Sunday, December 28, 2014

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 11/5 - Day 20 - Ueno Park, Vintage Shopping and Curry

Breakfast today was again on the 30th floor dining room at the Grand Pacific Le Daiba hotel. This time we had a table that directly overlooked the harbour. With our remaining day in Tokyo we did a few less obvious things in the city...
We headed out to Ueno, another large neighborhood in Tokyo. Our original goal was Ueno Park, but we became sidetracked in doing some off-Ginza shopping in some of the side streets in the Ueno area. It was a little cooler and Sean hadn't brought a sweater, so he picked up a hoodie with some lovely bad English translations on it. I believe it says "Attention No Section GH University" Which I'm pretty sure is not a real place. (The closest thing I could get in a Google search was the University of Ghana.) Feeling slightly reenergized by shopping, we ventured off to Ueno Park.
Ueno Park is a large public park in the Ueno neighborhood, and home to several museums including the Tokyo National Museum, the National Gallery of Western Art and the Tokyo Science and Nature Museum. By now the leaves in Tokyo were starting to change a bit more, but they hadn't taken on the fiery oranges and reds that we had hoped for coming to Japan in the fall. It was still a very scenic place and worth a walkthrough.
Life-sized sculpture of a Blue Whale in front of the Tokyo
Museum of Science and Nature
We chose the Science and Nature museum as our musée du jour but as this is day 19 of our trip, we were pretty well exhausted going into it (the extra shopping energy had started to fade.) The rooms were warm, and there were a lot of examples of the geological and fossil history of Japan. I'm sure it would have been fascinating if A: anything had been in English, and B: we were touring it at any other time in the trip but the last day of the last leg. Still, one of the up-moments was a 360 degree movie theatre that presented two short films (both in Japanese of course), one of which was about the creation of the universe, big bang and all, and the other was about the rise of the evolution of man. They were both bombastic and spectacular, though the computer graphics were a tiny bit dated. We struggled through about half of the rest of the museum before retreating to the cafe for a coffee - a vain attempt to recapture some energy that failed. Sitting in the cafe, we decided that our best course of action was to continue to do the one thing that had energized us
A friend of ours spent some time in Tokyo last year and had recommended a shopping area known for vintage clothing, so we decided to hit up Shimo-kitazawa (charmingly ‘Lower North Swamp’). The vintage stores come at you right outside the subway stop, so we pretty much plunged immediately into shopping. Sadly, after a few hours of wandering in and out of little boutiques, neither of us came up with any treasure, but it was still a fun experience.
Tonkatsu curry with vegetables at CoCo Ichi
The last thing we had in mind for the day was eating some authentic diner curry. Diner curry is a staple of the Japanese businessman – much milder of spice, though often equal in spiciness, to Indian or southeast Asian curry. We decided on a chain, because it actually had pretty rave reviews in Trip Advisor, and went to CoCo Ichi, just outside of Shibuya station. I had a vegetable and tonkatsu curry at spice level 3, Sean had a vegetable and chicken katsu at spice level 2. The scale goes up to 10, but they won’t even serve you spice level 6 or higher until you’ve proven you can eat 5. While it was a little disconcerting seeing them cut open curry bags and tonkatsu bags and dumping things into pots and deep fryers, the end result was actually pretty darn good. Either the standard for fast food is higher in Japan (which is doubtful considering Burger recently released an All Black Hamburger there), or I don’t know good curry from shine-ola, or CoCo-Ichi makes legitimately good curry in their little plastic bags. Who knows?
Tomorrow is our last day, and it’s dedicated more or less entirely to travel. In fact, it’s really two days of travel, because we gain a day back when we cross the International Date Line. All in all our travel time door to door back home is going to be something along the lines of 20 hours. Needless to say I’ll be waiting until Friday to write my summary post.
Until then, goodnight good readers.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 11/4 - Day 19 - Old Wood and New Land

Anyway, our hotel is very nice, and we have a great view of Tokyo Harbour from our 24th floor room.  There's even a tiny replica of the Statue of Liberty sitting right at the edge of the water. Tonight we decided to stick around Daiba. Nothing in this town is at ground level except parking. Everything is accessible via 2nd or 3rd floor walkway, and its all modern malls and restaurants. There are very few mom and pop places around here. There's even a small replica State of Liberty sitting by the bay. For dinner we went to a branch of the famous Gonpachi restaurant, known for being the inspiration for the restaurant fight scene from Kill Bill. To be honest, while the food was good, the whole place felt like a sort of facade of a real Japanese restaurant - everything seemed faked - like the Rio Bravo of Japanese cuisine. The food wasn't *bad*, but it wasn't spectacular, aside from a lovely expensive chunk of wagyu beef we enjoyed (certainly not the highest grade of wagyu, but great nonetheless.)

Horyuji Kondo with 5-Story Pagoda in the background
We needed to be back in Tokyo at some point today, but didn't really want to spend two entire days exploring there again, so we opted to take a side trip to the little town of Ikaruga, halfway between Nara and Osaka, to visit Horyuji Temple, the world's oldest surviving wooden structure.
Horyuji was created by a rich old dying emperor, as a way to heal himself. He died shortly after it was finished, so I guess it didn't work out for him...or perhaps it did, in an existentially ironic sort of way. Anyway, the end result is impressive nonetheless, as Horyuji has survived for more than 1300 years and was fairly untouched by war and fire. There is an interesting museum there, housing hundreds of priceless cultural artifacts, and the grounds are extensive, having two unique precincts, east and west, and covering about 187,000 square meters.
The most impressive structure is probably the main hall, or Kondo, which houses several bronze statues and some original wall paintings which are in pretty good shape given their pronounced age. The Kondo also features intricately carved wooden gargoyles in the shapes of dragons and lions on the awnings and columns. Horyuji as a whole is very well maintained. It certainly looks old, but it doesn't look delapidated. It was definitely worth the hour it took to get out there.
Replica Statue of Liberty at Daiba,
 with Rainbow Bridge in background
Horyuji viewed and appreciated, we went our way back to Osaka to retrieve our bags from their storage lockers at the train station, then proceeded back on the Shinkansen to Tokyo. Three hours later we arrived in the city and spent the next half hour trying to figure out how to get to our hotel in the neighborhood of Daiba, which is right on Tokyo harbour. The most efficient route to get there is on a private train line and after wandering the JR station for a while, then scouring their website, we discovered through a series of pictorial clues, that there was a completely separate station for the line, called the Yurikamome. We left the JR station and figured out our route. The Yurkiamome or Tokyo Waterfront New Transit Line is known for having a big loop midway through it. We can only guess that this seemingly inefficient design is due to the need to align the track both horizontally and vertically to a large bridge that crosses the harbour, but it seems like a waste of construction and time.
Daiba is built on reclaimed land from the harbour and is a brand new area compared to just about everywhere else in Tokyo. Until the 1990's Daiba was a series of more or less disconnected man-made islands in the harbour. But in the early part of the 90's the governor of Tokyo began an initiative to turn Daiba into a futuristic concept city called Tokyo Teleport Town. Several years and more than 1 trillion yen later, the governor's successor shit-canned the project, and Daiba remained unfinished and underpopulated. Daiba is still pretty empty compared to the rest of Tokyo, but it's slowly starting to develop, and is part of Japan's bid for the 2020 Summer Olympic games.
Tomorrow is our last day in Tokyo. We don't have any solid plans and we're both pretty exhausted at this point, but we're determined to do something with our last full day of our time in Japan. Until then, it's time for a nap.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 11/3 - Day 18 - Osaka On-Day

