Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Nikko weekend trip @ Asaya Hotel - Strawberry picking, Ashikaga Flower Park, Edo Wonderland, Hitachi Seaside Park

My in-laws are visiting for 12 days in May, including 2 weekends! This gave us 2 opportunities to explore together without having to take off of work. While my MIL came once before in November 2022, this was my FIL's first time seeing our home and traveling with us, so we were excited to get out there and drive around to wherever they wanted to go. 

   Day 1: Koshigaya Strawberry Town / Ashikaga Flower Park
Day 2: Nikko Strawberry Park / Edo Wonderland
Day 3: Hitachi Seaside Park
Asaya Hotel review

Koshigaya Strawberry Town
We headed out from Kanagawa in the car at around 08:15. We made a brief convenience store stop for some on-the-go breakfast and then kept going for about 1.5 hours to Koshigaya. 

Koshigaya Strawberry Town is our first stop where I had made an online reservation for 10:00 strawberry picking. 
We easily found parking, checked-in and paid for the 45min AYCE pick-your-own strawberries (2000yen per adult) + 200yen for a tube of condensed milk at the cashier. We each got a little plastic tray and were the tail end of a group entering the greenhouses at around 10:15 after receiving instructions from a staff member.

Our group was allowed in the 4 greenhouses to the right (E, F, G, H) for our alloted 45 minutes. Each house is labeled and also displayed the types of strawberries being grown in each in yellow on the outside. 

The first thing we noticed is that all the plants were elevated, so there's no need to crouch to pick them! There were quite a few rows of plants, but you did have to be selective with the red/ready-to-eat ones. 

Certainly, there wasn't a shortage of fruit to eat in general between all 4 houses, but it would be difficult to get a picture of a bunch of red strawberries in a bunch all together. We were visiting pretty late in the strawberry season, so this didn't seem particularly unusual to me, and we definitely had enough to eat. 
Of what was available at this farm, our favorite type ended up being the amarin strawberries which are local to Saitama and supposedly has a high sweetness rating!

Ramen Oguyaya
Moving on from Koshigaya, we headed northwest to Sano, about an hour and a half away by car. Still full from the strawberries, we didn't mind the wait at Ramen Oguraya (about 20 parities in front of us in line) so we could try their Sano ramen!

We got 3 orders of the standard ramen, 1 hiyashi ramen (only available April to Sept) and 2 orders of gyoza.
The bamboo-rolled noodles are the biggest feature + the light chicken-based broth that make it really easy to eat. (My husband and I previously visited this restaurant in January 2023.)

Ashikaga Flower Park
After lunch, we continued on the road for about 15 more minutes and arrived at Ashikaga Flower Park! Admission on this day (mid-May) was 1500yen per adult, and it didn't seem particularly busy.  

Unfortunately, it looked like we were several weeks late for the wisteria which was one of the main reasons my MIL had booked the trip during this time specifically and had Ashikaga on the itinerary. 
The trees are still massive and impressive in their own way, but just sad, stringy bits hanging down from the trellis. 

We continued around the park to see what else they had to offer in this season. 

The rose gardens are the big feature when wisteria has passed its peak! Unfortunately, it was raining off and on for most of our visit here though. No blue skies. 

But lots of pretty arches and really large flowers!

We spent about 1.5 hours at the park and didn't walk to all the sections if we didn't expect to see anything in bloom over there. And by the time we were leaving (just after 15:00), a lot of the food shops had closed, so we didn't even get any purple soft serve lol? The gift shop had a lot of pretty purple items, but was just a reminder of the wisteria we didn't see :/
The mis-timing of the wisteria was definitely a bummer and the rainy weather with no soft serve option didn't help at all. It was a nice, cool temperature which was the only good thing about the cloudy sky. That being said, the visit was still interesting since it was different than the other two times we had come to the park: 

Nikko Strawberry Park
It was another cloudy day with impending rain for Day 2. When we weren't confident we were going to be able to get a Koshigaya strawberry picking reservation (not available until 1 month prior), we chose Nikko Strawberry Park as a backup since we could do the reservation online way ahead of time during our initial planning phase. In the end, we were successful with my MIL's first choice, but decided to keep both since Nikko Strawberry Park wasn't too out of the way and would allow us to compare the two. 
We arrived just a few minutes prior to 10:00 for our 10:00 to 11:00 arrival time slot and waited for the shop to promptly open at 10:00.

