Friday, August 31, 2007

Julie in Miyagi!

To conclude my trip with Julie, I will write this blog. After we had departed Nara, we made our way back up to my prefecture of Miyagi. Spending some time in the capital city, Sendai, we walked around and I showed Julie some of the sights. I think the most memorable part of this day is when Julie fell into the toilets, yes, I am serious...she fell into the toilet (hehehe). We caught a train back to Ishinomaki and Yumie picked us up from the train station We went out to eat with her and Julie was able to meet Yumie's amazing family afterwards.
Julie spent her last few days in Japan understanding where I live and what it is I do everyday. I feel it's a very important part of my life and to actually be able to see and do what I do, gives an entirely new meaning to me, "living in Japan." Julie is probably one of my avid, faithful readers of this blog and as best as I try to relay my life to those at home, she had pictured a lot of what I had described to be completely different from what she saw in rural Japan.
I received permission from one of my Junior High Schools for Julie to come in with me. She was able to observe my classes, eat lunch with the students, meet my co-workers and see how a typical school day in Japan is done. The teachers treated her like royalty and the students were extremely curious of her. My favorite questions from the students were "how is she American if she looks Japanese?". After school, she got to meet my Adult Conversation Class. Friday, she came to a class of Elementary school with me followed with about 30 minutes of Kindergarden. I had a meeting in Sendai, so while I was in the meeting, she went shopping in the city. That evening, we met up with my friends and had dinner and went to karaoke. The next morning, I took her to Kinkasan Island, a trip that I had originally done with Meghann last September or October.

This evening, we just took it easy and rented a movie as Julie said I had kept her on the go way too much. (Don't worry after she thanked me for jam packing our days of things to do) Sunday morning, I woke Julie at the crack of dawn, so we could go to Kurikoma mountain to do some hiking. I have hiked this mountain in the past with Brock, but it was so cloudy we couldn't see a thing. Julie and I lucked out and could not in any way, have asked for a better day. It was hot, but not deathly hot, the skies were extremely clear and the summit of the mountain wasn't too cold. From the top of the highest mountain in Miyagi, we were able to see as far as our eyes would let us. It was such a spectacular site, with views of not only Miyagi, but two connecting prefectures as well.

We went back down a different course, which gave us new scenery and terrain to cover. On the way down, we had to cross through natural waterfalls that had been created by the melting snow from the summit. There were a few parts of the trail down that I wasn't entirely positive that we were headed in the right way, but it all worked out. We drove the three hours back to Monou and went to Yasko's house for a BBQ dinner.

Julie's last day in my town was spent all day at an elementary school. Afterwards, I took her into Sendai and we had dinner one last time. I stayed with her as late as I possibly could and then made sure she would make it on the overnight bus alright. I said my goodbyes, thus concluding a wonderful trip with Julie for two weeks.
CLICK HERE for all the pictures from these events
Thanks for coming, Julie, I had a lot of fun. I can't wait to go to Egypt with you =)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Nara - Japan's First Capital

We rose bright and early to catch an early train to get to Nara from Kyoto. Around the year 646, Japan decided that they needed a capital to govern the country. They tried out two previous areas before deciding that Nara was the best spot. Therefore, Nara became Japan's first real capital in the year 710. It was only the capital for 75 years before it was changed to Kyoto. It was during this brief stint of 75 years that Japan imported many Chinese customs and ways and began integrating these things into Japanese society, such as declaring Buddhism the National Religion. Since the capital was moved to Kyoto, many of the temples & shrines in Kyoto had been destroyed with attacks on Japan. However, with Nara on the back burner of these attacks, several of the shrines and temples were never destroyed and are in tact from the way they were originally developed. It is the number two tourist attraction in this part of Japan following Kyoto. In 1998, there were eight sights deemed worthy to be UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

As we exited out of Nara Station, I stopped and asked for a map of the area from an Information center. We were asked if we would be interested in having a free tour guide for the day. After having the day before be a bit ruined by my lack of understanding of the area, we decided it would probably be for the best to have one. We only had one day in Nara and we wanted to be able to see the sights hassle free. It also relieved a lot of the stress on my shoulders by not having to try to read the maps and figuring out where we were. Our hotel wouldn't allow us to check in until 3 or some late hour so we stored our luggage in lockers at the station for the day. A friendly stranger helped us lift our bags and carry our bags for us. We thought he worked at the locker area, but so it turns out, he didn't and was just a friendly stranger trying to help us.

Our tour guides' name was Yoriko and we met her at another Tourist Information Center. She was this absolutely adorable woman, about 60 years old who just wants to practice her English so she gives free tours. Immediately, I really liked her, she was so helpful and just so absolutely cute! The majority of the temples and shrines were in an area called Nara koen area or Nara Park. One trademark of Nara that is well-known throughout Japan is the large number of tame deer that walk around trying to get food from the tourists. There are about 1200 deer in this area that were considered sacred before Buddhism was introduced into Japan. At that time, they were considered messengers from God and thus have been declared as National Treasures for Japan.

