Archive for March, 2014

Japan 2014, Part 12.

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Since this was a wacky winter of death in Japan some of the things near the end of the tour were not feasible because the roads were closed, Kimi-San contacted the main branch of the tourist company and found us other things to do. One of those things was going to Yokohama, a large city near Tokyo. Tokyo has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, so many commuters who work in Tokyo live in Yokohama. It’s a major port city so we went to the docks where some of the uninhabited warehouses near the water have been turned into shops and restaurants, not unlike the Chelsea Market or the piers in Manhattan. Yokohama is often referred to as the San Francisco of Japan, and this picture shows why.

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At the docks we saw the ocean liner Hikawa Maru. She was built in the late 1920s and sailed from Japan to Seattle. A ticket cost $12,000 then, so I can’t even imagine how much it would cost now. During WWII she was used as a floating hospital but now all her inner workings have been removed and she is permanently docked in Yokohama as a museum. It was sort of like seeing the Japanese Titanic. One of my favorite things about seeing the ship was the seagulls on the chain. Each one had his or her own link.

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After walking through the former warehouse / now restaurants and markets (where I got a spectacular piece of kanzashi that looks like this), we went to the Yokohama Chinatown. It’s about 150 years old and what surprised me most about it was how immaculate it was. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to New York’s Chinatown but grossness pervades, mainly due to the fish markets and the stank water that runs from them. This place was sparkling clean, just like everywhere else in Japan.

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The Japan are completely enthralled by anything cute (or “kawaii”) and China has pandas which are cute. Therefore the Chinatown is slathered in panda-ness. This was the entrance to one store.

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This was inside of a typical store. The devotion to kawaii is to be commended.

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Unrelated: We are really slacking on the cuteness. The Japanese have stickers that not only have adorable little characters on them, but they have glitter snow globes built in. Step it up, USA.

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Back to Chinatown. There were restaurants everywhere. Now, I love soup dumplings but I’ve pretty much only eaten pork soup dumplings or crab soup dumplings, which are basically pork soup dumplings with a sprinkling of crab on top. Check this out. If I hadn’t just eaten I would have gone into this place and tried that sampler pack on the top. I don’t know what’s in them, but they look freaking delicious.

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Not everything in Chinatown was happy and beautiful. There was this bizarre window decoration.

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I sang “Oh, we’ree gonna have a crustacean Christmas!” in a Cotton-Eyed-Joe voice periodically for the rest of the day, occasionally with some square-dancing moves to add color. The Moomins was not impressed.

And this nightmare fuel was in a glass box outside of a store.

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Ummm, where’s his face? Has everyone seen Hellboy? There’s a character who cuts off his lips and eyelids because he has body dysmorphia and goshdarnit if this doesn’t look like the Japanese version of him. So, long story short, horrifying.

After visiting Yokohama we went to the Tokyo Tower. It’s modeled after the Eiffel Tower. It’s primary uses are for tourists to go take in the view and as an antenna for several TV stations. Fun fact: in the middle of building it, Japan realized they were out of metal, but America was selling a bunch of stuff from the Korean War, tanks and ships and such. The Japanese bought it and used the metal to finish the last third. It’s painted orange and white so planes don’t smack into it.

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And it has a weird little conehead mascot who is sometimes wearing a band-aid on his extended noggin.

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Look at the cute Tokyo Tower road cones they have!

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The view wasn’t spectacular because Tokyo is built to be functional. It is an expansive city though.

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Japan is extremely blind-person-friendly. This I found confusing: since the viewing platform is a circle you get a 360-degree view of the city, and there are little plaques telling you what you’re looking at in that direction. Here’s on for the blind to tell them that they are looking at Mt. Fuji. Except they’re not. Because they’re blind. I mean, it’s thoughtful, but I think a little useless to them.

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Something that took me a while to figure out are the grill-type tiles on all the sidewalks and in a lot of buildings. I originally thought they were a way to help bicyclists or something, but I found out later that blind people follow them with their feet and it points them in the right direction and guides them. THAT, that is ingenious.

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There was a shrine at the Tokyo Tower. When I say shines are everywhere, I mean it.

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As with most scenic skyscraper places, this had a small portion of the floor covered with glass so you could look down at the ground.

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After visiting the Tokyo Tower, which is in a fairly touristy part of town, we went to a gigantor ferris wheel. It’s like the one in London where it never stops, you just slide into a pod as it slowly goes by. It take 12 minutes to make one complete revolution. Due to my complete lack of bravery, I declined to ride on it.

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Oh, there’s a completely clear one? NOOOOOOO.

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In the adjacent building was the Toyota prototype building where you could go in and see the newest models of their cars.

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In there was a car completely covered in denim. It had rivets on it and everything. I don’t know why. I just chalk it up to Japan bein’ all Japan. That was my answer for a lot of things.

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Off of the Toyota dealership was a mall with a store dedicated to Hello Kitty. It was the pinkest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

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In case you don’t think the Japanese worship Hello Kitty, I present you with this:

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And I know it says “Happy White Day!” at the bottom there. This is not a racist thing. It’s what the Japanese call the day one month after Valentine’s Day (March 14). On Valentine’s Day the women give men handmade chocolates, and on White Day the men give women chocolates. It was started in the 1970s by the confectionery industry.

Additional pics:

In keeping with the previous chocolate theme, this was a chocolate sculpture in the entrance hall of a department store. It was based on Captain Hook from Peter Pan.

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And a drink that could either taste delicious or horrid. I only saw this sign in passing and didn’t have time to try it.

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And a sign on the highway going in Tokyo showing the traffic tie-ups in real time.

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Japan 2014, Part 11.

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Before we get started today, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite desserts that I discovered accidentally. I bought it one day at a coffee shop near our hotel in Kyoto and I made The Moomins go back there every morning for three days afterwards to get it (it wasn’t really a sacrifice for The Moomins, the coffee shop had good hot black tea which she loved, everyone wins). I didn’t know what it was but I like light green so I figured how bad could it be?

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OMG GUYS. It was a soft bread like challah covered with a layer of honeydew melon royal icing and filled with cantaloupe custard. Ohhhhhh, so good. I love melon-flavored anything, especially honeydew, so I was in total heaven. I’ve never seen anything like it here in the states and I fear I may only dream of this delicious treat from now on. It’s okay, I’ll temper my grief with honeydew bubble tea. I’ll get through this. But if anyone sees it at like, a Japanese bakery, could you let me know? I needs mah melon bun.

I ended up with a real Pavlovian situation because all the desserts in Japan are beautiful, often imitating delicate natural elements. When I was in the plum garden I found myself wanting to pull the flowers off the branches and stuff them in my mouth because my brain had now made the connection between pretty pink flowers and sweet delicious treats. Japan gave me pica.

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While we were staying at the Hotel New Akao we went to a neighboring village to see some waterfalls.

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The waterfalls were not crazy-spectacular, but was was cool was seeing how the lava had flowed a gazillion years ago when this area was formed.

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At one point I turned around and grabbed The Moomins’ arm. “What?” she said, thinking something had happened. I said, “Look at those rocks. Those are basalt columns. I’ve always wanted to see hexagonal rock columns. This is SO EXCITING.” She was substantially less excited, but I think she thought it was cute how I was fawning over some stone pillars so she feigned some glee for me.

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Here’s a screengrab I got off of Google Images to give you an idea of how cool they look when they cooled at the just the right speed and there’s no vegetation. I think you have to go to Iceland or Russia to see perfect examples, but I was thoroughly delighted to see these imperfect ones.

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Off to the side of the waterfall was a little nook in the rock where people could go and sit in the healing waters.

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In order to raise money for the waterfalls to be maintained, the park rangers collect the water-smoothed stones and set up this wishing-well-type-thing on top of this boulder. For 300 yen you could get a small stone and try to toss it into the ring of rocks.

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And here is one of the waterfalls.

