Winter Tales-Happy New Years 冬の話ーあけましておめでとう

Editor’s Note: This blog post was half-constructed in mid-January. I should be going through pictures in the next few weeks, and will get them posted tout-suite. Or “sugu” if you want the Japanese.


Happy New Year all.

Today was a national holiday in Tokyo – Coming of Age Day (成人の日- Seijin-no-hi). It’s always the second monday of the month, and actually when I came back to Japan a year ago, I came in on a Sunday and this holiday was on a Monday, and I wondered why all the shops were closed. So it’s been about a year since I got here. How time flies. Today was the first snowstorm of the year, and it dumped about 4-5 inches- not horrible, but enough to slow down some of the trains and enough so that I could hear trucks outside having a very difficult time getting up the hill near my house. Apparently there aren’t many snowplows in Tokyo.

Winter here is relatively nice because it doesn’t get brutally cold (maybe around freezing), and the mountains to the north block out most of the precipitation  – if you go up into the mountains, or up to Niigata on the Sea of Japan side, you’d see they really get nailed by snow. It’s not a coincidence that the ’98 Nagano Winter Olympics are in the mountains between Tokyo and the Sea of Japan. It’s safe to say they probably never have to truck in fake snow in the winter.

I’ve finally gone through my hundreds of photos, and given the long nights and cold days I could tell some tales in anticipation of spring. I’ll start with New Years and then start again from where I left off in the summer. Hopefully by the time I get done with the ‘Winter Tales’ it’ll still be winter. (giggles madly – Ed.)

I just missed New Years in Japan last year, showing up on the 8th. I figured because I’d just been in the States in June, and I wanted to see what New Years was like here, I’d hang out and see what’s what. This was a bit of a mistake, because while the New Years holiday (お正月 oshogatsu) is probably the largest holiday of the year in Japan, for someone in my situation, it’s frankly kinda boring. I made do with the time I had, and at least I can pass along the cultural and historical underpinnings of this holiday, and also the warning to you, gentle reader, that you probably shouldn’t come to Japan for New Years unless you are Japanese, or involved with a Japanese.

So the first question that came to my mind was “Why does Japan celebrate New Years according to the Gregorian calendar instead of the Lunar (Chinese) calendar?” After all, many Japanese do hold the ‘Chinese zodiac’ near and dear to their hearts (This year is the Year of the Snake), and just about every other East Asian culture celebrates the Lunar New Years (which this year is Feb 10) — the Chinese (and all countries with significant Chinese populations), Koreans, the Vietnamese (where it’s known as Tet, as in the “Tet Offensive”), etc.

My thought was that the Japanese had to have celebrated the lunar new year but switched over during the occupation after World War II. That thought was wrong, but not completely. They did formerly celebrate the lunar new year, but they switched over in 1873 during the Meiji Restoration, along with dumping many of their other ‘old ways’ such as isolationism and, y’know, fighting with swords instead of bullets.

So when they scheduled it changed, but how they celebrated it hasn’t really changed much. There’s two main ‘traditional’ holidays, New Years and Obon — and then there’s a bunch of other government mandated holidays culminating in ‘Golden Week’ the first week of May which, like Labor Day or Presidents Day, are more about giving people a nice 3 or more day weekend off work, or perhaps to have a sale. In both cases, these traditional holidays have serious religious underpinnings, and are generally meant to be spent with family. This is so different from the American New Years holiday that there’s even a joke about it (I don’t remember the source, but I didn’t make this one up)-

In America, Christmas is when you spend time with your family, and New Years is when you go out and try to get laid, and in Japan it’s the opposite.

Note: We’ll have to come back to Christmas in Japan in a later blog post.

The few days leading up to New Years is preparing- cleaning the household as well as food shopping and cooking- it’s tradition to not do work around the house or cook during the New Year holiday. This preparation also harkens back to the times when no stores were open during the holidays at all, so people had to have food that would last several days purchased and prepared before the holiday. This seems at least a little like the preparations done for Jewish Passover to me. The more time I spend in Japan, the more interesting shadows of other cultures I see, be they false or true.

New Years Eve is mainly spent doing one of two things: Watching TV with family, or going out to a shrine or temple near midnight and freezing one’s butt off listening to the bells toll — Buddhist Temples ring the temple bell 108 times for each of the known sins of Buddhism. I thought about going out, but a) it was cold and b) I figured much like Times Square is on New Years Eve, most of the fairly well known temples would be packed full of people. So I went with the former.

NHK has a show on New Years Eve known as Kohaku, which is in essence a 5 hour live concert that is also a competition. Girls vs Boys. Picture Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve, but you’d have Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj competing against Justin Bieber and Moron, sorry, Maroon 5 for the glory of the title that year. And this show has been running on New Years Eve in Japan since… 1951. This had to have been one of the more surreal TV shows I’d seen since being in Japan, but hey, tradition, right?

At 11:40 NHK finishes up the show and shows live feeds from various temples and shrines to listen to the bells ringing, and sure enough, they were all packed. It was pretty cool to see some of the major ones in Kyoto or Mie or Hiroshima that I’d visited in the past, but the actual countdown to New Years on television was a bit of a somber affair. I’d bought a mini-bottle of bubbly at the conbini across the way, so I had a little celebration here. Not my best New Years, but not my worst.

I was interested to see earlier on New Years Eve that the trains were running 24 hours a day. Tokyo has one of the more impressive mass transit systems in the world, but a (small) complaint I have is that it doesn’t run all night. So you run into a concept of ‘last train’. The last train is usually at midnight or 1am depending on the train line and your location on it, and they don’t start running again till 5 or 5:30am. This means that there are generally 2 kinds of bars: Bars that close super-early (around 11pm) so that their patrons and employees can get their butts on the last train, or bars that are in effect open all night, or at least 4-5am. I think the train companies do this to save money and to be able to do maintenance in the off hours — I’ve heard the NYC subway crews, since their trains run 24/7, have to do maintenance on train lines between the running trains. Yeesh.

Anyway, since people are out and about on New Years Eve, they aren’t gonna catch last train, so most train lines stay open 24 hours this one day a year.


(Written 3/5 -Ed)

New Years Day, and the several days after that (generally until the 5th), is dead in Tokyo. Since it’s the most important holiday, and people go home for the holiday, a lot of the shops close at least for the 1st and the next few days- some are closed all the way through till Friday or the next weekend. I spent one of the days going up to one of the major temples in Saitama — one that I had been to in the fall — and the place was packed. Lines out the gate of the complex packed. I guess it’s some ways similar to Christians that only attend church on Easter and Christmas.

Starting to be springtime here now. It’s still pretty chilly, but it’s getting lighter out earlier in the morning, and in about 3 weeks we’ll be starting Sakura season. Looking forward to the spring, but not the summer.

Photo Barrage 6-Tokyo 東京の写真攻め

Currently: Waiting for a phone call and watching yet another cooking show on Japanese TV.

As promised, some pictures from around Tokyo. These were taken at various times this spring, but many of them were taken in the last month or so as I was scurrying around town seeing things that I wanted to see before leaving Japan because, well, you never know, right?

This one is of my old neighborhood in Yoyogi. You can see the NTT Docomo Building in the background, which is the third-tallest building in Tokyo and the tallest clock tower in the world. One of the things I really like about Tokyo is the massive number of narrow, crooked streets. Call it getting lost or exploring, regardless it makes for some fun wandering.


A series of interesting looking buildings.




This is an intersection near the Park Hyatt (the hotel from Lost in Translation) where there’s a few highway overpasses suspended above. The vast majority of highways in Tokyo proper are elevated so they have this kind of floating quality, and often times nearly wrap around corners of buildings when they make a turn.


I took a long walk earlier in the month from Roppongi to Yoyogi, and took some pics of a few interesting buildings. This one was in the Nishi-Azabu area, I think.


This one was in Aoyama.


This is a pic of the Kanda River west of Shinjuku fairly close to my new neighborhood. Most ‘rivers’ are basically cement enclosures for water to run through. I still like the look of the resulting valley of buildings.


Some pics from Cherry Blossom season- Cherry Blossom season is a few week period in the spring where the cherry trees explode in colorful glory, from a near-white to a reddish color depending on the tree. The Japanese use this to go out and throw picnic parties, calling it hanami (literally ‘flower viewing’), which is a lot of fun.  They also tend to see whether they can set a new record for the number of people sent to the hospital with alcohol poisoning, which isn’t quite as fun.

The first pic is from the entrance to Ueno Park on a rainy day.


The rest of these are from Shinjuku Gyoen (Gardens), which differs from public parks like Ueno Park or Yoyogi Park in that you have to pay admission, and as the next picture shows, they kind of frown on people drinking in the gardens during Hanami.


