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 Ancestry.com 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 5 (Part III)- Singapore

Part III- Singapore

The last part of my southeast Asian journey was a few days in Singapore. Taking the bus down from Malacca wasn’t too bad. The bus pretty much dropped me off at Malaysian immigration, and then again at Singapore immigration, which you can kind of see in the first picture below (taken from the bus on the causeway). Not much of a line at either place. Considering the amount of transit that goes through there every day, not a big surprise. There were no mints given out at Malaysian immigration however.

IMG_3966.jpg Taken from the bus. That’s the Singapore immigration and customs building in the distance.

While Singapore is a pretty small island..if you look at the Thai/Malay peninsula on a map you can’t really even make out Singapore at the very bottom, it’s larger than you would think. After going through immigration, we probably drove for another 20 minutes to get to the bus stop. Strangely, that’s all it really seemed to be – there wasn’t any mass transit in evidence nearby- I needed to get a SIM for my phone, and then try to find the nearest subway/MRT station.

IMG_3972.jpg Sure enough the random SIM they gave me at the phone shop was an Angry Birds themed one from SingTel — the main phone company there (I’m guessing the Angry Birds guys get money for THAT one). Still only phone and text messaging, so I had to get by with searching Google Maps at the hotel and taking screenshots.

After getting my phone in order and hitting the ATM, I set off for a subway line.

IMG_3975.jpg The inside of one of the MRT stations. They are all very new and VERY CLEAN. This is pretty typical for Singapore, which is a bit uptight about cleanliness and order. Being a little bit of an authoritarian state, that’s kind of the way it is. Not surprisingly I felt very safe the whole time I was there.

But I loved the subway stations. Not only did they have great design and were clean and efficient, they were also oases of air conditioning in the greenhouse that is Singapore. Did I mention that it’s hot and humid near the equator?

IMG_3987.jpg Here’s a sign on one of the pillars of the subway. Our old nemesis the durian fruit makes its return, and you can see the hefty fines they slap on people for sipping on their beverage while waiting for the train.

IMG_3988.jpgMy hotel was pretty centrally located, but in my research I didn’t find out that the street where its located was under construction at the moment. Specifically, Singapore is adding to their existing 4 subway (MRT) lines by building 3 more. Simultaneously. So this street was closed, which made it tough to get around the neighborhood, and there was pounding during the day. Luckily, it started at 8am exactly and quit at like 8pm exactly. This was cute PacMan themed signage they had on the walls blocking off the construction for DTL 3 (3rd Downtown Line).

IMG_3990.jpg Across the street from the hotel was a hawker center, although this was more of an ‘upscale corporate’ hawker center I guess. Hawker centres are where people go for Singapore’s legendary street food. Previously people had carts or stalls set up on the street, but in the interests of health and safety they mandated that all the ‘street’ vendors move under a roof (although they are all open-air to my knowledge) where they could utilize running water, electricity, and the government could do pretty rigorous inspections. Thus was borne the Hawker Centre, which are kind of like food courts are at malls, except these places are destinations unto themselves.

This particular one was open 24 hours a day. I think I ended up getting some Vietnamese pho, which, after months of eating ramen for my soup needs seemed kind of weak. Still tasty though.

IMG_3998.jpg This is the Singapore School of the Arts building, which I passed several times a day between my hotel and the subway station. I got a bunch of pics of it.

IMG_3999.jpgIMG_4011.jpg This is a movie theater/shopping center that’s next to the School of the Arts. One of the days I was walking by there and there was a Chinese Lion Dance competition going on.IMG_4023.jpg I’m a bit of a transit and city design nerd (if you can’t tell). In the distance there is an Electronic Road Pricing gateway where they charge people tolls if driving in certain areas of town during rush hours, etc. I’ve heard its insanely expensive to own and drive a car in Singapore. On the other hand, even with a pretty good subway system, living there without a car when it’s 80+ degrees and 80%+ humidity all the time probably wouldn’t be tolerable for me.

IMG_4029.jpg Singapore’s Chinatown.IMG_4034.jpg Near Chinatown there was a rather large Hindu temple. Since I had missed my chance at walking through one in Malaysia, I spent a good amount of time walking around here and taking pictures. I particularly love the multi-tiered piece above the front entrance, which appears to be typical of Hindu temples, at least in this part of the world.

IMG_4047.jpgIMG_4048.jpg It’s amazing how colorful everything is here.

IMG_4051.jpgIMG_4054.jpg There are statues of various Hindu gods and other people, and it was a little unnerving, given the looks on their faces and that they appeared to be STARING AT ME.

IMG_4059.jpg Cows. Naturally.IMG_4064.jpg Down the street was a mosque.IMG_4069.jpg And down the street from there was the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, which is a fairly new temple (built in the last 10 years), but it’s pretty large.

IMG_4072.jpgIMG_4074.jpgIMG_4075.jpg For being known as a peaceful religion, Buddhhism has some really mean-looking guardians.

IMG_4076.jpgIMG_4077.jpg This is the Maxwell Food Centre, a hawker centre located across the way from the Buddha Tooth Temple.

