Thursday, December 18, 2008

Driven to the Robe

I made my first holiday-shopping trip to a mall yesterday, to the Galleria in Roseville. I’ve done almost all of my shopping in Japan and online, so I needed only a couple of things; and so I bit the bullet and drove out to Roseville in the late afternoon. It’s not far from Andrew’s office, so I picked him up first and we went together.

I hadn’t been to the Galleria in months. The last time I was there was in the summer sometime, and it’s since gone through a mammoth expansion—a huge new complex has been added to the mall itself, and across the street from the mall is an outdoor “shopping and lifestyle center” (an outdoor mall) called The Fountains.

I don’t particularly like either of these shopping options, but last night they seemed especially terrible. The Fountains has a few good shops—Anthropologie, Whole Foods, DSW—but the layout of the complex is so desolate, so off-the-map, that as I walked around I felt like I’d dropped off the edge of the earth. It didn’t help that almost no one was there. The stores were pretty much empty, and the “dancing fountain” in the middle of The Fountains, rising and falling along with piped-in Christmas music, had a deafeningly loud motor. It all just made me want to go home and put on my Valley of the Dolls robe, an ice-blue, flannel-lined satin bathrobe that Andrew claims to be frightened by whenever I put it on.

We headed next to the mall. The new complex features a small-ish H&M, as well as several new food-court-type restaurants—plus a Louis Vuitton and, soon, Burberry and Tiffany. I can’t make sense of this mall—or Roseville itself, for that matter. The feeling of the area doesn’t fit with the shops that are popping up—it’s like a Louis Vuitton store opening at Westmoreland Mall, for those of you who know Greensburg. It’s quite discomfiting. I understand that there’s money in the area (or was; who knows now), but if you are one of the people with said money, why on earth would you choose to live in a town made up of a desolate combination of strip malls, shopping centers, vacant lots, empty fields, and cookie-cutter McMansions? The mall, too, was nearly empty, and we quickly made our escape…

…to an even more depressing strip mall containing my final destination, Jo-Ann Fabrics. I needed some crafting supplies. It was busier in Jo-Ann than in any other store we’d been in; but once outside in the parking lot, it was eerie and dark. We capped off our shopping excursion with dinner at Chili’s, where our enjoyment of our sandwiches was dampened somewhat since we’d watched the Biggest Loser finale the night before. (The fact that there was a time in our lives, not so long ago, when we would have no cause to write a sentence containing the items “Chile’s” and “Biggest Loser” will go unremarked on in this post.) Then I went home and put on my robe, which, I think, was well deserved.

Two days until two weeks on the East Coast—yay!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Somewhere Over the Pacific…

Somewhere over the Pacific last week, Andrew and I seem to have changed places. Now it’s Andrew who’s crashing at 10pm and waking up bright-eyed at 7am; now it’s me who’s slogging through my alarm in the morning, looking for any excuse to stay in bed a little longer. On Sunday, Andrew woke up early and went for a run before 7:30; I had to force myself out of bed at 9am to make it to the farmer’s market and yoga. What happened? Who are we? And will things ever return to normal?

It seems crazy, but our jet lag has still not fully disappeared—it’s just changing shape. Leaving town again this coming weekend for two weeks on the East Coast will probably change it in still newer and more interesting ways.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Ramped-Up Cuteness

One of the things that’s always intrigued me about Japan is the prevalence of kawaii—cuteness. It’s everywhere—from the “helping characters” that decorate almost every public sign, to the charms that dangle from everyone’s cell phones, to the stuffed animal prizes in huge “claw” arcade games. Some Japanese teenagers also go for kawaii in the way they dress, though we didn’t get to see the biggest showcase of outfits, which is apparently in Harajuku on Sundays. Next time.

Hello Kitty is the biggest player; she’s everywhere, and I got used to seeing her wide-eyed, mouthless face pretty much everywhere we turned. If there was a tourist attraction, there was a Hello Kitty charm or souvenir to go with it, and we saw Kitty dressed as a rickshaw driver, a geisha, a fox (at Fushimi Inari), a deer (at Nara), a leek, a shinkansen (bullet train), a shinkansen stewardess, sitting in the lap of a Buddha, and in various other traditional garb. She graced the packages of snacks and sweets; she appeared on the pages of travel brochures. In one store, dedicated solely to Hello Kitty, her face adorned various pieces of sushi. She was, as I mentioned in a previous blog, on charms at several temples. I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t like Hello Kitty (how could you not?), but Andrew remained conspicuously silent when I mused on whether anyone could actually get tired of seeing her so much.

One thing we noticed is that in Japan, anything cute is ramped up to be even more cute. Think a small dog is cute? That dog’s cuteness is ramped up with a cute sweater—and ramped up further with little angel wings attached to the sweater. Think a small child is cute? That child’s cuteness is ramped up with a jacket with a teddy-bear-shaped hood. Think Hello Kitty is cute? Kitty’s cuteness is—somehow!—ramped up by dressing her in something else cute, like a carrot costume. Think that hedgehog/type creature is cute (albeit somewhat unidentifiable)? Its cuteness is ramped up with a cute cow outfit, or a seafoam-green scarf. I’d seen cute things before, but the degree of cuteness here was staggering. Kawaii, indeed.

Ramped-up cute
Ramped--cute bear, wearing a cute outfit, holding a small cute penguin (!!!)
Standing near a strange sea of cute things
An ordinary package of rice, with a cute rice grain character gracing the front
A cute can of apple juice
Geisha Hello Kitty, on a sign advertising a Hello Kitty store

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Silver Bells, Silver Bells

With only a week and a half until we leave for the East Coast for Christmas, we’d decided not to get a Christmas tree this year; on Monday, our extreme jet-lag made the idea of actually going out and selecting and decorating a tree seem impossible, even painful. But we found a small tree at the grocery store on Tuesday and decided we could handle that much. Out came my (now our) ornaments, after two years of being packed up—it was good to see them; many brought back memories. (My Icelandic sheep ornament—I remember sacrificing my meals that day to buy it!)

The box also contained a few surprises, ornaments I’d purchased during our travels that somehow managed not to get lost during our move home from Spain, the big move from Connellsville, etc. Small wooden birds from Poland; a beaded egg from Romania; St. James charms from Santiago de Compostela; pieces of glass candy from Venice—all of them are making their Christmas debut. The small tree is a bit crowded—I was determined to fit everything on—but it holds the ornaments proudly and well.

What we really need now is some Christmas music, of which we own exactly none. Our quiet, Christmas-music-less household is quite a change from Japan, where Christmas dominated every piped-in source of music in every single public place. In restaurants—silent night, holy night. In chaotic shopping arcades—I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus. In 7-Elevens—Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. When we left our hotel room at the Sutton Place Hotel, the hallways were filled with Christmas music at a low volume. I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…It was never-ending and inescapable.

Most of the Christmas songs were recognizable, but they were versions we’d never heard—versions more over-the-top than almost anything playing on the radio here. I’m not going to go so far as to call them “dance remixes,” but they came very close to this. There was also some unusual instrumentation (sitars) and a lot of very, very schmaltzy renditions. Imagine the Christmas music playing at an American shopping mall and multiply it by a hundred—that was our experience of Christmas music in Japan. It was all so familiar, yet somehow made us realize just how far we were from home.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Places We Stayed

We stayed in some wonderful places in Japan, and I thought it’d be nice to gather descriptions and pictures in one post.

Tokyo—Oakwood Apartments Shinjuku

Our first place of lodging was the Oakwood Apartments Shinjuku in Tokyo, which are small efficiency apartments. This place was amazing—though it’s geared toward longer-term travelers, it’s open to short-term stays as well; we stayed for four nights. The website provides excellent written directions on how to get from the Shinjuku metro stop to the apartment building, complete with pictures of landmarks you’ll see as you walk. It was an easy 5-7 minute walk from Shinjuku station. The building is quite nice—a nice lobby with a 24-hour front desk (very helpful and English-speaking), a comfortable lounge, and computers with internet service in the quiet lower-level lounge. We didn’t get to make much use of the Sky Lounge, a top-floor lounge where you help yourself to a drink, but we did go up to enjoy the amazing view. Our room had a small kitchen and a washer/dryer, plus a wonderful bathtub with an “auto-fill” function—returning to the room for a soak after being crippled by extensive sight-seeing was the best part of our stay. We’d definitely stay here if we one day return to Tokyo.

