Wakayama, a little slice of SoCal in Japan

We left Seoul around 10AM and we were back in Osaka shortly there after. Since we had been on the move for a solid 18 days at this point we opted for a day and a half of solid relaxation. We had already spent enough time in white hot Osaka. Himeji Castle and Byodo-in Temple are currently covered in scaffolding. The ninja capital of Japan, Iga, was just far enough away to make it rather unappealing to go there and try and get back for our 7AM flight in two days.IMG_1847

We had originally written Wakayama off as there didn’t appear to be much to do in the area. Japan guide lists Wakayama as a great place to do an overnight Buddhist temple visit, hike up Mt. Koya to an “atmospheric” temple or a pilgrimage to the Kii peninsula in Kumano. If you remember from my exposé on yuru-kyara, the Kumano region is home to a frightening demon.

However, after mulling over all our options we found there were several beaches with train or bus stops close to them and sounded like the perfect solution to the weary traveller.IMG_1837

First we arrived in Wakayama in late afternoon. With the last weeks of summer vacation wrapping up most of the hotels in Wakayama were booked. Wakayama is a small city so AirBnB was not an option. At the central gate of the station the Tourist Information office handed us a nice map and helped us by calling around to hotels in the area. We looked at a BK Pension and they were booked. Finally we settled on the Hotel Dormy Inn Premium. However we had to book through Agoda.com because the room was $110 online but $160 if the tourist desk at the station booked it for us.

I have a friend here in Japan who swears by Dormy Inn. Thus far they are the closest I’ve seen to western style hotels without a western brand name like Hilton or Marriott. The Wakayama Dormy Inn was built in 2012 so it is about as new and clean as a hotel can get. We got settled and relaxed for a little bit before heading back out.

Despite being late afternoon with only a little sunlight left in the day we headed to Isonoura Beach. This is one of the few beaches in Wakayama that allows surfing. Wakayama’s train set up is a little awkward though and not particularly convenient. The main JR station is across town from the main Nankai Railway station. This means that you either drop $2.20 on a 20 min bus ride between the stations or take the “once an hour” train between the two and transfer at an extra cost. It isn’t really convenient to walk between the two stations since its about two and a half kilometers.IMG_1840

We settled for the bus and about an hour later we were at Isnonoura beach. Isonoura is pure surfer. While the waves were not nearly as big as San Clemente or Bodega Bay the water was a very pleasant temperature. We sat and watched the super tan Japanese people ride waves and take a couple dips in the ocean ourselves to get a small taste of the salt life as it were.

On our way we had stopped at a “conbini” to grab some canned drinks called “ChuHi.” They are like adult Hi-C. They come in an array of flavors and so far all of them are terrible. The closest I can get to an accurate taste description is somewhere between old, liquified jolly rancher and baking soda dissolved in ethanol. They are in no way like the chu-his that can be ordered at most Japanese bars and izakayas. We choked down a cherry, kiwi and an orange one because we paid money but couldn’t make it through the fourth one we bought. Had we finished I’m sure we would have been at least considered for a Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Isonoura is quite lacking in things to do after the beach however so we took the train back to the main JR station and walked back to our hotel where we took an hour or so to enjoy the onsite onsen. Two pools with different temperatures of hot water, a sauna, a freezing water pool and TV’s showing the game. This was a man-sen. Also it was quite tastefully decorated with cool little rocks and waterfalls to sit near. Several Japanese men there appreciated the novelty of having a westerner in their onsen and we exchanged words that neither of us really understood. Also, saunas are really hot. Like uncomfortably hot.

After a relaxing soak and clean we headed to Wara Wara. This restaurant is deceptively cheap. Nearly everything on the menu is under five dollars. Even drinks! Beer is $2.80, easily the cheapest beer in Japan outside of nomihoudai. However the food is really good and much like tapas you keep ordering the small plates of octopus, gyoza, yakitori, and fresh salads and suddenly your bill is sixty bucks. Ugh. The food was excellent though and we got to try a local specialty called, chuka-soba, which is a pork broth ramen. I highly recommend it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The next day we went full beach day and headed to Kataonami Beach which is an artificial beach that juts out in Wakayama Bay. This beach is geared towards families. Rental umbrellas, beach chairs and inner tubes are available and snack bars line the back of the beach. The main problem with Kataonami is getting there. The closest train station is just over two kilometers away. This means a bus ride is required to get within 15 min walk to the beach. Or have a car. There is a parking lot there, for cars. I was starting to feel like Ulysses Everett McGill, ain’t this place a geographical oddity, it’s 2 kilometers from everywhere!

The bus system in Wakayama appears to be similar to that of Kyoto’s without the helpful pocket map. The bus timetable is on a little card only in Japanese but there is a big sign outside the JR station with the routes laid out in color and sometimes there is a guy standing there who will help you find the right bus. I’m not sure why they don’t put the route map on their tourist guides because that would be actually helpful. The time table is useless if you don’t know what stop you are at.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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All complaints aside we had a perfectly relaxing day at the beach. The water was comfortable and there was a nice breeze coming off the bay that kept it from getting too hot underneath the umbrella. The only real highlights of the day were: I got stung by a jellyfish (See Right) and we had to engage in a full sprint to catch our bus. The sting wasn’t anything big or painful but enough to make me stop swimming and glare at the water to see if I could spot the assailant. In mid to late August the beaches around Wakayama get an influx of jellyfish.

