Day 13: Tenryuiji

Today we visited the Arashiyama area of Kyoto. I was saving this area specifically for May 18, as it is the day of the Mifune Boat Festival. There is no way I would make a special trip to the far western side of Kyoto just for that festival, but I wanted to visit some of the other things in the area so it seemed convenient to schedule it so it would coincide with the festival.

The Mifune Matsuri (matsuri= festival) is the recreation of a boat party held on the river about 1,000 years ago. It is hosted by a nearby shrine and opens with some rituals at that shrine, then the participants proceed to the river to paddle around in meandering circles while everyone stares at them. Supposedly about 100,000 people turn out to see this spectacle each year… I can’t really say I know why. Maybe it is because it sounds cooler than it actually is.

I last saw this festival 5 years ago, and was not able to catch the beginning of it. No luck with catching the beginning of it this year either, but we did see a procession of costumed participants parading down the street toward the boats. It took us all of 10 minutes to get bored with watching the boats, then we headed for a nearby restaurant.  We chose a riverfront restaurant so that we could still watch the boats… not that it got any more interesting.

For lunch we had some tradional-ish Japanese dishes and some shaved ice for dessert. I actually enjoyed my oden, although I am not sure I will every seek the dish out. It consisted of a hot broth with some various types of cooked tofu and some other unidentifiable things. Sean however didn’t seem to enjoy his as much. His food was basically the same thing except with plain tofu… he looked pretty sad at his bland dish so I shared with him. I don’t think either of us regret when we try weird things though… it is always worth the experience. And, if it turns out we don’t like our food choice, there is always something else to try right around the corner.

After lunch we briefly considered renting a row boat so we could get a better view of the festival… decided we didn’t care enough, and then walked the short distance to Tenryuji, which is a Zen temple established in 1339. Of course, as with most temples, it was burned and rebuilt. This one, a grand total of 8 times. The existing structures mostly date back to the mid-late 1800’s. The temple is small and not as big of a tourist trap as most seem to be. There are several small buildings, surrounded by gardens. Beyond the gardens are large groves of bamboo, for which the Arashiyama area is known.

I actually enjoy the peaceful nature of Tenryuji, but Sean was all grumpy and looked annoyed most of the time. He seemed to lighten up some once he took of the too-small sandals they handed out (you had to take off your shoes inside). For me, I had the opposite sandal problem and it was hard to keep them on my feet… I eventually abandoned mine as well.

After the temple we wandered around Arashiyama a little, stopping in a few shops and having some sakura (cherry blossom) ice cream before taking the electric train back to  central Kyoto. We had intended to go to the post office to mail some more post cards, but get this… the Sunday hours for the post office were listed as 0:00-9:00 and then 19:00-24:00. How weird is that? At least they actually are open late and on the weekends… but what odd hours! We decided we would just do it tomorrow… of course, that is exactly what we have said the last two days.

We then treated ourselves to a reserved seat on the fast train back to Osaka because we are tired of all the stops the cheap ticket has. Once back in Osaka we headed to Hep Five again for dinner and to hit the arcade. We had so much fun there last night that we wanted to do it again. Man, we better never go to Vegas… those fake gambling machines are addictive!

We took pictures of our dinner, but the lighting was awful. Ever since we first got here Sean has been dying to try these omelet things we see everywhere… They look pretty much exactly like the one we had on Day 7 at the okonomiyaki place, except they are filled with flavored rice and served in a bowl with various sauces and toppings. I have honestly not wanted to try them at all, but I wasn’t really hungry tonight so I gave in and agreed to have these for dinner. Sean got one with shrimp and “cream sauce” and I chose curry sauce with fried pork. Neither of them were very good.

