Monthly Archives: May 2013

Day 10 – Take Me Out to the Ball Game!

May 26, 2013
Osaka
J-Hoppers Osaka Guesthouse

I’m not a huge sports fan when it comes to watching a game on television, but I love live sports and often tend to get really worked up and into it. I had heard that Japanese baseball fans are some of the craziest out there (especially the fans of the Osaka Tigers) so once we nailed down our dates I bought tickets for the homegame between the Osaka Hanshin Tigers and the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. The game was at the Koshien Stadium, super easy to get to by subway, and it was packed. It was an exercise in patience when we popped into one of the gift shops to look around and pick up a pack of balloons, but more on that later. Through the help of a couple strangers we found our seats, tiny little hard plastic seats with no backs, completely Japanese style, and surveyed the packed stadium.

(click the image to enlarge)

Baseball Panorama

Almost everyone was in the team’s colours, yellow and black, and each person had at least one more piece of Tiger’s merch – tshirt, hat, fuzzy ears, towels, plastic bats, bag – anything you could think of, the Tigers sold it. Everything I had heard about crazy fans was true, you could see that each person was totally passionate about their team and represented it in the stands. When the game started a brass band struck up and we noticed a small Nippon-Ham Fighters section in the crowd, dressed in orange and blue.

Fighters Flags

Though the Fighters fans were loud, they were no comparison to the Tigers fans, who also had their own brass band and even more flags.

Tigers Flags

Each player on the Tigers team has their own song that everyone in the crowd knows the words to. We caught on a little bit to the easier ones, but probably butchered the actual lyrics. In front of each section was a cheerleader, but not how North Americans imagine cheerleaders. These cheerleaders were like mega-fans, who roused the crowd and knew all the moves to the dances and all the words to the songs. This video has the song for American teammate Matt Murton.

Something that would be great at baseball games here is draft beer delivery to your seat, but how on earth would that happen? Well, by strapping a keg onto the back of a small Japanese girl and getting her to run up and down the stadium steps, smiling the whole time. We bought 2 pints (for $6 each!) and they were ice cold, perfect.

Beer Girl

I wondered if the standard hotdog and popcorn would be the snack du jour at the game and while those were present, they also had noodles, squid fries, curry rice, fried chicken/fish and takoyaki – fried squid balls. So good!

Takoyaki

One of the traditions at Tigers games is the seventh inning stretch and end of game balloon release. As soon as the seventh inning gets going you start to hear crinkling cellophane as everyone gets their balloons out and starts blowing. By the time there are two outs everyone has their balloon ready and waits in anticipation for the final out. It’s quite the site to see.

Balloons

This was at the end of the game (Tigers won!). There’s a skip in the video where my finger slipped and stopped recording, luckily I got it going again just in time.

I LOVED watching the game. The energy was contagious and we had a great time cheering on the Osaka Tigers!

That evening, our last in Japan, we met up with a bunch of other people from the hostel we were staying at and went out for dinner with Mr Yano, the hostel’s manager.

Outside

Mr Yano was quite the character, hilarious actually. He gave us a brief lesson on the Osaka dialect, which is different than Tokyo and Kyoto, but similar to Hiroshima. After the lesson we were off to dinner at an Izakaya style pub, just a couple subway stops and a stroll down a dark alley away.

Alley

It was a nice change to be out with new people, some who had been travelling around Japan already and some who had just gotten here. Over dinner we shared our favourite parts of Japan, what to see in certain cities and our plans for what our next trip was going to be. Dinner was good, though limited on pescatarian options so I ended up with just veggie tempura.

Dinner

With a looong flight the next day we said good night to everyone and turned in. Good night Japan, thank you for everything.

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Day 9 – Electric Circus

May 25, 2013
Osaka
J-Hoppers Osaka Guesthouse

It was a beautiful morning as we took our last bullet train ride from Hiroshima to Osaka, the final stop on our trip through Japan. Though we are tired and our legs hurt, I know I’m not ready to go home. Everything about this trip has been great, the sites we’ve seen, the food we’ve eaten and the people we’ve met, everything has exceeded our expectations. In a few years we’d like to come back and see the northern part of Japan and the southern islands, I think it would be interesting to compare the more rural areas to the big cities we’ve experienced. Speaking of big cities, Osaka is huge! For some reason I find it more confusing than Tokyo, it seems like there’s more hustle and bustle here, especially in the train stations.

I completely forgot that today was a Saturday when I suggested going to the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, but the crowd out front clued me in. So far we’ve been pretty lucky with manageable crowds at each place we’ve visited, but this was another story. I debated turning around and getting back on the subway (I really hate crowds), but we only have 2 days before we leave so I sucked it up and let the crowd swallow me.

Once inside the aquarium you walk through a short tunnel, surrounded on three sides by a massive tank and lazily floating fish.

Entrance

The tunnel then spits you out into the Japanese forrest where the air feels cleaner and the light has the same quality as sunshine. The first aquatic animals you meet are 4 otters, sleeping together in a clump, and they could not be cuter. Unfortunately, everyone else thought they were adorable as well and it was next to impossible to get close to the habitat. People were piled in four deep and for the first time in Japan there were people pushing each other. Not my cup of tea so I snapped this blurry pic and moved on.