IMG_4083.jpg This is what the inside of the hawker centre looks like. There were a bunch of stalls shut down at that point- I think it might have been mid-afternoon, so they were probably closed between meal rushes.

I’m a big fan of Tony Bourdain’s No Reservations show, and when he came to Singapore, he went to a chicken-rice place at this hawker centre. From what I’ve read, the line is really long to get food. I walked around the hawker centre two or three times and didn’t find a place swarming with people, so I looked closer.

IMG_4086.jpg This was the place. How did I know that this was the place?

IMG_4078.jpgBecause they have Bourdain himself and his speech bubble posted up there. Anyway, I ordered the chicken-rice, which obviously is chicken with rice, but the rice is mixed with chicken broth, and they have sides of hot sauce and a few other things.

IMG_4081.jpg This late lunch of chicken-rice, a beer, and a bottle of water cost me less than S$10, which is probably about US$7. Not a bad deal for some very good chicken. It didn’t floor me, but it was certainly worth the trip.

IMG_4093.jpg After leaving the hawker centre I continued heading east, wanting to take in some of the sights.IMG_4095.jpgRandom building.IMG_4096.jpg I thought this pic was an interesting combination of old (in the foreground) and new (part of the downtown area towering behind it).

IMG_4101.jpg A bridge over Singapore River. You can see the old Supreme Court building on the right.

IMG_4103.jpgA shot of part of downtown from near Clarke Quay, which was the direction I was heading.IMG_4105.jpg That’s the Singapore Parliament building.IMG_4108.jpgThis is a river walk-a number of restaurants, etc. I got a picture of the sign since it’s a little more blunt regarding the whole ‘lack of order’ thing.

IMG_4111.jpgWalking along Clarke Quay with tour boats on the river.

IMG_4117.jpgIMG_4120.jpgIMG_4123.jpg On my way back to my hotel I got this picture, which I suppose is a reminder that we’re living in the tropics, I suppose.IMG_4125.jpg This is the next day- it’s a Sikh temple outside one of the MRT stations.

IMG_4129.jpg I took the subway down to Little India. Lots of good looking Indian food at this adjacent hawker centre as well as halal (Muslim) food as well.

IMG_4131.jpg I ended up getting some curry, naan, and  a coconut.

IMG_4132.jpg It had started pouring rain by this point, so I wandered around the complex. The second floor of the centre was more shopping, various apparel, etc. And this altar in the corner.

IMG_4133.jpg This is looking down the street.IMG_4135.jpgAnd some of the various shops.

I figured that I’d jump back on the subway and hopefully the rain would let up by then.

IMG_4139.jpg I came out of the subway next to Raffles Hotel, and thankfully the rain had stopped. However, it was still so humid out I felt like I was swimming through vaseline, not walking down the street.

Raffles Hotel is named after the British businessman who created the first western (British) settlement on Singapore island. It is also known for having a bar where the Singapore Sling was invented. As I’m not really a fan of fruity drinks, especially ones that the natives don’t drink themselves, I took a picture and moved on.

I was heading for Marina Bay, which was where the majority of my tourist checklist was located. As I did in Malaysia, I used as much available air conditioning as I could, and found a mall between Raffles Hotel and Marina Bay.

IMG_4141.jpg Where I ran into this monstrosity — a Guiness Book of World Records attempt at the largest 3D Balloon sculpture, whose official team came from 4 different countries.

IMG_4156.jpg On the other side of the mall (after enjoying an iced coffee and soaking up some cool air, I found an outdoor venue where some music festival was going on. It was getting late in the afternoon, still very muggy out, and I had more walking to do, so I pressed on.

The first thing to know about Marina Bay is that it’s a body of water enclosed on just about all sides by buildings, so the following pictures were taken by me walking about a half-circuit around the Bay.

IMG_4149.jpg This is taken from near the band shell above across toward downtown. If you look closely near the water you can see the Merlion, the Singapore mascot, cursed to endlessly spit-take like a slapstick comedian condemned to hell. Singapore is Malay for Lion City, despite Lions never having lived here. I just learned from the great and powerful Wikipedia that the Merlion was created as a symbol for Singapore by the Singapore tourism board in the 1960s.

IMG_4158.jpg  From the band shell to my left is the Marina Bay Sands buildings and the Helix Bridge on the left (which you can’t see very well during the day — I unfortunately didn’t get down here at night)

IMG_4159.jpg This is walking across a bridge looking downtown. It was starting to look weird out, so I turned around and looked back toward the Parliament building.

IMG_4162.jpg..and saw another thunderstorm coming. By the way, the cool UFO-like building next to the old Supreme Court building (which is under renovation) is the new Supreme Court building.

IMG_4163.jpg Here’s a shot of Marina Bay Sands with the Merlion in the foreground.

IMG_4167.jpg This is looking back east toward where I came from, you can see the band shell. The giant metal pufferfish building on the right is a performing arts center.

IMG_4172.jpg A few more shots of the Merlion spitting on various things.

IMG_4174.jpgIMG_4181.jpg ….and the weather is coming in. Must hurry.

