Monday, August 22, 2011

Westward Bound

It interests me that what I (and other foreigners) normally think of as "southern Japan"--i.e. Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, etc. is considered "west" (Kansai 関西) in Japanese. A lot of my friends from Sogang were from there so I knew I definitely had to take a trip there in my time in Japan, so Somin and I bought the JR Pass (a must-buy for Light Fellows, especially those who are staying for longer than the summer and have a two or three week vacation--right now Ruth is been using that baby to explore all of Japan!) in advance in the States and took off on one of our three-day weekends.
Wanting to see as much as possible in one weekend, we decided to hit up two cities but soon revised our plan to three--one per weekend day!


After pulling an all-nighter with the other Yalies the night before we headed out (a silly, but regardless, fun decision on my part), I packed within 15 minutes in the morning, took an hour nap, ate breakfast, said goodbye to Naoko, and hopped on the JR to Tokyo Station, where all kinds of trains out to the rest of Japan leave from (alongside the fact that the Yamanote loop line in Tokyo is also green like the Number 2 line in Korea, this is another similarity to the Seoul system--analogical to Seoul Station). A tired me met Somin on the train just in time before it left and we took the almost three hour ride down to Kyoto on the Shinkansen, which was crazily fast and also one of the most comfortable train rides I have ever taken--I'd recommend it to anyone.
There was definitely a moment of panic when we thought it was 11:00 and that our train was arriving at 11:48, but then looking again at the ticket, we realized the train was arriving at 10:48. Luckily, we then noticed that it was actually 10:00 and we weren't arriving in Fukuoka or something. We exited at Kyoto and noticed that it had a distinctly different air from Tokyo. For one thing, not nearly as crowded (after Tokyo, every city we visited seemed deserted). There were also temples all over this very pretty city and also foreigners on virtually every block. We did a quick tour of one of the temples in the area and then headed off to our hostel.
Beautiful, beautiful temples.
Of course, I had to find more Engrish. Sounds more like an assignment to me :P. I think it was referring to the step so that you don't trip haha.

After putting our stuff down, we set off on a bus ride to Chion-in 知恩院, which is famous for having a passageway that lets off a nightinggale 鶯 chirp when you step on it. It was used in the past as an early form of an alarm system against burglars. Somin and I first thought it was another hallway and we were highly disappointed in the slight squeak that was barely let off, but soon enough we found the actual hallway and had a lot of fun stepping on it and making birdsong. What was nice about the temples in Kyoto too is that you walk around everywhere barefoot. If only we could still walk everywhere barefoot sigh.
Somin making birdsong!

Our next stop was the famous Golden Pavilion 金閣寺, in Northwest Kyoto. For some reason it tok us a whole hour to get there by bus (despite the fact that the subway can get from west to east Kyoto in probably about half an hour). Perhaps we took some weird roundabout route? Either way, it was a good opportunity for a long nap. We reached the area and took pictures around the area. Seeing the Golden Pavilion on the lake surrounded by green was one of the prettiest scenes I've ever seen, so we naturally took as many pictures as we could.

We rushed to make our way to our next stop before sunset, a bamboo forest in Arashiyama 嵐山 called 竹林の小道. To get there, we had to first take a bus and then search for the train station, which took us a while to find since it was a tiny tiny stop. We asked one person and after looking around the area, asked yet another person.

Somin: Maybe it's that??
Me: No way, that looks like a warehouse...oh wait...
Yeah, the place was a tiny platform with no place to scan our Suica cards, a system we had gotten so used to. We got on a tiny one-car train and headed off to Arashiyama through very Ghibli-esque scenery.
And weird clouds.
Continuing my theme of liking to take close-up pictures of bugs.
We first hit up a temple there called Tenryuuji 天龍寺 and then walked through the magical bamboo forest, getting a bajillion mosquito bites each time we stopped to take pictures. We probably got about 15-20 mosquito bites each over the course of about 10-15 minutes.
We walked through what was really a ghost town compared to Tokyo and found the JR train and took a 15 minute ride (and nap) all the way back to Kyoto Station.
Alien face!

After eating a yummy dinner at a Chinese restaurant and a delicious dessert filled with green tea products (including kakigoori カキ氷, the Japanese version of 팥빙수 which is basically shaved ice with red bean and any other sweet delicious things), we headed off to Gion 祇園, a beautiful area of Kyoto that mixes traditional and modern.

