Overnight road trip: Tokyo to Hakone and Mount Fuji

IMG_4294 (2)This was our second visit to Japan. It was April and cherry blossom festival in Tokyo and Kyoto, but this time we wanted to see something else. So, we booked a car. After 11 hours flight from Europe, we spent half a day and a night fighting jetlag in cherry blooming Tokyo. Had some lovely sushi, a stroll in the Imperial Palace East Garden, and – after several obstacles – a swim in the hotel pool: (no bikinis, no jewelry allowed, bathing cap compulsory!)  Next morning we went to pick up our rental at Nippon RentaCar. 

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Our destination was Hakone national park, favorite holiday spot for many Tokyo citizens, 100 km from Tokyo at the foot of Mount Fuji. It is a mountainous area with hot springs, ‘onzens’ (baths), cruises on Lake Ashi-no-ko, golf courses, ropeway, cable-car, shrines, and several art museums.

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We left the car rental office in Tokyo, my husband in the driver’s seat. After 800 meter, the police stopped us. (Policemen stand on practically every street corner, directing traffic vigorously with whistle and stick). Luckily, the police was content with seeing my husband’s European passport and driving license. We did not show his international driver’s licence from 1996. A police officer noted something in a book and explained to us in poor English that we had moved too early into a turning lane. Then, he smiled and wished us a good day. I love Japanese politeness.

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We headed straight to the motorway, and all went fine, until we got stuck in a traffic jam for an hour. We knew that Hakone was a popular weekend destination, but we had not expected so many Tokyo citizens to go on a Sunday! Well, it turned out they didn’t: Most cars turned off at the next exit, phew… By the way, driving on Japanese highways can be costly. We paid a total of 160 DKK/22 EUR for a stretch of 80 km. And luckily, we had cash, because not all toll booths accepted credit cards.

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Part of our reason for going by car rather than train was to experience the countryside and towns along the way. However, what we saw through our car windows did not tempt us to spend more time on towns in this area: Unattractive concrete buildings with no link (as far as we could see) to the tradtional Japanese wooden houses with tile roofs and bonsai gardens.

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There was snow in Hakone, and the damp cold surprised us: I normally link Asia with warmer temperatures. We checked in at Hakone Sengokuhara Prince Hotel, a golf hotel with mountain views. Here, we gave the receptionist a headache because we had booked a triple room for the two of us. The receptionist staff discussed the matter in low voice, and kept asking us to wait 5 minutes. As we sat waiting, my mobile rang: It was a Japanese lady from booking.com. She had had a call from the receptionist and wanted to know if I would change my reservation to a double room at reduced price? I explained that we had deliberately booked a triple room and that we accepted the price. The moment I hung up, the receptionist gave us the keys! He had been listening in on my conversation.

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We explored the area by car, cable car, ropeway, and bus. In the evening, we dined in a restaurant close to the hotel, where we had a small discount because they didn’t accept credit cards, and the bill turned out to be 200 YEN more than our cash reserves. ATMs are widely used (there was one 50 meters from the restaurant), but far from all take foreign credit cards. 

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The hotel was located 3 km from Lake Ashi, and we asked the hotel staff if there were a hiking trail to the lake? They pulled out a map, on which we found a path and a bridge crossing a stream on the golf course. However, the staff told us we could not cross the bridge. Instead they suggested us to take a bus! At six o’clock next morning, we jumped the fence to the golf course and crossed the bridge. We found the hiking trail, but this time the fence was too tall to jump. Nevertheless, we had a beautiful sunrise hike on the golf course.

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After breakfast, we checked out and drove on along the lake, heading for Mount Fuji. Finally, the top of the mountain appeared between clouds, and I jumped out to take a photo. Didn’t quite make it, hmmmpfff.  

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Our trip back to Tokyo went smoothly. We followed the flow and ran a lot faster than the 80 km someone had told us was the speed limit. Back in Tokyo, we check in at New Otani, a large hotel with a lovely Japanese garden. We particularly appreciated the executive lounge with champagne happy hours!

Monday night, after a ridiculiously-expensive-but-very-nice Kobe beef dinner in one of the hotel restaurants, we strolled downtown to a lively near-pedestrian street with colorful neon lights and Japanese people in suits and trench coats.

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We spotted a games room and went in. There was an inferno of noise. People sat side by side starring into game machines. Each person fed his machine with money and pressed one button, then the machine blinked and balls rolled. Nothing else! It was an Aha! experience for us. Opium of the people. We failed to understand the attraction. Apart from the fact that, for once, smoking was allowed. Just take a look at the satisfied facial expression on the smoker below!

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If labor inspection authorities (as we know them in Denmark) had stopped by, the place would have been closed immediately.

