Day 20: On a Stick

In Japan they put ice cream in buns and hot dogs on sticks. Then again any food could be found on a stick here. Our lunch and dinner were both on sticks. Meat on sticks, like God intended. I don’t really miss the buns either, is that wrong? I’ll get to todays food later…

Today we visited “Hobby Complex 4”, a convention for various figure hobby enthusiasts. Inside we were greeted by easily recognizable stench of 2 day old Otaku and plastic. Our noses are well trained after years of convention going ourselves.

We did see a lot of cool toys, models, and figurines. There were many figurines of women in lewd poses. It seems thats all the rage with the crowd, as men of all ages would line up with expensive looking camera equipment to photograph the dolls. The longest lines were for dolls with huge breasts or other parts hanging out.

While walking the floor we ran into one of the guys from the store yesterday, manning an American-ish toy booth that was selling GI-Joe, Transformers, and Star Wars toys. At the booths on either side of him, Robyn found a ‘perfect grade’ Evangelion model and I picked up a VF-17 toy. Both were really good bargains and the total for today was very reasonable.

With everything we wanted to see out of the way we left the convention and picked up some hot dogs on a stick from a street vendor outside. The mustard here is really spicy, but it looks so innocent in the standard condiment packaging.  Both the hot dogs were topped with mustard. I was surprised with how spicy it was but Robyn seemed to expect the spiciness.

Later in the day we visited a yakitori restaurant, not a little hole in the wall like before, but a nice place that looked clean. We ordered all sorts of meats on a stick. Chicken, beef, and pork were available at our whim. We also tried out some grilled peppers, which turned out to be really flavorful and not spicy at all. Robyn even liked them so much we split a 2nd order!

After dinner we headed back to the arcades. The first arcade we visited had a virtual reality Gundam game. Let me set the stage – this game is a first person shooter, and you play as a pilot in a giant robot battle. The arcade machines are pods you walk into and sit down in, with a wrap around screen. Inside the pod are two joysticks, two foot pedals, a seat, and headphones with microphone attached. The arcades that have this game usually have 4-6 networked pods.

I’ve watched Gundam plenty so I thought it should be easy enough. A nice worker helped me get started by creating a “pilot card” to keep track of my stats, which is not much use to me because we leave Osaka soon. But anyways… I got to play the game. The seat did not slide back enough for me, so I had to jam up my knees close together to fit in-between the joysticks. I was pretty annoyed by the time everyone picked a Gundam unit and weapons so that the game could start.

I managed to figure out how to move around in a few seconds. The controls were over-simplified in my opinion, with no way to look up or down. The computer would lock-on for you when you lined up an enemy in the targeting circle. I took second place in the first game and placed first the second game. I don’t think they can handle American FPS strafe skill. Overall, despite my complaints, the game was very fun and I wish it was available in America.

Next up it was time to finish off the remainder of tokens we had stockpiled from winning at “Monopoly: The Medal”. Time flew by, as did another pair of crepes, and soon it was closing time. So, we blew the remainder of our tokens on some Mario and ‘Lupin the 3rd’ games. It was a satisfying final visit to Joypolis, as we made it to the “big game” three times and were actually getting a bit bored with Monopoly by the end of the night. So, we are able to happily leave Monopoly behind.

I have a few insignificant things left in the bucket list for Japan. Karaoke was one of these things, and I got Robyn to agree to go tonight. We found a “Big Echo” karaoke joint that was open to 6am, which is impressive as most things in this city seem to shut down pretty early. We were given a tiny room that had a couch, video monitor, and sound system. At first we could not work the song remote – small language barrier there. An attendant showed us how to search for songs in English and we were off.

I picked up the microphone and Robyn picked some songs from Rock Band to start with. She sang along, mainly I think so she could drown out my howling with her own voice. I think she had a good time in spite of her dislike of karaoke. In what seemed like no time we were already having to buy another hour (and another round of beer for me). In our second hour we also figured out how to search for bands with “The” in the title, which helps a lot in finding “The Beatles” songs. Apparently Japanese search engines think a little differently, as there was a “The” button.

That about sums up our day, and now it’s really late and we are trying to wind down. It seems every night there are various sirens wailing outside, with a person on a loudspeaker yelling something… probably asking people to move over. Maybe I can go to sleep before the next emergency vehicle drives by.

