for the last several days we’ve been hanging out w/ our friend randall. he’s half japanese and he invited us to come down w/ him to visit his aunt and uncle who live here. they live in this small town town near the southern tip of honshu (the main japanese island). randall warned us that there’s really not too much to do down there and that they live kind of in a really rural area, but meeting his relatives and getting to really see how people live here sounded really cool to us. so we hopped on the bullet train…
when we got there, randall’s aunt and uncle picked us up from the train station. they dont speak all that much english, but they can say some words here and there and they can pretty much understand what you say to them. and they are so nice!! the whole time while we stayed there, they were always offering us food, offering us beer, driving us places, and just basically making us feel very welcome. we slept in a room w/ the traditional tatami mats, futons, and sliding paper doors. it was really cool!
pretty much right after we got there, we all had dinner. his relatives were realy worried that we wouldnt be able to eat japanese food. they just couldnt belive that we had actually eaten japanese food back home in america. it’s funny, our guidebook had actually said that this would happen to us frequently… that japanese people always worry that westerners wont be able to handle japanese food. they were also failry impressed w/ how we could use chopsticks as well. heh, they actually told us that our chopstick skills were better than randalls and he got the “X” for his chopstick use. after dinner and a few beers, we were so tired that we could hardly keep our eyes open, so we went to bed.
the next morning we tried to figure out what we would do that day. randall’s uncle was really shocked that we didnt have an itinerary planned. apparently, when japanese people travel, they plan every little detail of their vacation from start to finish and usually spend the whole time on guided tours. the thought that people could just “wing it” and not really have a set itinerary was a very bizarre and foreign concept to them. we decided to check out these caves that were about 2 hours away, so we all hopped in the van and drove off. driving through the japanese countryside is awesome. it’s so incredibly beautiful. lots of volcanic shaped hills covered w/ greenery and trees. every once in a while you’d get stunning views of the ocean. plus, the architecture here is just so awesome. even the regular plain houses almost look like miniature temples. it was cool to just drive along and take it all in. it’s funny, every once in a while we’d pass construction work. instead of having workers waving flags to get people to slow dow, they have robots that were shaped like smiling people and the robots waved the flags.
eventually we reached the akiyoshi caves. the caverns were enormous. the main path through the cave is over a kilometer. inside there were all sort of crazy stalagmite and stalagtite formations to check out. plus all these really cool pools of water and stuff. it’s weird, caves are often a kind of disappointment for me. they usually end up being way smaller than i expect and there’s really only so much to see. not this cave though.. this one was really damn cool!
statue near the caves
after the caverns, we went to go check out this temple. the temple was pretty cool, and one thing that was especially cool was that up on a little hill near it, there was this huge line of small seated buddha. all of the buddhas were wearing little knitted caps of various different colors. the whole trail going up the hill was lined w/ these little statues. some of them would have other random clothes too.
after the temple, we went to go see this really crazy style of fishing that they do here in japan. they have these small birds that kind of look like storks and the birds are tied to leashes. the fishermen will stand in their boats and have like 10 of these birds on leashes all swimming in the water next to the boat. when the bird sees a fish, it’ll dive down into the water to catch it. but the birds have this little string tied around their necks so they cant swallow the fish. instead, the fisherman snag the fish from the bird. pretty bizarre huh? so today was the start of the fishing season and they had this big ceremony anmd we got to see the boats go out. it was fairly dark so i didnt actually get to see the birds but caryn and randall did. we watched all of this from this really cool bridge that is one of the most famous bridges in japan.
we then went back to the house for dinner. randall’s aunt had bought suishi for dinner and she was extremely worried that caryn and i wouldnt be able to handle eating sushi. they were really shocked to find out that we have sushi back home too. they also serveed us some miso soup and were worried we wouldnt like that too. they assured us multiple times that if we didnt like it, we didnt have to eat it. heh, it was pretty funny. oh, the other funny thing was that they thought that japan was the only country that served beer cold.
click for my photos from Nara.
this was daniel’s last day here. we were supposed to meet him at the train station, but somehow we had major problems finding each other. eventually, after hours of searching, we finally did. somewhere during the process, i saw three japanese men in traditional dress at a coffee shop.
after meeting up we went down to an area of town called akihabara. this is a major shopping area where they sell all sorts of crazy gadgets etc. we kind of just wandered around for a bit looking at random displays. during this, it started raining really hard so we had to kind of run from store to store. i didnt really see anything all that crazy electronics-wise, but we did check out a bunch of stores selling action figures. dude, japan is so big on their action figures. tons and tons of stores dedicated to these things. small figurines, large figurines, robots, ninjas, half-naked ladies, tanks.. you name it, they got it. some of the stores that sell these things are 8 stories tall. the whole country is obsessed. and it doesnt stop w/ just figurines, they have millions of different manga (comic books), movies, and video games. in one store, we found a bunch of transformers for sale. it was really cool cause my brother and i used to totally play w/ these during our youth and it was neat to see them again. of course, now they are collectors items and crazy expensive. some of them were selling for $1,000!!
