Tuesday, August 5, 2008

That's all Folks!

This is going to be a summary post so it will revisit the stuff from Kyoto.

Stayed at Backpacker's Hostel K's House

Places I went:
Kiyomizu-dera - Kiyomizu-dera has an amazing view of Kyoto since it's situated on a hill on the east side of Kyoto. The walk up the hill to Kiyomizu is full of shops that cater to tourists going to visit the temple complex. The famous stage at Kiyomizu that gives you a great view of the surrounding area and allows you to see the waterfall where you can go and get yourself a drink of some holy water. You can also go visit the "love stones" that you are supposed to navigate between to give yourself luck in the matters of love. There is also a nice trail to follow if you're up for a mountain hike that I never managed to go on. If it's raining on your visit there like it did on my first trip, it's definitely worth a another trip on a sunny day. I would have say it was my favorite spot in Kyoto.

Kinkakuji - Ryoan-ji Temple is right by Kinkakuji so you might want to drop by before you visit the Golden Pavillion. It contains a famous Zen Rock Garden but I found it too full of tourists. Kinkakuji was a rebuild since the original was burned down. It's also full of tourists snapping pictures of the famous villa.

Fushimi Inari Shrine
- This place is full of bright red gates that cover most the trail that you walk along. If you take a look back as you walk through the gates, you'll notice that almost every single one of them has writing carved into their backsides. It was a shame that I didn't get around to walking through the entire trail.

- Nijo-Jinya was converted into an inn for daimyo visiting Nijo Castle. Tours are only in Japanese and visitors are asked to bring along someone who can translate for them if they want to get the full experience. We just asked the people working the front desk at the hostel to see if they could find us one and they did! The place is full of hiding places, alarms and fireproofing measures to ensure the safety of the visiting daimyo. Definitely a place to check out for a change of pace from the shrines and temples.

Heian Shrine
- We went to Heian Shrine to see a Noh play festival that was going on so I'm not really sure what else there is to this shrine.

Traditional Crafts Museum
- The museum is close to Heian Shrine and its worth checking out to see the exhibits on traditional Japanese crafts that include: dying of kimonos, tassels, wood block prints, fans, bamboo goods, wine madking stuff, dolls, lacquer-ware, lacquered mini shrine cabinets (obviously not the proper term), and bows and arrows. I rather liked the museum as it had just enough stuff to keep me interested and wasn't overly large. Just try not to get too close to the exhibits in case you start pointing things out to your friends and accidentally set off the infrared alarms.

Kyoto International Manga Museum - The museum is an old school that was basically converted into a massive manga library with manga donated from Go Matoba. Almost all of the walls ares shelves lines with manga except for the spaces with exhibits.

- A sweet shopping area that's full of mostly tiny shops full of all sorts of cool stuff. We ran across a massive manga shop and a sweet shop full of retro stuff. It's a worthwhile trip for neat souvenirs from Japan.

Kyoto Station - The central hub for most of the buses in the city and the first place you'll enter when you'll arrive by train. There's a Nippon Travel Agency right by the central exit that has a foreign exchange office right inside. Further inside you'll also find stores with expensive brand name merchandise if you really want to.

Places I missed:
Sanjusangendo - It's right by the hostel but I never got around to visiting it.

Kyoto Tower - Right outside Kyoto Station. It wasn't as big as a priority to visit but I might check it out next time around.

Mibu Temple - I didn't find out about this place until we had left Kyoto. Related to the Shinsengumi and was more of a personal geeky thing that I wanted to visit.



Took the train from Kyoto or Osaka. It's a tiny city and about half of it is a massive park full of temples, shrines and deer. Around the park area, there a quite a few stands where you can buy some crackers to feed the deer with.

Places I went:
Todaiji Buddhist Temple - A massive temple with a massive Buddha statue flanked by smaller Buddha statues and those are flanked by statues of some kind of guardian god statues.

Kasuga Grand Shrine - A Shinto shrine full of lanterns and a small horde of kindergardeners that almost stampeded us, although it was much quieter than Todaiji.


