Tuesday, January 29, 2008

1/29/08 First Day in Kyoto

The afternoon of January the second was our first day in Kyoto.

Kyoto(wikipedia, wikitravel) has a special place in my heart. It was the first Japanese city that I stayed in for any serious amount of time, and on my second trip I studied Japanese for a semester in a university there. That said, Kyoto is a bit like the ugly sister I never had.

It is a jungle of concrete cubes and power lines not that unlike Ashikaga, only with bigger gray cubes. The little green patches surrounding the temples are like an oasis in an urban desert. Hidden among the building-boxes is the where the romantic city hides. As I hear cited over and over, Kyoto is the only large Japanese city spared from allied bombings in World War II. As a result, it has an abundance of pre-war wooden buildings, temples, magic.

Our lodging was quite near Kyoto Station, so it wasn't long before we had dropped off all of our gear and were out exploring. We had seen a sizable place that looked important during the cab ride over, so we started off in that direction. While I have lived in Kyoto for some time, there are so many bazillion temples and shrines that many of the places I explored with Angelica were new to me. Anyway..

Higashi Honganji is a giant temple dedicated to someone or something important. One thing about Kyoto is that the ridiculous number of temples really brings down the level of importance in my mind of any one of them. Long story short, there are two very large twin buildings on the grounds. I didn't bother trying to take any pictures of the structures themselves as one of the temples was under renovations, and it was enclosed in airport hanger-looking structure, mammoth in both size and out-of-placeness.


The fountain here was a pretty excellent dragon. This gentlemen is preparing to wash his hands and gargle in a little cleaning ritual done before one prays. When he is done with the little ladle he is holding, he will hold it vertically, letting the remainder of the water wash his fingerprints from the handle. Now that's clean.


This picture has unfortunately got some super glare going on, but I felt it needed to be addressed. Its a big rope, at 68m in length and 375kg in weight. The rope had a very informative sign, which read:

THE HAIR ROPE
This is one of the many ropes , specially made of the hair of followers who wished for the success of the hall's construction in 1895. As normal rope, at that time, was of very low quality, hair was preferred. They were used in transporting and hanging the huge beams which you can see today in the main framework of these two halls.



Gross.


Well Angelica had really been wanting to see Tokyo Tower, which I added a nice picture of a few posts ago. Unfortunately by the time we had wandered over there, it was already closed. So when she spotted the Kyoto Tower, it became a must-see. I'm not real impressed with the tower, but I figured the view would be nice and maybe we could spot someplace else that we wanted to check out.


Several crab restaurants have these massive crabs clinging to the walls. I'd say I've seen at least five of them during my Kyoto days. Some of the fancy ones even move their massive claws and legs.


So Kyoto Tower was the very next place that we went. The base of the tower is the height of touristy. Having lived in Japan in someplace other than a big touristy city, I could spot the things that were made solely for the enjoyment of foreigners. I bought I couple little things though, one fun thing was a little key chain of Spiderman hanging off the top of the tower we were about to enter. Junky, I know, but it looks cool.

I also took this opportunity to buy some yatsuhashi for Angelica to try. It is one of Kyoto's famous foods. Its basically a sweet dough made from rice. I bought Angelica some of the raw version which is sold wrapped around a dollop of anko, or sweet bean paste. It was as delicious as I recall. The other version of yatsuhashi has been baked, and has a taste that reminds me of ginger bread.

The base of the tower was a bit too much tourist for me. I also felt like the entrance to actually ascend into the tower was a bit under emphasized, perhaps to help you forget why you entered the madness in the first place, therefore wandering and buying more junk.

The elevator ride to the top had much the same feel as the shinkansen ride had earlier in the day. Lots of super polite people in uniforms. Lots of unnecessary bowing. The view from the top ended up being pretty nice, and it was high enough that we could even see the outskirts of the nearby city of Osaka, a major metropolitan center.


This view of Kyoto from the tower illustrates my perception of the city as a pile of gray boxes. Note the large gray airport hanger in the center of the picture. This was what the temple we visited earlier was sitting under.