Otters

The aquarium brings you through several habitats (Pacific Ocean, Antarctic, Deep Sea, Cook Straight) and introduces you to wide variety of aquatic organisms. My favourites were the otters and sea lions, dolphins, porcupinefish, jellyfish and whatever this guy is.

Fish

I also loved the giant turtles and could have watched them all day.

Turtle

Jeff’s favourite is this guy who he insists looks surprised from being trapped under a rock.

Jeff's Fav

The museum also has some interactive exhibits, which are my favourite, and I took advantage of the opportunity to pet a few manta rays, who are slimy in case anyone was wondering.

Manta

Later that night we took a trip to the Umeda Sky Building, two 40-story buildings connected at the top by bridges and escalators. I had read it was a great place to get a view of the city and because I missed Jeff’s trip to Roppongi, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Sky Building

The views were pretty great, even when you looked straight down. There’s a giant hole in the centre of the obseratory area and you can see between the escalators that help you reach the top floor.

Looking Down

There’s also an area with a bunch of heart lockets with people’s names engraved. I couldn’t find any signs in English explaining the significance, but I heard the Sky Building was a popular date spot so maybe that had something to do with it.

Heart Locks

We managed to make it just before sunset so for a while the sky was streaked with pink and orange.

Bridges

As it got darker, the city began to light up and the skyline really took shape. I wish we could have stayed to see the complete shift from day to night but it was pretty windy and cold up there and we were both pretty hungry.

View

View2

We took the subway down to the Dotonbori neighbourhood, a super popular tourist spot that runs along the canal and used to be a pleasure district. Today, Dotonbori is a schizophrenic mix of neon billboards, mechanized signs and tons of restaurants.

Dotonbori

Starving by the point we popped into the first sushi joint we saw and were immediately greeted with cries of “irashaimase!” from every chef and server in the place. The energy level was high with the sushi chefs cracking jokes to one another and the servers zipping around, refilling green tea and resetting place settings. We watched the chefs work for a bit while we decided what to eat. We even saw one chef grab a hunk of tuna and expertly slice off a piece for sashima.

IMG_6404

Jeff went with an assorted mix of nigiri (tuna, shrimp, egg, white fish, red snapper, squid and a couple rolls), where I opted to try the California rolls. I was interested to see the difference from the ones I usually get back home seeing as the California roll was invented in the US in the 1970s.

IMG_6407

In Japan (or at least in this restaurant), California rolls have salmon instead of crab and lettuce instead of cucumber. Not having the cucumber makes me miss that crunch on your first bite, but they were still so good and I think I prefer the salmon over the imitation crab.

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Feeling full we wandered through Dotonbori a bit, mostly people watching. We walked to the end of the strip where it was much darker, looking one way it’s a residential area…

End

And looking the other way it becomes an electric circus…

WheelIf Tokyo is the uptight older brother, then Osaka is the wild and crazy younger sister. Kyoto is the wise father and Hiroshima is the loving mother. And then there’s this guy.

Glico

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Day 8 – Zoom Zoom

May 24, 2013
Hiroshima
J-Hoppers Hiroshima Traditional Guesthouse

Seeing as Jeff is a self confessed “car guy”, I knew I was going to have to spend some time at one of the major car companies here in Japan. Mazda has it’s head office, plant and museum in Kyoto so it was pretty much decided that we would be taking their free (!) tour this morning. The lobby at their head office is pretty swank with their newest models all blindingly shiny and their crowning glory, the rotary engine, on full display.

Rotary

The lobby also came equipped with 2 Gran Tourismo 5 stations and like a moth to a flame…

Game

The tour started by boarding a bus and driving approximately 5 – 10 minutes into the heart of the plant (no photos allowed), going over Mazda’s private bridge. After sitting in some of the newer model cars we watched a short video that covered the history of the company and their design and sustainable technology philosophy. Then it was on to the fun stuff.

We looked into Mazda’s history by seeing some iconic firsts for the company, like their first three-wheeled truck…

First 3wheel Truck

Their first car…

R360 - first car

Their first family car…

Familia - First Family Car

And their first car with their rotary engine…

Cosmo - First Rotary Engine

I picked this snazzy RX3 as my favourite, but I might just love the colour.

RX3

And Jeff’s hands down favourite is this adorable little AZ1. It reminded me of the DeLorean from Back to the Future, just shorter, but to each their own.

AZ1

We then moved through the museum to learn about the development of the rotary engine and finally we got a chance to walk through their assembly plant. No pictures allowed in the plant but it was pretty neat to see some cars being put together, specifically the new MX5. To finish the tour we got a look at some of their concept cars and I decided I would totally drive this one around town, safety factor be damned!

Concept

Looking at all those cars really worked up an appetite so we headed to place where only dreams are made of; an okonomiyaki stadium. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese dish, sometimes called the Japanese pancake or the Japanese pizza and a stadium is where a bunch of food stalls are all crammed together in the same place, usually selling the same type of food. Right across from Hiroshima station is a building called Full Force where we rode the elevator to the 6th floor and stepped out into an okonomiyaki gauntlet.

