Friday, January 15, 2010

View my Picasa Web Galleries

I uploaded all of our collective photographs from the trip. It's even searchable by content, but Picasa Web Gallery is still a little rough around the edges for my liking. Why no context tags after the front page, Google? And why does the search automatically default to all community photos instead of just the album I'm in? *head shake*

Anyway, enjoy.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Brief Update: Home

3 connections later, I'm back home. I've still got a day of the trip to blog, but just wanted everyone to know everyone made it through unscathed, with luggage intact.

Now, time for sleep.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Last Day in Kyoto

We woke up on the sixth feeling no worse for wear from the previous day’s rigors. We were scheduled to catch the Shinkansen at 2:00 back to Tokyo, but we had the whole morning to wrap up our Kyoto experience, so we packed up our backpacks and set out on foot to our first stop,

Higashi-Hongan-Ji, a temple with a large central building and a secondary shrine whose exterior was under construction. One of the central attractions of this shrine was supposed to be a large length of rope made entirely of human hair, which I suppose sounds sort of gross now that I think of it. Anyway, we didn’t get to see it, as that section of the temple was under construction. We did get to see some really nice golden friezes depicting Bodhisatvas. There was quite a few golden artifacts in this temple.

The next temple on our trek was Nishi-Hongan-ji, which sported a bigger complex, but to be perfectly frank, by this point in our Kyoto journey, we were all a little jaded on big temple complexes. I mean, we’d seen “the biggest bell”, “the biggest gate”, “the most golden”. What else could they throw at us that would be that impressive?

Well the last temple we visited was To-ji, which has – wait for it – “Japan’s largest Pagoda.” It is five levels, and very impressive. It’s not particularly flashy, but it is big. After the pagoda we went into some of the auxillary buildings, which held some priceless statues which were cooler than the actual pagoda, I think. Sadly we weren’t allowed to take photos of them. Afterwards we walked back to the train station, which actually turned out to be more impressive than we had initially thought. We ate lunch at a ramen shop on the 10th floor of the station complex then boarded the Shinkansen, which arrived precisely at the time on our tickets, and left 1 minute later.

On the return trip to Tokyo we passed through several towns and at least three climates. At one point, we entered a tunnel, which lasted all of about 10 seconds, and when we exited into a snow storm. We entered another tunnel 5 minutes later, and boom, no more snow. The highlight of the return trip, and something we didn’t manage to catch on the first Shinkansen trip, was seeing Mt. Fuji in all its snow-capped glory. Phil and Dustin snapped some pictures of it, so I’ll get those from him when we get back to the states.

When we got back to Tokyo, we took the subway back to the hotel and met back up with the rest of the group. Everyone was pretty tired, so we decided to stick around Shinjuku for the evening. We went out to the Lumine mall to a restaurant there that served mystery food on sticks. We all ate our fill, including grilled cherry tomatoes, chicken, heart, and liver (which was especially good). I also had a cucumber and ume plum salad that was really good. All of us had lots and lots of sake here. Dustin was completely plastered and the rest of us weren’t too far behind. We managed to walk most of it off on the trip back to the hotel though, where we promptly drank some more sake. Then we slept. Dustin promises I didn’t snore this time.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Kyoto: Shrine-a-thon

Two posts today. You should read the one before this (lower on the page) first.

Quick non-fact – Kyoto is home to over a million billion shrines. Some of them are the size of mailboxes. Some of them are the size of city blocks. Each is unique and brings something to the shrine table. Some of them are Shinto shrines with their elaborate gates, fox gods and fortune tellers. Others are Buddhist, with incense censures and candle houses, towering golden Buddhas and contemplative monks. Still others are a fashionable amalgam of the two. Shinto and Buddhism live hand-in-hand in Japan, creating a unique blend of religion and superstition.