Breathtaking. Angelica and the view were nice too.


I think this person's name is Ms. Tower. Pretty shameless anthropomorphic little creature. Nice dresser, though.

So the tower definitely serves a sightseeing purpose, but I hear that there is a bit of controversy about its existence. It is way taller than anything around it, except maybe the massive Kyoto Station from which it stands opposite. It is a giant, bright orange and white thing reaching for the sky. This in a city many look to as the cultural an historical heart of Japan. I vividly remember reading the brochure handed to me at the elevator entrance. It featured a picture of the interior of the tower, with two geisha walking proudly inside. It went on to explain that the "candle-like shape of the tower blends in well with traditional Kyoto". Something along those lines. Pretty much a joke for anyone with eyes.


At the risk of breaking time continuity, here is a nice night time view of the street in front of Kyoto Station. Kyoto Tower can be seen, well, towering.


I figured we had had enough sightseeing for one day, so I took Angelica to the more modern shopping area. Its pretty nice. Not only are there department stores, but several of the streets full of shops are completely covered, making viewing possible no matter the weather.


One of the many covered streets that intersect each other. Many people were still on their new year vacations, so things were quite busy, as you can see.


This colorful little shop was selling quite a large selection of chopsticks. It was one of those places that is so small and filled with merchandise that I was worried about turning around, lest I knock over something expensive.


Not even a walk through a glitzy business district means that you will escape the temples. Occasionally they can be found among a full street of businesses, seemingly unaware of the clash, or just unwilling to move. This one had a pretty cool Buddha statue in it. It had a nice incense smell to it as well.


Another thing to keep in mind with Kyoto, is that tourist attractions all close around 5ish, so you pretty much either have to go eating or drinking, or go home.


Any time of day or night, if Angelica saw a temple bell, she was going to ring it.


We wanted to get the feel of the Japanese ryokan for a night, without getting the feel of a public bathroom for four days. A ryokan is a traditional inn that is especially prevalent in Kyoto. While they do have a bit of romance to them, they lack many of the amenities that modern lodging provides. Ours was a pretty typical example. It was simply some bed rolls laid out on the tatami mat floor. I think we both appreciated the atmosphere, but neither of us complained when we were packing our bags the next morning to move to the real hotel.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

1/28/08 More Time in Japanland

I am cooking up a nice multimedia presentation of my Kyoto experiences, and it will be finished in short order. I thought, though, that it would be a good idea to write down a few little things that are happening with me currently before I forget.

First, this Tuesday I re-contracted to teach in Japan for one additional year. I considered the decision at length, and it seems like the best path for me at this time. I am having a rewarding time in Japan, and whatever work may be lacking in terms of excitement is more than covered with after school fun times. My primary goal remains to develop my Japanese ability, and I think that an additional year would really help. Also, I would like to take the next level of the Japanese proficiency test, and that test is only offered once a year.

All of us English teachers that work directly for the city had a re-contracting meeting at the Board of Education office, where we all had to meet with the bosses one by one. We were told to sign a sheet in Japanese(and another in English) that stated our intentions for the coming year. I had a mix of feelings when signing... it was part NBA draft excitement and part signing away my soul to someone with big red horns. Time will tell which scenario is more true.

I haven't yet finished my sixth month and I already had to decide if I want 12 more. Doesn't seem like a fair choice, but I think I made a good decision.

*******

I was excited to see that Scientology was back in the news. Footage was recently leaked of Tom Cruise being awarded the Freedom Medal of Valor (for achievement in the Field of Excellence). I've seen several little snippets of the ceremony here and there, but I offer to you now the entire production. It is extremely entertaining. Enjoy.












Sunday, January 20, 2008

Angelica: Goodbye Ashikaga, Hello Kyoto

We had an exciting time in the Ashikaga area, but we had exhausted just about every visit-worthy place of interest and now it was time to move on. On the 2nd of January we packed up all of Angelica's luggage and started off on a new voyage. The first leg of our trip involved taking the standard trains back to Tokyo Station.


