By much popular demand from all 4 of my avid blog readers… I’m back! I know, its been too long. Instead of offering an explanation, I’m just going to pick right back up where I left off – in May… which leads me to Japan!
The problem with writing about my trip to the Land of the Rising Sun is knowing where to begin. Should I go chronological? Topical? Top 10 list? …How about a little of each?
Monday, May 16. Travel day!
Atlanta to Chicago to Tokyo to Osaka. Somewhere in there I lost a day and it became
Tuesday, May 17. Osaka.
I was greeted by Patrick at the airport late in the day. We took a cab back to Kaigandori House where he lives along with the rest of the Universal Studios performers, dropped my things off, and headed out to eat. We ate Japanese-style, ordering 7 or 8 items from the menu, and then sharing all of the little plates using ohashi (chopsticks). They bring the dishes out one by one as they become available. Variety is the spice of life! At the end of this day, I was happy to be in a new land, happy to be with Patrick, happy he can speak Japanese, and happy to go to bed.
Here’s Patrick with his ohashi. We kept saying, “I can’t believe we’re here together!”
Wednesday, May 18. Nara.
We spent the day in Nara, a former capitol of Japan. Nara is home to Japan’s largest wooden structure (an enormous Buddhist temple). And deer. So funny and aggressive!
Patrick and I in front of the temple:
Thursday, May 19. Osaka.
A day at work with my brother at Universal Studions Japan (USJ)! We ferried over in the morning, and while he performed, I played in the park – saw the shows, rode the rides, ate, walked, took pictures. I saw Patrick’s show, Sesame Street Surprise, twice! The day culminated in the Magical Starlight Parade, in which Patrick plays Prince Charming (photo below). The parade is my favorite part of USJ – its so beautiful! I had the odd thought, “Someday I must bring my future children here to experience this magic.” When Patrick got off work, we headed back to his island, grabbed some snacks and drinks from a convenience store, and took an evening stroll down by the water to the Little Mermaid statue.
Friday, May 20. Osaka.
Patrick worked all day, so I ventured out on my own to Osaka Castle, enjoyed the sunshine for an afternoon in the surrounding park, then back home. For dinner, Patrick and I went to a fantastic vegetarian restaurant in Sinshaibashi – a great shopping/eating/entertainment district in Osaka.
Saturday, May 21. Osaka.
Another day at USJ! Patrick only worked the morning, so after his last show, we spent the afternoon in the park together, accompanied by Tomo, a castmate and friend of Patrick’s. Tomo is outgoing (especially for a Nihonjin), affectionate, curious, happy, and kawaii (cute)! Delightful company for the day! Here are Patrick and Tomo at the park eating yummy dessert. (Tomo has a sweet tooth like me!)
Sunday, May 22. Osaka.
Patrick worked all day again, and I stayed in my pajamas until 7:30 PM. Vacation is vacation, no matter where you are! Interestingly enough, friends are friends, no matter where you are as well… I skyped with friends in Georgia, Alabama, and New Zealand on this day. Technology is amazing! When Patrick got home from work, we went to a great Thai restaurant called Sweet Basil. The green curry was to. die. for.
Monday, May 23. Osaka.
Patrick worked another morning shift, then we met up and went to Shinsaibashi where the rain eventually began to POUR. We ate Yogurt Land, shopped (I got an awesome lunch box at a place called LOFT that was a better-organized, color-coordinated, 6-or-7 story version of Bed Bath and Beyond-meets-Macys…AMAZING!!), then met friends for dinner and KARAOKE! Japanese karaoke is the best. Each person in your group pays a set price (3,000 yen) for all you can sing and all you can drink in a private room for a set period of time (3 hours). You just use a keypad to type in your song and/or beverage of choice, pass the mic, and start singin’. I had a blast with Patrick, Charity, Junjun, Tomo, Kenji, Shuri, and Michan.
Tuesday, May 24. Kyoto.