We didn't really see many of these deer until Yoriko led us towards the various temples and shrines. She stopped us at a pond along the way to tell us of a Japanese folklore story about the pond. I already forget it now, a month and a half later but it was a love story for sure. From there, she took us to Kofuku-ji temple. This temple is quite interesting as it was transferred to Nara from Kyoto in 710. It originally had 175 buildings, but destruction has left only a dozen standing. There are two pagodas in this area, and I think the more impressive one dates back to 1426. It is actually the second tallest in Japan. Yoriko taught us that each layer of a pagoda represents the earth's elements. For example, one represents water, another level earth, and so on.

We walked to the next shrine called Kasuga Taisha which was founded in the 8th century. Approaching the entrance of the shrine, you begin seeing hundreds of lanterns lining the pathway. It was set in the woods, so it made it really feel "sacred" to me. According to shinto practice, the main shrine needs to be completely rebuilt every twenty years and the keepers of the shrine keep this up.

The next few places we visited were all part of a place called "Todai-ji". We first stopped at sangatsu do hall. It is the oldest building in the Todai-ji temple complex. It houses a small collection of statues from the Nara capital period. There were 16 statues inside and 12 are designated as National Treasures and the remaining 4 are considered to be Important Culture Properties. 14 were made between the twenty years of 729-749. Most of them are deities to the Buddhist beliefs. They all had very fierce looking faces and generally made of Gold and painted over. They were so old, that you could barely distinguish what color they were supposed to be painted. Others that weren't looking fierce had their hands put together and were in prayer. They were very impressive.

Afterwards, we moved onto the nigatsu do building. We needed to make a small climb uphill to view it, but it was well worth it for the views that we got from up top. The outer part of the building had all sorts of paintings around it. There were two people that were sitting inside practicing mantras, it was really cool to listen to. We rested here for a bit intaking the views.

The last place we went to, which is considered to be the most impressive building in all of the Todai-ji complex is called the Daibutsu-den hall. The building is the largest wooden structure in the entire world. The current building was built in 1709, and it's actually only 2/3 the size of the original building. The old, wooden building is actually home to an gigantic bronze Buddha

And, I mean gigantic! Th name of budda is Daibutsu which literally translates to Big Buddha. It is one of the largest Bronze figures in the world. It was originally cast in 746, however, the current Buddha had been recast. It stands over 16m high and consists of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kg of gold. It is believed by Historians, that this Buddha was cast to as a charm against smallpox within Japan. The reason it had been recast was because it had lost it's head a few times due to natural disasters such as earthquakes or fires. You can see a color difference between the head and it's body for sure.

I had seen another Daibutsu in Kamakura, that was impressive, but this guy in Nara, was definitely even more awe-inspiring. It is rumored that the Daibutsu in Nara can hold the Daibutsu in Kamakura in the palm of his hand! In addition, to this one large Bronze Buddha, there were other protectors that were just as impressively large that were alongside Daibutsu.

Towards the back of the Daibutsu den hall is a pole with a hole at the bottom of it. The hole is rumored to be exactly the same size as the Big Buddha's nostril. According to our tour guide Yoriko, there is a belief that if a person can fit through that hole, they will go to paradise. We first watched a group of Junior High School boys wiggling their way through the hole. Then, Julie went and was successful and then it was my turn. I was a bit nervous I wouldn't make it but, I did, with the help of some of those boys helping pull me through. It turns out, we are going to paradiese!! See you there?

The last part of this temple complex that Yoriko took us to see was to the gateway entrance to the temple. It turns out we must have gone through a back entrance or something. On the side of this gate, called nandai-mon, are two intimidating "nio guardians." These wooden figures were originally carved in the 13th century. It is claimed that they are some of the finest wooden structures in all Japan, if not the world. They have been recently restored. To me, the most impressive thing about these guardians were how tall they were.

At this point, we had seen all the temples and shrines in the Nara Koen park and it was nearly noon. The last spot that Yoriko took us to was a gorgeous Japanese style garden named yoshikien. There are three different styles of gardens here, a pond garden, a moss garden, and a tea ceremonial flower garden. There is a tea house in the moss garden that we were allowed to look at. Most of the gardens were carpeted with cedar moss, other parts had seasonal flowers and others had rock paths to follow. I am so in love with Japanese gardens.

Finally it was lunch time. Yoriko recognized my vegetarian eating habits and took me to one of my favorite food restaurants in Japan. Any restaurant that makes okonomiyaki is awesome in my eyes. Okonomiyaki is kind of like a pancake, with all sorts of things tossed inside such as vegetables, meat, mochi, anything really and then a sauce to put on top or mayonnaise, seaweed, all types of toppings as well. After lunch, we said goodbye to Yoriko and walked around the city a little more to do some shopping or whatnot. The city is rather small and we were really tired. We finally checked into our hotel, a hotel called the "Super Hotel" - sounds really ghetto but was actually a cute little room perfect for us. We had been staying in hostels up until this point so we were really happy to finally have a room to ourselves.

