Japan

May. 30th, 2009 08:04 pm
qatarperegrine: (Default)
Since I got back from Japan, I have not stopped talking about how awesome it is: the beauty of the temples, the elaborateness of the toilets, the wonderful smell of tatami, the fun of eating with chopsticks. Even their socks are cooler than our socks (I bought five pairs!).

Last week I told my mother-in-law that my friends are sick of hearing me wax lyrical about Japan. She said, "I'm sure that's not true." Justin said, "No, actually, it is."

Luckily Danny Choo is around to remind me of the darker side of Japanese culture, with these crazy pictures of a Canon factory. To improve efficiency nobody has chairs, and apparently if you don't walk 5 meters every 3.6 seconds in the hallways, alarms go off! Hmm, maybe Japan isn't Shangri-La after all.
qatarperegrine: (travel)
I've posted my Japan pictures! Click below to view.

The captions are sort of a narration of the trip, so I set it up to default to "Journal" view so you can see the captions more easily. If that irritates you you can change to different views at the upper right.

qatarperegrine: (travel)
I'm writing this in the Tokyo train station, waiting for my Shinkansen back to Osaka. I think the airport has wifi so I can post there.

I'm glad I came to Tokyo, just for the experience of wandering around and seeing what it's like, because it's very different from Kyoto. I'm also glad I only stayed one day, though; that was enough to wander through the areas I wanted to see (Akihabara, Shinjuku, Shibuya, with a side trip out to Nakano to visit Mandarake, a ridiculously large manga/anime store). There are things I'd see if I had more time (museums!) but I wouldn't give up a day in Kyoto for it.

I can't say I'm looking forward to getting back to Doha per se, but I am eager to see Justin, and get my pictures posted, and see my friends. If only Doha had mountains and trees and rivers and hiking paths and onsen! How happy I'd be!

So I hereby proclaim my solo vacation a rousing success. Funnily enough, the constellation of festivals that made me decide this was the right time to come (the Noh festival in Nara, the hollyhock festival in Kyoto and the Asakusa festival in Tokyo) were the most underwhelming parts of the week, but I guess that just goes to show how wonderful everything else was.

So Mata ne, Japan -- not Sayonara, since with any luck I'll be back someday.
qatarperegrine: (travel)
Today's dinner report comes to you from a sketchy Indian restaurant in Akihabara, Tokyo's "Electric City" famous for electronics and geeks. So much shiny stuff! So much anime! I'm having troupe figuring out which stores to go in since the anime/manga places and the porn places look much the same. The last store I went in was selling blow-up dolls, which the signs were eager to point out were equipped with both breasts and a "danger hole.". WTF?

My favorite part of Tokyo so far has just been people-watching. In Kyoto people looked mostly like people in any city, albeit with a much higher proportion of school uniforms and kimonos. Here, they look like Tokyoites: women in outrageous goth loli, boys with absurdly carefully styled hair. It's fun just to watch.

I got very lost today, for the first time on this trip. I reserved my hostel online using my iPod, and kept the webpage with directions open. But when I got to the right neighborhood and pulled the webpage up, it tried to refresh and failed because I didn't have a net connection. No address! No map! I knew approximately where it was, but kept circling the area to no avail. Luckily Tokyo has police kiosks all over the place so eventually a policeman helped me find it. But it was irritating to lose a full hour of my 24 hours in Tokyo! On the bright side my neighborhood, Asakusa, is the center of the huge festival going on right now, so at least I got to see lots of the festivities as I circled the area!

I can't close without a shout out to my friends who are graduating today. Go, Leland! Go, Ryan!
qatarperegrine: (travel)
It rained today, so I went hiking. There are two beautiful wooded valleys north of Kyoto, called Kibune and Kurama, and one can hike over Mt. Kurama from one to the other. It only takes an hour or so, which is good since I got a much later start than intended due to late-night karaoke with some new friends from my hostel.

I tragically forgot my camera battery (left it charging) so I resolved to write down impressions every time I wished I could take a picture:

A little boy leading his patient father from stepping stone to stepping stone across the river, sending two cranes into flight.

The clever signs in Japanese train stations, which tell you the name of the current station AND, with arrows, the names of the next station in each direction, so you can easily tell when your station is next.

The many intense shades of green of the forested hills north of Kyoto, vivid against the white sky.

Wisps of cloud between me and the highest peak.

Hearing nothing but the patter of rain on the leaves, and the competing sounds of half a dozen waterfalls.

Coming across a large Shinto shrine seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Stopping to ring the bell to honor the mountain, and startling a tiny wren in the undergrowth.

The view down the valley on descent: nothing but mountains and trees and clouds and the gracefully concave roof of one temple.

My first funicular ride, from Kurama temple down to town. So cool! Like an outdoor elevator with seats.

The bus up to the onsen, which in addition to having self-opening doors like other taxis here, also had a live video feed on the dashboard of the rear view of the vehicle.

Finally, the view up at the mountain from the onsen itself, which I couldn't have photographed anyway. An onsen is a hot springs that has been turned into a public bath. It was amazing. Every afternoon hike in the mountains should conclude with outdoor nude hottubbing -- the world would be a better place, I promise.

I am now in a fancy falafel restaurant near Kyoto University, watching the people around me eat pita sandwiches with chopsticks. Wow. I don't care, I'm eating mine with my hands. I'm pretty sure I'm more authentically Middle Eastern than anything in this restaurant, anyway. :-)

Tomorrow I'm off to Tokyo. I still haven't seen the golden temple, though. I'll have to decide tonight how unmissable it is; I could always go see ot first thing in the morning, before catching the train.
qatarperegrine: (travel)
Four days after arriving in Japan, I have seen the unthinkable... LITTER. I know, I was as shocked and appalled as you are right now. Litter! On the STREET! What is this country coming to?

Today was very nifty: long chat with Italian roommate, hollyhock festival, geisha performance, then shrines and walking all afternoon. I did the philosopher's walk, a path up in the hills between temples. Since I've learned that my appreciation of a temple is inversely proportional to the number of people in it, that was a good choice.

The geisha play was wonderful, much more accessible than the Noh play. There were four acts, each one tied to a season: spring was a play about two performers who fall in love and the machinations it takes for their employers to consent to their wedding; summer was a duet, I didn't catch the plot; fall centered on two young men getting drunk; winter was an elderly couple and maybe they died at the end? And then all the geishas did one last dance in spring. Quite lovely.

It was a treat to see real live geishas; each geisha house has public performances once a year, which is the only time us lowly mortals can see Kyoto's remaining geishas perform. So iy was good timing I could go. I was in the cheapest seats: "it's Japanese style, ok?" they said when I bought the tickets. When I saw the little one-square-meter cushion I was to kneel on for the next 90 minutes I thought, this is cushy! Then they told me that cushion was seating for four! It was very cozy, me and three Japanese women.

I finally decided to stay in Kyoto an extra day and head to Tokyo for just a day and a half. That seems like a good balance. So much to see!
qatarperegrine: (travel)
I'm writing this on a train from Kyoto to Osaka, Kobe and (my destination) Himeji. Of the seven people sitting next to me on the train, four are texting people on their ever-present cell phones, so I felt left out. :-)

Last night I stayed up till 1 chatting with people in the hostel lounge: a Frenchman studying Buddhism, a Serbian who's been in Japan a whole month, a Dutch couple, and an American JET. Good times. Ryan, good call on recommendng this hostel! (K's House, for the curious.)

I am of course seeing many amazingly beautiful sights, but I'll explain them when I post pictures. For now I'm trying to stick to little things. Like how awesomely cool the clothes of the guy sitting next to me are -- zips and buckles everywhere. I secretly love ridiculous Japanese fashion.
qatarperegrine: (travel)
Reporting live from a vegetarian Nepali restaurant where I'm sitting Japanese style on a cushion, drinking green tea and listening to a jazz rendition of the Surry with the Fringe on Top song from Oklahoma. It's a strange world. I don't know what they're cooking for me but I indicated my restrictions (Egg? Ok. Fish?Dame-X.) and I'll hope it works out. Not speaking Japanese has not been much trouble so far.

Today I tried to remember how many writing systems I've traveled in. Cyrillic, Arabic, Devarangari, Thai, Chinese, Sinhalese and Tamil, and now Japanese, not counting variations of Latin (like Turkish). It is harder when you can't even sound out street signs. But so far getting by as an English speaker alone in japan has been daijobu.

Update: OMG how do I eat veg thali with chopsticks?!?
qatarperegrine: (travel)
This morning I woke up too early, put on loose-fitting clothes, and went to sit cross-legged and barefoot on a zabuton cushion in a large tatami-matted room. After admiring the calligraphy wall hangings I settled into gazing softly at a point on the floor two feet ahead of me. It was just like morning meditation in Pittsburgh, only this morning I was gazing two feet ahead of me because that's where my breakfast tray was. :-)

I never realized how much of Zen is just Japanese culture!

Nara 2

May. 13th, 2009 11:59 am
qatarperegrine: (travel)
(written Tuesday evening)

Best first day in a country ever! I just spent 8 full hours being shown around Nara for free by volunteer guides from the YMCA. (And I do mean guideS -- my guide was training 4 new guides, so we were a tour group of 6, only 1 of whom was a tourist.) Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, Japanese gardens, we did it all -- but the awesomest part was that we stopped to go to a tea party with the Osaka-Kobe branch of the International Flower Arranging Society, of which my guide is a member. It was at a local artist's house and she had invited an apparently renowned musician to play traditional Chinese instruments. The musician (Sai Aikin?) was amazing, and it was surprisingly entertaining to spend 2 hours at a party going on in a different language. The ladies plied me with Japanese sweets (which were thankfully less gelatinous than I recalled) and seemed amused by my proclaiming everything "oishii!" (tasty).

I'm writing this at the Noh theater festival, which is held outdoors at a temple.. I feel weird blogging during a play, but it's 3 hours long in a language I don't speak so I have to entertain myself somehow. That said, they haven't actially spoken a word the whole time I've been writing this, just yodeling (I'm not demeaning Noh here, they really are yodeling) while an actor playing a woman or possibly a demon walks back and forth brandishing something, perhaps a fan. I have no idea what's going on, but the hundreds of other people here seem riveted -- everyone but me, and the two little boys in front of me. Maybe they'll let me play with their toy cars?

Ooh monks just processed in to light the bonfire!

It's finally cooling down: it was HOT today, so hot I got faint and had to go sit down for a bit during the tour of Todai-ji, leading my 5 guides to fret over me for the rest of the way.. Oddly though everyone here is wearing long sleeves and just using umbrellas to stay cool. If you saw a picture of the pedestrians you'd think it was cold and rainy, not hot and muggy!

Both Japanese people to whom I mentioned I was coming made sure I knew I can sneak out any time. "An hour of Noh is enough," one said. Think I'll take that advice when this piece ends and try to find somewhere to post this....

Nara

May. 13th, 2009 11:55 am
qatarperegrine: (travel)
(Written Monday evening)

Got off the bus in Nara to find a deer staring warily at me. Nara is famous for its tame deer; they were evidently sacred before Buddhism even (which is itself associated with deer). Stopped for noodles with tofu, which was perhaps my first time eating noodles with chopsticks. It was slow but fun, and I enjoyed making the culturally appropriate slurping noises. There were moist white cubes on the side so I ate them for dessert; I wonder what they were?

I like Nara a lot -- I'm in this area called Narimachi with lots of old buildings and covered arcades full of restaurants and shops. Just walking around this town -- watching kids bike by in their school uniforms and men on scooters pulling up at 7-11s -- makes me feel like I'm in a J-drama. I looked for the brave tofu maker with the dying daughter, but no luck. :-)

I'm staying in a ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese B&B, more or less. I'm writing this on my futon on a tatami mat, while wearing a yukata. So cool! I just showered and bathed down in the ryokan baths, where I think I committed a faux pas against my own culture -- I remembered everything I'd read about public bath etiquette,took a deep breath and prepared to strip in front of the girl who was already in there, but she hightailed it out of the tub before I even got my slippers lined up. I was so focused on where I'm supposed to put my towel (ideally, on top of my head) I didn't think through that the westerner there probably wanted to be alone. Oops!

So far my Japanese has been of limited use; I already know the greetings and politeness words but get them mixed up. I stood in the lobby of the ryokan wanting to get the owner's attention, unsure whether to ring the Tibetan prayer bell on the counter, and couldn't remember the right apology for getting attention. Gomen nasai? Surely not... Eventually I hit on it: sumimasen. But I'm still getting my pleases and thank yous mixed up and doing a lot of awkward bowing. Oh well, it'll come.

Yatta!

May. 11th, 2009 11:27 am
qatarperegrine: (travel)
I'm here! In Osaka airport waiting for bus. Everything is super Japanese :-). So far I've understood the first thing said to me in Japanese (daijobu desu, in reference to my immigration paperwork) and not thefirst thing said to me in English (is this all your luggage?) woot.

Now off to Nara!
qatarperegrine: (travel)
Next madcap trip in progress: the semester's over so I'm in the airport waiting for my flight to Osaka to start boarding. One week in Kyoto coming up... I'll keep you posted on how or goes, and how well my anime vocab serves me in conversation! Yosh!

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