Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Jay in Japan

Since this blog isn't really my personal blog anymore, but more of a "keep family in touch" and a kind of family journal, I thought it fitting for Jay to recount his recent exciting trip to Japan.  Without further ado...

Welcome to my first guest post on Libby's blog. I have a blog for work-related things: here. But the audience isn't really the target for things about trips, family, etc. So, Lib gave me permission to put something on her blog about my recent trip to Japan for a research conference.

Day 1

I left on Friday, the 18th, around 8am. I always have a taxi pick me up so Lib and the kids aren't inconvenienced by trips. My flight path was SLC to LAX to Narita to Kansai. The fights were pretty uneventful. When I was in the LAX airport, I went to get a sandwich from Burger King, but the registers were down, so they were taking orders on paper and it took a long time. I waited in line for about 50 minutes and was the last person on the plane... scary I almost missed it.

When I got to the airport in Japan, I had to find the bus which was a little bit tough. Here's a tip for Japan: you need to pay for almost everything with cash and Japanese ATMs don't work with foreign cards, except at Citibank and 7-11. The bus took about an hour to get to Kobe and it dropped me off very close to the hotel.

Getting to the hotel was pretty simple. It was called the "APA Hotel", which they pronounced as Ah-Pa, not Eh-Pee-Eh, which was surprising. At the desk, I asked for an okonomiyaki restaurant recommendation and they gave me directions and a map. But first, I dropped stuff at my room. It was insanely tiny:

That's the entire room, except for the bathroom. I'm standing in the only place where you could possibly stand up, and that's where the door opens. I emptied my bag all over the room. I hung shirts on the TV and put my socks and other underwear in the fridge. =)

I walked over to the restaurant and asked a Japanese couple for directions. In Japan, people are so nice, when you ask them for directions, they bring you to the place you are going. That's what these people did. At the restaurant, I had yummy beef okonomiyaki:

On my way back I went to a DVD tower (because they often have games). After the first floor, which had normal magazines and DVDs, every other floor seemed to be 100% porn. (Seemed to... I ran away rather than investigating.) Yikes! As I left I felt like everyone was looking at me and that I should have known it was going to be like that. Maybe the sign said that, but I don't know enough Japanese to know.

Right next to the hotel was an amusement center---they had three floors of bowling, karaoke, pool and darts, and then two floors of arcade machines. Most of the games were gambling (slots, pachinko, UFO catchers, etc) or competition games (lots of horse racing). They had a small section of music games and card-based games. In a tiny corner they had about six 2D fighters. No shmups.

Here's an awesome picture of this giant horse racing game and another one that was right next to it:


As far as the card-based games go, there's this trend in Japan of combining collectible card games (like Magic: The Gathering) with arcade games. You buy cards and they have little chips or codes in them that the arcade machine reacts to. You repeatedly play the arcade game (normally competing with other people) and bring your cards and upgrade them. It's kind of like World of Warcraft game play, but with the loot being randomly found physical goods. Here's a picture of a guy playing with his bag of cards (the surface is where you put the cards):

In the old days, you went to arcades to play things that were too expensive for the home. The graphics, sound, etc of arcade games before home consoles was amazing, even though they were the same kinds of games that eventually came home. Today, the same premise exists in Japanese arcades, except "too expensive" generally means huge screens and other props.

I went back to my hotel and learned that they only had wireless on the bottom floor and I didn't bring my wired adapter. D'oh! So, I went to the bottom floor and connected for a bit.

Day 2

I woke up at about 5:15am and talked to Lib on the bottom floor then had breakfast and went over to the train station. I took a train to Kyoto and got a bus pass and got on a bus to the north-eastern corner of the city and walked to Ginkakuji Temple. The buses in Japan are super efficient. They put seats on top of the wheel cavities:

On the walk from the bus stop to the Ginkakuji, there were lots of tacky souvenir shops, but most of them were oriented towards Japanese people. (In fact, all throughout Kyoto, most of the tourists were Japanese.) Apparently something that all Japanese people want is local treats that are unique to the city or region. In Kyoto, there is this weird pastry with some sort of bean paste folded into a soft tortilla-like thing. On this street, there were many places making and selling that.

