Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas in Minnesota

I made it to my home state last Monday, two hours before I left Japan that same day, thanks to time zone changes. It was good to be home, even if there was no snow. I had gotten little sleep on the way so I was a little out of it by the time I met my parents at the airport but it was late anyways. I had them stop at Walmart so I could pick up things I hadn't wanted to pack (like shower stuff I hadn't wanted to take through security and snacks) before heading back to our place. We headed out to IHOP for breakfast (hmm...) then went walking in the Mall of America. As usual, I went into Beadniks, a bead store there, and Barnes and Nobles and spent way too much at both but I rationalize that it will be a while until I'll be in a position to get the stuff in those techniques. (Let's ignore Amazon for now, okay?)

The next day we went to Khan's Mongolian Barbecue for supper (yummy)and Thursday we went to the neighborhood deli. That's about when I realized how short this trip was and how little I would manage to get done of what I'd planned. Anyways, Friday I stayed home and worked on my projects while the parents went out and I didn't leave again until church on Saturday. This morning there were two church services before gifts and a quiet afternoon. It's nice to be home and not have the deadlines and red tape I need to deal with, even if my body thinks it's time to suddenly be wide awake after midnight when I just want to sleep. Oh well, that's the joy of changing time zones.
It's been awesome to be home and see some of my favorite places and people for a holiday designed for family get togethers and memories. I hope you all have an amazing holiday season and the best of luck in the New Year. I hope 2012 is your best year yet and I'll see you next year. :)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tokyo 2011, Day 1

Last weekend both of my sisters came up to see me. They’d spent much of the week in Tokyo seeing the sights and on Friday afternoon we met in Kamakura and I took them to my new place where we would all sleep for the night before going up to Tokyo for the next two days. After I gave them the (rather short since there’s not a lot there) tour of my apartment, we tried to go to CoCo’s, a curry franchise (the food is the bottom picture and it tastes better than it looks), for supper. A favorite of the locals and the Americans around here, the place was full and the night was cold so we went to a ramen shop down the street. Honestly, I’d never had the ramen there, I’m not much for most soups, but I’d heard rave reviews from those I work with and my sister’s wanted to get the “Japanese experience”. I don’t blame them since one of them was only going to be in Japan for less than a month and I loved the shrimp fried rice the ramen shop sold so we went to eat there. I finally tried some of the ramen there, as we sampled each other’s meals, and it was good but we all agreed that the shrimp fried rice I ordered was the best choice of the three. After that I led them to a bar not far from my place and got us a chuhi to share. They didn’t feel much like drinking alcohol so I only ordered one and drank most of it (they were rather tired and didn’t want the alcohol to make it worse) but I wanted them to try it. The chuhi is a drink I have only found in Japan and can be bought like a soda in a can at any convenience store but around my place, it’s the favorite drink. A mix of club soda, flavored syrup, and a shot or two of strong liquor, depending on how strong it’s ordered, the drink seems like soda and sneaks up on a person. It tastes like a soda and a lot of people drink two or three before it starts to react with them and for some people that is too many. It’s not unusual for people to try it, decide the chuhi tastes good but is weak, and chug another one or two before the effects quickly overtake the person who’s never tried it before. A lot of Americans get very drunk their first night trying chuhis but I only ordered a regular which we each tried/shared so we didn’t really feel it. After they’d tried the chuhi it was time to get back to my warm room to catch up and get some sleep. The next morning we were planning to see my work and be on the train to Tokyo by ten in the morning.
Um, yeah, we left my place late, had breakfast at Cinnabon, and I gave them a tour of my workplace. We got lunch at a convenience store before boarding the train about noon for the two hour train ride up to Shinagawa Station where they had stored their suitcases for the night. On the way we went through a “learn your strengths” list my sister had found in a book and I realized how long it’s been since I had a good debate on psychology, especially about analyzing ourselves and each other. Each one of us has studied psychology with different aims in mind and it made for a very good conversation. My oldest sister is a drama teacher who works with children and young adults as well as doing some acting on the side so she’s studied psychology from a viewpoint of how people learn and how to teach children while my middle sister is in graduate school to be a Christian counselor to actually help people deal with any issues they may have. I just study psychology because it helps me understand people. (If you know me, you probably know I’m a very blunt person and like to know why people do what they do.) Psychology also helps me develop characters for the stories I write but I never intend to use psychology beyond that, except to play devil’s advocate with my friends. Three different perspectives on one topic and the ride just flew by.
After we (okay, my middle sister) navigated us through the Tokyo train system to the place we were staying, we dropped our stuff and went back on the train for the origami museum. We got there less than an hour before it closed at six p.m. and explored some. I’d never realized the intricate folding that could be done to make paper dolls that looked like the real ceramic court dolls sold in Japan or boats full of soldiers or full landscapes of places or crabs. We sat in front of a master folder who folded things like dragon heads and a traditional new years decoration and a puppy and a few other things before we got to pick one to keep and look around the store. I picked the dragon head and also bought some beginner origami books to add to my list of techniques I intend to learn but have yet to get around to before we left. After dark already, we decided to go to Ahkiabara, the area known as electric town. There we could buy just about anything with a current in it and we saw things like usb ports that looked like pieces of sushi, a screen that worked like an etch-a-sketch, antennas and gps gadgets for cars, and a shop that sold robots and parts to make them. By the time we left the neon town behind we were pretty hungry and finally found a sushi place to eat. In an area that didn’t see too many Americans, the patrons at the restaurant and the workers were very helpful. We finally ordered two plates of sushi to share and they brought out some pickled radish pieces for us to try for free. All was very good and we were ready to go back to the ryokan we were staying at. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese hotel with shared restrooms and the traditional shower/tub facilities. In Japan the tradition is that you shower outside the tub and then relax in the tub that is usually a one person Jacuzzi. Quite nice with the carefully manicured ground you could see through a small window by the tub after a long week at work.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Okinawa 2011