Stayed at J-Hoppers Osaka Central. There's a pretty good sushi restaurant that just opened up across the street as well.
For me personally, I found that there's not actually that much to do in Osaka as a tourist. There's a couple of things around the area worth seeing though. Osaka, Kyoto and Nara are all pretty close to each other and are about a half a hour from each other. Kobe is just west of Osaka and Himeji is a further down the line.

Places I went:
Osaka Aquarium - It was an amazing experience and was the first aquarium I've ever been to. Full of all manner of interesting sea life, it's definitely something to check out.

Umeda Sky Building - You can get a great night view of the city from the roof of the building.

Osamu Tezuka Museum in Takarazuka - A neat little museum about an hour away from Osaka by train about the life of famous manga artist, Osamu Tezuka. It's full of his works from when he was a child to his more famous later works. You can also watch a biographical film and mess around in a small animation lab that they have.

Himeji Castle in Himeji - We decided to go visit Himeji Castle instead of Osaka Castle because the original Osaka Castle was burned down. It was rebuilt but as a museum with the castle exterior, so we opted for the real thing in Himeji.

Kobe - For the beef. And it was delicious. I have never been to a restaurant with such a high class atmosphere in my life. They even politely asked me to remove my hat. How touristy of me.


Stayed at Sakura Hostel in Asakusa. Behind it is what appears to be a love hotel.

Places I went:
Akihabara - This is where I spent most of my time in Tokyo. Full of enough electronics to probably build a couple of Gundams, if you want it, they probably have it. Curiously enough most of their electronics were more expensive than at home. Also full of arcades, bookstores, figurine shops, Gundam models and maid cafes to bring out the otaku in you. Yodobashi shopping mall is right by Akihabara Station and the "go to" place for all of your gundam modelling needs. I stepped into the gundam section and looked down and it felt like that one scene in the Matrix where Neo and Trinity go to stock up on guns, except with Gundam models if you can imagine that.

Ginza - Full of department stores. Not really my cup of tea.

- Went through Meiji Shrine with a couple of people we met at the hostel.

Shinjuku - Walked around a bit and had all you can eat hotpot.

Mt. Nantai
in Nikko - About 2 hours north of Tokyo if I remember correctly. Woke up early and took a double decker Shinkansen (bullet train) to Utsunomiya and transfered from there to a local line that took me up to Nikko. Took a half hour bus ride from the station up to the Chuzenji-Onsen stop. Asked around about Mt. Nantai and was directed to Futara Shrine, a 1 km down the road. Went through the shrine, paid for lucky charm and hiked up the mountain. The hike is about a 6 hour round trip and I hung around the summit for a while to let my shirts dry out from the sweat that had soaked through my back. I'd definitely like to try the hike again and maybe stay a couple of days in Nikko to see the other sites.

Places I missed:
Yokohama - I heard that there was an area of the city that was all crazy futuristic but at that point, I was all travelled out and we spent the last couple of days mostly in Akihabara.


Final Notes:

-You have an automatic 90 day travel visa if you're visiting from the U.S. or Canada
-A JR Rail Pass is a pretty handy purchase and they're only sold outside of Japan. You can usually get them through your travel agency, but in our case they were butt heads and we ended up having to drive out to Banff to get ours. Strange that there isn't a place in Calgary where you can get a rail pass. You probably won't break even on it unless you travel between a ton of cities, but it's extremely convenient not to have to figure how much fare you have to pay.
-Always have your passport on you. You'll need it when/if you get money exchanged.
-I'm sure there are tons of things I've already forgotten about as well. Meh.

Japan was an awesome time and I hope to go again when I've got money. :D

Monday, July 14, 2008


So yeah...This whole blogging everyday thing kinda fell through. I'll post a summary of places we went and things we did in a massive end post. It'll be easier on both me and anyone else who comes across this.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Nande ya nen?

June 6, 2008

Checked out of the hostel, but left our luggage in storage to go out for the day. I went to the Nishijin Textiles Center to look for hakama and haori. Saw kimonos but no hakama and they only had some plain haori so I left it alone. There wasn't much else there so I headed back to the hostel to meet up with Winston to grab our luggage and head off to Osaka.

