Tell 'em what I took, man!

Reflections of a repatriated ex-patriot

Sunday, October 30, 2005

My brother came to visit me recently, and I set up an ambitious travel itinerary. I'll do retrospective posts for each of these, but in general, this is what it looked like:
  • Oct. 22 - Jidai Matsuri, Kyomizu Temple, and Gion in Kyoto
  • Oct. 23 - Kobe ropeway, cruise, and stroll around Nankinmachi
  • Oct. 24 - Osaka castle, Nanba, and the Umeda Sky Tower
  • Oct. 25 - Tokyo sightseeing bus tour: Tokyo Tower, Imperial Palace, Asakasa
  • Oct. 25 - Shinagawa and Roppongi
  • Oct. 26 - Nihonbashi, Ginza, Tsukiji, Meji-jengu, Harajuku, and Shinjuku
  • Oct. 27 - Kawaguchiko (lake near Mt. Fuji)
  • Oct. 28 - Kyoto part two: Ginkakuji and The Path of Philosophy
  • Oct. 29 - Nara: Kofukuji and Todaiji

All in all it was a really good trip. I did as much as I could to keep him disoriented and bemused. My only regret is I didn't keep a photo journal of the food. We hit some damn good places. In the future, I'll try to feature some of the bars, restaurants and venues I like in Japan, but I'm not making any promises. For now, you'll just have to accept any mention of food as a general overview of Japanese cuisine. Therefore, don't post asking me for directions or specific names, for you must remember that when people go out to eat it's just possible they might consume large quantities of alcohol which in turn may make them forget where they went, what they ate, or why they woke up next to that midget stripper.

The trip in fact lasted ten days total. Oct. 21st was the date of arrival. My brother, though not having had much sleep in the previous 48 hours, showed a remarkable ability to deal with the jetlag. To his credit, he opted not to punk out and go straight to bed, deciding instead to go to an okonomiyaki restaurant with us in local Nishinomiya. I must say, I was impressed.

On October 30th, Thomas went by himself to Hiroshima to get the most out of his JR railpass. I would have gone, but I couldn't afford the fare. If you're coming to Japan just for a short time on a travel visa, the JR railpass is an incredible deal. You can travel on any JR train from Kyushu to Hokkaido. And you can take the Hikari Shinkansen or Kodama Shinkansen trains (the two slightly slower ones) to anywhere for as long as the pass is valid. You get seven days for about $26o. Just to give you an idea of the normal fares, I paid roughly the same amount for one round trip Kodama ticket from ShinOsaka to Tokyo.

Anyway, you can get Thomas' take on Hiroshima directly and lots of other things he's interested in, including photos and info. on my nephew
here. He left this morning, and should arrive back in Houston around 7:30 this evening. If only he'd bought that Ultraman suit for Halloween . . .


Sunday, October 23, 2005

Oct. 23 - Kobe ropeway, cruise, and stroll around Nankinmachi

Doing like we had done the day before, we walked into the ticket office at Hankyu Nishinomiya Kitaguchi station, but this time bought the day pass for Kobe. Also a great value, this pass allows travel between Osaka and Kobe, as well as including fare for the Mt. Rokko ropeway and a free cruise in Osaka Bay.

We took the train into Sannomiya and from there went to the JR station to procure Shinkansen tickets for the trip to Tokyo we would be taking on the 25th. After that we took the subway to ShinKobe station to board the ropeway, a series of gondolas which take you up the mountains abruptly jutting up less than a kilometer from the coast. We were lucky enough to have great weather that day, and so were able to get a fantastic panoramic of Kobe and the fertile-crescent megopolis of cities, suburbs and satellite cities that engulf Osaka Bay. Just visible on the horizon was the floating island of Kansai airport, and much nearer the beginnings of another man-made island airstrip being built in the sea near Kobe. Port Island, Rokko Island and several other strips of land also strech out tentacle-like into the Bay. It's land reclaimation taken to an extreme-- a Japanese extreme mind you, but not surprising when you think that only 25% of Japan's natural landmass is suitable for habitation.

At the top of the Mt. Rokko ropeway there's an herb garden overlooked by a Swiss-style chateau. There's no shortage of greenhouses, trails, or tea houses, coffee shops, or souvenir emporiums to keep one occupied. You get the impression, though, that the area is targeted to an older crowd, built as an escape from the glitzy, racous city below. Not a bad way to spend a quiet afternoon if you're in the mood for tranquility, quiet reflection, or just trying to recover from last night's sake binge.

We returned to the subway and then went out to Harborland station in order to catch the Concerto Cruise ship for a trip out into the bay. There are several versions of this cruise. You can upgrade your booking to get a cake set, which we opted to do, or you can book into the much longer, swankier dinner-cruise. On board, we chowed down on cake and guzzled down coffee and tea, and then went above deck to take in the view round the bay. Since we had opted for the shorter cruise we didn't get too close to the Akashi Kaikyou Bridge-- apparently the longest suspension bridge in the world.


Saturday, October 22, 2005

Oct. 22 - Jidai Matsuri, Kyomizu Temple, and Gion in Kyoto:

I had secured a good 13 days off through regular paid holidays and four shiftswaps which required I work straight through a weekend. And despite forecasts of scattered showers I was in a genial mood as we left that morning. Thomas had slept off the jetlag quite well, and we made our way to Hankyu Nishinomiya Kitaguchi station, where we bought a Kyoto day pass. If you're ever in the Kansai area and want to spend a day of sightseeing in one of the main cities, getting a day pass from the ticket center of any major Hankyu station is a good way to do it. The Kyoto pass includes travel on the Hankyu rail anywhere it goes in the Kansai area throughout Osaka and Kobe and Kyoto including travel on the Kyoto buses and subway lines. In addition you get a bunch of coupons for discounts to sightseeing hotspots, such as temples and museums.

