It would seem that I went for quantity over quality for this write-up. It took much too long to write and didn’t turn out to be very good. It won’t happen again.
I’d like to address my grammar when writing about the first day: It’s juvenile. Really, it sounds like something a child would write (maybe a bit better). Anyhow, my excuse is that it represents the level that I was processing on. I was so overflowed by new sights and experiences that I just couldn’t get it all out the other end in a coherent sentence. The second half of the write-up is at least mostly grammatical, and it represents the fermentation and long-term processing in my mind of the events that transpired, with a lens of reflection. In this way, I am providing two perspectives. One of the in the moment as it happens view, and one of the retrospective well-processed understanding of what happened. (Don’t forget, this is an excuse. I was really just being lazy.)
For those of you who are disappointed by this write-up, you needn’t stay that way. I have determined that this will be the first and last write-up of its kind. Following this one, I believe that I just may manage to reassure my readers of my ability to still write well, and with some level of wits about me.
For those of you who do not find this write-up to be disappointing, and instead find it preferably approachable, I am once again sorry. You’re fresh out of luck.
- Waited and waited until we were the last group called to get off the ship.
- Went through customs, where we were fingerprinted and pictured. The workers were utterly silent.
- Walking down the street of the pier in a foreign country. Super strange things. My thought determined that we needed to walk on the left.
- First Seven Eleven. Tricky to determine what was ‘safe’ to eat. I had us check the ingredient list with translate, concluding that the labels were too stylized. Saved us from eating raw beef.
- Hey, we ate those triangles, walking down the street, without a thought in the world that it was wrong. (Even though we knew, they told us in GS)
- Accidentally went to the subway station instead of the JR station. Whoops. It was a little while before we were able to figure it out. The guy at the station spoke some English, but our travelers’ ears were not in tune just yet.
- Finally find Motomachi station. Um… how does this strange ticket machine thing work?
- Ooh we got tickets, (side note, we hadn’t actually figured out how it worked. The other machines were not as easy to use) we went through the gate, and, now what do we do? Ask the guy, get directions to the platform… Ah! We’ve made it! Look Caitlyn, a baseball diamond.
- Ridin’ on the train. Doot doo, doot doo. Ridin’ on the train.
- Whoa! It never ends. Poorer apartment accommodations seem pretty common, looking out the windows. It’s still super foreign. (I don’t remember when it began to naturalize. Maybe the second day.)
- I don’t remember getting off the train.
- Memory picks back up at the custard apple pie shop. It was Mom’s favorite, but I didn’t like it so much.
- Walkin’, walkin’, looking at the shops and talkin’; we’re walkin’.
- Ooh, this way is up and out. Let’s go!
- Ugh. Pit-stop.
- Mom thinks we’re in Vegas. I think we’re in Japan.
- When we got out of the underground shopping strip, there were casinos everywhere. (Well, it looked like it. It was just that strip though.)
- We made it to the Kuromon market and there was a ton of food everywhere—and we hadn’t eaten anything but pasta and stale rolls in two weeks.
- The first thing that we ate was barbecued eel. It was okay, but there were a lot of little bones in it.
- Then we ate some tempura shrimp and yams, the girls had some sushi thing, and I got what I thought looked like beef, or something… I didn’t really like it too much.
- First of all, it was cold. I would come to learn that the Japanese really like cold meat… and that I don’t. Second of all, it was not beef. It tasted like fish, but it was on a giant bone. Conclusion: hmm, I think this is a shark jaw.
- That was kinda weird, and disappointing, because I was expecting a fantastic meal as soon as we got off the ship (technically I got one with the ‘sushi’ triangles (mine was actually cooked; I don’t like raw fish of any kind: poke, sushi, sashimi, etc.)) and that wasn’t quite as delicious as I would have liked.