Gion is also an area where many geisha roam, but we unfortunately did not have the luck to see any :(. The place was very lively and filled with pretty lights though, so it felt like a festival was going on. We made our way to Shirabashi Doori, named "the most beautiful street in Asia." The place was quite picturesque, so we stopped to take more pictures of course.
That concluded our tour around Kyoto, so we took a bus back to our hostel, but not before having a small dilemma on the bus. Kyoto bus systems worked differently as you pay just before getting off the bus instead of when you get on it (we received a map that explained how you do it, with the first instruction being (1) Just get on, a hilariously blunt instruction). As Somin and I were gathering our money, we realized that our change only added up to about 330 yen and not the 440 needed to get off. Uh oh. The only bill I had left on me too was a massive 10,000 yen. After asking one man if he had change (no) and the bus driver if I could use a 10,000 yen (no), we were stuck in a dilemma about what to do. I told Somin she should try asking the elderly woman across from us as she looked quite loaded and the lady went through her purse, gathering all the bills and coins she could, adding up to just beneath 10,000 yen...finally a man in front of her gave her some change and we exchanged the 10,000 yen bill for a bunch of smaller bills and coins, JUST at Kyoto Station, woo!

Exhausted, we fell asleep early and got ready in the morning for Osaka.


Osaka! Just a 15 minute ride by Shinkansen (wow! Shorter than everyone's commute between home and school). No sooner did Somin and I get on than get off and transfer to get to Osaka Station, where we met up with my Sogang buddies, Kana, Hiroko, and Akiko! A touching reunion, we reconnected over a delicious meal of okonomiyaki お好み焼き (literally, grilling of stuff you like) and takoyaki たこ焼き balls of dough stuffed with octopus and vegetables, all of which we grilled ourselves.
We then walked around Osaka and found a cafe to talk for a bit in. I've gotta say, Osaka had me feeling very nostalgic for New York, because it reminded me much more of it than Tokyo does. Not only was it slightly less modern (just as New York is) and not as pristinely clean, but people even jaywalked (!!!) and didn't pay attention to standing on one side of the elevator! 懐かしい Natsukashii, is what you'd call that feeling in Japanese.
Unfortunately, Kana had to leave soon after, but told me that she would be in Tokyo in a few weeks woo! Akiko and Hiroko took us to Osaka Castle 大阪城, after deliberating what a good place to take us would be (ah, big city problems--I always have problems thinking what are good "sights" to take visitors to New York too).
We had kakigoori again at the top (sadly, three out of four of us dropped a lot of the red bean on top--it was difficult) while being attacked by bees, took a picture in front of the castle (and with some random people dressed up as Mario and Luigi ???)
and then headed off to eat shabu-shabu しゃぶしゃぶ, one of the most meaty meals I had in Japan--it didn't look like there was much meat but each time we lifted sliver after sliver of meat, it just wouldn't end!
We stuffed ourselves and then said goodbye to Hiroko and Akiko and headed back to our Youth Hostel. Somin and I chilled in the common area, eating some convenience store snacks, while a bunch of little Japanese kids (and non-Japanese kids too--yay for diversification in Japanese culture!) come in one after another. Eventually, a man and woman started talking to us and we explained where we were from and how we were exchange students, etc. We even got one man who was maybe working there? to draw pictures of us, and for free too!
We then went to sleep after a fulfilling night of discussion and got ready in the morning for our trip back.


We took an early train out of Osaka to Nara, the old capital of Japan, traveling once again through more Ghibli-esque scenery. This time we actually almost missed our stop, not realizing it was Nara until the doors had been open for a few seconds and then scrambling out without my shoes even being tied!
Compared to Kyoto and Osaka, Nara felt like a wasteland. I was showing my host family pictures later and they were amazed I could take a picture of a place that had no people at all. We took a kilometer walk or so to Nara Park, carrying our rather heavy luggage and sweating from the heat.

As we entered the park, we saw what we came there to see, deer, and lots of them. Excited, we put our bags down and started petting them, amazed when they didn't run away as most deer would. Apparently, deer were a gift from heaven to Nara-ians (what would the adjective even be? Narans?) so they've always been considered sacred and not bothered. They seemed quite sacred, as there were several deer crossing the street and even waiting for cars before they did so, like humans. Woah!
We bought some snacks too (煎餅) to feed the deer. The moment we bought them, about five or six deer started to swarm us, sparing no pains in nudging us, butting us with antlers if they had any, and even biting at my shirt when some crumbs spilled on it!

Battle scars!
After getting our fill of petting the deer (but not really because you can never get your fill of petting these adorable creatures), we headed to the museum, where we put our luggage in coin lockers. So amazing that we could put in 100 yen to stuff all our heavy luggage in and get the money back at the end! By doing that, we were able to walk around lightly to Todaiji 東大寺 where we saw the Big Buddha 大仏, a nice sight (though I was expecting something about as big as the reclining Buddha in Thailand hahaha).

An awesome sink that had automatic soap, automatic water, and then automatic dryer, whoa!
Pretty koi!
Kakigoori every day that weekend!

We then made our way back to the station, of course stopping to pet some more deer along the way...

After a longggg walk, we got to the station and took a train back to Kyoto Station, where we transferred and took a long ride back to Tokyo, concluding our three-day blitz in Kansai! めっちゃ面白かった!

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