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There were restaurants on both sides with chefs yelling at us, (probably something about how good their food was and how we should totally eat there), they gestured to empty chairs, though most were taken as we had arrived at the height of lunch hour. There were about 20 different restaurants in the place and each had pictures that plastered the walls, showing all the different kinds of okonomiyaki that they offer. We chose a quieter place in the back and were handed english menus (whew!). This is what okonomiyaki is all about.

Step 1 – Order a cold beer. Okonomiyaki is made on a hot grill (or teppan). The counter is actually half hot grill and half counter so expect to get a little sweaty just waiting for your food.

Step1

Step 2 – Oil the grill and watch the chef make the thinnest, roundest crepe-like pancakes you’ve ever seen. You can tell he’s done this a couple times before.

Step2

Step 3 – Choose your toppings. I went with the veggie (lots of cabbage) and Jeff went with the seafood (shrimp, scallops) and bacon. Now you’re going to want to put an impossible amount of those toppings on top of the crepe, really load it up until it wants to topple over.

Step3

Step 4 – Here comes the tricky part, after choosing soba or udon noodles (we both went with soba) and putting those on the grill, you need to flip the stack of toppings so that the crepe ends up on top. The key is to not have everything go flying.

Step4

Step 5 – Once everything is cooked, your mound of toppings is placed on the noodles and a couple of eggs are cracked. You’re probably hot and tired at this point but don’t worry, it’s almost done.

Step5

Step 6 – The stack is then placed, noodles down, on top of the cooking eggs, then everything is flipped over one more time so that the crepe ends up on the bottom. The most delicious brown sauce is brushed over the whole thing, some powdered seaweed is sprinkled on top and it gets slid to you, still on the grill, in all it’s glory.

Step6

Okonomiyaki is the local specialty (Tokyo and Osaka each have different styles) and taking my first bite I didn’t really know what to expect. It was crunchy, it was sweet, it was savoury and so full of flavour. It made me want to keep eating even when I was beyond full. It was sooo good. When we left the restaurant we had to take a bit of a breather on the street before we could make our way to Miyajima, which involved a ferry ride and I didn’t want my lunch to make a second appearance.

A short time later we ended up getting through the ferry ride just fine and found ourselves on the small island of Miyajima, which also happens to have it’s own deer population (just like Nara). Except these deer are jerks. I was looking over some notes from the trip when this adorable deer…

Asshole Deer

…decided he was hungry and I had to wrestle the paper away from him.

DInner

Whether it was the busy morning, big lunch or hot weather we were both feeling pretty exhausted once we got to Miyajima. We decided to forgo the hike to the top of the mountain and instead just see the famous floating torii gate and then head back to the hostel for a nap, except we were there during low tide so the torii wasn’t quite floating.

Torii

It was just sorta there, like it was stuck in the mud. We could have stayed and in 6 hours when the tide came in it would look a little more iconic, but I think we got the gist of it. An unfortunate event of timing but you can’t win them all. After wandering past the Itsukushima shrine and through a lovely street market we called it quits and headed back to the main land, to nap and pack our bags to head to Osaka, our last city stop.

Selfie

 

Side note – Every time I’m on a boat I get this song stuck in my head…

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Day 7 – 1000 Paper Cranes

May 23, 2013
Hiroshima
J-Hoppers Hiroshima Traditional Guesthouse

Hiroshima is a city steeped in world history, it’s best known as the first city in history to be targeted by an atomic bomb. To say I was looking forward to seeing Hiroshima isn’t quite right. I wanted to see Hiroshima, I wanted to learn more about what happened that day and what’s happened since, but I was also dreading what I knew was going to be a difficult experience.

After arriving by shinkansen (bullet train) and checking into our hostel we took a walk to the Peace Memorial Park to see the Peace Memorial Museum, the Atomic Bomb Dome and some of the various statues on the grounds. The first statue we came across was the Monument of the A-bombed Teachers and Students of National Elementary Schools – quite the mouthful. The statue itself was simple, a women running, bent over the child she’s carrying. Surrounding the statue was paper cranes, a symbol for peace and something we would learn more about later.

Teacher

Cranes

Cranes2A short walk away from the monument was a very modern building that housed the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

MuseumThe museum starts with a brief video about the bombing and then a series of photos show how Hiroshima grew as a city and the role it played in wars leading up to WWII. I found each exhibit very unbiased, especially as it went into the role Japan played in the bombing of Pearl Harbour and how Hiroshima was chosen by the US as the target city. There were 2 models that showed Hiroshima before and right after the bombing, it was essentially decimated in a matter of seconds. I took one picture throughout the entire museum, a watch that stopped at the moment of the bombing, 8:15 in the morning.

Watch

It wasn’t that there weren’t things worthy of being photographed, it was that I didn’t feel it was necessary. The museum was meant to be experienced and felt, not documented. I don’t think I could do the victims justice and I didn’t want to try. I spent my time there walking through each section, with my arms crossed over my chest, reminding myself to keep breathing. It was hard, no doubt about it, but it was supposed to be hard.

Back outside we made our way towards the Atomic Bomb Dome (Genbaku Dome) and got a view of it through the Cenotaph for the A-bomb Victims.

