Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Where I Was Last Week

So, when we last left off I had just come back from Bunraku on Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, I did something. How could I forget an entire day that was so recent! Dang it. Oh, wait! Ok. So, Wednesday I wrote a paper for my class. Then, in the evening some of us went to a sushi place in Seta. The food was good, but what was more amazing was the tea. Now people drink a lot of tea in Japan, but honestly, I think most of it sucks. Often it tastes little better than plain water with a bitter taste that follows. When it is served cold (the most common way in the summer) it has no flavor, only an aftertaste that makes you think “oh, I’m drinking tea, that’s right”. However, the tea at this sushi place was amazing. Not only did it taste like tea, but it felt like tea all the way up to the top part of your head. I stuffed my pockets with teabags when I left. After dinner we had planned to go to the public bath again, but in the end only Adam, Masa, Tomoko, Mayumi and I ended up going. Went and had a great bath, then on the way home we practiced our duck noises on the train platform. I have discovered that making funny sounds is something that translates very well across cultures. I also taught Mayumi the hokey pokey on the train platform in exchange for her teaching me Japanese tongue twisters.

So the next day we went to Kinkakuji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Now, this temple is famous for two reasons. First it is said to be very beautiful, and second, Yukio Mishima wrote a novel about a mad man who burns down the temple. The temple actually was burned down shortly after WWII, but recently it has been rebuilt.

Now there is something that I realized that I do not like about Japan that the Golden Temple also demonstrates. Japan doesn’t have as much old stuff as it should. Now allow me to explain. Sure, Japan has a lot of old stuff, much more than the US. But there are also many things that have been destroyed that were rebuilt. Osaka castle, Kinkakuji and Ueno Castle are some examples of this. To be sure, the will to rebuild after a disaster is admirable, but there was something that left me un-settled about the things that were rebuilt. Osaka Castle was the worst offender. It wasn’t even a castle anymore, but a pristine museum. It felt like a hotel. Now, the reason I go to historical places is to get a feel for what it was like to live in the past so that I can understand the people that lived before me a little better. But if I go into a castle and find 5 star luxury and 3 stories of romanticizing the Samurai, I do not get any of the feel I am looking for. Kinkakuji had a similar problem. Before it was burned down it was beautiful, but it was not spotless. In its rebuilt form it is perfect and unblemished. The result is that it looks like plastic.
The constant reconstruction of buildings in Japan has one further problem. There is only one building in all of Japan that would even suggest to you that any wars ever took place, and that is the Bomb Dome in Hiroshima. No buildings riddled with bullets like Berlin had to remind itself of World War II, no destroyed structure of any kind has been preserved. Sometimes, like in the case of Ueno Castle, the reconstruction is done well, but most of the time the result is that it seems that the past was far more perfect than today. I don’t enjoy this romantic feeling. And furthermore, how do you expect to remember not to go to war again if there are no reminders of that war. I could go on a massive World War II rant, criticizing both the US and Japan for how the treat the subject of wartime history, but you probably just want to see pictures at the moment.
This was the coolest part of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion: the Koi that expected us to feed them so much that they were jumping out of the water.
Despite the fact that the temple looked fake, was ugly and crowded with tourists, the gardens were pretty. The other redeeming factor of the temple was (and I’m serious here) the entrance ticket could also be used as an amulet against the undead.
Here is some more indecipherable English, found at the huge section of the temple dedicated to fortune telling.
So after the temple we (our huge group) took the bus to Kyoto station. Professor Chang bought our tickets, and we all split into groups. The group I went with decided to try and surprise one of our Japanese friends, Wakaba, at here work place. 12 of us showed up at the green tea ice cream restaurant were she works. As it turned out, she was not at work that day. Still, we shared some very expensive ice cream. This is Mary restraining me.
Despite this picture, the ice cream was tasty, although I can’t say it was worth the price we paid. I don’t particularly like Green Tea ice cream. Oh, and before someone once again tries to tell me that the reason that I don’t like it is because I’m not “Asian” (by which they mean a Cantonese speaking Chinese American), I also don’t like coffee, cookies and cream, or chocolate ice cream. I’ll restrain myself from another rant.
So after ice cream we went back to Seta. Cindy wanted to give the tutors something, and we decided to sing for them. First she sang “Goodnight My Baby” with me as back up, that I sang “E Hawaii”. Most people spent the night working on their papers, but I, having finished mine, slept.

The next day almost everyone but me was in a rotten mood. I set off for school early, printed out my paper and snapped a picture of this turtle in a pond.