The temple cost 500 yen to get in to. Almost every place cost that much to go to and most of them didn't look worth it. They all had little maps to show you what was around. Ginkakuji had English labels on the map:

The temple was very nice with picturesque Zen gardens, etc and a path through the woods up a mountain. I'm not sure it was worth 500 yen though.

Next, I walked down the "Path of Philosophy" --- an ancient walking path along an old canal. Although down the path, and really throughout the old city, there were small shrines and stuff. For example, this one was just on the side of the canal:

Eventually I saw a sign for the Honenin Temple and walked over to it. Most of the temples were right off from extremely busy parts of the city, but they had buffers that separated them extremely well. I think this temple's was particularly good:

But before I went over to it, there was a small cemetery on the side.

Like most Asian cultures, Japanese use the swastika as a holy symbol and, in particular, a symbol of luck. On maps, every temple is marked with one and in lots of the temples and cemeteries they appear:

In the cemetery was a little sink with buckets---maybe for washing your hands or something? I was thirsty, so I thought about taking a drink. But I noticed a sign that said: "この水は飲みません" which means "Don't drink this water." Aren't I lucky I can read Japanese?

The temple had a beautiful gate and some strange sand sculptures.

There was a building you could go to and look at some beautiful paintings of scenes in the temple:

Here's the building from the outside:

There were so other traditional statues behind this:

Outside the temple there was a man cleaning out a gutter with a broom. I was kind of amazed he was doing that, so I took a picture. Inappropriate pictures is what tourism is all about, right?

As I was leaving, I asked a Japanese woman to take a picture of me:

I continued walking back down the path and found another huge cemetery:

Then another shrine with a beautiful garden:

At the next shrine, I saw someone use these things to wash their hands before going inside, so I started to do the same:

A lot of the temples had these little boards. I don't really know what they mean, but they look old:

Something I like about the temples is that I don't understand them and so they're beautiful and foreign. Despite not knowing anything, they are very pretty:

Almost all the temples also had "blessings" you could buy. Some were little baggies and some were wooden planks that you would write a message on and then hang up:

This one shrine had cool little statues of animals:

That last one is a Tanuki. They're the magical raccoon things that are featured in Super Mario Brothers 3 and the movie Pom Poko.

Near here, I found the canal to look particularly nice:

As I stopped to take the picture, I noticed a ton of cats behind me:

At the next shrine was a couple praying.

As I walked away from this little temple, I was feeling very hungry so I stopped at the first restaurant I saw. I find Japanese restaurants to be incredibly uninviting. The problem is that they always have a cloth over the door that goes down to about my chin and then the doors are securely closed and not see-through. I think the reason for this is that it makes the inside more tranquil, but from the outside you feel like you will be interrupting some important event.

I was a bit surprised when I went inside to find out that the restaurant was an okonomiyaki place. I got squid. It was very delicious. Even though it was a little small, it was very filling. When I asked for mayo, they gave it to me on the side and I had to dip my bites in it as I ate, which was kind of messy. Here's a picture as it was cooking (I like that you can see squid bits) and then finished:

As I left the restaurant, the woman said I had good Japanese: あな
たは日本語が上手ですよ. That made me happy! :)

The next big site, around the corner from the restaurant, was the Eikando temple. I went up to the gate and it cost 600 yen to get in. I didn't think the last one was worth it, so I left assuming I'd just enjoy it from outside.

As I walked away, I noticed a map and the map had paths inside the rooms. I decided to go back and ask if you got to go inside (the last one you could not) and they said yes, so I paid and went in. Wow. That was a GOOOOOD idea. This place is amazing. It's almost indescribable. I love the idea of having a little, perfectly manicured woodland scene just outside your living room. These shots are of different areas that are surrounded on all sides by the temple (like little interior courts):

The opulence of the some rooms was out of this world. I took some pictures to show it a little bit.

(this room was FULL of stuff like that and this wasn't even the best one)

(look at the painting on this one)

There was a little path up to a pagoda high above the rest of the place that was very winding and Escher-esque:

On one part of the path was a musical "instrument." It is basically a well with an intricate bamboo network inside that you pour water on and it makes very subtle chiming noises on as the water drains. It sounded very pretty and delicate.

