Last Day in Tokyo

On Thursday, it was time for me to head back to Tokyo and the Ginza district. The return went off without a hitch, Fuji-San as beautiful as on my way to Kyoto. As we neared Tokyo, I noticed that a lot of cherry trees were blooming – many more than I had seen only five days earlier on my way down.

Despite the guilt of not fully using my half day in Tokyo for touristy things, I decided to rent a laptop at the hotel so I could transfer the three hundred photos I had taken to a flash drive and upload them to WordPress. I had grand plans of getting them all into blog posts, but it actually took a substantial amount of time just to transfer them. Hence why I am even farther behind posting pictures than I am even with writing.

The next day, Friday, I flew out to Korea in the late afternoon. This meant that I had the morning to get some last things accomplished before I left. I wanted to go to the post office to mail home some souvenirs and items I just don’t want to carry for the next two months. I figured I’d have plenty of time to mail the package and check out Ueno Park’s cherry blossoms before checking out. Well, whenever I make that assumption, it’s just begging for something to go wrong.

I set out to walk what looked, on the hotel map, to be about six blocks laid out in a grid format. It wasn’t. Well, it may have been six blocks, but it wasn’t a grid, and I got fairly lost. However, I finally came across the post office, only to find out that they didn’t take credit cards and didn’t have an ATM. That threw a bit of a wrench into actually mailing the package!

I headed out of the post office, determined to find an ATM, sure I was going to miss seeing the cherry blossoms, and wondering frustratedly why everything has to be so hard when you don’t speak the language. Not being able to communicate means that some things we take for granted are next to impossible. I’m gaining more and more sympathy for toddlers!

I found a convenience store but it didn’t take my card. I headed to a big pedestrian overpass, hoping to get my bearings. I got there and realized I was only a couple of blocks from my hotel – that windy road I had taken meant I had pretty much gone in a circle! I popped into the hotel to ask directions to an ATM, and also got directions to a closer post office. Of course, the post office didn’t open till ten, but by the time I got there, I only had a few minutes left to wait. My 20 minute errand was taking 4 times as long as anticipated.

Once in the post office, the nice lady at the counter pointed out to me that the envelope the hotel had given me was the equivalent of priority mail, and too expensive. She helped me repackage my parcel, even running back to grab a handful of candy to throw in. She either wanted me to join in an international candy smuggling operation or was trying to be welcoming to the poor American!

Finally done, I raced off to Ueno. And when I got there, what had been an avenue lined by bare branches less than a week earlier was now crowded with people and surrounded by trees loaded with pale pink fluff. It was glorious – it looked like it had snowed on the trees – and I felt very lucky to have seen it. I wandered down the avenue with the masses of people enjoying the blossoms. I can only imagine how crowded it would be when the actual cherry blossom festival started the following day!

Kick It Down a Notch! Making Sure to Get Some Sanity Time

When writing this, I was sitting in the window of a cafe in downtown Kyoto, listening to the rain pouring down on the awning above me, seeing people, some wearing kimonos, some western clothing, walk by with their umbrellas. It was very peaceful and much needed after my switching hotels a little while ago and walking a mile carrying the behemoth in the rain…

I’ve checked into a capsule hotel, essentially a hostel with a Japanese twist. Each bed is a little cubbyhole – you go in, feet facing the curtained door. I am actually looking forward to cozying up in there – it’s been a great visit to Japan so far, but I’ve woken up at 6 or 7 every day regardless of when I’ve gone to bed or how much walking I’ve done. My feet hurt! This cafe was just what I was looking for – in the area around the train station, all I could find was Starbucks.

In fact, I’ve had a pretty low-key day. I managed to get my talkatone app to accept an incoming call from the US to my Google Voice number for free, so that was good. And I went downtown to experience a tea ceremony. The place I went seems to be five or six floors dedicated to tea: a shop on the ground floor, banquet rooms on a couple of floors, and a little tea room set up on another floor to show visitors the proper ceremony.

