Archive for the ‘Travels – I Has Them’ Category

I went to Disney’s Realm of Thaumaturgy! Part 2 of 2.

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Parades! I love parades. For a lazy person such as myself they are a thing of beauty. YOU sit still, and THEY walk past you. I always feel like a debauched Roman lord when I watch a parade. “Yes, yes, go by with your instruments and dancers and entertain me en route. I shall sit here and wave if so inclined.” Since the Disney people have all the money ever in the world they put on a helluva parade, I can tell you. The first one I saw was the 3:00 Festival of Fantasy parade. I got there early and staked out a good spot on the curb. First the Grand Marshalls went by. It was a family and a newlywed couple riding in an oldey-timey car.

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And then there were dancers with Belle and the Beast behind them. I have to say, the picking of the floats and what’s on them got weirder and more arbitrary as they went on, almost as if the parade organizers had walked into an enormous warehouse and cobbled together floats from pre-existing bits of other floats. You’ll see what I mean. So first, Beauty and the Beast.

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On the same float was Cinderella, the sisters from Frozen and the two main characters from The Princess and The Frog.

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Following that was an elaborate float for Tangled, the Rapunzel movie. Which doesn’t make any sense. Tangled came out four years ago and earned $600 million. Frozen came out last year and brought in 1.2 BILLION. People are obsessed with it. I hear that damn “Let It Go” song everywhere I go (really, Korean Grocery Store? Twice? Is that necessary?). Frozen is just a part of a float shared by four movies and Tangled gets its own entire float. And to make a float for Frozen is easy as hell. It’s all about snow and ice which is nice and non-specific. Take a pre-existing float, paint it blue with snowflakes, hang icicles from every horizontal surface and have it blow powdery stuff that resembles snow. I mean, I’m not implying that any float Disney would build would be easy, but that is infinitely less complicated than most.

So, the Tangled float. Loved it. Men were riding giant swinging axes:

rapunzel-swinging

And on the back was an animatronic goat chewing its cud and turning its head from side to side. He was my favorite.

rapunzel-goat

Right behind that was The Little Mermaid float which was unbelievable. Each float was preceded by dancing people in costumes and the ones for The Little Mermaid looked like they came directly from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (a movie about Australian drag queens). I loved these costumes.

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And then the float itself. Wowsers. Everything on it moved – the fish doing conga lines, the starfish, the guy at top, Sebastian. The rear of the float blew bubbles. I was so impressed.

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After that came the Peter Pan float which I was not too blown away by, but I’ve never seen the movie so I imagine it was more impactful to someone who has reference. Loved the glittery rainbow though. I want that in my house. Riding behind Tinkerbell was a huge mechanized crocodile making a loud ticking noise. I thought that was due to faulty construction, but Snorth informed me when I got home that the crocodile swallows a clock in the movie and it’s supposed to tick. Good to know.

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I saw the float coming up next and was like, why is the girl from Brave riding a giant plaid cannon? I was wrong. She’s riding a giant plaid BAGPIPE. New goal in life: ride a giant plaid bagpipe. But not while wearing a full-length crushed velvet dress and twenty pound wig in 90-degree weather. Skip that part. Keep the riding-the-bagpipe part only.

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Then there was the Sleeping Beauty float. Wisely, since the movie with Angelina Jolie just came into theaters, the focus was on Maleficent. I didn’t even see the woman dressed at Sleeping Beauty walk by. It was led by the three fairies. Here’s something I can’t figure out. They were wearing hoop skirts and gliding along on some kind of wheeled platform hidden under their skirts, but you could see their hands, so how did they control it? Was it like a Segway and they used their feet? Or was it being remote-controlled by someone off-site? If you know the answer to this I would greatly appreciate it. Chasing the fairies were men dressed like extras from a Cirque du Soleil production walking on stilts and flapping big purple wings.

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The Maleficient float was actually a giant fire-breathing dragon. It looked like something directly from Burning Man. You could see the man controlling it (he’s sitting in the neck area) and there were all these visible cogs and cranks. It definitely was a (pleasant) departure from the other, more polished floats.

