Thursday, February 10, 2011
Saturday, May 1, 2010
We arrived in Tokyo at around 11, just I time to drop Kimbia’s bags off at her hostel and grab a very Japanese lunch of sandwiches, coffee, pancakes, and pink lemonade at the Tokyo branch of Denny’s. What can I say? Even with only a scant two-week left until our return to the states we were craving a little taste of home! (Admittedly I’ve never had the pleasure of eating at Denny’s before but I can say it was quite satisfactory fast food). Refreshed after our somewhat grueling morning of losing our rather expensive omiyage (gift) of Kyoto tea and missing the first three trains we had hoped to be on, we began a leisurely stroll in the direction of the famed Akihabara. Of course, in such a place—at least in Japan—one finds a plethora of maids beckoning clients into their cafes and stores that cause hapless tourists to either stray their eyes or stare in a combination of disbelief and concern. At the pace of the crowd commanded, we peered down darkened alleyways and enjoyed the general energy of the city, a buzz only found in the shopping hubs of Kyoto. Eventually Kimbia decided to hop-to and begin passing out the surveys for her senior thesis, a study of Akihabara and its lure. This is, of course, easier said than done when researching a group of people that mostly consists of otaku—literally “in the house”—who would rather talk to the Technicolor girls on their gameboys and television screens than a real flesh and blood woman. The first two kids we approached scurried away, one before Kimbia had even opened her mouth to speak! Feeling a big off-put by these kinds of reactions, Kimbia hiked up her pants and got five surveys filled out by the friendlier otaku milling around, one excited to show his friends (and then us!) an action figure he found that he’d been looking for a long while.
Eventually Julia and I had to go meet our gracious hosts in Funabashi, about forty minutes from Akihabara on the train. Thus we yakked our way there and were met by Fumiko-san a wonderful chatty Japanese woman who has lived in Tokyo her whole life. She works at Disney Land and lives with her husband Makoto-san, who retired and has been running a little candy shop out of his home for the past ten years. The shop is somewhat off the beaten path, tucked into the alley of a side street, but business seemed busy enough when we arrived at around 5:15 in the afternoon. An absolutely wonderful loving and caring couple, they also host a foreign student every year. They have the pictures of their past students proudly up on the wall in their kitchen and made sure to introduce us to each one, supplying a funny anecdote for each. In this they reminded me very much of my lovely host mother, who does much the same every week, remembering fondly her past students.
After stowing our bags in the guest room, a small tatami room usually allotted to their students, Fumiko led us to the kitchen where she fed us tea and asked us an assortment of delicious snacks, including a crunchy banana-chocolate-whipped-cream-pancake snack that would’ve sent my nutritionist mother packing. Then, while we snacked yet some more and enjoyed the end of an episode The Clone Wars in Japanese, she cooked a lovely dinner of gyoza, shumai, miso soup, and rice. After dinner we went through a Tokyo guidebook and picked out what we’d be doing for the next few days. We went to sleep happy with the knowledge that we’d be going to Tokyo Disney Land, courtesy of our hosts.
We woke refreshed after sleeping in a little (we’re on summer vacation after all!). After eating a tasty breakfast of eggs, ham, and deliciously warm rolls with butter and blueberry jam, we set off to meet Kimbia once more and shop in Shibuya and cross the giant street there. Whenever you see a movie set even briefly in Tokyo, there is inevitably a shot of this crossing, roaringly busy even at night. Cheerfully skipping across, we ran into some cosplayers of vocaloids and paused to take pictures before continuing into 109, a rather famous Shibuya department store. It reaches upwards for floors, each store boasting its own style and blasting music. The shoppers are a crush of somewhat awed foreigners, the usual Sunday shoppers, and people who seem to simply be out for a stroll, dressed to the nines. After shopping (and getting me a ridiculous hot pink fighter pilot hat with big blue stars) we spotted out beloved Krispie Kreme and scurried over for a doughnut. To our delight, they had the machine running and were handing out glazed doughnuts hot off the press, free of charge! They were absolutely delicious. After enjoying a bit more of the general splendor, we got back on the train and went to Harakjuku, a famous Sunday fashion hub. Before heading into the crowd, however, we headed into the rather austere Meiji shrine, where its namesake Emperor of Japan has been enshrined as a kami (Japanese Shinto god). After the nonstop high energy of Tokyo, the lush forest path felt a great deal more like Kyoto. This gave us the strength to then toss ourselves into the sea of lolitas, goths, gangurous, free hugs, yankees, and somewhat non-plussed foreigners. We ended up ascending to the upper levels of the street, as the most interesting shops are often found there, and into Body Line—a cheap “off-brand” Lolita style clothing store.