It was maybe another 10 minutes or so walking into downtown and I could tell that any moment it was going to start pouring. Downtown Singapore is essentially one bank building after another. A pretty good looking downtown, though. I was hightailing it down the road as the wind kept building up, and asked a guy where the nearest MRT station was. It was just around the corner thankfully.

IMG_4188.jpg I got this picture of Raffles Place (different than Raffles Hotel) just as it started to rain. A nice little green area in the middle of downtown — that I’m sure nobody is allowed to walk on.

So following my policy of using the MRT to travel while the weather was bad, I decided to head up to Orchard Road, which is Singapore’s main shopping area, for a look around.

IMG_4194.jpg The MRT station actually empties out into a giant underground mall. I should have taken a video of this escalator area, because I’m not sure if they used projectors or what, but there were black silhouettes of fish moving around on the walls and ceiling.

IMG_4195.jpgI found this picture to be highly amusing in a “far too honest advertising” sort of way.

I poked around a bit in the mall, cooling off, and decided to check outside- still raining a little bit and humid as ever.

IMG_4198.jpg A pic of an adjacent shopping center. Really wild glasswork.

IMG_4204.jpg This was the atrium of (you guessed it) yet another shopping center.

IMG_4196.jpg Same atrium looking up from the inside.

By that point I had just about melted, and had a late flight to catch. I headed back to my hotel, where they were holding my luggage, and then headed out to the airport. One of the very nice things about Singapore’s Changi Airport is that they have an MRT line that goes right to the airport. As in, you get off the train and you have a short walkway and you are in the airport. I think the last place that was that convenient was maybe Atlanta’s airport, but the rest of the airport doesn’t make up for its mass transit convenience.

Changi was also the area of Singapore that, during World War II under Japanese control that a work camp was set up for British and Malay prisoners, with not too pleasant results. James Clavell’s King Rat is a quasi-fictional retelling of his personal experiences there. So it was a bit strange to walk through one of the best and most modern airports in the world and know that nearby there had been some pretty horrible WWII history.

IMG_4220.jpg Picture of Changi Airport.

Changi Airport has a ton of amenities- there’s hotels that are inside the secure area, so if you are just connecting at Singapore but either want a nap or are coming in one night and leaving the next day, you don’t have to leave the secure area to get some shuteye. There’s also a club anyone can go into (unlike many of the airline-specific ones) that has a gym, facilities to clean up, etc. After walking around all day, I paid the nominal fee to get cleaned up and changed, and got a bite to eat and used their internet for a while.

Changi also has a movie theater that plays free movies 24 hours a day. The movie that they were playing while I was waiting for my flight was..The Green Lantern. Which I’d already seen. Oh well.

My flight back to Tokyo was a red-eye- left about midnight and got back into Tokyo first thing in the morning.

IMG_4229.jpg Coming off the plane and heading down the escalator toward immigration, there’s a sign. On the left is in the picture and on the right it says Welcome to Japan. What it actually says in Japanese in the picture おかえりなさい (okaeri-nasai), which means ‘Welcome Home’. And I guess I did feel like I was coming home.

More on Japan soon.

Photo Barrage 5 (Part II)- Malacca

 

Currently: Rainy day in Tokyo- This week is Golden Week, which is the Japanese excuse to take a 4 or 5 day weekend. I might have explained this before but, since Japanese companies don’t really give their people vacations, the government took it upon themselves to sprinkle holidays throughout the year, so there’s a 3 day weekend in most months. They’ve created national holidays on April 29, May 3, 4, and 5th, which has affectionately become known as Golden Week, and many people take the rest of the time that week off work, and a few employers mercifully just shut down offices for that day. Unfortunately, this year it’s been raining cats and dogs this week, so nothing super-interesting going on with me this long weekend.

Back to our story…

PART II: Malacca!!! (Day Three in Malaysia)

When we last left our hero (?) he was on a bus headed south to Malacca. To set the scene:    Malacca has long been a factor in Asian and European history and economics, due almost exclusively to the valuable choke-point that is the Malacca Straits. To this day, rights of way on waterways remain valuable and often a cause for tension (which is why neither the Moroccans nor the Spanish are too thrilled that the British continue to control Gibraltar, for example).

The Portuguese established their beachhead in Malacca way back in 1511, and ever since it’s been a favorite whipping boy and point of debarkation for various nationalities trying to control or make a career off of trade going through the Straits. Because of this infusion of various cultures, it’s a fascinating place to walk around, and makes for a very interesting culinary experience. Malacca City itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Pictures from Malacca:

IMG_3775.jpg A street picture. There’s a bunch of 2 or 3 story buildings around where the ground floor is retail space, and is often open-air. I think I took this picture because there’s a Proton dealership or office there on the right. Proton is the Malaysian national car, which I had frankly never heard of, but there’s Protons on the streets everywhere.

IMG_3777.jpg I thought I took more pics inside the Malacca bus terminal, but this blurry one is the only one I have. It was significantly less fancy than the one in KL, but on the other hand I’ve seen nastier bus terminals in the US. I was struck by the number of vendors in the bus terminal selling hijab (the required Muslim female headscarf). It was interesting to see all the hijab-bedecked mannequin heads lined up showing off the latest in Islamic fashion.