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Here’s where things start to get weird. The Pinocchio float comes by with the bubble ribbon dancers. Okay. Haven’t seen that film in over twenty years so maybe bubbles and ribbons play a big role.

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The finish to the parade is Mickey and Minnie being led by the Katy Perry Dancers! That’s what I called them anyway.

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Seriously. Look at these pictures of Katy Perry. Its spot-on.

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The Mouse Couple was riding on a float covered in the ballet-dancing hippos from Fantasia. But no other references to Fantasia, just the hippos (and maybe an ostrich from the same scene). This was the float that felt especially like “Quick, make a float for Mickey! Hippos! Great! That’ll work!”

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Since I figured I would most likely never return to the Magic Kingdom I wanted to stick around for the Electric Parade and the fireworks, but I didn’t know what to do with myself for most of the day. I went to Belle’s castle and did the interactive tour which was clearly meant for little kids, but I tried to not resemble a creeper as much as is possible when you’re in the midst of a group of five-year-olds alone with no children in tow. I stood in line for what I thought was a boat ride through Ariel the mermaid’s cave dwelling but it ended up being for pictures with Ariel, so I quickly snuck out of there, but not before getting some pics of the glass nudibranch light fixtures.

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I eventually wandered back in Adventureland and opted to go to The Enchanted Tiki Room. Holy Moses. If you have ever wondered what it would be like to live in the 1960s, fret no more, it can be achieved in The Enchanted Tiki Room. The second it ended I walked back around to the front to go again. The second time around I imagined myself holding a sweaty glass filled with Midori and pineapple juice and dressed like a character in Mad Men. It totally worked. It really does transport you. I highly recommend it but a warning: this was the least culturally-sensitive thing I saw while I was there. I flinched numerous times during the experience. Just something to be aware of. RAY. CIST.

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As I sauntered back through Frontierland to get to Main Street where the Electric Parade happened, I saw the moochie egret again. It was like four hours later and he was still there, moochin’.

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The Electric Parade was super-cool. Not only did I feel like a Roman emperor, because of all the cool lights I felt like a futuristic Roman emperor. The kids around me went absolutely crazy, screaming and pointing and dancing wildly. Normally I’m quite the curmudgeon and I would have been all GET OFF MY LAWN about it, but it was so sweet to see and this is their special place, not mine, so I let them accidentally kick and step on my fingers. This was the only remotely good picture I got because darkness and movement is not my camera’s strong suit, but there are a million and one videos of the actual parade for you to watch on youtube if you want to see the whole thing.

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The fireworks were meh. I realized that they can’t have a fourth of July-style show every night, but I left about five minutes in and headed back to the hotel. I craved the embrace of air conditioning. I feel like I got a sense of the place. If I go back to Orlando I will go to Epcot or the Kennedy Space Center. Momma needs more mental stimulation in her theme parks.

Other cool stuff I saw at the Magic Kingdom:

A lampworked clear glass model of Cinderella’s castle.

glass-castle

Gaston’s restaurant. I sing bits of Gaston’s song from Beauty and the Beast all the time (“I USE ANTLERS IN ALL OF MY DECORATING!!!”) and it made me happy to see he had a restaurant. (Also, “AND EV’RY LAST INCH OF ME’S COVERED WITH HAIR!!!”)

gastons

The mosaics in Cinderella’s castle telling her story. They are spectacular.

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The Crystal Pavilion in Frontierland. It was an expensive eating establishment so I didn’t go in, but it looked gorgeous from the outside.

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And of course, I saw two beasties and got very excited. One, a lizard with a red flap on his chin. He waved it at me.

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And a big white ibis that was walking around the waterways.

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I went to Disney’s Realm of Thaumaturgy! Part 1 of 2.