- I totally forgot about this, but after the market, we went to go see the Osaka castle. As you might guess, it wasn’t terribly interesting or eventful. We saw a group of SAS kids while we were there and took a photo with them, but we only got to see the castle from outside of its gates, and clearly it was not particularly memorable.
- We were going to spend the night there in Osaka, in a capsule hotel, but decided against it, as they have gendered floors, leaving me alone with “drunken business men who missed the train home” (somewhere; I don’t remember).
- We decided to take the train to Kyoto and spend our first night there. This turns out to be an excellent decision, as K’s House, the hostel we stayed at, had fantastic noodles, fried chicken, and mango smoothies; the beef and curry was okay, but not spectacular.
- K’s House was our first of many promised experiences of shoe removal. I must say, I was initially surprised that even a hostel would have us remove our shoes, although I had been forewarned, so the shock wasn’t too great.
- Our room was great. It was a tiny box with tatami mats for flooring. Our beds were futon mats tucked in the closet that we had to make ourselves. It was all very fun. Also, the man that worked at the hostel, who showed us to our room, and gave us the option between that one and a western-style bunkbeded-room (ours was way better; we knew on the spot), was really nice and spoke the best English so far (even better than the concierge at the fancy hotel at the train station that we tried to use to get directions), which was very refreshing.
- That night I slept great… apparently Mom did not. We were almost cooked alive by the heater in the room. (Oddly enough, this would end up happening again in China.) Thankfully hypersensitive Mom rescued us by waking up, turning off the heater and leaving the window open for a while before returning to bed.
- The next day, I woke up to find that it was snowing, and the snow was sticking. This was very exciting, but also a little scary, as my Docs have very little in terms of a grip.
- We ate a western style breakfast at the hostel, which was a mistake. The girls’ pancakes were okay, but my sausage eggs and toast were above par, in the golfing sense. (I have never understood why ‘above par’ in casual conversation is a good thing, when in golf, it is my impression that that is a bad thing. If you know, please explain it to me in the comments. Also, to make it more explicit, if you couldn’t tell, I meant to say that they weren’t that great.)
- We stumbled around outside, trying to find the metro station for a while, feeling difficulty in orienting ourselves with the maps that we had been given. Eventually we figured it out. Then we actually had to figure out how the ticket machines worked, as Kyoto’s local train system did not have the tourist-friendly machines that would take your destination, determine your fare, and spit out the tickets. These machines could only be relied upon to do the last of those things; the rest was up to us. We did figure it out, and by the end of the five days, we felt that we were confidently able to ride the trains to just about anywhere in Japan, though, we didn’t get to test that theory.
- Walking through the streets toward the Fushimi-Inari Shrine, we realized doubly that we had made a mistake with breakfast. There were an uncountable number of shops selling delicious smelling things. We vowed to never again eat breakfast at a hotel when we could find something so much better just down the street. (A note here is that the Japanese don’t eat pancakes or toast for breakfast, and though it can feel strange to start the day eating fish and rice, it is a waste of our time to do something that isn’t a part of “Authentic Japan”)
- The Fushimi-Inari Shrine was cool, but not as cool as the mountain behind it.
- I’ll step back a moment.
- Shrines—that is to say, Shinto Shrines are sacred places of prayer for the Japanese people. Shinto is the predominant religion of the Japanese people, but it is often more than just that. Even many irreligious people or those of different faiths take part in Shinto practices. Though Shinto does include elements of belief, it is heavily focused on practice. It is a polytheistic tradition that has gone through many phases over the years and has walked and fought with Japanese variants of Mahayana Buddhism, such as Pure Land and Zen. It has been used politically in the past, and there was a point when the Emperor of Japan was, in fact, a god. It is heavily focused on nature, purity, and cleanliness and also incorporates filial piety and ancestral worship.
- It was an incredible experience to have read and learned so much about this religion, and then to have gotten to see it practiced first hand.
- But really, the mountain was the cool part.