Note that I deliberately avoided the first weekend of partying because I don’t think nature and crowds mix very well. It was still pretty busy on a weekday afternoon. Lots of people sitting out on the lawn taking a break from work, I think.


Shinjuku Gyoen with the Shinjuku skyline in the background.


Next few pictures are of the west side of Shinjuku Station, which is the main skyscraper district of Tokyo. Shinjuku Station is the busiest train station in the world- over 2 million people pass through there daily. The strange curved building at center right is known as Cocoon Tower, and it was built from start to finish in the 6 years since I left Tokyo.


These are a few pictures of Meiji Jingu, one of the main Shinto Shrines. It’s where the spirit of Emperor Meiji is enshrined. He ruled during Japan’s modernizing era starting in the last 19th Century through the beginning of the 20th, where they eliminated the Shogun as well as the samurai class, and many people started wearing western clothes. Meiji Jingu is part of Yoyogi Park, and is easy walking distance from the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku Station. It’s a nice place to walk through to get away from it all.


I have occasion to pass by Tokyo Tower on a regular basis. With the opening of Tokyo Sky Tree, I think Tokyo Tower doesn’t get as much love, but it still makes me smile when I see it.


I took a walk through the Chiyoda ward, which is where many of the government and bank buildings are located — with the Tokyo Metro Building being a notable exception. The following is a picture of the National Diet Building, where the Japanese Parliament meets. It’s the equivalent of the US Congress. I had a surprisingly hard time getting a clear picture of the building, between all the trees, surrounding buildings, and wall around the building. I’m sure I could have gotten a tour at some point and get some good pictures, but oh well. I practically had to stand in the middle of the street to get this one.


The following are pictures of the Imperial Palace and surrounding buildings. Many of the taller buildings just outside the Palace are bank buildings.


This is Sakuradamon, or Sakura Field Gate, one of the gates into the Palace.


This is a picture of Tokyo Station, which is almost 100 years old. I had passed through this station maybe a half-dozen times to change trains since this is the terminus for all shinkansen (bullet trains) coming into Tokyo from anywhere in Japan, but I’d never seen the outside before. They are currently turning this part of the building into a hotel, to be opened for its 100th anniversary in 2014.


A banana vending machine.


This is a restaurant in my old neighborhood. Kinda old school Japanese decor.


I ordered zaru soba, which is my new favorite Japanese dish. It’s a cold soba, which are buckwheat noodles, served with shredded nori (seaweed) and a dipping sauce that you throw some green onions and wasabi into. A very straight forward meal, but it’s quite tasty and fantastic on a hot summer day.


Some pictures from the Sanno Festival/Parade, which is one of the main Shinto festivals in Tokyo. They tour most of inner Tokyo, but these pictures were taken in the Ginza district, which led to a pretty crowded dynamic with all the cars passing and a bunch of fellow shutterbugs snapping away.


This group of pictures are the Asakusa area of Tokyo. I went up to Senso-ji (a Buddhist temple) again — see pics from Photo Barrage the first for an interesting comparison. These pics were taken at about 6.30am on a rainy Saturday morning.


Tokyo Sky Tree under cloud cover:


Empty Thunder Gate:



This is the shopping street approaching the Temple that was absolutely mobbed when I was here last.


The shop doors had interesting scenes of old Japan painted on them.


I got a companion shot of the ‘Welcome To Japan’ shot from the airport on my way out this last time, too:


I spent part of my time in the states when I wasn’t panicking over visa stuff with some of my family at a beach house near Tampa. A few pics of my view:


I’m planning on hitting Yokohama soon, so that’ll probably be the next Photo Barrage. Questions or requests are welcomed.

Back in Tokyo 東京の帰り

Currently: Watching TV and looking at Tokyo Sky Tree out my window.

It’s been a busy month. The short version is I had to go back to the states for a planned few weeks, and then back to Japan to start work.

The longer version requires a bit of hopefully-not-boring explanation of the visa process, and then I’ll have some random pictures at the end for those who suffer through. Let me start by saying I’m not really sure how the US immigration system works. The Japanese system is pretty logical- it was mainly the timing of my situation that made it a little hair raising. I didn’t have a visa for my previous trip to Japan. Many developed countries have a system defined by treaty in which tourists can go to the other country for a period of time (usually 90 days) without getting a visa. This is how I was able to come into Japan (as well as Singapore and Malaysia) without getting pre-approved. Americans can more or less just show up with your passport and get a ‘landing permission’, which allows you to be in Japan for up to 90 days as long as you aren’t getting paid to work in Japan.

Since I was able to land a job, I could apply for a work visa, which is a 2-step process. The harder first step is getting a Certificate of Eligibility (CoE), which basically is proof a) that I can do the job the visa is giving you the rights to, and b) that I have an employer. Once the CoE is granted, then the visa itself is pretty much just a matter of them creating the stamp and putting it in my passport- no other documentation is required, and it just takes a few days. The two problems were that a) Japan is currently re-doing their immigration process (more on this later), and that I was doing a fairly non-traditional route. Usually people get visas before they come to Japan, and I was already here so I had to be very careful to not overstay my 90 day landing permission, and also that I had to go home to the states to get my visa after obtaining the CoE. We weren’t exactly sure how long all the processing was going to take due to all the changes in the immigration process, but luckily for me, the CoE came in before I went back to the states, and the visa itself was done in like 3 days. It was certainly a matter of preparing for the worst and it all worked out for the best.

My trip back to Japan was fine. Long, but fine. Most of my time in the states was in the Tampa area, and I had planned my itinerary around issues that might come up with the visa than making sure I got to my destination quickly, so my trip from Tampa to LA took most of a day, and then had to get on a plane the next afternoon for Tokyo. I took Singapore Air for the first time- Singapore Air is known as one of the better airlines in the world, and my flight was still about the same price as other airlines flying out of LAX. The only real complaints I had were that getting to the gate at LAX and from the gate to immigration in Tokyo takes forever. I think that’s a function of having giant planes, and needing a separate area for those waiting for flights and those who haven’t gone through immigration yet, but it’s still a bit of a pain. The flight itself was as good as sitting in coach for 10 hours can get- good food and snacks upon request, movies, available Wi-Fi, etc. I think a really nice side-benefit of flying LAX to NRT on Singapore Air is that because the flight continues on to Singapore and maybe 50% of the people on the plane continued on to Singapore that there was next to no line at immigration. I took the train back, which took a while because not many trains run later in the evening, so I had to wait a good 20 minutes for the next one. It still probably took about the same amount of time as the bus would have, and it costs less.

I actually slept most of the night on my first night back- I woke up a few times, including at the traditional jet lagged 4am, but fell back asleep until 8 or so. I was determined to get some stuff done this morning, specifically get my alien registration card in process. The alien registration card is the equivalent of the a green card in the US. I can’t get a Japanese cell phone number, a Japanese bank account, a lease on an apartment, etc, until I have an alien registration card, which in turn requires a visa. I can’t say that my experience in Japan earlier this year was fully positive, and most of the negatives were due to not being eligible to work and not having an alien registration card, so that was my first stop today.

A bit of an interlude here to explain how registration works and the immigration changes. Every city (or in the case of Tokyo, ward) has their own municipal (ward) office where among other things, people go to make changes to their family register. Family registers document entire family trees, and are amended for births, marriages, and deaths — which make for interesting political dynamics when talking about things like feminism, because in Japan, to be officially married, one spouse must change their last name to be added to the family register. Family registers are very Asian- it shows respect for the family line. You don’t need to trace your family roots, it’s all right there in the city office. I have a friend who told me she looked up her family, and they’ve been in Tokyo for over 400 years.

The municipal office is also where foreigners in Japan for longer than 3 months are required to register themselves. Any time one moves from one city to another, a foreigner needs to show up at the municipal office and let them know they have a new address. The way the system used to work is that the national immigration department handled visas, and the local city offices would handle the alien registration cards. But for a number of reasons, starting next month the national immigration department is taking over most of the functions of issuing registration cards. This is along with a number of other changes in visas, which made me wonder whether CoE or visa processing times would take longer than normal. At the immigration processing station at the airport, they gave me a helpful handout telling me what my next steps were, so today I went up to the Nakano ward office (the ward where I’m going to be living for at least the next few months) and applied for my card. I’ll actually have to pick it up at the Immigration office down in Shinagawa, but if/when I move in the future, I just need to make an appearance at the local city office to let them know. I don’t get to pick up the actual card until the end of July (??), but they gave me a few paper certifications that I can use to set up a bank account and a cell phone, etc, which are the main reasons I wanted to get the card set up in the first place. The only other nice bit is that once I have the card I’m no longer required to carry my passport around with me everywhere.