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Oh lordy, my last few weeks of work was the complete absence of awesome. I didn’t walk into my apartment before 12:05 at night any night this past week, Saturday and Sunday included. I was miserable and exhausted. Then I was told I would have to fly to Florida with the team to build the pitch deck for them. The meeting would be in Orlando. Now, a bunch of years back I had to fly to a conference in Orlando that I was told was on or adjacent to the Disney property and I got to see not a damn thing while I was there. I blogged about my regret. I would not allow this to occur again. So when it was brought to my attention that I had to go on this epic journey, I quietly informed my boss that I had never been to Disney World and gosh, the meeting ends at 11:00 a.m. and did I have to fly back immediately or could I maybe perhaps kinda sorta stick around all day and then fly home on the red-eye? And I made this face. My boss, who is a lovely and kind mistress, not only agreed to let me stay, she got me an additional night in the hotel so I could fly back Tuesday morning. Seriously, she’s a good woman. Then I had a meeting with my co-workers to discuss which theme park I should go to. It was agreed that I would be best-suited for Epcot (SCIENCE!), but since it was my first time there I insisted that I go to Disney’s original creation. I promptly got a ticket for one day of revelry at the Magic Kingdom ($105.00) and suddenly I wasn’t so sad about my poopy work schedule. The meeting happened, it went great, everyone else got on their planes and I went back to the room to change from tasteful meeting garb into the only white t-shirt I own and get my camera. First, let me start with the fact that we stayed in a hotel that was part of the airport. You might think that would be awful. You would be wrong. The airport/hotel was a beautiful atrium with palm trees and fountains.

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Allow me to introduce you to the joy of staying in an airport hotel. When I was leaving I had a morning flight. I am not a morning person. I woke up an hour and a half before my flight was scheduled to leave, got dressed, collected my bags, went downstairs and checked into Delta because the Delta counter was across from the elevators. That’s it. There’s no “We gotta leave early because what if there’s an accident on the highway and traffic and etc.” It simplifies the whole process. I am a convert now. Back to Magic Kingdom. I changed my shirt, got my camera and happily went over to the concierge’s desk. “I want to go to the Magic Kingdom now please,” I said. “Great,” the concierge said. “Where did you park your car?” “I flew here. I don’t have a car,” I responded. “Well,” he said, “You can take mass transit which will cost about $75 each way (!) or you can rent a car for about $40.” I have never rented a car. I have stood next to Cricket while he has rented cars and ridden in said cars, but I have never done it on my own. I’m an adult, I can handle this, I thought to myself. I shall rent a car and drive to Disney World. So I did. I rented a jaunty red compact Toyota with absolutely no pick-up which made me the least-favorite driver every time I merged onto a highway. I got to Disney World and then once I was on the property I drove and drove and drove until I got to the Magic Kingdom parking lot. I was then presented with the choice of parking in Heroes or Villains. I was like are you kidding me? I’m parking in Hades or Ursula, no discussion. I got there and was directed to park in… Zurg. Who the eff is Zurg? I want to park in not-Zurg! But Jafar was full and there was no Hades or Ursula options, so Zurg it was.

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I took the tram from the parking lot to what I thought was the gate. I was incorrect. I now had to take a monorail to get to the actual park. I felt like this was my Waiting for Godot. I would travel trying to get to the Magic Kingdom and never arrive. But eventually I did arrive, got off the monorail and was immediately hit in the face with the smell of jalapeños. Which seemed profoundly odd to me. That seems like a weird choice of odor to greet your visitors with. In front of me was Main Street and “When You Wish Upon A Star” was playing which caused me to feel feelings and I’m not gonna lie, I got choked up. Caught a little childhood memory in my throat there.

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I’m not a big amusement park ride aficionado, so I planned to walk around the sections of the kingdom (Main Street, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland and Adventureland) and see the architecture and the surrounding design elements. I loved the attention to detail. Not only was the exterior of Main Street well-done, a great amount of care was put into the interior elements of all the buildings.

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There was a brass band playing in the middle of the road and their jazzy rendition of “Under the Sea” is fantastic.

http://youtu.be/Pjq1SHETs2A

I realized shortly after arrival I did not have sunblock and I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but Orlando is located directly under the surface of the sun. It’s a hot swampland and I was going to roast if I didn’t do something soon. I zipped into a gift shop (one of several thousand billion I saw on the premises that day) and purchased the hat with the biggest brim. Then I wore it all day. If you happened to see me at any point, this is what I looked like.