First you wash with a dipper of water, both hands an mouth, before entering the tea house through a tiny door essentially from a crouched position outside onto that posture where you are sitting on your calves, kneeling in a very Japanese way. (Luckily my tea house hostess told me I could sit cross-legged for most of the ceremony. The proper kneeling posture is really tough to maintain! I wonder whether the Japanese just get used to it from repetition?)

The hostess then brought out a sweet called a cherry blossom (Sakkara). After a few more steps in the ceremony, I got to eat the sweet, then watch as my hostess made matcha. After I’d had a chance to drink it, I got to make it myself.

Overall, I’m really glad I got to experience a tea ceremony before leaving Kyoto. It was on my must-do list, and it made more sense to do so in Kyoto than in Tokyo. And for you science nerds out there, I geeked out when I saw a sign for the enzyme company Takara on my way back to the hotel.

Beware the Deer! Nara

Tuesday I went to an even older capital of Japan, Nara, capital in the 8th century.

I first set out to the Heijo palace…site. I didn’t fully realize is that this means it’s an architectural site, and this mean lots of dips in the ground where pillars stood holding up the imperial buildings, but not necessarily much else. The excavation museum and the reconstructed buildings were interesting, but call me a philistine, I’m not that into archeology that I would want to go again. However, I did get to have another pleasant interaction with a Japanese lady who spoke no English but saw me staring intently at the bus map. (We had just come to some railway tracks and I had evidently perked up because I thought I could use the tracks as a reference point on the map. I felt a tap on my shoulder and the lady pointed to where we were – a good thing too, as I was about a Mel off on where we were crossing the tracks!)

I headed back to the center and eastern part of town, which consists of a huge park and temple sprawl called Nara Park. On my way, I stopped at a place where from the menu, I though I could get some sushi for lunch. Once inside, they brought me the English menu and I discovered I was in a restaurant specializing in grilled eel. Oh well, at least it’s very tasty!

I entered Nara Park by the five tower pagoda, and spent the afternoon looking at three of the major temple complexes in the area.

As I approached the park, I passed a pond where turtles were lying out enjoying the sun. On one log, they were actually piled up on each other, there were so many. A few steps later, I saw several deer at the side of the street. After I climbed the stairs to the first temple, I saw a lot more deer, explaining all the deer-related souvenirs I had seen on my walk from the station. In fact, there are vendors all over the park selling “deer cookies”, and the deer come running whenever someone buys a packet. Like deer anywhere who live where humans routinely feed them, they would (on the whole gently) mob you if you had food for them. There’s no hiding it! On the whole, they avoided people food. Most people took it ok, though one cute little tyke ran screaming for her daddy.

The five tower pagoda complex is lovely and gracious, but I was more struck by the next two temples. The second one is where the Great Buddha, the biggest statue in Japan made all of bronze at 16 meters tall, is located. It’s very impressive. The last one is hidden on the hillside, surrounded by hundreds of lamps. It’s peaceful and serene, despite the tourists.

And then back home, footsore and about “templed out”, first pausing for a photo shoot with some deer under a group of flowering trees.

(Pictures to be posted when I have access to a desktop or laptop again.)

Walking Kyoto

I find that it can be tricky leaving time in my day for blogging, what with all the walking and touring I’m doing (it wears you out!) so here we are almost a week after my first day in Kyoto and I haven’t really written much about it. I rather figured it made sense to focus on at least uploading my pictures to WordPress while I had access to a laptop. That access is now, alas, over, so it’s back to using a tiny touchscreen keyboard with a bizarre autocorrect. Typos under these circumstances are not my fault! And now enough wittering on and back to things people would actually like to read about: what I did in Kyoto.