Nikko—Nikko Park Lodge

If we planned our trip all over again, we’d do Nikko as a day trip rather than an overnight trip, but as it was we were glad to get to stay at the Nikko Park Lodge. It wasn’t the most centrally located lodging; it was about a 20-minute trek from the train station (mostly uphill—not fun with heavy bags), with no bus access (you have to walk back to the station to get a bus to the main sights). But it was very peacefully located in the woods, and very quiet. There’s a cozy common area with a wood-burning oven, where you can buy snacks and drinks; there’s a TV with a selection of movies, long tables, couches. For dinner, there’s nothing really nearby, but that’s fine since the Nikko Park Lodge offers several dinner selections, including curry over rice and spaghetti. We opted for the Zen vegan meal, which was delicious (about $20). Our room was on the shabby side, and freezing, but we had both a space heater and an electric blanket; things warmed up considerably once we switched them on. The private bathroom was small but fine, with a tub/shower.

Kyoto—Pension Kotomu

Pension Kotomu was our favorite lodging of the trip. An easy bus ride from Kyoto Station, it’s located just a few minutes downhill from Kiyomizo-dera, one of Kyoto’s most beautiful temples. The street is lined with shops and restaurants, and it’s centrally located enough that we didn’t have to use a bus while we stayed there. Our room was at the very top of a small building set behind the owner’s restaurant; it was pretty tiny, with room enough for a low table and two futons, which we rolled up and stowed in the closet each morning. On the table was an electric kettle, tea cups, a small teapot, and tea bags, and I had a nice cup of green tea every time we were in the room. There was a toilet and sink (no hot water), with a common bath/shower room three flights down. There’s an amazing tub—each day we reserved a time for the next morning’s Japanese bath. The owner knocked on our door when it was ready for us. The owner himself was a lovely person—very helpful, very nice, with enough English to more or less understand our questions, etc. When we checked in he gave us passes to the Kiyomizo-dera’s “Light Up” event; he gave us a bus map and told us how to get where we needed to go each day; and each morning he gave us a weather report and ensured we had umbrellas. We wouldn’t stay anywhere else if we visited Kyoto again!

Kyoto—Shunko-in Temple

The Shunko-in Temple is part of the Myoshin-ji temple complex, in northwestern Kyoto. This was a bit further out than it probably made sense to stay, but we were intrigued by the idea of staying at a temple. Our room was separate from the temple itself, divided from another room only by a sliding wall panel, which meant we had to whisper whenever we were in the room. There was a bathroom with a shower in the room, a desk, and a wall heater that worked well enough. The futons were not very comfortable—but there were additional pads in the closet that we could have brought out had we not been so tired. The best part of staying here was the meditation session and tour we had with the temple’s vice-abbott, who studied in Arizona. He led us through a 35-minute meditation and gave us a wonderful tour of some of the temple’s inner chambers. The other great thing about staying here was the free use of bicycles, which helped us see most of the temples and attractions in the area within one afternoon. Downtown Kyoto is easily accessible from the temple by bus, so we had dinner in that area both evenings.

Nara—Ryokan Seikanso

If this place were in Kyoto, it might compete with Pension Kotomu as my favorite lodging of the trip. Ryokan Seikanso is a restored geisha house, with rooms that seem to hold the secrets and ghosts of those who lived there before…Our room, at the end of a hallway, had multiple sets of sliding, paper-paneled doors, a sitting area looking out over an interior garden, and comfortable, flowery futons. There was a low table with an electric kettle, teapot, tea cups, and powered green tea. All the bathroom facilities were shared, but the huge tiled communal tub—filled scalding hot for the evening bath times—made this okay. The room was freezing, but it had both a wall heating unit and a gas heater, and once we closed all the sliding doors it warmed up quickly. There was a breakfast option, which we did not take, and we weren’t there long enough to enjoy the comfortable-looking lounge downstairs. But this was a lovely, wonderful place to stay even for one night, and it was just a ten-minute walk from the train station, within easy access to Nara Park and many restaurants and shops. We were quite sad to leave.

Tokyo—Sutton Place Hotel Ueno

Our last two nights in Japan were spent in Sutton Place Hotel, in the Ueno area in northern Tokyo. Though tiny, our room was comfortable, with a Western-style bed, a private bathroom with tub/shower, a desk, and a TV. The hotel offered free pastries, coffee, and juice each morning in the lobby area, and the vending machine room one floor below had free coffee and green tea, plus a variety of vending machine items (including a can of pre-mixed whiskey and water, which Andrew claimed would have “changed the trip dramatically” had he known about it sooner). The English-speaking front desk was helpful, even printing out a map when I asked directions to a certain 100-yen store. Also, they had a pre-printed stack of maps of the area, with 100-yen stores already marked—clearly I’m not the only one who succumbs to a slight fixation. The hotel was a very short walk from Ueno Park, making it a good spot for an exploration of the area, and just a five to seven-minute walk from the train station.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Day 15: Saturday, December 6 (The Day of Two Saturdays)

After a final-final-final trip to a 100-yen store this morning, Andrew and I sadly boarded a train for the airport, bags consolidated and in tow. We ate lunch once we checked our baggage; we found a food court where lots of Japanese and Korean airline staff were eating, and had small bowls of udon in broth and some tempura over rice. Our last meal in Japan.

The flight was uneventful--much shorter this time, at around eight and a half hours; it went fairly quickly thanks to the seat-back TVs. We watched Bottle Shock, which we expected would be interesting since it’s based on a true story about California wine-making, but which was terrible; Ghost Town, which was good; and The Rocker, which was silly. Soon we were landing groggily in Seattle, then, eventually, flying on to Sacramento, where it was just as foggy as the day we left.

We left Japan at 3pm; we arrived in Seattle at 6:30am. We were in Sacramento by noon. We had a 32-hour Saturday--we lived our whole morning and afternoon two times. Our first 9am found us walking through the streets of Ueno; our second found us eating Wendy's breakfast hash browns in the Seattle airport. We've come a long way in all respects.

We took a long nap this afternoon, which may have been either wise or unwise; we’re not sure. We both feel like zombies right now; we made a zombie trip to the grocery store, picked up our car from Andrew’s co-worker’s house, heated up some frozen pizza. It seems so quiet here compared to the insane neon frenzy of Tokyo.

We’re already filled with all the we-should-have’s that come after a long wonderful trip--we should have brought more things home, we should have bought more of this, we should have tried this. It all ended much too soon.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Day 14: Friday, December 5 (The Day We Did Karaoke)

(Written Friday, posted Friday)

It was our last day in Japan. We woke early and had breakfast in the hotel, then headed to Ueno Park. We visited three temples and got our last stamps for our temple book--Kiyomizu Kannon-do, where women who wish to conceive a child leave dolls for a Goddess of Mercy; Benten-do, a memorial to a patron goddess of the arts; and Tosho-gu, which features an eternally burning flame from Nagasaki in a shrine to world peace and nuclear disarmament. Near the flame hung many chains of origami cranes.

We headed next to the Tokyo National Museum, where we saw artifacts dating back as far as 10,000 BC--pottery, kabuki costumes, calligraphy, painted screens. Neither of us is very interested in this kind of art--we would have preferred to see a special exhibition of Vermeer at a nearby museum--but we thought we needed to round out our Japan exploration.

Satisfied with our taste of cultural history, we headed next to Ameya Yokocho, a shopping arcade--the same streets we walked around last night. This was the black market area after World War II. We browsed for a bit then stopped for lunch at a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant--we sat on stools at a circular bar, while in front of us traveled small plates of sushi on, yes, a conveyor belt. Each plate cost 136 yen ($1.36); at the end a waiter added up the dishes and shouted the number to the cashier.

Our afternoon destination: a six-floor 100-yen store in Harajuku, the mother of all 100-yens. It was time to buy what we wanted to buy--no more putting it off. It was more than a little overwhelming, the store filled with things I would love to take home if only the packing would allow. I bought a few final items, feeling a kind of 100-yen frenzy taking over. We actually decided to go to yet another 100-yen store after that, in Asakusa, for a few final-final items. Then we were really done. A highlight from today--a sheet of Hello Kitty magnets (cute!!!).

It began pouring while we meandered briefly around Asakusa, so we headed back to the hotel to drop off our bags and get ready for dinner. We had a bit of an adventure for dinner--we needed something quick before meeting our friends Atsh and Satoshi, so we went to a restaurant on the top floor of the Ueno train station. It did not have an English menu, but we realized this once we’d already committed ourselves to going in. There were some pictures, but it was very unclear what the pictures were, or which prices went to which pictures. When the waiter came over, there was some confusion because apparently part of our meals required us to make a choice between three items--the identities of which were mysteries. He tried to explain them in Japanese and slight mime, but it did not help. Blindly, we pointed to one of the Japanese characters he kept indicating and nodded. We had no idea what meals we’d ultimately get, or whether we’d be paying $5 or $50. Happily, we both received quite normal bowls of ramen with ordinary things mixed in. The “choice” we made was for the filling of a seaweed-wrapped rice ball (we’d both “chosen” salmon). And the bill was what we’d expected it to be. No surprise eggs, no surprise charges. I consider that a success.

