unallersimple: (suitcase)
I realized after walking around for about 5 minutes that I was not used to city life. I've been in rural Japan for quite a while, and of course it's not bad, but it is special and very isolated from... well everything else really. I didn't realize how many rural Japanese habits and ways of thinking I'd absorbed while I was there. I felt nervous talking to other foreigners and felt really shocked when I saw them wearing skimpy tops showing shoulder and cleavage. (Women never show those parts of the body in Japan.) It's also really hard to stop bowing to everyone. Things that are not available in Shimane can easily be found. So during my first day I scoffed down 2 huge bags of salt & vinegar crisps and watched two English language films one after the other. Well, I wanted to see both Inception and Toy Story 3 right away and it was "ladies' day" at the cinema. 800 yen cheaper for females!

By the next day I'd calmed down a lot and began to accept that from now on, these things would always be available so I didn't have to rush to do/eat as much as possible before returning back to my ken. I decided to avoid the cinema and take a day trip to Kanazawa.

Now when I applied to JET I requested Sendai for my placement and Kanazawa as my second choice. Not knowing Japan, I felt they were nice looking cities in the guide book and wrote their names on the form with a lot of optimistic thinking! Now that I've finished teaching here I thought it would be fun to see what those places are actually like. Well it turned out that Sendai is 1272km and 8 1/2 hours from Matsue. Without the bullet train, it is more like 24 hours! Kanazawa is closer and is only about 600km and 6 1/2 hours away by train from Matsue. (So you can see how fast the bullet train really is, feels like you're on a rocket!)

So Kyoto was the best time to visit Kanazawa. (I'll go to Sendai in about a week.), It's a city famous for gold. It produces gold leaf like there is no tomorrow and it ends up everywhere from famous buildings in Kyoto (The Golden Pavilion) to food and drink to household objects. I stopped in a gift shop and bought a gold flake covered senbe (Japanese rice cracker). I was happy to say that I've eaten gold, but I couldn't taste anything apart from the senbe. Guess I need to eat more gold next time! I learned that Japanese people believe it is good to consume it for health but I think I'll stick with vitamins, mine are a nice fruity flavour.

Kanazawa is also famous for Kenroku-en Garden which is ranked in the top three gardens in Japan. The website explains why: "According to the ancient Chinese book of gardens, there should be six different sublime qualities to which a garden can aspire. Grouped in their traditional complementary pairs they are; spaciousness & seclusion, artifice & antiquity and water-courses & panoramas. It is difficult enough to find a garden that is blessed with any three or four of these, let alone six. Yet The name “Kenroku-en” literally means “garden that combines six characteristics."

While it was amazingly designed and extremely beautiful, I personally found it lacking in colour with only beige pathways, grey stone and green plants. Though I did spend hours in the garden reading, writing and sipping ice cold drinks from the food stalls there. I think it would look absolutely stunning in cherry blossom season or covered with a dusting of snow. I wish I could return during those times of year to see it.

After I went to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. While the exhibits did nothing for me (Why is so much "art" from men who draw or sculpt women's naked bodies? I have never seen female artists' work of men's naked bodies in an art musuem.) I really enjoyed sitting the library and reading photography books and magazines.

By about 3pm I was drained of all energy from the heat, so took the scenic route on the sightseeing bus back to the station and took the train back to Kyoto.

Conclusion: Kanazawa is a lovely city, but I'm still happy I got Matsue as my placement!

unallersimple: (japan poster)
Aside from visiting a lot of restaurants and doing some sightseeing around Matsue, me and Yvette also took a two day trip to Kyoto. It was really nice to go there while it was warm, sunny and free from the excessive crowding that occurs during public holidays. The city had a really beautiful and peaceful feel to it for me this time. We never rushed anywhere and we enjoyed strolling around and soaking everything in. The first day we hit the shops. I got really excited about the chance to buy more books which I started reading as soon as I got back to the hostel.

On our second day we went to a place called kiyomizu-dera. It was my third time there but it never gets any less amazing for me. Every time I notice something I never saw before. This time it was that there are statues inside the main gate protecting what's inside the temple grounds. A highlight for me this time was that without the crowds I was able to go inside one of the main buildings and tap a wooden rod against a large metal bowl (sorry I don't know the names for either of these things, but I assume they're for prayer). The sound was just beautiful. It's one of my favorite sounds of Japan, and as people were always lining up to do the same it was sounded every few seconds and created a stunning atmosphere for us to explore the grounds to.

^The main gate at the entrance to the temple. Behind the green mesh panels lie the statues I'd never noticed before.

^Yvette purifies herself before going in to the main temple. (Not that she's unclean, it's just the name for what she's doing! The way to do it is you first pour water on one hand, then the other, then rinse out your mouth with water from your hand and voila, you are clean and able to go in.

^ The pagoda and some of the temple buildings.

^The main temple building behind Yvette, on a base of wooden beams that places it high up in the trees on the hillside.

^The main building from below.