We took a short nap, watched some Full House in Japanese and then headed out to dinner at a cute little French cafe' to have a taste of Western style food again. We ended our night at a bar that was around the corner of our hotel. We definitely found some hole in the wall bar where we were the only foreigners and we had a blast that night. The bartender could speak some English, so Julie was able to talk with him a bit and then the rest of the night ended with us playing darts, Julie demanding which song be played next to the DJ, and then singing at the top of our lungs as the rest of the bar stared at us like we're nuts. We took some shots and then I woke up the next morning ... it felt like college again with Julie =) I love it.

Click here to see all the pics from this day...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Sakura Wind

The first thing we did on July 2nd was head out to the Southeast Outskirts of Kyoto. I had seen pictures from friends that had visited this area previously and I thought it was definitely worth a visit. The shrine named Fushimi Inari Taisha, itself was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in the 8th century. Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine is one of Japan's most popular, but that wasn't evident as we had woken up and arrived before 9am, before the rest of the tourists. The entire complex consists of five shrines that are scattered across wooded slopes of the Inari Mountain.

When we arrived, we saw several businessmen and locals praying. We definitely stuck out as the tourists at this time of the day. Pretty soon, we found what I had been looking for, the pathway of torii's. I know I have gone into detail about what a torii is in the past, but let me remind you as that is the significance of this place,

"A torii is what you can use to distinguish if a holy place is a temple or shrine. The torii is the gateway to a shrine. It is usually composed of of two upright pillars, joined at the top by two horizontal cross-bars, the upper of which is normally slightly curved. Torii are often painted a bright vermilion, though some are left as bare wood. "

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine has a pathway that wanders 4km up the mountain and is lined with hundreds of red torii. There are also dozens of stone foxes that are symbolic as a messenger of the God of cereal grains named Inari. Julie and I wandered around this amazing shrine complex, coming into contact with some of the shrines along the way. Mainly though, we enjoyed running, just the two of us, on this pathway in the woods with red torii as our guardians. Eventually, the cereal God let the rain pour down on us, but we were prepared with umbrellas. Each red torii had kanji written all over it, perhaps with significant meaning or perhaps just a Marketing scam of the people who had donated money for that particular torii to be constructed. That, I'll never know, but it was amazing anyways. We easily spent around 2 hours going through the complex and the trailways of torii before I started worrying we might be lost. It was about 15 minutes of worrying before we came in contact with a crossing guard who gave us simple directions back to the train station. This shrine was both, mine and Julie's favorite shrine/temple/ sightseeing spot in Kyoto.

Not only had we been mistake free the day before, but also getting to Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine without any problems, we felt extremely accomplished. We were on a roll, it seemed. It wasn't even 10am and we had the whole day before us to check out the rest of the area as planned. We hopped on a bus and off we went. I wasn't really listening to the bus stops as I had counted out that it should be about 6 stops until our next spot. After 6 stops, then 7, then 8...and finally after 10 stops I was like what the hell, where is our next location? I started following the stops and matching them up on the bus map I turns out we got on the right numbered bus, but headed the opposite way. We had been on the bus for about an hour and decided we might as well get off and see what else is on this line instead of just sitting here for another hour waiting to get to our original plans.

The bus map showed of some major temples in the area of where we got off the bus. There weren't any signs on the street and I didn't have a detailed map of the area we were in. I stopped into a store and asked for help on directions. We were directed a way, but eventually it seemed we were not really headed the right way. So, we improvised the plans, yet again and ended up going to some temple that was hidden amongst a small bamboo forest. This temple was named the Koto-in Zen Temple and was established in 1601. It housed several important historical objects from Japan, China and Korea. The garden to enter was probably the most impressive thing about this little hidden place we found.

After that we continued on our way down a beautiful path that was enclosed by large trees until we came upon yet another shrine. We walked around the area but pretty much viewing all that you can see anywhere in Japan. We decided to try to get to our original destinations since we weren't have too much luck finding things we wanted to.

We took a brief lunch break at some random Italian restaurant on the side of the road before finally reaching one of our desired destinations for the day. Ginkakuji Temple, otherwise known as the Silver Pavilion was FINALLY reached three and a half hours after we set out to find it. This Zen temple is also a major tourist sight for anyone going to Kyoto. It was built in 1482 as a retreat from the civil war that was going on at this time. I always thought that this temple was called the silver pavilion since there was a gold pavilion and this was one "second best" or something. But, in actuality, the creator of this temple had wanted to at some point cover the building with silver. However, that was never accomplished.