I walked back to the bottom and explored around a little bit. This is the same building with the crazy gold statues, but from the outside:

I walked over to a little cemetery they had:

I think I stayed almost 2 hours. One funny thing, they had a kindergarden on the premises, right next to a beautiful waterfall and statue of Buddha.

(I was standing in the same spot for these past 2 pictures.)

As I left, I walked past a little pond they had...

Every pond in every temple has giant carp:

They always think you are going to feed them and they stick their huge mouths out of the water. It's intense.

On the subject of water, this whole area of Kyoto has huge gutters that are very SLC-like in the damage they could do to your car if you missed them:

Next I went to the Nanzenji Temple. It had a massive gate that you could pay to go up in (500 yen, I didn't) and then it had a giant aqueduct running through it, which I climbed on and walked down for a bit. After walking on it for about five minutes, I turned around and looked at the outside of a little garden you could go into (500 yen) and then a museum built in the temple's Hojo (lecture hall). The museum cost 500 yen... I was almost tempted but decided not to go in.

(same building as the last one)

Finally a map of this temple:

Next I walked past back towards the main part of the city. On the way I bought a vanilla cream puff from a woman making them. It was delicious.

I walked past the zoo (and tons and tons of kids going there with their parents.) There were vendors outside the zoo selling treats: cotton candy, ice cream, takoyaki, and pickles:

And then to the Heian Shrine. The front of it was incredibly spectacular.

There was a massive red gate and then stark white grounds with three huge red temple buildings.

I walked around the perimeter and they were charging to see the gardens. (I get the impression that these buildings are owned by religious orders that make most of their money from tourism.) I thought it wouldn't be worth the 600 yen, so I kept going. When I got to the other side of the perimeter, they had a map of the garden and it went around the entire temple complex. I decided to go in. It was huge and like being in the middle of the woods, despite being in the middle of a city. It was surreal. It was beautiful but would have been out of this world during cherry blossom season. Wow. Libby would love it.

Next to this pond was a great sign about a rock path:

"When crossing (the path) be careful of the footing sufficiently. Understand beforehand because the responsibility can not be assumed about the accident in case and so on."

(the path in question)

Over a bridge they had an on-your-honor place to buy food for the fish:

At this point it was about 4pm and I was incredibly tired, so I started back to the station to leave. I decided that I'd stop in Osaka on the way back to Kobe and spend a night there rather than a day as I'd planned. The bus ride back was a little bit difficult because I thought there would be a connecting bus at one point but you had to walk down the street. (During the walk I got a rice ball and water from 7-11.) But once I did that, I got to the station easily.

At the station, as I was getting my ticket, a 19-year old Japanese girl caught my attention and asked me to proof read an essay she wrote in English. It was about the preservation of marine resources. I spent about 30 minutes with her. She said she was a university student and would often come to the station with friends to shop and ask foreigners to read her work, despite living about 30 minutes away. She had come that day expressly to find someone to help with this essay she was turning in the following week. Strange, huh? I wonder what random tourists say and if they have quality input. She's lucky she got a professor this time. :P

The train to Osaka was uneventful. But I reflected on how I felt like I understood the system, whereas before, the signs and the process of getting tickets was incredibly intimidating and confusing. I asked a woman if I was in the correct line and she said yes and said I had good Japanese. =)

In Osaka I took the subway over to the electronics district, went to Bic-camera and bought a PS3 game, then asked the cashier if he knew where Super Potato was. He gave me a map (from online) and I went out to find it. The process of getting there was very difficult, but I asked people where I was on the map on almost every street corner and eventually got there. I felt like I walked in a circle. Inside I bought some Super Famicom games. Then I went back to the station to take the train back to Kobe. (I was nervous I would miss the last train, so I still hadn't had dinner, despite it being like 9pm.)

Back in Kobe I walked towards the hotel and ate a place near it. It was okay. It seemed to primarily be a bar because the food was very small portions and there wasn't a big selection---mostly appetizers. They had an interesting ordering system. There was a little computer that you navigated the menu with and then you told the cashier at the front what table you were at and they had what you ordered on the computer.

I got to bed around 10pm. 

