Oh for Cute! 2

There’s just too much cuteness in this country!

These three-foot-tall ice cream cones are everywhere in Japan, sort of like meat stick signs in China.

Cute samurai dude at Matsuyama castle:

Me and Totoro in Matsuyama:

A cat sleeping in a wok at a Takamatsu restaurant supply store that was overrun with kitties:

A restaurant awning in Kotohira:

My bug spray:

Takamatsu manhole cover:

Osaka manhole cover:

Bah! Why can’t America have cuteness like this?

Osaka in a nutshell

We arrived in Osaka in the early afternoon without plans to do much touring. Osaka is mostly a shopping city, so we decided to just relax. We were in a particularly big shopping area, where there were just miles of covered pedestrian shopping arcades with beautiful and funky clothing. We didn’t really buy anything, but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless.

Ever since I’ve heard of the capsule hotel, I’ve been sort of horrified and fascinated by the concept. So, of course we knew we just had to stay at one at least once in Japan!

Most capsule hotels only allow men, because you can’t actually lock your own little capsule, and usually only businessmen would want to stay in a capsule. However, we were able to find one that allowed women, yippee!
Contrary to my fears, it was actually really nice! The women’s floor was locked at all times, so safety wasn’t a concern, and the amenities were great. I’m a fan of small spaces and felt really comfortable in my little capsule cubby.

The hotel also had a communal lounge with absurdly comfortable lounge chairs, TV and free wifi, so we felt like kings. If I could do it again, I think I’d choose capsules over hostels, in fact. Although you wouldn’t think it, it felt like I had more privacy and quiet in a capsule room with 30 other women than I did in a hostel room of four.

Mount Koya

After our ecstatic dance party, we embarked on our longest travel day yet, destination: Mount Koya. Mount Koya is one of the holiest mountains in Japanese Buddhism, at one point housing over 4,000 temples.

Our first mode of transport was a large ferry that seemed to be more of a cargo ship. It didn’t have much room for the people on board, and didn’t even have seating. Everyone sat on carpeted areas on one deck of the three-deck ship.

After the two-hour boat ride, we discovered that I had somehow lost our rainbow umbrella. I was sad. I apparently lose things left and right while traveling, but oh well!

Then we caught a series of trains, finally ending with a cable car up Mount Koya itself to the town at the top of the mountain. The cable car was built in the 1930s and travels slowly up a 30-degree hillside. It’s so steep that the interior of the cable car is just a series of steps with benches on the small landings in between.

From the cable car, we rode yet another bus to our lodging, a monastery. In the town of Koya there are over 56 temples and monasteries that take guests. Originally, because it was such a holy place, only pilgrims stayed in these lodgings, but now they allow nonbelievers too, lucky for us.

The monastery was wonderfully peaceful and beautiful, and it was definitely one of the best places we’ve stayed.

It also had lovely gardens on the grounds, including a small pond with fish and newts.

We barely made it to the monastery in time for dinner, which was vegetarian. Japanese vegetarian food is good, but I think I like Chinese vegetarian cuisine better. At any rate, we were exhausted, so we didn’t do much besides eat and sleep.

The next day we both got up at 5:30 for morning prayers. The monks have a morning chanting and pray service starting at 6 a.m. It was definitely interesting, though we didn’t have any kind of guide to translate their prayers or sutras, which would have been much more interesting. It was nice to see monks who were truly devoted, as opposed to the monks at many temples we’ve been to who use most of their time acting as tour guides.

After that, we had breakfast and started our day obscenely early. The first stop on our tour of Koya was Kukai’s tomb. Kukai was the monk that founded the first temple on Koya in 816. Before founding the temple, legend has it that Kukai traveled to China to study Buddhism. Upon his return, he prayed to find a suitable place to found a temple in Japan, and threw his staff. When he returned to Japan, he found his staff on Mount Koya, and so founded a temple there. Kukai founded a new sect of Buddhism, which I can’t really explain well with as little knowledge as I have. But from what I understand, they believe that a person can attain enlightenment within one lifetime, instead of having to reincarnate. It is believed that when this happens, the person will live forever in the state of “eternal meditation,” known to you and me as death. According to scriptures, Kukai predicted his death in 835 and went into a state of deep mediation. To this day, monks bring Kukai three meals a day and place them at his tomb, where I suppose he sits, meditating still.

Because of his holiness, people have been erecting tombs near his for centuries, creating an incredibly large cemetery around his tomb. Lucky for us, this cemetery is right next to the monastery where we were staying (oh joy!). Did I mention I’m afraid of ghosts?

