Kyoto, Day 7 – The Final Day

Finally, my last day in Kyoto had arrived!!

It turned out to be a pretty low-key day, for several reasons.

First of all, it was toward the end of my trip and I didn’t want to spend much more money.

Second, I had to catch the overnight bus at the train station in the evening, so I didn’t really feel like going anywhere super far away.

And third, I had gotten to do pretty much everything I’d wanted to do while I was in Kyoto.

So, with those thoughts in mind, I decided to explore the Higashiyama district near Kiyomizudera Temple, the area I’d spent the first day of my trip, one more time.

This time, I took some videos, so you can wander the streets with me!

After re-watching this video, I was rather disappointed to discover that besides my alarming lack of mature grammatical skills, my pronunciation also still sounds sadly non-native. Something to work on, I guess!

The powder did turn out to be kinako (roasted soybean flour), which is often sweetened when used in desserts. It was so fine that I inhaled it by mistake and had to cough it out of my system. I noticed that it was happening to other people as well! Whilst I was enjoying my dango, I was joined by a nice Japanese family who had an English-speaking German girl travelling with them. Their son spoke good English and initiated the conversation, and I got to chat with the German girl as well. She had marvelous English AND Japanese skills, with Japanese fluency that made me quite envious.

After my mitarashi dango experience, I wandered some more, eventually buying some tofu donuts. These are not nearly as weird as they sound – just warm, soft, amazing mini donuts. I also got some ice cream, mostly because I really wanted to try some more of Japan’s unique ice cream flavors. They tend to have special flavors to match the region or attraction – for example, the bamboo flavored ice cream near the Arayashima bamboo grove, which I’d have gotten if I hadn’t been so full!

Unfortunately, the ice cream flavors in Kyoto weren’t all that special, at least in my opinion. The area’s food specialties are green tea and tofu, neither of which I particularly wanted in ice cream. I do enjoy green tea ice cream, but it is such a common flavor here that I can buy it in any grocery store. I eventually decided on a yuzu/shiso swirl. Yuzu is a type of citrus fruit common here, and shiso is “perilla,” a plant I’d never heard of in the States but that seems to be more well known here. Anyway, it turned out to be not that great – just a sour fruity flavor. Oh well. Next time I’ll try the bamboo!

I walked back through the Pontocho area (a place I’d already walked on my first day), enjoying the ambiance of the narrow alley lined with little hole-in-the-wall restaurants, many of them quite expensive. Of course, I also kept my eye out for geisha, but sadly did not see any. Next, I passed through the busy downtown district, stopping at a “Book-Off” (used bookstore chain) where I happily browsed for a time.

Finally, after a short stop at my guest house to pick up my luggage, which they had kindly stored for the day, I arrived back at Kyoto Station, hungry and worn out. I located my bus stop, then walked back and forth and pondered for way too long before opting for dinner at McDonald’s. I’d kind of hoped for a more exciting option, but the McDonald’s was fairly near my bus stop, and it was a place that I could park my luggage and my tired body for a while until my bus came. And besides, a good ol’ burger and fries are always an appropriate choice, right?

Oh, and here’s a video of the Christmas illumination (holiday illuminations are a big deal here!) at the station:

My bus finally rolled in a little after ten, and I boarded, on my way home at last. I’ll always cherish the memories I made in Kyoto, and I’m incredibly grateful that I got to experience so many wonderful things. Even though I wasn’t sure it would work out, I’m very happy that I was able to take a trip like this before going back to America. In a way, it made me feel like my time here in Japan has been made complete; it was a refreshing change to play the tourist and do some travelling, after spending so much time teaching and being absorbed in the work culture here. I’m not sure whether or not I’ll ever be back to Kyoto, but I’m really glad that I had the chance to visit a place I’ve been wanting to see for so long!

Goodbye for now, Kyoto!

 

 

Kyoto, Day 6 – Lesson Day!

Saturday, my sixth day in Kyoto, was my “experience day.” I’d been hoping to do some hands-on activities, not just sightseeing, while I was in Kyoto. As I mentioned previously, there are many activities available, but most of them cost a pretty penny (or yen), since they are specifically catering to tourists. However, after scouting around, I found some more inexpensive options, and decided to treat myself to two activities that I was interested in trying: sweet making and calligraphy!

On Saturday, my first destination was the sweets shop Yoshihiro, where I was to take a class for making wagashi, or traditional Japanese-style sweets. At 2000 yen, the class was still a bit on the pricey side, but was the cheapest of all the options I’d found. Besides, attendees got to take home several of the handmade goodies, which to me made it worth it!

Although the pamphlet from which I’d heard about the store was in Japanese, I’d found an English application page online. However, the store staff didn’t seem to speak much English, and I think there may have been a bit of misunderstanding about whether I’d actually applied. I hadn’t been able to really understand their reply email, since it appeared to have been run through a translation app of some sort and thus was only marginally comprehensible. However, when I showed up at the store, after a bit of communicating amongst themselves and checking with the person in charge, they accepted me, so I was grateful for that.

I joined the rest of the day’s class members – all of them Japanese – and did my best to follow the instructions about washing hands and so forth. The instructor had already prepared two ready-made sweets, and had the materials ready for us to replicate the exact same designs.

