I’m writing you now from my laptop on a local train somewhere just south of Mount Fuji. Originally I was intending on just going through my entire set of experiences with Ron and Jason and then writing about the highlights after they left, but as I have somewhere around ten hours of free time right now, I thought I’d crank out as much as I can recall before the whole thing fades into the mish-mash of experiences that is Justin.
The two of them arrived at Kyoto Station on the night of the 20th, just in time to catch the last bus to my place. Seeing the two of them was pretty strange at first; although I have been keeping in touch with all of my friends and family back home, hanging out with my college roommate in person really pumped a bunch of strong memories back up from wherever they had been hiding. It really was a reminder of how much my life has changed since I moved here. Plus, since I’ve been keeping myself so busy with studying I really haven’t had as much time to stop and get homesick as I would’ve thought. That isn’t to say that “homesickness” is the feeling that seeing Ron again brought on, just a sort of kick-in-the-head reminder of a whole phase of my life that has come and gone, as this new life in the orient will soon become.
Anyways, they were both completely dazed and exhausted by the time we got home, so we decided to just grab a quick bite at dai-ichi asahi ramen (which neither of them cared for, surprisingly) and knock out for the night. The weather wasn’t the best, and we all wanted to be rested for our huge day tomorrow. Unfortunately, this didn’t quite happen for all of us. I did warn Ron a number of times before he came that his decision to stay on my floor would result in a most uncomfortable sleeping situation, yet I don’t think he quite realized how bad it would be. They both woke up feeling pretty unrested, and Jason, who had mild whiplash from a car accident only several days earlier, seemed to be in pretty bad pain. But like the good sports they are they didn’t complain one bit and we were soon on our way for a long day of the special kind of magic that only Kyoto can offer. Now, some of you might recall that a little while ago I put up an entry about how it had become springtime, and how the weather had become beautiful, warm, etc. Ha! Not 24 hours after I posted that entry did it start snowing. But today really was a perfect day, exactly like springtime on the beach in San Diego – wonderfully good luck for their first day here in Japan. After some short difficulties in trying to rent them bicycles we were on our way.
Wait, actually I do want to give a brief mention to the bike-rental situation. Dylan recommended a place just near Keihan Sanjo, which we found without a hitch. However, the rental shop itself – also doubling as the owner’s house – was wide opened to the public with no one in sight. We spent a good 15 minutes just milling about the shop, knocking on every closed door we could find, but to no avail. Now, keep in mind that this is someone’s HOUSE – they had all kinds of junk laying about, from toy guns to pots and pans, all just sitting within a door left wide opened to the public. Just goes to show how trusting the Japanese are. But after not too much longer a woman who had clearly just woken up stumbled out of what we assumed to be the bedroom and provided us with our day’s transportation.
Now begins the long and exhausting quest to cover as much of the city’s endless beauty in one day as possible. We first headed to the philosopher’s path, stopping briefly on the way to see the giant torii marking the entrance to the Heian shrine (note: the pictures to the left don’t always correspond do what I’m saying here as some places provided far better photo-ops than others…the comments tell what they really are). Since it was still early in the day, the path was beautiful and relatively devoid of tourists. I only wish they had been there about three weeks later to witness what it would look like lined with cherry blossoms. Man, I can’t wait.
Next we headed to Kiyomizu Dera, one of the places I’ve really been looking forward to visiting, but have been saving for their arrival (because it charges admission). This place really was as awesome as everyone has told me, tucked in the side of the mountain with a beautiful overlook of much of Kyoto. However, since the day was wearing on and it was a national holiday, the city was becoming more and more crowded – astonishingly crowded, in fact. By around noon it was quite literally more packed than I’d ever seen it here.
But with the holiday did come some pretty awesome opportunities – such as not one, not two, but THREE pairs of maiko walking around in broad daylight. And when one’s escort saw me taking a movie of her stepping down from a rickshaw, he said to her in Japanese that she shouldn’t be embarrassed. I told him that I agreed, also in Japanese. He was so excited that I could understand him that he offered for me to have my picture taken with her. Wow, lucky!
