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All right. Got to finish this Japan-Blogging – this week. So, every day – every day  –  I’ll be here with a little something. Finish it up, then move on.

I’ll begin with a couple of days of randomness.  Just remember, too: when I utter pronouncements like “In Japan…” or “Japan is…” it reflects about ten whole days of life in Tokyo, Kyoto and oh, that one afternoon in Osaka. So, yes – vast experience.

I wanted to go to Japan because we’d never been to Asia, and it seemed that this would be a tourist-friendly place to begin. And it was. I found it very easy to get around and the places to which we traveled were all very clean and felt safe. I’d have no hesitation about traveling to Japan by myself.

So, first: clean and quiet.

Yes, Japan is (here we go…) very clean. I only experienced a couple of even near-shabby areas: tourist-heavy and insanely busy Shibuya and some back areas of Shinjuku – around the famed robot restaurant and, I think in an area where there were a few love hotels. That felt sketchy and was a little grungy.

But other than that: no trash anywhere, no graffiti.

Also, no public trash cans. (Something that’s happening in increasing numbers of cities because of terrorism fears, I know) None. I don’t think they exist except right near food stalls or convenience stores. So how does that work? Wouldn’t the lack of trash cans make it more likely for there to be trash on this street?

Not in Japan. First, the Japanese have a very deep, strong culture of personal responsibility and respect for public spaces. You may have heard that in many, if not most Japanese schools, students share responsibility for cleaning the school (I have read that many workplaces operate with the same expectation). At the end of the school day, students and teachers work together to clean classrooms, shared spaces and restrooms. When this is how you’re raised from preschool, no, you are not going to see a public street or park as something to use any way you please. It is such a common sense practice, isn’t it? I’m sure there are schools – perhaps Montessori – that practice this in the US, but really…why not everywhere?

Secondly, consider – what does a trash can do? It collects trash. It gives trash a home right there in your public space – like it deserves to be there. If you, as a culture, want a super-clean public space, it makes sense to evict trash – in any form – from that space.

Supporting this practice is the fact that walking down the street eating or drinking (or smoking – but I’ll get to that in a minute)  – is just not done in Japan. It’s a serious breach of etiquette to eat while walking down the street. Drinking is not as rare, but still not common.  I saw a bit of water/coffee consumption on trains, but not much at all, and no eating.

Which makes the prevalence of street food in Japan seem…awkward at first. I get my fish-shaped stuffed pancake or my okonomiyaki or my ice cream, for pete’s sake –  from the vendor – what do I do?

You stand right there and eat it, Missy, is what you do. If the vendor isn’t quite sure that you know this, he or she will point to the stool or shelf with condiments nearby and say “Eat there, please – no takeaway.”

And then you throw away any trash, right there.

In my (brief) experience, Japanese shopkeepers of any type are also always prepared to take your trash. I stood in a souvenir shop in Kyoto with a fistful of crumpled up paper for some reason, and the cashier made eye contact with me, smiled, and held out her hand.

The only exception to public trash receptacles that you see – and you see a lot of them – are recycle bins for plastic bottles that are always right next to drink vending machines – of which there are a lot in Japan. Maybe one or two every block? Yep. Selling water, tea, iced coffee, soft drinks and juices. With the little recycle bins right next to it. I suppose you were expected to just chug whatever right there? I’m not sure about that.

Oh, smoking. People do smoke in Japan – perhaps at higher rates than they do in the United States at this point. You can even still find candy cigarettes in Japan. Exotic! But of course – of course – you don’t see folks walking down the street smoking. Every train station (and, I presume office building) has smoking rooms and there are even smoking “rooms” right on the street – enclosed spaces with benches where people stop and grab a smoke.

So there. You can compare the two cultures – the US and Japan – and wonder how much money we can spend, how many more people we can hire and how much more education we can offer to make our public spaces cleaner. You can do that, sure, but it’s useless. The difference isn’t funding or staffing. It’s cultural: Clean public spaces are going to happen , in a culture in which children grow up cleaning their own schoolrooms – and in a culture with a strong sense of personal responsibility and social cohesion and conformity. As is common to observe, those cultural and social norms have a shadow side, to be sure, but well, at least those shadows know where  to put their food wrappers, right?

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Now that we’re back, I have several blog posts on deck related to specific points of our trip. I’m going to start, as I often do, with the practicalities. I don’t do this beforehand because 1) I never know if things are going to turn out as I think they will and 2) I am not keen on letting people know my whereabouts on a day-by-day basis.

So let’s start:

Why Japan?

I think I wrote about this before, but I’ll just repeat myself. It’s summer, both my still-at-home kids will be in brick and mortar schools over the next school year, and one of them is a rising senior – the era of family vacations with these two is coming to an end. So I wanted to do a big trip, and where have never been? Lots and lots of places, but a big place we’ve never been is Asia. Japan seemed to be an accessible, affordable, tourist-friendly spot to begin. So Japan it was!

I’m not going to be even more boring and repeat the saga of the changes in this itinerary that happened because of a) my changing views and b) the AirBnB/Japanese government issue. But here’s my final verdict on the itinerary, in case you’re thinking about heading img_1917over that way yourself for the first time.

You can skip Tokyo. It’s fine.

