Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Japan, April 12th - Kyoto/Arashiyama to Austin

For our last day in Japan, we visited Arashiyama, a quiet, residential suburb of Kyoto with lots of temples and parks along a river. The cherry blossoms were starting to fall, and covered the ground like snow in places. Tenryuji temple's garden was very scenic, and so were the mist (or smoke?) hovering over the river and the bamboo forest we walked through in a hillside park. The moon bridge was huge and ordinary-looking, and the richshaw tour guides were a little bit of tourism overload.

We made a few last-minute purchases here (a small ceramic vase and a final round of Japanese sweets, including sakura mochi), got lost walking through a nice residential area, then went to Kansai airport for our trip home, frantically spending our final yen on airport trinkets.

Although the cold and daily rain weren't best of travel conditions, they did mean that the tourist sites we saw were less crowded than they are at their peaks. We saw a lot of different places, and amassed an impressive stack of JR seat reservation tickets along the way. We both had a lot of fun, and this felt like a last hurrah after our round-the-world trip. And we found the key to paradise. What more could we have asked for?

Japan, April 11th - Osaka and Kyoto

Our first activity on Elizabeth's birthday was a "private" (~50-person) tour of Sento Gosho, the emperor's retirement palace and gardens. Unfortunately, it rained the whole time, but the gardens were, I think, more beautiful than Kenrokuen park and the imperial palace itself. There wasn't much to the residence since it had burned down so many times they eventually gave up on rebuilding it. But we did get to walk through one of the garden teahouses and traverse the winding paths and bridges of the garden itself. A heron poised by the central bridge made the scene particularly poetic.

Special activity #2 was a trip to Miyako Odori, a lavishly decorated traditional spring dance play performed by the maiko (apprentices) and geiko (geisha) of the Gion Kobu district in Kyoto. After our fairly negative experience with Kabuki, we were afraid that the performance would be so stylized as to be arcane, but the dancing was spot-on, the costumes and sets were beautiful and vibrantly colored, and the overall performance totally accessible. A few acts involved dances celebrating the seasons, and another told the folk talk of Urashima Taro, a boy who returns a turtle he caught back to the sea and is rewarded with a turtle-back ride to an underwater palace. It felt special to see some of the few remaining authentic geiko and maiko in action.

In the evening, we walked around Gion and visited Maruyama Park, known for its enormous drooping cherry tree on a pedestal, as well as its pretty landscaping and other cherry blossoms. Only a few cherry-viewing parties were going on, in makeshift tents, because of the rain, but the big, illuminated cherry tree was still surrounded by hordes of photographers, capturing what is probably its last day of full blossoms this season.

For dinner, we sought out okonomiyaki, Elizabeth's favorite dish. After lots of fruitless and wet walking, we were one shop away from the department store where we had conceded to eat when we found an okonomiyaki shop. Elizabeth ordered the standard pork pancake, covered with ginger, dancing fish flakes, dried fruit-based barbecue sauce, and mayonnaise. David made a more unconventional choice of a "2-ply" okonomiyaki that contained potatoes, corn, eggs, and cream sauce. It must have been the foreigner's okonomiyaki, because they served it to him with an American flag toothpick atop it.

For dessert, we found a bakery restaurant, and Elizabeth had a bowl full of mochi, jellies, green tea ice cream and adzuki with molasses syrup and green tea. David had a choco-banana parfait. We stayed at a Japanese-style inn for the night, and slept like logs.

Japan, April 10th - Osaka and the Kiso Valley

Our hotel in Osaka was next to the Umeda Sky Building, an enormous two-column skyscraper connected at the top with an observatory with a circular hole in the middle. The escalators to the observatory cross the gap in the middle, offering views of Osaka from both sides. We gazed up on it from below, but decided not to shell out the money to ascend to the observatory, since our corner suite in the hotel already gave us views aplenty, and Osaka is not particularly scenic.