We did finish the night on a good note though, we had some more crepes at the arcade. Sean got the same one I had last time… chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup, banana slices, and whipped cream. I got a “hot apple pie” crepe that had hot custard, spiced apple slices, and graham cracker flakes. It was awesome! As we were heading back downstairs Sean decided to get a melon soda to wash it down and spotted a cool drink shop. After we saw some of the impressive things other customers had ordered we were a bit jealous. We took pictures of some of the things offered… we will definitely have to go back there sometime when we haven’t just eaten crepes!

Day 12: Horyuji by day, Umeda by night

We started off the day… well the afternoon by heading out to Nara to visit Horyuji temple. Horyuji is pretty special because it houses some of the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures. It’s a piece of Japan from the 7th century (and 8th, and 9th, and so on). Our ticket seemed quite expensive at 1000 yen (roughly ten dollars). Turns out the ticket actually covered entrance to three temples at the Horyuji grounds.

Japanese temples have fire issues. Over the centuries most of them burned down and were rebuilt, Hyoruji is no exception. There are still parts of the temple complex that date back to the Asuka Period (6th to early 8th centuries), but other parts of it have been rebuilt through the centuries. The rebuilt sections are still pretty old, with the exception of one hall that burned in the 40’s… it was rebuilt as a museum rather than a tempe hall.

Not a lot to report about these temples and relics, other than they were really old. It’s also the only temple complex we have been to so far that Robyn had never been to before. So she was excited to see all the new (old) buildings and relics. I’m teetering on the edge of temple overdose, but I’m also into history so it’s cool to learn about Japanese history. Most of the temples we have visited are places that mix tourism and active worship. Overall there is a balance struck because typically no pictures are allowed at the spots where people do the majority of praying.

We ended up with a good balance between old and new today. After getting back to Osaka we walked over to Umeda district and found a hole-in-the-wall yakitori place. Yakitori is basically grilled meat on a stick, and it’s not the same as our previous dinners of fried meat on a stick. Not really good for taking pictures because they bring it out to you 2 sticks at a time and they did not last very long off the grill.

After dinner Robyn wanted to hit a *real* pachinko parlor. So we found one that was not scummy looking and headed in. It was probably the most annoying assault of sound I have heard since I was on the flight deck of the USS Eisenhower during flight operations. Ok, so it was the most annoying sound since hearing jet aircraft try to land on a carrier deck. An attendant helped Robyn to a machine, showed her where to feed it a 1000 yen bill, and then pointed out where to aim the balls. I stood back and watched as several more workers came over and tried to show her how to tweak the knob to get the balls to land in the right spot. I don’t think we heard anything they said. Less than a minute later she used up all her balls and we got out of there very quickly.

We ended up going back to a Sega arcade called “Joyopolis” in the Hep Five building. We had been there a few nights ago and they have a nifty fingerprint reader that keeps track of how many tokens you have leftover. We picked up our tokens and went about playing games in the quieter, ear friendly game hall. Our favorite game there is “Monopoly”, but it’s really just one of those games where you aim coins on a rail then try to push other coins off the ledge. We had a really good time, ending the night with arcade slots, video games, and ice creme crepes.

 

Day 11: Awww it broke

Today we didn’t really do much that was picture worthy. We slept in, and then hung around the apartment for a while being lazy. After a while we headed back to Den Den Town in search of Macross toys for Sean. It didn’t take us long to find a store that sold what he wanted. We spent a while there while he wandered in circles trying to decide what to buy, as there were lots of options and no way we could bring that many large boxes back home.

After he finally made his decision we headed back out into Den Den Town to look at some more shops, although it felt a little pointless since we already had what we were looking for. We found several more stores that were packed full of neat things, including one store that sold nothing but robots… toys, models, and actual working robot toys.

Our lunch was pretty boring… we were starving and happened to find ourselves outside of a McDonald’s. We decided we might as well try it out. Sadly, I think the person behind the counter spoke about as much English as the people back home do. Ordering was a little bumpy because the lady seemed to want to try to do it in English, although her vocabulary was limited to “no” “only” “I’m sorry” and the names for ingredients. We got what we wanted though, so I guess it worked out okay. We had intended to try out some of the Japanese items on the menu, but once we were inside the cravings for a cheeseburger won out and we ended up with a couple double cheeseburgers, fries, and coke.

