Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Consumption


No, not the Tb kind. The purchasing kind. Thursday morning was spent visiting several ceramics shops in Kyoto looking for mementos of our trip. Kyoto is known its pottery which is called Kiyomizu yaki. A few of the stores were crappay, but most had quite a selection of good pottery in a range of prices from $20 to $300 for small sake cups with hand-painted designs. After hitting several shops with some key finds we stopped in a small cafe for a cup of coffee. It turns out that the cafe (picture above) is also a pottery studio, which has been family run for generations. The proprietor of the cafe showed us the pictures of her uncle’s huge wood-fired kiln. Unfortunately she told us that due to her neighbors’ complaints they no longer fire the wood kiln and rely solely on their smaller electric model. We also got to see one of the old masters painting glaze. He made a comment about how much he liked my 5-fingers shoes saying that they were oriental beauty :-). After all of that we felt like we needed to buy something in addition to our coffee and left with a cute silver bowl.
Since we were close to Kiyomizu-dera we decided to continue up the hill. Tired and hungry we arrived to face our final onslaught of inquisitive schoolchildren. Many of them were super lazy and tried handing their questionnaires to us to fill out. Of course, that wasn’t going to fly so we tried to teach them along the way. At this point, we were pretty saturated, hungry and tired of all the people so after taking some close-up telephoto photos we moved on to the Kyoto Handicraft center.
Lonely Planet kind of let us down again here-- the Handicraft center turned out to be filled with tourist schlock rather than actual handicrafts. One thing that was good was that they pointed us in the direction of a quaint tasty noodle restaurant that was pretty traditional. After a small accident with the hot sauce we all enjoyed our noodle soup, and a special treat - soba maki. Soba maki are small rolls of noodles wrapped in seaweed like sushi. They were pretty tasty and something that we can easily try at home.



After lunch we returned to the super-cute tiny street where we had seen the geisha show to visit a lacquerware store that we had seen previously for more goodies. After our final purchase, we headed back to Kyoto station to catch the Shinkansen back to Nagoya. When you watch the bullet train video, notice how quietly Jon talks to me. The train is amazingly quiet, it’s even hard to hear that loud low rumble that comes through on the video. When we arrived in Nagoya, Keiko prepared another fabulous meal, including home-made vegetable gyoza (dumplings) which were super tasty. We stuffed all of our purchases into our luggage and spent our last night in Japan.
We had an amazing trip, and owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Jon, Taka, and Keiko. They were absolutely fantastic and gracious hosts. We hope to return in the future to see more of the beautiful country.

More pictures on Flickr

Monday, May 23, 2011

Biking and playing dress-up

As I mentioned previously, our hotel in Kyoto provided solar-charged electric assist bicycles for touring the city. The electric-assist was pretty cool to use - you would just start peddling and the motor would make it easier. There were three modes including POWER for charging up hill and economy for working harder. Of course, in true Japanese style we weren’t offered helmets for running around, and riding on the sidewalk seemed safer than riding in the road so we succumbed to becoming “those people” that we had loathed in Osaka. In our futile attempt to be more polite than our Japanese counterparts we decided to ring our bells warning folks of our presence nearly every time we passed. We’re pretty sure that we were actually considered rude rather than polite, but we felt better.

Everyone was so excited about the bikes and heading out for the temple that we forgot to stop by Kyoto station and pick up bread for breakfast. Luckily, one of the ubiquitous convenience stores was nearby and had ample supply of fresh, tasty morsels. After nomming our breakfast in the shadow of the grand pagota of Tō-ji we set out to see the sites. Tō-ji is famous for it’s 5 story pagoda that is the tallest wooden structure in Japan. The pagoda is one of the major symbols of Kyoto and its ancient heritage. Tō-ji was built in the 8th century. The above picture is of the Kondo hall, which is the main hall of the temple. Unfortunately, since this site is a national treasure of Japan, they don’t allow photography of the Buddha and other statues inside the hall or the pagoda. I guess you’ll just have to go to Japan to experience them for yourselves ;-p One of the other funny things is that we saw a rag-tag bunch of white folks at Tō-ji, one of whom was wearing an Earlham College sweatshirt. They looked slightly scary so we didn’t bother trying to talk to them.

After Tō-ji we only had a short time until we had to return the bicycles, and Taka had begun to develop a pretty killer cold so she retired to the hotel to rest-up a bit before our busy afternoon. Lisa, Jon and I zipped over to Sanjūsangen-dō. Again, no pictures from this temple because it’s another National treasure. This is Japan’s longest wooden building that houses 1001 statues of the hindu-adapted buddhist god Kannon. Kannon has 11 heads and lots of arms. Each of the individual Kannon statues in the building is unique, holding various ceremonial objects in different positions or with different little-heads on top of it’s main-head. I’m not sure how they got the illegal photos but there are several here for your enjoyment.

