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Entries in Japan (8)

Titilating Tokyo

1047435-737475-thumbnail.jpgWe LOVE Tokyo!  We just arrived yesterday and already we're making plans to stay a week longer in Japan.  The city is so exciting, lots of energy, but not in an out of control chaotic sort of way that we experienced in Bangkok.  Everything is very clean, people are quite friendly, speak little English and all the menus are completely, 100% in Japanese. 

The whole subway experience is fascinating.  One station we got off on, Shinjuku, apparently has 200 different exits from the station, and is the busiest staion in Japan handling more then 2 million people a day!  It truly is an obstacle just trying to find your way to the street out of the station, but fun.  We were proud of ourselves that we managed to get from Narita Airport on our own to the hotel, however our main difficulty again was trying to just get out of the enormous station.

1047435-737476-thumbnail.jpgWe had an exciting day with Shane (an employee of Jason's who happens to be visiting his g/f in Japan) and Asuko.  We explored our immediate area of Ginza for a bit, and then headed over to Shinjuku which was a blast.  From bars, to restaurants, to train stations, and more bars, it was an exciting night in Tokyo for us.  Thank goodness for Asuko, who was able to order and translate for us, since really there is no English on the menus.

Although we're getting a late start this morning, we're so excited to get out an get lost in this amazing city!


Let’s put it this way – within 12 hours of being here we had already changed our plane ticket to stay an extra week. Tokyo is everything we imagined it to be and more. The vastness of this city is incomprehensible. Nothing in the US, not even Manhattan, is remotely comparable. Just check out this map of the subway system. Of course, getting to your stop is only half the battle. Many stations have over 100 different exits, so even if you get to the right one you could still be a mile away from where you are trying to go.

1047435-741291-thumbnail.jpgIt is also the first place we’ve been that truly does not embrace English. Occasionally the English letters for a subway stop or store name might be included, but generally not. And almost never in restaurants, where it’s rare even to see a picture of the food. You’re basically on your own to point at the strange characters you think look the coolest and hope for the best.

So how does a city with nearly 13,000,000 people function? Perfectly. In a culture where politeness is held above all else, where people are impeccably dressed at all times, where cleanliness is godliness, and respect for others is uncompromised an urban utopia is created. It’s the exact opposite of Bangkok. Men offer subway seats to women and the elderly, litter and graffiti do not exist, cell phones are rarely spoken on in public (texting is king), and fashionable dress is the norm not the exception.

1047435-741290-thumbnail.jpgWhich brings me to my day of shopping. The “dressy” black shoes I brought weren’t fitting me right so I ditched them in Australia somewhere. Plus I don’t have any decent pants for going out in. Since that is quite frowned upon here, I decided to take the day to wander around Shinjuku and see if I could remedy this situation. Apparently all Japanese men are actually born metrosexual. It’s not uncommon at all to see groups of straight guys giggling 1047435-741295-thumbnail.jpglike schoolgirls over the latest spring lines. Unfortunately for me, they’re all built like Kate Moss. I went through dozens upon dozens of floors of shopping and did not once, not ONCE, see a waist size over 32. The vast majority of pants are size 28 – a size I haven’t been since I was four years old. I resorted to going up to store clerks and asking “you have fat man sizes?”, to which the answer was always a shake of the head no and then an akward glance down at the floor. One clerk was kind enough to go in the back and find me the one pair of something spandexy he thought might fit me, but I couldn’t get it on past my knees. I ended up at a Timberland store getting a pair of imported khakis.

Tonight we are staying with Yukiko and Ryo, friends of Dave and Belinda who are watching Hank while we are gone (and saving our butts). It will be great to spend some time with locals and learn more than we are able to pick up through the osmosis of being here and making mistakes. More on that later.

Monkeying Around in Kyoto

1047435-745321-thumbnail.jpgAlthough the Arashiyama (嵐山) area to the west of Kyoto is dismissed in most Western guidebooks in a brief paragraph suggesting "other attractions", the area is rightfully very popular with Japanese tourists and is well worth a visit.  When we read about the possibility of feeding the macaque monkeys atop the mountain in Iwatayama Monkey Park we just couldn't resist checking this out.

When we woke up in the morning it was a miserable, rainy day, and we weren't too sure about whether we wanted to make the trek in the yucky weather to see the little creatures.  We then remembered our lovely rain-proof parka's we had purchased in Milford Sound and had yet to use, as well Jason just could not resist the idea hanging out with monkeys (he feels a strong comradery with the animals), so we braved the trip.

1047435-745322-thumbnail.jpgLets just say what an experience! I seriusly thought this might be some touristy, kietchy thing with a bunch of monkeys in a cage that you could throw bits of food at - yet that still sounded good enough to us.  Little did we know that after our 20 minute hike straight up the mountain, we'd be welcomed into a completely open, uncaged park area with over 150 monkeys wandering freely around the top of the mountain. 

I was definitely a little frightened at first being sourounded and very close to these wild animals, mostly b/c we were the only people that day who decided to make the trip up the mountain in the rain, so basically no other people for the monkeys to attack but us.  The fact that my bright red parka attracted a lot of attention we thought might be a problem as well.  They didn't give a darn about us though, that is until we got into the little caged room where we could feed them from. 