Then our night out in Tokyo began. We met Satoshi at the Park Hyatt Tokyo--of Lost in Translation fame--and had a (very expensive) drink at the Peak Lounge, with a spectacular view of the sparkling nighttime city. Atsh soon joined us, and we headed by taxi to Shinjuku to see what some of Tokyo nightlife entails. Shinjuku at night is insane--neon everywhere, men soliciting customers for “hostess bars,” pachinko parlors. Atsh told us a bit about the origins of pachinko--it was a way to use up ball bearings left over from WWII.

We walked around a bit, and then…we went to a karaoke place, where, in a small private room, we sang some songs. This was actually really, really fun--just a small room where you can drink beer and select songs from a telephone-book-sized song list; the words play across a large television screen and are illustrated by horribly outdated scenes of people from the 80s, their hair blowing in the wind and so forth. Atsh sang a few Japanese songs; Andrew tried his hand at Rod Stewart, Elvis Presley, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. I belted out Like a Prayer, a Dixie Chicks song, and Sweet Child O’ Mine. We ended with some Michael Jackson. It felt very Japan.

Our night ended with Atsh and Satoshi leading us up a staircase to a ramen place specializing in “dense” ramen--a ramen with a thicker broth. It was interesting to hear them talking about their jobs--they work ungodly hours, until 10pm or so on a pretty much nightly basis.

It was nearly midnight when we headed for the train, which was packed with people trying to make it before the train service ended for the night. “Packed” is an understatement--the trains were crammed with people, and people were determined about pushing their way on, with shoulders and knees if necessary. There were several people with most of their body inside the train, save for one foot still on the platform, pushing with all their might into the back of the person in front of them trying to get on the train. It was a long ride home.

And now here we are, trying to pack up our (my) millions of ridiculously small souvenirs. It has been an amazing trip. I can’t believe it’s over. More pictures, stories, thoughts, etc. to come in the days ahead.

Some pictures from today:

Standing among falling gingko leaves

Conveyor-belt sushi for lunch--that's my hand with the green tea

Peace cranes at Tosho-gu

Thank you Atsh and Satoshi for such a fun night out!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Day 13: Thursday, December 4

(Written Thursday, posted Thursday)

“Time spent at ease helps you to relax. Have more free time to keep your mind young. Please enjoy yourself.”

These words of wisdom are from a paper cup that until a few minutes ago was filled with hot green tea from a vending machine at Sutton Place Hotel in Ueno, a neighborhood in northern Tokyo. Andrew and I did not really enjoy ourselves as we once again schlepped our luggage through trains and train stations--this time with the added fun of Andrew’s extendable pull handle breaking when we got off the bullet train in Tokyo on a super-crowded platform, resulting in Andrew actually having to carry the heavy suitcase. Backpacks and nothing more next time--that’s a solemn vow.

Anyway, the first part of our day was lovely. We woke up in Nara with the sun filtering through the paper-paneled doors of our room at the Ryokan Seikanso. We’d bought doughnuts at the grocery store yesterday, and Andrew got us two cans of coffee from a vending machine just outside the ryokan; we ate breakfast in our room’s small sitting area, looking out over an interior garden. We relaxed a bit in the morning, packing our bags, making sure we’d noted which temple stamps came from which temples for the temple book, planning our day. We didn’t leave the ryokan until nine--a late start compared with the rest of our trip.

We decided to forgo three temples located a short train ride away from Nara; it would have involved a rather hectic, whirlwind rush through them before we had to catch our train back to Kyoto, so we instead opted to just explore Nara a little more, particularly the Naramachi area where our ryokan was. We’re so glad we did this. We visited Naramachi Koshi no le House, a machiya--a traditional wooden home with a narrow front facing the street and a deep, surprisingly large interior; this was a restored machiya that’s open for tourists to look around. In this and so many other places in Japan, traces of Frank Lloyd Wright are everywhere--or, rather, the things that must have served as influences are. I don’t know if FLW spent time in Japan--we’ll have to do some reading when we get home--but the way nature is incorporated so naturally into these structures, and the frequent straight lines within the woodwork and latticed windows, all seem very familiar.

Next we went to Harushika Sake Brewery, which isn’t open for tours (at least, we don’t think it was--this wasn’t the most English-friendly establishment), but which offers sake tastings. Back in familiar cultural territory, we each tasted four different sakes, including the brewery’s best-selling Cho-karakuchi, a very dry sake. They were all quite tasty, even though we were drinking them at around ten in the morning. We got to take our tasting glasses home--small sake glasses with deer engraved on the bottom, a perfect Nara souvenir.

We strolled around some Nara back streets, taking in the very quiet life; then we had lunch at a restaurant within one of the covered shopping arcades. Andrew had a teriyaki steak and I had more pork tonkatsu (not as good as yesterday), along with miso soup, rice, and pickles.

Soon it was time to retrieve our bags from the ryokan and head to the Nara train station. We took a train to Kyoto, then boarded a bullet train to Tokyo a couple of hours later. For the journey we bought amazing bento boxes from a shop in Kyoto Station--little works of art.

Two and a half hours later, we were lugging our bags through the very busy Tokyo station (Andrew hunched over awkwardly, trying to pull his broken bag). We were very relieved to finally reach our hotel. After a good sit-down to recover from the hectic trip, we walked around the neighborhood for a bit--an interesting mix of red-light district, beautiful museum-filled park (tomorrow’s destination), stand-up ramen bars, and cacophonous pachinko parlors (crazy pinball-type games--these places are multi-story and packed with people). There was trash on the street, and we saw many homeless people--a big change from the other areas of Tokyo we’ve seen. We bought some rice snacks at a 7-Eleven, and now here we are. Oh, and Andrew repaired his suitcase--enough, at least, to get us home--with some tape he bought. Isn’t he something?

Our room in the Sutton Place Hotel is the smallest room yet, but it’s clean and comfortable, with an internet connection, lots of little amenities, free green tea, and breakfast in the morning. We chose it specifically so we could see the Ueno area tomorrow, which should be fun. Hopefully we’ll be able to sleep--the hotel is right next to Superhighway No. 1. (It’s not quite the interior garden of a former geisha house, but ah well.)

Tomorrow’s our last day in Japan before our flight home on Saturday. At this point I feel like one of those contestants frantically running through a supermarket on a game-show shopping spree--anything you can throw in your cart in three minutes is yours! Our three minutes in Japan are almost up and a sea of aisles still remain unexplored.

Some pictures from today:

The interior of the machiya

Andrew outside the sake brewery

Our bento boxes, on the shinkansen (bullet train)

Crazy Ueno lights

Day 12: Wednesday, December 3

(Written on Wednesday, posted on Thursday)

Sadly, we left Kyoto this morning. If we had the trip to do over again, I think we’d spend the entire time there--it’s a place that is so much better than any picture or book or postcard can convey.

We took a very crowded train from the Shunko-in temple to Kyoto Station, where we caught another train for Nara, about thirty minutes south of Kyoto. When we arrived, we hauled our luggage to the Ryokan Seikanso, not a very far walk from the train station if you don’t have luggage to weigh you down. A note about the luggage: we packed very, very well for two weeks, just one wheeled carry-on and one purse (me) and messenger bag (Andrew) each. But we could have packed better--there are things that proved inessential; and as the trip has progressed we’ve accumulated quite a few souvenirs. So our neat n’ tidy suitcase plus shoulder bag has now expanded to two wheeled suitcases, a backpack, a messenger bag, a larger shoulder bag, and my purse. (If I could only stop shopping in 100-yen stores, we’d be in much better shape.)

Anyway, we hoofed it to the ryokan, dropped our bags, and set out for Nara Koen, a large park dotted with temples and famous for its herd of over a thousand tame, roaming deer. Indeed, it didn’t take long to spot a couple of deer lounging under some pine trees.

Before we got to the park, however, a man saw us gazing confusedly at our map and offered to show us to the tourist office then walk part of the way through the park with us. He gave us a little history, went with us into a beautiful garden called Isui-en, and pointed us in the right direction for the next temple. I felt rather bad because I felt so suspicious of this person--assumed he was trying to force his way into a ‘guide’ position. I’m not sure why this was my first reaction, especially in a place like Japan, where everyone has proven to be nothing but helpful, kind, and patient (with the exception of the leek restaurant guy, of course).

