Saturday, December 22, 2012


Fukuoka was our last destination in Japan, and truthfully we chose it primarily for its ferry port that would be our access to Korea. It is a large and vibrant city, though, and we used our few days there to partake in some Japanese activities that we hadn’t yet had the chance to. The first of these was pachinko – a hugely popular gambling phenomenon in Japan. Throughout our trip, we had been amazed by the sight of tall, windowless buildings full of people playing what looked liked an especially easy arcade game at all hours of the day and night. Since we were staying down the street from one of these giant complexes, we decided it was time to venture in, even though we had no idea how it worked. Walking inside was an immediate sensory overload. The building seemed silent as we approached but the automatic sliding doors opened to an overwhelming wall of noise. The beeping and ringing of the games was so loud that we wanted to cover our ears as soon as we stepped in. The machines were very bright and would blink and flash according to what was happening in each individual game. We got a very patient employee to show us how the game worked. He offered a level of help that we are sure wouldn't be allowed at a casino in Canada, putting his hand over James' and essentially playing the game for him. Nevertheless, we never really got the hang of it. Basically, players buy a set of marbles that are fed into the game and bang around as in a pinball machine. If they fall in the right place, the player has an opportunity to win a jackpot if various things happen in the correct sequence, and more marbles would be released from the machine. We played one game, and sadly our 1,000 yen ($13) melted away into the machine before we could learn much more. If we had been luckier, we could have traded in our marbles for ‘prizes’ at the counter (gambling for money is illegal in Japan), and traded in these prizes for cash at another counter around the corner. When we stepped outside while chatting to each other, we suddenly realized that we had been shouting at the top of our voices just to be heard.

The next morning we were gently awoken by a kind hostel staff member who remembered that we had mentioned an interest in taking a tour of the Asahi brewery and had found out for us that the only English tour of the day started in the morning. We quickly headed to the brewery and took our free tour. It was interesting to see the extremely efficient machine assembly line – a mere 140 employees operate the plant that produces 800 million cans per year. The best part was the 20 minutes of free beer after the tour, although we could only drink two glasses each – it was only 11:30 am after all!

During the afternoon we prepared for a quick trip to Osaka to visit Yoshiaki Nagasawa, a master bicycle frame builder. This was an adventure that James had dreamt up and to tell the truth, Antonia was just along to make sure that he didn’t get lost on the way, but she had an unexpectedly great time owing to Nagasawa-san’s warm hospitality and the fast friendship that we made with his colleagues. Nagasawa-san does not entertain regular tours of his foreign fans, but James had read of some other tourists who had managed to get a hold of the builder and pay an impromptu visit. There were a few small things standing in our way: Osaka is about four hours away from Fukuoka by train, and Nagasawa-san works only during the night, from about 7 pm to 7 am. But we decided that this opportunity was worth missing a night’s sleep, since when else would we be this close to a master frame builder? We had the hostel staff call his workshop and we got permission to visit him that night. Preparations included finding a box of his favourite candy and taking an afternoon catnap.

Yann and Emilie chose to stay behind and leave the nighttime adventuring to us, so we boarded the Shinkansen alone and were very proud to make all of our connections and easily find Nagasawa-san’s home station on the outskirts of Osaka by about 11 pm. The difficult part was finding his workshop from there, but with some help, we eventually found the correct intersection. We didn’t have any further directions and for a few moments we were at a loss about how we would find the right building until we took a close look around and suddenly saw a beam of light in the darkness that illuminated a warehouse of countless bike parts. We entered tentatively and were greeted by Sadako and her husband René, Nagasawa-san's English-speaking colleagues whom he had asked to translate for us. René is actually an Australian with a passion for cycling who came to Japan on a trip and ended up falling in love with the country and with Sadako. They now own a cycling shop of their own and collaborate with Nagasawa-san on special projects. Antonia could see James getting ideas about the perks of such a lifestyle and begin scheming about how he might spend summers in Osaka. We were very happy to have René and Sadako with us, not only for the translation (we had previously imagined nodding politely as we stood in silence watching Nagasawa-san work all night), but because they were interesting and kind people whom we enjoyed getting to know in the wee hours of the morning. We're not sure if they had intended to stay the entire night, but they insisted, through stifled yawns, that they didn't mind. We are very grateful to them for forgoing sleep that evening since their presence made the experience much richer for us.

Nagasawa-san was more welcoming than we could have hoped for. He first took a coffee break to sit down with us and chat, then invited us to watch him work and didn't seem to mind being the subject of hundreds of photos throughout the night. When he found out that we weren't staying in Osaka, he even offered us a guest room at his house for the night. We did not end up making use of it, though, since we spent the wee hours happily getting to know René and Sadako, and watching the master at work. 

Throughout the night, we had the opportunity to get to know Nagasawa-san a bit. René and Sadako informed us that he had begun his career as a keirin racer, but he was in a bad accident and doctors forbid him from racing anymore. To remain in the keirin community, he was forced to learn other aspects of the sport, and studied massage and bike mechanics - anything to stay with his team. He realized that he should learn to build keirin frames and that if he was to do it properly, he should learn from the masters in Italy. So he showed up at the door of Ugo De Rosa without having any money or frame-building skills, and without knowing any Italian. He started by sweeping the floors of De Rosa's workshop and worked his way up to frame building in the shop, acquiring the skills that make him one of the best frame builders in the world. He eventually brought these skills back to Japan and used them to revolutionize keirin frame building. Rumour has it he also brought back his Italian sleep schedule which is why he still keeps such strange hours to this day.  

