I came back about two weeks ago after spending a week and half in Japan with my family. One of my sisters lives in Chiba, and she got married on the 4th! It was a beautiful ceremony.
We spent a week before the wedding touring around some of Japan's most famous sights. Because there were 22 of us (a lot of the bride and grooms friends came from the US for the wedding, too!) we rented a charter bus to take us around for the week before the wedding. My sister and her fiancée planned the trip to a tee, so the whole thing went incredibly smoothly. And even though I'd been to visit my sister in Japan for Christmas 2012, it seemed like most of what we saw was completely new.
All in all, it was an awesome trip that we all had a blast on. So thanks to my sister and her new husband, and I wish them the best on their new life together! And in honor of the excellent trip they organized, here are my top five memories from the whole thing.
1. Fuji Sengen Shrine.
A 600-year-old Shinto shrine a short drive away from Fuji-san itself. Of all the temples and shrines we visited on the trip, this was definitely my favorite. It's not crowded like the Meiji temple (located in the heart of Tokyo) or Toshogu (a world heritage site), so I could enjoy the tranquility of the space more. And is it tranquil! To get to it, you pass under the first Shinto gateway and onto a long, unpaved footpath through a forest of Japanese cedars, flanked by mossy stone lanterns. The walk there seems to quiet the mind and prepare the spirit for the shrine itself. At the end of the footpath, a bridge takes you gently over a brook that flows so smoothly that it whispers rather than babbles. It is the perfect transition into the shrine complex itself, which seems so much at ease and in rapport with the forest and the stream that it would be hard to imagine one without the other. By the time you reach it, you're now attuned to the spirituality and majesty designed into the shrine. I'd say it is hard to visit the shrine and not feel spiritually cleansed afterwards. Traditional Japanese architecture and landscaping was truly genius in this respect.
2. Traditional Japanese inn and hot springs on the Angry Ogre River
About halfway through the trip we stayed for a night at an inn on the Kinugawa, or Angry Ogre, river. The place was both a traditional Japanese inn and a hot springs bath. It was an incredibly pleasant experience because, besides being relaxing, the whole thing was very immersive. The rooms don't have any Western-style furniture. Instead, guests sit on the floor on low tables and sleep on futons. They brought us Japanese-style robes to wear while we were at the inn . My sister told me what they were called, but I forgot to write down the names. Anyway, once we got checked in, we headed down to the hot springs baths. This being a Japanese hot springs, that meant segregated baths for men and women, as they can only be used while naked. Once you get used to it, it's pretty awesome- especially the views over the Angry Ogre river. When we arrived, it had just started to sprinkle, so we chose the outdoor bath over the indoor one. The softly cascading rain made a comfortable contrast to the hot springs.
After drying off and changing back into our robes, it was time for dinner, again in a very traditionally Japanese fashion. That meant again sitting on the floor as they brought out tray after tray of food: all kinds of raw fish, fermented vegetables, soups, and rice. Many in the group were turned off by how "weird" (to us) most of the food was, but this was easily my favorite meal because of the whole experience that went into it. All said, I could have easily spent a week at that place!
3. Singing karaoke in Chiba
This was the closest thing the groom got to a bachelor's party. Basically, all the guys went one night to sing Karaoke at an all-you-can-drink karaoke place. Unlike in the US, in Japan you rent a private room by the hour or half-hour for your party and they bring whatever snacks and drinks you order directly to you. And since it was all-you-can-drink, we kept the drinks coming. I lost count of how many rounds we ordered, but even without them we would have had a great time. The groom's friends visiting from the US, five guys in all, were old friends and had no problem letting go and just having a good time- one of the good things about having a private room! That set the mood for the whole night, and soon we were all dancing, crooning out lyrics, and laughing hysterically.
Afterwards we went back to the hotel around midnight, but somehow me and one of my brother-in-laws wound up at a late night Ramen restaurant just around the corner, where we had a surprisingly deep conversation about the meaning of life. I say that given how much we drank, to anyone who understood English at the restaurant we must have been pretty funny. He and I laughed about it the next morning (me with a horrendous hangover). But you know what? Our Ramen Shop Philosophizing was a great way to end the night.
4. Nikko Edo Wonderland park
Nikko Edo is a theme park made to look like a 17th century Japanese village. Though the park was aimed at kids, we still had a good time here! We went the day after the Inn & Hot Springs, and the weather was perfect: sunny, warm and breezy.
I liked it because of how interactive it was. We learned the basics of katana fighting, archery, shuriken-throwing, and even dueled with "samurai" in the streets. A couple of the girls in our party dressed up in Kimonos, and a few of us guys went on a ninja-training obstacle course that we failed miserably at.
It was also fun for me because I was finishing up Shogun, the book by James Clavell set in early 17th Century Japan. So I could actually walk through a "17th Century village"- in theme park form, granted, but fun and enjoyable nonetheless.
Since I mentioned Shogun- I started reading on the airplane to Japan and I'd say it made the whole trip more enjoyable. Besides being an excellent book in its own right, it also gave a lot of insight into the history of Japan and where modern Japanese culture evolved from. Highly recommended read, especially if you're planning on visiting Japan!
5. The wedding itself!
I'm running out of sisters to watch get married off. Plus, there's something about seeing a sister (or any loved one, for that matter) walking down the aisle that just makes the tears flow.
It was a Western-style wedding, which apparently are very popular in Japan, held at a place called Camelot Hills in Omiya. The place tries to be a replica of an old manor-house, which a decently large chapel inside for the actual wedding ceremony. I'm not sure how faithful of a replica it is, but it was a beautiful venue.
The wedding process, based on what my sister described, is very straightforward in Japan: you pay a lot of money to a place like Camelot Hills, and they basically take care of everything for you. For example, Camelot Hills took care of the catering, DJ and MC, photography and videography, the minister, set-up and clean-up, and more. They helped my sister find translators to interpret during the reception and after-party (the ceremony itself was only in English). It was the job of one staff member to follow my sister around the whole night and constantly fix her makeup, redo her hair, and adjust her dress for photos. They had shuttle buses going to-and-from Omiya, right near our hotel, to make it easy to get there.
All in all, I was impressed with how smooth the venue made the whole thing- Except for having a shuttle bus drive off at the end of the night with all my things on board! But to their credit, the venue was great about arranging to have the bus drop them back off to me.
One last thing worth mentioning that was fantastic about my sister's wedding- the desert bar they had at the afterparty. Besides having a station where guests could make smores (the bride and groom met at a bonfire in Oklahoma), they had a mouthwatering array of sweets that made me feel like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory- on top of the wedding cake, by the way.
My favorite? A chocolate mousse topped with strawberry sauce, covered in gold flakes (yes, real gold) with a stick of chocolate stuck in the top. The thought that I was eating real gold made the dish taste even more decadent.
Thanks again to my sister and her new husband for the amazing time we all had!
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much