My first full day there had a bit of a theme, due mostly to proximity of the sites to one another: royalty. (I use that term loosely as we are actually discussing an imperial site – the gardens around the Imperial Palace – and one from the shogunate – Nijo Palace.) This was the day both of the cheese curry and the running into a bridal (I think) party with the bride and groom in traditional clothing which I can best describe as looking like the clothing worn by dolls used in the Festival of Dolls (and if you don’t know what that looks like, go look it up!).

The Imperial Gardens made a nice break from the crowds in the station area where I caught the subway; since it was Sunday, the tourists were out in force, and it was rather overwhelming. (As a side note, almost all the tourists were Japanese. After that, I heard a lot of French spoken.) It was early yet for cherry blossoms, but there were some lovely plum and apricot trees in bloom. The wide, gravelled paths of the garden remind me of the French style of public gardens. I wandered all around, relishing the chance to sit in the sun.

Then off to Nijo Palace, known for its Nightingale floors. These are so called because they are built to squeak when walked upon, so nobody can take the ruler unawares. Everyone had to remove their shoes before entering, so there were crowds of stockinged feet tourists walking around looking at the lovely gold paintings. I have to say, taking off ones shoes in the middle of a day of touring can be quite refreshing for ones feet!

That night I returned to the Hanatouro because I had missed the free Meiko (geisha in training) dance the night before. I also wanted more street food, which is much easier on the budget than a restaurant.

I decided to continue the walking theme the next day by walking around downtown the entire morning. It starts with broad, busy streets with major department stores, but pretty quickly you can step down a side street and find a different world. I walked through the covered Nishiki Market and the other covered streets around it (boasting wider roads and more shops than stalls). It was strange to me that it was so quiet at 9 in the morning, but most shops in Japan open at 10 it seems.

I then walked east towards the Gion neighborhood, passing the Ponto-cho neighborhood of atmospheric narrow streets, past other neighborhoods whose names I don’t remember but whose old houses and crooked streets will remain one of my most charming memories of Kyoto. When I exited these neighborhoods, I found myself near the temple of Chion-in. So of course I decided to explore that hilly but lovely complex.

I was ready for a hearty lunch after the temple (hill walking will do that to you) and it was starting to rain. Somehow I found myself back on a street I hadn’t walked down before in Gion, where I saw a Meiko who had just becone a Geisha get introduced around the tea houses. I also had a good meal in the area, though it is certainly a good thing that nobody has ever died from embarrassment. No, it wasn’t the chopsticks this time. It was the fact that my grilled chicken and vegetables were supposed to be mixed into a bowl with a raw egg, the heat from the food then cooking the egg. Well, by the time I got up my courage to ask what I was supposed to do with a raw egg, the food had cooled enough that I just had raw egg on my mixed-in food. I can tell you that I debated the merits of salmonella and general grossness factor versus embarrassment before I called over the waiter to please take the mess I had made over to the grill to cook it more. And he did, and it was delicious. And as you can see, I’m not dead of embarrassment, though it was a close call.

You’d think at this point I’d call it a day, especially since it was pouring by now, but no. I went in quest of things to do indoors, which in this case turned out to be the Handicrafts museum. I thought of all my textile-loving friends when seeing the hand painted and handwoven fabrics and kimonos.

And then I headed to Nishi Temple, which I thought might have an indoor component to it. Since there were services going on, I was mistaken, but this is the temple where I saw a painted wooden gate down a deserted lane behind two temple complexes in the atmospheric rain. It was worth getting wet for.

Then, finally, it was time to head home, with a stop at the 7/11 to pick up convenience store dinner.

Postcards from Kyoto

Imagine a city where once you go off into the little side streets, you could be 20, 80, 200 years earlier. That’s the eastern part of Kyoto, including Poncho-Cho and the eastern part of the city. It’s an area where Geishas still work, and if you’re lucky (as I was), you might see a Meiko who has just become a Geisha in full costume being promenaded and introduced to each tea house in the area.