And this, this was the end of our summer adventure. Well. Not entirely but telling you about spending a night in the airport is about as interesting as watching someone mow a lawn. In your best interest I’ll leave out the details.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the worst thing that happened on the trip.

Osaka-Kansai, a plague on both your terminals.

It boggles my mind that they have a 24 hour airport with a lounge designed for overnight stays with showers, a kitchen, a 24hr McDonalds and yet it is nearly impossible to get to the airport after about 10PM or earlier than 6:30AM. I had done some research and found that there were night busses that go to Osaka-Kansai but too late I found out they only leave from hotels and not the train stations or bus stops near the train stations. This resulted in fifty dollar taxi ride to go from Izumisano station to the airport terminal (this is about twelve kilometers because the airport is built on an artificial island connected to the mainland by a massive bridge). The trains basically stop running after 10 and don’t start again until 5:30AM and the train takes an hour which doesn’t work if you have a 7AM flight. My advice would be to not book any flights earlier than 9AM ever out of Osaka-Kansai. It is very difficult to get there early in the morning and expensive to get there after 10PM. Or don’t use Osaka-Kansai at all, use ITM (Osaka Int’l) which is much closer to the city. A mistake I wont make again.

When our flight landed in Sendai we had travelled roughly 1550 miles. In 20 days we had been to 10 different cities. Rode on nearly 20 different types of public transport. Climbed so many stairs. So. Many. Stairs. Dealt with record breaking heat and thunder storms. Saw things from modern Japan, medieval France, feudal Japan, Korean independence, ancient Korea. Fish from around the world on display and on the grill. 11 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 1 of the New 7 Wonders of Nature,1 of the 13 finalists for the New 7 Wonders of the World and much more. We ate baby octopus, adult octopus, fried octopus, grilled octopus, octopus dumplings and saw numerous live octopus escape attempts.  Walked hundreds of miles collectively. Feared for our lives once, maybe twice and met some really cool people.

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Let’s Get Tanked…

Editors Note: I promise this is the last time I will mention this. This post will not be exceptionally long due to the fact that much of the day was spent in the Apple Store getting my laptop worked on. Moreover this day was already planned to be short because our flight left in the early evening for Seoul.

One of the commons things we had heard from people who had been to Osaka before us was that the Osaka aquarium was an awesome experience. We had set aside a relatively easy day before our flight to Seoul to do nothing but visit the aquarium and relax before heading to the airport.

The Osaka aquarium is very easy to get to and is situated next to a large shopping mall and another museum. The train station is about a ten minute walk from the aquarium ticket gates proper. The Japanese word for aquarium is kaiyukan.

Let me take a moment to talk about aquariums in general. Aquariums are great. I could likely spend all day in an aquarium if it weren’t for two things 1) screaming children and 2) fish get really boring after about 30 minutes. My general rule with aquariums is: 1 aquarium every 2 to 3 years. The last time I went to an aquarium was on a business trip in Atlanta in 2008 so I was due for an aquarium visit.

The Great Barrier Reef, so to speak

The Great Barrier Reef, so to speak

Osaka’s version of water-terrariums is pretty impressive to look at just from the outside. It has two massive wings that sort of jut out from the central building that resembles a whale’s tale. It was already getting bloody hot at around 9:30AM and I noticed the rows and rows of stanchions around the ticket box. I can’t imagine what a long wait in this heat would feel like. Or the relief that you would get once you are inside the temperature controlled environment of the kaiyukan.

The price is a little steep but more reasonable than Marine World in California (although there are no roller coasters at this aquarium). We were one of the first groups admitted to the aqua-rium and it was already packed like sardines (I’m sorry).

I will take a short aside to describe a very cool and yet also very problematic aspect to the way the Osaka kaiyukan is laid out. After the main entrance there is an escalator that goes about five maybe six stories. The exit from the escalator is the first exhibit and happens to be some rather cute sea otters. The passageway in front of the otters is quite narrow and the escalator doesn’t have a feedback loop letting it know that critical mass has been reached in the otter exhibit at the top. The result is a heap of people all shouting at otters in Japanese while slowly being compressed together like the trash in a compactor. You can see the otters later in the tour but that didn’t seem to stop everyone from trying to hold their ground against wave after wave of tourists flowing off the escalator. In their defense, sea otters can be really cute.

This fish is big.

This fish is big.

I mentioned that sea otters are visible again later in the tour. This is due to the ingenious design of the aquarium. Once you are at the top, the scenic route makes descending circles back down to the ground floor. This allows you to see the same tanks from different levels as well as some new eco systems that are present and other pertinent side exhibits on the opposite walls. The theme for the aquarium is the “Ring of Fire,” a moniker that was given to the seismically active regions that form the border of the Pacific Ocean. In a circular fashion the exhibits replicate the different habitats on the Ring of Fire including: Japan, California Coast, The Great Barrier Reef, Coastal New Zealand, Coastal Central America and Chile, and even Alaskan islands. Being able to go deeper and deeper into each eco system was a very cool experience.

Cali,  Represent!

Cali, Represent!