We finally made our exit, fleeing back to the comparatively tame Tokyo Station for quick sandwiches before heading back to Fubabashi. There we met back up with Makoto-san, who packed us into his cute little blue car and whisked us off with his wife Fumiko-san for a night tour of Tokyo. On the way he played the TV built into the car for our entertainment. Just another day in Japan, really. The first stop was the Rainbow Bridge, which took us past two brilliantly lit Ferris wheels. We then stopped at a roadside convenience store and used their picnic tables, setting out a dinner of assorted onigiri—rice balls—and other small items. It was not only absolutely delicious but great fun to have such an unconventional picnic! Sated on dinner and cookies, we headed out once more to get up close and personal with Tokyo Tower, which is absolutely stunning at night. When we arrived, it was covered in little purple lights but as we photographed it, it turned its usual all orange and white, brilliant against the clear night sky. Twenty minutes later and again we were off to tour the Kabuki Theater and Ginza, the 5th Avenue of Japan. Tiffany’s, Channel, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, all nestled into one huge shopping street where I suspect people do more looking than buying. We then headed home to crash.
The next day we slumbering bears awoke to a breakfast of blueberry yogurt, more tasty warm rolls, and coffee as well as a small snack of dough filled with red bean paste, black beans, and covered in kinako—a sweet, very dry, cakey powder. Then Julia, Fumiko-san, and I headed off to Studio Ghibli’s museum in Mitaka. To get there from Funabashi, one must take the express to Tokyo Station for thirty-five minutes before transferring to yet another rapid train for roughly the same amount of time. Though it takes a while, this would be impossible without Tokyo’s comprehensive subway system. Arriving in Mitaka, one feels as though they are back in Kyoto. The town is quiet and the buildings sit low along the train tracks and small river, which is lined with cherry trees, all leading up to the museum. A little bus picks up museum goers every ten minutes or so, but if it's a nice day, a walk is much more enjoyable. The museum is, of course distinctive to Ghibli’s style in every way. From the gentle curves to the tan walls, round windows, and spinning iron cast outdoor staircases, one feels instantly in another world. The entrance leads the visitor past stained glass windows, each inlaid with different iconic Miyazaki and Ghibli film characters. The main building is almost entirely open on the inside, the floors ringing around a central open space. The iron cast encased glass elevator gives a view of the whole central area and is in itself a work of art with beautiful wood paneling inside. The second floor has a bridge across the middle and up the other wall is another iron cast circular staircase, just big enough for Julia and me at 5’ 2” and spacious for children. There are many other delights to be found at the museum, but I fear I’ve spoiled too much already. The museum’s motto is “lets lose our way together”, as is often the case with Miyazaki’s films, and so the museum is designed to get the visitor just a little lost. They also play short films, which can only be viewed at the museum. They played a movie about a girl who leaves the big city to go for a hike in the country, leaving small offerings of apples to kami along the way. She gets stuck in a rainstorm and takes shelter in an abandoned shack in the forest, making friends with the local bugs along the way. The entire soundtrack was done in Japanese onomatopoeias, which was the most charming part about it! After grabbing a bite of pasta lunch at in Italian restaurant nearby, we hopped back on the train to Tokyo Station so that we could get on the train to Tokyo Disney Land!
