park, where there was a “fall” feeling despite it being March. Must be those grasses

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It’s a fun place for birds

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And people, too!

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I call this one “the peanut gallery”

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We shared a spiraled fried potato on a stick and a beer for a snack, before spotting some sakura blooms

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Nicest picture of the day!

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1 in 2 Kitties agree

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Toshogu Shrine

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Atomic Bomb Memorial with colorful strings of 1000 origami cranes

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Lanterns and oranges

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Detailing

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Still looking like fall, here, Japan… what gives?

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Roof angles

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I always like reading the ema at the shrines. This one is asking for Asada Mao (Japan’s sweetheart figure skater) to win a gold medal at Sochi, which unfortunately didn’t happen.

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The last day for a Monet exhibit! I wanted to go, but Kenji was hungry, so we continued on to TGIF instead.

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Where we got the largest hamburger known to man. We should have shared one, geez!

Stuffed full, we took the train back a little early. It was good to get out of the house!