Last weekend I flew out of Haneda Airport to visit my sister and her husband in Okinawa, a large island on the Ryukyu island chain below mainland Japan. I left my place early as I wasn’t sure how long my route would take but the train system got me to the airport an hour before the plane took off. Taking the flight in the afternoon was an amazing idea as I got some awesome photos of clouds and the islands below surrounded by coral.

My sister picked me up in the airport and drove me back to her place. Once her husband got off work we went to a small restaurant down the street from them to talk over lunch. I had an awesome taco pizza appetizer, great curry fried rice, and tried pineapple wine. After that we went back to their place and laughed at their two playful cats while talking and catching up.

The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast before heading out to a local native town. Called Murasaki Mura it was a historical village designed to educate visitors on Okinawan culture years ago. As none of us were quite in a crafty mood that day, we just wandered the grounds and looked at all the crafts we could do. Scared that my batteries were low on my camera, I didn’t take too many pictures there, but I did get a picture of my sister with a green goya, which is considered a native vegetable and she was excited to see it still on the vine. (The green and yellow vegetable to the right is a riper goya.) I also got a picture of a karate studio of a practicing dojo. (Interesting fact is that karate originated in the Ryukan kingdom which became Okinawa Prefecture.)

After making our way through the village we went to a place called Sea Seed where they get coral seeds and grow coral to plant in the sea when it’s big enough to survive. They use a number of aquariums to educate the public while growing the coral and I got a lot of pictures a well as being able to hold a live starfish. After that we walked out on a stone bridge to a stone platform before going to the nearby sea salt factory.

With my time in Okinawa coming to a close, we ate at Freshness Burger before going to a Halloween picnic at my sister’s church. There we met up with a Japanese friend of my sister’s who brought us some kimonos to try on and we got pictures

Okinawa is an awesome place and I'm hoping to return there soon. For those of you interested in visiting there, here is a travel guide. I you want to see more pictures from my trip, visit my Flickr page and enjoy. I hope you enjoy the pictures as I had a blast taking them!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Renting in Japan

Moving, moving, moving. It’s all I’ve been doing for over a month now. Renting a place in Japan while working for my company a rather long process. Once I reached a certain position and had been in a certain amount of time, I’m allowed to move out of the housing provided for me and into my own place. The usual process for a Japanese person getting a place is that they go to a few housing agents to look at places, since most agencies rent different places and very few listings are held by more than one agency. Once they found a place they like, they negotiate on price and appliances, such as if the tenant wants an oven or larger refrigerator or a washer, and sign a tentative contract to sign at a later day. They need to sign at a later date because the tenant has to pay what equates to five month’s rent in cash when they sign the lease. The tenant pays the first month’s rent, a security deposit, the agent’s fee, and renter’s insurance. Together with taxes, that comes to about five month’s rent in cash. Youch, that can take a few days to gather. My company adds some paperwork that took nearly a week to get back to me and a few meetings with American housing specialists. All in all my moving process took about a month and then another week to finally move all my things into my new place. These are pictures of my new place. The first one is my small hallway between the guest room and my bedroom, the next is the guestroom before I put all my craft things in it, and the third picture is of the loft above the guest bedroom. My kitchen/livingroom area is also a rather large room but already a mess from moving in when I took these pictures. Now I just have to slowly furnish and organize all my things. Umm, yeah… that could take a while. :)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Wildlife Dome in Cairns, Australia

