Apr 042013

Today was our time to explore Tokyo.

We popped into the hotel sandwich shop for breakfast. One good ole Sausage egg and cheese on an English muffin later, and we headed out the door. We headed to the subway, where we bought all-day passes to the trains. It proved much more economical, as we were hopping from place to place and train to train.

Our first stop was the Tsukiji Fish Market. We were a little late in the morning to see any auction action, but the commercial stalls were still packed with locals and tourists. We walked among the stalls selling fresh seafood and miscellaneous retail goods for a little while. It really had the same vibe one might get from a farmer’s market. Good people making a living off simple goods. Notable for me was watching an older gentleman sharpening a hand crafted knife on a stone at the front of the stall. Knives seem to be a popular non-fish commodity there, as there were several stalls selling every blade you’d need to turn a fish into dinner.

We stopped by a stall in the market for a snack. I had what will likely be the freshest sashimi I’ll ever experience. Some tuna, salmon, and amberjack served up fresh with pickled ginger and wasabi over rice made for an exotic meal to this american tongue. It was quite tasty, though.

From there, we made our way to the Tokyo Skytree. It’s the tallest structure in Japan, and the second tallest in the world. It was quite a sight to see. Our goal was to go up in it to get a good view of the city from some 350 meters up. After a confusing tour of the first shopping mall-like 5 floors, we found an information desk that pointed us in the right direction. Eventually, we found ourselves with vouchers that provided us the opportunity to come back in a few hours to stand in line for a chance to buy tickets. We weren’t even guaranteed a shot at it. We all agreed that if we happened to be available at the time we’d try, but it was otherwise not terribly important.

We made our way from the Skytree, and headed to Senso-ji Temple. Another site full of tourists, we made our way through the maze of people to catch views of the temple buildings. This is definitely home to the biggest paper lantern I’ve seen thus far on the trip. We shot some photos of the gates and the pagoda, a few with the Skytree still visible in the background. Then we ducked down a less crowded street and headed onward.

Our next stop was to be Kitanomaru Park, to see the cherry blossoms there. We took a beautiful stroll amongst the cherry blossoms and gorgeous trees. There were some form of crow hopping about the branches of the pines, and a lovely lake at the center of the park. After walking the grounds, we made our way to rent a boat to paddle out into a moat-like section of water. With Rachel navigating and Evan doing all the work, I was free to relax, take some pictures, and casually spy on some beautiful young women whose boating expertise had them floating in circles. After a few near misses with boats as we pulled back towards shore, our 30 minutes were up and we were on our way. Before getting out of the park, we found a soft-serve truck. Led by Rachels sweet tooth, we dropped a few yen and I had another culinary curiosity- green tea ice cream. I must say, I found it surprisingly tasty. I’ll admit, though, that my taste buds wished it had been a little sweeter.

We hopped a train and headed toward a shrine on a different side of town. Unfortunately, this is the one time today we got turned around. The flip side is that we ended up in the high-fashion shopping district, Harajuku. We were surrounded by marvelous architecture holding brand names the likes of Prada and Cartier, as well as some local fashionistas showing their colors. After our brief stroll through, we got back on track.

Meiji Jingu is a shrine tucked away in a hand planted forest. Outside of some grand torii and a couple unique architectural elements, it was much like the other shrines we’ve seen on this trip. We took a break and sat on the benches inside the walls of the shrine, but soon we were on our way out.

We dropped into the nearby Double Tall Cafe for a light dinner. I decided to try out a BLT, since that’s a back-home favorite. Japanese bacon compares to American bacon in about the same manner that Canadian Bacon does. It’s a shame, but it’s still delicious. The most notable feature of the sandwich was the inclusion of what tasted like thousand island dressing rather than the mayonnaise i’ve usually used back home. I think it’ll be something to try again when I can get some crunchy, smoked pig in my sandwich. We followed with coffee and dessert, which was a vanilla espresso, expertly decorated, and a rare cherry cheesecake, the color of the cherry blossoms, and which had a light taste of fruit. It was served with what we’re assuming were little mochi balls.