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Here’s the best part: anywhere else in the world I would be mocked for sporting such an idiotic headwear, but I was by far one of the least-silly-looking people walking around. There were people wearing the pointy wizard’s hat that Mickey rocks in Fantasia, for crying out loud. I was at the mild end of the spectrum. After I examined all the buildings on Main Street I found myself in Frontierland which is a hodge-podge of the Wild West and a bit of N’Awlins and some other stuff, it’s definitely America in the 1800s, but the precise location is vague. There’s a fully functional Louisiana steam paddleboat on a river, people. But if you know anything about me you will not be surprised to find out that my favorite thing in Frontierland was… an egret trying to mooch food from visitors. This guy was fearless. I walked right up to him. He did not care.

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After I sauntered through Frontierland I entered Tomorrowland. I think this is my favorite of the kingdoms because it featured several of my most cherished Disney/Pixar characters.

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And all the windows were hexagons. My favorite polygon. If the future is all about hexagonal windows, I’m in.

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And is that a Shakespeare pun? Delightful.

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I was starving by this point so I decided to get some lunch. That was a mistake. In Tomorrowland was a hot dog stand and I got the special. It seemed harmless enough and the girl who worked behind the counter could not have been nicer (from Rochester, NY, just moved there, fresh out of college). I got a hot dog with bacon, lettuce, tomato and a splash of ranch dressing on it. For like seven bucks. And it was… not great. Not bad, but elementary-school cafeteria-level cuisine. About an hour after that I walked past a stand selling chocolate-covered frozen bananas and as an homage to the show Arrested Development I got a banana. That, too, was expensive and sucky. I spoke to people when I got back and it was the consensus that the fancy restaurants where it costs about forty dollars per person and you need a reservation to get in are good, but the street vendors leave much to be desired. I had no intention of waiting for a fancy meal, but I saw families bringing in their own food and drink and I think that was a smart way to go. If they let you bring in sandwiches and juice, you should do that. Spend your money on a handheld fan that squirts water simultaneously, or a lighty-uppy spinny pointless thing for night-time (I wanted one but I restrained myself).

Since I’m not a big fan of rides (I tend to get motion-sickness and no one enjoys that) I was told to go on “It’s A Small World” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” and to visit Belle’s castle. I walked past “Pirates” and saw this:

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And proceeded to keep right on walking. Did I mention it was a 90-degree muggy sunny pit of despair that day? I was not going to stand in line for over an hour for a ride that was two minutes long. That’s the benefit of not being a fan of any of this – if there was a line for something, I just shrugged and went to something else. It’s all the same to me. Luckily it was only a 35-minute wait to get onto a boat for “Small World” and a large portion of the waiting was done in an air-conditioned area. If you were worried that “Small World” had changed in any way since the last time you rode on it, rest assured it has not.

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I got my own row in the the boat and watched the animatronic ethnically-one-note children sing the song and shimmy and wiggle and while the PC part of me was like, “I’m a wee bit uncomfortable,” the theater-tech part of me was enjoying the hell out of it. If I hadn’t had to wait thirty-five minutes I would have gone on it again. Disney is known for being not particularly sensitive to the many cultures of people of this world, and the best part of the park to truly appreciate this complete disregard is in Adventureland. Or, as I liked to call it, “Ehhhh, just put all the brown people over here. African, Indigenous Australian, Native Alaskan – who cares. And throw some themes of cannibalism in there too, it’s not quite offensive enough.”

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Now I’m at a bit of an disadvantage here because I grew up with an art historian mother who collects sub-Saharan African art. That means I know exactly what it looks like, which meant I knew exactly when the Disney people screwed it up. For example there was a store called “Zanzibar” (an island off of the coast of Tanzania) where they were selling items from South Africa (nope, look at a map), including ostrich eggs that had Costa-Rican frogs painted on them (really?) and what appeared to be Guatemalan bracelets (I give up). It was here in Adventureland that I figured out why every so often I would get a massive whiff of jalepeño. There are phenomenal plants and gardens all over the park:

jalapeno-foliage foliage

And one of the plants decided it was mating season. In the process it got all musky and libidinous and the scent it was putting out was very green-peppery and chlorophilly. If anyone hears about a creepy woman walking completely alone through the park sniffing various plants while wearing a Goofy hat, that’s me.

