Josiah's Japan Travelogue #2
Part 2: February 2011
|Wednesday (the 2nd): A Little Out of It|
Ugh... This isn't one my better days. I'm tired (understandable since I've got to wake up at 6 every morning on week days and didn't sleep so well last night), a bit sore (I was running a few minutes Monday and Tuesday so I had to do a mix of jogging and really fast walking to get to the train station on time, and, to top it off, I had four first year classes in a row yesterday so I had to do a lot of very loud talking and I seem to have strained my vocal cords a bit (not good since I have four more classes, though with the more subdued third years, in a row today). Outside of physical stuff, I need to make sure I'm at my apartment tonight between 6 and 9 (totally doable, but I'll need to leave work right at quitting time), and I need to find a time to go to the Tokyo immigration office soon (which is kinda far away and has even more inconvenient operating hours than the city office) to turn in some papers for my work visa (which is going to require missing another several hours of work). So yeah, you'll have to forgive me for not being in a very talkative mood. But here's a short RJC to tide you over.
Random Japan Comment: Rirekishou
|Friday (the 4th): Random Stuff|
If you were wondering, I did get the visa stuff all taken care of on Wednesday. Since I'd already filled out all the forms, all I actually had to do was hand them to the person behind the counter. Which really begs the question, "why couldn't I just mail them instead?" Anyway, now I have to wait for a postcard from them telling me that my visa application was approved so I can go pick it up (and pay for it). Another thing that really shouldn't require an in-person visit. I suppose that, unlike Heart, Joytalk must do all this for their ALTs since all I had to do back when I worked for them was go to my city office (once with a Joytalk guy and once by myself) to get my gaijin card. But yeah, if all goes well I have one more trip to the immigration office and two to the city office remaining.
Random Japan Comment: Masks
|Sunday (the 6th): Animation and Old Buildings|
I didn't do anything out of the ordinary Saturday other than walk around Ningyochou a bit more and eat (I was right, there's a lot of nice restaurants there) so let's get right to Sunday.
Just when there'd been a couple of warm days and I was starting to think that the weather would be getting fairly nice, it pulled a 180. The last couple of days have been cold and cloudy. It rained a little last night and this morning and it's currently fairly windy. It even snowed for a little while earlier today, which is pretty rare around here. I guess spring is still a ways off.
Random Japan Comment: Business Hours
|Friday (the 11th): Bunraku|
|The weather hasn't really improved since Wednesday. Actually, it's gotten a lot worse. It's been snowing all day today, though none of it is sticking,, and it's supposed to do the same tomorrow. Sunday is supposed to be nice though, but then there's another lousy day or two after that. Anyway, today is National Foundation Day, a holiday to commemorate the founding of the modern nation of Japan. It's one of those holidays that schools and stuff close for but no one really does anything on. So I had the day off and, fortunately, my plan involved indoor stuff, so the snow wasn't too much of a problem.
Now, Japan has three types of traditional theater, kabuki, noh, and bunraku. While all three are still around, kabuki is the most popular so it has the most shows and is the easiest to see. You may remember that my mom and I saw a kabuki show last time I was in Japan (see my March 26th entry). Anyway, on this trip I wanted to be sure to check out at least one of the other two styles. With a bit of research, I discovered that there's a theater in Tokyo which does a lot of noh and bunraku performances throughout the year. Unfortunately, noh just didn't work with my schedule but I was able to get a ticket for today's bunraku performance. So off I went through the snow to the theater.
By now you're probably wondering what bunraku is. Bunraku is a type of puppet theater that became popular in the Osaka area in the early 1700's. I wasn't allowed to photograph the performance, but here's a picture of the cover of my program, so you can get an idea of what the puppets look like. Now, each of these puppets is around three or four feet tall and requires three puppeteers working in perfect sync. One controls the legs and feet, one the left arm, and one (the head puppeteer) the right arm and head. They're dressed all in black and all but the head puppeteers wear black hoods as well. The idea is for you to ignore the puppeteers (black is the color of invisibility in Japanese theater) and just watch the puppets. As you can hopefully tell from that picture, the puppets are highly detailed. They also have a pretty remarkable range of movement and were able to perform a lot of really complicated moves. Thanks, of course, to the skilled puppeteers who, from what I heard, start training at age fifteen and can spend decades slowly working their way through the ranks before becoming head puppeteers. The show I saw was comprised of three scenes from two different plays. Like kabuki, bunraku performers these days rarely do entire plays, instead focusing on popular scenes from them. I'm not entirely sure what the reason is. Maybe full plays are too long? The stories were both based heavily on Japanese mythology (one involved a man marrying a kitsune (magical fox) and the other was about the legendary mountain hag). However, the puppeteers don't actually speak doing the performance. All the dialogue is supplied by a narrator who chants everything to the tune of a shamisen (a three stringed Japanese instrument). For some scenes, they have multiple narrators and shamisen players but in general it's just one of each. Trying to figure out chanted old fashioned Japanese isn't easy (there was actually a screen which displayed the words for the audience to read). Fortunately, I rented a very nice English audio guide which, while it didn't have a line by line translation, did a good job of explaining what was going on and also filling in some background information on the play and the legends it was based on. The whole thing lasted for around three hours, including a half hour intermission where everyone went and got lunch from the stalls in the theater (I got a Japanese bento (boxed lunch) with pickled vegetables and rice balls). All in all, it was quite an interesting way to spend a few hours.