Here’s a short list of things I’ve learned through the visa process:

1. Japanese authorities love photographs. I wondered aloud earlier whether the Japanese government owns part of the franchise on those passport/resume photo booths that I see near just about every train station. I had to turn in a photo when applying for the Certificate of Eligibility, a photo when applying for the visa, and 2 photos when applying for my alien registration card. Oh, and each of those are different size photos. I’ve also heard that most job applications in Japan require photos attached. My application for the Japanese language school did, too (although they used that photo for my school ID).

2. Japanese authorities love stapling stuff in my passport. When you enter Japan, they staple part of the card you fill out (embarkation/debarkation card), and then remove it when you leave the country.

Interesting side note: I just realized this time around that in the US I don’t go through immigration to leave the country the way I have so far just about everywhere else.

When I applied for my visa, they stapled the entire A4-sized Certificate of Eligibility document folded up inside my passport — thankfully the visa itself is a full passport page-sized sticker that they affix to the passport — and then they thankfully removed the CoE document when I went through immigration on my way into Japan. Then today when I applied for my alien registration card, they stapled some random A4-sized form that tells me the time period I can pick the card up and tells the immigration service who I am, because I guess my passport isn’t enough. I’m assuming (hoping) that’ll get removed when I pick the card up, because it doubles the thickness of my passport. Aside from the embarkation form, which will be the cross I have to bear to be in Japan, hopefully that’ll be the end of my passport immigration origami experiences for the time being.

As promised, I’m prepping some Tokyo pictures, but I’m having issues with getting them resized before uploading. I should have that done tomorrow and have a new Photo Barrage posted.


Photo Barrage 4- Osaka/Kobe/Nara-大阪の写真攻め

Finally, the long awaited (or at least long-procrastinated) posting of more Kansai pics. It’s been a bit hectic with the end of school, getting back to Tokyo and settling in. Still not exactly done with that since there’s lots of moving parts and, hey, I’m going to Singapore next week, but my rule of thumb is to get a giant mass of pictures uploaded before I go out and take another giant mass of pictures, so here they are. I bit of geography first. Along with Kyoto, there’s 3 other cities of some note in the Kansai region- Osaka (which is the second biggest city in Japan), Kobe (which is the 2nd biggest port), and Nara (which isn’t that big at all, but was one of Japan’s previous capitals, so there’s lots of neato old stuff to see there). Since they are all in the same region, it was pretty easy to set up camp in Osaka and just take trains around to the places I wanted to visit.

This was the weekend of Feb 18- I took the shinkansen to Osaka. I had already had one abortive attempt at visiting Osaka the weekend I went to Kyoto. There’s cheap commuter trains going directly from Kyoto and other stations to Osaka/Umeda station, and I figured I’d jump out, walk around, have some takoyaki, and then go back to Kyoto. Well, it took me a good 45 minutes or so to find anywhere near the right exit from the station to take, so the evening was a bit of a bust. This time I was back with a bit more planning in place, so things went much more smoothly.

Now, having been a veteran of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, which claims to be the busiest train station in the world, and after having spent 3 months in-country there was still seeing parts of the station I hadn’t seen before, I thought Osaka Station would be…easy? Not that big a deal? Well, Osaka and Umeda stations have grown so large that they now interconnect. They are so big in fact that when they built the Shinkansen they had to build a 3rd train station, Shin-Osaka to handle the bullet train traffic- it’s just across the river and is pretty sizable in its own right.

So to get a flavor of this experience, imagine pulling into a train station, and walking off the train and not only seeing about 8 or 9 other train lines to decide from, but also about a million square feet of retail space to walk through, and the various exits from the station are interspersed throughout.

IMG_3272.jpg Here’s an example.

Oh, also, this is just the underground part. Then you exit out of the station, and are surrounded by a 9 floor electronics store, other retail, various hotels, etc.


This time I knew where I was going, though. After arriving at Osaka Station (during the day this time), I went down to Shinsaibashi, one of the main shopping areas.

IMG_3274.jpgThis is above the entrance to Daimaru, an older department store chain in Japan that dates back to the 1700s.IMG_3283.jpg and by comparison, the Apple Store (of course) in the same area.

IMG_3289.jpg This is the Dotonbori area of Osaka, which is kind of their version of Shinjuku, where there’s lots of retail and lights. The Glico Man is a popular picture to take. It’s a neon sign that dates from the 1930s (although it doesn’t appear to be working- later that night it still wasn’t on).

IMG_3290.jpg This is the canal flowing through the Dotonbori area.

IMG_3292.jpg This is a popular chain of crab (duh) restaurants called Kani Doraku (kani being Japanese for crab). Apparently it has mechanical arms and everything, but the sign kinda freaked me out. Not really a fan of bug-like creatures, and especially not giant animatronic ones.

It was still afternoon when I got down here, so I went and had a coffee to wait for darkness to fall to get more of the nightlife atmosphere. Dotonburi seems to attract the larger than life signs:

IMG_3302.jpg Dotonburi at night.IMG_3305.jpgGiant hand with sushi on left, giant puffer fish on right.

IMG_3310.jpg No description needed.IMG_3303.jpg Giant octopus. Note the ‘tako‘ written above. Tako is Japanese for octopus. Osaka is known for takoyaki, which are balls made of dough and bits of octopus.

IMG_3324.jpg They are usually made in little stands like this, with a guy working over a divot-ed grill- kind of like a muffin pan, but rounded bottoms.

IMG_3311.jpg These were the ones I tried- they put some sauce and some bonito flakes (fish flakes) on top. Tasty, but not extraordinary.IMG_3314.jpg A similar shot to above, but at night.IMG_3319.jpg A shot up toward the Glico Man from down on the canal.

IMG_3327.jpg This is the Umeda Sky Building, which I apparently can only see from a train (last time I saw it was on a bullet train going through Osaka to Hiroshima 5 years ago).


On Saturday I went down to Kobe (pronounced Kohbay), which is known as the flower city- they have a flower festival in the spring. Kobe has always been an important port, and was one of the cities first opened to the West at the end of the 19th Century. Here was one of the displays near Kobe City Hall-


IMG_3353.jpg  This was a building in the same park near City Hall where a few remaining ‘western’ buildings stood. This used to be the ‘Kobe Club’, a private meeting place for the ‘international community’. The Kobe Club still exists- they’ve moved on to different digs.

IMG_3365.jpg These planters were in front of a bankers club, and I was struck by their…Victorian? design. While there wasn’t a huge foreign population around, these little touches seemed to give Kobe a slightly more Western feel. I dunno. Maybe it was because I was looking for it.

IMG_3370.jpg The other half of the foreign influx in Kobe was the cheap labor (i.e., the Chinese). Japanese rules had set land aside for foreigners to live, the so called Foreign Settlement, but apparently the Chinese ignored these rules and set up shop elsewhere in Kobe. It’s one of only 3 established Chinatowns in Japan (the other two also part of port cities Nagasaki and Yokohama). I had some gyoza here, which were tasty but had to wait for a bit. It was a cold and snowy Saturday and hot street food is popular.

IMG_3376.jpg Since I have a habit of taking pictures of Chinatown arches, I had to include this one in my collection. Note the Chinese Coke machine off to the left.

Kobe of course also had a horrific earthquake in 1995, and I went down to see the memorial for it.

IMG_3337.jpg  There’s an eternal flame, and across the way is a waterfall.

IMG_3338.jpg This waterfall, called ‘Cosmic Elements’, has an underground component that I didn’t see at first.  IMG_3356.jpg There’s a circular area under the waterfall with names etched into the walls for all those killed in the earthquake. You can better see this in this YouTube video (not mine). It was unexpectedly overwhelming.

IMG_3382.jpg I also walked down to the waterfront, where there’s a large shopping area. The red object in the distance is the Kobe Tower.IMG_3393.jpg This is the area in front of Kobe Station. The building on the right there seems to have a pretty significant European influence, but it’s likely not that old.

IMG_3400.jpg This is Ikuta Road (the overpass is part of the Sannomiya train station). It’s a fairly large shopping area since the Sannomiya station is the closest train station to Shin-Kobe, where the bullet train comes through.

IMG_3397.jpg This is the entrance to Ikuta Shrine, which is a few blocks up from Sannomiya station. In fact, right outside the shrine is a Tokyu Hands, which is a somewhat hard to describe megastore. It got it’s start as a DIY hobby shop, but they now also have furniture, home furnishings, etc. I finally found a Kobe postcard there. Anyway, it’s interesting to walk out of a shrine area and immediate come upon a 7-story store.

IMG_3398.jpg The Ikuta Shrine building.


Last but not least was Sunday in Nara. I’d wanted to go to Nara for a long time, because there’s 2 ancient giant Buddha statues in Japan. One is in Kamakura, which I visited in ’06, and the other is here in Nara. So it was a while before the other shoe dropped.

Nara was the first permanent capital in Japan, starting in 710. All the main events in Nara to visit for the most part are either part of Nara Park or immediately adjacent to them. So even though you are in a city, it’s still fairly easy to walk around.

