Thursday, June 10, 2010


Carl recently got the chance to attend the first annual International Particle Accelerator Conference in Kyoto, Japan, on a student grant that paid for airfare and a full week of living expenses. I recently got the chance to go with him. We stayed for 2 1/2 weeks and visited a total of 6 cities in the Kansai region. The itinerary was: Kyoto - 6 days, Nara - 1 day, Shirahama - 3 days, Osaka - 1 day, Kawaguchiko (Mt. Fuji) - 4 days, Tokyo - 4 days. During our stay, we fed monkeys, temple-hopped, pet some deer, ran from Japanese hornets, cruised outdoor markets, 'onsen'ed with the locals, and saw/ate/photographed all manner of cooked/raw sea creature.

There were many cultural/societal differences that jumped out at us during our trip (ie. they speak Japanese there!), but the most obvious was probably the kindness of the people. They would literally drop everything to help a stupid tourist, and if they couldn't, they would drag you to someone who could. Our favorite example is when we asked a cashier at a sizable grocery store where we could rent bicycles. After a lively discussion between the cashier and the 4 patient Japanese customers in line behind us, the cashier left her post and picked up a phone (presumably ringing another person that would have a better idea). She chattered a little and handed the phone to us. We quickly threw up shaking hands with widened eyes and refused. She smiled, hung up the phone, then proceeded to walk us 2 blocks down the street, all the while pointing and smiling and chattering. When we got out to the main street and she pointed us in the right direction, a patron from the store pulled up beside us and offered us a ride in her car.

Other things that seemed downright bass-ackwards to us Americans were: the large number of 4-6 year-olds riding subways and walking dark alleys completely unaccompanied, the cacophonous slurping of Japanese restaurant patrons, the ubiquity of vending machines (that sold soda, coffee, beer, restaurant orders, entrance tickets, etc.), the toilet technology (more on that later), the low-flying doorways and ceilings (resulting in headaches for Carl), adventuresome English translations, etc, etc...

~~~ Kyoto ~~~

Our trip began in the cultural capital of Japan: Kyoto, where it is impossible to walk 2 blocks without running into a temple or shrine. Carl keeps telling people, "You know you've been in Kyoto too long when there is a temple across from your hostel, and you haven't been to it." This was the conference city, so we had an entire week here. I thought that was plenty of time. Go to Kyoto to see the monkey park, the temples, outdoor food/craft markets, and the gorgeous surrounding scenery.

Okay, to the pictures already. These are roughly chronological...

In front of Higashi Honganji Temple. (The rains were relentless the first 3 days in Kyoto. Each day of sightseeing ended with pants soaked up to the knees. A small price to pay.)

Founder's Hall of Higashi (Fun fact: when the hall was rebuilt in 1895, female followers used their hair to braid ropes which were then used to carry the timber and hang the beams.) Here, Carl was chased off the front steps by a frantic janitor yelling and pointing at his shoes, which were currently defacing the sanctity of the building. Tsk tsk.Sugar daddy hard at work at the conference, raking in the big yen.
Nishiki Food Market, with lots of "exotic" smells and a nice covered walkway to escape the rain.
Bloodsucking "loach"
Fish on a stick. It was salty.
View from Awata Shrine. (Red torii gate of Heian Jingu Shrine in the distance)
Portion of a hillside graveyard.
Giant Reizan Kannon nestled in the hillside.
Maiko (geisha apprentices) walking in Gion. A giddy moment for me.
Japanese-style toilet.
Western-style toilet, Japanese-style. Yes those buttons control ass-spray features.
Arashiyama Monkey Park. Here you walk through a park where monkeys roam freely. (Among the many cautionary instructions given were, "don't stare at the monkeys in the eye" and "don't put a load on outside." I just kept hoping I wasn't inadvertently doing the second one.)
Will do.
In this next photo the monkey is looking into the human cage.

View from our walk along the Hozu River.
Yet another obnoxious tourist bell ringer
Resting in the Daihikaku Senkoji Temple.
Bamboo forest path. A break in the crowds.
A Nio figure guarding a Buddhist temple.
I'm a huge sucker for botanical gardens. Sorry to my gentleman companion.
On multiple occasions, we were stopped by a group of field-tripping schoolkids that had to practice their English. Common questions were, "How are you?" and "Where are you from?" and "Is Japan funny?" This is in front of the Golden Pavilion, which housed a retired Shogun back in the day and is actually coated with gold leaf.
This is the best bowl of ramen in the world--totally worth a flight across the Pacific. It's somewhere between Kawaramachi and Kiyomizu Gojo; I'm sure that if you just wander the area saying "oishii ramen doko deska" you will be pointed in the right direction.
We also took a sidetrip to a small town just north of Kyoto, where we heard they had a good onsen (hot spring bathhouse). Indeed, they did. The town was nestled in a lush, deep skinny valley and the views of the surrounding cliffs from the soaking pool of the bathhouse were just fine. Of course, we don't have any pictures inside the onsen (because everybody is nakey). Here's one from the entrance.
This was our first onsen, so we weren't quite sure of the procedure, just that it was very important to get fully undressed and very important to clean thoroughly before entering the communal bath. Luckily, we both (in our respective sex-separated pools) were able to shadow a veteran of the routine once inside. Many a sideways glance got us through the whole pre-washing procedure at the sit-down showers before entering the soak pool.

We went for a hike before the soak. Here are some pics of that. It was on this hike that we encountered our first Japanese hornet, which sounds more like a hummingbird than a bumblebee. We were too busy running to take a picture of one. The trail goes over the hills in this pic.

Sign on the hike. This is when you play the Japanese character matching game.
~~~ Nara ~~~

After the conference we took a train to Nara, which houses the biggest Buddha sculpture in Japan and deer that roam the streets, chasing screaming tourists that don't have the wherewithal to just drop the cracker. From Wikipedia: "According to the legendary history of Kasuga Shrine, a mythological god Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital of Heijo-Kyo. Since then the deer have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country."

