Sunday, March 28, 2010


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The following blog is an account of my travels around Japan from March 19th to March 28th. Some of what you will read was written while traveling and some will be recollections of events so the writing style and tense may change. Also, I was a huge procrastinator and wrote the bulk of this entry more than a month after the vacation. So much of the entry past the first few days lacks much emotional description due to temporal distance from the events and all that entails in terms of detailed recall. Hopefully the pictures will suffice :)

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Day 1: In Transit

My i-Pod is on, Fleet Foxes serenade me as I look out the window of the train traveling northeast on the JR line towards Nagoya. The myriad trees that pass look of a place not unlike one I'd find back home in the States until the mountains cut away to a momentary valley; traditional Japanese houses with those peculiar tiled roofs sit beside fields of lush grass and fertile earth; a lone palm tree, curved toward one house, partly shielding it, looks like a protective samurai and reminds me that I'm far, far from home. It is an exhilarating feeling, knowing that I'm traveling through a foreign country, living off food bought from convenience stores until I've reached one of the numerous destinations planned for the next 10 days.

The amount of sleep I had last night is sufficiently lacking as to make the numerous cups of coffee I've consumed both too much and not enough simultaneously. We've been riding for 8 hours and I've caught a few cat naps, making the best of the uncomfortable and narrow train benches that are in no way conducive to a comfortable 16 hour transit. But life is good. I'm on my way to Tokyo, a place I've wanted to visit for as long as I can remember and I'm with two good friends, Elaine and Coralie. This is going to be a good trip.

Day 2: Shinjuku, Tokyo Tower, and Fukuroda Falls

We just arrived by night bus at Shinjuku station. I was lucky enough to have had the seat next to me vacant and was able to lay sideways. I slept fairly well, waking only when the bus made its regular rest stops. I'm currently sitting across from the Shinjuku post office eating an apple pie strudel and drinking black coffee that I bought from a Lawsons. Elaine's aunt and uncle will be here in a couple of hours to take us to their home in Ibaraki. It's early and a little chilly so as soon as we're done eating we're going to walk around and see what there is to see around Shinjuku.

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Thinking we were going straight to Ibaraki once Elaine's aunt and uncle picked us up I was excited to hear that they wanted to take us to see Tokyo Tower first. The tower looms 333 meters, sitting against the Tokyo skyline. Since there is no better view in all of Tokyo we had to go up. We paid around 1,500 yen and took an elevator to the first observatory point 150 meters above the ground. Here we had a 360 degree view of the capital of Japan and its endless tide of buildings sprawling as far as the eye can see in three directions. The south facing view eventually leads to the man-made island of Odaiba. Off in the distance was a greyish mist that dissipated as it rose giving the illusion of an infinite expanse being just barely hidden from view. Were it not for this particulate curtain we would have been able to see Mt. Fuji off to the West.

After 1 1/2 hours of waiting we were able to take the elevator up to the second observatory, this one 250 meters up. Due to the narrowing of the tower as it rose the circumference of this one was smaller so fewer people are allowed in it at once, thus the wait. But this does offer a more personal experience. The 100 meter difference allowed us to see ever more of the city and it was an amazing sight.

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That night our amazing hosts took us to the third largest waterfall in Japan, Fukuroda Falls (袋田の滝). The drive there took us through an amazing Japanese countryside, スゴク田舎!Farmhouses and fields lay before beautiful woods of tall pine; beautiful greens and yellows painted the earth while the houses blended brown with the woods; mountains, rivers, ponds, creeks and shallows dotted the scenery. As we passed by I felt a strange sense of nostalgia coupled with a feeling of kinship with the people of this place. I remembered my own childhood, playing in the woods, exploring everywhere I could and I imagined the kids who grew up here doing the same thing.

We arrived in a small alcove of a town consisting of basically one street with various businesses on either side offering basic food needs, and traditional Japanese gifts and services. We parked and walked up the dark street; some shop owners were closing up for the night, counting their tills and closing the curtains.

Eventually we reached a tunnel that bended slightly as it rose to a high balcony observation point. Numerous heavy streams poured from the top of the cliff down onto the boulders and rocks sitting in the wide, shallow ledge below which then emptied into the residing river that disappeared into the darkness beyond. We stood and admired the enormity of this waterfall for a while. I inhaled the fresh misty air and relished the smell of nature that is lacking in the larger cities here. We regretfully had to leave and we returned to the bottom by the same path we had traversed coming up.

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Before heading to our hosts' home they treated us to an onsen (hot spring bath) at a spot somewhat near Fukuroda Falls. Onsen is one aspect of Japanese culture that takes some getting used to. I just met Ryuuji, Elaine's uncle, and already I was going to be bathing with him, completely nude with dozens of other men I didn't know. But, once you get past the initial embarrassment, the discomfort abates and the onsen becomes a really relaxing and enjoyable experience.