Today we travelled to the old Nakasendo Road in the Kiso Valley. There's an 8km section of the Edo-period postal route between Tokyo and Kyoto there that is known for being well-preserved and scenic. We took a combination of train and bus there and embarked on the hike from Magome to Tsumago. Magome was tiny, ascending the hill at the beginning of the trail, and its noodle shops, inns, and traditional craftsmen were mostly closed on this blustery Monday. It was a 2km walk from Magome to a mountain pass, then 6km downhill to Tsumago. Although there were a bunch of German hikers on our bus, we only saw two other hikers on the trail. But it wasn't as scenic and isolated as we had hoped; the path took us across and along multiple roads, wasn't really landscaped, and didn't have any cherry trees. It is known for a couple of waterfalls said to represent the male and female, but we somehow missed them, and the ruins of a former checkpoint, completely.

Tsumago was very well-preserved, but not as neat and clean as the geisha districts of Kanazawa or as big as the old section of Takayama. And it had a few busloads of Japanese tourists ambling around, as well as a busload of bored-looking tour guides in training. We took a few pictures of the narrow main road and some cherry trees arching over it, then headed back to Kansai for the night.

Japan, April 9th - Tokyo and Osaka

This was the first clear morning we've seen, and when we got up, we could see Mt. Fuji from the window of our room at the Westin Tokyo. The Westin Tokyo is probably the best hotel I've ever stayed at: fancy furnishings, immaculately clean, a huge marble bathroom, and great amenities. Apparently it's a popular wedding venue too, as we saw a few brides in the lobby.

We found a Sensoji temple heron dance listing in a Tokyo events list, and jumped at the chance to see a festival without rain. As always, Sensoji temple was incredibly crowded with tourists. We arrived about a half hour after the festival's scheduled start time, and once we pushed through the crowd, saw people in heron costumes ascending the temple steps. Thinking we had missed the main event, we followed the musicians' cart around a corner, only to find them stopping to clear an area for the heron dance. We serendipitously ended up with a front-row view.

The heron costumes were fabulous - white face makeup, white long-haired wigs, tall and narrow heron-head hats, and articulated feathers. The dance was slow and ceremonial, with drum and flute music in the background. Occasionally a woman who was in the middle of the dance would throw confetti-like slips of paper. Elizabeth picked one up that fell by her feet, and it said "fukuju," prosperity and happiness.

After the recessional, we pushed our way through the crowd to the train station and headed south on the shinkansen, not knowing exactly where we were going. We barely got a glimpse of Mt. Fuji through the window, and stopped in Nagoya to use an internet cafe to look for places to stay. Mysteriously, the cafe charged 300 yen per hour for men and 100 yen per hour for women. We got a cubicle with a huge cushiony floor covering, but didn't have much luck finding accommodations. So we decided to stay at the Westin in Osaka, just one more short train ride away.

Japan, April 8th - Tokyo

We went to the Tsukiji fish market Saturday morning. While I had been there twice before, the commplex is so mazelike, I don't think I ever fully grasped its scale. The warehouses seem to stretch out forever, with one small vendor after another. We arrived at its peak hour, so we constantly had to step aside for little motorized fish carts and men in rubber boots and spattered aprons. We saw some huge frozen fish and many unidentifiable creatures.

Determined to achieve the pinnacle of sushi-eating, we decided to have breakfast at one of the restaurants. Like the stalls that sell whole fish, they're all tiny and crowded, and we had to wait outside in a queue. We eventually ordered the 7-variety bowl, containing tuna, negi-toro (chopped toro with green onions), ika, ikura, uni, ebi, and egg. The raw shrimp was surprisingly good, and the other sushi was flawless, but fresh almost to the point of tastelessness.

Well sated, we headed to Harajuku for some teenage peoplewatching. Omotesando-dori was thronged with young people visiting designer shops, and Takeshita-dori was pretty crowded too, despite a rainstorm. There was of hairspray, hair dye, ripped jeans, and fancy shoes, but dissapointingly few people in costume. Apparently Sunday, not Saturday, is the day all the cosplay crowd hangs out on the bridge by the station. We did see a couple of Lolitas (girls in Victorian Bo-Peep-style outfits), and a crowd staring at three Ganguro/Yamababa girls (blonde, with dark tans and pastel makeup).