Osaka Castle - Bigger on the Outside
We ate breakfast in the apartment, having purchased eggs, ham and bread at a convenience store nearby the night before. We discovered this morning that Sean's iPhone had been damaged in a freak...bathing...condensation...accident and was no longer functioning properly. This is never good news, but particularly frustrating on a long overseas trip. He took the catastrophe fairly well, and we'll get it replaced when we get back to the states. In the meantime, I have the only working source of maps and information.
We took the subway to Osaka castle, one of the other major sights we had in mind for the Osaka leg of our trip. Osaka castle is the most *castle* looking of the castles we've seen so far. When we arrived at the castle grounds,  we discovered that today is a national holiday! Happy Culture day, Japan! Culture day is a national day of celebrating culture, the arts and academic achievement. People have the day off and are encouraged to go to cultural sites. Needless to say, we were not alone at Osaka castle. The grounds were full of locals and there was even a performance depicting the struggle between the Tokogawa and Toyotomi families over the castle starring a famous female performer, who flubbed her lines several times, but was nonetheless entertaining.
After the performance we went up into Osaka castle itself, which, to be honest was a little disappointing. The interior has been turned into a museum, which was *kind of* interesting, but I would have been much more interested in seeing the actual interior of the building, which was more or less annihilated in World War II. There was a nice view of Osaka from the top floor, and if you're in Osaka, it's more or less a given you're going to go to Osaka castle. Just prepare for the lack of interior.
Lunch today was takoyaki at the autumn festival on Osaka castle grounds. Takoyaki apparently originated in Osaka, and these last takoyaki of the trip were probably the best we've had so far.
We spent most of the morning and part of the afternoon getting to and hanging out at Osaka castle. Afterward, returning to the subway station, we ran into a culture day parade, with people on carts carrying fans, shouting orders to other people pulling said carts, while others within the carts played drums and bells. There was a line of these carts, each with varying levels of energy being put into their performances.
We headed to Shinsaibashi, a large shopping district in Osaka, where we wandered, stupefied by the enormity of the shopping area. There were so...many...stores. We walked about 1/4 of the length of the entire main street of Shinsaibashi before deciding to take a break and head back to the apartment before dinner.
Yum yum Okonomiyaki at Fukutaro
Dinner tonight was at an awesome okonomiyaki restaurant called Fukutaro. There was a line out the door, which we've experienced at every restaurant we've been to in Osaka, so I guess we picked well, with the help of Trip Advisor and our hosts. Okonomiyaki, for the uninitiated, are a type of pancake made from burdock root flour, cabbage, and usually pork. Osaka is famous for Okonomiyaki, and this restaurant, called Fukutaro, makes it exceptionally well. We had two types - the traditional version, made with pork, and a beef and onion version. Both were awesome. We also had some plum wine made from distilling plums, instead of infusing sake with plums. It wasn't nearly as sickly sweet as the plum-chu we've been having, and I actually much preferred it.
After dinner we went to Dotonburi, a nightlife area right along the Dontonburi river in Osaka. We checked out a bar called Space Station, run by an American ex-pat, that has classic video games at the bar and a bunch of video game themed drinks. We tried a "Hadouken" shot (which was cloying sweet and lit on fire) and a "Triforce" which tasted like cinnamon and was also pretty brutally sweet. To be honest, the drinks at Space Station were a little too college bar feeling to me. I wish they were a little more sophisticated with their choice of mixes. It's a neat idea for a bar, but I feel like it could be a lot more than it is.
After a few rounds of Street Fighter 2 and some Mario Kart on the Super Famicom, we walked along the river, past all the Love Hotels, night clubs and late night takoyaki joints, and wound up back at the subway station bound for home.
Tomorrow we're headed to one more temple, one of the oldest in the area, before heading back to Tokyo for a few more days.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 11/2 - Day 17 - Osaka Off-day

Pancake Benedicts at Pancake Days
Our first day in Osaka was a bit of a down day. It was raining, we were tired, neither of us wanted to do a whole lot. Osaka, to be honest, doesn't have a lot of particularly memorable sights, so we didn't feel too bad about spending a day doing relatively little. One of Osaka's main attractions is the aquarium, so we made that our top priority for the day. 
First off though, we had it in our heads to have pancakes for breakfast. We found a place rated on Yelp fairly highly for their pancakes, so we went off in search of Pancake Days, which was located in one of the vast multilevel department stores that Japan is crazy about. It turned out that the pancake restaurant was located on the kids floor of the department store, and we felt a little weird walking through it trying to find the restaurant. We had almost decided to give up - the weirdness was getting to us - when we found a map that guided us to the restaurant. Blessedly, there were some adults in the place without kids, so we felt a little more at ease eating there. Pancake Days was still more or less a children's restaurant. All the pancakes had smiley faces on them. I opted for a "pancake benedict" with poached eggs and hollandaise and bacon. It was pretty acceptable, and a nice change of pace from the fish and/or french pastry based breakfasts we were becoming familiar with.
Side note, all the grade-school kids in Japan have these bad-ass leather/vinyl backpacks that I've fallen in love with. I totally wanted one, and the department store we had breakfast in had them, but, and I'm not kidding here, they ran upwards of 600-800 dollars for the leather ones. I assume kids use them for many years, because the costs seem outrageous for them. Anyway, I still want one, but I'm going to need to find a much better deal than that to convince me to buy.
After breakfast, it was aquarium time.
If you squint, you can almost see a seal
The Osaka aquarium is vast, with over 11,000 tons of water and a 750 meter path winds its way up and down through the tanks. The facility specializes in aquatic life from all over the Pacific Rim and has dolphins, sea lions and even a small whale shark in an enormous tank as part of the central exhibit.
We were not the only ones who thought it was a good idea to go to the aquarium on a rainy Sunday. It felt like half of Osaka joined us, and the combination of the enclosed space, the crush of people, and the visual distortion caused by the foot thick acrylic they used in the tanks, was disorienting after about an hour in the enclosure. By the time we were done with the aquarium, we were pretty much done for the day as well. We went back to the apartment and rested before heading out to dinner later on at an extremely popular ramen joint near the apartment.
The ramen joint was called Muteppou, and it had a line out the door - a clear indication in Osaka of a good restaurant. After a half-hour wait we ordered from a ticket machine entirely in Japanese - it's my theory in these places that if you order the most expensive thing on the ticket menu, you'll usually do fine, so I got a 1300 yen ramen, which amounts to about 13 dollars. 
Deliciously Sludgy Ramen at Muteppou.
Needed some Sansho though...
It turned out that major difference between my ramen and Sean's, who got a 750 yen bowl, was more broth, and a boiled egg, which suited me fine. The waiter informed us in English that there were three decisions to make for your ramen in their shop - thickness and type of noodle, thickness of soup. He recommended going standard across the board since it was our first time in the restaurant. The ramen there is of the "sludgy" variety, which is a bit of a gross description, but it just means they thicken the broth, and it lends a creaminess to the base. It was good ramen. Very good. It was made better in both our opinions by a spicy, salty garlic condiment that they had on the table, that we eventually used in quantity.
Full of soup, tired as all hell, we retired to the apartment. The next day was going to be sunny and cooler, and had a few surprises for us...