By the time the play was over I only had a few hours left till sunset (for religious reasons, I don't shop, eat out, or anything like that after sunset on Fridays) and it was snowing even harder so I spent a bit of time walking around Shibuya looking for a big book store I thought was there. I never did find it (might have been confusing Shibuya with Shinjuku) but I did get an overnight bus ticket for my big trip at the end of the month, found a few nice stores, and got a couple of pictures of Shibuya in the snow. I spotted a couple of interesting signs while I was out too. Like this unusually named bar and this new take on an old saying.
|Sunday (the 13): Yokohama|
|I was originally thinking of going to Odaiba with some people from my congregation today but one was sick and another has a big test to study for so that didn't work out. Instead, I took advantage of the good weather and headed to Yokohama. Yokohama is a large port city a little to the South of Tokyo (actually, it could almost be a part of greater Tokyo). I went there several times when I was in Japan before (see my August 30th entry for my first visit there). I had two main stops planned for today, the first being Sankeien Garden. I was there before (see my Feb 10th entry) but it was really nice and I was having serious camera problems back then (it was actually that day I decided I needed a new one). Also, this was a good day to go since they were having their ume blossom festival (which I accidentally stumbled across during my last visit). Ume are Japanese plums and are often pickled and eaten as is or turned into a paste. Either way they're extremely sour and salty. They're also used to make a fairly popular alcohol (umeshu) and a pretty good ice cream. Strangely enough though, I've never seen them raw... Anyway, ume trees bloom pretty early in the year with white or pink flowers. While they're not quite as spectacular as Japan's famous cherry trees (which I'll doubtless be taking lots of pictures of come late March / early April), the ume blossoms are still very pretty. Aside from looking at the flowers, they had a little stage with music and various other performances throughout the day, which made for a nice background while walking around the garden. There was also a bonsai tree exhibit and some guys making mochi (a glutenous, uh, substance made from rice). Basically making mochi involves pounding very wet rice with mallets (with someone folding the mochi between strikes) and then lightly cooking the resulting paste. Mochi is very chewy and doesn't have a really strong taste. It's used in a lot of Japanese sweets and some soups. It's also eaten topped with things like kinako (soy flour) or anko (sweet azuki bean paste). The texture can take a little getting used to but I like mochi as do most of the people I've introduced it to.
Anyway, after pausing to listen to the music and eat some mochi, I started walking around the garden. Sankeien is a pretty nice garden in an of itself, but it also contains a few old buildings that were relocated there from various parts of Japan. Here, for example, is an old farm house. See the tea kettle in the "kitchen"? And here are some fancier houses complete with large tatami rooms and painted doors. There were also some old temples, a pagoda, and a tea stall. The stall was originally used to serve free tea to people visiting the garden. The practice stopped around World War II, but they started it up again in the 80's after they found the old tea kettle, though only during the ume viewing season. I love Japanese barley tea and it's even better when brewed in a big kettle over an open fire.
There's also a bamboo lined path leading to a viewing platform. Since the weather was so good I was even able to see Mt. Fuji, which was cool since the sky is rarely clear enough for that. It's too bad there's all that industrial stuff in the foreground, but I still got some pretty good views.
I spent a pleasant morning wandering around the garden before heading to my next destination. On the way, I ran into a bunch of signs advertising Google Android phones, which are only just now being released in Japan. There's a big ad campaign underway for them right now. It seems that both the Japanese guy from Inception and Darth Vader think they're awesome. Oh, and as long as we're talking about signs, it seems that Yokohama's subway is quite proud of its air conditioning, seeing as there were quite a lot of signs like this. Anyway, I eventually made it to the Yokohama Ramen Museum for a rather late lunch. Actually, although the name says museum, the brochure claims that it's the world's first food amusement park... Anyway, the inside is themed after 1958 Tokyo, complete with narrow alleys, old store fronts, and old movie posters (1958 was the year instant noodles were invented). Yes, Tokyo has changed quite a lot in 50 years. Though I suppose most US cities have as well... But that's besides the point. There isn't a whole lot of museum here other than a display (all in Japanese) tracing the history of ramen in Japan. The main draw is its nine ramen restaurants, each of which is a copy of a famous ramen restaurant from a different part of Japan. Each restaurant features its signature ramen and usually one or two variations along with a small bowl option for people who want to try out as many of the different kinds of ramen as possible. Actually, you even got a prize if you fill out a punch card by eating at every restaurant over the course of a month or two. There are four basic kinds of ramen: pork based, shoyu (soy sauce) based, miso based, and salt based though there's quite a lot of variation in the noodles, spices, and added ingredients. For someone like me, who doesn't eat pork, ramen is rather tricky since the pork based kind is the most common at many restaurants and pork slices are a pretty frequently used topping on ramen of any kind, but I was able to find a restaurant with a really great chicken ramen and the museum certainly gets high marks for atmosphere. It's also very popular around meal times. When I was there, most of the restaurants had waits of 15 - 40 minutes. For true ramen lovers, the gift shop even lets you create your own custom box of instant ramen, complete with your picture on the cover.
