Living on an Overseas Military Base

A very small percentage of Americans currently serve in the US military, which means that there is also a very small percentage of Americans who know what it is like to live overseas as an active duty military family. Obviously, everyone has a different experience with living overseas and has a different outlook on it. Maybe this will give you a little bit of insight as to what it is like to have this unique experience.

If you wanted to, you could stay on base for the whole tour

A military base is essentially its own little city and most things that you would find in the US you will also find here.

Schools, a grocery store, shopping stores, a gym (with a 50 meter pool!), a church, a firehouse… we have it all. We even have a skateboard park, movie theaters, multiple restaurants and fast food places, a dog park, athletic fields, a Christmas tree lot, a used car lot… and the list could go on and on. If you didn’t want to, you really wouldn’t ever have to leave (and some people don’t). But as you would imagine in a relatively small place, there is only one of everything and sometimes you aren’t going to be happy with what is available or find what you want. Want to go furniture shopping? Well on base there is just one place to go. Want to see a movie? Better hope it is the one the theater is showing that day. Commissary out of canned pumpkin during the fall? Grab your pitchfork and complain on Facebook with the rest of the villagers (this actually happened last month).

There are also numerous activities to do on base – running races, kids sports teams, cooking classes, woodworking classes… sometimes it begins to feel like you are at the worlds longest summer camp. This base really does do a nice job of trying to make sure people are happy and have things that will remind them of being in the US. The Harlem Globetrotters just came last week and musical artists (mostly American Idol runner ups and 90s pop stars) come around to give free concerts. Even if you did choose to never leave, you would have things to keep you busy.

Having everything so easily available on base is certainly nice in the first few days that you have moved here. However, as you get more comfortable with living in a new country going off base to do errands and do activities on your own seems less and less intimidating. Off base markets have much better meat and produce anyway!

It can be isolating

When we tell people in the US that we live in Japan, this is probably what they imagine…

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Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo. A very fun day trip from Yokosuka.. but not what Yokosuka Navy Base looks like!

The reality is that a military base is pretty plain looking and if you did not know where we lived or had never been here, you would really never be able to guess where this is.

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Home sweet home! 

As you can see, it doesn’t look like you are in Japan (I can see Mt Fuji on a clear day by walking down the street though), yet it doesn’t look or feel like you live in the United States either. You very often have the odd sensation of being neither here nor there, not in Japan or in the US. That is why it can be isolating, the feeling that you are just kind of in this other place is strange, and while it is starting to feel like home here, it still doesn’t feel like I entirely belong.

Technology and social media has made it much easier

FaceTime, Facebook, smartphones… these things have made moving halfway around the world so much easier. I talk to family just as much as I did when we lived in the US and sharing pictures and seeing people on FaceTime makes it seem like you are just as close to people as you were when you lived in the same country as them. It really is amazing that I can talk to people instantly who are thousands of miles away from me.

Social media has also made it easier. There are tons of Facebook groups for people here. Everything from pet owners, foodies, officer spouses, to runners. These groups can be really helpful in trying to learn about your new host country and people are (usually) very helpful in sharing knowledge, mistakes, and tips with others who share their same interests. As with all social media, drama does sometimes pop up and people aren’t always there to be helpful, but overall they are great to belong to (just ignore the people looking for Yokosuka Facebook fame).

The internet has also made the physical separation from my favorite stores much more bearable. Thank goodness for online shopping! Most things get shipped here in as little as ten days. Even though I can’t get Trader Joe’s shipped here (umm they would make a fortune if they shipped non perishable goods), it is still possible to do online Target runs and get Amazon prime items (minus the two day shipping).

There is a language barrier (duh)

When we got orders to Japan one of the first questions everyone would ask was whether or not we knew how to speak Japanese (no). The next thing people would say was “oh well, everyone there speaks English”. I can say for certain this is not true, and really why would it be? Of course there are some people who speak English, but people speak Japanese… because we are in Japan.

So, how do you live with the language barrier? Well for one, I have lessons with an absolutely awesome, amazing teacher who has made me feel way more comfortable with day to day things like running errands and asking for help. I am very, very, very far from fluent but I hope to eventually have a fairly good vocabulary that will allow me to have easy conversations with Japanese speakers.