Pub Death

Sep. 28th, 2009 09:24 pm
unallersimple: (onsen)
No time at the moment to write much about what me and Yvette got up to when she came to visit but the week involved sleeping, sushi eating, shopping, sightseeing, kimono wearing, taking part in a tea ceremony and some more sleeping. Good times! She's a legend for flying all the way out here to see me.

I found an Irish pub in Kyoto that serves fish & chips. *Real* fish & chips and not just some Japanese imitation of them. It was just too much goodness for me to handle. It had been so long.

unallersimple: (hectopus)
My friend Hjaz and her friend Kat traveled around Asia this year and in May they reached Japan. Sadly my city is out the way and offers little for the foreign traveler to see so we met up in Kyoto one weekend and Hiroshima the other. It was *so* great to see them. It had been about a year since I last saw Hjaz in Ulveston. We didn't do very much during the weekends we met up. I'd already seen a lot when I went to the same cities with my dad and step-mum earlier in the year. (Which I really need to write about at some point!) Japan is also an expensive place to travel for those who have recently graduated. That didn't matter though, as we were happy to spend our days sitting in parks and gardens talking, talking and then doing some more talking. We caught up on our travels, our jobs and whatever else we'd been up to in the past year, and as a result of all that talking I only took a grand total of five photographs. Here's one of Hjaz and Kat trying out the Japanese tea ceremony in Nijo Castle, Kyoto.

unallersimple: (japan poster)

You can find parts one and two of this trip to Kyoto by clicking here and here.

On my last day in Kyoto I saw another of the city's most famous sites; the Golden Pavilion.

^ Sadly it rained all day on the Monday!

If anybody has ever seen an international gardening show featuring things from Japan, you may have come across Ryoan-Ji before. I remember seeing it on a Dan Cruickshank program a few years ago. This temple is well known for it's zen garden. To our eyes it appears to be nothing more than a yard of gravel with 15 rocks thrown in. However, there is of course more to it than that. All of the rocks have been very cleverly placed so that where ever you sit to view the garden, only 14 of the rocks can be seen. Apparently you'll be able to see all 15 when you've reached enlightenment. The more I think about it, the more amazing I find it. It's astonishing.

On Monday evening I had my first yaki niku restaurant experience. A yaki niku (grilled meat) restaurant is one where you have a gas cooker and grill embedded in your table. After making your order the raw meat is brought to your table along with some rice, vegetables and drinks and all you have to do is chuck it on the grill. For a British person, this can seem lazy, weird and a little scary. Why don't they cook the meat before serving it? What the hell is that in the table!? Woah big flame there! You want me to pick up that piece of beef on the grill with wooden chopsticks!?

Once you get used to this style of restaurant it's really fun. You can grill whatever meat or vegetables you want and then dip it in a variety of tasty sauces. It's a wonderful winter warmer. If anyone comes to visit - I'll certainly take them to a yaki niku restaurant for this unique experience.

^ Fire!

^ Chopstick fight!

Yoriko caught the train after the meal and my night bus home left Kyoto at 11.30. I was kept company by Regina who had also been in the area. She deserves a big shout out here because she ran a marathon that weekend! Respect. Major respect.

I rode my bike home at around 6.30 on Monday morning, showered, got dressed then cycled on to school. There I had a class first period which started off with something along the lines of, “ermmm I just got back from Kyoto! What are we doing today?” It was from that experience that I learned never to return from traveling the same morning as work starts!

unallersimple: (japan poster)
My post about my first day in Kyoto in November 2008 can be found here.

On the first night of our trip we went to a special "light up" event at kiyomizu temple (its name means pure water). It's one of Kyoto's most famous places and one of the city's biggest tourist attractions for both Japanese people and foreigners. It was a rare opportunity to see the temple beautifully lit up at night while it is surrounded by colourful Autumn leaves. So many had come to visit the temple that people were employed for crowd and traffic control. It was such an amazing sight to see people queuing around the temple and all the way down the street just to get in. Once we bought our tickets and made it inside the grounds, we couldn't even walk around because it was so full. We had to just shuffle slowly and be carried along with the crowds. In the grounds some people went inside the temple buildings to pray. Others waited in line to buy a piece of paper with their fortune on or bought a token to bring good fortune to a certain area of their life such as health or relationships. Everybody took photos.

^ People waiting in line to take a picture of Kyoto and the Autumn leaves below.

That evening Kayo left for her home town and I spent the night in Yoriko's family's apartment with her and her parents. It was my first Japanese home stay and my first time to sleep in a bed for months. I can't tell you how much I miss sleeping in a bed. I'm used to sleeping on my futon at home now, so I thankfully no longer try to get out of bed end up rolling around on the floor instead. But it's just not the same as what I've grown up with and while it's ok, it's not as comfortable. As a result any chance I get to snooze above the ground is a happy moment. It's funny how one of the defining moments of the trip is not seeing the amazing temples or eating scrummy food but the simple experience of sleeping in a bed.

