It has been five years now since good friend Terrance (I’ve known him since school days) left our sunny shores for a life of teaching English in Japan. He has of course subsequently made a life for himself over there (Ryan and I were lucky enough to attend his wedding in Komagane back in 2014), so I doubt that he will ever call this part of the world home again.
He has however been pretty good in coming back to South Africa in order to spend time with his folks from time to time, and as circumstance would have it, this year we got to catch up twice – back in February where I introduced him to the Vergelegen Estate (and caught a screening of Deadpool in the process), and now again at the end of July.
This time around though, as both he and I were flying solo (more or less – I still had the girls with me), I opted for a kid friendly venue which lead to us meeting up at Wild Clover, a frequent favourite spot for the Gordon Bay Lötters!
The girls and I arrived a little early, so we did a spot of exploring around first, but pretty soon we grabbed a table (they have a new chef, so the place is pretty popular again!) and were joined by an eager Mr. Brown for some craft beer, pizza and a great catch up session!
Still eager for some more time swapping stories, I next suggested that we move up the road to Weltevreden, as the play area at The Carnival (which we only recently discovered) is nicely shaded and makes for a better afternoon play spot than Wild Clover.
Pleasingly he was keen, and so a quick drive later (Jess enjoyed being his passenger in the Citi Golf), we were once again seated and chatting, with the girls happily running around searching for ladybirds and whatnot.
All in all, not a bad way of catching up on all the news from the Land of the Rising Sun! :)
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It has been a good couple of years now since Terrance left our sunny shores for a life of teaching English in Japan, and while I have been over there once so far for his wedding, I pretty much rely on his annual(ish) visit to South Africa to catch up and learn all about his interesting life in the Land of the Rising Sun.
So as you might imagine, I was quite pleased to discover that he dropped into the country for a couple of days in February, so much so that I immediately suggested getting together for a nice breakfast at Vergelegen Wine Estate – an experience that he was instantly onboard for!
Established in 1700, the historic and beautiful Vergelegen Wine Estate in Somerset West is a must visit if you’ve never been there before, and it was a great treat for both Ryan and Terrance, neither of whom had been there before. We enjoyed a leisurely and delicious breakfast (complemented with extremely expensive water I might add), before shuffling along and taking in the sights of the estate.
(I did my best to keep up on my crutches, but eventually I set the two free to go and explore while I worked my way slowly back to the car park!)
Following that, the three of us next headed over to Somerset Mall, where we caught an afternoon screening of Deadpool – which was surprisingly good. They really, really captured the essence of the character for the movie, with Ryan Reynolds proving to be the perfect actor for the role. (That sequence of him punching Colossus literally had me wiping away the tears of laughter!)
The movie done, I next convinced them that going for an ice cream with Chantelle would be a great idea, so after a bit of a wait at home for her to finish up with work, the three of us left and headed out to Gordon’s Bay beach.
Only… the wind had picked up a bit in the meantime, meaning that in the end we swapped out soft serve on the beach for ice cream in the safety of the Spur – which turned out perfectly fine as well!
And yes, once again I took many, many pictures at the beautiful Vergelegen Estate:
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Related Link: Vergelegen Wine Estate
All that was left were a few last visits with the newly extended Brown family, before Ryan and I packed our bags and joined Hester and Terry on the highway bus back to Toyko (a particularly long trip!), where our flight out of Narita Airport would happily be waiting for us.
(Unselfishly, Terrance and Yuko also made the long drive to Tokyo with us – eager to say good bye to the tiny South African contingent that had come up for their big day, and at the same time probably to ensure that nothing went wrong our final adventure in the Land of the Rising Sun!)
The trip back to Cape Town was long but uneventful. We flew once again with Emirates, stopping over at Dubai International Airport as they do, before winging our way back to sunny South Africa.
Ryan of course struggled, which makes sense considering how squashed he is sitting next to me, but I enjoyed a good flight home, taking in plenty of movies and thinking back rather fondly on what had been a truly awesome trip.
My first ever overseas trip had gone smoothly in every aspect, with no hiccups and no bad experiences to tarnish the memory whatsoever. The country is a perfect blend of modern and ancient, has all the technology someone like me marvels at, is clean, safe and easy to get around in, and the people courteous and almost never in your way – and these observations still hold true for me more than a year on (i.e. when I at last got around to writing all these posts!).
Of course, I owe big thanks to Terrance for his friendship and his time taken out to show us the ropes, Yuko for all her effort in making sure that we had accommodation and the the routes all worked out, and an even more massive thanks to my brother Ryan, without whom this trip simply wouldn’t have happened.
So on that note, thank you to each and every one of you! :)
Japan has always been a place that I wanted to visit ever since I was a child, and now that I’ve been there, it is definitely a place that I want to return to – and next time definitely with Chantelle in tow!
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Finally, after nearly two weeks of sightseeing in Japan, the real reason for Ryan and I being in the country was at last upon us.
