Archive for category Places in Japan

June 20, 2006 – The hungover guide to Kyoto

I woke up around 9:30 with an evil EVIL hangover after seriously overindulging last night. In Canada this wouldn’t be a problem, but Japanese hotel checkout times are notoriously early; we had to be out of our room at 10:00am. Thanks to traveling light and a bit of luck, both Super Dave and I managed to get ourselves together and checked out on time. We ventured out into the bright, noisy, spinning center of Osaka.

The subway ride to Osaka station was extremely unpleasant, and I asked Super Dave for a few minutes to sit down and rehydrate before we continued on to Kyoto. I was actually starting to worry that I wouldn’t survive our day of sightseeing, but after a lot of water and fresh air, we braved the hour long train ride to Kyoto.

Our first stop in Kyoto was Ryoan-ji, which is home to a large zen rock garden. A quiet place of reflection was a great idea given the state of my brain. My only problem was looking at the rocks, which started moving around in my vision making me feel dizzy. Hungover or not, Ryoan-ji is a very peaceful place and highly recommended.

We also went to Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavilion. This was a first visit for Super Dave and a second visit for me.

You could literally throw darts at a tourist map of Kyoto and come up with a fantastic place to visit – there are no wrong choices. We did discover one problem: there were a severe lack of accessible bank machines. Carrying cash is a must in Japan, so it’s confusing why we had no luck finding bank machines in one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia.

By late afternoon we were both feeling like humans again. Before we took the shinkansen back towards Shizuoka we stopped by a large import store in Kyoto station. They carried such luxuries as spicy salsa, instant oatmeal, and root beer. By the time we left the store, I was overburdened with import goods and my shopping from Osaka, which included a bilingual English / Japanese version of Monopoly that I couldn’t resist buying.

When traveling in Japan, I don’t recommend getting so hungover that you wish for death. But if you do, make sure that you have minimal travel the next day, and head for a nice quiet outdoor temple or zen garden.

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June 19, 2006 part 2 – A night out in Osaka

Super Dave and I enjoyed a morning of sightseeing and shopping in Osaka before returning to the hotel to recharge and get ready for an evening out.

We set out for Dotonbori, the always exciting nightlife area. The sun was down, all of the city lights were on, and the streets were full of people. We started with a drink (or two) at Hub Pub, a popular English pub chain. From there we found our way to Suntory Old Bar, which unsurprisingly served Suntory Whiskey.

Neither Super Dave or I are whiskey drinkers, but when in a Suntory whiskey bar you can’t just order a beer. We both ordered double whiskey on the rocks. Old Bar had a long, narrow bar with stools and some tables. It wasn’t very busy when we arrived, but I did notice two Japanese women sitting further down the bar. I told Super Dave that he should practice his Japanese skills by talking to the women and asking them to recommend a good place for us to go next.  He was nervous about approaching the women, but I kept trying – telling him that he would likely never see them again, so there would be no problem if his Japanese bombed. We practiced some possible phrases and I just about had him convinced, but he changed his mind at the last minute.

Encouraged by the whiskey, I decided to show David that I wasn’t going to ask a friend to do something I wasn’t prepared to do myself. I told Super Dave to follow me, and I approached the women at the end of the bar. I apologized for interrupting, and then introduced us as English teachers from Shizuoka who were visiting Osaka for the first time. I said that we didn’t know the city well, and asked for a recommendation on a good place to go. One of the women called over the bartender; as someone who doesn’t often approach women in bars, I was half expecting her to complain about us. Instead she asked for a pen and paper, and proceeded to draw us a map to a cool sounding bar called Rock Rock.

I thanked them for the help and offered to buy them a drink. They politely declined, so we finished our drinks and went on our way. Having a conversation like this would have been extremely difficult (or impossible) when I first arrived in Japan, so I felt proud of myself as we followed our hand drawn map to the next venue. Thank you Japanese lessons and alcohol!

Rock Rock was a bit of a dive, but with its own style. It wasn’t very busy when we went in, and one of the other customers appeared to be passed out in a booth. Despite this, they impressed us with their music choices; Alice in Chains was playing when we arrived and it only got better from there. Also, Rock Rock served us beer metal goblets! We had a few goblets (not a phrase I ever expected to type), before deciding to find somewhere different.

When we hit the night air outside of Rock Rock I realized just how drunk I was. Super Dave was feeling no pain, but I was really hammered. We wandered the area until we found ourselves in an area with narrow streets and lots of tiny pubs. I suddenly became very aware of the fact that I needed a bathroom break. Just when I had started to give up hope and consider finding a dark alley, a beacon of light hit us: a sign with Merseybeat Mojo on it and an outdoor speaker playing The Beatles.