At the far end of the cemetery lies a shrine for Kukai that is illuminated by thousands of lanterns donated by the devoted. It was really quite beautiful. The basement is lined by perhaps a million small statues also donated by parishioners. Behind the shrine is Kukai’s actual tomb, but you cannot go in and witness his meditation.

The cemetery wasn’t too spooky in the early morning, but we took a walk there at dusk after dinner, and I was terrified. Jeff thought that was really funny, but I had nightmares every night we stayed there.

Because the whole town in filled with temples, we bought a through ticket for a selection of them so we wouldn’t have choose for ourselves which ones were worthwhile.

The most beautiful of the temples was basically the Vatican for the sect of Buddhism that Kukai founded. The entire interior was covered in murals of birds, trees, mountains, flowers, rivers — everything you can imagine. It was lovely, but not photos were allowed.

We also visited a museum of artifacts from temples on the mountain. It had many, many statues of different Buddhas as well as very old scrolls of sutras that were beautifully embroidered. Because the objects on display are holy, visitors were allowed to offer incense and money in front of each display, which I’ve never seen at any museum before. Unfortunately there wasn’t any English, so we didn’t learn very much about the exhibits.

Then we wandered from temple to temple, all of which were nestled in a lovely old forest that was turning red for an early fall.

One of the items on our through tickets was a pass for participating in a Buddhist ceremony that sounded something like confirmation. I found it a little unsettling that you could just buy your way into what sounded like a quickie conversion to Buddhism, but I suppose that they were just trying to be welcoming and let people see what their religion was all about.

The next morning we attended the morning prayer service again, mostly out of respect for our hosts. There was a family of devout Buddhists there and the monks invited them to participate, which must have meant a great deal to them. But after they were finished, the monks invited/ordered the rest of us to also offer incense and do some bowing to their Buddha. I felt pretty awful and uncomfortable with it. I think ceremonies like that should really be saved for the devoted, because if a nonbeliever like myself does the same ceremony, isn’t it a little disrespectful and cheapening? That’s one of the things I hate the most about temples open to tourists — people burning incense and spinning prayer wheels just for pictures and a laugh. At any rate, I suppose the monks didn’t want us to feel excluded, and we couldn’t very well refuse, so we did our share of incense burning and bowing at their alter, but I felt dirty all through breakfast.

Since we’d seen all we wanted to the day before, we grabbed our things and headed back down the mountain to our next destination, Osaka, which is probably as different as can be from a monastic retreat.

Dance Party!

After Takamatsu, we went to Tokushima. Tokushima is known for its traditional puppet plays and its yearly dance festival. We missed seeing a play, but boy did we ever have a good time at the dance festival! During the day we went to a town history museum and gardens. The town used to have a castle, but it burned down, so all that’s really left is a museum about the castle. The museum had a scale model of the castle, castle blueprints, artifacts from the castle, a replica ancient market street and a special exhibit on some famous lady who we think was a singer or musician. All the exhibits were in Japanese, so we kind of had to guess. The attached gardens were small but very pretty. The raking pattern suggests waves. Weird moon rock! The gardens had a resident tom cat who looked just like my cat but bigger and missing a larger chunk of ear. For dinner we went to a place recommended by the girl who worked at the tourist info center. It turns out that she used to live in Daly City, so we had a long chat with her. The restaurant specializes in Okonomiyaki, which she said she could never find in the US, so we opted to try it. Okonomiyaki is basically an egg pancake with whatever filling you’d like, and boy are they delicious! You usually cook the pancake yourself, but we obviously had no idea what we were doing, so the waiters and our neighboring diners helped us with ours. After dinner we went to the festival. The festival basically takes over the town for three nights in August and we were there on the last night, which is the craziest. The festival started several hundred years ago, when according to legend courtiers got really drunk and started dancing ecstatically. And that’s pretty much what happens to today. Different dance troupes with their own drummers, flute players and lute players dance down the streets of the town. After dancing down the street, performers would do more intricate performances and spectators joined in on the dancing. It was the first time we got to see Japanese people really let loose and it was so fun! The energy is incredible!

For the first time since being in China, we were somewhere that was truly, truly crowded!

The only way to describe the festival is “orgiastic.” Old and young were dancing and moshing ecstatically, and of course we joined in too! The dance that they do for the festival looks remarkably similar to the way Jeff normally dances — sort of awkward flailing. I’m beginning to suspect that he’s actually half Japanese, not half Chinese, because he sure meshes with Japan better than China.