Look. I don’t regret our time in Tokyo. At all. But if you are going to Japan because you want to experience Japanese history and culture for the first time, and especially if you are doing so with younger people, Kyoto and Osaka are perfect. Granted, there is a great deal in Tokyo – it’s obviously one of the great cities of the world. But it’s also a challenge in many ways, it’s huge, it’s not intuitive for tourists, it’s very modern since so much was destroyed during World War II, and Kyoto, especially, offers a glimpse of traditional Japanese culture in a way that’s easier to experience than it is in Tokyo.  Now, there might be other reasons for you to go to Tokyo – you want to see a specific site, visit specific museums or historic sites or experience a particular aspect of modern Tokyo: style, youth culture, food. That might be what you’re after. But if you want a manageable, not overwhelming, more focused experience of Japanese life – you can skip Tokyo and not feel badly about it.

For comparison, think about what you would tell, say, someone from Japan or from Europe – or anywhere outside the US – who was going to visit the United States for the first time. If they had two weeks, where would you tell them to go? It’s an interesting question that I’ve thought about a lot, especially as I travel around the United States and see groups of Japanese, Chinese or German tourists (the most common nationalities you’ll see – unless you’re in Las Vegas, then you should add Brits to the list). Would you tell them to go to New York City and make that their focus? I don’t think I would. The US is so vast and diverse, I think it’s impossible to get even close to experiencing it in two weeks, but I think I would tell someone (who had no financial limitations!) to probably visit Washington D.C. before New York City, maybe Chicago, and then focus on the West.

Anyway – so those are my thoughts on my vast experience (ten! Days!) in Japan. There’s so much more than just the cities, and an unending variety of landscapes and experiences, but that said – to repeat myself – don’t feel badly about skipping Tokyo.

First: flights:

We flew from Birmingham. Birmingham – Dallas – Narita, and then back the same way. I had spent untold hours trying to figure out other ways. I could have done the whole thing a bit cheaper if I’d done separate flights, doing the main flight to Tokyo from LA. You can fly (depending on time of year) LAX-NRT economy class for well under a thousand. Maybe even around $700. But I didn’t want to fly straight economy – I wanted premium economy, which gives just a little more space in the seat, and a little more pitch in the recline. And when I started doing the math, to try to string together flights from BHM to LAX and then LAX to NRT would have not been much more than just plugging in BHM to NRT and letting fate handle the rest. (And now, Atlanta fares were no better – worse, in fact, for some reason).

Of course, fate had her cruel way with us when we missed our Tokyo flight, but that’s all in the past now…right?

(By the way – I don’t know if I mentioned this – but AA did respond to my complaints on that and deposited 15,000 miles in my account for the trouble we went through. I thought about thanking them and then saying that since the boys also went through the same hassle, maybe they could get 15,000 miles each, too? But I didn’t.)

amy-welbornI should add that after I checked in, I got the offer to upgrade to business – and…I took it. Yup. I mean – it wasn’t free. When I say, “got the offer” – you might think I’m saying that. But I’m not. They offer to sell you a business class seat is what it is  (unless, of course you are at some high-mileage awards level…which I’m not)  But it the cost of it, even with a business upgrade one way, was not bad, it was a 14-hour flight, and I was so worried about being rested for the Beginning! Of! The! Japan! Trip! that I said…what the hell, it’s only money, I might die next week, so why not and did it. First every business class experience and yah…nice.  You know those people you file by as you’re boarding into economy, the people lounging with their drinks and snacks and towels? Yeah, that was us, for once. Little cubicles, fully reclining seats, better food…worth it. Especially after the hassle of having the trip delayed by 24 hours. Absolutely worth it. Decadent, but worth it.

For the record, I didn’t upgrade on the way back. Got the offer, but didn’t even consider it. The flight is several hours shorter  – 11 hours, which is a lot less daunting-sounding than 14 – and the timing of it makes it less “necessary” to sleep. The flight over to Japan (from Dallas) began mid-afternoon on Thursday and landed at 4:30 on Friday. This flight back left at 11am on Monday and we’ll be back in Birmingham (hopefully) by 1 pm on Monday.  (Update: we were. Early, in fact.) Amazing! A two-hour flight! Well of course not, but the point is, that it’s not as important to sleep. Yes, everyone will be tired, but if they can just stick it out until eight or so, then collapse and sleep for twelve hours, they should be back on track for the next day.

Now – accommodations:

In Tokyo, we stayed at the Richmond Premiere Hotel near the Oshiage station and Tokyo amy-welbornSkytree, which turned out to be, in my opinion, a great place. There are many vibrant Tokyo neighborhoods and areas, and the Skytree area is a bit far from the more well-known (like Shibayu, Ginza and Shinjuku), but I loved it. The hotel is literally right next to the Tokyo Skytree, which has a substantial mall featuring a lot of Japanese goods anda great variety of restaurants. The hotel is also right next to a grocery store and steps from the train/subway station, something that was such a relief at the end of a long day. (View from right outside the hotel.) 

Japanese hotel rooms will tend to be smaller than American hotels – well, globally, that’s the case – American hotel rooms are roomier than what you’ll find in most places, but this one was fine. I requested a third bed, which was all ready when we arrived. We amy-welborndidn’t have a lot of room to walk around, and oddly enough, there was no dresser – there was a cabinet with a fridge, but no place for clothes – but that’s fine. I didn’t go to Japan to hang out in a hotel room, anyway. Everything was immaculate, and yes, it included the famed Japanese type of toilet. Which are a little complicated, but not as impenetrable as we might think: basically, they include bidet features and warm seat. Some feature sound effects to cover up your own…. sounds, as well, but this one didn’t.