- You see, the mountainside was covered in personal family Shrines, and the paths that lead up and down the mountain were covered, almost entirely by vermillion Torii gates. It was incredible to walk through them, and the view of the city from the mountain was almost as surreal as the mountain itself.
- After climbing to the summit, we descended, intent on lunch. The kids—that is we, the kids were especially hungry. When we reached the bottom, we got out the Kindle and began reading and trying to find a particular tempura bar that I was interested in.
- To make this a little more brief, that one ended up being closed forever, we tried another one, which ended up being $40 a plate, and finally chanced upon a little tiny place in the Gion district. The Lunch that would ensue would go down in infamy, forever immortalized as The Lunch.
- It was really great until they brought us the food. I guess we should have known.
- The man who came out to greet us spoke little English, and what he did speak was quite difficult to understand (given the phonological constraints on the Japanese language, heavy accents consist not just of differing vowel and consonant sounds, but also the superfluous addition of vowels and deletion of consonants such that all words—almost all words—have are made up of blocks in the form CV). He tried to warn us; he must have asked us six times if we were sure that we wanted to eat there: The menu is set, are you sure that you want to eat here? Yes, yes, we’re sure. Okay, don’t say I didn’t warn you. (Obviously, this is a much more clear and articulate example of the conversation that took place. In reality, we were a bit confused.)
- The meal was long, with 6 courses. I won’t bother telling you what we ate there, because I really have no idea. There were two dumplings for the four of us to share, and that was the only thing that we liked. Everything else was weird gelatinous soup or vegetables without names or tofu (a now equally dreaded and despised thing).
- I didn’t like the food, but the atmosphere made it a really neat experience. The private room that we were given had tatami mat floors (naturally we had taken our shoes off as we entered) and a rectangular table not a foot off the ground. The table was surrounded by floor cushions with wooden chair backs; I was worried that we’d have to sit cross-legged or kneel for the whole meal. Thankfully, this was not the case. There was a hidden pit in the floor beneath the table for us to put our feet in. In this way we were able to sit normally, as though in chairs. The room was very warm, a pleasant and stark contrast to the 30oF weather outside. The restaurant was run by two staff members, presumably husband and wife, and though they did not speak too much English, they were very kind and accommodating—except for the fact that they fed us tofu.
- We proceeded to walk through the Gion District, which is the upscale tourism area, passing through some local Buddhist temples amused by the abundance of tourists who had payed 3000円 (yen) to dress up in Kimonos. We thought that was just silly.*
- We made it back to K’s House where we hung for a while so that I could work on my History project.
- That night, Caitlyn and I went to see a Butoh performance. That was something else.
- Butoh is a form of modern dance that originated in post-war Japan. In contrast to western modern dance, its focus is on weakness and pain, instead of strength. It’s really difficult to describe in brief. One common feature is the painting of the body, which is entirely white, except for the teeth which are black. This generally makes the dancers look terrifying, an appearance cemented by their movement.
- What I was most surprised by was the theatre the show was in. It wasn’t. The show took place in a tiny off-square room smaller than our room at K’s House. There were eight audience members—immediately I understood why there had only been two seats left that night, and why the other shows had been sold out. It was a good thing though, that only Caitlyn and I went; the dance of weakness and pain—of the dead and diseased—is not one for little Morgans to be viewing. I found the performance very interesting and enlightening.
- After the show, we ate dinner on the eleventh floor of the Cube shopping mall. The food there was good, but more importantly on the journey to that restaurant, we chanced across our first Frapanese bakery—one that we would come back to the next day for breakfast.