 

Day 19: Another rainy day in Osaka

Robyn and I woke up this morning to the sound of rain, so we knew immediately that we would end up shopping again. I checked my email – and Chris sent me this cool photochop of Robyn & me… except that instead of me it’s Darth Vader shooting lightning. It made my day.

So we got the umbrellas and headed back to Den Den Town, where our first stop was the really good curry restaurant we found on our first trip there. Robyn got the typical katsu (fried pork cutlet) curry with rice, and I tried curry rice topped with cheese. It was not as good as we remembered, but it’s still the best curry in Osaka so far.

After lunch we walked down to the hero figure shop to try and find a Megatron gun figure to attach to the Starscream we purchased earlier. Turns out they did not have it. The clerk called over two guys… we could tell they were geeks of equivalent status, one had a UN SPACY shirt on, the other was wearing shorts and had a 10 day beard. I made sure to give props to his shirt.

We tried to tell them what we were looking for and eventually we got the point across that it was a small gun that attached to another figure. As soon as they understood what we wanted they confirmed the store did not have any. The guy with shorts also told me that Kawamori only owned had about 10% influence on the Starscream figure and from the sound of it he might have just owned the rights.

On our way out, we were looking in a display case, and behold – there it was, a tiny Megatron being held by Starscream. Conveniently the other uber geeks were standing there talking  and we showed them the tiny Megatron. We never got around to asking a clerk if we could purchase it from the display case because the guys told us about a toy convention at Osaka harbor called Hobby Complex. We found out where it’s held and got directions on how to get there, as it sounds like something Robyn and I are interested in going to.

We also stopped by the hobby shop with all the Mr. Products Robyn likes. While we were there Robyn told me to get a couple of models for her to practice on. I found a transforming VF-1 model, and a 1984 Toyota Celica Supra XX. It did not have the fender flares but it’s close enough. The shop did not have a 1989 Nissan 240SX, but it did have plenty of Silvia models of the same year. Of course the headlights are all wrong so no luck there. They are both cars Robyn don’t want in the driveway, so at least I can have them as a model. Robyn gathered a large collection of other modeling goodies she claims are just not as good from America. I owe her for the toys & models so no complaints there.

In the rain, and slowed down by bags, we decided against the subway or bus and opted for a cab to our next location – a luggage store. We have run out of room in our current bags from all our shopping, so we picked up an extra checked and carry on bag. The bigger bag is already packed and full.

And speaking of packing bags, it’s only 3 days till we head out to Kansai airport for the trip home. It’s really gone by so fast. It’s been so fun, and I have seen so many new things. Robyn has enjoyed having a loved one to share the experience with. We both are dreading the flight home. At least this time we will get a taxi to take us to the airport train stop so we don’t have to lug a huge load of luggage up and down so many flights of steps in the subway. We also won’t pack our carry on luggage as if we will never get off the plane.

Robyn found this clip of Japanese commuters getting shoved into a subway car in Tokyo. Tokyo is way more crowded than Osaka, so that does not happen here. I’m kinda glad we did not go there, I would have gotten pissed off if someone did this to me.

 

 

Day 18: Itsukushima

Today we woke up earlier than we really wanted to… the sun comes up so damned early here (4:30ish). And it seemed to aim directly at our hotel window. There are thick curtains that block out the light… but that made it hard to get up yesterday. So, last night I left them open just a little. That was enough to fill the room with light though, and wake us up at 5. So much for that 7:30 alarm!

At least it meant we were ready for breakfast when it was delivered at 8 by room service. We had ordered two “American Breakfasts” which consisted of our choice of eggs, meat, bread, juice, a salad, and coffee or tea. I also ordered “assorted fruits in season” which were pretty tasty. It was a great way to start the day. Of course, it wasn’t exactly American. Whoever heard of a salad at breakfast? And the bacon was more like slices of ham. It was good though!

We then packed up and headed down to the lobby to check out so that we could make it to Miyajima (an island) before high tide. Luckily the hotel held our bags for us so we didn’t have to deal with it for the rest of the day. We had packed lightly just in case, but we still didn’t want to lug around a full backpack and a laptop all day if we didn’t have to.

Anyhow, the goal for today was simply to see the famed Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima. Everyone has probably seen a picture of this even if they don’t know it… it is one of the most popular icons of Japan. If you have ever seen a big red torii (shrine gate) out in the water, then you have seen what I am talking about. This shrine is built so that when the tide comes in the buildings look like they are floating on the water, and one of the main features of this shrine is a huge torii positioned out in the water. When the tide is out, however, it is just sitting on some stinky sand. Although Sean says it isn’t stinky, it just smells like the ocean.