One more note on our two experiences of Japanese hotels (and one AirBnB): they do provide more amenities than American hotels. In American hotels, you’ll find the trio of shampoo, conditioner and lotion, as well as soap bars and coffee packets. The Japanese hotels we stayed at also provided toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, q-tips, brushes/combs and slippers (explicitly labeled with an invitation to take with you if you like.)

We were in this hotel from 6/22 to 6/26. I did it through Booking.com, which probably has its disadvantages, but here, made it easy to reschedule, which I had to do twice. No problems or additional charges either time.

In Kyoto, we stayed at this AirBnB house. I will post some of my own photos here, but to get a better (albeit typical wide-angle look that makes it look bigger) – view, go to the website. It was a bit outside the main part of the city, but that was fine.   It was a great little house – very traditional with tatatmi mats, sleeping on the floor and everything. My older son ended up sleeping downstairs because it was cooler – which is easy when your beds are futon mattresses that you can fling about at will. You can see from the photos that the bath/toilet areas were separate. The toilet wasn’t quite as fancy as those we had in hotels, but still had those bidet features. The shower room was an actual shower room  – with a good deep, Japanese style tub, and then a hand-held shower that you could either use in the tub or in the room (see the drain in the floor.)

 

Note: I have some video up about the apartment at Instagram. Go to amy_welborn on the app, or go here to see. 

It was a great location, just two minutes from the train station, and in a real neighborhood.

(A note on lofts and upper bunks and such. Our experience in traveling has invariably been that when we stay in a place that has a loft area or some sort of bunk situation, everyone always thinks it’s initially amazing and so cool – until it’s time to sleep there, and we once again rediscover physics: heat rises. )

The last night, we stayed at the Crowne Plaza airport hotel – which was fine. It was a high-quality space, very clean, with all those amenities and the usual meticulous, painfully polite level of Japanese service – I called to request an extra towel  – there were only two provided – and the fellow on the other end must have said, “So sorry” about ten times. Really. It’s fine.

Transportation:

I probably spent more on transportation but I needed to, but as I always say: everything has a cost, currency is what we use to pay costs, and there are all different sorts of currency: there’s money, there’s time, there’s work, there’s hassle. What currency you use might change at every given moment. For me on this trip, I chose to use the currency that cost the least hassle: the Pasmo card.

Japanese public transportation is pervasive, timely and clean. Buses, trains and subways run on time and are easy to use. I found that in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, almost all signage was in English as well as Japanese. You can certainly purchase individual tickets for train and bus travel, but hardly anyone does. What they do instead is use a card – the Suica or the Pasmo – on which you load money and then just scan at entry and exit gates. I am sorry, but I have no idea how much any of my individual trips cost because all I did was load a thousand yen on the Pasmo when needed, and scan away. (you can also use these cards to pay for purchases and an increasing number of stores and vending machines.)

The only confusion we encountered was in Kyoto, when we ended up on the wrong train one night because we didn’t pay close enough attention to the arrival time. There were several lines – local, express, limited express and so on – that made stops at the station near our apartment. It’s not one of those deals where you can just assume, “This train is stopping at this station around this time, going in this direction, therefore it will make all the stops between here and there.”  We ended up – I don’t know where or how – and had to racewalk to the next station at about ten at night, hoping and praying we’d catch the right one this time – we did! We learned from that – pay attention to the time. If Google Maps says that the train you need is coming at 9:47 – take the 9:47, and believe us, it will indeed come at 9:47. Don’t take the 9:45 or even the 9:46.5! They will not stop and you will end up wandering around Kyoto late at night!

Which brings up the issue of…safety.

There is no issue. I always felt 150% safe in Japan, and would have felt so even if I was by myself. I will write more about this later, but Japan – in my limited, super-short experience – offers a landscape and urban environment that is secure, clean and safe.

img_20180701_0919301We used taxis three times: in Kyoto, from and back to our apartment from the train station, and then in Tokyo that rainy Sunday morning when we were going to Mass. Not surprisingly, the cab drivers were very polite and wore gloves, the seats were covered in white doilies, and the back doors opened and shut automatically. I think Uber operates in Japan, but the taxis seemed trustworthy, so I didn’t even look into it.

Shinkansen:

Yes, we took the famed Japanese bullet train round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. It’s not the cheapest way to get around – even flying would be cheaper – but you know, you go to Japan, of course you want to take the bullet train if you can. Well, it was fine – it was fast, super clean and…a train. It got us from there to there. I purchased the round trip ticket at a discount from here.  The process of getting the tickets was a little complicated – we had to find the tour office in the Tokyo Station (which was a bit of a challenge), but once we did, the very nice fellow printed out the tickets with exhaustive directions on how to proceed from that amy-welbornpoint, which included getting a one-day transportation pass for Kyoto, as well.

These trains run very frequently – many times an hour. You can reserve seats, but the package I got was for unreserved seats, which are in the first three cars. I was a little concerned that there might not be seats – since they were unreserved – but there was no problem. Plenty of room. It took about 2.5 hours to get from one city to the next. Oh – the other advantage of purchasing the Shinkansen voucher through JapanIcan.com was that it’s good for the fastest train that makes the fewest stops – the Nozomi – which the JR Rail Pass is not.

(I suppose I should mention that we did not get Japan Rail Passes – there are a lot of options and big discussions all over the place as to whether or not it’s worth it, and in doing the math, I decided it wasn’t for us. If we’d been doing a lot of rail travel out and about between cities, it would have been – but we weren’t, so it wasn’t.)