After walking through the hall, we didn’t have much time left to return the bikes so we went back to the hotel and picked up Taka. Since we had missed our bread-breakfast we decided to head back to Kyoto station for lunch at a French deli. After nomming some tasty walnut cheese bread and cheese & honey bread we were ready for our next adventure - Kimono.

Taka found this great place in Kyoto where you can go and rent Kimono. The helpful staff assists you out of your clothes and dresses you in the Kimono of your choice for $25/per person. Lisa and Taka literally had hundreds of styles to choose from. For Jon and I the choices were sized based on height and much more limited. I picked a fun silver checkerboard pattern in Large size, and poor Jon had only two choices in 3L - brown or black. He chose brown and rocked it, as seen above. After getting dressed, Jon and I compared notes and it turned out that one other tragedy had befallen him due to his stature - they didn’t have the super-long white boxers in his size so the woman dressing him gave him the Japanese equivalent of a jock-strap and put it on for him!! HAHA. Lisa and Taka didn’t remark on any similar undergarment drama from the ladies’ side so I’m sure we’ll never know. After donning the kimono and a few pictures we headed out to see one of the other famous sites in Kyoto - the temple of the golden pavillion.

Kinkaku-ji is a buddhist temple that boasts a gilded pavillion sitting on a small lake on the north side of Kyoto. As it was quite far away, and because we were all wearing snuggly fitting dresses we took a cab. Immediately upon exiting the cab, the white people wearing kimono became a spectacle. Many of the older Japanese visiting the temple would smile and give us reassuring looks or bows, flattered that we would sport their traditional garb. Others, mostly younger folks would snicker and sneak photos of us. Lisa was a surprisingly good sport about the whole thing considering how much she hates to stand out in any situation.

Along the walk, Taka informed us that we were still wearing the spring kimono that is traditionally worn through the end of May and has about 6 layers (no joke) so we were all quite hot on the 76 degree day. The summer kimono is more like the yakata (robe) from the onsen hotel, and would have been more comfortable. One of the best things about wearing a kimono is the massive sleeves. They gave Jon and I both a small purse for monies and small cameras. The purse could easily be twisted around the wrist and hidden in the sleeve. This revelation led to several chuckles throughout the rest of the trip. The grounds of Kinkaku-ji were quite pretty and featured a small area for tea. We felt compelled to participate given our garb and were treated to a super tasty gold-leafed mochi paired with the rich green bitterness of matcha.


After heading back to the kimono store and getting undressed Taka was exhausted from her cold. We dropped her off and decided to head out to see another cultural wonder of Kyoto with Jon. We hopped in a cab, and after a frustrating 3 minute conversation that indicated that our cab driver had the mental map of a 9 year old we headed out. After a short trip we arrived at Fushimi Inari Taisha, the main shrine in Japan for the shinto god Inari. This particular shrine consists of a large gate, and a few small buildings that lead to a path up a tall hill lined with over 1000 torii (gates). As we walked up the hill there were several individual shrines, each of which paired with a small dwelling. It seemed like the dwelling was a place for a monk to live to tend the individual shrines, but we couldn’t confirm our suspicion. One thing that was interesting about the walk was that we were never far from the ubiquitous vending machine. Even at the tippy-top of the hill there was a machine. Of course, the prices were double what they were on the ground.

The fox is the guardian for Inari, and was represented all over the shrine usually dressed in a red cape out of respect. In addition to the large tojii that you could walk through, the shrines were covered with smaller gates. Jon told us that each tojii was associated with a wish, and there were several signs throughout the shrine indicating how much money had to be donated to purchase a tojii. Prices ranged from 100 yen ($1.20) to 1.4 million yen (over $150K). The amount of money spent on purchasing gates throughout the shrine was truly astonishing.

After climbing to the top and back down, we were pretty tired and ready for something to eat so we wandered around the Fushimi neighborhood. Not long after we started our search we ran into a hole-in-the-wall local ramen shop that seemed like they would be able to accommodate our dietary restrictions. Unfortunately, the woman that Jon had originally conferred with was not our waitress. She was the wicked witch of the ramen shop with horribly dirty fingernails, blistered hands, and even worse dental hygene. At this time though, we were committed and Jon was confident that we could leave with bellies full of tasty ramen. After ordering three bowls of ramen, the waitress returned with a plate of veggies in a tasty green sauce with a few stray shrimp and pieces of an unidentifiable fish and brought out two bamboo steamed baskets filled with vegetables and pork for the boys. We went back and forth on what had happened - was it Jon’s broken Japanese, or was the waitress incompetent. We finally settled on the waitress’ incompetence, enjoyed our motley meal and took the train back to Kyoto station where we picked up a big box of Mister Donut and tasty waffles for breakfast before turning in for the night.