We rushed inside, I made good use of the bathroom, and we moved over to the bar at the end of the narrow room. The bartender was friendly and spoke English fluently. We ordered drinks, and I finally noticed that despite playing Beatles on the speaker outside, they were playing the Blues Brothers soundtrack inside. When I was a kid, the two movies I watched the most were Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters, likely over 25 times each. I mentioned this to the bartender, his face lit up, and he searched through his rack of CDs to find the Ghostbusters soundtrack.

We were joined at the bar by two Korean women who were out on a pub crawl as well. They were also well into their evening, and the bunch of us attempted to have drunken conversations in Korean, Japanese, and English.

Details after this point are a bit fuzzy – we did leave the bar at some point and flagged down a taxi. The driver had no idea where our hotel was, but thankfully we had brought a brochure from the hotel that included a map – this is a highly recommended travel tip, especially when alcohol is involved. I don’t remember getting back to our room, but I do have some memories of spending much of the night next to the toilet in our bathroom. Sorry Super Dave!

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June 19, 2006 part 1 – Interesting People in Osaka

During the day, Super Dave and I went to Osaka Castle. The castle itself is interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the random English interaction we got before and after the castle.

As we were buying tickets to get into Osaka castle we were approached by a Japanese woman. She greeted us in English and then asked if we were American. We informed her that we were Canadian and Australian, and she thanked us. She then reached out as if to shake my hand, but at the last second grabbed my forearm with both hands, similar to when I used to receive “Indian burns” as a kid. She pushed her hands together, squeezing the skin on my forearm and then released it, looking very impressed. While I was trying to figure out what just happened, she did the same thing to Super Dave. We both stood there, speechless and confused. She grabbed my arm one more time while thanking us over and over, and then she walked away. To this day I have no idea what she was doing, and I half expect that I was featured on some kind of candid camera type comedy show.

After exploring Osaka Castle (my second time, Super Dave’s first), we walked out into the castle grounds where we were greeted by a middle aged Japanese man. He asked us if we were native English speakers. When we answered yes, he asked us to explain the meaning of the word “pledge”. We did our best impression of English teachers and got him to understand. He thanked us, and then told us that he studies English by memorizing famous speeches. He asked if we would listen to him, and then recited the famous “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech by John F Kennedy. The whole thing. Nearly flawlessly.

If the start of our day in Osaka is any indication of how the rest of the day will go, we are in for a very interesting evening.

 

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June 18, 2006 – Ninja Museum

Today I woke up really early and met Super Dave at the train station to start our west Japan vacation. On the way to Osaka and Kyoto we will be stopping at the famous Ninja Museum in Iga city.

Getting from Numazu to Osaka can be done fairly quickly on the shinkansen. Traveling to Iga requires getting off the shinkansen in Nagoya and then taking some smaller lines to Iga. The final route to Iga-Ueno station is on a narrow train line that feels like it’s cutting through people’s yards! It took us about 5 hours to get to our destination, but the museum was totally worth every minute of that travel.

NINJA TRAIN!

NINJA TRAIN!

Simply put – go see the ninja museum. Do it. They have an extensive collection of everything ninja, and have some impressive demos of techniques and weapons. Also, you can throw shuriken at a target, which is WAY harder than it would seem.

Super Dave and I got to see only about 2/3 of the museum – somewhere after the weapons demonstration we started talking to another English teacher from Canada who was traveling solo. We ended up chatting with him for a while while we were walking around the museum grounds. When we parted ways, Super Dave and I realized that we had walked right out of the museum grounds. Getting back in would have required explaining our error to the front gate staff in Japanese. Neither one of us trusted our language ability enough to try this, and we both felt pretty dumb for accidentally walking out of the museum, so we decided to cut our losses and get lunch instead.

After some delicious cold soba noodles, we visited the nearby Iga Castle, another underrated gem. The original castle dates back to 1585, but the current structure was rebuilt in 1935. The museum inside the castle wasn’t as extensive as Himeji Castle or Osaka Castle, but it was still impressive and is definitely worth going out of the way to visit.

A view from Iga Castle

A view from Iga Castle

Also in Iga, you can visit Basho’s house, if you like haiku.

Super Dave and I returned to the train station and started our 2 hour trek to Osaka. We checked in at the hotel and spent our evening exploring the area around Osaka station. We found a lot of small mahjong places hidden away off the back streets, and ended up shooting pool in a tiny billiards bar. We both suck at pool. Looking forward to an eventful day tomorrow!