Takamatsu

After leaving Kotohira, we caught a one-hour local train to Takamatsu. The main attraction there is a large Japanese garden, considered to be one of the best gardens in Japan. So, we spent some time at the garden and relaxed, happy to have a light day of activities.

Our elevensies was sweet mochi with fresh strawberry in it, a recommendation of Jeff’s aunt Carla. It was deeeelish!

Well hello there Mr. Dragon Fly!

Doesn’t get anymore Japanese than a crane on a red, wooden bridge.

We spent a lot of time feeding the fish and looking for turtles.

I finally found a turtle at the end of the day!

Kotohira

After leaving Matsuyama, we took a train to Kotohira, a small town famed for its temples. We got in in the morning, dropped our bags and headed out for sightseeing.

The first thing on our list was the oldest surviving Kabuki playhouse in Japan. The theater was built in 1835, and the entire backstage, trapdoors and all, is open for tourists to explore.

The entryway was lined with lanterns, and the doorway was about three feet tall, not sure why…

The interior of the theater is beautiful and really interesting. The in-house guide didn’t speak much English, but he quite bravely pointed out the theaters features for Jeff and I as best he could. The theater had tracks on the ceiling to make actors fly, several trapdoors, and a rotating stage — pretty high-tech for the 1800s! The runway was also made to accentuate the actors’ footsteps, and there were slats across the theater floor so that actors could run through the audience.

Jeff tried out his acting skills… zexy! —random complaint: Jeff packed only one pair of shorts on the trip. The pair that doesn’t go with ANYTHING! sigh —

We toured the backstage, including the basement, where we saw how the various trapdoors worked. The rotating stage was pushed by six men, while various lifts for actors were powered by others. There were several passages around the stage as well, allowing for a variety of ways for actors to have dramatic entrances into the play.

After playing in the theater, we headed to the main attraction in town, a mountaintop temple. The temple was up 876 stairs, but that was nothing after hiking down 8,000 steps a few times in mountains in China.

The temple complex was spread across the mountaintop, so we got to take short breaks by looking at the various shops and shrines on the way up.

The temple was dedicated to the god of the sea, for protection for sailors. The roof was decorated with designs of dragons and waves, really unique! In the past, many people who wanted to make pilgrimages to the temple couldn’t afford to, so they tied an offering around a dog’s neck and through it into the ocean, hoping that passing sailors would find the dog and take it to the temple. I’m not really sure why they could put the money on a raft, instead of killing the family dog, but I guess that’s just my compassion for animals talking.

At the mountaintop there was this cool statue of a fan, for no apparent reason. Too bad it didn’t work though!

After our temple tours, we hiked back down and got a much-needed snack since we’d only had elevensies and no lunch. Ice cream with puffed rice on it seemed to be a town specialty, so that’s what we had.

Then, we did what should be the town’s biggest tourist attraction: fish pedicures!!!! I’d heard about these in the news about a year ago, and have been curious ever since. At $10 for 10 minutes, they were a bit pricey, but how could we resist? If you haven’t heard of these before, you basically put your feet in a fish tank, and fish eat your callouses off. And yes, it was amazing!

My feet are pretty calloused, and the fish loved them.

It really tickles! There were two Korean girls next to us who kept screaming and laughing and carrying on. I managed to keep it mostly together.

The results of the fish pedi weren’t amazing or anything, but it was quite the experience. I’d say I got my money’s worth.

After our pedicures, we still had time to kill before our hostel opened, so we went to the nearby sake museum. It had life-sized models of each step of the sake-making process as well as a lot of sake cups and a sake shop. It didn’t have any English so we cruised through pretty fast.

The museum was supposed to have sake samples, but it was near closing time so we didn’t get to booze it up. Oh well, fun day anyway!

Sitting in Narita

I’m going to interrupt the chronology of posts here since I’m pretty backlogged on posting. I’m currently sitting in the Tokyo Narita airport waiting for an open flight. Jeff and I are flying standby and we’ve been here since yesterday, but we’d expected this, so it’s ok.

There’s an airport TV that plays a loop of programming, and I’ve seen all the programs at least five times now. It plays about five different Japanese music videos, the weather, a promo for touring Japan, promos for touring Thailand and Switzerland, weather from around the world and the news. It has ads for Coke Zero, some kind of credit card called ID, American Express, Calpis soda and Pocari Sweat.

I’m really tired of it.