Phil had quite an agenda set for the day, since we only had one full day in Kyoto within which we had to get a vast majority of our sight-seeing done. We started at the south end of the eastern Kyoto “shrine row”, at a temple complex called Kiyomizu-dera. The walk up into the foothills of Kyoto was rigorous, but the path to the complex led through the most exquisite graveyard, where offerings of flowers and incense, alcohol and food had been placed on family graves to honor the dead. It was a sea of graves.old and new; the rolling foothills were covered with them.

At the end of the path was Kiyomizu-dera, a temple complex that sports an impressive pagoda and several buildings. The main temple holds a hidden treasure that one pays 100 yen to see. Phil and I, curiosity piqued, paid the 100 yen, removed our shoes, and descended into darkness with our hands leading the way along a banister. This was darkness utter and complete, my friends. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before, save for being in a cave when they shut off the lights. This was different however; as it was very unexpected, and the passage we were traveling in was narrow, with stone floors and blind turns. We felt along the banister in the blackness for about 2 minutes, until the treasure was slowly revealed with a single light from above. It was a large circular stone with carvings in the middle, and it was the only thing one could make out in the blackness. The whole experience was very surreal. We only discovered after we left that the stone was supposed to be rotated clockwise and wished upon. Ah well.

The next stop along the way was not exactly scheduled, but as we were heading for the next stop, we saw signs for what we guessed was an impressively sized statue. Our suspicions were affirmed as we entered the grounds of the “Shrine to the Unknown Soldier”. The obvious attraction of this site is the 80 foot tall Bodhisatva that looms over the grounds.

Next was Kodai-ji, another Buddhist shrine that we had planned on visiting, but didn’t seem particularly impressive, and charged a high admission cost, so we skipped it.

We then headed back to Yasaka-Jinju, where the restaurant from the previous night was situated. Also there, which I did not mention in the previous post, is an enormous Shinto gate which straddles a staircase leading up to the grounds. A lot of these structures are hard to grasp, scale-wise, from pictures. We had to stand pretty far back from most of them to get them in frame for picture-taking. The temple at Yasaka-Jinju is otherwise not particularly noteworthy, other than being a big draw at New Years. Outside of the grounds we did find a nice collection of street food vendors, so we availed ourselves of lunch there. Phil and I decided to get some Indian tandoori and naan at a stall run by a really generous and amiable pair of Indian fellows, who spoke to us in precise English and guaranteed our enjoyment of their food. How could we say no, really? Anyway, it really was quite good. We then decided to try some more takoyaki, which has quickly become the snack-food du jour of the trip. We ate our fried squid dumplings in front of the food vendor that sold them to us, and after we finished them, they insisted we try, free of cost, their konyaku and beef stew. It was pretty decent, though konyaku is definitely an acquired texture. We thanked them profusely, bowing awkwardly, and rolled down the hill after a larger than expected lunch to the next shrine on our list.

The main feature of Choin-in, the next temple on our path, is a vast bell. The bell is so big, and so heavy, it takes seventeen priests working together to ring it. Sadly, it didn’t look like they would be dropping the hammer any time soon. Impressive bell though. Big. Iron. Very authoritative.

Next on the path was Heian-Jinji, which was a pretty standard large temple complex. We were unfortunately growing a little jaded by this point on large temple complexes. It’s important to note here that while I am pointing out the most memorable of our stops, we saw dozens more smaller shrines, some very pretty, but we are talking about a town where you can't throw a pebble without hitting a shrine.

The last complex on our pilgrimage was at the end of a 3ish kilometer hike along a gravel road called the “Philosopher’s path”. Apparently a noteworthy monk used to walk the path and contemplate the meaning of existence every morning or something along those lines, so we decided, arms folded behind our backs and tongues planted firmly in cheeks, to walk the path and discuss the nature of man as tabula rasa or noble savage. Also, my feet were about to rebel at this point and wander off on their own to find a tub to soak in, but people don’t want to hear about my physical short-comings, so onward!