One popular way to pass the time on a Japanese train is a wholesome game of "Foreigner Eye Tag". First, I catch someone staring at me out of the corner of my eye. Then I wait, keeping as still as possible, then BANG! I turn my head, looking them straight in the eyes. Shocked and awed, their glance hurriedly darts away in defeat. Score one for team America.


Here is one of the stations we passed on our way. Colorful and crowded.


I arranged everything so that we would arrive in Tokyo about an hour early, just to be on the safe side. In the meantime I indulged in a nice ekiben and a beer for lunch. Basically just a train station version of the classic bento lunch set, they are attractively packaged and taste pretty darn good.


A fake-wooden box with a nice picture of Tokyo Tower. Livin' the high life over here, son.


All manner of pickled and otherwise preserved flora and fauna were present in the box, along with some rice. The small bit of egg included even had some words seared into it. Disposable chopsticks included.


Finally the time had come to board our chariot: the famed Shinkansen.


Ooh, Ahh. The drastically aerodynamic look of the cockpit area, as well as the sleek body of the thing reminded me more of a plane with its wings ripped off than a train.


Here's a shot from the side of one of the many (16ish?) cars on the train. As you can see, we traveled by 700 series shinkansen on the Nozomi line.


The interior of the train also strongly resembled a plane's in my mind. Unfortunately there wasn't much room for our American-sized luggage. We ended up wedging a bag between the seats and then simply putting our feet on it.


Aside from the classy look of the train, the service was miles ahead of anything I had seen before on a train. The Japanese have a strong infatuation with uniforms, and this experience was no exception. Everyone was dressed like we were participating in a military parade. At one point I saw one of the smartly dressed men emptying some trash cans, so I lost much of my certainly as to whether the fanciness denoted some sort of rank or position.

Throughout the flight, a cart filled with food and drink for sale was pushed down the fairly spacious isle. A uniformed woman periodically walked through our car as well. When she approached the end of the car near enough that the automatic door slid open, while both entering and exiting, she would turn around and bow to the cabin. I probably received 12 bows from the same person in this manner.

Next are a couple little shots we took earlier in the trip, still in the Tokyo area.








Some in-train songwriting.


One of the train ladies kindly pointed to a sheet of paper that she had produced from her pocket. It let us know the exact time to look out the window in order to see Mt. Fuji. She said that today's weather was particularly clear and that the view would be nice.

Sure enough, Mt. Fuji, dubbed by me "The Fuge" soon came into view. It was quite nice, and it was the first time that I had ever seen this huge symbol of Japan. I had fun taking pictures of the mountain. It had a strange effect: we were moving at a considerable speed, and much of the world was blurring by us, yet The Fuge wasn't moving at all. I got the impression that the mountain was unimpressed by our antics.












A short exchange in the presence of The Fuge.


After maybe a 2 and a half hour trip, we stepped off the train into a little town called Kyoto.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

1/17/08 New Years in Japan

I was particularly interested in witnessing how the Japanese celebrate New Years. I didn't really know how to go about observing it at first, though. For example, in order to really experience Christmas in the US you really need to know an American family that will let you participate. On the same token, New Years is more of a family holiday here, and without any families available I was afraid we might end up just aimlessly wandering around town looking for something to do.

I asked around enough times at school to learn about some more accessible activities. Hatsumode is the practice of going to a shrine or temple at midnight in order to experience one's first shrine visit of the year. Word on the street was that the local Bannaji Temple on the north side of town would be a popular place for people to celebrate.

We arrived at the temple around 11:30. I was still a bit worried about a general lack of people in the area. I figured there would be an obvious commotion: people entering the shrine, some extra car traffic, added noice... something. This didn't seem much different than any other night, and I started to doubt the intelligence that I had gathered.

When we got to the main temple, I was relieved to see that there were several special things set up and that there were a few people around despite the darkness. Still, though, there weren't too many people around, even this close to the big minute. We scarcely noticed by this point, as we were already taking advantage of the opportunities that the lull provided us. The main temple was attractively lit inside, and it occurred to me that although I had strolled by this building several times, I had not yet seen its large doors open.


Angelica in front of the inner temple area. The thing directly behind her that looks like it might be a grill is where offerings are thrown before a prayer. The coins make one or two satisfying rattles before they fall onto what always sounds like a massive hoard of pocket change.


We then turned our attention to the monk-looking gentlemen selling charms on either side of the temples' grand doors. The touristy temples in Kyoto always have a ton of this stuff for sale, but each time I see them I point and ask for an explanation of something different. Here was a more modest selection of pretty much the same stuff. There were charms of all shapes and sizes. Various types of safety and protection seems to be the main idea behind all of the little things. There are a few with suction cups that are meant to hang from one's windshield; they are meant to bring protection from traffic accidents... often several little such things are visible in Japanese taxi cabs. Others are key chains, some little gold-colored cards that you are supposed to carry in your wallet. Still others are tiny little replicas of a elementary school child's backpack... I assume I gather the meaning behind those.

I was drawn to some more traditional, less cheapy-looking things off to one side. There was a big pot full of what looked like pointless arrows with a bit of paper tied around each one. I really wanted to know what these were about and asked, but the explanation was way over my head. Another interesting thing was a few different sizes of pieces of wood with some sort of fancy writing on them. If I remember correctly you are supposed to hang them above a doorway. There were many of these little boards but each had something different written along the side. They turned out to be the same protection stuff. Safety from fires, good fortune, and so forth.


Angelica and I both ended up buying a family safety board. The monk guy even wrote our names on them all pretty. So, if your last name is Milito and you've been feeling extra safe lately, now you know why.


All that superstition had really worked up my appetite, so I took advantage of this opportunity to show Angelica all of the cool carnival type foods that were available, on account of the festivities.


This was just straight grilled squid on a stick. Not a whole lot of description necessary. I picked a single large tentacle over the chunks of body meat. Pretty darn good.


These are pretty basic as well. Banana, chocolate, sprinkles. Delectable.


Strawberry Shortcake and her friends here are patiently waiting for the next batch of donuts, known to some as the charm of protection against hunger.


As the clock ticked towards midnight, a long line started to develop leading back to the temple entrance that we had been at earlier. Sure we had just been there without having to pause even a minute, but that was last year. We got in line and waited.


A look backwards at the line, framed by the happy food stands.


At a few minutes till several bells began to ring around us. It was a nice atmosphere. Not the same excitement as a classic American new year ball drop, but a different kind of buzz. As the line started to advance, people began to take pictures every which way by cellphone. Ringing a large gong thing hanging over the main staircase was a popular amusement as everyone marched towards the front to say a prayer. Eventually the line degenerated into a hectic free-for-all. We eventually made it to the top of the stairs and shared in the commotion.


I was definitely happy that we made the effort to come out despite the cold. It was a great time.

*******

A pretty typical example of a new year decoration, called a kadomatsu. This one is a bit small and lesser quality, but you get the idea. The basic feature of all that I saw was the three bamboo pieces cut at an angle.


I saw this at the supermarket and I was compelled to buy it. It is a little old-school looking barrel of sake, sake included. I assume that it too is a new year thing, as I have not seen them for sale prior. Maybe a week ago I put up a picture of a massive wall of these things that were stacked in front of the kabuki-za in Tokyo. You can refresh your memory here.


One last little tidbit. A popular food eaten during the New Year season is called mochi. Its pretty much a big pile of sticky rice pounded into a dumpling. It's sticky, formless nature poses an apparently significant amount of peril to the elderly, and a death toll is announced the next morning in the newspapers... all from choking. Dangerous world out there. Here is a small article on the aftermath in Tokyo.

Monday, January 14, 2008

1/16/08 Finding Tochigi Prefecture, Cont.

I figured in order to give Angelica a better picture of my typical week that we should check out the surrounding cities in Tochigi. We managed to hit both of my two usuals, Ota and Sano. Keep in mind that I haven't even reached New Years yet... I'm going as fast as I can! Hehe.

We had to get something to eat before we went anywhere. After a short food-finding mission, we went to the kaitenzushi place nearish to my house, right across from the mall.

I don't recall how well I have described the "conveyor belt sushi" place previously. It would be an awful disservice to not mention it, so at the risk of repeating myself, I'll take this opportunity to give a brief overview.

Maybe one of my favorite places to eat in Japan is the kaitenzushi. Literally "revolving sushi" (according to my deft dictionary skills), it is a sushi restaurant for the masses. Rather than sit opposite the counter from a mean old man with a knife and a pile of fishies, the chefs are all in the back out of sight, where they belong! Booyah. Anyway, they prepare a variety of sushi on small plates, then set the plates in a continuous line on a conveyor belt. The belt then snakes through the entire restaurant, making itself accessible to every single table.

It is on the low end of sushi to be sure, both in quality in price, but they are often uncommonly crowded. Maybe one of the few places in town that I have ever waited to get a seat are these wonderful establishments. It is convenient for me, children, and the semi-literate in that you need not actually read the menu, as you can simply pull whatever you desire from the conveyor belt. If what you are hankering for doesn't seem to be on rotation, though, you can order something specific from an intercom installed at each table. The one we went to on this occasion was cool because each table had its own touch screen menu, which cuts human interaction down even further... yes! At the end of your meal, a waitress will simply count the number of plates stacked on your table in order to calculate your bill. Most plates are about 1 dollar, but there are specially colored plates denoting higher prices. Things like cake, juice boxes, and French fries will also randomly appear mixed in with the sealife on the conveyor.

In conclusion, kaitenzushi is cheap, easy to order, and friggin delicious. I would eat there everyday. And my mom says that's ok.


Your special orders will come by on the same conveyor, only with a table number and a sign telling everyone to keep their sticky claws off of it.


Here's a picture of me loving sushi.


Sano. It is possible that I made a mistake taking her to Sano, as it features both a shopping mall and a huge outlet mall within walking distance of each other. We spent a considerable part of a day looking for a "Japanese style" purse. As the outlet is mostly comprised of American and European brands, there wasn't a whole lot of Japanese styled things to be found. So after a long day of shopping, we started to walk to the other mall. But wait.

Not even yet out of sight of those awful stores, one of Angelica's shoe's heels broke, making walking a very unfortunate exercise. Luckily for one of us, we were right next to a giant outlet mall... So after quite enough shopping, we plunged back into the jungle to go shoe shopping... AHHH! hehe. After a bit of fruitless wandering, I took Angelica to the Nike store and she wasn't allowed to come out until she bought some shoes... hehe. Quite an experience.


Here's a really spoiled girl wearing some new kicks.

We then briefly checked out the more standard mall in Sano before we were ready to ditch town. Unfortunately the nice shuttle bus that had conveniently taken us from the train station had stopped for the day, so we were left in clutches of the taxi people.


Quite an interesting taxi calling system. The large green sign on the left side is the place to wait for a taxi. Fine. The map on the sign, though, directs you to go to a different sign first. You can just make it out: its at the end of the row of bikes on the side of that column, also green. Anyway, you go over there and press a button located on the wall in order to call a taxi. I'm not sure how much I believe that button actually does anything, but after a bit of a wait a taxi did in fact arrive.


Here I am talking trash to a conquered Sano. Yeah, Boyyyy!


*******

On a separate day that same week we took the train to Ota. I think that Angelica was surprised how short of a ride it is: maybe three or four train stops from my house. It might be that the two cities actually border each other... not completely sure.

I wanted to go there specifically because I wanted to show Angelica all the cool ethnic stuff near the train station. I think she thought the Brazilian supermercado was cool. She was trying to convince me that because she could speak Spanish, she would therefore be able to make herself understood to the Portuguese speaking staff. Maybe they were just unprepared for the EspaƱol, but the little that we tried was not very successful. We then had a nice dinner at an Indian place and we strolled around town a bit.

We went to check out a nearby arcade and had a bit of fun playing some random things. I thought that I should once again demonstrate my claw game prowess.


This little character is named unchi-kun. Unchi, meaning poop in Japanese, is a lovable little guy from some TV show that I have never seen ("-kun" is a name suffix used for males... I think it means little boy). I do know, though, that he will have a good life at my apartment. Reminds me a bit of Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo.


Unfortunately a YouTube search for "unchi" didn't give me the insight I was hoping for, but it did yield an entertaining Japanese (with English subtitles) potty training video. Enjoy.





Here is a gigantically out-of-place wedding hall in Ota. It invokes comparison to the White House, but upon closer inspection the building seems a lot cheaper.. the whole thing looks to be constructed of different colors of concrete. The chapel looking thing to the right is similarly fake. It is built on top of the main building and doesn't touch the ground. Anxious to see what a fake house of worship looks like on the inside, I looked for an entrance, but soon realized the only way in is through the lobby of the main building. I think Angelica was not amused by the concept of a fake church.


One of Angelica's favorite things in the world is losing to me at video games, so I figured we should use our various train wait times to get some quality Nintendo DS time in.


Angelica met some of the gang at karaoke one night. That spacey-looking remote is how you pick which song you want played. She was completely captivated by my crooning.


*******

Completely unrelated to anything, but cool anyway. An interesting ad for the lottery featuring some Power Ranger looking characters.

Speaking of which, the Power Ranger series' are all originally a Japanese product. For release in the US some of the scenes were re-shot, but all of the battle scenes are taken directly from the Japanese series and dubbed. Trivia, I know.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Finding Tochigi Prefecture

We did plenty of exploring in Ashikaga, and we also visited some of my favorite nearby cities as well. A big thing on our Ashikaga list was the Ashikaga Gakko.

It is the main tourist attraction of the whole city. The place is marketed as "the oldest university in Japan", but in a much repeated pattern, most of the original structures on the grounds were destroyed by fire with only a couple small original structures remaining. I believe most of what is currently standing was built sometime in the 70's. The school functioned as a Confucian academy in its day, with a couple really old likenesses of Confucius still on display. Upon telling Angelica that I had become a Confucian master and rattling off some fake "Confucius says" proverbs, Angelica replied that I was more like a master of confusionism. Funny funny.


A statue of the big man himself.


The main gate of the gakko is a symbol of the city.


"Seated Confucious dated 1535. Muromachi period. Wood, crystal eyes. Height 78.0 cm", stated a terse little sign.


"Seated Ono-no Takamura. 18th century, Edo period. Wood with polychromy, crystal eyes. Height 71.5 cm"


It seems that this place is owned by the city, which means I can have one of my bosses call ahead of time so that my guests and I don't have to pay for tickets to enter. This is really nice, and it definitely takes the edge off going to the place so many times. I would be sad if I had to pay even after my 5th visit. English explanations of the buildings are available but limited, so I'm sure that I don't know the whole story. The buildings themselves, though, are very classical, with few other examples existing in the city that I have seen so far. Walking through the buildings gives me a nice relaxing feeling. Its very tranquil, but sometimes I pretend like I'm a ninja and hum Kung Fu music as I try to sneak up on people. You know how it is.


The roof on this building is kinda cool. It seems to be one big compressed mass of straw.

Here is a place to lock your umbrella. You can buy an umbrella at 7-11 for like 2 dollars, so I rarely even bother to carry one from home. More trouble than its worth I think.


A peaceful little pond with an island at its center.



Here's one of my favorite shots from the whole winter vacation. I'm so dramatic and deep sometimes.


I had to show Angelica the big local electronics store. There are a few entertaining oddities to see. Here Angelica is test driving a horse riding machine. I think it is supposed to tone your leg muscles or something, but it seems kinda silly.


We were super hungry from all of our touring, so I took Angelica and a couple of friends to an okonomiyaki place a block away from my apartment. Here she is behind the counter with the staff.


Me, Ang, Tung, and Holly from Canada, respectively.