How many of you know what a bandicoot, frogmouth, or wallaby is? They’re all animals native to Australia and I got to see some when I went to the Cairns Wildlife Dome on top of a hotel and casino in Cairns, Australia last time I was there. The Dome is a mini-zoo with galahs and other birds flying around our heads and habitats for other animals that we could walk through. It’s a bad picture but as you can see I also got to hold a koala (which has bristly fur instead of the soft teddy bear fur most stuffed recreations have) and I got to see some kookaburras, a bettong, and a few sleeping wallabies (which look like small kangaroos when awake). Here is more on the animals at the Dome and here are more pictures I took in the Dome. I hope you enjoy the pictures and I highly recommend a stop at the Dome if you get to go near Cairns, Australia.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

My Kuranda Trip

Kuranda is a tourist town in the Tablelands of Northern Queensland in Australia. I recently rode the Kuranda Scenic Railway up the Atherton Tableland, which seemed like a mountain but was really a high and rocky plateau. One of the greatest engineering feats of Australia, the railway was finished in 1891 and is now used entirely for sightseeing thanks to the road that was built to allow cars and buses to ferry people up. The two hour train ride was in an old fashioned train wide enough for a wooden bench that seated four people and a thin aisle to walk up. It stopped at a few places with great views and allowed us to get out and stretch our legs, get pictures, or read the information provided. After a gorgeous ride, we got to the town of Kuranda. If you like to get shop at expensive boutiques for one of a kind items or if you like browsing and bargaining at craft fairs, Kuranda is a great place to visit. If you aren’t in the mood to shop, try some of the wild life areas nearby. If none of those appeal to you, umm…, the food is really good. It was near the end of the trip so my friend and I didn’t have much money left to buy a lot but as we didn’t have much time before we had to get on the SkyRail and go back down the Tableland, we stopped at a deli for an amazing lunch and wandered the craft market areas. I bought a few beads and found a stall that sold wines made from mangos, not grapes. About two o’clock we got on the SkyRail to fly us down to the station the bus would pick us up at. We stopped at a few stations to get pictures of the rainforest plants and I even saw a peacock that nicely posed for my camera but eventually we got to the bottom of the tableland and went back to our hotel, one more trip done.

However, the next day we were planning to go to The Dome, a mini-zoo above the casino in downtown Cairns, and hold a koala as well as get lots of pictures. See you next week for that post. Click here to view photos I took on my trip.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Carnes, Australia

Cairns, Australia is a lovely tourist town not far from the Great Barrier Reef and a number of other attractions. Named Trinity Bay by James Cook, it started out as a port for the discovery of gold not far away but that function was taken away when a quicker route to Port Douglas was discovered and it became an agricultural port. In World War II Carnes became a port for both Australian and Allied Forces and combat missions were sent out from Carnes to support the Battle of the Coral Sea. After the War it became the tourist town it is today.
Not far from an international airport, Carnes is full of seafood restaurants, Asian restaurants, souvenir shops, and tour agents as well as being surrounded by hotels and resorts. I had a lot of fun in this laid back town and took a trip up to Karianda, which I’ll talk about next week. I also watched a magic show at the casino, where I couldn’t take pictures, and visited the mini-zoo on top of the casino, where I took a lot of pictures I’ll show you in two weeks.
If you’re interested in what else you can do while in this charming beach town, here is the link to their tourist site. If you plan to go down to Australia, I highly recommend planning a few days in this relaxed tourist hub.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

My Trip To The Gold Coast

The Gold Coast in Australia is a resort area known for long beaches and 6 amusement parks just a short train ride from Brisbane. However, if you plan to go to the Gold Coast from the major city, remember to start early in the morning.
We got to the Brisbane train station after noon and the attendants got us tickets for one of the three main cities on the Gold Coast and we got on the train. The trip was an hour by train and then a bus ride. After a half hour or more on the bus, it seemed like we were leaving the tourist area so we got off the bus and walked around. We found some pretty beaches and lots of homes and hotels but nothing interesting or worth the trip. When we looked at the bus schedule, we saw that the last bus out of the area we were in was six thirty and it was already after five in the evening. There was no way we would get to the famous Gold Coast in time to do anything and get back that night so we got a snack at a convenience store and headed back to Brisbane to find supper.
We found out later that the bus trip should have taken about or over an hour and passed an amusement park. We got off well before that and so I realize this post says very little about the actual famous area. If you want more information on the Gold Coast, here is the official website and here is the link to my Flickr page with more photos from the Gold Coast as I saw it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Brisbane, Australia

Brisbane is the capital of Queensland, Australia and one of the largest cities on the continent.