Money:

I got a few thousand yen from our bank before we left. I usually don’t bother to get foreign currency anymore before a trip, what with ATMS being so pervasive, but I had read some questionable things about the availability of ATMS in Japan – that you can’t assume that an ATM will take your American debit card. Well, I found that there was no problem. The common advice is to head to ATMS that are in 7-11 stores (yes) – that they are always, 100% going to take your card and give you money back. I found that to be true, and also found those 7-11 stores everywhere. And where there wasn’t a 7-11, there was a Family Mart – one of the other big convenience store chains  – and they took my debit cards too.

(FYI – 100 yen is about a dollar. So to convert prices, just drop two decimal places, and there you go.)

Airport:

We flew in and out of Narita Airport, which is the big Tokyo airport (the other, original airport is Haneda, which is smaller).  It’s busy, but very easy to get around, super clean and efficient. Immigration and customs both coming and going took five minutes, tops. Security as we left was fantastic – when you can leave your shoes on, it’s all good, in my book.

Oh, internet:

My cel phone is T-mobile, which has excellent international coverage. You will find some free wi-fi in the usual suspects (Starbucks, train stations), but it’s not everywhere. We rented a mobile wi-fi device from Japan Wireless. I went through all kinds of convoluted rigamarole and rented it before we went and picked it up at the post office at the airport, but as we walked through the airport, I immediately saw that this hadn’t been necessary – there are booth after booth of companies offering the devices for rent at very reasonable prices. It was a great little machine: All three of us could be using it at night and it was super fast, faster than the wireless at the AirBnB.  The cost was about $6/day, I think.

 

I think that’s about it for the practicalities. Still to come, posts on:

  • Food
  • Interesting signs
  • Shopping
  • Style and Apparel
  • Spirituality

But let me get home and do massive loads of laundry, drink Diet Coke and sit on my own bed in my own room with the door closed, first, okay? Thnx.

(Update: done. Finished the post at 5 am Tuesday morning, after rising a couple of hours ago….)

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Last full day, that is. I began writing this in the airport hotel before waking the boys to head over to the airport for our 11 AM Monday flight and I’m finishing it up in Dallas at 9:45 AM Monday. Amazing – it makes up for the whole two days we lost at the beginning, I guess….

Those of you who have followed this trip know that the plans changed over the month before we left. My original original thought was to split the time between Tokyo and Kyoto, and therefore fly into Tokyo and out of either Kyoto or Osaka. I then decided it would be better to stay in one place, so booked the AirBnB for Tokyo for the entire duration. Then AirBnB and Japan had their problems, so the trip was split again. For which I am now, at the end of it, very grateful. I’m so glad we spent time in Kyoto – more thoughts on that score later. When all of that came down, I looked into changing flights to leave out of Osaka or Kyoto, but the cost for changing was ridiculous (which I will never, ever understand – except I do understand – profit – but really.) so I stuck with a departure from Tokyo, knowing that we’d have to spend at least half a day getting back up here. I had hope that it wouldn’t be wasted because the town of Narita – near the airport – apparently had Things to See. Hopefully, we’d see them.

And we did – not as much as I would have liked, but we did see a few things, and, as I always say – it’s all new to me, and whatever we saw – were things that we saw, worth seeing and thinking about and learning from.

In order to see anything at the end of the day, we’d have to start early. Mass was the big challenge of the day. I’d been researching it for two days. First idea was a church less than a mile from the apartment that we could walk/train to – but as I discovered when I walked there on Saturday morning for research, Mass was at 10:30, which was too late. Next idea was a church about halfway up the train route from our place to Kyoto Station. Mass there was at 9. I thought we could just take our stuff, go to Mass, then get back on the train to the station. I got a bit of pushback on the whole “march into Mass with backpacks and suitcases” idea. Then I looked one more time and found a church with Mass at 7 am. Okay, I said, if you don’t want to do the 9 am, we’ll do 7 – but that means, well, getting up at 6 (20 minute train ride, 6 minute walk). They agreed, and my compromise was that when we got back and finished packing and cleaning, we’d grab a taxi to the station – although I felt fully confident by this point in getting us there with luggage on the train, especially since it was Sunday morning – but they, again, were not enthused.

And it worked. We got up, walked to our train station, rode the train with a few other people, found the right neighborhood, which, it seems, must have it share of bars and clubs, considering the number of tired looking groups of young women in micro-minis (never seen in Japan during the day, in my experience) and trendy-looking guys either walking towards the train station or hanging out on the sidewalks. They’d obviously been up all night and were just wrapping it up.

I discovered later that we’d actually attended Mass at the Cathedral. It was a nice modern structure, with a roof sweeping upward and stained glass on one side. The church was maybe a third full – pretty good for 7am! – and was a little more demographically diverse than we’d seen in the Tokyo church – a lot of older women, yes (many wearing veils, as is normal here for older women), but a few families, more westerners and a greater sprinkling of young adults.

Music was minimal – opening and closing song and the Responsorial Psalm sung. Communion in the hand is the norm here, in case you are interested (which it isn’t, for example, in some areas of Europe, particularly Italy, where I’ve attended Mass), and the Sign of Peace is awesome: quick bows all around and we’re done.

Then across the lovely river,  back on the train (which was a bit more crowded by this point) pack up, clean up the apartment, take photos of the apartment (which I always mean to do right when we arrive, but never do, and then we immediately trash the place, so it’s not presentable), then walk up the street to the train station, get a taxi, then a 15-minute ride to the Kyoto Station to catch the bullet train. That journey was uneventful (I think it always is – there’s never been an accident with these trains) and quick and moderately scenic – more rice paddies and batting cages, everywhere.

