Friday, October 4, 2013

Havin' a Grand Ole Time. Tokyo, Japan. Part 3.

Post 11.

La la la
Kakenukero home made
Ogino Takashi 
Ute Ogino (Ta-Ka-Shi) 
La la la

Chants like this one were echoing through the stadium. By 4:40 we were en route to the QVC stadium to watch a Japanese baseball game. Marines vs. Buffaloes. Go Chiba Lotte Marines! Although the Marines lost the fan section was electric. Every time the Marines were up to bat, the fans were on their feet yelling chants, beating drums, and cheering on their team. Plus each player had a specific chant which helped me learn all the players names by the end of the night. The biggest difference from American baseball was that when the other team was up to bat there was no trash talk, they just sat silently and ate their ballpark food, which was also crazy different. There were hotdogs but they were suuuuuper long, fried octopus, and plenty of japanese beer to go around. Instead of guys carrying around front trays with drinks and beer to seated customers, they had beer girls with kegs strapped to their backs. One of our students was so enraptured with them that he tried to ask one of them what they were doing later, but he struck out. The rest of the fans really enjoyed watching a bunch of Americans cheer and get excited for their team. We even went to the gift shop and bought some jerseys to wear to get even more in the spirit. Instead of stretching during the seventh inning, fans bought long white balloons and blew them up and let go, creating a sky filled with flying balloons over each fan section. We left the game with hoarse voices and sleepy eyes. It was probably one of my favorite nights on this trip so far. If American games were this much fun in the states I'm pretty sure that every stadium would be packed no matter who was playing.

Baseball wasn't the only sporting event I attended. In America baseball is considered to be an All-American sport. Most people take pride in the game  and have a favorite team or player. In Japan, we watched their national sport, Sumo. Up in the nosebleed seats the arena sprawled out below us. Seats closest to the ring were small square roped off regions with floor pillows while we had individual stadium style chairs. In all honesty I wasn't sure what to expect except for big guys fighting in tiny diapers. There were english guides handed out to us that explained the ritualistic aspect and the rules of the game. The day we attended was a Sumo tournament so there were multiple sessions of fights. The later in the day, the more advanced the Sumo player was. The fights in the evening were the most exciting to watch as famous sumo wrestlers crouched opposite one another on a salt covered ring waiting for their opponent to give the signal to fight. The ritualistic aspect of the fight lasted longer than the actual fight did which was one aspect that really surprised me. It also shocked me to see a man from America in the ring! USA! USA! It was a really fun event to watch, but I probably won't follow it like I follow the Cardinals by any means. Being able to participate in this county's national sport provided me with a better understanding of the life of the Japanese.

Another traditional aspect of Japanese culture is the theater. A few of the works we have been reading for our japanese literature course were written for the stage. Two major types of theater include puppet theater, or bunraku, and kabuki. I was fortunate enough to purchase tickets with a few other friends for a kabuki theater show. This type of theater is characterized by its extravagant costumes and entirely male cast. Even the female characters are played by men and most theater scholars feel very strongly that the men portray women better than women could. The tickets we purchased were for the first act only which is for the best because we had standing room only tickets all the way back on a ledge about a foot wide. Standing for any longer than an hour and a half would have been unbearable. I got to see the main character battle a giant centipede and the protagonist eat his dead son to gain strength to seek revenge. It was a bit spooky but well performed. Thankfully we had english translators so I was able to follow the plot line!