I didn't have anything else in particular planned for the rest of the day so I headed to downtown Yokohama. Aside from featuring this old ship and one of the world's largest ferris wheels (in the background), it's home to quite a lot of malls and shopping centers, like the one in Yokohama Landmark Tower (the tallest building in the city). It's a pretty fancy mall but it also has a Pokémon Center (which is much less crowded than the Tokyo one) and, since I was last there, they added a Shonen Jump store (featuring lots of graphic novels and merchandise based on popular Jump manga) and a store with a lot of Ghibli stuff. I also ran across a very oddly named Disney related shop and a big valentine's day event. As a note, Valentine's works differently in Japan. It's a day when women give chocolate to the guy they like and often their male friends and co-workers as well (there are different kinds of chocolate depending on whether they're giving it romantically or as an obligation). While most women buy chocolate, it's supposed to be a lot more romantic if you make it yourself. Guys don't have to give anything on Valentine's. Instead, they give presents next month on White Day. Incidentally, the introduction of Valentine's to Japan and the creation of White Day were the work of Japan's candy makers association.
Landmark Tower has quite a lot of restaurants too but since I'd had a pretty late lunch, I decided to just get dessert. They've got one of Japan's few Cold Stones (the ice cream chain where you get stuff mixed in with your ice cream). And it features some Japanese flavors and mix-ins that you won't find in the US (like green tea and azuki ice creams, matcha powder as a mix-in, etc). After that, I just slowly made my back to Yokohama Station, stopping in the occasional store along the way. I could have stayed a bit longer but I'd done everything I wanted to and it was a fairly long train ride back to my part of Tokyo so that seemed like a good time to wrap things up.
|Wednesday (the 16th): Getting Things Done|
It ended up snowing most of Monday night with the end result being that I had to trudge through a whole lot of slush on my way to work yesterday morning. The sun came out during the afternoon and melted all of it though. I've been working hard these last few days trying to get some things done. Monday afternoon I left work early to go back to the immigration center to get my visa, after which I immediately got a re-entry permit (just in case). Nothing too exciting there, just a lot of waiting in lines mostly. Then I hurried back to my apartment both because of the snow and because I needed to finish my rirekishou (Japanese resumes). It took a while but I managed to do so. Then, I left work early again on Tuesday (though this time the whole school closed early due to a big teachers' meeting so I didn't have to get special permission) and headed to the city office to pick up my gaijin card, get it changed to reflect my new visa, and sign up for Japan's national health insurance (a requirement, and a little tricky since all the forms were in Japanese). So yeah, there was a lot of forms and a lot more waiting in line before I finally finished. At that point, I rushed back to my apartment to pick up my rirekishou, made a mad dash for the post office, and managed to arrive a few minutes before it closed so I could send them out. Which is good because the post office is only open until 5 and only on work days, making it impossible for me to go most of the time. Now that I finally managed to get all of that finished I can relax a bit, though just a bit since I've got a lot of online job applications I need to work on and the King of the Forums contest will be starting on the PV forums next week... But anyway, I'm glad to have the visa and rirekishou stuff done.
I also spent a good part of yesterday and today giving individual tests to my first grade classes. Basically I'd be out in the hall with a bunch of cards with questions on them then the students would come out one at a time, choose three cards, and then I'd ask them the questions. The majority of them did fairly well, and it was fun (though a bit cold since the hallways here are freezing). Luck certainly played a part though, as some of the questions were a lot easier than others.
Random Japan Comment: Personal Pronouns
|Friday (the 18th): Pets and Stuff|
On a random note, I've noticed that in the school where I'm working, there are more girls than boys (usually four or five) in all the first year classes and more boys than girls in all the second year classes. The third year classes, however, are pretty evenly distributed. As long as I'm talking about demographics, each student has a partner in class (they have their desks next to each other and work together in pair based activities). They don't choose their partner, they're assigned by the school. Though I'm not really sure if they're assigned randomly or handpicked. And, whenever possible, pairs are always boy/girl. There are only same gender pairs if there aren't enough boys or girls. Finally, if there's an odd number of students, the last one will be added to one of the other pairs to form a group of three.
Random Japan Comment: Dogs & Cats
|Saturday (the 19th): Eating Out|
|As a quick append to Friday's RJC on dogs and cats, I saw an ad on the subway for an amusement park for dog owners. It's a whole park (with food and rides and everything) for people to take their dogs to. There were lots of photos of happy people riding carnival type rides while holding their dogs. Maybe people here really are a bit too serious about their pets...
Moving on, being Saturday I didn't do anything too exciting during the day. After services though, I went out to eat with some people from my congregation. We got tempura, which I'm usually not all that fond of, but it was actually pretty good. Guess it's all in how it's made. While I mostly talked to them in Japanese (both for practice and since none of them know much English), I spent some time asking Hunbee (Or is it Hanbee? Hanbi? I have no idea how to properly Romanize Korean...) a bunch of random English questions because she has another test coming up. Unfortunately, English isn't really her strongest subject (at least I hope it's not). It's too bad drawing isn't part of the test since since she does some pretty good manga...
|Sunday (the 20th): Around Tokyo|
|I heard that there's a flea market once a month in Akihabara. Because of the location, I naturally figured it'd be geared towards anime and game stuff and it fit pretty well into one of my Tokyo day plans so off I went. The flea market itself is a lot smaller than the one I usually go to at Oikeibajo but there was a lot of anime stuff (larger figurines, mainly). There was some clothing and knickknacks too but surprisingly not much in the way of electronics. It wasn't bad, but unless you're in the market for a lot of large figurines (like the Figma series and the ones you can win in UFO catcher machines), the Oikeibajo flea market is much better.