We were the first ones in the shop and checked in, no problem. At this venue, in addition to the timed AYCE strawberries, you have the option to also purchase a provided container (a small or large size) to pick and take whatever fruit fits home with you during your allotted time. We opted to just do the AYCE for 30 min (1700yen per adult) and were directed to the nearby greenhouse with our ticket. 

A staff member was waiting to greet us at the first section available for picking. She gave us our little plastic trays which came with cold condensed milk in the round compartment and then provided the brief. Don't disturb the bee boxes, which aisles we could pick from, don't cross over the plants, turn the strawberry at a 90 degree angle to pick, etc. We had about 8 section to choose from on this day and two varieties - Skyberry (known for its size and sweetness) and Tochiaika (a newer, regional strawberry)

The aisles were actually super long and had so many plants with pickable fruit despite it being mid-May! In contrast to Koshigaya at this time, there definitely seemed like there was more to choose from that was ready-to-eat. All the plants were at crouching level though and the space between the rows was a bit narrow, so if you have mobility issues, this may not be ideal. 

While a few other groups entered after us, since there were so many sections to choose from, we never really bumped into them or got in each others' way. 

As we walked down each aisle, we constantly found more and more that we wanted to pick and eat. Especially the big skyberry strawberries! My favorite was this one that was kind of shaped like a hand lol. 

We used our full 30 minutes, ate as many strawberries as we could, and then returned to check out the gift shop. 
I'm glad we kept this reservation! We were able to try two different types of strawberries than the previous day and in a totally different set up. If you're already in the area during this season, and especially if you want to take strawberries home as part of your experience for a small additional fee, I would recommend Nikko Strawberry Park for sure. I left this place feeling very happy. 

Edo Wonderland
Just 10-15 minutes back up the main road from Nikko Strawberry Park by car, we parked at Edo Wonderland (parking fee was 800yen for a regular car). Staff was ready to greet us as we were walking up and helped us buy tickets at the machine and got an English version of the pamphlet and show times for us. Standard admission fee for adults is 5800yen. 

We were trying to make it into the Ninja Theater in time to catch the 11:20 show, so we didn't stop to take a bunch of pictures at the entrance, but you're immediately transported and immersed in a setting that is supposed to replicate the golden age of the Edo period (particularly around 1688 - 1704), about 320 years ago! The landscaping and isolated feel of this "theme park" greatly assists in the effect. 

Unfortunately, we missed making it into the Ninja Theater by a couple of minutes, so we backtracked and went to find the costume rental shop. They have a bunch of different options for men, women and children from villager to ronin, ninja, princess, fisherman, farmer, police captain or lord with varying prices. The cheapest one started at around 4000yen ("townsperson" with a simple looking yukata) and go up towards 11000yen. Hair sets and accessories like an umbrella are an additional cost and the return time is 16:00. 

We picked which costumes we wanted (ended up just doing 3 townspeople between me, my MIL and my husband), paid for the fee and then were quickly individually escorted to the back where we removed our shoes and were put into gendered dressing rooms. You then separate your personal items to carry with you (vs what stays in the locker which is not secure), pick the design of the yukata and then they help you get dressed! The process is quite quick and takes about 15 minutes. We didn't add on any extras, so once we were ready, we dropped off our items in our locker and the staff helps select the appropriate footwear for your outfit. 