- The next day, we walked to the train station mall where we acquired some sushi triangles and some Frapanese pastries. We learned a few new things here. First, we learned that if you don’t buy the sushi triangles from 7 Eleven, then you shouldn’t buy them. These sushi triangles were not as good as the 7 Eleven variety. Thanks to intricate packaging of the 7 Eleven triangles, the seaweed stays crunchy, but without it the seaweed gets soggy, and therefore are not as delicious. (Sushi triangles are available at your neighborhood Uwajimaya—7 Eleven quality—highly recommended—they are very tasty, seriously) Second, we began our adventure with Frapanese pastries. By Frapanese, I of course mean French-Japanese. This first bakery, Andersons, did not actually claim to be “French,” but after going there twice, we had to switch to a larger chain, Vie de France, (otherwise known as the French life store) due to a change of venue (there weren’t any Andersons in Nara). To explain this simply, it would appear that the Japanese love things that they think are French. The pastries and the bread are all actually pretty good, but as I told mom, “you probably couldn’t find any of this stuff in France.” (That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the bean-paste and curry doughnuts stand with me.)
- That day, as we were strolling around, eating our Japanesed pastries, we took a bus to see the Golden pavilion. (btw, strolling-and-eating is very much a no-no to the Japanese, but we were very hungry that day and short on time, and as tourists we were given a pass).
- The Golden pavilion was a little country house in a beautiful garden on a tiny lake. It was snowing again that day, and the snowy landscape made for a nice contrast with the gold lacquer plating that covered the building. There was some story behind the building, about and emperor’s private retreat and religious hideout, but I don’t remember exactly how it went. The Pavilion was really just a photo opportunity, and not a cultural experience, although, we did get to eat our first ice cream in Japan, (out of a vending machine, no less) so that was something.
- From there we rode the bus to the Arashiyama monkey park. We walked through the cold windy weather until we reached the base of a mountain, which we proceeded to scale, and when we had reached the top (well not actually the top) we found ourselves surrounded by monkeys. It was a free-range monkey park. Just a spot on the hill side where there happened to be monkeys. Why were they there? What were they doing? The answer was easy. There was a little shack in the park that housed humans instead of monkeys. These humans would buy banana chips and the like to feed to the outstretched arms of the local monkey population. The shack had windows, not of glass but of wire fencing to allow this. Looking back, the set up was kind of silly, but at the time it was cool, and the view from the mountain was amazing.
- After dealing with the monkey business, we went for a pleasant stroll through the surrounding area, famous for its bamboo groves. I think that every time we saw bamboo in Japan, Mom told us that the bamboo in Hawaii was better. By that time, we were cold and hungry, and were happy to take the return bus to Kyoto station, from where we would hop on a train to Nara to spend the night and next day, but not before we ate the tastiest meal of Japan.
- We don’t remember what the restaurant was called, but it was clearly some type of quick serve chain that—get this—served Chinese food. It was actually a bit of a mix, between Japanese and Chinese food, it was really good. That was the tastiest meal we had, and also humorous for an interesting cultural difference that we had come to notice. When you go to a restaurant in the US or Canada, or practically anywhere, except apparently all of the countries that we’ve been to so far (unfortunately, I am so far behind that we’ve been through Viet Nam already) they serve water first thing. Yes, China and Viet Nam, that makes sense, you can’t drink the tap water, okay… but Japan? This is a cultural issue that was felt by our waitress that night. You see, in Asia, instead of water is served tea. Sometimes it is really good tea (see Cong CaPhe, Viet Nam or tea tasting in Beijing) and sometimes it is really nasty tea (see, I’m so sick of the stuff, why is it served at every meal). That night, we were all tending towards the second option there, and we really just wanted a nice cold glass of water, so we asked for some. After downing the first glass, we asked for some more, and some more. Tea glasses are not designed to facilitate the ease with which water goes down, and so are very small. I think we asked for more water maybe four times in total. That means our waitress ferried thirty-two glasses of water (4 askings x 4 people x 2 for bringing and retrieving). I felt a little bit bad about that. It was still the best meal.
- By the time we had arrived in Nara it was late. Thankfully, Mom had come prepared and had already booked us a room in a three-star hotel less than a block away from the train station. Upon arrival we were overjoyed with the thought of a hot shower and Mom dutifully washing our one set of clothes. Thanks Mom!