When you first enter the temple area, you go through a pathway with hedges made of stone, bamboos and camellias lining both sides for about 50 meters before you finally see the famous Silver Pavilion. Again, the actual temple is quite anti-climatic in comparison to the other beautiful gardens and structures that encompass the temple. The temple is two stories, the top floor being the Chinese temple style having a panel wall and a Chinese sliding door. The first floor is built in Shoin style, or traditional Japanese residential architecture style. On the roof, is a golden bronze phoenix that is facing east to guard the temple.

In front of the temple is a beautiful Zen rock garden named ginsyadan and kougetudai. The part of the rock garden named ginsyadan represents waves whereas the large rock pile named kougetudai has been built to represent Mount Fuji. As you walk further, you enter a stunning garden, with all sorts of moss grass, bamboo walkways, rocks and old trees that curve up on a small hillside that leaves you with beautiful views of the whole temple complex and the city of Kyoto as well.

Throughout our viewing of Ginkakuji Temple, we were being inundated by Junior High School students wanting our pictures with them. This gives meaning to my placement in Japan as a means of grassroots internationalization at my job. Many of the larger cities such as Kyoto, Tokyo, Hiroshima, etc. don't place foreigners in their school systems to teach English to their kids. The reason behind this is because they feel the students receive plenty of international experience with foreigners since they live in cities that most foreigners go to. However, these kids were really excited to have their pictures taken with foreigners meaning that perhaps, they don't receive as much internationalization as the cities think they do. I am sure my students would never ask a complete random foreign stranger for their picture with them since they have had exposure to foreign English teachers since 1st grade.

Since we wasted so much time on buses and being lost, our last goal of the day was to get to a castle. We took the appropriate buses to get there, but we had missed the entry time by 5 minutes. It was such a bummer because from the outside it looks really cool and it was our last day in Kyoto. We walked around the outer moat for a little while. A very curious man on a bike stopped to talk to us, he was really intrigued by Julie's tattoo. He went on and on about how the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, are the only people in Japan that have tattoos. He wanted to know why she got it, why she chose a butterfly why she chose that place, etc. The conversation ended up lasting for at least fifteen minutes before we went on our way and he hopped back onto his bike and cycled past us. Grassroots Internationalization even in the biggest tourist city of Kyoto, the difference of being able to speak a language and not.

Through the city of Kyoto runs a river and it seems it was the best date place to be for young couples living or touring in Kyoto. We joined those couples and sat down besides the river for a while. It was very relaxing to just sit and take in what was around us instead of constantly figuring out bus schedules and walking around.

My friend Yumie had told me about Kyoto's delicacy named Yuba. Lucky for me this is a vegetarian delicacy so I was keen on trying to find it. There was a woman standing outside of a very Japanese restaurant in her summer Yukata trying to recruit people to come in. She sold me as soon as I learned that Yuba was sold at this place. This was a perfectly Japanese dinner for both of us. Julie was in love with her miso, tempura, and sushi and I was thrilled with my Yuba.

What is yuba? The restaurants gives you a mini cooking device which consists of a small pot over a flame. Inside this pot was soy milk that is slowly brought to a boil by the flame. After a while, the soy milk grows a skin on top of it, when that happens you distinguish the flame. I was told to add some sort of oil or vinegar into the yuba and mix it all together. It coagulated into a firmer substance and from there you eat it!. It was pretty good and I would definitely recommend everyone to try yuba if they ever come to Japan to visit me =)

Our plans were to find a place to drink, but only ended up back on the streets drinking beers and checking out the men that were walking past us. We were discussing which boys we found attractive and why when we heard some guitarists playing. The music lulled us into finding where it was coming from. It was only across the street from where we were, so we walked over and sat down next to two girls who were also listening. They turned out to be their "managers" and we chatted a bit about the two boys singing who call themselves sakuranokaze or Cherry Blossom Wind. We watched them for about a half hour until they stopped playing, and at the end we chanted for them to do one more. Julie and I were in love with these two cute guitar players and asked for their picture. It was a great way to end our last night in Kyoto, with local music, friendly girls and cute boys. We headed back to our hostel via taxi and chatted with some lovely women from Taiwan before heading to bed.

For all my pictures from this day, click HERE

If you want to check out their webpage (entirely in Japanese), it's:

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

July 1st continued

After a very successful trip in the morning to Takao, we still had a lot of temples and shrines on our list that we were very interested in seeing. We finished lunch at another soba shop before seeing one of the most famed sites in Japan. Kinkaku-Ji, which is better known as The Golden Pavilion. The actual temple area is properly called Rokuon-ji temple. It was a villa of a man during the 1220's. The famed site, a pavilion that is completely painted gold was impressive but not nearly as impressive that one of the most well known sites in Japan should be. If anything, it was a major tourist trap that gives you that picture that says "Yes, I've been to Japan." I'm still glad we went because if we didn't, every single time I told a person I went to Kyoto, they would have asked if I saw that spot and I would have had to answer no and explain myself. Instead, I was able to say yes, and agree that yes, it is really beautiful! Not that it's not beautiful, just not as amazing as they make it out to be. The pond that is before the pavilion is named kyoki-chi which means, mirror pond. Quite perfect really as it did reflect the golden pavilion quite well.