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Big old Buddha! That’s not an expletive, I got to go see one in Kamakura, one of the cutest villages I’ve ever been to. He’s made of bronze and they think he’s from 1252, but they’re not really sure. This is from Wikipedia:

That wooden statue version was damaged by a storm in 1248, and the hall containing it was destroyed. The hall was destroyed again by a storm in 1334, was rebuilt, and was damaged by yet another storm in 1369, and was rebuilt yet again. The last building housing the statue was washed away in the tsunami of September 20, 1498, during the Muromachi period. Since then, the Great Buddha has stood in the open air.

Oh, that’s nice. Instead of fire, the temple was destroyed repeatedly by water. Living on the Pacific Rim is rough. At one point in history the Buddha was covered in gold leaf, and there’s a bit left near his ears, but otherwise he’s just bronze. And, not surprisingly, because this is Japan, both the Buddha and everything around him is very photogenic.

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Here’s a picture of the Buddha with the incense-holder in front of him.

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And here’s a view through the incense holder to the Buddha-sized slippers mounted on the far-away wall off to the right.

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You could go inside the Buddha. I have never been inside a diety before, so it was extremely exciting for me. He has windows in his back to let the light in.

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There was a detailed explanation of how the artisans layered the bronze.

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Off to the left of the former temple site was a wall of sake and miso. According to our guide Kimi-San companies that make sake, plum wine and miso donate big barrels of their product to various temples for their ceremonies, and the temples display those barrels so the companies get credit for their good deed.

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I kept seeing small wooden fences covered with little paper strips. I learned that inside was a box filled with numbered cubes. You shake the box until a cube came out and in front of you is a corresponding bureau with numbered drawers. You take the fortune out of the drawer with the number of your cube and if it’s good you keep it and if it’s bad you tie it to the fence. Kind of like religious Yahtzee (I am so going to hell).

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One of the things Kamakura is known for are cookies shaped like pigeons. They don’t taste like anything special, they’re just a crunchy butter cookie, but they’re a big deal. I found a description on this site:

Also popular with Japanese travelers to Kamakura are the crunchy dove-shaped butter cookies known as hato sabure, which have been a popular Kamakura specialty since a local shopkeeper started making his own interpretations of European biscuits in the Meiji era (1868-1912). The name comes from the French word sablé, which in the Japanese pronunciation sounds somewhat similar to the common boy’s name Saburo. The dove motif was inspired by the plaque above the main prayer hall at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, where the character for “Hachi” is shaped to look like a dove.

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If I go back to Japan I will spend an entire day in Kamakura walking around. It looked absolutely charming. In the brief time I was there, I saw this:

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The owners were this sweet elderly Japanese couple who had never been anywhere near Pennsylvania, but really dug the whole Amish thing. I honestly was curious what their interpretation of Amish cuisine was, and it was… cheesecake. And apple cake. And tea. So it was a regular tea house. But I appreciated the earnestness of it.

After Kamakura we went to the Gingko Temple, which is called Tsurugaoka Hachimangu I believe. It’s a tough name to say. It was built around a 1,000 ginkgo tree that sadly was uprooted in 2010 during a storm, but there’s a bit of stump left. It’s guarded by two grinning stone statues.

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It is both a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple. See? Friendly religions. Lots of sharing. It never gets old.

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As with almost every other temple, you could buy a placard and write your hopes and wishes on it with a Sharpie. After a certain amount of time all the placards are burned in a big bonfire sending your written statements into the sky. At this temple they were gingko-leaf-shaped.

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I heard a rhythmic clanging down the long path to the street, so I thought something relevant or religious was going on. When I finally arrived at the source of the noise, I saw a woman roasting gingko nuts and the sound was her metal spoon banging against the side of the wok, constantly moving the ginkgo nuts so they didn’t burn.

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I have eaten some gingko nuts in my life (they resemble chestnuts flavor-wise) but never roasted, so I bought a small bag. They came in the shell:

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Which you had to crack open to reveal the edible part within.

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I think they could have been roasted a while longer because they still had a bit of a bitter taste, but they were still a nice warm filling snack.

Once again, the kids in Japan are so freakin’ cute. I had to take a picture of this girl engrossed in the guide book while at the temple with her class. So earnest.

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Some additional photos.

One of my favorite signs. It’s for a homeopathic pharmacy.

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A supported tree. I love how they care about the trees in winter.

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A crane on a roof.

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A dove on a fence.

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Two signs for a “Girl’s Bar.” I saw these signs all over. I assumed that they were strip clubs or something of that nature, but I forgot how reserved the Japanese are. Check it out: It means that there’s a girl bartender who is possibly wearing a tight shirt. Or, as we call it in New York, “every bar ever.”

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Next up – Yokohama and Tokyo.

Japan 2014, Part 10.

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

The next two nights we spent at Hotel New Akao. A little back-history on my life: in the 1980s my father would take the family to conferences in the Catskills at a resort I adored called The Nevele. Has everyone seen Dirty Dancing? It was exactly like that. The Nevele was a blast from the past. The enormous lobby smelled like cigarettes and chlorine and to this day if I smell that combination I get psyched for a good time. I found some pictures on the web of what it looked like. The building with the tent-like roof is the ice skating rink that had a fire pit adjacent to it. A FIRE PIT, PEOPLE. I’m telling you, 50s and 60s all the way.

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Since the glory days of the Catskills are over, I thought that portion of my life is over. That is, until I got to the Hotel New Akao. It is located in what I would describe at the Japanese Catskills, in Atami, a city on the Hot Sea, so named because of all the hot springs. At night it looks amazing, like Monte Carlo.

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As we pulled in, I realized that main floor of the hotel was on the top of the cliff and all the hotel rooms went down the side to the ocean.

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I found this pic online to better illustrate what I mean.

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These are the hotels on either side.

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Look at that. Does that not scream Mad Men? I was ecstatic. My childhood was being relived in Japan! Check out this entrance hall.

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We took the elevator down to our room (standard ryokan setup, tatami mats, beds on floor, almost identical to the previous room) where we had an amazing view of the ocean crashing on the rocks. Even though it was cold out, The Moomins and I slept with the window ajar so we could hear the sound of the waves.

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The next day we were told that breakfast would be served in the main ballroom. I expected a big room, but nothing like this. A giant curved window facing an enormous rock structure in the ocean! I was so happy.

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This hotel had everything a girl could want.

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I’ll delve more in the retro magic of the hotel later. After breakfast we headed out to a cherry blossom festival in a small town. Even though it’s still winter, there is a breed of cherry blossom that blooms very early and we were going to see it. The place reminded me of a sweet little New England town. Everyone who lived there was participating, either selling something out of their backyard or directing traffic. I loved it.

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It turns out that the festival was in what I called Wasabi-ville. I think that’s where it grows. They have a lot of pride in that. Some of the houses were even painted wasabi green.

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First we met three 1,000-year-old camphor trees. They were like baobabs, they were so big around. If you have seen My Neighbor Totoro, they were like the tree that Totoro lives in. Really really big. That is Kimi-San laying hands on the tree to feel its power.

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One of the trees was so impressive that Shinto believers deified it. It had a little shrine next to it where you could light candles. The story was that it caught on fire one day and all the local birds wanted to save it, so they wet their feathers and flapped on the tree and put out the fire. Now on December 19th the believers don’t eat chicken as a gesture of respect to the firefighter birds. I realize it sounds like I just made that up after eating expired foods, but that is true.

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Then we were introduced to the very first winter-blooming cherry tree in the town. It was a sixty-year-old tree. Before that, they only bloomed wild in the mountains.

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Here’s one growing on the hillside outside of town. How pretty is this landscape? The feathery things are bamboo.

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The town, once they figured out how to cultivate these trees, built a lovely corridor of trees. When they get older, they will arch over beautifully. In the meantime they still look pretty damn good.

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Each one has a number identifying it.

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And since it butts up against people’s backyards, the villagers were out selling homemade goods. There was this woman grilling fish:

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There was a guy drying fish on a bed:

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A guy drying fish on a laundry rack:

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There was a lot of fish.

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But it wasn’t only seafood, oh no! There were these cool black-and-white mushrooms next to these mountain herbs used to make an alternate version of miso:

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And loads of citrus and kumquats for sale everywhere (this was an honesty shop, you put your money in the jar and take a branch):

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One of my favorite moments was seeing a man sorting kumquats while his shiba inu stood guard.