IMG_3782.jpg This is the entry to Jonker Walk, which is the historical Chinatown section of Malacca. There were cars everywhere. Luckily we found a parking space early and just walked around.

IMG_3785.jpg This is a closeup of the Jonker Walk Chinatown Gate.

IMG_3784.jpg Mister Potato is the Malaysian Pringles equivalent. I just wonder how much Wayne Rooney and the other guys from Man United got paid for a Malaysian potato chip billboard.

IMG_3837.jpg A little fountain near one of the other entrances to Jonker Walk.

IMG_3783.jpgA giant, world-record setting cookie. They take their world records seriously in this part of the world. This will come up again in Part III of this Photo Barrage.

IMG_3786.jpg Angry Birds. Were. Everywhere.

I kept a loose mental count of the number of different Angry Birds products I saw in Malacca. T-shirts. wallets. footwear. I think I stopped counting after 2 dozen. The conversation I had with X went approximately as follows:

Me: I can’t believe all of these people play Angry Birds- do they play on iPhones or computers or what?

X: Oh, they probably don’t play..they just love the characters.

(later, after seeing yet more t-shirts and other merchandise)

Me: Wow, if even 50% of this stuff is licensed and authorized, those Angry Birds guys have to be rolling in the dough.

X: Oh, none of this is licensed.

IMG_3789.jpg Another shot of the Jonker Walk area. With requisite cars.

IMG_3793.jpg For lunch we went to a restaurant that specializes in Nyonya food, which is the name of the Chinese culture and food that developed in Malaysia and Indonesia after incorporating all the various cultural influences that were around.

IMG_3794.jpg I had the Nyonya Laksa, which was pretty darn spicy. It cost about 2 bucks.

IMG_3796.jpg This was the walkway celebrating the Chairman of Jonker Walk, who was in charge of turning it into a tourist attraction. Apparently this gentleman used to be quite the body-builder in his day.IMG_3801.jpg DURIAN. I tried durian fruit. Despite the smiley-durian on this sign, durian is pretty well known for its…rather strong smell.

IMG_3800.jpg I figured if I was going to try it, something small and easy to eat would be the way to go, and we found this durian puff place on Jonker Walk, so I bought one. It was…. actually pretty good. I liked the taste a lot. However. Durian also has an aftertaste that’s kind of acid-melony tasting, not really pleasant, and it doesn’t go away for a long time. So..I’m glad I tried it, but it’s probably not something I’ll repeat any time soon.

IMG_3807.jpg Here’s the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, which is the oldest functioning temple in Malaysia (built in 1645). Some really amazing carvings here.

IMG_3810.jpgIMG_3812.jpgIMG_3813.jpgIMG_3815.jpg

IMG_3811.jpg This sign points out the danger signs to look for when fake monks collect fake-alms. Kinda sad that they have to do this. Maybe Christian churches should have done the same thing during the televangelist heyday.

IMG_3818.jpg Outside the temple there was this street with a bunch of shops selling all these little paper cars, motorcycles, you name it. X explained that people buy these to burn during funeral ceremonies so that people have these objects in the afterlife. We looked around a bit and they actually sold paper iPhones as well. I bet AT&T’s signal still sucks in heaven.

IMG_3822.jpg We had been walking from the Buddhist Temple and heard a Mosque’s call to prayer, which I think might have been the first time I’d heard that. This mosque was about a block down from the Buddhist Temple. IMG_3828.jpg …and this Hindu Temple was the next block down from the mosque. It was apparently the oldest Hindu Temple in Malaysia, built in 1781, but it was closed when we were there.

IMG_3834.jpg Berhenti means “stop” in Malay. In case the red octagon didn’t give it away.

IMG_3835.jpg Random cute character atop restaurant.IMG_3842.jpg This is a Chinese clan house. There were a bunch of them in the Jonker Walk area. From what I’ve read, these were essentially set up by expat Chinese long ago to help those of the same clan find a place to live, get a job, have a safe place to go if needed, etc. This is a clan house for Hokkien-speaking people, which is one of the main dialects spoken in Taiwan and the area adjacent to it in mainland China. Many of the clans are for people with a certain last name. X’s family name has a clan house there too.

 

 

IMG_3790.jpg Here’s another clan house with a slightly more interesting entrance.

IMG_3844.jpg I think I complained before about the ‘open gutters’ on the streets in Okazaki back when I was taking classes. Same thing here in Malacca, although these are about 18 inches deep. Watch your step.

IMG_3846.jpg We stopped in to a coffee shop to get something cold to drink. I got a green tea, and X ordered a coconut. I hadn’t realized that a coconut was an option.

