Today was our last day in Tokyo. Clare accidentally booked her flight one day early, so she left a few hours into our day. We spent the morning visiting Akihabara, the anime and electronics district. They have tons of poster and advertisements for anime, video games, and trading card games all over the district! They also have so many shops full of figurines, trading cards, toys and more. It really made me want to start watching more anime again. If there are any students reading this who like anime, I'm definitely looking for some recommendations!
After Clare left, I spent a little more time in Akihabara buying some souvenirs. I also really wanted to visit an owl cafe! I really love owls and they are definitely not creatures you get to pet every day. I found one in Akihabara and spent about an hour there petting and taking photos of owls. It was amazing! They were surprisingly soft!
I stopped at a Kit Kat Confectionary in Ginza after that. Japan is really into Kit Kats in a variety of flavors- red bean, green tea, sake, apple, and more. The ad for this store boasted 224 flavors! Unfortunately, it was pretty disappointing. They only had a few flavors on display and everything was incredibly expensive. I bought a bar (like half of a regular "fun size" Kit Kat in America) of the Ruby Sublime chocolate, made from a new red cocoa bean for $4. It was good, but way too expensive.
After that, I returned to the district where my hotel was for some unlimited Korean BBQ dinner. I did a little more shopping (I can't tell you how much money I spent at the Japanese equivalent of dollar stores...) before getting in some last Japanese favorites: a crepe for desert and some more Taiko drumming video game! Then back to the hotel to try and fit all my souvenirs in my bag. I can't believe 2 weeks went by so fast!
Today we took a day trip to Mt. Fuji and the nearby town of Hakone. I was really excited for this, because the last time I was at Mt. Fuji, there was zero visibility. It was so misty that I saw the mountain only when I was standing on it and staring at my feet. This time, the visibility was almost perfect! Being so flat in Ohio, mountains always amaze me. I forgot how big Mt. Fuji was, too. You could see it everywhere. Even in Hakone, a town that was an hour's drive away, it still looked as big as if you were at its base.
We first took a bus up to Mt. Fuji's Fifth station, about halfway up the mountain. The one disappointing thing about the day was that we were hardly given any time to enjoy the mountain and the view. We got only 30 minutes on Fifth station, mostly taken up with frantic photo-taking, but I did make time to buy a post card and send it to my family stamped from Mt. Fuji!
We stopped for lunch and then drove to Hakone, where we took a cable car up a nearby mountain. On the cable car and on top of the mountain, we had an incredible view of Mt. Fuji! The area around it is beautiful too- lots of green mountains and a winding lake. We took a brief cruise across the lake, where we surprisingly didn't see much of Mt. Fuji, but the surrounding area was also very beautiful!
We took a train back to Tokyo and still had the whole evening left (we could have spent so much more time on the mountain!) We went to Ikebukuro, another district in Tokyo, to have dinner. We finally had good shabu shabu! We had unlimited meat, vegetables, rice, and even ice cream for desert! Definitely a place to go back to again next year :)
It also happened to be right next to a karaoke place, so we karaoke'd for about an hour. I love Asian style karaoke- definitely one of my favorite activities! Finally, we stopped at the arcade (Round One Stadium- the same one we found in Osaka) and played my favorite Taiko drumming game before heading back to the hotel.
Today we finally took a day to relax at the Ooedo Onsen Theme Park. We also wanted to check this out as an optional activity for next year. It was about an hour by two trains to get there. We wanted to go to an Onsen (hot springs), and this one seemed especially adorable. Inside was not only a hot springs bath, but also an inside area-the theme park part. Here, everyone was wearing yukata (a lighter kimono made from cotton instead of silk) and you could play video games (like my favorite taiko drumming game) and carnival games (like throwing shruiken- ninja stars- at targets). They also had a variety of food stalls- some lunch foods and some desert foods. We enjoyed both. We spent less time there than we thought- it's hard to stay in the hot baths for too long and the food and games were good, but weren't as exciting as hoped.
After that, we stopped back at the hotel (I forgot the tickets) and headed to the Kabuki theater performance. It was a three act performance with three intermissions where you could buy food and drink and use the bathroom. The whole thing took four hours- quite long! I really enjoyed this, though. It was slow and they spoke in a really interesting way, which actually made it relaxing to watch while also ramping up the tension and making you get into the emotions of the play. The three acts were actually several scenes from three separate plays. The first one included scenes from a play about this gang of thieves who scammed people for money. It was actually quite funny! The second was a historical play about two royal men disguised as servants trying to steal a scroll of battlefield tactics. The third was a dance between a head priest of a temple and a tea maiden (I think this is sort of like a geisha but I was not sure). The four hours went by surprisingly fast. I thought we would get bored and want to head back early, but we stayed through the whole show. It was quite enjoyable!
