Archive for August, 2016
My parents and I spent the better part of the day with The Penpal and her family. They dropped us off at Numazu station after our visit to Mishima Taisha so we could spend the evening together.
Today’s sightseeing included a lot of walking around (again), so my parents were looking for a relaxing evening activity. I suggested a movie, so we took a short walk over to Joyland (best name ever) to see what was playing. Fortunately for us, Japanese people prefer subtitles to dubbing for foreign movies. This makes it possible to enjoy Hollywood movies. We ended up choosing the Chronicles of Narnia, which was pretty good.
After the movie I was starving, but my parents still weren’t hungry after our ginormous lunches. Suddenly I had a good idea: beer! I took my parents to Uotami, the classy izakaya located conveniently across from the south side of Numazu station. Like most izakayas, there was a good selection of small orders of food in addition to delicious beer.
I was describing how Uotami was known as the classy izakaya among English teachers because of it’s sunken tables and glass floored entrance way built over a small zen rock garden. As we approached the entrance, we saw a very drunk man trying to help up a very drunk woman who had fallen over right outside the front door. Having been in Japan for a while, this was not as surprising to me as it was to my parents. My mom started to get concerned about what kind of place I was taking her to. I reassured her and asked her to trust me, hoping that the very drunk couple didn’t have a group of very drunk friends stumbling their way out as we went in.
We were taken to a table incident free. The tables at Uotami are all separated by tall wooden slats, which gives a bit of a privacy while still allowing you to feel like you’re in an izakaya. The huge, colourful menu was filled with pictures of food and drinks, complete with English descriptions. Even if I wasn’t there, my parents would have been able to order by pointing at the pictures. Uotami has a really good selection of food, beyond the standard “meat on a stick”, and a nearly endless cocktail menu. My mom ordered a cocktail and my dad and I ordered large bottles of beer so we could drink Japanese style from small glasses.
An izakaya visit turned out to be just what everyone needed. We enjoyed spending time together and trying a bunch of different items from the food menu. The non-stop sightseeing was great, but tonight was probably my favourite night of my parents’ visit so far.
Tonight, most of the population of Canada will be coming together to watch likely the last ever performance of The Tragically Hip, one of the best bands to ever come out of our great country.
For those outside Canada, the reason for the big show is that lead singer / songwriter / dancer / poet / all around nice guy Gord Downie was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. Most people would use this as a time to get their affairs in order. Gord decided to do one final tour across much of the country.
The Tragically Hip has been the soundtrack to Canada for the past 30 years, with great rock songs about love, hockey, Thompson girls, and whatever else comes out of Gord’s creative brain. They are also one of the few bands that can get away with a “fuck” or two in a song and not be censored. Whether you are a fan or not, there’s at least one Hip song that everyone has heard enough to start singing along to.
It’s a rare gift to get a chance to say goodbye. For the last show, people from coast to coast will be gathering in parks, bars, hotels, and everywhere else with a screen to see the concert broadcast live from Kingston. It’s going to be sad and beautiful, and there’s going to be some great music.
I’m going to try to get through the show with Courage, and some Grace, Too.
Learn how to watch the show here
After an interesting cultural experience at the supermarket, The Penpal and her parents picked up my parents and I and we departed for two great sightseeing places in the area: Numazu Goyotei and Mishima Taisha.
Numazu Goyotei is also known as the Imperial Villa. It was one of the Emperor’s summer houses from 1893 to 1969, and is now open as a museum.
The main building is a sprawling single story surrounded by beautiful landscaping. The building itself is traditional Japanese style with lots of tatami and sliding panels, but some of the rooms have been set up “Western style” for receiving visitors, one of the most notable being US President Grant. The most interesting part for me is the room with a large pool table, which looks very strange in a traditional Japanese house.
My parents really enjoyed the visit to Goyotei, and then especially enjoyed lunch at Numazu’s 100 year old tempura restaurant Uobun. The Penpal’s family had taken my family to Uobun on their last visit to Japan, and my parents had specifically asked to visit again. We ate delicious tempura battered seafood over rice, served with miso soup and Japanese pickles. Yum!