From there we headed back to the hotel to rest our tired legs. It seems that they’re getting more sore and sooner each day. Hopefully I can last until we hit Okinawa, where I’ll be a little more free to relax rather than cram in the sight-seeing. We hit the hot tub, where we shared a conversation with a retired couple who are spending their time travelling. After a quick shower, we headed to the hotel bar for garlic fries, onion straws, and some tasty drinks. I ordered myself a hot chocolate spiked with an orange liqueur. It did not disappoint, and it was a good way to end the evening.

We’ll be finishing up Tokyo tomorrow and heading out to Kawasaki and our next hotel.

Apr 032013

I’m appropriately enough listening to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” as I type.

We started a little earlier today in order to fit in the things we missed yesterday. We packed up and checked out, and with the hotel being kind enough to hold our bags, we departed. Breakfast was at a snazzy coffee shop not too far from the hotel: An iced mocha and a cold omelette sandwich. The mocha was awesome, the sandwich was adequate. We ducked into the subway information office to get bus passes for the day, and then set off to our first stop.

We started early at Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavillion. The grounds featured some carefully crafted sand works at the entrance. This was much like other sites we’ve visited. A beautiful garden, meticulously maintained. The buildings we’re just as impressive. It was a pleasant beginning to the day, and we were able to get a nice view of Kyoto from one of the higher points on the stroll.

From there, we set out along the Philosopher’s Walk. It’s a quiet pedestrian path along a small canal, lined with cherry trees. It was a beautiful walk, and I took the time to soak it in. The only downside is the inevitable commercialization of a tourist attraction. Still, most of it was only lined by quiet neighborhoods. We traveled about a mile to reach our next stop, Eikan-do.

Eikan-do is a Buddhist temple, and as I’ve seen time and time again on this trip, Buddhists know how to worship! Nestled into the hillside, and still quiet despite the tourists starting to wander in, the temple buildings were connected by covered bridges that snaked through the foliage. Once again we were surrounded by gardens, including a large pond that was home to a school of koi, and hosting a rowdy duck.

We received a pleasant surprise while we were there, in that the monks were going through their rituals while we were there. I sat for a while outside the Founder’s Hall and listened to the chanting. They then left towards Amida Hall, where we soon ended up, and were able to quietly enter and observe. It was a great experience, and fascinating to see how another religion communes. After finishing our tour of the temple and the grounds, we headed out to catch a bus back to the hotel to grab our things and head to the train station. On our way, we smelled a delicious something or another wafting on the breeze. We followed our noses to a small bakery tucked away just off the main road. With baked goods in hand, we headed onward. Next stop, Tokyo! But first, lunch!

We dropped into a sandwich shop at the station for lunch. I went with good ol’ teriyaki chicken, and a mango juice to drink. Bellies full, we took the Shinkansen to Tokyo. It’s both fast and direct, so we arrived in Tokyo with plenty of time to find our hotel and check in. We’re staying at The New Sanno Hotel, which is a military resort. With my guest pass tucked into my passport, we got to our room and got comfortable. The past two rooms I stayed in might add up to the floor space of the room we’re in. This is definitely an American style hotel. We were, unfortunately, not able to get a suite, so I’ve got the fold-out-couch. That aside, it’s a comfortable stay. We got some laundry going and checked out the hot tub to rest our tired legs. After that, we cooled off in the pool while discussing the next leg of our trip.