I was tempted to stay in Akihabara for a while and do some shopping but a lot of stores weren't open yet and I had an itinerary so I headed off to my next destination. Or I tried, anyway. I ended up missing a turn and wondering around for a while before I found it. I did spot a weird little sign or poster or whatever you want to call it though. I eventually decided to use the GPS on my phone and that led me to the right place. Namely, the Koshikawa Botanical Garden. This probably isn't the best time of year to visit, but they did have a nice ume grove so I got pictures of several different types of ume blossoms. There was actually quite a lot of other plants in bloom as well. There was even a single early blooming sakura (Japanese cherry) tree. Oh, and I can't forget these odd yellow flowers, which also grew on a tree of some kind.
On the way to my next stop, I went through a rather strangely decorated subway station. It felt like it had a bit of a space station vibe going. Or something like that, anyway. Fortunately the Koshikawa Korakuen Garden was much easier to find than the botanical gardens. Dating back to the 1600's, it's the oldest surviving garden in Tokyo and there's a pretty nice walking path that winds its way through the whole thing. Of course, there were a lot of flowers, primarily ume. There were even some rice paddies (though it's a little too early in the year to start planting yet), which were put in long ago to teach a princess about the life and work of the country's farmers. These days, they serve the same purpose, albeit for local school kids instead of princesses. I had a nice stroll and I'd say it's the best of the Tokyo gardens that I've visited.
While there, I was getting pretty hungry since getting lost earlier had put me behind schedule, so I got what looked like a roll or bun of some sort at a shop in the garden. The lady repeatedly warned me that it was sweet, which I thought was kind of odd seeing as there lot's of sweet breads in Japan. Turns out, it wasn't bread at all but something like a roll shaped piece of dried honey comb. It's not something I've seen before and, unsurprisingly, it was pretty good but yeah, a bit sweet to just munch on by yourself...
The last stop on my list was Tokyo Dome City, which is basically the area around Tokyo Dome (the baseball stadium where the Tokyo Giants play). I was there once before with my dad (see my August 17th entry) but we didn't really see much other than the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame and it's supposed to be a nice area to walk around, with lots of shops and restaurants and stuff. As you can see from that photo, there's some rides as well and a few other attractions including a circus of some sort. Unfortunately, the rides were closed, though I'm not sure if it was due to something about today, the time of year, or the iffy looking weather. Since it was kind of late for lunch, I got some bread (real bread this time) with satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potato) and sesame seeds in it, then walked around a bit. There was a Shonen Jump store there like the one in Yokohama but other than that and the restaurants it was mostly clothing, which doesn't interest me all that much. But I didn't go to Tokyo Dome just to look at the stores. Tokyo Dome City is home to LaQua which is one of Tokyo's most well known onsen (hot springs) spas, along with Odaiba's Edo Onsen Montigiri (see my January 20th entry). While I've been to Edo Onsen a couple of times, I've never been to LaQua so I wanted to give it a try. While Edo Onsen is kind of a theme park of sorts with a faux old Tokyo shopping and dining area and the like, LaQua is more of a straight up spa. In addition to the baths there's some special treatments you can pay for along with a gym (though you need a membership to use it) and a little cafe.
But it's the baths that really matter so, moving on... After stowing your shoes and getting a wristband and towel token, you go and exchange your token which gets you a set of towels and shirt and pants to wear around the locker room, cafe, etc. While Edo Onsen has a few English explanation signs scattered about, LaQua doesn't. Though if you've been to an onsen or bath house before you should know the drill. The only snag I ran into was figuring out my locker, but that didn't take too long. Once you've changed you can always hang out in the locker room and watch TV or head straight to the baths where you naturally strip down and bring in nothing but your small towel. There's soap, shampoo, and conditioner provided in the washing area and after you'll all clean you're ready for the baths. The inside area has a large hot bath and several smaller ones (hot with jet massagers, really hot, cold, and really cold), three saunas (hot with a TV, really hot, and one that they use for some kind of class), and an area where you can pay extra for some sort of massage or something like that.
On a related note, if you read my RJC on bathrooms (see the April 13th entry), you may recall that I mentioned some public men's rooms are rather lacking in privacy and surmised that in Japan it isn't considered a big deal if a woman sees a man naked (the reverse, however, is a completely different story). Apparently I was right about that. See, the massage staff at LaQua (or at least all the ones I saw) are female. And while the men getting massages do wear a pair of trunks, the men's massage area opens right off of the main bath chamber (where all the naked men are walking around between baths) with no door or curtains or anything. Kinda strange... But moving on, there was also a nice outdoor bathing area (complete with rustic rock lined baths and some bamboo) with a hot pool and a really hot pool. And that about covers it. Other than that, your wristband can be used to pay for vending machine drinks and the like and you just pay the grand total when you leave.