Maddening Matsuyama

Getting out of Miyajima and going to our next destination proved to be quite the hassle. Since it was the Obon holiday season, a huge travel time in Japan, Jeff and I got up early and got to the dock at about 8 a.m. to buy tickets. But, of course the ticket office and information office were both closed. We spent a while communicating with the agents at another ticket office, and found that tickets were going to be about $160 to get to Matsuyama. Considering the journey takes just two ferries, we felt a little ripped off. Complicating matters was that we didn’t have that much cash, and though I have a credit card for emergencies, few places take credit in Japan. So, I walked across the island searching for an ATM, and found only the post office, which opens at 9 a.m., coincidentally the same time as the first ferry left the island, so I walked back to the ticket office, hoping it’d be open. At about 9 a.m., the ticket office still hadn’t opened, so I went to the information center to ask why the first ferry was scheduled to leave before the office opened. The girls there were very confused, called a few people, and informed me that the ticket office was open already. Of course, having sat outside the office for an hour already, I told them sharply that it was not open, and then left. At about 9:30 a.m. a man showed up on his bike and opened the ticket office, but told us the first ferry left at 10 a.m.. When we asked if they accepted VISA, he said “NO, NO, NO” and then sort of laughed like we were idiots, so I walked back across the island, got money, and came back. By this time, two very polite and helpful ladies were working in the ticket office while Mr. Lazybones sat in the back. We got our expensive tickets, got on the ferry and grumped for a few hours.

Once in Matsuyama, we went to the information counter to find out about transportation methods into the city. Sadly, the desk was closed for a break, so we parked ourselves and waited. About ten minutes later, the man came back, and told us that we’d missed the only direct bus going to our destination, which left right when he had been on break. Jeff sort of imploded at that moment, since the next bus was in an hour. But, we took a few buses and subways and finally made it, all before lunch. We grabbed some cheap Japanese curry, stowed our bags in some lockers, and went out sightseeing until our hostel opened.

The main (only) thing to do in Matsuyama is see the castle and take mineral baths. We opted for the castle, which was actually really neat.

The castle is in the middle of the city, on a tall hill, so we rode a tram to the top, where there were views of the whole city. The castle was originally built in 1603, and wasn’t so much a residential castle as one for defense. We toured the interior, where there were exhibits of samurai armor, weapons and art objects from the castle, as well as a history of the castle.

It was blazing hot, but for the ride down we skipped the tram and took the ski lift, because it just looked too silly. As it turned out, it was much more comfortable than the tram anyway!

We grabbed our bags and headed to the hostel, which we had a hard time finding. By the time we were settled, we had very little cash, as the hostel was cash-only and cleaned out what we had after buying our ferry tickets. Of course, there were no international ATMs to be found, so we spent a while looking for a restaurant that accepted VISA, while Jeff declared that he really disliked Matsuyama.

The other big thing to do in Matsuyama is visit the famous public baths there, but having no money, we opted for the free hostel showers instead. We weren’t too bummed either, because when something like that gets famous, it seems the service inevitably goes down, and other travelers confirmed our suspicions.

The hostel may have been my least favorite hostel, including Chinese hostels. Of course, the hostel shower just had to be absolutely ghastly, even after a day spent sweating in the 100 degree heat. It was actually worse than my crazy water heater in Beijing, and may have been the worst shower I’ve ever taken. For starters, the shower water worked like a park bathroom sink — every time you pushed the button, the water lasted for 20 seconds. That wouldn’t be so bad, except that the water never got hot. Oh well, I got clean in the end, and the cold water was refreshing. I went to sleep at about 11 p.m., as did the other two girls in my room. However, a fourth girl came in at about midnight, and rustled around with her bags and went in and out of the room until about 1:30 a.m. Then, the same girl’s phone alarm went off at 5:10 a.m., and she continued snoozing it and letting it go off every ten minutes until at least 6:30 a.m., when I left the room. I guess she is NOT familiar with hostel etiquette or the dangers of provoking strangers who may or may not have weapons under their pillows.

At any rate, Jeff and blew out of town, fully ready for a slightly better travel day elsewhere. Perhaps somewhere with ATMS…

Miyajima

Miyajima, a small island just off the coast of Hiroshima is a tourist hot spot, and with good reason. Imagine the gorgeous jungle scenery of Jurassic Park, combined with deer, monkeys, ancient temples and cute stores, and you have Miyajima pinned down.

The deer on Miyajima were a little less tame and a little more aggressive than the Nara deer. We were warned repeatedly that they eat paper, and would come after us for our tickets and souvenirs. No kidding! The second day we were there, a buck actually climbed up on me to get at my purse, and Jeff had to save me by taking my purse from me and running. Luckily, these deer are pretty short and light, so no harm done, other than hoof prints on the shirt.

“So thirsty! Little help here? I can’t reach the buttons!”