On our last night in Tokyo, we did something a little crazy. We pulled an all-nighter in order to get a spot in line to see the famous Tsukiji fish market. The theory goes that you would have to take a taxi to the ginza district at about 2 or 3 in the morning, since trains have stopped running by then, then hang out until they took you into the market about 545. Now taxis here in Tokyo actually aren't that expensive at least compared to home, but it would be simpler and more adventurous to take the last train to Ginza and walk around until we had to get in line. So that's what five of us did. And I have to say that it was exhausting and the next day I was super out of it, but it was so worth it. The Ginza district was crazy at night. That area has many business districts, so most of the people we saw were dressed in their work clothes and hanging out with coworkers. I was glad there was so much to watch because it helped pass the time and kept us entertained. Eventually though we decided that we had better find where the fish market line was. So we navigated through some small streets at two in the morning until we stumbled upon the fishy smelling part of town. There were a few large trucks and small carts zooming around the area but otherwise it was pretty dead. We found a local park to relax in and before we started getting too sleepy went and sat in line next to some folks from Louisiana at about 3:15 am. We transferred from the street to a small building about an hour later where we waited for entry into the fish market at 545. This room was jam packed with other tourists, serious photographers, and brightly colored construction jackets. Some people slept and others drew sea inspired tattoos on each other. Finally we were released from our small prison, by that time the sun had risen above the horizon and lightly illuminated the small fishing village. The market grounds were a bustle of activity and you had to watch your path carefully to not get run over by the many barrel carts zooming through, illustrating the importance of the bright construction jackets. Once we walked through the outdoor portion, we entered a large ice cold building. Here was the location of the famous tuna auctions. We watched as inspectors picked and prodded the frozen carcasses for quality. The air was cold and woke me up completely. After a bit of observation, the auctions started up. The auctions almost sang the prices and one guy racked up a total of at least seven huge tuna fish. These tuna came from all over the world which is why after we left the market grounds we hunted for some sushi breakfast. Which I probably won't do ever again, raw fish in the morning is definitely not my favorite, but it chimed well with our all-nighter. I will say it was some of the freshest tasting sushi Ive ever had and will ever have. It was pretty surreal coming back on the train all sleepy eyed as others were just waking up and commuting to work. My internal clock was so off! We made it back to the hostel maybe clocked in an hour of sleep before meeting in the lobby to depart for Taiwan. It was a great way to celebrate our last night in the beautiful and engaging city of Tokyo.

I'll miss you Japan!!

I'm sorry to say that this blog will soon be unavailable to me. Due to some chinese government issues, our group will be unable to access websites like facebook and google. Therefore, I've set up a new blog that is not affiliated with google which you can find at this site.

I hope you will still keep updated with my adventures in Taiwan and beyond. Also sorry for the lack of photos in this post, our internet access is again a bit spotty! Hopefully I can get them up at a later date.
Hope you spotted Spot!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Land of Many Neighborhoods. Tokyo, Japan, Part 2.

Post 10. 

The past few days have been jam packed with Tokyo exploration. Braving the typhoon, groups of four to six bused, walked, and trained to our assigned neighborhoods. As part of our seminar course while studying in East Asia we were required to observe different neighborhoods of Tokyo. My group was assigned a neighborhood within walking distance of our hostel, Harajuku. Known for its bizarre fashions, I was super excited to visit on Sunday September 15th. 
Those pants....
Notice the crazy black outfit on the girl on the right.
Sundays are publicized as fashion parade days. Visitors are often able to view teens walking the streets in frilly dresses or bold patterns, unfortunately I think the rain kept most people off the streets that day and we only saw a few in typical Harajuku attire. I hope the fashion trends I saw don't catch on in the US, because there were some crazy get ups!
Fashion forward thinking was also applied to their architecture.
Lots of Western influence as well! We also saw a Volcom and Chicago store.
The rest of our day was filled with exploring large underground shopping malls, witnesses a few low key protests and hanging out on a rooftop garden outside Starbucks. 
Huge ritzy underground mall
Outdoor rooftop garden
Harajuku wasn't the only neighborhood I visited while in Tokyo. I also visited Shibuya, as I mentioned in my last post, and Shinjuku. Both were within walking distance and had plenty to see and experience. After dinner at a DELICIOUS curry place near our hostel, Aaron and I explored Shinjuku which was located just north of Harajuku. 
Delicious garlic non and chicken curry!
This area had tons of tall buildings and we were able to see many of the same buildings we drove past during our bus tour on our first day in Tokyo. We went down a few side streets and stumbled upon a large mass of people; what had we discovered?! The group of people had a portable shrine that they hoisted on their shoulders and paraded around the streets of Shinjuku. 
Where we started following the shrine parade.
Shrine carriers getting people to clap and chant along.
We believe that that day was a holiday in Japan to celebrate the elder population and that's why they were toting around this heavy shrine. The paraders made periodic stops to fuel up on drinks and meat skewers until they made their final stop at a local temple. 
Parade entering the temple.
We literally followed the parade until that final stop just to see what they would do and observe this culture. They were chanting and dancing as they carried the shrine and looked like they were having a great time celebrating! At one point an elderly man approached us because he had noticed that we had been following the parade, unfortunately he spoke little to no English and we didn't know Japanese well enough to talk to him about the events we were watching. That was one moment where I was so upset that I didn't have better language skills. I felt that I would have had a more comprehensive understanding and appreciation for what I was seeing if I had been able to speak to this man. Other members of the parade noticed we were following the parade and gave us some free beers to celebrate, but made no signals that they spoke any English. It was an exciting night of stumbling upon a bit of Japanese culture that I will never forget!