A word about wagashi: Japanese sweets are quite a bit different from American candies, one difference being that they are usually perceived to be less sweet. The kind of sweet we were making was “nama,” or raw, wagashi, and the “dough” that we worked with was soft and colorful, a lot like working with Play-Dough. We took preformed, colored balls, and following the instructor’s examples, molded the colored dough around balls of sweetened bean paste which acted as a filling. (I later learned that the colored balls were also made of sweetened bean paste which had had color added.) We blended the colors and shaped the balls just so, sometimes using a wooden pick as a tool, to create the shapes we were trying to make.

Apparently, the designs made in the classes are changed to reflect each new season. Since it was winter, we made pine (a symbol of New Year’s here) and plum blossom.

The instructor’s creations (the two on the top in the photo below) were so skillful! Mine were decidedly less so.

After the class, we were all given a cup of green tea (the real kind, whisked in a cup!), along with a small baked manjuu sweet. The instructor also demonstrated a different design for us, working the dough deftly with her hands and showing us how she used different parts of the hand to make the shape, as well as a triangular-shaped wooden tool to create a petal design. She was amazingly quick, and we were left in awe of her sweet-making skills!

After my namagashi adventure, I killed some time exploring before heading over to my next class: calligraphy! Although I’ve practiced writing kanji (Japanese characters), I know nothing about drawing them with a brush. I figured this was a great chance to learn! I’d found a bargain-priced class offered at another local guest house run by a husband and wife team; the husband offered calligraphy classes for only 1000 yen an hour.

I was received very warmly, with a cup of coffee and the wife on hand to translate as needed. The husband first wrote my name in kanji that he had picked out, which matched the sounds in my name, and tried to explain the meaning. Then he set me up with a brush and the most amazing calligraphy-writing mat, which turned dark when brushed with water, so no ink was needed. It was great for practice, and turned white again when dry, so it could be re-used!

It turns out that calligraphy was MUCH harder than I’d anticipated – I did my best, but still elicited some exasperated noises from my trainer. Apparently, calligraphy is about more than just creating straight lines with the brush, but is also about moving the brush just right to create certain brush strokes, and about invoking personality into the characters by the way one writes the strokes. Who knew!

Thanks to the couple’s hospitality, I was entertained for well over an hour. I left with an acknowledgement of my own ineptitude for calligraphy, but also with a sense of warmth from the couple’s graciousness. I was also quite pleased to receive a new calligraphy brush and one of the practice mats to keep!

Here’s a video recap of my adventures:

And, for the record, I did get a friend to share my sweets with. One of the guests from Okinawa returned that evening, and we had a great time eating sweets, drinking tea, and chatting!

See you for the final installment of my Kyoto adventures next week!

Kyoto, Day 5 – Nara

Yep, today’s “Kyoto” post is also not about Kyoto. It’s about Nara, another city which I decided to visit on a day trip from Kyoto.

Actually, I did make a stop in Kyoto on my way to Nara. I stopped at Fushimi-Inari, about which I’d heard rave reviews as a tourist attraction. It’s basically a shrine that has many many red torii gates through which one can walk.

Despite having heard that it was a fabulous tourist attraction, I didn’t spend very long at Fushimi Inari. Besides not wanting to walk long on my poor tired feet, I also didn’t care THAT much about all those orange gates. Plus, I was anxious to get onto my final destination, Nara! This is another historic city (though much smaller than Kyoto) which was actually also a former capital. It was the main goal of my day’s itinerary, so I said farewell to the gates of orange and hopped back on the train to Nara.

When I arrived in Nara, I looked at the sightseeing map and decided that I would like to see Heijo Palace. It was a 40-minute walk away, but for some reason that I can’t remember (probably that I’m just such a cheapskate), I decided to walk instead of take a bus. So I forced my weak knee into action and set out.

It was long. And cold. I first came upon one of the gates, which was picturesque against the wintery blue sky.

After scoping out the place a little, I discovered that the main palace buildings were set back a ways – yet more walking! I braved the chilly wind and plodded my way across the railroad tracks and over the fields to the audience hall. I think these buildings are all reconstructions, but they’re still interesting.

One of the tour guides spoke English, and gave me some interesting information. One thing she told me is that the orange structure in the building is where the emperor sat when taking the throne. The emperor who gets crowned next year will sit in a structure just like it, apparently.

I looked into taking public transportation back, but the subway station was far away and I didn’t know which bus to take, so I used my trusty legs again. On I went to my next stop, Todaiji Temple, which houses a giant Buddha statue. I didn’t care about the Buddha, but I wanted to see the building. It was pretty big and impressive:

Here’s Nandaimon Gate:

One of the most interesting things about Nara is the deer! There are many deer near the temple; apparently the deer are considered sacred or something, and are allowed to roam the area, which is called “Deer Park.”  Being around hordes of people everyday, they are quite tame. Here are some photos and videos:

I finished off my Nara trip by getting a bowl of ultra-thin noodles (Miwa somen, which apparently is a specialty in that area) and shrimp tempura. It was a delicious meal after wandering around in the cold!

After eating, I wandered back in the direction of the station, passing some interesting sights – including more deer!

Thus ended Day 5 of the Kyoto excursion! Only two more days to go!