We took a train to Kyoto and made our way to our quaint little ryokan – the traditional Japanese inn – called the Three Sisters Annex. We left our shoes at the door and followed the little innkeeper up a steep and narrow stairway, down the bamboo-matted hallway, and into our perfect room! Everything was little and low to the ground and… Japanese! The beds were mats on the floor and there were cushions to sit on at a low table with a tea-set waiting for us. We marveled at our room for a minute, then remembered that we had a city to see, and headed out to Funami Inarii. This is a site with more than a thousand bright vermillion torii gates, one after the other, leading us up and down a path through sacred woods, where there are situated hundreds of Shinto shrines. This was one of the highlights of my whole trip! We hiked for about 2 hours, saw a great view of Kyoto from above, got really sweaty, and came down for dinner in the Gion district. This is where the geishas work… but we did not spot one on the street. Lots of ladies in formal kimonos though. After a Japanese dinner, we went back to our ryokan (had to make our 11 PM curfew!)
Wednesday, May 25. Kyoto.
Nijo Castle was first on the list… we made a pit-stop in an Episcopal church on the way.. probably one of 3 Christian church buildings I saw while in Japan. At Nijo Castle, we removed our shoes and creaked through the wooden hallways and peered into the palace rooms. There was no furniture, but the walls were painted with exquisite murals from the Edo period. The floors were made to squeak to warn the shogun of an intruder. Afterwards, we saw Nishiki Market and tried some interesting foods. Squid on a stick anyone? There’s a delicious boiled quail egg inside its head! We took a bus over to Kinkakuji Temple – which is made of gold and appears to float on the water. What a sight! Then headed back to Osaka in the late afternoon.
Thursday, May 26. Hiroshima/Miyajima.
Up and at ’em to catch a Shinkansen bullet train to Hiroshima! We checked into our swanky, modern, high-rise hotel (a contrast to the ryokan!), then took the short subway and ferry ride to Miyajima – an island just outside of Hiroshima. The rain began… and didn’t stop while we were there. Miyajima was really lovely though, and we had a good time exploring the island in the misty rain. We took many photos of one of the top 3 picturesque sights in Japan, the floating torii gate. Pretty spectacular, though my pictures don’t do it justice. Sadly, we didn’t ride up to the top of the mountain because of the weather. Back in Hiroshima we had dinner at Nanak – delicious Indian food!
Friday, May 27. Hiroshima.
I had a sobering time at the peace park, monuments, and museum commemorating the A-bomb attack. Its really interesting to learn history from the “other” perspective. I told someone about this when I got home and he said, “Yeah, history is different from the losing perspective.” That bothered me… nobody wins in war. And yet, the Japanese resilience is incredible, their commitment to peace inspiring. We met an in-utero survivor and witnessed a group of school children presenting a thousand paper cranes at the children’s peace memorial. Some of the photos, videos, reconstructions, accounts, artifacts, etc. in the museum were horrific, and Patrick and I both left feeling a bit subdued.
Nothing like a crepe filled with bananas, chocolate, and whipped cream for lunch to cheer us up… We headed back to Osaka late that afternoon for (could it be???!) my last evening in Japan. I needed to have proper Japanese sushi while there, so we sought out a good place for dinner. After sushi, we met up with friends for one last hurrah. I was very sad to say goodbye! I had packing to do and the next morning…
Saturday, May 28. Travel day.
We got up at 4:30 for me to catch the first train out from Osakako station. Patrick saw me off to the airport… and my day became very long. Traveling does crazy things to the body clock!
Top 10 things I love (and miss) about Japan, in no particular order:
1. safety and cleanliness… In Japan, nobody throws trash on the ground. Nobody steals. You can walk around the city at 3 in the morning and not be worried about getting mugged.
2. transportation… goes hand in hand with #1 – the subways, trains, and buses were clean and easy to navigate and safe! I always like traveling abroad and figuring out a transportation system, the satisfaction of looking up at a complex chart with strange letters and numbers and (in this case foreign symbols) and being able to figure out where I’m going, what time I’ll get there, and how much it will cost. I also loved riding around on bicycles! All of the USJ performers are issued bicycles to ride around, and I got to borrow one of Patrick’s friend’s for the time I was there. Just hop on a bike, ride it to the subway station, and leave it there without chaining it to a rack. (It will be there when you get back. People don’t steal in Japan.) Bicycles are everywhere!