Then we headed back to our hotel to sleep early for our Mt. Fuji trip tomorrow!
Today, we planned to continue checking out the itinerary for Tokyo. Our plan was to go to the Imperial Palace and then to Senso-ji Temple. Unfortunately, when we got to the palace, we found out that it was closed on Fridays and Mondays (today is Friday), so we couldn't go in to see the gardens.
Instead, we headed to Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa. It is a lovely temple and one of the few (I think the only?) in Tokyo. Like most temples we've visited, there is a line of shops leading up to the temple. We went quickly through those on the way there (and more slowly on the way back.) There was a festival going on at the temple, which meant there were a lot of food booths and music playing. We ate some street food for lunch (yakisoba! One of my favorites) and also had some ice cream (it was melon soda flavored- which was okay). Of course, we bought some souvenirs as well.
Then we decided to work on tomorrow's itinerary too, which was to go to Yoyogi Park and Meiji Jingu shrine (which is in the park). We went in the exit, but still made our way to the shrine through the park. It was a warm and humid day, so the walk through the trees was very nice. The shrine was also very pretty.
After that, we went to the district of Shibuya, famous for Shibuya crossing- the busiest street crossing in the world. There are an unnecessary amount of crosswalks here and so many people are crossing the street at once. We were able to go on the 8th floor of a building to take a photo from above.
Finally, we had dinner and wandered around in Ginza, an upscale district with a lot of fancy and expensive shops (like Coach, Dior, etc.) to have one fancy meal! We chose a reasonably priced shabu shabu (hot pot) restaurant, which we later realized was so reasonably priced because they expect you to order more than just one plate. We didn't but instead had some fancy desert in a tea shop instead before heading back and planning our day tomorrow!
Today was our first day in Tokyo! I think I've been most excited for this part of the trip, because last time I was in Japan, I stayed in Tokyo and spent the most time here. I've been looking forward to going back and visiting some of my favorite spots as well as seeing how things have changed.
It was about 2.5 hours by shinkansen to Tokyo. We dropped the bags at our hotel and had lunch at a place nearby that we think was Korean BBQ? We ordered some meat to cook on a grill in front of us and it was delicious! It's on our list to come back to later this visit it was so good.
The first place we wanted to go was Harajuku. It's a district in Tokyo most well known for Takeshita dori, a street full of shops, food, and more. Before we explored the street, we visited a hedgehog cafe! We were able to hold and feed hedgehogs for 30 minutes. They were very cute. It was adorable, especially while they were active, though most of the time they spent hiding and/or sleeping in our hands. While exploring the street, we also found a Shiba Inu puppy cafe, which we had to try as well of course. I miss my dog a lot, so it was nice to get a puppy fix in.
It was around dinner time now, but instead of dinner, we went to a place called Sweets Paradise. This is a desert buffet. You pay for 60 minutes and get unlimited cakes and ice cream. It was so delicious! So many different kinds of cakes to try- I don't think I even got a taste of all of them! The ice cream was surprisingly good as well.
Finally, we came back to the hotel to officially check in and drop our stuff in our rooms, before heading out to a karaoke place near our hotel. We sang for about an hour and a half. It was great! I love Asian-style karaoke and it's especially cheap in Japan!
A great first day in Tokyo :)
Nara is one of my favorite places to visit in Japan! It is a beautiful park full of temples and deer. We were able to get a free guide to take us around Nara, which was really nice to not have to navigate around everywhere. It was also really cool when he met us at the train station because he had a piece of paper with my name on it. I've never been picked up that way before- I felt like a celebrity!
The first place we visited was Kasuga Taisha shrine, which is probably my favorite temple in Japan. It has a thousand hanging lanterns that are lit once a year, right around my birthday. It is also a beautiful temple. The deer were everywhere in Nara park! Near the shrines, trying to go into stores, chasing after people who had deer food. They sold deer food for about $1.50, so we each got some and fed the deer at different times throughout our day at Nara. There were three around me when I was feeding them. One kept trying to go in my purse. Another looked up my skirt. Later, one stole a map from my purse. I tried to take it back, but it got torn in half! I was very affronted, but thought this was just hilarious!