Next: the rest of my day-long excursion.

Japan 2014, Part finished.

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Okay. Here’s the company that I took my tour with:

http://alljapantours.com/

And here’s the itinerary for the winter tour.

Winter Highlights – Snow Monkey & Kawazu Cherry Blossom Festival Tour

Helpful tips that I have accrued:

1. Bring a ton of yen. It’s a cash-based country and there are very few ATMs. For my two-week vacation I used about $1000 (10,000 yen). I also bought a whole bunch of stuff so you may use less, but it’s good to have it on hand.

2. Wear slip-on shoes. If you visit places of interest, there is a good chance you will have to take off your shoes. It’s a pain in the kiester to tie and untie them because more often than not there’s no place to sit or anything so you end up doing this awkward hopping dance in an attempt to get the shoe on your foot. Also, try not to have socks with holes in them. Japanese people think that’s impolite.

3. On escalators, hold on to the opposite side than in the U.S. if you’re standing still. They drive on the opposite side of the road, so you hold on to the other side of the escalators.

4. Leave lots of time to get anywhere. The train stations are huge and confusing with multiple floors and an enormous floorplan. You will get lost a great deal. Budget in time for that. Try to grab as many maps as you can wherever you are. They are a lifesaver. Did I mention most streets don’t have names?

5. Schoolchildren will walk up to you and ask you if you can answer some questions. Do not panic. This is a common school assignment. They will ask you about three very basic questions (“Where are you from?”) and more likely than not they will struggle to understand your answer because they are in their first year of English. Then they will ask to take a photo with you. That’s it. No biggie.

6. Sometimes when you ask for directions Japanese people will run away from you. It’s not because you are gross. It’s because even through they understand you and know where you want to go they’re ashamed of their pronunciation of English. They know they get the “R” and “L” thing wrong and they don’t want you to hear them talk. If they don’t run away they may give you directions only using their hands.

7. Try very very hard not to say “no.” You have no idea how difficult this is. It’s like trying to not think about pink elephants. The Japanese think that the word no is super-offensive, so you have to use work-arounds. I saw a girl visibly recoil after The Moomins said no to her. I used “I’m afraid not, but thank you,” while bowing copiously and making an I’m-so-sorry face.

8. Bring a washtowel with you. Many bathrooms don’t have towels or dryers so most everyone has a tea-towel in their purse. (I did what I do in the States which is wipe my hands on my cotton t-shirts, classy 4ever).

9. People don’t eat and walk simultaneously so there are surprisingly few trashcans. If you expect to have trash, bring a small plastic bag with you. There will be garbage cans and recycle bins near large banks of vending machines so you can wait until you get to one. But like on the street? No trashcans.

10. If you order sushi and the waitress says, “Wasabi?” say no. They will slather your sushi with wasabi on the inside so you can’t scrape it out and your head will go up in flames. Learn from my mistakes (I did it twice).

11. Okay, how the subways work in Tokyo. You go down the stairs in your station and you go up to the ticket machines. Above it will be a giant graph. You find the station you are in and the station you wish to go to. Depending on the distance the prices will be 160 yen, 240 yen, etc. You punch the number of tickets you need and the corresponding yen amount for each ticket (the buttons are really simple like Fisher-Price) and little raffle tickets will come out. You go up to the ticket turnstile, shove the raffle ticket in the turnstile and it will pop out after the spinny bit. Save that ticket. Do not throw it away. You will need it to exit at your destination station. There’s a turnstile to get out. You shove the raffle ticket in there and the machine eats it. Then you can leave.

12. If you forget everything else, the three things you mustn’t do under any circumstance is stick your chopsticks upright in your rice, go into an onsen still dirty or with soap on you or have the nasty soles of your shoes touch anything it’s not supposed to touch. Be nice to everyone and speak softly. Everyone knows you’re a big dumb foreigner, they’re going to set their standards low. You’ll be fine. Have fun.

