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Hokkaido

Hokkaido

We arrived in the far north of Japan in snowy Sapporo and made our way to another Japanese Airbnb, not much to say about that, another plastic bathroom! So, we needed things to do in a town that hasn’t got all that much going on and also we needed to limit the time spent outside (minus 3 with a hoodie for a coat wasn’t the best)! We found a good option, there was a chocolate factory in Sapporo, Freda’s dream.

It was a strange place, a bit Japansese Willy Wonker, we made some cookies which was great, until I got sick of Freda cutting every one of them out of the centre of the dough, which I then had to roll out again and again.

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Mitch made his own, I helped my three year old and then they both had a bag of cookies! What did I have? Nothing, just a hoodie to keep me warm! After cookie making we needed lunch quickly, so we weren’t outside for long, we entered the nearest supermarket. As we scoffed our nasty breaded goods in the supermarket waiting area, we were stared at by disgusted Japanese. Oh well, at least they had their coats!

We went back to our warm, but cramped, apartment and devoured a few of our cookies before heading out to one of our favourites, the conveyor belt sushi. This one was quite special, although at first upsetting, “where’s the conveyor belt freda cries” then we see that the food is delivered by either a Bullet Train, racing car or another mode of transport I forget.

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The only problem we faced here, was that things we hadn’t ordered on our table-side Tablet kept brumming over to us (as Freda would say) and we hadn’t any way to explain to the staff that we hadn’t order them!

The snow continued and the next day of our exciting sightseeing tour was the Sapporo Beer Museum.

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Although each of these sights may only take a few hours, we have come to the conclusion that there is no point doing more than one a day, as Freda just can’t cope with the excitement! However, she was a bit unsure about what the beer museum had to offer her. But, of course there was plenty of things for her to destroy and climb on, so she was happy! In true Japanese style, even after Freda had pulled down half the Christmas decorations in reception, a member of staff still came rushing over to give her a present. Sapporo beer is made in Sapporo and is a very nice beer, we tasted a few of their offerings, checked out a bit of brewing history and then went for lunch in an all you can eat, beer, BBQ biergarten thingy. Only problem is that I don’t like all you can eat lamb, so Freda also doesn’t…….leaving just Mitch to tuck in! Well, he managed very well on his own!

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We couldn’t leave Sapporo without stopping by the Sapporo Clock Tower, which is referenced as one of the most disappointing tourist attractions in Japan. I liked it, but it was too cold, so we set about heading back to our Airbnb.

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We were then met by an ingenious method of getting around, especially for the likes of us not dressed for the weather, Sapporo has a collection of very long, heated underground tunnels linking up stations and various shopping centres. We had wondered where the rest of the residents were, until we found them all underground…….very clever, but hey this is Japan, so I wasn’t surprised.

Unfortunately, not all of our days traveling can yield so much fun. The next day, Freda and I were not on top form, so we had a very quiet day shopping the 100 Yen shops. Yes SHOPS, I’m addicted! We bought lots of bits and bobs and then had an arts’n’crafts afternoon making Christmas decorations for Aus, while stuffing our face with our cookies.

Freda has utterly surpassed herself in Japan with what she will eat. We no longer have to worry if we can find anything on the menu for her, she will (almost) try anything. That night we wanted to try a Sapporo favourite, curry soup. Freda looked at me, “I’m not sure I will like that mummy” she said. “You’ll be fine” I said, and she was, she loved it!! The good thing about Japan is that they always think of everything, the curry comes at a spice level you choose, Freda chose zero!

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Next day we were off to Niseko for our skiing holiday! I know it seems frivolous, but come on, even travellers need a holiday! Unfortunately it started warming up as we left Sapporo for the mountains and the snow was rapidly retreating, so we were a little worried! I wont bore you through each day of skiing in detail, as I’m sure you’re not all that interested, but after a shaky first day, it didn’t stop snowing and by our last day we were waist deep in the most amazingly dry powder snow I have ever experienced.

Freda had ski lessons which she loved.