Another famous neighborhood I was able to visit was Akihabara, the famous technology district. Literally every building in this neighborhood is either an arcade, maid cafe, or technology store. Neon lights made each street feel like it was day time and cute video game characters were plastered on every sign. 
Bright streets of Akihabara
Japan has some of the most phenomenal multi-story building arcades I've ever seen in my life. From claw games to multi-player shooting games to music games, these arcades have everything! Most of the time we had no idea what to expect when we put coins in the machines. I think my favorite part was to watch the locals play. Many of the gamers were dressed in suits and had briefcases making me think they came in right after work and had been feverishly trying to beat their best score all night. And boy were they GOOD! Their fingers moved lightning fast over the buttons as the screen graphics zoomed by. 

Also it appears that I need to be better about taking pictures with Spot.....I'll try harder I swear! Thanks for reading anyways.

Friday, September 27, 2013

12 million and counting. Tokyo, Japan. Part 1.

Post 9.

We made it. The best part of the flight was that we were able to get a sneak peak of the summit of Mount Fuji from the airplane.
Mount Fuji visible above the cloud layers. (Left center)
We arrived in Tokyo in the late evening and zoomed through the brightly lit city on highways that allowed us to look into sixth floor windows. It felt like the city never ended as we made our way from the airport to our hostel. Despite a long, tiring day of traveling, I was super anxious to start exploring! For our time in Tokyo we stayed in the Olympic Youth Hostel that was built for the 1964 Olympics. (Congrats Tokyo on getting the opportunity to host the games again in 2020!!) The rooms were pretty simple and required us to make our own beds, take out our garbage, and shower in the public baths. 

We took a bus tour of the major Tokyo area on our first full day. We stopped at the Tokyo Metropolitan building which had a great view of the sprawling city from the top floor. I literally couldn't see anything on the horizon except for buildings! I knew Tokyo was big but this city is MONSTROUS! I also snagged a smashed penny, well it was more of a round copper piece, from the observation deck to add to my collection! Yay! 

Our bus tour also stopped at the famous Asakusa Shrine located in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo. There was so much color and life in the shrine and plenty of tourists too. The streets surrounding the shrine were jam packed with food vendors and trinket stores. I took advantage of the touristy atmosphere and loaded up on souvenirs and took some traditional photos underneath the giant lanterns.

That night we did a little exploring of a nearby neighborhood, Shibuya. Shibuya's claim to fame is its giant crosswalk where all traffic is stopped and pedestrians can cross the intersection where ever they want! When we visited it felt like a mini Times Square. There was tons of advertisements on the surrounding buildings and people were EVERYWHERE! When the little green walking man appeared on the crosswalks the mass of people started to move. The entire crosswalk was filled and in a matter of seconds we reached the other side and it was over. The rest of the neighborhood was lively and energetic, populated by mostly young people seeking out some nightlife. After a bit more exploring, we called it quits for the night and meandered back to the hostel. We had quite the mountain of a day ahead of us...Fuji that is. 

Believe the rumors, I did indeed hike on Mount Fuji among the clouds and volcanic ejecta. It was a geologists paradise, if you were able to escape the large tour groups of overly prepared hikers milling about the station before their ascent. Unfortunately I did not reach the summit. We only had four hours total on Mount Fuji and it would have been extremely taxing to attempt the summit, although some Augie kids did attempt and succeed in making it all the way up! We took a bus to the fifth station which is 2300 meters above sea level, or about 1476 meters below the summit. The gung-ho hikers bolted to the trail as soon as we arrived to make sure they could make it up and back in time, but my group decided to take it slower and admire the sights and sounds of Fuji. We emerged above the tree line after about 10 minutes of hiking to see the patchy clouds below and above us. Some of the distant land was visible through the clouds and I was speechless. You could see for miles and the small bit of sun poking through the clouds lit up the view with a dazzling brilliance. 