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And this pile of mushrooms with a Mount Fuji doll in it.

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And, of course, cherry blossom and wasabi food items. Almost everything was either pale green or pale pink.

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I drank hot water with salted cherry blossoms in them. And I had mayonnaise with fresh wasabi grated into it, which was eye-opening. And nostril-opening. It was an emotional moment. I was moved to tears. In this picture you can see the baggie of salted cherry blossoms of to the bottom right. And the wasabi mayonnaise is that squeezie bottle on the top shelf. Those are fresh wasabis in the basket at the bottom.

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After wandering around the town for a while, we ambled over to a small central park that had a wooden hut in the middle. Inside was a pool fed by a local hot spring and people were warming their feet in it.

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I wondered how people’s feet dried without towels, but because the air was so crisp and dry it only took about ten minutes. Then they would walk on a small path embedded with pebbles for a foot massage.

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As the sun was setting we went to a plum tree garden. The plum trees also bloom in the winter. It was so pretty. If it sounds like I say that all the time with this trip, it’s because it’s true. The Japanese really care about things being pleasing to the eye.

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All these trees were numbered too.

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I like how on this tree the bark separated from the wood, and the bark was like, “I don’t need you, I’ll grow my own twiglets.”

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After night fell, we went back to the hotel for dinner (also held in the giant ballroom). You could wear your basic cotton kimono any time you were in the hotel, so everyone was wearing one. We had the typical Japanese cuisine, lots of little plates of various foods.

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And then… the entertainment came out. Oh my God. If I didn’t already feel like I was in the Catskills, I sure as hell did now. They were three Mexican performers, and at one point they played “Dancing Queen” by Abba. I turned to The Moomins and said, “So let me get this straight, I’m listening to Mexicans singing a song written by Swedes in English being performed to Americans and Japanese?” I was delighted the whole time except for when they sang that damn Celine Dion Titanic dreary blarg. But aside from that, sheer delight.

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After dinner we took a walk through the hotel. It had a hallway with shops where you could pick up all manner of things like slippers and hand lotion and chocolate:

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And a shelf-stable dead fish in a bag. Every hotel room needs one.

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Or how about a bag of random dried ocean debris? Those are always nice.

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Or this collection of nightmares. I believe this was shelf-stable shrimp ‘n mussels in a bag. NOPE.

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We found lobster chips in a plastic sleeve that had a photo of a lobster printed on it. It was eerily realistic.

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And a room where you could rent a Disney princess evening gown and have your picture taken.

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Down a corridor of fake cherry branches and lanterns was a karaoke room:

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And a bar filled with hammered Japanese men, some of whom were target-shooting because nothing goes more perfectly together like inebriation and firearms. Only good can come of that.

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Off to one side was a small theater filled with elderly Japanese people eating mochi sprinkled with peanuts for some unknown reason. They insisted that The Moomins try some. She found it incredibly difficult to cut with her teeth and it was too big to eat in one bite, so I spent five minutes laughing at her while she gnawed on this thing.

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There was an arcade with this kodo drum game that I saw in a couple places in Japan. I loved the graphics on the top.

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Here a shot I got of someone playing the game out on the street.

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This hotel was famous for its saltwater onsen. They were delightful and if you went to the outside ones during the day you had a great view of the ocean. I never got tired of the onsen.

Finally, this extremely upsetting sign that was all over the hotel of what I can only imagine is sea vulvas on the half-shell. Every time I saw it I wanted to slap some stars over it. I mean, leave something to the imagination, lordy.

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Some smatterings of additional photos.

A window of a kimono store that I salivated in front of for a while (SO BEAUTIFUL):

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A sakura manhole cover:

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One of my favorite photos from this trip of a girl ringing a bell at a temple while the incense burns in the foreground:

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And a long line of people waiting for Engrish steak.

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Japan 2014, Part 9.

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

The next place we went to was Matsumoto in the Nagano Prefecture (where the Winter Olympics were held a little while back). We went to see Matsumoto Castle, also known as Crow Castle because it is black. It’s not really a castle the way we think of them, it was where samurai protected the ammo and guns. It’s got a big moat all around it, and many of the windows are made for firing arrows. It’s located in what is called the Japanese Alps, and it is a photographer’s dream.

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I mean, really.

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I don’t know how the samurais did it with all that heavy, heavy armor on. There were five or six floors and the stairs were steep like on a ship. Many of them were also extremely tall. I took a photo of someone on our tour descending the stairs and while it’s a blurry shot (not a ton of light in there) you can see the steps are as high as her knee. The man on the left, his entire job all day was to catch you if you fell.

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But once again, if there’s an experience to experience, we’re gonna experience it. The Moomins, who is 77 years old, trucked up those stairs like a pro all while wearing ill-fitting slippers (you had to check your shoes at the door). I took a picture of her reaching the top. Look how proud she is of herself (as she should be, good job Moomins).

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The view of the surrounding area was beautiful from there. I love how they wrapped up the shrubbery for winter. It gave me a Tim Burton vibe.

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The details on the building were also beautiful. I believe those are the emblems of the either the emperor or lord who owned the castle.

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There was a covered patio off to the side of the building. I was told this was called “The Moon-Viewing Room.” I found this description online.

A Moon Viewing Party is held every autumn on the grounds in the specially built moon viewing room of the Castle. It is said, that “the moon can be seen three times from the moon viewing room”. Once in the sky, once in the water below and once in your cup of sake (but six if the sake is strong).

As we were walking down to the path towards the entrance, we were joined by a giant crane.

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I got a good shot of him flying away when he decided he had had enough of us.

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And on the roof were two enormous eagles. Just huge. They had striped wings with orange, black and brown and if anyone can tell what kind of bird-of-prey they are, I would greatly appreciate it.

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As we were driving away we got a view of Mount Fuji, which was exciting. That may not seem like a big deal, but as our guide Kimi-San said, “She is a moody mountain.” There’s often fog and clouds around Mt. Fuji, so seeing all of it was very gratifying. It’s astonishing how much taller Mt. Fuji is compared to the surrounding mountains. We stopped at the closest truck stop so we could get shots of it.

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That evening we slept in a ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese inn. I learned an important life lesson there, which is that I do not like sleeping on the floor. The second night I seriously considered spending the night curled up on the coffee table.

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This was another Japanese OCD thing. You come into the room and take off your shoes, putting on the ryokan-provided slippers. A good rule to remember is if you see tatami mats, your shoes are comin’ off. So you’re mincing around the room in your slippers (they never fit quite right, so mincing with your toes balled up is the only way you can walk, you look like you’re carrying an orange in between your thighs) and when you go to the toilet, you have to switch to special toilet slippers just for the three-foot-square-space of the tiny toilet room. Don’t tell anyone – I walked around in my socks. I’m not changing shoes every damn minute. I barely remember to brush my hair once a day, I’m gonna deal with musical footwear? No.

The reason we were staying at this particular ryokan is because they had a onsen. An onsen is a hot spring pool and because Japan is volcanic there are many hot spring facilities, both freshwater and saltwater. This one was freshwater and this was the sign in the elevator.

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Because no photography was allowed, I couldn’t document what the experience was like, but it was pretty great. You put on the hotel-provided cotton kimono and grab your big towel and a small towel from your room. There were men’s baths and women’s baths and every night they closed for about a hour while they switched so both sexes could enjoy the views (there were outdoor pools as well). Once inside, you put your big towel and robe into a basket and using the small towel in front of you for modesty (if you wished), you head naked into the main onsen room. I found a picture online that someone took of the basic layout.

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The onsen are not like a bath for cleaning yourself. You’re supposed to sit in it already clean. So you hunker down on one of those stools and scrub yourself with the shampoo, conditioner and body wash sitting there. Only after you are sparkling and shiny do you lower yourself in the warm bubbly onsen water. It was fantastic. My legs muscles were all tight from going up and down those stairs in Matsumoto Castle, and the second I got in the onsen all the ouchies went away. Then, if you wanted to, you could go outside and sit in the outdoor onsen and watch your breath and listen to the wind. It was great way to end the day. The only problem is this:

Many onsen ban bathers with tattoos, which in Japan, as in the West prior to the radical changes that have taken place in society, are perceived as a badge of criminality — Yakuza (the Japanese Mafia) traditionally have elaborate tattoos. Despite this outdated reason, the rule is often enforced strictly against all, including foreigners, women, and even when tattoos are small and “peaceful”.

