Japan

Japan

Kyoto

Kyoto-7

We moved on from Takayama to our last stop in Japan; Kyoto. By now we had gotten the hang of riding the bullet trains and we loved how nice (and fast) they were. A little different from back home! We stayed in the Gion neighborhood, which is where Geishas are known to walk about. We saw a couple in our time there; we think at least one of them was true and not just someone dressed up. Nearby our hotel is Pontocho, an alleyway packed with atmospheric bars and restaurants. Half of them overlook the Kamogawa river. We ended up walking through a few times and trying different places; the bars packed in together was reminiscent of Golden Gai back in Tokyo. Some were better than others, but it was still neat. Our first full day consisted of us following the Philosopher’s Path, a nice little stone path that leads you through many different temples and shrines. It’s named after Nishida Kitaro, a famous Japanese philosopher who practiced meditation while making his daily commute to Kyoto University along this route.

When in Kyoto, we had to visit Fushimi Inari-taisha, which is an important shrine at the foot of Mount Inari that is dedicated to the Shinto god of rice. His messengers are thought to be foxes, so there were tons of fox statues scattered throughout the grounds. The shrine is famous for the thousands of vermillion gates that mark trails leading up the mountain. They are known as torii and symbolize the transition from the mundane to the sacred. They are commonly found at and can be used to identify Shinto shrines. We walked about halfway up the trail through all the gates, and although it was crowded with other tourists, it was neat to see. There were hundreds of other smaller shrines along the way as well.

We also took a daytrip to Nara, which is famous for the deer that roam freely through the city. It is also the home of many significant temples and artwork which date back to the 8th century, when it was once the capital of Japan. Sadly, it was raining while we were there, but we didn’t let that put a damper on things and it ended up being one of our favorite days. Walking out of the train station it wasn’t long until we started to come across some deer. Totally unafraid of humans, they would just go about their business and not mind the fact that everyone was trying to get closeup pictures with them (us included). Nara was nice since all the main attractions were so compact and it was easy to see everything we wanted. We walked through both Kohfukuji Temple and Todai-ji Temple, which is the home of Daibutsu (Great Buddha). Towering over us, the 52 ft tall statue was an imposing sight. This temple is also the largest wooden building in the world.

On our last day in Kyoto, we took a tour through the backwoods of Arashiyama. Located on the edge of the city, it’s a heavily forested mountain area with loads of charming traditional houses and shrines. Our tour took us further out than where most tourists go, and it was interesting to see the lesser-traveled areas. Our first stop was to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, a Buddhist temple well-known for its 1200 small Rakan (the term for someone who has attained nirvana) statues. While the temple itself was built hundreds of years ago, the statues were only built in the 80’s. Each statue was carved by a different person, so they are all unique and have their own neat quirks. Some with baseball bats, glasses, and one even had a Walkman. Moving on, we visited other small locations such as a Buddhist graveyard, a moss garden, the preserved thatched hut of Mukai Kyorai (a famous Japanese poet), and a villa built by a Japanese star of silent samurai movies in the 20’s. All the while it felt like we went back in time as we walked down pleasant residential roads with original old-style houses. We ended the tour at the famous Arashiyama bamboo forest. By this time, it was raining heavily, so a lot of other tourists had been driven away. We got some pictures, then made our way back to Kyoto.

Japan was definitely a place that we would go back to, there was tons to do, the food was good, and we really liked the whole culture there. It was also nice to see my family and be able to spend time exploring Japan with them!

Japan

Takayama

Takayama6

Taking the bullet train from Tokyo, we headed into the mountains to the small city of Takayama. We wanted to escape from big cities for a bit, and Takayama provided the perfect opportunity. The old town here is well preserved and was really cool to walk through and experience an older Japan. The town is famed for its carpentry and the latticed wooden buildings from the Edo Period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867, are still standing strong.

While waking through the old town, we knew we had to visit one of the sake breweries. We ended up at Funasaka, one of the more popular ones. We tried a few different flavors including lemon (pretty good!), grape (not so much). The regular non-flavored sake was the best though.

Just outside of Takayama is Hida Folk Village. It is basically like the Old Sturbridge Village of Japan, with old excellently preserved Japanese houses from the surrounding area all brought to one location. The buildings include logging huts, storehouses, and plenty of farmhouses. The farmhouses all had massive thatched roofs and were built in the gassho style. While we were there, they were setting up for a jazz festival, so some of the insides of the buildings were closed off but it was neat to see all the drums and amps set up. It made me want to pick up a guitar! Unfortunately, we couldn’t stick around for the festival, but we enjoyed the experience.