Day 3: Kairaku Park and Senba Park

The next day we woke up early and ate a breakfast at the house. We piled in the car and drove to a location called Senba Park. A large pond sat in the middle filled with both white and black swans and large Koi.

We made our way through to an area called Kairaku which was a beautiful spot filled with row after row of blooming trees. Throughout the entire park every view was picturesque; any angle allowed for a varying composition, each just as wonderful as the last.

We spent a few hours exploring the many areas of the large park before heading back to the car. We then spent a couple more hours driving to yet another great onsen. We ate dinner and returned to the house and went to sleep. In the morning we would catch a ride to Tokyo for our first of two full days there.

Day 4: Tokyo Part I

For our first day in Tokyo, Elaine's aunt and uncle offered to be our tour guides, for which we were very thankful. They were gracious enough to drive us from location to location and also bought us lunch and dinner. Our first stop was the Nippon Television Tower. There was a large crowd gathered outside awaiting a live taping of some popular TV show; we didn't stick around long enough to see it begin though.

Next we went to the very famous shopping district called Ginza. There were all sorts of very high-end clothing and jewelry stores there, and many very fashionable people walking around wearing the said apparel.

After Ginza we parked the car and walked to the Edo castle grounds which was actually mainly parking lot. The castle has since been destroyed but there were still moats and bridges left. The area was really beautiful and it's amazing to think of all the historical events that took place on the ground under our feet.

We walked over to the nearby Hibiya Park for a little exploring. There was a tall hill in the center which we climbed and looked out over our surroundings. There was also a Freedom Bell that was erected in 1776 according to the inscription.

We got back in the car and headed to Roppongi to check out the Asahi television studio. We saw various statues of famous characters from Japanese television, such as Doraemon. There was also a showcase for a new airline going on. Elaine and Coralie got free henna tattoos done inside.

Our next stop was the man-made island of Odaiba. There were several of these types of islands made for defensive purposes during Word War II. This one was turned into a mini-city with many shopping areas, theaters, arcades and the Fuji Media Holdings building. There is also a replica of the Statue of Liberty near the water.

Our last stop of the night was Asakusa. There is a long line of souvenir stands leading to a large multi-tiered pagoda that was beautifully illuminated.

After Asakusa we found our hotel that we were to be staying at for the night. It was a really great place in Asakusa with eight public computers with internet access and a convenience store nearby. We shared a room with four strangers but everyone that we met seemed really cool. We went to sleep and looked forward to another day in Tokyo.

Day 5: Tokyo Part II

We again woke up early and headed to the Tokyo loop line (which was to be our main mode of transportation for the day). We decided to check out the very famous Meiji Shrine first.

Inside the Meiji grounds was a beautiful garden that we explored.

Next we went to the well-known youth fashion district called Harajuku. Basically, any of the weird or counter-fashion trends in Japan have there roots in Harajuku. We explored some of the shops and grabbed lunch in one of the malls nearby.

After Harajuku we checked out Ebisu, which is famous for Yebisu beer.

Akihabara was next: the world-famous electronic/otaku district of Japan. This place consists almost entirely of electronic, video game, manga, and anime shops. And they are so numerous it would be pointless to try to put a number to them. I went into a couple of the shops just to see what they were like. Unfortunately I was very limited on funds for the whole trip so I wasn't able to purchase anything, despite the numerous game soundtracks that I wanted >_<

We went to Ueno and walked around the beautiful blooming tree-lined streets.

The last place we went was Shibuya. It was dark and raining so all we could do was exit the station and view the famous crosswalk where, at its busiest, thousands of people cross at once.

We returned to our hotel and looked forward to arriving in Osaka the next evening.

Day 6: Transit and Osaka

We overslept our alarm and so we spend the better part of the day riding trains to Osaka. We arrived when it was already getting dark so had very little time to do much exploring around the city that day. We did meet up with our friends Simona, Laura, and Charlene, who were also vacationing around Japan, for some delicious okonomiyaki at a nearby restaurant. This restaurant happened to have a very comfortable bathroom that Charlene and I were so impressed by that we decided to take our picture in it!

And, of course, I had to get my picture in front of the famous Glico Running Man sign!

Since money was our main concern when it came to finding places to sleep we happened upon a place called the Diamond Hotel on the internet. We booked the place for several nights hoping it wouldn't be a bad as the 1,000 yen per night price tag suggested in may be. We arrived and...well, it was pretty bad. The rooms being cold, narrow, and musty (and a little frightening) was enough to cause us to all pile into one of them that night and sleep side-by-side. The picture should be descriptive enough...