After the relaxing dip in the onsen, The Moomins and I went to have dinner. Okay, brace yourself: on our table, in addition to all the various nibbles that we had become accustomed to during this journey (and not so accustomed, I do not wish to eat a raw shrimp again if I can avoid it), was our own personal tree stump with mushrooms growing on it. We were supposed to pick our mushrooms off and place them on the wee grill next to the stump and grill our own private mushrooms. How freakin’ awesome is that?

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And after the meal we enjoyed little candies that had been folded into origami cranes. Japan is consistently adorable.

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Additional photos: a killer suit of samurai armor. He’s like the Japanese Loki from Avengers.

samurai-outfit

A box of cookies (I’m guessing here, it could be a box of squid parts, you never know) adorned with a kitty samurai.

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An adorable bunny tableau I saw in a doorway.

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The local Subway sandwich shop catering to Japanese tastes.

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As well as the local Starbucks.

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A shrine with a kitty statue and what appears to be metal whiskers on the side guard house.

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And a pinch more Engrish for you to enjoy.

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Japan 2014, Part 8.

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Before we move onto the snow monkeys, I thought you would like to see the guy who guards the track to Nara in the Kyoto Train Station:

nara-train-station

The Kyoto Station is MASSIVE. If you need to take a train from there, leave loads of extra time because it is very very large and convoluted. It has multiple levels and all manner of complexity. From what I hear, the Tokyo Main Station is the same. You will morph into the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. It is an inevitability. Accept it.

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Another interesting thing about Japan: it’s almost completely run on cash. The trains are all cash-based, as are the buses, taxis and a great many restaurants and stores. It seems out of character for a country that is so ahead of the times to not take cards. On top of that, there aren’t many ATMs which is a metric pain in the ass. I think there was one ATM facility in the entire Kyoto Station. Before you go to Japan, head over to your local bank and get money there. As a Chase member I can change money out of my checking account into any currency for no fee. I changed $500.00, but I should have gotten about $1500.00 just to be safe. When you’re paying in cash all the time, the money goes quick.

When I got back to New York, everyone was complaining about the twelvity-seven feet of snow you got here and how I dodged a bullet. Not really. I dodged nothing. I was pummeled by snow. In fact, on our tour we had a different driver than intended because our driver was trapped on the highway for two days. Like, in a bus. And our itinerary included some things that we ended up not being able to do because the roads were closed. Here, look at this picture I took while walking to the snow monkeys:

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I took a picture of The Moomins standing next to the entrance to the park so one could get a sense of the quantity of snow (correct answer: a lot).

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The snow monkeys hang out in one area and we had to walk to get to them. The only way to get to there was through a forest on an icy snow-covered path for a little over a mile. It was character-building, I can tell you. I informed The Moomins that if she fell down the side of the mountain, that is where she would live out the rest of her days because ain’t no one gonna go rescue her. It was steeeeeeep.

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All along the way were informative signs teaching us about these snow-dwellers.

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I couldn’t wait. So exciting!

As we approached the end of the path, we started to smell the hot springs and saw a house off to the side with its own personal steaming spring. I believe the man who lives there checks on the monkeys and feeds them. It was a beautiful place.

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And there at the bottom of the stairs – monkeys. They were much smaller than I had originally thought. Like large house cats.

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I usually am not too keen on primates, but these guys were super-cute. The rules were: don’t make direct eye contact (they consider that a threat), don’t bare your teeth at them (same thing), and don’t touch them. I was astonished at how chill they were. There was a hardcore photography group with their cameras shoved right into the monkey’s faces, and the monkeys didn’t seem to care. I wanted to climb into the hot spring with them so bad, but it was forbidden and would have been an unpleasant and frosty mile-walk back to the vehicle, so I fought my desires to have my hair picked through by an adult macaque.

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The monkeys actually live in the trees most of the time. They looked adorable, like plump puffballs on the branches.

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And occasionally the man who lives in the house nearby would throw out some kind of monkey chow which meant the puffballs would emerge from the trees and hunt through the snow to find the nibbly bits of food. They’re wild animals, but they seem comfortable around people and they don’t depend on people for survival. In order to keep them in the area, the keeper gives them these little snacks to eat. He makes a living from the entrance fees and those fees also help to keep the reserve going, which guarantees the monkeys have a home. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship.

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It was astonishing how close you could get to them and as long as no eye contact was made (they didn’t seem to have a problem with camera lenses) and no teeths were bared everything was copacetic.

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In the short time I was with them they did a whole variety of vocalizations which was the sweetest. I expected them to be all chilly and unhappy when they got out of the hot springs, but they didn’t seem to notice the cold. The monkeys would emerge, looking like drowned rats, and potter around, playing in the snow, until they were dry and puffball-y again. I would have spent all day there if I could have.

At the top edge of the reserve is the place where you get the tickets, and there are vending machines (I miss you so much, vending machines) and some souvenirs you can buy and informative displays on the monkeys and… this.

taxidermy

What the hell is that? One ear, one horn, the eyes looking in all the directions. It could be a bear. Or a deer. I called it a derr. It was unfortunate.

After the commune with the snow monkeys, we headed off to an absolutely stunning garden complex in Kanazawa. It’s called Kenroku-en and it has been around since the 1620s. I understand that the high season for Japan’s tourist industry is cherry blossom season in the spring and maple leaf season in fall, but I would like to say that going in winter is not to be disregarded as an option. The snow on the plants and the lack of brightly-colored flowers made everything look clean and simple. It made me feel calm and relaxed.

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The most famous feature at Kanazawa’s gardens in the two-legged lantern.

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And the tea house which was built in 1774. We had tea there. We had to kneel on the ground, and the nice tea ladies brought us freshly frothed matcha tea and little red bean cakes. You use the pointed stick to cut your red bean cake into smaller parts so you can soften the bitterness of the green tea by alternating back and forth.

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The best part of the tea house was the view. It was idyllic.

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This was a fountain covered by a thin layer of ice, and that did something to the light to make the coins look like they were glowing from within.

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The trees are important to the people there. In the winter each branch is individually tied to a bamboo pole that has been staked in the ground so the weight of the snow won’t break them off. It really is a labor of love.

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The area of Kanazawa is known for its gold. All the gold leaf that’s on the Golden Pavilion is from Kanazawa. One of the things you could have is gold-flecked ice cream. It seemed wildly extravagant and kind of stupid (“people are starving worldwide but I’m eating precious metals hahahahaha”), so I passed on the opportunity. Someone did get (gold-free) sweet potato ice cream, so I tried a bit of that. Much to my surprise it was excellent. Sweet potatoes have a vanilla-like undertone naturally, so it worked really well.

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The desserts in Japan were interesting. They had all their Japanese-style desserts, like this one, which was a sweet warm red bean soup with rice clouds in them:

red-bean-dessert

But there was also the influence of European desserts everywhere. A big thing is a trifle-thing they call parfait. Often it would be spelled pafe. And normally they looked like this:

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But I saw one for $500.00 that was impressive. I mean, I saw the plastic version. I went into the restaurant just to stare at it.

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And finally for today, this. Because Japan.

patisserie-tooth-tooth

Japan 2014, Part 7.

Friday, March 14th, 2014

Nara! My whole life I’ve been hearing about Nara. My father was stationed in Okinawa between the Korean and Vietnam wars with the Marines and on one of his leaves he went to Nara. He’s told me many times how there are sacred deer just walking around and you can feed them. How am I not suppose to go commune with sacred deer?. Luckily in the tour I signed up for the first stop was Nara. It’s not just a town with some deer chillin’ outside. There’s a massive temple there as well, the Todaiji Temple.