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The next morning, a long weekend in Japan was over, and I jumped on a shuttle bus and waved goodbye first of all to my husband, but also to the politely bowing hotel staff, before driving through cherry blooming Tokyo to the airport.

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Read about my first Aha! experiences in Japan

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Portuguese paradise Island Madeira – not just for pensioners

The volcanic island of Madeira has a lot to offer

Madeira is popular with pensioners. This was confirmed to me during our February holidays. And it’s ok. Even though we are family with teenagers. And February is a fine time to visit, if you can live with temperatures between 13C and 22C, and light showers.

Wet walks

Worst were the days, when visibility in the mountains was less than 2 meters: Not ideal for a walking holiday along the Levadas, the old irrigation canals. Luckily, we hiked in fine weather, and on rainy days we rented a car and toured the island. That was when we discovered Madeira is like Swiss cheese; riddled with tunnels.

Our 12 km hike, Levada do Furado, was on a good path through a wooded mountainous stretch. We saw blooming mimosa trees, waterfalls, and snowy peaks. After the hike, we were picked up by our enthusiastic driver who came straight from the mountain top, where he had seen snowflakes! He even had it on video! The wow effect on us was limited. We had just left Denmark covered in snow two days earlier.

Cliffs, waterfalls, natural pools

The north coast is dramatic and stunningly beautiful with steep cliffs, myriad waterfalls, deep gorges, and pent villages. A great lunch stop with fabulous views was Quinta do Furao (thanks for the tip, Ewa!).

In Porto Moniz on the island’s northeastern tip, we had ice cream and were spellbound by the natural rock pools, formed by volcanic lava.

Cozy town of Funchal

We spent a few days strolling the main town, Funchal: We visited the market (open all day), tasted exotic fruits, did some shopping, watched street art, and tried out several restaurants in the old town.

Mozart had good quality and a bit of everything, while Gavião Novo just accross had great seafood. We dined late, and often some dishes were sold out: We took it as a sign of fresh ingredients. The Ritz on the main street had both tasty food and dessert options, open air seating on the balcony, and a funny waiter :o). The restaurant is named after its founder, a New York businessman with Swiss roots who fell in love with a girl from Madeira.

Cable car up, sleigh ride down

A cable car 560 runs meters up the mountain to Monte, a fashionable suburb where especially many rich British families used to stay during winter season. (The British have left a strong footprint on Madeira: They occupied the island during the Napoleonic wars, and British businessmen had great influence on Madeira’s economy for centuries).

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From the cable car, we enjoyed the view over Funchal’s identical colored rooftops, but we were puzzled to see so many burned houses and trees. Afterwards, I found out that in 2016, Madeira was hit by a wildfire which, according to nytimes.com, destroyed 150 homes and killed three people.

The Tropical Garden in Monte might sound boring for teenagers. Nevertheless, we all enjoyed an hour’s walk in the peaceful  garden with photo shooting and a glass of Madeira wine (included in entrance fee, of course).

We also had to try a “Toboggan” sleigh ride from Monte down towards Funchal: A strange, fun, and breakneck activity: You sit in a braided armchair on waxed runners, controlled by two drivers. The tour distance is 2 km and lasts 10 minutes. From there, you have either walk or grab a taxi the last stretch down to Funchal.

Hotel with a history

We stayed at Hotel Pestana Miramar, 10-15 minutes’ walk from the center of Funchal. Our “spring room” was in the old mansion, which was decorated with classical furniture and oil paintings.

To our surprise, several of the paintings were Danish, and a staff member told us the story: The original owner of the mansion was a shipping magnate, and at that time it had been a custom among ships owners to exchange paintings when docking in foreign harbors.

No crowds here

We had plenty of space both on our private terrace, in the (ice cold) pool, and in the gym (another benefit of a pensioner holiday destination). In fact, other tourists’ whereabouts were a bit of a mystery to us: Although we arrived on a full plane from Denmark, streets were never crowded, and there was no need to book for dinner. Had tourists got lost in the cloudy mountains? Probably not. Our plane home was full.

Next time Madeira Carnival

If we ever get a chance to visit Madeira again, I hope it will be during Carnival: We saw them setting up decorations, and the Carnival started only five days after our return!!

Another reason to go back is to visit Madeira’s little sister, Porto Santo island. It can be done as a day trip by ferry. We might even catch a glimpse of whales and dolphins on the way, since both are common to see in the waters of Madeira.

More photos from our trip here

Have you read my blog post on the French island Réunion?

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La Réunion – French hidden gem

Active holidays on Réunion

You don’t have to be a Francophile to visit the tiny French island Réunion in the Indian Ocean. But it helps. Locals speak Creole and French as their official language, and on our eight days’ visit right after Christmas, we met almost exclusively French tourists. The reason might be that the only direct flights go from France (apart from regional ones from Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles and South Africa).