Good thinking with the barred windows between you and the hungry monkey waiting eagerly with outstretched hands for the little peanuts and apple bits. These guys couldn't wait to get their chow, and had it not been for those bars, they probably would have taken our hands off trying to get the food.

1047435-745320-thumbnail.jpgWandering around the mountain and watching the monkeys frollick so freely was truly amazing, and Jason felt like he had come home to his mokey people.  We're definitely glad we got off the beaten path and explored this monkey park, since it's probably the closest we'll ever be to mokeys without them being in a cage. 

Temples, Castles and Shrines, OH MY!

1047435-749077-thumbnail.jpgKyoto is known as "the city of a thousand temples," but actually it has more — an astonishing 1,600 Buddhist temples, plus 400 Shintō shrines, a trio of palaces, and dozens of gardens and museums! Kyoto boasts more World Heritage Sites per square inch than any other city.

Thus, the question for us was how do we narrow down the "must sees" of the city. This is where our incredibly touristy, "Kyoto 1 Day Tour" through Sunrise Tours came into play.  Unlike every other place we had visited so far in the world, this was the one and only English speaking  guided tour that was offered.  Lets just say this was one of those tours we really try to avoid - a bus packed to the gills with plaid-dressed seniors, families with loud children, and not much in between.  It isn't quite the tour demographic we try to aim for, but there was no choice.

As it turns out, being led by our flag-yielding guide through what were "the" sites to see in Kyoto made the day easy and fun.  We learned a lot of facts about each and every one of the 6 sites we visited that day.  I'd say don't mess with us when it comes to Trivial Pursuit: Japanese Shrines Edition, but let's face it: most of it has all blended together or we've already forgotten it entirely.

The highlights by far were the breathtaking Japanese gardens that most of the sites contain.  They are all beautifully laid out, and easy to walk through.  We learned about the main elements that make a Japanese gardern--water, garden plants, stones, waterfalls, trees, and bridges. 

1047435-749076-thumbnail.jpgThe Heian Shrine's garden was magnificent, with a stone path through the pond that was fun to "prance" along.  The Golden Pavillion was set amongst a vast garden, the pond reflecting the beautiful image of the 200 lb's of gold that covered the temple.  Lastly, the Kiyomizu Temple nestled in the mountainside of Kyoto had a breathtaking view of the city of Kyoto.  Making the climb up the quaint old lane lined with pottery shops to reach that temple was also fun, especially b/c most of the shops offered food samples, which we delighted in.

Kyoto's beautiful images of cherry blossoms in bloom, Japanese gardens, temples, shrines and palaces will always be a strong image in both our minds.

The Chronicles of Nara

1047435-751820-thumbnail.jpgWe heard so much about Nara from several people that we decided we'd make the day trip from Osaka to visit the town (since it was only a 40 minute train ride.) I'm so glad we decided to get out of the big city and check out this ancient town capital, since it was truly unique compared to many of the places we had exprienced thus far in Japan. 

The first thing that struck us as we approached the town was the amount of open land and greenery this region contained.  Unlike Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka, which are over-taken with concrete and skyscrapers, Nara had a more open, suburban feel.

With just one day to spend in this area we focused our attention to Nara Park, which is where most of Nara's sights, including temples, shrines and famously mercenary deer are concentrated. 

1047435-751821-thumbnail.jpgThat's right, you heard deer.  There were literally hundreds, maybe even thousands of deer roaming around freely in the Nara Park area.  I'm not talking like Golden Gate Park style where they say there are buffaloes in the park, and you may be lucky if you see a couple of them poke their heads out through a chain-link fence.  These deer were out and about everywhere, and we actually were encouraged to feed them (don't think they'd appreciate this with the buffaloes).  We had a fun time feeding them little biscuits, and watching them harass us for more food.  We were reminded about our precious little Hank, since these deer are quite similar when it comes to how food obsessed they are.  It seems the only time they give you any affection is when they think they're going to get something yummy to eat, just like our little man. So, we spent much of our day hanging out with deer.

1047435-751822-thumbnail.jpgThe one temple we really wanted to check out in the park was Tōdai-ji (東大寺), which is home to the Daibutsu (大仏), the largest Buddha statue in Japan and one of the largest in the world.  The Daibutsu-den, which houses the statue, is said to be the largest wooden building in the world and it was definitely quite large and magnificent. At this point we've seen a ton of temples, shrines, palaces, and I think the Todai-ji was our favorite.  Set up against the backdrop of Nara park and the mountains, with deer roaming around the area, gave this place a very special feel.  Add to that the cherry blossoms being in bloom, and you have a beautiful combination.

The rest of our day in Nara we just roamed freely through the park.  We stopped at a couple of the ponds, one to just sit and relax by, and the other one to watch the cute little turtles swimming around.  We ended our day with a stroll through the Naramachi neighborhood (at least we think we were there), and sampled a delicious, gooey, green delight, that was filled with red beans - it was quite good.

Nara will no doubt stick out in my mind as a special place I would like to spend some more time in some day.