In more current news, February is bumping along at normal clip. This winter has seemed quite long so far, but I’m happy to know that spring is on its way. February 3 was Setsubun, the day that people chase off devils by throwing beans at them.  I actually heard one of the neighborhood men shouting “Oni wa soto!” (“Out with the devils!”) a couple of times. Unlike last year, however, we weren’t asked to participate in the throwing-beans-at-a-fake-devil ceremony at the kindergarten, since we happened be teaching off campus that day. Which meant I didn’t have to see any children cry. Yay!

This weekend was another long weekend, and a coworker and I took a short day trip to Dake Onsen, an onsen town a couple of hours away. It was a very pleasant day, especially since we went to a place that had an outdoor bath – and it was snowing! There’s nothing quite like sitting in a hot bath while snowflakes drift down around you. It was also a day when I realized that, even after two years, I’m STILL prone to foreigner bloops, such as wearing boots into the hotel instead of the required slippers (though in my defense, most hotels and other public places do not require a shoe change). Still, it’s frustrating to still be making “stupid gaijin” mistakes. Good for keeping me humble, I suppose. 🙂

It’s off to work again tomorrow. If I buckle right down, perhaps the rest of February will fly by and we can hurtle happily into March!

 

 

Kyoto, Day 4 (Part 2) – Sea Creatures and Ferris Wheels

As promised last week, here is the post about one of my favorite places in Osaka, the Kaiyukan aquarium!

Let’s plunge right in, shall we?

Here she is!

The outside of the aquarium featured a model of a whale shark, one of the aquarium’s biggest attractions.

The building is eight stories tall, and is meant to be explored from top to bottom. I took a loooong escalator up to the top, then began walking down, meeting many sea friends along the way.

This guy looks supremely happy. I wonder what his philosophy of life is.

And this is his counterpart, the grumpiest fellow in the sea:

The biggest tank had the whale shark, along with various other deep sea creatures.

I happened to be at the aquarium (sort of on purpose) right at the time when the exhibits turned to their night-time display. Although the website had promoted this “night aquarium,” and I thought it might be interesting, in reality I just felt like it was too dark and hampered effective picture taking.

One of the last exhibits was a touch-and-feel room (I touched the top of a ray, but I think it was just annoyed), which also had a penguin exhibit. I was struck by how hilarious the little fellows were. Besides their hunched shoulders, which makes them look perpetually grumpy, the way they hop around on two feet makes them look like little bobblehead figures jumping in and out of the water.

Here’s a video; please excuse the annoying background voice giving the instructions on how to participate in the touch tank, which was in the same room.

The guy below (some sort of seal) was in a climate-controlled room. We actually got to walk through part of it and feel the cool breeze which I assume is always running for the little fella. He was just konked out on the ice, comfortable in his own blubber and as roly-poly as they come. (I think his head is facing away from us in this picture.)

And last but not least…my absolute favorite exhibit – the dolphins! I’d purposely planned my visit so that I would hit the aquarium around dolphin-feeding time – and I was I ever glad that I did! I happened to reach the dolphin tank just minutes before feeding time, so I hung out for a few minutes. At first, the dolphins were just tooling around by themselves, and the other visitors and I were getting a kick out of seeing them fly by, sometimes jumping out of the water with a splash.

Then, my hopes came true! The feeders arrived, and they actually got in the water and had the dolphins do some tricks!

Since pictures (and videos) speak louder than words, here are some of my favorite recordings!

The dolphin “show” left me feeling satisfied and like my money had been well-spent. Perhaps it’s not really a big thing, but to inexperienced me it was rather thrilling, and instantly made dolphins my new favorite animal.

After my wild adventures in the aquarium, I headed toward the Tempozan Marketplace which is right beside the aquarium. First, I got to see the aquarium and marketplace’s awesome outdoor illuminations!

Inside the marketplace, I headed toward the Naniwa food theme park, which is a bunch of food shops set up to look like a retro street from the 1960’s:

As usual, I was undecided about what I wanted to eat, and ended up simply getting kyabetsu-yaki, a pancake-type deal containing shredded “kyabetsu,” or cabbage. Kind of like the okonomiyaki idea, but I’d heard that negi-yaki (a leek pancake, thinner than okonomiyaki) was common in Osaka. I think this was a similar idea. In any case, being the okonomiyaki lover that I am, I enjoyed it!

It had been a long day, but I still had one adventure left in me. Right beside the marketplace is the Tempozan Ferris Wheel, a beautifully lit-up wheel. I had never in my life been on a Ferris wheel, and figured this was my big chance. I’d thought about going on a small one when I visited Hitachi Seaside Park in May 2017, but ended up deciding not to pay the money for it. Not this time. This one was big, it was well-known, and it had views of Osaka City. Not to mention, my discount pass gave me 100 yen off the normal 700-yen charge. I decided to go for it!

After the Ferris wheel adventure, I caught a bus to the station and made the trek back to Kyoto. It had been a long day, and I was exhausted, but I was thankful that I’d been able to do so many of the things that I had been planning on! Perhaps it will inspire the un-adventurous me to be a little more adventurous in the future!

 

 

Kyoto, Day 4 (Part 1) – Castles and More

Today’s title is actually misleading, since it’s not about Kyoto at all.

It’s about Osaka!