The center piece to Osaka Aquarium is the “ocean” tank that sits appropriately in the middle of the exhibit walkthrough. A four story descent into open ocean with sharks, large open water fish, skates, rays and their top money earner, the whale shark. The whale shark is basically an ocean vacuum sucking up gallons of sea water and extracting plankton and other lifeforms in the process. No bitey teeth on that guy. However the hammerhead shark and several of the larger fish in the ocean tank and some nasty looking teeth.

At the bottom the tour closes with several tanks of jelly fish and tide pool where children can stick there hands in to touch gross things. A highlight of any child’s day, I’m sure.

With our oceanic voyage and at end we regained our land legs and headed back to the train. From there we spent the rest of the day at the Apple Store and on a plane which was quite boring but on a logistical note, if you fly Peach airlines out of Osaka, they land at a different terminal than every other airline. Make sure you build in an extra thirty minutes to get to the second terminal.

Tako

Tako

A Kobe that I actually like…

Editors Note: So it seems the more I go back with my computer fixed the more pictures I have lost. Sadly many of the great pictures I had of Kobe harbor from the bay and from the mountain have vanished. A moment of silence before you continue reading please.

With the heat in Osaka being nearly unbearable we decided we would make a little side trip to the coastal port town of Kobe. Kobe is also known as one of the most beautiful cities in Japan because its proximity between lush green mountains and the ocean. The city is a narrow strip nestled between the two. From Osaka station it takes around 30 minutes to get to Kobe and there is a train about every 10 to 15 minutes depending on the time of day you leave.

Kobe Downtown

Kobe Downtown

Somehow I had it in my head that being closer to the ocean the air would be cooler. This is not true.

From the train station to the Kobe harbor promenade is about a ten minute walk and we wanted to get down towards the water. I had images of Navy Pier in Chicago and Pier 39 in San Francisco. Sadly the Kobe harbor only resembles either of those in limited ways.

Kobe Harborland Panorama

Kobe Harborland Panorama

For instance you can go shopping just like on Pier 39 but instead of a quaint wooden dock with a view and an overwhelming mass of tourists you shop in an 8 story sterile air conditioned mall. There are actually 3 malls right there in the Kobe harbor. From a Navy Pier perspective there is a children’s museum and a ferris wheel right there on the end of the dock. The Kobe harbor is home to the Anpaman Museum and ferris wheel.

Trying not to look sweaty

Trying not to look sweaty

A brief aside on Anpaman, who is wildly popular with children in Japan, it has run continuously since 1988 on Japanese television. Anpanman is a super hero whose head is actually made from a red bean pastry. Here is a synopsis from Wikipedia.

“The rhythm of the rhyming name might be loosely idiomatically translated in English as “Bean Bun Boy”. He doesn’t need to eat or drink to sustain himself and has never been seen eating, as it is believed the bean jam in his head allows him to sustain himself in this manner. His weaknesses are water and anything else that makes his head dirty (In order to prevent his head getting wet when underwater or in wet weather, he is usually seen with his head concealed inside a protective bubble in such situations). He regains his health and strength when Jam Ojisan bakes him a new head and it is placed on his shoulders. Anpanman’s damaged head, with Xs in his eyes, flies off his shoulders once a new baked head is made for him by Uncle Jam. Anpanman came to life when shooting star landed in Uncle Jam’s oven while he was baking. He has two special attacks: An-punch and An-kick (with stronger variations of both). When Anpanman comes across a starving creature or person, he lets the unfortunate creature or person eat part of his head. He also has super hearing in that he can respond to anyone that calls his name out in distress from anywhere in the world.”

Fascinating. There is a massive museum dedicated to this cartoon in Kobe and we saw many Japanese parents being dragged urgently by children in to the museum atrium. I wondered aloud on whether I would resent my child if they asked me to take them to a place like this…

On an unrelated note there is a statue of Elvis on the Kobe harbor walk with little or no explanation (in English).

Since the harbor walk is mostly lifeless, boring and hot we decided to head to the boat terminal to see about taking a short harbor cruise to see some of the cool things around the Kobe bay. The next boat left in about 45 min so we bought dual tickets that included the admission to the Kobe Port Tower.

Kobe Tower

Kobe Tower

The Kobe Tower is a cooling looking red light house like structure in the harbor that offers a decent view of the surrounding environs. However most of the Kobe harbor is quite industrial looking with man made islands and dry docks. Looking west gives a great view of the city proper and steep mountains that hug the city to the water. There is also rotating cafe near the top similar to the Seattle Space Needle, in that it rotates.

After snapping a few pictures we headed back down to the dock in hopes that some time on the water would give us the break from the heat we had been searching for. We got on the poorly named “Fantasy” cruise. At twenty dollars a ticket, a true bargain for a real fantasy. However the boat mostly does an irregular shaped loop out to look at the airport and then back. It totally skips the most interesting thing about Kobe, the world’s longest suspension bridge. Drinks on the “Fantasy” were quiet inexpensive compared to other boats and ferries I’ve been on.

With the boat ride only being a brief respite from the heat we disembarked and headed into downtown Kobe proper. First stop is the largest china-town in Japan, Nankin-machi. While not typically different than any other concentration of Chinese things it is a great place for street food in Kobe. There is a cool little square in the center of neighborhood with zodiac statues and places to sit while you finish your egg roll or fried wonton.