We took the 2:30 rapid line to Osaka only to have our train stop at Shin-Osaka and wait for half an hour because we didn't know what was going on. When the train stopped, the driver made an announcement about something and just about everybody gets right off the train. I try to ask a girl what's going on, but she doesn't speak enough English and I don't speak enough Japanese to understand the situation. So we sit there along with a couple of other tourists for a while until we figure out that the train probably isn't going to be moving for a while and switch lines.

We get to Osaka Station but the closest JR station to the hostel was Fukushima. We figured it would be too much trouble to try and figure out how to Fukushima so we just get off at Osaka Station and walk to the hostel. Passing by a Mister Donuts, we hit a fork in the road and take the wrong path down to the end of the street. Luckily the hostel was really close by once we figured out where we were. I was really pissed off and hungry during the entire walk. Really need to stop doing that.

Checked in and find out they don't have an elevator. I'm really pissed off at that point after lugging our stuff up to the 4th floor, but a shower and some ramen make everything all better. It was good, but not nearly as good as the ramen back in Kyoto. There was a mall called Umesankoji on our way to the hostel from the train station so we head back to check it out. Inside was the wonderful store known as Sofmap. It's an electronics store like Best Buy or Future Shop but full of Japanese goodness. Metal Gear Solid 4 promo stuff was plastered all over the games section. I would later realize how small this branch actually was once I was in Tokyo.

Back at the hostel we ran into a couple of girls from Canada, one of whom had applied for ACAD as well but ended up going to Emily Carr. Small world?

A couple of things I'd forgotten to mention in earlier posts was that I had been doing a bit of research into Japanese culture/life in Japan.

Recommended listening:
1. Josh in Japan - He's got over 40 podcasts out about different aspects of Japan. The ones on trains, banking, vending machines and weather were especially helpful.
2. Of Rice and Zen - A podcast to by "A" to accompany his blog. He lives just outside of Kyoto, so I ran into a bunch of things he mentioned early on in his blog/podcast.

Additional Notes:
You'll randomly see people handing out tissue packets with advertisements in busy areas. Unless you have tissues on you, it'd be a good idea to pick one up. Most of the public washrooms don't have hand dryers or paper towels, so yeah...

Daily bus passes are a handy way of getting around in Kyoto. They're 500 yen and they were available at the hostel as well as at Kyoto Station. The bus pass will get you basically everywhere you want to go, but there a a few private bus lines that you'll have to pay for if you happen to get on one.

The hostel we're staying at in Osaka is J-Hoppers.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Last Day in Kyoto

June 5, 2008

So Ryan stayed up until 4 in the morning going out to karaoke with people form the hostel and totally messed up his schedule for Miho Museum. He said he was going to just bike around to check out a couple of spots around town before meeting us at Nijo-jinya. Winston comes down with a stomachache so he's stuck at the hostel for a while. Jen and I head off to the Traditional Crafts Museum by Heian Shrine.

The Traditional Crafts Museum is in the basement of another building, and it seems a bit small but ends up being the perfect size. There's a fair amount of exhibits including: dying of kimonos, tassels, wood block prints, fans, bamboo goods, wine madking stuff, dolls, lacquer-ware, lacquered mini shrine cabinets (obviously not the proper term), and bows and arrows. The gift shop actually had some pretty cute stuff. Got a postcard that I need to send home tomorrow, and some presents for people.

We're a bit hungry at this point and head back to the hostel to check up on Winston. It rains on us on the way back and we gambled on it not raining even though the clouds were pretty dark. Winston's feeling better so we decide to head out for Daiichi Asahi for lunch since Jen has not yet experience the awesome ramen that they make. We walk there and I see that they have their curtains closed. There's NO ONE at the shop. This makes Dan sad. So we have to settle for the restaurant next door and its not nearly as good. The broth is too salty and the bean sprouts are all limp. Blah. We eat quickly and then book it to Kyoto Station so that we're not late to meet our translator for the tour at Nijo-jinya.