When planning my Kyoto trip, I’d decided to do a few day trips to some major cities in the Kansai area. Osaka was one of those cities. I’d heard it was a more modern city than Kyoto, but had some attractions that made it a fun city to visit. I made a list of the activities I wanted to do, knowing it would be an activity-packed day – and was it ever!!

On Thursday morning, my “Osaka trip” day, I got started a bit later than I would have ideally wanted, but I’d had difficulty sleeping the night before and wasn’t about to make myself get up early. From Kyoto Station, I popped onto a train that would get me to Osaka in about 30 minutes. When I landed in Osaka, I got some sightseeing pamphlets and a transportation/attractions discount pass at the station, and from there, I took the subway to the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living, where I’d heard there was a replica Edo-era village inside the building.

View of the village from an upper floor – lighted to make it look like night time!
One of the village shops.
Replica of the village bath house.
Lookout tower.
Living area set up for “dinner” – complete with a stuffed cat on the front left cushion!
In the displays portion of the museum, a model of some sort of exhibition several decades ago.

The museum was mildly interesting, but it was fairly small and not all that exciting. I spent probably less than an hour there before getting on another subway and heading to my next stop – Osaka Castle. I first saw it from the walking path across the moat, and it was an impressive sight!

Although my legs had still not recovered from all the walking I’d been doing, I pushed myself to walk up to and around the castle. My left knee hurt, which made it hard to bend when I walked up and down steps. Sometimes I just went up and down one-sided, leading with my left leg only, like a little kid who was learning to walk. Don’t judge me, other tourists. I’m here on vacation and I don’t care what my body says, I’m going to enjoy it!

View of some of the modern buildings of Osaka, in stark contrast to the historical castle opposite them.

Finally, I’d made my way back toward the main street again.  I was really excited to get to my next stop, but the Osaka Museum of History, which I’d also been interested in visiting, was close by. Should I go? I debated for awhile, wavering between my desire to save time and money and my interest in going. I’d heard it wasn’t that great, and of course I like to save a yen or two where I can. On the other hand, my pass DID give me a slight discount, and – should I go or not?

“I’ve taken all the trouble to come to Osaka, I’m (probably) only going to be here once, and the museum’s right here staring me in the face.” Using that as my deciding argument, I paid the 540-yen fee and went into the museum. As I’d suspected, it really wasn’t that special, and if I’d known ahead of time what it was like, I probably wouldn’t have gone. But I don’t know unless I try, right? I consider it an improvement that at least I’m trying to be more adventurous and risk-taking, instead of hoarding my money all the time!

The museum’s exterior.
Models in the museum.
View of the city (and castle) from an upper floor of the museum.
Die-cut display.
Model street of the mid-twentieth century.

After my historical adventures, I finally made it to the highlight of the day – the Kaiyukan, or Osaka Aquarium! I’d heard that it was a good one, and although the price tag was hefty, I was definitely not disappointed!

In fact, there’s SO much I want to show you about the aquarium that I’m going to make it into its own separate post. Be sure to check in next week to read all about my adventures with whale sharks, penguins, dolphins, and more!

 

 

 

 

Kyoto, Day 3 – Tea Ceremony!

Hello, everyone! Here’s installment #3 of my Kyoto adventures!

Compared to my other travel days, day three of my trip (Wednesday, the day after Christmas) was pretty quiet. My morning task was to switch guest houses, since (due to to my indecisive planning tendencies) I’d only booked the first one for two nights. I was kind of excited about my second guest house, because I’d heard it was an old townhouse, and I like old things that have character.

Well – it certainly was old. At first I was a little taken aback, but once I got used to it, I liked it! After all, character counts for something, right?

Here’s a little tour!

The guest house was comprised of several detached buildings, so the building I stayed in was actually around the corner and across the street from the building that the front desk was in.

The entrance area contained the kitchen area as well, all set on a rather unwelcoming cement floor.

To get to the bathroom, you had to pass through the entrance/kitchen area, then go OUTSIDE and across a little courtyard space (the bathroom door is on the left in the picture below). As it was December, you can imagine that these forays to use the “necessary” were a bit nippy. It’s a good thing Japan has heated toilet seats!

Off to the right of the entryway, there was a shared Japanese-style (tatami mat) living space, which one stepped up onto (sans shoes, of course!). Often I had this room to myself, and I really enjoyed it, because there was a kotatsu, or heated table. In cold Japanese houses, it’s wonderful to be able to sit at the table, snuggle one’s legs under the surrounding blanket, and bask in the toasty heat!

This was the bunk-bed style bedroom!

My bed was in one of the little cubbies, which I actually enjoyed. It’s very much like the capsule-hotel idea that is so prevalent here. It felt quite cozy in my cubby, though the mattress was frighteningly thin:

It was a little inconvenient to share a room, although it was a women’s-only room and most of the time there were only a couple of other guests. One of the most annoying things was that the keys we were given all had little bells on them, so whenever someone unlocked the door to our dorm room, no matter what time of day or night, those trying to repose in their cubbies were disturbed by a rather jarring jingle. Perhaps it was a safety feature so no one could sneak into the room unannounced; either that or it was a ghastly oversight on the part of the guest house owners.

