Thursday, November 29, 2007

12/3/07 Last Day in Tokyo, Goodbye to Parents

Sunday, November the 18th: on my last day in Tokyo with my parents, it seemed like we should all do something a bit more classical, after the hyper-American culture we were soaked with at DisneySea.

Luckily the imperial gardens are a short walk from Tokyo Station, which made it an attractive choice. While the Imperial grounds themselves are not normally open to the public, the adjacent east gardens offered much to see. It was very cool to walk from crowded and loud Tokyo into a scene reminiscent of feudal Japan.

A guardhouse overlooking the moat that surrounds the imperial grounds.

I liked the idea that these walls that were built to keep out invaders were now doing the same to keep us safe from the invading city-congestion.

The Hyakunin-bansho Guardhouse. One hundred samurai guardsmen were stationed here to inspect visitors during the Edo Period.

There were a few buildings that were from the old days, but many of them hadn't made it. I started to laugh every time I read a placard. This building was important, yadda yadda, and then it burnt down. Rebuilt, then burnt down again. You'd think that maybe someone would consider the building materials used after everything important kept burning down. I mean, Japan is covered in mountains; there has to be some stone around here somewhere, right?
Here's a typical quote from one of the signs, this one from the Tenshudai Donjon Base:

Standing 58ms tall above the ground, five storied building outside, six storied within, it was the highest donjon ever built in Japan and symbolized the authority of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was burnt down in the conflagration of 1657, only 19 years after completion. and it has never since been reconstructed.

The three little pigs teach a lesson that I think is applicable. The definition of conflagration is a large, disastrous fire, by the way.

After seeing most of what the gardens had to offer, we still had a good portion of the day to fill with awesomeness. On my suggestion, we all walked to the nearby(sort of) Yasukuni Shrine.

Yasukuni Shrine is a place that I have been wanting to visit for quite some time. Not only is it a pretty cool place in its own right, but it has played a small role in the relationship between Japan and its neighbors in Asia.

You see, Yasukuni Shrine is quite a unique place. Yasukuni is a Shinto shrine that contains the souls of those who died fighting for the emperor, including those who died in World War 2. This includes many who were convicted of war crimes. Several prime ministers, including my favorite ever, Junichiro Koizumi, have visited the shrine to pay their respects. This results in condemnations and often riots in countries like China and South Korea, places that suffered under Japanese aggression.

I spotted a line of interesting vans parked on the street across from the shrine. Covered in Japanese flags and other imperialist regalia, they spout what I assume is propaganda from loud speakers. I recall seeing several of them in Kyoto, cruising around town, slogans blaring.

These vans are like the Batmobile for right-wingers. Uyoku dantai in Japanese, the groups are ultra-nationalist and quite vocal. So a place enshrining the empire's war dead is Mecca to these guys. I saw a group of about 20 of them wearing camo fatigues and standing at attention. A group leader was speaking to them as if they were receiving orders. I'm not sure if their rightwingness includes a dislike of foreigners or America's involvement in Japan or not, so I stay out of these people's way.

We approached the grounds through a giant, iron looking torii, quite different from the usual wooden or stone gateways. It looked as though it was made from battleship parts.

Mom and I before the entrance to the shrine. Giant metal torii in the background. Yes, I realize we are super tiny.

Directly after the big torii came this statue of Omura Masujiro, regarded as the father of the modern Japanese army. Constructed in 1893, the statue itself is notable for being the first bronze western style statue built in Japan.

Soon after we passed through the gateway, I saw something beautiful. It was a bunch of guys selling antiques! Yayyy. This being a military sort of place, much of the cool old stuff for sale was military in nature. My favorite. I was searching through all the stuff long enough that we almost didn't have time to go to the museum.

This was safe to say my favorite thing for sale. An abacus with a calculator backup. You know, in case one of the wooden beads breaks or something.

Next were a set of giant doors. The big golden seal is a depiction of a chrysanthemum, the symbol of the emperor.