We went back out there, now matching the surroundings a lot more. For the women, we were told that the red tabi socks indicate that we are "townspeople". Not wanting to miss another show, we headed over to the next one which was Mizugei-za, a "magic" water show. 

Remove your shoes when you enter, and place them in a venue provided plastic bag. You're also given a small square slightly thin? paper. For this show, there weren't any real seats, so we sat on the ground. 
No photos during the show, but it was reasonably entertaining although obviously aimed at children. It was simple enough for us to understand and meant to be lighthearted and funny. Our rudimentary understanding of the square paper are for the end of the performance - if you want to give the actors a "tip", wrap/ball up coins into the paper and then throw it at the stage at the end. 

The timing was right for us to just make our way to the next show. This one had bench seating and you left your shoes on. 
The show is called "Minami Machi Magistrates Office" and it's also comedic but with a lot more continuous dialogue than the water show. I'm sure it's best enjoyed if you understand Japanese, but I eventually got the hang of the plot. I think that it centered around the judgement for a thief and the crime they committed, including 2-3 witnesses. Of course, chaos ensues. 
Photos and video were allowed during this performance, but I chose to just watch. The "tip" square paper was distributed for this show as well. They asked you to throw the paper in a mountain shaped arch rather than directly at them lol. 

The next show we wanted to catch wasn't for another 75 minutes, so we went to explore a little more. Lots and lots of scenic areas, perfect for photos. Even with the gray sky, the green of the landscape was really fantastic. 

My husband opted to change out of his costume at this point for comfort's sake, but my MIL and I were doing fine, so we kept going lol. 
We didn't end up eating anything during our stay, but there were a lot of "walkable" foods like yakitori, ice cream, senbei or dango on a stick. We saw maybe 1 sit down place but it didn't seem popular. Vending machines were located at just a couple of places, but not plentiful, likely because it doesn't match the aesthetic at all. Bathrooms were reasonably frequent though and had all the modern amenities you'd typically expect lol. 

The good weather finally gave out and it started to rain on us. We hopped from small shop to shop for a little bit to stay dry.

But because of the rain, the 14:00 scheduled Oiran Courtesan Procession was moved indoors. A lot of the staff seemed to be ushering people to the theater for it, so we didn't have any problem finding it last minute. We entered just a minute before they began the slow walk from the back of the room to center stage. 
This was interesting for a spur-of-the-moment thing for us. Even though we didn't have a very good vantage point in the way back of the theater, we were still able to see and understand what was going on, and it was overall pretty quick. I'm sure it feels a lot different when they're able to actually do it outside, as if you're just walking by. 

We had managed to kill juuuust about enough time for it to be reasonable to stand in line for our last show of the day at the Ninja Theater (same one we had missed just when we entered). 
There is a lot of lighting and effects for this show and some completely dark moments. This was, by far, my husband's highlight of the visit and is highly recommended. While there is some initial dialogue in Japanese, most of it is like watching an action movie and easy enough to follow and appreciate. 

Last activity of the day was a daruma "painting" activity. This has an additional cost (500yen per daruma) but fairly inexpensive imo and you get to take it with you immediately. We were the only ones in there and took our time each designing our own using the colored brush pens at the table. The only catch was that there's no white, so try not to color what you don't want because you can't go backwards!
We took about 1/2 hour to complete ours, but it doesn't seem like there's a time limit (especially if no one else is waiting). 

After that, we made our way back to the costume rental shop, changed back into our street clothes, retrieved our belongings and started to make our way out of the park.
We stopped at the gift shop which had a pretty decent selection of omiyage, and then called it a day! 
I had a good time while were there but do consider the experience a bit on the pricey side (especially compared to amusement parks with rides) since the admission started at 5800yen and then a lot of the activities had an additional cost. I would have wanted to be a little more adventurous with the "costume"/role for dressing up but didn't think it was worth an additional $25-50 just to be a little different. That being said, I do recommend the costumes because it really helped with the atmosphere of our visit if that makes sense. 
If we spoke more Japanese, we probably would have had a better time interacting with the park staff and understanding more of the shows as well. They were all accommodating with our limited language skills if we had a question or problem, but we just didn't get the fullest experience without all the little nuances, I think. 
I would recommend this if you're already in the area, have the budget for it and if you particularly love this time period in Japan or if you just enjoy really nice scenery. Everything was really picturesque and I'm sure it's even more so in a changing season like earlier in spring or later in autumn!