On Wednesday afternoon, I hopped on a bus to another part of town, where I planned to participate in a tea ceremony. Of course, being Kyoto, there were all sorts of traditional activities for tourists to participate in, if one was willing to pay the money. Since most of them were way overpriced, I did a little digging around to discover some cheaper options, and found out that a local “international community house” was holding a tea ceremony whereby students of a tea ceremony class would be demonstrating the ceremony for free! I happily signed up to join.

It turns out that the Kyoto International Community House was located very near to some other famous attractions, such as art museums and the Kyoto Zoo. My bus stopped along the street below, right near this ginormous torii gate which marks the entrance to the Heian-jingu Shrine!

I had some time before the ceremony started, so I began walking along the street in the direction of the International Community House. The street was bordered by a canal, across which I could look and see some of the animals in the Kyoto Zoo. It made me a bit sad, since it looked like they didn’t have much space in their pens. I’d heard it wasn’t a very good zoo, so I had no desire to go.

Instead, I walked to Nanzenji Temple, which had some very large buildings.

Near the temple was an aqueduct, which was rather interesting:

The top of the aqueduct:

I also decided to go in search of something called the “philosopher’s path,” which was supposed to be a nice little walking trail. I had to walk about 20 minutes just to get there, and by the end was kind of regretting my decision, especially since I couldn’t see anything that special about the trail. I followed the path for a few minutes, then turned and went right back the way I had come. After three days of constant walking, my legs were starting to feel it, and I didn’t want to subject myself to more walking than I needed to.

Around 3 pm, I made my way back to the community house for the tea ceremony. It turned out to be a bit underwhelming. First of all, the international students who were performing the ceremony weren’t all that good at it. And they weren’t even dressed up in kimono! The whole idea of doing the very precise and deliberate tea ceremony is to portray gracefulness and elegance, so in my opinion having a tea ceremony without wearing kimono is kind of pointless. But who am I to judge?

One of the upsides of the event was that a Japanese lady explained to us in English some of the ceremony’s customs, so we were able to participate using the appropriate manners (or at least try!). The tea ceremony is highly ritualistic, and being a guest involves bowing at the right times, saying the correct phrases, holding your tea cup just so, turning it a specific number of times, wiping the rim off when you’re done, turning it back, and so on. I must say, I think I’m acquiring a bit of a taste for the “real” green tea, which, although thick and rather bitter, has a nice frothy texture due to being beaten with a tea whisk.

All in all, it was a good experience, and really, since I didn’t pay a thing other than my bus fare, how could I complain? It had been a good day, and one of my “budget” days so that I could spend more money on other days, such as the following day’s journey to the big city of…

OSAKA!

But that’s a story for next week! 🙂

 

 

Kyoto, Day 2 – Bamboo and Gold Temples

My second day in Kyoto happened to be on Christmas Day. It was weird to spend Christmas away from family, and needless to say it didn’t really feel like Christmas this year. However, I was happy to have the chance to go to Kyoto, and it was fun to do something new and different even though I did miss my family.

One of my teammates was also in the Kyoto area around the same time, so we decided to meet up and spend part of the day together in the Arayashima district of Kyoto to do some sightseeing. Since she was staying in a different city, she got in touch with me on Christmas morning to give me her ETA. I was much closer to Arayashima than she was, so I hung out at my guest house for a while before locating the nearest bus stop. I waited, but the bus I was supposed to get on didn’t come. I kept waiting, and still no bus to my destination. I finally got a text from my friend that she had already arrived at Arayashima! I pulled out my phone to check other transportation options, thinking I might catch the subway instead. As I was researching on my phone, a man who was sweeping the sidewalk behind me (I saw so many people sweeping their sidewalks in Kyoto!) asked where I was going. Through some basic English, he communicated that I needed to go “up” the pedestrian walkway and then “down” to the other side of the street to get to a different bus stop. I smiled gratefully as I dashed off to the stop, where I was picked up promptly by the next bus headed to Arayashima.

Finally, about 40 minutes later, I met my friend in Arayashima. Our first stop was one of the major attractions of the area – a giant bamboo grove. It wasn’t very large area-wise, but the bamboo was TALL and towered regally overhead.

After traversing through the bamboo grove, we did a little exploring and ended up climbing many steps to the top of a hill behind the grove. From there we had an excellent view of some hills and a river, and spent a few minutes taking pictures and eating a snack while enjoying the view. The river was so clear that if you look hard enough in the photo, you can see the rocks below the surface of the water!

We were somewhere near a monkey park, although we didn’t actually go to it. Apparently, there was a chance that monkeys might be in the vicinity, though, because we saw this sign:

After our little break, we walked back downhill and headed back toward the town area, crossing a historic bridge. As soon as we’d crossed, we decided it was about time for something to fill our hungry tummies, so we headed back across the bridge to an okonimiyaki joint in the main part of town.

What is okonomiyaki, you ask?

Only my favorite food EVER!!

Actually, it’s not. But I do like it quite a bit, and even have my own homemade version that I whip up quite frequently. I’d had okonomiyaki at a restaurant during my first trip to Japan (way back in 2009!), but had not had it since, other than the kind I make at home. So it was definitely on my “bucket list” of things to do in Japan this time around.