In any case, we soon parted ways with the man, and Andrew and I continued on for Todai-ji, the largest wooden structure in the world--which houses an enormous bronze Buddha. Enormous is an understatement--it’s over 16 meters tall, sitting lotus-style atop a giant lotus leaf. It’s flanked by two other enormous Buddhas and today was gazing serenely over a sea of schoolchildren--a few of whom, oddly, are those who interviewed us yesterday at the Golden Pavilion. They spotted us first and began waving and bowing. We’re apparently on the same temple-visiting path.

Near the giant Buddha is a large wooden pillar stretching from floor to ceiling, with an opening near the bottom that’s said to be the size of one of the Buddha’s nostrils. Legend has it that anyone who can squeeze through this opening will achieve enlightenment. Squeezing through this hole is generally done by kids, though adults occasionally attempt it. After studying the opening for a bit, Andrew declared that he, too, would attempt to squeeze through. Determinedly, he took off his shoulder bag and scarf and jacket and strode toward the pillar. “You cannot go through there,” I repeated loudly. “Do not do this. You cannot get through.” Around him, Japanese tourists began whispering and looking at Andrew in alarm--he was about double their size. I let out a small scream and Andrew bent down and immediately wedged himself into the opening. With some wriggling (and, he admitted later, a fleeting moment of panic about halfway through when he thought “Hmm, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea”), he emerged from the other side without causing an international incident. I bought myself a Hello Kitty charm--a tiny bronze Buddha with an even tinier Hello Kitty sitting on his lap (cute!!!)--and we were on our way.

There are deer everywhere in the park, and since deer biscuits are sold at small kiosks, they expect everyone to feed them and are fearless about approaching people, posing for pictures, and mingling with the crowds. I petted a few deer--a new experience even for a Southwestern Pennsylvania native--while Andrew grimaced slightly and took pictures.

Next we walked a stone lantern-lined path to the Kasuga Taisha, a temple that has a lantern-lighting festival twice a year--this would be amazing, since there are over three thousand stone lanterns, many moss-covered. Bright yellow gingko leaves drifted among the lanterns; it was all very peaceful, especially with deer nosing around the lanterns here and there.

Nearly passing out from hunger, we had lunch at a restaurant specializing in tonkatsu (breaded, deep-fried pork). We both had a lacquer box full of rice, leeks, and pork, along with miso soup and some pickled cabbage--delicious.

A 100-yen store was conveniently situated near the restaurant, so after lunch we (I) did a little shopping.

Andrew was visibly crashing from fatigue after our shopping excursion, so he bought a can of coffee and we sat near Kofuku-ji, another temple, gazing at a five-story pagoda--the second-tallest in Japan. It was at this temple that I had our temple book signed for the third time today, filling the very last page of the first side of the accordianed pages. An exciting moment.

We did a little more shopping as we made our way back to the ryokan to check in. Andrew browsed in an antique store, then we went into a grocery store that had, among many other interesting things, absolutely giant bottles of liquor--the size of fire hydrants, though a bit narrower. At another shop nearby we also watched two men making mochi--pounded rice sweets. One kneaded the dough while the other pounded it, full force, with a wooden mallet. When they were done they molded the mochi into small balls filled with beans, and coated them with a kind of powder to keep them from being too sticky; we bought one, along with the other people in the crowd that had gathered.

We eventually reached the ryokan and were shown to our room. It’s adorable--all tatami mats and sliding, paper-paneled doors, with a small sitting area that looks out over a garden. Ryokan Seikanso is a former geisha house, and it retains the eerie sense of the other lives that were lived here. We hated to leave, but we left once again to get some dinner, at an Indian restaurant. We had tandoori chicken, some curry and rice, and the largest piece of naan I’ve ever seen. Finally we could settle back at the ryokan--a little while ago we availed ourselves of the ryokan’s amazing bathtub, with scalding hot water; we walked to the communal bathroom wearing the ryokan's yukata, a kind of kimono-like cotton robe.

Now we’re relaxing and preparing to journey once again tomorrow, this time back to Tokyo--the final piece of our trip. Real life is peeking around these papered sliding doors, though we can put it off just a little longer.

Some pictures from today:

Sake cartons in a Nara grocery store

Andrew--truly in Japan!!

Lanterns at Kasuga Taisha

Day 11: Tuesday, December 2

(Written Tuesday, posted Thursday)

Our day began with a 35-minute meditation, led by a Zen Buddhist monk who lives here at the Shunko-in temple; he’s the vice-abbott. He speaks English--he actually studied in Arizona and did an internship for John McCain (“He could not have been president,” he said)--and leads meditation sessions for foreigners interested in learning more about Zen practices. The time went quickly, though it wasn’t easy for Andrew to stay in a half-lotus position for even five minutes; I could hear him shifting around next to me. The monk suggested afterwards that practice would help him get accustomed to the position, but I don’t think Andrew’s legs will bend that way if he practiced for the rest of his life.

After the meditation, the monk gave us a tour of some of the temple’s inner chambers, which were not only freezing cold but also featured beautiful painted panels that were over two hundred years old. The colors and gold leaf looked almost brand-new save for a few cracks here and there--due in part to the temperature. The tour ended with a cup of green tea and some sweet rice cookies.

We gave our feet a rest today by making use of the temple’s bicycles, which overnight guests are free to use as they wish. I haven’t ridden a bike in years, save the exercise bike at the gym, and it took me a while to get my bike-legs; but it was wonderful to swish off down the temple’s stone pathways, then join the many other bike-riding Kyoto citizens as we set off for a whirlwind tour of three temples. I was nervous about riding without a helmet--two people close to our family have had hideous bike accidents--but no one wears them here save a few toddlers, so we just rode slowly and very carefully.

We never could have gotten to all the temples we wanted to see without the bikes, but with them we managed to see some amazing things. First we saw Ninnaji, where I collected a few fallen gingko leaves to add to my growing leaf collection; Ninnaji is the jumping-off point for an eighty-eight temple pilgrimage, which we did not manage to do this time around. Next we biked to the world’s most famous Zen rock garden, within the Ryoanji temple; it consists only of fifteen rocks arranged in groups, surrounded by a sea of raked pebbles. No one knows what the garden represents, though it is said that the garden “has nothing but has everything.” After some contemplation, we strolled around the beautiful gardens, blazing with maples.

After a quick lunch of ramen, we biked on to the Golden Pavilion, one of Kyoto’s most touristy sights, and were nearly smothered by stampedes of uniformed schoolchildren. The pavilion is almost entirely gold-plated, and open to visitors only twice a year; we admired it from the outside. The pathways around it were lined with souvenir and food shops. One shop was offering samples of delicious sticky rice balls--a man gave me two and, pointing to my button, told me one was for Obama. We were interviewed by more English-learning schoolchildren, who, when we shook their hands at the end, combined the handshake with a few bows.

I added three more stamps for our temple book in the course of our temple-hopping. I also learned the name for the stamps--goshuin. The temple book is a goshuin-cho. The calligraphy surrounding the stamps indicates the name of the temple and the date of the visit, as well as other notes; one I got today (translated by a helpful sign) was “pray respectfully.”

We got lost as we tried to bike back to Shunko-in, but eventually found our way. Reluctantly, we dropped off our bikes and caught a bus for downtown Kyoto, where we took a stroll through the Imperial Gardens then wandered in and out of a few shops before walking down Pontocho, a narrow pedestrian street lined with golden-lit, secret-looking restaurants accessible to the lucky few who part the curtains and scurry down narrow cobbled pathways. These places are, to me, extremely intimidating, but we found one with reasonable prices and an English menu (not one with an entry pathway; one a little less exclusive-seeming) and went inside. We were “greeted” by a server who doubtfully asked if we spoke Japanese, suggested that there wasn’t much English help available, and asked sceptically if we liked leeks, that being the restaurant’s specialty. He really did everything possible to get us to turn around and leave. Fortunately, I’m married to someone just a little braver and less susceptible to intimidation than I am, so we stood our ground and took our seats.

It was a delicious meal--first came small bowls of a pureed bean curd and a box of thinly sliced leeks to mix in the food that would follow. Next we had a beef, potato, and leek stew; then leek and vegetable tempura; and then two leek and shrimp dumplings. We were sitting at a counter looking out at the cooks, who washed leek after leek, washing and slicing them and then grilling or frying or boiling them. We paid the scowling waiter and left, our feathers ruffled a bit since we really don’t think we’re terrible tourists. We do our best and our sins, I think, are usually minor.