Around the corner, Yoyogi park had some better peoplewatching. A group of teenagers was doing stunts on a trampoline. We watched them dive into a thorny bush and jump into a tree. One even waded through the pond and tried to snuff out a 30-foot fountain with his rear end. (I'm sure you can find their videos on the internet somewhere.) A couple was walking their cat and dog, and girls were introducing their ferrets. People were practicing Kendo, drumming, Flamenco dancing, jump-roping, juggling, and even doing martial arts routines in Power Ranger-style bodysuits. And hundreds of normal, looking people were walking, playing frisbee, or picnicking under the cherry trees.

In the evening, we took the unmanned Yurikamome train across Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba, the island entertainment complex in Tokyo Bay. We walked through Venus Fort, a shopping arcade that looks like Caesar's Palace, and checked out the cars at Mega Web, a Toyota showroom-cum-amusement-park. (We didn't get to do test drives, the electic vehicle test course, or the motion simulator, though.) We had dinner under the 115-meter neon Ferris wheel at First Kitchen, a fast food joint with a Japanese twist. Our favorite menu items: matcha green tea float, yuzu citrus breaded port cutlet sandwich with cabbage, macaroni gratin pizza, and corn-flavored French fries (curry-flavored are a close second). The flavored fries are an especially fun gimmick: they put them in a paper bag with the flavoring powder, then roll it down and shake like crazy before serving them.

We decided not to ride the Ferris wheel, and headed to our hotel after walking through a huge video arcade complete with fun houses, haunted houses, batting cages, bowling, ping pong, billiards, and rideable motorized stuffed animals in addition to the usual stuff.

Japan, April 7th - Nagano and Tokyo

After a nutritous breakfast at Mr. Donut, we visited Nagano's central attraction, Zenkoji Temple. On the way, we passed the 1998 Winter Olympic medal podium, a sad platform in front of a corrugated tin wall in a parking lot.

Zenkoji houses the "key to paradise." It's a pitch-dark, twisting tunnel area of the basement, and you can pay 500 yen to go down and try to find it. When we went, a monk spoiled the surprise by telling us where it was in advance. So we are now enlightened.

The shinkansen ride to Tokyo was quick, and Tokyo was a balmy 50 degrees. We rode the elevators to the top of City Hall in Shinjuku and looked down on the endless city from the 54th floor. Then we walked through Ueno park to see the cherry blossoms. We found lots of picnic spots staked out on blue tarps by lone junior office workers, hunkered down in their coats (and even in a sleeping bag in one case.) We walked past the zoo and kids' amusement park, then moved on to David's paradise, Akihabara.

Akihabara is a small area of Tokyo that sells a huge percentage the cell phones and other electronics for all of Japan. We wandered through the cramped, poorly signed alleys and multistory malls, marvelling at the obscure do-it-yourselfer components, high-end GPS navigation systems with traffic flow information and pictures of individual buildings, encyclopedic handheld translators, old computer parts, and incongruous action figure and doll stores. We didn't see anything that resembled a BlackBerry, though; maybe regular-looking cell phones have usable email and web browsing here? We couldn't figure out all the cell phone features, but they definitely have larger screens, credit card-like payment capabilities, and interesting text messaging keyboard shortcuts to support Japanese.

Our next stop was Ginza, to see the bright lights at night. We got lost looking for the Yon-Chome intersection, but eventually found our way to the kabuki theater and got tickets for the last hour of the day's performance. After a quick dinner at Pronto (involving some delicious cod roe spaghetti), we experienced what may have been the longest hour of theatre in our lives.

My theory was that we'd get to see the exciting climax of the 8-hour performance if we bought tickets for the last hour. But the first 45 minutes involved just a few people walking in and out of a tatami room and sitting down and talking to each other. We definitely suffered for not buying the English translation earphones; all I could figure out was that there was some sort of love triangle and a lot of nagging. The impersonation of women's voices really grated on my ears, and I found the stylized tones hard to understand too.

In the last 15 minutes, we did get some action -- a man started chasing people around with a sword and ended up murdering a few people, before someone convinced him to stop and the survivors lived happily ever after...or something. We really don't know. But at least we can now say we've seen Kabuki in Japan. Check.