The Ginkaku-ji, or “Silver Shrine” is so named not because it is covered in silver as the “Golden Shrine” is covered in gold, but because it’s not quite as nice as the golden shrine. It seems the 17th century Japanese were not entirely without a sense of humor. The one thing the Silver Shrine does have going for it, over the Golden Shrine, is its grounds, which are bigger, nicer, and more diverse. The grounds sport a very nice view of Kyoto, a few small waterfalls, a bamboo forest, and a zen rock garden that contains a huge near-geometrically perfect rick pile with a flat surface that is meant to represent Mt. Fuji.

By the time we had finished wandering the grounds of Ginkaku-ji, we estimated that we had walked at least 10 miles that day, and my feet could not handle the walk back, which was a good 3 or 4 additional kilometers. So we walked several blocks, and then hailed a taxi to get us back to the hotel. There we rested for an hour while our batteries charged enough to walk downstairs to the Chinese restaurant in the hotel.

The evening meal here is worthy of a mention too. Chinese food in Japan is not Chinese food in America. No sir. While there are some similarities, it is the difference between…well…let’s say a hamburger in the US and a hamburger anywhere else in the damn world. Chinese food in America is like a bad photocopy of real Chinese food – the impression is there, but it’s slightly over-exposed, and the image is kind of ugly. I managed to check off a few more things on my “list of food to try” here, including shark’s fin soup (it was good, like an upscale egg-drop with more complexity), and shou-chu, which is a distilled spirit popular in China and Japan with a very smooth mouth feel and a kick like a mule.

That night we all slept like the dead, having done more walking on this day than any given three days during the rest of the trip. Tomorrow we would wrap up Kyoto and take the Shinkansen back to Tokyo to meet up with Xavi and Shelly for the remaining 3 days of the journey.

Kyoto: The City of Shrines

Thanks to everyone who sent me birthday wishes. They were received, and appreciated. I woke up at 5am feeling pretty good on my 30th birthday. Dustin, Phil and I were scheduled to catch the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo station at 7am and wanted to give ourselves ample time in case anything were to go not-so-according-to-plan on our way there. Things, it turns out, went not-so-according-to-plan almost right off the bat as we left the hotel to discover all of the auxiliary subway stops were closed at that time of the morning. So we had to hoof it to the main Shinjuku station entrance above ground instead of taking the nice, warm, slightly more direct tunnels. When we got to the station, we could not find the line we planned on taking to Tokyo station, the Marunuchi line. It turns out that line was almost all the way back towards our hotel just inside one of those closed auxiliary entrances. Luckily Phil has become some sort of Tokyo subway samurai, and got us onto another line which got us there in just about the same amount of time it would have taken on the other line. We got to Tokyo station with time to spare and snagged some breakfast at a convenience store while waiting for the train.

The Shinkansen is the fastest train in the world, and visually it accepts the challenge by looking like a gleaming white ground-based space shuttle. The Hidari line runs at an average of 270 kph from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka, and stops for about 1 minute in Kyoto. The ride was a little under 3 hours long, and is a very good length for writing blog entries…

Kyoto, on a large scale, is not as awe-inspiring as Tokyo. It’s sort of a brown city, mixing old style Japanese buildings and Sky rises, without the glamour and bustle of Tokyo. The joy of Kyoto comes from the sheer number of shrines and monuments. These hidden treasures pepper Kyoto but are often difficult to catch from a glance at the skyline.

The two easily spotted landmarks are the Kyoto Tower, an absolutely horrible piece of modern architecture that scars the city line. It looks like the Space Needle in Seattle, only much much uglier. The other noteworthy skyline feature is the To-ji pagoda, the largest in Japan, which we did in fact visit. But more on that later.

Day 1 in Kyoto started with a taxi ride to the north side of Kyoto to see its most spectacular shrine, Kinkaku-ji, the golden shrine. This moniker is not just a flashy title. The shrine at Kinkaku-ji is made of gold. We arrived at the temple with the perfect lighting conditions, and the shrine was glowing from the sunlight, creating a magnificent reflection in the pool below it. We circled the shrine along a path through the manicured grounds (there were at least two monks sweeping the forest at the entrance, I kid you not), then left that temple and caught a taxi back into central Kyoto for our next stop, Nijo-jo.