Hitachi Seaside Park
Day 3 had us driving from Nikko over to Hitachi Seaside Park with some daunting clouds, but supposedly no rain according to the weather report, so we were very hopeful!
We paid for our admission at the ticket machines at the West entrance. The standard adult fee was 450yen this day (mid May with nemophila already past its prime). 

First stop, of course, rental bikes at the west cycling center! We chose the 3-hour plan for 2 regular bikes and 2 assist/e-bikes. The staff walked us through how to use the bikes, we adjusted the seats and then we were good to go and on our way.
First stop, rose garden! It did start to lightly rain on and off while we were there, so I'm glad my husband brought the umbrella because my bangs just go straight into my eyes when they're wet which is not ideal for bike riding lol. 

We also made a stop at the park of the park closest to the shore so we could get a look at the ocean view. 

We stopped by the nemophila hill as well. It actually wasn't as sad looking as I was anticipating. Might have been kind of similar amount of flowers to when we came too early for it at the beginning of April but with brown splotches instead of green splotches haha. So, it was worth it to see while we were here! 
I can only imagine the amount of blue when its actually at its peak. I'll try to come next year with better timing!

We concluded our ride around the park after going through the cornflowers and the poppies (the only other flowers besides roses that were supposedly in bloom).
We made our way back to the west cycling center, returned our bikes and then eagerly headed back to the car because we needed to get going over to Saitama!
This was my second visit to Hitachi Seaside Park within just 2 month's time (previous visit in April 2023), but it was definitely different due to the time of year. The bike riding was still a great experience though and definitely recommend doing that as part of your park visit!
Kato Ranch/Baffi
Originally, we had planned to go to Costco after Hitachi Seaside Park since they're so close together, but because we wanted to hit up Kato Ranch for the Baffi dairy products before heading home, we had to leave the Hitachi area by 14:00 to ensure we got there before it closed! 
We arrived just after 16:00 and seemed to be the only visitors at the time (where it was still raining lol). 

My husband's favorite soft serve ever. They went with 3x freshly squeezed milk flavored soft cream in a cone. 

I opted for a chocolate flavored gelato served in a monaka/clam shell. And then my husband got an additional scoop of milk flavored gelato. The soft serve was still the winner overall though!

We shopped a little bit in the store, and I got a nikuman which, in addition to the meat(s?) had cheese and mushrooms in there too. 
It was also huge haha. Additionally purchased were puddings, cheeses and a few other omiyage items to take back. 
While this wasn't really on the route back towards Yokohama, it was nice to share this place with my in-laws after enjoying it during a previous visit with my parents back in October!

Last stop of the weekend was Costco - just a different one than the location we had originally planned to visit lol. This one was about 30 min from Kato Ranch in the direction of home. 
We made our purchases (including a rotisserie chicken for lunch for the week lol) + a hokkaido soft cream and a peach smoothie from the food court and loaded everything into the car to head home and conclude our weekend getaway to Nikko.

Asaya Hotel overview 
My MIL arranged for our hotel stay for this weekend trip at the Asaya Hotel in Nikko! It's pretty easy to get to by car if you're doing anything else in Nikko and the building is very large and hard to miss. Self parking was available at the lobby/street level at no additional cost.
We checked in at around 17:15. Since we had dinner included as part of our reservation, we had to choose the dinner time slot for that day at check-in. We also had breakfast included and were provided 1 ticket per person for the next morning. 

