Oh dear! Nara!

A short day trip away from Kyoto lies Nara, a small town famous for its deer and its temples. When Nara was founded, the deer were considered sacred, so they were allowed to live there in peace with the monks. Nowadays, the deer live like fat kings, fed constantly by hoards of tourists. This was probably one of our favorite things to do in Japan so far. We fed the deer, tried out our meager natural horsemanship skills on them, and I guess we saw some temples too, but those were not nearly as cute as the deer.

“U buys my cookie?”

“Grass? Pffft! Give us teh good stuff! We wantz cookeez!”

Jeff communes with the deer:

The ones with antlers are a little scary, because they swing those things around a lot. But the antlers are also really fun to touch — they have the texture of a pussy willow!

Beebs!

OK, now boring temple stuff. This was a neat roof on one of the temple buildings:

This is the center chamber of the largest wooden building in the world. It’s now 2/3 the size it once was. I think it looks like a giant samurai helmet.

Inside the temple is a 16 meter tall Buddha, which is one of the largest bronze statues in the world. It was pretty big, but you can’t really tell from photos.

At the end of the day, we wandered back toward the station, and along the way we found a cicada. Cicadas are a kind of bug that make an incessant buzzing, squealing noise. It was about two inches long, and actually quite pretty, but I think it was dying.

We made the forty-minute train trip back to Kyoto still a bit giddy from all the deer we’d pet that day, and set our sights on the travels to come.

Zen we went to ze park!

We got up early and went to the Golden Temple, in northwest Kyoto. The temple grounds were actually quite small, but it’s still notable since the temple is plated in gold.

We only spent about twenty minutes at the temple, and then went in search of an ATM and a zen garden. We found the zen garden, but not an ATM, so were without the funds necessary to enter the garden. Rebuffed and hungry, we got on a free bus and rode to Nijo Castle, where we found both an ATM and much-needed elevensies at 7-11. Elevensies, a meal between breakfast and lunch, has proved to be the most important meal of the day for us. Without elevensies there are bouts of pouting, flopping onto park benches, diminished problem-solving skills and inability to make logical decisions.

Refueled, we stormed Nijo Castle. This is a corner tower of the castle wall, which was surrounded by a moat.

There was a cormorant fishing the moat, and unlike in China, we could take pictures of the cormorant fishing for free!

Nijo Castle was built in 1603 by a shogun (from my understanding a sort of general-king). The floors were specially designed to be squeaky and he had hidden compartments for guards so that nobody could whack him. Talk about paranoid. The castle’s interiors are open to visitors — minus shoes, umbrella and cameras — and made for a lovely, shaded tour. Every room in the castle is covered in murals of scenes from nature, and many even have gold plating.

The castle grounds are quite large and have many gardens. At one point, we broke out our auxiliary elevensies, Kit Kat bars. Unfortunately, it was probably in the 90s at the very least, and they were liquid. So we trekked onward.

Short people, big walls:

Having had a successful castle visit, we had burgers for lunch and journeyed to the western outskirts of town where there are many parks and temples. When we got off the subway train, Jeff noticed a large building that said “piano museum” on the side, so despite it not being in the guide book or agenda, we went in. The lobby was actually a ticket office for some kind of special train ride called the “romance train.” The romance train was actually just a rickety wooden train, but I guess one man’s rickety wooden compartment of death is another’s rose petal-strewn, candle-lit French restaurant.

Once we finally found the museum, we discovered that it was one room with two grand pianos, a few old train engines, some chandeliers and one display case of small, crystal figurines. I guess it should be called “random stuff that fancy white people like,” not “piano museum.”On the up side, one the pianos was a Bösendorfer, and Jeff reached across the velvet rope and touched the leg, which made him happy.

Outside, Jeff worked it for the camera at the Hummer that was also displayed at the “piano museum.”

After that we window shopped and walked around the neighborhood, which was strewn with gardens and temples. There’s also a monkey park, but we decided against paying for monkeys when you can get them for free in other parts of Japan.

We crossed the big river that runs through the city and walked along the shore.