Chinatown Square

Chinatown Square

Nankin-machi is very close to the local rail station so we hopped on and headed to the Nada District of Kobe. Nada is famous for housing many sake breweries all clumped together. According to this Japan-guide article and the Lonely Planet it is a great place to try some sake. I will save the major details of the sake tasting for my Gai-jinzake series but for now let me explain something about walking the Nada district. From the Japan-Guide:

“The district makes for a good half-day exploration trip on foot with its nice mix of some older buildings and modern breweries.”

This is only partially true. Yes it can be an okay walk for a half day of sake tasting (excepting when it is brutally hot outside like it was for Shana and I). Any quaintness or charm is completely missing from Nada as a majority of the neighborhood parallels a major urban freeway, is dashed with concrete block apartments and is mostly land for large industrial lots. It has as much charm as a cat hacking up a hairball. We were able to stop and four breweries and taste some amazing sake. If you’re looking for a charming neighborhood with some sake tasting, head to Fushimi in Kyoto. Despite the possible cost, hiring a taxi would be the best way to deal with the Nada district given the walk isn’t very pleasant and its quite far between several of the breweries.

We caught the train back to the main station of Kobe, Sannomiya, and headed up to the Shin-Kobe ropeway. The shin Kobe ropeway is about half price after 6pm. For a full price ticket you can go up and then walk down the mountain through an elaborate garden and see stunning views of Kobe. For a half price ticket you can watch Kobe light up at night and ride the ropeway back down. You can’t do both. After 5 pm they close the walking path from the top so you can only buy round trip tickets. Before 4pm you have the option to do either round trip or one way and then walk. If you really like flowers, go earlier in the day. If you want to get the view choose the half price ticket and watch Kobe light up before your eyes. It is really quiet special.

Kobe from the top of Shin-Kobe Ropeway

Kobe from the top of Shin-Kobe Ropeway

Also at the top of the ropeway is a bavarian villa.

We I decided for dinner that I really wanted to try Kobe beef, in Kobe. What other time could their possibly be a better reason to get some Kobe beef? The area around Sannomiya station is absolutely electric at night. The streets are filled with young Japanese all dressed up and tourists alike. We decided to make a loop through the main pedestrian area and found the Kobe beef prices to be astronomical. Most of the Kobe beef prices start around $80-$90 for a steak dinner. Some places were as low as $65 but it makes you wonder about their prep. To mull our options we popped into a bar called Hub. A british style pub that brews their own beer in the basement of a 6 story building.

Pretty sure it was Kobe, either way it was awesome.

Pretty sure it was Kobe, either way it was awesome.

Hub was packed! It was “Hub Day” we found out which is an all day happy hour where everything is half price. This means that a beer is normal price for Americans. Also you can get a proper pint in this pub instead of the stupid 500ml servings you get everywhere else in metric countries. Hub brews their own IPA as well. Although Japanese IPA’s are all malt and no hops. Waiting in line for a pint I struck up a conversation with some local Japanese who were proficient in English enough to communicate with some extra gesturing.  We eventually asked them where to get Kobe beef? Everywhere was really expensive, where do locals go?

Proving again that Japanese people can be some of the most generous and nice people in the world, the girl, whose name escaped me the minute after she said it, offered to walk us to a local place. She said that she used to work there and they have sliced Kobe beef rice bowls. She took us to a little hole in the wall restaurant called Red Rock. Indeed for about $9 dollars you get an amazing rice bowl with sliced beef on top. Whether or not it was Kobe beef? Who cares, it was beef in Kobe. That’s good enough for me.

Back to the train station at Sannomiya to catch the express train back to Osaka station.

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A trip to Paris, feudal Japan, and New York in the heart of Osaka.

Editors Note: We mentioned in an earlier post that we had a major computer issue, well sadly enough the majority of lost data was from Andrew’s camera on this day. Maybe we will be able to recover it later but it is doubtful. Luckily Andrew is a total weirdo with pictures and insists on multiple cameras and shots for just about everything, so we still had some pictures to show.

Andrew did a little research about museums in Osaka and found that the National Art Museum was showing a special exhibit from the Musée national du Moyen Âge in France; a collection of six giant, elaborate tapestries from the late 15th century entitled, “The Lady and Unicorn.” This exhibit has only left France twice counting its current stint in Osaka. Andrew had originally seen them in Paris, but he insisted that it was worth a visit here in Japan. The tapestries were truly incredible, and the special displays created for the exhibit were great.

We spent about an hour enjoying the work, and headed upstairs to see the rest of the National Art Museum, which consisted of…nothing! Well, not entirely true, there was a small wing of contemporary sculpture from Japan, but as far as we could discern there was really nothing much there to begin with. Maybe it was all removed to house the special exhibit. So much for a National Museum.

On to the Umeda district, which contains the Umeda Sky Tower. The tower is actually two tall buildings side by side, connected by a series of bridges and escalators, giving it the nickname “modern Arc de Triumph,” despite the fact there is already a modern Arc de Triomphe in Paris named Le Grande Arche. Even so the description is far from accurate. Its gleaming exterior is visually interesting and you can buy a ticket to go to the top and see the “floating botanical gardens.” Wow, that sounds awesome! Let’s go!