The other bonus (?) of having all the Buddhist temples as part of one big park is that they can house a bunch of deer. Yes, deer. Apparently over a thousand of them live in Nara Park. Deer are considered messengers of the divine in Shintoism, so there’s a number of places they are allowed to roam more or less wild. Nara is one place, and an island I visited when I went to Hiroshima (Miyajima) is another. But Miyajima is an island, while Nara is a city. So it was a little disconcerting to see lots of deer roaming around while cars are zooming past the park at 40mph. I saw a lot of these signs:

IMG_3484.jpg Literally saying “Caution: deer may come running out”

We’ll get back to the deer, because they made for some nice entertainment throughout the day.

IMG_3412.jpg This was Tohfuku-ji, the remains of a Buddhist temple

IMG_3415.jpg One of the octagonal temples in Tohfuku-ji.

IMG_3419.jpg A closeup of the 5-tiered pagoda from above.

IMG_3423.jpg This was one of the buildings that’s part of the Nara museum. I didn’t have time to do a run-through of the museum, however.

IMG_3426.jpg Here was one of the signs up in Nara Park explaining that the deer may…not be so friendly? It was nice to learn the Japanese for bite, kick, etc. That was one of the reasons I took this picture.IMG_3430.jpg The deer in their natural (?) element.IMG_3431.jpg This one is sick of his low-iron diet.IMG_3432.jpg This is the entrance to Todai-ji, or the Great Buddha Hall.

IMG_3433.jpg These almost look like paintings, but they are giant wooden statues behind screens. For a man of peace, Buddha had some really angry friends.

IMG_3434.jpgIMG_3435.jpg A small Shinto Shrine in the middle of the temple complex, which is kinda par for the course.IMG_3440.jpg This is the entrance (middle) gate.IMG_3441.jpg The building that the giant Buddha is housed in. The Great Buddha in Kamakura is out in the elements. Kinda hard to tell the scale of this building, but it’s the largest single wooden structure in the world at 157 feet in height (and it was rebuilt in the 17th Century smaller than the original building). The Buddha inside it is the largest gilded bronze Buddha in the world (bigger than the one in Kamakura, which surprised me).

IMG_3450.jpg Another sign saying no tripods, and Buddha’s own pylon (the kanji on it say Todai-ji).IMG_3455.jpg This is the Buddha, originally built in 749, but repaired over the years. A few more shots of the man himself:


IMG_3470.jpgIMG_3473.jpg I’m not sure if it was because Buddha was indoors this time vs the outdoor one at Kamakura, but I was almost more impressed with the building itself than the statue. Seeing birds fly around between perches up there made me realize just how huge it was.

Okay, enough being awestruck- back to the deer.

So one of the interesting sociological behaviors to watch if you go to Nara (or any Japanese town that has these deer) is that people really don’t understand the relationship between semi-wild animals and food. They just don’t get it. And it doesn’t help that there’s various vendors around selling deer crackers for 150 yen, either. By the way, another note to visitors, there’s plenty of other places selling snacks and other souvenirs- the 150 yen crackers are deer food, not people food. I’ve heard stories.

So. People come to Nara with their kids and a camera. They see the cute deer. They see the deer food for sale. And they think: “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if I could get a picture of little Ichiro feeding one of the deer a cracker.” So they shell out 150 yen, and their carefully thought-out set piece photo is not what happens.

IMG_3480.jpg This is what happens.IMG_3482.jpg And this.

The deer know when you have food. And they wants their food. So you are essentially paying 150 yen for getting mugged by a dozen or so deer. I must have heard screams/cries of or seen a half-dozen kids getting followed around by a pack of hungry deer. I mean, if I wanted that sense of terror, I’d probably just go see a scary movie.

IMG_3491.jpg This is Ukimi-do, a hexagonal gazebo on the water at the south end of Nara Park.

IMG_3492.jpg Another pic from a different angle.IMG_3505.jpg  This somewhat plain-looking temple is Gango-ji, which was group of temple buildings physically moved from a precursor capital of Asuka (where the temple was called Asuka-dera) following the Emperor’s move here. There was a big Buddhist argument over which temple was the real one, and now there is Gango-ji in Nara and Asuka-dera in Asuka.

IMG_3507.jpg Gango-ji has a number of historical artifacts, including a wooden sculpture of a 5 tiered pagoda that is from the 8th century (the time when the capital was established in Nara), but unfortunately pictures were not allowed. I did however get accosted by one of the guards there, who wanted to practice his English with me.

Last and least was I walked through Naramachi, which is supposedly old-town Nara, but there wasn’t really any assembled area or a lot of shops to go through. I took several pictures of places that looked interesting, but many of them to me look like old Japanese styles with newer materials, especially concrete.



That’s all I gots for now. I should have a mess of pictures from Singapore and Malaysia, and I’ll update eventually with some Tokyo stuff too.

Photo Barrage 3- Kyoto-京都の写真攻め

This weekend was busy, but it was mainly getting stuff done around the ‘house’. A bit of cleaning, a few ‘virtual’ errands, some studying up on some stuff I’ll need for possible work after I get back to Tokyo. It’s been a pretty productive weekend. I only have a few weeks left of class, and I already have most everything lined up for my stay in Tokyo. More on that at a later time (probably after I’m already in Tokyo!).

This post is to show you some of the pics from my neato trip to Kyoto and Uji last weekend. The main caveat is that I’m not the most in-shape guy in the world, and while I’ve been doing a lot of walking, a long weekend of mostly walking is still a lot, and over two days I did what for me is a heroic amount of walking. I probably didn’t see as much as I could have, or enjoyed it as much possible, but frankly I was surprised I saw everything on my “must see” list, and if you come to Japan you have to spend at least a few days in Kyoto.

The reasons for this are that Kyoto was the capital and Emperor’s home prior to the year 800, and was more or less officially moved with the Meiji Restoration in the 19th Century, and it was spared by the United States from the systematic carpet- and fire-bombing that many other major cities like Tokyo and Nagoya suffered during World War II. This means that there are a large number of historically important places to visit that are either still standing, or rebuilt over time (which is sometimes necessary given the Japanese penchant for wood).

Day 1 started with the belle of the ball, Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion).

IMG_2758.jpg This was just outside the entrance for Kinkakuji- I was going for a picture of the mountain off in the distance with the 大 mark in it.  Kyoto has a festival every year respecting the spirits of their ancestors where they burn characters into the sides of 5 different mountains. That’s one of them. The 大 character in Japanese means ‘big’.

IMG_2774.jpg There’s a bit of tension for me between what is truly old and what is spruced up over time for tourism purposes. I mean, the Ise Shrine where they don’t allow people to take pictures of it, and it’s rebuilt every 20 years is one thing. Japan has a culture based in large part around the idea of impermanence (partially described by the previously mentioned ‘wabi-sabi’), and no wonder- given all the earthquakes and fires and wars and the like, it’s tough to believe things will stick around for long. So things are rebuilt over time, and that doesn’t bug me much. The difference is when looking at something like Kinkakuji, which originated in the 14th Century, but didn’t obtain its current golden shell until the 1950s when it was rebuilt after being burnt down by a crazed novice monk. All that being said, it sure is a pretty building, and likes to ‘pose’.


Down the road about a mile is another famous Buddhist spot, Ryoan-ji. This is a Zen Buddhist temple with a famous rock garden (if you know your Mac OS X desktop backgrounds, you’ve seen this one before). It is believed to have been built in 1499.

IMG_2829.jpg This is a purification fountain with an inscription that roughly translates to “what we have is all we need”, a fairly profound idea from Buddhism.

IMG_2838.jpg This is the rock garden. When you see those little desk rock gardens out there, this is the real thing. I wonder how often they have to go out there with a rake to fix it. I also wonder whether various monks get annoyed because they never have exclusive access to this world-famous meditation garden. It would be like if they never got to have services in St Peter’s Cathedral because an unending line of tourists kept tromping though (it was still amazing).IMG_2842.jpg

 Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji are a bit out of the way in northwest Kyoto. Next I came back into town to visit Nijo Castle (in Japanese Nijo-jo). This was yet another structure built during the first Tokugawa Shogunate- apparently the ‘castle’ part of it (the donjon) was struck by lightning and burnt down in the 18th century but the rest of the concentric reinforced walls that were built to protect the Shogun and the Emperor in their palaces are still there.

IMG_2870.jpg This picture and the next are pictures of Nijo Castle from the street. You can see the moat here, and the same ‘fan sloping’ construction of the walls used in Nagoya Castle.IMG_2874.jpgIMG_2885.jpg The main entrance of Nijo Castle from the inside.

IMG_2891.jpg This is Ninomaru palace, where the Shogun lived and worked.

