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Gion Hatanaka: Kyoto, Japan

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Situated in the wonderful Gion District of Kyoto, Gion Hatanaka is easily one of the best city Ryokan experiences I’ve had in all of Japan.

To begin, Gion is a magical part of Kyoto– the setting of the novel Memoirs of a Geisha. It’s a place to see Geiko’s (the local term for Geisha) walking from appointment to appointment, and explore the winding an beautiful stone streets of Kyoto. It’s walking distance to Yasaka Shrine, Gion Corner and Maruyama park. It’s totally convenient to the city, but inside the Ryokan’s walls you feel secluded and tucked away. Quiet and peaceful.

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We stayed in a Kamogawa room– a basic but gorgeous spread. Each room uses ancient Japanese building principles in both the internal and external structure. As most of my trips to Japan have reminded me, things in Japanese hotels and Ryokan’s just seem to work. The layouts are smart, the outlets and switches are all in the right places.

Also, I love the Tatami mat flooring in Japanese Ryokan’s, so I felt right at home.  The smell is divine!

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There is a bath at the Ryokan (separate for men and women) in the lower level. It’s a traditional ‘koyamaki‘ wooden bath which gives off a wonderful pine aroma. It’s great after a long day of walking around the city and hiking in the mountains. It wasn’t until after staying there that I read this has been rated the best bath in Kyoto. I can see why! The water isn’t mountain onsen hot spring water, but it sure felt great after the long day.

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I absolutely adore the clean lines and geometry in this picture.  Japanese simplicity in design is very soothing to the mind.

For dinner, prepare to have your mind blown with traditional Kyoto kaiseki (Kyoto is known for this). Incredible Matsutake Mushroom soup, Seafood Nabe, and other traditional Kyoto specialities!

Some of my favorite dishes from the meal are below.

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Ikura on white fish has never tasted so good.

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Yes those are delicious little fried fish!

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Time for a feast. It was course after course just like this.

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Everything was looked delicate in presentation and preparation.

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Plum wine with flower petals. I can still taste this one, incredible.

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Although Kyoto isn’t known for sushi, this was as good as anything I’ve had anywhere else!

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A vegetable dish with yuzu citrus on top.

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A rabbit mochi (sweet pounded rice) treat.

Gion Maiko

Although we didn’t experience the maiko evening with our dinner– from the pictures and reviews we read, it is definitely on the list for our next visit!

Rates vary depending on the season. Booking ahead is highly reccomended, and can be secured through our friends at the Ryokan Collection.  Thanks to Gion Hatanaka for taking care of us and the incredible visit.

Yama No Chaya: Hakone, Japan

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Anyone that knows me knows one of my favorite places in Japan is Hakone, the mountainous hot spring town outside of Tokyo. It’s hard to explain why it’s so special because on paper it just looks like a total tourist trap– but it’s really one of the most magical places I’ve discovered in my many trips around Japan.

Luckily (and one of the reasons I like it), it’s very convenient to get to. It sits only 45 minutes from Tokyo by train or 2 hours by car which makes escaping there for a night or two even more appealing.

My American friends who haven’t been don’t get it though. They say, what’s so good about a volcanic mountain town? Why would you want to go there every time you’re in Japan when there is so much else to see? I just tell them one word: Onsen. To them it just sounds like I’m talking about a “hot tub”, but it’s not just a hot tub. It’s so much more.

Onsen is an ancient tradition, and if you ask me I think the volcanic waters of Hakone carry magical healing powers that have to be felt to be believed.

But a good Onsen isn’t complete without a great Ryokan to stay in. In it’s simplest form, Ryokan’s are Japanese style inns that serve you dinner and breakfast in your room. In Hakone, Ryokan’s are known for their incredible cuisine and of course, wonderful hot springs you can use throughout your stay.

On one of my most recent trips to Japan, I checked out a very special and hidden Ryokan called Yama No Chaya in the mountains of Hakone, right on the rushing Hayakawa river. The name literally translates to “mountain teahouse” and has been a friendly place where people can drop in for tea for more than 50 years.

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The property is built into the mountainside on the other side of the river from the road. It’s quiet and secluded from everything. You arrive after crossing a one-way suspension bridge (awesome) and driving up a a steep stone driveway.