Due to availability at the time reservation, we had one Japanese-style room and one western-style room, but both were on the 11th floor. Western room was about half the size of the Japanese room and had two beds with a smaller bathroom (standing shower).

Japanese room had a sitting area, and a separate bathing area from the toilet (2 sinks) + a decent view of the fireworks that go off Saturday nights at 20:30. 

At night (while we were at dinner), the beds were prepared on the tatami. My husband and I ended up in the Japanese room since my FIL preferred to sleep in a traditional/western mattress/bed. 

Bath areas
For somewhat obvious reasons, photography/phones aren't allowed in the bathing areas, so unfortunately, I don't have photos of the best parts of this. But this is a huge feature of the hotel, so I'll do my best to describe it. 
Hotel guests have access to the 2 roof top (13th floor) open air bathing areas which are separated by gender. Access will switch between morning and afternoon (with a cleaning period in between where the bath is closed). So if men have the north side in the morning, women will have the south side at that time. In the afternoon, women will have access to the north side, and men will use the south side.  
Bring your hotel-provided small towel and bath towel from your room. As typical, remove your footwear before entering the dressing areas. There will be a numbered clip to help you keep track of your slippers. Women's side will be denoted with a red curtain and men's with blue. There was also a complimentary hot/cold tea/water machine and some seating in the shared space between the two sides. 

Pick an available locker, storing all your belongings including your street clothes except anything you need to shower (ex. body towel, face wash) and your small towel. 
These 13F dressing areas and shower areas (not shown) are smaller than I was expecting for a hotel this size with just 3 prep areas and 4 shower stalls on either side. The shower stalls also only had body wash (no shampoo or conditioner) which I found particularly odd. 
On both the north and the south side, there is a small, enclosed/indoor bath. There is also the same style/size bath outside but under the roof. (These are your best option if the weather is bad and you don't want to be as exposed to the weather.) In the open air area on the north side, there's a reclining style bath area and separate "deep" bath where it's 110cm deep so you can stand and enjoy the water. On the south side, there's 2 circular baths (1 small and 1 medium sized) and a long "boat" bath (basically the design is to look like a traditional wooden boat). Both sides' open air baths should have really nice views. Unfortunately, I didn't really get the best view because it was raining every single time I was out there, but that's not the hotel's fault. 
I do think the facilities here all seemed nice and well maintained, but just felt like everything was a little smaller than I was expecting, and I didn't understand the lack of hair products for the shower. 

There is a public bath on the first floor of the main building (Shuhokan). "Public" bath in this context I interpreted to mean that you didn't have to be a hotel guest to use it (instead just pay the fee for the bath ala carte). Again, it's separated for men and women, but it doesn't change depending on the time of day. 
This bath area is MUCH larger than the roof top one, with many, many more lockers, prep areas and shower stalls. The bath itself is not as impressive and you really don't have a view at all, but it is large and has a nice perimeter area that would allow for a lot of people to use it at once. The shower stalls do have shampoo and conditioner in addition to body wash, and I think many of them had a sake lees face wash as well. I didn't explore this one too long, but there was at least a cold water bath and a sauna + one other type of smaller bath as well. 

Similar to the Shuhokan main building public bath, there's also one in the Hachiban building but on B1. It can be accessed from the main building through indoor hallways.
Again, this one was a lot bigger and had a "shampoo bar" as well where you can choose from a bunch of different brands. The layout was similar with a giant bath area, lots of showers and stalls but also had a smaller "silky" bath with milky looking water as well. 

Asaya Hotel breakfast buffet
My MIL generously included breakfast with our reservation, so we enjoyed 2 mornings of the breakfast buffet! You get 1 ticket per person at the front desk the night before and can show up any time during the open hours prior to last order. At the host stand, receive a "table occupied" placard and pick a table to sit at. 
There's a pretty decent typical Japanese breakfast selection + a few western staples including a different preparations of eggs and even includes some "vegetable gelato". 
Our winner from the breakfast selections was definitely the "croiffle" (mix between a croissant and a waffle). It was nice and crispy, even without toasting it!