After a long walk, we went to our first zen garden. See? There’s lines in pebbles and everything!

Some moss that looks like tiny pine trees:

Relaxed from our zen experience, we headed home. On the way, we saw this weird fruit:

Ten points to anyone who can tell me what this is!

Zoom! To Kyoto!

Our first Shinkansen bullet train experience was from Odwara, near Hakone, to Kyoto, where we’ve been for several days. These trains, which are really common in Japan, run at about 150 mph, and let me tell you, when they zoom past the station, it’s pretty terrifying to be on the platform watching. Riding them, however, is quite pleasant, very smooth and quiet.

The kyoto train station is really amazing, so once we got in we had lunch there and browsed around. The attached mall has 11 stories of escalators going up in a row, and there’s also two basement levels of stores! The station was designed by Hiroshi Hara who apparently is famous, and it’s pretty futuristic and weird. Here are some night shots of two of the buildings:

Our hostel is only a few minute’s walk from the station, so we dropped our bags there and then went sightseeing in the neighborhood. The hostel is actually only a few blocks from two huge — and free! — temples, so we spent some time at one of them. It’s often customary to take off your shoes before walking around temples in Japan, and walking about barefoot in the sweltering heat was really pleasant.

The floorboards had neat patches over knots:

A nice old tree on crutches:

The temple also had a nice, air-conditioned room for guests to rest in. The bathroom was surprisingly futuristic, with a automatic faucet-soap dispenser-hand dryer. The soap was that foamy kind and I accidentally turned the hand dryer on, spraying myself all over with soap foam. I am such a bumpkin.

So, after our exciting foray we got dinner and went to rest up at the hostel for our first full day of Kyoto sightseeing.

Public Nakies!

Japan is one of the few countries in which people bathe together. It’s traditional for families to bathe together, and public bathhouses are still a fixture in big cities and small towns alike. So since it’s still such a large part of the culture, any self-respecting traveler has to at least try the public bath experience once.

Since hot spring baths —onsen in Japanese — are pretty much the biggest attraction in Hakone, Jeff and I were doubly obligated to try it out, so we manned up on our second night there and decided to take the plunge at the hotel’s public baths. First, we read our guide’s bath etiquette section a few times, trying to convince ourselves that we would be as suave as possible despite being, well, naked! Traditionally, one showers off and cleans thoroughly on a stool outside the bath itself. Once clean, you can soak in the steaming hot tub. Often  families will use one tub of hot water and take turns showering and then soaking in the bath.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: no big deal! We’ve all got the same bits and pieces, we’ve all gone swimming at the public pool. But when you’re in another country and another culture, I can assure you, insecurities skyrocket. You wouldn’t believe the possibilities for awkward situations to occur while fully clothed, so stripping down wasn’t easy.

Making the task a little easier was the separate facilities for men and women. After I entered the locked room, a sea of questions washed over me (where do I leave my towel? Do I bring my shower shoes into the bathing room? When do I get naked? Where do I leave my clothes? Will other women belittle my bits and pieces) I dilly dallied until I could furtively watch another woman’s example, then happily got about the business of getting clean.

Once I discovered that the hotel had Tsubaki shampoo, conditioner and body wash in the showers, two kinds of lotion in the locker rooms, vanities with hair dryers and a massage chair, I was sold on the experience. It was just like going to a spa (OK, I’ve never been to a spa, but I can imagine what it’s like), except that I was completely naked in front of other women, and I got to soak in a giant outdoor stone bath under the stars.

Needless to say, the first time was a little awkward and nerve wracking, but after that I couldn’t get enough. Jeff and I even went to another bath house in the town to get a well-rounded experience. I definitely recommend onsen to anyone going to Japan — added bonus: you get to see all the weird things that happen to a body as it ages! Relaxation and education in biology/physics/hygiene in one experience!

Hakone trek

The big thing to do in Hakone is to do a circuit through the region, riding trains, cable cars, boats and buses along the way. So, after a modestly early start, we ventured out on our grand adventure the second day in Hakone.

First, we rode the slow mountain-climbing train. The train makes three switchbacks as it goes up the mountains, and completes tight 30 meter curves, a rarity in the world.