The pavilion consists of 3 types of architecture. The 1st floor, Shinden-zukuri is palace styled. The 2nd floor is buke-zukuri, the style of the samurai house. The 3rd floor is karayou style or Zen temple style. This temple area became a World Heritage site in 1994 due to it's history.

The next stop on our route was catching another bus to ryoanji temple. The temple area is famed for a zen rock garden. It was founded in 1450 for a school of Zen. The area consists of a circular path with many things to step off of the path to see. Some of these include the main temple named Kuri which houses the rock garden, a beautiful pond, and a few other smaller buildings.

The rock garden is twenty five meters going from east to west and only ten meters from south to north. It is definitely in the form of a rectangle. It really only consists of millions of smaller rocks with fifteen large rocks laid about. There are no trees or plants. According to the legend of the area, it is up to each visitor to discover for himself or herself what the unique garden signifies. They say that the longer you gaze at the garden, the more varied your imagination will become. The rock garden that is surrounded be low earthen walls is the epitome of Zen art. It's believed that this rock garden was laid out in 1525.

Another item worth noting at this temple is a famous wash-basin of stone called "tsukubai". Apparently it has a unique inscription that says "I learn only to be contented" in kanji. This phrase is an important concept in the Zen philosophy. It is meant that the person who learns only to be contented is spiritually rich, while the one who does not learn to be contented is spiritually poor even if he is materialistically wealthy. It is said to have been contributed somewhere between the years of 1628-1700.

An eye catching beauty to this area is Kyoyochi Pond which was man made in the 12th century. There's a small island that is connected from land by a small bridge. On the small island, which is barely big enough for 5 people to stand comfortably is a hidden temple where they house an image of Sarasvati. Julie was in love with this little island bridge and we walked all the way back round to check it out.

Otherwise, we just spent our time there walking around this captivating pond, taking pictures of things as they came and went.

The last place we visited on this day was yet another World Heritage Site, the old imperial palace called Ninnaji. This place was a massive area. Ninnaji was founded by the 59th emperor in year 842. It was the old imperial palace because years ago, emperors had lived here. It is now headquarters of a flower arranging school. The first place that we went to was the main temple. In this area, we walked around and inside one of the bigger temples we had seen.

The doors were all painted uniquely and were on display for tourists. On the outside of this main temple was another rock garden stretching towards the main gate that we had entered in. Opposite of that garden was a real green garden, beautiful, but unfortunately, we couldn't walk through it.

The rest of the complex was really large so we took our time going through it. The first stop we went to was to was a 5 story, wooden pagoda, followed by several other smaller buildings. These temple buildings were unique as some were brown with white trimmings and turquoise window shutters, others were bright red and white just standing up amongst natural colors surrounding it, others were brown with gold trim, not one looking the same. We walked around, some of the last tourists there as it closed to the public while we had entered before.

It was on this day that we learned that the temples all closed around 5-5:30 allowing us to plan our next day with that in mind. To be completely honest, I don't really remember what we did when the temple closed. I am sure we went and had dinner somewhere, but I can't remember exactly where or what we decided to do after. I just know that we went to bed early so we could get up early again to see more temples and shrines as effectively as our first day had gone.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Takao District in Kyoto

July 1st

The night before in the soba shop where we had eaten dinner, Julie had expressed interest in going to a location that seemed difficult to get to. I read the description in Lonely Planet, "Takao is secluded district tucked far away in nothwestern part of Kyoto." The fact that it was secluded was enticing, the reason I didn't want to go was it seemed like a pain in the ass to get to. That assumption wasn't too far from the truth when we arrived to the bus station in the morning. I went into the bus center to ask for further information on how I should get there. The woman there was not about helping me. I went in and expressed where I wanted to go and the means I wanted to get there by. The woman cut me off and just started speaking rapid Japanese. I couldn't understand her. I tried again, with a map showing the way I wanted to go and expressing I needed a ticket. No, she wasn't having any of it. I finally got fed up with her, purchased a two day pass for later and went to use a different bus service other than hers to get to Takao.

We got in a line that was already queued up to about 20 people full of hiking gear. The bus pulled up and we didn't get a seat. Julie was really worried that we were being shipped off to some huge mountain since everyone was in hiking gear, boots, packs, hats, hiking clothes and we were standing there looking cute in skirts. I asked the woman next to me, who didn't really understand me but really only understood I was asking where people were going. She responded to me that they were all going to a ping pong game!!!! I chose the one woman who wasn't geared up in hiking stuff to ask and so I never really got my answer. This entered us into a nice conversation about my self introduction and all that.