The first night of my stay in Brisbane I stayed at an apartment hotel and that is the way to stay. The apartment had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, one with a washer and dryer in it, a living room area with couches, a TV, and a dining room table, and a kitchen area with dishes, a microwave, a small stove and nice refrigerator/freezer. Very nice for a night away from work with gorgeous views of Brisbane from a lot of floors up.

The next morning my friends that I shared the apartment with and I left the hotel room and wandered around town. The y wanted to find a place to eat kangaroo but we finally settled on going to a market held daily along the river. The market was fun, although the level of goods seemed more like a mall than a regular market. We decided to stop for lunch at a Mexican place and I had tacos and a chicken quesadilla near a stone statue of a carnival performer suspended in midair by cables.

After the market we decided to go see Transformers 3 in 3D at the local mall. It was a very good movie but I must admit that the 3D part was a bit overwhelming. I still prefer the old experience where the screen was flat and you just watched the good show. However, times are changing and I’ll have to adapt, even if the movie gave me a headache. After the movie my friends were still looking for kangaroo meat so we got in a cab to a cowboy style restaurant. There we found out that kangaroo meat is more of a get-it-when-available- meat than a seasonal or everyday meat so I had an awesome hamburger and they had beef and we went back to our beds on the ship.

I went out to the city a few more times for shopping and food before we left. One thing I was amazed at was that the country was based off of England many years ago but was more like the United States than my image of England now a day. Australia doesn’t seem to have a “native food” like most of the places I’ve been. They have Mexican places, French places, Thai places, Japanese and Chinese places, the typical fast food places like Starbucks and McDonalds, and almost everywhere has an alcohol menu (not counting the fast food places of course). It was amazing to basically be back in the States again for a little while, although I don’t know anyone that managed to stay inside their budget during our stay in Australia. Everything is slightly more expensive there and we could buy things like clothes that we can’t find to fit us in Asian countries. Trying to find pants that fit Western bodies in the stores designed for naturally skinny Asians is just painful.

Anyways, Brisbane was a lot of fun and I’m definitely hoping/planning to come back before I die and I highly recommend it. Next week I’ll write about my trip to the Gold Coast so come back soon.

If you want to see more of my photos from Brisbane, check out my Flickr gallery.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Noumea, New Caledonia

Noumea is the capital of New Caledonia, a French Island in the Pacific Ocean. Although hard to get to by plane, the small city is trying hard to become known in the tourist world and is occasionally a stop for cruise ships around Australia. Although it has gorgeous beaches, lots of water for boating or fishing, and some nice boutiques, I really don’t have much to say about the city besides that it has awesome food and lovely sunsets. If you want a panoramic view of the city from a hilltop, here’s a great view and it will show a good depiction of how small the island is. True, this is much smaller than the island I was on, it gives the impression of a small island with little on it. If you love a small town where you can sun on the beach or eat amazing food while looking over the ocean, you’ll love it here. If you go, just remember that money goes quick here as it is a tourist city and the dollar doesn’t have much value overseas.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tokyo Trip, Day 1