I am twenty-one and before this vacation I have never been to Disney Land. Not even in the states. I cannot express how full of joy, wonder and happiness I was! Our first stop was to take shots in front of Cinderella’s castle. We then wandered around, taking a brief trip to Endor on the Star Tours ride and then watched one of the shows, which included a fantastic number with Maleficent, the Queen from Snow White, and the bad guy from The Hunchback of Notre Dam. Afterwards I rode on my second roller coaster ever, Space Mountain. I LOVE SPACE MOUNTAIN! Just as we exited the coaster, the electric light show was beginning, so we hurried over and took a seat to watch the floats go past. Somehow the cheesy pie music really got to me and I had a blast waving back at Alice, Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh, Cinderella, and other assorted Disney characters atop their electric thrones. Once the parade ended the crowd dispersed and we ended up in the Old West town, which really was like a ghost town! Eating delicious maple churros, we spotted Pirates of the Caribbean and so dragged poor Fumiko-san, who has been on it countless times, onto one of the boats so that we could sing “Yo-Ho A Pirate’s Life For Me” over and over and over!
After meeting with Fumiko-san’s son, who also works at Disney Land and getting Happy Birthday stickers from him—which included singing “Happy Birthday To You” three times in a row, once for each sticker—we were picked up in the car by Makoto-san who took us to a buffet style restaurant for dinner.
We woke up to sunnyside eggs before heading out with Makoto-san and Fumiko-san to Asakusa where tons of small stores with odds and ends lead up to a large temple with giant sandals hanging on the walls. Afterwards they treated us to a lunch of tenzaru soba—cold soba noodles dipped in soy sauce with wasabi and green onions with assorted tempura on the side—and then took us to another outdoor market near Ueno Park. Afterwards we got on a rather interesting train to the Panasonic Center. The train isn’t on tracks but on large wheels and the whole line appears to be self-operated. It goes to around to all the scientific museums and companies in the city, winding through and above the buildings. The front car has a fully open window and so Julia and I got a wonderful view of the city, including a close up of one of the Ferris wheels and an idea of just how far the sprawling buildings really go. At the Panasonic center they have a number of demonstrations as well as a Nintendo station where you can play Wii, N64, and DSi. They had a large wall called a Life Wall. It is essentially projected on to the wall and by hovering ones hand near the wall, one can select a number of options including simple things such as the time, background setting, “outside view”—as there is a large window projecting any desired image, but also can be used for communicating across great distances similarly to Skype, but in life size with a more clear picture and sound. We also got to try out the home 3D TV system, which was incredibly clear and exciting!
Unfortunately we got there with only an hour before closing and so got back on the train to Funabashi. We had delicious ramen in the station before going back to the house to watch Hook and go to bed.
The next day they took us to a fish market and their local shrine before Julia and I got underway, making a quick stop at the Square Enix store in Shinjuku. We got back on the shinkansen to Kyoto and were home before dinner!
Saturday, March 27, 2010
As usual I have been horribly negligent about my blog. I think this is actually good thing. The more time I spend not updating, the more time I’m spending out doing fun things! Of course I’ve also been negligent about going out and doing fun things in the fashion I was last semester, but there are also merits to this. Everyday I am finally returning to my HOME in Japan instead of just another stressful social situation. The relationship between my host mother and I has gotten better with every passing month and I am going to be very sad to have to let go of her everyday presence when the time comes to leave Japan. Our house is almost always full of our laughter and jokes.
So I left off at the Byodoin last time…hmm thus I will begin with Nagano! For winter break in February I hopped on the arduous night bus with Becky, Sam, Adam, and Megumi. It takes about eight hours to get there with stops every two hours at rest stops, but the huge blizzard that overtook the once Olympic village ended up making it more like ten. Finally grumpily exiting the bus, we refreshed in the nearest bathroom and had some sandwiches and cups of coffee. We had been on the bus from about twelve the night before until eight or nine in the morning. The man who runs the inn where we stayed then picked us up. There is no public transportation to the inns, only the hotspots in the town, and so each inn has a little van in which they pick up and drop off their guests right at the slopes. Not only this, but they also provide the wear and gear for the slopes plus breakfast and lunch, meal tickets included for lunch at the either the base or the summit of the mountain. All this for about thirty thousand yen. This is about three hundred dollars, no bad at all! Plus the food was delicious. Anyway so we ladies stayed in a lovely, cozy room with three beds tucked away under a slanted ceiling and about four tatami mats beyond that to sit on. We had a wonderful heater and heaps of blankets to keep us warm.