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Look at the size of the people to get an idea of the size of the building. It’s big. Inside is a Buddha that was built in the 700s, using up almost all of the bronze in Japan at the time. And the building only burned down twice! That’s pretty good for Japan. There were two seven-tiered pagodas on either side also built in the 700s, but due to either earthquake or fire they are gone. If you’re wondering why the Buddha’s face looks fresher than, say, his knee, it’s because his head was starting to sag at one point so in the 1700s they replaced it with a new head. I think they replaced his hands too.

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There were emergency-backup golden Buddhas on either side, similar in appearance to the big central Kannon in Sanjusangendo. And poles made of metal with giant bugs on them. I liked those.

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In the back was the weirdest part. One of the pillars holding up the roof has a hole bored through it. It is the exact size of the nostril of the Buddha statue. You are supposed to shimmy through the hole, and while you’re in there you make a wish. This is a real thing.

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As you walk towards the temple, our guide Kimi-San said not to step on the long metal bar in the gate because it represents Buddha’s shoulder and it’s rude to step on a god’s shoulder. See what I mean about having a guide? I would have never known that without her telling me. There was no sign or anything. I would have stepped on the bar and everyone around me would have seethed and I would have put another nail in the coffin that is the reputation of Americans overseas. Get a guide. For America.

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So, there’s deer. Sacred deer. 1,000 of them, standing there. They are pleasant and on the smaller side, smaller than the deer we have here on the East Coast. They are not, unfortunately, bright in any way. If anyone wants to make an argument that certain herbivores are food, these guys would be a good place to start.

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The deer have hearts on their rumps.

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Most of the time they stare off into the distance until anything vaguely edible happens. These poor ladies were trying to eat some lunch and were getting hassled.

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See how the antlers are trimmed down to nubs? That because for $1.50 you can buy a packet of deer-cookies and the deeries will perk right up, come over to you and commence head-butting you and nipping at your clothing. When Moss went she sent me one of my favorite texts ever. “GOT BIT IN THE ASS BY A SACRED DEER.” The Moomins got a bruise on her thigh from the head-butting. I got shoved into the parking lot. Imagine how much that would hurt with antlers. (Correct answer: a lot). So that’s why their antlers are shaved off.

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I cracked up with the guy above. He was feeding the deer their cookies and one was startin’ stuff with him so he smacked one in the face with the palm of his hand and it didn’t even notice. A equally good text would have been “SMACKED A SACRED DEER IN THE FACE.”

Anyone who knows me knows I have no deep love for children. I don’t hate them, I just don’t need them around me or anything. The exception was Japan. The kids there are so freakin’ cute. I took pictures of some of them. This is so completely out of character for me. It’s like me saying, “Then I solved that crazy-complicated math problem after going rock-climbing.” A bus full of little kids showed up and some of them could not wait to touch the deer. The teacher would talk to them and they would listen, but one of their tiny hands had to be in contact with the deer always. It was so adorable it hurt a little bit.

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After we left Nara we went to the Golden Pavilion. It was built in the late 1300s and made it all the way to 1950 when a mentally-ill monk burned it down in a suicide attempt. Luckily someone found drawings of how the building was put together and in the mid-1950s it was rebuilt exactly the same. It’s called the Golden Pavilion because the top two floors are covered in pure gold leaf. It is also famous for having one of the best gardens in Japan surrounding it. Most of Japan is pretty darn photogenic:

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But the Golden Pavilion takes the cake. It was so perfect with the gardens around it the whole thing looked fake.

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This was the phoenix on the roof.

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There were some statues where you could throw coins and make a wish. I suppose they’re Buddhas. As you can see, they’re carved very loosely and it’s hard to make out precisely who they are. Since there is a Buddhist temple right next to it, I’m going to go with Buddha on this one.

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Off to the side was the temple and the priest’s quarters and a odd-looking pine tree. It’s called the “Land Boat Tree” and it was a wee bonsai long ago that the owner decided to plant. It got bigger and bigger and that bottom branch grew out facing West which, according to Kimi-san, is where Buddha’s “happy place” is (I think she meant heaven or the like).

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The last site we went to on that day was Kiyomizu Temple. I mentioned that I swung by when I was doing the walking tour with The Moomins, but I got the thorough experience this time. It’s a big complex. Most temples aren’t just the one building, there’s ancillary buildings all around them and this was no exception. Almost all the buildings were painted this really vibrant orange.

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And the main building, built in the 1600s, doesn’t have any nails holding it together. It’s all tongue-and-groove or a similar technique and when you appreciate how impressive that is is when you see the complexity of the pillar system holding up the side.

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I found this on Wikipedia:

The popular expression “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu” is the Japanese equivalent of the English expression “to take the plunge”.This refers to an Edo period tradition that held that, if one were to survive a 13m jump from the stage, one’s wish would be granted. Two hundred thirty-four jumps were recorded in the Edo period and, of those, 85.4% survived.The practice is now prohibited.

Something that was pointed out to me was that to the Japanese, religion is more like a superstition that an organized entity. Both the Buddhist and Shinto religions live side by side in harmony and you can casually switch between the two with no repercussions. There’s a lot of wish-making and the like. It seems very calm and drama-free. I found it soothing.

There were several examples of this relaxed attitude at the Kiyomizu site. One, there was this statue. I was told she was the statue that granted beauty. You rubbed her face and then rubbed your own face and you would be made beautiful.

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Second, there was a long line to drink from one of three cups of water. The one on the left helped with education, the middle with love, and the right with longevity. You could only drink from one.

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And third, there was an shrine dedicated to the God of Love, where there were two stones about fifteen feet apart. You were supposed stand at one stone, close your eyes, and walk to the other stone. If you made it and you were already in a relationship, it was a good relationship. If you made it and you were single, you were going to find love soon. It was recommended not to do this if you were married because most people didn’t make it over to the second stone. AWKWARD.

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The only time I participated in any of these rituals was when I saw this sign:

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And after I smiled at the Engrish you bet I put money in there and prayed for the people hurt in the earthquake. Either my prayers won’t do anything, or they will reach whatever God they’d like me to pray to and it will help.

A couple unrelated bits:

A cute sign on an automatic door.

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A slide built on a mound of dirt. That’s brilliant! If you fall off the slide, you don’t go far and you won’t get hurt. Why don’t we do that?

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An umbrella-locking station.

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Fun cephalopod decals on the ceiling of the public bus.

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And one of the worst attempts to mimic the Yahoo logo ever.

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Next entry – snow monkeys.

Japan 2014, Part 6.

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Fun Japan tidbit: Outside many establishments is a sculpture of a happy smiling bear-type creature. When I got back I mentioned to my friend Moss (who has been to Japan before) that I saw this bear all over the place and I didn’t know his significance. She said, “His name is Tanuki and he brings good fortune and money. Did you notice his balls?” I was like, nooooooo, was I supposed to notice his balls? She said the larger his balls, the more fiscal goodness. I took a photo of one while I was there and when I went back and looked at the shot, indeed he was rockin’ some mega-nards. I was more focused on his man-boobs and that creepy belly button, and in doing so I had completely ignored his whole undercarriage situation.

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So when you go to Japan, be sure to check out the testicles on the bear sculptures outside various businesses. I can’t really believe I just typed that sentence.

I read in my Frommer’s guide book that on the 15th of each month there is a fair in the large temple courtyard of Chion-ji Temple. The Moomins and I happened to be in Kyoto on the fifteenth, so we went. I’m so glad we did go because it wasn’t touristy at all. It was all Japanese people selling things they made to other Japanese people. My only complaint is that it was RAINING. Not raining, RAINING. We got soaked to the skin and I got mud all over my shoes and socks. But The Moomins and I are tough cookies and we didn’t let a torrential downpour prevent us from having a jolly good time. If all these people could drag their wares out and be pleasant and sociable, so could we.

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Look, someone brought their beautiful bonsai trees and plant clippings! I tell you, if I lived there my house would be filled with all manner of plants and trees. It would be like a teeny-tiny arboretum. I got so excited by the plant life.