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 11/1 - Day 16 - Nara and Fried Things on Sticks

East and West Breakfast at the Nikko Nara
We overslept until about 8:00 today, due to a combination of walk exhaustion and highballs. It was raining in Nara, and continued to do so for the remains of the day. Breakfast this morning was of a buffet sort at the hotel - a combination of Japanese and western style. Again, buffets are usually kind of awful, but this one was well attended, which helped the quality, and they actually put on a pretty decent spread. We filled our plates with runny scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, grilled fish, rice porridge, shumai and dozens of other little things and ate two meals worth of food. Sean also had more repellant natto. I'm a little surprised we didn't get any looks from the quantities we consumed.
Nara is known for a few things. It was the capitol city on and off again, the longest stretch of which was about 70 years. According to wikipedia, during the shogunate, it was common practice to move the imperial residence every time a prominent member of the family died, for fear of  angering the dead relative's ghost by sticking around. That means there were a lot of imperial residences, though most of them were made of wood and very few have survived. Nara is most famous for Nara park, which houses a few very important Buddhist temples and a *lot* of deer.
The Nara Deer are everywhere in the park
The deer in Nara are pretty awesome. They act more like goats than deer, and they are everywhere in the park. They are completely unshy around people, probably because of how much they get fed by tourists, and they will come up to you, playfully eat out of your hand or allow you to pet them, and then equally playfully shit all over your shoes. Shitting aside, they are pretty adorable, and even though photography was difficult as it was pouring for most of the morning, seeing them wandering around the park was a pleasure.
The first temple we visited was just off the main road, and featured a famous five-story pagoda, second tallest in all of Japan next to Toji temple in Kyoto. We free English speaking tour guide came up to us and gave us a verbal tour of the elements that make up the pagoda and we learned a bit about how the temple is designed to withstand earthquakes by allow the different floors to shift around the main support beam in different directions.
After the pagoda we walked through the park and visited the largest wooden building in the world - the Daibutsuden (great Buddha hall) at the Todaiji temple complex.
The giant Buddha at Daibutsuden
The building itself is very impressive, but the most impressive piece is the enormous 50 foot tall statue of Buddha within the shrine, surrounded by more-than-life-size bronze Bodhisattva and flanked by two more huge Bodhisattva. The whole main statue is massive and weighs more than 500 tons. In 855 the head of the Buddha randomly fell off and had to be reseated, but despite a few fires and earthquakes, the temple and the statues are more or less original.
Todaiji is connected to several other shrines and temples in Nara park via a path through the forest, parts of which are lined with beautiful old lanterns. In some areas, these lanterns are covered in moss and ferns - the whole area looks like something out of a fantasy movie. Many of the lanterns are also covered in paper, and we wondered if they lit the whole thing up at night. It seems unlikely now, but one can imagine they used to do this with oil reservoirs and the path must have seemed very mystical indeed. From Todaiji we walked along the base of Wakasuka Hill where more deer were hanging out.
The Lantern lined path leading to Kasuga Taisha
The rain had stopped at this point but most of the tourists weren't quite out yet, making the walk a little more pleasant. Through the lantern strewn path we went to Kasuga Taisha, famous for its bronze lanterns and homage sites to gods that ward off evil and the spirit of the summit of the mountain. There is also a darkened corridor that is dimly lit by hundreds of bronze lanterns, made to simulate a lantern festival that used to take place there.
It was early afternoon, and there was still one specific site we wanted to see in Nara, on the other side of town. We hopped on a tourist bus, which was a slower trip but cost about half as much as the city bus. We were bound for the site of the old Imperial Palace in Nara, which was excavated in the 1970s and relatively neglected until the early 2000's when the Japanese government decided to reconstruct (based on paintings and, to be honest, a whole lot of guessing) how the main building of the palace would have appeared in its hey day. There was a festival going on at the site but we never actually figured out what it was. There was food carts however, and in the end, food carts are all that matters.
This time I decided to get a little crazy and try a Korean street food called Pa Jeun, which are scallion pancakes. This was served with a flaming hot kimchi, possibly the hottest I've ever experienced. It was a great combination with the mild, oniony pancake. We also had some pour-over coffee, because daddy needs his coffee. The hot coffee actually played surprisingly nicely with the kimchee.
The Daigokuden, the recreated central building of the
Imperial Palace at Nara
The recreation of the main building of the Imperial Palace, called the Daigokuden (Great Hall of State), was finished started in 2001 and finished in 2010. The place still looks and smells brand new, but give it two or three hundred years and people will probably start thinking its the original again, like with many of the other rebuilt structures in Japan. It has beautiful paintings on the inside and the whole thing is done in a similar fashion to other structures of the era, so they're hoping for a measure of authenticity. It was an interesting comparison to see a structure just newly reconstructed, compared to the reconstructions of the past. We left Heijo palace right when the festival decided to let out, so we were jammed into the tourist bus like circus clowns, with way too many people to be safe, and carted back to Nara station. This is the closest thing we've experienced to the "packing in" that is usually seen on the Tokyo subway, and it was pretty unpleasant. Everyone was nice enough about it, really, but when you get that many people into a single vehicle, you're bound to invade on someone else's personal space.
Around 5:30 we boarded another local line train to Osaka. We once again transitioned from city to country to city, and were left in Osaka itself, a much bigger city than Nara by far - the third largest in Japan after Tokyo and Yokohama. We followed our hosts very specific instructions to our airBnB home for the next three nights. It's another nice apartment, very quiet, just outside the Dotonburi shopping/nightlife district, so it's pretty much perfect.
Fried things on sticks at Daruma
We left the apartment intent on finding a ramen shop that our hosts gushed about, but when we discovered it, we also discovered a line practically around the block to get into it. This was even with the rain coming down pretty heavily. We decided instead to find a kushikatsu place that Trip Advisor recommended, but before we got to it, we found another kushikatsu place with a crowd of locals around it, and decided this was the place we wanted. The restaurant was called Daruma (transliterated 'Dharma'), and it pretty much rocked. Kushikatsu is fried shiskabobs - its fair food. Stuff deep fried on sticks. Need I say more? Ok, I will. There was variety of meats, veggies and other things to choose from, and a perfectly reasonable English language menu to order from. We had chicken skin, chicken tenders with garlic, quail eggs (amazingly good, the yolk took on a sort of deviled egg consistency), mochi (awesome), sausage (not so awesome, more like jimmy dean red hots than actual meat-food), octopus, beef, eggplant, sweet potato, regular potato...good lord did we eat a lot of those sticks! If you go, it's worth the wait in line, really. The staff are very personable, and the whole place has a fun, if a bit loud, vibe.
Tomorrow we have little planned. It's supposed to rain all day, so we're going to try to do indoor things and have a sort of off-day so we can wind down a bit. I might combine tomorrow and the next day into one report. Anyway, off to do more things!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/31 - Day 15 - Kyoto Castles and Copies