Due to Fuji's eruptive history, much of the ground we tread on was igneous, or volcanic rock. It was extremely porous which means that the magma that it originated from contained many gases. The numerous air pockets also means it weighs less than you would expect and the more I could carry back down the mountain.
Personally, my experience on Mount Fuji was perfect, except for maybe the lack of time and abundance of cloud cover. Our small group hiked up to station seven on the Yoshida Trail and we were able to walk through clouds, meet other English speaking hikers, and take in the fresh air. But for others it was extremely stressful. A group of five of our students didn't return to the buses at the appointed time, which got everyone worried. We knew they had attempted to reach the summit and some of us worried that the worst had happened. I knew most of the people who hadn't returned and knew that they were experienced hikers and knew that they would make smart choices. Turns out once they reached the summit they took the wrong path back down and ended up at a fifth station on a different side of Mount Fuji. After realizing their mistake and deciding they wouldn't make it back to our buses by the appointed time, they made their own arrangements via public transit to return to our hostel. They all made it home safe and sound late in the evening. I'm pretty sure they gave our director, Marsha Smith, a bit of a heart attack! 

She wasn't the only professor feeling the stress of the day on her shoulders. Dr. Wolf, the geology professor, also had a stressful climb. As he ascended the mountain, he stumbled upon a man who was laying down on the trail and he appeared to be bleeding from his head. Wolf looked around shocked that people were simply walking past this man and not helping him. Wolf started to perform CPR while an ambulance was called but it was to no avail he must have been without help for too long. He had had a seizure, fell down, and cracked his head on the rocky ground. But I'm proud of my professor for taking action when others wouldn't. 

Overall it was an emotionally and physically draining day. Especially with traveling with all 74 students. I can get a bit frustrated when we are all forced to travel on a bus for two days in a row. Definitely feeling the need to get some alone time on this trip! Maybe I'll hit up a nearby temple, they tend to have quiet, calm atmospheres that might be just what I need. 
Finding solace on Mount Fuji.

Unfortunately, Spot failed to make an appearance again during these two days. He is just so comfy in my purse! But don't worry he'll be in the next one. Tokyo had plenty of fun to offer during our stay!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Beppu and Kumamoto.

Post 8.

During the past few days we visited a number of geologically rich locations during our time in Beppu and Kumamoto. We boarded a bus from our hotel in Matsuyama to travel to the ferry which we would take to a southern island, Kyushu. From the port we bused to the 8 Hells. This location is known for its mud pots, geysers, and steaming pools. Much of this activity reminded me of my family vacation to Yellowstone a number of years back. The paths were clearly marked to gather around boiling ponds and a few pools to soak your sore feet. Pools ranged in colors from light misty blues to muddy red-browns. The various colors are due to differences in underlying sediments and the bacteria living in the waters. The most disturbing part of the 8 hells was the abundance of caged animals forced to live in the area, breathing in the sulfur rich air in such small cages. Hippos, flamingos, elephants, alligators, and llamas were part of the 8 hell spectacle. While I did enjoy the geology exposure, I was pretty beat after traveling all morning so I was ready to check into the hotel ASAP.

Our living arrangements for Beppu was in a hostel, so the conditions were much less comfortable than the previous locations we stayed in. We had to make our own beds and rent towels for 100 yen (~$1.00). We arrived fairly late, so Alexis and I hurried out into the city to find a place to eat. We stumbled upon a delicious restaurant where I got some gyoza, a chinese dumpling, and a rice dish. The hotel was close to the beach, so after dinner we strolled by the water. It was too dark to make anything out, but there was lots of garbage and the threat of poisonous jellies in the water.
View from hostel room.
In the morning we took a bus to Mount Aso. Finally some hardcore geology! I was so excited to go. We came from the north and dropped down into the giant crater. The crater itself is divided in half by a ridge and the last time that Mt. Aso erupted was in 1979. Before arriving at Mt. Aso we stopped at the Aso Volcano Museum to watch a cheesy 1960s informational video that frankly made me quite dizzy. The restaurants around the museum were pleased when we all flooded their shops for lunch near a beautiful overlook of Eboshidake, one of the steaming vents. After everyone had eaten their fill, we took a cramped ropeway ride to the the top of Mt. Aso. I’ve come to realize how frustrating and difficult it is to travel with 80 students, but it just makes me all the more grateful for times when we can go explore in groups smaller than 6. At the top of Mt. Aso the view was breathtaking. There were rocks EVERYWHERE...including my bag :). We traversed the paths, examined rocks along the sides, marveled at the folds and faults on the outer edge of the caldera. I don’t think we spent enough time at that location, especially since a large portion of the group is taking a geology course focued on this specific topic. Regardless I enjoyed my time in the great outdoors looking at Japan.