A few months ago I went to see my middle sister and her husband in Tokyo for the weekend. She was visiting and I’m only a few hours away by train so it worked out well. I rode out after work to meet them at Starbucks in Kamakura, Japan. True, I’d already visited there nearly a year before but that was at someone else’s planning and it’s just such a lovely place I had no problem visiting there again. Since it was the beginning of December and rather chilly we decided not to go to the beach there. They had visited the main temple while they waited for me to get done with work so we decided to go to eat first. My sister, B, had a guide book of the best places to visit in Japan that she borrowed from the place they had been staying so she looked in there and found a great Japanese curry place known for its cheesy chicken curry. It was only a few blocks away from the Starbucks so we walked it and it wasn’t long before both me and my brother-in-law, G, were wondering aloud about her map reading skills. She took it as the mostly joking that it was and we made it to the restaurant to eat their amazing curry. She ordered the cheesy chicken curry, G ordered the beef curry, and I decided to be exotic and try the scallop curry. Yeah, my mistake. The plates came out with a pile of rice next to a gravy bowl of curry so it was easy to try each other’s sauce on our rice. I must admit that while the scallop curry wasn’t amazing, it wasn’t horrible and B and G’s food was amazing. I will definitely have to go back there for more than a little taste of the good curry. They served our tea in a way I hadn’t seen before which intrigued me. They had a glass bottom with one of those round candles that you can pick up at almost any home decoration place in the States lit and they put the hot tea on top in a glass teapot. The effect was to keep the tea hot and you can see the color of the tea with the fire reflected through the tea.
After we had eaten we got some ice cream and decided to go to Hase which was two train stations over and was known for a number of temples. We found it, despite my bad directions, and got to the temple B really wanted to see seven minutes after it had closed. Supposedly the temple was known for hundreds of statues and its gorgeous garden so we stood looking through the slits in the fence for a few minutes before B sadly agreed to move on and we walked a few blocks to the Great Buddha. This was another place I had gone already but it was as a quick day trip to prove I could navigate the train system and I had been on a time limit so it was nice to slowly wander the grounds at night and take night pictures. Even though it was after dark, B wanted us to go for a multi-mile hike from one part of the city to the other but G and I managed to talk her out of it. Much as I love the outdoors and walking at night I wasn’t willing to go on a hiking path that likely didn’t have many lights. Besides, I was kind of tired and still had my backpack on with all my stuff for the weekend. Unfortunately her way of compromising was to walk back to the other train station by a main road. Yeah, that took another hour but gave us more time to talk.
We got on the train and managed to find seats. I noticed and tried to hide that I was falling asleep in the hot train talking to them. I managed to stay awake through the trip and made it to the train station we got off. Unfortunately the station was Ikeburo Station, one of the busiest train stations in Tokyo, especially after dark. I hate crowds and tried to keep close to B and G as they led me where we needed to go before I hyperventilated. I got out on the street and calmed myself down while we walked to the hostel they had gotten rooms in. Yep, I can now say I’ve slept in a hostel. Now, when you think of a hostel you are probably like me and think of everyone sleeping in one room and sharing a single bathroom. Well, that may have been another floor but they got a three person room so the three of us shared a room and everyone in the floor shared two shower stalls, a female bathroom, and a male bathroom. It really was rather cool. Being in Japan we slept on the floor on separate mats maybe two inches thick under blankets about an inch and a half. The blankets and mats were wrapped snuggly in sheets so they were easy to launder and we were given small towels to use and return so they could launder and replace if needed. The towels, though not bigger than a hand towel, dried me all the way off, even with my long hair, and the beds were surprisingly comfortable.
By now it had been many hours since the curry meal so we tried a nearby restaurant that was part of a chain similar to Denny’s in the States. However, it was closed so I introduced them to the cheap way travelers eat in Japan: convenience stores. We found a 7/11 or the like and picked up some food (I picked up a rice cake with meat inside and a large meat dumpling, B picked up something she thought was interesting, and G picked up a plate of spaghetti they heated behind the counter for him) and picked up a few cans from the local liquor store since the convenience store didn’t have a very good selection. We took our meal and ate in the lobby of the hostel we were staying at. I’ve never understood the fun of sitting at a bar drinking and talking all night but we finally headed up to bed about midnight. I don’t know if the alcohol mattered much since none of us were even tipsy going upstairs but it sure was fun to just sit and talk to them for a few hours, even if we did need to get up late to accommodate the late night. It was the weekend and sleeping in is what the weekend is for.

