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 cafĂ© 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.