I am not sure if the time we found for the tide was incorrect, or if it just doesn’t come in very far this time of year. I have now been there twice and have yet to see it with the water high enough that it reaches the bottom of the buildings. It is still a pretty neat place though.

We were very fortunate to have picked a day during which a wedding ceremony was being held. It was very interesting to see an traditional Shinto ceremony. Although, we tried not to gawk too much because it wasn’t so long ago we were getting married in a public place ourselves and we would have been irritated if people just started standing around watching us.

The ceremony was beautifully simple and had an air of ancient tradition. It seemed to consist of a main officiant that chanted and performed other ceremonial rites; a few others dressed in traditional robes that looked like they were from the Heian period, these people mainly seemed to bow and play music; there were also two women dressed in traditional robes that took part in the ceremony by bringing a ritual drink to the bride and groom several times among other things; and then of course there were the bride and groom with what appeared to be their immediate family… only 2 or 3 people on each side. The bride and groom, and their families, each sat in a line opposite each other. I was a little surprised at the distance between them. It looked more like a ritual transaction than of what we think of a happy marriage ceremony in the west. Maybe that is why it is popular for couples to have two ceremonies here… a traditional one and then a stereotypical western wedding that is more of a show than a real wedding.

The ceremony seemed to culminate with a performance of a traditional Shinto dance. It was very interesting to watch. The dancer wore a bright orange costume, and his head was covered with an intricate mask. The dance was slow and deliberate, lasting for at least ten minutes. While the dance was performed, the bride and groom (now seated beside one another) watched with their family members seated beside them.

Once the dance was finished we left the shrine. We didn’t stick around to see if there was more to the ceremony, as we still didn’t want to intrude… plus we were getting hot from standing in the sun so long. We next did a brief tour of some less exciting minor shrines before wandering back towards the station, stopping in at several of the little shops along the way.

The shops mostly had the same stuff over and over, but there were a few with unique items. These were very interesting to browse through, but we have been trying to curb our purchasing because we have accumulated too much stuff to easily pack. I did find a cool manekineko (lucky cat) bank though, and a few more small gifts. We also stopped in at one shop that sold flavored honey concoctions that can be used for various things. They offered us some samples, and immediately Sean wanted some. I liked it too so we bought a box of six varieties. Although, after we realized how heavy it was we weren’t quite sure it was a wise idea! I can’t wait to get home and try it out though.

We also stopped in at a cool little pottery place. There was a little old man sitting in a side room spinning away at his pottery wheel. We were afraid to buy much though, as the nice pieces are not cheap and we would have a long way to travel with it.

That was pretty much our day so far. After that we had some unexciting sushi, so we decided it was just a snack. Then we grabbed a couple more snacks to tide us over until dinner (cheaper than mediocre sushi) and headed for the shinkansen.

We just got back to Osaka and are currently debating what we should do. We will probably end up at Joypolis again, as we have lots of tokens stored there and it seems a good easy and fun way to end a long day.

Will work on pictures a little later…

 

Day 17: Hiroshima

There were plenty of sad sights today. It started with viewing the preserved Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall. This is now known as the A-Bomb dome and is the most widely known image from Hiroshima. It’s probably very close to how it remained after the blast, but support structures have been added to preserve the ruins.

Around the Peace Park are many memorials to children, workers, districts, and other factions that were destroyed in the blast.  During our walk around the park we came across a large group of school children singing a very touching song at one of the memorials. I was nearly moved to tears several times at the park while looking at the various memorials. (I think I’ve seen “Barefoot Gen” too many times) It’s really hard to describe how it felt to be at a place where people for miles around were instantly vaporized in the blast. Sobering is probably the best I can do for now. I’ve said “just nuke ‘em” as a kid many times and now I know that’s such a ignorant statement.   Below is a clip from Barefoot Gen:

 

It’s a good anime to watch, as it’s based on manga written by a survivor. You should be able to find all of it subtitled on YouTube, if not, I have the DVD if you want to watch it… so let me know when we get back.

We then made our way over to the museum, it has a very good account of the history of Hiroshima before, during, and after August 6th, 1945.  It also includes the build up to why Hiroshima was picked for the first atomic bomb target, relics from the debris, and many accounts of the deaths following the blast. One of the saddest relics was a 3 year old child’s tricycle that was burned by the flash, and the child died that night. The father buried the tricycle with the child but later donated it to the museum. I wish we had the time to visit Nagasaki also, because there are few mentions about the 2nd atomic bomb attack at Hiroshima’s monuments.