“What they got in there? Cookeez?”

“No… just a bunch of tickets… just as good!”

Our first stop on the island was Senjokaku Temple, also known as the Temple of 1000 mats, built in 1587. It’s actually a partially built temple that was meant to house the sutras from the main temple on the island, but partway through construction the benefactor died, and so it was never finished. The temple has open walls and lovely paintings all over the ceiling, and it has a great view of the ocean.

The views from the top:

Right next to the temple is the Five-Story Pagoda, named for obvious reasons:

After we came down the hill from the temple, we saw a chupacabra hanging around a small shrine. SpooOOooky…

Then we went to the island’s main claim to fame, the floating torii gate and Itsukushima Shrine. We came at low tide, so it wasn’t quite as pretty as it could be, but it was neat nonetheless. While there, Jeff and I admired the wildlife of low tide, including fish, crabs and cranes.

This crane was hunting fish by hopping about in the most awkward manner. Behind it you can see the “floating” torii gate, which actually rests on the sea floor.

After the temple, we went to a folklore and craft museum that is housed in an old merchant’s mansion. The museum has many artifacts from the island’s history, including an old rickshaw, cooking utensils, furniture, jewelery, paintings, books and the preserved interior of both some rooms of the merchant’s home and a more typical Miyjima home.

Because it’s in a home, it also had a lovely garden in the center courtyard.

After touring the museum we got elevensies and saw a neat cookie making machine. The cookies it makes are actually more like sponge cake with some sort of grainy, sweet filling. They’re kind of gross. But we bought some other cookies that were delicious.

Here you can see the cookie dough being squirted into maple-leaf molds, and a dollop of filling is also added.

The cookies travel around in their molds, cooking, and then they’re picked up by a robotic arm and wrapped for sale.

After having some cookies, we started our ascent of Mount Misen, the tallest mountain on the island. First we took a gondola, and then we took a second tram. From that tram stop we had a hike to the very top of the mountain.

It was blazing hot, so even the relatively short hike up the mountain took a long time and contained a lot of grumping by me. The mountaintop is covered in shrines, which provided nice places to rest.

The mountain is also home to many monkeys, whom we were warned about various times. The tram station had free lockers to prevent the monkeys from stealing bags for food.

I accidentally stared one in the eyes, but I didn’t get attacked or turn into stone.

Aw… cross-species de-bugging:

After several hours on the mountaintop, we headed back down on the tram. Right as we boarded the tram, however, Jeff noticed that the key necklace charm he had given me was no longer on my necklace. Jeff made the silver key himself last year, and I pretty am always wearing it, so I was in tears as we rode the tram down. Poor Jeff suggested we go back to the mountaintop and look for it, so we did. Jeff asked many of the mountain staff and even ran up the mountain to look for it while I hiked slowly behind scouring the path for my key. The hike that had taken hours to complete before was suddenly much easier when we had a goal and urgency. Sadly, we never found my necklace, but at least the hike gave me some time to compose myself and get used to the loss. I was glad to lose a necklace, and not a loved one. But I’m still bummed about the necklace, don’t get me wrong.

So, we finally headed back down the mountain. Exhausted, we entered town, which is when I was attacked by the deer. My feelings were a little bruised and I almost cried over being attacked by a usually peaceful animal, but Jeff cheered me up and we got desperately needed dinner.

Miyajima is the lead producer of oysters in Japan, so Jeff got the oyster special, which came with deep-fried oysters, raw oysters and barbecued oysters in the shell. I opted for curry udon, which was delicious as well.

After a long day we headed home and I slept like a rock.

Hiroshima A-bomb memorial

On our way to our next town, we stopped off in Hiroshima to see the A-bomb peace memorials and museums. While it isn’t the happiest place on Earth, I strongly encourage all to go see them. As the first city in the world to be hit by an atomic bomb, Hiroshima has become an activist against war and nuclear proliferation. The museum exhibits are politically fair and do a very moving and accurate job at describing what happened physically and emotionally to the citizens of Hiroshima when the bomb went off.

Outside the A-bomb museum lies Peace Park, there stands the A-bomb dome. When the atomic bomb exploded above the city, virtually everything was reduced to rubble, but a few buildings were left somewhat intact, including the A-bomb dome. As the city was rebuilt, many were torn down, but a movement to remember that day ensured that this one was preserved as a monument.

I’m sure that if similar monuments and museums were erected for every war, there would be much stronger voices against armed conflict. The horrors of war are certainly not limited to the atomic bomb, and I’d like to see all war eradicated, not just nuclear warfare.