IMG_2900.jpg There was a tour inside the palace, but they didn’t allow pictures. The Japanese kind of pioneered modular architecture, where depending on the weather and needs, a room could be totally open to the outside, or by closing several sliding doors, could create smaller areas. Ninomaru Palace was very much like this. Lots of sliding doors, wooden floors that squeaked — purposely, they said, to detect intruders — and interior panels painted by artists from the Kano school. Not really a fan of the art myself, but the building was amazing.

IMG_2913.jpg This is part of the gardens near Ninomaru palace.

IMG_2924.jpg This is the moat separating the concentric ‘ring’ between Ninomaru Palace (the outer ‘ring’) and Honmaru Palace (inner ‘ring’), where the Emperor lived — methinks having the Emperor in a Palace with a moat around him guarded by the Shogun and his people was probably a way to keep him out of the way. Just a theory.

IMG_2936.jpg One of the buildings in the Honmaru complex. There doesn’t seem to be regular public tours of this, so I just kept a-walkin’.IMG_2957.jpg Another shot of the moat and walls around the castle.

Next I went to an area fairly close to my hotel, the Gion district (pronounced with a hard ‘G’). This is an old-style district of Kyoto, where to this day Geisha live, train, and work, and unfortunately are mercilessly hassled by gobs of tourists-slash-papparazzi.

IMG_2968.jpg I included this shot of a staircase in a one of the train stations I took to Gion because by that point my feet were not feeling good, and the number of calories I was burning by walking up the stairs was both interesting and helpful information as well as mocking my pain simultaneously.

IMG_2972.jpg A cool little canal I crossed over on my way to Gion.


IMG_2987.jpg Here’s a few building and street examples of the area. From what I read, commercial taxation in Kyoto used to be based on  street exposure (how wide the stores were to the street), so as a result many shops in this area are very narrow at the street and are somewhat deep.

IMG_2993.jpg  While a really beautiful area, the ‘old time Japan’ vibe was ruined by all the pylons in the street, not to mention the large numbers of taxis zooming down the road. They would really do well to ban cars in that area altogether.

IMG_2988.jpg It was worth the walk through Gion to see the area, and I stopped in a coffee shop for a really good cup of coffee and a green tea cream puff, but there was zero geisha sightings (I don’t blame them).

IMG_3012.jpg  A few shots of the Kamo River, which is between Gion and my hotel.

IMG_3016.jpgIMG_3018.jpgIMG_3029.jpg Tommy Lee Jones on a vending machine. It was just down from my hotel. He’s done work for (Suntory) Boss before, but it’s funny to see American celebs in random places.

Day 2

I started the day checking out of my hotel and dropping my bag off in a coin locker at the train station. When I got to Kyoto I didn’t see the really nice part of the station, so I’m including this here. For a city with so many ancient treasures, this station (less than 15 years old) is one of the best pieces of modern architecture I’ve seen. Walking thru the main atrium almost made me dizzy, it’s so huge.


IMG_3030.jpg A picture of the front from a bus stop.

IMG_3047.jpgIMG_3242.jpgOne of the main entrances.IMG_3055.jpgThe atrium.


After I dropped off my stuff, I went to the International Manga Museum a few subway stations up from Kyoto Station. To be honest it was a little bit of a disappointment for someone who is a) only somewhat interested in Manga and b) not fluent in Japanese. The Manga Museum is really more of a manga library. They have a few small exhibits, but the true draw is their very large collection of manga. The beginnings of this collection were 40 thousand volumes donated by a collector, and apparently that has only grown. It’s pretty impressive, even if I can’t really read much of it.

IMG_3109.jpg This is the outside of the museum. It’s actually a partially rebuilt elementary school that was closed, and then eventually repurposed for this museum. I discovered that while wandering around and seeing rooms set aside showing “the principal’s office” and the like. It made a bit more sense when I read the signs saying that it wasn’t just a manga museum but also a memorial for the closed school, but it was still an interesting juxtaposition.

IMG_3097.jpg This was a piece hanging in the atrium that was meant to represent Tezuka’s “Hi-no-Tori”, or Phoenix. Tezuka is arguably the most important name in manga- He created Astroboy and a number of other famous manga. My favorite that I’ve read (in translation of course) was his Buddha series, explaining the life and experiences of the Buddha. They had several volumes of that series in the collection, but were not available for reading.

IMG_3103.jpg This was one of the rooms from the school, called The Etiquette Room. I thought having a traditional Japanese room in a fairly modern building like this was pretty interesting.

After the Manga Museum, I took a train down to Uji which is maybe 20 minutes away.

IMG_3118.jpg Uji is known as the town where The Tale of Genji is set, which is arguably the first modern novel. I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t say much about it. This was right next to one of the Uji train stations, and represents something from the book.

I then walked down to the Byodo-in Temple’s Phoenix Hall, which might well be the oldest temple building still standing in Japan. It was built in 1053. The Phoenix Hall is depicted on the reverse side of the 10 yen coin.

IMG_3132.jpg The Buddhist bell outside the Phoenix Hall.

IMG_3155.jpg Here’s a few pics of the Phoenix Hall. I don’t think the pictures turned out too well because the sun was in the wrong place, but they are okay. It’s called Phoenix Hall because on the corners of the main building there are statues of the Chinese phoenix. There was a half-size replica of this building on Oahu island Hawaii that I went to as part of a Hawaii trip about 5 years ago. It’s not quite as old as the original, having been built in 1968.


IMG_3138.jpg They built a museum on the grounds of Byodo-in, and it couldn’t be any more different than the Phoenix Hall. Still a nice looking building.

IMG_3176.jpg No pictures allowed in this building either, but I wanted to get a pic of the interior.

IMG_3188.jpg I crossed over Uji Bridge walking to the (other) train station in Uji. This bridge has been rebuilt many times (due to war, earthquakes, etc)- this version was built in 1996, but the very first Uji Bridge built in the year 646 crossed the river at this spot, and it is mentioned in the Tale of Genji.

IMG_3196.jpg I wonder if this is known in Uji as the Phoenix phone booth?

IMG_3197.jpg This was the Keihan Uji Station (as opposed to the JR one). Kinda interesting design. It was closer to Byodo-in, and I was getting extra lazy by this point  in the weekend. Only one stop left…

My last stop was just south of Kyoto at the Fushimi-Inari Shrine. This was the only shrine I visited last weekend, as most of the more well known religious spots in Kyoto are Buddhist temples, not Shinto shrines. A bit of explanation here:

The most outward symbol of Shintoism is the Torii, which looks like this (this is the entrance to Fushimi-Inari):


Usually you see Torii at all the entrances to a shrine, and sometimes you’ll see them at the entrance to a town. For some of the larger shrines, you will see some rather large ones. There were some stone ones that towered over the street the bus drove down outside the Ise temple that were several stories in height, for example.

Torii is Japanese for ‘bird perch’ (the Japanese word for bird is tori — one ‘i’). In Shintoism, birds are considered messengers from the gods. The torii also indicate a division between the mundane and the sacred.

The Fushimi Inari shrine is there for worshiping Inari, the god of rice but also seen as the patron of business. For this reason, the shrine hosts torii given by various businesses who are looking for success in business. The larger the torii, the more a business has given to the shrine (they have a price list. no, I’m not kidding). The shrine has paths covered in torii, and the black writing on the left side is who donated the torii and the writing on the right is the date.

IMG_3215.jpgThis is the start of the path, where you see the very large Torii. I think the very first one/the largest was donated by a hotel in Tokyo. Here’s a few more pictures of the path. It’s really quite beautiful, although I had to wait around to stage these shots. This area is quite busy.


Supposedly there’s 4 kilometers worth of torii at this shrine. From what I’ve read, once you get down the path a ways the torii get fairly small, and the path is basically walking up a mountain, so I went up about two lengths’ worth and turned around. It was pretty amazing, but my feet could only take too much.

Coming soon:

Next week my plan is to go to Osaka/Nara and possibly Kobe depending on time. Nara is a lot like Kyoto in that it used to be a capital of Japan and has a large number of shrines and the like. Like a few other places in Japan, there’s a park where they have deer around. They have a similar park in Miyajima which is near Hiroshima. When I was there 5 or so years ago the deer were…quite aggressive. It’s not a good idea to walk around there with food on you. Helpful tip from yours truly. I’m looking forward to getting to see another giant Buddha (one of the ancient ones is in Nara, and another is in Kamakura, one of the places I visited in ’06).

So I included the photo below because it was doubly funny. One of my classmates came back from Nara the same weekend I came back from Kyoto. She had bought ‘chocolate dango’ which is a soft sweet made from rice and covered in powdered chocolate (I came back from Kyoto with green tea dango, which was similar, but with a different flavor). She just saw the Japanese characters for ‘chocolate’ and thought the deer on the box were cute. If you look closely at the box, it has a South Park-like deer doing something you probably don’t want to see on a food box.