Time soon neared for our Mazda tour so we rushed over by taxi in order to make our appointment for the English tour. This has been the only guided tour of anything we have seen in Japan so far, and I was kinda annoyed that we could not just wander around and take pictures at our leisure.

The tour started off with a bus drive through the Mazda campus. I’ve never been to a factory complex before but the Mazda complex was really huge and they have their own private sea port next to the car storage facility, which is basically a huge parking deck that can hold 11,000 vehicles. They also had their own power plant, producing 60% of the energy used, and their own two-year college for training workers.

Inside the museum, we were given a tour that included a brief history lesson of the corporation, historic Mazda models, examples of the rotary engine’s evolution, and a lesson on the development of a car from design to completion using the RX-8 as the subject. There were great also examples of Mazda’s JDM cars and we got a lot of good car pics. Understandably, they did not allow pictures inside the factory. The tour in general is like a live showing of “How It’s Made”.

The cars helped lightened my mood but I’m still sad from the Peace Park. It’s time to go get some dinner.

Day 16: Himeji Castle

Today we visited Himeji castle on the way to Hiroshima. This is probably the best example of a Japanese castle from the 1600’s. I recognized it from many of the samurai movies I’ve seen over the years, but seeing it in person was really impressive. You can see it from the train, and it just keeps getting bigger the closer you get. I felt lazy after yesterday’s hike and we rode a taxi up the street to the castle.

There is a long winding climb just to get to the castle’s base level, at which point you purchase your tickets. After you enter the castle gates you are directed towards the west bailey, where you tour a long building that was constructed with a princess’ dowry. This building was used to house women, and the princess herself lived their with her husband while other parts of the castle were being renovated.

We then made our way to the main castle tower, looking up we could see little faces in the windows looking down at us. Robyn confirmed my suspicion that the castle did not have the luxury of elevators.

Inside the castle there were many little signs to explain what everything was, and it’s nice to have something to read while Robyn takes pictures. Of course there were many different signs, but the same sign was posted for many of “Stone Throwing Holes”  (and there were very many places for stone throwing).

Eventually Robyn’s camera battery died so we only have a few pictures from inside of the main castle. The castle did spark my imagination of what it must have been like to live there when it was a military stronghold full of weapons, warriors, servants, and masters from 14th – 19th century. Himeji castle is in a tie with Todaiji for the coolest thing I’ve seen in Japan so far.

I also have to mention how much we have grown to like Osaka. Anywhere you look there is a restaurant, bar, street vendor, or vending machine. On the walk back to the Himeji train station we really had to look for a place to eat. It’s just not something we have had to do the entire trip. We did eventually find a small place, I picked up some pork cutlet and Robyn got curry. Can’t go wrong with the classics.

Waiting for our train to Hiroshima I took a few pictures of the different bullet trains. Some of them zoomed by, and if you are not watching for the train to pass it can be a bit surprising as it whooshes past. It’s easy to see why they get the name “bullet trains”.

The bullet trains are actually named “Shinkansen”, and they are top of the line public transportation. Inside it was roomier and better appointed than our plane flight. We even got ice cream from the car attendant. We had planned on a long ride, but we did not even have time to take a nap… which is a great way to pass time on the rail.

I’m not really excited to visit Hiroshima Peace Park, but I still have always wanted to go there. Mainly because I know I’ll feel guilty as an American – that our country was the first to start nuclear warfare. Robyn also has told me about the sad stories they have in the museum. But these memorials need to be seen, and impact of the event understood. Later in the day we will go to the Mazda museum to lighten the mood a little.

We finished the night with dinner at a real Japanese steakhouse on the 21st floor of our hotel. I could have bought another valkyrie with how much we paid for dinner. It was a really classy little place so I did not bust out the camera and do the usual tourist moves. Japanese steak houses in America will never be the same. There was no show, no flash, no clanging knifes. Just the best seafood, steak, fried rice, vegetables, and service.

 

Day 15: Nijou Castle

Sorry this post is late, I changed the date… it was really posted a day late. I wrote a very long post about all we did, but then the computer locked up and I lost the entire thing. I was sad. Still am. So, now I get to write it again :)

Tuesday was a long day for us. We set out with an agenda of visiting Nijou Castle, the Kyoto National Museum, and the Kyoto Handicraft Center… surprisingly we actually managed to achieve our goals.