Then came the building that I am sure I have seen in a newspaper article somewhere. It is where all of the praying happens. Not sure about the names.

The museum. The shrine itself is much like the countless other shrines that dot the country, minus all the souls of soldiers floating around. The coolest part for me was the military museum. The museum seems to tell the stories of every war whose dead are being honored.

Me and Tom standing with a statue honoring kamikaze pilots right outside the entrance.

The museum was super cool. I enjoy war related history, but obviously all I usually hear about are accounts of American wars. As a result I saw many things that I hadn't heard of previously. The more ancient stuff was as interesting as ever, with several full suits of samurai armor on display. The war that had the most fanfare surrounding it was the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. The Japanese put a pretty bad hurt on the Russians, so there were plenty of victories to be illustrated in the various video clips and scale models.

Then came world war 2. I was anxious to get to this part of the museum because I wanted to see how the history was handled. The various displays that were in English pretty much put the blame square on the United States forcing the Japanese to attack by cutting off oil and scrap metal imports. I'm not sure that I agree, but I am no war scholar, so I don't see much point in arguing.

In addition to the classic fly-a-plane-into-you kamikaze's, there were a host of other suicidal weapons on display. A human piloted missile and torpedo were on display, as well as a story about people in those heavy diving suits who were trained to simply swim a bomb over to an unsuspecting ship. Pretty serious stuff.

Unfortunately the whole museum was covered in "no photo" signs, so no pictures to be enjoyed. Only a few measly things in the lobby went unprotected.

A zero fighter manufactured by Mitsubishi.

This concluded my time in Tokyo. My parents were leaving early the next morning, and I needed to go to work the next day. I managed to show them one or two interesting things. Hope they enjoyed themselves.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

11/28/07 Tokyo Disney!

I was able to take care of my internet woes surprisingly quickly. Saturday the 17th of November has been waiting patiently. Here goes...

Having already wandered around the city one day, we thought that it might be fun to do something different on Saturday. So, we did what any family would do... we went to Disneyland! Yayyy!

Yes, Tokyo Disneyland. Yes, in late November. Common sense would dictate that since the weather was cool that there would be hardly anyone there, and we could just run through the park and ride whatever we wanted over and over until we got sick. We got off the at the Maihama rail station, and after two steps out of the station we had entered Mickey's domain. We sort of fast-walked our way to the Disneyland side of the park, anxious for the magic to start. We were almost to the finish line when I heard an announcement over the loudspeakers. "Park's full, we might start selling tickets again around 5pm" was the general idea of the message. It was too funny for me to be mad about it. I just mechanically turned around and started walking in the opposite direction, towards Disneysea(its sort of the opposite of DisneyLAND, get it? land/sea.... nevermind).

No room at the inn, baby Jesus.

Disneysea is a water themed park that only exists in Japan. Personally I think that it was good fortune to be denied entry into the other park, as that is just a small version of what everyone has already seen. While the park is water themed, it doesnt necessarily have any get-wet-and-die-of-pneumonia water rides, so its still worth going once the temperature has dropped a bit.

One of my favorite parts of the whole park is the little metro system that takes passengers to the different points of the overall Disney Resort. It is exactly like the train system elsewhere in Japan, but it is super clean, faster, and happier. We boarded it in order to travel from Land to Sea.

You still have to buy tickets to ride this train.

Here Tom is happily clutching one of the little Mickey-shaped handles on the train.

Mom biting her nails in fear as the Tokyo Tower of Terror looms ahead.

We bought tickets and entered the park without any additional incident. On the far end of the world, we could see the volcano that is home to one of the several themed areas. It is especially cool as it rumbles and occasionally belches some smoke and fire into the air. The park was probably healthily populated today to begin with, plus it had the additional overflow people who had really wanted to go to the other park. So it was crowded. I'm not going to complain a whole lot about the crowds, though, because I'm sure that it could have been much worse. We managed to hit a few rides and have a couple of good things to eat, so I would say that the overall experience was a positive one.