Technology has also made it significantly easier to live with the language barrier. I seriously do not know how people got around before smartphones. Need to know how to get around on trains? Google Maps can help!

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Google Maps will tell you exactly what train to take and usually the platform to wait at, so much help!

Unfortunately, when it comes to driving, Google Maps is not as helpful…

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Ohhhh thanks Google, I will just stop on the road I am driving on for ten minutes while I figure out which directions this is. 

This is so frustrating because signs actually are usually also in English…

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Come on Google! If all of my settings are set to English surely you can change your directions to English also!

There are also lots of apps you can use to communicate with people. Google Translate is usually fairly dependable (I think). Just type in what you are trying to say and either show your phone to someone or try to say it out loud. Although Google Translate did lead me to accidentally buy my mom kelp tea instead of green tea (sorry mom). They are both green I suppose.

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Cross your fingers and hope the app is working correctly!

There are also apps that you can hover over Japanese writing and it will translate it in real time. These work some of the time, but shouldn’t be relied on for accurate translations…

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This is a bag of green tea (I think). For some reason this app always defaults to saying something is fatty tuna…
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This is a sauce for meat (I think), but apparently it is flavored with chewing gum, eggplant, and fatty tune, yum sounds delicious!
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These are ziplock bags, which I assume can go in the freezer, so it got it mostly right on the top box. However, the bottom box was the exact same thing and I was being told it was a box of small intestines and mushrooms… yikes!
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Oh my, a meal at this restaurant would surely be the climax of any visit to Japan!

So, overall the language barrier is sometimes hard. However, it is not impossible to get around and definitely not overwhelming on a day to day basis. If you have a smartphone and know a few key phrases then getting by is easy (well, easier).

You have great opportunities to see amazing things

It really is pretty awesome to live someplace that people in the US consider a once in a lifetime vacation spot. In the few months that we have lived here we have taken quite a few really fun day trips to close by areas. Here are some of the examples of things you can do near Yokosuka:

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See sake barrels at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo
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Go shopping in Harajuku in Tokyo
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Enjoy the neon lights and an izakaya in Shinjuku in Tokyo
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Check out the beautiful shrines and temples in Kamakura
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Cross Lake Ashi on a pirate boat in Hakone (arrrr)
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Go over the volcanic fumes of Owakudani in a gondola 
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See the Imperial Palace in Tokyo
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Eat delicious food and have fun shopping in Yokohama’s Chinatown
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Explore the island of Enoshima with its various shrines and caves

Hard to believe but all of these things are within two hours of Yokosuka and seeing them is for sure a perk of living here. If you are willing to leave base for a day you can see things that you would never see in the United States.

So, overall living overseas is an amazing experience and I am really happy we made the decision to come here. Does it occasionally have some challenges? Absolutely. Do I get homesick? Of course. But I also love doing something that growing up I never imagined I would be doing.

 

 

 

Searching for Treasures in a Tokyo Flea Market

Something I have been wanting to check out since we moved to Japan are the numerous markets that are put on almost every weekend at various spots around the Tokyo area. However, summer in Japan is unbearably hot and humid, and I decided that spending hours just idly walking around a large outdoor market was best left for cooler weather. Well, all of a sudden it’s October and when I saw an article pop up on my Facebook feed about the best markets to visit over the weekend I decided it was a great time to go check one out.

The market I chose to go visit was the Oedo Antique Market that is held at the Tokyo International Forum once or twice every month. I am almost finished unpacking our house and am starting to decorate, so I was hoping to find something to put in our new place that would add a little local character to our basic, plain home.

The Tokyo International Forum was an easy train ride from Yokosuka, just about an hour, and you can actually see it from the train platform, which makes the likelihood of getting lost less, thank goodness for small mercies. But after exiting the train station another sight caught my eye that made my heart flutter just a bit and my eyes fill with tears… a real American hamburger chain!

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OMG. How did I not know there was a Shake Shack in Japan?! I swear I heard angels singing when I saw this. 