Amazingly, our smart clothes that had journeyed with us still looked reasonably smart, which was a good thing considering the fact that in Japan, weddings are usually quite a smart affair.
The day had arrived. Longtime friend Terrance was to marry the girl of his dreams, Yuko.
We were ferried to Komagane from Ina by Yuko’s father, who we had now met a handful of times over the course of the last couple of days – a tricky venture considering the fact that he doesn’t have any English and we have no Japanese.
However, we made it to the hotel together with Hester and Terry (Terrance’s parents) with plenty of time to spare, and we were ushered to a room where we were to wait with any other arriving family before being allowed into another room where the two families would get to see Yuko and Terrance in their traditional wedding outfits and be introduced to one another.
The wedding ceremony itself was short and sweet, and hilariously, the first thing to go wrong on our entire Japanese trip went and happened at the ceremony itself – the lady priest forgot an important symbolic step of the ceremony!
Luckily she remembered it on the way out, and so the entire guest contingent was ushered to the outside courtyard where Yuko and Terrance once again made a grand appearance and completed their ceremony to the cheers of everyone there!
(And by cheers, I do of course mean strict silence, with jubilation strictly happening once the go ahead was given. Very, very disciplined the Japanese.)
Naturally, it was an absolutely awesome experience and such a privilege that Ryan and I could be there to witness Terrance and Yuko’s big day!
Of course, no wedding can be complete without a big reception (even if there isn’t really any dancing at a Japanese wedding), and we were seated down in a beautifully decorated room for a series of speeches and of course food.
Lots and lots of food – seven courses if I remember correctly!
(NOTE: Chantelle is absolutely furious that I took one single photo of all that interesting Japanese cuisine!)
(Also, Terrance had kindly seated Ryan and myself with some of his colleagues from one of the schools that he had previously taught at, meaning that two or three of the ladies had some English at their disposal, which in turn meant that some decent conversations were actually possible for a change!)
We had a lovely time at a lovely wedding for a lovely couple.
In other words, a better end to our two week long holiday in Japan we could not have asked for! :)
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We were lucky to be able to spend a day alone with Terrance before the wedding, and having already enjoyed some morning activities that included smacking baseballs at a batting cage in Ina, he next took us for a spin in his delightful new car to show us his daily commute to the school that he teaches at.
It’s a long drive, but with beautiful mountain countryside scenery wherever you look, one can’t really complain! However, it wasn’t just scenery or a school that he wanted us to see, instead, his ace up the sleeve was a stop in Iida, more specifically, a stop at a little place called Good Life Cafe.
The unassuming Good Life Cafe is a pizza and pasta restaurant run by Bobby Shipley, and is said to be the only genuine New York style pizza place in the entire Nagano prefecture!
In other words, if you want good pizza, then you go to Good Life Cafe.
Their menu is fantastic, the pizzas are indescribably good, and washing it down with some good Japanese spirits and beer – well, what more could you ask for?!
Not that we were finished with the tourist experiences yet mind you. After an enjoyable drive back to Komagane, a visit with his soon to be parent-in-laws (which is tricky given that neither Ryan nor I speak Japanese), the next stop for us was our very first ever visit to a proper Japanese onsen (hot spring bath).
(Note: Because everyone is naked, I have no photos of this awesome evening experience – just in case you are wondering about the distinct lack of photographic evidence!)
In truth, the bath experience was really enjoyable – relaxing and leaving your feeling like a million bucks afterwards – even if you kind of have to get over the fact that you are completely naked in a room full of naked strangers, all rather intrigued because as a foreigner you kind of stick out like a sore thumb. (Thankfully though, a decade of Virgin Active gym had me more or less okay with this! :P)
Right. So only photos of the pizza in the gallery then…
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Related Link: Good Life Cafe
Following a day of driving around the Kiso Valley, doing tourist things like viewing a historic post town, seeing a samurai museum, and partaking in the area’s specialty, soba noodles, the next day was to be a complete change of pace as Ryan and I got to spend a rare day alone with the groom-to-be.
So we went to hit a few baseballs.
Baseball is very popular in Japan – hugely so – meaning that we weren’t particularly surprised to find a batting cage in small little Ina (where we currently were based).
All three of us had played baseball together as boys, and so we were pretty keen to have a go at swinging the bat as adults. I certainly have never been to a batting cage before, so it was a pretty cool experience.
We started off with the slower pitches, and quickly worked our way up, where I’m pleased to say I actually managed to get quite a few hints in, even at high speed. Loads of fun!
(Top speed that we faced off against? 120 km/h! I’m impressed just saying that!)
Adjoined to the batting cage was a games arcade, and Terrance was pretty keen to get Ryan in on some rhythm games – which amazingly Ryan gave into! The arcade machines in Japan (as we had already seen in Tokyo) are amazing, and some quite complicated, and so we spent quite a bit of time wandering about the games area.
Also, how in the world can you say no to a game of air hockey?!?