Heading back to our hotel one night we noticed EBIS CAFÉ and PACHINKO. We had wanted to play at some point in Japan and the café seemed to invite us inside. We were led through the café and into the pachinko room, where an employee patiently explained to us how to play. Pachinko is like a combination of a vertical pinball and slot machine, where you launch balls up, watch them tumble down, and hope they land in the slots that will earn you more balls. Since gambling for money is illegal in Japan, you can use the balls you win to exchange for prizes that you can keep, or tokens which can then be exchanged for cash at a separate location. If you choose not to cash out your balls, you can put them back into the game. We didn’t realize that you were supposed to cash them out, so we kept using them until we ran out; and didn’t get any prizes! We still had a fun time though, with Elly and Dylan getting several bonus rounds that gave them an origami crane each time they ‘leveled up.’

We found the best restaurant for lunch while wandering around. A small place run by a woman and her husband, we had one of our favorite meals of the trip; a simple salmon bowl with rice. Coupled with miso soup, it was the perfect midday meal. All the restaurants we went to in Takayama were like this; just small humble places with great food and friendly owners. My dad learned to say ‘the food was delicious’ in Japanese and that won us some new friends. Overall, Takayama was a nice break from the craziness of Tokyo but we were ready to move on to our last stop of Japan, Kyoto.

Japan

Tokyo

Tokyo-6

We are currently in Bali at the moment and have some catching up to do on the blog! It’s the perfect place here to do some relaxing and figure out what’s next for us. In the past couple months, we’ve been to Japan, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

Tokyo was a city that was high on our list of places to visit. Another city that mixes the ultra-modern with the traditional, Tokyo had a little bit of everything. We didn’t end up seeing the entirety of the city but did as much as we could and went back to many of neighborhoods that we liked. We explored here for a week on our own and then Cory’s family joined us for two weeks in Tokyo, Takayama, and Kyoto. It was nice to travel through Japan with them and we’re very glad they came to visit us!

When we first arrived in Tokyo, we decided we wanted to stay at a ‘capsule hotel’ which extremely popular. Men and women are on separate floors and instead of rooms, everyone gets their own individual capsule. Along with that you each get a locker to store your luggage in as well as bathrobes, slippers, and all toiletries you could think of. The capsules themselves were pretty comfy, and big enough that we weren’t claustrophobic inside them (Elly’s even had a TV inside).

One highlight of Toyko was seeing a show at the Robot Restaurant. Basically, people just dressed up in crazy costumes, danced and did skits while giant robots battled each other, and electronic music played in the background. There wasn’t so much a story line as just a series of scenes with different robots or giant animals attacking each other. It was a little ridiculous but really entertaining!

Walking through Tsukiji, the fish market, was hectic and fun. There were a ton of people selling every type of seafood imaginable. Tsukiji is known for its massive wholesale area, where vendors sell fresh seafood and vegetables very early in the morning for restaurants to stock up on their daily supply. This is also where the famous tuna auction is held at 4am. By the time we got to the market though, the wholesale area was closed down for the day, so we made our way through the outer retail area of the market, sampling sushi and whatever else looked good to us. We tried tiny octopus, swordfish skewers, BBQ eel, dried shredded squid (a favorite Japanese bar snack) and lots of sushi as well. Everything we tried was really good! Probably some of the best sushi/seafood we’ve ever had.

We had to make sure we explored Akihabara, the insane electronic/comic book district. Every store is filled with everything you can think of relating to videogames/action figures/anime/etc. My brother and I loved walking through, but Elly wasn’t quite as absorbed. It was pretty neat to experience all the neon signs and craziness of the area.

We also went to a Sumo match which was pretty crazy. We weren’t quite sure what to expect but it was actually a lot of fun to watch. We had watched it on TV in our hotel room a few days prior, and it didn’t seem like it would be too exciting, but we were wrong. The energy level was high in the stadium and each match (even though they didn’t last longer than 10 seconds) was exciting. We were high up in the balcony, but even with those seats we could see how huge these guys were.

Tucked away behind a row of trees separating it from the neon craziness of Kabukicho lies Golden Gai, a small series of narrow alleys with tons of bars crammed in and stacked on top of each other. Many of the buildings in this part are made of wood, and the area has been mostly unchanged since the 1950’s. The bars themselves are cozy little places that have on average only 5 or 6 seats each. Each bar is themed differently to make it stand out from others and are all charming in their own way. Due to the area being popular with tourists, there are a few bars with closed doors and signs saying either ‘no foreigners’ or ‘members only.’ For the most part though, the bars are very welcoming to all types of people and we didn’t have any trouble finding a few to stop in and have a drink at. The hardest part was finding bars with seats available, but with almost 200 bars crowded into a few short alleyways, we certainly weren’t short of choices. We had a great time wandering through the alleys just people watching and taking in all the sights. We ended up trying out a few bars and had a great time at each; you really can’t go wrong there.

Overall, we both really enjoyed Tokyo and could easily have spent even longer there. The city is huge and each district has so many things to do within them. It was a great intro to Japan but after that we were ready to move on to somewhere less hectic.

Thanks to DT for some pics!