Sadly, this was our last dinner in Kyoto. Tomorrow we leave early on a train for Nara, where we’ll spend one night. We’ve only scratched the surface of Kyoto--it’s a place to come back to someday. For now it’s onward, with more to see…

Some pictures from today:

Apple juice cans in a vending machine (cute!!!)

The entrance to Myoshin-ji temple complex, where Shunko-in is located

At the Golden Pavilion

Day 10: Monday, December 1

(Written Monday, posted Thursday)

Another Japanese bath awaited us this morning, and it occurred to me as I soaked that it would likely take an entire day of soaking to undo the pain the last few days have wrought on my feet and legs. Alas, this was not to be.

Today we reluctantly checked out of Pension Kotomu, managing to pack up our suitcases in a reasonably compact manner despite the fact that we’re rapidly accumulating souvenirs. We left our bags at the guesthouse for a few hours and headed to Nishiki Market, a large food market full of things that we could not identify. We bought a few cute things at a store selling candy and snacks--I acquired another small hedgehog/mole creature, a purple one this time with a small flower on its head (cute!!!), a tiny Hello Kitty duffel bag (small enough for a cell phone), and a cute box of candy in the shape of a bear. After this frenzy of cuteness we wandered among the food stalls, admiring the sleek packages of pickled items, including tiny pickled radishes; mounds of spices for sprinkling over rice (we think); and lots of fish, meats, vegetables, and other packaged items I wish we could bring home with us. We saw a stall selling fugu--the poisonous blowfish. There was a man slicing up the fish, hopefully good at his job, standing behind the counter and separating the edible fish flesh from the deadly bits.

The market let us out in a large covered shopping area with temples cropping up every now and then--the area is called Temple Street. These temples are cheek to jowl with overwhelmingly noisy arcade rooms and busy stores, just one more stop you could make as you do your shopping. We went into one that had a carnivalesque fortune-teller-type machine, right next to the main worship area and the ubiquitous counter selling charms for various causes. It was here that the pervasive blurring of commerce and spirituality was taken to a new level: the selection of charms included those bearing the image of Hello Kitty. I overheard two Japanese people talking in English near me, and I asked the significance of Hello Kitty here--“We have no idea,” they said as they purchased a handful of the charms.

Among the shops on Temple Street were two 100-yen stores, chock full of amazingly cute items. I bought a big bagful of things and feel compelled to buy much, much more; these stores are fantastic, and though you have to search among cleaning supplies and toothbrushes to find the cute gems, they’re there. And oh, have I found them. And oh, will I continue to find them.

Next stop--Kennin-ji temple, a wonderfully peaceful temple with a few red and yellow maples. There were hardly any people there, which was a significant change from the leaf mania taking place elsewhere, and it was nice just to stand in the sun and listen to the quiet for a bit.

As we walked around today we saw uniformed schoolchildren everywhere--a glance at our guidebook revealed that December 1 is the Kencha Festival at a particular shrine honoring the god of study. We were interviewed by a small group of kids obviously practicing for an English-language class, the second time this has happened to us. They each asked us a question, then asked if we could take a picture with them, after which they proceeded to each whip out a camera. It was a fairly lengthy picture-taking process, with lots of giggling and whispering in Japanese.

We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant (tofu over rice for me, sweet and sour pork for Andrew, some dumplings) then picked up our bags at the guesthouse, said goodbye to our wonderful host, and headed to a bus. Our time in Kyoto isn’t over--but we’re spending the next two nights at the Shunko-in temple in the northwestern part of the city. After a fairly long haul with our bags (next time we’re forgoing the suitcases and bringing only backpacks), we reached the temple and were shown to our room.

The Shunko-in is a Zen Buddhist temple within the Myoshin-ji temple complex, a walled area full of temples and gardens. Our room here is quite large, with two large Japanese-style futon mattresses on the floor, a desk, and a private shower. There’s a heating unit on the wall but we are very chilly right now--it’s extremely cold in Kyoto and it’s hard to get very warm. But we’ll manage.

After dropping our bags off, we took a bus to downtown Kyoto to get some money from a Citibank, check email and update my blog, and have dinner. We ate at a place called Donguri and had delicious okonomyaki (the pancake/omelette things on the griddle at the table)--one was pork and kimchi, the other a seafood mix. We also had a dish of sliced lotus root with shrimp--amazing. For dessert we had a bowl of sweets consisting of three small sticky rice balls (the gnocchi-like things we had last night), some green tea cake, whipped cream, two globes of black sesame ice cream, and two cinnamon sticks.

Now we’re back at the temple--it’s only 9:30pm but it feels much later, both because we’re exhausted and because it’s so dark and quiet here. Tomorrow morning we’re getting a tour of the temple, then embarking on 45 minutes of Zen meditation. It remains to be seen whether Andrew will be able to remain sitting on the floor for the duration.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Day 9, Sunday, November 30

(Written Sunday, posted Monday)

Our day started early but blissfully: we’d requested a “Japanese bath” in the morning in addition to a shower, and our guesthouse owner had filled the amazing bathtub for us--deep enough to allow submersion up to the neck while seated. Our aching muscles from yesterday felt fully revived. Of course, this prompted Andrew to threaten to eschew sight-seeing in favor of just going back to sleep, but he came around.

We exchanged a few words with the guesthouse owner before setting out for the day. He’s always so concerned for our well-being; each morning he asks if we have any questions, tells us what the weather forecast is for the day, and ensures we have umbrellas if needed. Today he wrote down directions for us to get to the train station, even writing the name of the stop in Japanese in case we had to ask for help.

After a can of coffee and a pastry from a 7-Eleven (they’re everywhere here, as well as AM/PM’s), we got on a train for Fushimi Inari, a shrine in the southern part of the city. This shrine was the inspiration for Christo’s “The Gates” in Central Park--once I post pictures it will be obvious why. The paths throughout this sprawling shrine are lined with over a thousand bright-orange torii, so close together that they’re nearly touching. Once inside the tunnel of torii, the orange is all you can see, save for glimpses of the trees between them. The torii stretch along paths that lead up to the top of Mount Inari; along the way are countless smaller subshrines, many dedicated to specific causes--lost children, fertility. Most of the main shrine buildings and subshrines feature two stone statues of foxes--spirits associated with the shrine.

We walked and walked through the torii, heading up the mountain, most of the time surrounded by crowds that grew denser as the morning progressed. There were many elderly people who were bypassing us easily. We didn’t go all the way to the top, but we easily could have spent all day here. It was one of the most breathtaking sights of Kyoto so far--and that’s saying a lot.

The shops surrounding the shrine are full of fox-related trinkets; and we’d read that some of the restaurants serve particular fox-related foods. We had a crispy rice cake snack, then stopped for lunch and had inarizushi, deep-fried been curd wrapped around rice with black sesame seeds, apparently a “favorite food of foxes” according to our Exploring Kyoto guidebook by Judith Clancy. Andrew has an extraordinarily difficult time sitting on the floor, and his legs simply do not fit underneath low Japanese tables; again, it was a good thing there weren’t too many people around so he could stretch out a bit, probably breaking countless social mores in the process.

Reluctantly, we headed back to the train station to leave Fushimi Inari. One small problem at this station--the rather old ticket machines had buttons, not a screen where you could select to have the instructions in English; and there were no English signs anywhere to be found. After puzzling over the buttons for a while, a woman approached and asked if she could help us, which, yes, she obviously could. Then we were on our way.

By noon we’d already put in a day’s worth of walking, but we had much more planned for the day. We rode the train to Northern Higashiyama, where we walked the Philosopher’s Path, a narrow path along a canal that travels past several shrines and temples and many shops. The maples were in full splendor along the path and the nearby shrines, and flocks of people were everywhere--“leaf mania” is the only way to describe it. We meandered in and out of a few shrines, procured a few entries for our temple book, and even found a temple where Junichiro Tanazaki (a Japanese author both of us are currently reading) is buried. By the time we reached the end of the Path, we were exhausted, ready for a rest and some warmth. It was a very, very long walk home.

Tonight we decided to have a little Japanese tapas crawl--everywhere we’ve turned the past few days we’ve seen amazing street food being sold, so we decided to just spend the evening trying whatever we wanted. (There’s food everywhere--and everyone is snacking on something; we’re not sure whether this is always the case or simply due to both the Light-Up and the fall foliage time.) Our samplings included: a fried potato-y disk wrapped in seaweed; a crisp rice cake; squid cupcakes (that’s what we’ve been calling these things, after seeing them around every corner--small balls of batter with pieces of squid inside; we expected to love them but actually found them revolting); three skewers of what resembled gnocchi slathered with a sweet sauce; small bowls of dumplings; more inarizushi; and yam fries dusted with sugar.