Obviously Japan has so much delicious food. Every street is filled with restaurants selling sushi, tempura, ramen, yakitori, curry, and the list goes on and on. But, a good American hamburger is not something that is easy to come by here, and, honestly, it is one of the foods from the US that I miss a lot (honorable mention also goes out to Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, restaurants with a good Sunday brunch, and basically anything from Trader Joes). Unfortunately, the line for getting a hamburger, and shake I suppose, was pretty long and I decided I would come back one day when there was not a huge market going on. Farewell for now, burgers.

Ahem, anyway. After I resigned myself to the fact that I did not need a hamburger I walked around the market to see what goods were being offered. One of the most common items I saw was pottery, specifically small plates and bowls (my kryptonite).

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Must have self control… Do not need more bowls!
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Oh so tempting… I mean I need plates to eat, right? RIGHT?

As much as I love pottery and all things dining related. I passed on these. My kitchen is pretty small and I need to downsize my current collection of small bowls and plates before I add to it. But just like the hamburgers, I will be back to buy some pretty little plates to serve sushi on!

Another very popular item being sold were kimonos and the fabric sash (obi) that is tied around it. Stalls had piles and piles of them and people were just going through them looking for one that caught their eye.

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Various obi sashes and other miscellaneous pieces of fabric. Be prepared to dig!
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There were some expensive kimono, but many were under $10. A great bargain!

Something I was looking for was a picture to hang up, and I was hopeful that there would be some cheap(ish) pieces of artwork for sale.

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This poster caught my eye. However, it was about $160, which is more than I cared to spend on a movie poster… especially a movie that I don’t really like (too long, too racist…). 
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This stall has some gorgeous prints, some of which had dates from the early 1800s on them. However, they were also a wee bit more than I wanted to spend. Bummer.
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Besides prints, many of the shops had lots of vintage postcards and other little trinkets with images on them. 

So I kind of struck out with finding a cool print. However, there is another place I plan to go check out maybe later this week to see if they have anything. I did enjoy the people watching here, and there were lots of very interesting finds.

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This jacket looks very warm, and elaborate! I am not sure PETA would approve of the goods being sold at this booth though. 
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There was lots of fabric at this market, so beautiful!
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Need a tea kettle? I know where you can find an old one 🙂

Even though the market didn’t have exactly what I had been imagining for our house, I didn’t leave totally empty handed. I spotted a basket of fabric pieces on my second walk around that all had the same color pattern.

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My big purchase for the day!

The fabric reminded me of an idea I had seen here, on Pinterest, and I think it will look pretty cool on one of our many blank walls (townhouse problems…). Who knows, it may end up being a #pinterestfail, but I’ll give it a try!

One thing I was disappointed with about the flea market was the lack of food vendors. I assumed there would be people selling food as well, since street food is so popular here, but the Shake Shack was the only option around! Boo. While browsing I saw a sign pointing to Tokyo Station (not the same train station I had gone through to get there) and remembered a long ago thing I read about an underground ramen street there. This sounded intriguing enough to check out so off I went. I got pretty lost trying to find it, but once there it lived up to it’s name. There was a whole underground network of ramen shops.

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Yay for ramen, and signs in English!
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My chosen ramen shop, mostly because the line wasn’t crazy long. 
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Success! Nom nom nom.

All in all, not such a bad outing. I will for sure check out some of the other markets around town, and definitely go back and eat at Shake Shack!

Slurp All the Ramen!

I had a friend growing up whose grandmother would make ramen for us whenever we went over to her house, which, during the summer, was almost everyday. This was, of course, just your average ramen that you can buy for ten cents in US supermarkets. However, I still loved it. The noodles, the salty broth, the MSG.. it was all so delicious and I have fond memories of her grandmother serving us ramen which we happily slurped down on her back deck before hopping back in the pool for an afternoon of swimming.