We arrived during a huge rain storm, so we couldn’t wait to get inside!

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Beautiful bamboo trees growing everywhere, welcoming us to our home away from home.

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Getting good photographs of the outside of Yama No Chaya is tricky. The Ryokan (probably by design) almost camouflages into the hillside.

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After arriving into the first part of the building here you remove your shoes (and say goodbye to them for the rest of the time you’re inside), and then you enter a land of tatami mats. Socks or barefoot only please!

You’re immediately hit with the distinct and wonderful and unique smell of the tatami and wood structure of the Ryokan.

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We were led upstairs to this beautiful lobby like lounge area with a bar that had a great view of the trees and river below. It was here that we met our host, the Okami. She was essentially the ryokan manager and she checked us in and introduced us to our Nakai, who would be our room host serving us meals and taking care of us during our stay for the couple nights we were there.

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We were led to our room upstairs– we stayed in what was called a Tsukimidai style room. It was very basic and almost Zen like. It was simply made up of tatami mats and a table in the daytime. At night, the table was pushed aside and buckwheat futons with luxurious down comforters were put in it’s place after dinner.

Tsukimidai literally translates to “moon-viewing deck,” and these specific rooms have all been designed with this in mind. Great big windows and comfortable lounge chairs face outwards towards the sky from the comfort of your room.

Yama No Chaya has 15 rooms in total, and 7 different types to choose from. Some have balconies, some have private open air hot spring baths, while others (like the one we stayed in) had no private bath but a nice view of the mountain, river and sky (and an incredible sunrise reflecting on the trees). They also have one room which has Western style beds if sleeping on futons on the floor isn’t your thing (it’s mine, and we loved it!).

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After settling in, we headed to check out the baths before dinner. There were 5 different baths sprinkled throughout the property. 4 of them were open to the outside, which was extraordinarily beautiful. The fresh air comes right at you as you’re sitting in the most amazing setting. Above is the curtains hiding the entry to the female baths.  Red is for women, blue is for males!

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A beautiful lamp hanging in front of bamboo groves leading to the baths.

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The water comes from the Tonosawa hot spring which was discovered in the Nara period (710 to 794) and became known as one of the seven great hot springs of Hakone. The crystal clear boiling water is pumped up to the hotel from 300m below, temperature controlled, and then released into the baths, like the one here.

Part of why I love the Onsen experience so much is you must spend a good amount of time cleaning yourself before you get into the baths. Right outside of this photo is a line of faucets and stools for cleaning yourself.

Onsen’s are deeply peaceful and reflective places, so it’s a good time to check in with your body, clean between your toes, behind your ears, and really scrub yourself free of dirt, grime and even negative feelings.

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A shot of a private bath connected to one of the rooms.

The public baths are separated by gender, and then cleaned and switched throughout the day so you get to experience all the different types of atmospheres the baths create.

There are no swim suits allowed, and you don’t bring in any soap, shampoo, or contaminates into the water. So it’s crucial that you get extremely clean and make sure all the soap is off your body before you enter. If you book a room with your own bath, like this one shown here, you can share it with your partner anytime– but you still clean before you get in as if it were public. It’s also possible to book a bath for one hour privately in advance to share the experience with your family or partner.

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The indoor bath.

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This water is as crystal clear and healing as it gets.

I’m not a scientist, but the volcanic nature of the water in Japan means the water is packed with incredible minerals that heals skin defects, helps aches and pains, and turns your whole body as soft as the day you were born. One minute in a Japanese Onsen and you’ll be hooked, I promise.

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After Onsen we headed back to our room as our nakai was getting our room ready for dinner. Dinner is served Kaiseki style in a ryokan, which means a traditional multi-course dinner. It’s a pretty long affair and you’re given tastes of everything you can imagine.  One word of advice: Pace yourself.  It can go on forever!

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Mouth watering Sashimi.

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More incredible sashimi. So photogenic!

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Every meal in Japan comes with pickles of some type, beautifully prepared.

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A salad with tuna and radish and fruit.

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Yep, that’s fish head in some type of stew and it was delicious.

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I don’t remember the Japanese name for this, but it was a unique potato.

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Grilled fish with miso.

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Two pots of rice, cooking at our table!