A funny thing about the last dumplings and inarizushi: we came across a row of stalls near a shrine, and when we went up to purchase the dumplings and asked how much they were, the woman plucked two ten-yen coins from Andrew’s hand and gave us each a bowl, though we’d only asked for one. For the inarizushi, same thing--I went up to buy some, was relieved of three ten-yen coins (they weren’t even taking anything--I just threw some coins in a small wooden box). We’re not sure what was going on here--they were handing out the inarizushi right and left to whoever would take it--but this meant a good portion of our street-food crawl cost around five cents. Strange.

Our final temple stop of the night was Kodai-ji, which was open late for the Light-Up. Maples were spotlit throughout the grounds, though it was difficult to really enjoy the view--the masses of people were similar to those crunched against department store windows on Fifth Avenue in NYC during Christmastime. Leaf mania everywhere. But we followed the crowds along a short loop that took us through a spookily lit up bamboo grove, then headed back to the street for more food.

For dessert: black sesame ice cream for me (nutty--almost peanut buttery) and eight small fried soymilk donuts for Andrew.

As we walked around early this evening, we saw several geisha, somehow walking along the cobbled streets in their oddly proportioned wooden sandals. People--including us--were unabashedly snapping pictures.

Now we’re back at the guesthouse, completely exhausted. Tomorrow we’re checking out of our room here and moving to temple quarters for two nights. The adventure continues…

Day 8, Saturday, November 29

(Written Saturday, posted Monday)

Our first full day in Kyoto began at 6:30am, the time we’d chosen for our showers. (The guesthouse owner knocked on our door to wake us up and give us towels; I answered in my pj’s, which seemed to surprise him.) There’s only one bathroom in the guesthouse, outside and three flights down, and we have to pre-arrange a time to use it; getting up early was our choice, since there’s an insane amount to see here and we wanted to get an early start. Andrew was even the one to suggest the early time--evidence of how single-minded we both were about getting out there and starting our day. We had breakfast at the guesthouse--coffee, toast, slices of apple, and an omelette with a little dollop of ketchup. The omelette was hardly cooked in the middle--we both had a difficult time getting through it. If only we knew what awaited us later in the day…

Kyoto would be beautiful at any time of year, but right now it’s spectacular--there are Japanese maples everywhere, and they’re still in vibrant color. The temples and narrow streets and curtained doorways are all framed in bright reds and oranges and yellows; and perfect, tiny leaves blanket stone stairways and cobbled streets because of the past few days’ rainfall. Everything we saw today looked like a postcard. Japanese tourists have flocked to the city this weekend because of the “Light-Up” festival (temples staying open late with their building and trees spotlit dramatically), many in kimono.

We started off at a wonderful temple called Yasaka Koshindo, a small temple with strings of “hanging monkeys” adorning every surface to ward off the evil that accompanies desire. The temple appeared to be closed, but two Japanese women pounded on the door of what looked like someone’s living quarters to summon someone so they could buy charms; we slipped in line behind them. While waiting for our temple book to be signed, we saw a young geisha posing for what looked like professional photographs.

From there we temple-hopped our way through southern Higashiyama, one of Kyoto’s most beautiful areas, and strolled through Murayama Koen, the Central Park of Kyoto. Right before lunch we stopped at Yasaka ji-jinja. This temple was packed with people buying good-luck charms and snapping photographs; and in the main area in the center, a Shinto wedding was taking place. Guards had to clear a path for the wedding procession. Across the way, a baptism was taking place.

For lunch, in the Gion neighborhood, I had unagi (grilled eel) over rice; Andrew had tempura. Then it was back to temple-hopping--our temple book is filling up fast. Just before reaching the last temple of the day, we stopped in a sweets shop and bought mochi sweets--pounded rice with a bean-filled center. The consistency of these sweets is part rubbery, part soft--they’re delicious.

It was around 4pm by this point, and we’d literally been walking all day; and many of the temples involved walks up flights of steep stairs. It rained intermittently, but not until late in the afternoon. We took a little rest at the Heian shrine, in view of its massive orange tori (arched gateway), then did some browsing at the Kyoto Handicraft Center. We bought a woodblock print of two birds on a branch of fall leaves for ourselves, then availed ourselves of the center’s internet café so I could update my blog.

Our plan for the evening was to go to another Light-Up temple event, but the line to get in was so long, and the streets so crowded, that we decided against it. Instead we stopped for dinner at a noodle shop that had a nice view of the busy street. I ordered udon noodles with fried tofu; Andrew ordered udon noodles with grated yam. Both vegetable-based dishes--we assumed we’d have an uneventful meal. My meal arrived and looked delicious. Then Andrew’s arrived. In the middle of the bowl floated a raw egg. We both recoiled. The waitress mimed “Something wrong?” Andrew mimed, “The egg.” She got our waiter, who spoke some English. “The fresh egg?” he said. “Right back.” He took the bowl away and brought it back a few moments later. The egg was gone, but whether it had been removed or simply mixed into the soup was unclear. Andrew began eating the noodles, but it soon became clear that the noodles had been swimming in a “broth” the consistency of scambled eggs--before they’re cooked. Stringy egg stretched between his chopsticks. “I’m glad I’m not in your shoes right now,” I said quietly, supportively. “You’re doing great, though.” It was a relief for both of us when he’d eaten enough for us to leave, saving what face we could (and it wasn’t much). What amused us both is that there was an English menu--but the menu made no mention whatsoever of a raw egg being included in the dish. It was clearly a big deal only to us.

We ended our day with a long walk through the teeming streets of Gion; though the side streets were quiet, lined with peaceful-looking buildings shrouded with curtains and bamboo doors and warm lights. Some places had Japanese menus outside; some places were unmarked. What went on behind the doors we can only guess. Exhausted, we elbowed (politely) through the crowds and headed towards home, stopping for a meat bun and small fried soymilk donuts (Andrew) and some green-tea ice cream (me).

Over fourteen hours of sight-seeing and we made it through only one small part of the city--we just have to resign ourselves to the fact that we’re not going to be able to see everything, and just enjoy the things we do get to see. This is an amazing place.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Day 7: Friday, November 28

(Written on Friday, posted on Saturday)

It poured again in Nikko today. We woke early and began the morning with a yoga class with a Zen Buddhist monk; the monk chanted at the end of the class during a brief meditation, while the rain kept pouring down outside. (Andrew had been resistant to the class, until it became clear that I was the only one in the lodge who had signed up; being the nice husband that he is, he agreed to go with me.) After breakfast, we took a brief walk in the rain to "Nikko beer," which Andrew had hoped would involve a brewery tour; but there were just a few things for sale in the shop. The walk was very moody; fog was settling over the mountaintops, and wet leaves were matted along the roads and sidewalks. It was perfectly silent except for the raindrops in the trees.

We headed to the train station around eleven; the mountains we spotted in the distance were snow-capped. We saw a white loon lightly stepping its way across a small river. Along the way we had two snacks on the way, a curry bun and a bean-paste bun, both delicious. By the train tracks was a perfectly shaped tree, its leaves shockingly red. When our train arrived, a big crowd of Japanese travellers ran off and instantly began photographing the tree--we weren’t the only ones charmed.

We spent the first part of the ride back to Tokyo half-convinced we’d gotten on the wrong train; fortunately, we were fine. Once we got back to Tokyo, we took two subways to Tokyo station, where our shinkansen (bullet train) would depart for Kyoto. We picked up one more snack there--a meat bun. I could eat steamed buns exclusively for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy.

The shinkansen was amazing--hurtling through the countryside at 200mph, women pushing carts of snacks through each car and bowing each time they reached the doorway to the next car, their outfits of jaunty hat and prettily tied neck scarf. We bought a bag of rice snacks to eat while we planned what to do when we arrived in Kyoto.

Getting from Kyoto station to Pension Kotomu--a small guesthouse--was the part of this trip I’d thought would be most complex, mostly because it involved taking a city bus. It did take us a while to find the right bus--very little was marked in English, and what was marked was a bit ambiguous--but eventually we sorted it out. We even found our stop with little problem. As we started walking up the road that would lead to our guesthouse, we could see the Koyomizu-dera temple at the top of the street, brightly lit with a spotlight.