My love for ramen did not fade as I grew up but it was never really a staple of my diet, not even in college. I enjoy cooking and I always considered ramen to be a quickly made food that you could not have much variety with. However, my views of it began to change as our move to Japan got closer. First, when we lived in Newport, Rhode Island, there was a small ramen shop called Boru. I actually tried it when we went up to Newport to go house hunting and I was blown away! There was egg in the ramen, and bamboo shoots, and big slices of pork! I was intrigued by this ramen but also suspicious because the people who ran the place looked very hipster and I was not sure whether these ingredients were things found in actual Japanese ramen.

Once we got orders for Japan I started watching every YouTube video I could find on Japanese culture and cuisine so I would have an idea of what to expect. As you can imagine there were tons of videos on ramen, a staple of the Japanese culinary scene. I was so excited to try real Japanese ramen in a real ramen shop that it was the first meal we ate when we got here. That first bowl was everything I imagined it would be… a big bowl of delicious salty broth with thick, chewy noodles and a large slice of roasted pork on top. It was just what I needed after a long international flight.

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Delicious ramen in Yokosuka.

Now that we have been here a few weeks, we have had a chance to try quite a few restaurants and lots of different types of food. But we have specifically sought out some of the better ramen around and it is becoming one of our favorite things to eat here. So, when we found out there was a ramen museum close by we made haste to go check it out!

The Shinyokohama Ramen Museum actually calls itself more of a theme park than a museum, and I can see why as there weren’t any large displays going over the long history of ramen in Japan. Instead, the inside was decorated to look like 1950s Tokyo and filled with famous ramen shops from all over Japan.

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The inside of the ramen museum, so cute!
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They even built little alleyways to mimic Tokyo streets.

Each ramen shop had a traditional vending machine out in front where you ordered your ramen from. Once inside and seated, you gave your ticket to the cook and they prepared your ramen for you. The really great thing about this place is that they had smaller sample sizes so you could try more than one type of ramen while there.

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Each restaurant had a vending machine out in front to place your order.
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The machines had little keys next to them for people who speak English.
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Enjoying my first bowl, this was a sample size!
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A pork based ramen with thinner noodles.
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A seafood based ramen with thicker noodles and extra spice added!

We both agreed that the Ramen Museum had the best ramen we had enjoyed up to that point in Japan. However, we knew that there must be better places out there that were not in a theme park. So after hearing about a Michelin rated ramen shop in Tokyo, we decided it was worth making the trip to go check it out.

Tokyo actually has more Michelin rated restaurants than anywhere in the world, well over 200 of them. Most are very expensive fine dining establishments. There are a few, however, that the average person can actually afford to eat at. Tsuta is a nine seat restaurant down a sleepy alley in Tokyo and has the distinction of being the first ramen shop in the world to get a Michelin star, and for under ten dollars you can eat there.

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The outside of Tsuta, a sign out front gives directions on how to eat there.

Since James had the 4th of July off, we decided to spend the day in Tokyo and eat here for lunch. While we were on the train we researched the restaurant more and read many articles written by people who had gotten there first thing in the morning to get a ticket in order to come back later in the day… we were a little bummed since we had not even boarded the train until 8:00. Would we even be able to eat once we got there?

Well, we decided that the worst that could happen was we would not get a ticket and then we would just find another delicious spot to eat. Tokyo obviously has no shortage of delicious dining establishments. We spent a few hours at Tsukiji Fish Market before heading over to Tsuta about 11:45. Oddly, there was no one out in front so we knocked on the door and went in. Once inside we were politely informed that the line was around the corner… bummer.

We walked to the back of the line and asked the couple in front of us about getting a ticket. They said that they had also just showed up without a ticket from the morning and were hopeful of getting inside. About 15 minutes later someone from the restaurant came by and upon seeing that we were ticketless told us to wait, so we did.

After about an hour we were ushered inside, ordered our ramen from the vending machine, and waited for our meal.

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Finally inside!

We got different types of ramen so we could compare the two different flavors. James got a salt based broth with white truffle oil and I got the soy sauce based broth with black truffle oil. A few minutes later, our ramen was delivered to us, it looked so good!

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Shio soba ramen with wonton.
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Shoyu soba ramen with a soft boiled egg.