In the meantime I was keeping a close eye on the kanji and try to hear the Japanese on what was being said for the next stop. This bus offered no English whatsoever. Moreover, they didn't put hiragana on the upcoming bus stop. That was a bit wierd; usually they always offer hiragana, too. So, for example, the name of where we were going was 山城高尾.That is the Chinese characters for where we were going, or Kanji. My Kanji understanding is lower than a first graders reading level. I am studying it but it takes years to get to the fluency level of an adult. Whereas, I can read hiragana which looks like this: やましろ たかお. I can read all of that, no problem. So, the last two things I wrote out - first in Kanji and second in Hiragana are read in the same way and mean the same thing. But, you see, Japanese custom uses the Chinese characters for names of people and places as default. I was really worried we might miss our stop which would have problematic as buses only come once an hour. But lucky for me I knew two of the kanji that is used in the name of this area, I knew and 高 so I was lucky and able to get off in time without missing it.

We sat down in front of a little shop and Julie practiced saying Good Morning in Japanese, ohayo gozaimasu to the people coming in and out of the shop before we headed on. The area was secluded and set into mountains, it was gorgeous. First we needed to walk down and down a bunch of steps, walk down a narrowly paved road, cross over a bridge and head up, up and up into the mountains to get to the first temple. We had to walk up hundreds of stairs to get to the top, a task that was a bit arduous for 9 in the morning.

We finally reached the Buddhist temple, Jingo ji, which dates back to the 9th century. The name of the temple means "god's protection" and is one of Japan's 3 oldest areas for higher Buddhist officials. The area is about 200,000 square meters and offered a few buildings to look at. The first one we looked at was set up on the end of dozens of stairs tucked away with the greenery of the trees surrounding it. It's called the Daishido (Founder's Hall) and has been around for seven centuries. Following a small path heading away from the gate, you reach the kondo or the Gold Hall. This is also set up at the top of the stairs, but we didn't need to climb up them as we came in from the side. The Gold Hall houses many of Japan's National Treasures, 16 in all, in addition to more than two thousand important cultural assets from as long as 1100 years ago. We walked around for a bit looking inside before to the back to look at a locked up temple behind it.

We followed a wooded path, not entirely sure where it led to. Where we came out to was gorgeous. It was the Kiyotaki River Ravine and soooo green. We fed our eyes to the majestic beauty of the area while playing photographer of the area.

We made our way back down to the river area again and headed in the complete opposition direction as jingoji. It was a quick walk uphill for about 5 minutes alongside a river, over a beautiful red bridge until we reached the gates of saimyo-ji temple.

This temple was founded between 824-834. When first entering the gate, you see several stone lanterns. There is one main building that we were able to walk around and see. The land surrounding saimyoji temple was really beautiful, and we walked around it a little bit before going to the last temple in this area.

To get to the next temple was a bit of a walk. Most of it was uphill and through crowded streets. I asked a group of people when we reached a large set of stairs if this was, kosan-ji temple because I wasn't entirely sure. Thankfully it was. It seems the story of this trip was stairs, stairs, stairs. We had to walk up MORE stairs to get to this area. Then we had a choice to make, go straight up more stairs or go right. I asked that same group of people for help because I wasn't really sure. It turns out we had to go right. This area was made a World Heritage site in 1994 and the area was more of a complex than the other places we had been to yet.

You first enter into the actual temple that was created in 774. It has been regarded as a sacred Buddhist site for hundreds of years. The original temple was destroyed in civil war fires in 1547 but had been restored in 1636 to nearly it's original state. This temple also houses thousands of objects that have been declared as national treasures. Kosanji was really small, so we were in and out of it in maybe 10 minutes..but the area is very large. We walked up steps into the woods again and saw other smaller buildings throughout the woods that were significant to the well-being of this temple and who took care of it.

We had spent nearly 3-4 hours total in the Takao District. Without planning it, we lucked out and caught the next bus out of the area. I am so glad Julie stressed how much she had wanted to go to the area because I wouldn't have even bothered with it's far location on my own. However, it was great to get out there mainly because there were very few tourists to deal with and the area was really gorgeous. I will save the second half of this day for my next blog.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Busy Buses and Incoherent Japanese

Saturday June 30th

We said goodbye to Tokyo, took care of checking out, shinkansen tickets and made our way to Kyoto. The time passed quickly and it was about mid-noon by the time we made it to Kyoto City. Kyoto was a whole new ballpark for me. Walking out of the station, I had no bearings on my directions, no clue where anything was, I knew nothing except for the few things I had read in books and on the internet to this point. The first thing we did was make our way to the hostel. It was an okay hostel, overly strict on the rules they put in place, but it was cheap so what can you expect? We unpacked our stuff and realized that for the next few nights we would be sleeping on a thin futon on top of a thin slab of wood...not what one would call comfortable...