After about 40 minutes, the train reached the end of it’s tracks and we disembarked at a small town to look around.

Even though it’s the height of tourist season, it wasn’t too crowded. The Hakone region’s handicraft specialty is wooden trick boxes and intricate inlaid wood patterns, so we browsed shops and Jeff played with the trick boxes. They also had lots of tiny doll furniture and doll tea sets, which were of course insanely cute.

Next, we road a tram up the mountainside.

From the top of the tram we took a gondola through the mountains. This gondola was much slower and less scary than the gondolas in China.

From the gondola, you can supposedly see Mount Fuji, but I didn’t see any such thing. We did, however, cross over a large mountainside of hot springs, where we disembarked to look around.

On the mountainside we hiked for a bit and saw lots of stinky hot springs. The folklore around Hakone is that the hot springs are health elixirs, and eating a hard boiled egg that was cooked in the hot springs can add seven years to your life. So, naturally the mountainside was covered in egg stands where you could purchase the black eggs. We didn’t partake, but most people did.

They had a special pulley system to transfer egg cartons up and down the mountain:

Since we’ve both been to Yellowstone, and it was pretty stinky at the hot springs, we hopped back on the gondola and rode down to the lake, where we caught our next mode of transportation.

Yes, we rode a pirate ship to cross the lake. If you think that’s random, wait till you hear some of the other attractions that abound in Hakone. There is a Little Prince museum — yes, the French book —, a Venetian glass garden, a toy museum, an open-air Picasso museum and many others. I’m not sure what any of those things have to do with Hakone or Japan, but don’t let that spoil the fun.

Once across the lake, we browsed in shops and visited a temple, which would have been peaceful had a large Chinese tour group not arrived. It felt unfortunately familiar — too crowded! So, we walked down to town, hopped on a bus, and I napped all the way back to our little town, only half and hour by bus, but a whole day’s tour-worth of fun!

If you do go to Hakone, make sure to buy the Hakone Free Pass. It pays for itself, as all the aforementioned activities were free on the pass!

Hakone Arrival

After five days in Tokyo, we got our act together and went to Hakone, a resort area about two hours away. Hakone is known for it’s hot spring baths, small-town charm and mountain views, and it didn’t disappoint. To get to Hakone, we had to take the “Romance Car” train, but it’s wasn’t that romantic, so I don’t know what the name was about.

Our first day there, we arrived in the afternoon and explored the town of Hakone-Yumoto. The towns in Hakone are similar to Gold Rush towns in California, but Japanese style. They are cute and touristy, but not unpleasantly touristy.

We explored a park that was horribly infested by mosquitoes, but was otherwise pleasant.

We took Asian photos:

We also went to a small Hakone-Yumoto town museum. It would have been more interesting if we could read the signs, which detailed the history of the town. But it also had many photographs comparing the town 100 years ago to the present. Best of all, it had a free interactive exhibit where you could weave your own tiny sandals!

Having explored the town to our satisfaction, we grabbed dinner and headed back to our lodgings to relax. The hotel where we stayed had its own hot spring baths, but having just arrived, we weren’t ready for that awkward adventure in public nudity… yet!

Meiji Shrine and Harajuku

While unwinding in Tokyo, Jeff and I visited the Meiji Shrine and Gardens. The shrine was built in honor of a late empress, and it’s situated in a large forest park. According to the shrine’s informational signs, the park was built by volunteers, and the forest was planted with trees from all over the world. The shrine was a Shinto shrine, a native Japanese religion.

Before entering the shrine, there were several gigantic gates like this. Some had pillars that were perhaps three feet in diameter, made from single tree trunks!

Along the entrance path to the shrine were these barrels of sake, donated to the shrine.

Before entering the shrine, Shinto worshipers will wash from these fountains.

All over the grounds there were gigantic old trees. Under this tree, which was living in the central courtyard of the temple, were small prayers written by visitors and tied to the fence surrounding the tree.

One of my favorite things about old buildings in Japan is that the roofs were often made of copper, which has now turned a brilliant green.