We did some window shopping at a mall nearby, browsed a sports store, and most important of all, tucked into some delicious Baskin-Robbins ice cream – which has kind of been my thing all trip long! :)
Next up. A drive to a very special pizza place…
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Stomachs full following our soba noodles at Zcobo, the next stop on our day out with Yuko and the Brown family was a leisurely (more or less, thanks to some wrong turns and narrow town streets) drive through to the town of Miyanokoshi, where Yuko was very keen for us to visit the Yoshinaka Yakata Museum – important because of her ancestral link to the Minamoto clan.
(Ryan and I were just excited that at last we were going to encounter some samurai exhibits!)
The first thing that greets you as you enter the grounds of the museum is a striking bronze statue of the great Kiso Yoshinaka with the legendary Tomoe Gozen standing guard next to him.
Popularised in the epic Tale of the Heike, Minamoto no Yoshinaka (better known as Kiso Yoshinaka) was a famous shogun and war hero that fought during the Genpei War (1180-1185) which was the culmination of the struggle between the Taira (aka Heike) and Minamoto (aka Genji) clans for control of Japan at the end of the 12th century.
His army defeated the Taira army on numerous occasions and eventually drove them out of Kyoto, only to finally perish at the hands of his own clan in battle, after his plotting to setup a separate government came to light.
(Tomoe Gozen also features heavily in the displays, she being Japan’s most famous female samurai, with many legends proclaiming her brilliance in battle.)
The small museum does a great job at telling Kiso Yoshinaka’s tale through murals, reliefs, costumes and dolls – though luckily for us we had Yuko on hand for translation because this certainly isn’t intended as a museum for tourists!
Very much an interesting look into the samurai history of the area, and if you have a Japanese-speaking guide, then worth a recommendation.
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Still in the mountains of Kiso Valley, Nagano, following our walk about the heritage town Narai-juku, we next enjoyed a scenic drive to Zcobo, a fancy restaurant completely tucked away in the mountain forest.
Soba is the Japanese name for buckwheat and is also synonymous with a type of thin noodle made from buckwheat flour. Soba noodles are served either chilled with a dipping sauce, or in hot broth as a noodle soup.
Nagano prides itself on having the best soba noodles in the whole of Japan, and as such Yuko was eager for us to try this rather famous dish of theirs!
The restaurant is a bit of a gem actually, completely isolated and set in the middle of a mountain forest. The furnishings are modern and welcoming, and after relying on Yuko and Terrance to pick out some dishes for us from the Japanese menu (which surprisingly, didn’t have pictures – unusual for Japan, where seeing the food that you are to order is a bit of a thing. Or at least, I don’t remember these menus having pictures. It’s been a while, so I could be wrong.), we eagerly received our vaunted soba noodles.
At this point I have to be honest. The cold, buckwheat noodles were not something that I particularly enjoyed, and I didn’t get very far into my big bowl of noodles. (That said, I’m a simple South African man who seldom likes anything that isn’t meat and potatoes. So I take the blame for this one!)
However, the experience itself was great, and now at least I can say I’ve eaten Japan’s famous soba noodles. (Needless to say, Chantelle is quite jealous).
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Related Link: Soba Noodles
After a good night in Ina, followed by a quick stroll around town in the morning, Ryan and I were picked up by Yuko and Terrance, who were to be our tour guides for the day. With them was Hester and Terry, Terrance’s parents, who also happened to be on holiday in Japan for the wedding period.
The first destination for the day was to be the famous post town of Narai-juku, a nationally-designated architectural preservation site which basically means that the town is being kept such that it looks exactly like it did back in the Edo Period (between 1603 and 1868).
During the Edo Period, Narai-jujku marked the half way point between Kyoto and Edo to travelers along the Nakasendo Route. It was the most wealthy post town of the Kiso Valley (as well as the most elevated along the route), and was sometimes referred to as “Narai of a Thousand Houses”.
(This becomes quite apparent when you look at the sheer number of preserved houses compared to other similar post towns along the route.)
The drive out there from Ina is quite scenic, the majestic wooded mountains making for landscape that isn’t something I’m familiar with, and on arrival you are greeted by a massive steam locomotive (on display), and handed a rather informative little pamphlet.
The little town (ignoring the tiny cars parked along the main road) is a fantastic look back at the architecture of the era, and there are loads of bustling curio shops stretching from start to finish of the preserved building strip.
Shrines, marker stones, wells, pretty flowers, curios – basically there was more than enough things of interest to make for a genuinely pleasant excursion.
(Also, I bought two beautiful red polished, small wooden bowls – a trademark technique of the area – which happened to be the first keepsakes that I actually bothered buying on this rather fantastic holiday believe it or not!)
Oh, and with all the new people to take photos of, I got perhaps slightly camera trigger happy:
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Oh, and we got to spot another comically endowed Tanuki garden ornament, which was by far my favourite little character on this whole trip! :)
Related Link: Narai-juku