Category Archives: Japan

Photo: Japanese Bicycle and Cat

Taken January 18, 2009

This picture was taken on my first full day on my round the world trip in Tokyo, Japan.  I still have to wonder- how does this guy convince his cat not to jump out?!

Summary of Japan

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Japan is a marvelous country which I really enjoyed getting a taste of. This is obvious I’m sure, but I am very happy that the first stop in my trip went so well!

  • The best thing, of course, have been the people. And I don’t just mean people like Sasha or Guillame or the Akazawas. Rather, Japanese people have built themselves a marvelous country where everyone is beyond polite and industrious (which I know is the stereotype, but you don’t quite grasp this until you are immersed in it yourself). Japan has a quiet confidence about it that I’ve only encountered before in the United States- this feeling about how much an individual can impact the world- so that was neat to see.

  • My welcome dinner after arriving in Japan, as well as my last one. Actually, anything with Japanese food involved is a marvelous thing- even the fast food joints specialize in a bowl of ramen or rice with some sort of topping, which is novel and delicious. I never saw one fat person while I was in Japan, and I attribute this to what would happen if your default fast food was as healthy as the Japanese kind!

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  • Going around Tokyo with Sasha

  • The shinkansen, aka bullet train, aka the ultimate example of where the mode of transportation is the attraction. I am still in love with the marvelous efficiency and wonder of this system where you can set your watch by the train keeping to the schedule so immaculately and travel faster than 200 kph, faster than you’ve ever gone before on land! I wish we could build one in the US, though I’m sure we’d mess it up somehow.

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  • Karaoke the second night- Sasha did Show Me The Meaning of Feeling Lonely, two Japanese songs, The World Is Not Enough, and a few others I’m embarassed to admit I didn’t recognize. My contributions were Suddenly I See, Flathead, I Will, Oops I Did It Again, You Belong to Me, and we did a duet for both Let It Be and It’s My Life.

  • Japanese strawberries are, it turns out, beyond awesome

  • The street in Kyoto with the geisha, as well as The Golden Temple and the hillside shrine with Guillaume

  • My little room in the ryokan

  • Getting to see Hiroshima

  • Last but not least, receiving an email from Case that my degree was conferred January 16th and I am an alumnus! Hooray! So I suppose I’m technically lying now whenever I list myself as a student on immigration forms, but “homeless and unemployed” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Lowlights:

  • Culture shock: Well, it was going to happen, particularly with sensory overload like the kind you get in Tokyo (my saving grace was having Sasha, I would have been much more lost and confused without him). I tackled this one by recognizing it for what it was, making a point to read my English newspaper, and knowing when it was time to take a night in in Kyoto.

  • Internet Issues: It turns out there is no wireless network in Japan like you expect as a matter of course in the US, but rather networks are pretty much universally encrypted. I find this rather odd for a nation that’s supposed to be so far ahead of us, as free wireless is sooo nice! We’ll see if South East Asia is any better, as it would be nice to upload pictures and text directly to the web.

  • The lack of ATMs for forgeiners in the country- make sure you have enough cash because if you don’t it can be problematic very quickly if you don’t.

  • A really irritating blister on the back of my left foot from walking, which got to nice size over the course of the week even when bandaged up…
  • And, well, I very unfortunately lost my hat in Tokyo on my last day (ok lost implies I don’t know where it is, but I know it probably fell out of my jacket when my coat was checked at dinner). Nooooo! Though to be totally fair, it is way way way too hot for such a hat in Thailand, so there would have been no real point. So life will go on, perhaps with pictures of me in my sunhat…

“Rest in peace. We will not commit the same mistake again.”

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Trip Journal for January 21, 2009- Hiroshima:

When I first realized I would be going to Japan I went onto the wonderful Wikitravel to see what there is to see, and my eye stopped on the list of major cities at Hiroshima. Somehow the Japan I think of doesn’t connect to the first atomic bomb, but once I saw it I knew I was going to go, if only for a few hours. I don’t know if others can understand this compelling feeling but I just finished a major in physics, minor in history, and Hiroshima is where the idols of my discipline became Death, the destroyer of worlds, and changed history forever. I had to see it.

As it turns out the train runs the distance from Kyoto to Hiroshima in an hour and a half, with a brief stopover in Osaka, so instead of heading straight back to Tokyo I made a side trip to Hiroshima. I must say the scenery made it worth it- this part of Japan has even more numerous ragged mountains than the Tokyo-Kyoto stretch- and Hiroshima station was in the middle of a bustling city not at all different from any other Japanese city. Somehow it was hard to believe it was the same city that had been destroyed by an atomic blast just 62 years earlier.

A quick taxi ride later landed me at the southern part of the Hiroshima Peace Park, next to the museum. I actually think calling it a park doesn’t seem quite the right word, though, as it wasn’t a park like any other I’d been to- it was quite shushed for the middle of the city, no one was engaging in recreational activities, and a mother scolded her little boy for making too much noise. There were several signs admonishing people how it was illegal to peddle or litter here, and considering there were more security guards than I’d seen anywhere else in the country I’m sure they meant it.

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I headed north. Most of the park is just a grassy area with various memorials to the victims of the atomic blast- the children’s memorial with thousands of paper cranes folded by children from around the world, the flame in the middle of the reflecting pool which will never go out until all the atomic bombs in the world are destroyed, the mmorial for victims allowing for quiet meditation. All was quiet save some foraging pigeons and a group of schoolchildren, who were busy proving that no matter where you are in the world at least half the kids in the field trip aren’t actually paying attention.

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But what held my attention most was the A-Bomb Dome, located on the northernmost tip of the park just across the river. I caught sight of it upon leaving the victims’ memorial and walked over, a bit amazed to see that famous symbol in front of my eyes. I learned later that in fact there was controversy for years over whether to preserve it, some arguing that the building was too unsound and brought back memories too painful, but I’m glad they did.

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And because it was rebuilt I walked across the Aioi bridge that the crew of the Enola Gay used to aim the bomb. I stopped for a few moments in the middle to peer into the sky, imagining what it would have been like to stand there as the air around me caught fire.

image108My last stop was the museum dedicated to discussing the atomic blasts, partly because I was curious as to how the Japanese describe the event and partly to see the artifacts that survived. A few that made deep impressions were the watches that stopped precisely at 8:15 when the bomb fell, hundreds of tiny glass boxes that fused together, the countless tattered clothes reduced to less than rags, a lunch tin with food inside that had turned to charcoal, and the shadow of a man in stone who had been sitting waiting for a bank to open. There were some gruesome pictures too of course, people whose skin was falling off, with burns where their clothes had been, a boy whose hair was shorn and skin burned where his hat ended, a girl whose face was so disfigured from burns I couldn’t believe it was a girl until I read the description. I can’t say I dwelled on these for long.

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As for the Japanese description of things, it was pretty much the same as what I’d learned in my American school. There was no shirking away from Japan’s war crimes at the time, with mentions of “mistaken national policy” and mentions of the use of Korean slave labor and the treatment of American POWs, as well as explanations as to why the Americans decided to drop the bomb. In fact, the only real anti-Americanism on this topic I noticed was in the guestbook encouraging people to share their impressions, though all such comments were from Europeans (to be fair, I couldn’t read the comments in Japanese).

I am now sitting on the shinkansen speeding back to Tokyo while I’m writing all this down, as it was certainly sobering to see but I’m glad I did. I have spent most of my time today thinking about proliferation and how to get rid of nuclear weapons. I don’t pretend to have an answer to all the tough questions except to say it’s complicated, and how much I resent my 10th grade history teacher for making us write an essay on if dropping the bomb was a good or bad thing while saying we had to choose a side. I’m sure he was just trying to get out of having to read wishy-washy essays, but something like this is not so simple as yes or no, and I don’t see what is so wrong with recognizing that.

I do sincerely believe that people are fundamentally good, and that love and happiness are our most basic emotions because fear and hate stem from not wanting to lose what we have. And most of my trip so far has been nothing but an affirmation of this fundamental kindness in people so it is hard to reconcile things like war and atomic bombs with that- the odd idea that people can be capable of both such beautiful dreams and terrible nightmares. It wasn’t too long ago, when my grandmother was about my age today, and yet such war and destruction seems so far removed from our consciousness.image99

Kyoto

In some senses I approached going to Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, with less preparation than I sometimes do picking where I should go to lunch. I had no guidebook, didn’t know a soul, and didn’t know where I was staying, but sorted the latter out quickly at the train station’s tourist information office. They found me a nice ryokan, aka Japanese style hotel, for about 3,000 yen (~30USD) a night- not bad at all considering their dorm beds started at 2,500 yen! It was a great room for that price too, particularly for an expensive place like Japan, thanks to the low season-

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Shuffling about in slippers and robe suited me well, I must say, although I never got over feeling like I was camping out on the floor during my time there. And I don’t know if you can tell here, but the picture in the room was deliberately angled so you could see it from the futon on the floor which I thought was a great touch!

It was afternoon before I was settled, so I spent the last hours of daylight heading towards Gion, the old district most famous for geisha, some of whom still practice in Kyoto. It was a pretty long walk but was interesting because you’d keep stumbling across old temples in the middle of modern Kyoto-

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My favorite example of this- I was walking down the street wondering how I’d know when I’d reached something interesting when I found this tucked between two buildings. The street was lined with little wooden shops leading up to the pagoda, which supposedly holds remains of the holy Buddha inside.

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Geisha! They were at the top of the stone-lined street above, getting their photographs taken by an official photographer for something or another. As there aren’t many of them left I was really excited to see them- plus I confess I loved reading Memoirs of a Geisha and was happy to note things about their attire described in the book, right down to how the white paint should look on the back of a geisha’s neck.

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A typical street in Gion, lined with endlessly lovely wooden houses. Kyoto is full of them. Heaven help them during the next earthquake.

All too soon the sun set and I called it an early night, tired from culture shock and walking and everything else. (It was all I could do to watch a movie so I wouldn’t fall asleep before 8pm!) But then I lucked out the next morning by running into this guy-image77This is Guillaume. He is a French Canadian I saw at the Kyoto Metro station looking just as confused as me regarding how to buy a ticket, so we combined forces for the day so we could be confused together. And trust me, he was such great company I don’t think we ever stopped talking the whole time.

And this is why I travel, by the way. So I can talk about how I spent my time exploring ancient temples in Kyoto with a charming French Canadian.

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The Golden Pavilion, which Sasha insisted I see in Kyoto. I must say he was right as the whole area was beyond lovely- each detail carefully thought out so the aesthetics of the temple complex were perfect no matter how you viewed it.

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After the Golden Pavilion Guillaume and I wandered a bit, and our wanderings took us to the top of a forested hill with an amazing view of Kyoto.
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Guillaume acting like an idiot at the shrine at the top of said hill. (For those who don’t know, it is impossible for Asians to pose for a picture without flashing a peace sign.) What was amazing about finding this place was how there was no one there save ourselves- compared to the Golden Pavilion which was thronging with tourists! What an amazing place Kyoto is…

image85Another view of the shrine, looking down from the top of the steps.

It should be noted that the difference between shrines and temples in Japan is that “temple” is Buddhist and “shrine” is Shinto- you can tell the difference because temples tend to have darker colors while shrines have bright ones (like the orange fence here). But interestingly enough Japanese people don’t really care about what they are, to the point where when my host Mr. Akazawa passingly mentioned their family is Buddhist it caused my 30-year-old second cousin to exclaim “we are?!”

Japanese also just traditionally get married as a Buddhist and have your funeral with Shinto rights, no matter what your specific religion is. All in all, I rather like this idea.image88Last but not least, a shot of Kyoto Tower at night. And I must say, I liked Kyoto. It is much more manageable a city than Tokyo was and thus helped me feel like I could manage my way around Japan. You know, just in time to leave, but hopefully the beginnings of travel-savvyness won’t be lost too quickly!

Exploring Tokyo

Tokyo is, in short, best thought of as several cities grown together over time.  This is because if you don’t it is very overwhelming and you will feel a bit lost in it as it is, after all, the biggest city in the world.  In fact, I read a lot of science fiction and one of the popular subjects in them is a giant city that covers a planet and the like- I now realize a surprising number of those authors just described Tokyo!

To get around, Sasha and I made heavy use of the most efficient bus, subway, rail, and even monorail system I’ve ever seen- you never wait longer than five minutes for the train, though you are still guaranteed to be squashed together in tight quarters with everyone else.  Mostly though we walked though parks and museums, across countless city blocks, seeing more in two days than some surely see in a week.  My feet still hate me.

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This is the view from the observation decks of the government buildings in Tokyo, located in the Shinjuku area.  City as far as the eye can see, with the exception of Mount Fuji in the distance.  Interestingly the buildings only go as high as the 45th story- the Japanese could build them even three times taller thanks to their technology, but can’t because of the earthquake hazard.

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View of a park near the government buildings towards the clock tower building.  The weather in Tokyo in January is similar to the weather we see in April, as evidenced by the daffodils blooming in the foreground.

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View of the grounds of Sensoji temple, where we saw countless people making prayers and wishes and made some of our own.  There was also a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony which was lovely to see.

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View towards the Imperial Palace, which has a large rectangular parklike area in the front that reminded me of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.img_3404

All aboard the sushi train!  You see these places a lot; in short you see what looks interesting as it goes by and pull it off.  Eating your fill takes about ten dollars, complete with a free mug of green tea.

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Hmmm, I wonder what city this could be?!  The miniature Statue of Liberty is set up by the waterfront where you get a great view of Tokyo- it also feels a lot less rushed in this area, so it was a great place to watch the sunset. (The sun sets around 4pm in Tokyo which is a touch annoying- it’s better in Kyoto, where it’s closer to 5pm.) Hoardes of Japanese tourists come to get their picture taken in front of Lady Liberty.

img_3419Sasha doing his best impression of the Backstreet Boys in karaoke.  You get your own private room in a karaoke bar which makes me realize why it’s not so popular in the US- you sing in front of strangers!  Because we are cheap students and such a life is universal, we smuggled our beer in from a nearby convenience store.

I should also make a note at some point about what a wonderful guide Sasha was, and how impeccably good at languages he is- three fluently, and working on German as we speak.  There were only a few obscure phrases I needed to explain or correct (“James Bond is double-oh-seven, not zero-zero-seven”), though I confess I found a few of his phrasings so charming that I dared not correct them lest they stop being said.

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Continuing on the Tokyo tour, some little statues in front of a shrine.  I can’t remember their exact purpose except I’m sure they’re to bring good luck as most Japanese rituals at shrines seem to focus on this.  I thought they were very cute!

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Sasha and me in Ginza street, the most expensive and elite shopping area of Tokyo where Prada and Tiffany’s are commonplace.  There was even a little store perched on one of the higher floors simply called “Tokaji” with a little Hungarian flag outside- I found this great because as some of you know there is still a small Tokay vinyard in my family, and I’m sure they’ll love thinking about how their wine makes it all the way to Japan.

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Some Where’s Waldo practice, in what is possibly my favorite picture in Japan so far.  We ran into these schoolgirls on Nakamise-dori posing with their schoolgroup, and they were kind enough to pose with us.

img_3438And last but not least, Tokyo lit up at night with bustle and lights that put New York City to shame.  Streets like this are a dime a dozen, and you could wander your entire life and never see it all…

And that was my weekend- I am incredibly indebted to my hosts, as without them I would surely be lost and overwhelmed (I still was overwhelmed, but this way I wasn’t hopeless).  I plan to meet up with them tomorrow however for my last dinner in Japan, when I return from Kyoto.

(Stay tuned for our next installment: life at a ryokan, geishas, temples, a French Canadian, and what they all have in common!)

Jorney to Tokyo

“Welcome to Japan folks, where the local time is… tomorrow.” -The Simpsons, “Thirty Minutes over Tokyo”

To start this blog off proper, allow me to introduce you to my hat-

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This is me standing in the Pittsburgh airport waiting to start my journey.  My hat is, of course, a tribute to Where’s Waldo? which was a favorite of mine growing up.  In my mind, it is much more interesting to travel the world with a good Waldo hat.

The point of Where’s Waldo, of course, is to find said hat amongst a bunch of people.  Keep this in mind, because as you’ll see I’ve already had a bit of fun with this.

Anyway, flying to Tokyo was 14 hours with a brief stopover in Chicago.*  The flight over was a bit grueling, as it turns out United only serves you in coach one airline meal, one cup of Ramen, and one tiny sandwich during the whole thing.  Good thing my mom sent me off with a baggie of Goldfish crackers and cookies- some things never change!  Anyway, I arrived at the Tokyo airport, breezed my way through customs, and the quick fingerprint and photo-taking later I got my train ticket and was speeding to Tokyo within the hour, feeling quite pleased with myself.

My hosts in Japan are the parents of my cousin’s wife Asako, who reside in Tokyo.  I was picked up at the station by a second cousin through marriage I never knew I had and we went to my welcome dinner-

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Those are Asako’s parents on the right, and Sasha on the left who volunteered to show me around Tokyo for the weekend.  The beer and sake flowed, and I am frankly amazed that I stayed awake as I’d been up over 24 hours by that point.

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The view from my room at six in the morning, when I woke up the next day.  That’s a baseball field down there, and even at this early hour some Japanese were doing aerobics!  But soon the sun came up and boys came out to practice baseball; soon it was time for me and Sasha to begin exploring Tokyo.

*It was a freezing -8F (-22C) degrees in Chicago which leads to an interesting question- does it count as a temperature extreme if I never left the airport?

Tokyo!

Hello everyone!  Been journaling but having issues with the Internet; hopefully Kyoto will be better for longer posts.  But until then here’s a kitty and bicycle duo we saw yesterday- I don’t know about you, but I think my cat would have jumped out-

you're a kitty!

And here’s Sasha, a Russian student who’s studying in Japan right now, who has been showing me around.  We did karaoke last night in an effort to improve American-Russian relations-

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Will update with loads more later if all goes well.  Sayonara!