After lunch we headed back to the apartment so we could drop off our loot… which was a huge box containing Sean’s Valkyrie, a smaller box with a tachikoma toy, and some small toys we grabbed for other people.

Our brief stop turned into a few hours while I played my new DS Taiko game and Sean played with (and promptly broke) his new $150 valkyrie. He is now very sad. It isn’t too bad though… just the arm. So it still looks okay in some modes and we might be able to fix it with some glue later on. He keeps saying (vehemently) that these toys are notoriously easy to break and swears that every kid that ever got one broke it within 3 minutes. I don’t really believe him. Hopefully the tachikoma will be harder to break…

For dinner we continued the American food trend and headed over to Hard Rock. Yes, I know Hard Rock started in Britain, but it was founded by Americans so I still consider it American food. Their menu is not quite the same as the American locations… no steaks and such, but they do have plenty of burgers and other American-type foods, as well as some Asian style food.

Hard Rock was incredibly loud, but the music was pretty good so we didn’t mind. It is also refreshing to go to a restaurant where it seems mandatory for the staff to speak English… although our waitress seemed to be the only one that wasn’t very good at it. Not that it mattered, we are use to ordering with Japanese and she couldn’t hear us anyway. We made due with some shouted phrases and menu pointing.

The only thing really worth noting about dinner (besides how tasty the food was) is the incredibly embarrassing show they made for two patrons’ birthdays. I thought what they did in America was bad enough! Their was a DJ, who got out of his little booth with a microphone and starting rambling loudly in Japanese about birthdays while some birthday song played loudly. They then called up the two ladies who were there to celebrate their birthdays, and put them in a bright spotlight. I couldn’t follow what was going on, but they made them speak into a microphone… I probably couldn’t have even understood if it was in English because of the noise level and the rushed speech. They then made everyone clap in time and yell “Happy Birthday!” several times on the count of three while the rest of the staff gathered around with tambourines. Remind me never to go to Hard Rock for my birthday!

After dinner we grabbed some requested souvenirs from the gift shop and headed to Umeda Sky Building for some views of the city lights. We ended up getting there with less than an hour before they closed, but that was ok. It was windy and cold up there, so I don’t think I would have wanted to spend much more time there anyway. As it was, our pictures are rushed… and given that we aren’t very skilled with the DSLR yet, most of the pictures turned out pretty crappy. We put some of the better pictures up.

We are also posting some photos of Sean’s new toys…

 

Update: Sean keeps asking me to post an update about how flimsy the toy is and how it really isn’t his fault. I must say that, yes, I did play with it briefly tonight when he asked me to fix some other things he nearly broke, and yes, it is very flimsy. I barely touched one of the panels over the landing gear and it popped inward causing me to have to pry it out again… which is exactly the thing Sean had asked me to fix with another panel.

However, I also must say that when he first opened the box he was complaining about no instructions… which lead to him not knowing the legs came off, which caused him to break the arm. When he first said there were no instructions I thought it odd and asked him if he had actually looked… he said he had. I should have known better. Just now he found the instruction booklet and lots of decals. Go figure.

Day 10: Osaka Harbor

Today we climbed the shortest mountain (4.53m) in Japan, at least that is what we are told… I didn’t even notice. Supposedly you can even get a certificate stating that you have made this monumental achievement, but we never found the “mountain hut” that hands them out.

This so called mountain is known as Tempozan, which is why the area we went to today is called the Tempozan Harbor Village. The area has many attractions, but most of them don’t really interest us. We mainly went to see the aquarium, Kaiyukan. Universal Studios Japan is also in the harbor area, and we briefly entertained the thought of going there as well, but ultimately decided it wasn’t really worthwhile.