tokyo is such a crazy city. it’s amazing to me just how much stuff they fit into every little area. the whole city is built up so high vertically. as opposed to back home where shops are usually limited to the first floor or second floor of a building, here almost every single building is a highrise and will have stores, restaurants, internet cafes, etc filling up 10 stories or more. every building you look at will have a huge sign out front that shows what’s on the 1st floor, 2nd floor, 3rd etc etc etc. space is such a comodity in a city as packed as this. because of that, most of the places you go to are really small. tiny restaurants, with tiny little bathrooms where you can hardly fit inside and close the door. i cant even imagine just how many businesses they cram into every city block. at one point, we took a break from shopping at a donut shop. we saw two people behind a window making donuts…
after a while we went to this arcade. like everything else, this arcade was 6 stories! one crazy thing that we saw that i’ve never seen before was that they had these games that interact w/ playing cards. you buy these cards, kind of like those “magic, the gathering” cards and the cards will have different characters etc. then you go to a video game and you lay out the cards on the game, and you play the game by moving around the characters that you acquired. it seems to add this crazy dimension to the game cause everything depends on what cards you got, and you can probably trade cards with other people etc. they also had a game w/ the same concept except it was a soccer game and the cards represented different soccer players w/ different stats.
one funny thing at the arcade was that each arcade game had little individually wrapped wet napkins that you can use to wipe of your hands after the game. the japanese are so big on having everything be sanitary. for instance, at all the internet cafes, after you use the computer, the staff comes by and disinfects your station with spray etc. japanese people who are sick wear little masks over their nose and mouth so as not to spread germs. heh, yup, cleanliness is really big in japan. today it was raining and so everyone was out w/ umbrellas. so almost all the shops here had little stands in the front of their store w/ umbrella sheaths. these are basically little slip on plastic covers so you dont get everythng wet in the store from your umbrella.
the other crazy thing about japan is how big on recycling they are. everywhere you look there are vending machines selling green tea drinks, cola, and beer. and proabbly like 9 times out of 10, these will have a recycling container next to them. this is such a sharp contrast from other countries we’ve been in where everyone just throws garbage out into the forest, ocean, or street. here people are meticulous about their litter and the streets are really clean.
that night we went out to dinner in rappongi hills. this is a little “city within a city” in the rappongi area. it’s a huge highrise w/ shopping centers, apartments, a park, a train station… basically everything you need to live is in this one enclosed area. pretty crazy. we had a pretty good dinner to celebrate daniel’s last night here. afterwards we hit a bar for a couple of last minute drinks and then there was a mad dash for the last train of the night.
we had been in japan for 8 days now and somehow have managaed not to have sushi even once. so we went down to this conveyorbelt sushi place. it’s kind of like the sushi boat thing back home, but instead of boats, they use plates on a conveyor belt. usually sushi is very expensive here, but they have some places like this one where the sushi is 100 yen (1$) per plate. that’s an incredibly good deal for sushi. we were about to walk in when they guy pointed to a sign on the wall. apparently this place is really really busy and they try to keep people moving by having strict rules on eating times. basically, you are required to eat at least 7 plates of sushi. if you eat from 7-10 plates, you can stay there for 20 minutes. if you eat over 10 plates, you can stay up to 30 minutes. i couldnt believe that they have such a crazy rule in place, but hell, we were there, and it was cheap, so we went in anyways. i was a bit worried if daniel would be able to eat so much sushi, but he totally was cool w/ it. the sushi ended up being really good for that price too. i want to start eating sushi all the time now if it’s gonna be this cheap!
after lunch, time was pretty much out for my brother, so we went to the station and he left. too bad.. it was really fun having him here.
it was a friday night and so we were hoping to go out in tokyo. our plan was to take the train from nara, transfer in kyoto and get back to tokyo by 10pm. unfortunately, things didnt quite work out that way. there was an accident on the trainline to kyoto and so we were forced to take a detour through osaka. it was gonna be a tight connection and we were fairly sure that we wouldnt make it to the train we needed in osaka on time. luckily, a random businessman on the train asked us where we were going and when we told him our concerns, he totally helped us out. he showed us the quickest way to get across town on the subway and led us across the station with him. once again we get helped out by a total stranger. nice!
right before we got on the train, i bought some bento boxes. when we opened them, we were shocked to realize that we hardly recognized anything inside. all of the food was so weird. it’s funny, before we came here, i totally though that we knew a lot about japanese food. i go to sushi all the time. i love tempura, miso, udon, sashimi, etc etc. i even usually eat a lot of the weirder sushi items that most people i know are too afraid to eat. i thought that i would come here and have hardly any difficulties w/ the food… but damn, i was so wrong! the japanese food that we get back home is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to japanese cuisine. there are so mnay different categories of food that i had never even dreamed of. although most of the strange food that we’ve eaten so far has been quite good, this bento box was just not good at all. we reluctantly ate as much as we could, and then closed the boxes.