We crazy kids actually went out the day we arrived, not wanting to waste any precious time despite how tired we were! We threw in the towel early, but headed out bright and early the next morning. After lunch, however, I fell and hit my head pretty hard and so had to trek all the way to the hospital. They determined that I had a concussion, but nothing drastic, and so I was to keep out of the bath and away from alcohol for a few days. This is lame on three accounts. The first is that the bath at the inn was absolutely heavenly and I’m sad to have missed out on it. The second is obvious. The third is that I was unable to go out snowboarding the third day! Alas, I’ll never be Shawn White despite my intrinsic connection to him based on the fact that we’re both gingers.
We hopped back on the night bus and I spent the whole day dead sleeping on my face. The next day Julia, Jenna, and I headed out with our Antiquity in Modern Japan professor to check out ancient tombs in the Nara basin. The first one we went to is an unexcavated keyhole tomb where we picked up bits of clay pots, which, at the time of its erection, surrounded it on several tiers. Afterwards we biked off to a tomb hidden away inside a bamboo grove by an organic strawberry farm. It was an absolutely magical experience! We entered the bamboo grove unhindered and the sounds of the town around us melted away. About forty feet in we came to a small jizo statue with a scant few offerings and behind it a small square hole, not two feet by three feet. This, our professor explained, was where it got messy. Skirting the statue, we proceeded to crawl, feet first, into the tomb. Once inside we produced our flashlights and began to explore. There is a stone sarcophagus with a crack in it just large enough for someone my size to squeeze through and then lay comfortably inside. It was a little eerie being inside the tomb, dust the only thing remaining, of someone centuries dead. I, of course, couldn’t help but hum the Indiana Jones theme.
The next big event is my birthday! It doesn’t much matter here, but I’m finally twenty-one. Hurrah! Not that I’m a huge lush or anything, but having a glass of wine with dinner out is no longer an affair. The night of my birthday we went bowling, an event during which I bowled over one hundred three out of four times. This is quite rare as I’m somewhat pathetic at bowling. Birthday luck, I think! Afterwards I grabbed ramen with a few friends before heading to our usual fare, Milan’s. There we celebrated with another kid from AKP as well as his girlfriend Akane, whose birthday is the same as mine, and all of her friends. It was somewhat overwhelming in such a small space, but we had good fun. My friends bought me and Jenna, whose birthday is the day after mine, some lovely cake slices.
Two days later I had a few friends over for a feast that my host mom prepared (picture above). There they gave me a lovely wallet from Angelic Pretty, one of my favorite gothic lolita designers! We ate until we were disgustingly full—I couldn’t move at all that evening—and watched Shrek. All this we did whilst sitting around the kotatsu. I think it was to make up for the Japanese childhood I never had. Anyway my host mom produced a delicious chocolate and strawberry cake made out to both me and Jenna, which we could barely eat after the feast plus ice cream and tea.
Soon after the plumb blossoms bloomed and so we trekked off to Kitano Tenmangu, a lovely temple, which is full of plum trees. The same day was also the monthly temple market and so it was also full of people! Though it had been somewhat cloudy in the morning, the sun came out and brightened the cute little blossoms for stunning pictures! I tried some new festival food, these savory fish shaped bread snacks full of warm custard. Delicious!
Two weeks ago my program hosted a group trip to Ise. I think I annoyed everyone by playing “what am I thinking of” a little loudly on the bus, but it certainly passed the time on the way! Our first stop was a ninja village, which is alas less exciting than it sounds. We DID get to check out one rather interesting building in which there is a rotating door like in Scooby Doo, hidden staircases, a drop down ceiling to crush unwanted visitors, hidden hallways with escape routes through wall scrolls, and hiding holes under the fire pits. Excellent! Afterwards we went to the husband and wife rocks. See the picture. Um. Anyway there were a lot of frogs statues there! If you buy a little frog charm there and put it in your wallet, money will come to you. This is because kaeru can mean frog but also to return, so your money returns!