So, our day started out kind of slow… we did some laundry in the morning, hung it out to dry, and then headed for the subway station. Upon exiting the train station we were immediately greeted by the sight of the world’s largest ferris wheel… or “giant wheel” as they are known here. We both agreed that we really didn’t want to ride it though… it looks old and boring, and moves very slowly. Besides, we just rode the Hep Five wheel, which is located on the top of a tall building… much more interesting.

We first went to the Tempozan Market Place, located between the big wheel and Kaiyukan. The Market Place also seems a little run down, but has some neat shops in it. My favorite shops are the Ghibli and Sanrio stores, but there were several others. Unfortunately all the food places in the Market Place were of the food court variety, none of which were very appealing. We ended up choosing a curry place because their pictures looked the most appetizing, but unfortunately it wasn’t all that great and it left us a little sad… but that is okay, we remedied that at dinner by having the most awesome curry yet.

While at the Tempozan Market Place we also stopped at a little indoor petting zoo called Anipa. I had been to this place 6 years ago, and remembered it fondly as a place full of happy doggies and kitties. Sadly, this place is starting to look a bit run down as well. Since I was last there, they added some sheep and goats to the mix. They put these new creatures in what use to be the large dog pen, moved the large dogs over to the small dog pen, and then built this little raised platform for the little dogs. The little dogs just look sad, and the mostly all crowded around the single pet bed that was located in the far corner from where people could pet them. The large dogs all looked a bit thin, and some of them looked old and tired… they just laid down and tried to sleep. The variety of kitties wasn’t as good as in the past either, and the ones that were there seemed like they needed some love. And one of the poor kitties kept getting attacked by the others. All of of the animals seemed like they were in need of a bath. There was one kitty, who seemed pitifully tiny, that immediately hopped in my lap when I entered… I tried to rub it, but it just felt so tiny I was afraid of hurting it. I wanted to take it home with me! So… in the end Anipa, which was supposed to give me a much needed dose of puppies and kitties, just left me a little sad.

After the disappointing Market Place visit we headed over to Kaiyukan. We tried to take pictures, but they didn’t come out well thanks to the lighting conditions. Plus the some of the critters move pretty fast. We only took the point and shoot camera… maybe we should have taken the SLR as well.

I had about as much fun as one possibly can when looking at a bunch of fish. My favorite parts were of course the otters, dolphins, seals, and penguins. The otters were cute as always; frolicking and flipping around. The dolphins were cool, and incredibly fast. It made me a little sad again to see them in small tanks. The seals were much the same, darting about in the water. There was one young seal that seemed very interested in the people though. He was especially interested in one little girl’s umbrella and kept following it back and forth as she moved it, and eventually propped his feet up on the rock wall behind him so he could get a better look.

After we had seen all Kaiyukan had to offer, we wandered next door to the Suntory Museum. Unfortunately the gallery was closing as we got there, but the IMAX theater was open. We opted for the 3D Deep Sea movie. I found the movie visually interesting, but I think Sean just used it as nap time.

After the movie we wandered around a bit more, and then found our way to Den Den Town. Sean was happy because we found the Gundam store he has wanted to go to for months, as well as an Animate store and a few other interesting shops. Unfortunately Den Den Town starts shutting down at 8pm though, so we are going to have to go back later for more exploring.

We posted some of the better pictures from the day… most of them didn’t turn out well. We also added a few to the Engrish category.

 

Day 9: Sanjusangendo & Kiyomizudera

Robyn is happy and Buddha is angry. Robyn is happy because she found the corner store that sells ready made peanut creme sandwiches. Buddha is angry because I did not clean my hands before entering Kiyomizudera, and when I went to pick up a monk’s training staff (note… there were 2 staffs, both made of solid metal and one was heavy and the other was ridiculously heavy – picking them up is a sort of contest of strength) I heard a nice crackle in my wrist and it’s hurt me ever since. Other than that today was great.