Dinner was up in the air, but after looking at a restaurant map from the hotel, we decided upon a Mexican restaurant that was down the street. Mexican food in Tokyo. Go figure, right? I was admittedly curious how it would stack up against what I was used to. The restaurant provided the same cultural clutter on the walls that we see back home, though posters and the like seemed the most prevalent. Unlike good ol’ Virginia, we  had to pay for chips and salsa. The basket of tortilla chips was considerably smaller than I’m used to, but the salsa was quite tasty. The menu was quite varied, and featured quite a few items that I haven’t seen anywhere else before. It also provided brief descriptions of where in Mexico the dish would likely be found. I ordered enchiladas with mole poblano sauce for dinner. I wanted something I could compare to what I’m used to. The chicken enchiladas themselves were nothing to write home about. The mole sauce, however, was quite flavorful, and exceeded my expectations. It seemed just the right blend of the chocolate and spices I’m used to, and as an added touch, it was sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Full up, we headed back to the hotel to rest up for our day on the town in Tokyo tomorrow.

Apr 022013

Kyoto, Day 2.

We started off our morning with a plan and not enough time. We purchased all day bus passes, which were a good plan. About 2 bus rides and they’re paid for. We hopped plenty more than that today. We’ll probably be getting them for tomorrow as well. We popped into a 7-11 for breakfast, and so I could use the ATM. With a pocket full of yen, we headed onward. We started at Fushimi Inari Shrine. We spent a good while hiking up and down the paths, passing through the torii and checking out some fabulous views. The shrine is set into the mountain, and it was no small task to scale the steps. But the view was worth it. We also met some local cats who were quite sweet. The shrine was also dotted with fox statues, which were quite cool.

We headed out from the shrine as it was starting to rain. We intended to head to Ginkuku-ji and Eikan-do, but we decided to grab some lunch first. We dropped into a soba shop in Gion, and I had another culinary experience. I ordered a tempura bowl, because I figured I couldn’t go wrong with fried food. A couple large shrimp floated atop my soba, and it warmed me up quite well on a cold, rainy day.

From there, we headed to Kiyomizu-dera. A temple built along the hillside, and parts of it are supported by impressive wooden pillars. Looking out from the temple, there was a beautiful view of the forest below and the city beyond. We wandered through the complex, and past a building that was being worked on. We followed the paths over to the pagoda, and down to the waterfall. I sat and watched people pass here for a bit before we continued on our way. From there, it was a short walk back out of the temple complex. We headed back in the general direction of the hotel.

We attempted to head to our other destinations, but after getting turned around, we were past time for either to be open. It’s disheartening how early many of these places close. It seems the city is an early to bed, early to rise sort of place. We headed back to the hotel to regroup.

Rachel decided to stay in for the remainder of the night and get rested up. Evan and I headed out with the intention of visiting Toji temple, which is currently doing evening illuminations. We arrived, and after walking the wrong way around the perimeter, we found the entrance and got to see the fruits of our travel. Toji temple features a five story pagoda which is the tallest wooden building in Japan. The spotlights shining up on it made it that much more impressive against the night sky. The shrines at the temple featured some gorgeous statues, and it’s a shame that we weren’t allowed to take pictures of them. The grounds of the temple were equally stunning. We walked among cherry blossoms and meticulously maintained trees. Everything was lit brilliantly and it was absolutely worth the thorough soaking we were getting in the rain.

Afterwards, we dropped into a cafe for a quick bite, and headed back to the hotel. We’re planning on getting an even earlier start tomorrow to fit in the things we missed today. Then we’re off to Tokyo!

Apr 012013

We arrived in Kyoto via train this morning. If Virginia had public transportation like this, I might not even have a car.

We stopped in the wrong part of the city when we first arrived, and took a short walk through a quiet neighborhood. We finally stopped at a Starbucks and got our bearings, before hopping another train to the area we should have headed to in the first place. I enjoyed the brief pause and did a little people watching. We still made it to the Kyoto Garden hotel a little early, so they held our bags, and we decided to get a jump start on our sight-seeing.

We headed out to the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji first. A Buddhist temple nestled in a gorgeous slice of greenery. It’s a pretty straight forward visit, and a one-way walk around the temple grounds. It was beautiful, but I think I need to learn the Japanese word for ‘tourist trap’. There was no shortage in methods to separate visitors from their money. But, we weren’t going to let that stop us from enjoying the visit. At a very busy shrine, we purchased and lit candles in a prayer for good fortune. Mine was ‘find employment’. I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask for a little extra help.