Day 7: Nara and Osaka

Unfortunately the Diamond Hotel turned out to be more like one of those cheap plastic rings you get in the quarter machines at the supermarket. Coralie refused to spend another night there so she went out and happened to find a pretty decent place across the street, The Liberty Hotel, for a slightly pricier nightly cost of 1,600 yen. But, it was an extra 600 yen we gladly spent. We got charged 500 yen each for canceling our reservation at the other place, but, again, it was worth it if for nothing else but to have tatami on the floor and heaters in the ceiling.

After transporting our luggage to the hotel we jumped on the train and headed to Nara. Unfortunately it rained all day, but that didn't stop us from making the most of our day. We began with the 5-storied Pagoda.

Afterward we made our way toward Toudaiji Temple. On the way we met hundreds of the free-roaming deer that Nara is famous for. They covered many of the streets and were completely fearless of the people around them. There were many places where you could buy feed for them as well.

Toudaiji Temple is a beautiful structure with large grounds before it, a canal on each side with a long walk leading up to the entrance. Inside the temple are many large statues including one of the largest wooden Buddhas in the world.

Not wanting to be out in the rain anymore, we decided to head back to Osaka. Luckily by the time we arrived the rain had died down a bit and we were able to go out and explore a bit of Osaka. We went to The Island-Garden Forest that was underneath the Umeda Sky Building before going inside.

We climbed to the top of the building and admired the view of Osaka from there.

That night we met up with one of Elaine's friend who was also from the Philippines and who was studying in Osaka. We ate at a nice restaurant before parting ways while they caught up with each other. Coralie and I headed back to the hotel and went to bed.

Two funny signs hanging in the restaurant where we ate:

"Meat versus Fish"

"Extra Large!! Godzilla Eggs"

Day 8: Kyoto Part I

Our final city that we'd visit during the vacation would be Kyoto. I've wanted to see this city for as long as I can remember and I was super excited to get on the train and to finally arrive there. Kyoto is a very busy town due to all of the tourists; it is also a huge, sprawling city with "must-see" temples and shrines everywhere. Thus, it is very difficult to see very many of the places in a single day.

I was able to meet up with a great friend of mine from last year named Mark. He was in my Intensive Japanese course at University of Michigan and was doing a one-semester study abroad in Hikone in Shiga prefecture. I hadn't seen him since the end of the semester last year, over 8 months earlier. We spent the entire day speaking only in Japanese since he had told me that hardly any of his classmates wanted to speak in it. It was amazing practice for all of us and, since that day, I've noticed a monumental improvement in my own speaking ability. In retrospect, that day of speaking only Japanese was the catalyst in the vast improvements I've made since :)

Here are a few pictures of some random areas throughout the city; the first one is Kyoto Station:

Our first of two stops was Ginkakuji Temple. The temple itself was beautiful with a large zen rock garden within its walls. The best part for me, though, was the nature-filled path that you could walk through taking you out of the temple grounds.

After a little exploring around the city and eating we headed to Kiyomizu Temple. By this time it was already night and the temple was illuminated. The location was at a fairly high elevation so we could look out over the city, admiring it at night.

We parted ways with Mark and headed back to Osaka and slept in our luxurious 1,600 yen/night hotel.

Day 9: Kyoto Part II

The day before we saw Ginkakuji Temple (silver) so today we wanted to see Kinkakuji Temple (gold). The temple sits out in the middle of a pond atop a jutting peninsula. The top two levels are plated in pure gold, a golden bird adorns the roof and the walls glimmer in the light.

Like Ginkakuji, this location also had a trail to walk after viewing the temple.

Our next stop was Ryoanji Temple. This place, like Ginkakuji, also had a wonderful zen rock garden. And it, too, had a great nature trail that was full of wondrous variety of tree and plant life. I found myself with a surprising fascination and appreciation for the texture and color of moss. The moss that grows in Kyoto is beautiful and really gives the natural areas a living, breathing skin that is unmatched.

After this we headed back to Osaka for our final night's stay in our tatami floored, heated paradise of a hotel.

Day 10: Back to Fukuoka

Our tenth day of the trip was a long train ride back to Fukuoka. Completely worn out and down to my last few yen, I was very ready to get back home. The trip was a wonderful experience and I'm so happy I was able to explore some of the cities in Japan that first sparked my interest in this country. I don't foresee being able to go to any more cities during this stay in Japan, but I'm sure I'll be back to both Kyoto and Tokyo again within the next couple of years (I may even end up teaching English in one of them...though it's more likely that I'll end up in inaka someplace, like most JET applicants do).

We arrived in Fukuoka and were overwhelmed with relief. It was great to be back! After being away from the city for so long you really gain an appreciation for how balanced life in Fukuoka really is. I couldn't have asked for a better city to be doing my study abroad in.