Forty stories up, a wonderful observation deck offers great views of the massive sprawl that is Osaka. The observation deck was also virtually empty. We lounged on couches and enjoyed a sunny view, tempered with some smoggy haze from the city. The Umeda Tower is not particularly easy to get to. The closest subway stop is still quite a trek away, through an unpleasant industrial section filled with construction sites and bad sidewalks. And of course the weather was terrible.

Did I mention not to come to Asia in the summer? Yeah, don’t do it.

Escalator to Heaven

Escalator to Heaven

Finally feeling refreshed from the air conditioning and melon soda floats, we set out to find the “botanical gardens.” We made a full 360 of the floor, headed up to the roof for more views of the city, and then back down to the lowest elevator. No gardens, no hint of greenery whatsoever. From what we could discern from the info posted about Umeda, it is apparently a futuristic building concept, the center of which they refer to as a garden, but it doesn’t actually contain plants. That’s some very misleading advertising Japan…

The Tower refers to itself as a sky structure, and lists many other “sky structures” around the world, my favorite being the “Sky Stick” of Italy or more commonly known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. A little disappointed, we made the long walk back to the station, taking as many short cuts through air-conditioned malls as possible.

Next on the agenda, Osaka-Jo, or Osaka Castle to us. Rebuilt at least twice over the last 600 years and expanded significantly the last time with an inner and exterior water moat, the castle grounds here are massive. While many of the village “buildings” that once covered the grounds are gone, an impressive pagoda-style castle remains, which houses a new museum about the castle’s history. The contents are a bit dry for those of us not particularly enthusiastic about ancient Japanese Imperial history. The museum did offer a break from the oppressive weather outside. Some intricate screen paintings and woodblock prints depicting life and battle on the castle grounds were interesting, as were the fascinating holographic projections of Japanese theater onto miniature kabuki sets, which depicted scenes about the life of the castle’s founder.

Osaka-Jō

Osaka-Jō

A couple hours of touring the museum and the grounds in the heat tired us out, and we went back to the hostel to relax for a bit. We traded stories about Japan with two pleasant travelers from Germany, who had witnessed the historic Tokyo fireworks fiasco a week earlier.

With the sun down and the weather a little more bearable, we headed off to take a peek at Amerika-mura or Amerimura, a small area near Shinsaibashi where apparently young Japanese can pretend to live like Americans, or what they think Americans live like… This disappointing little district consists almost entirely of punk and skater culture clothing and music stores blasting hip-hop and rap, as well as a grungy little mock Central Park where young Japanese punks with tattoos and piercings can hang out and smoke. The center of the area is marked by a miniature Statue of Liberty standing atop a high rise building. Unfortunately this was also the dirtiest area of Japan we have come across, trash littered the streets and the park (despite the presence of public trashcans), a sight uncommon anywhere else in Osaka.

While we had been curious about this so-called “Little America,” the actual reason we had come to the area was to visit the Space Station, an ex-pat run video game bar that had been recommended by a fellow teacher in Japan. Since Andrew had agreed to do away with his Xbox when coming to Japan, I indulged his video game addiction for a couple hours. The bar has a pretty neat set up, with video game consuls of all decades available, and hundreds of games lining the walls, waiting to be played. It was also the only bar we had seen devoid of all Japanese. If I liked video games, I would definitely see its appeal. The downside of a bar like this, however, is that all the video game nerds of Osaka hang out here, waiting for tourists to come play with them so they can geek out and show off their expertly-honed video game skills. Of course, Andrew ended up trying to battle said resident nerd at a Soul Calibur 4 (a game he had played twice before), and proceeded to get creamed for a solid hour. 2-15 for I think. If watching other people play video games wasn’t so horribly boring, I would have found Andrew’s defeat very entertaining.

Dontonburi at night

Dontonburi at night

Eventually unable to take anymore, I managed to pull Andrew away with the temptation of okonomiyaki, a delicious savory pancake-like food famous in Osaka. Our okonomiyaki that night consisted of cheese, pork, and cabbage cooked in a batter and topped with sweet teriyaki sauce, mayonnaise and a basically raw egg. I know this random combination of foods sounds terrible, but it is ridiculously delicious, and when I get home I am looking up recipes immediately.

Back to the hostel for another relatively uncomfortable night’s sleep, with dreams of a Kobe ocean breeze for tomorrow.

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Oh Deer.

Back to bed on time the previous night, we were able to get a nice morning start to our last day in Kyoto. We headed off to Kiyomizu-dera, an amazing wooden temple in a lovely traditional district of Kyoto near Higashi-yama. Tired of carrying around our large umbrellas when it had hardly rained the day before, we left them at our guest house. Of course, as soon as we climbed the hill to the entrance of Kiyomizu-dera, it began to rain. Luckily, much of the structure and grounds have overhanging eaves so picture taking wasn’t too big of a problem. The temple is simple yet elegant, and is nestled in the hills that line the east of Kyoto, so you feel like you have left the city altogether. The rain brought a cooling, misty reverence to the beautiful water temple, and as soon as we left the rain cleared up.

Streets of Higashiyama

Streets of Higashiyama

One of the best parts about Kiyoumizu-dera is drinking from their wish granting waterfall. Kiyoumizu literally means “pure water” in Japanese and the temple was so named because of the waterfall of the same name at the temple site. At the bottom of the temple you can reach out with a long metal cup and get some awesome water. At the time we didn’t know the water was supposed to grant wishes. No genie like water for us.