The next day we set off for fushimi inari taisha. This is a huge shrine filled with thousands upon thousands of red gateways (called torii in Japanese) which line a trail of several kilometers around a mountain. The shrine is where you can go to pray for wealth, and the torii have been donated by hundreds of different people over the years. At the base and at several points along the trail there are various shrine buildings and statues to pray at. It's so beautiful and enjoyable to amble around. Yoriko showed me how to write a wish on a wooden block covered in paper. After drawing a face of a fox on one side and writing on the other, you tie it to the side of a building with a huge bell inside. Then you throw money inside under the bell, clap your hands twice and bow.

* So many!

We drew the face of a fox because it's one of the symbols of fushimi inari taisha snd two statues of foxes are placed at the beginning of every section. They are often carved holding a key in their mouths, which represents the key for the rice store. Legend has it that the spirits of these ghosts can possess people by entering their body under their fingernails, which I of course don't believe, but I made sure I didn't touch any of the fox statues when we were walking round anyway!

That afternoon we saw several families celebrating a Japanese festival called shichi-go-san. These three words just mean 7, 5 and 3 and the festival occurs every November for families to celebrate their children's life at the ages of, yep you guessed it, 3, 5 and 7 years old. However, it is only boys who are five and girls who are three and seven that take part. Families take their children to a shrine to pray for a safe, healthy and happy life, and many like the one I photographed below wear traditional clothes for the occasion.

Kyoto is so famous for its abundance of old temples that many visitors seem to end up doing little else in a bid to cover all the must-sees. I fell into that trap a little too as the rest of the day was spent seeing yet more temples, but they were all amazingly beautiful and we stopped for some rest and green tea in our last temple of the day. The guy in the photo with me and Yoriko is one of her friends from university. By a wonderful and weird co-incidence we bumped into him on the train the day before and invited him to join us. Like many Japanese people I have met, he was kind and generous and often paid for my tickets and drinks so quickly I didn't even have time to read the prices!

^ Here you can see that in Japan green tea is consumed from a bowl in traditional settings.

ETA click here for Part Three.

unallersimple: (rainbow walking)
A few weekends ago I went to Kyoto to meet up with Yoriko. Do you remember her? We both danced in the international party at university together and she came to visit my hometown in July this year. Now it was my turn to be her guest in her country. I was really looking forward to it and it was only the second trip outside of my area. I'd wanted to go to Kyoto for so long!

It was a five hour bus ride there from Matsue, (the main island of Japan is bigger than the UK) but it certainly didn't feel like that long. The views from the raised highways in Japan are beautiful. Most of Japan is not populated because the country is too mountainous. Around 80% of Japan is made up of the things. That is why the population density is so high in places like Tokyo; located in one of the few flat areas of Japan millions of people are crammed into one of the few areas that they can build a city in. Urbanization means that only 1 in 4 Japanese people still live in the countryside now. You can see what the space in between the cities looks like below.

We also drove past Mt Daisen, the tallest mountain in the Chugokku region of Japan. It takes about three hours to climb to the top and is covered in snow during the winter months. Another beautiful sight to see on the journey there.

I knew arriving in Kyoto would be a shock to me because I live in one of the most rural areas of Japan. I imagined it would be like when I saw London for the first time and was absolutely terrified, especially when it was time to ride on the Tube. But despite visiting big cities before I was still shocked by the amount of people, the size of the buildings and the amount of foreigners in Kyoto. I'm used to not seeing any when I go out and here there are thousands of non-Japanese living, working or visiting. You can also walk for 40 minutes around Kyoto's main train station, above and below ground and not walk in the same place twice. You wouldn't even cover half of it. Not fun when you get lost inside, or when you are trying to find which locker you left your bag in!

When me, Yoriko and Kayo, (another friend from Japan who studied at UEA), finally found each other we set off to explore. Our first stop was Nishi Hongan-Ji, a huge Buddhist temple built in 1591. Sadly the temple buildings were either under restoration or were too big to be able to take a decent photograph of. But I did managed to capture a crowd of people leaving after a service:

When you visit a temple in Japan, you *must* take your shoes off before starting to walk up the wooden steps outside. Here's me and Kayo, and if you look behind us you can see some people about to put their shoes back on.

Inside the floor is all tatami mats. People kneel on the mats to pray to the shrines at the front. Kayo took an action shot of me and Yoriko praying.

After visiting the temple we wondered around a huge food market called Nishiki Market. Yoriko and Kayo told me what some of the mysterious food was and gave me lots of things to taste. I tried eating a snack of sour, salty seaweed and ate tofu doughnuts for the first time.

^Huge blocks of seaweed.

^Enjoying tofu doughnuts...that are too hot!

Soon it was time for tea so we stopped off at a nearby restaurant. I remember when I went for meals with my Japanese friends in England they would always take photos of the food so I thought I'd do the same!

^On the back row, eel on the left and raw fish on the right. On the front row a bowel of rice, some vegetables I have yet to indentify, some soy sauce and some mizo soup. Mizo soup is a very thin and watery soup with things like meat, seafood, vegetables or tofu added in depending on the type of soup you have.

^Yummy food. :)

ETA Parts Two and Three have now been posted.



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