unfortunately, our troubles werent over yet. we still needed to get to our hotel in tokyo. we got totally lost along the way and walked the wrong direction for almost a mile. eventually we did find our place, but it was a little past midnight by then and we were all beat. unfortunately, there would be no going out that night. we were exhausted and hungry, so to get a quick and easy late night meal, we went to… Denny’s. yup, denny’s. daniel got all excited about the prospect of easy american food… but no. denny’s in japan is nothing at all like denny’s back home. most of the menu is full of japanese foods, and all the stuff that you would regularly expect to see at a denny’s was nowhere to be found. there was actually hardly anything on the menu that my brother could eat. *sigh*. i guess our evening just wasn’t meant to work out at all.
but that wasnt the end of it. it was really really late by the time we went to bed, but if we wanted to stay for an extra day in our hotel, we would have to change rooms in the morning. regardless if we checked out or not, we would still only be getting like 6 hours of sleep. argghh!! i had so been looking forward to sleeping in after so many days of constant touring around. to make things even more annoying, this hostel had a crazy rule where you were only allowed to shower between 7:30am and 9am. what the hell!!! what kind of a stupid rule is that?? we have to get up so damn early just to shower?? weak!! this definitely does seem to be the trend around here w/ hotels… lots of rules and regulations.
we constantly have to watch our backs to make sure we’re not doing anything wrong. and this doesnt just go for hotels. japanese culture in general has a lot of different rules in regard to politeness. there’s so many different rules and stuff that it’s hard to keep track of them all. online there are whole websites devoted to pages and pages of these etiquette rules. for instance, when you enter a home or hotel, you must take off your shoes and put on slippers. you wear the slippers around the hotel, but, when you use the toilet, you need to take off your hotel slippers and change into other slippers that are meant only for the toilet. when you take a bath here, you under no circumstances are allowed to use soap in the bath. you have to wash in the shower *before* the bath, and then you just soak in the bath once you’re clean. you’re not supposed to eat food while walking down the street. you’re not supposed to pass food from one set of chopsticks to another. you cant leave chopsticks sticking out of your bowl of rice. etc etc etc. we spend so much time here a bit nervous as to whether or not we might somehow offend someone. of course, the people here are pretty chill in regards to foreigners, and if you commit a faux pas, it says that they are very understanding, but we still would rather not do anything that people think is rude etc.
in the morning we checked out of the hotel w/ the crazy shower restrictions. once again, here we were in tokyo w/ no hotel. we proceeded to spend almost 5 hours online searching for hotels. i had been looking forward to just spending a day relaxing, but no. the main problem is that we wanted to stay in one of the fun areas of tokyo, close to clubs, bars, etc. unfortunately, those areas are usually very expensive. trying to find a place that is relatively cheap, in a good area, and has rooms available is very difficult. in the end, we got a hotel in Ueno…. way far from anything interesting. unfortunately, this meant that we would have to spend 45 minutes on the subway going there to check in, and then 45 minutes back to meet my brother for dinner. of course, the hotel was impossible to find, so we wasted a bunch of time looking for it as well. *sigh*… we’ve had such bad luck with hotels!! part of the problem w/ finding things in japan is that most japanese people dont use street names when looking for locations. when you tell someone a street address, ususally no one will know what you are talking about. so unless you know exactly how to get where you are going, it’ll probably take forever to find it.
while at the internet place, we got instant ramen to eat. internet cafes here are cool like that. you can get microwaved french fries, fried rice etc right from a vending machine! for the ramen, you just buy it and then go and get hot water from a machine. i fiddled with this machine and kept pressing all the buttons. dammit!! there was no way i could figure out how to get hot water out of it. every once in a while someone would walk by and i would just look away from the machine so they wouldnt see that i couldnt figure out how to use it. damn it.. this thing should be so simple.. how could i, a grown man, not be able to use a hot water dispenser. sure the buttons were in japanese, but i still felt really lame for not being able to figure it out. eventually, after like 5 minutes of playing w/ this thing, i finally got the hot water. phew!
for dinner, we met up w/ my brother, his friend scott who is studying english in japan, and scott’s friends. dinner was at an all you can eat shabu-shabu place. sooo good!! after dinner, we went to do some karaoke. they do karaoke differently here than in america. instead of it being a huge room where eveyone sings together, here you reserve a small booth, and it’s only you and your friends in there. you dont have to wait for other people to sing etc. kind of a cool idea. of course i refused to sing cause i never do, but caryn, randall, and even my brother did some singing. after an hour we all still wanted to hang out, but the metro stops running at 1am. a taxi ride across town costs like 100$, so we absolutely couldnt miss the last train. it sucks that from then on we would always have to end our evenings at midnight. riding the subway back at night is kind of funny. like 3/4 of the people on it are totally passed out and asleep. everyone is nodding off, their eyes shut and head bobbing up and down.