View of the hills surrounding Kiyoumizu-dera

View of the hills surrounding Kiyoumizu-dera

A short walk slightly north through Higashiyama took us to the Ryozen Kannon. This is a large  Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara in Kyoto that is dedicated to the tomb of the unknown soldier and soldiers who died in World War 2. There are four such monuments (all different) spread out around Japan. With your admission you get an incense stick that you can plant in the shrine if you like. You can even go inside the 84 ft tall Kannon. Inside are 12 different Buddahs that represent the different animals of the Chinese Zodiac calendar.

Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara

Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara

We wanted to make another stop at Toji Castle, the tallest pagoda in Japan, but we still had to visit Nara on our way to Osaka, so we decided to head to the train station. A forty-five minute train ride brought us to Nara and we made our way directly to the Daibutsu, a huge carved Buddha that sits among an equally huge temple. While we have seen many a large Buddha before, this site is definitely majestic. There is also something unique about the large grounds and park which surround Nara. Hundreds of wild deer roam free, meandering across the streets, lying beneath the trees or gathering around the tourists stupid enough to feed them. I was regrettably one such tourist.

The Great Buddah of Nara's Crib.

The Great Buddah of Nara’s Crib.

The parks sell special “deer senbei” rice crackers, and for some reason I thought this would be an interesting experience. Soon I was surrounded by many deer too eager to wait for rice crackers who decided my clothing would be just as tasty. A rather aggressive male with sizable horns also took a nip at my bum, causing me to throw all my senbei in the air and make a run for it. Even with all the crackers gone, it was hard to shake the trail of deer that continued to follow us. They really are just like large rodents…

Oh Deer!

Oh Deer!

We headed back to Nara station by way of Kofuku-ji. Kofuku-ji is one of the tallest pagodas in Japan (second tallest according to a local, the only pagoda that is taller is Toji castle in Kyoto which we skipped earlier in the day). As soon as we arrived at Kofuku-ji a massive thunderstorm began gathering in hills behind the temple and five story pagoda. We walked around for a couple minutes but decided we didn’t want to see if the storm was going to unleash a deluge while we were trying to be good tourists. Also The East Golden Hall (the other main attraction besides the five story pagoda) is under scaffolding until 2018.

Kofuku-ji, Nara - the rain gathers.

Kofuku-ji, Nara – the rain gathers.

As we arrived by train to Osaka we were a bit confused about how to get into the area of Osaka we wanted. While there are many trains that run to Osaka, the city is quite large, and ending up in a station far from your hostel means more time on the subway. The subway system for Osaka is efficient, but also a bit confusing, so more than once we ended up at the wrong station or the wrong platform. After an extra hour of transportation chaos, we managed to find our “hostel” near the Shinsaibashi area of Osaka. By hostel, I mean two rooms in what was actually a Japanese office space. One room was filled entirely with bunk beds, spaced a few inches away from each other. The second room was a common area with one toilet and one shower.

Fun.

But it had a great location and was cheap, and as we always spend our travel time out and about, not a terrible place to crash at the end of the night. We also managed to get a load of laundry done for free, bonus!

This is an arcade/bowling alley/gambling center and  outdoor climbing wall...

This is an arcade/bowling alley/gambling center and outdoor climbing wall…

The best thing about this hostel was its proximity to Dontonbori, the famous neon district of Osaka that resembles the world of Blade Runner. As the sun set, we walked through Dontonbori, stopping to eat fresh takoyaki (fried octopus dumplings) as we searched for a restaurant offering nomihodai (unlimited drinks for a period of time). We found a nice yakitori joint and decided to experiment with ordering chicken cartilage and chicken ovaries. The former was virtually inedible, but the latter was quite interesting. We also found restaurants offering fugu (blowfish) and horse in Osaka, although we didn’t try them. Maybe on the trip back…

Still hot and surprisingly thirsty, we found a late night spot with cheap beer and delicious gyoza. Finally satiated, we walked back and tried to enjoy what little respite our bunk beds would offer. Goodnight Osaka, see you tomorrow.

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Achieving “zen” through heat exhaustion…

Editors Note:  Soooooo… this post, is … a little late. For reasons that only Steve Jobs would understand my computer decided that our arrival to Osaka was a perfect time to crash. Crash like Bubs’ from David Simon’s The Wire. Amidst a picture import my computer shut down and wouldn’t even open in safe mode. I’ll spare you the remainder of the gory details but there were some casualties. Most notably some pictures and MS Word. It took a couple days to get my computer operating again and now I am way behind schedule on our blog. We have been taking notes furiously on our iPad to maintain some level of recollection. Thank you for your patience.

Attempting a pub crawl in one building has consequences. You may suffer from: bed crumbs, taxi standing, umbrella elbow and Pocari sweats. After a late second night in Kyoto we got a late start on our sight seeing the following day.

Eager to get the day started despite the late wake up time, we shot off to the convenience store for breakfast and hopped on the bus to Ginkaku-ji. Buses are nearly impossible to eat breakfast on. To make matters worse, laps are not ideal tables. After some finagling I managed to wolf down my breakfast before we arrived at the stop Ginkaku-ji.