Traditional Japanese architecture looks very similar to traditional Chinese architecture — at least to an unschooled observer like myself. The Chinese buildings tend to have much brighter and more complex color schemes, while the Japanese favor simpler designs and earth tones, however.

Even more enjoyable than the shrine itself was the forest park it was situated in. The park had many small paths through manicured gardens and coy ponds.

We spent quite a long time communing with the large coy and variety of gigantic turtles at the ponds. The coy were about two feet long, and some of the turtles rivaled them in size as well! All were very keen to be fed, but alas, we had nothing to offer but company.

I got to search for bugs and play with the macro setting — also known as the “flower setting” among us Kelly-Sneeds.

We discovered these weird flat worms. They’re about half a centimeter wide and twenty centimeters long, with flat bodies and hammerheads.

Everything was covered in moss and mushrooms, in the most pleasing way possible!

The Meiji Shrine is right next to Harajuku, which is home to the height of Japanese street fashion. One of the really neat things about Japan is that it seems to effortlessly blend tradition with innovation. There couldn’t be two places more different than Harajuku and the shrine, but it felt natural to go between the two. We didn’t see too many outfits — just the usual schoolgirls and petticoated dolls during the day — but we did do some window shopping at thrift stores.

Harajuku also has a strip of large malls and top brands, with H&M, Forever 21, Lacoste…etc.


JAPAN!!!

First of all, Jeff and I LOVE Japan. In a lot of ways, Japan and China are complete opposites culturally, and it’s really refreshing. Since I’m lazy, here is a current list of things that I’ve loved in Japan:

1. Strangers are polite to each other

2. Spitting on the street/in public transportation is considered a no-no

3. Their parks actually seem natural, not overly manicured

4. It’s not crowded, even in Tokyo

5. Individuality in fashion choices

6. Everything is cuter

7. No staring at white people

8. Tasty food, even when you can’t read the menu

9. The weather is pretty pleasant

10. The city is quiet (no honking!) and non-stinky (no people defecating/urinating on the sidewalk)

We’ll be in Japan until August 20, as far as we know. Sweeeeeet.

Eclipsing the tourist destinations

Once in Jiangxi province we traveled around for a few days by bus to small towns, but nothing truly notable happened. We visited Jingdezhen, which I’ve posted on previously here.

As it just so happens, the longest complete solar eclipse during the next 130 years was taking place during our vacation, not two hours away from Jingdezhen. So, after shopping for porcelain to our hearts’ content, we hopped on a bus and went to Anqing, Anhui. Though it involved some considerable hassle, it was totally worth it.

We got up early and went out to a park for the eclipse. It was cloudy and threatening rain, so we were afraid we wouldn’t see anything.

Slowly it started getting darker, and every now and then the clouds would move and we could see the eclipse.

Right before the total eclipse, the clouds moved, and we had the full five minutes of eclipse un-obscured! It was 9:25 a.m.

Photo taken through eclipse glasses:

Getting lighter…

The total eclipse lasted about five minutes, and it really was mystical to see. We had amazing luck, with being in the area and the weather cooperating. The clouds even gave just enough cover to negate the need for eclipse glasses, a real savior since we had two pairs for eight people!

Journey to Jiangxi

After our adventures in Zhangjiajie, we took an overnight train to Jiangxi. Most long-distance trains in China are convenient, air-conditioned, smooth and quiet. Unfortunately for us, we were traveling between two rather random locations, and got stuck on a local clunker — hot, stuffy, loud and jerky. The train had no air-conditioning, just windows and small fans to keep the 100-degree heat at bay. To make things worse, in our compartment there was an old man who closed all the windows for fear that his young granddaughter would fall out. Then, at about 9:30 p.m., said child bought a loud whistle, and came dangerously close to being pushed out the window by me. Of course, our fan was the only one on the car that didn’t oscillate, and the woman in the top bunk decided she had the right to direct it solely at her. It was a sleepless night, as you can imagine.

But, as much as I can complain, there’s nothing like riding through the gorgeous southern countryside in China, free of stress and cares.