 

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April 5, 2006 – Pottery Lessons and free upgrades

My parents, The Penpal, and her parents spent the night at the beautiful Hanabusa ryokan in Izu Nagaoka. Izu is filled with ryokans, but one of the reasons we chose Hanabusa over the others was that they offer pottery classes. After a delicious breakfast we went to the pottery classroom to learn from the resident pottery master.

There is a long history of pottery in Japan. I had been to a pottery class with The Penpal a few years ago with a sad looking teacup to show for it. I was looking forward to getting a second chance to test my skills as a potter.

Pottery class!

Pottery class!

The pottery area was in a large room with long tables surrounded by shelves with cups, plates, and vases in various states of completion. Our families were the only ones in the pottery room, so we got the full attention of the master, who was a friendly, energetic older gentleman. The Penpal translated as he guided us through pounding, rolling, spinning, and shaping our cups.

Thanks to the expert instruction and hands on assistance, we all did reasonably well. My mom’s cup actually turned out fantastic, and mine was far less terrible than my attempt two years earlier. We all finished our cups, and the master promised to glaze and fire them, then ship them to The Penpal’s house.

izu-pottery-1

My parents absolutely loved their time at Hanabusa! It was a far different experience than simply staying at a hotel somewhere. Getting to stay at the ryokan with The Penpal and her family made everything even better; they were just as excited to share their culture with us as we were to learn about it.

After checking out, we drove around Izu in the rain before returning to Numazu. The Penpal’s family dropped us off at the hotel for the last time, where we learned that my parents had been given a free upgrade to a suite as a thank you for spending so many nights at the hotel.

If you need a hotel in Numazu, stay at Hotel Miwa located conveniently close to the north side of Numazu station! It’s convenient, reasonably priced, and the service is fantastic!

We said goodbye to the Penpal’s family, and my parents started getting themselves ready to return to Canada. I can’t believe their visit is almost over!

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April 4, 2006 part 1 – Family Ryokan experience

Today was the start of two days of family togetherness in Izu. The Penpal and her family were taking my parents and I to a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in Izu Peninsula.

I met my family at the hotel, and we were picked up in our two car convoy by The Penpal’s parents. Once again the men were in my future father in-law’s car with me translating, and the women were in The Penpal’s car with her translating. Their car was smaller but had a much better translator.

izu-statue

We hit a few sightseeing spots in Izu to show off the beauty of the mountainous peninsula before heading to our destination – Yado Ryokan Hanabusa in Izu Nagaoka. The “yado” is for pottery – one of the features of our inn was traditional pottery lessons; we’re doing that tomorrow.

Pottery Ryokan Hanabusa

Pottery Ryokan Hanabusa

The landscaping around Hanabusa was beautiful, with cherry blossoms, rocks, and those beautifully crooked old trees that seem to be everywhere in Japan.

Each family got their own room complete with sliding wooden doors, tatami floors, low tables and cushions, and a fantastic view of mountains and trees out the window. My parents enjoyed the traditional decor, but were also happy that the room came with a modern, non-threatening bathroom.

After unloading our luggage, we went to the dining room for one of the most amazing dining experiences of my life. The food was kaiseki ryori, which involved a lot of fancy, small dishes that looked more like art than food. We weren’t really sure what we were eating most of the time, but everything was delicious. My mom specifically asked about a soup containing tender, flavourful white fish. The Penpal informed her that she was enjoying fugu, the poisonous blowfish that was made famous by Homer Simpson.

fugu_-_blowfish

The only food that wasn’t to everyone’s liking was uni, raw sea urchin. Uni is one of those foods that people either love or hate, with no middle ground. My dad bravely took half of a bite into the meat that had the same colour and texture as something you might cough up when you have a bad cold, said “no way”, and offered the rest to me. I ate it, and then got to eat almost everyone else’s uni as well, which was fine by me.

Other than the uni, everybody loved all the food they ate. We moved from the dining room to the lobby to chat for a bit. There was a piano in the lobby, so we all convinced The Penpal to play a song for us. She played Moonlight Sonata beautifully which attracted a small crowd of other guests. After a few songs she tried to leave the piano, but the guests and hotel staff wouldn’t let her until she had played some more. Yes, my future wife is awesome!