Mount Aso is just outside the city of Kumamoto which was our next stop. We stayed at a ritzy four star hotel in the business district where we all got our own single rooms. A group of us met up in the lobby to go exploring the streets and find a dinner spot. You could tell that this was a higher end area catering to the businessmen who stayed in nearby hotels. The mall street was sub par compared to those in Kyoto and Matsuyama, but contained many of the common clothing stores, karaoke bars, and restaurants. That was the first night I had a bad dinner so far in Japan. I had a curry dish that just didn't sit well with my stomach so I took the rest of the evening easy and watched a classic anime movie called Spirited Away, which I highly recommend.

The following day was our only day to explore the city of Kumamoto and we made the most of it. We started off early with a required trip to visit the homes of two authors we were reading in our Japanese Literature class, Hearn and Soseki. The traditional japanese home is beautiful, simple, and open. I have definitely decided that if I am ever able to build my own home I will take aspects of these homes, such as well kept gardens and versitile space, and apply them to mine. From these homes we walked to a handicraft store, where locals come to weave baskets and sell homemade goods.

A must see while in Kumamoto are the gardens just east of the center of town. A large group of us hoped on a tram to visit these sacred grounds. After a lunch of BBQ pork ramen, we entered the peaceful gardens with Koi swiming in the ponds and prayer bells quietly chiming in the distance. All of the trees and shrubs were pristinly trimmed and structures that housed stages for Noh theatre were within the park. A tunnel of Tori gates was the perfect frame for a few photos.

After a chill evening the night before a number of us found a pretty american restaurant to eat at where they served hamberg and a baked potato. It was glorious! I guess you could say I’m starting to miss food from home a little bit. Brian and Adam put on bibs and made the rest of us laugh until we were crying. We grabbed some ice cream and beers from the convenience store and played some great card games and took hilarious pictures.

Our next stop is the largest city in the world, Tokyo Japan. Here goes nothing!

Thanks for reading Be sure to check the photos for Spot and see where I've been adventuring!

Matsuyama. A birthday, a home stay, and a bit of karaoke.

Post 7. 

I am officially another year older and I couldn't think of a better place to celebrate than in Japan! Although I missed my friends and family back in the states, my close friends here made sure that I would always remember my 21st!
After a pretty hum-drum day of classes, four of us went to go get dinner at this small place that had no English menu and no pictures. We essentially told the chef, chicken and rice. What came back was some glorious fried chicken, a bowl of steaming rice, and two grapes that were a gift from God! We scarfed it down ignoring the fact that our feet were falling asleep after sitting on them for too long. Afterwards we casually strolled back to the hotel, little did I know the people back at the hotel were scurrying around to set up a surprise birthday party complete with a cake saying, "happy 21st birthday Diana". I was completely surprised when I opened the door and so grateful for the gesture. I had plenty to drink and had good company, I couldn't ask for much more. We eventually made our way to the karaoke bar that night for an hour of singing and shouting. But the best part was after leaving the karaoke bar, a group of Japanese boys chimed in with our group in singing happy birthday. So here's a special blog shout out to all of those who helped celebrated my 21st!

But my birthday wasn't the only exciting event to occur while in Matsuyama. Our classes were held on the Ehime University campus, a 20 minute walk from our hotel, both Thursday and Friday. We learned about famous Japanese works by Hearn, Soseki, and Oe and some basic volcano geology to prepare ourselves for the next destination, Kumamoto and Mt. Aso. Since the typhoon that passed over made conditions unfavorable for us to go rice harvesting, we also attended a lecture on the geography of paddy fields, which have been around for 2,000 years! 

We were also able to visit Matsuyama Castle where we tried on suits of armor, watched a traditional tea ceremony, pondered and wrote haiku on the garden grounds, and rode a chair lift from the castle on the hill to the streets of Matsuyama. The view of the city was phenomenal. 