After lunch we visited Mishima Taisha. The grand shrine is usually impressive, but on today’s visit all of the cherry blossoms were in bloom. My mom was fascinated by the beautiful pink trees, and took about 50 pictures. One of them was this fantastic picture of the rest of us with pink trees in the background. As a rule, Japanese people (especially older Japanese people) don’t smile in pictures. The Penpal does more often now (I credit myself for that), but this is a rare picture where The Penpal’s mother is smiling.
The Penpal and I had a sudden engagement and it took a while for her family to get on board with the idea, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when my parents came to visit. I’m very happy and thankful that both families are getting along amazingly well and seem to really enjoy spending some time together. I’m a lucky man!
Today my parents, The Penpal, and her family had plans to visit a few local places together. I collected my parents in the morning at their hotel and brought them to my apartment to wait for our rides. My apartment wasn’t all that interesting, so we wandered across the street to check out the small supermarket.
Visiting a supermarket in a foreign country is always an interesting experience. You really get a sense of the differences between cultures by what’s available at the grocery store. My parents were interested in the tiny shopping carts (by Canadian standards), the different assortment of fruits and vegetables, and the rows of boxes that I couldn’t read. We ended up in the fish section, which was about double the size of the meat section. This is almost exactly the opposite of a typical Canadian supermarket.
My parents were looking at all of the different fish options available, when my mom came across one package with a nice dark red colour that we hadn’t seen before. She asked me what kind of fish it was, and I was actually able to read the label; “iruka”. I calmly told my mom that she was looking at dolphin meat.
(No, I’m not posting a picture!)
My mom didn’t think that was particularly funny, and asked me to tell her what it really was. I told her that she was seriously, honestly, looking at a package of dolphin meat. It’s not a common thing to find in the supermarket, but not unheard of in a country that is okay eating just about anything that comes out of the ocean. My mom was suddenly no longer interested in hanging out in the fish section!
I’m personally not sure how I feel about the idea of dolphin meat. It’s hard for me to come into another country and say that they shouldn’t eat certain animals when I know that people don’t approve of the animals that are commonly eaten in Canada. The one thing that I do know is that after two and a half years in Japan I was a lot less shocked by the idea than my poor mom!
Like I said, visiting a supermarket in a foreign country is always an interesting experience.
Thanks to crappy weather, my parents and I returned to Numazu a few hours early after 4 days and 3 nights in western Japan. One of the things that surprises visitors to Japan is the amount of walking that they end up doing while sightseeing. In the past few days my parents and I had walked around two castles, an aquarium, temples, shrines, and deer filled parks, not to mention around several very large train stations. By the time that we returned to Numazu, they were understandably tired.
We got a quick bite to eat, and my mom decided that she was ready to call it an evening. My dad was still interested in exploring, but my mom couldn’t be convinced. It was then that I had a fantastic idea: beer! I asked my dad if he would like to go for a beer at an izakaya with me. He was very excited by the idea, so we dropped off my mom at the hotel and set out for the nearby Ryoba.
Ryoba has become the regular izakaya of choice for English teachers. If we are going for a drink after work, usually we got to the branch south of Numazu station, which is conveniently close to NOVA. There is also a branch north of Numazu station, which is conveniently close to Hotel Miwa and the apartments where most of the teachers live. Just as we were about to enter the building, we saw my fun coworker Vivian coming up the street. I introduced her to my dad, who invited her to join us for a beer.
North side Ryoba has some tables, but I wanted to give my dad the full experience, so we proceeded to the tatami floor area with low Japanese style tables. The table next to us was full of businessmen unwinding after a long day, ties loosened and ready to become headbands later. We enjoyed some delicious beer and meat on sticks, and my dad seemed impressed by the small bowl of snacks that came with our first drink order (a great Japanese tradition). Vivian and my dad are both outgoing people used to talking to anyone, so the conversation flowed easily. In the end, my dad picked up the tab for all of us.
It was cool getting to take my dad out for a beer in Japan. Even though we have seen a lot of cool things, this might be one of my personal highlights of my parents second visit.
In the morning, we checked out of the hotel and found ourselves in the lobby with several youth baseball teams from Australia. I didn’t know that anyone even played baseball in Australia! After a brief chat with the Aussies, we set out for Kyoto.