On one of the top floors of Kyoto Station was a tourist information center that gave us a lot of helpful information. A map with all the temples and shrines and the buses to get there by, walking tours, and most importantly for that time was a map on where there are restaurants. Up in Miyagi where I live and also in Tokyo, the cities employ the train system to be the main form of transportation. However, Kyoto does it a bit different, the way to get around Kyoto wasn't trains but buses. I don't understand buses. When I lived in Australia, I had to get around via bus as well and it took me quite a while to get the hang of it, even when it was in English. Now, I had to figure it out in a new city in Japanese in a few days. Downtown Kyoto is the hotspot to be for restaurants, cafe's, shopping and bars. We hopped on the right bus and made our way there problem- free. There was a cute, covered street that consisted of little shops and restaurants. We chose a soba shop to eat dinner at and spent about 45 minutes planning out what we wanted to do the next day in Kyoto. Following dinner, we walked around with beers from the convenient store while Julie went souvenir shopping. We decided we should start heading back to get a start on our day when I realized I really don't understand the bus system at all. I figured well, we got off on this side of the street so we should probably be on the other side of the street. I really didn't know what I was doing at all, but going with what seemed logical. Then I came to the other problem in Kyoto that haunted me for the rest of the trip there. The Japanese. It's a completely different dialect from that I am used to. I am learning and speaking Japanese from the "sticks", from the backwards type of speaking, it'd be like going to America and learning to speak Southern English. I could barely understand people when I was asking them for help.

So, we ended up buying more beers and walking home. Those few more beers we ate pretty much did us in. There was a bus bench on the side of the road so we ended up stopping there and talking for quite a long time. A bus that would have taken us back to Kyoto station actually started to slow down for us but by the time I realized that bus number goes to Kyoto station it had pulled off. That was our one chance at getting to Kyoto station quicker. We continued on our trek back , stopping for an emergency "we've had too much to drink" toilet stop before continuing back on to our hostel. It was a fun night and set me up for the challenges I would face the next few days between understanding bus schedules and crazy Japanese I wasn't used to...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Tokyo with Julie

Thursday, June 28th

Every time I go back to Tokyo, I seem to love it more and more. I'm going to be honest and say the first few times I went there, I wasn't too keen on being there. I enjoyed the challenges of learning about the city, but never seemed to be too impressed on what I had learned. This last time I went was when Julie came to visit and it was by far my favorite trip to Tokyo. I've come to understand the train lines, where things are, the best way from A to B, it's great.

I met Julie at Narita airport and we ran into each other's arms like long lost lovers do in the movies. After all, who said that platonic love doesn't deserve showing happiness and affection for a close friend you haven't seen in 6 months? We took care of all the airport stuff, money exchange, train rail tickets and my most needed addiction when I come to a city, good coffee which can usually be found at Starbuck's. During WW2, the introduction of instant coffee was brought to Japan thanks to American Soldiers. It caught on like wildfire and that's pretty much the only kind of coffee you are served, even at restaurants. In my humble opinion, I think I could live the rest of my life without another cup of instant coffee when I leave this volcanic island.

I brought Julie back to my favorite hostel, which is located in Asakusa, Tokyo. The staff there knows me and my name and probably should reimburse me for the free marketing I do for them. Julie had never stayed in a hostel before, so she was excited for this experience. We were sharing a 6 person dorm style and got our bed situated before heading out. My friend Dave, who lives up in Ishinomaki was with his friend, named Chris, who happened to be visiting and sightseeing Tokyo at the same time as us. I called him up and we made arrangements to hang out that evening. We met up in Ueno station before going off to dinner and for drinks. We went to Shinjuku, the district of Tokyo that is most popular for visitors to see. It's an awe-inspiring place for the first timer with it's thousands of neon signs lighting up the skyscrapers at night. There are thousands, millions of people walking the streets, eating dinner, drinking beers - truly a magnificent city life.

Dave and I don't really know *the best* place to go, so we started on a search of where to get dinner and drinks. We finally got hungry enough we just chose an izakaya, a Japanese style restaurant/drinking place. It was like entering a hot cave, you took a stairwell down into the underground with no air conditioning. It certainly wasn't a tourist spot as people showed their surprise as we entered their safe haven. Then, we had a quite annoying experience. The server, a woman in her 40's or 50's was very freaked out by us. Atleast that's the explanation we made for ourselves. She refused to understand neither mine nor Dave's Japanese. Now granted, Dave & I are not perfect at the language, but one thing we can definitely do is order food at a restaurant. This woman couldn't even understand when I asked for water. It's common knowledge in my foreign community that some people, despite how good your Japanese is, think they can't understand you simply because you're foreign. I guess this is what was happening. Luckily, there were two women sitting next to us who could understand what we were saying. Pretty much, we said what we wanted to the server, she stared at us like a deer caught in headlights, then one of the women sitting next to us would say exactly what we had just said and she'd understand.

We decided to leave. Mainly because it was just too hot to be in there much longer but also because the atmosphere wasn't great. What did we do? Enjoy a luxury that I've been afforded both in Australia and also while living here in Japan. What's that? Buying beer and walking the streets with it. It's legal to do that here and I love it. It just seems so natural. It was also a great way for Julie to see more of Shinjuku. We had a good time, walking around, chatting, stopping at convenient stores and buying more beers.