the next morning we met up w/ everyone and headed down to harajuku. this is an area that i’ve wanted to check out for hella days. basically, i guess a lot of the young girls that live in tokyo get frustrated w/ the conformity of daily life at school there and they use the weekends to rebel. so every weekend, tons of these girls gather at this one square and dress up all totally crazy and stuff. i’ve actually seen whole books devoted to the crazy weird fashions that are seen in this one square. walking around this place was so weird! it’s a really well know thing and kind of a major tourist attraction, so 2/3rds of the people there are tourists w/ cameras taking photos of the girls. of course, these girls totally love getting their photo taken and are constantly posing for all these cameras. it’s so weird, cause i think “goth” kids at home would be totally pissed if tourists kept trying to photograph them, but these people loved it. some of the outfits were so crazy. lots of girls dressed in sheppardess outfits. lots of girls dressed up as nurses. even more bizarre was that a lot of people had fake medical bandages over one eye or medical tape on their nose to make it look like they’ve been beat up or something. so weird!
after walking around the square for a bit, we went off towards this park, and all of a sudden, instead of being in hectic crazy wild tokyo, we were in a totally peaceful quiet woodsy area. it’s crazy how mixed tokyo is, and how close together you can find the old traditional to the ultramodern. we walked around this garden, and then checked out a temple. while at the temple, we happened to get to see the end of a wedding procession.
then we walked by through the square again, and walked to the shops near it. all the shops near the square sell the crazy clothing that these girls wear. it’s so funny to think that these girls spend all week wearing their school uniforms and acting polite in front of their parents, and then come down here to buy crazy clothes, change and hang out in the square, before changing back into normal clothes to go back to the suburbs.
daniel and scott try on some glasses
we spent some more time walking around downton tokyo for a while. this one area, shibuya, is totally crazy. apparently like 2 million people go through this intersection every single day. it’s totally crazy packed and swarming w/ people. the whole place is surrounded by crazy buildings with bright neon flashing everywhere. for dinner, we went to a yakitori place. you basically order food on skewers. it was really good, but the portions were kind of small. afterwards, we found a bar nearby and got some drinks. of course, at midnight, we had to leave to catch the last train back. so annoying! one of the cool things about japan though, is that you are allowed to drink alcohol outside. it’s totally legal. so we each bought some beer and continued to drink as we walked through the subway. there’s something really fun about being able to just walk along and drink beer. maybe it’s just cause we’re not allowed to back home?
drinking at the subway station
near kyoto is a city called nara that was japan’s first capital. it’s famous for the same thing as kyoto: lots of incredible temples and beautiful gardens. besides the temples and gardens though, nara is also famous for its deer. there is a huge area in town called nara-koen and there are tons of deer there that roam around and you can feed them little biscuits etc.
when we got to nara, for the first time since we’ve got to japan, finding a hotel was easy. the first place that we called had vacancies, and we were all set. it’s funny, when i told the guy on the phone that we would indeed like to book the room, his response was “you will take it? OHHH!! THANK YOU!! THANK YOU SO MUCH! THANK YOU SO SO MUCH!!!!” from then on, every single time we talked to the guy, he would thank us profusely over and over again for absolutely everything: checking in, signing forms, answering questions, etc etc. at one point he even said “thank you so much! thank you too too much!”. it was hillarious. and the funny thing is that a lot of people here are like that. they thank you over and over again for the smallest things. they act thankful almost to the point of grovelling in front of you. most of the people do it in a way that just seems really thankful, but some people do it to the point that it’s almost ridiculous.
provided by our hotel: hangers, slippers, flashlight, shoe horn, brush
after checking in, we took the bus to check out two temples: Toshodai-ji and Yakushi-ji. the first one wasn’t all that insanely impressive, but the second one was really cool. it had one large central temple flanked on either side by skinny tall temples of different colors. as usual, the schoolkids were out in full force and both temples were swamped w/ kids in uniforms. oh, one thing that i’ve found to be really cool is the decoration that a lot of the houses here have on their roofs. the tiles are laid out in a really cool way, and they usually have cool designs all along the edges of the roof. sometimes they’ll have these faces where the roof comes to a point.
lantern at toshodai-ji
roof ornament on a house
roof ornament on a house
the japanese are very worried about dog poop. not sure what the poop is saying.