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I ended spending a healthy chunk of money at this thing. First of all, it was huge. It filled every available inch of space around the temple. Secondly, the prices were completely reasonable. And thirdly, it was all hand-crafts often being sold by the person who made them, which I am a big proponent of. I love meeting the artist. There was an elderly woman selling her temari balls. Everyone remember what a temari ball is? If not, here’s the blog entry I have referencing them.

http://design-newyork.com/blog/2014/01/08/japan-is-going-to-take-all-my-money-and-im-okay-with-it/

So Nice Lady was under a booth made of tarps selling this temari balls and other fabric pieces she had made. I had seen some other balls elsewhere for $84.00 each and figured I’d wait until I found some that were maybe slightly less expensive. She was selling hers for $5.00 and $10.00 and that was an amazing price, so I snapped up four of them. You can see my entire stash of temari balls in this photo I took of all my Japan swag when I got back. The temari balls are on the left.

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Nice Lady was so happy that I bought a whole bunch of her temari balls that she threw in little pincushions nestled in walnut shells are you kidding me that is the cutest thing ever Japan you are trying to kill me.

There was a potter there across from one of the pickle vendors (pickled vegetables are a big damn deal in Japan, they take great pride in it and it’s served at almost every meal) who made delicate little sake cups, and he had a sign I liked.

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True, true. We ended up buying several of his cups. Not because of the sign, they are nice cups, but the sign didn’t hurt.

It the middle of all this was a temple having services. It was a beautiful temple as many of them are, but it had these unique things sitting on pillows. I didn’t know what they were for, but each one was carved differently.

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Later a group of monks or priests came in and chanted in front of a few of these things while banging on them rhythmically. This is one of the problems with traveling on your own in Japan. There are no signs in English and many people don’t speak English, so you miss out on a lot of information. When I was on the tour, any time I had a question like, “Who are those men and why are they hitting those maracas?” I could turn to my guide and she explained it all to me. This was only one of a hundred times I felt like I needed to know more stuff and was at a loss. I don’t really recommend going to Japan all on your lonesome. You can do it, of course, but you’ll miss out. Either hook up with a tour or get a personal guide, a college student or something, to take you around and explain things to you.

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In case you want to go to this fair, some of things being sold that I remember (I’m sure there’s a bunch I’ve forgotten), all handmade: foods, pottery, hair adornments, jewelry, toys, dolls, woodwork, stickers and stationary, furniture, and purses. Here’s a flickr cluster of Chion-Ji pics. Fair ones are near the bottom.

http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/chionji/Recent

While we’re on the topic of temples, one of things I saw was a water dragon at the entrances to most shrines / temples. With cups on sticks in front of them.

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I later learned what to do with them. Before you pray to Buddha, you clean and purify yourself. What that means is you pick up a cup of water and pour it into your left hand to clean it, then your right hand, and then you pour water into your left hand, rinse your mouth, and spit into a trough on the side. That way none of you touches the cup and contaminates it for others.

Final thing at the temple fair: a woman, a real in-the-flesh crazy cat lady, brought her cat to the fair. In the pouring rain. Why would you do that? That cat’s expression says it all. I know cats can’t change their facial expression. but humor me this once.

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Lady, you need to sleep with one eye open because that cat is going to kill you in your sleep for sure.

Next entry – Nara and the Golden Pavilion.

Japan 2014, Part 5.

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

One of the things I’ve mentioned to people that I found most different about Japan is the lack of Christianity. It’s there, but it’s sparse and not that noticeable. I grew up in a town of 17,000 people and we had six churches, all with tall steeples, taller than most of the surrounding area. They were visible everywhere. It was fascinating to be someplace where Westernized religion isn’t really a thing at all. The Moomins and I went to heaps of temples and shrines. They are are tucked into every nook and cranny. I got very attached to them.

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I looked up the swastika thing and I learned a bunch. Thank you internet! I learned that the word “swastika” is Sanskrit for “it is good.” It is used in Buddhism to invoke Lakshmi ( the Vedic goddess of wealth, prosperity and auspiciousness). And it’s called a tetra-gammadion in Greek, which I think is a super-cool name. It was even used as a good-luck symbol in Western cultures until the Nazis had to go SCREW IT UP and now it’s banned in Germany. Butt-weasels, taking a nice symmetrical symbol for happy stuff and ruining it. Back to shrines. The Moomins and I stayed in a hotel right next to the extremely old Sanjo shopping arcade. Here’s one of the storefronts in it.

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See? Old. It was a wonderful covered arcade with an adorable mascot. I think it’s a baby chicken wearing a traditional headdress. Can’t be sure, though.

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In the arcade was a beautiful shrine tucked away between two storefronts. It appears to be the place to leave your thousand folded origami cranes (called senbazuru).

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I walked past the shrine one night after some rain. It looked extra-beautiful.

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Get ready to get really bummed out: do you see those red bibs on the statues in the shrine itself? Later on I finally found out what they meant. In Buddhism after you die you go back to Buddha and heaven. But if you’re a baby or a small child, you do not know the path back to Buddha, so mothers who have lost an infant or child sew these red bibs and put them on statues of Buddha so the child can see their way to salvation. And they’re on so many statues. It’s so sad. Predominantly they’re on a cheerful-looking childlike monk statue named Ojizo-san.

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But really, they’re on anything in a shrine/temple.

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Look at these ones that are bleached by the sun. That sound was my heart getting a little splintered.

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The shopping arcade was the home of the finest piece of Engrish I saw on my trip.

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In case you can’t read it, I will type it out for you.

We love city
and the nature and.!
Ciaopanic is
the fashion shop
for city people
who are full of curiosity.

The variety of
attractive stimulations
make our daily
lives happy.

Ciaopanic originates
new “Doki Doki
WakuWaku”
in fashion for people
who live in
an urban city to enjoy
their city lives
and nature around.

There was the pig statue (once again, making the assumption it’s a pig, not quite sure):

pig-statue

And several pachinko parlors. I did not go into a pachinko parlor because I don’t much care for gambling, but I passed many on my trip. Most of them had no name, just an enormous sign that said “Pachinko!!!” or “Slots!!!!”, but some of them did have names, and I wondered what the criteria was for picking those names. There was this one:

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“It’s an important part of your diet!!!” and this place which was in the arcade:

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This is a good time to talk about “Let’s.” The Japanese use a ton of “Let’s.” “Let’s go to Ota City!” “Let’s fold origami!” I found this stellar example online.

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The Japanese use it a great deal and for some reason it irks me to no end. I found myself saying, “LET’S NOT” through gritted teeth at inanimate signs.

In the arcade was something I thought was super-racist.

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“What the hey??? Bowing mannequins??? SERIOUSLY??? Oh, we’re in Japan. You know, where lots of people bow. It’s pertinent to their lives. I should take it down a notch maybe.”

Additional things in the arcade: a dentist’s office with a charming sign.

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Look, the dentist got flowers with ragged edges, I believe, to resemble teeth! How delightful.

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A variety of nicety shops. The word “niceties” in my family mean little, usually useless things that exist solely for prettying up the place. My grandmother had small handpainted porcelain flowers she kept on her bureau. Perfect example. There are a million nicety shops in Japan everywhere you look, and you have to go into as many as possible because their tiny horse figurine might be different from everybody else’s tiny horse figurine. In the arcade I found one shop selling this little guy. The teruterubouzu (TER-OH-TER-OH-BOE-ZOO). The blue-to-white mound with the two wee froglets under a leaf and a weather ghost.

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Until Snorth said the word about four times to me, I called it a Teterboro. Because I am lazy.

At the intersection of two of the branches of the arcade was one of the greatest things ever. An enormous 3D crabitorium sign.

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I bet you’re saying, “The only thing that could make this better is if it moved.” Well, it did! Merry Christmas, kids! Mommy made an animated gif for you!

animating-crab

In a dedicated covered area was the Nishiki Market, a food market that originally started with one fish seller in 1310, but is now a whole long alley of all kinds of food stalls. It was lovely. Go to Google Image Search, type in “Nishiki Market” and tell me your mouth doesn’t start watering from the sheer variety of textures and colors. It’s good stuff.

I loved the signage.

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There was tiny gray shrimp with different flavors:

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Beautiful desserts:

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Terrifying whole fish with death-chompers:

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A whole lot of grilled eel:

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All the seaweed a girl could want:

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Flowers:

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And most importantly, these.