My final went OK. I could not write well that day, but I did the best I could. After the final Mary, Kari and I went to the Supa-Sento (the public bath) once again. I am really going to miss the public bath when I go back to the US. It is so relaxing and comfortable. Here is a picture of the outside.
Well, after the bath we went back to campus and were treated to a massive feast by the University. There was way too much food. Not having had enough food to make me full since all-you-can-eat sushi, I ate and ate and ate. Then I felt sick.
We all did our best to thank each other. Here is Professor Chang receiving a card that we made for him.
So then, that night everybody else got hammered (I have only had more than a sip of alcohol on one occasion on this trip). The last night we were all there was probably the only night when anything alcohol related that was dangerous happened. However, since I was feeling sick, I went to bed before everyone else once again and was not witness to any of this.

The next day was the day when most people left the dorm. Having run out of soap, and needing to get rid of my shaving cream as it would not fit in my bags, I decided to use shaving cream as soap. Don’t do this. Shaving cream with after shave feels like icy hot when it touches certain areas of your body. Sadly, one of the tutors was witness to my impassioned cussing and cries of pain, and by the time I got out of the shower every single person in the dorm was laughing at me and wondering if I was OK. Anyway, at 11 am Mary, Eric and I shared a taxi to the train station and wished everyone goodbye.

So, Mary had decided to be my travel buddy for a time, a decision that she probably soon came to regret. I had wanted to go to Himeji, and when I asked her if she wanted to come along, she agreed. Our plan was to go to Himeji after the program, spend the day, find a place to stay, return to Seta to pick up our luggage and head on to Tokyo. For the next several days we traveled around together. She got to have a person with her who spoke enough Japanese to get into trouble, and I was able to keep from becoming lonely, which is the worst part of traveling alone in Japan.

Anyway, getting to Himeji was no problem. It is a strait shot from Seta, though we actually made a stop in Kyoto to activate my Japan Rail pass. We left the station, walked for 15 minutes, and sure enough, we were at the castle.

Himeji, I must say, was very impressive. It was much larger than any of the other Japanese castles I have seen, and was similar in size to the larger European ones. What was the most amazing to me was the fact that the entire castle was designed for and stocked with firearms, which were supposedly prohibited in Edo period Japan, but apparently not to people who had castles. In the basement of the castle were racks for maybe 800 firearms and the powder required to fire them. When I saw how much powder had been stored in Himeji Castle, I became amazed that the thing didn’t meet the same fate as the Acropolis.
This is Himeji Town. According to the informational placards, Himeji city actually had a moat and embankment at one time. Neither of these was really that amazing. Still, you wonder what could have been so important about Himeji that they would do so much to protect it during a time of peace.
And this is me with the castle. I find one of the great advantages of traveling with another person is that you have someone to take pictures for you. Himeji is called “The White Heron” because it looks like a heron in flight. Sure, whatever.
Himeji was probably one of the best things I have seen in Japan, and what I saw next was probably the worst. After leaving the castle we decided to go to Himeji Zoo. Well, first I bought and immediately dropped some ice cream that I bought, so that kind of put me in a sour mood. But the sour mood didn’t last long, because once I went into the Zoo my mood changed to extreme sadness. Everything about the Zoo was horrible. The animals all looked like they had become sick, been driven insane, or just looked sad. We saw a polar bear with no water in his tank in 90 degree heat that was pacing around his 3 meter square cage like a solitary confinement inmate. The camels had mange. Everything smelled like feces. The ducks had been fed lettuce from the store. Every animal was in a cage, even the peacock, which is basically just a fancy chicken that you can allow to wander. I was also very angry. How can Japan claim to be an environmentally conscious country if the animals in the Zoo are cared for so badly?! By the way, I love elephants, and this is the cage the elephant was in. It was trying to use its own food to swat away the flies because it had not been provided with any mud.
Very sad, Mary and I left the Zoo. In fact, we were so disgusted that we did not even want to stay in Himeji. We boarded a train for Kobe. Upon arriving at Kobe station we began to look for a Tourist information desk to see if they could help us locate a hotel. After an hour and a half of walking (and several false leads) I asked and discovered that Kobe station does not have a Tourist Information desk, but Shin-Kobe station does. So all our walking was for nothing. Well, at least we saw downtown Kobe.
We boarded a subway train, had a fiasco with tickets, and arrived at Shin-Kobe station at 6:30… only to discover that it closed at 6 pm. And that’s when I started to be a little worried…
Well, here is the fun part of the story. So, we left Shin-Kobe station and began to walk looking for a hotel. I saw one and we approached it. “Hotel Emperor” I thought, “that is a strange name for a hotel”. What was even stranger was that you paid by the hour. By the time I had walked into the lobby I had concluded that, in fact, this was a Love Hotel (which is a hotel used by couples who want a little privacy, or if you are paying your date that evening). Well, one love hotel wouldn’t have been bad, but it seemed everything that I thought was a regular hotel turned out to be one. I imagine Mary was getting a little worried if she could trust me by this point, not to mention worried since we were kind of in a shady part of town with no hotel room. After asking where to find a cheap hotel at the local Holiday Inn (which was WAY too expensive) we finally found a place. I checked in, we went up to the room and discovered this.
The room was the size of an American bathroom. Let us just say Mary and I had to overcome our awkwardness with the situation in a hurry. Anyway, we then went to dinner, where I experienced my greatest failure of Japanese ever. We went to a restaurant wanting Kobe beef, but when I ordered they would not bring my food. I tried ordering horse and they wouldn’t bring it even though it was on the menu. I tried to communicate for 15 minutes. Every single person who worked in the restaurant came up to me to try to take my order. Finally, after 15 minutes and the entire place having come to a standstill, I finally decided to give up. I apologized, bowed and left. My face was so red that one of the little children in the restaurant began to laugh at me. We went to another restaurant and I ordered a huge beer and food…by pointing at it.