We got our tickets and then took the train to Osaka. You can catch trains to Kawaramachi (the main Kyoto Hankyu station) at Juso station, but it makes more sense to go all the way to Osaka to be assured of getting a seat for the hour long train ride into the heart of Kyoto.

We made our way to the Imperial Palace and took our seats, only to be approached immediately by a bunch of school children speaking formulaic English asking about where we were from and where we've been to in Japan so far. They gave us origami cranes and what looked like frogs, some students of course, being more adept at folding than their classmates, and then were shooed away by their teacher to the next group of foreigners along the parade route which stretched on either side of the wide walkway leading to the main entrance of the Imperial Palace.

Although a copy of the original, built in 1855-1856, and situated well northeast of its first location, I found it impressive to know that there had been an imperial palace in Kyoto as early as 794AD. And even though the procession commemorates the founding of the city, the actual festival itself wasn't started until 1895 to celebrate Kyoto's 1,100 anniversary. The Heian Jingu Shrine where the festival ends was built in the year of foundation as a commemoration of the removal of the capital from Nara to Kyoto. In the evening there is a second event known as the Kuruma Torch Festival held at Yuki shrine. Jidai Matsuri is one of the big three festivals held in Kyoto. The other two are Gion Matsuri held on July 17th and Aoi Matsuri which you can see on May 15th.

Another good one to see, should you ever get the chance is the Nada Fighting Festival held in Himeji on October 14th and 15th. It's a visual spectacle where different brightly colored fronds are stuck onto the end of thick bamboo poles and palanquins (portable shrines weighing over two tons) are slammed together in a ritual fight. Yes, sometimes people are trampled and killed, but it is believed that the harder the knocks, the more appeased will be the spirits who enjoy watching the event. I went to the Nada festival last year, before I had bought a digital camera, so I'll have to scan my photos later on.

As for the festival we saw on October 22nd, though much more subdued than it's counterpart that took place a week earlier in Himeji, it's a really good way of visualizing Japanese history as representatives from Heian period to the Meiji Restoration are featured in the procession. I found it notable that there was so much interest in featuring important women of the various ages in the festival. For example, Lady Shizuka, featured right, was a dancer in Kyoto and the favored concubine of Minamoto Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune was a talented general and half-brother of Yoritomo, who eventually gained control of Japan towards the end of the Heian period. Yoshitsune was so skilled and liked that he gained the favor of the emperor and his court, much to the dismay of Yoritomo who eventually forced his suicide and had his head brought to him in a jar of sake. This and other exploits of Lady Shizuka and Yoshitsune, as well as his retainer, Benkei feature not only in Kabuki and Noh, but in a few western novels as well. Sorry, I haven't read any of them, so I can't give you any recommendations.

In fact, I haven't even read the Tale of Genji, perhaps the most seminal work in Japanese literature. Here too, we have an example of an important woman in Japanese history, Genji's author, Murasaki-Shikibu (featured in contemporary clothes at front, below). But perhaps the most striking image of an importatant historical woman in Japan I saw at the festival was of Tomoe Gozen, the wife of general Kiso Yoshinaka.

Perhaps the Japanese equivalent of Joan of Arc, she was skilled as any man with sword and spear, fighting bravely along with her lover. I think her image captured my imagination the most out of the entire procession. I won't go into too much detail, as this post is already running pretty long, but click here to learn more about this stunning figure.

After the festival had wound it's way out of sight we headed for lunch back in Kawaramachi before hopping the bus out towards Gion and Kiyomizu temple. Perhaps the most popular temple in the area, Kiyomizu's origins date to 798 but what you can see dates back to about 1633. "Kiyomizu" actually means "clear water," which might explain the tendency for visitors to drink from the nearby Otawa waterfall using long-handled tin cups. It is said that the water from this spring has magic curative properties. I suppose it can't hurt to take a sip. The Gion area is a must see if you ever come to Kyoto. The old-fashioned houses and narrow coble-stone streets leading up to the temple are well worth the sore legs you're likely to feel afterwards. That part of Kyoto, is filled with interesting sites, including Ryozen Kannon Temple, Kodaiji, the Yasaka pagoda, and Maruyama Koen park. If you head north from Kiyomizu temple you can continue on up into the park to get a look at Chion-in Temple and Shoren-in Temple or make the earlier left into the Yasaka shrine, and re-enter the modern world as you walk down the steps to Shijo-dori street.


Monday, October 10, 2005

As promised here's a picture of the clock tower in Izushi.

I can't tell you too much about it, just that a traditional temple gong was used to chime the hours. While this picture was being taken this scary old Japanese lady was winking at me. That explains the expression of mixed emotions on my face. And when I say old, I don't mean like middle-aged old. In fact, Japanese women have the highest life-expectancy in the world. So this lady must have been pushing 80 but was still able to manage that come-hither stare. Yipes, like wow Scoob, we gotta get back to the Dream Machine and find Thelma. Ream Rarine!? Arrouwgh!?

Actually I wanted to stay longer to get pictures of the clock tower from different angles. And I would've gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for you meddling geriatrics.


Saturday, October 01, 2005

When I was young my father used to always tell me to get my head out of my ass. But contrary to what you might be thinking, this is not a picture of my attempt to take his advice. In fact, it is the proper way to view Amanohashidate. Get more information here.

If you do get the opportunity to make it to 'The Bridge Over Heaven,' I recommend taking the motorboat tour around the sandbar. And if you have time on the way you should check out Izushi to glmpse the Meiji-era Clock tower, and get a taste of the local soba (buckwheat noodles).

More on that on the next post. Maybe you might even get to see a picture of my face!