Sanjusangendo is a very long hall with 1,001 kannon statues, and 28 more representing the Japanese take on the Buddhist Gods. It was very interesting to get to read the significance of each statue. Typically statues in temples do not have bi-lingual explanations nearby. I won’t go into what each statue was because there were just too many. (See pic below, taken from http://www.taleofgenji.org/sanjusangendo.html)

After a short bus ride and walk, we found Kiyomizudera. It’s based on a waterfall from a mountain, where a famous warrior learned about the shame in killing any living being from a monk, and ended up financing a temple in that very spot where he learned his lesson from the monk. Kiyomizudera is on the side of a mountain, and we relaxed quite a bit enjoying the breeze while we were up there.

We were also interviewed two times today by school children, apparently there was an assignment floating around to meet people that spoke English, share names, and ask them a question. We gladly obliged the middle school students. The first set asked us if we knew about anime and which ones we liked. I think we gave them plenty of answers between the two of us.

 

Days 7 & 8

Sorry for not posting yesterday; we were out of town. Haha, well, outside of Osaka anyway. We went to a nice hot spring resort in Kobe for the night… it was great! The photo gallery for these two days makes it look like all we have done is eat… and I guess that is pretty much all we have done lol.. besides relaxing, but that makes for boring pictures.

Day 7 started out, as usual, in Osaka. Hiro invited us to lunch at the okonomiyaki restaurant he works at in Umeda. Okonomiyaki is another “cook it yourself” type of food that is quite popular here. It is often referred to as a Japanese pancake, but it is nothing like a pancake in my opinion.

The chefs mix up bowls of batter, cabbage, and whatever ingredients you have chosen. The bowls are brought to your table where you cook them on the griddle, and then cover them in a sauce and top it off with  mayonnaise. There are also some other various side items you can order to go along with it.

We offered some suggestions and then left the ordering up to Hiro, since he is of course more familiar with it than we are. We couldn’t believe the amount of food he ordered! He ordered three types of okonomiyaki… seafood, cheese, and curry. He also ordered some, hmm… how to put this… cow parts covered in some kind of spicy sauce, some strange jelly type stuff, yakisoba noodles wrapped in egg, and a daikon salad.

The cheese version, strangely named “American” was definitely the winner. I can’t tell you how awesome okonomiyaki is!  Sean also really enjoyed the curry version (named Indian) but even he thought the cheese was still the best. The seafood mix (named Japan) one was okay… but it had nothing on the cheese and curry versions. Hopefully we can find our way back and have some more later!

After our huge lunch we took a bus to Arima Onsen, which is a small town in Kobe. The main part of the city is on the opposite side of the mountain, so Arima has a very small-town feel to it. We did a little exploring today before coming home… it was kind of neat to be outside of a big city for a change, although the narrow streets were kind of scary.

The resort was wonderful. After checking in they let me choose a yukata… there were so many to choose from! A yukata is like a cotton kimono that is meant to be worn in the summer, at festivals, and places like hot springs. Most traditional hotels offer them to their guests, who wear them around the hotel and around town.

As we came in we knew right away that the service would be impeccable. They refused to let us carry our own bags, showed us around the room, and immediately served hot tea at the dining table in our room. There was also a small note in English that thanked us for staying with them, and a small thank you gift as well. Our room was incredibly nice, and consisted of an entryway to remove shoes, a small toilet room, a nice bathroom, a large tatami mat room, and a small sitting area beyond that. The large tatami room in a traditional hotel is a multi-purpose room that serves as a dining area and sleeping area; the futons being stored in a closet until they are needed.

We spent some time relaxing in the room, enjoying the mountain views and having foot massages by the hotel’s staff masseuse. The foot massage timing couldn’t have been better, as dinner arrived just as he was finishing.