One thing that I think is interesting in the park is the use of language. For example, at one point we stumbled upon an outdoor musical-like show in progress. Singing, dancing, ridiculous costumes. To begin with, the dialog and singing was all part of the soundtrack, with the various characters and dancers simply lip-singing. Fine. The interesting part for me is when they decide to use English and when they use Japanese. The characters yammered on in Japanese at length and then started singing in English directly afterwards. I wondered to myself if this situation seemed strange to any of the Japanese people watching the show. I recall many of the rides being the same way.

A few highlight pictures.

Me in the Mysterious Island area of the park. Here is where "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" are located.

At the end of a hour-plus wait in line, my mom and I were finally able to board "Journey to the Center of the Earth".

An indoorish carousel in the Arabian Coast area of the park. I didn't want to ride it, but the building looked awesome.

This is a quick shot that I snapped while riding "Sindbad's Storybook Voyage". Yes, it was as childish as it sounds, but still entertaining.

Here's the fam posing in the American Waterfront area of the park.

Tower of Terror.

As the night began to draw to a close, I thought I might pick up a present or two for loved ones. So many other people were having that same thought though... so many people. You haven't seen a line until you've seen one in Japan.

I walked into a cookie store near the entrance of the park, and I quickly realized what a mistake I had made. These people were cookie-tin hungry locusts. They swarmed and pushed their way through a shop which was much too small for them. The scene was so unbelievable that my disappointment quickly turned to amusement. By this point the only reason I was still present was to get a couple good shots of the mob.

You know what happens when a bad winter storm is predicted on the news? Everyone rushes to the store and buys everything that isn't bolted. Hysterical people shove each other's shopping carts to get that last can of creamed corn on the otherwise bare shelves. It was sort of like that.

Back! Get back you ravenous masses! An amusement park has a way of turning overpriced, tacky souvenirs into the shiniest gold.

Emptier than a Soviet supermarket. Those things still left on the shelves are the plastic examples of what used to be available here.

And with that, the magical journey drew to a close. We had barely escaped from that cookie store with our lives, and we were all tired from the frequent walking.

Mom and Tom posing on our way out.

The DisneySea AquaSphere, one of the symbols of the park. The giant globe fountain looked nice in the dark.

Quick clip of our last train pulling into the station.

Quite the quality time.

Monday, November 26, 2007

11/28/07 Labor Thanksgiving

This Friday we observed Labor Thanksgiving Day. Where better to celebrate labor on a Thursday night than under the revolutionary eye of Che Guevara at the local Cuban bar? I met a few new people as well as a few mojitos. Earlier in the day I bumped into an American working in Ashikaga that I hadn`t met before. I think that its amusing that I am still meeting foreigners after almost four months in this city. I think that there are a lot more people from other countries still hiding... Ashikaga isn't as small as it feels sometimes. So, this guy has apparently slightly elevated himself from English teacher to the person who keeps English teachers in line. I snagged his card and then we were out the door. Don`t know if I will ever actually call, just nice to network a little sometimes. Then back at communist headquarters I met a couple that is fairly new in town. A French guy who had met a Japanese girl in Hawaii and had moved to Japan with her. I gather that they are engaged. Relationship stories can become humorously complicated here. English is a second language to both of them. I get along with them quite well and have already hung out with them on a separate occasion. Fun times.

Last week Japan began its program of fingerprinting and photographing every foreigner entering Japan`s borders(with a few small exceptions, none of which apply to me). It is unfortunate that Japan is following the United States down a path toward police state, simply to combat a shadowy threat that may or may not exist. I find it especially amusing that while Japan claims to be doing this in order to stop terrorists, all of Japan`s recent terrorist events have been carried out by the Japanese themselves, most notably the 1995 Sarin attack on a Tokyo subway. Now every time I enter Japan my fingerprint information will be taken and kept forever by the Japanese government. I think that this is ridiculous, and I hope that the number of visitors to Japan decreases as a result. Here is the propaganda poster I`ve seen a couple of times explaining this nonsense.