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Which subsequently meant that Mitch and I had 5 days off from parenting duties, which was amazing. I know it’s mean, but it has been nearly 3 months, 24 hours a day, so we all needed a break! And it doesn’t get much better than this!

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After a very barren period of meeting anyone we could communicate with, Freda was overjoyed (and us) with the amount of people who spoke English in the resort. It was the largest amount of westerners we have seen since Heathrow, although mostly Australians……not sure they count! We stayed in a lovely place, The Kimamaya boutique hotel, no plastic bathrooms here. Freda seemed to fall head over heals in love with the hotel manager. Every morning, without fail, she would say to us, in her new Ali’G voice she seems to have adopted, “I’m gonna say hello t’me friend” it was very cute, although maybe not so much for the manager as she proceeded to spin around and around on her back, around the front desk, doing a sort of break dance, until she was moved along.

Freda spent her birthday in the resort, turning 4.

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She’s very pleased she is now so big and claimed to have grown overnight, which may be the case as she does seem massive, although maybe the sheer amount of food she is putting away is the cause!

She had a great teenager moment…….when she asked Mitch about her presents, he said “you may get one or two” Freda looked at him in utter disgust, and shouted slowly, “ONE, is as good as NONE!!” I was horrified but had to look away as I couldn’t stop laughing. Anyway she was made up, as she had lots of presents…..the 100 Yen shop delivered once again! Peter and Miki at the hotel threw her a little party, with a cake, which she ate half of.

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When asked what birthday lunch she wanted she said, “Mama, me like some Ramen” what a girl! We went sledging, built a snow man and had a nice time. Although her day was little slim on children, she seemed to have a good day.

So, our last few weeks in Japan have been great. We left the snow and flew back to Toyko, very sad to leave our winter wonderland behind. We then set about gettind our last sniff of culture before we go to Australia.

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Whilst having lunch, Mitch noticed that the flight he booked was leaving a day earlier than expected! After a quick panic, changing around accommodation and maybe a small  argument (as this is the second time on this trip Mitch has booked a flight on the wrong day), we cut our losses, went up the Skytree and said goodbye to Tokyo and Japan. I know, terrible cheesy picture, but there’s never any of the three of us!

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It’s been a great trip, and I think we are all going to miss Japan a lot. The alien nature of Japan has now become very familiar to us, we have grown to love and accept the oddities and quirks. We even managed to get a lot of the unexplainable explained by our hotel manager, and it all made sense, seriously the Japanese have thought of everything, and when you realise why, its hard to think why isn’t everyone doing this? The Japanese make this country what it is. I’m not sure there are that many places I’ve ever been to, that are shaped, so entirely, by the people and their nature. I don’t think any of us will ever forget our time here and I hope one day we can come back.

 

Tokyo

Tokyo

We were in need of a nice rest, it’s been good to stay in one place for a week and put our feet up a bit, it’s hard work travelling.

First day here it snowed and was damn cold. We both felt it was time Freda did some kids stuff, so I found that there was a toy museum on our subway line. It was horrible getting there, wet, freezing cold snow, but thank goodness for the 100 Yen shop, where we kitted ourselves out with winter warmers! Not the best quality, as I’m sure you can imagine, but just about did the trick! When we got to the Toy Museum, we had a bit of a disaster as it was shut! Every parents nightmare, when their child is soooo excited. Good trick I used was to blame it on her……….if she had only given me more than 1 minute this morning, I may have had chance to look at the opening times! So, reluctantly she took responsibility, and luckily for me, there was the Tokyo Fire Musuem just around the corner……

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unfortunately, it was free for a reason! Anyway, we took pity on her and Freda got a fire truck to make up for the very disappointing day, a toy one!

So, again feeling guilty we tried the next day to do something child friendly. We went on a massive ferris wheel, great for all as we could see Mt. Fuji.

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It’s such a symbol of Japan, it feels very special when you get to see its majestic, conical shape appearing in the distance. Mitch insisted on an all glass pod, which was quite scary. See if you can spot it! Freda refers to every Ferris wheel she sees, as the London Eye, this one was the Tokyo London Eye.