Cenotaph

The Dome was the only building left standing in Hiroshima, a miracle considering how close it was to the site where the bomb was dropped. During the rebuilding many people wanted it torn down so it wouldn’t be a constant reminder of what happened, but through the efforts of many people it has been preserved in the same state as immediately after the bombing. The remains are skeletal and delicate, a symbol for the destructive power of mankind, but also for it’s resiliency to keep fighting for peace.

AbombSeeing the Dome against the skyline of Hiroshima was a reminder of just how new this city is. Unlike other cities in Japan, which are full of temples and shrines, Hiroshima is pretty much new, having to completely rebuild after the bombing. One note in the Museum stated that they were able to get some of their streetcar system up and running only 3 days after the attack.

Abomb2

Sadako Sasaki was only two years old when the bomb was dropped and she was exposed to the radiation. Though she was initially fine, 10 years later her symptoms developed and she was diagnosed with leukemia. While in the hospital, Sadako began a mission of folding 1000 paper cranes, believing the ancient Japanese story that promised a wish to anyone able to complete the task. Even after completing her mission (and folding several hundred more), Sadako died at the age of 12. Her classmates raised money for a memorial to her and all of the children who had died from the effects of the atomic bomb, the Children’s Peace Monument.

Statue3

It’s hard accepting what mankind is capable of, especially when acts of violence are presented so honestly and clearly. It broke my heart to see some of those images today and to hear the survivor’s stories, but I think it’s necessary and important for people to learn about those moments and to experience them.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana

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Day 6 – Making Friends with Bambi

May 22, 2013
Kyoto
Kyoto Hana Hostel

The agenda for today was more temples, as if we didn’t get enough yesterday! When you visit Kyoto, which has literally thousands of temples and shrines, you sort of know what you’re getting yourself into, but luckily there are other options for when you’re feeling Templed Out. We weren’t there yet so took a JR train (using our JR passes – handy!) to the nearby city of Nara to visit three distinct sites; Kofuku-ji, Todai-ji and Kasuga-taisha.

After arriving in Nara and walking up a long street you reach Nara Koen, a huge park that encompasses all the sites we planned to visit and is also home to some adorable deer who are considered National Treasures and given free reign over the entire place. According to local folklore, the deer in the area were considered sacred due to a visit from a god and killing one of the deer was punishable by death until 1637. Before we saw any deer we were greeted by a group of school children who explained they were from a local school and wanted to ask us some questions. The assignment seemed to give them a chance to practice their English on native speakers and we briefly chatted about where we were from and our visit to Nara. They thanked us with small origami gifts and I snapped a quick picture.

School

We continued our way to Kofuku-ji, a Buddhist temple and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I especially wanted to see inside the Eastern Golden Hall, originally constructed by an Emperor Shomu to speed the recovery of his sick wife. In addition to building the hall he installed a large Buddha,thought to have healing properties, to make her feel better.

Kofuku-ji2

Pictures weren’t allowed inside the hall so you’ll just have to trust me when I saw that the Buddha was beautiful and I hope it made the Empress feel better. The rest of Kofuku-ji was a bit of a bummer; they are in the middle of a huge reconstruction project (finish date 2018) and it costs extra to get into the Treasure House so we decided to wrap it up and move on.

On our way to the next site we came across a few of the famous Nara deer…and the warning that goes with them.

Sign

Doesn’t this guy look vicious?

Deer

Sarah

It was turning out to be another killer hot day so we were grateful for the shade that lead the way to Kasuga-taisha shrine.

Path

In fact, we weren’t really interested in the shrine at all, we were more interested in checking out the 3,000 stone lanterns that lead up to the shrine. Each one was totally unique and I could imagine what the glow from all those lanterns would look like. I’d have to come back mid-August or February during the Mantoro festival to find out though and I’m not sure I can get that much time off work.

Lanterns

Of course there was deer at this site as well. And this lucky guy got some of the crackers that the park sells for 150 yen.

Deer Cracker

Our last stop in Nara was Todai-ji, a Buddhist temple that houses the largest bronze statue of Buddha in Japan. The Great South Gate welcomes visitors and is as impressive as it is imposing.

Main Gate

Once inside the gate there are menacing guardian statues on either side.

Guardian

After some winding trails you finally get a glimpse of the Daibutsuden, or the Great Buddha Hall.

BuddhaHall

To my shock and surprise we were allowed to take pictures once inside. In every other place we’ve been to so far photos have been strictly forbidden inside any area of worship so I had to ask twice to make sure. Their only rule was that you couldn’t use a tripod. Not a problem! What was a problem was getting an accurate picture showing just what a big boy Buddha was!

I found this picture that does a pretty good job at showing the scale but there was nothing quite like standing in front of him and looking up his nostrils.

Nara-Daibutsu-Great-Buddha-statue-in-the-Todaiji-Temple-in-Nara-380x506

(now back to my pictures)

Buddha2

Speaking of nostrils, behind the Buddha was a wooden column with a hole through it’s base. Popular belief dictates that if you manage to crawl through the opening (which is the same size as one of Buddha’s nostrils) you will reach enlightenment. I’ll let everyone know if I see a change in Jeff…

Jeff

Wanting to make sure we were experiencing all the perks that Japan has to offer we decided to try kaiten-zushi for dinner, or conveyor belt sushi which is exactly what it sounds like. Diners sit at a counter and plates of sushi go by on a conveyor belt. When you see something that looks good you grab it. A stack of plates forms beside each person and at the end the plates are counted and you pay your bill.