We also had the opportunity to meet many new people from this area, students and families alike. After our adventures at Matsuyama castle we convened at the main gate of Ehime University to pair up with a few Japanese students in the area. My group consisted on Brian, Darrick, Aaron, Alexis, Danna, and the two Japanese students, Tomomi and Ayari. We walked around for a bit trying to figure out where we wanted to eat. We settled on a buffet location where there was one price for all you could eat and drink. It was so good and we pretty much had Tomomi and Ayari decide which foods to get since they could read the menus! It was difficult at first to communicate with them because their english was fairly broken and we hardly knew any japanese, but as the night progressed it got easier. We joked, laughed, apparently Brian started talking about taxes, and had a good time hanging out as dishes and drinks came and went. Afterwards, the girls decided they wanted to treat us to an hour of karaoke. Hopefully we didn't scare them off too much because we sing all together not just with the microphones, unlike traditional karaoke. It was great learning about japanese culture from kids our age.

The next day we boarded the bus bright and early for Tobe, famous for its pottery. I was fortunate enough to sit next to one of the students who came with us, her name was Noho. How fortunate that I would be able to meet and get to know so many people in Matsuyama! In Tobe we explored many of the shops and museums showcasing the beautiful talents of pottery makers and painters. We even got to try our hand at painting Tobe cups which will be fired and shipped back to Augie where we will get to see the final product. I can't wait!!!

That night we had a free night and Dr. Wolf invited the geology folks to join him on a trip to the famous local onsen, Dogo. We strolled through the shops, sampled a few treats, and ate at a local restaurant where I had some wonderful sushi and rice!!! Then it was time to hit the hot spring. So this was my first experience in a public bath and I think at one point I almost passed out. It was so hot. The tickets (about $4) allowed you an hour in the bath, which is more than enough time. They are gender separated and thank goodness because you will get thrown out if you wear any clothing. After you wash off at one of the shower stations, you slip into the steamy water and soak away the stress. Ahhhhhhh. It felt really relaxing for the first 15 minutes then I started to get really hot and was getting a headache and dizzy so I got out and did a cool shower before getting in again. After another two rotations of that I decided I had had enough and went to towel off and escape the steam! Although a bit exhausting and draining I'm glad I was able to experience this onsen since public baths are such a common occurrence in Asian cultures. All I can say is that afterwards I definitely won the reddest face contest!

I mentioned earlier that we were able to interact with a family while staying in Matsuyama. This was such a wonderful experience. The family I, and another Augie student Brooke, was paired with seemed like the kind of family I would have grown up in if I was born in Japan. The dad and son came to pick us up at the hotel in their car and drove us to the edge of town to their home. The mom and daughter, who spoke very little english, were at home. We greeted them politely and introduced ourselves then situated ourselves at the table, sitting on pillows on the floor, for tea. We had sweets and cold tea, which were both delicious, as we told them about when we went to a traditional tea ceremony. After we had finished the dad and son took us to the local mall to shop and get dinner. We stopped in a few hundred yen shops and I found some dinosaur origami and pretty origami paper which the dad bought for us. Then we headed to the grocery store to pick up sushi, sashimi, and an Osaka favorite, Takoyaki. I thought that we had plenty of food for six of us, but when we sat down the mom placed bowls of cucumber salad with octopus, miso soup, gyoza, and beef stew in front of us. I had so much good food at my home stay and I will miss their home cooking! I tried some new dishes and some favorites. They even provided some delicious sake and wine to enjoy with dinner. After we had all eaten our fill the daughter pulled out a small notebook where she had written some questions she had for us. We talked about our home life, hobbies, and exchanged gifts. I gave them a model Caterpillar backhoe and in return i was given the #1 soy sauce according to the dad ad two self portraits drawn by the son and daughter. The dad played some guitar and sang in Japanese. It was a great evening of relaxing and experiencing everyday life of Japan. I will be sure to keep in contact with them and send them a care package when I get back in the states, filled with american things.

I'm sad to leave Matsuyama. I've had such a wonderful experience here for only being here four days. But its off to Beppu via bus, ferry, and tram!

Thanks for reading! And I guess I enjoyed Matsuyama so much that I forgot to take Spot out and snap a sneaky pic of him! Be on the look out in the next post for Spot! Ooops!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hiroshima. Rain Rain Go Away.

Post 6. 