It`s hard to be too mad though, as the US has been harassing its own visitors for some time with the US-VISIT program. Invasive laws might not seem like a big deal to an American living in the United States, until you realize how many other countries this annoys, who will then reciprocate with annoying procedures of their own. Americans entering Brazil are now required to provide prints and a photo. Just Americans.

On the lighter side, I recently graded another fat stack of students` essays. This time the students wrote about their dreams for the future. Here are a few short highlights.

My dream is to eat all kinds of fruits. I want to be a fruit doctor.

I want to be a loan shark ... I want to see people`s smiles.

I want to eat butter potatoes.

The future is bright.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

11/26/07 Technical Difficulties

On my first day in Ashikaga, by the time I was dropped off at my apartment it was already well into the night. I received a quick tour of the apartment, but large portions of the explanations of things were unable to penetrate the fog of my jet-lagged mind. My only wish was that my escorts would depart so that I could go collapse on my yet unmade bed. When I was finally alone, I sat down on my bed and opened up my laptop to see if I could pick up any unprotected wireless networks. I found one! It was good fortune akin to finding a twenty under my pillow. Well, this weekend the wireless gravy train made it`s last stop. It was like the death of a rich friend. The end of an era. Me and free wireless had a good run together, but now its time for me to move on.

I will go ahead and get my own access setup, but it will probably take at least a week. This is an especially annoying time to be without internet, as Angelica is going to visit next month and I need to make arrangements and do research on travel stuff. Unfortunately my multimedia presentation of my parents` Tokyo time will also briefly be put on hold... Too bad so sad.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

11/21/07 Family Time in Tokyo

I took my first ever vacation day on Friday, and me and the fam went out to discover Tokyo.

We had been thinking about visiting Kyoto, as it is pretty much the cultural heart of Japan, with many of the tradtional things that Japan brings to mind. I also figured I could show them the Ritsumeikan University campus as well as some of the places I used to hang out during my semester there. Unfortunately, we waited till the last minute and were unable to find any lodging. Once those leaves start changing colors, every old Japanese lady in the country has an undeniable urge to go to Kyoto and see all the pretty trees.

Tokyo, though, is nothing to be upset about. I've been there a few times now and there's still a ton of stuff that I want to do there (watching a Japanese baseball game and sumo match are presently high on my list). So, off to Tokyo we go. We got a hotel that I think was sort of on the border between Narita and Chiba. You might recognize Narita as the place where the Tokyo area's giant international airport resides.

The hotel was nothing worth mentioning, except for its occupants. The first shuttle that we took to the hotel was full of US airline flight crews, on account of this hotel being of American branding and in very close proximity to the airport. They jabbered loudly wherever we went, as everyone seemed to know everyone else. Their conversations were very informative, though I wouldn't call it evesdropping because they were talking so loud that I had no choice in the matter. They talked about what routes they were working on, and what they did or were going to do in whichever exotic country. My understanding is that they are only in one place for a day at the most before they get spirited away to the next destination. As a result, I think that they retain their obnoxious tourist vibe no matter how many times they find themselves in the same city.

That would be a very unique way to earn a living, I think. Sort of an international waitress type of situation. Serving annoying people all over the world. Might be an interesting gig to have for a year or two.. seems like I would get disgrutled rather quickly, though.

We dumped our bags in the rooms and then went on to the big city. No one had their heart set on something they wanted to do, so I figured Ginza(wikitravel page here) would be a good place to start. Ginza is a glitzy shopping district in Tokyo. Expensive fashion brands like Gucci, Prada, and Louis Vuitton all have lavish store fronts. These are the kind of stores that have their own doormen. I don't have much interest in entering these places, but it is fun to stroll around and window shop. Ginza also has an apple store, which is kinda cool, as well as a Sony show room.

We went in the Sony building to check out what crazy gadgets are in the pipeline. Most of what was on display wasn't real impressive. TVs, cameras.. blah. One cool thing that they had were some laptops with really strikingly good artwork on the case. I couldn't understand if that was a custom thing, or if you could just buy a removable case like you do with a cell phone.