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We then mooched around the dock lands area, which had a few great sites, like a huge transformer and a mini Statue of Liberty!!

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One of the reasons for visiting this area, was to go to a play centre for Freda. Mitch got the pleasure of taking her there, we made sure this time it was open and I enjoyed a spot of shopping. Not that I can buy anything, as we haven’t got any room in our bags! So, I mainly enjoyed another 100 Yen shop! I know it’s sad, but don’t cast judgement till you’ve been in one…..much better than our versions and when everything in Japan is so expensive, it’s amazing what you can get for 70p! On the way back, we stopped by a Christmas light show, which was fun and conveyor belt sushi, a firm favourite now, a) because it a cheap, b) a quick eat, c) no Japanese is required as you order on a tablet or take off the belt. This one also had bullet trains delivering your food, so made it extra special!!

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By day 3 of Tokyo, after a bit of rest and a few quietish days, Freda seemed to have recovered from our rail journeys, so we thought it was time to get back in the sight seeing saddle! We went into central Tokyo and took a look at the Imperial Palace……not that exciting, I’m afraid to say. We had a good bowl of noodles and as it was a clear day we wanted another ‘Mt. Fuji fix’, so made our way to the Government Buildings, renowned for their good view and being free, which is very unusual in Japan! Unfortunately on the subway, we read that the Government Buildings are shut at the weekend, but luckily for us the Toy Museum was not, so we went there. A result for Freda, and I have to say it was a really good Museum.

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We have definitely had our style cramped while in Tokyo, Freda was so tired after all the excitement from playing (she’s been used to walking around Temples!) this is her on the way home!

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So another day was spent doing very little. She needed more rest as we were taking her to Disneyland the day after for an early birthday present, she gets in free before she turns 4, son it seemed silly to wait until her birthday!

Freda was back on form for Disneyland and of course had a fantastic time!

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I don’t know what it’s like anywhere else on the planet, but it was consumerism gone mad! The Japanese must have had to have taken out another mortgage to afford all the merchandise they bought. Everyone was dripping with all things Disney, literally covered from head to toe. People were obsessed, as soon as we arrived there was an hours queue to have a picture with a person dressed up as Mickey Mouse. Freda wanted to get a picture, so I told her to stand as close as she could before we got moved on!

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What Mitch and I found hard to believe was that adults were there without children, queuing (for example) well over 30 minutes for a kids game that splats imaginary paint on a screen……..Freda quite liked it, but come on! With Minnie Mouse ears on, hundreds of Disney toys hanging off every available space on their body, there were lots of crazy sights to be seen! People set-up camp in the freezing cold on the parade routes, hours before each commenced, but it was quite easy to see it all if you walked up just when it was passing by……..utter madness!! Anyway, I’m sure there are Disney fans amongst you, but it’s wasn’t for me. Check out the girls in the bottom left! img_4394

Freda went on every ride we could get on, she didn’t seem to care about how scary it was or what it did, her favourite thing was the haunted house. However, space mountain, a very fast roller coaster in the dark, was maybe a little too much for her. But, she’s already asking when we can go again, “maybe in 30 years when you have your own children” I said to her “will you come mummy?” she said “no!”. Although I did enjoy a few rides, I can’t lie.

So, finally a day with no child activities today. I dragged them to the National Museum, to see beautiful works of Japanese art, with all the old lady’s…….much more my thing!

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We’re flying up north tomorrow to Sapporo, where our 100 Yen purchases will really be put to the test. We’ve been told it’s snowing up there and after a few days we’re off into the mountains to go skiing. Don’t worry though, we’re hiring clothes for skiing so I’m not sending Freda out in her 70 pence gloves and hat. Well maybe the hat!