We started the day determined to have a sit-down breakfast, since for the last several days we've been going to bakeries in the morning and grabbing something doughy and fast. On the way to our first stop of the day, Nijo Castle, we found a breakfast diner called Hello and Goodbye which happily proclaimed that they featured American style breakfasts. Well alright then, Kyoto, show me what you've got. Unfortunately, what Hello and Goodbye had was a pretty bizarre take on an American breakfast - scrambled eggs with their whites and yolks more or less entirely seperate, toast with margarine (ick),  cabbage salad (no idea where this one came from), some pieces of deli-sliced turkey-ham, and some watery diner coffee. Ok, at least they got that last part more or less correct. We also got a piece of cheese cake because why not? The owner did seem a little confused about the fact that we ordered that along with the breakfasts, but he also uses cabbage slaw in his American breakfast, so I dont hold his opinion in the highest regard.
One of the resplendent gates at Nijo-jo
After we broke fast, we headed across the street to Nijo-jo, a castle originally built by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1626. The castle keep suffered a series of disasters and was rebuilt twice since the original construction. Once in 1750, and then again in 1788. It is a large complex, parts of which were even imported from other castles during the original construction. The coolest part of Nijo-jo was the "nightingale floors" of the central building. They are built using special nails that shift in the supports when you walk across them, and they make a noise that sounds remarkably like the musical honks of a nightingale. I recorded it and I'll try to post the sound later when I have access to a program that will let me do that (I'm writing this from my iPad and there's not an elegant way to do it from here.)
Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion. Not quite as jazzed up
as its older twin.
From Nijo castle we took the bus out to the Philosopher's Walk, a stone pathway running along a canal on the western edge of Hirashiyama. It was given its name because a prominent professor at the University of Kyoto in the early 20th century used to frequent it. It connects several of the shrines and temples in the region and is lined with shops and food stalls. Apparently it is gorgeous in the Spring due to all the cherry trees that line the path, though I have only seen it in early Autumn and mid-Winter and it was pretty enough even then. We walked the path up to Ginkaku-ji, the silver pavilion, which is a less  spectacular version of its older twin, Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavilion. Kinkaku-ji was created by son of the creator of Ginkaku-ji, and he *did* have plans to foil the building in silver to match the gold of its twin, but a war got in the way of his plans and then he died, and well the whole silver part of the silver pavilion just never quite got around to happening. While that bit is a little disappointing, the best thing that Ginkaku-ji is its gorgeous grounds, which are even better than its older twin's, much lusher and more beautiful in every season.
After Ginkaku-ji we were a bit templed out, but we still wanted to see the Heian-in shinto shrine, if anything for its enormous tori gate. It was starting to rain by the time we got there, but we saw the gate, the grounds, and the shrine itself which were actually a bit disappointing after all the grandeur of the last few sites we had visited. Heian is in a bit dishevel compared to some of its comrads - the paint is starting to chip a bit, the wood is starting to look a little rough. It's probably due for some maintenance. After Heian we were pretty much spent on Kyoto shrines and ready to head out to our next destination, Nara. Nara is the pre-Kyoto capital of Japan, and since Kyoto was the capitol city for over 1000 years, we are talking the *old* old capitol. Of course, it isn't the *oldest* old old capitol, and was in fact the seat of the empire for only about 70 years, and its tiny compared to every other city we are visiting, but the little guy has a lot to offer. 
We took a local JR line train from Kyoto to Nara, which took about 45 minutes, and checked into our hotel, the Nara Nikko, which is literally attached to the train station. It was late enough that all we really wanted to do was get something to eat and relax for the rest of the day, so we walked around the corner to a restaurant highly rated on Trip Advisor, a seafood restaurant called, wait for it, Uosen Suisan Sakanaya Dojo Nara Sanjo-dori... or at least that's how it is listed on Trip Advisor. There is no English signage at the restaurant.
Big Sashimi bowl at Uosen Suisan. They
give you the head and tail to prove how fresh
it is, then fry the bones up for you as crackers.
We sat down, our waitress brought us some chopsticks and then promptly disappeared. We ruminated over the all-Japanese menu for several minutes and she hadn't returned...many more minutes passed and I was beginning to think that we were receiving the unwanted tourist treatment, then the Japanese couple next to us asked us in pretty good English whether we needed help ordering, and we discovered that you had to *summon* the waiter with a big red button that was sitting on the table the entire time. It was definitely an embarrassing stupid tourist moment, but lucky for us, our discomfort and disquiet at being ignored made us some friends, as the couple chatted with us for most of our meal about cultural differences, why we were in Japan, what we did, and all that. And once we actually figured out how to order, the restaurant really did have some great food. The sashimi was super fresh, the takoyaki was much better than the stuff I had in Tokyo, and we got to try some new things including a mixed grill of chicken yakitori (including skin and gristle, which were both actually pretty good), and a dish typically made by fishermen called Sangayaki, which although tiny, was also good - sort of like a small tuna casserole without the noodles. Maybe it was the several drinks we had, but we were very chatty with our new friends, and it was a nice evening. We payed for it a bit the next morning when we were supposed to be up and touring Nara, and were instead oversleeping with hangovers. But that's for tomorrow!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/30 - Day 14 - Golden Temples, Zen Gardens, Imperial Houses, and Some Manga

That view of Kinkaku-ji that everyone has a shot of.
There are a few temples in the Kyoto area that are sort of out of the way of the rest of the scene, and one of them is a near-critical visit - Kinkaku-ji temple, the golden pavilion, was originally a retirement villa for a Shogun (well, according to a Spanish tour guide we eavesdropped on, it was originally a small village which was then 'appropriated' by the shogunate into a retirement villa.) His son converted it into a Buddhist temple after his father's death. Like most extremely old buildings (this one dates back to 1397) Kinkaku-ji was once burned to the ground and a new one was constructed in 1955. It was faithfully reconstructed aside from the fact that the new architects thought it needed a little more bling, so instead of just the top floor of the pavilion being leafed in gold they just went ahead and did the whole shebang, inside and out. The inside is sadly inaccessible to the public, but we did see some photos.
We took a peaceful stroll along with several thousand other tourists through the grounds of Kinkaku-ji. There was a little tea house here where we stopped and had some matcha. Neither of us are particularly fond of matcha, but the novelty of the idea of having some tea at a temple struck us, so we went ahead with it anyway. Having lightly refueled, we exited the grounds to walk a mile to the other out-of-the-way sight in northwest Kyoto, Ryoan-ji.
Ryoan-ji is a temple complex of the Rinzai school, and the zen garden there, with its fifteen perfectly positioned rocks amidst a field of combed pebbles, is a famous icon of Kyoto. The zen garden is surprisingly small, and you view it from a platform within the main temple building, so you can't get particularly close to it. The grounds of the complex were almost more striking than the zen garden itself, with a large lake surrounded by maple trees and copses of spruce and willow. 
Kyoto Imperial Palace main building
A 25 minute bus ride returned us to the area near our apartment, which also happens to be the location of the old Imperial castle. Kyoto Imperial Palace was the seat of the emperor of Japan for upwards of 1000 years before it was moved to Tokyo in the later part of the 19th century. In one of those the serendipitous travel coincidences that sometimes occur, we had come to visit the Imperial Palace on the first open day of the Fall season, which means we didn't have to go apply to get access to the palace area, it was open to everyone. On the one hand, cool, we didn't have to show our passports and fill out paperwork to get in. On the other, there was a swarm of tourists who all wanted in on the first open day, so we shared the experience with the unwashed masses. The grounds of the Imperial Palace are expansive, and the inner gardens and buildings are impressive as well. It occurs to me as a write this that my readers are probably tired of hearing "impressive" and "beautiful" as descriptors for everything in Kyoto...but seriously, I'd be spending a lot of time with a thesaurus trying to come up with unique adjectives for the same effect. Everything is just freaking amazing, ok? Go see it.
After the Imperial Palace, we had a hankerin' for some noodles. It so happened that we were in the apartment's neighborhood, and we had a pretty thorough food recommendation list for the area from our host. It also so happened that our host's wife's family runs a noodle shop in the area. Oh cool, we thought, we can visit a little cafe run by locals. It turns out that our host's wife's family runs are pretty epic Kyoto institutional restaurant called Honke Owariya, which has been around for more than 500 years and has four locations in the Kyoto area.
Rikyu Soba with fried gluten cakes
We dined upon Nishin-boni, smoked herring filets simmered in sweet soy. Sean had the house soup with soba noodles, leeks and a poached egg, and I had Rikyu soba, made with fried wheat gluten cakes, yuzu citrus peel and the same house broth. For dessert, Sean had Tokoro Ten, which are glass-like jelly noodles that are more or less flavorless, but in this case served with sweet vinegar and, of all things, spicy yellow mustard. I had warabi-mochi, which are sweet dumplings made from bracken root and dusted with roasted buckwheat. The dumplings were pretty much like mochi, but the buckwheat dust had a sort of unpleasant gritty mouth feel. Eh, at least I tried it.
A few blocks away from the restaurant was the Kyoto International Manga museum, our next stop. Aside from informative exhibits about what Manga *is*, the museum is a living repository of manga books, and seemed more useful as a place one holds a membership and goes to as a library. There were 3 floors of manga, mostly in Japanese but several in other languages as well, in the extensive collection. There was also a gallery for a new anime that is going to be released in January of 2015 called "Fleet Girls" which judging from the illustrations and the short promo video, is light on story and big on hot chicks with guns and anchors and fighter planes attached to them in various ways. We weren't that impressed with 'Fleet Girls'.
Afterward, we returned to the apartment for a few minutes, then went out to downtown Kyoto, where we walked around the shops. We were originally going to Nishiki market, which is a food and kitchen supply area, but it closed at 5 o'clock, so the whole place was forbidding metal rolling doors and unlit signs. Right around the corner though was the main shopping district, and we walked through there for about an hour and a half before losing steam. Our last gasp of the day was to visit a Japanese bookstore, where we headed immediately to the ages 0-3 section. Sean picked up a book about a little girl going on her first errand, to get some milk for her mother, and on our way out we saw the Japanese version of the first Harry Potter book, so I bought that to add to the many other versions of Harry Potter I have in my library at home.
On our way back to the apartment we got some take-out from a crappy little fast-food place called Hotto Motto, where I got a Japanese curry with tonkatsu, and Sean had a fried chicken donburri rice bowl. Tomorrow we check out of our apartment in Kyoto. We will spend most of the day trying to see some of the things we missed over the last few days, and then we'll head over to Nara for a taste of ever older Japan.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/29 - Day 13 - Kyoto Temple Run, Part 1