After cruising around Gion for awhile, we stopped at this really nice traditional Japanese restaurant that I stumbled on only one day before – and a great deal at only 809 yen for a complete set meal with your choice of donburi, a side dish, mini udon, Japanese vegetables, and ice cream for desert. Delish!
We finished up the day with a trip all the way across town to Fushimi Inari. Remember? It’s the shrine with the billions of orange torii sprawling the mountainside. Both Ron and Jason seemed to really enjoy the area, especially when we decided to leave the beaten path (of course) and get lost in a gigantic bamboo forest for a couple of hours. By the time we found our way down the mountain Jason’s neck had stiffened up quite a bit from all of the bike riding, so we took a leisurely ride back along the shore of Kamo Gawa (which has REALLY started to pick up – the shijo/sanjo riverbanks were literally lined with young people). Along the way Ron taught me to bunny hop my crappy little grandma bike. Straight ballin.’
I guess that about wraps up that day. We stopped in a department store on the way home for some groceries and spent the rest of the night just hanging out, drinking beers, and watching Napoleon Dynamite.
And that brings us to day 3! Unfortunately the weather had grown drastically worse over the night, the beautiful skies being replaced with clouds and rain, and since we were all pretty worn out from the day before we decided that we’d take it easy, giving Jason’s neck some additional time to recover. So before heading downtown we went back to the department store where we picked up our groceries the night before and spent some time sampling the Japanese confectionaries and laughing at poorly translated English slogans on T-shirts and tank tops.
You know, I don’t think I’ve ever even mentioned the Japanese sweets. Wow! Aside from the gelato in Italy, I don’t think I’ve ever had better-tasting sweets than you find at every festival booth or even grocery store here. Perhaps that’s why I’ve lost so much muscle since I arrived? Could it be that surviving on sweets is not as healthy as I’d like to believe? Nah…
So anyways, after the department store we rode again to downtown Kyoto, this time spending the day exploring Teramachi, the covered shopping arcade. And while Kyoto’s shopping arcade is absolutely nothing in comparison to those in Osaka or Tokyo, neither Jason or Ron could believe their eyes. Jason just kept on saying “Are you kidding? This is a Tuesday! Where are all of these people coming from??”
That brings us to day 4: Sumo! I’ve been looking forward to this event since, well, LAST time I was in Japan! That’s not to say that I follow the sport, or have even watched more than a single match on TV, but somehow Sumo is just something that I associate very strongly with Japanese culture, and something that I’ve always thought would be really interesting to witness in person. I was right.
We woke up at 7:00am and headed to Osaka where we met Tyler and his family who were also visiting Japan for the holidays. The second we left the train station we knew we were in the right place – every couple of blocks we’d see an absolutely enormous Japanese man in a traditional yukata and wooden clogs walking (with great effort) in the same general direction as us. And when I say enormous, I’m talking somewhere in the range of two to three times the size of a normal Japanese man.
However, when we arrived at the Osaka Gymnasium, we were shocked to find the place nearly deserted! There couldn’t have been more than fifty other spectators there, a good percentage of them gaijin. All of us were pretty disappointed, but one of Tyler’s friends assured us that the matches would pick up considerably as the day progressed. Apparently, each tournament of the day – which runs from 9:30am to 6:30pm – starts out with the lowest ranking wrestlers, not even allowed to throw salt to purify the ring before a match, and finishes with the “greatest” wrestler, the yokozuna. So we all agreed to hang out for a couple of hours just to get a sense for the sport, then explore the city for awhile and return at about 4:30.
Besides, the emptiness of the auditorium did give us the pretty awesome privilege of viewing the matches from RIGHT up front, even though the tickets we paid for were about as far away from the ring as possible. From up close you can really feel the power of those enormous bodies clashing against each other, huffing and puffing and finally throwing one another off of that two-foot high pedestal, sometimes onto the lap of the next waiting wrestler. Pretty amazing to see.