IMG_3855.jpg This was my hotel: Baba House right in the Jonker Walk area. It was pretty inexpensive and charming, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it. They had some issues with mold that could have been minimized. Nothing seriously disturbing, but still, ugh. When I checked in that 10 year old girl in the corner was furiously abusing the PC in the corner, using Facebook as if her life depended on it. She kept switching between some Facebook game and Facebook chat with one of her friends. They had free Wi-Fi in the hotel, and when I checked in they admitted that the Wi-Fi sometimes wasn’t that great and that people would have to come into the lobby to connect, or use the PC. I dreaded the prospect of trying to pry this girl away from her Facebook. Luckily, the Wi-Fi actually worked pretty well for me.

IMG_3856.jpg Another pic of the lobby. Some cool furniture.

IMG_3850.jpg My hotel room.

IMG_3927.jpg I had no idea of what that little green thing on the ceiling was. When I looked closely, it says “Kiblat”, which from a wi-fi enabled, non-10 year-old-girl-interrupting internet search, means in Malay the direction one faces to point toward Mecca for prayers.

IMG_3920.jpg An outdoor area at the hotel.

 

IMG_3921.jpg NO DURIAN.

IMG_3857.jpg A cool looking building near my hotel. A bit in ruins though.

IMG_3867.jpg Speaking of ruins, across the Melaka river from the Jonker Walk area is more historical stuff. This area has Portuguese, Dutch and Malaysian history all in one area. This picture shows  all that remains of the Portuguese fort built there in 1511.

IMG_3873.jpg After the Dutch took over in the 1600s, they built a settlement nearby called the Stadthuys or ‘city house’. All of the tell-tale red houses in the area were built by the Dutch. They also built Christ Church, above, in 1753.

IMG_3861.jpg

 

IMG_3875.jpg Note that it’s still a functioning church, providing Sunday services in 3 different languages.IMG_3879.jpg A fountain in front of Christ Church.

IMG_3909.jpg This is a history museum down the street from Christ Church and the Portuguese remains. It shows the history of Malaysian independence. While Kuala Lumpur is the seat of government and the first Malaysia flag was first raised there, the first reading of the Malaysian independence announcement occurred in this area in 1956.

IMG_3889.jpg

Rewinding back to Portugeuse times, as there was a big hill to climb to get up to this landmark, we find St Paul’s Church, originally built in 1521, but completed with the second floor in 1590.

IMG_3890.jpg St Francis Xavier spent some time in Malacca, running a school and using it as his base for his missions to China and Japan. After he died in China, his body was temporary buried here before being sent to his final resting place in Goa, India. Here is a statue of him in front of St Paul’s Church with a look on his face that eternally says “Okay guys, which one of you took my hand?”

IMG_3894.jpg St Paul’s is in ruin now, hollowed out.IMG_3898.jpgThere’s a large number of tomb stones that are lined up along the wall. Under the Dutch and later the British the church was deconsecrated and used for military purposes.

IMG_3904.jpg From the hill where St Paul’s Church is, you can see a lot of Malacca. From this direction you can see the Straits of Malacca in the distance.

IMG_3908.jpg From here, you can see the Portuguese fort ruins, the independence square, and the newer Malaysian buildings rising in the distance. Probably one of my favorite pictures I took this trip.

IMG_3872.jpgAfter walking down the hill, I got a picture of the heavily over-decorated bike rickshaws that give people tours around the historical area.

IMG_3864.jpg I found this little tidbit interesting as well. Apparently there’s a few different companies in Malaysia, McDonalds and KFC among them, that give out these free stickers to attach to your windshield. And every time you go through the drive thru at McDonalds, you get a free small fries. But..you have to drive around all day with a McDonalds sticker on your window. Interesting means of advertising. It was probably something like 1 out of every 25 cars or so that I saw at least one of these stickers on windshields.

IMG_3863.jpg X drove me out to the beach. I was a little disappointed honestly. I was expecting the namesake of the Straits to have some fairly major beach action going on. There were some families out there, but really not a whole lot there. I guess there’s a pier closer to where the Straits meet the river where there’s some nightlife though.

IMG_3914.jpg We drove out to this mosque as well: Masjid Selat Melaka, which I think means the Straits of Malacca Mosque (someone correct me on my Malay). It was pretty huge.

IMG_3915.jpg We actually couldn’t get much closer than here since they don’t allow non-members to enter the mosque during worship hours.

IMG_3932.jpg Breakfast the next morning. We tried to find a chicken rice place, but the one X knew of was closed, so we went for duck noodle instead. Note the prices listed in the lower left corner there.

IMG_3931.jpg Duck noodle. Mighty tasty.

IMG_3933.jpg So my plan for the morning was to catch the bus from Malacca for the ~3 hour journey to Singapore. We had some extra time, so we did some more looking around. This is a Buddhist temple on the way to the bus station.

IMG_3946.jpg

IMG_3952.jpg On the bus ride down to Singapore, we stopped at some random city for a 15 minute break. I honestly don’t know what town we were in, and my GPS wasn’t enabled on my phone, so this picture is of a random hawker center-slash-truck stop somewhere between Malacca and Singapore (it’s not Johor Bahru, that’s next).

IMG_3959.jpg These are a few pictures of Johor Bahru, which is the Malaysian border town across the straits of Singapore from Singapore. Again I was a little surprised at all the high-rises and development, considering my experiences with border towns were mostly Mexican ones, where there’s not so much vis-a-vis high rises.