Nijo-jo is a castle that the Shogunate created in the 17th century when the military and the emperor were rattling sabers at each other. They say in the brochure that it is bigger and better appointed than the actual Imperial Palace at Kyoto, which is not open to the public at any time. It is a very large complex, with intricate gardens, ponds, and is home to various giant koi and some huge king herons, who more or less ignored our presence. The gardens are supposed to be extra impressive during the spring, when the cherry and plum blossoms are fully in bloom.

Unfortunately we picked the wrong day to visit the castle, as the actual interior space of the castle proper, which is supposed to be pretty impressive, was closed for New Years. It was going to be open the next day, but we had already paid admission before we discovered this, and as you’ll see in the next blog post, January 5th was a very long day, even without the castle.

After Nijo castle we walked into downtown Kyoto and checked into our hotel. We’d been carrying our small day-trip bags through the sites thus far, so it was nice to unload our crap and sit for a few minutes before heading out again.

The first stop after our hotel intermission was the Kyoto food market. We managed to stay our wallets and stomachs, knowing that that evening we had a special meal planned, but let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. There was a smorgasbord of food vendors selling everything from mochi cakes to roasted chestnuts to fried tofu on a stick. The crowds were big, but nowhere near the throngs of the Tokyo streets.

As the afternoon progressed we made our way to Gion, the Geisha district, which straddles the Kyoto quay at the river. Gion is representative of the old style of Japanese apartments, and is also the neighborhood where the Geishas used to ply their trade heavily, pre-World War II. Many of the shops were still closed for New Years, but as the sun went down, we managed to get a pretty decent impression of the neighborhood. We even managed to spy one geisha in a tea shop, serving her clients with the traditional demur of her training.

Our last stop of the evening was a restaurant very near Yasaka-jinju, one of the shrines we would visit on the following day. The restaurant specializes in a popular style of Kyoto cuisine called Kaiseki, which is an eighteen course meal that usually accompanies the traditional tea ceremony. It turns out that to experience the true full Kaiseki we needed to make reservations (thanks for dropping the ball on that one, Rough Guides) but we were allowed to have a shortened version that ended up being more food than we could eat anyway. We started the meal by removing our shoes and awkwardly attempting to sit in the kneeling position customary in that style of restaurant. Having not practiced sitting in that way since childhood like the Japanese guests that frequent the restaurant, we were squirming within minutes and had to settle for the less elegant cross-legged alternative. The highlight of the meal came early on, with the restaurants specialty of tea-soaked dried cod and yam. It was profoundly good. The fish had a unique and complex flavor, and the bones were so tender after the drying and reconstituting, that you could eat them along with the fish without even noticing them. The rest of the meal consisted of tempura, tofu sashimi, mocha rolls, three kinds of soups and some other dishes I can’t even remember at this point. It was definitely an unforgettable birthday dinner.

Afterward we bought some sake and beer and waddled back to the hotel room where we rested for the next day, which I would like to call “Shrine-a-thon 2010.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Japan 2009: January 3rd, 2010

The few scheduled events we had in Tokyo mostly took place on the 2nd and the 3rd. Today’s travels encompassed the only place where we had to plan to get tickets at least a month in advance of our trip. It was a particularly important stop for me as an animator, because the venue in question represents the pinnacle in animation in Japan. I’m speaking of course of the Studio Ghibli museum in Mitaka. A 30 minute trip on the Chuo line, and a bright yellow bus trip later, we were greeted with the mysterious looking Ghibli museum, the wild imagining of Hazao Miyazaki – often referred to as Japan’s Walt Disney.

