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

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