Have the luck to arrive in a city in time for the last two days of an event called Hana Touro where the temples on the eastern hill of the city are illuminated after dark and you wander up and down the narrow streets in a stream of humanity, occasionally stepping aside to one of the shops in traditional Japanese buildings to window shop or bit street food like mochi or something like bao.

Picture pouring rain and a deserted passageway between two temple complexes where suddenly you see a painted wood gateway that lets you know why Nishi Temple is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Trek up and down yet more stairs at the lovely Chionin Temple, where you can’t do your tourist thing inside because you have the luck to listen to the monk’s chanting reminding you the temple is an active place of worship.

Do a double take at the train station when you see a Cafe du Monde (next to something called Mister Donut). Starbucks I can see as a world brand, but, really, Cafe du Monde? I might need to try it just to see how different it is.

Be grateful to stumble into things you could never have planned: a Japanese bride and groom in traditional clothing coming out of a shrine in the gardens of the Imperial Palace, a Meiko going through the tea houses, the Hana Touro, being too early for cherry blossoms but still being able to see plum and apricot blossoms in the Imperial Palace grounds.

Realize a hundred yen store in Nishiki (a covered market/arcade of stores) is very much a dollar store, but with chopsticks and cool bento boxes.

From New to Old: Going from Tokyo to Kyoto (Part 2)

And that brings me to the view I spoke about earlier. Now the highest tower in the world, the Tokyo Sky Tree weighs in at 634m tall. It’s a tall spire with two circular viewing stations, one at 345 meters and another smaller one 100 meters higher.

We headed over, making our way through the mall around it filled with stores full of Japanese cuteness. Imagine our dismay when we found that there was essentially a line to form a line. We took a number that would let us come back and line up in over an hour later, and returned to the mall.

This was full of such intriguing stores as one which sold the life-like food models that many restaurants place in the window, plenty of stores with pretty origami paper and stationery, candy stores, and stores selling anime-related items. Anime fans, if you want to know what’s all the rage in Tokyo now, it’s Evangelion. You see signs and figurines everywhere.

T and I grabbed a snack to fortify us for the wait. I chose something with the perennial and tasty red bean filling, which was fine, but I also made the mistake of choosing some kind of melon-flavored drink box. Hmm. After the fact, T passed on some advice that I now wholeheartedly pass on to you: never get artificially melon-flavored drinks or food. They are always bad.

That experiment over, it was time to get in line for the Sky Tree. After an hour in line, we made it up to the first viewing station. It was a night view, so no chance to see Mt Fuji, but it was equally enjoyable to see the nightscape of Tokyo. And for those of you scared of heights, you need not fear to go to the lower level platform. Just avoid the pair of see-through glass floor windows (not hard to do – I didn’t even see where they were). T wanted to go to the higher platform and while I dithered (I am after all terrified of heights), I ended up deciding to go as well. I have to say it was an even more gorgeous view – especially seeing the city through the clear front of the elevator – but much harder for those of us with an irrational fear of heights, aka me.

I was staying at the Courtyard Marriott Ginza, which is much like any other Courtyard except that it is much nicer and it follows the Japanese hotel custom of providing a cotton kimono as loungewear/sleepwear during your stay. It’s a few blocks from the National Kabuki Theater, so I got to see that building on my way to the hotel. Ginza is the ritzy shopping district of Tokyo, with all the major designer boutiques you might expect. I didn’t really observe anything more than the names of the stores, however, as I was carrying the megalith of a backpack.

Then it was off to Kyoto the next day, Japan Railpass in hand. I got to take the super high-speed train called the Shinkansen. As I waited on the platform for my train to arrive, I noticed several women in bright pink uniforms (especially interesting for those who were sick and wearing a face mask – must be cold season because everywhere you look, there are masked people. Makes it a bit surreal at times.) I discovered they were the train cleaning crew when they jumped inside and ran down the aisle pulling off headrest covers and replacing them. They literally “flipped” the car by swiveling around the seats to face the train’s new direction.