That night we stayed in an absolutely breathtaking hotel in Ise. The staff and professors stayed in the main building, but we were all put in wonderful little cottages with lofts, comfortable porches, and gorgeous wooden everything. There was also a pool and an outdoor bath. I only made it to the pool, but it was great to sink into and float in the water as well as enjoy the sauna and hot tub! The buffet was also excellent, the dining room boasting a stunning view of the mountains and bay, which the hotel was nestled into.
The next morning we trudged over to breakfast before heading out for more adventures. We went to Ise Jingu, first to the inner complex and then the outer, which is to the sun goddess Amaterasu. When we went to pray to her, a most incredible thing happened. Waiting in the hustle and bustle of the crowd pushing to give homage to the goddess, the large cloth blocking the rest of the shrine from view billowed up in a gust of wind and presented the long path of white stones, flanked by black ones, all damp from the rain. Directly to the left of the wooden frame of where one prays stood a Shinto priest in pristine white Heian garb and a tall black hat. It was certainly a sight to behold, and the crowd certainly thought so as well, everyone exclaiming “whoa” in unison!
Any finally! On Sunday I headed off to Osaka with Becky and Patrick to see my English language student perform Rakugo. Rakugo is traditional Japanese comedy theater in which the actor sits with a towel and a fan as props. They act out all the parts in a play, changing from character to character in the blink of an eye. They used the fan as chopsticks, a calligraphy brush, a Buddhist ceremonial item, a spatula, and a sword. This I found most interesting. It is simply the manner in which the actor holds the object which determines how it is to be interpreted by the audience.
My parents came this week to visit and so I'll be posting about that sometime in the next millennium!
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Whenever I think I've gotten something right, she shifts it half an inch before nodding approvingly at her work. Thus part of learning to wear a kimono isn't just going through the motions but adding a certain flair in the small tucks and folds of the fabric. It is also a great lesson in seeing how fabric affects itself in the way it is pulled or pushed. The kimono itself is made up of rectangles and the obi is another very long rectangle. All in all very simple, but the way it can be folded appears to be so much more.
Anyway, those are my half-awake thoughts.
Friday, January 29, 2010
The bikers are fearless, too. They zip through the tiny streets around pedestrians and mini-trucks. They shoot past one another, another inch closer and they’d be grazing one another’s legs and knocking each other off balance. But, having grown up in a large city, I know that the ebb and flow of how we co-exist in such close proximity is to allow your personal bubble to be pressed and sometimes to push it against others while still maintaining that you are the only person on the road.
The stern warning we received by police officers at the beginning of the year in a required bike safety lecture regarding keeping to the left side of the road is probably a more dangerous suggestion than anything. More than once I’ve nearly collided with a fellow biker or moped when they decided they wanted to stick as close to the curve as possible and I just wanted to follow those bike laws!
The new pavement feels like butter under the wheels of my host mother’s bike on my return trip from my kimono class. I’ve spent the better part of two hours tying and retying a Nagoya Obi. At least that’s what I think it’s called, my kimono teacher talks lightning fast which does wonders for my Japanese aural comprehension, but sometimes I miss a proper word or two. This week we worked on a mannequin instead of on myself, which I’m grateful for as I missed breakfast and spending two hours bending my arms behind my back in angles I never thought possible would’ve been enough to send me scampering back to bed upon returning home.