One result of the day was feeling like I really know a lot of Japanese. The number of signs I can read is surprising. And the ease with which I can express myself to other people is surprising to me. However, I must speak and only understand really simple things, because I can almost never understand the responses people give me even though they clearly understood what I asked them.

Day 3

I slept until about 8:45am and missed the chance to go on the walking tour in Kyoto like I'd planned to. However, based on my experience yesterday I thought I could manage to do something awesome on my own knowledge with the map I had.

I didn't leave the hotel until about 10:15am. Since breakfast was closed by then, I bought a bento at the convenience store before getting on the train. I felt very Japanese eating in such a rushed way. The food was okay, but everything that was supposed to be crispy was soggy.

When I got to Kyoto I got another bus card and took the 28 towards Arashiyama. I planned on getting off at Umenomiyataishamae and seeing that shrine and then walking the bus route until the Daikakuji Temple. But I saw a Book Off (used book & dvd & game store) at the stop before that one, so I got off and went inside.

They had pretty much exclusively CD-based games, except for some DS and 3DS games. I was a bit amazed---a copy of Valkyrie Profile for PS1 for 500 yen,
which would be almost $90 in America! Wow. I resisted buying it.

I'm interested in getting this book called Fami-Complete... an
encyclopedia of every Famicom game ever released, but I totally failed
asking the worker where it would be. He thought I wanted a Famicom
manual or maybe Famicom games and then he thought I wanted a
dictionary. Eventually I asked him to use his computer and I went to
the Amazon page for it. They didn't have it.

I walked across the bridge towards Matsuo Grand Shrine and stopped a
place for lunch (it was already noon.)

The place was very traditional... all the staff were in kimono and you sat on these
little pedestal with tatami (a traditional rice mat laid on the floor) around a table. I didn't understand or recognize anything on the menu, but it looked like you got a ton of little dishes of pickled things, etc rather than one big entree. I
wasn't really interested in that, but I felt bad not buying anything
since they had already given me a towel, water, I'd used the bathroom,
etc; so I bought an A-set: rice, soup, and a small dish of pickled
things. This was clearly something that you didn't really get by
itself (it was only 450 yen) because they thought I couldn't possibly
want it and tried to explain that it was small. Of course, I COULD
read the Japanese on its menu entry but they were very scandalized by
my selection and found someone in the back who could say (in English),
"The A-set is just rice and soup... okay?" It was a good meal to tide
me over. As I left, I was surprised that such a fancy place didn't
accept credit cards.

I walked over to the shrine and through their little garden pond and
around some of the buildings. It was pretty. They had a little archery
range or something. It was odd.

(ya, a vending machine in a temple!)

Then I walked north towards the Horinji Temple. The walk was through a
surprisingly rural area. It was very sparse and seemed pretty
poor. Almost every house had a small garden. I didn't end up seeing
the temple, I think I might have passed it but I didn't see a way to
get to it, so I kept going. Right before a bridge, was the path to the
Iwatayama Park. I paid the 500 yen and walked up the mountain (about a
20 minute walk) to the summit.

The attraction of the park is that they have a huge troop of monkeys
that live there around the summit and you can sit next to them, take
their picture, etc. It was amazing how close you could get to them. As
you entered they gave you a piece of paper with instructions: "Don't
stare at the monkeys in the eye. Don't touch the monkeys. Don't feed
them outside. [They have a little room where you can get special
monkey food and feed them from inside the room.] Don't take a picture
on the way. [I think this is because they have monkey wranglers at the
top who can help you if the monkeys get nervous, which pictures
sometimes make them.]" Then there were many little "monkey quizzes" on
the way up the mountain that talked about what they ate and how you
shouldn't make them nervous.

As I was almost to the top, there was a monkey sitting on the side of
the trail, so I took a picture. It looked at me and started to walk
towards me like it wanted to take something from me. All of a sudden
two wranglers yelled and came running towards me from above and below
(I didn't notice the one below before). This made me feel like I was
in danger so I turned around (so it wouldn't look at me) and walked
away. The wranglers got there and shouted it away. They apologized and
said "That monkey isn't friendly."

