Soylent Orange

The other day, we saw a vending machine with some interesting snacks marketed as “meal substitutes.” Of course Japan is the first country to introduce Soylent foods… just you wait, someday Japan will have a meal in a pill.

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.

Fall

The other day, I remarked to Jeff about how weird it was that the leaves are changing colors in Japan.

In my mind, there were still months before the end of summer, while Jeff, with his pesky reality, noted that we are midway through August, and fall is just weeks away. What poop! Fall is when you’re definitely no longer a college student, you’re just unemployed!

Safe and sound

Tokyo had a 6.6 earthquake? I guess so, that’s what my email tells me multiple times. Also, apparently a typhoon or two is near Japan. Poop!

So far, I’ve been doing just fine. I don’t have internet everywhere I am, so if you don’t hear from me for a few days, don’t panic.

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!

Robo-potty

I know Japan is famous for this, but I still have to blog about it after Jeff’s infamous China bathroom post.

So, the toilets in Japan are robots. At the hostel we are currently in, when you open the bathroom door the toilet seat automatically lifts up, and a small fountain colored by green lights starts in the toilet bowl. When you sit on the toilet seat, it warms noticeably, and there are several different bidet options. When you flush the toilet, a small sink above the tank starts, and the sink refills the toilet tank. Pretty ingenious, and a space-saver too!

Word to the wise though — these toilets are not for amateurs, just like squatties they have potential pitfalls. Namely, make sure you scoot your bum all the way back if you’re going to experiment with the bidet settings, otherwise you’ll end up with a lovely wet patch all the way up your back. Yeah… that happened.

It’s also important to note that Western toilets are apparently as mystifying to some people here as squatties were to us. This little sticker was on another hotel toilet.

I can only read about 1/3 of most Japanese, but I’m guessing it’s instructional in nature. Tee hee!