My parents had visited Kyoto in 2004 on their first trip to Japan, but we were only there for a day which is nowhere near long enough to see all of the interesting things in Kyoto. Our plan was to hit two or three of the popular places that we hadn’t seen the first time and then return to Numazu in the evening. Unfortunately the crappy weather had other plans for us. It was cold, windy, and damp when we arrived. We decided to visit Kiyomizu Dera, one of the places that my students had been continuously recommending, and then see what else the weather would allow.
Kiyomizu Dera is a breathtaking temple built on the side of a hill in Kyoto. The current buildings date back to 1668, and not a single nail was used in construction. The temple is built around a waterfall which provides for some amazing pictures. I’d like to come back when all of the trees are green and flowers are blooming.
One of the interesting things at the temple is two “love stones” which are 18 meters apart. If a single person walks with their eyes closed from one stone to the other, they are supposed to find love. Couples can also try this to test their relationship. It was cute to see my parents, married for 33 years, attempting this. My dad closed his eyes and my mom calmly gave him directions so he could safely reach the other stone while navigating the crowds. Their teamwork paid off, and he successfully reached the other stone without opening his eyes. My parents have been together 33 years but they actually still like each other!
After a long visit to the temple and taking endless pictures, we returned to Kyoto station for lunch and to kill some time waiting for the weather to change. Instead of getting better, it started snowing so we decided that one temple was going to be our limit for the day. We did enjoy exploring the massive Kyoto station complex, and found a cool import food store. I happily bought root beer and Quaker instant oatmeal, neither of which I had seen anywhere else.
It was unfortunate that our day was cut short, but we still enjoyed our time in Kyoto, and would recommend Kiyomizu Dera highly to anyone visiting the city.
(Author’s note) My original plan was to repost my experiences exactly 10 years after they occurred. However, real life got in the way this year, and I am finishing the rewritten post in August 2016. I am happy to report that a few days ago, my parents just celebrated their 44th anniversary! Maybe there is something to those love stones after all 🙂
After getting rained out in Nara, my parents and I decided to return to Osaka and find some indoor activities. The first thing that popped into my head was a visit to the Umeda Sky building, yet another thing I had done on my solo trip to Osaka last year. The building features a giant glass elevator, a glass walled escalator, and spectacular views of Osaka. It was still raining, so we didn’t get too much of the city view. We did enjoy some of the cool models they had depicting life in old Osaka.
The Sky Building concluded a full day of walking and sightseeing, so we decided to call it a night and return to the hotel. Getting back would involve a walk to Umeda station, two subway trains, and a search for our hotel. My dad decided that he wasn’t interested in any more walking, so he suggested that we take a taxi. I told him that taxis were expensive in Japan, but he said that he was on vacation and didn’t care, so we left the building and found a nearby taxi stand.
Taxis in Japan are very different from taxis in Canada. Japanese taxis have automatic doors and drivers in uniforms with white gloves. Canadian taxis absolutely do not have either of these things. We got in and I asked the driver to take us to Park Hotel Rinkai.
This was the first time my parents had been in a taxi in Japan, so they were understandably excited. As soon as we started moving my dad started talking to the driver. The driver nervously responded with “Sorry, no English”. I explained to the driver in Japanese that my dad keeps forgetting that not everyone in Japan can speak English. When my dad saw that I was able to communicate with the cab driver, he asked me to translate for him. I fumbled my way through such questions as:
- What kind of car is this?
- Do all taxi drivers wear white gloves?
- In Canada the taxi drivers are mostly immigrants. How about in Japan?
- Is the day shift in Osaka busy?
- Do you like your job?
My dad is a friendly person by nature who loves talking to people, so this is just normal for him. Even though my Japanese had improved immensely since moving to the country two year ago, I had trouble keeping up with the back and forth communication. There were times when my vocabulary wasn’t good enough to either say or understanding something, so I filled in the gaps with some educated guesses. It was a good challenge of my Japanese abilities, but I was mentally exhausted by the time we reached the hotel!
I have nothing but respect for people who can professionally translate a conversation for a living. It’s not easy at all!
Other than some very old shrines and temples, Nara is famous for the deer in Nara Park. The deer roaming the park are considered sacred by the local shrines, and they are allowed full reign over the park.
