Japan Day 6/7: Ise - A Tale of Two Shrines

11/10/14 | by Charlie [mail] | Categories: Travel

I have a few stops on the trip that are sort of "pass through" places. Ise was one such place south of Nagoya, and to get there I actually had to pass through Nagoya where I'd spend the night. Because of certain Tokyo festivities, I was running an hour or two late on my plans, and on the way I was wondering if it'd even be worth it; three hours round trip for three hours in Ise. It turned out to be an interesting and marvelous stop!

Now like Europe, I think you can see too many shrines and temples, but Ise is the Mecca of the Shinto religion. Ise contains two large shrines, the Inner and Outer, which are considered the center of the religion. I first visited the outer one and realized it was much larger than other shrines I'd visited. I took a 20 minute walk around the grounds and to the back where the grand temple is along with the alternate, mirror site which apparently each must have.

To my surprise, people were only allowed in the patio essentially, a 400 sq ft area, where there was a small wooden structure with cloth and metal inside for people to throw in their coins. Behind that and the railing was a huge stone garden, black stones with a white path running down the middle through Shinto gates, really nice. To the side, there was a small hut (150 sq ft) in which an elder sat and would do some rituals with certain families (I assume they paid?).

The really different part was the overall architecture. It was totally new, and pure fresh-cut looking wood. Nothing ornate. Definitely more of a study place than the others. In addition, buildings and retreats were far apart and the foggy overcast rain added to the spiritual, mysterious air about the grounds.

After visiting the outer, I headed to the inner, which was about 15 minutes away by bus. Turns out, literally the same. Everything I said above, just copy and paste.

Back in Nagoya this morning, I went to the JR Train museum. Super cool actually featuring all three of the fastest trains in the world (steam, conventional, maglev). Watched a film about how they went from 210 to 270km/h, which was interesting, and best of all got to see the maglev train and a feel simulated ride. At 500km/h, my mind can barely comprehend how fast it is, more than halving the time of the trip from Tokyo to Nagoya and scheduled to start service in just over 10 years. I'll probably talk about this more when I write a post focused on getting around here.

Finally, I headed to Kanazawa today on the best ride so far. The trees will be just about perfect when I return to Kyoto today. You can see the altitudes on mountains marked by colors even. Reds up top, green down below.

The hostel here is incredible, just 12 people and the hostess introduces you to all of them. Someone from SF, someone from this very city, another Japanese girl, and Italian. We sat around on the common room tatami swapping stories. A very personal and cool experience!!!

Off to bed now and a full day in Kanazawa awaits tomorrow starting with an early walking tour. Have a great week back in the states!

Japan Day 5: The Tokyo Hustle

11/09/14 | by Charlie [mail] | Categories: Travel

Strap in for some hefty Sunday reading, got a few topics to tackle today. Also, I know it's confused people in the past: if you are on the main page, click the title or read more to see the full posts.

HUSTLE
I had the opportunity to go out with some people from my hostel this weekend which turned out to be a great way to experience the Tokyo nightlife. Were it not for this ragtag handful of people, I'm not sure how one would ever be able to navigate it all.

I'll leave out some of the specifics, but the Friday as we wandered around Ginza for reasons unknown to most of us, we came across a bar that seemed reasonable. Karaoke, drinks, not crowded, etc. There were a few things that tipped me off that something was not quite normal though. First, they let us take our drinks in (down with open container laws!!!), second there was no cover or seeming charge for Karaoke (turns out there was), and third, when we walked in, there were about eight 20-something white female bartenders for a clientele of no more than 15 people.

So, and I still haven't confirmed all the details, but apparently there's a concept of a hostess bar in Japan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Host_and_hostess_clubs). The women/staff make money by essentially flirting with the customers and getting them to buy drinks for them. They seemed like they genuinely were glad for the change of pace from Japanese Business men which was why they casually explained all this to us (we obviously didn't buy them drinks and they warned us about cost even when we ordered for ourselves). Yet as I look back, who really knows. Anyways, a solid accidental Japanese adventure

BUSTLE
The first few days I was in Tokyo, it strangely didn't feel like Tokyo. I lived down the street from one of the main shrines, so coming and going from the hostel was always a surreal experience. Even as we took a taxi back Saturday night, we stopped at the shrine instead to enjoy the short 10-minute late night stroll through the grounds.

Saturday, however, I visited West Tokyo and it definitely felt like Tokyo. We started with the famous street crossing you see in movies, followed by strolls through shops and department stores.