(unfriendly monkey before it noticed me)

At the top, it was amazing how many there were. I saw a little tiny
baby under its mom. The mom put it on its belly and climbed off. I saw
a monkey playing on a tree and walking up this metal rail. It was all
very cute. There was a GIANT slide as you left the observation area
and a little playground for kids.

(look for the baby)

(one monkey tackled the other from the rail)

(I rode it)

At the bottom of the mountain, I used the toilet. Side-bar: There's
something really disgusting about Japan. Most public (i.e. that you
don't pay at the place where you are, such as in temples or train
stations) bathrooms don't have toilet paper (but they do have it
vending machines) OR soap. Gross! This must be part of why you get a
hot towel to clean your hands before eating.

Then I walked across a bridge into a little shopping district.

There was then a path through a bamboo forest towards the Nonomiya Shrine,
which was simple and pretty.

Then I had an incredibly long walk towards the Daikakuji Temple. It
was probably almost two hours of walking. Eventually I got there and
didn't go in (based on the map of the inside they had... it didn't look like
you saw a lot.) My next plan was to walk back to where I could use the
bus system again. (In the Arashiyama area, you have to pay extra... the
card doesn't work, so I wasn't going to do that.)

I walked through farmland to get to the Yamagoe station. On the map,
it looks like maybe 15 minutes, but it was more like 45 minutes. On
the way, it was very picturesque.

(school got out as I walked by)

I saw an incredibly simple shrine too.

Near it was a little garden of statues. It is well known that most traditional religious art is strongly associated with fertility, but I don't find that to be very common in Japan. However, at this garden, there was a statue of a tanuki with a giant scrotum and a huge statue of a Buddha with a giant penis to his right and a giant vagina to his left. Both of the genitals had Buddhas etched on to them. It was pretty crazy too, because there were actually many duplicates of this same scene throughout the garden.

At the Yamagoe station, I caught the 10 to the Ninnaji Temple. The
statues here were amazing. Very frightening and cool.

There were many shrines that you could walk up to, but nothing you could see
inside. All of these shrines are very odd... there are apparently
beautiful things inside, but they are for the deities enshrined there,
not for humans, so you don't see them. Each building had a plaque
in front that explained what was inside.

Next I took the bus to the Kinkakuji Temple---the Golden
Pavilion. That was beautiful. At this place, there were photographs of
the insides that you could look at and buy postcards of. Very
beautiful. There was a pretty nice garden walk on the way out as well.

I then walked to the Kinkakuji-michi bus stop and got on the 205 back
to Kyoto Station. It was a very long bus ride. I sat next to a
Japanese-American girl and we talked a little. She was a college
student and was going to an onsen (hotspring) for the night and then she'd be
back. Interesting.

Back at the station I went to a little place for dinner. I got a
half-and-half set, with a salad, a little pork fried noodles,
takoyaki (octopus balls), and a little pork okonomiyaki. Very yummy. The restaurant
didn't have a bathroom. When I asked to go she directed me outside and
down the mall a ways. Luckily, they had soap.

I took the train back to Kobe, got a pastry on the way back to the
hotel, and was asleep by about 8:30pm.

The hotel room has really great curtains that totally block out all
the light. When I woke up in the middle of the night and looked at the
clock, it said 11:29. Now, most clocks in Japan are 24 hour clocks, so
I assumed that I had slept until Monday at noon. I was amazed, but
glad because if I need a lot of sleep, I'd like to have it. But, when
I looked at my phone, it was actually just about midnight. I went back
to sleep and woke up again at 5:30am. Much better.

Today was
very depressing because I saw lots of neat things but I didn't have
anyone to share in them with me. I think this trip has taught me how
much I love Libby and want her around all the time. I don't think I'll
do sight-seeing without her in the future.

Day 4

I had a very relaxing day. I was incredibly tired from my
two days of constant walking and exploring, I decided to stay close to
the hotel and do relaxing things.

I woke up a little early, though, and got all ready for when breakfast
was first served (7am) and then talked to my wonderful family for a
while. Once I was ready, I went out of the hotel around 8:30am to
explore a local mall.