I’d done some research and discovered what I thought was the best solution to get from the Tokyo station to our hotel near the airport: a shuttle bus that runs directly from the station to the airport hotels. We’d catch it – because I thought it ran more or less constantly – check in, or at least store our luggage – and then head into the town of Narita to get one last taste of Japan.

Well, as per usual, things didn’t turn out as hoped or planned. Everything ran later than I thought. We got to Narita airport and two out of the three of us were hungry enough to merit a meal (and granted – it was two o’clock by this time and no one had eaten anything all day except for some sweet rolls after Mass), and since we’d be at the airport anyway I decided we a) turn in our Pasmo transportation cards to get the refunds due on those and b) complete the check-in process for our flight. I couldn’t finish (b) online because I suppose passport confirmation was needed. So we did all those things, and by the time we got down to the place where the shuttle stopped, we discovered that it did not, indeed, run around the clock, but only once an hour – so we’d have thirty minutes to wait until the next journey.

Fine. Pay a cab to take us five minutes to the hotel. No problem. Because we’d get to the hotel and soon enough be able to hop on the shuttle to town, which, I thought I’d understood, ran around the clock. Well, no. It doesn’t run around the clock or even around the hour. We got into our room a little after 2:30 and discovered that the next shuttle to town wouldn’t be until 4:15. Drat. Especially since what I read online indicated that the big Zen temple I wanted to visit in Narita closed at 4 on Sundays, plus most of the restaurants seemed to close at five.

This was not going as I’d hoped. Because particularly after the debacle that marked the beginning of our trip, I didn’t particularly want to lose one more day of this rather expensive jaunt on a travel day. I admit that I let my irritation spill over – something I usually try very hard not to let happen, especially since I grew up in a household marked by very high flood markings on the wall made by years of irritation spilling over.

So we waited and hung out in the hotel room for an hour or so. We headed down to the lobby for the shuttle where a fluent English-speaking employee (finally!) told me that while the doors of the temple might close at 4, the grounds were certainly open – which made me feel better.

Fast forward: shuttle to town – Narita which is a very busy, suburb-like city, just like your American suburb except for the sign lettering. We were dropped at the train station in the middle of town, and made our way down the tourist-oriented street, lined with shops and restaurants, most of which were, indeed, either closed or in the process of closing.

But all was not lost!

Narita is known for unagi– eel. It’s the local delicacy, and many restaurants feature the …er…processing…of the eel right in the front of the house. As in: one guy grabs a live eel from a buck of water, chops its neck, takes its still wriggling body, skins and de-spines it, and hands it to the next guy, who cuts it up into pieces which are then put on skewers. The spines are fried and sold as bar food, essentially.

Before we went, I was all up for trying it, but once we got there, the only place still open and selling was rather expensive – about twenty-five bucks for four pieces with rice, and I just wasn’t willing to invest the time and money on something I wasn’t even sure I’d like. If it had been one skewer of part of an eel for like five bucks, sure – but this was just too much for the moment and my mood. At least I got to see the process, which is what I was really after.

Then we proceeded down the hill to the Shingon Buddhist temple, which is part of a large park. It was gorgeous. These temples and shrines are naturally not as interesting to me as churches are, but I find them fascinating, nonetheless.

We walked around a bit, saw temples, pagodas, statues and turtles. The time down by the water was deeply peaceful and something I needed at that moment, the last night of a long trip, the night before leaving to return home.

As we rounded our way back out of the park, a small group of girls – most probably between 8-12 appeared, each carrying a pole with rings on the end. They were led by adult women, and it became pretty clear to me that they were rehearsing for something – perhaps a  procession of some sort. They’d walk around, rhythmically banging the poles on the ground, stopping at various points, including right in front of the main temple, at which point, two young men with them would go part way up the steps, stop, and them lead them all in a bow.

img_20180701_181343

A small group of women was gathered nearby watching, and I’m assuming they were the girls’ mothers. It was like Dance Moms: Buddhist Edition.

A short walk back up the hill, where the few shops that had been open when arrived had closed. There was an activity happening in front of the tourist office, thought: a group with fans, doing some sort of chanting and waving. It seemed to me it was a cultural activity directed at tourists – sort of like if you were in Spain and there was an invitation to try to do flamenco.

Dinner was very good – a fitting last meal for Japan. Granted, the place was not people by locals – it seemed to be mostly tourists or airline employees (the decorations were all airline-related), but it was tasty nonetheless: fried rice for one, a ginger pork dish for another, a great chili-based soup with pork for me, and dumplings for all.

Everything, it seemed, turned out all right in the end.

 

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Super fast blog post. It’s late and we’re up early tomorrow. If you want to see some videos related to the post below, head to Instagram Stories.

The day began with me heading out to find the closest Catholic church, so I could figure Sunday out. Maps told me there was one less than a mile away, and it had a website, but either the Mass times weren’t listed or I just couldn’t figure it out. So out I went on a walk to see if the actual building had anything to tell me.

It was a lovely walk (albeit very hot) along the canals in this area – Fushimi – which I will write about later. I eventually did find the church, and was pointed to a sign by a very nice lady, and the sign told me that Sunday Mass would be at 10:30 – too late for us, so Plan B it will be. Upon reflection later in the day, I transitioned to Plan C, which is going to require very early rising and great suffering but I’ve already prepared us for that by pointing out that there were, according to what I’ve ready, Christian martyrs in this very area of Kyoto. So stop your whining. (Including myself in the order, to be sure.)