The only touching they seemed to dislike was antler-grabbing.
Big Buddha needs a big house. For some reference, the ear of Buddha (right) is 8.33 feet tall.

~~~ Shirahama ~~~

A quick trip to the idyllic coastal town, Shirahama, made our journey feel more like a vacation. This town is absolutely littered with onsen (hot springs). The streets are filled with the smell of sulfur as the city's drainage system directs excess spring water to the ocean. One stretch of sidewalk had a pipe running alongside that could give you a nice burn.

This is the courtyard of our Minshuku (Japanese style hotel). We also had our own private onsen, of course.

The beach at Shirahama was also fantastic, and the water extremely swimmable (although several Japanese laughed at us when we told them this). The glorious white sand you see here is courtesy of Australia. Boated right in.
There are also some nice cliffs a few miles down the coast from the beach. The first thing their informational sign said about these cliffs went something like, "These cliffs stand 40 m tall. Notice how they resemble a traditional Japanese curtain. ..." we didn't see the resemblance.
Our Minshuku's private onsen in the family shower room. You must clean yourself before entering.
The shower situation. The buckets are for sitting.
Sound it out Shirahama.


Going to Osaka was more or less a day-of decision, so we arrived there without a plan and without a place to stay. Luckily we found beds at this hostel downtown.
We hit the streets for our one night here and found great food, good beer and raucous Tuesday night festivities.
Sights on the main drag, Dotonbori
Next morning, an eagerly awaited ride on the bullet train (Shinkansen), which would take us to Fuji at 270km/hr. Behold, the beast:


We decided mid-trip that we should make an attempt to see Mt. Fuji and our stop in Kawaguchiko (in the 5 lakes region at the base of Fuji) was nothing short of idyllic.
Lovely hostel.
I may have violated this Pokemon.
We didn't trek Fuji-san, but did another local hike (Mitsutoge mountain ~1800m) that gave us some stellar views. (Yet another show of Japanese hospitality on this day when a local drove us a few miles up the road to get us closer to the trailhead.)
We rode a gondola back into town after our hike and witnessed some upsetting cartoon statues.
We also visited 3 of the town's most famous caves: 1. the bat cave, 2. the ice cave, 3. the wind cave. Each fell short of our expectations. Oh well.
Not sure what evolutionary magic was going on here, but they seemed to be breeding some sort of bat-roach hybrid.
Rare, cubical ice formations in the ice cave...Carl, wanting to give them the benefit of the doubt, thinks they have brought in additional ice to keep the natural pillars intact. I think they were trying to pull one over on the tourists.


Tokyo is the biggest, most crowded place I have ever been. It is a massive metropolis and the prefecture is home to a population greater than that of all of California.

Our hostel here was in Asakusa, a quieter district on the bank of the Sumidagawa River.

Looking across the river at the Asahi Breweries complex. The Lonely Planet book referred to this gold sculpture as "the golden turd" and we couldn't decide what else it could possibly be. Our Japanese map failed to enlighten us, as it said, "the landmark is a building pretending to be a beer glass with an adjacent big golden object." Ah, now I see it...
We ran into these dudes on our first walk through town. Not sure what was happening, but a group of 20-30 robed people would carry these gold figures down the street.
Flea market
Imperial Palace
Trying out 3-D television at the Sony Building

Tokyo fashion was unlike anything I have ever seen. The young people there are dressing with imagination and much of what they wear borders on costume. Harajuku is an especially experimental area of the young Tokyo fashion scene.
One of the must-see sights here is the Tsukiji Fish Market, a huge wholesale seafood market. C and I got up early one day (4:45am) hoping to get to the market in time to see the tuna auction at 5:30am. Unfortunately we didn't get in, but did get to peek in at the massive fish lined up on the floor of the warehouse and enjoy the rest of the expansive market.

After the market we visited the National Sumo Center to try and catch a glimpse of the big fellas. Sumo matches are held in odd months (we were there in June), but the athletes can be seen training in and around the center year-round.
That evening Carl met a college student who was interested in practicing his English for a couple of hours. We all ate dinner together and discussed the shortcomings of our respective cultures/political systems/soccer teams.
We also got a chance to see one of the most famous pedestrian crosswalks in action. We were there in the early afternoon on a weekend. Can't imagine the chaos on a busy weekday morning.

No Japan blog would be complete without a mention of the plastic food phenomenon in the country. Every city we traveled to engaged in the practice of putting elaborate plastic representations of their dishes in the storefront window, which helped eliminate the guessing game when choosing a restaurant.
After being thoroughly overstimulated on the shiny, crowded streets of the city for 3 days, we spent the end of our trip in the small street markets by our hostel.

Carl, towering...
Bartender at the hostel bar our last night. Cheapest drinks in town!
Japan FTW!


Joy said...

Tory! I LOVED your post and pictures! Oh, it takes me right back to japan with the plastic food and crazyness of it all. I love it! Looks like you guys had a great time. I cant wait to hear about it in person. Hope you are having a great summer!!

Taryn said...

Whoa! Amazing. You guys sure filled you time with adventure.

I can only imagine how tall Carl seemed- my 6 foot uncle went to Japan once and they lost his luggage- and he had to get stuff tailored for him because nothing in the stores were tall enough.

Glad you had a good time.

Anonymous said...

Loved the fashions and the fish pics. I think you used your time wisely. Miyoko will love it.