Our next bus ride taught us to avoid the bus at rush hour. We were packed in about as tight as we could be and still trying to let a few more on. The worst of it was being near the back and needing to exit at the front. Fortunately, a large group of people left a stop or two before we needed to get off ourselves.

We headed over to Nijo Castle, since it was only a quick walk from the hotel. We slipped off our shoes and took a tour of the palace. The architecture was beautiful! The wall paintings included pine trees, birds, and a couple tigers. There are intricate wood carvings of flowers, branches, and birds above the doors and along the ceilings. The ceilings themselves featured painted patterns. The nightingale floors were notable as well. Each step a visitor took was greeted with a bird-like squeak. Sadly, there was a no photography policy, so you’ll have to Google the castle and find some pictures for yourself. After the palace, we toured the gardens around it. Heavily maintained, they were a sight to see!

After we finished at the castle, we headed back to the hotel and checked in. We paused for a bit to  get ourselves straight, then set out to find some dinner. I couldn’t tell you the name of the place, but we had a delicious spread. I had a green tea flavored creamy drink, garnished with these little coffee flavored gelatin cubes. I snagged an okonomiyaki, a savory cabbage pancake which I really must learn how to make, as a main dish, and we tried various other items that Evan and Rachel picked out. We each chose a dessert, and I decided this was the easiest time to be adventurous. I ordered what was, on an English-language menu, labelled as a “cheese pudding,” served with a sorbet. It turned out to be a custard, about the texture of a flan you’d get in a Mexican restaurant back in Virginia. The taste was pretty comparable to cheesecake, and it was served with an orange marmalade glaze. I was thoroughly pleased.

After dinner, we headed back to the hotel to plot how we’ll take on the city tomorrow. I won’t bother covering that until it has already happened.

Until tomorrow!

Mar 312013

Today we explored some places of touristic interest in Osaka.

We started off our morning with breakfast in the little cafe attached to the hotel we’re staying in. Eggs and toast, fruit, yogurt, and some juice. We headed out by train to Shitennoji Temple for our first stop. It’s a Buddhist temple established some 1400 years ago. It was a lovely experience. The standout was the statues in the shrines. Intricately detailed and probably some 30 feet tall.

Our next stop was the Osaka Museum of History. We opted to walk there, as Evans google maps had offered an 20 minute walk vs a train ride and an 18 minute walk. We did, however, pass several subway stations which proved his directions wrong, as Rachel was more than happy to point out. We also passed a smaller shrine on the way and stopped in to admire the well tended plants and statues there. The museum was interesting but of limited educational value to those of us who can’t read the native language. There was little signage in english, but enough that we knew about what things were and what period in time they were from. Some of the older relics were very cool, and a display of old paintings caught my attention for a while.

We grabbed lunch next at a small restaurant a short walk away. The food was scrumptious and the service very accommodating for our limited grasp of Japanese. I had a crab gratin, served with a salad. It was cheesy, crabby deliciousness served in the shell of, presumably, the crab that donated it.

A short walk landed us at Osaka Castle. The moats surrounding this building were nothing short of impressive. It left no doubt that, in it’s time, it was a formidable challenge to anyone who would dare to attack the structure. The grounds around the castle complex are effectively a large park. The cherry blossoms are in bloom and it was gorgeous to walk around the perimeter of the wall and look out over the city. It was clear that it was a popular spot. The line to take us up to the castle was, unfortunately, long enough to deter us from visiting. But we were able to get a good view from where we were. We had a brief run-in with some rowdy local boys, one of which kicked a bottle that nearly nailed Rachel in the leg. He was polite, however, apologized in English, and promptly threw the bottle back at one of his friends. As we circled the wall, we also overheard a group performing on the street. In hindsight, it might have been pertinent to bring the gig bag for my ukulele. I might have been able to find a spot to play, and maybe even paid for my lunch had I sat down in the castle grounds for an hour.