3. bathrooms… in Japan are either a) elaborate and hi-tech or b) sparse. For example, the first bathroom I encountered was at the airport. I sat down and noticed immediately that the seat was warm. Nice! And you thought the heated seats in your car were luxurious… Also as I sat down, the sound of a babbling brook began to float up and out of my stall. You have white noise to sleep? The Japanese have white noise to pee! Next I noticed the 8 or so buttons to the right. I couldn’t read what they all were, but I could tell by the illustrations that I had several options for cleaning my bottom, and could also adjust the strength of the spray. I didn’t experiment in this first bathroom… but definitely did later in the week. The other kind of bathroom I encountered in Japan is a bit more rudimentary… the squatty potty. I’d been to a couple of public places where they offered “Japanese” (a.k.a. squatty potties) and Western style toilets (and had always opted for the Western style). One evening after dinner, I could not hold it to the apartment and had to stop in a subway bathroom. Of course, it was nice and clean, but… for the first time, my ONLY option was a squatty potty. I realized this, ran back out and called for Patrick, “What do I do??” And his answer was, “You squat.” So, I did, and it worked! There were a few more times when I had only the one option, and even a time toward the end of my trip when I proudly chose the Japanese toilet, just for the experience. Definitely entertaining and, albeit crude, an interesting cultural note from my trip. [Also of note, related to toilets, is Patrick’s bathroom at Kaigandori House. His shower is an entire room! You walk in, shut the door and start the shower and have a whole room to move around in. Great for dancing! Ha.]
4. the restaurant experience and food… In Japan, you might think at first that the waiters/resses are not very attentive. They don’t constantly refill your drinks or ask how your meal is. After you order, you might go a whole meal without seeing one. However, servers in Japan are actually extremely hospitable and prompt… you just have to ask! In restaurants, you can get whatever you need whenever you need it, just by throwing your hand up and hollering, “Sumimasen!” (Excuse me!) Before you know it, a server comes around the corner and is ready for whatever you need. I think I prefer this to having a server come and interrupt conversation with an unwanted refill. Another nice thing about dining in Japan is the towels that they bring when you are seated… warm, damp terrycloths, sometimes scented, to clean your hands before you eat. And the food we ate was amazing! Let me start by saying, Japanese food is not just sushi. They do serve quite a bit of seafood, but much of it is cooked. Patrick had warned me that, being a vegetarian, I might have a bit of trouble in Japan. (Good thing I’m actually a pescatarian, because I ate quite a bit of fish while there.) Overall, though it wasn’t much of a problem. Patrick would point to a menu item and ask, “Bej-ee-ter-ian?” I still kind of salivate when I think about the onigiri I ate on the first night there… We definitely did not just eat Japanese food though! We went to Mexican, Indian, Thai, American, Vegetarian, and Italian (pizza) restaurants. There is a lot of variety in the city… but it all comes with a nice warm towel at the start of the meal.
5. Hi-chew… the best candy! Like a Starburst, but softer and chewier, and only one flavor in a package. You can find packages of grape, strawberry, green apple, lemon, and melon Hi-chew… all in your local convenience stores (which happen to be on every other corner in the city). Patrick introduced me to the candy, and I became addicted on my trip! Last week, a co-worker at CBF brought me 8 packages of Hi-chew from his recent trip to Japan! I’m in heaven!
6. traveling with Patrick… duh! I don’t know where we got our travel bug, but Patrick and I, as long as I can remember, have always daydreamed about the big international adventures we could take together. This was the first! It was so so sweet to get to spend that much time with my brother… and so so lucky that we get along well, because we were together almost constantly (and in his teeny tiny apartment, no less)! I loved just getting to see the places and meet the people who make up his life, and to experience his day-to-day and to try some totally new experiences together! I think this #6 item is what I miss most about Japan!
7. Nihonjin… I found the people of Japan to be polite, curious, hospitable, and friendly. Some I met were loud and outgoing, most were quiet and shy… but they were all warm and receptive and kind!