- That morning we woke up with a plan. MORGAN’s PLAN! Duh, duh, duh, dunnah!
- Morgan had planned out our entire stay in Nara by looking through travel books on the ship. Caitlyn and I were supposed to do Osaka and Kyoto, respectively, but that didn’t happen.
- The first thing Mom did that day was change Morgan’s plan. (it ended up screwing things up a bit, and Morgan blamed me) (Mom here – I did not change her plan, rather I did not let her remove something she wanted to see, clearly I should have.)
- The first thing we did that day was see the oldest wooden structure in the world at Horyuji. It was outside of Nara, and we took a train to go see it. I was grumpy that morning because Mom had refused to buy me a slice of pizza from Vie de France, and we ended up not having purchased enough food from the supermarket to satisfy me. It wasn’t even very tasty anyhow. Hmmph.
- The oldest wooden building was pretty cool to see, but Morgan, for some reason was overjoyed and incredibly hyper. This naturally had a negative effect on Caitlyn, which had a negative effect on Mom. And I was still hungry. Why didn’t you buy me pizza‽ (it’s an interrobang. Use it!) I told you it wouldn’t be enough food and it wasn’t.
- By the end of Horyuji everyone was feeling better, except Morgan, obviously, who was unable to do so.
- As we got lost trying to find the train station, and as my superior sense of direction saved us (we didn’t have any maps btw), our noses picked up a wonderful scent. Caitlyn was the one who made us turn around and go into the shop. It was a bakery. A little, tiny, neighborhood style Andersons-esque bakery. The keeper didn’t speak any English and may have never sold to a foreigner before; the shop was just down the back of a Nowheresville alleyway. We purchased two pastries and the most divine fluffy sandwich bread known to mankind. It was still warm, and it heartened our bellies as we continued our cold journey to the train station led by my superior sense of direction.
- When we had returned to Nara, we began our great journey through the streets of Naramachi, the old town. That was very fun and highly pedestrian friendly, and it led to a highlight of our trip to Japan: The Kimono acquisition.
- Yes. Remember how I made fun of the nuts who rented Kimonos for thirty bucks, well… we now own some.
- As we were walking through the streets of Nara, we just happened to come across a vintage Kimono shop, where we just happened to stop, and just happened to purchase Kimonos for each of us. Mine makes me look like a Jedi, Morgan’s (classically) makes her look cute, thanks to the giant bow (larger that her torso, abouts), Caitlyn’s looks purple (it is), and Mom’s makes her look like a crazy bathrobe lady.
- We got a lot of looks after that acquisition. A bunch of white people in totally outlandish Kimonos wearing winter jackets underneath and carrying multiple backpacks and shopping bags with the girls’ coats in them: hey, they look weird. One Korean tourist offered, spontaneously, to take our photo, then we found out that she really just wanted to take one with her phone. That was funny. I even noticed some photographer with a sizable camera casually following through the steps you are supposed to take when unobtrusively taking pictures of random people. That was a little weird.
- By this time, we had walked up to the street leading up to the park below the hill which was to be ceremoniously lit aflame that night.
- We were quite lucky to have chanced upon being in Japan at the same time that the Nara festival was taking place. Every year on the fourth Saturday of January, a hill—a giant hill—is lit, in its entirety, on fire and all of the grass is completely burned to the ground (it’s already pretty close). The festival began at dark with a fantastic fireworks show, which was followed by the famed burning of the hill. It was really impressive. We never figured out why they did this, but my theory is that it is just a tradition and that the originally purpose has been lost to the really old people. That’s how it is with most things.
- That night as we were enjoying the fireworks, we enjoyed a most scrumptious snack that we have termed as “Japanese cheese sticks.” I bought them from one of the many street vendors and they were some of the tastiest things that we ate in Japan. It was like a deep-fried crepe wrapped around a cheese core and sprinkled with salt. They were delicious.
