Tuesday April 3, 2018

Sunday began with something none of us had ever done before on a Sunday (or any other day of the week, for that matter). We visited one of Japan’s largest wasabi farms where, once we’d seen how they grow and make this potent green mustard, we tried our tastebuds on wasabi paste, wasabi pickles, wasabi noodles, wasabi crackers, wasabi peanuts, wasabi ice-cream and wasabi chocolate – yum!

We then headed for Matsumoto Castle, the oldest surviving wooden samurai fortress in Japan. Built by the Ogasawara clan in 1504 and painted a brooding black to deter would-be attackers, it was nicknamed ‘Karasujo’ (Crow Castle).

Later, after a 90-minute drive to scenic Lake Kawaguchi, we toured the Ichiku Kubota Museum, named after the artist who revived the lost art of Tsujigahana kimono silk dyeing. It was here we caught our first (hazy) sighting of Japan’s highest and most worshipped mountain: Mt Fuji.

Following breakfast yesterday we enjoyed a leisurely cruise on picture-perfect Lake Ashi – then rode the Hakone Ropeway (cable-car) up Mt Owakudani, gliding over rumbling, steaming sulphurous vents. Japanese legend says that, if you eat a hard-boiled egg cooked in the surrounding volcanic hot springs, you’ll add seven years to your life – so, of course, most of us had to try, gobbling down one (or more) of these strange looking eggs, their shells turned black by the sulphur. (Watch us closely for signs of improved longevity!)

We ended the day with a hi-speed ride on one of Japan’s legendary bullet-trains – to Osaka (population a mere 10 million, second-largest metro area after Tokyo).

I hope you’re not getting tired of cherry-blossom photos, but we couldn’t possibly have timed this trip better. It’s springtime here in Japan, and the nation’s iconic ‘sakura’ (cherry-blossom trees) have “erupted in a magical blaze of pink-and-white” (to quote a website I found), “blanketing town and country in soft, colourful splendour.” There must be multiple millions of these beautiful trees (I kid you not) … and everywhere we’ve been, the glorious blossoms have been there too.

They seem to be especially glorious in Osaka, and a river-cruise this morning gave us an eyeful – with kilometre after kilometre of blooming cherry trees lining both banks. You can’t really appreciate the impact they make until you’re here, seeing them for yourself.

We got some pix of impressive Osaka Castle – one of Japan’s most famous landmarks (which played a major role in the unification of Japan during the sixteenth century). Then we drove to the city of Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital (crammed with World Heritage Sites, temples and cultural significance) where we checked out the colourful Todaiji Temple (its Great Buddha Hall houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha) … wandered through Nara Park (with its herds of free-roaming, white-bottomed deer) … and stared in awe at the huge Shinto Kasuga Shrine (first built in 768AD by order of Emperor Shotoku).

COMING UP: We had dinner tonight in the city of Kyoto – Japan’s cultural heart, known for its Buddhist temples, stunning gardens and magnificent shrines. And tomorrow, well, stay tuned …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Our Mad Midlifers keep doing silly things, and Quacky Yellow Ducks keep getting handed out to acknowledge and punish these mishaps …

  • SANDRA scored our new ‘Moonshine’ Award – after her curiosity got the better of in her hotel room the other night. She took a bottle of whisky out of the mini-bar vending-machine in her fridge just to see how it worked, then couldn’t get it back in – and had to do some fast talking to avoid paying for the unwanted liquor!
  • ALLISON romped home with our ‘Ring of Confidence’ Award – after getting her bathroom tubes muddled up and cleaning her teeth with something other than toothpaste!
  • PATTY won her second duck this trip – our ‘You Can Take Her Anywhere’ Award – when, at a ‘shubu-shabu’ restaurant last night, she was spotted eating with a soup ladle (!) instead of her chopsticks …
  • CATHERINE (it turns out) did exactly the same … so she got a ducky, too!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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