IMG_3962.jpgI think both of these are actually on the causeway across the straits.

IMG_3964.jpg

Part III will cover my time in Singapore, and then after that I can get back to regularly scheduled blogging/pictures of Japan. More news on that coming Real Soon Now.

Photo Barrage 5 (Part I)- Kuala Lumpur

Currently: Rainy day in Tokyo.

Okay, okay, okay. Sorry I’ve been slacking. I came back from my Malaysia/Singapore trip with a lot of pictures, so I’ve been dreading doing the posting for it, and my general rule is to not post other things until I get rid of my backlog. So I’m breaking up the trip pics into three different posts for your clicking pleasure.

So I was in Malaysia and Singapore in March. I wanted to do some more traveling in Asia beyond Japan, and in choosing my initial venture there were a few things to consider, such as price, whether or not I needed a visa, and ease of travel in-country. The easiest place to fly to is South Korea — Seoul is maybe an hour flight from Tokyo — but Singapore wasn’t much more expensive, I didn’t need a visa for either place, and the bonus is that English is widely spoken in both Singapore and Malaysia (we’ll get into why during the history lesson portion of the blog).

Interesting Note: maybe half the East and SE Asian countries require visas (China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Russia are the ones I can think of off the top of my head). Most every other place (South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, The Philippines) have an agreement with the US to allow people into their country for a limited time without a visa. Japan is in the latter bunch as well.

The kicker to all this is that a friend of a friend — I’ll call her X — is Malaysian, speaks Malay and Chinese (and English), and offered to be a tour guide for the Malaysia portion of the trip. Sold.

First stop was Kuala Lumpur, the capital and biggest city in Malaysia.

I got there by flying into Singapore from Tokyo, and then from there to Kuala Lumpur (known as KL by just about everyone). Just to forewarn you if you ever fly in Asia: Most economy airlines (in my case, Tiger Air) don’t fly out of the same terminal as the standard airlines (I think this is quite similar to Ryanair in European cities). I mean, it wasn’t a horrible experience by any means, but instead of there being a neato tram going to the budget terminal like it does the other terminals at Singapore Changi Airport, I had to walk through the bowels of Terminal 2 to an underground bus terminal and wait out in the humidity and carbon monoxide for the budget terminal bus, and then stand in line to get my ticket to KL. I guess for a one-way international flight that cost me about US $29 total, I can’t really complain (it was only that much because I opted to pay more for an exit row seat… the advertised ticket price was FREE).

Here’s some things that I saw as I got off the plane, walked to immigration, and out to the airport proper were (in this order):

-The “Welcome to Malaysia” sign, written in 4 different languages: English, Malay (which is written in Latin script), Chinese…and Arabic (did I forget to mention that Malaysia is a major ity-Muslim country?). While this was fascinating for me, the other thought that popped into my head is that there’s a substantial segment of families that I knew growing up in Kansas and Iowa who would have wet themselves seeing that sign.

-Next (after we got indoors, because people flying on budget airlines get to walk on the tarmac in 85 degree, 80% humidity weather) was a Sony Style store and a toy/children’s apparel store where the general theme was ‘Angry Birds’. ‘Angry Birds’ was a recurring theme throughout this trip.

-Down an escalator and you have all the various passenger services. Pre-paid phone cards, ATM machines, etc. All of the ATMs were run by Islamic banks — Islam has a prohibition against charging interest, so they have separate banks who make their money through one-time fees, which pretty much cost the same as charging interest. Go figure.

-Out into immigration, which is a medium-sized warehouse with 6 foot across square pillars going up to the ceiling. Covering these pillars are giant banners warning about human trafficking. Immigration itself, aside from maybe a 10 minute wait in line, was a breeze. The only question they asked was “First time in Malaysia?” *STAMP* “Next!” Much easier than the interrogation I have to go through getting back into my own country every time I come home from traveling abroad. Ugh.

Note: Going in and out of Singapore earlier in the day was even easier because a) Changi airport proper is a lot nicer b) the border agent who let me into Singapore was this attractive Singaporean woman who said my name aloud in what I took to be a very sensual, teasing manner, as if she’d never read the name “Joshua” before but liked it, and finally, c) on the way out of Singapore, they give you candy. You think I’m kidding:IMG_4224.jpg

Bad picture, but that’s Changi Airport candy. The border agent (this time an older gentleman) gestured to a basket on the table next to him when I walked up. Candy. At immigration. They have ways of making me talk.

The rest of immigration at KL was easy. I didn’t have any bags to pick up and nothing to declare , so customs was essentially walking by a few customs guards near the door. Out in the arrivals area it’s open-air, which is another theme for this trip. There were a number of coffee shops and a McDonalds. Not really very different at all from your medium sized airport — the actual Kuala Lumpur International Airport is down the street a bit.

While I was waiting to meet X, some Malaysian guy came up to me and said:

He: “Texas?”

Me: “Um, yeah I lived in Texas for a while..why?”