Kaiten

I thought it was a great way to eat some cheap sushi (each plate was only 137 yen – roughly $1.40), but there were a couple things to keep in mind. We weren’t quite sure how many laps some of those plates made. It seemed like some of the less popular dishes just kept going round and around. On the flip side, the most popular pieces are usually quick to go so a good eye and quick hands are a must. If you want you can always order off the menu and the chef will make your order fresh, but that’s just not as fun.

Kaiten3

At the time I didn’t realize it was a competition, which Jeff clearly won.

Musashimi

For dessert we were looking for a little piece of home so we stopped by Mister Donuts, a large doughnut chain in Japan that has been around since 1956. Now, I would never bash a delicious pastry so I’ll just say that Mister Donut has nothing on Tim Horton. Japan might have superior public transit, but we clearly win the doughnut war.

Mister Doughnut

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Day 5 – Holy Temples, Batman!

May 21, 2013
Kyoto
Kyoto Hana Hostel

We got into Kyoto a little early yesterday so while we waited to check in I started doing some digging into any events that were going on in the area during our stay. As luck would have it I found the perfect thing, a local flea market held on the 21st of every month at a nearby temple (To-ji). Neither of us are big shoppers but I thought it might be neat to get a little taste of a local market that sells everything – vintage kimonos, food, antiques, pottery, art and everything in between.

After a light breakfast we strolled down to To-ji and before we saw the market we could see the tall pagoda peaking out from the treetops. The entrance gate hid the maze of tents held behind and truth be told we got lost while wandering around; there was so much to look at and it was easy to lose your bearings.

Entrance

Market

My favourite discovery was this gorgeous tea kettle collection and Jeff had to be town away from a Nintendo Famicom console; both posed practical problems of how to get our treasures home. Jeff was also intrigued by a stall with Japanese army memorabilia.

Teapots

Nintendo

Japan Army

Taking a break from the flea market we remembered that there was a temple hidden amongst all the vendors.

Roof

Fire

Turtle

The temple area was small and understated, probably not worth the visit if you are limited on time in Kyoto, but because of the flea market it was busy with activity. There were monks in the courtyard and a monk burning offerings in the small temple. Trying to find our way back through the flea market lead us through the food section where everything smelled delicious, but looked suspect. English signs were hard to find so we weren’t always sure what each stall was selling.

Veggies

Vendor

Vendor2

Vendor3

We mostly restrained ourselves and ended up leaving the market with a second hand yukata (cotton robe) and a silver bottle opener with kanji on the handle – a miracle considering all the neat stuff that was there.

Our second stop of the day was the Fushimi Inari shrine, everyone knows the iconic image of the red torii gate pathway and I was excited to see it in person. On approach a huge torii gate marks the entrance and foxes stand guard on either side. Inari is the god of rice and foxes are thought to be his messengers.

Entrance

Fox

Fushimi

After a short hike past the temple the path starts with thousands of red torii gates marking the way. Each torii has been donated by individuals or companies and the cost starts from 400,00 yen and goes up to 1.3 million yen for the largest ones.

ToriiStart

The light takes on an orange hue where the torii gates are the closest together but the further you go the more spread out they get and you start to get peaks of the forest between each one.

Torii5

The entire path takes about 3 hours to complete but after 45 minutes we reached a natural plateau and took a detour off the path into a shrine area where small torii gates were stacked on top of each other and shrine after shrine lead the way.

Torii8

Torii9

I could feel Temple Fatigue starting to set in so before we could lose momentum we moved on to Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple in East Kyoto.

Kiyomizu2

Kiyomizu4

There were two reasons I included Kiyomizu-dera on my list; 1 – not a single nail was used in its construction and 2 – beneath the main hall is Otowa waterfall which is believed to have wish-granting powers. You get a real sense of the scope of construction while walking down a staircase behind the main building. You can see the beam supports and how they are all notched into each other, hence no need for nails.

Kiyomizu7

I discovered that Otawa waterfall isn’t really a waterfall at all, at least not what I was expecting. It’s a man made structure where guests can use a cup to catch water from one of the streams to fulfill their wish. The line up was huge so we only watched for awhile and my wish went un-wished.

Kiyomizu8

The sun was high in the sky as we left the temple grounds so we escaped into an airconditioned restaurant for lunch. I meant to take a picture of our lunch bowls but we were both so hungry we ate without a second thought and all we were left with was the aftermath…

Kiyomizu10

Neither of us had much energy left (partly from the temples and partly from the lunch), but we had all day bus passes we needed to get the value out of so we decided on one last temple to close out our day and we had to make it a good one. So what’s better than gold?

We boarded a bus, during rush hour, and endured a steamy 45 minute ride, packed tight against strangers with no air conditioning. The goal was Kinkaku-ji or The Golden Pavilion, a very famous building that has been burned down twice (most recently in 1950 by a fanatic monk).

Golden

Unfortunately, like most of the temples and shrines in Tokyo, you can’t go inside. When you consider the number of tourists who visit these sites it makes sense but it’s still disappointing. You have to wonder when something is as grand as that on the outside, what does the inside look like? There was a path around the lake that lead behind the building and through a large garden.