Before I go, I need to give a mention to my editor in chief, Mitch Sharpe, who wants praise for making sure this blog goes out in a well organised, spell-checked, readable and grammatically correct manner. Thanks Mitch, but I’m sure most people know I’ve not written this alone, as I can’t spell for shit! You’re a great help and inspiration to all. You’re amazing, we all love you.

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A master at work!

South West Japan by train

South West Japan by train

So, our Japan rail pass ran out today, we’ve arrived in Toyko ready to put our feet up after a hard 3 weeks of non-stop travelling, 4000km to be precise! I set Mitch the task to work it out! We have covered as much as we felt was possible for poor little Freda, which was quite a lot. We are celebrating a job well done with a nice bit of wine in our very average, but comfortable Toyko apartment.

Anyone who looks at our route or who knows Japan will think we were mental as we’ve been back and forth like maniacs! But the route we took was fully centred around the availability of accommodation, which was at times limited to the dregs! Once again, booking in advance in Japan is definitely recommended! Anyway, it all went swimmingly, mainly due to the fact that the Japanese rock and have built the best transport system in the world. Apart from their slow trains, which are well, disappointingly slow! But those fast ones, well I’m gonna miss ’em!

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Hiroshima

We both wanted to go, most people seem to feel the need……I’m not sure why, I guess for me I felt it was important to have a chance to learn about, and to contemplate, the devastation that man can cause. It was a trip of two halves, the city itself is not a beauty and on every corner there is a reminder of what happened in 1945. It was eerie thinking of the whole city being burnt to the ground.

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This was one of the few remaining buildings in the whole city to remain after the bomb, it stands just below where the A-bomb exploded, it was left standing as a memorial. I think it’s too unimaginable and horrific for anyone to really get their head around what happened! But, the Peace Gardens and museum with photos, memorials and artifacts, pictures of a city before and after, gave an insight into what can only be described as pure hell. Visiting Hiroshima, on a positive note gives you hope to see this counties desire for global peace. A torch burns in the centre of the Peace Garden that will only be put out when the last nuclear weapon is decommissioned. Hiroshima is a city that shows the power of the human spirit and the dignity and grace of the Japansese. Once again, poor old Freda is learning a few things a little too early, but she was able refrain from climbing on everything that moved and I whisked her past anything too horrendous for her little eyes to see, which was also a relief for me! So let’s give peace a chance and move on to more uplifting stuff!

Miyajima

After spending the morning at the memorial, we headed an hour out of Hiroshima, to the lovely island of Miyajima. Though it would be a bit more lovely if it wasn’t full of tourists and deers who would eat your granny if you put her on a plate! The pesky little deers ate our map, right out of Mitchs hand!

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I rescued the info guide, but the map was fully digested! They then got fed up with Freda trying to stoke them and tried to head-but her, luckily she sweept from harms way by an amazingly quick mother! The island has an impressive shrine in the water and amazing cablecar ride. Unfortunately  we went on the weekend, so we spent most the time in a queue, but hey its not like we have anything better to be doing!!

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Bulleting back to Kyoto, we stopped at Himeji, which boasts a rather lovely castle, Freda enjoyed a spot of fighting with a samurai.

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Kyoto

Known for 17 Unescos World heritage sites and around 1600 Buddhist temples, it’s got it all going on. You can wander among bamboo groves, take in Temples you can only imagine in your dreams, discover your art of zen in beautiful gardens, see geishas tottering about, walk down philophers walks and emerge yourself in the true japan.

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Yes it was lovely, the only problem was we had to share it with a hundred other tourists (carefully cropped from my shots) as they all fought for the perfect picture of serenity in Japan!

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Of course its touristy for a reason, it was amazing, but 3 days was enough and we needed to get more use out of our Rail Passes, so we got back on the Bullet!

Osaka, Okayama and Kurashiki

We slowly made our way to Fukuoka, back past Hiroshima, with overnight stops at Okayama and Kurashiki. We stopped briefly at the third biggest city in Japan, Osaka, to take Freda to the aquarium, and like with all things in Japan was big and amazing.