Check out more pictures on Flickr

Fale and Win


The last morning in Osaka was pretty much a bust. At the last minute we found out that there was a Franck Mueller store in Osaka, and apparently they had a huge special showing just a few days prior to our arrival. Not that any of us could actually afford to buy a Meuller watch, but we both like them and thought it would be a cool place to visit. In addition there are lots of other ultra-luxury brand stores scattered throughout the Shinsaibashi district in Osaka - Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Dolce and Gabana, Cartier and Imani to name a few.

As it was a weekday morning people were out and about trying to get to work on time. We were nearly run over by about 10 separate people all flying past us on the sidewalk riding bicycles. Many of the women were riding in heels, many men were wearing suits, and none of them were wearing helmets.

Unfortunately, people who buy things from ultra-luxury stores can't be bothered to have their servants leave the house before 11A so we were up way too early. We had already booked a 4PM appointment in Kyoto and didn't have time to blow window shopping.

We meandered a little through some of the side streets of Osaka and saw some cute little neighborhoods including a hipster boutique complete with super-expensive vintage clothes and a track bike. We also saw some graffiti in this area which is pretty rare for Japan.

After our walk, we checked out of the Osaka hotel, bought our last Macaroons and headed for the train station.

Upon arriving in Kyoto we walked a few blocks from the train station to the hotel, which turned out to be our best hotel of the trip. Hotel Kanra opened in 2008 and had all the trimmings of a cute boutique hotel in the west. Right down to the free-to-borrow solar-charged electric-assist bicycles.

We got our rooms upgraded for free because when Taka originally booked the smaller room was not available for both nights. It turned out that we could have all slept in the same room because they were fantastically huge. In addition to the customary bed and bathroom, our rooms sported a large section of tatami mats with a low table and chairs near the flat-screen TV mounted in the wall. The hotel had a great warm modern feel with fun materials including a cypress soaking tub. It's a good thing that the tub was secured to the floor because I'm pretty sure that Lisa would have tried to take it home. We were tired from traveling, and as there was a 7/11 next door we decided to grab some tasty treats for lunch - onigiri, inarizushi, and Japanese chocolate :-)

After our late lunch, it was time to head out to the geisha dance show. While many geisha dance and entertain clients in a private setting there are a few special public performances. We were lucky to get tickets to the last show of the day, at 4PM. We arrived early and decided to explore the neighborhood, and unfortunately we got trapped in a downpour. It was a great day for Jon to wear his white jeans. After drying out in a subway station, browsing a 100 Yen store (like a dollar store here), and seeing another amazing bread shop, we walked to the theater for the show.

The show itself was interesting, but I can't help but think that we missed a lot of the subtle nuances that made it an excellent performance. The first half was a play involving a "classic" Japanese story: boy meets girl, other boy meets girl, fighting ensues, fake "switch" of another girl with boy #2. You get the picture. Unfortunately, it was hard for our western brains to keep the female characters straight, especially as they changed outfits and hair styles several times during the night. The second half of the performance was much easier to understand - the four seasons, complete with a live geisha orchestra wielding shimasens, flutes and "something that sounded like a dying cricket". There were two older geisha performing, in the second act both of whom received a standing ovation, for some reason that wasn't perceptible to either Lisa or me.

The theater was in a super-cute neighborhood with super-narrow walking only streets lined with restaurants and shops. There were many older Japanese couples out for a night on the town with men dressed in sharp suits and women in beautiful Kimonos. We left the show and set out on the adventure of finding a restaurant.

It turns out that among other things Kyoto is known for it's tofu. Who would have thought that there was any kind of tofu other than silken - soft, firm, and super firm? Taka had done some research ahead to find a tofu restaurant. The tofu restaurants prepare and sell their own specialty tofu. Unfortunately the restaurant that she found was oddly only a tofu restaurant when the geisha show was the Gion neighborhood (which it wasn't currently). As everyone was cold and pretty hungry we decided to go there anyway and it turned out to be an excellent decision.


After removing our shoes and walking upstairs we were seated in a traditional room filled with tatami mats, low tables and pillows. Taka took care of ordering for us and even though they weren't currently a tofu restaurant they made special provisions for Lisa including sending someone out for a specific tofu that they didn't have on hand. One of the options on the menu was a $15 sake tasting with three pours. The waiter asked if we wanted to all three taste the same sake or to have 9 different sake to chose from. Obviously we opted for 9 tastes instead of 3 ;-) However, when he brought out medium-sized sake cups and saucers and began to pour the cups to overflowing and filling the saucers with 180 ml we all agreed that 9 would be too many as Taka doesn't drink and we didn't want to stumble home through the red light district. We had six sake to chose from - a house grade junmai, a junmai gingo, and a junmai daigingo which the waiter explained had to do with the grade of rice used, and the amount of polishing of the rice. The other three sake were more exotic - an all organic sake, a sake with added alcohol, and finally a local sake that was made from very highly polished rice. We all agreed that our favorites were the ginjo, daiginjo and the organic sake.