Additionally, the Japanese involved tells you exactly what it is:

“Shika funjatta choco dango”

“Shika” is deer in Japanese.

“Fun” (pronounced foon) means poop, and ‘jatta’ makes something past tense.

So “Shika funjatta choco dango” means ‘Choco dango that a deer pooped’.

I think when I’m in Nara this weekend, I’ll have to buy another box just because it’s so funny.

Photo Barrage 2 (Part 2)- Nagoya and Ise- 名古屋と伊勢の写真攻め

Currently: Just back from a class party where I ate some truly amazing Taiwanese food.

A few things:

First, we had a snowstorm here in Central Japan today. There’s stuff all over the news about 10s of centimeters of snow dropped on some cities, and the video of such snow storms is pretty amazing. In our town, since we are on the south side of the mountains and isolated from some of the wind systems, there was a bit of snow, none of which really stuck, and of course it was pretty cold today. I have a hotel booked and train fare paid for a trip to Kyoto this weekend, and since it’s fairly close to the north side of Japan, I’m hoping that I can get some good pictures of some temples in snow. I mean, if I have to freeze, I should get something extra out of it, right?

Second, I had a really good trip to Ise, but to be perfectly honest the highlight of the trip wasn’t available for photography, so the best you are going to get is a wooden wall. Hopefully I’ll be able to put said wall into historical and architectural context so it’s still fascinating, but, well…I’m warning you in advance. And with those announcements: Ise!

IMG_2553.jpg This is the Ise-shi train station. ‘shi‘ as a suffix in Japanese just means ‘city’. This is helpful when trying to distinguish between a city and a region with the same name, similar to New York City and New York state, or Kansas City and Kansas State. For some reason on the train line I took from Nagoya, the express train stops at Ise-shi and the larger Ujiyamada Station, from which I left for home. I stopped at Ise-shi because my hotel was right outside this station.

IMG_2541.jpg  I stopped in at a neighborhood shrine between the station and my hotel. It’s pretty tiny, but still neato in my opinion. IMG_2534.jpg This is a series of toriis, which are a Shinto religious symbol. I’ll have more to say about them at a later time, especially after my time in Kyoto, I’m sure.

IMG_2538.jpgStill the neighborhood Shinto shrine. The building with the green roof in the background is of a similar design to some of the Ise Shrine buildings, as we shall see.

IMG_2545.jpg This was about half of my hotel room. I could reach from the wall on the left of the photo while sitting on the bed and easily touch the right wall. There was a little fridge there on the right, and a desk not pictured that would be on the lower right of the photo. Perhaps the smallest hotel I’ve stayed in while in Japan (I haven’t tried a capsule hotel yet). But it was cheap and clean, and the staff went out of their way to be helpful, so….success.

IMG_2546.jpg Here was the bathroom of the hotel room. Probably about the size of my bathroom at my current place.IMG_2568.jpg The approach to the Futami Okitama Shrine and the Meoto Iwa (Wedded Rocks). Ise city proper is 5 miles or so from this part of Ise Bay, which is the body of water that goes inland to the port of Nagoya. This is the second Japanese Shinto destination I’ve been to that is based in a body of water/requires high tide for best viewing (the first was a shrine torii near Hiroshima that I visited 5+ years ago).

IMG_2580.jpg This is the Futami Okitami Shrine. I’m pretty sure there was a wedding going on (it was a Sunday).IMG_2595.jpg Shrine on the right, The Wedded Rocks on the left.

IMG_2602.jpg A better picture of the Wedded Rocks. These are supposed to represent the husband and wife team of Shinto gods (kami) who were the ‘parents’ of most of the other gods.

After Meoto-Iwa, I took the bus down to the Inner Shrine of the Ise Jingu. This is one of the major Shinto shrines in Japan, which represents where the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu is enshrined, as well as where one of the major royal artifacts (the Sacred Mirror) is also placed. At different points in Japanese history, the Imperial family was very involved in Shinto, to where family members were responsible for the more important Shrines. The inner parts of this Shrine are more controlled than most- certain areas are off limits entirely, and they do not allow photos in the main public viewing/praying area of the Shrine.

I have to say that I have a pretty low tolerance for various superstitious ideas, but when I are entering the realm that may well be where people pray to the sun goddess, there’s still quite a bit of respect I pay to it. It helps that the area is gorgeous. It was somewhat busy with lots of busloads of tour groups coming through.

These are a few pictures of the gardens near the entrance of the Ise Shrine.



Here’s some buildings between the entrance and the actual shrine- note the chrysanthemum symbol on the blue flags at center left. That’s the symbol of the Japanese emperor.


IMG_2667.jpg The Torii entrance to the Uji Bridge, which crosses the Isuzu River.

IMG_2669.jpg A picture off the Uji Bridge itself.

IMG_2653.jpg One of the other Shinto Shrines in the complex (included here to give you a representative sample).IMG_2656.jpg A lamp along the path. Many of the really large Shinto shrines are part of very large parks to represent nature. The Meiji Shrine in Tokyo is another one of these that I’ve been to.IMG_2662.jpg A nice nature picture within the Shrine grounds.

IMG_2645.jpgSo this is as far as people get to take pictures in the approach to the main shrine area. From here I walked up the steps, and there’s signs (in Japanese only) stating no pictures — although I knew this going in. I had read that at the top of the stairs that there are 4 different gates to get into the building where the real magic happens, so to speak, but all of the buildings are very much visible from the public viewing/praying area.

IMG_2649.jpg ….and here’s the joke of a climax. In terms of photos, this is all you really get to see of the Ise Grand Jingu. Once I paid my respects, I took a right and walked around the back of the Shrine area. Here you can see the very tops of the Shrine buildings, which look similar to others I’ve posted.

I guess I can understand any possible disappointment. However, I think that the amazing part of this whole story is that this shrine has been an important part of the Shinto religion and Japanese history for a long LONG time. I’ll have to expand on this later, but one of the larger ideas within Japanese philosophy are the idea of mastery and the idea of, for lack of a better term, impermanence (wabi-sabi). In a country that has long been tormented by earthquakes, tsunami, and fires, things not lasting forever will get imprinted on the collective mind over time.

That being said, there are actually two plots of land where the Ise Grand Shrine sits. One for the active shrine, and one where, over time, the shrine is rebuilt every 20 years. Then the old shrine is destroyed and rebuilt in that place 20 years later. The first iteration of this occurred in the year 692. So they’ve been training a new generation of people and rebuilding the same shrine, every 20 years, for over 1300 years.

Outside the Shrine, there is the inevitable shopping/food area- this area (Oharai Machi) is known for it’s historical appearance. Note how crowded these are even though it was January/ the depth of winter.

IMG_2674.jpgIMG_2671.jpgIMG_2680.jpg The oldest mailbox I’ve ever seen (still didn’t stop me from trying to mail something).

IMG_2695.jpg This is ‘Okage Yoko-cho’, an area off the previous shopping area known for its food.


IMG_2690.jpg I thought this was funny because it’s a mashup of two of the big Japanese symbols- the ‘lucky cat’ and the ‘reclining Buddha’.IMG_2693.jpg The aforementioned super-tasty food. Meat on a stick is known the world over for its tastiness and portability. I *think* it was pork, but I’m not 100% sure. I would have gotten a second one had I known how great it was.

IMG_2702.jpg This is Ujiyamada Station, where I took the train back to Nagoya, and then back home.

More soon.

Photo Barrage 2 (Part 1)- Nagoya and Ise- 名古屋と伊勢の写真攻め

Currently: Can’t sleep after taking a long nap. Watching the news.

I think I nailed down my photo issues, which pretty much came down to ‘too much of something is a bad thing’. The pictures should load faster now, and I’ve increased the size of the thumbnails on the page per popular request.

Last weekend was my first real outing since being in school. It was a nice (but of course cold) weekend. I went up to Nagoya, which is kind of the hub for any real trips around this region unless I were to go back up to Tokyo. I was there Saturday, and then went to Ise Saturday night and Sunday. These pics are of Nagoya, and I will hopefully get the Ise ones uploaded tomorrow. In terms of photogenic stuff, this last weekend was a bit of a bust since in Nagoya we have ‘pictures of rocks’ and  in Ise the main shrine I went to doesn’t allow you to take pictures of the main shrine area. Next weekend should be a little more impressive.

I spent a bit of time on Saturday in Nagoya. It’s so close that I pretty much just wanted to hit the highlights before heading down to Ise.

First stop was the shopping district called “Sakae”-

IMG_2410.jpg  Stepping out of the Nagoya subway, there’s this giant building, which is the Sakae bus terminal. Pretty fancy.

IMG_2414.jpg This is the Nagoya TV Tower- there’s a ‘central park’ sort of area in this part of town, and there were some plaques comparing this area to the Champs Elyses.