Then we found the gem that I had been searching for, some kind of silly little Japanese electronic invention. We were treated to a storelady-guided demo of Sony's Rolly. Rolly is a little egg-shaped music player, with speakers hidden in each end. She whipped through all the ways you could quickly pause, skip tracks, and so on with a simple turn of this little egg thing's dials. The cool part came when she set it down and put it in dance mode. The little guy spun around, lit up in rainbow colors, and flapped his little speaker caps to the music. But screw using your imagination, I took a little video. Hurray!

Dances much better than I do, I'm afraid. The Sony lady is giving me a pretty serious frown at one point. Don't know what that was about.

Despite its obviously fairly tiny speakers, the sound volume and quality were considerable. Pretty cool little gadget. I wonder how long it will take for this thing to make it to the US. Though, I wouldn't know if it was on sale in the US or not, now would I?

Unfortunately Sony's Playstation 3 products were housed in a separate show room, so I didn't get the chance to do any tinkering with any games. So, back out to the cold streets I went.

I spotted a street vendor selling (boiled?) chestnuts and I snatched a bag. I recently discovered them, and they have become one of my favorite little treats. The meat of the nut is very soft, but I assume that this has to do with how they are prepared. The Tanaka family showed me how to properly eat a chestnut, so I will now pass this sacred knowledge on to you.

Step 1: Buy a bag of nuts from a grumpy old man outside of a Kabuki Theater in Ginza.

Proceed to pick up a nut and admire it, like so.

Then, you use your finger nail to make a slight dent in the shell of the nut.

Applying pressure to the top and bottom of the nut will cause the shell to split along the little crack you made earlier.

Admire the deliciousness hidden inside.

It took me a bit of practice to get it right. Its the same game as many of the other nuts you might have shelled yourself. Sure, you can always get the shell open, but how many million pieces will you have broken the inside into in the process? Its a delicate art. Sort of like calligraphy.

Monday, November 19, 2007

11/20/07 Some Three-Person Wandering

I did my best to show my parents around Ashikaga when I got home from work. I took them to pretty much all of the shopping districts in town so that they could buy souvenirs or whatever and be entertained at the same time.

One of the big shopping areas is mercifully close to my house. A decent sized mall along with many smaller separate stores is only a few blocks from my house, and its a breeze to get there by bike. Its also where you can find a McDonald`s and a KFC, so while I only took my parents there a couple of times, I suspect that they snuck over there to pig out while I was at work.

There is an interesting cultural thing happening with the Kentucky Fried Chicken`s in Japan. First of all, most of them have a life-sized statue of Colonel Sanders. That by itself is pretty amusing. One of the restaurants in Kyoto that I remember always had their statue dressed up in a funny manner. Sometimes he was wearing a kimono, sometimes he had a little hat on, and so forth. So when Christmas time comes around, colonels all over Japan are dressed like Santa Claus(I think that Santa`s wiki page is a pretty interesting read, by the way). Another interesting KFC phenomenon involves holiday feasting. Everyone sees Americans eating gigantic birds for the holidays and assume that they are chickens, because there are no turkeys to speak of in Japan. I don`t know what the deal is, but I have just never seen or heard of them existing or being eaten at all. Anyway, so when Christmas comes around, I hear that everyone flocks(hihi) to KFC to get a big rotisserie chicken to take home. Christmas and KFC are intertwined to the point that I have heard of people confusing the Colonel with Santa himself.

Tom and Mom chilling with the Colonel. Are you down with the Colonel?

Woa, this gets better. So I was just taking a peek at the Colonel Sanders wikipedia page, and it linked to the `Curse of the Colonel`. Long story short, whenever the Hanshin Tigers (Osaka area professional baseball team) win big games, the fans would jump off the ebisubashi bridge in downtown Osaka into the river below in celebration. Well in 1985, after a championship win, fans threw one of these Colonel statues into the river along with the usual non-statue type people. And they haven`t won a championship title since! Bum bum bummm. You have all been warned.