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One of my most favorite dishes in Japan is this soup stock made with yuzu citrus and matsutake mushrooms. Incredibly delicate, warming, and a unique taste I’ve never been able to find or replicate anywhere else in the world.

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Tuna with fresh wasabi.

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This is a creamy chestnut-like concoction. If I could have it everyday, I think I would.

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Some pumpkins and a piece of mackerel with horseradish.

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Tofu topped with ikura and wasabi.

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Lightly fried vegtables with fresh salt.

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Fish with baby corn, peppers and Japanese pumpkin.

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Rice, ready now!

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And finally, a berry-jello like desert that I’ll never forget. A refreshing way to end a long kaiseki style meal!

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And here’s what breakfast looks like the next morning. Some pickles, eggs, and other delicacies.

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And the best part ever, tuna lightly cooked by pouring hot water on it over a bed of rice. I can’t tell you how delicious this was at eight in the morning!

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After dinner drinks at the bar. Beautifully illuminated Sake bottles look great with the lighting.

Incredible facilities, wonderful staff and a truly special dining experience– Yama No Chaya was a treat, I highly recommend visiting if you make it to Japan and want an easy and luxurious side trip out of Tokyo!  The staff were careful of our dietary restrictions and allergies (you’ll see, no beef here), and were there with for us whenever we needed them.  I’ll be back!

The best way to book Yama No Chaya is through our friends at the Ryokan Collection on their website or directly by email to enquiry@ryokancollection.com

Giving Back To Japan

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I’m back in Japan, but this time the purpose of my trip is much different than usual. I’m not here to shop, I’m not here to meet people on business, or to sing karaoke.

I’m here in service, and I’m here to give back.

Long story short: I’ll be joining a mental health team led by my father up to parts of Sendai and nearby Fukushima.

I’ve been given my radiation dosimeter and mask, and will be taking other precautions to remain safe– but this will undoubtedly be a difficult and reflective experience.

For decades, my father has led mental health care professionals into places of terrible natural and man-created disasters. I rarely have had a chance to join him, but the tragedy in Japan hit me too close to my heart to not do my part.  I owe Japan infinitely for it’s inspiration and impact on my life.

Primarily, our team will conduct trainings for volunteers, school officials, nurses, social workers, as well as workshops directly aimed at local children affected by the earthquake and tsunami disaster– all to fight off PTSD which affects so many people after these kinds of disasters.

This is his team’s second trip here already this year– you can read (and see) more about the first trip here.

To help raise money and pay for the hard costs and realities of this kind of work, we broke down the prices of travel, airport shuttles, gas for the cars, translators, food, radiation detection equipment, and more. Check it out, and if you can kick in, every little bit helps.

You can read our journal containing updates from the field and reflections here.

I will also be tweeting as much as I can from the field, and updating with pictures on here.

Wish us luck, and thanks for reading.

Heartfelt For Japan

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Molo is taking their felted wool hobo bag and transforming it into a nightlife staple. The portable luminaria [hobo lantern] runs on an energy efficient LED light that can be plugged into a wall or battery-powered for lighting on-the-go.

They are currently making 50 special limited edition versions of this luminary with the Japanese “sun-disc” hand painted on the lantern and its packaging. The full proceeds of our heartfelt lantern for Japan will be donated to support Architecture for Humanity’s reconstruction efforts in Japan. These special lanterns will be available at molo’s exhibit in Milan at the Temporary Museum for New Design.

Behance for Japan

behancejapan.jpgIncredible outpouring of creative help inspired by the crisis in Japan. Behance began to catalog the growing collection.

In the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the world has been rallying to provide relief funds and support. The creative community, too, has been responding. We’ve seen a surge of inspiring, touching, and emotionally-charged creative work posted on Behance in response to this tragedy – some of which are for sale, with proceeds going to relief funds (look for the “Buy This” tag in each project). This collection chronicles the creative response to crisis on the Behance Network

Corter for Japan

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Another easy way to support Japan. Thanks Marisa.

Corter Leather, a small shop based entirely out of one room in Massachusetts, just announced they will be selling these cuffs with hand painted snaps for $20 to support relief efforts in Japan. All proceeds will be donated to the Red Cross. From the Corter journal about the bracelets:

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