Saturday, November 1, 2014

I Left My Heart in Japan

During our midterm break in October, my husband and I finally realized our lifelong dream of going to Japan. Thanks to my husband's meticulous planning and tips from friends who've traveled there and friends who are natives of Japan, it was a fabulous trip. Being in Japan in the fall was wonderful -- we enjoyed beautiful weather and not sweating! It was everything we imagined it to be. We spent eight full days there, going to Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, and Nagoya (for one day). We spent the most time in Kyoto, which was my favorite city of all the places we visited.

I call Japan "Anti-Thailand." Whereas Thailand is chaotic, unorganized, inefficient, noisy, and dirty, Japan is orderly, peaceful, efficient, and clean. There was not a street animal or piece of trash in sight. The streets in Japan are crowded, but don't feel that way because everything is so orderly. Everyone walks and stands on the correct side. Traffic ran smoothly, even when congested, and no one drove on two lanes. Bicycles were much more commonplace than we had expected. It also was refreshing to be in such walkable cities and be able to walk so much. Safety was a priority there -- everyone used helmets and seat belts. Public transportation everywhere we went was easy and convenient to use. And whereas tourists and foreigners are charged more for everything in Thailand, they are actually provided discounts not available to locals in Japan. Things also are logical and make sense in Japan. After being in Thailand for over a year, it was a breath of fresh air to be in a place like Japan.

I also loved the design of everything in Japan. Because space is at a premium, its use is well-thought-out. Everything can be folded up or tucked away. I actually saw a man fold up the big, puffy jacket he was wearing into a tiny bag and put it away in his over-the-shoulder bag. Yet, the Japanese also have an appreciation and an eye for aesthetics. Everywhere we went were cute and pretty things waiting to be admired. Some of the foods and treats were so pretty it was difficult to eat them and "ruin" them.

The food in Japan was amazing, of course. I've always loved Japanese food, but to be able to access it so easily was heavenly. We got to try things we had not eaten before -- takoyaki (ball-shaped fried batter with octopus inside), grilled chicken heart, and okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake), to name a few. And of course, we had almost our fill of gyoza and sushi. We went to a sushi restaurant where sushi was served on a conveyor belt. The sushi chefs made the sushi in the middle and placed it on plates on the conveyor belt. The patrons sat around the conveyor belt and grabbed what they wanted off the conveyor belt. It was so much fun and so easy to go overboard! Between the three of us, we consumed 28 plates of sushi (though most plates held only two pieces of sushi). We had sushi we never had before -- crab miso, crab salad, lobster salad, and raw octopus are a few that come to mind.

The Japanese people are also lovely. They are all so polite, soft-spoken, nice, and helpful! Compared to the Thai people, they also understand boundaries and have more depth and more forethought. The Japanese bus drivers and train conductors were amazingly helpful and would go out of their way to map out entire trips for us -- completely the opposite of the American bus and train drivers. The train conductors also bowed before going into and leaving a train car.

Everyone, men and women, was impeccably dressed. I love the fashion there -- the clothes were beautiful, but much more understated than those in Thailand. Seeing all the women in their beautiful fall sweaters, dresses, scarves, and hats made me long for fall again. And to see footwear that didn't involve sandals or flip-flops! I loved checking out all the different styles of closed-toe shoes and boots. I myself enjoyed putting some of my fall seasonal clothes to good use while in Japan. 

This is not to say, of course, that we didn't have any missteps traveling in Japan, especially while using its transportation system. We landed in Japan late at night, so we had to use a taxi to get to our hotel, which was extremely costly at around $42 for a 10-minute ride. On our way to the airport for our flight back to Bangkok, we just missed the last train to the Osaka airport, so it was another $45 for a 15-minute taxi ride. Then, on our last day in Japan, we decided to splurge and took the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Kyoto to Nagoya for the day. The trip on the Shinkansen took only 35 minutes, but our return trip to Kyoto on regular trains took 4 1/2 hours! All in all, we spent about seven hours on various train lines that day going from Nagoya back to Kyoto (to get our luggage), then from Kyoto to Osaka International Airport. It was pretty crazy. We left Japan the way we left Thailand to go to Japan -- rushed and barely making our flight! The difference is that, in Thailand, that's how life is -- unpredictable and chaotic -- whereas in Japan, it was due to poor planning on our part.