- After the fireworks show, and while the burning hillside was illuminating the grassy deer park (oh yeah, I forgot to mention, we were watching from a free-range deer park. That was pretty cool too.) we trekked across to find our final destination The Great Buddha of Todaiji.
- The Great Buddha is over twenty feet tall and made of bronze with remnants of the gold plating over top. Unfortunately, we would never get to see it. The temple had closed at 18:00 and it was too late. This greatly dismayed Morgan, and she (bolstered by Mom’s encouragement) blamed me for convincing her and everyone else to buy a Kimono and therefore taking from her the Great Buddha of Todaiji. I believe that the real culprit was Horyuji which took up most of our daylight hours.
- The good news is that now we have an excuse to go back to Japan. (We’ve also been told that they have the best skiing in the world, so we can’t wait to try that out either.)
- By that time it was late and we had to head back to the Nara train station to head back to Kobe, as Caitlyn would be attending a SAS field program the next day.
- The train ride was long, really long, but eventually we made it. This was when we finally began to learn about local, rapid, and special rapid lines. We had elected to take first a local train, which took forever, and then a special rapid which skipped over our stop, and we had to retrace our steps.
- We walked back to the ship from Motomachi station Mom remarked how foreign Japan had seemed when we were first of the ship and how now it seemed almost familiar and what a change in personal development it had been while ashore. I agreed.
- Our last day in Japan was spent without Caitlyn. She went on a SAS field program to listen to a panel discussion about life in Japan. Morgan and I went to visit a giant white castle and eat ice cream.
- Before leaving Kobe for Himeji we made a quick stop at Vie de France where I ate pizza and bacon pastries and was happy.
- I was just about to write “I’ll skip over the train ride because it was uneventful,” but that would have been a lie.
- I, um… I made us get off the train early. Yeah, sorry for the inconvenience Morgan. We only lost 26 minutes waiting for the next one. I just for some reason thought that we almost missed our stop, so I rushed Mom and Morgan off the train, only to realize that I had done so wrongly, but by then it was too late.
- When we did arrive, we made a B-line for the castle which was clearly visible on the horizon. On the way Morgan and I picked up a chocolate silk ice cream cone each, which was only the best soft-serve we had eaten in our lives.
- Himeji castle itself was super cool. Expansive grounds walled off and moated were the home to a gigantic, beautiful, white castle made entirely of wood. It was not the original castle, as it had been entirely rebuilt in order to sustain its majesty, but as an exact replica of the original, it was almost cooler because of it.
- We got to go inside the castle and climb up to the top. We had to take off our shoes to enter, which didn’t really surprise me, and I was glad to find to be the case, as it kept the wooden floors clean throughout the building. The view from the top was very impressive, and overall, I found the castle a very worthwhile visit.
- On our way back to the train station we stopped at Belgian waffle store, which had caught my eye as we were walking to the castle. For some reason, the Japanese seem to enjoy eating chocolate-covered Belgian waffles. I’m not sure why exactly, but they are tasty. (I guess that’s why.)
- The store itself was of some interest. It was a glass box that had been seemingly affixed to the side of the building. There was barely any room inside. Half of the box was reserved for the production of the waffles and the other half for their vending. This left the customers very little room to do any purchasing—not that any of them likely cared. The Japanese, being small in stature themselves, and being a densely populated people, have an affinity for coexisting in small spaces. I had noticed a few other stores with a similar layout, one being Mom’s favorite apple pie shop.
- Back in Kobe (this time the train ride actually did go smoothly) we killed time eating some tasty udon noodles and tempura shrimp and wandering through the giant mall trying to find an external camera lens for my phone with no luck.
Before we knew it, Japan was over, and I was whispering to Mom as we pulled out from port, “I wasn’t finished with Japan.”
“Yeah,” she responded, “neither was I.”
Japan in Pictures: