Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Matsuri and Cake

Hey again everyone! So many updates so close together, I worry I'm spoiling you all.

Coming back to Tokyo, sad as it was, has not offered a reprieve from busy go-go-go-ness until today. On Monday I slept in until the glorious hour of noon and then had to crack down on studying for my Tuesday final. I did, however, step out for a few hours to meet up with some friends and my professor from the University of Oregon. As I said before, her name is Alisa Freedman and she has been a huge inspiration and help in making it to Japan.

We met up in Harajuku and went to an all you can eat desert buffet called Sweets Paradise.

The gang minus Professor Freedman.
 As you might imagine from the name, we had sweets. Lots of them. Especially cake. The one rule of the place is no leftovers. That's right. None. You take it, you eat it. I don't think any of us wasted a single bite.

Professor Freedman on the left.

After we all finished catching up and felt like we were going to explode from deserts we headed out and walked towards Omotesando where we took a walk. I'm not sure of the exact route we took, but we saw a bit of the backstreets and mostly stayed on the main road. Eventually we made it all the way to Shibuya on foot. Professor Freedman did take us into this one cafe called Forbidden Fruit in Omotesando though. We weren't there for coffee though. In the back of the cafe is a stairway leading down to a shop in the basement level. I avoided price tags because I was told no one would be able to afford anything there but it was a really neat hidden shop with an awesome garden wall. Also, on the wall next to the entrance was actual signatures from bands such as Aerosmith and The Who. Pretty cool place to check out if you're in the area.

The Forbidden Fruit Cafe in Omotesando.
After finally making it to Shibuya, those of us remaining in the group did purikura.

Tuesday, after taking my final and heading back to the dorms I did something for the first time. I put on a yukata all by myself! Obi and all! While I'm still not 100% sure how I did it and I watched this video in order to be able to do so, I was very proud of myself. Many Japanese girls I have run into say they cannot put on their own yukata. Granted, it's difficult. I couldn't quite get the neck to stay where it's supposed to, but most people have their mom or a friend who knows how to do it for them.

Why did I put on a yukata? I was heading to Mitama Matsuri which takes place every year at Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine it is held at lists all those who died in service of Japan from about 1867 to the end of WWII. This festival itself, started around 1947, was started in order to pray that those who lost their life in the service of Japan would find peace. I'm not sure how much of that original purpose is retained in the matsuri today, but it was definitely a lively event.

I'm messing with Flickr at the moment, so I'll see about uploading more images for you all soon. Hey look guys, I figured out Flickr! Here is the Mitama Matsuri album here - Click here for Flickr album -!

Yasukuni Shrine

Chelsea and I arrived at the festival at 5 pm, an hour before the lanterns were scheduled to be lit and we were able to wander the top half of the festival relatively easily and see what there was to be seen without crowds.

Lanterns lining one of the matsuri paths.

One thing to note about large festivals in Japan is that more often than not you're going to be wading through a sea of people. It will be slow going so be patient and go with the flow.

Not quite packed yet.

By 6 pm, as we headed to the main road of the festival it was started to get pretty busy and by 6:30 the place was packed.

Like most matsuri, there were games and booths selling children's toys.

 Of course, I did the gold fish catching game. Don't ask what I was thinking, but I caught two and decided to take them home. I tried to give them away to a family with kids, but the mom said no. 


Anyways, this is PewDiePie and Gilbert. 

PewDiePie and Gilbert.
Unfortunately, PewDiePie died on the way home. Vice President Gilbert however is doing swimmingly in Briana's room. 

Anyways, back to the matsuri. So these lanterns lining the road were 30 feet tall. Lining the road just under them was more food booths than I think I could have easily counted selling everything from cucumbers, to buttered potatoes to takoyaki. 

Lots of walking. Lots of people. We finally got our pictures taken together by the entrance into the main complex. Oh, we also had two separate groups of random people ask to take their pictures with us. We were very flattered, or at least I was. One lady from the Philippines asked if she could take her picture with us as an omiyage (gift) for those back home. 

Looking back down the street before re-entering the shrine complex was also awesome. And not just because we finally had room to breathe. 

We wandered around the main complex a little bit again. It was really cool to see everything we had seen earlier all lit up.

And then, for the fantastic reason of everyone else was doing it, we walked in between two rows of lanterns and took a picture. 

So there it is. My last two days in a nut shell. Today is a day off. I slept until the ungodly late hour of 2:30 pm, but I miss being able to sleep in from time to time! After dinner I have to get to work on the two short essays due by Friday and on Friday I have one last final and a "How to wear the yukata you made" class. I think, all told, this term is in the bag.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Summer Japan Packing

I want to say that summer in Japan started about a month ago. It wasn't bad at first and I thought, I can deal with this. But more and more it's become unbearably hot and humid. I'm told that it's even more insufferable by the time September hits. So, for those of you coming abroad here is a quick run down of how I would pack.

Bring tank tops. Or very light, cool tops. It's against the cultural norm to show your shoulders in Japan because everyone wants to prevent themselves from burning and thus becoming darker. Light skin is the way to go. If you're in a big city tank tops shouldn't be a problem, but you might get some weirder looks if you're out in the countryside.

That being said it does rain in Tokyo. A lot. In fact the rainy season runs the length of summer. So while you're packing cool maybe bring a light rain coat otherwise pick up a cheap umbrella for about 525円 (~$5.25) from the convenience store in Japan. Since night can cool down quite a bit maybe considering bringing one shirt you can toss on over your lighter wear if you're planning on going out at night.

As for bottoms I'd avoid jeans and tights if at all possible. It's so insufferably hot that you aren't going to want to put yourself into that situation and not to mention that heat stroke and dehydration are common occurrences in summer. Help yourself out and wear shorts and/or skirts.

Light summer dresses are also another good route to go.

Items such as personal cooling fans are also a good idea, but you can buy Japanese style fans at a Daiso 100 Yen store just about anywhere.

Also note that sun block in Japan can be rather expensive running around 800円 ($8) a bottle with the majority of the max SPF ratings running around 20-30. If you have a brand you like back home or you want a higher rating your best chance will be to bring it with you.

If you're planning on spending time in a swim suit anywhere that is another item I would mark on your bring list. While Japanese bathing suits are adorable and don't seem to run any higher than anywhere back home, they do run small. I'm talking if you run anything bigger than a medium back home you may have some troubles finding something that fits. If nothing else than because Japanese woman's bust size is entirely lacking. My friend describes her bathing suit she bought here as being about the size of pasties and she's constantly having to check that the top hasn't slipped. Better safe than sorry.

If you're planning on doing a lot of walking and are worried about wearing out shoes bring an extra pair. If you're up to about a women's size 6-7 shoe size you should be able to buy shoes without a problem. Sizes 8 and up however can prove to be difficult if not impossible.

This goes for any time of year, but if you're bringing anything that needs a three-pronged plug in you'll want to bring a converter or adapter to allow it to be plugged into the 2 pronged wall sockets (both prongs are equal in size) depending on the wattage you device needs. Japanese wattage tends to run closer to the 110V range compared to America's 240V.

Again, this goes for any other time of year as well, but you should bring any medications you will need. It can be confusing to try and find a pain killer even if you can speak the language. So make sure you bring your Ibuprofen, but leave the Tylenol at home. I'm told some of the ingredients in the American version are illegal in Japan. Also I've yet to find things like Lactaid or Immodium in Japan so if you have anything that is necessary don't leave it to chance, bring more than enough.

Other than that, if you don't think it's dire leave it at home, especially if you're coming for a short term stay. The 100 yen stores are everywhere and sell everything that will get you through. If you're in Tokyo the Daiso in Harajuku is, I believe, the biggest with everything from dishes to makeup remover and laundry hangers. Don't worry too much if you forget something. It will be available here.

I think that about covers it for summer packing. As always, make sure you follow all the other packing rules you would normally or that our guest bloggers have suggested.

On rainy, stormy days, they go inside where it's dry.

Sunday started out really well. We got up on time, we left early and made it to Nara a whole 30 minutes ahead of schedule. We didn't have a hard time table, I feel that traveling like that can tend to leave much to be desired. Instead we had a loose, hey, at the latest, we should be on the X train departing at Y time. But as I said, the day started out awesome. It was overcast, but sunny and not nearly as hot as Saturday.

Jessica as we arrived in Nara.

What Nara is really known for are two things. Todaiji and the Nara Deer Park. With one nestled within the other, it's pretty much a two for one.

There are so many deer all over, not just the park, but the city that these せんべい (read senbei) sellers can be seen every few yards with a herd of deer hanging around them waiting for people to buy the rice crackers to feed them.

About a 20 minute walk from the station was our first stop. Todaiji. I'll upload some very Jess-styled videos later and add the links. But Todaiji is... just... plain. Massive.

Here is a picture from the gated entrance.

Still not enough of a feeling of the largeness based off that step (which I almost fell stepping over)? How about this.

I think you can get an idea of the size. I think it would be impossible for anyone to really respect and just understand the sheer size of this place without being there in person. That photo can give you an idea though. Inside was a massive, massive buddha. Here is a site with a bit more information on the temple.

I'm wishing I remembered more of my art history class now, so I'm not sure what the one to the left of the buddha is . Thanks to the beauty of the internet, I know know that the statue to the left of the is the Nyorin Kannon. For more pics and a bit more info check out this site.

But I'm pretty sure this was some kind of guardian or something. Please correct me if I'm wrong!

Inside the temple there are pillars with holes in them. These are believed to be some kind of magical healing pillar. It is said that if you can crawl through one that you are guaranteed a place in heaven. My broad shoulders are preventing my access.

Before I move onto the park I just want to say. I noticed a LOT of people in this, you know, super OLD temple using the flash on their cameras.  I realize you want a nice picture. But do you realize what hundreds of peoples "one flash one hurt it" can do over time? There is a reason flash photography isn't allowed around art. That exposure to the light actually can degrade art. So please, be respectful of the work that has been around far longer than you. Keep your flash off, use your cameras functions to a low-light friendly setting. Jumping down off my soap box now.

As I said before, the deer in the park are EVERYWHERE. You can easily pet them. However, it isn't recommended as they are wild deer. If they walk up to you and you decide to chance it all responsibility will fall on you if you are injured. Just remember that if you follow suit.

The park is awesome and green and fun. You can see the deer and feed them and pet them. But again, be warned. There are even signs to warn you. And don't forget to watch your stuff. They WILL try to eat it. Jessica almost lost her fan to one.

He is not amused.
I have a picture of Jess bravely feeding the deer, I'll have to upload it later. So Nara over, we headed out for Kyoto. The train ride from Nara to Kyoto took about an hour and a half which is pretty quick when all is said and done. It did run us in the area of 1,000円 each though. Upon exiting the station with some help from a friendly couple pregnant with their second child we exited the station.

This is where it all went wrong.

Not only had is suddenly began down pouring and I mean down pouring. I'm an Oregonian. I know rain. I know heavy rain. I know all kinds of rain. This was DOWN pouring. I'm talking sheets of the stuff. And not only is it down pouring, but the rumble of thunder quickly joins the fray.

For those of you who haven't been party to my daily antics, you won't know this. Thunder is my second biggest fear. Right above spiders. I am TERRIFIED of it and it sends me scrambling to cry hiding under covers in the fetal position of my bedroom. Yet here I am, in the middle of Kyoto and it's thunder storming.

We decided to be brave and made a mad dash through the rain for the nearest conbini a block a way, but we were entirely drenched by the time we reached it. I drug my feet, picked up some much needed cough drops, garbage bags for an improvised bag cover, dragged my feet some more. Eventually we had to go so we purchased some plastic rain coats in the hopes that the rain would let up soon and because they were cheaper than umbrellas.

As I was paying the thunder decided to scare me out of my wits and I jumped, sending the contents of my wallet clattering around me on the floor as I tried to cover my ears. The nice employee helped me pick it all up as Jess, like any good friend would do, laughed at me. After we exited I drank my one cup of liquid Japanese courage before we pressed on through the downpour to the bus.

Eventually we made it to the Golden Pavillion and it was still storming, but we pressed on anyways. No rain was going to stop us and my liquid courage had helped to make the storm a little bit less frightening. But still. You don't just forget your second biggest fear when it's screaming at you every two minutes to remind you it's still there.

Being my second trip this year to the Golden Pavilion I can now say that so far I think I preferred winter, but I'll make my final call in a couple of months time after I've gone in the fall.

Despite the rain, the place was crowded, so we were able to get someone to take a picture.


Our next stop was the imperial palace gardens. After a bus and further walking in the rain we arrived only to find out it was closed on Sundays. By this point were feeling thoroughly inhuman. Shoes were soaked completely through and despite the jackets we felt soaked to the bone. We had no idea where our next bus stop was and being exhausted we opted for a taxi to take us to Toei Studio Theme Park. After pulling out the driver realized it was already 4:33 and the park closed at 5 so we instead had him take us to Gion. After dinner we walked over to the very old feeling street and walked around a bit. We saw a total of 5 maiko, but unfortunately my camera was in hiding from the rain as my previously improvised rain cover had ended up soaked. Jessica did manage to get a picture of two of them though, so I'll steal that for you all later.

It was unfortunately at this point in our day that Jess' sandals finally proved to be too much in the rain and she wound up pulling a muscle in her leg so we called it a day and headed back to Osaka and got some much needed shut eye. I even managed to fall asleep before midnight, an entirely unusual feat for me since I can never fall asleep before 3 am.

Moral of the story. On rainy, stormy days, smart people go inside where it's dry. What did we do? We stayed out for half a day in the rain.

Today (or yesterday now I suppose) was spent in relaxation. It also happens to be the only day we followed a rule and after checking out (Good bye Sun Hotel. And good riddance) we headed to Spa World which was just a few minute walk away. We got super lucky as the normal entry price is about 2,400円 per person, but thanks to a campaign, the entry fee was only 1,000円 today. I think someone said that Spa World is one of the biggest indoor spa's around. The women's 4th floor is all hot tubs and all around spa stuff. The 6th floor is the same (but was for men). On the 8th floor is swimming pools and more hot tubs.

We started on the 8th floor after I rented a bathing suit for about 600円, but it ended up being so crowded with families and small children that we quickly abandoned that plan. Jessica did however grab lunch on the 8th floor. How money works inside Spa World is that you are given a wrist band. That band then becomes your charge card while you are in Spa World. Some places will have you wave your bracelet over a sensor to charge you while others will take the number and type it into a portable device which automatically updates your account.

Instead we went back to the 4th floor where we visited Rome, Spain, the Mediterranean, Atlantis, Greece and, my favorite, Finland. Each room was themed and very beautifully done. There was also a mix of hot pools, cold pools, saunas, etc. As if common in Japan all the onsens are nude, but you are provided with a large face towel which the more modest can use to cover up.

After a couple hours I could no longer ignore the rumbling in my tummy that only okonomiyaki could satisfy so I headed to the third floor in the pink Spa World dressing gown like everyone else. After lunch, while Jessica went off to a nap room, yes, a room specifically for napping, I headed back into the onsens. After some time in an unbelievably hot bath 42 C (107.6 F) I went for a cold pool at about 18-19 C (64-66 F), but only dangled my legs into them. In the Greece room they have these pools with bags of herbs in them that not only turn the water green or brown depending, but also made me feel like I was making tea. Yes, I'll take the Rosemary, Mint, Illaura tea please.

Afterwards I found one of the lounge chairs around the pools and ended up falling asleep until it was time to come back to Tokyo. I was sad. This was my first experience at a spa and I didn't want to go, but all good things must come to an end. Last stop before heading out however, was the purikura machine on the first floor.

So, an hour on the train, a plane ride, and 2 hours of Tokyo trains (including me getting on the wrong one) here I am. Back in Tokyo.

Not yet ready to face this week. I have a final on Tuesday and another on Friday along with two essays. I suppose it's time to put my nose back to the grindstone and finish this term off with a bang.

Before that though I'll be meeting up with a couple of friends and my teacher from the UO Alisa Freedman who is here in Tokyo. I know I haven't mentioned her yet, but she is a huge inspiration to me. She is also one of the main people who helped me get to Japan by writing me letters of recommendation and inspiring me to get out there and do it. I owe a lot to this woman and I will continue to look up to her. So tomorrow evening will be fun, I'm spending the last of my spending money and we're heading out to Sweets Paradise, a desert 食べ放題 (all you can eat) in Harajuku. I'm really looking forward to catching up with her and telling her about my experiences so far. I'm also looking forward to introducing a couple of my friends who I think will absolutely love her.

Long narrative at an end, I hope you all have a wonderful day!

On blazing hot days they go inside with the AC.

Hey everyone! I'm officially back in Tokyo. (So sad. I miss Osaka already!) It was definitely one heck of a weekend.

So, I already told you about Friday night arriving in Osaka. If you haven't read it yet go read it here. But the rest of the weekend, oh where do I begin? This weekend's blog will be split up into two posts, but first, let's start with our list we made. It went like this.

What smart people do
  • On blazing hot days they go inside with the AC.
  • On rainy, stormy days, they go inside where it's dry.
  • After a nice long weekend they go to Spa World.
We missed two out of three. >.< On Saturday we we woke up to it being BLAZING hot. I'm talking you walk into somewhere air conditioned and you walk outside again and are instantly smothered. All the fans in the world couldn't save us, but we put our determined faces and sun screen on and sallied forth.

But before we went out into the blazing hot world, we tried, and failed, to search for a last minute replacement hotel. We'd had NO AC the night before and it didn't look like it would be coming on. However, our efforts in vain, we moved on.

Where did we go, but Osaka-jo! You guys should remember it from last time around. The feeling this time was totally different though.

It was so bloody hot that, despite being the longer path, we walked through what had been the plum blossom gardens the last time I had been there because it was entirely shaded.

Even though we went the shaded way we stopped off for some shaved ice. I'm going to mention at this point that, thanks to the takoyaki incident which I will never live down, eating had been very painful all weekend. But even though every meal hurt it was worth it!

So after our shaved ice we headed up and while Jessica went in and toured around (I didn't feel like paying to enter a second time) I read on the steps next to the castle.

I also saw this guy wandering around.

Being as no one was in the area when we left, we took our own photos in front of the castle. 

We then hopped the train and headed towards Shiten-noji. What is Shiten-noji? Funny you asked, I just looked up details for you. It is the oldest wooden temple in Osaka having been built in 593 AD. While I did take a Japanese art history class a year or so back, I'm no expert on the subject, so I'll let you find out more information from those who know what they're talking about. But here's a couple pictures from the grounds.

The area surrounding this temple is completely covered in temples by the way. On Japanese maps you will see little swastikas which represent the locations of temples. The map we saw was littered with them. So if you're up for a day of temple viewing, this is definitely the area to go. We saw this graveyard.

There was also this little obaa-san cleaning it.

There was also quite a few super old looking temples. This one appeared to be possibly in the process of a renovation.

I made a prayer in the above temple for my cousin who just had a baby 3 months early. Good luck both of you! Keep fighting! This kami-sama looks big and bad enough to look out for the both of you.

After heading back to the hotel for a nap, we went over to Namba and did some shopping.The sides of the river were all lined with lanterns this time.We also hit up the Don Quihote (the big yellow building on the left) where I bought my backpack for Mt. Fuji in a couple of weeks.

And I finally did the Glico Man with the proper sign this time.

So, just to be clear. Day one of our trip, the rule was, smart people go inside with their AC on blazing hot days. As you saw, we stayed outside. In the blazing heat. My back still wields bright red sunburns as proof.

Friday, July 12, 2013

What have we gotten ourselves into?

Hey everyone, I'm writing this post from, wait for it-


Yep. That's right. I'm in Osaka again. This time with Jessica. How is this working out for me you might ask? Well, let me tell you. First off we're super excited, our airfare is $120 round trip (yes, round trip). So it's super cheap and I love Osaka and I'm totally in.

We get to the airport, mind you, I've only been on one plane before today, and I'm expecting security to take forever. Back home I had to take out my shoes, pour out my bags, be robbed of my dignity, yadda yadda. Here, no one had to take off their shoes, except me because i forgot to take my cell phone out of my pocket. It was super quick, set your bags down, pull out your laptop, walk through the metal detector, have a nice day. All in all, less than 10 minutes for my domestic flight.

Then we waited. For two and a half hours because I assumed we needed to be early because of security.

We get to our boarding gate only to find out they're going to put us on a shuttle and drive us out to our plane. Happens with small airlines says Jessica who has vast amounts of experience taking airplanes. Cool. Sweet. But, we arrive at our plane and it's... it's... tiny. I think I joked that it was a toy and then we questioned our logic in getting on this plane and letting it fly us over half of Japan.

Needless to say, we got on the plane. When we did we were alarmed to find what seemed to be fog spewing from the ceiling. I think we both panicked there for a minute, but according to the flight attendant it was totally normal and was just the AC. Super creepy. Super scary. Mark number two against our sanity.

Mist from the AC system. an you see it?

On the plane, however, I cried. Why? The flight attendant called me "sir." I wasn't sure what the appropriate response to the Japanese stewardess was.

After a ridiculously long 30 minute "descent" (the entire flight was roughly an hour) we arrived and made our way using the yet again ridiculously expensive train (did I mention it was about 1000円 to get to Narita?) which ran me about 1400円. After finally arriving at our station we made our way out through a hallway which smelled thoroughly of pee and began to search for our hotel. First bonus point of the day, it was only two buildings down from the train station.

However, and yes, there is a however, we began to question the hotel the moment we walked in. I mean, I've seen some pretty sketch places (thanks mostly to Briana) and this one was reaching the top of the list. But we checked in anyways, paid (1,500円 a night for the next three nights) and came up to our room.

I'm pretty sure the cup of noodles vending machine is from the 50's.
Our room. For lack of a better word. I believe this is mark number three against our sanity.

Basically, the situation we have found ourselves in is a three tatami mat room. There is no toilet or bathroom connected. The AC is broken. The door is really, really old. We're pretty sure there is a possibility of meeting our demise in this room. And did I mention it's only a three tatami mat room?

Our room as seen from the doorway.

Being a Japanese style room our beds are futons on the floor which, though my back my kill me for, I can live with. It's only saving grace, however, is the intermittent internet connection. We actually had to have the clerk reset the internet before we could connect. We were fine with finding out that the shower is one private stall per floor that you pay 100円 for 5 minutes. I'd had to pay 30円 for a toothbrush already. There is no towels or ANY amenities included in the room. So, we think that we've found possibly the most sketch hotel ever.

Until we go in search of the toilets.

In case you're wondering. Yes. There are toilets. However, this is what the bathroom looks like for our floor.

Count that, singular. BathROOM. One. One room. For males AND females to share. I yelled at the clerk a bit when he told me there was no separate female toilets. Jess and I have made a pact to take turns in the bathroom with one guarding the door from entry while the other uses it. Hopefully this pans out. >.<

Because we're hungry, and our hotel room is hot as all heck we head out to grab dinner. I buy some takoyaki and while waiting for it a little ojisan starts talking to me. This goes well until he points at my belly and asks "Is there a child in there?" Needless to say cries of "No! No! I don't even have a boyfriend! I'm so embarassed!" Flew about. I don't feel too bad though because of the amount of weight I've lost since coming to Japan.

On the way to the conbini to pick up Jess' dinner and our breakfasts I tried to eat one of the takoyaki, thinking it had cooled down enough. Well. No. It hadn't. But I tried to do the whole cool it off without spitting it out and then swallow it quickly trick. Well. That didn't work. Not only did it gag me, but it burned my throat and the takoyaki ended up very unpleasantly on the sidewalk. I'm so so so sorry whoever has to clean that up.

The view from the room of our hotel. Our room has a view of a wall.

Other than that, we're on the 10th floor of our hotel and the view from the roof is nice! Tomorrow we're off on adventures, though some of it will be repeats.