For dinner, we all had soups prepared at the table. Lisa had two similar soups, one made with soy milk base instead of broth, both featuring different tofu. The special tofu that was sent-for turned out to be completely different than any we'd had before with a very rich texture and an almost fatty mouth-feel. Still not much of a taste, but good none-the-less. Jon and I had a tasty soup with a super-tasty chunk of fried-chicken. Some of you may know that I don't often eat chicken, even when I'm cheating on my diet because for the most part it's boring, blah, and just the "filler" meat that people put in dishes when they don't want to use something tasty like beef or pork. This was different, and I ate the whole thing. At the end of the meal, as we've found is traditional in Japan, they brought bowls of gohan (rice) and Miso soup. The Miso soup in Kyoto is different from what we have commonly in the states and in Nagoya. In Kyoto they use white miso which is slightly sweeter, and has a creamier appearance and texture. The rice was soo delicious with green onions and tiny fish that it's hard to describe.

After dinner we walked through the nearby red light district which was quite a bit higher-class than the one we had walked through previously in Osaka. Many of the streets were lined with homes and private residences where Taka said that Geisha live and perform privately. We went back to our beautiful hotel and passed out, resting for the adventures of tomorrow.

Check out more pictures on Flickr

Nara

The city of Nara is nothing without history. It was the capital city of Japan from 710-784. The capital was moved to Kyoto in 784 out of fear of the increasingly powerful Nara clergy.

Nara is typically experienced as a side trip for one or two days from either Osaka or Kyoto, both of which are both nearby. On arriving in Nara we found a little place to eat that served common Japanese food - tomato rice covered in an omelet and ketchup, as well as little deep-fried croquettes filled with cheese and shrimp. Turns out the japanese love to deep fry meat. After our lunch we ventured out to see the sites, here are a few highlights.

Nara is kind of like a giant park, and similar to our own Eagle Creek it's completely filled with deer. However, the deer in Nara are very special. According to legend, one of the Shinto gods arrived on a white deer to guard a the new capital and the deer have been revered ever since. Snack vendors all over the park sell shika sembei (deer biscuits), for feeding them. Some of the deer have even learned to bow, imitating tourists to beg for a tasty treat.

The deer also have a dark side, sometimes getting a little too aggressive when going after the crack-like biscuits. Thank goodness the Japanese government provides signs warning us of the deer dangers (first picture).

Tōdai-ji is the Eastern Great temple which houses Nigatsu-dō, the giant Buddha. A few factoids: The great hall of Tōdai-ji is the largest wooden building in the world. It has been built and rebuilt several times due to damage by fire and earthquake. The current building was completed in the 18th century and while massive is 30% smaller than it's predecessor. The giant Buddha is a massive bronze statue, first completed in the 8th century sitting 5 stories tall and weighing in at 500 tons.

Before entering the temple, Taka instructed us on one of their traditions - lighting incense. W e purchased incense sticks for a small coin and lit them in the flame in front of the temple. After placing the incense in the ashes, we wafted the incense smoke over our heads to make us smarter. Lisa says she'll see how 3L goes and get back to them.

The grounds, great hall and the giant Buddha were amazing. We didn't know just how lucky we were at Nara because many of the other temples that we visited in Kyoto didn't allow photography inside the buildings. In the great hall, we had a new cultural experience, the interview. There were tons of school children visiting the sites, much like us. Many of the children were given an assignment to talk to a foreigner. The first time it seemed pretty cute and funny, but as we found out in the wake of the earthquake foreigners are pretty rare. We were quickly overwhelmed with questions, not only at Nara but also in Kyoto. What is your name? Where did you come from? Can we exchange coins from our country and yours? Can we take picture with you? There were at least 4 different question scripts. Some of the lazy kids in Kyoto would just hand you the questionnaire and expect you to fill it out without saying another word. After the 5th time this got pretty annoying.


After visiting the giant Buddha we walked to another temple, and a beautiful shrine with hundreds of lanterns. There were stone lanterns surrounding the shrine and many more small bronze and gilded lanterns inside. We got to see a few of the lady monks that were running around the shrine working.

This post doesn't really explain just how tired we were from our walk, which took the entire afternoon. Each of the temples were spread out and we were exhausted, falling asleep on the rain ride back to Osaka.

I (Marc) sometimes make exceptions in my diet for special foods that are uncommonly available, times when it would be socially awkward to refuse, etc. So, Kobe beef was one of the things that I wanted to try while in Japan. So we were left with the question - where does one go to get good Kobe in Japan? Of course, as will all else food you go to a department store! We wound up in a French-ish restaurant called BOBO on the top floor of the Daimaru department store. The Daimaru department store itself is worth a quick aside. The chain was started in 1700's with the first store in the Osaka location built by 1726. The current building looked like it was built in the height of the 20s with glorious art-deco accents and wonderful lighting throughout the first floor. The filet was incredibly expensive, but was melt-in-your-mouth, super tasty, and well worth the $$.