8. the hospitality… Japanese are known for their hospitality. They are respectful (reflected in the safety and cleanliness) and conveyed a sense of welcome just about everywhere we went. This was maybe epitomized for me in the ryokan experience. Everything seemed carefully prepared for us and we were given a gift “to remember our stay” in Kyoto of some beautiful postcards!
9. the beauty…golly! Japan has so much beauty – natural and contrived. I love the colors of Japan – the bright orange seen on so many gates and doorways against the green plants and blue sky and colorful blossoms. I think the Japanese really prize “green space”… even in the concrete cities, little gardens are tucked away behind gates or potted on the street. And the more traditional gardens are so artfully landscaped, almost sculpted.
I love the lines of Japan – the angular Japanese kanji characters remind me of the traditional sloping roof tops.
I love the way Japan was Created – the mountains seem to always be visible… peeking over the city from a distance, bumping right up against the ocean, shrouded in mist on a rainy day. When we hiked in Kyoto and reached the top, we emerged from a wooded area to find the sun streaming through clouds that filled the expanse of sky between the mountain we stood on and another mountain, visible just beyond the city.
Japan is beautiful.
10. the antiquity… We think something is old here in the US if its been around for 200 years. In Japan, you can see artifacts and structures that have been around for 1200 years. Japan has been very isolated, so its history and culture seem to be very well preserved… and its neat to see something so authentic and ancient!
And now for a few random pictures…
English words strung together in non-sensical phrases is a common sight:
…and plastic food. It’s everywhere!
And a reflection on being gaijin…
Nihonjin are Japanese people. Everyone else is gaijin.
In public crowded places, adults will politely walk on by a gaijin, but children are intrigued and tend to stare.
In Nara, we had our first encounter with Japanese school children on field trips. It quickly became a regular occurrence… We’d walk by a group of kids in uniform who were staring at us, then hear from behind once we passed, “Herro!” Sometimes one kid out of the group would approach and read from a script, “Herro. My name is ___. I am from ___. Where are you from?” We’d answer, “America.” They’d say, “Oooooohhh!” Then they’d ask a random question like, “What is your favorite Japanese food?” or “What is peace to you?” or “What sport to you like?” We’d chat for a minute then they would say thank you, giggle, ask for a picture, (cue peace sign) then say goodbye. This happened countless times. Here is a picture of some kids who were staring at us while we fed the deer in Nara:
Most of the time it was fun to be gaijin. The kids who talked to us were cute and they were in awe of big, tall, strong, blond Patrick. Most thought we were dating and when Patrick told them I was “imoto” (little sister) they would say, “Ooooooh!” and the girls would laugh. Being foreign afforded us some interesting conversations with some curious Nihonjin.
And then sometimes it was not so fun to be gaijin. My first day at Universal Studios, there were hundreds of school children on field trip at the park. Patrick was working, so I was alone. Standing in line for my first ride of the day, I became acutely aware that I was a sight to see… all eyes were on me, the westerner. Its a strange feeling to be surrounded by people, but isolated by lack of language skills. Without another gaijin by my side (one who can speak Japanese at that) I was feeling very very foreign.
Near the end of the trip, after lots of traveling, Patrick said, “I wish my hair was black.” We both agreed that we now have a small taste of what its like to be a celebrity with people gawking at you wherever you go. “Why can’t we just be normal people instead of gaijin?” Then again… westerners are not an extremely common sight, and whenever we saw some, I found myself whispering to Patrick, “gaijin!” I guess its human nature to notice the unusual.
So, I could write a book about my travels in Japan. I practically have in this post. Kudos if you’ve made it this far… I promise it took me longer to write this than it did for you to read it.
At the end of it all, I wanted to stay, want to go back, and plan to at some point… it was a beautiful land with beautiful people, and (probably because I was with my brother) it felt like home. I have a list going of what I want to see and do next time, so get ready for the next chapter of my book, even if it doesn’t come for a few years.
As they say, “Sayounara!”
[Editorial note: For more on Japan, visit Patrick’s blog]