Him: “No, TEKSI”

Me: (realizing that “Teksi” is the Malaysian word for “Taxi”) “Oh….no, I have a ride already, thanks.”

X and I finally met up- she and her friend took me to dinner, and then to my hotel. X recommended I stay outside the city core to minimize commuting hassles, and referred me to a few different hotels that were a little further out. One of them is right next to a major horse racetrack. It’s called the Palace of the Golden Horses and to say that it’s ‘horse themed’ is a bit of an understatement.

After seeing the pictures on their website (linked above), and noting that (at least by American standards) the price was fairly reasonable for a “good hotel” and there really weren’t any other hotels outside the city core that approached its quality, I said “Hey, why not? I’ll splurge a little on the trip, it’ll be a nice place to stay, and I can laugh a little at the audacity of staying at ‘the Palace’.” So I booked a few nights there.

Here’s some pics I took at the Palace. It’s a very nice hotel, although if you are doing the ‘tourist thing’ in KL, it’s not exactly easy to get from there to the touristy areas. But if you are a really big fan of horses, go for it.

IMG_3628.jpg Outside the front of the hotel.

IMG_3627.jpg Front of the hotel.

IMG_3760.jpg This is from the balcony out back. You had to go outside from the elevator to enter your room, which let a bunch of warm air into the corridors. Not the brightest design.

IMG_3764.jpg Some pictures of the lobby. You probably can’t see it, but the dark squares on the flooring have a horseshoe design in them.

IMG_3762.jpg Lobby ceiling (Horses).

IMG_3751.jpgHorses.

IMG_3619.jpg You know that comment on Pink Floyd’s The Wall where the girl says “This bathroom is bigger than my apartment”? Yeah. This bathroom had to have been over 100 square feet. All of the shampoo/conditioner, etc bottles were horse-shaped too.

IMG_3621.jpgThe room was incredibly large. I was disappointed that there wasn’t anything horse-themed on or in the wardrobe on the opposite wall, however. I had to look inside to make sure there wasn’t a horse stowed in there.

IMG_3625.jpg Note that even the mirror has horseshoes around the edges. What came to mind for me was the scene in Being John Malkovich where Malkovich sees through his own mind’s eye and everything and everyone is Malkovich. This hotel is like that, but with horses.

Okay, enough horse-dom (I almost said ‘horsing around’. Aren’t you glad I didn’t?). I was pretty wiped out from traveling and crashed fairly early. The next day X and I took in KL proper. She and her friend came by the hotel to pick me up, and we got dropped off at the nearest light-rail station.

IMG_3630.jpg KL has a pretty decent rail infrastructure. Their roads are hopeless mainly because they’ve been growing so fast. Nothing really goes in a straight line. They used to have issues with rail because up until a year or two ago they had a few train lines (one that goes from Singapore through KL to Bangkok up north) and an express line that goes to the airport, 2 different light rail lines, 2 commuter lines, and a monorail line, and they were all different companies with different payment systems. They’ve melded most of those (at least the light rail, commuter, and monorail lines) into one payment system with shared stations (and it’s incredibly cheap to travel around), so honestly the worst part about dealing with mass transit there aside from occasional crowding is the outdoor stations.

IMG_3632.jpg This is inside one of the light rail trains. If you can’t read the sign in the back, it’s for a fruit beverage that has licopene in it, and the tag line is “Oh boy, no-one boosts fertility like me.”

IMG_3639.jpg Outside one of the train stations. Lots of advertising everywhere.

IMG_3645.jpg This is the Sultan Abdul Samad building, built in 1897. It was named after the Sultan who was in power at the time KL was founded (more on Sultans in a second). It now houses Malaysia’s Ministry of Information, Communications, and Culture.

IMG_3648.jpgAnother picture of it from across the street.

IMG_3650.jpgThis is a fountain at Merdeka (Independence) Square, which is across the street from the previous building. This, not surprisingly, is where Malaysia first raised the Malaysian flag in 1957 after gaining their independence from the British. Here’s a (hopefully short) historical recap: Much of south and southeast Asia had been colonized or at least controlled by European forces for hundreds of years. Indonesia used to be the Dutch East Indies. Siam (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), the French. Singapore was a British trading post starting in 1819.

Malaysia wasn’t really a unified country until its independence. It had previously been a number of kingdoms ruled by Sultans, many of which had been conquered by each other or by European forces (Portuguese, Dutch, and British). Starting in the 15th Century, some of the Malay leadership converted to Islam, which led to its aggressive spread there. There had also been a massive influx of Chinese and Indian laborers, leading to the multicultural states that Malaysia and Singapore are today. Around the time that Singapore was taken over by the British, they had also conquered several of the other kingdoms on the Malay peninsula, and most of the other kingdoms either ‘chose’ to obey their British ‘advisors’ or deferred to the British. After WWII, where the Japanese had taken over just about all of Southeast Asia and had been particularly brutal to people and captives in Malaysia and Singapore, the Malay people rebelled against the British plan to integrate them into a Crown colony and got their independence. There’s still apparently a lot of bad blood between the ethnic Malays and the Chinese, which occasionally erupts into skirmishes. They just need to remake West Side Story and get over it.