We saw Todaiji temple, which is the biggest wooden building in the world. Inside Todaiji is the daibutsu, or giant budda, which is the largest bronze sculpture. In this temple, they also have several carved wooden Buddhist figures that looked a little like demons to me. Last time I was here (10 years ago), they were replacing the ceiling and I got to write my name in Japanese on a ceiling tile. They aren't visible like some places in America, but I thought it was cool to think that my name is now a part of this building!
We also saw a garden called Isuien gardens. They were incredibly gorgeous Japanese style gardens. Our tour guide said that they are designed so that you get a different view every place you look at them. I had never noticed that before, but it was definitely true. I loved all the views! I'd love to just sit in a garden like that and think or read or write.
The last thing we did was walk around Naramachi, the old streets of Nara. This is what Nara looked like a few hundred years ago when geiko and maiko (what they call geisha in Kyoto) walked the streets. The buildings were all made of wood and looked charming.
After that, we headed back to Kyoto, got some dinner at the train station, and started packing to leave for Tokyo tomorrow!
Today was our last true day in Kyoto. We have tonight and one more night at the hotel, but tomorrow we will be spending the day in Nara. We started the day by attending the Aoi Matsuri Festival. When I was last in Japan, the festivals were more like street fairs and I absolutely loved them. This one was much bigger and was more like a Japanese parade. It was interesting to see, but it was 90 degrees and Clare and I burned and melted. Much different from American parades too- less celebrating in the audience, much more orderly, and the people in the parade were serious and not waving at the crowd.
After that came my favorite part of the day, Arashiyama! This is a district in Kyoto well known for its bamboo forest. We also read that there were monkeys there. We had lunch at first, crossed this lovely bridge over a short waterfall, and made the climb up a mountain to go to the Monkey Park. We were hot and tired from yesterday’s climb, but it was well worth it! This was easily the highlight of the day and possibly of the whole trip!
We didn’t see many monkeys as we climbed up, but there were a LOT of them at the top! Apparently this is the season for monkeys to be born. There were a lot of baby monkeys, which was adorable. We watched them play outside. They weren't nervous around humans at all- some of them would walk right up to you! The best part was the "rest house." You weren't allowed to touch the monkeys, but inside this house, you could feed them. There was wire around the house so the monkeys could reach through the bars to take the food right from your hands! I loved this! The monkeys touched my hand and it was just magical! They really are beautiful creatures. The littlest baby was climbing and teething on the cage at one point. He was still too young for the food, but his mom ate a lot while we took a lot of photos and videos.
We saw the bamboo forest after that, which was also lovely (especially the shade!) I really liked the sound the wind made as it blew through the bamboo grove. We walked around the shops here before heading back. Finally, we took a short rest (and shower!) at the hotel before heading out for the covered shopping street, Teramachi for dinner and some shopping!
Today was an exhausting day. We really overbooked ourselves with checking out cultural activities we might want to do as a group on our trip next year as well as one of the biggest/most arduous shrines. Oh, and we didn’t really have time to eat.
We started with Zen meditation in the morning at a local, out of the way temple. The monk was really not what I expected. He gave a mini-lecture on Buddhism and meditation. I suspect he had a background in psychology, as he spoke using a lot of psychological terms. We meditated for 20 minutes. It was actually quite relaxing. They gave us a brief tour of the temple and then served us some matcha (green tea).
Then we had a 10 minute walk to a place where we experienced the tea ceremony. A woman- a tea master- wearing a kimono first just chatted with us in a different room. She was very warm and friendly and spoke about her brother and her nieces in Colorado. She also served us a Japanese sweet, typical of something you do before the tea ceremony begins. The tea ceremony was in a separate room, and I happened to sit in the place of the “guest of honor,” meaning I was served first. It was surprisingly relaxing and beautiful. Every movement had a purpose. The tea was also the best matcha I’ve had in Japan. We also got to make a cup ourselves. I learned that matcha has about twice as much caffeine as coffee, but doesn’t make you feel anxious because it relaxes you at the same time. Having three cups of it definitely made me quite alert.
Next was the Samurai Kembu experience. We thought we would learn Kendo here, but it was more of a tourist trap. I love swords though, so I really enjoyed this. They showed us a few swings with the sword, dressed us up as samurai and let us take lots of photos, and then taught us a few other moves. I missed my swordfighting class.