cool flowers near a house
schoolkids passing out in front of yakushi-ji
after the temples we had dinner at an okonomiyaki place. okonomiyaki is sometimes called a japanes crepe, but really it isnt so much like a crepe. it’s kind of more like a scramble or omlette or something. you choose which ingredients you want and they mix them together with this batter and cabbage and then fry it up in front of you at your table. sometimes they throw a bunch of noodles inside it too. we got a few beers with our okonomiyakis too. i dont know what it is about japan, but we’ve been getting beers w/ pretty much every meal here. it’s not cheap either, but for some reason it’s really appealing and we do it anyway. at a restaurant, you’ll usually pay like 4 or 5 bux for a beer, but at a bar they’ll cost 8 or 9 dollars!!
daniel waits for his okonomiyaki
we spent our second day in nara by touring the nara-koen area. as soon as we got there we saw the deer. they’re everywhere! there are tons of them. tons of little shops sell you little crackers that you can feed to them and the deer will come right up to you and eat out of your hands. you could even pet them and they didnt really care too much. actually, the deer are almost a little too tame, and as soon as they sense that you have food, a bunch of them will run at you and crowd around hoping to get some. there were lots of kids there who would get totally freaked out and start running away from the deer, and the deer would then chase them. it was a pretty crazy scene.
while we were there, a lot of kids kept coming up to us and asking to talk to us. they were studying english at junior high and were given an assignment to interact w/ foreign english-speaking tourists. they would come up to us, and very nervously in broken english, recite some specified lines (hello! what is your name? where are you from? etc) and then have us sign a paper for them. it was really funny cause most of these kids were all nervous and shy and kept giggling all the time. sometimes they would then ask if they could have a photo taken w/ us. it seemed like a really cool homework assignment to me, and then i started thinking about how in america it probably would never be allowed cause parents would freak out about their children being made to talk to strangers.
although we’ve seen some japanese gardens that were on the grounds of some temples, we still hadnt been to a really hardcore japanese garden. so, while in nara we went to isui-en gardens. soo awesome. japanese gardens are just so peaceful and tranquil. walking around w/ everything silent except for the quiet crunching of your feet on the gravel… checking out the ponds w/ huge koi swimming in them… looking at all the perfectly manicured trees and plants. everything is always so perfectly harmonius and soothing. after walking around the various paths, we spent some time just sitting around on a bench and taking it all in.
one of the most popular souveniers that they sell at nara are these fake fuzzy antlers that you can wear. we saw tons of little kids walking around wearing them, and then as a joke, my brother bought a pair. so of course, we all tried them on and took dorky photos of ourselves wearing them. it was a bit embrasssing since i think the japanese people walking by thought we were a bit weird, but whetever. the most hilarious part though, was when caryn had this idea of taking a photo of me wearing the antlers and her pretending to feed me the deer biscuits. i guess there was this japanese couple walking by who saw this and laughed, cause caryn called them over, and then had the guy pretend to feed me this biscuit. it was absolutely hysterical!! especially cause japanese businessmen seem so serious, and here’s this guy wearing his formal attire and feeding crackers to a tourist weraing antlers. so funny!
dan tries the antlers
caryn feeds deer w/ her mouth
after that we continued on our walking tour and checked out some more temples including Todai-ji, Nigatsu-do, and Kasuga-Taisha. the last one of these i especially liked as it had tons and tons of japanese lanterns hanging everywhere. the temple itself was really beautiful, but w/ the lanterns it was even better. also, i dont know if i’ve already mentioned this, but a lot of these temples have small purification fountains out front. it’s a small water basin, and you use these long handled spoons to rinse your hands. this purifies you before you enter the temple. i really like these little fountains since they usually have really cool statues over them, or are made out of really cool bamboo.
stuff from day 2 of touring kyoto:
before heading out to go check out temples, we stopped in a small restaurant to get some food. the waitress didnt speak english. the menu didnt have pictures. uh-oh. we noticed that they had set lunches. so we ordered lunch A, lunch B, and lunch C not having any clue what we would be getting. even after we got our food, we still werent exactly sure what we had all gotten. there were some huge udon noodles w/ a raw egg on top. there were cold noodles in a cold broth. there was rice with an unknow pink crumbly substance on top. and there was also rice w/ a strange white gravy-like sauce. the food was all reasonably good though. poor daniel though, i think he’s getting more and more scared as the days go on.
buses and orderliness
this is the only country ever where everyone lines up for the buses perfectly in a single file line. in most places people just kind of gather around and wait for buses with some people sitting, others standing, and everyone crowds around when the bus arrives. not here. here, even if the bus is still like 10 minutes away, everyone will stand in a line and wait one after the other. it’s almost eerie how orderly people are here. for instance, no one jaywalks. nobody!! everyone only crosses the street at crosswalks and waits patiently for the light to change to green each time. people here definitely are not big on breaking *any* rules. also, one other funny thing about the crosswalks: a lot of them play music when the light turns green. unlike the regular beeping that we have back home, here they actually will play a tune.