Our time spent in Hiroshima coincided with the perfect weather for the mood, dreary. It didn't stop drizzling the entire four days we were there. From walking to the subway to riding the bullet train to riding a small tram, I always had a rain cover on my bag and an umbrella in my hand. While I was excited to be journeying to a new city, I was a little nervous about how I would feel about my time spent in Hiroshima. As most Americans know, Hiroshima was the first site of the A-bomb drop during WWII in an attempt to stop the war. The city was devastated and at least 70,000 people died instantly with thousands more dying from following complications. Knowing the kind of destruction and pain we caused the civilians of this region, I felt a sense of nervousness that our group would not be received well by the locals. Once we arrived, I felt a sense of extreme welcoming, more than I had imagined. Those currently living in Hiroshima have a mentality that it happened, BUT rather than focusing on the hate that was associated with the bombing they choose to focus on peace. Peace that will end all nuclear war. All of the Japanese people who showed us around were excited that we were there. They were hospitable, receptive to any questions we had, and loved that they had an opportunity to share their story. Most survivors of the bombing view sharing their story as a method of promoting peace.
Walking through the typhoon rain in Hiroshima 
Group C across the river from the A-Bomb dome 
Getting off the tram, we walked to our hotel, Aster Plaza, through the Peace Memorial Park, which we would be visiting the next day. It was eerie. The one structure that is left standing today is the A-Bomb Dome which was once the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition as a remembrance memorial. The naked metal of the dome stuck out against the tall skyscrapers and rushing river that surrounded it. Crows were circling the ruins making the scene even spookier, I was happy to rush to our hotel and settle in.

I shared a double room (with real BEDS!!!) with Alexis on the ninth floor overlooking the busy streets and river. Luckily, we didn't get stuck in one of the rooms that had 10 guys or 5 girls! After settling in for a few minutes and freshening up from our travel day, we set off to hunt for dinner nearby. The streets around our hotel were not as safe or touristy as those in Kyoto so searching for dinners and lunches was a bit more difficult. We still managed to find some great eats, including a Tex Mex place with vegetarian and organic options, called Otis.

The following day we walked to the Peace Memorial Park to visit the museum and surrounding park. Inside the museum we were privileged to hear the testimony of Keiko Ogura, a bomb survivor. Throughout our time spent in the area the only word that I could think of was surreal. To actually be in a place where all these bad things happened, that were caused by MY country was a hard concept to swallow. Within the museum there were destroyed items such as lunch boxes with charred meals, tattered clothes, fingernails and skin, and melted together tea cups donated by survivors.
The A-Bomb Dome
In line with the memorial cenotaph, peace flame, and A-Bomb dome.
Many of the initial survivors of the blast didn't survive for long. One girl in particular, Sadako, was exposed to the bomb when she was only 2 years old. Ten years later, she entered the Red Cross Hospital with leukemia. Despite the pain from her disease, she faithfully folded paper cranes in hopes of a cure. Despite the valiant effort, her brief life ended after an eight-month struggle. Today, cranes are folded as a symbol of casualties like Sadako. I bought some origami paper from the gift shop in the museum and folded a crane in honor of lives lost.
These 7 ft tall containers house thousands upon thousands of folded cranes.
The crane I folded in honor of the A-Bomb victims.
The tour of the museum ended with group discussions with professors and visiting students from the Hiroshima area. The student who joined our group was Kae Oi who was a 25 year old student striving to be a teacher. She had studied in America for a little while and we were able to talk to her about her experiences there and get recommendations for things to do during our stay in Hiroshima. Luckily, Kae didn't have any plans that evening and was able to hang out with us which was such a wonderful experience. I was able to check so many of my "must-do" things off my list such as eating Okonomiyaki, a delicious pizza like treat, singing karakoe, and making friends with locals.
Eating Okonomiyaki a dish with pasta, egg, flour, bacon,
secret sauce, and other yummy stuff!
We even planned to hang out again the next night when she would take us to a traditional Japanese bar. Unfortunately, due to difficulties in communication, we never ended up finding her until we came back to the hotel. Because it was rather late, we decided to squeeze in breakfast with her at the hotel the next morning before departing from Hiroshima Port at 11:15. Again our plans were foiled as the typhoon rolling in through the area forced our group to leave at 10 for the port. We were able to message Kae and let her know that we would not be able to see her before we left. I was so sad that we wouldn't be able to say goodbye properly! When we arrived at the port, Kae was waiting for us there! It felt like something out of a cheesy romantic movie, only instead of waiting at the airport gate it was the ferry port! We were able to say goodbye there and share a cup of coffee and pastries. I hope she comes to America again so we can show her around Chicago!
The gang with Kae Oi! 
My time spent in Hiroshima was a mixture of disbelief, relaxation, and meeting new people.
Matsuyama is only a ferry ride away.