IMG_2431.jpg Apple Store in Nagoya. Of course. It’s pretty sizable, and was busy but not overwhelmingly so. A little bit of a surprise, especially for a Saturday.

The rest of my time in Nagoya I spent at Nagoya Castle, which is one of the larger and more famous castles in Japan. It was built in the early 1600s, and for being a 7-story structure (not to mention all the tall stone walls), a pretty impressive architectural feat of the time. Much of the castle and grounds were destroyed and/or burnt to the ground during World War II, something that the signage in the area repeatedly made clear to visitors.  Although much of it has been rebuilt, and accurately so, the inside of the castle is a museum than internal reproduction of castle life. It was still pretty interesting.

IMG_2530.jpg This is the subway entrance next to the castle. They’ve even accurately reproduced subway station entrances of the 17th century.

IMG_2442.jpgOne of the turrets on the approach to the main keep (donjon). One thing to note is the huge stone retaining walls around the castle. This particular wall had to have been at 20 feet or 30 feet in height.

IMG_2448.jpg Here’s another shot of the same wall (on the  left. Compare with the structure against the wall on the right.

IMG_2518.jpg  Apparently the way they were able to build walls of such size before the miracle of reinforced concrete was to build a ‘spine’ of alternating stones on the corners of walls, as you can see below. Wikipedia tells me this is called ‘fan sloping’.

IMG_2451.jpg This stone (the Kiyomasa Stone) is significant because of how huge it is- about 7 feet high by 18 feet wide. When building the castle and surrounding walls , different lords (daimyo) were given responsibility for building certain sections, and in this case it’s believed that a guy named Kiyomasa was responsible for this stone (although he was probably responsible for ordering the guys around that actually moved the stone).

IMG_2505.jpgOther sections of the castle walls have stamps engraved in the stone to the day, such as these stones, which show which team was responsible for placing these stones.

IMG_2456.jpg This is the main keep of the castle with the inevitable souvenir shop at its base (おみやげーomiyage is Japanese for ‘souvenir’). On the top of the castle there are two gold-plated dolphins that are rather famous in this prefecture. I’ve seen them used in commercials and the like. IMG_2460.jpg  Here’s a close-up of the castle sitting on a 20 foot perch of fan-sloped walls.

IMG_2478.jpg As I said before, the inside of the castle was rebuilt after WWII. instead of using the elevator, I hoofed it up all 7 flights of stairs. Here’s a shot looking down the stairwell.

IMG_2480.jpg As I’ve pointed out before, I’m a sucker for various signs, but this has to be one of my all-time favorites. I think sometimes I find something funny partially because I can actually translate it. This one says essentially “Won’t you try riding in the palanquin?”

There was a large wooden box next to this sign with the side missing, and a TV screen that  inside the box, giving a ‘virtual palanquin’ experience. As I think I mentioned in one of my Okazaki history bits, larger vehicles were forbidden in pre-modern Japan, so nobles that didn’t want to walk or ride a horse had to be carried in palanquins. IMG_2488.jpg The 7th floor of the donjon was an observation deck, and you could see pretty much the whole of Nagoya from there. A very nice view indeed. From the castle I headed back to Nagoya Station and with a little difficulty got on a train to Ise.

I hope to get my Ise pictures notated and online tomorrow, since I’m going to Osaka (mainly just for dinner on Friday) and Kyoto (Saturday and Sunday).

More about Okazaki- 岡崎2

Currently: Just got back from dinner/longish walk

Some housekeeping first: I haven’t sat down to figure out what’s up with pics. I suspect it’s because I’m using my iPhone for taking pictures. Although it’s megapixelage and memory are much better than my 5 year-old Canon PowerShot (that I bought last time I was in Japan), it has a non-standard resolution, which might be mucking up the works. Not to mention the Gallery2 plugin I’m using to suck pictures into WordPress is no longer supported. Yeesh. Once I figure that out or find a replacement, I’ll go back and update old posts. Again, sorry ’bout that.

I wanted to write a bit about Okazaki because it’s been on my mind lately, and also because I think most people’s knowledge about Japan doesn’t really extend beyond Tokyo. And frankly, while I knew quite a bit about Japan, I hadn’t really experienced much more than Tokyo, and that was part of my grand experiment in coming here (checking out a smaller city/small-town Japan).

This area of Japan is very ‘up and coming’- we’re on the Tokaido train line that runs to Nagoya (about 20 minutes away), and there’s another local line specific to the Aichi prefecture (the Japanese ‘state’ Okazaki and Nagoya are part of) that run from Okazaki Station up through Toyota, which is an actual city. By its name you could guess is where the car company is headquartered — The company is named after a family “Toyoda”, not the city, and the city is named after the company. There’s also a number of also major manufacturing facilities nearby, so Okazaki is a suburban middle ground being both convenient and relatively cheap as opposed to living in Nagoya.

So there’s a lot of ‘new money’ in the area, and even to an outsider its pretty obvious. There’s block after block of brand-new housing, and the most common types of commercial property I see around here are: real estate companies, car dealerships, dentists, and eye care stores. There’s a mall up the way that I haven’t been to yet, but I’ve been told its one of the larger ones outside Nagoya. As the abundant car dealerships tell you, it’s not as much of a walking town as I was hoping for. It’s only 10 minutes or so east from the train station to the school, and then another 10 minutes east to my place, and there are neither grocery stores nor conbini within a 5 minute walk of my place — as opposed to my time in Tokyo where I could practically roll out of bed and land in a conbini or a train station. Then again, we’ll see if that expectation is met once I settle in and not living in a hotel. There’s lots of restaurants nearby, but aside from having access to relatively inexpensive Japanese food, it’s not much different and probably slightly less walkable overall compared to living where I did in Mountain View.

All things considered, it’s still more than worth it due to getting to become more comfortable hearing and speaking some Japanese. I think my biggest struggle with the language hasn’t been the language itself. I know enough Japanese (and know how to use my handy Japanese dictionary on my phone) that I can usually look at a street sign or a menu in Japanese and either immediately understand it or at least figure something out within a few minutes, and flagging down the waiter to point at the menu and say これをお願いします (kore o onegaishimasu– give me this please), is dead simple. My problem has been the self-consciousness that comes along with not being confident in my speaking skills. So in many cases, there’s a mental block thrown up that make the quasi-difficult process of parsing what someone is saying in another language and coming up with any sort of intelligent/polite response a bit of a challenge, and it’s doubly hard when they start asking you questions that you aren’t expecting.

I went to the close-by Denny’s last week (unfortunately they don’t have Moons over My-Hammy…or at least it’s not on the menu), and the guy asked me — in Japanese — ‘smoking or non-smoking’, which, as someone from California, I wasn’t really expecting. I think Japanese Denny’s hosts and hostesses get enough foreigners that if they don’t know ‘smoking’ in English (tobacco in Japanese is ‘tabako’, so that’s helpful), at least they can make the two finger ‘puff-puff’ universal sign for ‘tasting where the flavor is’. While it might be my imagination, I do have to say that being outside of Tokyo it seems that people get more annoyed here if you don’t speak Japanese  Getting a bunch of time to speak in class has helped me to not feel like a total idiot when speaking, and I think eventually I’ll be comfortable enough and know enough grammar/vocabulary that even if a vocabulary curve ball is thrown my way I’ll be able to at least handle it without my current solution that consists of a blank stare.

Being in Okazaki also a good launching pad for reaching areas of central Japan that would ordinarily take twice or more as long to get to from Tokyo. This weekend was frankly a bit of a bust because I’m still getting worn out by the end of the week from lots of walking, and because it rained Friday and Saturday. And there’s no better weather for getting out and being a tourist than cold rain, eh?  I’ve pretty much spent my weekend reading the new Neal Stephenson book Reamde. Not done yet, but my short review so far is that its a much less dense read than even Cryptonomicon. Pretty quick read. Anyway, I think next weekend will be a bit of Nagoya, and either Ise or Gifu/Takayama, and again, hopefully gonna get to do Kyoto/Nara/Osaka while I’m down here, too.

岡崎城-More than you ever wanted to know about Okazaki Castle

Not a ton new going on-

Class and exploring the town here is keeping me busy for the most part. They put me in a lower level of class because it’s been a good while since I’ve done any real Japanese study, and I’m not exactly a chatterbox to begin with, so now that I’m a little more comfortable I’m trying to get back up to a more challenging level of classes.