Fuji-san

Fuji-san

Ginkaku-ji is the companion temple to Kinkaku-ji on the opposite side of Kyoto. The sun was out and we were thinking we would be in for a real treat as we purchased our tickets. Hoping to see the sunlight glinting off the silver finish of the “Silver Pavilion,” we braved the sweltering heat and went inside.

There are two major problems with Ginkaku-ji. 1) Its not actually silver. 2) It’s called the “Silver Pavilion.” The Zen style sand garden is really cool and there is a giant sand mound that is supposed to represent Mt. Fuji. After seeing the magnificent Kinkaku-ji, I was looking forward to a literally silver version. Ginkaku-ji earned that nickname because it was supposed to be silver, the architect just never got around to finishing the job. The rest of Ginkaku-ji is really beautiful but for my money I would spend more time else where in Kyoto first.

Garden around Gin kaku-ji

Garden around Gin kaku-ji

After that we took a long bus ride back to Kyoto station and then hopped on a train to the Fushimi ward of Kyoto.

Fushimi Inari is a great way to get more than one benefit from the same attraction. First off you get a massive work out if you want to see the whole thing. Lots of stairs. As heat exhaustion sets in it will feel quite a bit like total serenity. If you like orange, Fushimi Inari is basically Heaven on Earth since there are thousands of bright orange torii that cover the paths and the shrines from top to bottom. If you have an unnatural fear of orange or stairs don’t go here. Also its free.

Fear the orange

Fear the orange

I really liked the climb, however, the best view was not from the top of the mountain but from a smaller platform about 75% of the way to the top. Don’t bother with going all the way to the top unless you are making an offering or simply want to say that you did it. I did it.

Also some of the movie, “Memoirs of a Geisha” was shot at Fushimi Inari.

Pond about half way to the top of Fushimi Inari

Pond about half way to the top of Fushimi Inari

The Fushimi ward is also famous for its water which has been used in Sake brewing for a very long time. We stopped in at the Gekkeikan Sake museum and brewery. For 300yen you get a small bottle of sake with your ticket. Basically it pays for itself. Also you get to try 3 or 4 different kinds of sake at the end of the museum trip. The museum is really small but interesting and covers the sake brewing process top to bottom.

That is a lot of sake

That is a lot of sake

We decided to make a random tour of out the Fushimi ward and found another sake brewery where you can get samples for 100yen each. Kappa Sake also brews craft beers but by the time we made it there the beer counter was closed.

The long hike up Fushimi Inari and sake tasting had whet the appetite for kaiseki ryori. Kaiseki Ryori is traditional Kyoto cuisine. Many places serve the meals on platforms above the river. Even though we carried around our umbrellas the whole day it didn’t start to rain until we wanted to eat outside. We found a place with a covered patio and indulged in some great food and undiluted sake. Typically with sake extra water is added to lower the alcohol percent to volume. This stuff was pure uncut sake. Oh yeah.

Dining almost over the water.

Dining almost over the water.

Once we devoured our dinner we headed down to Kyoto station to take a rather expensive ride up the 100 meter tall Kyoto tower. Here you can get a full 360 degree view of Kyoto. Not a cheap thrill but very cool none the less. There is a even a yuru kyara for the tower, Towawa-chan. If you are traveling in Kyoto and need some cheap odds and ends beneath the Kyoto tower is Daiso (100 yen store).

View from Kyoto tower at night.

View from Kyoto tower at night.

With our last night in Kyoto coming to a close we debated briefly about going to a beer garden near the Kyoto tower. Long enough to check the price. $9 dollars a beer… No thanks, we’ll get some sleep.

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How to do a million things in one day – Kyoto Edition (Rainy Style)

Traveling in a foreign country when you live in said foreign country is great! I have never experienced this before, but it is definitely the best way to travel. Having a prior understanding of the language, customs, culture, food, transportation, and being able to carry wifi on your person takes the stress out of being somewhere totally new. Plus you get this fantastic rush from being able to help out real “tourists.” So I may be biased when I say that Kyoto is an amazing place to travel, but here’s what we were able to accomplish on day two; hopefully you will find yourself here someday as well and can tell me how it went.

Lily pond

Lily pond

The forecast was guaranteed rain all day, so umbrellas in hand we ate conbini (the word Japanese use for convenience store) breakfast and hopped on the bus to Arashiyama in the western edge of Kyoto. For $12 you can buy an all-day subway and bus pass for unlimited rides, this is a must. Pays for itself after four or five rides, or you can just sit on the bus and enjoy the air conditioning. After about forty minutes, we arrived at the aptly name Storm Mountain in the midst of heavy rain. The only good thing about the rain in summer is the fact that it makes the air feel slightly cooler, although it is still 85 degrees with 90% humidity, so you are wet from the rain and wet from your own sweat. Yum…don’t come to Japan in the “summer,” if you can avoid it. If you can’t, enjoy being wet. But seriously, don’t  come in the summer.

Zen pond at Tenryu-ji

Zen pond at Tenryu-ji

Despite all this, the Tenryu-ji temple and it’s gardens were beautiful. From there, you can head straight into the famous Bamboo Path, a short walk lined by a thicket of tall bamboo. Despite being in the shade its actually hotter underneath the bamboo.

