I get three set vacation weeks per year with AEON. The first one is golden week and is typically late April/early May, the second is summer break in mid August, and the last is for New Years. Since I started my job with AEON in September, I just got my first week long break over New Years, and decided to head west to the Kansai area, and visit Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Wakayama. Ai, being a good sport, agreed to come along to enjoy the enjoyment!
The shinkansen is the famous bullet train in Japan, and this particular one went about 190 mph. However, it’s so quiet and smooth that it really doesn’t feel so outrageously fast. We were in Kyoto by about noon and got some kushikatsu at the station. Kushikatsu is basically fried food on a stick. You get a ceramic plate with dividers to put a variety of sauces and pickles in, some miso soup, and rice, and you get to watch as the cook breads, fries, and serves all sorts of food. On sticks. It’s a lot of fun! Here’s a picture of the view we had of the city from our seats in the restaurant.
We took a bus to Kiyomizu temple, which has a cool, famous balcony. Look how cool it is!
So the bus that took us to the temple stops at the bottom of a hill, and you have to climb up the hill the get to the temple, and these streets your forced to walk up are completely lined with little shops. On the way back down, I got really excited about a shop selling tofu ice cream, and despite the chilly weather decided to get some. It sure tasted like tofu! Yum!
Next we headed to Ginkakuji Temple, also known as the silver pavilion. There’s also the Kinakuji Temple, the golden pavilion, that’s actually covered in gold. The pavilion at Ginkauji, however, doesn’t have any silver plating, and the story I heard is the guy building it just ran out of money before he could cover it in silver, but kept the name anyway. This was actually my favorite site, because I thought the garden was exceptionally beautiful. Pictures!
The big gray thing Ai is standing under is a torii. They are EVERYWHERE. So this place happened to be a cool little shrine, and the lanterns had the names of local companies or individuals who had donated money, and they lit it up for new years.
After this, we went to an udon restaurant (udon=type of thick noodle, usually served in soup) Ai had visited on a previous trip with crazy long udon noodles and very friendly staff. They gave us free dessert! We then headed back to Kyoto station and took a train ride to Ai’s grandma’s house in Hyogo about an hour away. Here’s a picture of some of the wacky architecture at Kyoto Station.
DAY 2 – on the 29th, Ai and I headed off to Nara to meet Masahiro, who was an exchange student at the U of U this past year and played in Kenshin Taiko. He had returned to Japan two weeks earlier and I was excited to get to see him again. Unfortunately I neglected to take any good pictures of him….here’s one Ai took of us.
This cute/creepy guy with antlers is known as Sento-kun, and was created as a mascot for the city in 2010. The reason this fellow has antlers is because Nara is famous for its deer who wander the city, unafraid of people.
It was cool at first, but after a while I began to think of them kind of like big rats. They pooped all over, and only showed interest in people if they had food. And I couldn’t help thinking of all the warnings I had heard about deer in Utah, who carry ticks that will give you awful diseases. But whatever, that’s Nara! Grand, old, disease-ridden Nara! It was fun.
First he headed to Todai-ji, where I quickly learned about Nara’s obsession with making big things. This temple was huge! And inside is the largest bronze statue of Buddha in the world. Here are some pictures!
So buddha! My picture doesn’t really do it justice. It was really enormous. Bigger than I actually like my buddhas. But whatever, that’s Nara!
I asked this guy sitting here if I could hit his enormous bell with my hand, and he vehemently shook his head and told me no. Oh, so sorry to hurt your bell’s feelings, jerk! Right? I shouldn’t be so sour, but I just really, really wanted to hear how it sounded. And he just seemed like a genuine good-for-nothing scumbag. Wow, I’m really bitter….
Enormous pagoda, just hanging out in the middle of nowhere like it’s nothing to be an enormous pagoda.
After it got dark, we headed to an izakaya, which is a type of drink-and-eat-after-work restaurant in Japan. I got to try lots of tasty food, but my favorite was the takowasa, which is a bowl of small bits of raw octopus, seasoned with a wasabi sauce. I typically don’t like octopus because it’s too chewy and there’s no flavor. These problems are resolved with takowasa, because the octopus is in small enough chunks that it doesn’t take for ever to chew, and as you chew you get to extract all the excellent wasabi spice and flavor, and since it’s chewy it lasts for a while. What an excellent snack! After the izakaya, we said farewell to Hiro and headed back to Ai’s grandmother’s house.
DAY 3 – The 30th was a slow day. We enjoyed sleeping in and experiencing Ai’s grandma’s excellent massage chair. Our plan was to head into Kyoto and see some more sights, but by the time we reached Kyoto it was already 4 in the afternoon! It was still excellent because we went to Kinkakuji, or the golden pavilion. I have never seen such a golden pavilion. Neither have you. It’s so gold! You don’t expect it, and then WHAM that pavilion is gold as a nugget…of gold! See for yourself!