Tokyo Trip, Day 2

As stated in the post for day one of my expedition through Tokyo, Japan with my sister (B) and her husband (G), we stayed up late talking the first night so we woke up late Saturday and started our travels about 1230 in the afternoon. Hungry, we tried a place nearby that is called Jonathans but is similar to Denny’s back in the States. Unfortunately it was full and we’d have at least a half hour wait before even getting seated so we decided to go to the next location on our trip to eat. The location was heralded as a nice little street full of cafes near a lovely little park locals gathered in to relax away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. The street started out as a street of cafes and we picked a café that served Japanese style Italian food. I got a delicious cheesy spaghetti and I forget what the others got but we all loved our brunches and ate in the patio watching the people passing on the street. Eventually we had to get up though and we followed the street until it turned into a shopping street where I found a kind of funky native Australian store. Eventually the street ended in the park which turned out to be a large public park developed around a small lake. In the lake were paddle boats you could rent for a few hours, some shaped like normal paddle boats with no roof while others were shaped like larger than life swans and held two people. Instead of renting a paddle boat we decided to follow the lake and see what else the oases of nature had to offer before returning to the busy streets again. Turned out that the park was a cultural focal point on the weekends when artists of every type set up to create their art, sell it at a makeshift art faire, or earn a little money for entertaining like the jugglers or the violinist. A popular place to walk dogs, I was impressed with the artist who had the idea to sell hats for dogs as well as a few jewelry makers selling their wares on tables or carefully organized tablecloths on the ground along the sidewalks. After an hour or more we reached the end of the park and had to head back to the busy streets of Tokyo. However, before we got back on the train we each got a Japanese version of the crepe. Usually fruit and cream or ice cream wrapped in a thin but sweet pancake, the Japanese crepe is an excellent dessert or mid-afternoon snack and I was quite happy with my strawberry/banana/cream version before getting on the busy train.
Our next stop of the day was supposed to be a train station close to four large shrines. We walked around a lot looking for those shrines but never found them. Eventually we gave up and walked down a well lighted outdoor mall looking for food only to find a small temple surrounded by family graves. In the States a family grave likely brings to mind a tomb or building where the urns of family members are kept. In Japan a family grave means a single monument with wooden plaques (similar to human sized tongue dispensers) with the person’s name written elegantly in kanji down the plaque. I’m not sure if the urns were in the monument but my guess is that the graves were more of a place to remember the dead than visit them as many Americans like to do. We wandered around the temple for a few minutes and took pictures of the statues but we were hungry. We didn’t find food in that mall/street (or as the guide books call it: an “arcade”) so we headed back to our hostel, got food at a convenience store again and went to our room to watch a few episodes of Castle, one of my favorite television shows that they hadn’t tried yet.

Tokyo Trip, Day 3

On our third and final day together in Tokyo, Japan, my sister (B), her husband (G), and I had to be out of our hostel by 11 in the morning so we woke up early, Skyped home to our parents, our oldest brother, and his wife before packing our stuff and checking out. Used to travelers, the hostel had a place we could store our bags during the day as long as we got them that night. We did that and head out to Shinjuku Station to look for a bookstore, grabbing breakfast on the way. B wanted to find a copy of the travel guide we had borrowed from the hostel all weekend and had been told about a huge bookstore near Shinjuku Station. Unfortunately we can’t read Japanese and wound up getting lost until we asked a few people for directions and found the store whose fourth floor had English books, including travel guides to Japan. They decided to buy another travel guide than what we had been using and we walked on, and on, and on,… After a few hours and when our feet were starting to complain my sister’s map finally said we were nearly to the shrine she had set for the day’s expedition. G and I decided it was lunchtime (beyond that really since it was early afternoon by then but we finally saw restaurants after about two hours of walking residential streets). We compromised by getting fast food so we’d have more time to explore her shrine. We wound up trying Freshness Burger, which being Japanese meant it had really small portions, and the burgers were great. Finally refreshed from a half hour of sitting and full stomachs, the three of us set out to explore Meiji Jingu, a shrine dedicated to an emperor and his wife who helped bring the western ideas of the late 1800s into Japan when it needed a quick modernization. We didn’t realize we went to the shrine on the weekend of the Shichi-Go-San Festival, or the 7-5-3 Festival, where girls aged three and seven as well as boys aged five are dressed up in traditional outfits and taken to shrines or temples to pray for good luck on the children. It was fascinating seeing all the traditional outfits (the parents are often in traditional dress as well or just suits and semiformal dresses) as well as the shrine itself.
After we left the shrine, we walked a down the street (I believe it was Harajuku street but am not sure as I didn’t write the name down in my notes) that was full of brand name western stores like American Eagle, just to say we’d gone down a famous street. That done we headed back to our hostel to pick up our backpacks and go our separate ways again. First we decided to get supper and chose a pizza place. Unfortunately it didn’t have an English menu so we had fun pointing at Japanese kanji and hoping we got something good. It worked out and we each managed to get good pizza, even if the pizzas were small, and we had a fun hour before separating at the train station, me on my way back to work and them off to a few days in Kyoto, Japan before heading home.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Osaka, Japan