If I had to compare LaQua with Edo Onsen... Edo Onsen is more of an experience and has more fancy baths and special treatments you can get. It's also got all the restaurants and some entertainment and stuff. And it's a good bit bigger, can't forget that. To contrast, LaQua is more straight forward and refined, and less crowded. Though it's also much less English friendly. They've got some sort of health club membership, which might be nice if you lived nearby. For someone visiting though, I'd give Edo Onsen the nod since they both cost about the same price and it gives you a lot more to see and do for your money.
Finally, I wrapped up the day with some sushi and a couple hours browsing around in Akihabra before everything closed. And that's it, for now anyway... I'm off work Thursday, Friday, and all of next week so there'll be quite a lot coming up...
|Wednesday (the 23rd): Preparing for Tests|
|This has been an interesting week at work (or half week, since my unexplained vacation starts tomorrow). Monday I left my school early in order to spend some time at the Narashino International Association. Basically, my job was to hang out for a while and talk with Japanese people who wanted to practice their English. Apparently, all the ALTs in Narashino take turns going there. The Japanese people where mostly older men and women who had either lived abroad in the past or had taken up English as a hobby. There was one guy who had spent fifteen years living abroad in several different countries due to his work and, between work and leisure, had visited 59 different countries. There was no lesson structure or anything so I basically spent a little over an hour chatting with them about whatever they wanted to talk about.
Then, aside from classes, I spent some time yesterday helping prepare the upcoming English tests (proof reading the questions, mainly). These aren't entrance exams, just regular end of the school year tests. Thing is, the school year doesn't end until late march even though the tests start tomorrow. It seems that, in Japan, the students have a few weeks of classes left after their final exams are finished. I'm not really sure what that is, and it seems like a bad idea (if the exams are finished, the students don't really have a good reason to pay attention in class), but that's the way it's done.
Then today I recorded testing tapes with a couple of the English teachers. Basically I sat in a room with the other teacher and a tape recorder and read a bunch of questions, dialogues, and the like. The tapes will be played to the students during the listening portion of their English tests. I hope the kids do well. I think most of them should, though there's a few who seem pretty hopeless when it comes to English.
On a different note, there was something on the lunch menu today called "candied cheese". As far as I could tell, it was just normal bite sized pieces of cheese (colby, maybe) like you can find on any party platter except that these were circular and individually wrapped into little plastic wrappers just like mints. While I love bite sized pieces of cheese, this was a little ridiculous. I mean, I know good cheese is hard to find in Japan but still...
|Thursday (the 24th): Fish and Electronics|
|Today is the first day of my vacation that the Narashino Board of Education probably gave me so they could count me as a part time employee and therefor pay me less. But hey, a vacation is a vacation. My big trip is next week so I didn't want to do anything too elaborate today and it's been a while since I spent some serious time in Akihabara so...
My first stop was actually Tsukiji, home of Tokyo's famous fish market. I'd been there once before but it was right after arriving in Japan and really early in the morning at that so I wasn't really at my best. While the fish market itself is all well and good, in my opinion, the collection of shopping streets right out of it is much more fun to explore. Naturally, there's a ton of stalls selling seafood and some other types of food as well (ume and the egg omelets used to make tamago sushi seemed pretty popular), along with some stalls selling kitchen utensils and the like. And, of course, the restaurants. Unsurprisingly, they all specialized in seafood. Sushi was quite popular but there were quite a lot of other seafood dishes available as well. I ended up getting some very good sushi for breakfast and then headed into the fish market itself. The thing to keep in mind about the Tsukiji fish market is, although it has become a bit of a tourist attraction, it's primarily a place of business where store and restaurant owners (and the occasional ordinary person) come to find the best and freshest seafood. So it's busy, the floors are wet, and you need to always watch out for workers and vehicles as you wind your way through the narrow aisles. But, if you obey the rules, and don't mind being surrounded by a whole lot of dead (and a few not so dead) sea creatures, it makes for an interesting place to walk through. I spotted a few sea creatures I never knew existed and I looked at a fairly small portion of the market. Outside of the market, I paid a quick visit to the Namiyoke Inari Shrine. It was built when they were first reclaiming the water covered land that became Tsukiji and supposedly helped protect the area from flooding. Now, it's a popular place for sailors and fishermen to pray. They've also got a couple of giant lion heads, which are used in festivals.
Afterwards, I took a wrong turn on my way to the subway station and ended up walking a bit further than I otherwise would have, but I did get a nice view from a bridge I crossed along the way. Once I finally got back on the right track, I went to my friend Yehoshua's restaurant for lunch (which I normally can't do because of work) and then it was off to Akihabara for the rest of the day. All in all, I had a really good shopping trip. It seems like every time I spend a day in Akihabara I come across a really great store or two that I never knew existed. Plus, I found an awesome game and music store which I remembered from my last time in Japan but hadn't been able to find.