It was so hot by then…I took the train back. Speaking of avoiding suffering…

Anyway, it was then off to Osaka. The train was – very unusual for Japan – rather late. It seems there had been an accident of some sort on some tracks, which caused us to wait on the platform for about twenty minutes. As I said, this is very unusual. Japanese trains are known for their timeliness.

A side note on a day trip to Osaka – we might or might not have done this, but the weather told me that there was going to be heavy rain in Kyoto all afternoon and nothing worse than intermittent showers in Osaka. Now, I don’t know if it ever did actually rain here, but just in case, I didn’t want to be stuck. So off we went, on a not very deep, but nonetheless educational afternoon.

We had every intention of starting out in a serious way with Osaka Castle, but when the time came to transfer, we got on the train going the wrong way, so we shrugged and said, “Eh. We’ll just go see other things instead.”  So we ended up, first at Osaka Station and the very, very big Pokemon Center (the largest in the world) and, adjacent to it, a large Uniqlo store – Uniqlo does have some stores in the US, I believe (I went into one in New York City last year), but I don’t know how many. It’s a good, basic clothing brand – simple styles, affordable prices.

So we did that, and then went right over to Dotonbori Street, widely known (and photographed) as a crazy busy food street with monstrous signage. I’m sure the place is even more fantastic at night, but because of the early day we have on Sunday, it just wasn’t a good idea to hang out to see it, unfortunately.

But what we did see was fun. The street is all restaurants, food stalls and, it seems, drug stores. We are not sure why every store that doesn’t do food seems to be a drug store, but there it is. Also – Osaka is just like Tokyo and Kyoto – especially Tokyo – with extensive – extensive underground shopping – that’s where the variety is, it seems.

You can get a sense of it from the photos (but if you want a deeper look, just search for img_20180630_142728videos on Dotonbori – easy to find). It wasn’t as packed as I expected – it wasn’t, for example, as thronged as Shibayu in Tokyo was. The food is almost all one of just a few types: ramen, sushi (although not tons), IMG_20180630_135903.jpgokonomiyaki (characteristic Osaka pancake type thing), kushiage (skewers of mostly breaded fried things), crabs, beef, and most of all, takoyaki, sauteed balls of batter with octopus inside, either chopped or whole baby octopus. We had street okonomiyaki, some very good fried chicken bits from a street booth, an ice cream sandwich made with what they call melon bread – you find something similar in Sicily using brioche and gelato, and then sat down – shoes off, on cushions, finally – for kushiage. In the restaurant, in fact, with the angry-looking fellow in the photo above.

 

The guys spent some time in an absolutely insane 6-story gaming/entertainment/indoor sports complex called Round 1, and then it was time to go. Not the most cultured day, and there’s a lot more to see in Osaka, but we did what we could and experienced something new – always something new.

From Osaka, we went straight to downtown Kyoto, parked our purchases in a coin locker at the Gion station, then plunged into the Saturday evening crowds to finish up some souvenir shopping and grab some fuel for those who need refueling. The quick choice, rationalized by a full day of eating Japanese, was “Wendy’s First Kitchen” – the Japanese Wendy’s that has a bit broader menu – including 4-patty burgers and pasta and actual fried chicken – and serves beer. The customer who got the chicken nuggets and chicken pieces (came in a combo) reported that they were of far higher quality than you’d find in the US – and I had a couple of bites of the chicken, and was duly impressed. Good job, Wendy’s First Kitchen.

Followed by some matcha ice cream – which I felt a responsibility to try since it’s everywhere here. I still don’t like it.

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Kyoto: the third largest city in Japan and in many ways, its cultural heart. The city was the capital of the country for centuries – from 794 to 1868 – and much of what we associate with traditional Japanese culture developed in this area. Included in this is religion. Kyoto is the site of over a thousand temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto). Learn more about Kyoto here. 

We like it. There’s a ton to see, but even so it’s more manageable than Tokyo, and once again, I’m grateful that circumstances changed and brought us here (but remember, my original, original itinerary included Kyoto or Osaka anyway….)

The plan for the day, such as it was, was to attempt to see temples everyone was interested in: that would include some that are famous for their visuals, some for their architectural features and some that people know about because of Pokemon. 

So yeah, we’ll start with the Pokemon one, which was the furthest out, chosen so we’d go out and then work our way back in closer. I used a lot of this itinerary to help us get from one place to the next. Never fear – this particular temple – Kinkaku-ji – is well known and hugely popular for other reasons, too – mostly because, well, it features that stunning gold leaf exterior.

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(How did we get around? On buses and trains – the public transportation here is excellent)

Then on the bus over to the Ginkaku-ji temple, which is nicknamed “silver” although it doesn’t feature any – they think it was so named to contrast it with the Gold pavilion – silver being built by the grandson of Gold’s. Both were originally built as villas for aristocrats, then turned into temples.

 

Then a long walk down what is called the “Philosopher’s Path” – so named because of a 20th century Kyoto University philosophy professor who took walks on the path as a way of clearing his head. The path is paved, it’s on a hillside next to a stream in a residential area and lined in places with shops, but it’s still peaceful. I find that I didn’t take any actual photos of walking on the path, so sorry. Also, you can take side trails off the path to visit more temples or shrines, all more peaceful and focused that the tourist and pilgrim-heavy big temples and shrines that anyone who sneers at the tat surrounding Lourdes really should visit.