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The Moomins had one and said it was extremely tasty. First she ate off all the legs and then she popped the head in her mouth and the quail egg flavor happened and it was yummy.

Next, a temple fair in the pouring rain.

Japan 2014, Part 4.

Friday, March 7th, 2014

One of the many things that I enjoyed about Japan was the fact that everything was the same as we have here, but slightly off. Here’s a picture of the subway. We have subways. Japan has subways. However, either due to drunk or suicidal people, the Japanese have decided to put barriers that stay shut except when a train has pulled into the station and the train doors have opened.

subway-barriers1 subway-barriers2

Advertising for things: we have it, they have it. The difference is their ads are non-sexual. All of them. Imagine that. This was the most sexual advertising I saw while I was there.

advertising

I always wondered why the Japanese are famous for their eclectic sexual proclivities and I think if most of the females are dressed like FLDS women and none of your ads show even a glance of side-boob, you’re going to need a whole lot more to get where you’re going in the bedroom. Oh, speaking of advertising, someone asked me if I saw any famous American celebrities in Japanese commercials and I saw only one, this one:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrSd7DqSO5k

I cannot figure out how Elijah Wood and Peter Rabbit are selling this car, but they are so good for them.

Oh look, cake. We have cake. Wait… are those kernels of corn on top of the frosting?

corn-on-cake

Transitioning beautifully from corn, the Japanese are really into poop. It’s a thing. I passed more than one store selling golden turds on pillows.

poop-golden

Then I saw this outside a pharmacy. Imagine this outside a CVS here.

poop-ad

I want elves and Pac-Mans cleaning my entrails.

The pinnacle of this was when I saw a book for Snorth. Snorth reads books to children during Storytime in various libraries, so I glance at books wherever I happen to go seeing if they might be good for her. My first day on my way to the Ghibli Museum I passed a bookstore that was selling a book about a sentient toilet with a Dali mustache who travels through the forest where various anthropomorphic forest creatures void themselves in him. I didn’t buy it and I regretted that for the duration of my travels. I went on a quest to find the book near the end of my trip. I will reveal the result of my journey in my ultimate or penultimate entry (because I’m trying to remain chronological). I’m building toilet-book suspense. Will I find the book? Won’t I? Tune in to find out.

Kyoto! It is a really charming city. It’s a little like a fairytale. During the war the Allies decided not to bomb Kyoto at all to maintain the architecture, so it wasn’t damaged at all. It’s an excellent walking city. In fact, our Frommer’s book gave us a walking tour that I would recommend. We did most of the walking tour our first day there. We started at the Sanjusangendo (SAN-JOO-SAN-GEN-DOE) Temple, home of the 1,001 Kannon (don’t worry, I didn’t know what that meant either). It’s a Buddhist temple built in 1164. It has really nice gardens as well (YAY PINE TREES).

sanjusangendo3 sanjusangendo2

Sanjusangendo is the longest wooden building in Japan. It needs to be really long because it houses a giant statue of the Goddess of Mercy, flanked on either side by 500 golden human-sized statues of her as well (that’s what the word Kannon means, Goddess of Mercy). If you’re wondering why each statue clearly does not have 1,000 arms as intended, I found this explanation:

1000-armed Kannon are equipped with 11 heads to better witness the suffering of humans and with 1000 arms to better help them fight the suffering. Note that the actual statues have only 42 arms each. Subtract the two regular arms and multiply by the 25 planes of existence to get the full thousand.

To me this sounds like the sculptors were like, “Are you serious? 1,001 statues, each with 1000 arms? No. Forty-two arms. We’ll make it a divisible number or something. I’m not carving a bajillion arms for eternity.”

I wasn’t allowed to take photos, but other people have so here’s what it looks like in there. It was beautiful, rows and rows of glimmering figures in the dim light.

Sanjusangendo_9508 Sanjusangendo_Thousand-armed_Kannon

Standing in front of all the golden statues were twenty-eight profoundly disturbing Buddhist guardian dieties. They were disturbing because they were human-sized and while they were carved out of wood, their eyes were made of crystal so they totally resembled human eyes. Most of them had intense expressions and ripped muscles, so the shiny eyes became even more off-putting. I believe they were constructed to put the fear of God in people, and I was certainly afraid. Stop looking at me, Wind Guardian! You too, Thunder Guardian! You’re making me uncomfortable!

114530994_5b892ec9fa Sanjusangendo_statues_kyoto

It’s such a long building that they hold archery tournaments in there. And in January people with chronic headaches can line up outside and be touched on the forehead with willow branches in an attempt to be healed.

Now, here’s something you’re going to hear over and over again. Sanjusangendo burned down in 1249 and was rebuilt in 1266. I cannot tell you how many buildings I visited that had burned down and been rebuilt. I visited one that I think burned down eight times. Hey! Japan! Here’s an idea: don’t build all your buildings out of wood and paper. You have rocks. I saw them all over. You have an impressive clay culture. You can make bricks. You know what bricks are known for? Being not flammable. I know you get earthquakes and the wood probably flexes in a way that works for you, but at least build part of the building out of stone or something so you don’t have to start from scratch each and every time. I’m exhausted just thinking about building these colossal structures over and over.

After leaving Sanjusangendo, we walked a bit down several streets until we got to a house that belonged to a potter named Kanjiro Kawai, and when he died  in 1966 it was turned into a museum of his work. This is important. If you go to Kyoto, you must go here. Not because of the pottery (I didn’t much care for it, too thick and heavy and rough-looking for my taste) but because they kept the house intact and chances you will not be able to walk around a typical two-story Japanese house otherwise. It was so exciting for me to go into a home done in a style that has been the standard in Japan for centuries and centuries. I loved it.

potters-house1 potters-house2 potters-house3

Because space is such a premium, it was amazing how the house was laid out. It was labyrinthine. In the backyard Kawai had built a really impressive series of kilns to fire his work (there was also a dirt kiln built under a covering to protect it from the rain, that was cool too.) Regardless of my feelings for this guy’s work, he clearly cared about making pottery and his care for his craft really shows. It gives you warm fuzzies to be there.

potters-house5

After we left Kawai’s home/museum, we trekked up the side of a mountain. Ugh. It was rough. I am not an athlete and I had to pause several times to lean against something and catch my breath. The only problem is the entire side of the mountain is covered in graves, so more often than not I was leaning up on a family’s tomb. There are cemeteries everywhere in Japan, tucked in corners. I think that because they cremate their dead, there’s no worry of contamination if there’s flooding or something like that, so the graves are right next to apartments or restaurants. First we walked past an enormous crematorium with tons of flowers outside.

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And then the mountain of tightly packed graves. You better know where your family plot is because otherwise you ain’t gonna find it ever.

cemetery-1 cemetery-2

After finally making it to the top of the mountain we came upon the Kiyomizu Temple, but we knew that was going to be covered in our organized tour the following week, so we gave it a casual pass-through. We then walked down the mountain down a great touristy road. It had all kinds of fun stuff to check out – snacks specific to Kyoto, green tea ice cream, souvenirs, fans, yukata and pottery. The Moomins is obsessed with pottery so we had to check out the main pottery shop which was two floors of pure awesome. I would have bought a great many items except the prices of things in Japan are depressing. Here, I took some pictures in the store:

ceramics1

Okay, these are little soy sauce dishes. Very wee. Plain. Basic. There’s 100 yen to 1 dollar, so if you move the decimal point over you’ll notice that the entire front row is $115.00. Why? That was pretty much the case for the whole trip. I would see a teapot I liked, nothing special or extravagant, and I’d say, “I would like to own that! It would be a lovely addition to my home!” and it would be $9,000.00. Seriously. Not an exaggeration. It kept me in check because about 90% of the things I wanted forced me to contemplate selling my car to pay for it, so, not surprisingly, I didn’t get them. Have another example:

ceramics2

That lumpy small rinkydink sake cup that looks like an elementary school kid’s project is $336.00. Yeah, no.