Due to the prominence of paper cranes during my trip to Hiroshima, I've decided to not feature Spot, but rather the cranes that were folded for all the victims of the A-bomb.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Last Days in Kyoto

Post 5. 8/30 - 9/1

Japan loves their covered shopping plazas. We've been spending a fair amount of our time slowly meandering down the long aisles of sweets vendors and fan sellers. On the 30th, we just so happened to meander down into the famous food district of Kyoto. There was a cacophony of smells that permeated the air...let's just say that none of them convinced me to spend my money. Most of the vegetables were stored in large bins filled with a sort of brown sugar consistency looking substance. Getting the attention of the store owner I asked, "Nandesuka" or What is it. She was able to answer in English, crushed brown rice mixed with salt. I was excited to use some of the Japanese I had been learning in my literature class. But we did find a sake cup set in the shape of Mount Fuji that I helped convince Dr. Wolf he needed to buy, which he was eager to break in that night. 
Aaron purchasing a hand painted fan at the same place I purchased mine.
Our last day in Kyoto was jam packed with activities. Starting with a martial arts lesson in the park at 6 am, where we learned some basic stances, punches, and kicks. After a quick breakfast and grabbing some rolls for the road, we took the train to the end of the line and got off at Karama Station and hiked through a series of secluded shrines. The trail was literally stairs the ENTIRE way to the top and the ENTIRE way to the bottom. 
Stairs flanked by rows of shrine lanterns.
Aaron, Me, Michelle, Stephanie, and Shay on a shrine bridge.
The humidity hung heavy in the air and after a few minutes of walking my shirt was soaked! Despite that, it was really calming to be in the wilderness of Japan rather than in the bustling city of Kyoto for an afternoon. The slight breeze rustled the leaves on the trees and chimed the small bells that hung on the shrines. At the top of the mountain there was a forest of trees whose roots twisted above the soil, providing perfect nooks and crannies for spot to hide in! 
At the base of the mountain we attempted to find a restaurant to eat at which proved difficult. The only restaurant was quaint with seating on top of the river and lanterns hanging from the temporary roof, but PRICEY at a 100 yen a plate. Apparently, the Japanese didn't have quite the same sticker shock that we did, since they spend a larger percent of their income on dining than the average American does.
Two couples eating at the river restaurant.
We hopped back on the train to return to somewhere a little less expensive and found a yummy little french pastry shop. From our lunch spot, a group of us wandered to the Philosophers Path and did a little philosophizing while walking along a small stream back to our hotel. The path had cobbles buried in the dirt providing a rustic path. Perhaps there was too much philosophizing, or maybe not enough food, causing us to get a little slap happy on the way back to the hotel. We may or may not have made up ghetto names for ourselves. Say hello to Dee Eye Anna. Finding dinner was another adventure as we wandered around the street of Kyoto. I had a dish of rice with tempura (fried shrimp) and a bowl of miso soup. Since it was our last night in Kyoto the majority of the students did what the locals do and grabbed some drinks from 7-eleven and sat down by the river meeting new people and watching the water splash and bubble.

We had a few extra hours in the morning before we departed Kyoto, so three of us thought we’d kill time by going to the zoo just across the street from our hotel. There were elephants, red pandas, penguins, and four giraffes among other animals. There were a number of small school groups and small families, so cute, adorable japanese babies were everywhere! 
Darrick, Danna, and Aaron in front of the bird cage.
He's sexy and he knows it.
We grabbed lunch at the hotel before we headed for the train with our packed overnight luggage, while the rest of our luggage was shipped to Matsuyama, our destination after Hiroshima. There was a steady, annoying drizzle that made travelling to the subway station a rather damp experience. I was sad to leave Kyoto, especially since I was finally able to navigate the city comfortably without a map, but I was excited to see what the rest of the country had to offer and to ride on the fastest bullet train in Japan all the way to Hiroshima.

Happy 'Spot' Hunting.