Afterwards, we made our way back to the hotel to take a rest and regroup. Short of shopping, there wasn’t a whole lot else planned for the day. We opted instead to head to one of the nearby restaurants for dinner. Our first stop in that endeavor proved a poor choice, as they were busy and, at a glance, appeared to have no pictures nor English on their menus. We ducked out and walked a bit further, where Evan spotted some delicious looking pictures. We headed up the steps to this place, and shared cold sake and miscellaneous foods. I let Evan and Rachel pick the fare, and we had quite the good meal. They were less crowded, which might be because it was a chain. But it was more than adequate for us.

After dinner, we retired to the hotel. Tomorrow, we will be shipping off to Kyoto via train for more adventures. Stay tuned!

Mar 302013

Yesterday, I spent nearly a full day on planes and in airports.  I started bright and early checking in at Dulles in DC. I got to experience my first post 9-11 TSA checkpoint and it went quite smoothly. I took a small commuter from DC to New York, seated next to a friendly, but unintelligible old man. We landed in JFK in NYC, where I had to meet my flight to Tokyo. JFK was my least favorite of the airports I came through. Trying to find which gate I needed to be at became a chore, and the people I asked were helpful, but not terribly specific. Eventually, I got it figured out. I also managed to find me a smoothie and a muffin to munch on while I waited.

14 hours is a long time to be on an airplane. The flight took me over Canada and Alaska, before circling down to Tokyo.  A tasty lunch/dinner was served relatively quickly after we got into the air. A fried porkchop and rice, some fruit, and noodles, and some soup. Shortly thereafter dessert came in the form of a Haagen Dazs single-serve cup. The plane had almost everything I could ask for. A personal screen provided flight information, free movies, and a decent Tetris game. There was also a power outlet, which gave me time to get a couple things done, as well as play some Minecraft. I wasn’t able to sleep but a couple hours, unfortunately. I made up for it by watching about every movie that I wanted to see on their programming list. I’ve now caught up on Skyfall, Rise of the Guardians, and Life of Pi. All three were a good watch. I also managed to do a little drawing in my sketchbook. Breakfast was served as well- A cheese omelette with potatoes and a grey mystery sausage. Surprisingly tasty. Everyone was quite friendly as well, but the gentleman next to me, if he spoke english at all, certainly wasn’t the chatty type.

Finally made it to Narita International in Tokyo, where I had to go through customs and immigration. Piece of cake. I think I waited longer for security in the States. Found my gate with little confusion, and caught my final flight to Osaka. It was quick and uneventful. Spent some time writing my never-gonna-happen comic book some more. I was greeted at the exit by Rachel and Evan, and we shoved off for the Kishibe Station Hotel. A quick bus ride, followed by a a train got us there with only the confusion that would be expected by two non-native speakers and their has-trouble-with-his-own-language guest.

So I finally made it! Tomorrow we begin our touristy adventures in Osaka! I’m going to go catch up on sleep!

Mar 292013

It’s 12:47 am. I’m currently sitting in a quiet hotel room loading CDs into iTunes to transfer onto my iPod. In approximately 7 hours I will be on a plane headed to JFK in New York, where I will transfer to a plane that will take me straight into Tokyo. My trip to Japan has begun. I will be spending about 2 weeks touring about with my good friends Rachel and Evan. We’ll be starting in Osaka and traveling through Kyoto, Tokyo, and Kawasaki, playing tourist all the way.

I decided I wanted to blog this trip for all my friends and family back home, my future self, and for anyone else who may have stumbled upon my website. If I can keep up with it during this whirlwind adventure, I hope to share pictures and words each night before I bed down. I hope you all enjoy seeing Japan through my eyes!

Stay Tuned!