Saturday, September 22, 2012

My sister Shae came to visit in early March...she was here for 2 weeks and we did SOOOO much during her stay that it has taken me a few blog posts to document it all!  (and a few months in between each's been a busy last few months)

While Shae was here we took a few MWR tours, luckily Nick was able to go on one of them with us.  We bulked up in winter gear and headed to Northern Japan to show Shae the snow monkey's and a famous Japanese castle.

(MWR tours sometimes mean long bus rides...this one was over 4 hours long!)

The Jigokudani Yaen-Koen (Snow Monkey Park) was first on the day's agenda.

"The snow monkey park is is located in the valley of the Yokoyu-River, in the northern part of Nagano Prefecture.  The name Jigokudani, meaning, 'Hell's Valley', is due to the steam and boiling water that bubbles out of small crevices in the frozen ground, surrounded by steep cliffs and formidable cold and hostile forests.

The heavy snowfalls (snow covers the ground for 4 months a year), an elevation of 850 meters, and being only accessible via a narrow two kilometer footpath through the forest, keep it uncrowded despite being relatively well-known.

It is famous for its large population of wild Japanese Macaques, more commonly referred to as 'Snow Monkeys', that go to the valley during the winter, foraging elsewhere in the national park during the warmer months.  The monkeys descend from the steep cliffs and forest to sit in the warm waters of the onsen (hotsprings), and return to the security of the forests in the evenings."

Fun facts we learned about the monkeys...
Japanese Macaque:
Eat insects, nuts, berries, leaves and grass
Live 20-25 years
Sleep in the mountains, nestled (in tree branches) together- changing their lodging every night

After the monkey park, we toured the Matsumoto Castle in the Nagano Prefecture.

"Matsumoto Castle is one of four castles designed as a National Treasure of Japan.  Construction began in 1592 on this elegant black and white structure with three turrets.  Because of the elegant black roof, Matsumoto Castle is sometimes called 'Crow Castle'.  Inside the castle are steep stairs and low ceilings leading past displays of armor and weapons from the Sengoku period when the castle was built.  The narrow wooden windows, once used by archers and gunmen, provide amazing views of the Japanese Alps, Matsumoto City and the koi and swans circling in the moat below."

Pregnant sisters...both just beginning to get our "buddha bellies"

We also went on a Strawberry picking tour...

Taking a bus to the south of Mt. Fuji in the hillside of Kunozan, in the city of Shimizu.  We stopped at a Strawberry farm where we got to eat strawberries to our hearts content!

Strawberries in Japan are sweeter than in the States...bright red, juicy and delicious!

Everything was strawberry flavored...

After filling up on strawberries we took a cable car ride to the Toshogu Shrine.

This shrine is 375 years old, built in honor of TOKUGAWA Ieyasu, a leader who made great contributions to "peace and culture of Japan today".

We saw a traditional wedding while at the Shrine...Shae's visit fell right in the middle of wedding season!

Last stop on this tour was to the Shimizu fish market.

Due to both Shae and I being pregnant and in our first trimester, the smell of fish was a bit too much for us...therefore we took a couple of photos and then headed to a nearby eatery for lunch.  

Tempura...don't mind if we do! ;)

In between trips and tours we trained it around Tokyo and the surrounding cities by where I live...showing Shae my favorite things in Japan.

Rainy afternoon at the Tokyo National Museum

One rainy day we met one of my girlfriends for lunch then headed to Shibuya for touristy stuff!

Shibuya crossing in the rain
No chu-hi's for preggo thing Shae didn't get to do in Japan!

Gyros in Tokyo while people watching in one of the tall buildings...

Purikura - the photo booths that are all over Japan...they are the rage with young girls.  Where you pay a few hundred yen (about 4$) to take photos in a booth, AND edit the pictures afterwards....such as making your eyes bigger and adding drawings to them!  Of course we had to do it too!

One of the MWR tours we went on was a "Tokyo Sight Seeing" tour...we went to the Tokyo Tower, Imperial Palace, Asakusa-where we saw the Sensoji Tepmple, Asakusa Shrine, Fifth Tire Pagoda and got to do some shopping, then took a river boat cruise to Hamarikyu gardens.  Very good tour!  Hitting a lot of the major "must-sees" in ONE day!

The Tokyo Tower

Looking straight down...

At 333m, the Tokyo Tower has been the world's tallest self-supporting steel tower.  The Eiffel Tower in Paris is only 320m high!