Breakfast at the Ryokan
Breakfast at the Ryokan was another impressive affair, served in our rooms by our private attendant. There was smoked grilled fish, tea with salted apricot (a tradition of the ryokan), little baby whole sardines with grated radish, pickled vegetables, miso soup, and a citrus scented chawanmushi, which is a type of mild egg custard.
After we checked out of the Ryokan we took the subway to the airBnB where we'll spend the last few nights of our stay in Kyoto.  The place we are staying appears to be a converted office building. It's a studio with a relatively large living space and a big Turkish looking tent over the beds. The host calls this room the "cocoon room." Very arty.
After re-settling in our new place, we decided to have a light lunch by heading to a bakery nearby. We bought some various pastry filled with various things, and then went out to discover how to use the bus system in Kyoto. It turned out to be relatively simple - if one is planning to use the bus more than twice, it behooves the person to buy a day bus pass, which allows them to hop on and off the bus any number of times over the course of a single day. You buy the bus passes at local convenience stores.
Half the day was already burned, but we headed out to Southern Higashiyama, the district in Kyoto with the highest concentration of tourist attractions. This is the primary Kyoto Temple run. The whole thing is about 11 kilometers of walking through hilly and often winding stone roads and walkways, but we only did half of it today, starting at the southernmost attraction, Kiyomizu-dera.
Kiyomizu-dera means 'pure water temple' and is a large Buddhist temple built atop a mountain spring. It is impressive not only because of its size, but due to the nature of the construction of the temple. which is partially built out onto large scaffolding overlooking the spring itself. Part of the temple was sadly under construction, so it wasn't as striking as it could have been, with half of the buildings covered with construction tarps.
Love Shrine at Kiyumizu Dera
One of the must-do's at Kiyumizu is to walk the Tainai-meguri path, a pitch-black walkway under the shrine with a beaded line that you have to hold onto to keep from getting hopelessly lost in the darkness. The path is a symbolic rebirth through the birthing bits of Daizuigu Bosatsu, a Bodhisattva who grants wishes. You wander down the dark canal, leaving your physical form behind you, enter into a dimly lit alcove where a spinning stone sits, presumably representing your new, soon-to-be-reborn egg-self. You touch the egg, wish for something hopefully less shallow than a new car or a puppy or whatever, and then continue to follow the line and are reborn into the world, bursting forth into new light and life.
Yeah, that's what was supposed to happen. What ended up happening for me is I got halfway down the proverbial vagina, touched the stone, got totally disoriented and wound up working my way back up the wrong passage and getting almost totally back to the beginning before realizing what I was doing was against the natural flow...coincidence? I suspect not, Bodhisattva.
Anyway, we made our way through the symbolic vagina eventually, and wandered about the temple grounds some more, stopping at the true love shrine where lovers come to pray for strong relationships, and skipped out on drinking the purifying waters of the spring because there was a huge line, and we were pretty sure that even if the spring water was pure, those cups everyone was using to drink from it had a cumulative million lips upon them that day alone.
A stroll down Ishibei-koji
Once again, in an effort to summarize, I'm not going to talk about everything we did today. It was a long walk and we saw so many gorgeous temples and shrines it's difficult to separate them in my head. We saw a huge necropolis, a gorgeous old Kyoto street called Ishibei-koji, the shrine of a wealthy family called Kodai-ji, which we caught right at the magic hour and I practically burned out my camera taking pictures. We walked through some parks, ate ice cream with yuzu marmalade, and I was just thoroughly re-enchanted with the Kyoto shrine district. It really is something special.
That night we returned to Gion, to a restaurant called Gion Manzara, which is a bar that also serves food called izakaya, which is a lot like Japanese tapas, food made to be eaten while drinking. They make their own sake at Gion Manzara, and we consumed much of it, all the while enjoying various dishes like stewed simmered pumpkin, boiled eel with sansho leaves, sashimi style seared wagyu, and my first taste of fresh matsutake mushrooms, the flavor of which, to be honest, was a little like wet paper. I mean there was a layer of complexity to it that was enjoyable...I just wish the water paper taste was a little less pronounced.
I actually had a moral dilemma at the restaurant, possibly one of my first when deciding whether I was going to order something. They had whale sashimi on the menu, and whale is one of those things that you're not likely to come across very often. There *are* sustainable and 'reasonably' ethical whale hunting practices out there, but it was impossible to know how this particular whale was fished, so I opted out of trying it. As much as I love trying new things, I guess I have some lines, and I've had it drilled into me for a so long that whale fishing is brutal and horrible, that it's hard to separate that from the experience of eating it. So no whale for now. Maybe some day the opportunity will arise for me to try some that I know has been fished ethically...or as ethically as anything else in that vein.
Tomorrow we try to finish the temple run and check out central Kyoto and the Imperial palace as well. We've got all of today and part of tomorrow to wind up Kyoto. To be honest I wish he had at least another day here, but we didn't want to miss Nara and Osaka, so sacrifices had to be made. Anyway, onward!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/28 - Day 12 - In Shinkansen and Onsen