I was a little bummed that I had not been able to get a window seat because Mt Fuji is visible on the train route, but when my neighbor saw me taking pictures, she switched seats with me. She then tried to tell me in Japanese that I should wait for a better shot as later I’d be able to see the base of Mt Fuji as well. At least I think that’s what she said as it was, after all, in Japanese, combined with a hand gesture that indicated either the base of the mountain or something about western women having wide, child-bearing hips. She left the train before me, helping international goodwill further by handing me a couple of Japanese treats she had in her purse. One was essentially a slice of pound cake and the other looked like a Smuckers crustless PB and J sandwich. Trying to stay on a budget, I pounced on the latter, figuring it could be a budget lunch. And indeed that first bite seemed to support this theory, as I had a mouthful of something like Nutella. However, when I tried the next pouch, it was filled with custard, and I found the other two each to be filled with other flavors. I ended up having lunch after I reached the hotel, in Kyoto station which has a floor of ramen restaurants. In front are machines like vending machines which spit out a ticket with a description of your order. No pictures, unfortunately, so I tried to match up the characters with the characters on the picture on the sign. My bewilderment was obvious as soon as a waitress saw me – she ducked inside to get the English-speaking waitress. Thank goodness there was one!

From New to Old: Going from Tokyo to Kyoto (Part 1)

Nothing quite shows you the scope of a modern metropolis like going up to a high vantage point and looking out over it, so that’s what we did my second day in Tokyo. But first I got the treat of spending a little more time in the countryside near Chiba. My friend and his parents have a nursery, and we took the truck up some bumpy roads to a lovely area filled with flowering trees…or rather, mostly with trees about to flower. Sadly, I’m just a week or two too early for most of the cherry blossoms, though I did get to see a couple of the trees at Ueno Park before heading into the National Museum. (It must have been my “best fortune” coming into play that I got to see any at all this time of year.) We walked around, and I saw local rice paddies, including one that grew the rice that I had just eaten at the breakfast table. It sounds strange, and it’s probably just the city girl in me, but it reminded me of the time I spent some time with my family in Cabanne in France: the roads so narrow, one car needs to pull over to let another car pass, irrigation ditches at the side; the quiet. Probably hallmarks of small farms in many places, but new and refreshing to me.

Then it was goodbye to my friend’s parents. Their kindness and hospitality had been great – they gave me the chopsticks I had used so clumsily at breakfast, taken me out for dinner, mimed with me to make ourselves understood by each other with only a handful of words in common. I was sad to say good-bye but grateful that I had been able to start my journey with people taking care of me as I got used to a new language and culture.

T and I headed into the city to drop off my luggage. All I can say about my bags – worst packing job ever! That night, I repacked and pruned, but I admit that I will be extremely happy when I can mail my boots home in a month! I am also planning on sending home or ditching guidebooks as I finish them, so that should help. Backpackers, believe the travel books when they tell you not to bring too many books. Books have always been my downfall, but I’m hoping to avoid the literal here. (On a brighter note, I have no need for a stairmaster here with all the stairs in the Tokyo subway and the Kyoto temples!)

Once in Tokyo and having parked my baggage for a time, T and I explored the Tsukiji fish market and then hunted for lunch. It was early afternoon by then, so stalls were just ready to close up, but I still got to see an amazing variety of fish. It’s especially fun to see fresh octopus and squid!

For lunch, we went to a street lined by monja restaurants. Honestly, I’m not sure how to describe monja, so I googled it. The best I came up with was that it is a Japanese pancake filled with cabbage and whatever you choose (in our case, tuna), which you cook on a griddle that is set in the middle of the table similarly to Korean bbq griddles. You then use metal scrapers to scrape up parts of the “pancake” onto your plate. It was an interesting culinary experience. It did not have a very strong taste and so I don’t have very strong feelings about it, but I did very much enjoy getting to taste it.

Then off to that view I was talking about!