We got to go up into the observatory and see the 360 degree view of the entire Kanto Region surrounding Tokyo.
The Imperial Palace
"The Imperial Palace with its grounds is located on the site of the former residential palace of the successive Tokugawa Shoguns in the Edo Period.  In 1868, following the Meiji Restoration, Emperor Meiji moved here from Kyoto which had been the Imperial capital for more than a thousand years.  Since then, this is where the Emperor has resided and as Imperial Palace, where the various Imperial ceremonies and functions have been held.  To replace the Meiji Palace burnt down in 1945, the present Palace was built and completed in 1968. The Imperial Palace grounds extend over an area of approximately 1,150,000 square meters surrounded by moats and eight gates."
The area inside the main gate is only opened to the public twice a year; January 2nd for New Year's greeting and the birthday of the Emperor, December 23rd.  (Open 09:00-15:00 Jan 02nd, 09:00-11:10 Dec 23rd)
It was a gorgeous day...
Asakusa turned out to not only be our favorite place we went that day, but Shae's favorite place she visited on her trip!  (Definitely worth a trek up to Tokyo)

"Asakusa is one of the rare places in Tokyo, which still remain much of the typical old 'Teramachi' Atmosphere.  Teramachi area prospered because of the reserved temple that attracted visitors, in spite of its being in the central part of Tokyo.  In addition, many families have lived there for generations.  Its present people love their neighborhoods as much as their forefathers did, this society is known as 'Shitamach', and are where those people live.  Therefore the preservation of local customs is important and changing slowly."
"The Kaminarimon Gate, the main gate of Sensoji Temple, is one of the landmarks of Asakusa.  It is formally called 'Fujin-Raijin Gate (gate of god of wind and god of thunder)'.  It's huge lantern hanging from the middle of the gate weighs 670kg (about 1,447lb).  The gate stands at the entrance to the Nakamise Dori."

Sensoji Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo, and was "founded in 628, to commemorate the pure-gold statue of Kannon that fisherman dragged up from the Sumida River in their net.  People from all over Japan visit the temple".  

We saw TWO traditional Japanese weddings while was definitely a beautiful day for such an occasion and a perfect location as well!

We enjoyed the street vendors who sold trinkets and souvenirs in all price ranges most of which are hand-made.  It's also a place where you can bargain for your merchandise ;)  Shae and I took home a few goodies! 

Gotta get the soft-serve while at the shrines...

For lunch we dined on Shae's favorite: noodles with a side of gyoza!  (We had it 3 times during her visit ;)

After that we took a boat cruise on the Sumida River....(I was suffering from morning sickness and therefore didn't take any photos while on the boat)

After the cruise, we stopped at Hamarikyu...

"This garden is a typical Daimyo (Japanese feudal lord) garden in the Edo period with a tidal pond (Shioiri-no-Ike) and two wild-duck hunting sites (Kamoba).  A tidal pond means a pond that are infused with seawater in order to change flavor along a pond by flood changes tie to time, of which style had been popularly used in coastal gardens in the Edo period."  

"After the Meiji Restoration, the garden became the detached palace of royal families and officially named Hamarikyu, which means a detached palace on the coast.  In 1952, this garden was appointed as the Special Place of scenic beauty and the Special Historic Site, based on Cultural Properties Protection Law of Japan."

Lots of pretty blossoms...
"Now the garden is surrounded by high-rise buildings of Shiodome business area, and contrast between the old and the new is superb."  

After the tour we met Nick for dinner at one of our favorite Izakaya's by our house, Wons!

We tried several kinds of Japanese appetizers...oishi!

One of our more relaxed date and a bit of shopping at the 100Yen shop, then dinner down the street from my house at a ramen shop (like I said, it was my sister's favorite thing to eat!!!)

One night we had a Bachelorette party at the house...the girls came over for cocktails and the season finale of Bachelor!!!  So fun!

Shae also got to go to some of my English classes with me...

Helping teach my class of 37 five and six year olds!

It was our last day of the "school year", which in Japan is in March, not May!

On Shae's last night we went to dinner with a few of my closest English students...

They spoiled her with presents!

And also with lots and lots of yummy food!  (They just kept ordering and ordering!)

A very busy 2 weeks, battling morning sickness all the while, but so glad so glad my sister got to visit!  It will be over a year before I get to see her again (and before our sons get to meet).  Very thankful for the memories we made in Japan!