Asaya Hotel dinner buffet
This confused us a little bit, but there's 2 time slots for dinner: 17:30 - 18:00 or 19:30. You pick your time slot at check in/each day ahead of time, and it's recorded in the hotel's system and written on your dinner ticket (per room).
If you choose the earlier (17:30-18:00) time slot, you can show up any time during that range. For the 19:30 time slot, you're asked to show up at that time. Due to the language barrier, it was never fully explained to us why, but my guess is that since the time limit for the buffet is 90min, if you show up for the first shift, they want you to show up after dinner starts but also with enough time to eat and leave before the second shift of people can enter (19:30), so the start time is flexible for the first shift, but not necessarily for the second. 
We picked the 19:30 time slot both times and showed up around 19:20 with no issue. I'm not sure what would have happened if we tried to show up much earlier at like 18:45. My guess is that if there was a table of an appropriate size available, they would try to seat us, but otherwise ask us to return closer to our time slot?

Have your dinner ticket(s) available upon checking in for dinner. They have disposable hair bands, mask sleeves and elastic bands for yukata sleeves available with the standard alcohol sanitizer near the host station. Waitstaff will escort you to your table and briefly explain the layout of the buffet as you go. (If it's obvious you don't speak Japanese, they have a laminated card that explain the layout in English.) Alcoholic beverages are an additional cost and served by waitstaff but there are many other soft drink choices that are readily self serve.
I didn't spend a lot of time trying to photograph everything (especially because it was a bit crowded and I didn't want to get in other people's way), but the highlights were definitely the crab and the fresh fish.
In addition to several items you'd typically expect (salad/vegetables), soups, curry, breads, soba, small bite appetizer Japanese items, there was also a Chinese food section including dim sum type choices, a made-to-order pasta section and 3 different kinds of pizza. 
Tempura was also freshly made by a chef behind the counter. And there were 3 different individual "hot pot" trays you could get as well that come with their own little burner and lighter. I tried the sukiyaki one, but on the two different nights, we also saw a chicken version, a hamburger steak with demi glaze option and I think one with a spicy broth.

It's hard to capture all the things you've eaten at a buffet since you're constantly getting things, stopping to eat, and then going back and forth, so these small snapshots don't accurately showcase what the buffet has to offer lol. But overall we were definitely more discerning on the second night after trying anything and everything the first night!
Dinner also has a bunch of small bite size desserts in addition to matcha, vanilla and chocolate Haagen Daz ice cream (plus some random flavored gelato) and chocolate and vanilla soft serve! 
Since we were in the 19:30 time slot, we were in the seating area as things started to close down for the night (official closing at 21:00) and were warned at 20:30 that it was essentially last order. Wait staff are a lot more attentive starting from that time to collect dishes much faster as well, so it does feel a little rushed. 
I think the dinner buffet is definitely worth trying once if it's in your budget, especially if you're staying at the hotel and will eat the crab. One of the things we didn't care for was the slightly inflexible seeming time slots, but ultimately it wasn't really a problem for us. I do think 2 days of it is probably my limit - but that's likely because the items I like to eat are a bit more limited and would start to get redundant feeling after that. 

Overall, our stay at Asaya Hotel was nice! It was really convenient for our Day 2 activities (Nikko Strawberry Park and Edo Wonderland) and had good bath features (open air baths in addition to two larger public baths). I wouldn't say it's flawless, but we checked out feeling good about the place with only a few minor complaints. We didn't even get to try out the stone sauna, private reserved baths, karaoke room or library, but if any of those + the buffets sound appealing to you at an onsen hotel, consider giving it a try!

We went all over during these 3 days and had lots of new experiences intertwined with some familiar favorites. Even though the weather wasn't so great, we didn't let that stop us. I'm thankful for my in-laws for coming to visit and sharing part of their trip with us :) 

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