Basically, okonomiyaki is like a cabbage “pancake.” To make it, you whip up a thick pancake-type batter and throw in shredded cabbage and whatever else you want. (“Okonomiyaki” literally means “baked [thing] as you like it”). Some sort of meat, such as beef, pork, or seafood, is commonly added. I make my homemade version with onions, shredded carrots, and bacon. You spread the batter in a frying pan and cook it up on both sides, then add mayo (a perennial Japanese favorite) and okonomiyaki sauce (somewhat like barbecue sauce).

At the place my friend and I went to, I was a little disappointed because, instead of letting us fry up our own okonomiyaki on the hot grill that was at our table, they fried it for us and delivered it to our table already cooked. Oh well. It was still tasty!

After our venture in Arayashima, we headed to Kinkakuji, the golden pavilion temple that’s one of the most famous landmarks in Kyoto. I wasn’t necessarily sure if I wanted to pay the 400 yen to go see it. This was not to go in it, mind you – this was just to get close enough to see the thing! However, even though I’m not a huge temple/shrine fan, I’d decided that this building was noteworthy enough for me part with four hundred of my hard-earned yen.

As it turns out, I ended up being quite happy with my decision. There were TONS of people, but I was still able to sneak in some shots of the glistening temple. It was kind of a landmark experience for me, because it made me realize that these famous places that I’ve had images of for so long – for example, on Japanese postcards that I had as a child – are places that I’m actually seeing IN PERSON. It wasn’t that I had dreamed of seeing that particular place for a long time, but rather that I’ve dreamed of seeing Japan for so long – and even though I’ve been in Japan for quite some time, being able to travel and do some sightseeing gave me a fresh realization that my dream of being in Japan has actually come true.

After Kinkakuji, my friend headed home, but I decided to stay in the area and walk to Kitano Tenmangu shrine, where I’d heard that there was a large flea market every month on the 25th. I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to visit it, since I was fortunate enough to be there on the 25th! Because it was a little later in the day, some of the vendors were finishing up, but there were still many, many vendors who were open for business. It was fun to walk through and browse, even though I didn’t see anything that I just had to have. I wandered around and got a few shots of the shrine:

I saw some people in costume working there, although I’m not sure if they were ordinary workers or if they were just performing for a special occasion:

According to the zodiac calendar, it’s the year of the wild boar, so I saw pictures of boars in many different places throughout my stay!

After the market, I proceeded to walk to the Nishijin Textile Center, which I’d heard was an interesting place to visit. I got there around closing time, so some of the attractions were finished for the day, but there was a lady demonstrating how to use a foot-powered loom to make an obi (the belt of a kimono). It was quite fascinating, and I stood for some time watching her and trying to figure out how it worked, though I’m afraid my poor un-mechanically minded self could not make much sense of it all. If anyone knows anything about looms, please enlighten me!

I finally walked home, cold, tired, and hungry. I stopped at a convenience store – oh Japan, how I love your convenience stores! – and, since it was Christmas, I bought the traditional Japanese Christmas food, fried chicken. With an accompanying salad and a chocolate orange ice cream cup to go with it, I was quite happy!

It hadn’t been a traditional Christmas, but it had been a great day, and I went to bed a happy traveller!

 

Kyoto, Day 1 – Hello, Kyoto!

Hello, friends!

Welcome to a new mini-series of posts about my winter vacation trip to Kyoto! Happily, I gathered enough material to write about for several posts, so the upcoming weeks will contain posts about the various things I did on the trip! I was gone for seven whole days, so I’d like to write one post about each day. We’ll see if it actually turns out that way, but that’s my goal!

First, a little background: Kyoto is an old city, the former capital of Japan (which is now Tokyo). It’s in what is called the Kansai region, and is located to the southwest of Tokyo. Since I live several hours north of Tokyo, it’s quite a distance from my house, which is why I waited for a long vacation to go. By shinkansen (bullet train), it takes 4 hours and is 20,700 yen, or about 190 dollars. Being the cheapskate that I am, I decided to do the less expensive but slower option, which is an overnight bus that takes 9.5 hours and is about 11,600 yen (107 dollars). Although I had to sleep on the bus, which is of course not as comfortable as a bed, the plus side to this is that since I got to my destination early in the morning, and at the end of my stay left on the return bus at 10 at night, it basically gave me two extra full days, for which I did not have to pay for accommodations, in the Kyoto area. Because it gave me a better bargain for my money (not that saving money is CONSTANTLY on my mind, you know!), I was quite tickled with the arrangement.

On Sunday, December 23, I left at 9 p.m. from the Koriyama train station and hopped on the (double decker!) bus. Although I didn’t sleep all that soundly, I was able to get some sleep, and arrived at Kyoto Station around 6:30 a.m. on December 24. Unfortunately, nothing was open at that hour, and I couldn’t check into my guest house until 9:30! I found a place to sit in the train station and camped out until one of the station’s bakeries opened. I got a pastry and sat there for awhile, then went to the tourist information center and grabbed some brochures before heading to the guest house. Thankfully, they let me drop my luggage off early so I didn’t have to tote it around all day, and they were nice enough to let me check in as well!

After looking at Google Maps (best direction finder EVER!) on my phone, I discovered that one of the areas I wanted to visit in Kyoto was only half an hour’s walk from my guest house. Since I’d been expecting to take the bus, I was pleased that it was close enough to walk. I’ll save my 230 yen, thank you! I began walking and arrived in the Higashiyama district in the late morning. The area was filled with restaurants and souvenir shops lining the streets, with one of the main streets leading up to Kiyomizudera Temple.