IMG_3663.jpg This is Jalan Petaling, which is a famous  shopping street in KL. “Jalan” is the word for ‘street’ in Malay, so this is technically Petaling Street.

IMG_3665.jpg Another picture of Jalan Petaling. I wasn’t really super impressed- there were a lot of closed stalls and it wasn’t very busy. I guess because it was a weekday? Lots of fake merchandise on display, of course.

IMG_3667.jpg This is the Chan See Shu Yuen Buddhist temple. What strikes me about this and other Buddhist temples here is how bright/colorful they are. Some really amazing and intricate artworks, too.

IMG_3671.jpg

IMG_3672.jpgIMG_3674.jpgIMG_3678.jpg This is another Buddhist temple down the street, called the Wei Zhen Gong Guan Yin Temple.IMG_3682.jpgIMG_3684.jpg I took this picture because while the bell is rung from the outside like the Buddhist bells in Japan, the shape is quite a bit different.IMG_3699.jpg This is Masjid Jamek. I took this photo from a staircase at a light rail station named after it. Masjid is Malay for ‘Mosque”.

We decided to go down to the ‘city center’ which is the area near the Petronas Towers. It has a 6-floor mall underneath it.

IMG_3709.jpg The nice thing about malls when you are a few degrees from the equator is that unlike many public places, it is not open-air, and you can cool off in air conditioning.

IMG_3708.jpg This is Rotiboy. “Roti” is Malay for “bread”. They have buns to die for.

IMG_3733.jpg I have to admit: they were tasty buns.

We spent quite a bit of time in this mall, between the mid-day heat and a spot of rain to avoid. The Petronas Towers buildings are connected to the mall, but tickets for the observation deck on the 44th floor were sold out already. We had lunch at the mall, explored the Kinokuniya (a Japanese book store)- I was surprised that it was more or less a normal bookstore, since the ones I’ve been to in Japan and California are overwhelmingly Japan-centric. We decided to stay indoors for a while longer and bought tickets to see a movie- John Carter. The movie wasn’t that bad, but the ticket and concession prices were amazing. Tickets went for 9 ringgit, and I got a medium coke and a medium bag of carmel corn also for 9 ringgit, when its currently 3 ringgit to the US dollar. so a total of 6 bucks for a first-run movie and concessions? Not bad.

IMG_3716.jpgThis is the view out the exit of the mall, the Petronas Towers were behind me.

IMG_3719.jpg This is my “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” shot. The Petronas Towers are named after a rather large oil company in Malaysia, so riding around in the car you see lots of Petronas gas stations. These buildings were the ones that knocked the Sears Tower off the top of the World’s Tallest Buildings list in 1998, but only stayed there for 6 years. They are now the 6th and 7th tallest buildings in the world. They’re taller than the Kuala Lumpur Tower, but because of differences in elevation the observation deck of the latter is higher off the ground.

IMG_3732.jpg A picture from further back.

IMG_3726.jpg A picture out the front of the Petronas building- the complex also houses an opera house.

IMG_3737.jpg This is an area near yet another mall. I guess I didn’t really know what to expect from Malaysia but I didn’t really expect this. I think a big part of it is I haven’t done that much traveling abroad, and most of the places I’ve been have been developed countries (Canada, Japan) or kinda weird situations (2 of the Mexico border towns, the Soviet Union). I guess I wasn’t expecting Kuala Lumpur to be as modern as it is. But I guess considering the city itself is relatively new and there’s been so much economic development there, it’s not too surprising.

IMG_3740.jpg Next three pics are the other mall where we walked around. You can see the Petronas Towers peeking out in the second picture.IMG_3741.jpgIMG_3743.jpgIMG_3745.jpg There was a Carl’s Jr in the food court. Not exactly what I was expecting to see in Kuala Lumpur.IMG_3749.jpgThis was an outdoor food center between the mall and the light rail station. Kind of a more traditional food area. We didn’t partake.IMG_3768.jpg We took the bus from Kuala Lumpur (toward the center of Malaysia and inland) a few hours down to Malacca where X lives (it’s right on the Straits of Malacca, which separates the Indian Ocean from the Pacific). IMG_3770.jpg A pic of the bus we rode in to Malacca.

I would have liked to spend another day or so in Kuala Lumpur to see a few more sites, but in all it was a nice day in a really interesting city. More pics to come…

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.

Osaka

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).

Kobe

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_3331.jpg

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.

Nara

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_3458.jpg

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.

IMG_3504.jpg

IMG_3510.jpgIMG_3518.jpgIMG_3520.jpg

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’.

IMG_2776.jpgIMG_2781.jpgIMG_2786.jpgIMG_2790.jpgIMG_2792.jpg

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_3027.jpg

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_3145.jpgIMG_3151.jpg

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):

IMG_3207.jpg

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.

IMG_3219.jpgIMG_3223.jpg

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.

IMG_3244.jpg

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.

IMG_2629.jpg

IMG_2665.jpg

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_2637.jpg

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_2685.jpgIMG_2692.jpg

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.