The dinner was huge! It consisted of several courses of traditional foods, the main dish being Kobe beef that we cooked ourselves on tiny grills. We were also given a small note congratulating us on our marriage. This was our first encounter with “strange foods” and some of them didn’t really suit our western palates… but all in all it was still a great experience and the beef was awesome!

After dinner we spent more time relaxing, and then watched as our room was transformed from a dining area to a sleeping area in a matter of minutes. It was interesting watching the staff lay out the futons, as they seem to have it down to a science.

We scheduled some private time in one of the hotel’s open-air baths, which was wonderful. I wish we could have had more time with that. We disrobed in the little changing area and then stepped outside. The bathing area was surrounded by a fence for privacy, with bamboo growing all around. The bathing area was basically a large stone and bamboo tub of hot water with a bubbling fountain in the middle. The night was beautiful, and a little chilly, so it made bathing in the hot water all the better. You will forgive us if we don’t post pictures of that!

It was then back to the room for sleep, and then up early this morning. Once again the room was quickly transformed back into a dining area, and a huge meal was served. The meal was again traditional foods, and although some of them were a bit odd to us it was actually a pretty tasty meal.

We are now back in Osaka, and I already kind of miss the quiet of Arima. But oh well, maybe we will find another hot spring resort before the end of the trip.

Once we returned to Osaka, we came back to the apartment with the intention of waiting for the sun to go down before heading back to the Umeda Sky Building… unfortunately it began to rain though. We did however ride the ferris wheel on top of the Hep Five building, but we didn’t take photos because of the rain. Before the ferris wheel we had shabu shabu for dinner at an all you can eat place. Shabu shabu is yet another cook it yourself dish that involves thinly sliced beef and veggies cooked in hot water at your table. It wasn’t really the best shabu shabu though, so we will have to do it again later. This place was more aimed at quantity over quality… still not bad, but it was not nearly as awesome as it could be.

 

Day 6: Todaiji

Today we visited Nara’s Todaiji temple. There is an entire history lesson in itself and I won’t go into all the details. Impressions: Lot’s of deer in Nara. Lot’s of poop from the deer. Huge stuff.

After a short walk from the train we started to see the deer. Deer in Nara are a Japanese “National Treasure”, thought to be messengers from the gods and thus protected. The deer roam freely throughout Nara Park, and Robyn had stories of how evil they are. I did not really believe her until I saw a deer charge at a small girl for the deer cakes she had in her hand. Later, on the way back, I purchased some deer cakes and used a behind-the wall feeding technique I had witnessed. Apparently the deer will “bow” if you hold the treat over their heads, but to me it looks more like they are getting ready to rear up and try to trample you for the tasty treat in your hand.

Once we made our way past the evil deer, I was again amazed at how big Japanese temple gates are. Robyn tells me that the two I’ve seen are indeed among the biggest Japan has to offer. Inside the gates were two very large guardian statues. Taking good pictures today was very hard because there were masses of school kids. Easily thousands. Several tried to say hello to us and by the end of the day I would just reply “konnichiwa” back to them. Once you get past the huge main gate and a surrounding wall it opens up to a view of the temple’s main hall, known as the Diabutsuden. The Daibutsuden is huge. Once you get into that building there is a huge Buddah, and on either side smaller but still huge statues of other lesser gods.. You will just have to check out todays pics to see what I’m talking about. The Buddah’s fingers are as large as a person. If size of deity idol meant anything to me, I would be pretty humbled. Even more impressive is this huge Buddah was completed around the year 752, and used so much bronze it nearly bankrupted the government.

There are some other, less impressive temples nearby. We visited one temple at the top of – you guessed it – a very long flight of stairs. On the path back to the main gate there is also a very large bell. It was very tempting to try and jump up to hit the ringer, but instead we just took some pictures.

The walk back to the train was pretty uneventful, and after some chores around the apartment we were too impatient to wait for the bus and picked up Chinese to go from a store next to the bus stop. Some things never change, and there are of course crappy Japanese imitation Chinese food places too. They suck just as bad.