Check out more pictures on Flickr

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Super Sugoi Japan Action #2

Sugoi is a japanese word for "awesome" or "cool".

There are at least four more posts coming soon. Most of them have been written, but still need pictures worked out.

Here are a few more videos to tide you over.

Lisa Rings the Bell


Lisa ringing a bell at the hilltop shrine in Shizouka near the Onsen hotel.

Lisa Rings the Bell from Marc Kohli on Vimeo.



Keiko's Cooking

Taka's mom - Keiko is a great cook. We were lucky to have two meals prepared for us during our stay.

Keiko balling sushi rice from Marc Kohli on Vimeo.


Keiko making gyoza from Marc Kohli on Vimeo.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Super Sugoi Japan Action

** Updated to include inline videos **


Thanks to Isaac for kicking us into taking more videos - you all get to enjoy :-)
Sorry for the video links instead of in line video, upload options are limited on the iPad. If the video doesn't work, you need to install iTunes. We will be traveling with the Air in the future :-(

Waterfall video from the Shizokua cave



Waterfall video from the Shizokua cave from Marc Kohli on Vimeo.

Jon describes the "little room"



Jon describes the "little room" from Marc Kohli on Vimeo.


Magical flying mayo


Magical flying mayo from Marc Kohli on Vimeo.

Temple of the 1000 gates


Temple of the 1000 gates from Marc Kohli on Vimeo.

Jon makes a wish (we climbed about 5000 steps for the trip)


Jon makes a wish (we climbed about 5000 steps for the trip) from Marc Kohli on Vimeo.


Pinch pinch


Pinch Pinch from Marc Kohli on Vimeo.

Taka <3 pondering (Mister Donut)


Taka <3 pondering from Marc Kohli on Vimeo.

Osaka

Sunday was the day to ride the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka for a taste of modern Japan. Most people would go to Tokyo for such things, but because of the earthquake we chose to avoid anything north of Fuji-san.

The Shinkansen was pretty amazing. Currently they operate at about 300 kph (186 mph), but JR is currently developing a new model that will travel up to 600 kph (372 mph)! There are two types of cars, open seating similar to a subway car, or reserved seating much more like an airplane. However, the Shinkansen is much nicer than any airplane with more than first-class room around every seat. In fact, the tray table was a little too far away - I had to lean forward to type blog posts. Cost for our 40 minute trip was about $70/ea. The car trip would have taken at least 6 hours, so we saved an enormous amount of time. One of the more striking things was the lack of sensation of the high speed. The train sped up gradually, rather than pushing you hard into the chair. The only way to try to grasp the speed was to look out the window at the houses, mountains, and rice patties flying by. Similar to an airplane attendants walk though the car selling bento boxes, sake, and green tea.

After arriving in Osaka we took the subway into town and dropped off our luggage at the hotel. The hotel was one of the good-calls that we got from the lonely planet for the trip. Recently redecorated it had a W-like modern chic feel. The French pastry shop in the lobby selling the most beautiful macaroons was at least a daily stop during our stay.

The hotel is in the Minami district which is famous for it's high end shopping, and a strip of restaurants and nightclubs. Interestingly, the main street during the day is paralleled by a street filled with a red light-ish district that is hopping at night. Walking down the main street we had fun exploring candy stores, an upscale grocery, and dining on okonomyiaki. Okonomyiaki is a kind of omelet/pancake covered with a beautiful brown sauce and mayonnaise. They put different kinds of fish, meat, and vegetables inside. The tables are also covered in hot plate so that you could cook your own. We decided to leave it to the professionals. We also ate some tasty yakisoba (fried soba noodles), which were the best part of the meal.

With full bellies we checked into the hotel to relax and prepare for our evening.

In the evening, we decided to head out to check out one of the super mega electronics store called Yodobashi. Think about combining one of those hole-in-the-wall electronic shops in NYC with about 3 Best Buys, and then double it adding jewelry, clothing, toys and about 10 restaurants. Not like food court restaurants either - sit down, full-service places. We were pretty lucky to make it out of there in just an hour, because I could have looked around for about 5 hours. That night we ate in a restaurant that "specialized in vegetables". I put it in quotes because nearly every dish had some kind of bacon or fish. The concept of the place was interesting though - they bring a gas hot-plate to your table and you cook your own soup. We had a tomato-based soup with cabbage, potatoes, and onions. It was ok, probably not our favorite meal of the trip.