Let me tell you straight up, I don’t consider myself a temple/shrine aficionado. First of all, I don’t believe in what they embody – I know that God is a living Being and does not exist in idols or spirits of nature. Also, I’ve seen my share of temples and shrines here in Japan, so I’ve kind of adopted the attitude, “Seen one, seen them all.” That being said, as I reached the top of the street in Higashiyama and saw Kiyomizudera looming on the hill ahead of me, it kind of took my breath away. First of all, it was big!! Also, it seemed to be positioned just right so that its orange features stood out against the blue of the sky. I guess there’s something to be said for sheer size and architecture which still has the power to impress even the usually unimpressed me.

Here is the background pagoda up close:

I didn’t do much exploring here; in fact, I didn’t even get to the main temple hall, which is apparently quite famous (although I think it was under construction). But as I said before, not being a huge temple fan, I didn’t feel that I was missing out on much.

Another temple, Yasaka Pagoda, was on a side street:

Kimono rental shops were all over, and girls in kimono were EVERYWHERE!

I spent a good amount of time wandering the streets and poking through the various souvenir shops, especially Hello Kitty! I even got my picture taken with the “tea ceremony” version of Hello Kitty, which a kind store attendant took for me.

I did some more walking to different landmarks – so much so that I’ve kind of forgotten where I went and why I went there. Here is one stop I made at the Ryozen Kannon Temple, where one can pay to go inside and see Kannon, the “Goddess of Mercy.” I didn’t care to go in, but I could see her peeking out from behind the gate:

The main perk to visiting this temple was the public restroom, which had an electrical outlet for me to recharge my phone!

Even though it was the end of December, there was still a little beautiful fall foliage left:

Another temple (shrine?) whose name I can’t remember:

By the end of the day, my little legs were pretty much dead from walking, since I also opted to walk home instead of riding the bus. I walked back through the Gion area, which is known for its large population of geisha (called geiko in Kyoto), or high-class entertainers. I read a book about geisha during my stay, which helped inform me of this subculture and perked my interest in seeing a geiko or maiko (geiko trainee). According to the information I read, geisha learn a lot of skills such as dance, tea ceremony, and playing musical instruments, and they entertain at classy, sometimes high-profile meetings and dinners in special tea rooms. I think the Western impression is that these women give sexual favors as well, but according to what I read, that is not part of the job description.

I kept my eyes peeled for a peek at a geiko or maiko, since I’d heard that it was possible to spy one walking to an evening appointment, but the problem was that many, many people in that area rent kimono for the day and waltz around in those. When I was walking down a side street earlier in the day, I did see a person who was dressed like a maiko in the midst of a photo shoot. I think she was just dressed up, not an actual maiko, but I sneaked in a quick picture anyway and let my imagination pretend that she was the real thing. Don’t burst my bubble, OK?

Here is yet another shrine, Yasaka Shrine, near the Gion district:

By the time I tottered back to the general area of my guest house, I was one tired and hungry puppy. After researching dinner options on my phone, I decided to go to a ramen shop which was – oh, yes – BACK in the direction I had come from. Not that far, fortunately, but it was cold. And dark. Back I went, to a little hole-in-the-wall ramen shop so characteristic of Japan. I popped inside and ordered the smallest bowl of ramen that they had, since ramen portions tend to be gigantic. With its flavorful pork, hard-boiled egg, and veggies swimming in bowl of delicious broth and noodles, it hit the spot!

The only other customer was a middle-aged lady sitting at the counter. She chatted with me a little, both in Japanese and in English. She even gave me her name card and told me I could call her. Then she proceeded to tell me – if I understood her correctly – that she used to be a geisha! I tried asking her more about it, but didn’t really understand all of her answers. Well, maybe I was just hyper-alert to the subject since I was in geisha-hunting mode, but it still excited me to think maybe I was talking to a former geisha.

After satisfying my stomach with ramen, I finally landed back at my guest house, cozying up in the little cubby which I had rented. It wasn’t the typical dorm room, but rather a private little loft room – not big enough to stand in, but with its own door and lock so I could feel totally safe and at ease…

And so ended Day 1!

Samurai Parading and Boat Rowing

Last weekend, on our second long weekend in a row (yay!), our employers took us to Aizu’s annual samurai parade. Since we went last year, and I posted some pictures and videos of it then, I decided to focus on some different aspects of the parade.

First, the food!

The performances were pretty much the same as last year. But I still filmed a couple of my favorites:

In the video below, I didn’t realize until after I filmed that there is an annoying squeaky toy sound throughout. I guess one of the kids seated near us must have found the toy more interesting than the parade. In any case, it’s a good show!

This year, instead of visiting the nearby castle after the parade, our employers took us to Goshikinuma, a group of lakes in the highlands of Mount Bandai. First we ate at an excellent restaurant which served hamburg, which is kind of like meatloaf but less meatloaf-y. I guess we might call it Salisbury steak in the U.S.