The ramen really was so delicious. The broth of each type was full of flavor which the noodles absorbed wonderfully. The best part may have been the pork, which had clearly been slow roasted with delicious seasoning and was so tender you could simply pull it apart with your chop stick. The restaurant was incredibly quiet, but I think it was just everyone enjoying their long awaited for bowl of delicious ramen. Oishii!

After eating each bowl to the last drop we both agreed it was the best ramen we had ever had. I was happy and content after such a delicious meal, and just like I used to do when I was little, I got up and went off to enjoy the rest of my summer afternoon.

Touring the Local Area

Even though we have been in Japan for almost two weeks, we actually haven’t seen too much outside of the base. We have been pretty busy getting ourselves set up with a house, car, new phones, and all the other things that go along with a big move. However, we have gone out into town on a few occasions to check things out and try out the many great restaurants (more on food in another post!). Yokosuka is a Navy town, the United States has a large base here and so does Japan.

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You can see both the Japanese (left side) and American (right side) naval bases in this picture. Interestingly, neither of them are actually called bases. It is the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force and United States Fleet Activities Yokosuka, respectively.
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Yikes!

Yokosuka is a city of about 400,000 and a little over an hour away (by train) from Tokyo. Like I said, we really haven’t explored it too much yet except for the area right around the base, but we will in the next few weeks.

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The main street right outside of the base. Yes, that is a replica of the Statue of Liberty you see in the background. It sits atop a Japanese love hotel, the Hotel Goddess. Love hotels are hotels that you pay by the hour for or that cater to couples looking for something, ahem… different.

This might make me sound like a total idiot, but I never realized how much of Japan was mountainous. About 70% of the land is mountainous terrain, and much of it is so rugged that it is not suitable for agriculture or dwellings. The base itself is very rocky and rugged too, with lots of tunnels and caves everywhere. In fact, during World War II, over 250 caves and 20 extensive tunnel networks were built in the immediate area to protect the Imperial Japanese Navy from bombings. You can still see a lot of these around the base today.

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There are numerous tunnels around the US Navy base in Yokosuka.

Besides just being very busy, we also were prohibited from leaving the base area until we had completed a required introductory course on living here. The five day long course went over numerous things such as base procedures (don’t do anything dumb), emergency procedures (don’t panic), getting around using public transportation (don’t get lost), proper manners (don’t be rude), driving (don’t get in an accident), and repeatedly reinforced that if you mess up terribly you will go to a Japanese prison and have to eat fermented fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next 20 years. Seriously, we watched a video on it and it was kind of terrifying.

Despite learning about all the ways we could end up in a Japanese prison, we got brave and decided to start venturing out and learning about the area. We started by going to a beautiful neighboring city (about a 20 minute train ride away) called Kamakura.

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Up on a hill overlooking the rooftops of Kamakura.

Kamakura is a city known for having a lot of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and is a popular spot for tourists to visit. When we visited there were a lot of people who came in their yukatas (summer kimonos) and were walking around enjoying the sites.

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After enjoying a tasty lunch we visited Kamakura’s most important shrine, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. This shrine was founded in 1063 and has a commanding view of the city below.

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The steps leading up to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine.
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Up close view of the gorgeous architecture.
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Torii gates marked the entrance to a smaller shrine within the same complex.

After walking around this shrine for a while we decided to go check out another one of Kamakura’s famous sites, the Great Buddha.

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The Great Buddha is 43.8 feet tall and weighs 93 tonnes! It is made of bronze and dates to 1252.

We took a little break here and enjoyed some green tea soft serve ice cream while sitting in the shade of the Buddha, pretty cool! The temperature was in the mid 80s and the humidity was 94% this day, so that was actually my third ice cream cone… don’t judge.

After seeing the Great Buddha we stopped at a Buddhist temple called Hasedera. This time of year it is famous for it’s large hydrangea garden. No one is totally sure when the temple was first established, some say in the 8th century, but there are official records of it dating back to the 12th century.

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The temple was quite large, this is just one of the beautiful buildings.
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The whole hillside was covered in hydrangeas.
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Pretty!

Now that we have had our first glimpse of Japan we are eager to get out and start exploring more! What a beautiful country!