After dinner, we decided to walk around the mall adjacent to Yodobashi-Umeda. We saw a giant ferris wheel and decided to go check it out. The mall closed very soon after we arrived so we didn't do much shopping. The ferris wheel was super cool, one of the highlights of Osaka for sure. One thing that Lisa and I are constantly amazed by is the population density here. It is one thing to read about it on Wikipedia, but it's entirely different to see. When we ride the train, or drive in the car it is high-rise city everywhere you look. So many tall buildings scattered across the horizon. This was incredibly apparent on the top of the ferris wheel.

After the Ferris wheel we decided to check out the arcade that was also in the mall. All four of us had a great time giggling, and playing in the photo booth. Jon and I played a few video games, and we stopped by the second floor which had the largest "coin pushing" game that I had ever seen. As we walked up the stairs we noticed a slender man playing the coin pushing game. He must have just won a jackpot because he was placing black cup after black cup into the machine which was constantly spitting out coins for at least 5 minutes. We would have taken pictures but he was already pretty suspicious as there was no way he could manage all of the coin buckets.

I mentioned in the beginning of the post that the lonely planet helped us find a great hotel, and has otherwise been excellent. Unfortunately, the lonely planet sucks for bars. The ladies were tired, and so Jon and I armed with his iPhone for directions set out for "soulfucktry". The lonely planet reported that soulfucktry is a self-described soul disco and had a reputation for featuring some of the best DJs in Japan. After a few navigational challenges, and a little help from google street view we finally arrived, only to find that it had been closed for over a year, suck. We decided to set out for our second lonely planet suggestion, an Irish pub called Murphy's that as you might guess had already closed by the time that we arrived (after 12:30 on a Sunday). After walking back through the red light district, and being offered a "young girl" by a creepy madame we ended up at a pretty swank little hotel bar. We both had a whiskey and headed back to the hotel to end the evening, defeated.

Click here for more photos.

Ise-Shima and the Feast

Jon and I went out on a quick run around his neighborhood. I think that people are still talking about the white folks running so slowly near the soccer stadium. We passed numerous people dressed in serious track and field collegiate uniforms, there must have been a track meet. They must have thought we were crazy, running for 3 minutes then walking.

After eating breakfast and getting ready we left for Ise-Shima, one of the most important, largest Shinto shrines in Japan. After a two hour drive, we arrived at the town. Walking from the parking lot to the actual shrine was an experience in itself. There were cute little shops lining the narrow streets, kind of like a much cleaner, cuter Nashville Indiana. We stopped a few times to sample some of the food, with a few winners (roasted chestnuts, saltwater soaked cucumber, and charcoal grilled Uni), and one big loser: mochi walabi. We confused it with mochi gohei, a super tasty treat we had at Nagoya jo. They were both white bars covered with a sauce, but the former had a super weird texture that shouldn't be consumed or described further.

Amazingly, the Shinto tradition mandates that the buildings of the shrines be rebuilt on a slightly different location every 20 years. The spirits of the shrines are then transferred to the new buildings and the cycle begins again. There were so many people walking through the streets and to the shrine. We walked along a wide, winding stone path along a river to the shrine. The grounds were filled with huge, old trees. When we arrived at the shrine there were so many people lined up to walk up the stairs and give an offering at the shrine that it took quite awhile to get up to the front. Taka's mom was with us and we should have followed her lead, bolting off to the side where the line was shorter. This particular shrine cannot be entered, and there was a large sheet covering the entrance so that we basically went on a long walk to steal a glimpse of a courtyard. An interesting experience for sure. Off to the side of the main stairs there was a monk guarding a passageway. Apparently for a "donation" you can celebrate your new business, or special occasion by entering the outer courtyard and saying a prayer.

It was beginning to look like rain, so we headed back to the car for the trip back to Nagoya. It was pretty amazing traffic for a Saturday. Tons of motorcycles all over as well. Lots of Harley-Davidsons in addition to the ubiquitous Honda cb400 out enjoying the beautiful weather.

Taka, her mother (Keiko), and sister-in-law Hitomi prepared an amazing dinner for us on Saturday night. It was a roll-your-own-sushi feast in including spicy tuna, tai (red snapper), salmon, jellyfish in Uni (sea urchin) sauce, and boiled chicken salad. For Lisa they had pickled daikon, cucumber, tamago (egg omelet), steamed tofu, snap peas from Hitomi's parent's garden, mioga (a gingery shalloty bright pink veggie), kobocha squash, and tasty mushrooms. Keiko made several little rice balls and the nori (seaweed wrapper) was cut into individual strips so rather than having a single roll with the same insides, you could make individual rolls with whatever you wanted. The food was excellent, and afterwards we all played wii ping-pong, tried some Japanese strawberries and cherries and some special Ise mochi, and then took the devil-dog on a walk around the neighborhood.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Shizuoka