And as we expected, even more amazing was the conclusion of the ceremony. It was just the type of “Japanese cultural experience” I had expected – from watching the wrestlers walk in with their ornate loincloths and perform the opening ceremony, to the singing of the…um…”referee” between matches, to the purifying of the ring with salt, to the religious ceremony of the yokozuna, to the bow dance at the end of the day’s events. I took somewhere around 30 minutes of video (thank you, Canon’s 18X zoom lens!) that I’ll get around to posting one of these days, but I really have been taking an enormous amount of video lately so I wouldn’t be surprised if much of it didn’t get dealt with until after my entire Japan adventure has concluded. But I’ll try.
After the match, I took them to the sushi restaurant that I’d gone to with Tomoyo a couple of weeks earlier – the most amazing, fresh, delicious, gigantic-piece sushi imaginable. Normally I keep my food budget pretty cheap, but hey, ya gotta splurge every once in awhile. And it worked out pretty darn well, because not only did we get undercharged by nearly $25, but we had the free entertainment of a young sushi waiter continually offering us outdated slogans in English whenever we’d place an order.
“maguro mou nikko,” I’d say.
“okie dokie, captain” he’d say.
We concluded the day with another little stop at a this time even more mind-bogglingly overwhelmingly astonishingly disgustingly obscenely gigantic shopping center packed with $200 denim jackets and $100 tank tops resembling the types of clothing we find in our thrift shops back in America. The “grunge” look is all the rage here, and the Japanese kids pay unbelievable amounts of money for the exact types of clothes that we throw out or donate to charity quite regularly.
And now my big adventure really starts. While Jason and Ron have rail passes allowing the use of Shinkansen, I chose to go to Tokyo via Seishun Jyuuhachi Kippu – a pass available during the holiday seasons that gives you use of all local JR trains for $25 a day. This means $25 each way to and from Tokyo instead of the usual $125 shinkansen ticket. This also means 11 hours and 7 to 10 transfers on local trains instead of the usual 2 hour direct trip on the shinkansen. But you know, the trip wasn’t half as bad as I expected it to be. I’m actually glad that I decided to do it the way I did.
To insure that I’d get into Tokyo at a reasonable time, I woke up at the ungodly hour of 5:00am, threw on my giant backpack left from my trip across Europe, and headed out. But while the trains start at 5:00, the bus to the nearest JR station didn’t start until 7:00, so I ended up walking an hour with my massive backpack to the nearest station. No sweat. Well, maybe a little sweat.
And thus began the journey. I spent the first four hours or so falling in and out of sleep, as the trains were pretty empty I had plenty of room to lay down on the seats between transfers. But it wasn’t until after the first four hours or so that it really got enjoyable. A number of times I tried to pull out my textbook and get some studying done, but each time I kept on getting distracted by a ridiculously beautiful mountain, huge expanse of rice fields, park full of cherry and plum blossoms, or even the ocean (which has been a rare sight for me since I got here). During a couple of the transfers I left the station and walked around the city for a bit, getting a bite to eat here and there, but for the most part I just watched the country zoom by. I know that you cover just as much distance on the shinkansen, but somehow I really got a nice sense from this particular journey. It probably had something to do with the fact that every time I’ve taken the shinkansen it’s been raining or snowing, and today was another one of those flawless days (and a darn good thing, too – could you imagine me having to lug all of my stuff around from train to train in the rain?) Plus, I got to watch all of the changing people get on and off, from the local baseball teams riding from home to school and then back home again, to the little old ladies laughing and joking among themselves about the silly gaijin with his gigantic suitcase. For such a homogenous society they really do have quite a variety of interesting people.
So, that brings me up to date. It’s exactly 2:30pm right now, and to be honest I’m not really sure where I am – somewhere way out in the country, judging by the style of the houses and the distance between them. I guess I should poke my camera out the window and get a little record of this before the rice paddies and farmers get replaced with sky rises and salaryman…
NOTE: Although I wrote this entry on the train, I’m actually posting it from my new home at Ritsumeikan International House II! I have a ridiculous amount of awesome stuff to talk about from our trip to Tokyo too, but as my Japanese placement examination is coming up, I’ve been given some additional contract work on the GPR software, and the whole YHM group is taking a trip to Himeji this weekend, it may take me longer than usual to get it typed out.