We started the day out at Nijou Castle, which is located in Kyoto. The construction of this castle was begun by the first shogun of the Tokugawa Era, and completed by the second around 1626. It was brazenly built right next door to the Imperial Palace. I should probably explain here that the shogunate had their capital in Edo (Tokyo) while the Imperial Capital remained in Kyoto… but the shogunate used Nijou as their Kyoto residence. Later, after the Emperor regained power, the site was used for the Imperial Cabinet.

As with most wooden structures, various parts of Nijou have been burned and rebuilt over the years. Several parts of the castle are long gone, and today only two buildings really remain. Unfortunately photos of the interior are not allowed, so we only have photos the the exteriors and surrounding gardens.

It is a shame that we could not photograph the interior. There are intricate wood carvings throughout, and all of the sliding wall panels have paintings by masters of the famed Kano school. Many of those works of art make heavy use of gold leaf. Even the ceilings are intricately decorated. It is truly a beautiful place, or at least it was. Today most of these decorations have faded and you can only see a glimmer of what they once were. Still, it is one of my favorite places in Kyoto. Sean enjoyed it too, and really enjoyed the artwork.

After touring the palace grounds we hailed a cab and headed across town to the Kyoto National Museum. The museum is one of three national museums founded by the government in the Meiji Era (a time of rapid westernization and modernization)  in order to protect important cultural artifacts. The collection is very impressive, with pieces ranging from the Paleolithic period to the early 20th century. They not only have items from Japan, but also from Korea and China as they played important roles in the development of the country.

With a collection of about 12,000 items there are far too many things to comment on anything specifically. However, some of my favorite pieces included pottery from the 11th and 12th centuries as well as scrolls/paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries. Of course, there were many many beautiful and interesting things there. And, of course, no pictures were allowed… and we completely forgot to go to the gift shop for photographs of the collection. I think it was because, by that point, we were getting pretty hungry and tired and were ready to move on.

We next headed to the Kyoto Handicraft Center, which is basically 6 floors of tourist shopping. The majority of it is your usual tourist crap, but there are some good things to be found there as well. We ended up with a yukata for Sean, a couple cheap yukata for me (for use as a robe), and some other little nick knacks we picked up as gifts. After that we were starving and headed back to the station, where we found a little sushi place in the station hotel.

The sushi place was awesome (and expensive), although pretty westernized. We still need to find a traditional sushi place… although that is kind of hard to do when you are not familiar with an area. We have seen several kaitenzushi (cheap conveyor belt) places, and some little seedy looking places… but so far none that stood out as a good restaurant. Time is running out though… so I really hope we find one soon.

 

Day 14: Geeking out in Osaka

We were up pretty late last night, and this morning the combination of drawn shades and cloudy weather kept the sun from waking us up. So we rolled out of bed around noon. Since we got up so late there was no point in going out to any temples or castles, so we headed into Den-Den Town instead for some more shopping.

We picked up a few collectible cans for Wendell, Isanov’s SV-51 Valkyrie from Macross Zero, another valkyrie stand, SDF-1 model, VF-21 model, VF-1 (strike) Valkyrie, and a really cool looking Starscream designed by Shoji Kawamori! Few of you reading this will comprehend what a joy this is.

For Robyn we picked up lots of goodies she can’t find in America. Mainly Mr – whatever series of modeling accessories. She got a Mr. Dry Booth, Mr. Super Booth, Mr. Supreme clip, and some Mr. other tools for making models. We now have enough stuff that we have started to ship boxes back home.

We had dinner at a nice curry restaurant. The waitress explained they had ‘not hot’ and hot curry. Robyn and I decided it’s more like hot and really hot. It was hot enough we split ice cream afterwards. Of course we would of ended up getting crepes anyways because after dinner we visited Joyopolis again. There was no messing around this time and we went straight to the token Monopoly slot machine, where both Robyn and I made it to the endgame twice.

The endgame is after you have put hotels on all the properties. This giant wheel above the machine spins and you play for the jackpot. I got close, but Robyn won the jackpot and her machine spewed out tokens for at least two minutes. We kept playing and Robyn even glitched her machine out!

In all it was a good break from the long train rides and walking around. I’m still looking forward to seeing more of ancient Japan in the few days we have left.