I was curious if there were any retro game shops in Kobe, so I looked
online. I found a video someone posted on YouTube of them walking
around a mall and pointing out the stores. Unfortunately, the video
didn't give a lot of identifying details. They said it was across from
a particular station. When I went there, there was a gigantic four
block mall. Luckily, I had seen the name of one of the stores on its
sign in the video: Yellow Submarine.

So, I basically walked around asking everyone where it was and found
out what part of the mall and what floor. Then I walked back towards
the hotel where there was a "massage hospital". I got a relatively
cheap 2 hour massage (3,000 yen, about 37 dollars). It was pretty

Then I went back to the mall and looked around the stores for like 1.5
hours. I went back and forth between them finding the cheapest prices
on the few games I was interested in. Libby would be proud. My favorite
purchases were Rockman 2 for the NES and Sin & Punishment for the N64.

I also went to a model shop and got some toys for the kids.

(the model store had a ton of Metal Gear figures)

On my way back to the hotel, I got a really cheap lunch that was

I then spent the next few hours at the hotel doing work and
studying Japanese. Eventually my PhD student arrived and we went to
dinner and then I got to bed pretty early---9pm.

Part of me feels bad that I didn't push myself and have another Kyoto
experience, but I'm glad that I can leave some mystery there for when
Lib and I go back, plus it was nice to relax.

Day 5

This was the first day of the conference. In the morning after
talking to the family I went down for breakfast and then over to the
main conference hotel to get the bus. The conference venue had a great view:

At the conference venue, I couldn't get a WiFi signal, so I had to pay super close attention to the talks... kind of good but normally I zone out on the boring ones
and do something on my computer. Lunch was nice in a cute college
cafeteria with three ladies cooking.

After the conference, a group of people went to go get dinner. I regret going.
They went to a very expensive meat place where you spent 2,400 ($30) yen for a smaller piece of meat than half your hand that was very thin and you had to cook
yourself. It was Kobe beef, but it didn't taste special at all to me. As we got there, I wanted to say... look I don't want to eat this, so I'll see you later... but that would be rude. Ugh. 

And then on the way back, Neil wanted to see the model store to get something for his kids, but it was closed. But on the way we took pictures of this small shrine that was in a tiny alley between two buildings near the hotel.

Then I did a few things on my computer and went to bed. Okay day.

Day 6

This was another conference day. The most interesting part was
going on the excursion to the Arima Hot Springs Town. Apparently the
town has been around for 1400 years with some of the hotels being
dated to that time period. We walked around the town and saw a few
little temples, plus stuck our feet in a hot spring on the road, then
I went to the giant fancy hotel and went to the onsen there. 

The onsen was funny. I didn't see the big deal. It was like a huge Jacuzzi you had to get naked in with other people. While I was getting out and drying off, a woman came in to clean and swap the towels. Some old man talked to her about something while he was totally naked. Neither of them cared! I guess I'm Mormon.

(The hotel was being promoted by AKB48, a Japanese "girl band". This picture was next to the onsen entrance.)

(antique toys at an antique toy museum, each costs over $100)

(our feet are REALLY red)

(not as comfy as it looks)

(street takoyaki!)

The dinner was amazing. It was incredibly traditional... we sat
on tatami mats and kimono-wearing servers brought out individual
tables with many small kaiseki menu items. It was delicious.

(dipping sauce)

(raw beef)

(vegetables and raw snails; that red thing is a delicious fruit)

(that black thing tasted very bready)

(raw fish)
(the octopus chunks were very good)

(octopus chunk- yum!)

(cooked meat)

(the room, full)

(a palate cleanser)

(miso soup)

(dessert: watermelon, light tofu, and some clear sea jelly)

Day 7

Nothing much eventful happened. 

After we got back to the hotel from the conference, I took Neil to the model place so he could get some stuff for his family. I took more pictures of crazy models. They had soooo many of Asuka and Rei from Evangelion:

They also had a vending machine where you could win a PSP, 3DS, or Wii if you managed to pick up the gold ball. 100 yen per attempt.

We had dinner on the way to scout the bus location

Day 8

I woke up at 4am in Kobe and got on a bus, then flew to Tokyo/Narita, and then had a six hour lay-over until I flew back to the US.

The food I ate on the way home:

(green tea and satsuma Kit Kats)
the end.