Sadly, the day took a much more somber turn when I returned home to learn that my grandfather, whose health had been declining rapidly over the past week, had passed away. It was expected, and he went peacefully, but I'll really miss him...
|Friday (the 25th): Nostalgia|
|I had been thinking about taking half a day or so to visit Koga and Nogi, the towns were I lived and worked (respectively) during my previous stay in Japan. Today had seemed like a good day for it plus, as it turned out, my bank (the one that I had so much trouble signing up for an account at; see my October 3rd entry) misprinted my name on my bankbook which was making it hard for my new company to deposit my salary so I had to go to Nogi anyway to get that fixed. Watching the scenery change from towering office and apartment buildings to smaller apartment buildings, decent sized houses, and some rice and vegetables fields reminded me just how far out of Tokyo I used to be. While I do like the convenience of being in the city (even if it's just on the outskirts), I have to admit that I do like the quiet, lack of crowds, and nature found in the smaller towns and suburbs. Anyway, I missed the bank at first, but I did find the preschools where I used to teach on Wednesdays and the park were I used to eat lunch on those days. Along with the store where I'd buy lunch and the Nogi Board of Education, where I had a weekly special needs class (also on Wednesdays). I eventually did find the bank as well and they quickly fixed my bankbook. And, while I never thought to do it before, I snapped a picture of one of Nogi's fancy manhole covers. Koga has some too, only with a different design.
Since it used to take me about half an hour to bike between my apartment and main school and the preschools, I took the train to Koga instead and walked from there. Koga hasn't changed much either, aside from a few new stores. My old apartment building looks the same as ever from the outside. Gotta say, while the heating in that apartment was horrible, it had a lot more space and a nicer bathroom than the place I have now. Had its own washing machine too. Anyway, the plaza where I used to do all my shopping has undergone a few changes. The drug store and a couple of clothing stores closed, as has, sadly, the sushi restaurant I used to eat at every week. In their place was a Book-Off, massage parlor, and flea market shop (take the stuff from a flea market and put it on tables in a store and that's pretty much what this way). The Book-Off is a nice addition and the flea market shop was interesting but I could go without the massage parlor, especially since it's the one that replaced my sushi restaurant. The 100 Yen store and grocery store were as great as ever though. The grocery store especially is a lot bigger and nicer than the ones near me now (except for that really big one which is a bit too far away for me to shop at).
Next, I made a brief stop at Nogi Shrine, which is where the Nogi Matsuri is held (see my December 3rd entry). Speaking of which, it's too bad I wasn't here at the right time for last year's festival. I'd probably have running into some of my old students and co-workers there...
Finally, I paid a visit to my old workplace, Nogi Elementary. I got there just as recess was starting. While three of the six grades I taught have already graduated and the fourth will be moving on in another month, I spotted a few students who looked familiar (though it was a bit hard to tell at a distance). It seems that dodgeball is still the game of choice at recess and I hung out for a bit and watched before making my way back to the train station. I was rather disappointed that the current ALT wasn't out playing with the kids like I used to. I hope he/she normally goes out with them. While I didn't go into the school or talk to anyone (I don't work there anymore and I don't know what their schedule was like today so I didn't want to intrude), it was interesting being back. While I'm glad I left Japan when I did the first time (a lot of important things happened while I was in the US), and I'm still positive I made the right choice, I really did enjoy my time at Nogi Elementary and there'll probably always be a little part of me that wishes I'd stayed...
Speaking of moving on, before returning to my apartment I made a stop in Shibuya to pay my rent and turn in my move out notice. While I'm not positive I'll be returning the US in April, there's a good chance it'll happen (I'd have to get a game job here or find a really well paying teaching job to get me to stay). And, even if I do stay in Japan, I'll want an apartment much closer to my job.
Finally, I got back and started working on things, such as getting ready for my week long trip (I leave tomorrow night) and finding hotels for when my parents visit in April. And, of course, writing this travelogue, though I was interrupted by an internet outage part way through...
|Saturday (the 26th): The Night Bus|
|Today started out normally enough but after services, instead of returning to my apartment, it was off to Tokyo station. I hung out with Yunsoo, Unbee, and Hanbee for a bit in the underground mall near the station then, after they left, got some udon and basically just killed time for a while. Speaking of which, see this statue? My dad took my picture next to it on my first night in Japan. Not sure why, since it wasn't my idea. And it wasn't all that great of a picture anyway so it never made it onto PV but yeah. I never did remember where the thing was and tonight I just happened to run into it.
Anyway, eventually it was time to head outside and find my bus. Yep, bus. I had three options for getting to Shikoku. Bus, train, and plane, and the bus was the cheapest by 5000 Yen. It was also the slowest, but it's an overnight bus and arrives around 7:30 in the morning so that doesn't really matter. The bus itself was pretty big, with two stories and nice reclining seats. It was pretty empty at first, but quite a lot of people got on at the next station, almost filling it up.
At around 11:30 PM, we stopped for half an hour at a roadside rest stop. I'd actually heard a bit about Japan's big fancy rest stops so I decided to take a look around. And yeah, it was big and fancy. The whole place was the size of a small mall and had a convenience store (open 24 hours a day like all Japanese convenience stores), large souvenir shop (also open 24 hours a day), and about a dozen restaurants (a couple of which were open 24 hours a day as well). There was a sign saying that there's a good view of Mt. Fuji from the second floor but, of course, it was way too late at night to see anything. After that I tried to get some sleep though I wasn't overly successful (I usually need to be dead tired to sleep in any sort of moving vehicle and even then it's tough). I zoned out for a while but I'm not sure if I ever really managed to fall asleep.