The Nozomi line is the fastest of the Shinkansen,
for the time being...
Today we left the comfort of our Tokyo home away from home and headed off to Kyoto via the Shinkansen bullet train. We used the Nozomi line, the fastest of the three Shinkansen varieties, which had us to Kyoto in about two hours of zooming through the Kansai landscape, which shifted from city to hills, to mountains, and then eventually back to city.
Kyoto is tiny compared to Tokyo; there are only about 1.5 million people in the city, but the fun part about Kyoto is the juxtaposition of old and new that you see everywhere. I'll elucidate more tomorrow, when we actually tour the city more thoroughly.
For now, we exited Kyoto station and stored our bags in lockers outside the station, then proceeded to Kyoto Tower to get a bird's eye view of the area and get our bearings. Kyoto Tower is a very 1960's spaceship-like structure atop the Kyoto Hotel. It was designed for the 1964 Summer Olympics, though didn't actually complete construction until late that year, and has been a controversial point in modern Kyoto history ever since. It certainly feels out of place in the city of shrines, but it does provide a nice view, and one can even see the city of Osaka in the southwestern distance from the top.
We had lunch at one of the restaurants in Osaka station, part of the restaurant section called "EAT PARADISE." The actual restaurant we ate at was called 'Sarai' and it served varieties of Okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a dish made popular in the Osaka area and its name translates to "grilled whatever you want." It's like a giant pancake made with rice flour, grated yam, dashi, eggs and lots of cabbage, then topped with bacon or squid or "whatever you want." Different varieties top that off with different types of sauces.
I had a Kyotenyaki, which is a variety topped with mayonnaise and radish sprouts - the salad pizza of Okonomiyaki, and Sean had a Negiyaki, which was more omelette style with lots of fried leeks. We also had some thin friend tofu pieces. The tofu in Kyoto is very renowned. They attribute its quality to the water in the area, which is very rich in minerals, hence all the onsens.
Room in Ryokan Seikoro in Kyoto
Speaking of onsens, the main attraction of the day was that we stayed in a ryokan! A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inns that became popular in the Edo period. Ryokans feature tatami-mat rooms, public, a usually gender separated ofuro (bath) and all the sliding rice paper doors and yukatas one could ever wish for. You go to a ryokan for service, which is top notch. Meals are served to you privately in your rooms, and at least once dinner consists of the famous kaiseki dining experience.
Before we settled into our elaborate dinner, we had a few hours to burn, so we decided to take a night stroll around the Gion neighborhood. Gion is the old entertainment district, and it is where the geisha tradition is still at its strongest. Geisha are female performers, they are artists and dancers and entertainers formost, and they are very respected in the area. Kyoto is the only area of Japan where Geisha training is allowed to begin before the age of eighteen, and some geisha begin their training as early as 15.
We walked around Gion, taking in the architecture, the lighting, the mix of locals and vacationers, then we took a shortcut through the Kenin-ji temple grounds to get home. Walking through the grounds at night was pretty cool. It was very satisfying seeing the old temple roofs illuminated by moonlight. On our way back we also discovered a museum dedicated to Ukiyo, or "floating world" paintings. We didn't go in, but the sign on the door said something like "Opens when I wake up, closes when I have to sleep. Sometimes I shut the doors when I've had enough." Charming.
After we returned to the ryokan we gave the baths our first go. Like I said, the baths at an onsen are communal, and any kind of bathing suit is strictly forbidden as the Japanese people consider this to be dirtying the purity of the water. The process is to shower before getting in, soak for a while, shower again, resoak, and then dry off. The water is usually wicked hot, around 110-115 degrees, though this particular one wasn't too bad. We had a nice soak, then returned to our rooms for the main event of the evening - kaiseki.
Kaiseki with nine courses at Ryokan Seikoro
Are you comfortable? I'm going to talk a little bit about kaiseki. Modern kaiseki is a fusion of four Japanese cuisine traditions: imperial court cuisine, Buddhist temple cuisine samurai cuisine and the tea ceremony, which originates in the 15th century. It is a style of serving small individual dishes over several courses, each carefully balanced and seasonally sourced. The kaiseki provided by our Ryokan, Seikoro, was ten dishes (plus lots of little pickled things all over the place. I won't describe each course here, but there was a salad, a sort of...antipasto, a sashimi plate, a soup, a grilled fish course, a consumme, a sweet and sour seafood dish, a tempura set, a third soup, and a dessert. The collage of all the courses (not including the comsumme, which I ate without remember to take a picture), is around here somewhere. Everything was wonderful, and its been the highlight of the trip for me so far.
After dinner, it is appropriate to have a second soak in the baths which the staff prepare your room for the evening, by removing the table and placing out the futons. I had never slept in a true ground-level futon before, certainly not on a tatami mat floor. I was expecting to be quite uncomfortable, but aside from the temperature of the room being a little cold (our fault really, the heaters were very strong and we didn't want to run them), it was actually a pretty comfortable night's sleep.
Tomorrow is our first walking day in Kyoto, and it's going to be a long one. We're planning on checking in at our airBnB around 11:00, then doing as much of sight-seeing of the southern part of town as we can. Stay tuned.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/27 - Day 11 - Lots of Nerdy Stuff

We had three distinct goals for today, two of which were food related. The goals were: pancakes, Akihabara, and American hamburgers. 
Number one, since 2013 pancakes have become very trendy in Tokyo, and we wanted to see what the fuss was about, so we headed to a neighborhood adjacent to Ebisu, to a restaurant called Clover Pancake House that was recommended on Time Out Japan's list of "Tokyo's Best Pancakes." As it turned out, they didn't open until 11am (why a pancake house isn't open for breakfast baffles me, but I'm a stranger in a strange land, afterall.)
In the 45 minutes we had to burn, we walked back to Ebisu to visit their small shrine, took some arty photographs, aimless roamed the streets for a few minutes, then headed back to the pancake cafe.
Autumn Pancakes at Clover Pancake House -
Pumpkin custard, chestnuts and apples
Sean opted for some strawberry pancakes, while I got a full breakfast set which included an omelette, done in the typical Japanese way with ketchup drizzled all over what is essentially runny scrambled eggs in a thin protective outer layer. It also had a piece of sausage, a strip of British-style bacon and a little salad. I opted for their autumnal pancake, which looked super sweet but ended up being mild and I very much enjoyed it - it was two pancakes (they use rice flour so the pancakes are quite fluffy), stuffed with sliced chestnuts and baked apples, with a light pumpkin custard over the top.
Elevensies complete, we took the cryptic Tokyo subway lines across town to Akihabara, a neighborhood most otaku will be familiar with, as it is one big technology laden, video game playing, maid cafe having nerdgasm for blocks upon blocks. The noise and visual stimulus level in Akihabara, especially if you go into one of the several arcades, is overwhelming. Barkers shout out advertisements on the street, televisions blare out tv ads everwhere, pachinko parlors pachink, and arcades pour out the ebullient chirping of a hundred dissonant game jingles all at once. My only fixed destination in all of this madness was the vintage videogame store Super Potato, just off the main road. 
Super Potato is full of stuff like this.
It is three stories tall, and its filled to the brim with games from old famicom, super famicom, game boy, Sega master system, calecovision, and every other obscure japanese gaming console made in the last 30 years. Last time I was here I picked up an unopened copy of the original Final Fantasy VI for super famicom with the beautiful original box art. This time I just bought a Black Mages CD and called it a day. 
We also stopped by the Sega arcade, where I spent half an hour playing Street Fighter 3 and remembering how bad I was at it ...I could never get that parry system down right, then we watched some people playing rhythm games. There was a high school aged guy there (keep in mind this was like 2pm on a Monday), who was playing a game where you had to move your hands over a circular screen and tap around the edge of the machine as the notes pulsed outward. He was wearing gloves, gloves that it looked like he wore specifically to play this game, that's how much he played it.
We roamed around Akihabara for several hours, then I decided to seek out the new Square Enix store. The last time I came to Tokyo, they had a storefront outside of Akiba, where we were staying. Now they had moved it to be outside the Square Enix offices in Shinjuku, so we subwayed out in that direction. The new store is called ARTNIA, and it looks like a giant egg, plonked in a square outside of the huge office building that houses their mother company.
I thought this crystal might contain the
Dragoon job, but all I got was Tourist
The store is actually pretty small - just a little cafe and gift shop - but it has a pretty cool back room that houses a bunch of character figurines and an art installment made to look like one of the big crystals from the Final Fantasy series. They were also decked out in Halloween themed decorations, and had an amusing sign out front that read "Happy Halloween!" and then had a bunch of "lorem ipsum" fake Latin underneath it. I bought a stuffed Cactaur for my rearview mirror and squealed over the figures and baubles for a few minutes.
The next food goal of the day was  to have a burger in Tokyo, and we were recommended a place in Harajuku called "The Great Burger," which is a restaurant that is California themed, and promises the "absolute American experience." Why American hamburgers? Because you've got to see how other people perceive your culture, right? What's the point of going abroad if not to adjust your lenses. I got another seasonal offering, because what is more American than a hamburger with kabocha pumpkin, gorgonzola cheese and walnuts? Sean opted for a more traditional bacon cheeseburger, though it is noteworthy that once again, it was the British-style bacon they used, not the American fatback sort. Certainly compared to the last burger I had in Tokyo, which was at a chain called Mos Burger four years ago, this was a much better experience. They don't have everything precisely authentic, but isn't that part of the charm?
We returned to the apartment to finish up laundry, pack and rest up. Tomorrow we check out of this airBnB and head out to Kyoto on the Shinkansen, where we'll be staying at a Ryokan for one night.
Did contain enough Sansho to kill a small horse
This ramen introduced me to the wonders
of Sansho pepper
Oh, right! We did have one more food experience today. It was late by our standards, after we had mostly packed up, we were a little hungry so we went out to a Hong Kong style noodle house just down the road. I got a bowl of Ramen (which is Chinese inspired, afterall) and for some reason decided I was going to order the spicy variety. They use, as the one English language reviewer on Foursquare offered, "enough sansho to kill a small horse." Sansho is a type of peppercorn that is related to Sichuan pepper and has a strong numbing effect on the mouth - it was quite powerful. It was also quite delicious and while the heat lingered, it wasn't at all unpleasant.
Anyway, that's it! Until tomorrow (or possibly the next day, not sure what my internet is going to look like tomorrow at the ryokan.)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/26 - Day 10 - An Imperial Shrine, A Trendy Avenue, and A Faithful Dog