Ginza at night was crowded and full of bright lights, a stereotypical image of Tokyo. We went to bed tired after lots and lots of walking.

Japan, April 6th - Kanazawa and Nagano

We took the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus today to see all of Kanazawa's sights. Miraculously, it didn't rain very much. In Omicho Market, we got tasty breakfast sushi from a fish vendor. In a Higashi Chaya District teahouse, we had matcha (green tea ceremony tea) and learned to play "sakura" on the shamisen (a traditional plucking instrument kind of like a banjo). We also toured an old geisha house, walked the narrow, winding roads of the Temple District, and visited Kenrokuen.

Kenrokuen translates as "garden combining six," which refers to its use of the six elements of the perfect Japanese garden: seclusion, spaciousness, views, antiquity, water, and (surprisingly) artificial construction. It's one of the top three gardens in Japan, and is built for large crowds. It was pretty, and offered an amazing hilltop view of the city, but didn't give us the same degree of seclusion we had felt last night when we were the only people in the garden of Oyama shrine. And the cherry blossoms aren't out at all yet. We were impressed with the huge number of wooden support posts under the long, drooping limbs of pine trees.

We also walked the grounds of Kanazawa Castle, where we found elderly groundskeepers picking up pine needles one by one off the lawns and doing something incredibly tedious with scissors. Sometimes it seems that Japan puts all its senior citizens to work as janitors and gardeners.

I had been to Kanazawa once before, when I went with my host family on a day trip in high school. I considered it a huge metropolis at the time, in comparison to the rice paddy isolation I was used to. This time around, it seemed much smaller, and a really pleasant place to live, if only it weren't known as "the rainy city."

Next stop, Nagano! We got some sushi to go and took a train along the west coast of Japan. At times, the ocean was only 50 feet from us on the left, and steep cliffs of the Japan alps only 100 feet from us on the right. As we turned inland through the mountains to approach Nagano, the snow got very deep, and the towns increasingly isolated. But things changed shortly before we arrived, and Nagano turned out to have a big-city atmosphere.

We had our first hotel booking strikeout today, and ended up in an overpriced, grungy business hotel. In our walk through downtown in search of dinner, we passed a surprisingly large number of chi-chi hair salons, but not many appealing restaurants. There were plenty in the red light district, but we didn't want to eat there, and eventually we landed in the back room of a smoky pub where we ordered green drinks (apple, lime, and melon flavored) and had tasty snacks like seafood pizza. (No, really! It's good!) We stayed there long enough to guarantee immediate sleep once we got to our hotel room.

Japan, April 5th - Kyoto and Kanazawa

Today we found out the Imperial Palace was open to the public, so we braved the rain to walk through its grounds. There were several TV crews there. We happened to be the only caucasians in sight, and kept noticing the cameras trained on us. The buildings and gardens were pretty from the outside, but other than painted shoji screens, the insides were fairly austere by modern standards. Still, it felt remarkable to peer into the home of men who were once believed to have divine lineage.

We made it to Kanazawa in the afternoon and loved the new train station design -- a beautiful glass atrium and an enormous torii gate in front. The lady at the tourist office complimented me on my Japanese as we made a hotel reservation...but only just after I had accidentally said "ten thousand and ten thousand" instead of "thirteen thousand". I am starting to get suspicious of these compliments, since they only seem to happen after I put my foot in my mouth. I think it's much more of a compliment when people just treat me like an ordinary client.

Our first tourist stop was Ninja Temple. I had to make reservations for the next tour over the intercom, and I thought my Japanese was sounding pretty natural until the woman at the other end said, "I see you're a foreigner."

When our tour started, it turned out that the other people on it were Chinese and didn't speak a word of Japanese. Although Ninja-dera gives English tours, this time slot was supposed to be in Japanese, so they did the whole thing in Japanese anyway. We learned that the temple really had nothing to do with Ninjas, but is nicknamed Ninja-dera for its extensive security measures and confusing design, with 4 stories of rooms in an apparent 2-story exterior built to satisfy zoning laws. The offering box in the floor of the main hall can double as a pitfall; spies can lurk in a loft and behind the stairs; passageways connect rooms in unexpected ways. One sliding door slid into a groove in a movable floorboard to "lock" the trap door quickly and without a bulky key. And the well supposedly hides a passageway to the palace 1km away. While the tour guide wasn't clad in a pink ninja suit as I thought I had read somewhere, it was still a fun tour.