After settling the bill for our room and listening to the owner’s instructions on wearing slippers in the hallway, taking them off before stepping onto the tatami, and controlling the heater in the room, we instantly set off for the temple. We’re in Kyoto at a lucky time--for the next week or so, a handful of temples stays open late and allows visitors to roam their magically lit-up grounds. The Koyomizu-dera also had spotlights illuminating the beautiful fall foliage; lanterns lined every walkway. Crowds of Japanese visitors were flocking into the temple, snapping pictures at every turn; the temple had the air of a holiday festival. Our pictures can’t do this justice--the temple is breathtaking to begin with, and with the lights and the leaves it was just spectacular. In the distance was the Kyoto skyline, with the Kyoto Tower brightly lit. Of course I had our temple book with me, procuring perhaps our most prized stamp yet. It was the perfect start to our Kyoto adventure.

We stopped for a quick dinner at another cook-it-yourself pancake restaurant (Andrew had an omelette with green onions; I had fried udon noodles with vegetables), then headed back to our guesthouse. Our room at Pension Kotomu--where I’m sitting right now, typing this--is at the very top of the building, like a little attic room. Tatami mats cover the floor, and we have quite a large balcony from which we can look out over Kyoto and even see part of the Koyomizu-dera. The room is entirely empty except for a low table, two flat cushions, a small lamp on the floor, a coatrack, and a small TV on a stand. The materials that will become our beds tonight are folded neatly in a closet. In the morning, the owner of the guesthouse will knock on our door and show us where the shower is. Our time in Kyoto has begun.

No pics again--I'll add some later on.

Day 6: Thursday, November 27 (Thanksgiving in Japan)

(Written on Thursday; posted on Saturday)

It was another early day. We left the Oakwood Apartments around 6am and headed to the train station to catch our train to Nikko. We didn’t need to leave that early--our train wasn’t leaving until 8:10--but our friend Atsh told us that it was not a good idea to get on the subway with our suitcases during rush hour. He told us that it’s not uncommon for people to actually be separated from their suitcases in the crush of people--and it’s also not uncommon to see "floaters," people whose feet actually don’t touch the ground because they’re crammed in so tightly. It seemed prudent to leave a bit early.

As we waited for the train to arrive, we bought cans of coffee from a vending machine on the platform; our favorite, the Georgia brand cafÈ crËme, which has a can that reads "Little gift for you," was not available; so we chose Wonda brand cafÈ au lait, which promised a perfect "coexistence of roasted coffee and roasted milk" for "a radiant peace."

The two-hour train ride took us through some beautiful countryside--a marked contrast from the metropolis of nearby Tokyo. There were bare-branched trees still laden with bright orange fruit, either persimmons or Asian pears; gardens full of huge cabbages; and houses pressed close together along narrow streets.

When we arrived in Nikko, we found it was significantly colder than Tokyo; plus, it began to rain. We trudged with our suitcases 1.5km to the Nikko Park Lodge--uphill the entire way. By the time we got there we were soaked and feeling rushed; the temples we’d come to see closed at 3:30pm, and it was already after eleven. We dropped our bags in the lodge’s lobby, hastily reorganized ourselves, and took a taxi to the shrines.

Nikko’s focal point is a collection of World Heritage Sites, consisting of four main temples: Rinno-ji, Tosho-gu, Fukarasan-ji, and Taiyuin-byo. The grounds surrounding and connecting the temples are beautiful--a true forest of tall trees with lots of steep stone stairways, stone paths, and gigantic temple gates. Unfortunately, the rain kept on and got worse as the afternoon progressed, which made our temple-hopping a rather soggy affair. Nonetheless, it was wonderful to see the ornate carvings and paintings and gold Buddhas; at times we could hear gongs being chimed from afar. At each temple, we had a calligrapher inscribe our temple book--filling the pages is growing into a mild obsession.

We warmed up from the rain in a small snack bar, where we ordered rice cakes (actual cakes of rice, not the crunchy health-food kind) and drank hot green tea. A funny thing about that tea: When we ordered our rice cakes, Andrew also ordered "green tea." "No tea," the woman said apologetically. Behind her clearly stood a cup of tea. Unwilling to press the issue, we acquiesced. When she brought over our rice cakes, however, she also brought over two cups of hot green tea without comment. We realized then that by ordering "tea," she assumed we wanted iced tea. At our lunch restaurant yesterday, we’d also ordered "tea," and had received--somewhat confusingly--two glasses of iced green tea. We think now that no one actually orders tea because it’s automatically provided--and when two Americans order tea everyone assumes they want iced tea. Even when it’s freezing and rainy outside. We’re learning new things every day…

When we’d seen all we wanted to, and when our hands were frozen into damp claws, we headed out of the temple area to find lunch. We headed to a place called Hippari Dako and ordered two dishes of noodles--pan-fried udon and yubasoba with soy sauce. The restaurant held only three tables, and the walls were covered with notes, business cards, letters, and photographs from all the travellers who’ve enjoyed meals there in the past--we even saw a paper pinned to the ceiling from two University of Dayton graduates.

Next we went on a wild goose chase to find a group of statues I’d read about in a book, only to realize--too late--that what we were looking for was actually much farther away than we’d thought. But our detour took us through a quiet residential neighborhood, with only the sound of trickling water and gongs. Incredibly peaceful.

Finally exhausted, we mustered up the energy to once again trek uphill to our lodge, where we fell into an instant nap. We ate dinner tonight at the lodge--a Zen vegan feast consisting of brown rice, miso soup, tofu steak, salad, and a variety of mushrooms and cabbage simmering in a small pot over a votive candle. Dessert was a slice of apple carved into what appeared to be a rabbit, and half a kumquat. It was delicious (but I could see Andrew eyeing the Doritos for sale at the front desk, imaging his hunger pangs later from the meatless meal).

Now we’re sitting in the lodge’s common room, warm from a woodburning stove, planning the next part of our trip and being forced to listen to some of the worst Christmas music known to man--such as "White Christmas" played on a sitar. We’ll leave Nikko tomorrow around noon, take the train back to Tokyo, then catch a bullet train to Kyoto, where the next part of our adventure will begin.

No pictures today--I'm in an internet cafe catching up on posting. I’ll edit the post later and add in some pictures.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Day 5: Wednesday, November 26

Our day began at a normal time for once--10am--with coffee at a Starbucks-like chain called Tully's in Shinjuku, not far from our hotel. We then headed to East Shinjuku, an area that beckoned with its copious neon; we've eyed it from the subway station each time we return home. Though it was too early in the day for the neon to show its true splendor, the area was a distinct shift from the other areas of Shinjuku we'd seen: seedier, dirtier, much more Times Square circa 1989. The highlight was walking along the narrow alleys of Golden Gai, a collection of tiny bars (five or six counter stools) with doors so narrow that the majority of Americans would be unable to fit through. These bars are notorious for the after-work debauchery of Tokyo's "salarymen," and I'd read that a) not many of the bars welcome foreigners, and b) if you do go in, know what you're getting into, because it's entirely possible you'd be charged $100 for a beer. True or not, we'll never know.

Heading for less sketchy territory, we headed to the Isetan department store. We wanted to see the depachika (food shops) in the basement, famous for both their quality and their amazingly beautiful wrapping. Each counter in the depachika was like a tiny museum showcase, with the goods--macaroons in every color of the rainbow, pastries as intricately decorated as jewelry, individually wrapped pears and apples for upwards of $5 each. If we'd purchased anything, it would have been painstakingly wrapped in beautiful paper and ribbon. I really want to move to Tokyo and have a big dinner party now so that everyone will bring us wrapped food.

Next we headed to Asakusa for lunch and sight-seeing. We chose a restaurant called Sometaro, an okonomiyaki restaurant. Okonomiyaki are basically filled pancakes that you cook yourself on a griddle on your table. Finding the restaurant was difficult--there were no Roman letters on any of the restaurants on the street, only kanji characters--but we eventually did. Inside, we removed our shoes, placed them in plastic bags, and were led to a low table. It was a struggle for Andrew to fold his legs into a comfortable seated position, and it was a good thing no one was sitting next to us--they would have had his feet in their laps. I ordered a pancake with pork, green onion, kimchi, and cheese. Andrew ordered one with ground meat, cheese, and "pizza sauce." The ingredients came to our table in bowls, and after we indicated that we needed help with the process, the waitress expertly mixed everything up, fired up our griddle with fat, and fried up the cakes while Andrew shamelessly snapped pictures. They were delicious.