The premise of the 4 story museum is “Let’s get Lost Together,” a phrase that resonates pretty strongly with me. Within we were treated to a veritable shrine to Studio Ghibli’s many animated films. No photos were allowed within the space. The museum is comprised of room after room of little animation treasures including detailed dioramas, fantastic machines, storyboards, original artwork, sculptures and most spectacularly, a short animated film that can only be seen at the museum’s movie theatre about mice doing Sumo wrestling, which is just as amusing as it sounds. As a last offering at the museum We threw some money at the Ghibli gift shop then returned to Tokyo, where we caught a subway to Harajuku with the intent to visit Harajuku park.

Harajuku park on Sunday is another of the Rough Guide Tokyo’s must see attractions. Unfortunately for us, because of the New Year and the consequent Shrine-pilgrimage at the adjoining Meiji temple, Harajuku park was tragically lacking in the usual cosplaying gothic Lolita girls, street performers and Rock-a-billy bands. It was a cold and windy day, however, so there were, at least, plenty of dogs wearing coats and people flying kites and throwing frizbees; enough going on to make the walk at least worthwhile. The last thing we saw when leaving the park was a guy in street clothes doing ballet to a friend’s obscenely bad flute version of “When You Wish Upon a Star”, and a skateboarder doing amusing and dangerous ollies over 3-foot-tall parking barriers.

Next we took another stroll down Harajuku avenue – and by stroll I mean we clumsily pushed our way through a crowd of 100 thousand other people attempting to shop at Harajuku’s world-famous clothing shops. I finally succumb to peer pressure and purchased a banana and custard crepe at one of Harajuku’s myriad crepe stands. It was good, if not the miracle of snackery I was promised by my fellow travelers.

Next we went to the 8+ story Tower Records where Phil and Xavi purchased some J-pop and dance CDs. The J-pop album Phil purchased was the result of seeing a music video for the young Idol on a storefront television screen in Shinjuku, wherein the very attractive young woman was performing an alluring dance to phat beats dressed in an Elizabethan black frilly dress. What’s not to love about that? We were once again impressed that the Japanese pay so much for their home entertainment. The CD that Phil purchased cost him 3000 yen, the equivalent of about $33 US. Nothing special about the CD. Just a 12 song CD by a new artist. DVD prices are similarly outrageous.

Immediately following Tower Records, we returned to the hotel where I incubated for 2 hours while Phil and Dustin researched a place to eat for the evening in Shinjuku. They settled on a ramen restaurant in Shinjuku, which we never managed to find. We did find *a* ramen restaurant, which was very good. We retired early that night, because for Phil, Dustin and I, the next day would start at 5am, to catch the bullet train for Kyoto at Tokyo station at 7 am.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Japan 2009: January 2nd, 2010

Many thanks to Phil and his lovely rendition of the events of New Year’s eve and day. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blogger. By the way, this entry and the next were composed between glances out of the window on the Shinkansen bullet train, traveling at 200 miles per hour from Tokyo to Kyoto. More on that later.

January 2nd is one of two days the Emperor’s Palace grounds are open to the public, so 3 of the 5 of us decided to brave the crowds to possibly get a glimpse at said world leader and his pad. The crowd at the palace was comparable to the crowd at Meiji temple the previous day, but thankfully the palace grounds are notably larger than the path leading up to the temple. Everyone in the crowd was handed small paper Japanese flags with which to celebrate their Japanese-ness. We were allowed to have them too, and availed ourselves of the opportunity. The emperor’s palace is surrounded by a large moat and several acres of gardens and grounds smack in the middle of Tokyo proper. After a session of rigorous “pad down the foreigners” from the Tokyo police, we were allowed through the main gate and followed the crowd through the winding hilly path to the palace.