Here’s a great video of mascots dancing. Because Japan.

http://youtu.be/BP469wlVuZU

Addendum: This is cool. Japanese demons that get you while you’re on the (heated) toilet.

http://io9.com/14-terrifying-japanese-monsters-myths-and-spirits-1498740680

Japan 2014, Part 13.

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

It is astonishing how quickly your habits can change over a period of two weeks. Over the two weeks I made a concerted effort to eat what everyone else was eating, like soup with noodles and local vegetables and delicious little slime-covered mushrooms:

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And on the last day I didn’t even bother with the eggs and bacon and cereal. On my breakfast plate is hijiki salad, two pickled plums, white rice and those slime-shrooms. Not in the picture but also being consumed: green tea and miso soup. I actually wanted these things over the typically Western dishes. Japan had broken me completely.

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Also consumed at the final breakfast, this:

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Not bad. A little burn-y due to the vinegar, but not bad.

Anyway, back to the tour. The second-to-last night we were left to our own devices and a few of us decided to go to Shinjuku, the Times Square of Tokyo. Our hotel was relatively close to Shinjuku in a cool area. The Moomins and I had a room overlooking nothing, but the guys across the hall took this photo of their view.

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So the younger members of the tour (myself included) headed off to the bright lights of Shinjuku.

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Where there was the most segregated smoking area ever. It was in the middle of the main boulevard. “Go there and smoke! And feel shame in your corral of cancer!”

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And a cab with this on it went by. Eeeg. Dear Lord, if that isn’t the uncanny valley I don’t know what is.

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The group decided we wanted some sushi and all of us were pretty cool with any kind of sushi, so we found the most packed place we could (usually a sign of goodness) and ordered the $80.00 platter. I’ve never been so extravagant and ordered the big platter so I tried to forget it was being split six ways and felt fancy.

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It was fancy. And delicious. The main difference between Japanese sushi and American sushi is the taste. Even basic sushi there tastes better. The tuna has a real flavor, did you know that? I didn’t, not really. It’s quite nice. And the spicy tuna thing, it’s not there. It’s a uniquely American thing, like California rolls. Uni (sea urchin) shows up a bunch more which is upsetting because it tastes like low tide. Luckily the group picked the platter that was uni-free.

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I saw on the wall that one of the specials that day was “deep-fried tuna cheek” and I was like, “Hell, that sounds thoroughly weird and possibly amazing. Imma get that.” So I did. And it was nice. Tasty. Not life-altering, but I definitely didn’t regret getting it. The left bowl has salt, the right bowl has mustard.

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Shinjuku. It’s a vibrant area with all kinds of activities open late into the evening. I walked past a store with this monster on the outside.

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I have no idea what that store purveys. Video games? Bath products? Don’t know, don’t care. I was creeped out and didn’t bother to stick around and investigate.

We went into a toy store that was many floors and I ended up buying a myriad of these intensely weird action figures from some Japanese TV show, a show like Power Rangers. I mean, how could I not? Look at them, they’re so varied.

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We also went to a six-floor bookstore Kinokuniya. I insisted on this because that sentient toilet book had been haunting me and I would come home with regrets if I didn’t make one final effort to find it. This bookstore had a whole floor devoted only to children’s books, so I had high hopes. I navigated through the aisles until I made it to the elevator and went to the top floor. Before I bothered one of the people working there I figured I’d give it my best shot looking on my own. There were many books laying out so I could see the covers (the spines, of course, were undecipherable to me) and I came to the realization that for such a closed-in culture, the Japanese have WAAAAAY too many books on poop. Seriously. These are the poop-related books that were laying face-up. Who knows how many more were stacked so I couldn’t see them. There was this one which had a corresponding set of playing cards:

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There was this one, I assume about all the magical textures and shapes:

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This one had the protruding display you see there, the cheeks really come out at you. After leafing through it I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s called “Let’s Learn About the Magic of Dad’s Ass.” Not joking. That’s what the book appeared to be about.