Anyway, after our delicious lunch of hamburg, fresh crusty bread, and cake, we went to the lake. Unfortunately, we only had about an hour to spend, but we used our time wisely by going on a rowboat adventure and then hiking for the remaining twenty minutes.

It was a long day, but packed full of good experiences. I came back with a headache but lots of good memories. I’d really wanted to see the Goshikinuma lakes, so it was nice to be able to cross that off my bucket list, even though I didn’t get to spend nearly as long as I’d wanted to! But it was great to enjoy one of the final warm days of the season. It’s only going to keep getting cooler from here, so I’ll take summer while it lasts!

Hello Home, I’m Back From Home

Hello everyone! Three weeks later (from my last post), I’m finally back in Blog World! It’s been a busy three weeks, stuffed with my all-too-quick trip to the States and my subsequent first week back at work. Time to take a breather!

My trip home was amazing! I got to see my youngest brother get married, and to squeeze in a quick visit to my grandparents who live out of state. I also got to spend quality time with my siblings, and to meet my niece for the first time! Although my visit was a mere seven days, I was thankful for everything I got to experience while I was home. Needless to say, I also ate a fair amount of pizza – my most-missed American food – and blackberry chip and cherry chip ice cream.

The trip out was a bit emotionally stressful, as a typhoon was rolling into Tokyo right around the same date that my flight was supposed to go out. However, when I arrived in Tokyo, it was only a bit rainy and windy, so my flight departed on time and I arrived in the States safe, sound, and on schedule.

On the way back, it appeared to be smooth sailing as well – genial summer weather, with my 5:47 a.m. flight to D.C. making good time and delivering us to the city a bit early. I located my departure gate for Chicago and wandered around, looking for an open spot to sit and charge my laptop. I did some Japanese study online for awhile, then at boarding time got up and made my way to the correct gate – just in time to hear that the flight had been delayed for an hour due to maintenance issues. “Any customers with concerns about missing connecting flights, please go to the service desk,” we were told. Well, I was supposed to have a two-hour layover in Chicago before my Japan flight, so hopefully I’d have time. But still, if I had to switch terminals, it could be a bit tight. I hopped into the customer service line, just in case.

As I was standing in the giant line leading up to the customer service desk (fortunately more toward the front than the back), the gentleman behind me said, “They just delayed the flight by another half hour.” OK, so maybe I WOULD miss my connection. When I got to the desk, the agent told me that he would switch me to the next flight to Japan, which left half an hour later. I agreed and hoped that would be an easy solution. I went back to the gate to wait, snagging some complimentary snacks which the airport personnel kindly put out as an apology for the wait.

At the appointed time to board, there was still no sign of action, and the maintenance workers were still roaming about near our plane. The agents kept announcing that they were waiting to hear what was going on. Finally, about twenty minutes later, we boarded, only to wait for ANOTHER maintenance issue to be dealt with. Finally, we taxiied for a few yards, then stopped for no apparent reason. The pilot announced that there had been another issue they’d had to run by someone or other, and, oh yes, due to weather in Chicago, we might not be allowed to take off. Fortunately, a few minutes later, we began taxiing for real, and finally took off. A crying baby (just a couple of rows behind me) and a jolty landing polished the whole trip off nicely.

Oh, but wait. We were originally supposed to land at 10:50 a.m., and it’s now 3:00 p.m. The airline had already emailed me that I’d been rescheduled for another flight to Japan – at one p.m. THE NEXT DAY. Considering that I had only planned one gap day in between my return to Japan and the start of work, I didn’t really want to waste a full day hanging around in Chicago. I went to the service desk. “Do you have anything earlier?” Well, only the one at 12:40 p.m. tomorrow.

Oh.

I took the hotel voucher and the one meal voucher that they gave me, and picked up a hamburger and M&M McFlurry from McDonald’s before catching a shuttle to my hotel. Disappointed in the turn of events, but thankful to at least have a free hotel stay, I lounged around until the next day, when I finally got on a Japan-bound flight. After 12 hours in the air and another 5 hours on trains (or waiting for them), I made it back to my little Japanese apartment and soon collapsed into bed.

The next day it was back to work, although all things considered, I didn’t feel as bad as I could have. Now, a week later, my body is finally re-adjusting back to Japanese time, and I think my body and mind are back in the swing of things. I’m a bit emotionally tumultuous every time I return home, trying to remember who I am and to re-adjust from being an American living in Japan to just being an American. It doesn’t take me long to slide back into the routine of American life, although I find myself losing the Japanese part of me, which I don’t want either! I guess that will all be stuff to deal with when I go back to America for good and have to deal with all that re-entry and reverse culture shock business.  For now, I’m two people living in two worlds. I think of my little apartment here in Japan as home, and yet my home in America will always be more home than any other home is. At least for now. 🙂

Looking ahead, I’m in the home stretch – the final half-year of my two years here. I never thought I’d say that I’m ready to be back in America after only two years, but oddly, I am. It was really hard for me to leave home (the American one) this time, and I’m already looking forward to things I might do when I get back. However, I know how easy it is to look with longing on past and future lives, and to take for granted the one we’re living now. So my goal for the next seven months is to really capitalize on my time here, learning Japanese, enjoying my friends, and taking advantage of travel and cultural opportunities as they come up.

Here’s to making the most of the now, and to enjoying the next half a year together. Talk to you all next week!