So after that sidetrack... oh, I also brought my parents to school with me on Wednesday. They got to see a couple of my classes and witness all of the glory. They also had the chance(were forced to have the chance) to have one of our delectable school lunches. It was pretty tame, no fishies at all... they really lucked out. The Principal took us to Ashikaga Gakko (oldest school in Japan), and we did an abbreviated tour of the grounds.

This cool looking suit of armor belonged to someone by the name of Ashikaga. Funny it would end up here.. It was displayed in the visitor center for the Gakko(gakko means school, by the way).

Oh there`s more. So much more. Too much more, you might say. Let`s all meet back here later, shall we?

One last picture for your consideration. This is another list of rules, this time for a local Pachinko hall. Its even better than the video arcade. Give it a look.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

11/18/07 Back From Tokyo

I just returned from a long weekend of sightseeing with the parents. They will be returning to the US tomorrow morning. I Hope they had a good time... I have a good amount of stuff that I need to write about. There's still even a bit left from last weekend!

Nikko, Nikko. So many sights, so many pictures. After doing a solid amount of exploring we had all worked up an appetite, so we all walked to a nearby little restaurant and had a bite to eat. First, let me explain a little something. In my humble experience, every single city, town, or fork in the road has some specific food that it is "famous" for. So, whenever you go anywhere, you are supposed to buy and enjoy this food(I think that Ashikaga is supposed to be extra adept at making soba noodles... kinda lame).

Well, unbeknownst to me, Nikko has an extra cool famous food called yuba. Yuba is what you get when you boil soy milk and then peel off the skin that develops on the surface of the milk. Then, similar to tofu, you can do all kinds of creative things with it: smash it, roll it up, even close your eyes and pretend it tastes like fried chicken! So when we sat down to eat lunch, the Tanaka's treated us to lunch sets with several dishes included. One was sweet, one wet, one dry, but just about everything had some sort of yuba in it. Yes, just like Iron Chef!

Mom and Tom discovering the delightful world of soy milk skin.

The last stop on our excursion was one of the best. A very classic Japanese garden named Shōyō-en was decked out in autumn hues. Here are a few highlights.

Mom getting a closer look.

Go ahead and give this one a click to see up close. You might notice that the leaves of the Japanese maple tree slightly resemble cannabis leaves. As a result, I will sometimes see the occasional old lady or little kid unknowingly wearing a hat or a T-shirt with a big pot leaf on it. Quite humorous.

Whelp, thats the end of Nikko. What a great time. Now, I have tons of stuff to talk about from this trip to Tokyo, whew. Having adventures is hard work. Later!

11/16/07 More Nikko

Ok, now more Nikko touring. This place is an incredible tourist spot. At the end of the day I had taken over 200 pictures. As we continued our stroll towards the main buildings, we saw several other notable things.

Nikko is almost a waste of magnificence. If any one of these things was set someplace by itself, it would be worth going to take a look. But there are so many intricate carvings here, though, that by the end I was thoroughly uninterested in seeing even one more wooden animal covered in gold leaf.

Opposite the stable with all of the cool little monkey carvings was this structure. It has some interesting carvings on it, among which is an "interesting approximation of an elephant, carved by an artist who had clearly never seen one" (wikitravel).

This huge stack of carvings marked the entrance to the to what I believe is Toshogu itself.

We had a descent climb up a few cases of tall stone steps when we reached the grave site itself. After the wonders we had just passed, the grave seemed very subdued. The weather was awesome for a place like this though. It had been very sunny, but at this point in the day a bit of a fog had developed. So everything was covered in a bit of a bright, misty halo.

The weather provided some dramatic effect here.

Here are a few other cool things that I saw in random places.

Let it be known that when I die I'm going to want some giant stone warriors near my headstone.

A pretty excellent five-story pagoda.