The Hozu River

The Hozu River

Next, we enjoyed the Kameyama Park and the Hozu River Walk, which takes you back to the bridge across the Hozu River. From here, you can cross and hike a really, really long path completely uphill to see the Iwatayama Monkey Park. 114 Macaque monkeys roam free, and on a clear day you get a great view of Kyoto. While this is a bit of a novelty, it’s quite lovely and sitting next to dozens of monkeys is an interesting experience.

it must be comfortable

it must be comfortable

Still raining, we grabbed a bus headed for Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It is indeed very golden, and although the rain just wouldn’t let up, we were able to snap a few nice photos. It is definitely a stunning site, and I can only imagine how radiant it would look with sunlight reflecting off it’s golden exterior. Not much to do other than gaze upon its majesty, but it is absolutely worth the price of admission. Since we weren’t yet templed-out, we headed to central Kyoto to visit Nijo Castle, a stunning representation of shogunate glory.

Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji

Finally, the rain stopped, as if it understood how important it was to see this incredible structure. We were thrilled, not only for this good turn of luck, but because in all our time in Japan so far we had yet to actually step foot in a castle. The Imperial Castle in Tokyo is not open to the public save for twice a year, and Sendai Castle no longer exists. You can visit the “Castle Site” where it used to sit, but an empty expanse of land touted as a famous destination is a giant let down. We were not at all let down by Nijo-jo.

Moated.

Moated.

There are two palaces within Nijo Castle; one, Ninomaru, is open to the public and contains amazing examples of Japanese architecture and wall murals. You must enter the palace before the natural light is lost because nothing is artificially lit, so as to preserve the precious artifacts. You take off your shoes and walk the halls of the shogun palace, noticing the squeaking of the wooden boards, especially designed that way to alert the residents to the sound of trespassing footsteps. After touring room upon gorgeous room, we headed out into the gardens, which are equally breathtaking. Although the castle is situated among the busy streets of Kyoto, you can hear nothing of the outside world behind its walls, only the sound of cicadas buzzing like electricity. Thoroughly awed, we headed east in central Kyoto to find the Kinshi Masumune Sake Museum & Tasting.

Macro

Macro

Sake breweries in Kyoto have almost equally forbidding exteriors as the castles. Usually you only know they contain a sake brewery when you see a large, brown ball of cedar leaves hanging discretely over the entrance. For this particular brewery, no entrance sign or hours of operation were posted. We basically opened a sliding door, stuck our heads in and asked for sake in very broken Japanese. While they did not appear to be open for business, the gentleman there let us come in and tour the grounds, and also gave us a brief tasting of their three best nihon-shu and one ume-shu. This private tasting only wetted our appetite for sake, so we headed to North Gion and the Izakaya area to find some sashimi to eat with more sake.IMG_1440 Luckily, you really can’t choose a bad sushi restaurant in Japan. We choose one on a side street and ordered the chef’s sashimi recommendation with a small bottle of Junmai-ginsho. Another great thing about Kyoto is the prevalence of tourists. Normally, tourists are annoying, but since we can go weeks without seeing another non-Japanese person in Tohoku, foreigners are actually friendly faces. During dinner, we met a lovely couple visiting from Britain who took our tips about which sake to order and ended up staying to drink sake with us for a couple hours. Hopefully we can look up Baz and Pinda if we decide to visit Cambridgeshire. After parting ways, we headed north to Ponto-cho, the nighlife “alley” that some people consider the seedy side of Japan. Honestly, I haven’t experienced anything in Japan I would call truly seedy, and I found Ponto-cho to be delightfully humming with energy and charm. Despite that it was Monday and a little quiet, we decided to create our own Japanese bar challenge. IMG_1462Most of the bars and restaurants here are layered between many floors of one building. So we started at the bar on the basement level and worked our way up to the bar on the top. Luckily the building we choose only had three floors. The first bar was a Jamaican-style establishment named Rub A Dub, where we had a couple decent mojitos and got our fill of Bob Marley. Next was Bar Moon Walk, an anime-themed bar with anime-related paraphernalia, and they made a nice tiny Cosmo martini. Most bars charge you a seat fee just to sit down in their establishment, an odd practice to enforce when your bar is totally empty. However, this bar made it up to you by charging only $2 for any drink, so obviously we had three rounds. Finally we trekked up to the top story, a non-descript Japanese style bar that was completely empty. The TVs in the bar were set up for karaoke, but were stuck in a preview loop that played 20-second snippets of only Britney Spears videos. After developing a rapport with the extremely bored staff, we got them to do karaoke with us. They sang Japanese songs for us, and I sang something by the Beatles, of which I have little recollection of, but I’m willing to bet it sounded pretty awful. The staff at Sakura were great sports nonetheless.

we actually did two songs, this one was, "My Sharona."

we actually did two songs, this one was, “My Sharona.”

We stumbled out around 1am, realizing none of the buses would be running anymore, so we hopped in a taxi for the first time in our four months living in Japan. It is quite a testament to the Japanese transportation system that we could avoid cabs for so long. The meter starts at $6, and we ended up with a tab of $7.50, so you can see that taxis in Japan are not the ideal way to get around.

Once back at our guest home, I proceeded to devour left-over o-nigiri from breakfast. I have no recollection of what was inside, but I’m sure it was delicious. There is something oddly comforting about washing down a night of sake with late night rice balls. I may not have needed to come all the way to Japan to experience this, but it sure feels right when you’re here.

So there you have it; a million experiences in one day. No wonder I’m addicted to traveling.

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