For lunch, we went to a basement "business ramen" shop. As you walk in, two vending machines greet you and you purchase tickets for ramen there (no credit cards obviously). Then you find an individual stall to sit in on a map, sattle up, write your order on a piece of paper (hot, medium, etc.) and push a button. A person takes that, something plays a weird musical sound as they punch it in, and 5 minutes later, your food arrives, they roll down a curtain, and you eat. Definitely a quintessential Japanese experience.

Later that afternoon, I wandered the "Electronics area", checking up on the camera stock in Japan obviously. Just lights. So many lights. You'll have to wait for the full photo album to do this one justice. But this made it feel like Tokyo and every block I wandered seemed to be more crowded than the next.

Little known secret apparently, you can go up the gotham-esque city government building to a 45th floor observatory totally for free. So I went up there for a really nice panoramic view. It's right next to the hotel from Lost in Translation, so you can sort of picture yourself bemoaning life across the way there. Strangely, I ran into someone from my room at the hostel in the observatory, so we grouped up and went to get dinner and wander the most famous nightlife area (Shinjuku). He'd already been down one street and refused to go down there to avoid the pimps, so I strolled alone but perhaps looked too sober for anyone to accost me. Karaoke lounges, neigh Karaoke skyscrapers, were nestled in among the Strip Clubs and buildings with plastic flaps behind which the unknown lay; the pedestrian zone clearly looked to be popular as a nightlife destination.

Anyways, we headed back to the hostel, and though I swore I'd be in bed by 2am for my train this morning, I found myself in Ropongi at a night club with my hostelmates again, and then at a everything-is-280-yen-bar-and-restaurant till 4am. When it's pitch black from 4:30pm on, it really would be great to start these nights a little earlier...but as they say, when in Tokyo!

MUSCLE
One strange thing I've seen everywhere is the calorie or workout obsession. I haven't seen anyone out doing morning workouts like I did in China, but perhaps that's just because of where I was staying.

What I did see, is calories being noted everywhere, strangely not in food though. For instance, in that department store we visited, Tokyo Hands, each stair was labeled: 0.3 kCal, 0.5 kCal, 0.7 kCal, etc. You could literally count the calories as you went up the stairs (I burned off 18 calories worth of ramen).

Even stranger, at the infamous karaoke-but-maybe-hostess bar we visited. A calorie count was displayed at the end of each song. Presumably the amount of calories burned by singing the song, which, how do you even get a remotely accurate count? I mean I gave myself +10 for my Backstreet Boys rendition which involved a lot of running around and getting the salarymen singing.

I'm not sure what the story is behind all tracking of that, but I bet fit bits would sell like rice balls here.

COMING NEXT
Tokyo is done and today I'm heading to see some more shrines and stop over in Nagoya before moving on to Kanazawa and Kyoto. Hopefully the posts will shorten up a little as things become slightly less novel, but thanks for reading if you made it this far! Till next time :)

Japan Day 4: Nikko

11/07/14 | by Charlie [mail] | Categories: Travel

I figured while I was up in Tokyo, it might be worthwhile to see how far north I could sneak to try and catch the change of the seasons. Nikko fit the bill, and I set out in the morning on the 2 hour train ride up there. Once in Nikko, the fresh mountain air hit me immediately and I was glad I'd opted for the ole VQ hoodie. I sprinted around trying to find a boxed lunch and 10 minutes later was on a bus further into the mountains with some type of food in hand.

In Nikko itself, the seasons were just beginning to change, and the streaks of red trees looked like they were running down the sides of the mountains. I forgot such gorgeous hues of red existed. As we took the bus up into the hills, the leaves gradually became more sparse and we overshot the goal of a full rainbow of colors, but hopefully I'll still find the perfect balance later in the trip.

After the hour long bus ride through some of the most gut wrenching hairpin turns of my life (50m wide maybe), we finally came out to an area most readily described as Lake Tahoe; a gorgeous alpine lake. I spent the day doing some hiking and checking out two waterfalls in the area that were surprisingly nice.

After the hour ride back down, I was devastated to find the shrine and temple I'd intended to visit closed at an absurd 3:30. So not a whole lot happened in town after that. I suppose it was reasonable considering the sun set around 4:30 which was absurd.

The ride back was my first Shinkansen train (the really fast ones). And it's just so amazing how casually fast it goes. I'll save my transit infrastructure rant for another time. As we sped through the countryside, I noticed a lot of little graveyards; several sites on a plot about the size of a small cabin which had dozens of graves. I assume family grave sites or something like that which have been around for generations

Lots of little things like that I see around and always wish I had a guide or something to explain. Anyways, the night was crazy and may merit its own blog post, so I'll save that story for another time. Happy weekend everyone!

Japan Day 3: Kamakura

11/06/14 | by Charlie [mail] | Categories: Travel

Sadly day 3 started much the same as day 2: early. I got to one of the JR rail stations at 9am to get my pass going and set off for a day trip to Kamakura.

Transit here is really interesting, there's a single card you get that works for literally everything in the entire country: subway, train, bus, etc. Since I have the rail pass, I don't use it for regional trains, but it was amazing to arrive in Kamakura, hop on a bus and have my Tokyo transit card work (I even used it to buy a water later in the day).

Just as I was wandering out of the station in Kamakura, I encountered a group of elementary school aged children who approached me and asked, "Excru me. Mai we ark you so quersts?". After one of the kids friends said it again, I figured out they wanted to ask me questions (the English got better). This turned out to be the theme for my day, by the time I visited and left "Big Buddha", I'd spent 15 minutes photographing it and 30 minutes talking to small children. Apparently just because I'm the token white person at a temple, I must speak English...Sheesh.

One teacher caught me finally and apologized and thanked me for the help. He even push one kids chin up so he was looking at me as he spoke. I later walked by the teacher in a restaurant and he waived at me; friends!

Over the course of the day I hit another temple and two more shrines. The photos on the camera I'm using are stupid large and I've already almost blown through half of my main memory card. I did find cause to try out my neutral density filter today, so get excited for some glossy water flows.

Lunch was difficult to find as few places had either English menus or picture menus. I spent about a half hour trying the Charlie approach of going down back alleys and walking into random restaurants before being overcome by hunger and throwing in the towel for some Tempura on the main road.

I finally got to take my shoes off today at a Shrine, so things are starting to get real over here. I dozed in and out of consciousness on the way home and somewhere in there, Charlie dreamed of sushi. So the dinner plan is set, now to find a picture menu!

Japan Day 2: Tokyo

11/06/14 | by Charlie [mail] | Categories: Travel

Day one in Japan started unnaturally early. I talked to some people at the hostel over breakfast and heard the fish market was the place to be, so I made a plan for the day and set out around 9am.

I think I expected Tokyo to be more bustle than it is, almost like New York. But in contrast, it seems to be the city that most definitely does sleep. Subways end around midnight, and my trip in was far more crowded than my 9am subway. As I walked through the large market and shrine in my neighborhood, most vendors were still closed, and kids were just starting to arrive for the day.

The fish market on the other hand, was just finishing up for the day. Visitors are allowed after 9am (unless you are lucky and get to see the 6am tuna auction?), and when I got there around 9:15, most of the shops seemed like they'd wrapped up their business for the day.

I quickly rediscovered how long it's been since I'd done real photography. I missed several shots because of the uneven lighting and variety of shots I was trying to snap.

After, I headed to a local garden and wandered there a bit before taking a monorail over to Odaiba, a man-made island that it turns out is basically a shopping mall. I snapped some panoramas of the rainbow bridge, wandered the shops for a bit and it was time to make my first Japanese food selection: Ramen! Delicious as expected.

I finally stumbled across the visual illusions museum, which obviously was going to happen. Probably the best $10 spent, though I had to befriend a group of Japanese girls to take my ridiculous pictures. So far of three people I've given my camera to, no one has known how a DSLR works (like where the shutter is), which is not at all what I'd expected.

After that, more malls. Turns out Christmas music is already on here, and the fountains and lights throughout the entire mall were synchronized to the music. Also, it looked like an italian villa. So that was a thing. Also, popped over to check out Toyota world.

Finally, I headed to the Museum of Science and Innovation. At this point it was all I could do not to just nap on the floor, but turns out this was just the pick me up. I got to see the Toyota Android Robot: "Asimo" (you remember him?). That was actually pretty impressive.

My favorite display though was a working model version of the internet. There were 5 terminals, or computers, were kids could send packets into the internet. Each packet was a series of white and black balls (1s and 0s) containing the address of the destination computer and a letter. When sent, the balls would go into a large metal spiral contraption (a router) which would send it to a reader at the appropriate terminal and display the letter.

I thought this was just the absolute coolest way to teach kids about the internet. Really awesome exhibit. After I'd finished here, it was afternoon nap time so back to the hostel and then met up with an acquaintance for dinner.

Day one down!

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A collection of musings from my time at Yale along with some thoughts about my "Freshman year of life" in San Francisco.

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