M-san is waiting right in front of Nijo-jinya and we make it there just in time for the tour. It looked like Ryan might not make it in time but it turns out that he beat us there. Nijo-jinya is basically an inn that was created to house and entertain feudal lords that were visiting Nijo Castle and staying in the area. The inn has all sorts of anti assassination traps and secret hiding areas for protecting its guests.

Features of the inn include:
-fireproof plaster walls since buildings were quite prone to catching fire back in those days
-multiple wells that were linked to each other so that each would always have water in case of a fire
-a skylight that also served as a hiding place for guards that could watch and enter to room if an intruder was detected
-a Noh stage with soundproofing panels built into the sliding doors
-there was an alcove made from a very expensive maple that could have bought you a house back in the day
-"monkey steps" built into a wall that would allow someone familiar with the house to scale a wall and escape into a hiding area in the ceiling
-hidden staircase disguised as a shelf
-a tilted room so that the occupants felt that they were at sea
-"trap ladder" or "pitfall" trap staircase. The one hiding would run down the stairs and pull out a board at the top of the stairs causing the pursuer to misstep and tumble down the stairs in to a wall
-a secret hiding cabinet with another hidden hiding place behind it

There was other crazy stuff, but you really have to experience the tour to really appreciate what I'm talking about. After the tour we head to an udon restaurant. I have to use the toilet and am faced with a Japanese style porcelain hole in the ground. There was squatting involved but I know I didn't pull that off properly.

Ryan has plans for the evening so Jen, Winston and I bus it to Kyoto International Manga Museum. It's basically a huge manga library that was donated to the museum by Go Matoba when it started up. I wander around a bit but there's really not that much to do there besides read manga. There's something like 200,000 items in their collection right now and they plan to increase that number to 300,000 in the near future (I forget when).

It's getting a bit late so we return to the hostel, transfer some photos and say goodbye to Jen and Ryan. They're headed to Tokyo for a couple of days before going home. It's off to Osaka for us tomorrow.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I wanna take purty pictures too...

June 4, 2008

Headed for Nara early and the trains run on time, which is really nice. Walked along the same route that we walked yesterday and get to Kofukuji Temple. It's surrounded by a 3 story and 5 story pagoda. There are a lot more deer out since its nice and warm. We take some pics and watch people feed them and then head off.

I need to head to the washroom, so we head into a tourist information building that we later find out is an earthquake museum as well. They have a seat that you can sit in an experience two level 6 earthquakes that occurred in Japan a while back with and without earthquake protection. Then the guide takes us over to see a couple of small model buildings with and without earthquake protection to see the dampening effect that it has. It's really cool technology. We decide to head off and I grab a pamphlet from the museum.

On the way to Todaiji Temple, I grab a green tea ice cream and its pretty tasty. We're followed by deer looking for food so I toss them the end of my cone. Just as we stop at Nandaimon Gate,
to take some photos, a deer comes up from behind me and snatches away my pamphlet. I'm totally caught off guard by this and end up having a small tugging match with the deer. The deer wins and runs off with a not so tasty snack. Stupid deer.

We get into Todaiji and there's just scores of people. Lots of school groups on field trips and we get enveloped in a sea of school children for a bit. The temple itself is the largest wooden building in all of Japan and it houses the largest Buddha statue in all of Japan. I don't feel very enlightened with all of the noisy tourists snapping away with their cameras around me though. There are 2 smaller Buddha statues on either side of the large Buddha, and behind them are wooden statues of guardian gods.

Southeast of Todaiji is Kasuga Grand Shrine (Shinto). It's a bit of a walk between the two sites so along the way we checked out some souvenir shops and stop for lunch at a shop with a restaurant in the back. The place is run by another wise old man who asks us in Mandarin if we speak Mandarin. I know just enough Mandarin so say that we don't understand so he reverts to Japanese and a bit of broken English. I get my first taste of cold soba and barley tea. Tasty.

The Shinto shrine ended up being much quieter since there isn't as much to see and its more of a trail that's populated by Shinto related buildings and gates.