Sanma no Shioyaki - Salt Grilled Saury
Our first stop this morning took us along from Aoyama station, down a wooded avenue called the Icho-namiki, which is lined with beautiful Ginko trees. The trees are famous for turning bright yellow in the Autumn, but we caught them a few weeks too early and they were just barely turning to a light yellowish green. However, we ran into some food stalls on the way through, and one of them had something I'd been hoping to find on this trip - Sanma no shioyaki, or Salt grilled saury on a stick.
Saury is a small, sardine-like fish prized for its bitter innards. You eat it more or less whole, right off the stick, though I found the rib bones and the skull to be a bit too tough to actually eat. The rest of it however was really yummy, including those bitter innards, which were a striking contrast to the rest of the mild fish.
Our destination was the largest Imperial shrine in Tokyo, Meiji-Jingu. Meiji-jingu is a shrine dedicated to emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōkan. The original shrine was destroyed in the bombing of Tokyo and a new one was built in its place in 1958. The grounds are big and beautiful. Last time I was here, it was for New Year's, and there was a huge line of people that filled the path to the main building. This time, the temple grounds were blessedly clear. There were a few weddings going on, as quiet and austere as funerals at least during the part we witnessed - joke about marriage goes here. Also, and we weren't sure whether this was something special or whether it happens every Sunday, but there were a lot of people who had their kids dressed up in full kimonos to visit the shrine. Or maybe they were yukatas? I have trouble discerning the difference.
An austere wedding procession at Meiji-jingu shrine
After the main temple we paid the 500 yen a piece to walk around the gardens and visit Kiyomasa's Well, which is, according to countless blogs online, a popular "power spot" where guests can experience "positive energy." It is a very regulated power spot, as We waited in a short line and a guard barked requests to the visitors to stand in certain places. We were guided to stand on a pair of stones and look into the well. I can't speak for the positive energy, but the well itself is a natural swell spring surrounded by a metal ring and is visually underwhelming.
We had scheduled this part of our trip for Sunday because Yoyogi park, our next destination, is one of the places the hip kids in Tokyo hang out, and they do so en masse on Sundays. When we arrived however, there were signs saying that there was some sort of "emergency response" going on in the park, and that it was closed until further notice. Phooey.
Luckily the next spot on our self-guided tour was right next door - Harajuku. Harajuku is a fashionable district in Tokyo focused around youth culture and style. There are a lot of clothing stores featuring a wide range of styles, from gothic to punk to American street fashion, and lots of trendy restaurants and street carts.
Takeshita Avenue in Harajuku,
on a Sunday
We started are exploration into Harajuku on the narrow Takeshita avenue. (Yeah, yeah, it's only funny once, get it out of the way.) The avenue has a sort of sloping bowl shape, and standing at the top of it allows the tourist (every damn tourist, including us) to get a shot of the whole street, which straddles two major intersections.
I would be remiss in my duties as a food blogger if I didn't mention the crepe shops. Crepes, though they are not as big a thing as they were a few years ago the last time I was here, are a very popular street treat, especially in the Harajuku area. They do not mess around with crepes in this country - you can get a crepe piled with 3 completely unrelated desserts, all jammed together in a doughy shell. A popular topping on crepes is cheesecake - whole wedges of cheesecake, right inside the crepe.
For my part, I had a crepe with green tea ice cream, mochi balls, chestnuts and whipped cream, and Sean had one stuffed with cheesecake, whipped cream and caramel. Neither were particularly spectacular, but there was a crepery every 10 feet on Takeshita avenue, so maybe we picked a bad one. It sure seemed popular enough though. I'm told that the latest craze with the kids now is fancy pancakes. We'll try to get to that some time during this trip.
After Takeshita, we rounded the corner onto Harajuku avenue, where the street was blocked off in preparation for a Halloween parade. Despite our crepe sidequest, we were still in search of food, and our AirBnB hosts had recommended a gyoza place in Harajuku as a popular new watering hole. The name of the restaurant translated elegantly as "Harajuku Gyoza House" and we had one set of traditional fried dumplings and one set of a steamed ginger and onion variety. To be honest, trendy as the place may be, the dumplings were good, but they weren't spectacular.
On our way back to the station to our next destination we caught the end of Halloween costume parade thing. It was mostly kids and their parents. There were a few noteworthy costumes including a sort of terrifying Simpsons family, and even though they weren't in the parade, we saw a couple dressed up as Dr. Krieger and his holographic girlfriend from Archer. That made my day.
The famous statue of Hachiko
 at Shibuya Station
After Harajuku we took the subway to Shibuya crossing, one of the largest pedestrian intersections in the world, it is known as a pedestrian scramble crossing, in which there is a signal dedicated to walking traffic, which inundates the whole intersection at once in all directions.
Near the intersection is the famous statue of Hachikō the dog. Hachikō  was an Akita who famously waited for his master's arrival every day at Shibuya station, until one day the master died in 1925, and Hachikō continued to wait for him for eight years, until his own death. He became a symbol of fidelity in Japan, and a bronze statue was erected to him at Shibuya station in 1934 (it was later melted down for the war effort, and a new one was placed in the same location in 1948.)
Shibuya is another insane shopping and business district, and we stopped into at least one noteworthy store, Yamanote camera, which is a tech shop with floors upon floors of electronics. It is a visually overwhelming store, with banners and advertisements and barkers advertising individual products.
The Japanese seem to have a thing for quacky beauty devices, as evidenced by this particular gem we came across in Yamanote camera - it's a face firmer, and the method of activation is to put the device in your mouth, at which point it begins flapping up and down, and you clench for dear life as the thing tries to wrest itself out of your jaw. This, in turn, firms your chin. There were lots of things like this, and floors upon floors that we didn't even look at.
The last stop of the evening was Shinjuku, the central business district, where we went directly to the central park. We wandered around a bit, but to be honest were were both wiped out at this point, so our hearts weren't really in it. After a few minutes, we gave up and went back to the apartment.
Yakiniku on the grill
Dinner that night was at a Yakiniku bar, local to the flat. Yakiniku is grilled meats, served on a hibachi style grill, at the table. We were brave ordered an mix, which was supposed to consist of intestine, heart and other sundry bits. There was no heart. I know heart when I taste it; its a lot like chewing a rubber band. The other bits were fatty and flavorful. We also had a big chunk of marinated skirt steak, which, while good, was tough to eat because of all the connective tissue.
Home base and rest. Tomorrow we're going to Akihabara, the tech district, and then we're going to wing the rest of the day.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 10/25 - Day 9 - Tsukiji Market, Ginza, Senso-ji and Kitchen Town