We also visited the nearby geisha district, where we went to a museum with no English signs. The kindly ticket man followed us upstairs and invited us to sit in the off-limits geisha party room so he could take our picture. Unfortunately, he didn't focus on us.

An evening walk took us past Oyama shrine's pretty garden. We strolled through a more modern part of town too, with countless bars, pubs, and appealing Japanese-italian restaurants. But we got dinner in a department store basement 5 minutes before closing time, when everything was on sale. We ended up buying a massive quantity of marinated boiled potatoes out of a sense of obligation when the salesman plied us with free samples of every food he sold. We also had pot stickers, adzuki beans and sticky rice, and disgusting tasting white sake that came in a serving-size glass.

While we ate, we watched a funny TV show about robots. It was in the standard Japanese variety/talk-show format, with a panel of people offering commentary and introducing the segments. Our favorite segment involved a little robot fitted with a speaker that the host could talk through. They put the robot in a living room and brought a child into the room with it. They taped the child's reaction to the robot's conversation and waited for the robot and child to make friends. Then the robot asked the child to make a solemn promise to never tell adults that the robot could talk. If they told, the robot would be deported to his home planet.

Each child solemnly promised, then immediately betrayed his or her new friend when adults walked into the room. With one kid, they had the robot find out about the betrayal, reprimand him, and elicit a second promise...but the child lied again. There were endearing moments too. When the robot fell into a piece of cake and off the coffee table, the child carefully rescued him and wiped the frosting off.

Other segments to the show involved a robot competition with 1-on-1 battles, an obstacle course, and a "death walk" down a narrow plank 30 feet off the ground. The dollish robot in a kimono was declared the winner just before we went to sleep.

Japan, April 4th - Takayama and Kyoto

After a breafast that included cook-it-yourself vegetables in miso, wrapped in a leaf that kept sticking to our barbecues, we took the bus back to Takayama and visited the famous morning farmer's market. We should have guessed that the selections wouldn't be very impressive in this cold weather; most of the foods that we saw were pickles.

One particular temple that we walked past had children's music playing, so we stepped in to see what was going on. Industrious uniformed people seemed to be setting up for something, and the shrine's steps were covered with dolls and stuffed animals. As we watched, several people walked in with more bags of toys and positioned them on the steps.

We tried to go to Kanazawa by train, but the ticket salesman explained to us that a section of the train line was shut down due to an accident. We'd have to take a convoluted train and bus combination to get there. (With my bad Japanese, I first thought he was describing a bus accident and tried to book the train anyway, but eventually figured it out.) So we opted to return to Kyoto's near-infinite array of tourist sites instead.

In Kyoto, we used a travel agency to book a discounted hotel, then stolled along Tetsugaku-no-michi (Philosopher's Path) to see the cherry trees arching over the river, visited some nearby temples, and had a filled pancake dinner at a restaurant in Gion that we belatedly noticed had bawdy cartoon art all over its walls. The continuous rain cramped our ambitions to do more tonight, so we retired to our hotel for the night. It has rained every day here so far.

Japan, April 3rd - Takayama and Hirayu no Mori Onsen

Today we set off for Takayama, an inland city renowned for its Edo-period shops and old-fashioned atmosphere. The scenic train ride followed a glacial stream through the mountains, and when we arrived we were shocked at how cold it was. The shops of the Sanmachi-Suju area were pleasant, if overly touristy. There were countless handkerchiefs, wax paper umbrellas, and Hello Kitty keychains. I tasted some sweet sake at a brewer's, and he served it in the traditional way, in a little wooden box overflowing onto a saucer.

We also visited Takayama Jinja, a historic local government building with dozens of traditional tatami rooms, storerooms, and even a torture room. The garden had scattered snowdrifts covering some of its scenery.