|Sunday (the 27th): Takamatsu|
|My first view of Shikoku was out the bus window early in the morning. There were lots of pine trees and hills. Towns were small with fairly large houses and a lot of gardens and rice patties. Certainly a big change from Tokyo. Things got a bit more urban when we reached the outskirts of Takamatsu, one of the largest cities on Shikoku with around 670,000 people. That said, it feels slower and more rural than cities like Tokyo, Yokohama, and even Kyoto. For example, I got of the bus near the main train station at around 7:30. I was all set to take a train across the city to my first destination (it opens early) only to find that the trains didn't actually start running till around 8:20. Weekend or not, I've never seen that before. Guess Shikoku is less rushed than Honshu (Japan's main island, home of Tokyo, Kyoto, and every place in Japan I've been before). I thought about waiting but according to the map board my destination was only about a mile and a half away (a bit over two kilometers) without any weird twists or turns so I stashed my backpack in a locker (I decided to pack light and put everything in my pack, instead of bringing a suitcase, so it's pretty heavy) and headed off, stopping only to grab some bread along the way. I'm glad I walked. I ended up arriving around the same time I would have had I waited for the train and I got to look around the city a bit on the way. For example, here's Takamatsu's manhole cover design (I think it has something to do with a famous battle that was fought in the area). And here's a whole bunch of school kids hurrying off to some field trip or special event (no other reason they'd all be in uniform on a Sunday).
Eventually I arrived at Ritsurin Koen. It was built in 1625 (though it was expanded and improved frequently over the following 120 years or so) and is one of the most famous gardens in Japan. It's supposed to offer a new view around every bend and lives up to the hype. It's without question one of the two best gardens I've seen in Japan (the other being Korakoen in Okayama (see my April 9th entry)). Naturally, the ume trees were in full bloom. Even got my picture taken with them. But I've seen tons of ume blossoms lately (though not really deep reddish pink ones like these). But what was really cool about this particular ume grove was the little green birds that were flitting about from tree to tree. They almost seemed to be drinking the nectar from the flowers. Apparently they're native to this area and really love ume trees. But they weren't the only birds in the garden. Moving on, Ritsurin Koen is set at the base of Mt. Shuin (more of a pair of hills than a mountain), which makes for a very nice backdrop. It's very large, featuring numerous ponds and islands and many different types of plants and trees (this particular one is supposed to look like a crane standing atop a turtle). There were some old buildings (all originally built for the garden) as well, like this tea house, and lots of different types of bridges. Oh, see this waterfall? It's actually artificial and was created for the lord to sit and watch when he rested in the garden. Thing is, there's no natural water source for it. These days, the water is supplied by pipes but originally servants had to carry buckets of water halfway up the mountain and pour them into the channel. The garden also houses some nice folk art displays (it seems various types of wood and bamboo carving are very big here) and was just an amazing place to walk around and take in the sights (as a note, the garden is huge and this picture shows maybe a quarter of it at best).
I spent somewhere around three hours there before heading off to my next stop in the town of Yashima. A rather famous battle was fought there but I don't have time to go into Japanese history right now. There were, however, a lot of shrines and statues on the nearby hills dedicated to famous figures from said battle. I got a rather nice view from one. But my real destination was Shikoku Mura. It's one of those outdoor parks / museums where they relocate old buildings. This one specialized specifically in old building from Shikoku island and is set on a forested hillside. Soon after entering, I crossed a traditional vine bridge. Since parts of Shikoku are covered in steep gorges, bridges like this used to be quite common, though these days there are hardly any left. This particular one is reinforced with steel wires but originally they were nothing but vines which were replaced every three years. The vines seemed really sturdy, though the wooden planks were spaced unevenly so you really had to watch your feet. The bridge led me to an old kabuki stage, built by farmers to entertain themselves during festivals and holidays. Speaking of holidays, since Hina Matsuri (Girls' Day) is coming up, it was covered with elaborate sets of Hina Matsuri dolls. There were lots of old farm houses from several hundred years back and some things I hadn't seen before like an old sugar mill (part of Shikoku used to be very famous for its sugar, with the other famous crop in the area being olives) and a stone wall for keeping wild boars and deer out of the farmers' fields. See that hole in front of the wall? It was to trap animals who were looking for a way past. That they, they wouldn't get through and the farmers would get some meat too.
In the middle of the park was an art gallery commemorating some famous Japanese artist, though it did have a couple of works by famous Europeans too. The coolest thing about it, however, was this big water feature. Moving on through trees and bamboo, I come across an old lighthouse and some lighthouse keepers' houses. They were the newest things in the park, being only around hundred years old. Back in the older section, here's a vat for steaming tree bark to make traditional Japanese paper and here's an example of old fashioned plumbing. Oh, you know those straw roofs on the farm houses? They have to be replaced every so often in the traditional way. There was also a nice arched bridge and a little water shrine nearby. This building was a government rice storehouse. See, in the old days the peasants in Japan didn't eat a lot of rice. To many (the government included) wealth was measured primarily in rice rather than gold. Taxes were often paid in rice and whatever rice the farmers had left would be sold, leaving them to eat cheaper grains like barley, buckwheat, and millet. Speaking of food, here's a building where soy sauce used to be made and here's an old fisherman's hut.
