Friday, August 13, 2010

Japan, There I was: Kyoto Part One

What I really hope to avoid is falling into the bland "this happened, then this happened..." blog narrative. It's difficult. Chronology and details are important to storytelling, but I don't want to write and you don't want to read a labored summary. With pictures and words, I want to share an experience. That's my goal for the pinnacle of our trip, Kyoto. For an introduction, here's something I wrote our last night there:

I struggle to articulate my response. I don't think I've felt quite this foolishly excited about a place since my arrival in Spain. The word that I keep coming back to is "aesthetic." There is something indefinable about the "feel" I get from the Japan I've encountered. The aesthetic is quality. Pure, simple and enduring quality. Somehow, someway, Kyoto has managed what I thought impossible - a heritage that is rich, alive, and on display everywhere in some places obvious and most others hidden. This is an iconic Japan that has not been spoiled by touristy nonsense. There are cheap fans, dolls, and other things made in China along some streets, but overwhelming the things to be expected, there is a consistent attention to detail in the historic districts that is just such a treat to admire. It has done a lot to make me believe there is more out there than can be fathomed.

What is this "aesthetic" I was talking about? It took me awhile to digest, but it's in the details that stay with you: the crisp tatami mats, the careful woodwork that is gracefully aging, the weathered slate tiles roofs, the dimly lit paper doors, the babbling brooks with lanterns glowing softly overhead...
My first picture on arrival, Kyoto Gion.
Rocking my Wheaties-t, I march forth into the splendor of the scene.

One thing that struck me were the scores of Japanese tourists around. I doubt there are many places in Japan you can take a stroll down the street and pass someone wearing a kimono. In Kyoto, it was a regular occurrence. There were also loads of rickshaws. For the whole length of our trip, the heat was hardly bearable just standing in the sun, can't imagine what this guy goes through:
What we quickly realized is that Kyoto can be explored freely and easily. Without a whole lot of effort you stumble upon sites. A simple landmark can be a path to something beautiful and peaceful that you didn't expect to find; something not listed on the map but more significant for that very fact. More on that later.
Yasaka Shrine, less than a 15 minute walk from our hostel.
A decision to take a side street off the main road led us to this:
Take it in. Just take it in.
The pagoda in the distance led the way to Kiyomizu Temple. Not long after we entered, the clouds created this false sunset:
We followed the looping grounds of Kiyomizu absorbing the zen. As dusk began to settle, we began our long walk toward the antithesis of historic Kyoto, a deteriorating construct of the 1960's: the Kyoto Tower.
I don't know what it is with Asian cities and jumping on the "futuristic" tower bandwagon (Daegu's got one, I haven't been), but save for some nice views from the inside looking out, they're eyesores. The "downtown" area of Kyoto is a typical of any modern city and has little charm, but I'm glad we made it there and up the tower for this:
Is it a gagging blow-up doll? No. It's the Kyoto Tower mascot. I said the tower would be the antithesis of the historic and quaint picture I'm trying to paint. Though clumsily clad in a pink kimono (velcro kimono? it's a blow-up doll!), this lady ain't no geisha, and here we have a classic example of Asian contrasts: old culture meets new culture; results...baffling.

I'll conclude with my perhaps my favorite picture from the entire trip, taken later that night accidentally by James while he was trying to adjust his camera for night mode. Well done, enjoy:
Memoirs of a Geisha anyone?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Japan, There I was: Osaka Part Two

When we woke up, I went up to the roof of JHopper's to be reminded of where I was.

We began the day trying to determine the best way to get to Kyoto, our next destination. We also needed to find a place to sleep there. Luckily, we met a few Aussie guys - Dave and Dave - staying in JHoppers who had already booked a hostel in Kyoto. After some investigation, we figured out it was called A-yado Guest House (one Dave couldn't remember and the other had to whip out his iPhone to show me his reservation). We sent an email to A-yado that morning and we got a reservation by nightfall. Killer.
James grabbing some waters before we head out.

We teamed up with the Daves to check out one of the few major historical attractions of Greater Osaka - the Osaka Castle.
The castle turned out to be more of a museum than a historical building as the interior was completely renovated to a modern-museum style with exhibits that showcased artifacts. Though much too small to be worn by modern men, James and I enjoyed the elaborately decorated armor suits from the royal collection.
"No photographs." James being a way-jerk-een...