The palace itself is a testament to the Spartan quality of Japanese architecture. It’s a curious amalgam of traditional Japanese style and the clean lines of modern design. We filed into a square where an official of the government was orating in even tones and the countrymen were generating a small windstorm of paper flag rustling. Then, on a glass enclosed balcony about a story above us in the palace, emerged what I assume is the royal family of Japan and the emperor. I assume this because it was pretty difficult to see any facial details at the distance we stood from the balcony, but the fervor of the crowd seemed sufficient for an emperor, so I’m going to go ahead and say it was him. So, yeah, we saw the emperor of Japan. Neat.

Outside the grounds, we wandered around north of the palace and discovered a path lined with Phil and I’s favorite travel pass-time…street food vendors. They were situated along a walkway that we would later discover lead to a monument we wanted to see anyway. But before that, let’s talk about the street food! After an initial mutual convergence on a yakitori stand, where I had both a chicken skewer and what I think was tongue, we decided to divide and conquer to get more mileage out of our eating exploration. Phil stood in line to get some freshly fried Yakisoba noodles, which I picked out some pancake-like buns – one filled with a mild white cheese, the other filled with egg custard. Then a few stalls down we appropriated some seared rice-bun thingies, one filled with stewed Japanese vegetables and another with red beans. (Trust me when I say that I’ve had enough red beans on this trip to last me a lifetime.)

The street vendors eventually gave way to what we first thought was another temple, but turned out to be a controversial monument to World War II called the Peaceful Nation Shrine. The shrine is a combination of monument to the fallen soldiers of the war, and a memorial to an Indian diplomat who wanted Japan to be absolved of guilt for their actions in the war because the international council charged with resolving blame in the conflict was heavily biased towards the Allied forces. To be fair, I suppose it was, but that would be because the Allies won…history written by the victors and all that. The shrine itself was quite nice, and a helpful and emphatic middle-aged man pointed out to us in broken English that the cards hanging from the trees all around the shrine listed regiments of soldiers killed in the war.

There was also a small group of performers playing zithers, an instrument I am not confident giving a constructive opinion on. Strings are plucked to generate the familiar “black keys on a piano” sound of Japanese music and the performer bends the pitches by pressing down between large frets to create dissonant tones in the music.

Afterward we drifted towards a canal and over a small bridge at Iidabashi station to reach Kagurazaka, a neighborhood known for having an “old Tokyo” feel, with many shops selling traditional kimonos and sandals. We stopped to take the opportunity to have a burger at “Mos Burger”. We did this because several people had mentioned to us that we had to, at least once, try a burger in Tokyo to see how the Japanese translate America’s most identifiable foodstuff. Even ordering the most typical-looking burger on the menu, all three of us can testify that, while being fairly edible, the meat-based, cheese covered sandwich of which we partook that day was not what an American would traditionally call a burger. Oh sure, it resembled one, but the texture and flavor of the meat more resembled a Salisbury steak than a true hamburger. We think it might have been a mixture of beef and pork.

After walking around for a few minutes in Kagurazaka and being fairly unimpressed, we hopped on the Subway and headed over to Ginza to see, among other thing, the impressive Sony building. Sony recently released a new Walkman to compete with Apple’s IPod shuffle. It is tremendously thin (less than ¼”), with physical buttons and a small color screen. It might compete, but it’s hard to say. We also saw a little cylindrical robot that danced to whatever music was playing, and a really nice multi-touch monitor. We decided not to wait in line to try on the glasses for the 3d television set.

The next stop was a department store basement. While this may not seem like a particularly interesting thing to do when visiting a city several thousand miles from home, department stores in Tokyo have a very noteworthy aspect to them, usually dwelling on the basement level, that I would like to refer to as “foodtopia.” They are shrines to food – a living testament to a nation that loves to eat. Foodtopia was stall after stall of produce, meats, prepared meals, bento, cakes, pastries, chocolates, salads and fish. It was jammed with people making purchases. Some of the vendors sold things I’d never seen before, like white strawberries and whole fish skewers. Others were old favorites, but of consummate quality – ruby red tuna filets and artistically and precisely constructed bento boxes. We managed to avoid making any purchases, but it was a real treat just walking around there. We might be back later in the trip to partake of Foodtopia’s splendors.