Golden2

Conveniently the path pops you out beside an ice cream stand which we decided we both deserved for making it through all those temples without tapping out or giving up. Cheers!

Golden5

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Day 4 – Hello Kyoto

May 20, 2013
Kyoto
Kyoto Hana Hostel

This morning we left Tokyo behind and made our way to Kyoto via the bullet train, aka Jeff’s new favourite mode of transportation. We have 7-day Japan Rail Passes which will end up saving us a few hundred dollars after we use the train to get to Nara, Hiroshima and Osaka. Depending on what your route through Japan is it might make sense to get a pass or it might not. You have to look at each leg of your route and add it all up. Hyperdia.com is a lifesaver when it comes to figuring out the train schedules and the costs.

Tokyo station was bustling when we got there and with tickets in hand we made our way to our departure platform. I swear that station is a maze because it felt like we were going in circles, blindly following the signs directing us to Platform 19. Throughout the public transit in Tokyo almost all of the directional signs are in Kanji with the English spelling in slightly smaller print, making it pretty easy to figure out if you’re in the right spot or not. We did manage to find the right spot and lined up at our assigned car  and waited for the doors to open. That’s something that the Japanese tend to favour; politely lining up and waiting their turn. Even on the subways there’s marks on the floor that indicate where the train doors are going to be and everyone just lines up at that spot instead of trying to jockey for best position and then rushing the doors (*ahem*Toronto*ahem*). It’s all so civilized.

Bullet

Once we got on the train we settled in for the almost 3 hour ride that went by in a blink. Besides the beautiful countryside to keep us occupied…

View

…we also got bento box lunches from the snack cart, wandered up and down the train to get the lay of the land (ie. find out where the washrooms and vending machines were) and make friends with our Swiss seat mate.

Jeff

Before we knew it we had arrived in Kyoto, our second city stop and the home to countless temples and shrines. Our hostel was a short walk from Kyoto station and after checking in we surveyed our home for the next three nights. Traditional tatami mat floor and futons = perfection. I love sleeping on the floor and there’s something nice about not having a lot furniture eat up real estate in a room. Jeff’s trying to convince me to redecorate the house in this style, but I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

Room

After checking in we realized we still had a bit of time before some of the temples in the immediate area started to close, and trust me, there are a TON of temples in Kyoto – more than you could ever want to see in one visit. So we decided to take a walk to the closest one, Sanjusandgen-do, and visit the 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity Kannon. Yes, 1001 statues. When I read about it in the guidebooks I didn’t think they literally meant 1001 of them but it’s true and they were stunning. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any pictures once inside the hall so this image I found will have to suffice.

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I don’t think anything I could ever say could give the statues justice. Each one is hand carved with 11 heads and 40 arms and it took  70 craftsmen over 100 years to make them all. To see them standing at attention in perfect rows, the same height as the average human, was breathtaking. In the centre of this golden army was one huge Kannon, seated and praying on a lotus flower with 28 additional statues placed in a straight line along the front of it all. These statues are the guardian deities and each one was completely unique with severe facial expressions and powerful poses. The scope of it all was astounding and though I’m not a religious practitioner I will admit I was moved.

Once we emerged from the shrine area all photos were fair game again and I snapped this shot that shows the length of the hall itself, all 120 metres of it. If you can imagine, the entire length of the hall is taken up by the 1001 statues. THAT’S how many there are!

West Hall

The grounds also held a small shrine, temizu basin and ceremonial bell, which sounded just as we were leaving – bidding us farewell.

Inari Shrine

Temizu

Bell

With the sun slowly setting we decided to check one more thing off our list and made our way to the Gion district hoping to catch a glimpse of what made this area so famous, geishas. I didn’t really expect to see one, so imagine my surprise that we managed to see two! First, when we were walking towards the area, there was a town car pulled to the side of the road, waiting on his fare for the night. There were a young girl, probably 12 or 13, in a pink komono, standing straight and looking ahead, as if waiting for someone. That’s when the geisha emerged, gliding out of the house, she nodded to the driver and slipped into the back seat. As we passed by I saw her smile and nod to the girl. She was beautiful and everything you think of when you hear the word, “geisha”.

The second time I managed to get a quick picture (though not a very good one). Jeff noticed her as we were walking down the main drag in Gion. She moved so quickly and with such purpose that I don’t think many people noticed her at all. I wish I had gotten a better picture of her but I think the reason she was so fast was because she didn’t want her picture taken. I’m sure entertaining tourists is the top of her list every night.

Geisha

Not believing our luck we wandered around the area a bit more, away from the touristy section and into some of the tiny back streets lined with private restaurants. We were warned not to try to eat in Gion, many places require you to be referred to them from a current patron. Very exclusive.

Gion

Canal

There’s a certain charm to this neighbourhood, but you have to really look for it. For me it felt very “Disneyland-esque”, the constant shrill of tour guides and the “authentic” souvenir shops tend to overshadow the history and the architecture. However, it was still beautiful and seeing the geishas was a thrill.