It was on this night that I had come to see how I've changed in the past year. I spent time with Julie, someone that I've known for almost 3 years and someone who has known me for less than a year. My interests and things I talk about have changed so much. Certainly, it's all circumstantial when we have new interests, but I found maybe I'm boring to people from home. The things that interest me the most are "Do you know how to read this?" or "Do you know how to say this in Japanese?" It seems the majority of my conversation surrounds the language that surrounds me. The thing is though, I am truly interested in all this. I am sure if I was living at home, these interests wouldn't peak my interest as strongly as they do now. The night was coming to an end as we had to catch the last trains back to Asakusa, we bid our farewells to Dave and Chris and started our drunken journey home.

Friday, June 29th

A really great sleep allowed us to wake up fairly early. I spent quite some time at the hostel in the morning trying to work out a plan for our day. It was our only full day in Tokyo and I wanted to make the most of it for Julie. Of course, the first thing I did was show Julie the star attraction in Asakusa - Senso-ji temple and the surrounding gardens.

After that, I had planned to take her to Ueno, a part of Tokyo that I have never really explored as well. Dave and others had told me there were some things worthy of a visit to see, so I planned on it. I didn't know exactly where to start, but we headed up some stairs and into a beautiful park. It was really humid and hot, but the towering trees provided us some shade to escape the sun. This park was actually the first public park in Tokyo, created over 200 years ago. As I didn't know where we were going, we pretty much just walked through until we came to a temple named Kiyomizu Kannon-Do, founded in 1631. It was a cute red temple that you need to climb some stairs to find tucked away in some trees. We spent about 5 minutes admiring it.

A row of red torii sparked our interest in heading to another shrine. The name here, I do not know but we entered into a small shrine that had a big circle in front of it made of what looked like straw. We watched a woman pray in front of it and then do circle 8's through it. She did it twice. Upon completion of this praying act I have never witnessed, she decided to come talk to us. She explained to us the significance of this shrine. According to her, this shrine is a place you come to when you want to pray for your health or the health of a loved one. She was actually an English teacher back where she came from and said normally she would not have spoken to us but while praying God told her to. We had some small talk about where we came from, Japan, where I'm living now and all that before parting ways.

It wasn't until about 15 minutes later when we got to the attraction that I had come to see in the first place, Tosho-gu Shrine. It dates back to 1651 and it is considered a National Treasure.
The shrine was beautiful, painted of Gold and other beautiful colors. It's designed to be a lot like the shrines I saw in Nikko with Tim. We had to pay something like $2.00 to enter and see the inside. Inside housed old artifacts and a bright red carpet. The day was hot so we rested inside quite a bit.

It was time to leave Ueno and move onto the district of Tokyo called...Tokyo. As we were leaving, we noticed a lake just overflowing with lily pads. It was quite stunning to see lily pads pretty much as far as the eye can see.

We reached Tokyo from Ueno and came out of the ever-famous Tokyo Station. The station is made of all brick and is thus a famous sightseeing spot. By this time were were really hungry, so we walked around until we found a really cute lunch spot. The staff was lovely, sending their English speaking waitress over to help us with the menu and take our order. I wanted curry but ate the only thing I could eat being vegetarian and that being pasta. The story of my life! It was a nice rest in the middle of the day. After lunch our destination was to see the Imperial Palace and finally we saw it in the distance. First, we decided to lay down in this park. It had grass so green it looked fake, it looked like turf in a sense. There were cool trees scattered about and we chose one to sit under for some time.

When our little rest finished, we continued the trek up to the imperial palace or kokyo. It's home to the Japanese emperor and imperial family. The present palace was completed in 1968, replacing the palace that was built in 1888. However, that palace was destroyed in WW2 bombings. In it's prime day, it was actually the biggest castle in the world. Unfortunately, what remains is the rebuilt smaller version, a moat for protection, and the bridge, niju-bashi that is surrounded by people protecting the royal family. It's still a picture perfect spot and I think it was a nice stroll to see it.

Our next destination was to take Julie to yasukuni jinja , the most controversial shrine in was my second time visiting there and felt with it being so controversial it was worth another visit. As we were leaving, it began to rain. We took the train to Ginza because supposedly Ginza is to Tokyo as Park Ave is to New York City and Julie wanted to shop. Walking around we ended up in places like the Coach store, the Sony Building, and finally a coffee shop to relax. Following we went to the real place to do any shopping in Harajuku. I love this district of Tokyo and some compare it to Paris. It was only my second time there but there is such good shopping! I went on a shopping spree on the famous takeshita-dori street buying all sorts of cute skirts and we enjoyed a delicious Japanese style dinner overlooking the city!

We weren't able to cram in as much as I had wanted to for that day, but we got enough in that I think Julie got a good, short trip to Tokyo. It was fine though because I would have rather seen less and enjoyed ourselves rather than cramming in thing after thing just so Julie could see it all.

To see all the pictures, click here