On the way back to Kyoto, we take a rapid train (versus the local, which would stop at every stop along the way) and find out that the backs of the seats are reversible so you can just pull on it and have the seat back switch sides. There are all sorts of cool things on the trains in Japan like reversible seat backs, air conditioning vents, curtains that you can slide down to various predetermined slots and some have digital panels that tell you what stop is coming up if you can't hear the driver.

I take a shower and head back to Kiyomizu-dera to hopefully get some better photos than the ones we took when it was raining. The bus gets me there pretty quickly and I hurry up the hill that Kiyomizu-dera sits on and get in about half an hour before it closes. It's right around sunset and since its almost closing time, there's a nice lack of tourists so I can take lots of nice pictures without having to worry about random people getting in my shots as much. I take a few pics with the digital camera. There's beautiful lighting but the camera is a piece of junk and I can't really set anything in the manual mode. No shutter speed or aperture. I can over/under expose my photos and change the white balance, but that in no way helps to capture the atmosphere of this place. Lack of an SLR makes Dan sad.

Walking back to the hostel from Kiyomizu was really nice since it had really cooled down, but I find out when I get back that I got a couple of mosquito bites right along my sock line. Stupid mosquitoes. After dinner at a Japanese restaurant, we run into Ryan and Jen again and make plans for tomorrow. Ryan's going to be heading for Miho Museum and while that seems interesting, I'm going to head to the Traditional Crafts Museum and Kyoto International Manga Museum before everyone meets up at Nijo-jinya.

Oh That Crazy Exchange Rate!

June 3, 2008

Woke up early again and sent off an e-mail to Ryan to see what was going on with meeting in Nara. Didn't get a response and we ended up getting to Nara a little later than when they had planned to leave for Koya-san (mountain by Nara) with a guide. We missed the so I found an internet cafe and fired off another e-mail to Ryan.

I ended up eating some of the Calorie Mate I had bought earlier out of curiosity. It's basically cracker or Triscuit formula pressed into a thick block of a snack. Wandered around for a bit and went for breakfast at another branch of Narau. There's the same vending machine thing in the restaurant as the one in Kyoto that we went to earlier. After breakfast, we head east to check out some of the sights and end up finding out that about half of Nara is just a huge park with shrines and temples. Nara is also know for their deer and we look around for some so we can terrorize them but the camera battery dies just as we find one. Winston manages just to squeeze of one photo of the deer we find. I grab a couple of protection charms for my cousins and then train it back to Kyoto. I see a mini truck on the way back. Damnit those things are awesome. I totally want one.

Getting back to Kyoto, we go and check the exchange rates at the post office. Ownage. Well, for Winston at least. The payout for CAD and USD dropped by a yen each. Worse for Winston since all he has is Canadian cash and no traveler's cheques. So much for cash being king. I've never heard of that expression before this though. We head over to the Bank of Kyoto to see if we can manage to get a better exchange rate there. A transaction there would take about an hour so an employee there suggests we go to a world currency exchange office in Kyoto Station. Same rate as the post office. Triple slapped. I still have Japanese currency on me so I'll just wait until the rate goes up to at least 105 again. As we were heading back to the hostel from the station we saw a stair climbing machine for moving packages. It was just made of all sorts of win.

Back at the hostel, I go and check on news for the Nijo-jinya trip. It ends up being good news and we have a translator to come with us. Winston and I split up to go shopping and I head off to Teramachi. Wandered around but I spent most of my time in a bookstore and a huge 2 level manga store. I find a pretty cool fighting poses reference book and a Gurren Lagann figurine. You can't imagine how happy that made me.

I head back to the hostel again to bask in the glory of my purchases and realize that I need something to shear off the talons I've been starting to grow. Should have remembered to bring my nail clipper but I left it at home along with my multi-tool so I have to head down to the pharmacy by the hostel and ask for a nail clipper in my horrible broken Japanese. It feels really nice to finally cut my nails, although I'm still contemplating whether or not I can see how much facial hair I can grow while I'm here. Went for ramen dinner again. I'm going to miss that ramen so much when I leave this city. Osaka is known for its good food so I'm hoping to find some good ramen there.