By the time I'd finished exploring the village, it was way past lunch time and I was starving. Turns out that Takamatsu's specialty is sanuki udon and there was a nice restaurant set in an old building right outside Shikoku Mura. I got bukkake udon which is udon noodles in broth with green onions and ginger (though the exact ingredient vary a bit by restaurant). I have to say, that was probably the best udon I've ever had. The fresh ginger was an especially nice touch.
After that it was back to Takamatsu to retrieve my backpack and check into my hotel. For some reason, it was cheaper for me to get a twin room than a single, so I actually have a bigger room than I'd get in a lot of US hotels, which is certainly strange here in Japan. But I didn't stay at the hotel for long. I had a bit of time left so I figured I might as well see a nearby park that houses the ruins of Takamatsu castle (one of the few Japanese castles built on the seashore. Not much is left other then the moat and some guard towers. There was a garden too, but after Ritsurin Koen it wasn't particularly impressive. Then I walked through a rather large collection of shopping arcades looking for a place to eat supper. As a note, it seems that most stores here close a lot earlier than in the Tokyo area. Walking around, it was clear that sanuki udon is the popular food here. In fact, it was kind of hard to find anything else so I got some more udon for supper, though this one had beef, egg, and some different vegetables in it. So that makes three of my last four meals udon... I like udon, especially here, but hopefully I can find something else tomorrow...
|Monday (the 28th): Kotohira|
|I woke to to find that it was raining fairly hard but I wasn't about to let that ruin my plans for the day (Thursday is really the only day I absolutely need to have good weather) so I got my things and headed to the town of Kotohira, which is at the base of some hills about an hour from Takamatsu. Kotohira is most famous for the Kotohiragu Shrine, which requires following a path containing 785 steps up a mountain. The first part of the path is lined with souvenir shops and restaurants (sanuki udon, mostly). Almost immediately after starting, I headed off to the side to pay a visit to Japan's oldest surviving kabuki theater. Here's the entry area. The raised platform with the cushion is where the ticket seller sat. The very low door just past it is where the common folk would enter (wealthy and important patrons had a full sized door of their own). The stage is still used for shows a few days a year and everything is done by hand. That includes the trap doors, raising platforms, and revolving stage (the mechanisms for which are operated by several strong men who hang out below the stage. One of the workers there gave me a short tour of the place. He didn't speak any English but I was able to follow most of what said and it was a neat building to look around. Once I'd finished there, it was time to get serious about climbing to the shrine which meant lots of stairs, though there were a lot of level bits as well. On the way up, I came across a stable with some sacred horses. And, if real sacred horses aren't enough, there were a couple other shrines with horse statues too. A bit further up was a building where the monks used to meet with important visitors. What makes it special is the elaborately painted sliding doors lining each room. They were very impressive, but no photos were allowed.
Since I hadn't eaten anything all day, I stopped at a cafe shortly after to grab a snack and get out of the rain for a bit. While there, I played around with a little Japanese boy who was there with his family and then it was back to climbing. Here's Asashiha Shrine, which is a little farther up the mountain. Then, after another bunch of stairs, I finally reached the main Kotohiragu Shrine. As a note, Kotohiragu has been a very important shrine for something like 1000 years or more and many people from all over Japan used to make pilgrimages to it (and still do, for that matter). Some who weren't able to travel to the shrine themselves would send dogs with notes tied around their neck telling of their destination. The people who found such dogs were expected to feed them and then send them on their way. Though I have no idea how the dogs knew where to go...
In addition to the main shrine, there was also a shrine next to it which is dedicated to safe ocean travel. It's lined with photos of the various vessels whose captains credit the shrine for their safe voyages. And then there was the view. While the rain wasn't so great for walking, the view of the town shrouded in mist was pretty spectacular.
Then, since I was there (and hadn't climbed enough stairs yet), I continued onwards towards to Okunoyashiro Shrine, which required following a trail with another four hundred and some stairs (for a grand total of 1,368). Along the way, I caught up to an older Japanese woman who was also making the climb. We ended up walking the rest of the way up to the shrine (where I got to watch the clouds roll over the valley below) and back down together, chatting about Japan, the US, my trip, and the like. I got to say, while I still make mistakes (many of which I catch shortly after), I'm getting fairly happy with my conversational Japanese. At least when it comes to your more standard topics (branch off into some subjects and I'll be completely lost).
After we parted near the bottom(which was right about when it stopped raining), I got a late lunch (more sanuki udon, of course) looked around the souvenir shops a bit (and some other things, like Doctor Fish, where you let fish clean your feet) and, since I had some spare time, checked out a sake museum (FYI: I think that bottle is actually pouring real sake). The museum detailed the traditional sake making process. It was pretty interesting, but I'm glad there was an English pamphlet since my vocabulary of Japanese words relating to sake creation isn't all that good). Predictably, I was given some sake to taste at the end (the museum is part of a brewery). Either it was really good sake or the occasional sips I've taken once in a while to be polite have gotten me a little more used to alcohol. I still didn't like it by any means, but I didn't grimace at the taste either. After that it was time to head back to Takamatsu, though I got one last picture from the platform at Kotohira station.
Back in Takamatsu, I spent some time sorting photos and working on today's travelogue entries and went out for supper (soba and yakitori this time, for a welcome change) but that was about it. Tomorrow I'm off to another part of Shikoku so I've got to get ready.
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