A snack of hot grilled dango kept us warm for a while, but we were so frustrated with the cold that we decided to take a bus to stay at a hot spring for the night. Little did we know where we were going -- the one-hour bus ride took us farther into the mountains, past ski resorts and into subzero temperatures. But the hot spring hotel was well-heated, and even had an indoor hallway linking all of the buildings scattered across the property.

We weren't sure exactly what to expect of the private bath. We found a very steamy weathered wood room with a sulfuric smell and milky turquoise water. After getting in the tub, we found a sliding wooden door in the wall, and realized that half of the tub was outdoors, overlooking a rock wall piled high with snow. With our bodies immersed in warm water, the cold air was finally refreshing instead of unpleasant.

Dinner was a very traditional Japanese meal. The most interesting one of about ten different dishes was served on individual tabletop barbecues. We also had tempura, soup, oden, a whole fish on a stick, beans, tofu, pickled vegetables, fish cakes, and ice cream. Most guests just wore their yukatas to the dining room.

The inn, called Hirayu-no-Mori, also has 13 public baths, most of which are outdoors. I braved the women's baths, and found it incredibly relaxing to sit on rocks and gaze up at the stars. My sense of privacy was a little shaken when another woman in the bath suddenly said, "So, I hear you're from Texas." Apparently the staff had gossiped about us.

Japan, April 2nd - Kobe, Kyoto, and Inuyama

Our short walk from our hotel to the Shin-Kobe train station revealed several quintessential Japan-isms: cherry blossoms, cute cartoonish signs, and talking vending machines selling everything from beer to sake to hot milk coffee and corn potage. We took the shinkansen to Kyoto and stopped to visit Toji temple, with the tallest pagoda in Japan, and made reservations for some special events - the Miyako Odori spring maiko dances and a private tour of the Sento Gosho imperial retirement gardens. We couldn't help window shopping too, marvelling at the omiyage candy stores in the train stations, the plastic food displays, and the new Kyoto station complex.

Kyoto station has a huge new building with modern architecture that's supposed to evoke the atmospheric feeling of a mountain valley. David and I didn't quite get it, but the 11-story staircase in the middle was impressive, as was the 11-story-long straight-line cascade of escalators in the Isetan department store.

Our real destination for today was Inuyama, which has a festival scheduled. Huge teams of men push 4-story high floats with mechanical puppets in them down the street, and light everything up with paper lanterns at night. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Inuyama, we found the festival was cancelled due to rain. So we visited Inuyama castle, which is perched atop a cliff and has panoramic views. It's also Japan's oldest fully surviving castle. Inside, a multistoried warren of low-ceilinged rooms are connected by ladders and steep staircases, and the wood is worn by countless footsteps.

Although the festival didn't happen, the town museums were open, and we got to see some of the floats and mechanical puppets there, along with video footage of the festivities. In one museum, we met a little girl who struck up a conversation with me. She asked why David wouldn't talk, and I explained that he didn't speak Japanese, and she was incredulous, asking, "Is it *impossible* for him to speak Japanese?" Finally she tested him by saying "bye-bye" and waving at him, and when he responded, she said, "See? He does speak Japanese." I had to explain that bye-bye came from English. She then recommended that we eat some maru-maru-yaki from the street vendor stalls outside, so we left and indulged in the tasty pancake treat. We also got some castella (miniature buttery cakes) shaped like Doraemon, a blue robot cartoon character that saves the day by pulling Inspector Gadget-like tools out of his kangaroo pouch.

We took the bullet train to yet another city, Nagoya, for our hotel. We had a beautiful view of Nagoya Castle from our room.

Japan, April 1st - Kansai Airport to Kobe

David and I embarked on our 12-day Japan trip today. (Technically, we embarked yesterday, but thanks to the international date line we didn't arrive until this evening.) After a smooth landing at Kansai airport and an interesting view of the ever-expanding landfill, we got our JR passes and hopped a shinkansen to Kobe, where I conducted my first business transaction in Japanese, buying a nutritious choko-kouhi-zeri-nama-kuriimu crepe (chocolate, coffee jelly, and whipped cream filling) for dinner. The crepe lady gave me bananas in it for free as a reward for my Japanese-speaking!