Passover Seder in Tokyo

1047435-754475-thumbnail.jpgWho would have ever guessed that some day we'd be celebrating Pesach in Tokyo, Japan at the local JCC?!?!  I certainly could have never imagined this happening in all places of the world.  This was a completely amazing experience - sharing a seder with over 200 people from around the globe in such a foreign country!

One of the most mind boggling things was reading from a Haggadah that contained not only English and Hebrew, but also Japanese.  Just imagine the Four Questions in this totally foreign language!  Not only that, but the seder was conducted in all three languages -  so cool!  The Rabbi, Henri Noach, was a really neat character as well.  Born in France, raised in New York, lived in Jerusalem for 20 years, and just over 4 years ago took on the congregation in Japan because, in his words, he was looking for an "interesting experience."  It was fun talking to him and learning about his life and how he ended up in Tokyo.

1047435-754476-thumbnail.jpgThe coolest thing by far was sharing this experience with Jewish people from all over the world - Dan to my left was a college kid from London studying abroad for the year in Japan, while Alley across from us was a twenty-something on holiday with her family from Manhattan, and Jack and his wife Hiroko and their adorable two-year-old Mandy had moved here to Japan a couple years ago from Hawaii.

Sharing this evening with so many differnt people made the experience quite special, although it certainly could never take the place of being with family.  I must say, though, that the food was fabulous and made up for some of the home-sickness we were feeling -- from the delicious and sweet Charoset, to a light and flaky gefillte fish, and most importanly the classic matzah ball soup.  Although this certainly could never hold a candle to my mom's spread or cooking, it did the job!

I think this whole experience has turned Jason on to a new concept of "celebrating Jewish holidays around the world".  Hey, if he's willing to take me to a foreign country every time a Jewish holiday rolls around, I'm in!

Passover will always have a unique meaning to us both after experiencing it half way around the globe in Tokyo with 200 fellow Jews!  At this point I can't wait until the next holiday rolls around so we can celebrate it in another foreign culture to get a different perspective on Jewish tradition in different parts of the world.

Raining on our Snowy Cherry Blossom Parade

1047435-757103-thumbnail.jpgAfter 36 hours of rejuventating ourselves in our hotel room after week upon week of constant going, we decided to venture out to Chidori-ga-fuchi National Garden for the afternoon.  The sun was shining, and we knew this would be a beautiful time to view the cherry blossoms in the park.  The plan was also to find the moat by the Imperial Palace that we could rent row boats from, and view the cherry blossoms from the water.

Now, I know I've mentioned it before, but I don't think I've quite driven in the point about how important the Cherry Blossoms are to Japanese people.  The cherry blossom (sakura) is Japan's unofficial national flower. It has been celebrated for many centuries and takes a very prominent position in Japanese culture.

1047435-757104-thumbnail.jpgThere are many dozens of different cherry tree varieties in Japan, most of which bloom for just a couple of days in spring. The Japanese celebrate this time of the year with hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties under the blooming trees. These couple of days each year are integral to people's lives, planning many aspects of their day around being able to view the blossoms.

So, we arrived to the garden to literally mobs of people, all taking in the beautiful site of the sakura in full bloom.  The mass of people was the first thing we noticed.  The next thing that caught our attention were the big, black rain clouds hovering in the distance, which had colored the sky a dark grey.  We decided that the clouds looked far enough away, and that we'd take the walk around the moat through the cherry blossoms to rent a row boat.  Lets just say, not the smartest idea.

It truly was magnificent walking through the cherry blossoms, which began to fall all over the ground as the winds picked up - they really looked like snow flakes blanketing the ground.  This was a remarkable site.  Both Jason and I experienced a very surreal sensation being in this place surrounded by the cherry blossoms, as the beauty and feeling in the air was something we had never experienced.  I think at that moment I began to understand why so many Japanese people go crazy over these special blossoms that they can only experience a couple days each year.

That feeling though unfortunately only lasted a short time, since the rain drops slowly began to fall.  At this point we had already walked too far around the garden, that there was no turning back. 

1047435-757102-thumbnail.jpgLets just say we got drenched and even had to, sadly, use the local Tony Roma's as a respite to get out of the rain for a bit.  We're both fighting off the chills right now after spending way too much time in the cold, freezing rain, with no raincoat, no umbrella, and only our fleeces which absorbed the water like a sponge.

I will say we were quite lucky to catch a glimpse of the snowy cherry blossoms, however that certainly seems to have come at a price.

Big Night Out in Tokyo

Nothing beats a big night out, especially in a city like Tokyo. And thanks to our friend Yuki, ours came complete with an entourage. We first met at Yuki's friend Suji's restaurant, which she opened just a couple months ago. Coincidentally, it was an American themed restaurant, so we fit right in! We were joined by several of Yuki's friends, including Saori who actually went to The University of Arizona at the same time I did and had the same major. Although we didn't actually know each other, I'll consider that strange enough given where we were.

We were soon joined by Asuko and Shane, my friend from New York, strolling in a fashionable hour and a half late. To know Shane is to love him. Needless to say tequila and vodka were passed around, shots were had, and further needless to say (at least in Japan) karaoke was sung. The video really speaks for itself.