Last Sunday I went to a different area of town, a few train stations up from here. Okazaki is a castle town, as many towns are — although most, including the castle here, had to be rebuilt after WWII…I think Okazaki’s was rebuilt in the 1980s. A bit of Japanese history and geography here that might or might not have been covered before:

In addition to Japan’s Emperor who, according to popular myth is directly descendant from emperors extending back to the beginning of the Japanese people and ultimately descended from the sun god Amarterasu. Western kings merely received their mandate from God. Japanese emperors went one step further. Anyyyyway… in addition to the royal family, from time to time Japan also had a Shogun, which was a warlord that essentially ran the country. Much like Americans have people in government from each state, in Japan, the lords (daimyo – literally, ‘big name’) from each realm would go back and forth from their homes to pay tribute to the Emperor or Shogun, etc. Since they didn’t have bullet trains back then, and because wheeled vehicles were banned, the vast majority of people travelled on foot. Because of this, they set up a number of way-stations on the main roads around Japan. One of the more popular roads was the Tokaido (East Sea Road) which ran between Tokyo (back in the day called Edo) and Kyoto, where the Emperor lived until the 19th Century. One of the stations was Okazaki, and to this day both the Tokaido road (now Japan’s Highway 1) and Tokaido train line run through Okazaki.

Where Okazaki really collides with Japanese history is that the final Shogunate in Japanese history, which ran from 1600 to the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and moved the capital of Japan to Edo (Tokyo), was founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu who was born in Okazaki Castle in 1542. Based on my still limited knowledge of Japan, I’d guess Tokugawa is probably one of the top 5 most important figures in Japanese history. If you’ve read the book Shogun by James Clavell, it’s historical fiction loosely based on Tokugawa (known in the book as ‘Toranaga’).

Tokugawa, after moving the capital to Edo, made mandatory the policy of requiring daimyo of the various realms to return to Edo to pay tribute every other year, and enforced this policy and their loyalty by essentially holding their family members hostage in Edo (Tokugawa himself was held hostage for political reasons early in his life, so the idea didn’t exactly start with him). Anyway, there was quite a bit of travel up and down the Tokaido (and other roads), and much of Japanese culture then and now has references to it, from Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido series to the recent movie remake of the 13 Assassins.

In addition to visiting Okazaki Castle, there’s also a famous miso factory nearby that also dates from the Tokugawa days. This region is famous for Hatcho miso — when I lived in California one of the ramen places I ate served ramen with Hatcho miso broth. It’s actually kind of strong, but tasty in my opinion. It’s so named because an older Japanese measurement of distance (cho) also was often a measure for street blocks, and when the castle was the center of town, your ‘address’ was how many blocks from the castle you were. That area of town was 8 blocks from Okazaki castle, or Hatcho (八丁).

Due to its proximity to the ‘home’ castle of the shogun, its miso became a favorite, and since it kept well was used for military rations, etc. Eventually Hatcho miso became a supplier to the Emperor as well. They offer tours of the ‘factory’ and of course sell the miso they make there. It’s really a factory only in the loosest terms because they still make miso the same way — by steaming it in ancient wooden vats covered by river stones — that they did when the company started, in 1337. They claim that by using an arrangement of stones instead of one big weight, it maintains a proper balance and isn’t dislodged even by an earthquake.

I was actually a little disappointed that there wasn’t a ramen restaurant nearby that served Hatcho miso broth, but I found one on my way back from the train station. Considering how cold it’s been here and that I’m still building up my ‘walking legs’, I think I’ve been pretty successful at finding a few good restaurants and getting to know the city. At some point in the next few weeks — Kyoto.

Food adventures-日本に食べ物

I’m sorta taking today (Saturday) off- I’ve been on the move just about every day since I got to Japan and my feet have given up. I’ve actually been cooking more than I thought I would be, mainly because when calculating whether I’d rather fire up the rice cooker or walk another half-mile and back or so to find a restaurant, I’m usually going to fire up the rice cooker.


Haven’t done anything truly exciting on this front so far. One thing in common that I see a lot in Japanese restaurants is that they are often “participatory”. If you are familiar with the ‘sushi boat’ type sushi places (kaitenzushi, which means ‘rotating sushi’) you kinda know what I’m talking about. Then you have all the theme restaurants and the korean BBQ, shabu-shabu, etc places where you cook the food yourself at the table. I went to a korean BBQ place in Shibuya the other day that was mighty tasty.

There’s also a bunch of places that are ticket-based. You buy a ticket for what you want at a vending machine outside the restaurant, give it to an employee when you come in, and then they bring you what you ordered. I’m still a little puzzled about this setup- the only reasons I can think to do it this way is a) cash and inventory management – instead of having to invest in a computerized infrastructure to manage the money and track how many bowls of this kind of ramen are purchased, they use tickets to do the same thing (and to some extent prevents shrinkage of employees giving out free beers to their buddies I guess), or b) it front-loads the process – most of these places are in busier areas: in train stations or near popular tourist destinations, and instead of having employee time and tables taken up by people deciding what they want, all of that is done before entering the establishment.

Either way, even with my basic knowledge of Japanese vis-a-vis food, restaurants have been a bit of a challenge. I went with one of my classmates up to Nagoya yesterday. At a ticket-based curry restaurant inside the station (Nagoya station is huge, and has a bunch of restaurants for commuters inside), and I got the spicy beef curry and a ‘premium beer’ from their ticket machine. I didn’t read closely enough, and got the alcohol-free beer, which of course defeats the purpose.


“Conbini” is the Japanese word for convenience store. Since they don’t have a ‘v’ sound, the transliteration is ‘conbiniensu sutoa’, and they love to shorten words, especially transliterated ones, so it’s just ‘conbini’. Japan’s conbini are a sight to see. There’s at least 4 major chains here: 7-11 (of course), Family Mart (called ‘Fami-Maa’ here, again with the shortening), Lawson’s, and AM-PM. There were so many 7-11s in Japan that the franchise owner for them here bought out the 7-11 corporation, originally in Dallas. So 7-11 is now a Japanese company. Conbini here have much more of a prepared food bent than ones in the US. Where the US will have maybe a half a cooler of sad-looking egg salad sandwiches, JP ones will have an entire section of the store dedicated to sandwiches, onigiri (rice balls), bento, etc. They also often have warmers set up with various food near the front of the store.

In Tokyo, the hotel I was staying at was connected directly to a Lawson’s, so I’d often go down there for onigiri for breakfast. I’ve done the same on my way to classes, although the Family Marts here in town are slightly out of the way.


There’s a ‘full’ kitchen in my studio apt here, so I figured at the very least I should start carrying some essentials- rice, green tea, and a few other things. Full is in quotes, because it’s pretty basic. A 2-burner gas range, a sink, a medium size fridge and freezer. And then there’s a rice cooker, a frying pan, a medium sized pot, and a tea kettle. The other equation I have to look at is that I’m only here for 6 or maybe 8 weeks, so I don’t want to go out and buy a ton of stuff that I either won’t use again after that, or at best will have to schlep back to Tokyo either by hand or send for delivery. So I’ve bought a few bowls, a pair of chopsticks, some tupperware, a few glasses, some cleaning stuff and a few other implements, like a knife and some tongs. I’m sure I’ll have to spring for a few other things as I go along.

I thought I’d try my hand at cold-brewing green tea, so I’d have to buy less bottles of the Ito-En stuff that I love. Conveniently, Ito-En also sells their green tea in tea bags as well, so hopefully problem solved. I was also going to try my hand at making onigiri, because it would be far easier to have a few on hand in the morning instead of walking extra in the cold. I bought this hilarious onigiri case at Tokyu Hands, which is a store-within-a giant department store attached to Nagoya Station (there’s one or more in Tokyo, too).

Anyway, I’m not much of a cook anyway, and it’s hard to be adventurous with my level of language skills- it took me a few minutes to figure out how to work the rice cooker (all the buttons are in Japanese), not to mention making sure that the food I’m buying at the store is what I think it is. You can only stand for so long in front of a display case in a Japanese grocery store with the product in one hand and your iPhone dictionary in the other.

The gas range thing in my kitchen also has a grill slot of some sort for grilling meat, so I bought some strips of pork with dreams of having homemade grilled pork. This morning, I fired up the rice cooker and started up the gas grill, and smoke started pouring out of it. I turned it and the gas off, but the damage had been done. My smoke alarm started going off. At 8.30 in the morning on a Saturday. I’m sure my neighbors were thrilled with me. I’ll have to figure out how to clean or burn off whatever is going on there. I ended up just frying the pork, which pretty much turned it into bacon. That over a bowl of rice turned it into my first attempt at Bacon Donburi (donburi is a japanese dish of ‘something over rice’). It was pretty tasty as all fried pork dishes tend to be.

No other super plans for food here, aside from exploring town more to see what’s what. There’s a coffee house nearby that also apparently serves okonomiyaki, which is like a thick japanese crepe with various stuff in it — it’s often called a japanese pancake, but it’s less straight forward than that. I haven’t tried either of the coffee houses on campus either. In the next few weeks, I’m gonna have to start mounting some travel campaigns to Kyoto and other points south. I might as well while I’m down here.

Okay, gotta get some studying done.