There are two optimal times to go to Tsukiji Market, the worlds largest fish market, located at the docks in Tokyo - time one is 3:00am. This is for insane people want to see the tuna auctions at 5:00am. I consider myself a massive foodie, but I'm not dragging my ass out of bed at 3:00am to wait in line for two hours to watch people shout numbers at fish, however massive they may be. The second time is 8:30 - that's when the wholesale section of the market opens to tourists. That one was good enough for me.
Tsukiji Hongan-ji Interior
We arrived around 7:45, well before the wholesale market opened to the public, so we detoured to a nearby Buddhist temple named Tsukiji Honganji. The temple was created by the architect Ito Chuta, a professor at Tokyo University in 1934 after the original temple fell victim to the 1923 Kanto earthquake. It features an Indian motif and a very large open shrine in the interior. I verified that it was acceptable to take pictures and we got a few good panoramas of the interior, then returned to our Tsukiji endeavours.
Tsukiji is a living marketplace. There are 3 major areas - the vegetable market, which serves as on of Tokyo's major farmer's markets, the outer market, which also houses all the little sushi bars and prepared food vendors, and in wholesale area, which is where all the buying and selling of whole and live seafood goes on. This is where all the photo ops are.
Shellfish Vendor at Tsukiji Market
We spent about an hour and a half dodging carts and sellers in the aisles of the wholesale market, watching crabs writh about, huge tuna steaks being hacked apart with massive swords, and an endless parade of the sea's bounty to take home and presumably eat. The aisles of Tsukiji are very narrow, and you're sharing them with people doing business. The vendors are not always tolerant of tourists who aren't buying, and we were shooed out of the way several times, but that's the price of admission really. No big deal.
The second part of Tsukiji is my favorite part - the eating sushi for breakfast part. This portion of the program is technically two parts. Taken out of order here for comic value, they are - the eating of the sushi part, and the waiting in line to get into the sushi bar part. Upon a recommendation from a friend of ours, we decided to wait for a very small bar called Sushi-bun. As is the trend for us finding anything in Japan, we circled around our goal for about half an hour before finally realizing where it was, but in this case that realization only came after we sat in line for *another* sushi bar for half an hour before realizing were were in the wrong line - presumably the the bar we would have been going to there was also very good, as the line was around the corner, but we were intent on this particular bar, so we walked away from our prime spot in line much to everyone's surprise, and went to go wait in another, slightly shorter line a few stalls down.
While we waited in that line, one of the hostesses brought us barley tea, which tastes a lot like watered-down postum. The restaurant only served eight customers at a time, and their system of serving customers is interesting. They fill the bar to capacity (eight, as I said) and allow the entire group to eat their meal to completion, then they dismiss the whole group all at once, fill the restaurant again, lather-rinse-repeat.
The sushi was transcendent - It might have been better than my last time eating sushi at Tsukiji. We were first served tamago in a block which was warm and sweet. Sushi bars are often very proud of their tamago, and this one certainly had reason to be. We were then given a range of different tunas, nigiri style, from the bright red lean akami, to the rich, nearly disintegrating otoro. We also had red ebi, mackerel, scallop, hotategai (arcshell, one of my bucket list sushi items!) and anago (sea eel) which is pretty tough to come by in the states. There was also a miso soup with baby clams which was delcious, though the tiny clams, which came still attached to their shells, were a little challenging to pick out with the chopsticks. Everything was just wonderful - another one to recommend.
Hama Rikyu Park
After Tsukiji we needed a small break from the throngs of humanity, so we walked about a half mile to the Hama Rikyu gardens, which are nestled next to Tokyo's inner harbor and the Shimdome business district. There were forested paths, long bridges straddling reflecting ponds and full of ducks and fish, and several couples taking wedding pictures in traditional Japanese wedding costume. Very peaceful. There were also these huge rooks all over the place, with easily 4 foot wing-spans and menacing caws. I got a hopefully cool picture of one in a stand-off with one of the garden's cats.
We filled up on peace and tranquility and girded ourselves for the next part of our trip, Ginza crossing. Ginza is the glamorous shopping district of Tokyo, filled with department stores, boutique shops and restaurants. The main walking street is Ginza Showa Dori, and it is closed to cars on the weekends so pedestrians can have free reign of the shopping area. Ginza is sparklingly clean and modern, and even though it took us 20 minutes to figure out how to get to the street level from the subway station, it was a brief but interesting glimpse into the upscale shopping culture of Tokyo. We didn't linger though. We weren't really in shopping mode at this point. Ginza was only a stop-over point for our second major tourist destination of the day, Asakusa.
Ah, sweet Tako. You are particularly wonderful
in yaki form.
Asakusa has two major draws - the Nakamise shopping arcade and Senso-ji temple. The shopping arcade is a huge touristy shopping area where one can buy all manner of Japan-themed knick-knacks, folding fans, kimodos and what-nots. There's also lots and lots of street food vendors, and it is here, right outside Senso-ji temple, where I managed to have my first takoyaki of the trip.
Takoyaki!Ah, takoyaki. My sweet octopus dumplings. How do I love thee? I love thee with bonito shavings and tenkasu and green onion. I love thee with takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise and aonori. To be honest, the takoyaki I had outside of Senso-ji really wasn't all that great, but no one wants to hear that in a travel blog, right? I'm sure I'll have more takoyaki experiences to share later. I've got like nine days left on this trip.
We walked around Senso-ji, under the huge red paper lantern, and watched, but didn't participate, in all of the trappings of the temple grounds - fortune paper readings, incense purification, dropping coins into the large prayer request bins while the Buddhist monks in their screened-in area prayed in their droning chant. I got a few pictures of the shrine and the huge pagoda, then we started making our way to the other feature of this area, Kappabashi - kitchen town.
The big paper lanterns at Senso-ji in Asakasa
Kitchen town seems like it was made for us. It is shop after shop of kitchen supply stores of every make and mode - from stores specializing in bowls to rice cookers to clap boards, cutting boards and knives. This is also the place all the restaurants purchase their window display food, which anyone who has visited Japan knows, are made of plastic. The plastic food stores. I made it my mission to heavily augment my fridge magnet collection (which currently consists of a single set of plastic nigiri) with several more additions, so I bought a fake takoyaki, a gyoza, a cracked quail egg, a tiny toasted onigiri, a tuna nigiri, a mackerel nigiri and an octopus nigiri for my collection. Such joy.
We were wiped out at this point, each of us had more than 20k steps already and it was only 4:30. We decided to head back to the apartment and have a little rest before dinner. A little rest before dinner turned into a several hour nap, that my body forced upon me, and by the time I was up, Sean had no inclination to go out to eat either, so I went out and grabbed some steam buns from a little food stall, a bottle of shochu (rice spirits, like sake but with closer to 30% abv instead of sake's 12-15%.) I watched some more cosmically bizarre Japanese tv and fell asleep.
Tomorrow threatens to be a little rainy, but we're headed to Akihabara, Harajuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku.