Monday, November 19, 2007

8/14-15 - Tokyo and Home!

Tuesday was our last full day in Japan. We visited the Tokyo National Museum, and the exhibits we enjoyed the most were the ancient games, calligraphy examples, and wood block prints. It was really hot that day, and Amy was pleased to find that the museum offered parasols for use on the museum grounds. She quickly became a fan of this Japanese custom and considered buying one to take home!

We spent the rest of the afternoon resting and getting our things ready for our return home. Our big dilemma of the day was figuring out how to get our walking sticks from Mt. Fuji home. We first tried shipping them from a local post office. We walked in and explained the dimensions of the package, and after much conferring behind the desk, the workers told us that it would be over $100 to send home. Then we tried without luck to buy a shipping tube or box they would fit in. We finally talked to the front desk at our hotel. After (again) much conferring behind the desk, the staff gave us a small cardboard box, some bubble wrap, scissors, and a roll of tape. With limited English and hand gestures, we were able to come up with a plan of cutting one side of the box, laying it flat, then rolling it around the sticks to create our own cylinder. We took our supplies up to our room and were able to construct something we thought would work well enough to make it through bag check at the airport!

For our last night, we decided to splurge on a nice dinner. We found a place (Daidaiya) in our book that sounded good and had a modern take on traditional Japanese atmosphere that sounded perfect. They were offering an 8 course dinner, and we went for it. We started out with an appetizer of tofu, squid, marinated pork, and egg pancake…

After that, we felt a mixture of anticipation and dread of each following course. We had soup with shrimp dumplings, white fish & tuna sashimi (one of the better courses),

Grilled clam with green onion and beans,

Tomato sorbet,

Grilled chicken meatball and beef with salad (best course),

Sushi – salmon, tuna, sea bream, sea urchin, and okra with miso soup.

Final course was dessert of fruit and Jello. Although we didn’t enjoy the cuisine, it was one of the more entertaining meals we’ve had, from enjoying the presentation to anticipating what our next “culinary delight” would be.

On Wednesday, Amy couldn’t leave without one more trip to Choco Cro for a chocolate and banana croissant.

We stopped by the department store basement market to grab lunch to go and ate on the train back to Narita. Flying back, we had to stop at Newark to go through customs and then take a flight back to Dallas. We experienced a bit of culture shock – after getting used to how polite and helpful everyone was in Japan, the grumpy customs officer and apathetic bag check people were a jarring reminder of the typical service you find in US airports. We were somewhat surprised on our arrival in Dallas that all of our bags (and walking sticks!) actually made it back.

Overall, we really enjoyed our vacation to Japan. Our favorite parts of the trip were experiencing the Japanese culture and the hospitality of the people. Tokyo was like most big cities, but we would like to have the opportunity to go back to Kyoto someday and maybe spend more time in some of the smaller cities.


8/13/07 - Mt. Fuji

Monday we were scheduled to take a day trip to Mount Fuji. We’d arranged it through a tour group. This turned out to be our least enjoyable day of the trip. We met a representative at a nearby hotel, and they took us to a bus station where all of the tours originate. It was a madhouse – lines, people and buses everywhere, etc. We found our bus and were disappointed to find that due to traffic, it was going to take over three hours to reach Mount Fuji. Our bus driver liked to talk, and he talked for most of the day. A lot of it was interesting – history, culture, etc. We were a little surprised by his statistics on the high rates of suicide and how most people (including himself) were in unhappy marriages. All of this information was delivered with a smile on his face – so different. Due to traffic we weren’t able to make it to the Vistor’s Center, so our first stop was for lunch at a resort near a small amusement park. We had not prepaid for lunch, so we skipped the buffet and found a small Japanese restaurant. It was a nice break from the crowd, and our noodles and tempura were good.

We got back on the bus for the ride up to the Fifth Station of Mt. Fuji, which is most climbers’ starting point. The mountain is only open for climbing in July and August, so it was very crowded, and we were surprised at how touristy it was. Also, the mountain was clouded by fog, so it was chilly, and we never got a good view of the summit. We were only there for about 20-30 minutes – long enough to buy walking sticks and send a few postcards.

The next stop for the day was a lake trip across Lake Ashi, described as “A delightful cruise aboard a large sightseeing boat.” It took a really long time to get to the lake – about an hour and a half. We were expecting a cruise across a lake to take around an hour – not the fifteen minutes it actually took. There was a family from London who had come to Japan after spending some time in China, and we were interested to hear about their time there. By this point, we were ready to go back to Tokyo, but we still had one more stop – a gondola ride up the hill. We drove for ANOTHER 45 minutes, took the gondola up, then had to wait a half hour for the bus to get up there. The views were nice, but not spectacular. The most interesting part was going over a valley with sulphur steam vents.
We were happy to find that we were heading to the train station next for the train back to Tokyo. Since we had our rail passes, our tour guide was able to cash in our train tickets and give us a little money back. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy for a tour to end. It was nice to get out in the country and spend a day in air conditioning, but we had no idea that so much of the time would be spent on a bus and not actually out seeing or doing things.

After we got back to Tokyo, we went to the Rappongi District to check out some of the famous neon signage that appears in so many pictures of Tokyo. It was crazy – everything was so big and bright, and a little overwhelming.
We got a laugh out of the Hello Kitty paramedic sign – Hello Kitty is really everywhere.

8/12/07 - Kyoto to Tokyo

Our train back to Tokyo left before lunch that day, so we had time for one more excursion before leaving Kyoto. Robert saw pictures in our guidebooks of a place lined with Torii gates (the orange gates) and figured out that it wasn’t too far from Kyoto. The place is Fushimi Shrine and is dedicated to Inari, the deity of rice and sake, which was logical since the area is known for its sake. The shrine is surrounded by a path a few miles long that is completely lined with hundreds of torii gates donated by businessmen and people in the area. Some of the gates are so close together that you can’t fit between them. We really enjoyed it.

We were sorry to leave Kyoto. There were so many interesting sites and experiences, but it was time to take the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. We checked back into the Mercure Ginza and then were ready to eat. We found Kua Aiana, a sandwich shop that originated on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Since we’d eaten at the North Shore and Honolulu locations, we felt obligated to try it out in Tokyo!

We walked through the Shinjuku & Harajuku Districts where we saw many high-end shops and found a few things at Oriental Bazaar, including a tea set for Amy. Amy was happy to see a Shakey’s Pizza – it was one of her favorite places growing up, and it was funny to see one outside of Texas! We finished up the day with a visit to the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices. It was really crowded and the view was not that impressive, but we were able to see the outline of Mt. Fuji.

8/11/07 - Kyoto

Our last full day in Kyoto! Our goal was to finish seeing the major sites, so we began the morning by heading to the far side of town to see Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. We headed out for the bus and stopped at the entrance of the hotel for some lemonade to go. Every day they had an urn with lemonade; we think they probably have tea when it’s cooler. It was a long bus ride (about an hour), but we made it eventually. The structure sits on the edge of a pond and is totally covered in gold leaf and topped by a bronze phoenix. It appears to glow – very pretty – and is also surrounded by a nice garden. At the gift shop Robert found a calendar for his office.
Next stop was the Ryoan-ji Temple. It was founded in 1450, and its claim to fame is its famous Zen rock garden. There were a large number of people sitting on the porch contemplating the garden, but we were not quite sure of what the big deal was. It was nice, but not nearly as impressive as the guidebooks lead us to believe. The ground around the temple was covered in moss that looked like carpet – we were more enthralled by that than the rock garden. Outside the temple was a small gift shop where Amy finally found a painted fan she liked at a reasonable price – success!
Our final big stop was Nijo Castle, home to the Shogun and built in the late 1500’s. The castle is surrounded by a moat. The gate had gold plated fixtures while the main entrance had beautiful wood carvings with birds, peacocks, and flowers. The most impressive part of the castle is the flooring. Called “nightingale floors,” the boards were carefully laid so that the nails and supports below the floorboards rub together and squeak when walked on, alerting the inhabitants of any intruders particularly during the night. The squeaking sounded just like birds – it was really interesting, especially considering that the floors still produce the desired effect over 500 years later.
By that time, we were ready for lunch. We took the subway to the central part of the city and tried another place recommended by one of our books, Ganko Sushi. We both had a sushi combo (tuna, salmon, shrimp, unagi, yellowtail, tofu, tamago, and octopus), and Amy had a side of soba noodles, while Robert had tempura. It was pretty good, especially after the long morning of sightseeing.
We made a quick stop by a little store we’d seen earlier so Robert could buy some wooden sake cupts, then we went back to the hotel where Amy planned to rest and Robert headed to the Laundromat to do some laundry for us and enjoy a snowcone. That turned out to be quite the adventure, and Robert learned what happens when you have a magazine mixed in with your laundry. Nothing a lint roller couldn’t fix! After the events of the day, we decided to take it easy and just order room service. They set up a table in our room – we went for American food, a hamburger and a chicken sandwich…although apparently the Japanese mean “chicken salad” sandwich when they list it on the menu. Not what we expected, but still tasted good. We walked to the Circle K for ice cream, borrowed a DVD from the front desk (“Last Samurai”), and called it a night!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

8/10/07 - Kyoto

Friday was our first day to see the major sites of Kyoto. It took us a little while to figure out the bus system, but then we were on our way. We were on the “tourist bus,” a special route that hits the main attractions, and it was really crowded.

Our first stop was Ginkaju-ji – the “Silver Pavilion.” The temple had an outstanding garden surrounded by tall, extremely straight pine trees. There was also a raked garden with a cone made of sand symbolizing Mt Fuji.

It was very hot that day, so we were happy to find ice cream vending machines right outside the template. The cookies and cream was pretty tasty! We walked down the street to the path along a canal called the Philosopher’s Walk. The path is lined with trees, coffee and craft shops, and small boutiques. It also takes you through a nice neighborhood with fancy houses. Our favorite part of the walk was viewing the different homes – such a different style of architecture than what we’re used to seeing. We also found more vending machines and finally tried Pocari Sweat – we’d seen advertisements for it all over. It was pretty good – kind of like Sprite.

We continued walking to the Heian Shrine. It is brightly colored – orange pillars with green tiles. The shrine had a nice garden with a large pond. There were stepping stones across the pond and many people were stopping to have their pictures made. We didn’t want to be left out, and an Italian guy offered to take our picture. There was also a large covered bridge where we stopped to rest for a few minutes.

We stopped at a small café for lunch (ate rice pilaf with shrimp & a pork cutlet with rice), and then it was time for shopping! We’d heard that the Kyoto Handicraft Center was a good place for souvenirs, but it was mostly dollar store-type junk. We did find some chopsticks and enjoyed looking at wood prints. We then went to the Gion district, Kyoto’s best-known geisha quarter. There we found the Kyoto Craft Center, which had much better offerings, a scarf store that has been in business since 1615, and a makeup store where Amy bought some traditional blotting papers. Amy enjoyed looking at the stores that sold traditional Japanese accessories – some of the clogs that are worn with kimono cost more than a pair of Manolo Blahniks!

Before going back to the hotel, we walked over to a Laundromat near the train station that we’d read about online. It was old and gross – it definitely did not seem like a place where your clothes would come out cleaner. Then we accidentally got on the wrong bus trying to get back to our hotel. There was a lot of traffic, and the bus driver was nice enough to let us off the bus. We ended up just walking back to the hotel – much easier. We realized that the smart thing to do would be to ask the staff at the hotel about a Laundromat, and they told us about one near the hotel. Robert went to check it out – much better.

That evening we enjoyed dinner at the hotel’s Italian restaurant. Robert had seafood pizza and Amy had pan-fried fish with asparagus risotto. The restaurant was very nice and a good break from the traditional Japanese food.

8/9/07 - Kyoto/Nara

The morning began with a visit from room service. Amy is a member of the Hyatt frequent guests’ club, and the hotel offered free coffee service in the mornings for members. When the doorbell rang, Amy opened the door to take the tray, and the man insisted on bringing the tray into the room and setting it up, then walking backwards out of the room, bowing the whole time. This continued every day for the rest of our stay – another example of the good service!

While we were getting ready, we found the Kyoto map Robert had picked up at Narita Airport. We had stopped at a bookstore the night before to try to find a good one and fortunately didn’t buy one, since the free one we found in his bag was better than the ones at the bookstore. It had a good bus map, which was truly necessary for getting around, as the subway system was not very extensive.

Before we left for the day, we booked another night at the Hyatt. We had originally planned to stay at another hotel in Kyoto on Saturday since the Hyatt didn’t appear to have rooms, but they were able to extend our reservation. We were really glad. Besides being a really nice place, it meant we had to spend less time packing/unpacking and moving around.

Thursday was our trip to Nara, which was about an hour from Kyoto. When we switched trains, we saw a really funny sign about the dangers of smoking. The sign included possible effects of smoking such as burning children in the face. We were also entertained by the cloth used for the priority seating area. It included pictures of people with crutches, carrying kids and pregnant ladies.

Once we got there, we took a long hot walk through the town to get to the park where all of the shrines were. On the way we ducked into a small café and purchased croissants that were stuffed with a banana slice and chocolate. The café was called Choco Cro and Amy was very pleased later in our trip to find out that it was a chain. There was one outside of our hotel in Tokyo that Amy frequented daily for the last few days of our trip.

Once we entered the park, we saw a line of deer following an elderly Japanese man. It was apparent he was trying to shoe them away, but they wouldn’t be deterred. Once we got a little further into the park we saw lots of signs talking about the deer. There are tons of “tame” deer that wander the park. Amy found a lady that was selling deer biscuits and decided she wanted to feed the deer. Once she started feeding them, there was a frenzy, and Amy ended up getting bit through her shorts by one of the deer. She ended up throwing the rest of the biscuits at the mass of deer and running away.

After escaping the deer, we went to Todaiji temple and saw a 53ft high Buddha and a bunch of other big Buddhist statues. The temple had a large wooden pillar with a small hole bored through it, and a popular belief holds that if you can squeeze through the hold you will attain Nirvana (enlightenment). A large crowd was gathered around, and we saw a child squeeze through first and later a grown man. Leaving the temple, we stopped to get some Green Tea ice cream and Amy found a handkerchief to help keep herself cool. We walked through some botanical gardens and saw ladies sweeping the gravel road with homemade brooms.

There were a ton of stone lanterns leading to and surrounding the Kasuga Grand shrine which was next on our list. After that we went to lunch at Noh restaurant (which was also in the park). I had beef curry and Amy had seafood curry. Apparently we only received the Western menu. The food was okay and the view was nice, but we wished we had gotten a Japanese menu too. For dessert, we found a snow cone place that allowed you to pick/apply your own syrup.

We saw a five story pagoda and a lady throwing water on a shrine on our way back to the train station. The water being thrown on shrines turned out to be a regular occurrence, but we never were able to determine the religious significance. Once we got to the train station we were off to Osaka.

We were tired and hot and weren’t sure whether or not we really wanted to go to Osaka, but decided to go anyway. It wasn’t too special, just a big city. We went to the Aquarium which was huge. The aquarium was pretty cool and they had a big tank with a huge shark and a bunch of huge rays. We also got a picture of a Japanese-style toilet - aim carefully!

After that we went in a nearby tourist mall that had a Café Du Monde. We were really surprised to see it, but it was the real deal with coffee and beignets. The Japanese apparently have a big affinity for doughnuts and we think that is where Café Du Monde/the Beignets come in. We left the mall and saw a huge Ferris wheel. There was a bunch of signage, some of it said “world’s biggest Ferris wheel” and some said “one of the world’s biggest Ferris wheels”, but we weren’t sure which was correct.

After that, we went to an observation tower that overlooked the city. We went to the top using glass elevators and a glass enclosed escalator at the top. The view was pretty cool. At the bottom, we hopped in a photo booth and had our picture taken. We shot the camera the peace sign. Whenever we saw anyone getting their picture taken, especially young people they would always hold up the peace sign.

Next we grabbed dinner at a mall “food court”. It isn’t like an American food court since the restaurants are separate and have separate seating areas. I was surprised to see that they all had seats for people to wait in line outside and most of them had a wait. We picked one and ordered off of the picture meeting. Apparently you have to be extra careful when ordering by pointing. The waitress didn’t understand what we wanted and something else came out. I thought we did a good job pointing, but realized later on that you have to actually touch the picture of the thing you want with your finger and then make your wait staff touch it too. The waitress seemed about sixteen and was mad at the world – getting our order wrong didn’t seem to improve her mood any. I can honestly say that she was the only Japanese person we encountered that was the least bit rude or showed any frustration with us. They first brought out a pork cutlet and then brought out the right thing Amy ordered, noodles with tempura. I had rice with tempura. We also found some blueberry and apple Moschi Balls at a store later that night. They were supposed to be treats, but we did not enjoy them. At least we branched out! They were gelatinous balls that seemed like they should have been cooked and didn’t have much flavor.