The next day Mary and I returned to Seta. We wished everyone goodbye one final time and said our goodbyes to Seta. This is me in Seta station for the last time in a while for sure.

So we took the Shinkansen to Tokyo, took the subway to Asakusa, checked into a hotel and walked around at night for a while. Asakusa is nice at night by the way, but it smells terrible in sections.

The next day we got up at 9 am, went to Akihabara, and then got on a train to Shibuya. On the subway my north and south got confused, and it was near noon, so I managed to get us really, really lost. After correcting this and eating at a katsudon place, we witnessed a square watermelon in Shibuya.

We then walked to Meiji Shrine, and on the way visited Condomania.
Here is Meji Shrine. If it seems like I am breezing over this, it is because every where we went on that day I had already been to. It’s not that interesting for me to tell.
This was cool though. On the way to Harajuku we saw what looked like the Japanese equivalent of a Chinese lion dance.
We walked to Harajuku, and tried to get to Shinjuku, but gave up and decided to go to Azabu-Juban instead. We walked through Azabu-Juban and went to Roppongi Hills, where I discovered that I have been very fashionable this entire trip.
We this walked through Roppongi crossing, and went to Tokyo Tower. Tokyo Tower was expensive, but since we got there at sunset, the view was worth it.
And when night fell the view was still great.
We walked to Daimon, and on the way paused at this temple.
From Daimon we took the subway back to Asakusa and visited Kaminarimon.
And the temple behind it.
The pictures were very good that night. At the time I thought to myself “well those are weird clouds”. We returned to the hotel, turned on the news and discovered a typhoon was about to hit.
The next day it rained. At times it rained a lot, and other times it rained less. Mary bought what I believe was her 7th umbrella of the trip, which is a long story. Here is my breakfast at Mister Donuts, with rain in the background.
We decided to visit central Tokyo on this day, so we took a train to Tokyo Station.
Then we walked to the Imperial Palace. This is not the Imperial Palace, but is taken from the Imperial Palace.
We decided to walk around the palace and saw the Diet Building…
And the prime minister’s residence. By the way, I was amazed by the lack of security. Literally men with sticks. But then I saw the lines of blue buses that were idling at strategic points. Probably filled with men with submachine guns.
So, the palace gardens were actually open that day. This is what remains of the keep of Edo castle, supposedly once the tallest ever built.
We left the park, took the train to Ueno station. I then got lost again, but eventually we ended up in Ueno Park. Ueno Park is full of homeless people, which is both sad and very interesting. The homeless in Japan are very organized and tidy. Every tarp house looks very livable, and there is no feces, urine or trash anywhere to be found around the area. On the other hand, they look even more depressed than American homeless people. We got through the park, reached Tokyo University and were disappointed by how unwelcoming looking the campus was.
The entire campus was surrounded by a wall, except the gates. Felt a lot like a prison, or a castle. Neither are structures I associate with higher learning… well, normally.
Lastly, on our way home we ate again at Ueno station, where I bought this bread because it looked exactly like a butt.
The typhoon ended up being very weak, but our socks were soaked.

The next day we checked Mary out of the hotel, and I helped her take her bags to the airport. I then returned to Asakusa and checked into the Asakusa Riverview Capsule Hotel. I am was not satisfied with this hotel for several reasons: the bath sucks, the showers are not hot, you only get one towel, the lockers are too small for my bags, and (since it appeared in Lonely Planet) it is full of foreigners. I also had one very unpleasant experience there. While taking a bath, a fat Japanese man came in, saw me in the bath and remarked to his friend “it’s not an Onsen”, at which point he proceeded to get in the bath without scrubbing first. I found this to be repulsive and left immediately. What a jerk. I won’t be staying there again. There were only two things good about the hotel. These were the price (3000 yen, less than 30 bucks) and the view. Probably the best view of the Sumida River around.
And this final shot is for you, Nick. I know, you hate me.

So today the plan is to go to the World Expo in Nagoya. I have no tickets. Wish me luck!


Anonymous said...

ohhhhh you white devil!!!!!!!

Trenton said...

um, well, yes, I am white. But where does the devil come in?