Not too long ago I took a trip with some friends, M and G, to Osaka, Japan. Osaka has been a center for trade for centuries and that meant a large population grew up in the area and merchants became rich and settled in the area. Lots of money in the area and a large Asian population means the area is full of historical buildings, especially temples and shrines. Named the country’s capital many times since the fifth century, Osaka is known for its castles, though not as well known as nearby Kyoto with its rich history and gorgeous landscape. The three of us set out that day planning to see some of the historic sites as well as the famous street with massive billboards.
We started out by taking the bus into town and had lunch at McDonalds. (I know, I know, eating McDonalds in Japan, so adventurous, but give us a break. It was after 1230 and none of us had eaten anything since supper the night before. It was next to the bus stop and we were hungry, so we stopped there for food.) Next we crossed the street to the subway station and went to Tennoji area looking for Shitennoji Temple. Built in 593 by Prince Shotoku, Shitennoji Temple was Japan’s first governmental temple. Seemed like a good place to go on our only day in Osaka so we went hunting. We followed directions and circled the train station to the main street. We got excited because we saw old Japanese looking buildings from the train station, but no, they were just decorations on roofs of restaurants meant to draw the eyes. We asked directions again and were told to follow the main street until we passed the temple so our journey down the main street began. It turned out to be quite a walk and along the way we saw two Japanese buildings hidden down an alley. Thinking those might be the beginnings of the temple we checked them out. Finding them to merely be bars, we took pictures and continued down the main street. Next we found a small shrine we explored. I rather liked it, it felt like a quiet place to worship and there were a few people praying there as we wandered and prayers hung up in places, either on wooden plaques hung near the prayer bell or on papers tied around string reserved for the worshipers. However, it didn’t take me long to realize that this peaceful shrine was partially made of plastic and it no longer seemed so restful. Maybe it’s just me but if you’re going to build a place of worship, go all the way. Don’t make everything look old and significant but have it made of cheap, modern materials. The others were still enjoying the shrine so I sat down to let them wander and not ruin their experience. Eventually we left the little shrine and saw an amazingly realistic mural of African savannah animals, including a male and female lion on a rock with a flaming sunset behind them. It was very impressive and life sized.
We wandered down the street some more and eventually found the Shitennoji Temple. The temple, “featuring a middle gate, a five story pagoda, a main hall, and an auditorium arranged in a straight line surrounded by corridors” (as the tourist guide explained), was awesome. Rebuilt after World War 2, the buildings were impressive and well maintained. The five story pagoda towered above the other buildings in the temple and the view of the modern buildings standing just outside the fence of the temple was slightly amusing. One thing I noticed was that although the statues were of Japanese monks, the artwork seemed to be in the Indian style. After a little more wandering I realized the art was Indian because the temple was a Buddhist temple. Yeah, that made sense then. We spent well over an hour at the temple but there is only so much silent respect a person can take before getting restless so we moved on to Dotombori Street.
After the walk back up the main street, the subway ride to Namba area, and a fifteen minute walk, we found the street known for its many restaurants and huge billboards. The original billboard, a massive runner crossing the finish line, seems to have been taken down, or I didn’t look hard enough, but I got a picture of the life size runner, a few bigger than life size crabs that had moving legs, a huge octopus wrapped around a sign with steam coming out its eye, and a dragon going in and out of a wall above a restaurant. We ate some amazing Korean barbeque with cucumber kimchee as well as squid rolls from a vender. After that it got dark and I got a picture of the neon lights on the street and we went back. We all had to work early the next morning and were pretty full so sleep sounded pretty good.
Although I was kind of disappointed by the reality of Dotombori Street, compared to the hype in the guide book, I had good company all day. It wound up being a really fun day and I’m looking forward to going on vacation there sometime soon.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Hong Kong, 2011

I recently visited Hong Kong again and had a lot of fun. The stresses at work and a lack of sleep made me decide not to have a trip as busy as my last one to give me some time to relax and calm down. However, a friend and I signed up for a tour that consisted of a stop at Temple Street Market in Kowloon side of Hong Kong, an open cover bus ride, and a night time ferry ride and meal in the Hong Kong Harbour. I didn't take too many pictures in Hong Kong since not much caught my interest or they didn't come out right but I did get a lot of night pictures of Hong Kong and Kowloon. I suppose I should explain something about Hong Kong. What most people think of as a single city or island is really a number of different islands and territories, similar to districts. The tour took us around the island of Kowloon to take pictures of the main island called Hong Kong Island then out on the harbour to see a laser show off the skyscrapers of all the visible islands but mostly a small bay on Hong Kong Island.