This is one of my favorite pictures from the whole day.

You can have whatever you want, as long as its green tea in a can.

More later!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

11/14/07 Sightseeing with the P's

Last December I wrote about a package that I received from Japan(you can read it here). It was a thank-you from a girl that we hosted for a few days in Springfield. As she was from Ashikaga, I made sure to ask about her when I first arrived in town. As fate would have it, her mom is a music teacher, and she works at my junior high school, Yamabe. Mrs. Tanaka also sits directly opposite of me, so I see her several times every day. So when I told her that my parents were coming, she was very interested in the details.

On Sunday the Tanaka family was kind enough to drive us to Nikko (wikitravel link here). The whole trip was excellent. After maybe a two hour long drive, we arrived at our destination. Nikko is a pretty big deal tourist destination, for Japanese and foreign devil alike. There are several well known shrines and temples, with extravagant wood carvings and gold leaf everywhere. We bought a multipass kind of ticket that let us enter all of the important places for one price.

We began to climb the multiple sets of stone stairs towards the shrines. The leaves had just begun to change color in this part of the country. I heard the word for the autumn colors enough times that I remember it: koyo. Nice and simple. I actually prefer to see the trees at this time of year, as only select trees have turned red or yellow, and the rest of the normal green trees provide a nice contrast.

While I was climbing the steps, I turned around and saw a nice little view. The big stone arch thing is called a torii, a common way to mark your entry into a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple.

Another very classical scene during our ascent.

Our progress was a bit slow at first. There were already lots of things worth gazing at, and we hadn't even gotten to the good part yet. Little did we know that there were predators afoot. Children. Tom was wearing a bright red baseball cap, which apparently made him a prime target for the elementary school children. A group of the kids walked right up to Tom and handed him a card. It read:

Dear foreign tourists, Hello! We're elementary school students studying English in ECC junior English language school. Today, we're here to communicate with people from foreign countries in English. I'd like to talk with you in English. If you have time, could you have a chat with us?

Here's foreign Tom communicating.

More communicating.

And more communicating.

First of all, I found this card pretty funny. Can you imagine the reaction if you talked like this to people in the US? "Hi foreign person. I would like to speak with people from foreign countries in Spanish." Hilarity would ensue. Anyways, they were stumping my parents with questions like "do you like skiing?" and other real deep stuff. After several minutes of this, they finally separated and we continued our walk to our destination. Not ten minutes later, though, red hat Tom was again attacked by the little English speakers.

The kids were cute, and they gave little origami things that they had made as a thank you. I avoided chat time just because my whole job is speaking English and the weekend is not work time, its sweet sweet rest time. I think my parents enjoyed it though. By this time our Japanese companions were looking a bit annoyed that we were making so little progress, so we started to walk a bit faster to avoid any more English lessons. We finally got to the end of the little walk, and the picture taking began.

The largest and probably the most famous area in Nikko is called Toshogu, and its main purpose is to mark the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu (founder of a shogunate that lasted more than 200 years). However, the wikitravel entry states, and I agree, that all this important shogun business is pretty comically overshadowed by something else. Wood carvings of monkeys.

There was a pretty healthy amount of tourists out on this particular day. Mercifully this is a very wide tourist attraction, so the crowds are spread out enough that they aren't much of a bother. The monkey carvings were an exception, though. There were enough people crowded around this humble looking building that I had to wait until later on in the day to get a decent picture. The 6 or so carvings depict the cycle of life, from childhood to old age. The famous carving, though, illustrates the "three wise monkeys" who "see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil". I have definitely heard that saying many times before, but apparently this carving in particular popularized the adage. Hard to believe, but there you have it.

Here are the carvings. They don't seem real remarkable from far away. If someone didn't point out their significance you might not even notice them in the sea of carvings.

On our way back out of the shrine I managed to take a picture of the famous monkeys. Monkeys have so much to teach us all.

This was such a long day. Rather than abbreviate its awesomeness, I think that I will continue describing it in another post. Check back.