glow in the dark squid
our first day in japan we saw this tv show about squid that glow in the dark. the show had fisherman pulling in huge nets full of these things and they all had little blue glowy things. tonight, in the hopes of finding some food daniel wouldnt be too afraid of, we went to italian for dinner. unluckily for daniel, all the italian food had a japanese edge to it. doh! it was really good though!! anyways, one of the pasta dishes we got had the little “firefly squid” in it. of course they dont glow once they are cooked, but it was still cool that we tried glowing squid!
there’s this game here called pachinko and it’s crazy popular. we see it advertised all over the place and it’s played in huge buildings lit up with neon signs and bright lights all over. we’ve been wondering about this stuff for a while, so today we wandered into a pachinko place. it’s kind of casino-like and as you walk in it’s this crazy barrage of flashing lights, blasting music, ringing machines, and other insanity. even w/ only like 3 customers, this place felt like it was all about nonstop action. we tried to ask the people working there how to play, but they didnt speak english, so we sat down at a machine and tried to figure it out. apparently, you put in 10 dollars (ouch!) and then it gives you a ton of these tiny little metal balls. you rotate this knob and the little balls get shot through the machine, pinball style and then bounce all over. your aim is to try to get as many into this little slot… at least i think that’s the aim. it’s really hard, or maybe i was doing it totally wrong, but only a couple minutes later, i was out of balls. damn. i looked around me and other people had literally stacks and stacks of large buckets of these balls. how did they get so good!!! at one point, while walking through the place, i accidentally stepped on someones bucket.. and by some insane miracle, i didn’t send all 1,000 little balls in it flying through the room. phew!!
temples and castles
we saw this really cool castle in the middle of kyoto. one of the interesting things about it was that it had “nightingale floors”. the floors were intentially made so every step you took on them made a creaking sound. this is so if enemies tried to sneak into the castle, everyone would hear them. we also went to go check out the golden pavilion. this was a really beautiful temple next to a pond. the way the temple reflected in the pond was really cool, and the gardens surrounding it were nice too.
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we decided to leave seeing more of tokyo until the weekend. instead we hopped on a bullet train to head down to kyoto. these bullet trains are really quite amazing. they go up to about 180 mph! as we sped down the tracks, watching the scenery outside the window zip by was almost like watching a dvd on fastforward. it practically didnt seem real. it only took us about 2.5 hours to get to kyoto. also, the train was super comfortable and had reclining seats, tons of legroom. it was a great ride. since we have train passes now, we should just ride the trains every day just for fun maybe!
once we got to kyoto, again we had issue trying to find a place to stay. i dont know why but we keep having problems in japan. every hotel always seems full. i guess this is the one country wher you actually really do need to book rooms in advance. after spending a ton of time searching online, we finally found this small hostel out on the outskirts of town. the place was a bit rundown, but it was ok.
we went searching around the neighborhood for food and found this tiny little restaurant that only had like 5 tables in it. as usual, the people working there were incredibly nice. i just cant believe how much people smile here! as usual, the language barrier came into play. no english menus. she spoke no english. we spoke no japanese. she said they had bento boxes, so we just ordered three of them. a bento box is a japanese meal box that come w/ a variety of little dishes, but the thing is that we had no idea what would come in ours. after ordering, we sat sipping our beers, curious as to just what it was that we would get.
in the end, the bento box was a bit random. one little section had spaghetti and a hamburger pattie, another section had some tempura, and then there was a roll of sliced ham in another section. before we got our food, the lady put out little bowls of this stuff that we didnt really know what it was. so we ate it. turned out later that this was actually a condiment to put on our rice, and we had just eaten the whole dish all by itself. oops! after we finished the food, the lady came by and sprinkled a little something in our hands. it tasted absolutely horrible. i had to really struggle to keep smiling and not make a face of disgust. the next problem came when we wanted to ask for the bill. how do you ask for it? i was a bit nervous about trying out the “x”. eventually i got her attention and said that i wanted the check. apparently she thought i was asking for tea, cause soon enough we got 3 cups of tea. oops. eventually we did finally get the check. phew! it was so fun to have such a confusing meal though! makes things more interesting. as we were leaving, the lady w/ her broken english asked us to “come again”. so nice!
the following day, we headed to kyoto station. this station is really crazy looking. it has all these huge steel grids that criss cross each other, observation decks that span stretches of space 11 stories up, little gardens, and great views of the city. this station is so cool that the guidebook actually lists it as a tourist attraction. as we were wandering around, a group of japanese schoolgirls came up to us and asked to take a photo of us w/ them. we agreed and then asked to take a photo for ourselves as well. they seemed totally shocked that we would want a photo of them and started totally giggling. it’s funny how people in foreign countries keep wanting photos of us but then never assume that we’d be interested in them as well. one thing that has really surpried me about japan is just how many of these schoolgirls and boys we see everywhere. anywhere we go, no matter what time of day, we see huge mobs of school kids in uniform. do these people ever actually go to school? or do they just wander around the city all day?!