 

But…there’s a collection of cats in residence, too:

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We then took a bus to Kiyomizu-dera, which was probably the most interesting – from a cultural perspective. It’s a huge, colorful, gorgeous set of buildings, thronged – thronged with visitors, many in kimonos (I will right about this later, but wearing a kimono out and about in Kyoto is a thing. It’s not an unusual or exotic sight. Many are rented for the day, but not all.) It was unfortunate that the famed huge porch on stilts was essentially covered for renovations, but we still were able to see and absorb some of the impact of the setting.

 

One feature of this temple is a three-springed fountain coming from a mountain. People line up to drink from the spring: choosing one of the streams for longevity, one for success in school, or one for success in love. To drink from all three would be considered greedy. I couldn’t tell if the springs were actually identified as being specifically associated with each wish, but in watching the dozens of school children take their drink, it was clear that they all picked one particular stream..so I’m guessing that was for success in school?

Finally – last major temple of the day, not on that itinerary list, but on the way to somewhere else, so why not – Yasaka. There we watched people offer prayers and ring bells:

 

Two missing pieces from the day, although we’ve got three more days in the area, so plenty of time to get to them: the Fushimi Inari Shrine, famed for the long line of brilliant tori gates, and Choin-in Temple, a center (if not the center) of Pure Land Buddhism. At the beginning of the day, I had tried to work Choin-in in – but could not figure out where it was and how to work it into that 1-day itinerary – only to discover that it’s right next to the Yasaka shrine – and closed by the time we arrived. Oh! Well at least now I know – for both of them – both are located pretty close to the main train line that runs near our apartment, so at least now it will be quick to get to them – no standing in shaded doorways with GoogleMaps pointing this way and that, squinting at bus line numbers.

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On leaving Yasaka, we were right in the midst of one of the main “downtown” areas (maybe the? I don’t know) of the city – and it was great. Busy, but not frantic, full of interesting shops and the usual huge Japanese department stores and food halls. It was a good two hours, laying the groundwork for a return – at least a couple of times – again, it’s not close, miles-wise to our apartment, but super easy on the train.

 

 

Oh, and yes – a real live geisha sighting. It took me a second to get what was happening, since all I saw at first were kimonos, and they’re everywhere. It was in the evening, a bit before nine, as we were about to cross the bridge downtown to get to the Gion station. There were several solid black shiny cars stopped along the side of the street, with a bit of a bustle happening, and folks gathered taking photos. When I finally clicked into observation mode, I saw one geisha get into each of the cars, along with one or two older men dressed in business suits and an older woman, not made up and not in full dress kimono, but still in traditional garb. I am wondering if she was some sort of supervisor/chaperone, and who we saw were not full geishas, but geishas-in-training, called maiko. 

You can sort of see that pure white face in the back seat of the car:

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Today…Thursday…Nara.

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Tuesday morning, first order of business was finishing the laundry that I’d begun Monday night.

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Our hotel had a laundry, which was great news, and the instruction panel on the machine was even decipherable, which was good, too, and it automatically dispensed detergent, which was fantastic.

But it was also a combined washer-dryer which, in my experience is never good news.

I was right. The first cycle was two hours. At the end of that, the load was still pretty damp, which didn’t surprise me – so I added another half hour of drying. By this time, it was midnight, I dozed off (in the room!) waiting, got back down to to the laundry at 12:45, found negligible progress, gave up for the night, took the load back to the room, draped the clothes around where I could, and went back to sleep. When I returned to the laundry in the morning to give it one more 30 minute run (which finished it off, at last) I encountered the same heavily tatooed Australian woman I’d shared the space with the night before. “Twelve hours later….” I commented.

Next order of business, pack up and figure out this train business.

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There are any number of ways to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, including buses, regular trains and budget flights, but of course we wanted to do the Shinkansen, or bullet train. Round trips tickets are not cheap, but I saved a bit of money by purchased a “tour” through a site called JapanICan – details here. Cheaper, but of course, there’s a cost to everything, and the cost here is another layer of complication. So the steps were:

  • Check out of hotel, go to Oshiage Station, and from there go to Tokyo Station.
  • At Tokyo Station, find the tour office, present passports, printed e-voucher and “tour application” – after a few minutes, received both sets of tickets, plus a voucher for a day of free public transportation use in Kyoto.
  • Go find a train!
  • These trains run many times during the hour. These vouchers are for unreserved seats, so you basically just find a train that’s about to leave, find one of the cars with unreserved seats (one of the first three cars), line up,  wait for the super-charged train cleaners to finish their work and get on board.
  • Apart from the confusion of finding the tour office, it was a very simple process. The seats are comfortable, the train is very clean. Snacks are offered for sale, but we didn’t buy anything. No wi-fi on this particular train.
  • The advantage of using this voucher is that you could use it on any of the three bullet train lines, including the fastest, the Nazomi  – which is not possible if you use the JR Rail Pass, a popular choice with international travelers. So Nazomi it was, on a clean, on-time train, getting us to Kyoto in a little more than two hours.

You can see some landscape on the way, but a great deal of the journey is between barriers and some even underground, so it’s not incredible scenic. What sticks out to me from the space between the cities? Rice paddies and batting cages. Everywhere.

We got to Kyoto around two and couldn’t get into the apartment until 3, so we parked our luggage in storage lockers, grabbed some McDonalds and set out to see some of the area around the station.

First, on the McDonald’s:  No shame! I mean – I don’t eat it, just because I don’t have any interest, but it’s quick, reliable fuel for others who hadn’t eaten much all day. Secondly – it’s fascinating to eat at American fast food chains overseas. One son reported that the chicken nuggets are actual chicken parts, not the American reconstituted chicken sludge. Other son got a ginger-pork burger, which had a good ginger bite to it.