The weather is unseasonably warm, the wind that of one of the more chilling April breezes back on the East Coast. Women stand outside their machiya style homes and sweep whatever leaves and specks of dust may have accumulated overnight. Other bikers sail up and down the back streets, which are so quiet that you wouldn’t suspect the noisy nearby intersections. As I come to the main street, I pass a house, one I pass every day, but today in particular the palm trees strike me as curious. It is January and just yesterday morning, I could see my breath inside my bedroom. But today is beautiful and so I loosen my scarf around my neck. I heard a rumor that, somewhere nearby, the sakura have already started to bloom. To say this is unseasonably early would be a severe understatement. In the next chill that takes Japan, they will certainly die. In fact, we shouldn’t be seeing Sakura until March or April.
Speaking of sakura, I have been invited to a sakura viewing party by the woman whom I am currently tutoring. She’s an older woman who makes a study of English through American politics. Once or twice a month we go through Time Magazine and The New York Times together, reviewing whichever concepts, words, and grammar points she does not fully understand. Her spoken English is astounding, which certainly makes my explanations easier to perform.
When she isn’t busy outdoing all her friends in English, she is busy as a rakugo performer. Rakugo is traditional Japanese comedic theater using only a fan and a towel as props. She has invited my friends and I to view their English performances, for which I have helped in editing their translations. She also works with a small institution that shows foreigners living in Japan some interesting sights around Kyoto, which they may not have previously known about. All in all she is a very lovely woman who I am glad to be getting to know. And to think all it took to meet her was to be sitting with a friend on the train!
As usual these days, I haven’t been up to much. Going out with friends, doing puri-cura, and escaping the cold weather. This week I’ll hopefully get to a few of the temples I’ve been intending to explore. I also sent an email to the Kyoto Costume Institute yesterday in the hopes that they will give me something fun to do with their fantastic collection of Western wear. I’ve been reading their book on fashion from the 18th to 20th centuries since middle school and have been wanting to work there since I first cracked open the pages. I regret not having gotten to them till now, since someone else in my program heard about it from me and not only applied but got the job! Alas, the early bird gets the worm, even if the late bird is going to be right pissed about it. Anyway, hopefully they have something that needs to be done. Maybe they have some bonnets they’re curious about!
Going a little more backwards in time, Rachel and I, before I got back to New York, wrote each other a notebook, each page with a new prompt for each day. In that notebook, one of my prompts was to go somewhere new. I wrote a similar prompt for her regarding the places we pass every day and never go in to because we’re too busy (don’t worry Rachel, this isn’t a spoiler). Because of this, I chose to bring a few friends with me to a café I’ve passed a few times, but never had the time or guts to go in to. Let me tell you, I’ll be heading there as often as I have a few extra coins jostling around in my pocket! It’s a little Japanese interpretation of a French patisserie. It has a somewhat colonial feeling with its rustic colors and three wooden tables, two for small parties of three and one large one for a party of six. The smells from the small kitchen in the back are incredible. Between the four of us we got two pieces of cake and a chai each. The chai wasn’t fantastic, but the cake most certainly was and the warm, comfortable atmosphere more than made up for the chai! They have Edward Gorey books in English and Japanese on the shelves next to the door and play a nice selection of music including Frank Sinatra and my main gal Billie Holiday. If you ever find yourself in the Nagaoka-Tenjin station, I suggest going to Café Katemao. Their blog can be found here: http://blog.katemao.jp/
Additionally, I was invited by a few friends to accompany them to Uji, a somewhat romantic location, easily accessible from Kyoto Station. We walked across a bridge Yoshitsune also did, which was interesting. We took some historical footsteps! Unfortunately we also took some footsteps straight past the Genji Museum, which I still have a great desire to go back to see. Anyway, we got a chance to check out the Byodoin, which is on the back of the ten-yen coin similar to our lovely depiction of the Lincoln Memorial on the back of the American penny. The building itself, as is often so with many famous places around Kyoto, was once part of a larger complex but is the only part of the complex left standing. In its prime, the inside of the Byodoin was painted in reds, greens, golds, and blues. Mirrors were placed all throughout it so that despite its lack of windows, it was illuminated during the day and even had a certain glow about it in the evening. Within the Phoenix Hall, which is all that remains, stands the only remaining Heian period statue from a famous sculptor, whose name currently escapes me.
Until next time (hey, lookit that, a fairly timely blog!),