I still need to buy souvenirs for people. We're heading back to Nara tomorrow and it looks like it'll be nice out as well.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Gold and Holy Water

June 2, 2008

Plan to go to Kinkakuji (Golden Pavillion) in the morning and probably head to Kiyomizu-dera with Ryan in the afternoon. I need to do some laundry. The smell from my socks could knock out a small child.

It's raining again here...

We grab breakfast from a combini (convenience store) called Lawsons. I got orange juice, an apple and two onigiri. Winston gets a mini okonomiyaki.

We head to Ryoanji first to check out the famous Zen rock garden. The rest of the tourists makes the place not very Zen. There's a moss garden to the side that I enjoy a bit more since everyone's crowded around the rock garden. I feel that it was a bit overrated but I bought a cute little souvenir. We walked around then went to Kinkakuji and learned that it was a rebuild because the original burned to the ground. Took pics. Saw a picture of Kinkakuji in the winter. It looks like it would be cool to visit when there's some snow. As we walked through the grounds Ryan managed to toss a coin into one of the fenced off bowls sitting around the grounds and our day of luck began.

Took a bus for headed back to Kawaramachi Sanjo station to find a place to have lunch. No bus wait time, thanks Ryan. We were looking for a place in Ryan's guidebook but decided to walk into place we were right beside. I got combo that consisted of udon, rice with tempura and some sour veggies. Went to Teramachi to kill some time as Ryan printed off some pics. We run across a massive manga/book store so we hopped in and I looked around for artbooks for Sean. FAIL. Next stop is Chicago clothing store. Jen and Ryan go around and try on a bunch of kimonos on. We spend a ton of time there trying on stuff. Asked about hakama and a Shinsengumi haori. FAIL. Looks like Jen got a kimono and some kind of haori. Ryan got a kimono undergarment and a belt tie but no actual kimono. They were all too small for him.

We head out so as not to miss Kiyomizu-dera since Ryan and Jen need to meet back at the hostel at 5:40 to head to Nara. Kiyomizu-dera is at the top of a hill surrounded on both sides by lots of shops. The surrounding area is full of trees and there's a really nice view of Kyoto. I go and wash my hands at a dragon fountain by the entrance. There's a pair of metal monk's staffs with rings just past the entrance for people to try and lift. Think Miroku from Inuyasha. The little one is pretty heavy but you can lift it one with one hand. It takes both Ryan and I to lift the second one and it sounds like it's a solid chunk of metal so it was probably over 150lbs. Just past that is the Kiyomizu stage and there is a group of old ladies doing Buddhist chants. Just off the path to the left is the love stones. They're a pair of stones spaced some distance apart (I can't remember how far it was) and if you manage to navigate from one to the other with your eyes closed, you'll have success in your love life. Ryan is successful. Hax I say. I decide to try it for fun and get bumped from behind by a girl. Apparently I almost ran into another girl headed to opposite way from the other stone as well. I end up wandering to the left. Is it an omen of things to come? To be sabotaged by women? I kid.

We return to the main path and see Kiyomizu stage in all of its tourist filled glory. It's raining and seeing as how the stage is full of tourists I decide I'll come back at some later time to take better pics. The path takes us down to the area where we can drink the holy water that's flowing from 3 streams of water. Ryan grabs some water from each stream, while I got crowded by old people and only managed to get some water from one of the streams. Holy water is pretty tasty.

Leaving Kiyomizu for the bus was nice because it all downhill. We tried some sample mochi along the way. There was peach flavor, soda flavor (yes soda) and a purple one with a leaf (kinda strange tasting). We get back to hostel with good timing by the bus again, thanks Ryan. Awesome timing even. We make plans for Nara and Thursday (it's Monday). Jen and Ryan head off for Nara for an overnight stay. We plan to meet up with them tomorrow and go visit Koya-san, a famous mountain in the area. Ryan books us a tour for Nijo-jinya for Thursday through the hostel. The staff are extremely helpful.

Did laundry tonight. Yay! No more smelly socks.