We could have ended the day at this point and considered it a success, but we still hadn’t tried Hanabusa’s onsen yet. My dad didn’t yet understand what I was getting him into…

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April 3, 2006 part 2 – Fuji Viewing

Screen capture showing Mt. Fuji and Gotenba Premium Outlet (Google Maps)

Screen capture showing Mt. Fuji and Gotenba Premium Outlet (Google Maps)

After doing some shopping and wandering in Numazu in the morning, my parents and I were trying to decide what to do in the afternoon. On my parents first trip to Japan, my mom frequently complained that she had never gotten a chance to see Mt. Fuji. This trip she had much better luck, with almost daily views of the famous mountain from Numazu and Mishima. Since she was still excited about Japan’s most famous landmark, I decided to take my parents to the Gotemba Premium Outlet.

We took Gotemba line from Numazu station, which is one of the most scenic train rides I have been on in Japan. The train goes through smaller towns, mountains, valleys, Gotemba station, and eventually connects to Kozu where you can switch to the Tokaido main line. If you are trying to get from Shizuoka to Tokyo and have some extra time, take the detour on Gotemba line and have your camera ready!

I had been to the outlet before, but usually as a part of a trip to the nearby all you can eat restaurant. The stores at the outlet are interesting, but for me the highlight is the sunning view of Mt. Fuji.

outlet-fuji-1

My parents on the bridge between the East and West zones of Gotemba Premium Outlet while the sun sets behind Mt. Fuji

We finished our day by stuffing ourselves silly at Gotemba Kogen Beer’s infamous all you can eat, all you can drink buffet. If you leave hungry and sober, you really did something wrong. It was a good way to end another fun day of my parents’ visit, and another day that made me forget that I would eventually have to go back to work in the near future.

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April 2, 2006 – Kabuki in Ginza

Kabukiza

Today my parents, The Penpal (my fiancee) and I went to Tokyo for some sightseeing. This was the first time that my parents got a chance to spend some time with their future daughter in law without her parents around.

The plan for the day was to attend a Kabuki play at the famous Kabukiza theater in Ginza. We drove together to Mishima station, and then took the shinkansen to Tokyo, followed by a quick subway ride to Ginza station. Ginza is one of the richest areas of Tokyo, featuring Japan’s oldest department store, Mitukoshi, along with all kinds of other high end retail that we couldn’t afford.

Kabukiza is a Kabuki theatre which was originally built in 1889. The building has been destroyed, rebuilt, and upgraded several times since then. The design stands out among the tall steel and concrete buildings of the area. Tickets to see full plays are expensive, but there is a 1000 yen ticket that allows people to view one act of a play from the upper upper level. We got this along with headphones that played an English translation of the dialogue.

Kabuki dates back to the 1600s. At the same time William Shakespeare was writing famous plays in England, Japan was developing their own unique style of performance. Like original Shakespeare, Kabuki is performed entirely by men. It is famous for its colourful, energetic performances, which provides a stark contrast to the more traditional (and in my opinion extremely boring) Noh.

Coincidentally, the play that we got to watch was the story of the siege of Osaka Castle. We had just been to Osaka castle a few days earlier, so we knew a bit about the story. This allowed us to focus on the stage. The first scene we watched included fighting, action, and an insane fall down a giant flight of stairs on stage. The second act had a lot more talking as the characters were hiding in the castle wondering what would happen after the battle. I personally preferred the first scene, but it was nice to get some variety during my first Kabuki experience.

The most surprising part of my Kabuki experience was that the crowd would shout at the performers. Apparently this is a tradition where you yell out the name of the acting family of certain key actors. Usually Japanese crowds are known for being quiet and reserved, so it was quite interesting to hear the shouting.

After Kabuki we wandered around Ginza for a bit, then returned to Tokyo station. Before we returned to Mishima, we browsed the large selection of restaurants available at the station. We ended up at a kaiten sushi restaurant.

The first time my parents came to Japan, I took my dad for kaiten sushi while my mom and sister went for McDonalds. This time my mom was feeling more adventurous. Usually she prefers rolls and avoids raw fish, but thanks to The Penpal’s reassurance and advice, my mom tried some fatty tuna nigiri sushi and loved it! My parents also enjoyed the incredibly hot green tea that was available at our table.

We took the shinkansen back to Mishima while talking about plans for our upcoming stay in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). The adventure continues!

(Author’s note) Apparently Kabukiza has been rebuilt yet again to comply with modern building codes

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April 1, 2006 part 3 – Movie and drinks

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.

Numazu Uotami

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.

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March 30, 2006 part 1 – Kiyomizu Dera with my parents

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.

Side view of Kiyomizu Dera

Side view of Kiyomizu Dera

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.

Kyoto Kiyomizu 2

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 🙂

Kyoto Kiyomizu 3

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