Going to Japan felt like a homecoming of sorts for me. Growing up, Japanese culture was part of my existence. My maternal grandparents spoke Japanese, and my mom grew up speaking Japanese (she didn't even learn Chinese until she started school), so the language  was part of my life as well. We ate Japanese food, and my grandparents' home was somewhat Japanese in style -- the bedrooms had tatami mats and shoji screens and sliding doors. We also had Japanese-style furniture along with traditional Chinese furniture. Being in Japan felt easy and comfortable, and hearing the somewhat-familiar language again was very comforting. Both my husband and I fell in love with Japan. I have a feeling we will be exploring the possibility of living there at some point in our future!

Below are a small fraction of the hundreds of pictures I took while in Japan.
View of Osaka from our hotel room on the 46th floor on our first night there.
We rented a sweet little apartment for our two days in Osaka.
Wacky costumes, but they gave good directions!
Dotonbori, an area that is similar to Times Square in NYC.
More of Dotonbori.
Osaka Castle.
Even the manhole covers are pretty.
Tennoji Temple.
Nara Park in Nara, Japan, where all the temples and sites below are located.
Todaiji Temple, the world's biggest wooden structure until 1998.
It is said that if a person can pass through this 50-cm hole, s/he is going to Nirvana. I know three members of this family who are. :)
The world's largest bronze Buddha statue.

At Nigatsu-do Temple.
So picturesque.
At this temple complex, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of lanterns such as these all over. It was beautiful.
A covered market.
One of many, many scrumptious meals we had.
We spent half a day in Arashiyama.
The romantic Moon Crossing Bridge in Arashiyama.
At Tenryu-ji Zen Temple.
The bamboo grove is amazing.
"Kimono Forest" at the Arashiyama train station. All the pillars light up at night.
Grilled chicken heart on the right -- very tasty!
We ate our way through the Nishiki Market, which is rich with history and tradition, and known as the place to obtain Kyoto's famous foods and goods.
Treats made with rice flour.
Tofu donuts are soooo yummy!
Flavored sashimi sticks.
All kinds of Japanese pancakes.
Such beautiful candies and crackers.
Lego candies.
Squid stuffed with quail egg.
Love these pickled vegetables.
We found a good spot an hour beforehand to watch the Jidai Matsuri, or Festival of Ages, a traditional Japanese festival including an hours-long parade celebrating the relocation of Japan's capital to Kyoto in the 1800s. There are over 2000 participants in the parade, all dressed in costumes from the earliest eras to the Meiji era.
Even the animals are dressed beautifully.
At the shrine to the rice god, Inari -- Fushimi Inari-taisha. 

One of the temples.
All the gates, or torii, leading up to the inner shrine at the top of the mountain, which we didn't get to because the walk is about two hours long. We only had time for one hour's walk.
Inside the torii.
If you turn around, you see that the torii are all carved with Japanese words. So cool.
At the Tofuku-ji Temple.
The grounds.
Amazing vegetable ramen. All the ramen in Japan was amazing.
Walking through a mountainside cemetery.
At Kiyomizu-dera.
This temple was amazing, but super touristy and crowded. A couple of men randomly grabbed my son to take pictures with him, and I had to intervene.
The fountain with spring water that supposedly has wish-granting powers. People were lined up to take a drink from it.
Look at these pillars!
Gion, a district in Kyoto that developed into an exclusive and well-known geisha district. Many of the buildings there date back many centuries.
A rare geisha sighting! When she saw me, she lowered her gaze and quickened her pace.
Sushi on a conveyor belt. The three of us consumed a total of 28 plates of sushi!
The Kyoto Tower at night.
Kinkakuji Temple, which houses relics of the Buddha.
We took a day trip to Kurama, which is northwest of Kyoto. This was outside the train station in Kurama.
Kurama Temple.
Kurama Temple.
Kurama Temple.
The quaint, little town of Kurama.
I love the traditional Japanese houses.
At the Kurama Onsen, or hot springs.
Heading to the outdoor onsen. Nothing like a soak in the hot springs with a mountain view.
Part of our dinner was okonomiyaki, or Japanese pancakes.
On our last day, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya. On the bullet train, the trip there took 35 minutes. On the way back to Kyoto, though, we decided to take the regular trains, which took about 4.5 hours!
Inside the Shinkansen. It was amazing -- so smooth, roomy, and comfortable. 
We went to the Toyota Commemorative Museum in Nogoya because my son is really into automobiles. We learned so much! For example, did you know that the Toyoda family started out in automatic looming technology? It was also fun, with an amusement park of sorts for kids to learn about looming and automobile technology.
A concept car.
A robot that plays the violin.
The sun setting on Japan and our trip. It was time to say goodbye.

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