The deer are generally tame, and will completely ignore you until you walk up to one of the many vendors in the area and buy deer crackers. As soon as you pay your 150 yen for the small package of crackers, you will instantly find yourself surrounded by hungry, insistent deer who will all gently headbutt you when you aren’t feeding them. As soon as the crackers are gone, the deer will return to ignoring you.
The whole experience is a bit intimidating at first. We did see a few parents laughing after handing a stack of deer crackers to their unsuspecting children, which I personally thought was hilarious!
Because the deer are wild animals, there are some helpful warning signs around the park that remind you of deer safety. Helpful that is, if you can read Japanese.
I could read just enough to understand that the deer are not pets, and there are certain times of the year when the deer may be aggressive. I personally don’t need a sign to tell me not to piss off wild animals that are used to getting their own way, but I understand that this may be important for some. Fortunately for me, the worst thing that happened in my interaction with Nara’s deer was getting some deer snot on my jacket.
We would have spent more time in Nara, but the day was cold and it started raining. Since most of the sightseeing places involved walking outside, we decided to head back to Osaka for some indoor exploration.
Feeding the deer in Nara should be on everyone’s western Japan to-do list. It was a really cool experience!
Today my parents and I visited Nara, which was another city on my “must see before I leave Japan” list. Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 – 794, and is home to some very old and very impressive buildings from Japan’s past. Conveniently, Nara is just slightly west of Osaka and almost directly south of Kyoto. The greater Tokyo area has lots of fantastic places to visit, but you can’t beat the Osaka / Nara / Kyoto triangle for history.
Todaiji is one of the world’s largest wooden buildings, despite the current construction being 30% smaller than the previous version. It was originally finished in 751 AD, and nearly bankrupted the country due to the high cost of construction. The current building dates back to 1709, which is still pretty freaking old by Canadian standards.
When you see Todaiji from a distance it’s hard to get a sense of how immense it truly is, until you focus on how small people look right in front of the entrance. The inside of the building features the largest bronze Buddha statue, along with other very impressive artifacts that you’d find in a 1000+ year old temple.
After Todaiji we visited Kasuga Taisha, Shinto Shrine from the time that Nara was the capital of Japan. The shrine itself was good, but the treasure room inside was really interesting. We happened to be there on the last day of a display of 1000 year old Japanese picture scrolls. We also saw giant ceremonial drums that were over 900 years old.
I always enjoy thinking about the stories behind some of these very old artifacts. How many different people have seen them or touched them over the years? How did they survive wars, fires, storms, earthquakes? For me it’s easier to really connect with something a few hundred years old than millions of years old. We only saw a few of the highlights in Nara, but they were all fascinating for me and I wish I had more time to see everything.
After a morning at Osaka Castle, my parents and I took two trains and less than 20 minutes to get to Osaka Port, home of the amazing Osaka Aquarium. This was another place that I had been on my solo trip west last year, but it was so impressive that I had no problem seeing it again.
Before we went in, we stopped for lunch at the nearby shopping centre. On my last trip I found an okonomiyaki restaurant (one of Osaka’s famous foods) where the staff cook at your table. I tried, unsuccessfully, to describe okonomiyaki to my parents on the train ride. “It’s like an omelette pizza pancake with stuff in it and delicious sauce” wasn’t really enough for them to get a good mental image of the food, so I told them to just trust me. On their first trip to Japan, we probably would have ended up at a McDonalds in this situation. This time we all sat down for delicious okonomiyaki which they loved.
The last time I was at the aquarium, I noticed that most of the gaijins at the aquarium were talking about the beautiful assortment of marine life on display, while more than a few of the Japanese people (especially the kids) were commenting on how delicious the assortment of marine life looked. I told this to my parents over lunch, but they didn’t completely believe me. I asked them to listen for the word “oishii” which means delicious. It didn’t take long for them to hear it!
Osaka Aquarium is a world class facility featuring marine life from around the globe. The variety of different species and information available is simply fantastic. I would post more pictures, but it’s extremely difficult to get good pictures through thick aquarium glass. Other than that I would highly recommend the aquarium to all visitors. Also, if you have been in Japan for a while, don’t go hungry – everything will start looking delicious to you.
Before heading back to our hotel, we watched a show at the Imax theatre near the aquarium. It was a fun day exploring Osaka, and we were all ready for an early night! Nara tomorrow!