Temple Street Market was interesting with lots of random things. It was started as a market for males with electronics and such but as with all markets it included things for women such as jewelry and shiny boxes common in the city. What caught my eye was that the market is a few streets down from the Jade Market where beads are sold, especailly jade beads sold in strings. Because we were on the tour and had limited time I decided not to vist the Jade Market but made a note of where it was for next time I come through. I know full well that I will get lost in there and probably spend a lot of money in there so I hope I remember to save up! After the market we went on the open bus ride and I enjoyed the night lights in Hong Kong with the wind in my hair. The ferry ride was fun and the food was good. It was buffet style and none of the three of us went down to watch the laser show as it was after 8 pm when we got the food and we were all really hungry. The entertainment was kind of fun too as it was two most likely Chinese women singing American tunes with their accent. One had a nice strong voice but the other woman was hard to hear even with the microphone. It was fun watching the children dance to the music though and the food was amazing. After the two hour ride was over we went back to the bar near where we were staying and had some sangri, my friends latest favorite drink.
The next day we went out to the Lady's Market which was full of clothes, sparkly jewelry, hair accessories, and boxes, as well sandals of every style but only small sizes and bags among a lot of things like ciggerette lighters and electronics as well as toys. We had fun and I got a lot of my Christmas shopping done already, or that's my excuse for spending so much. :) However, I didn't go too far over my limit so I'm not upset. It really is amazing what a person can find at markets. For supper that night we went to an international resteraunt that had nothing remotely American, which was odd to me. Usually international means American but there it meant other Asian countries. I got three pieces of fried pork in a white curry sauce to be put over steamed rice and my friend got a stone bowl of eel soup.

We had fun in Hong Kong and I hope you have as much fun in your life. For now this is Li'l B signing out 'til next time.

Manila 2011

I had a lot of fun in the Philippines not too long ago. The first night we stopped at the Mall of Asia and had some good food at the food court next to the ice rink inside the mall. It was good food but we still had a few hours of sunlight to explore so we did. Curious how the Mall of Asia compared to the Mall of America not far from my family home, my friend and I walked as much of the mall as we wanted to. There we saw a few play areas for children, the ice rink I saw before, and the bowling alley as well as the cinema and a lot of stores. I’m not sure which mall is larger although I do believe the Mall of Asia may win in size. However, the Mall of Asia is two stories long and spread over two or three blocks while the Mall of America is four floors tall.

The next day we went outside Manila to an abandoned naval base turned into a thrill area for people who love heights. There we did what they called a Superman ride where got strapped in tightly then sent across on a zip line for a few seconds and back again stretched out like Superman, or with your legs out on the bar and your hands tightly clenching the bar under your armpits, like I was. Quite exciting but really a short ride when it was over. Next we went on a ride where my friend and I stood on a few pieces of metal facing each other strapped on and sent across more zip line. That one was really fun because any little movement had a strong reaction to the metal that supported us. The next and last ride we went on was a freefall. Basically they strap you in to a tension line, you step out into the air about three floors out and can go head first, sitting, or Mission Impossible style. Then they release the tension and you freefall until they tighten the tension again about ten feet above the ground to slow you to a soft landing. Yeah, it was scary but fun and over really quick. It seems unsafe but all the people there that day landed safely although pretty shaken. Unfortunately I can’t post pictures of my fall because I only got video of it and even that was half missed by the amateur photographer that was nice enough to film it on my camera. I’ll try to post the video but no promises. Next we went on a hike through the trees and saw their version of poison ivy, the vines strong enough for humans to climb or swing on, and trees with roots up to my waist. We also had a lecture session on how to survive in the jungle including how to get water out of bamboo shoots, how to make fire from bamboo (no stones used), and how to make a spork jungle style.

For lunch we stopped at a lovely place overlooking a lake and ordered some good food. I ordered a soup but one of my companions ordered broiled squid and actually was served two small but whole squid. After a lovely meal we went shopping before getting on the bus to go back to Manila. Along the way our pit stop was called the Shell of Asia, which I found amusing as we had stopped at the Mall of Asia the day before.

The next day we again went to the Mall of Asia for lunch and found that the children’s bouncy playgrounds had been taken down and there was a martial arts competition in its place. After a few hours of shopping at the mall we got in a cab and went to a bar called the Hobbit House. The novelty of the Hobbit House, besides its selection of over two hundred international beers and the Lord of the Rings décor, is that all the servers are legal midgets. It was rather amusing to me because my companion was acting like they had met a celebrity just by being in the bar. Well, the peach flavored beer I had and the cherry flavored beer both of which were labeled from Belgium, may have added to the silliness of the night. The food there wasn’t bad although it wasn’t the typical version (my spaghetti had bbq sauce on it instead of marinara sauce) and it was a fun night.

All that said I had fun in the Philippines and can’t wait to go back. Well, until next time, have a nice life and check out my pictures on Facebook.