The view from atop the castle.

During the day, the Daves told us a curious story from their adventures in Tokyo. Apparently, they were approached by a guy decked out in Abercrombie & Fitch who directed them into a building by telling them to "check it out." Inside, the lights were low and there were scantily-clad men and women dancing on little stages to thumping pop music. The Daves asked around to find out what the hell this was all about. They were told by each person they asked to "check it out." "Check what out?" they asked, to which they were told even more enthusiastically:

"Check it out!"

"Check it out!"

In their retelling, the Daves seemed to be almost as confused by their story as we were listening to it. All follow-up questions were of course answered with a stout: "check it out."
Once back to our area, we grabbed some lunch. At the recommendation of a friendly Japanese man that was getting up to leave as we walked in, I ordered a tasty fish set that came with rice, miso soup, radish, and tofu.

For the remainder of the day, we decided a little relaxation would do us good. That called for a trip to an onsen in Mino, an area situated on the outskirts of the city."For the blog" became a catch phrase for James in his photo taking. Here, I pretend to lead the way to Mino. In reality, when no trains pulled up to the platform after 15 minutes, we went to tourist information and they pointed out the right one. Alas.

The onsen itself was in a hotel built into the mountainside and could only be accessed by this detached elevator:
Likely a highly-rated hotel in its 1970s heyday, time had not been kind. The deterioration of what was once modern could not, however, take anything away from the view:
In the sauna room of the onsen, James and I found ourselves in a familiar situation - sitting side by side with a bunch of nude Asian men (now Japanese, not Korean), casually inhaling and exhaling like there was nothing unusual about the situation. This time though, there was a guy in there that spoke English, so we told him about Korea, Daegu, and teaching, and he passed some details on to the other curious dudes among us.
Dusk fell as we left the onsen and the lanterns strung about the streets began to glow more clearly...
Night views of the Osaka city skyline from the ferris wheel. My camera struggles, but the effect is cool. Yes, in a romantic epilogue to our spa trip we rode a night ferris wheel.
Jame's camera flexes its superiority in night-mode.

For dinner, we went for a dish call okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake and the name translates literally to "how you like it, grilled." Ingredients include green onion, a meat, and vegetables. James opted for pork and I got squid.Al begins to grill away - and that's how we like it...

Okonomiyaki is served over a hot grill surface built into your table. Equipped with a spatula, you can dig in however you like.
It was delicious, moreso because we got the idea early and anticipated it all day. The couple that ran the joint were very friendly and gave us paper cranes before we left. Score.

One of the things I anticipated most about Japan was trying sake. Admittedly, before this, my experience had been restricted to a few trips to hibachi grills around Massachusetts, where the juggling-comedians-turned-chefs would often drink more sake than the patrons.

After dinner, James and I set out for 7-11 to find a nice bottle. We opted for this:
Well, when we opened it poured some, we took a few sips and thought it a little harsh. I took it downstairs to reception the next morning, and they kindly read for me: "uhhhh, let's" That's right, we had come all the way from Korea to drink so-chu, Japanese soju. Blast! It was mildly better because it was actually derived from rice and not sweet potatoes and chemicals, but what an epic fail.

The night led where it would inevitably lead in Japan: to KARAOKE. With a few friends we made at the hostel by sharing our so-chu, we had a blast.
Turned out I know the words to more "No Doubt" songs than I let on.

On our way home, we met a huge group of Japanese folks hanging out on a street corner. Schmoozing with locals is always a treat and they were cool. James was snapping blurry pictures all over the place, and there are a couple that captured me talking to some dudes with my serious "so you want to talk about American foreign policy" face on. I probably had plenty to say then. No comment now though.
Peace Osaka, Japan! Iconic isn't it?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Japan, There I was: Osaka Part One

Gimhae International Airport, Busan

Handsome James and I sip on a couple of Asahis looking out onto the airport tarmac. It's a beautiful Thursday afternoon and after nearly eight months in Korea I'm ready to finally venture out into the great beyond.

It took many months in Korea for me to feel like I understood much of anything about the country (really, the more I learn, the less I seem to know). On a six day holiday (that's for you James), I doubt I'll come to any deep realizations of Japan. Nonetheless, I'm excited to soak up as much as possible.

Japan has a very special place in my curiosity for the world. Back in the spring of 2008 when I was studying in Sevilla, Peckrill sent me a PDF file with information on the JET Program, the teaching exchange program he's currently on. All of the images of traditional Japanese culture came to mind as I envisioned what it would be like: the peaceful zen gardens and lilly ponds, tea rooms hidden behind paper-doors, the beautifully mysterious Geisha, and of course, delicate refreshing sake.

This curiosity for Japan marked the very beginning of my interest in living and teaching abroad. At last, it comes full circle.

5:20PM: Touchdown at Kansai Airport. Rock on Nippon!

6:55PM: Aboard the train from the airport into Osaka, the silence is deafening. Most passengers have retreated either to literature or their mobile devices. Some middle aged Spanish women in the seats in front of us break the silence with hushed chatter and laughing. I can't help but wonder what the gregarious Spaniards make of the reserved character of the Far East...

As dusk nears, the sky is a hazy gray. Our train passes through clean and neatly organized suburban neighborhoods divided by crisp roads and green rice patches. Off in the distance there are mountains that look more rocky and weathered than those found in Korea.

Getting off at Tennoji Station, James and I tried to figure out what train we needed on the Osaka loop line to get to our hostel. We took one look at the map and realized this wasn't going to be a casual trip for Charlie on the MBTA (no James, it's not a Vietnam joke, it's a folk anthem about the Boston subway system - here's a funny video in which the dude in the middle singer repeatedly pokes the dude to the right in the face with his guitar head).

Ah yes, rainbow spaghetti labeled by alien markings, good f'n luck:
Luckily, we didn't even have to ask someone. A friendly Japanese man approached us offering help, and not only helped with the map, but escorted to the right platform.

In little time, James and I were checked in to our hostel and on our way to meet Matt, a friend of our friend Caitlin from Daegu. They've known each other since grade school in Toronto, so it was interesting meet an old friend of a good friend in another country. Matt has lived in Japan for over two years, originally as a teacher, but now as a business student at a university in Kyoto.

After all the buses, planes, and trains, we had worked up one hell of an appetite. Matt brought us for some Osakan cuisine, kushikatsu.
James takes his first bite.

It was an extremely cool and unexpected introduction to Japanese food. The place had an authentic gritty edge (not spotlessly Japanese), it was crowded (we were elbow to elbow with other patrons) and you were encouraged to eat with your hands (Koreans eat fried chicken from the bone using only chopsticks!). A kushikatsu menu lists various meats, seafood, and vegetables to choose from. Your selections are then fried to order, served up with fresh cabbage to balance the grease and washed down with either a full-bodied Kirin lager or sake. You're encouraged to dip in a big tub of what tasted like a mix of soy and worcestershire sauce, but only once! Matt told us that he had learned this the hard way his first time and got a stern talking to.

We arrived during the late-hour rush. Situated in a main station next to the financial and business districts of Osaka, many salary men stop in to grab a bite after work. There was a lot of commotion as people barked their orders to servers behind the counters and one patron said "hi!" to which James turned around and responded with a big wave, grinning all the while. I didn't catch her reaction, but Matt informed us that "hi" means "yes" in Japanese. The phantom "hi" would go on to catch James off guard a few more times.

Maybe our celebrity status in Korea conditioned us for that misunderstanding. It's not unusual for people to say "hello" to us in the street. We definitely were not stared at as much as in Korea, though in fairness, it was like Seoul, where more locals are accustomed to seeing foreigners.

Afterward, we went to a bar district where I couldn't help but notice:
Look mom and dad, Bud and Zima! It's like the mid 90's all over again, somebody cue up "Scooby Snacks."

Discontinued in the U.S. years ago, Zima seems to retain a strong hold over the Japanese booze market. If the beer weren't so excellent, I would have ordered one for posterity. Later we went to "Captain Kangeroo," a joint I especially wish dad could have experienced. They were blasting "Walking After You" by the Foo Fighters when we walked in and went on to play the original self-titled album (one of my all-time favorites) in its entirety.
Matt, James and I.

A cheeky bowl of ramen capped the night. It was nothing like its instant-noodle counterpart, the meal of choice for hungry and cooking-averse college students across the United States. Authentic ramen features a thick, hearty broth with vegetables and strips of pork simmered to tender perfection. Good call...
First impressions: clean, friendly, tasty, and not at all that strange and unfamiliar transitioning from Korea.