we got a meal in the foodcourt at the station. the way it works is that there is a display of plastic models of their food options outside the restaurant. you decide what you want and then go up to a vending machine and punch in the number, and pay. the vending machine then spits out tickets and you trade the tickets in for your food inside the restaurant. the food we got was pretty good. i got noodles, that to my surprise were cold in a bowl of ice. you are supposed to take the noodles and then dip them into a warm broth one bite at a time. it’s funny how even something simple like noodles can be prepared in a way that is completely opposite of what we’re used to. iced noodles?!
after lunch, we set out on a walking tour of the Higashiyama area. the temples here were absolutely amazing. incredible architecture and great landscapes and gardens surrounding it. we spent hours and hours just wandering around and taking millions of photos. i think i’ve ended up taking more photos here in japan than anywhere else. i love how the temples here are intricate on one hand, and yet simplistic on the other. despite all the intricacy that goes into them, they never look cluttered or busy… just flowing and spacious. walking around them just really gives you a feeling of serenity. unfortunately, we had gotten a bit of a late start, so some of the temples we wanted to see were closed already. but we were still happy w/ what we saw.
after the walking tour, we went to a restaurant in downtown kyoto. most of kyoto is a typical large japanese city… large highrises, lots of neon, etc etc…but this area that was near the east side was a mixture of new buildings with small side streets filled with small traditional houses, gardens, etc. as we walked around, we had to dodge lots of people riding bikes. i guess bikes are a big thing around here and hella people ride them… especially the small folding bikes.
for dinner, we specifically chose a Shabu-Shabu place since pretty much every place we’ve eaten so far hasn’t really appealed to Daniel. shabu-shabu is where you get a bunch of thinly sliced raw meat and you boil it in a broth and then dip it in sauce. there was a lot of confusion when we couldnt figure out if we needed to drop all the food in the broth at once, or if we needed to wait and do it a little at a time. of course the waitress didnt speak english, and she thought we were asking her to do it for us, which confused everyone and then we felt bad that she thought we werent willing to do it ourselves. always confusion in this country!! so, daniel’s shabu-shabu was good, but we orderd a sashimi platter. we got all sorts of weird random stuff that we weren’t so sure about like snails, weird salty fishes, and other unidentifiable things. luckily, though, we got some grilled meats as well, so everything was cool.
we had heard a lot about the crazy toilets that the japanese have. apparently, even though traditionally the japanese use squat toilets like most of the rest of asia, they also have western style toilets that are super high-tech. it turned out that our restaurant had one of these so we all rushed to the bathroom to check it out (one at a time of course!). so, this toilet had all sorts of crazy features. first off, when you sit down, a small little fan starts going just under the toilet seat, just to keep things smelling pleasant. also, the toilet seat is heated and you can push a button that adjusts the temparature of the seat. but the craziest part, is that the toilet has several spray functions. when you press one of two buttons, it will spray you in the butt with warm water. yes, my friends, these japanese are truly an advanced society. the toilet also has a button for a female version of the aforementioned treatment. unbelieveable. half of the people in the world spend their lives pooping into a hole in the ground, but here you have a heated toilet that squirts you at the press of a button.
the future is here
after dinner, we walked home, happy that we had explored the ancient and the modern wonders of kyoto.
japan is awesome. from the first day that we got here i knew i would totally love it. our first day was mainly spent trying to figure out how to find my brother and then, once we found him, trying to figure out where we would stay and what we would eat. for some reason, japan has been so incredibly confusing. it’s funny because i actually expected japan to be a super easy country to travel in. i thought most people would speak english and since it’s such a modern country, i thought everything would be fairly easy to figure out. not so. in fact, i would say that way less people here speak english than most of the other coountries that we’ve traveled in. also, i think i’ve been way more confused here than i have been in any other country. i’m not sure why it is so confusing, but i’ve really been enjoying the experience of trying to figure things out. there’s just something really funny about trying new things when you have no clue what you’re doing or what will happen.
stuff from our first day:
trying to find my brother was really tough. he had told us what part of town he woud be in but he was planning to meet us at “a mcdonalds near a soccer arena”. he hadnt left us a street name or anything. how the hell would we find that?? first we asked some random person on the street where mcdonalds was. he had no idea what we were talking about. finally after going back and forth for a bit he finally realized what i meant when i did a hand gesture for the golden arches. apparently in japan, they pronounce mcdonalds completely differently. he pointed us to a mcdonalds, but it was the wong one. damn. so i tried to ask an employee if he knew of one near a soccer arena. he didnt understand. after i drew it on a piece of paper, the guy miraculously understood what i meant and drew me a map to the right mcdonalds. of course, my brother wasn’t there when we got there, but eventualy we found him.