We had a brief conversation with an older couple from Florida – drawn to us because of son’s Gator gear on his body – who’d been in the country for their son’s wedding on one of the smaller, scenic islands. They’d been in the country for ten days. I asked if they had any tips. The woman shrugged, studied her french fry and said, “The island was pretty.”

I guess someone was ready to go home….

The Kyoto station is very impressive, with a rooftop observation deck.

 

There’s a large department store that’s part of the station. Here is a thousand dollar school bag for you. J flipped the tag and discovered why – Kate Spade.

 

Then out – we looked at the Kyoto Tower from the outside (can’t avoid it! It’s retro and funky, but you have to pay to ascend and we’d just taken in the views for free) then headed to a couple of the thousand temples that are in this area.

There are two Honganji temple complexes, about six blocks apart, not far from the station. They are temples for sects of Pure Land Buddhism..

(If you were in Kyoto yesterday and saw two teenaged boys nursing cokes with a middle-aged woman trudging behind them droning about the Four Noble Truths and bodhisattva and such – why didn’t you say hello?)

 

It was a far more peaceful scene than the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, but it was also late in the day. These are enormous, gorgeous wooden structures, and yes, you must take off your shoes to enter – they provide plastic bags to carry about your shoes if you wish. Don’t forget to check out the rope made of hair:

 

Before we reached the station, we had an ice cream break – rolled ice cream, which is not, of course, unique to Japan – we have a couple in Birmingham now, and the newest one has a Japanese theme, though – so is it a trend that started here? I don’t know.

 

All I know is that sitting there in front of Starbucks watching them eat their ice cream, I didn’t feel as if I were in a foreign country at all. There, in Kyoto, which is, they say, the most Japanese of all the major Japanese cities, I felt as if I could have been anywhere, img_20180626_171649including Birmingham, Alabama. I think it is not only because, well, I was sitting in front of Starbucks, but because the ratio of tourists to locals here is higher – or lower? Not a math person, but what I’m trying to say is that there are fewer inhabitants than Tokyo and a lot of tourists, so looking out at a crowd around the station, the demographics don’t seem much different – except for the miniscule number of black faces – than they’d be in New York or Chicago. What makes it even more so is the commonality of culture now – everyone has a phone, everyone dresses the same and I swear, even Japanese teens walk with the same exact gait as American teens.

Then back to the station, get luggage, get taxi and then make the trek to the apartment – which is not in the center of Kyoto, took about twenty minutes by car to reach, but is also a block from a train station, so I think (hope) getting around should be efficient.

I’ll do a post on the house later, once I get more photos. Just know that it’s utterly charming – a traditional Japanese house with tatami mats, sliding doors, and sleeping mats. No daily housekeeping, but more space – everything’s a tradeoff, I tell you.

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Dinner was great. As they were resting, I did my usual reconnaissance walk, and within seconds found our dinner spot – a yakitori place right around the corner. Yakitori is grilled meat on skewers – bar food, basically. But it was enough for us, and a great experience – the place was tiny, smokey (grilling smoke) and full of locals.

 

The staff was very friendly and in a sweet gesture, after I paid the bill, the waiter said, “A present” – and handed me this teeny-tiny lucky cat.

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— 1 —

Travel is so very strange. You spend weeks or even months anticipating the trip, and then it comes…and then it’s gone. Last week at this time, I felt as if I were in the midst of some epic trek and now…it’s over. And it’s been over for a week. And it feels as if it all happened a few years ago.

I did write a bit about it, as promised – two posts, one on the practicalities of the trip, and the other on the food. 

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We were there….

— 2 —

We’re getting closer to the publication date of my new book, The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories. 

Looking good!

— 3 —

What with travel and my older son working in the evenings, we haven’t done much movie-watching recently, but we finally squeezed one in last night: Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, which provided some inspiration to George Lucas in the imagining of Star Wars. 

It was mostly enjoyable, but of course not nearly the film that The Seven Samurai is. The acting was not quite as naturalistic, and in particular the female lead screeched her part, and I for one, was very grateful when I learned that the character would be feigning muteness as part of the plot. I do wonder if some of the exaggerated and mannered speech in the film is an expression of some Japanese theater tradition.

That said, the film had an effective and actually somewhat emotional climax – and Toshiro Mifune is always…. a pleasure to watch. That’s what she said…

I really want to watch Stray Dog next. 

— 4 —

Currently reading: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

My son has to read it for school, so I thought I’d take a shot at it, as well, never having read it before. (As with last summer – he had to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I’d never read, and found absolutely fascinating.)

It’s not high literature, but it’s certainly effective – and it strikes me as a good segue into that junior year in which they are doing the later half of both American history and American literature.

And you know someone is a decent writer when he can render an immigrant family’s attempt to purchase a house in such a way that you can’t put the book down until you find out what happens….

— 5 —

Regular readers know of Casa Maria, the local convent and retreat center at which my sons often serve Mass. The foundress of the Sister Servants of the Eternal Word, Mother Mary Gabriel Long, passed away earlier this week. Here is her obituary – I had no idea she and Sister Assumpta Long, OP of the Dominicans in Ann Arbor, were actual sisters.

— 6 —

Cooking: Made this strawberry cake – very simple and very good. 

(I used a springform pan, btw)

— 7 —

I finally figured out how to link Google photos with WordPress, so I’ll be super lazy and finish off these takes with some more pics from the trip:

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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