After that, we headed to Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine, made famous by the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. I remembered it was uphill, but forgot quite how long of a climb it was. It took us about 1.5 hours to climb to the top and back (taking photos the whole way of course!) This is such a lovely shrine. The gates are beautiful and the foxes everywhere are just adorable! Lots more people there than I remember from 10 years ago though.
We followed that up with a visit to Gion Corner, where we saw a show that was designed to introduce you to a variety of Japanese cultural arts (like bunraku theater and Japanese court music). It was very touristy though and something that we think is definitely not worth it for next year.
We are running low on cash again. Surprisingly, hardly any place takes credit card here. We’ll have to do a better job of budgeting next year.
Today was our first day of rain during our trip. Last time I was in Japan it was July and August where it was very hot and humid but practically never rained. It rained all day today, which was not terribly fun.
We checked out of the ryokan and into our hotel for the rest of our time in Kyoto before heading to our Taiko drumming class. I was incredibly excited for this! Ever since I saw the Taiko drums for the first time (and, let's be honest, played the Taiko drumming Japanese arcade game), I've always wanted to take classes on this! It was only a brief class and very basic, but it was still so much fun. I wish they had classes on this in America- I would love to take them!
Next, we went to Kiyomizudera temple. It was another temple where you walk up a hill which is a street full of shops of tasty snacks and excellent souvenirs. The temple itself was under construction and a few parts of it were closed (though we weren't sure if that was because of the construction or because of the rain). We went through it faster than I expected because of the downpour, but it was still beautiful. I found out that in March and April, they have a dragon festival there! I hope one day I can come back for that. I love dragons.
After the temple, we took a break from the rain to eat lunch at an Udon place (udon is a thick noodle, served in a soup). It was very delicious! Then we went to an Ikebana, or Japanese flower arranging, class. The teacher showed us some techniques for a good flower arrangement and helped us make one. It was relaxing and interesting, but also kind of difficult. I really wanted to be good at it and make a good flower arrangement, but I didn't really know what I was doing. My piece turned out pretty nice though.
We took a brief break to check in to the hotel after that (and change into some dry clothes even though it was still raining). Then we walked down the shopping street near our hotel, which was pretty upscale and Westernized. We also walked down a much better shopping street, with reasonably priced souvenirs and other goods, called Tera Machi. Both shopping streets were covered, which was so nice because of the weather.
Finally, we had dinner and a show at a Ninja restaurant. I was pretty excited about this, but it was kind of disappointing overall. The food was not very good and overpriced, and the show was very kitchy. If I was 8 years old, I would have loved it, but it was not that great as an adult.
The weather is supposed to be nice (and HOT) for the next few days, so we have that to look forward to!
Today was our first day in Kyoto! After checking out of our Osaka hotel, we took the Shinkansen 15 minutes to Kyoto. It was much closer than I expected! We took the subway two stops and had a short walk to our ryokan, or Japanese guest house (think like a bed and breakfast). Our room wasn't ready, but they did give us some iced tea while they checked us in and stored our luggage for us. We went back out to explore some local temples!
First was Kinkakuji, the golden temple (upper left). It's famous for being painted gold! It's a great photo opportunity, but otherwise the temple grounds aren't as pretty as some. We walked to the next temple, stopping for some lunch on the way of soba noodles in the cutest restaurant. We ate Japanese style too- sitting on cushions on the ground. The next temple is one I really love- called Ryoanji. It is famous for this fountain (upper right) that is a saying: 吾 唯 足 知 or "I know only content." It also has a rock garden with 15 rocks- you can only see all of them if you stand in a certain place (I couldn't find the place- the most I got to was 14).
There was a temple on some local maps that we decided to try and find. The directions on Google Maps were a bit confusing, so we wandered into this other shrine, which ended up leading us to the temple building. It was a little underwhelming, so there aren't any photos of it. Finally, we went to Ginkakuji, the silver temple. It's not actually silver, so I'm not really sure why it's called that. Everyone makes a big deal of Kinkakuji, but I like Ginkakuji a little better. There is a whole street of shops leading up to it, which are adorable and sell excellent souvenirs (see below). The temple grounds and gardens are also much nicer in my opinion (also below).
Finally, we returned to the ryokan to check into our room. After the small hotel room in Osaka, it seemed quite spacious! Not much furniture at all. The table and chairs is removed at night and replaced with two futons. I'm sitting on one now- they're surprisingly comfortable. I hope they'll be just as comfortable to sleep on!