After walking for several hours we started heading back to our hotel room. On the way we passed one of the restaurants specializing in only crab which I christened “crabatoriums.” The Moomins decided after looking at the stellar plastic food examples with claws sticking out of them that she wanted crab for dinner and it’s her vacation too, so even though I’m not heavy into crab I was like, sure, let’s do this. We walked in and realized that this was four restaurants, one on each floor, each one serving a different type of cuisine. We had to mime walking sideways and clicking our pincers so the maitre d’ would understand which restaurant we wanted. We probably looked super-smooth. After we had Marcel-Marceau’d enough, they said they understood and they told us to leave our shoes with the shoe-keeper and go into the elevator to the fourth floor. This was the sign in front of the shoe-keeper’s booth.

crabatorium8

Anywhere else in the world, the act of walking into a building, surrendering your shoes and stepping into a tiny elevator going to an unknown floor feels SO VERY SKETCHY. I said, “If this was happening in New York or Prague or someplace like that, this evening would end with us in bathtubs full of ice missing our kidneys.” But this is Japan and crime isn’t even remotely close to what we’ve become accustomed to. We arrived at the fourth floor where the waitress took one look at us and led us to a Western table and chairs. Then she handed us the menu which blew my mind. You think you like crab? You better. It’s in everything.

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Crab.

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Crab.

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CRAB.

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Craaaaaaaaaaaaaab.

This is my lovely mother doing her best pincer impression while showing the cover of the menu.

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And these sumo-wrestling crabs were on the placemat.

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We ordered something reasonably-priced (no need for the $100 Crabocalypse) and the crab was delicious. It tastes very similar to the fake crab used in California rolls, but much more delicate and nuanced. I had a crab don, which was warm vinegared rice, cooked egg shavings, salmon roe and pieces of crab. I’m going to try and make it at home. I found a photo online of what it looked like. In addition to being yummers, it was nice to look at.

crab-don

Outside the crabatorium was a fire pit with couches around it and a tea kettle hanging down (not unlike what you see in the pictures of the potter’s home above). The Moomins said, “Hey, you’re redoing your kitchen and you have a ton of space above the stove… Why don’t you hang a tea kettle there? It will a cool vertical visual for people to see when they come in.” Since I’ve been to Japan and seeing all their amazing design I’ve reevaluated my fish backsplash idea. I think I’m going to take my mom’s advice and do something with a hanging tea kettle and possibly a giant fish-type thing like you see in the photo, and make the backsplash be something plant-y so it doesn’t fight with the fish/tea kettle situation. I need to make some drawings and get back to y’all on this.

crabatorium7

Next, a temple fair and the Nishiki Market.

Japan 2014, Part 3.

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

My second day in Tokyo. Tokyo is an enormous city, all sprawled out like L.A. I saw some sections of Tokyo that had the standard Japanese two-story house:

architecture-nice

And one place (Odaiba, a man-made island) with super-modern Jetsons architecture:

odaiba3

But for the most part I saw what I call “1980s Corporate Blah” or, if you went to SUNY Purchase, “Student Housing”.

architecture-meh architecture-snow

I didn’t come to Tokyo for the architecture, so it wasn’t an issue. If you go to Japan one thing you will notice immediately is that things are smaller. I noticed it when I checked into our hotel room and the doorframes were about 5’10”. And when I went into the bathroom I said, “I don’t remember signing up to be an astronaut.” Everything in the bathroom was a wee bit smaller and lower to the ground and the walls were covered with large plastic panels. Here is a pic I took in front of the sink. I am 5’6″. Notice where the sink is in relation to me.

bathroom-sink

The Moomins, who is 5’4″ at her tallest, is touching the ceiling. She isn’t even trying. Later on when we were on the tour bus, I had to sit either with my legs splayed in the most unladylike manner or smushed against the seat next to me on an angle. Because there was about eight inches between the end of my seat and the seat in front of me. That’s standard. Are you tall? Do you have long legs? Stay home.

bathroom-ceiling

The reason for this: Japan is about the size of California and has 125 million inhabitants (California had 38 million). Here’s the problem, though: 70% of the country is covered by pointy mountains and 5% is lakes, so the 125 million people live in an area 1/4 the size of California. There’s really not a lot of space. Look at this truck. I saw trucks like this everywhere. Teeny weeny trucklet.

small-truck

Not really topically related: This was the sign on the bathroom door. I found it amusing.

bathroom-door-sign

Don’t get me wrong, the hotel was excellent. It was not a fancy hotel or anything like that. The hotel had some of the worst design clashing I’ve seen in ages. Here was the elevator bay on our floor.

hotel-patterns

It was the equivalent of a Holiday Inn, but when we arrived there were pajamas waiting for us on the bed and sanitized floor slippers. In the bathroom there was toothbrushes and toothpaste and razors and shampoo and conditioner and body wash and shower caps and other things that I didn’t investigate. This was the case in all the hotels we stayed in. You can forget most of your toiletries at home and it is not an issue. The beds were comfy and we had fancy buckwheat hull pillows. It was great and not expensive (like almost everything else in Japan). I think the rooms were in the $125 a night range which is totally reasonable.

The Moomins really wanted to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market. It is massive and impressive and predominantly known for the giant tuna auctions. It is highlighted in the documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi. For some reason I could not for the life of me say Tsukiji. TSOO-KEE-JEE. Couldn’t get the hang of it somehow. I ended up calling it the Tuskegee Fish Market or the Tzatziki Fish Market. I fail at Japanese. We headed over to the market fairly early but it didn’t matter because it was a holiday, so there was no trucks or people.

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This sign was on the outside. Please notice the “no drunk” image.

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COME ON. There was no effort made there. I came up with this in ten minutes. I feel like going back and sticking this on the placard.

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Since we had trekked all the way out to the industrial part of town, we decided to go to the park nearby. It was absolutely lovely. I have an unhealthy obsession with Asian pine trees. The pine trees we’re accustomed to are the cone-shaped ones, but in Japan they look like Dr. Seuss designed them. They’re all asymmetrical and some are dumpy and some are blobby, they’re just the greatest. This park had a lot of pine trees.

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As a bonus, perched in the pine trees were ravens. As if the trees weren’t awesome enough on their own.

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In addition it was my first interaction with Engrish. Engrish, in case you don’t know, is when people, like Asians who do not use the Roman alphabet, translate their language into English and the results are not quite right. There’s a website called engrish.com that has some stellar examples. I used to think it was funny but now after being there it’s more like, “So close! Valiant attempt!” Most of the time it was right technically, it was just a phrasing or word choice that was uncommon. Here’s the sign in the park that made me smile.

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This park was special for several reasons. One, it had really cool walls that sloped up in the corners.

stone-wall-curved

Two, they had a very old, very large pine tree. I believe it was 300 years old.

300-year-old-pine-tree1 300-year-old-pine-tree2

Three, in the brochure I saw the sweetest thing. Check it out.

duck-grave

That afternoon The Moomins and I headed to the train station to go to Kyoto. Please notice that To-Kyo and Kyo-To is the same thing switched. They were both capital cities at different points in time and I know Tokyo means “Eastern Capital” so am I to assume Kyoto means “Capital Eastern”? I’m going to make that assumption. At the train station I saw a sign for what appeared to be an amazing exhibition.

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I loved the demented bunny (?) hat. I found an even better picture on the internet. Should this artist have a show in New York of his samurai figurines, I will go.

gallery-exhibition2

I didn’t spend very much time in Tokyo and someday when I go back to Japan I hope to remedy that. I was on an organized tour for the second half of my trip and we spent another day in Tokyo seeing sights and whatnot, but there’s plenty more I would like to explore. For example, I came across this when I got home:

http://www.robot-restaurant.com/E/

Yeah, I need to go to that. And I want to stay in a capsule hotel because I like the movie The Fifth Element and I would like to pretend I am Leeloo. Aside from Ghibli, I didn’t go to one museum the entire time I was there. There’s a lot left to do for me.

Before we move on to Kyoto, let’s look at a few more examples of Engrish.

engrish1 engrish2 engrish6 engrish8 engrish9 engrish11 engrish12 engrish14

And a poster I saw. That seems like an unfair fight.

tiger-vs-bunny

Next entry – Kyoto.