Lantern

On our way out we passed a theatre presenting a Kabuki show. I kicked myself for not thinking ahead and booking tickets. Maybe next time!

Kabuki

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Day 3 – Change of Plans

May 19, 2013
Tokyo
Juyoh Hotel

While walking around Akihabara yesterday I noticed a pain on the outside of my right foot. It only got worse as the day went on and I found myself limping and in pain. When we got back to the hostel I started icing it hoping it would feel better today but no luck. We were supposed to take a day trip to Nikko today but I don’t think all that walking around would be a good idea. Reluctantly I am spending the day icing my foot while I’ve unleashed Jeff on Tokyo to wander around by himself.

***This is a guest post by Jeffrey Mazzei***

The first destination was Roppongi Hills for what was promised as great views in all directions of Tokyo.

Roppongi Hills is a newly built complex that was designed to incorporate all the modern preferences and benefits of urban living into one community. It has places for you to live, work, eat, play, and learn. It has a modern plaza, a mall with plenty of high-end stores, subway connections, and a very tall tower as it’s centrepiece. The tower is called Mori Tower. It is 250m tall, with an observation area and museum on Floor 52 and an open-air observation deck on the roof beside the Helipad.

Roppongi Hills

This is the view from the foot of the Tower soon after you get above ground. It is definitely a great first impression. The grounds are very nice and well-kept, in keeping with the general level of care the rest of Tokyo keeps as well.

Spider

The main outdoor plaza at the foot of the tower held this sculpture as a welcoming. It was probably 20 feet tall. And it was definitely reminding me of something from a TimBurton movie. It was not in keeping with the overall style of the plaza, which was of modern elegance, but surprises like this are what I like about Tokyo.

KId

Even the kids are stylish. Here we have a super-fly backpack styled after the Bullet Bills from Super Mario. +10 pts to that kid for sure. I definitely approve.

View

A view of Tokyo Tower from the observation floor of Mori Tower. The views were great today and I could see almost all of the city. This is looking south towards the water and the harbour.

View2

Here is a similar view. Tokyo Tower is just out of frame on the left side. You can see the Rainbow Bridge (center) and the docks (right side) as well as the entrance to the harbour.

View3

Here is a view roughly to the southwest. I like how the highway cuts a swath through the very dense neighbourhoods of Tokyo. Mount Fuji is in the background on the left. More pictures of that to come, don’t worry.

View4

This is more looking to the north from Mori Tower. The green in the foreground is a massive cemetery. You can also see Tokyo stretching far off into the distance. It was like this in pretty much every direction.

HeliPad

Now I am up on the Sky Deck. It is the roof of the Tower. Before taking the elevator up here, the very helpful assistants/security insisted that I only take a phone and a camera. No bags or hats or anything that can fly away. These needed to be left in lockers on Floor 52. Here is the helipad of Mori Tower. The perimeter is the Sky Deck, and it was pretty windy when I was there. It would be easy for a bigger bag to get away from an unsuspecting tourist.

Fugi

The Sky Deck was where I was able to get this shot (and many more) of Mount Fuji looming over Tokyo. Mt. Fuji looks amazing, and I was very happy to be able to see it so clearly.

Camera

I just thought this security camera was neat. It’s got a little articulated lens wiper! This was on the roof, so it is reasonable to expect it to get wet, but it’s still neat.

Hatsume Miku

This crazy cafe was on the 52nd floor as well. It is the Miku Cafe, and is a tribute to the synthetic pop star Hatsune Miku. ‘Her’ CDs are available for sale, and ‘she’ (by which I mean a life-size statue of her) was on stage while the music blared. A very curious sight for a Westerner indeed.

After taking the elevator back down from the top of the Tower, I went to Akihabara (again) to see what’s up on a Sunday. Apparently they close off the streets to cars and create a pedestrian mall because there are so many people. I was not disappointed.

Electric Town

The sign at the station pointing the way.

Akiba

It was true what they said. The main street was closed completely to car traffic. From street level is was very much like Shibuya. Lots of people going lots of different ways. I had the itch to see it from a higher vantage point so I climbed up a random stairwell and took a pic. Not only was the main drag closed, but the other street that weren’t closed to cars were jam-packed with people, effectively closing them to cars as it would have been impossible to get a car through there.

Akiba2

The Japanese are very serious about closing the streets to cars. So much so that they used mini tank traps (as well as many police officers) to make sure that no one will ever under any circumstance cross that intersection with a car and have that car be functioning on the other side.

Akiba3

This is what the side streets looked like. Throngs of people everywhere you turned. And a few maids (bottom right) that were passing out flyers for various businesses.

Akiba4

Found this guy in a store. He is not to be fucked with, for the obvious reasons. Just look at him.

Akiba5

Cool Old Dude is apparently just as enthused as I am to be in Akihabara. This place is awesome. Jeff out.

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Day 2 (part two) – The Art of Sumo

May 18, 2013
Tokyo
Juyoh Hotel

The Edo-Tokyo Museum is located right next to the Ryogoku Kokugikan (the sumo stadium) and from the outside it looks like it’s from another world.

EdoTokyo Museum

The museum follows the history of Tokyo and though I didn’t take a lot of pictures it was really interesting. There was miniatures, a reproduction of a Kabuki theatre and bookshop, as well as a couple old cars.