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In Okayama we stayed in a very nice house out of the town, they had some bikes so did a long ride out into the countryside around temples, shrines, pagodas and other lovely things.

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Just down the road a couple of days later we stayed in a place called Kurashiki, lovely town with old canals and great cakes! They also had the largest Koi Carp you have ever seen……I think due to the fact they sell food to kids on the side of the canal and if Freda’s anything to go by, they like feeding them, the poor things could hardly move!

Fukuoka and Sumo

So, we again boarded our favourite mode of transport and sped past Hiroshima and on to Fukuoka. Our only reason for travelling an insane distance to a city that held little interest was to see Sumo! Oh yeah, we couldn’t pass up on that! I mean who doesn’t want to see a bunch of overweight guys, wearing pants and charging at each other like prized bulls!

Each day of the tournament starts at 8am, and normally with Mitch liking to get value for money, we would have headed there in the morning! But, knowing that the best sumos were on at the end of the day and that the wrestling can be a bit of a drawn out procedure, we opted to only go for the last few hours. Well, what can you say, its bloody weird, only in Japan!

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It consisted of mainly ceremony, lots of warming up, sumos slapping themselves a lot! They looked like they were ready, then no, a bit of armpit wiping, slapping again and talc throwing, then they are finally ready, blink and you might miss it! It’s good, it’s funny and very entertaining, but the actual bout only lasts a few seconds! Then you’re waiting again for the next one with the same warm-up regime. Freda and I had the privilege to see a Sumo warming up back stage, being slapped about by his friend while in his pants, they are not so nice close up, I may have scarred my daughter for life, but she did seem to enjoy it!

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Our time in Fukuoka was up, we had to head back to Tokyo before our Rail Passes ran out. We didn’t know it, but we’d walk over a patch of road, Mitch became obsessed with it a week before on the news, it was amazing to see how quickly it was relaid, we didn’t even notice a week later, check it out! Imagine us fixing a road that quickly, it takes 5 years to fill in a pot hole in London!

We had a stop over in Nara, a nice little town with more cheeky deer, luckily this time you could buy them some biscuits, which Freda had to be instructed not to eat, so we managed to keep our possessions!

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So thats it Rail Pass time is up! It was fun, while it lasted.

 

Japan

Japan

The Japanese Alps

We’ve been in Japan for 2 weeks and it has taken me a while to get round to the blog. For various reasons, but mainly we’ve been on the go constantly, the Wifi is rubbish and we’ve had to desperately look for accommodation on the internet each and every night! Tip, anyone fancying a trip to Japan, book everthing thing in advance!!

Well, we have at last settled in to this faboulous country, what a place! A country of contradictions, oddities and some of the friendliest people on earth. An Asian country so far removed from Asia, it really is a little world in its own right.

We touched down in Tokyo and left briskly, after buying hats and scarves, the cold was a little bit of a shock……we are to return towards the end of our time in Japan! The little I saw, I loved, and I’m looking forward to going back. We decided to head out to the Japanese Alps, and have spent the last 8 days whisking around the mountains, taking in castles, amazing zen gardens, stunning views, snow, mountain lakes and beautiful Autumnal trees.

At the beginning of our time in Japan, I think we had a little South East Asia come-down, going from one of the cheapest places to travel in the world, where you can live like royalty for very little, to the most eye-wateringly expensive place I’ve ever been (and we live in London!). From what I can see no one lives like royalty, life is simple, efficient, luxuries are scarce and everyone seems quite content. What I’ve learnt to love most about the country is its peacefulness. The people are serene, very well turned-out, polite and magnificently orderly, even the pre-school kids!

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Freda stands out like a sore thumb with her crass, disruptive, manic behaviour, sorry Freda! But, even though she’s the only person constantly moving, shouting, rolling about on the floor, people seem to love her. People rush up and give her presents as they welcome us to their country……little origami cranes, stickers and sweets, she’s in heaven!

We started our trip on the edge of the Alps in Nagoya, a large port city at the bottom of the mountains, not really visited by many tourists but interesting none the less. We had our first Tatami room, basically beds on the floor, which we have gradually begun to get used to. I also realised that our bathroom in Tokyo was not going to be the worst bathroom of our travels, but rather a normality, see below.

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We went to the zoo, Mitch was a dab hand at zoo keeping.

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We checked out the botanical gardens and took in our first Japanese castle, finding out quickly that most are reconstructions, having been destroyed in the various wars. But we were not disappointed for long, there are also lots of surviving ones.

Getting around Japan is a dream, the transport here is mind blowing. We bought rail passes for the first 3 weeks, although incredibly expensive, they are allowing us to see so much and at speeds on the Bullet trains that you can hardly get your head around. No distance is too far when you have a Shinkansen going there. We all love them, especially Mitch and I as Freda gets to go on her iPad and we hear nothing out of her for an hour or two!

After Nagoya, we caught another train up to Kanazawa, the gateway to the Japanese Alps. Here we saw our first glimpse of the Japanese Autumn in full swing, Aki. All the trees gradually go red, sweeping their way down the country and we’ve been lucky enough to have been following them.

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In Kanazawa we got a taste of old Japan, wandering around the former geisha and samurai districts, beautiful zen gardens and a great castle (although another reconstruction…..don’t get me wrong they’re nice, but I was looking forward to seeing an original soon).

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We left Kanazawa and set of off on the Alpen Route, which consisted of nearly every type of transport you can imagine to get over the Alps. The scenery was beautiful and Freda loved seeing snow, although this felt a bit odd after having been in Vietnam only a few days before.

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Freda had a small meltdown on a ‘no talking bus’, as she realised that she had left some of her few and very prized toys on one of the previous forms of transport. We think it was the tram, but hard to say! Needless to say it was quite embarrassing in the silence as she cried her little heart out, I had to shut her up with one of the many sweets we have accrued from kind old people. But, she did get to stand on top of a very big dam! Luckily Mitch didn’t drop her over, but I was getting a little anxious!

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The tears dried up and we finally arrived at our next destination, Matsumoto. We were all feeling the loss of the small dogs (Jazz, Tuffy, Hotdog 1 and 2, and Salsa, see bath shot above for dogs in happier times) so we headed sombrely off to bed. The next morning brought us a beautiful, original castle, which brightened the mood. Freda climbed all the way to the top, a pretty mean feat as some of the steps were nearly as big as her.

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I love Japanese food, but it can be a little intimidating due to obvious reasons, i.e. you can’t read the menu or understand what anyone says. We are gradually becoming better at daring to just enter restaurants and grab food wherever we can, and Matsumoto was definitely a turning point. We’ve now stopped worrying what might happen when inside and what Freda might like etc. With this in mind, I’m learning to love picture menus and can even abide the plastic models of food plates in the windows, amazing!

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Anyway, I have to say we are now dap hand at eating in Japan with a 3 year old……thankfully it’s not only our favourite past time, but seems to be Japans as well! We are all getting on well with the food, Freda is obsessed by ramen and miso soup, Mitch and I by gyozo (dumpling)…..and as I type this, he’s frying some up!

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We had our first (and only) luxurious night in a hotel, which initially was a massive disappointment, but after a bit of moaning (you can’t complain in Japan, people are too nice), we were upgraded to a Japanese style suite, which was very nice indeed. We then got all Kill Bill, in our Jinbei, after discovering wine is cheaper than beer (and just about palatable!).

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The next day, we took a bus across the Alps. It started snowing and was magical, although bloody freezing……..our summer clothes leave a lot to be desired in the cold!

Next stop Takayama, lovely old town, bit touristy, but you can see why. The city boasts lines of beautiful crafted houses, wonderful temples and yummy Hida beef. The Japanese have some very tasty cows!

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We spent the day wandering around the old town, walking between wooden, serene hillside temples that are a world away from all the gold bling of Asia.

Afterwards we left the stunning tranquility of the Alps, on a magnificent train journey down the mountains and made our way to Hiroshima, for a somber few days.