Friday we woke up early again, still a couple of hours off from local time. But the weather had improved and it was sunny and beautiful outside. Because we had the ocean view room, we were able to see Mount Fuji before we even left for breakfast. We got really lucky with the weather, because Mt Fuji is shy and can't be seen when it's foggy or rainy. Luckily, the rain and fog burned off just in time for our one day in Shizouaka and we got some great views of the snow-capped mountain. After a buffet breakfast in the hotel, we went out to the observation deck to see Mt Fuji and snap some photos. From the deck there were some mossy stone stairs disappearing into the woods so we went exploring. It turned out to be a nice trail through the woods, with glimpses of Fuji through the trees ending with a shrine (temple?) in the middle of the woods. It was beautiful, and we were happy to get a little walk in after spending a few hours in the car the day before. After our walk, we returned to the onsen for a last dip before checking out of the hotel and heading home with a couple of side trips.

We were still following the Lexis tour guide book, and we ended up driving down some beautiful curvy roads with tea fields and bamboo groves along the way and more views of Fuji-san. We pulled over for a couple of pictures and then kept driving until we arrived at a gondola station.

We bought a couple of Japanese style soft serve ice cream cones, and then tickets for the gondola that took us over a hilly forest and to the grounds of a Shinto/Buddhist temple for Kuno-zan Toshogu. There were lots of stairs leading to the temple, with stone lantern holders and little gates and side-shrines along the way. The temple was much more ornate than those we had seen so far. Past the shrine was Kuno-zan Toshogu's grave and off to the corner was the much-less-embellished grave of his most favorite horse. At the temple there was a big coin box and some instructions for making wishes. We had seen the same thing at the first temple we visited in Nagoya, but we weren't sure what the temple was for, as apparently there are different gods for different things/wishes. Taka said this one was for any kind of wish, so we thew in a couple of coins and clapped and bowed as instructed and wished for the Kelly house to sell (I hope the gods and St. Joseph are working together and not competing on this one) and made a wish for Jon and Taka. After the temple, we stopped by the museum that was on the grounds, and got to see some of Kuno-zan Toshogu's armor, clothes, swords, papers, and other effects.

After a gondola ride back, we stopped for snacks at the gift store, and found special limited edition wasabi flavored white chocolate kit kat bars! Apparently the area is known for growing wasabi, and so of course we had to try the bars. We all thought they were actually quite tasty, but when we brought one back to Taka's mom, she made a frowny face after she bit into it. Apparently it's not quite for everyone. We finished the sweet breads and rolls from the day before and headed back out in the car.

Our next stop was to another town in Shizouaka city, where there was a store called Craft Concert that was like a DWR-meets Frank Lloyd Wright. It was all kinds of simple beautiful wood and other natural material furniture, and if it weren't for the DWR level prices and the tricky bit about getting furniture half way across the world, we could easily have re-decorated our house at that store.

The little town was absolutely beautiful, and had a very peaceful feel. Maybe there really is something to that feng shui thing after all. It felt like we were in a little artist community, because all of the buildings and gardens were so beautiful. We both wished for more time to walked around exploring lots of little shops. We went into a little tea house for tea and coffee, and while the owner was fixing our drinks, she invited us to walk around her garden. Among the sculpted trees, we found a small Koi pond with wires strung here and there about 3 feet over the pond. At first we thought they were meant to provide surfaces for spiders to control unwanted insects as there were several resident spiders along the wire. But it turns out they were to keep the blue herons from grabbing the fish. It seemed like a great idea and we thought briefly about doing the same thing for our pond until I remembered all of the spiders, and decided to research other means of fish protection. The owner at the tea house said that the town was very quiet now after the earthquake, and usually it would be busier. The tea house was made with huge timbers for framing,. We asked the owner and she said that the house was 120 years old, and had such a solid rock foundation that it hardly moved in the last quake.

We also asked her about the amazing trained tree outside that had formed 3/4 of an arch (and turned out to also be the bush post at the corner and the fence line bush all the way down the side of the property), and she said it was 180 years old and her grandfather had started training it. Of course, if it hadn't been for Jon and Taka, we wouldn't have known any of this, so big thanks to them for all of their translating!

Next door was an art gallery, and again we could have happily bought most of the things inside, but money and suitcase space considered, we left with three special items. We got to see the artist at work doing his wood carvings for wood cut prints, and a very friendly woman showed us prints and pottery in the gallery/store.

What comes next may be a little hard to swallow for those who know us well. One of the things that we were most looking forward to trying in Japan is food from one of the millions of convenience stores that are all over the country. We had advance notice that the snacks at Japanese gas stations and corner marts are tasty and fresh, unlike in the states. There are a few big brands - Lawson station, circle-K, Family Mart, and of course 7-11. Enter one of these stores and you'll find a myriad of delights including food and drink, without a slurpee in sight. As we had a couple of hours in the car to get home, we stopped at a Family Mart for some snacks. We ended up with a couple of tofu pockets filled with wasabi rice, and an onigiri (rice-ball) filled with seaweed and sweet soy sauce, all for about $5. They were delicious and you could easily make a tasty, healthy meal of gas station snackies. In fact, when Hobbs lived in Japan before he lived on 7-11.

When we got back to Jon and Taka's house, we dropped off our things and picked up Taka's mom and headed out for dinner. We walked to the subway station and took it about 12 stops to Nagoya station, where there was a huge building with shops and restaurants on the first 15 floors, and then hotel up to the 50th floor. We went to a noodle shop and ended up sharing a big bowl of hot udon noodles in broth with egg (hold the fishcakes), and some cold soba noodles with a taro root dipping soup. The udon was good, and the soba was also good, but the taro root dipping sauce was a little slimy for our tastes. We both agreed that the udon was better, although Taka's mom gave us some of her soy sauce based dipping sauce and we liked that much better with the soba noodles. Now we know for next time!

We were all pretty tired from the long day, so once we got home we worked on a couple of blog posts and then hit the hay.

P.S. I hear that the pictures don't link back to Flickr, so we will include the link at the end of each post - Sorry!

P.P.S. Big thanks to Lisa for writing this post!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Autos and Onsen

Thursday we woke up and were hoping for a day without rain. The weather teased us a little in the morning with a few dry minutes, but unfortunately it wasn't going to happen. Luckily, rain makes for a spectacular waterfall, but more about that later.

Breakfast Thursday started with lots of tasty pan (bread) from the crazy department store. We had green melon rolls, red bean matcha rolls, chocolate orange sticky buns, and more. We also got to sample Mister Donut. What is so special about a chain that has vanished from the US? Of course, it is a mystical, magical creation called - pondering. Pondering is a perfectly round glazed donut made nearly entirely from rice flour, resulting in a texture somewhere in between chewy bread and mochi. Truly, a little ring of heaven.

Nagoya is famous, among other things, as the headquarters for Toyota. Toyota gives back to the community with an automobile museum encompassing wheeled transportation history from the first gasoline powered tricycle, to the plug-in Prius. Along the way we were treated to several famous autos from a Rolls-Royce silver ghost, to a Dusenberg, and even a gull-wing Mercedes.

After the museum, we started the Lexus driving tour. It sounds hokey, but our friends recently bought a Lexus and had a magazine highlighting a driving tour and attractions in the Shizuoaka area near Mt. Fuji (Fuji san). The first attraction was a walk-through ryugashi-do, a cave full of beautiful stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones, and rim pools. About 3/4 of the way through the cave we heard Taka exclaim up ahead. After turning the corner we happened upon a huge super-loud waterfall. It was quite a beautiful sight.

After the cave, we headed to our hotel for the evening, which is right on the Pacific ocean. After going though a beautiful automatic wood door, the hotel had a cute entranceway with beautiful purple orchids. We checked in, and made our way to the 6th floor. Taka and Jon, true friends, gave us the ocean view room since only one was available. Weary from traveling all day, our hearts sank, and our noses recoiled at the smoke that filled the hallway leading to our non-smoking rooms. Luckily, the rooms smelled fresh, and throughout our stay we had less and less interaction with smoking. On this dark rainy night the view from the room hardly mattered.

We found out later that the only ocean-view room available was a western-style room. Turns out that hardly anyone must use the room because the carpet was filthy, and the furniture worn. In the morning, we looked into the room next door which was neatly outfitted in beautiful dark wood and soft tatami mats - next time we will skip the rodeo room.

The hotel continued to win us over with dinner. When we checked with the hostess at the restaurant, there were *no* vegetarian options. They said the S-word and we decided to pass. Luckily Taka found a cute little Italian place that was only about 10 minutes drive. The Italian place was cute, with a slightly Tuscan decor, complete with a vintage vespa that looked like it was still getting some happy time on the road. Dinner consisted of two pretty darn good pizzas and some tasty mushroom cream sauce house made pasta. After dinner, everyone was full and ready for a bath.

Onsen is the Japanese word for a hot-spring bath. According to lonely planet, Japan boasts more hot springs than any other country with more than 3000. The baths are generally split into male and female, and follow an alternating schedule so that everyone can see the different pools and views. We got a quick etiquette lesson from Jon and Taka donned our yukata (hotel robes) and headed down to the onsen. All along the walls of the onsen are stations outfitted with shower handles and faucets with shampoo, conditioner and body wash. In order to keep the hot spring clean it is customary to bathe before entering the spring. The water was fairly hot (think big minerally hot tub) and quite relaxing. After spending some time in the warm tubs, we took a shivery dip in the cold, and returned to the warm. All-in-all an interesting new ritual.