After the Sony building and the department store we went on a mission to find a famous store in Ginza that sells chopsticks. Without too much difficulty we managed to locate the small storefront and walked into a narrow shop with walls completely lined with chopstick sets. Some individual pairs were upwards of 800 dollars, but they ranged anywhere from the single digits to the hundreds. All of us managed to find at least one pair that caught our eye.

The last stop worth mentioning for the day was the restaurant where we ate dinner. Phil had located a tempura restaurant he wanted to try, and we amazingly located it without incident, in the first place we looked. Yes, the guidebook had at last managed to pinpoint a location with enough accuracy to allow us to find it on the first pass through the neighborhood. The restaurant, called Tenmaru, was slightly more expensive than our previous food adventures, but the set meals we purchased contained more than enough food to satisfy our hungers. The meal included wicked fresh sashimi, green salad, miso soup (of course), rice (of course), a dozen or so pieces of tempura which was brought moments after frying to our table, and a small cup of chowanmushi – a Chinese savory egg custard with seafood and vegetables. The meal was topped off with hot roasted green tea and a criminally good tempura fried ice cream.

After dinner we staggered back to the hotel room after picking up some alcoholic beverages from the AM-PM and spent the rest of the evening watching the painful and hypnotic shows on Japanese television.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy Year of the Tiger!

Due to walking-based exhaustion and a bit of a plum wine stupor (they sell it in jars in the convenience stores. JARS!), Ryan is unable to find the energy to write tonight’s post. Instead, you’ll get a little less reverence for food, a few less elegant turns of phrase, and hopefully a little bit more humor from, Travel Partner #1, let’s give a warm Blogger welcome to Mr. Phil Katz.

When Ryan last left us, we were headed to Roppongi Hills for some New Years revelry. In what has been a recurring theme in Tokyo and particularly the last 24 hours, we were not the only people with this plan. Roppongi Hills is a brand new condo, mall, shopping center, art museum, and general purpose metropolitan domination center. For New Years Eve, the entire top floor (one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo) was converted into four separate clubs and bars, each filled with wall to wall people, for an approximate total of 14 kajillion people. When we did manage to elbow our way towards a window, the lights of Tokyo extended as far as the eye could see in every direction. As the clock approached midnight, the crowd counted down in Japanese, but when the moment arrived, the cheer of choice was “Happy New Year”. These are the things I feel you should know.

This morning, we made it out of bed at least 4 minutes before noon in order to join a few dozen or so Japanese pilgrims at Meiji-Jingu, Japan’s largest Shinto shrine. Ok, I’m exaggerating, it was more like a few million Japanese pilgrims. But before visiting the shrine, we made a quick stop at the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Building, where we had a rare Mt. Fuji sighting. We followed that up with a quick lunch and then a quick second lunch with the street vendors (Ryan had takoyaki again, this time with cute baby octopi inside. At one point he pointed out the face on one of the octopi, and then flagrantly broke my “never eat anything with a face” rule).

After all that, we were ready to naively wander into a crowd of Japanese people significantly larger than the population of Utah. Meiji-Jingu is really a very nice shrine, but the biggest impression it made on me was that it was important enough to the Japanese people that they would come stand in line for hours just to make a quick offering to their ancestors.

The rest of the day was a blur of back alleys and shopping. We found our way to an Okonomiyaki restaurant (Osaka-style griddle cooking) for dinner. I purchased a shiny, puffy coat after deciding that the Japanese know something I don’t about fashion. We found our way to the legendary Golden Gai neighborhood by following a small wooded path between two back alleys in the neon district of Shinjuku (no, really. We were a little lost, and were like, why are there trees there? A few twists and turns and a rabbit hole later, and we were surrounded by tiny little bars and Japanese locals).

Ryan just started twitching and whimpering, which I think is my cue to let him post this entry without further ado.