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Monster wiping. No clue. Didn’t look through it.

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After perusing the best that I could and coming up empty-handed, I went to the checkout girl, got out an envelope and a pen from my purse and said, “Okay, this is what I need. There’s this toilet *drew the toilet* and he’s got a Dali mustache *drew the mustache* and he’s going through the forest *drew the forest*.” For added explanation I made a little skipping gesture while swinging my arms to convey merrily going through a forest. After the shopgirl had stopped laughing at me she called her co-workers over and had them look at my sketch and when they had pulled themselves together she held up her hand telling me to wait while she looked on the computer.

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After a few minutes the checkout girl said, “Ah!” and turned her screen towards me. There he was, my gamboling toilet-man! She went to the shelf and lo and behold, there wasn’t just one book about him. There was a sequel as well. I bought both. Here are pictures from the original.

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One last thing from Shinjuku: Look at this spooky entrance to something on the second level. That is off-putting.

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One of the final activities on the tour was going to Odaiba, a man-made island with some crazy modern architecture. First we took a boat over with some great signage inside.

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When we arrived, I was impressed with the Fuji building directly in front of me.

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Has everyone seen all the X-Men movies? Everybody know Cerebro? Doesn’t this look like this contains Cerebro? I think it totally does.

There was this building as well. Fun story behind that one.

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According to Kimi-San that yellow thing was supposed to stand upright and look like a flame but it was too heavy so they left it laying on its side. Kimi-San said everyone thought it looked like a turd, so if you ask a taxi driver to take you to “Turd Building,” this is where he will bring you. I’m sure the architect is thrilled about that. I personally think it looks more like a sperm, but whatever.

This is the Rainbow Bridge connected Odaiba with Tokyo. Yes, that is a scale model of the Statue of Liberty left over from 1999, “The French Year of Japan.”

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When the bridge was built rainbow lights lit it up and it was very beautiful. It was so beautiful, in fact, that drivers kept looking at the lights and crashing. So the rainbow lights are only turned on for special occasions. Here’s a picture I found of what it looks like lit up.

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Also on the last day we went to the Imperial Palace. Outside was a statue of a famous samurai. I liked it because it had great and powerful motion.

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And also because little birds had made a nest in the hollows of the horse’s tail.

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We visited the Sensoji Temple, one of the only temples I got to see with big ole pagodas. It was a lovely temple, albeit a bit crowded.

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Here are people shaking those containers with the numbers and opening the corresponding drawer to get their fortune. I mentioned how that works earlier.

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Off to the side was this statue. The informational plaque didn’t have any English, so when I returned home I looked it up. All I could find out was this sentence.

In Sensoji area, it is built to comfort spirits of mothers and children in Manchuria towards the end of WWII.

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I stood respectfully in front of it for a minute or two. I didn’t know what it was for, but the fact that people had covered her with shawls and bibs and a hat made me realize that this was something painful and important to people. Her lips look stained, like people have been kissing her. I felt like it deserved a minute of my time, even if I didn’t know why.

Additional photos:

A fugu restaurant. I did not eat there. I do not care how well you prepare your pufferfish, I don’t need to die in such a lame manner just for a thrill.

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This is the sign from the Cattleya Coffeeshop in Gion, Kyoto.

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Teeny plants in a wall. The Moomins said in South Africa they’re called “fairy gardens.”

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A rickshaw. It’s more of a novelty than a real mode of transportation, but cool to see nonetheless.

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A store that only sells seaweed and seaweed products.

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A store that only sells sweet potato and sweet potato products.

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Some kitties I saw hanging out on a sign in Ginza, one of the fanciest shopping districts.

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The exterior of an old established Chinese restaurant in Kyoto. One of the only examples of typical European architecture.

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And outside the hotel near the airport, a pretty garden and some fantastic koi fish.

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That’s it. That was my trip to Japan. It was everything I had hoped for and I cannot wait to go back. In my next entry I’ll link to the itinerary of my tour in case you want to take the same one (I recommend it) and helpful hints that I discovered along the way.

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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.