Somehow my life seems to have raced past me and I'm not sure where it all went. I swear I was playing Barbie dolls with Lizzie down the street just a few moments ago, but actually it was 20 years and I've long outgrown Barbies.
Josh knew that this year's birthday was leaving me feeling a bit down so he very sneakily planned a surprise trip for me. I came in late on the 14th and he told me pack a bag because we were going on a trip the next day. This was very out of the ordinary for Josh so it made me all the more excited to go on an unknown birthday adventure.
We stopped off at the Harukas building あべのハルカス in Tennoji 天王寺 to grab lunch before our afternoon train departure time. I usually feel a bit meh about department store restaurants here, but the one we chose was awesome. So-honke Naniwa Soba does "soba-shabu" or soba cooked shabu-shabu style. For about 2,500 yen per person, we got four helpings of chewy soba noodles, tons of vegetables, rice, pickles, and a few slices of wagyu that'll make you groan it's so good. I kept trying to spoon the shabu shabu broth in my bowl to drink it all up.
While we were eating lunch is when Josh revealed all to me. He had booked tickets on the Blue Symphony 青のシンフォニー, a new sightseeing train from Abenobashi Station 大阪阿部野橋駅 to Yoshino 吉野駅. We had talked about riding it later in the year if we got time, but I figured it would be a small miracle if we managed to get tickets. I was jumping up and down from excitement as we waited for the train to be cleaned up and I was the first person to rush on the car. Japan is a country full of train nerds and so many people surrounded the train to take pictures. Actually the entire train ride at every station people would crowd around to snap a pic. We saw a guy standing far off behind a rice field in the middle of nowhere waiting to to get a shot of the Blue Symphony with his bajillion dollar camera.
Kintetsu Railways put a lot of care into making this a comfortable experience. The deep green seats are soft and invite you to take a nap. There are art deco style lamps on the train car walls as well as automatic doors that open into the next car. There are only 3 train cars and the middle one is a bar and eating area. They have a variety of alcohol and juices, all made in Japan. Josh and I decided to go for the small bottles of wine that came with small plastic wine cups. They were 650 yen for the bottle which I thought was reasonable. Since it was my birthday trip we got the cake set (1,100 yen) which came with coffee. The wine was pretty mediocre to be honest. It tasted like unsweetened grape juice, but I didn't mind because I was drinking wine on a train. The cake, however, was fantastic. It's a Blue Symphony original cake and I wish I could get one everyday. The top was a spice pear jam and the bottom part was a crunchy chocolate tart crust and caramel filling. Ugh, I want another one just thinking about it.
Unfortunately my hour and 10 minutes of bliss had to end sometime. I almost didn't care about our end destination. I wanted to get back on that train and ride it all day. I joked with Josh that I could never ride local trains again.
It was a little after 3pm when we pulled in and already the light was fading. Because it off-season we decided to take the cable car up, which was a little bit terrifying. It was our 4th time to Yoshino, but we had never taken the cable car because the line was usually an hour long and the walk up is maybe 20 minutes. That ride was a bumpy one. Everyone kept shrieking because the car was swaying and bouncing every 30 seconds. Thankfully we made it all in one piece.
We had only been to Yoshino 吉野山 during sakura season so I wasn't sure what to expect. Instead of a complete mad house, it was silent. Very few of the shops were open and at times we were the only people around. It was like my perfect dream land. I was running around a small traditional Japanese town and almost no one else was there. We were stopping to take pictures every two seconds. The light was ethereal on those mountains and just the slightest tinge of color was starting to show on the trees. I wanted that afternoon to last forever, but we had to go on to our hotel.
Josh had booked us a room at Hounkan 芳雲館 for that night. He warned me before that he wasn't sure what to expect because the reviews were either great or awful, but for some reason this hotel was all he could find when he was searching. I'm not sure why he had such a hard time finding a hotel as the mountain was basically deserted, but I was thrilled to stay there. The staff were incredibly polite and made a dinner reservation for us at a nearby restaurant. While our room was being prepared, we sat in the tea area overlooking the mountains and a small temple area while we ate warabi mochi わらび餅 and tea.
The whole place was a bit worn, but I thought that was part of its charm. I felt like I had been transported to 1960s Japan and I was living for it. We always get a room with a crap view so when we opened the door to our room I started squealing at the view we had. We we could see the valley below us and the mountains in front. We saw in front of the windows watching the sky change into a few brilliant shades of orange, pink, and purple before the sky went dark and slowly the moon started rising above the mountain. It was truly magical. There was a full moon that evening and we could see it peeking above the mountain and then taking its place in the night sky. Unfortunately, we had to go for dinner or we would have been there all night.
They drove us down the mountainside to Shizukate i静亭, a small Japanese restaurant and one of two open in the area that night. The guy at the hotel had been pretty lackluster in describing it. He showed me some pictures and it looked like pretty typical stuff like udon and donburi. We weren't expecting much, just a place to fill our bellies. The modern warm wood interior overlooking a pitch black sky was warm and cozy. The menu immediately surprised us. They had beautiful looking tempura sets, duck nabe courses, a duck hamburg set, and duck udon set. Well, of course we got all the duck. I wish we had brought any sort of camera because the food was beautifully presented and sooo delicious. Josh's hamburg 鴨ハンバーグ didn't taste a lot like duck, but it was the moistest hamburg we had both ever tried. My duck udon 鴨うどん was sublime. The broth was so rich and the noodles were thin and chewy. Mine came with the pressed sushi, Kakinoha sushi 柿の葉寿司, and while it was fishy tasting, it was lightly sweetened and probably the best tasting mackerel I've had in the country. The woman who ran the place ate a quiet meal separate from us where she cleaned persimmon leaves to use for sushi the next day. We were so full, it was a struggle to climb up that mountain to get back to our hotel.
When we came back, our warm futons had been laid out for us. We changed into their yukatas and made our way down to the baths. I was the only one in there which was a relief since I had just had some more added to my tattoo by Gakkin. The outdoor baths showed a clear view of the full moon and it felt magical sitting outside listening to the water in my private rock tub.
We woke up the next morning to a hearty breakfast. It was your typical Japanese breakfast, but everything was excellently prepared. We grilled these puffed fried tofu pieces over a little grill and ate it with soy sauce and ginger. If someone knows the name of it, let me know please! And if anyone is curious, yes, you do wear your yukata to the breakfast area in the morning.
The weather was bright and crisp as we headed out. The hotel staff bowed low and let us out in the streets and into the best part of the whole trip, Yoshino's Fall Festival. That'll will have to wait for it's own post though.
You can buy a ticket for the Blue Symphony train at Kintetsu stations and some Hanshin stations. Josh bought them at Hanshin Sannomiya station. The tickets are an additional 720 yen per person on top of the fare from Abenobashi to Yoshino. You can buy them exactly one month in advance. Check with someone at the station when you buy tickets because I saw signs for a ryokan promotion with Blue Symphony ticket holders and there was something special going on with the cable car, but no one appeared to have the right piece of paper to get a discounted ride. If you plan on going to Yoshino during the off season, make sure you to have dinner plans or ask your hotel to arrange them for you because at night almost everything is closed.