Next stop: the Senso temple, an ornate, crowded temple surrounded by interesting shopping streets. At the temple I finally got my temple book--a blank book of fanned pages on which a calligrapher at each temple in Japan will write for a small fee. I'd tried to get one on Monday, but they were sold out at the Meiji shrine. The calligrapher even inscribed "Littell" on the front in kanji. The temple was beautiful, and the atmosphere was more bustling meeting-place than place of worship.

The last stop of the night was Roppongi, the nightlife center of Tokyo. Tons of ex-pats live in Roppongi, and it's both extremely crazy and extremely expensive. We walked for a bit around Roppongi Hills, a landmark building that contains offices, apartments, a Grand Hyatt, a shopping mall, and lots of fancy restaurants. It's an entire city in once place.

We eventually met our friend Atsh and his girlfriend for dinner. This time he took us to a Korean barbeque restaurant, where we grilled pieces of beef at our table--delicious.

It's 12:30am now, and I'm off to bed; tomorrow we leave Tokyo for a night in Nikko, then it's on to Kyoto. Oh, and I've developed a mild addiction to the 100-yen stores--more about these in a future post.

I'm too tired to include pictures in the post tonight, but here are just a few to illustrate our day:

The Senso temple

Watching my lunch being prepared. My thought at this moment: "I hope that pork cooks enough on this griddle."

Macaroons at the Isetan department store

Bars within the Golden Gai

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Day 4: Tuesday, November 25 (A Day of Difficult Eating)

Another day, another alarm set for 4:30am. This time, however, our trip to the Tsukiji fish market was a success. And what an experience it was. The Tsukiji fish market is the largest fish market in the world, and it's renowned especially for its tuna auction--some of the tuna can fetch as much as $10,000 each. The tuna are caught and frozen, then brought to the market, where they're auctioned off and then carted away.

Walking around the fish market is an exercise in chaos and treachery. Though tourists are tolerated, no concessions are made to them, and if I had to give a tourist just one piece of advice, it would be this: First, get out of the way--THEN worry about taking pictures. Besides people in rubber aprons rushing everywhere, there are many different types of vehicles--motorbikes, carts, one-person trucks--veering and speeding in every direction down the narrow aisles. They stop for no one. We managed to escape without injury, but I can't imagine this is the case for everyone.

The market is full of freshly caught fish both alive and dead. The dead are sometimes piled in buckets or pans of bloody water. The live ones are sometimes piled on tables, their mouths still gaping, or crowded into other buckets or pans. We saw one worker heave live fish onto a countertop--still flopping--and whack their tails with a huge knife. Watching this is not for the faint of heart, nor are the pans of what had to have been brains and hearts of some creature, who knows what.

After dodging and winding our way through the market, we did what everyone else was doing and chose a sushi restaurant for breakfast. There are restaurants throughout the "outer markets," where other food and cooking items are sold, and most had lines crowded around the door. We searched for and found one that had been recommended in an article we'd read, and fortunately had no wait. This breakfast proved to be our first Difficult Eating experience of the day. Though we both like sushi, we are not adventurous sushi eaters. And though we enjoyed most of the fish on our platter, we were ultimately left with three difficult items: salmon roe on rice wrapped in seaweed; sea urchin roe on rice wrapped in seaweed; and a slice of bright-yellow herring row with a strip of seaweed around its middle. All three gave us pause, but none more than the herring roe. It looked like a piece of wax textured with tiny pebbles--much like chicken flesh (and I use the comparison deliberately; keep reading). You'd think roe would be soft, as the salmon and sea urchin roe are; this was not. It was...crunchy. Alarmingly crunchy. Crunchy in a strange dried-mango-slice way, while being, quite clearly, not mango. We could not finish even our three-inch-long slice.

Next stop: Ginza, Tokyo's most upscale shopping district. This area felt very much like Fifth Avenue in NYC, but honestly it did Fifth Avenue to shame. There were just more stores, one after the other, in a neverending stream of luxury. Around us were men and women in suits, rushing to their jobs. It was a very pretty area, with tree-lined streets, and was a nice reprieve after the fish market. We ended up at the Imperial Palace, where Tokyo's imperial family resides. You can't get very close, but we squinted at it from afar. Closer to where we stood were gardens, which were, surprisingly, filled with sleeping homeless people. We'd seen a map earlier where an English translation had marked the spot as "Place for people who cannot go home," but whether being unable to go home seemed less likely than having no home to go to at all.

We finished off our time in Ginza by taking an extremely long walk in the wrong direction, then another extremely long walk in the right direction, to a Muji flagship store. We've been to Muji in NYC and Barcelona, but this Muji was totally different--several floors of food, furniture, clothing, and appliances, a Target of Tokyo versus the international stores' small collection of pleasingly designed office supplies, dishware, and travel accessories.

After a much-needed rest at the hotel, we had lunch at a tempura restaurant in Shinjuku then headed to Shibuya, one of the craziest and busiest areas of Tokyo. Shibuya can only be described as a Times Square gone wild--it has all the neon, all the traffic, and all the people, plus about a million more. What makes it crazier is that everything makes noise. Every neon display plays music; every building-size television screen plays a different advertisement at top volume; every store emits a dizzying cacophony of music or arcade sounds. Calling this sensory overload is a ridiculous understatement. Shibuya Crossing is the heart of it all, with thousands of people streaming in four directions at once. And looking calmly over the crossing from one side is a small bronze statue of a dog called Hachiko, who continued to wait at Shibuya Station for his master for ten years after the master died.

We walked around Shibuya, going into some sensory-overload shops, trying to win another adorable mole-creature (this one wearing a jaunty hat) in an arcade, trying to find Unazukin in a store called Tokyo Hands (unsuccessful), walking down a street lined with "love hotels" (hotels for brief trysts), finding two hotels near each other called "Hotel Will" and "Hotel If," and finally stopping for a rest in a cafe looking over the crossing.

Soon it was time to meet our friend Atsh for dinner. He'd offered to take us to a restaurant that would otherwise be pretty much off our radar as American tourists, someplace we'd never go on our own. So we met him in a neighborhood called Ebisu, and he led us to Ebisu Imaiya, which specializes in yakitori. (Yakitori is pieces of chicken put onto skewers and grilled. Kind of like shishkabobs, but at the same time not like shishkabobs at all.) A server led us up a narrow flight of stairs to a low-lit room with a narrow aisle down the center. The aisle was really a pebble-filled path with large stepping stones down the middle. On both sides of the aisle were small alcoves with low tables inside, with bench seats and a space under the table for sock-clad feet. Being clueless, I climbed into my seat without taking my shoes off, which then entailed an awkward moment of passing my boots under the table to Andrew. Sigh.

The restaurant had made a gesture towards an English menu, but it consisted of explanations like "Rever bucket" and was completely useless. Atsh suggested a multi-course menu, and of course we went with his suggestion. And so the meal began.

The meal, as I'm sure you can predict, was Tuesday's second incidence of Difficult Eating. It started off splendidly, with some nice Japanese beer and a skewer of grilled pieces of regular white-meat chicken. Next came a skewer of asparagus pieces. All good. But as the courses progressed--and there was a lot of progression, with around fifteen courses--things became more challenging. The first challenge was a skewer of chicken livers. I ate two of the three pieces and immediately regretted it. Andrew forced down one. The second main challenge was a skewer of grilled pieces of chicken skin. We managed to get this down because the skin was more or less disguised. Then came a small bowl filled with thin strips of chicken skin--perhaps raw, I don't know. Andrew managed this one; I could not. The next course: a skewer of pieces of something purply-black, which Atsh suggested we try before finding out what they were. They were...crunchy. They were not easy to chew into pieces easy to swallow. We never did find out what they were, only that they were yet another part of our exploration of the chicken. The course that finally did us in: a skewer of minced chicken grilled into a kind of meatball...served with a tiny bowl cradling one perfect raw egg yolk in which to dip it. I ate a few bites of the meat, but both Andrew and I bowed our heads and let the waiter take our yolks back to the kitchen untouched.

By the time we reached the end of the meal, I'd forgone my beer in favor of a soothing Perrier and had made a trip to the bathroom to run cold water over my wrists. Andrew had taken off his sweater; my sleeves were rolled up as far as they could go. It was such an amazing Japanese experience--and we were so lucky Atsh took us--but at the same time it was a meal I was happy to see the end of.

Experiences like this--when we're pushed aggressively past our comfort zone--are good for the soul in the long run, I think, even if in the short term they leave us feeling like the most unsophisticated, most unworldly people alive.

Some pictures from today:

They did Christmas, and they won

A sea of humanity at Shibuya Crossing

The fish market