Sharks and surfers

We stayed at the trendy Hotel Boucan Canot on the west coast, 30 km south of the administrative capital, Saint-Denis, and 40 km from the airport. The hotel is situated on a rocky spur at the northern end of the beach in Boucan Canot, with excellent surfing and diving. If you dare. Because the island is notorious for shark attacks, which in 2011 made authorities ban all swimming off the island beaches. In Boucan Canot, there was a shark net along the beach, but unfortunately, it was broken during our stay. Life guards kept a firm eye on beach guests, and whenever someone did more than dip a toe in the water, the guards blew their whistles and shouted. Outside guard time, we saw surfers making wild stunts close to the rocks.

Adrenaline kicks for beginners and experienced

But, why risk being bitten by a shark to have an adrenaline kick, when Réunion offers so many other activities? There is paragliding in Saint-Leu,  canyoning in the steep volcanic mountains, and 900 km hiking trails in breathtaking scenery, e.g. to the active volcano, Piton de la Fournaise. Not so breathtaking for us, though, because of fog.

Horseback-riding is also possible, even for beginners (like us, who showed up in shorts, me with a backpack: Had not considered how to get camera and biscuits out of the backpack, while at the same time trying to control the reins!) We had a fun ride, though, to the beautiful volcanic lake Grand Étang. None of us had control of our horses. Luckily, the guide had control of all of us.

A fish called Marlin

Big game fishing is another option. And I mean big! One morning, my husband and our teenage son went on a boat fishing trip from Port de Saint-Gilles, and our son caught a 3 meter long Marlin, 170 kilo!! He was tied to the boat to avoid falling overboard while pulling the fish, and my husband told me afterwards he had been worried the boat might flip because of rough water. Luckily, all fishermen returned safely to shore. It was an extraordinary catch, even for the boat owner, who wanted pictures of the young fisherman and his catch! Réunion is said to have a “no-kill” program, but sadly, the boat owner did not release the fish to the water after the photo session.

Melting pot

The island population is a melting pot of Africans, Europeans, Indians, Tamils, Chinese and people of other origins. This is reflected in the food: Restaurants offer a happy mix of Chinese, French and Creole cuisine. Of course, we had to try the regional specialty ‘Carri’, which is a mixed stew with rice. Not that impressing, to be honest, be eatable.

Vanilla and pastel colors

Réunion has jungle vegetation, waterfalls, vanilla farms, and pastel-colored, tranquil mountain villages. When driving around in our rental car, we found out that almost everything was closed around Christmas and New Year, including the vanilla farm we had been planning to visit. Instead, we met a Rastafarian man at the Saturday market in Saint-Gilles, who sold us the fattest Bourbon vanilla beans I have ever seen. Later, I found our Rastafarian friend on Facebook :o)-

French paradise

If the French prefer to keep La Reunion to themselves as a secret national paradise, I totally understand. We had a long journey, 11 hours from Amsterdam via Paris, including an airport change. But, with one hour time difference, there is no jet lag when flying from Europe, and holiday activities can start from day one. Réunion is truly a hidden gem.

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More photos from Réunion

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British rental marked has not heard of Brexit

Love London, but not British tenancy

Some of you might have read my post last year “Two-in-one-move“. It was about splitting up as a family between London and Denmark. That was my first encounter with British bureaucracy and the lack of British tenancy rights.

Today, 1½ years and a Brexit referendum later, nothing seems to have changed. Before moving into his London apartment, my husband reported several deficiencies to the property managing company, including broken electronic blinds. Since then, we have sent dozens of emails, with no effect. Of course, not being able to look out the window is not the end of the world. It is worse to live without heating in December and January! The heater broke down on December 5. After numerous emails, threats (although withholding rent is not allowed) and a bad cold, we have been granted reimbursement of our expenses for one tiny temporary electronic heater. Hooray!

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Should we move?

There are available apartments in London, with prices as steep as before the Brexit referendum. Viewings can be arranged, provided you are willing to disclose everything about yourself including age, income, employer, children, weight, shoe size (ok, maybe not the last two). We saw a few apartments and agreed to have a draft contract sent over on one. Never heard a word from the real estate agent since. Apparently, London’s’ estate agents do not work on commission!

Thankful for spring and my home country

Britain’s real estate market reminds me of the Wild West, and I feel grateful to live in Denmark, where tenants are protected by the Danish Rent Act. Well, spring is approaching, so no rush here, my husband has spare sheets and blankets and will stay warm until next winter.

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For other unfortunate tenants and people moving to London, here is a bit of guidance.

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