Kabuki

Mini

Bookshop

Datsun1000

Subaru360

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It was a great place to learn about the history of Tokyo and how a small fishing village turned into the city that it is today.

Finally, after the busy day we had already had, it was time for a little sumo wrestling. We were both really excited about witnessing some sumo matches first hand and getting the tickets had been first on my list once we booked our flight to Japan. Most people in Japan buy their sumo tickets ahead of time but being out of the country we couldn’t do that. Sumo events tend to sell out and though we could have risked it and tried to get tickets once we got here, I didn’t want to take that chance. Instead I used buysumotickets.com to act as our agent and purchase tickets on our behalf. After letting them know our price range and intended date they bought tickets for us and mailed them by registered mail. It was quick, painless and only slightly more expensive than buying them once we got here.

The matches had started around 830am in the morning, beginning with the lowest division and ending with the top ranked at the end of the day. We got there around 230pm as the mid-level wrestlers were entering the ring.

Circle

So much of sumo is based on tradition and respect, much like Japanese culture itself. After entering the ring the wrestler claps his hands and stomps his legs to drive evil spirits.

Sumo2

Then each wrestler goes to his corner and accepts a ladle of water (known as “power water”) to rinse his mouth, followed by a towel (“power paper”) to dry his face. They then step back into the ring and squat facing each other, clap their hands and spread them wide (to show they have no weapons).

SumoReturning to their corners they each pick up a handful of salt which they toss onto the ring to purify it. They enter the ring again and stand staring at each other, one might crouch to show he’s ready but the other decides he’s not and returns back to his corner. Back and forth they go, it’s all about intimidation and mental preparedness until both wrestlers crouch and place both their fists on the ground. Then they charge and the bout is over in a matter of seconds.

Sumo3

Sumo4

Sumo5

There is an East and West division and I think this board was scoreboard which showed which wrestler won each match.

Score

When we first got there the place was half empty, but as the matches went on and the more popular wrestlers started the arena started to fill up. I loved hearing the crowd cheer for their favourites and I found myself getting caught up in a sport I knew nothing about and athletes I couldn’t name.

1-3

I took a short video of one of the matches that shows just how long the pre-bout posturing goes on for and just how short the fighting actually is. You can skip to 3:05 if you want to just see the flight.

I was surprised (and impressed) with how flexible agile the wrestlers were. They moved faster than I thought possible for a guy of their size and managed to drop it down low low low low low.

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Day 2 (part one) – Old and New

May 18, 2013
Tokyo
Juyoh Hotel

Bright and early this morning we headed to Senso-ji Temple; Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple that is within easy walking distance for us.

Main Hall

To enter the temple you pass under the Thunder Gate; a massive paper lantern painted red and black.

Thunder Gate

I broke the rules to take this picture of the altar, but it was so beautiful I couldn’t resist. I felt terrible afterwards and made a donation to try to make up for it karmically.

Altar

The ceiling of the temple was beautifully painted and we sat for awhile craning our necks to try and see it all.

Ceiling

Down the steps from the temple you can see the courtyard and the Five Story Pagoda.

Courtyard

5 Story Pagoda2

Tucked into a small corner on the grounds we came across this bronze Buddha and Japanese man praying together. It was a quiet moment I was happy to be there for and after snapping this picture I snuck away to leave them alone.

Pray

The way out of the temple is the Nakamise-dori, a 250 metre street lined with 89 shops that has been around since the 18th century (after some rebuilds). The shops are mostly filled with touristy stuff; knick-knacks, Japanese fans, boxes of candy and small paper lanterns. We were there a little early so not all the shops were open but we got a little sample of just how busy this spot gets.

Alley

Selfie

Totally changing gears we decided to head to Akihabara, the popular neighbourhood in Tokyo for all things electronic, computer, anime, and otaku related. Basically, a nerd’s paradise and there were nerds aplenty!

Akihabara

We started at the Tokyo Anime Centre and I learnt a bit about some popular Japanese anime, while Jeff got into a staring match with an intense looking dude who could have been his long lost brother from another mother.

Showdown

Anime Drawing

After wandering in and out of stores for awhile (Jeff was drooling and trying to figure out how to cash in his RRSPs for some of the neat stuff he saw), we decided we needed lunch to keep up our energy for the rest of the day. One of the things I love about restaurants here is that there are usually pictures in addition to the written menu. I’m not sure if it’s a thing to help tourists or not, but it is definitely appreciated. We decided on little restaurant in a back alley of Akiba that had a fun way of ordering.

Lunch

Lunch3

Yep! It’s a vending machine. You look at the pictures to decide what you want, put your money in, press the button that corresponds with the picture and it spits out a little ticket. Give the ticket to the waitress and you are on your way. While we waited the waitress brought over complimentary iced green tea and before we knew it our food was ready. I got some shrimp/veggie tempura was rice and soup and Jeff got pork tempura stew with the same sides. It was hot and fresh and best of all, we got all this food for less than $15!

Lunch2

Pretty sure you can tempura anything here. I think I had tempura salad today and it was delicious.

Jeff

Japan seems to be agreeing with Jeff. He hasn’t stopped smiling since we got here and that’s ok with me :)

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