And the garden was quite nice as well.
After the golden pavilion extravaganza, it was getting kind of dark and temples were closing, so we decided to head into Kyoto and do some shopping. We enjoyed window shopping and pretending we had a use for the ridiculously expensive designer clothes we were looking at, and I particularly enjoyed practicing saying large numbers in Japanese. Eventually we headed off the main street and down one of these covered shopping boulevards that are common here, where I got to visit a tea shop that opened in 1803! Here it is with the nice tea lady who helped us out.
So we headed back to Ai’s grandma’s house for one last night.
DAY 4 – New years eve was kind of a slow day. We got up, cleaned up the house, and left for Osaka, where I got to try takoyaki, which are dumplings filled with octopus and cheesy, creamy sauce, and slathered with a tasty brown sauce known as takoyaki sauce. Then we grabbed the train down to Wakayama, where Matthew Stevens lives. Matt started with Kenshin Taiko shortly before I started 5 years ago. He came to Japan about 2 years ago with the JET program. He has been to Japan several times before, majored in Japanese and Asian Studies at the U of U, and is about as fluent in Japanese as one could hope for. He was also Ai’s roommate for her 3 years in Salt Lake City. And he’s awesome! By coincidence, Matt’s dad was also visiting, and Matt’s good friend Kei spent new years with us as well. It was unusual but great to stay in a house filled with people again! For new years dinner, Matt and Kei prepared Nabe, which is a soup that is heated and cooked in the middle of the table by a portable stove. It was amazingly rich and delicious! We had a nice visit and Matt prepared a bath with yuzu, which is a Japanese citris fruit with a very pleasant aroma, so I got to have a nice soak before bed.
DAY 5 – We spent New Years Day in Wakayama and got to visit Wakayama castle. It was kind of weird walking through town on this big holiday, because all the stores were closed and there were no people around. So different from typical Japan! Luckily, the castle was open, and there were some beautiful gardens outside the castle as well. Pictures!
Great picture of Matt doing something! Kei is doing well here also. Matt’s dad looks cold in the background. My smile looks pretty inauthentic and my camera strap is all wonky and I’m just awful! Oh yeah, and that’s part of the castle.
Here are some pictures from the top of the castle. There’s a cool museum inside, but no photography is allowed. Admiring the defenses of the castle, I asked Matt if Wakayama castle was ever attacked, and he said just by the US in WWII, that we actually obliterated Wakayama castle and several other castles across Japan, not to mention other ancient Japanese treasures, and this was a reconstruction of the original castle. I was shocked to hear how extensive and damaging our attacks on Japan had been, but also impressed to hear of the Japanese rebuilding the castles to try to do the best with what they had left and help recover.
Nice picture of the sunset on the train ride back to Matt’s house.
That night, we had a temakizushi party. Temakizushi translates as hand-rolled sushi, and the idea is all the fillings for the sushi are on the table, and you grab a small square of nori, put rice on it, and choose what fillings to put in. Then, since the nori is so small, it’s easy to wrap it with your hand and enjoy your sushi creation for a few bites. Then do it again! And again! Until your are full/the food is gone. Also, Matt was kind enough to buy a small dish of fugu – the famous, super-poisonous puffer fish that if you cut it wrong it will kill everybody. It was fun to try, but kind of bland. The sauce we dipped it in was super delicious, though. After dinner, we visited and played around. Here, Ai and I are playing some sort of game of try-to-stick-the-small-fluffy-thing-in-each-others-ears. We both won! Great game.
We got to Osaka and went to a great store called Muji. They sell clothes, furniture, household goods, food, kind of everything I guess. The style is very simple and rustic, with everything being earthy or light pastel colors, and they play soothing Irish music the whole time…It’s a really relaxing and pleasant store to spend time at. Then we headed along another of those covered boulevards lined with shops, and it was super, super crowded with people shopping for new years deals. I wanted to get a picture, but I was afraid of getting trampled or lost if I stopped for too long. It was basically a sea of heads street after narrow street. Eventually, we got to this famous street in Osaka that has crazy animatronic animals and mascots on the buildings. Here is Ai in front of the famous crab building!
After this, we headed to another store called Tokyu Hands, where I bought some art supplies as a gift for Ai. Ai wasn’t feeling well and even though our train tickets were for the evening, we decided to get home early, so we left Matt, Kei, and Frank (Matt’s dad), hopped on the Shinkansen and came home. Trip over!