when we were walking through the streets of tokyo to find the mcdonalds, there was total madness all around us. so many people all crammed on the streets. finally we realized that there was some huge festival going on. it was pretty crazy. there would be huge groups of people dressed in traditional clothes carrying shrines and chanting. also there were other people playing drums and stuff. the festival was pretty cool, but unfortunately we were so tired and stuff that we didnt enjoy it as much as we coud have.
we had some trouble finding a hotel since we hadnt booked in advance, but eventualy we got a room in a ryokan (traditional japanese hotel). it was really cool! the room’s floor was covered in tatami mats (japanese straw mats) and so you had to take your shoes off in the room. instead of beds, they had futons on the floor and the futons even had little sobakawa pillows (i had been missing mine like crazy while traveling). the windows in the room were covered with the traditional sliding paper doors. basically the whole room was very traditional and cool. definitely a nice intro to japan. they even gave us little bathrobes to wear and stuff. the room also had a little tv and we were hoping to see some really crazy zany shows that japan is famous for, but there wasnt anything that great on tv.
japan is crazy expensive. especially after all the other places we’ve been so far. i really dont know how our budget will survive. the ryokan room was 110$!! ouch!! since then we’ve been averaging more like 60-80 per night, but still compare that to 8 or 9$ per room which is what we’re used to. it’s pretty much impossible to get a meal here under 10 bux and for dinner it’s usually closer to 20. a day pass on the bus costs almnost 6$. we’ve heard that to see a movie you have to pay a bout 20$!! so basically, after getting by on 20 to 30$ per day, we’re spending soo much more here. not to mention that we had to buy a 3 week train pass for almost 600$
the internet cafes are crazy here. they usually have little rooms where you can use the internet in private, but you can also rent movies from them, read comic books from their HUGE comic libraries, and play video games. apparently you can even rent the internet booths and sleep in them. i guess it’s much cheaper than a hotel!! plus while you’re online you can have all the free sodas, coffee, tea, etc that you want. often times the guy at the front desk will have a little map of the room and then he puts down little boardgame pices on the rooms that are occupied.
not so high-tech
despite everything, japan so far hasn’t been as crazy high-tech as i expected. i mean, from everything you think about tokyo, i practically expected flying cars. instead, sometimes even technology that i would take for granted back home wasn’t available here. for instance, a lot of restaurants dont take credit cards here. cash only. aslo, this is one of the only countries out of all of our travels where we’ve actually struggled to get money from an atm. first off, there are not so many of them. second off, a lot of them dont take our card. third off, some of them dont understand english. it really surprised me that while in a country like syria i had no problem getting cash pretty much anywhere, here in japan we spent almost 3 hours finding money!! and the craziest thing that happened that day relating to technology, was that after we ate our dinner, the waiter counted up our bill…. on an abacus. yup, an abacus. i didnt know those things still existed, yet here was a restaurant right in tokyo using one.
the people here really are so incredibly polite and nice. it’s absolutely amazing. everyone you interact with is constantly bowing, grinning, saying thank you over and over. they really go out of their way to help you and make you feel welcome. interacting w/ people here is just so great. of course, the language barrier definitely makes things difficult. people here really do speak so little english, and the ones that do speak it are really reluctant to do so (it seems that they are shy of their bad english). but yeah, the japanese just have this certain way of doing things. every time you are brought something in a restaurant, it’s presented w/ a flourish, and a huge smile, and a bow. peole just cant stop bowing to you.
i just love japan’s fascination w/ little cartoony stuff. everywhere you see little funny drawings on signs, directions, warnings etc. when we got to the airport, they had some huge video playing of this guy in a dog costume going through customs and security. another time, when we were on the subway, there was a video and it showed this little dog cartoon jumping around. eventually a litte thought bubble goes from him and he thinks, of all things, “i have ants in my pants”. heh, only in japan.
sticker warning you not to get stuck in the subway doors
apparently here, the hand gesture for “no” is putting your arms in front of you in the shape of an “X”. like if you come to as hotel, and they have no rooms, they just do the “x” to you. i dont know why but i find it really funny to see people doing this. sometimes, instead of doing an “X” w/ their arms, they’ll make one using the index finger from each hand. this also means no, or alternatively, that can also mean “i would like the bill” in a restaurant.
one other thing i love about japan is that in the midst of a hectic crazy place like tokyo, they’ll have quiet peaceful temples, gardens, and statues. in many ways japan really is the essence of serenity and simplicity. it’s such a crazy combination of the modern and crowded w/ the traditional, simplistic, and calm.
it’s really damn cool that my brother came out here and is experiencing all this with us. it’s been soooo long since i last hung out w/ him and it’s been so great just kicking back and talking and stuff. plus, the fact that we’re out here in japan is really cool. what better place to hang out? poor guy, i’ve been making him try all thius crazy food that he never would have tried on his own….