At about 4:30 am, Nagasawa-san stopped working to give us a gift of a full set of bicycle decals and part of a frame from a bicycle of his that had been damaged in a keirin race. He proceeded to pour beers all around and we toasted one of the best nights of our trip. Then, because he works such odd hours, he declared that he was hungry and that it was time for 'dinner.' He insisted on taking us all out for a meal, and René and Sadako drove us to a nearby 24-hour diner where we joined Nagasawa-san, his wife and his son for a large 5:30 am feast throughout which Nagasawa-san discussed his views on cycling, Japanese history, and life in general. It was truly a treat to spend time with such a knowledgeable and warm person. After the meal, René and Sadako kindly drove us to a train station where we started on our long way back to Fukuoka.

Having slept only about an hour on the train, we went to sleep as soon as we had regaled Yann and Emilie with our Osaka adventure, and only woke up in time to go the the baseball game that we had bought tickets for in our quest to experience another national pastime of Japan. Our hostel had a Fukuoka Hawks fan rulebook and we read it in preparation. It was a ridiculously detailed account of  how to behave as a fan, and outlined for example appropriate times to wave a flag: when your team scores, when your team hits a run, and when your team is ahead by a large margin. Only in Japan would spectating be so heavily regulated. The Japanese certainly take cheering seriously - the audience stood the whole time the Hawks were at bat.

A live band and a very enthusiastic man with a megaphone led the crowd in cheers that everyone knew, complete with particular dances to go along

When flag-waving cheerleaders came onto the field between innings, a businessman in his suit took out his matching flags and moved into the aisle to perform the entire routine with them, spot-on and full of energy. When the routine was over, he carefully rolled his flags up and sat back down, smoothing any creases in his pantsuit. The baseball game was lots of fun and a great opportunity to witness for one last time the adorable mix of seriousness and playfulness in the Japanese culture.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Mount Aso

We left Hiroshima early in the morning on a train bound for Mount Aso, the site of one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. We hoped we would have a clear view despite the heavy rains that we travelled through. From the train station, we walked the short distance to our hostel and were delighted to discover that it was the nicest we had been in so far; we’re sure we won’t find another one like it on our trip.  The spotless building was made to feel like home, with beautiful furnishings and every amenity we could want. Thoughtful touches like a woodstove, a clean and well-organized kitchen, a library of manga and board games, and stuffed animals to sleep with allowed us to enjoy the rainy evenings that we spent inside.

We woke up the next morning to blue skies and we knew that we had to take advantage of the unexpected break in the weather to explore the volcano. We took a short bus ride up to the base station with a plan to hike around the crater and then back down to the town. When we got to the station, though, we were informed that the crater was closed due to noxious gas emissions. Aso is a caldera volcano, with an ever-broiling cauldron of sulphur dioxide formed after an eruption caused the mount to collapse in on itself. When we approached the base, we could see the fumes spewing out of the crater, and we could certainly smell the eggy sulphur. But we had read that Aso’s sulphur output was inconsistent and that access to the crater was often opened and closed by the hour, so we waited at the station hoping that we would be able to see the volcano we had travelled so far for.

After an hour without any sign of Aso letting up, we decided to take another hiking route and check back later. We began walking toward some extinct craters in the vicinity while the sulphur fumes climbed into the sky behind us.

On our way, we came across a man with a van on the side of the trail, selling helicopter rides over the volcano. At first we scoffed at the unofficial appearance of the set-up, but we had earlier seen a helicopter circling safely, and we realized that this might be our only chance to see the crater. Yann and Emilie could not be convinced, but Antonia talked James into taking this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we signed up.

We are very glad that we did because this was one of the best experiences of our trip so far. Our first-ever helicopter ride was exhilarating not only because of the thrill of being so high, but because of the spectacular views that it afforded. We got the see the entire landscape of extinct craters, but most breathtaking, of course, was the view of the volcanic cauldron that turned out to be off-limits to pedestrians all day. We flew directly over it, and the sulphur fumes dissipated just enough for us to clearly see the green-blue sulphur lake spewing the noxious gas. It looked violent and hellish, but it was beautiful from the safety of our helicopter.

Yann and Emilie greeted us on the ground, and we continued on our hike to an extinct crater. A steep climb rewarded us with great views of the mountains and lakes surrounding us.

 We got to walk around the edge of the now grassy extinct crater...

and got another perspective of the rocky one that was still very active.

That evening, we capped our lovely day with a feast of homemade tempura with beer in our beautiful hostel. We were the only guests there that night, allowing us to pretend that we lived in our own grand mansion.
Since we were a little sore from our hike, the next day was a great opportunity to take a day trip to nearby Kurokawa, a small town famous for being full of some of the loveliest onsen in the country - this part of the archipelago being perfectly suited for the hot springs that come from volcanic sources. The town boasts dozens of onsen and ryokan – traditional Japanese lodging, usually very fancy – that see Japanese tourists wandering the streets between onsen in only their robes and slippers. Staying at a ryokan was a bit expensive, but we bought a pass to visit three onsen for only 1,200 yen – about $15. All of the onsen were ridiculously beautiful. We don’t have pictures to show you because of the tradition that onsen bathing should only be done in the nude, but just imagine the most idyllic natural springs that you can, and you will be halfway there. Some were outdoors, with steaming water in a stone pool overlooking a waterfall in a glade. Some were indoors, with large picture windows giving a view of bamboo, streams, and more waterfalls. The first one was nearly empty except for us, so we got to revel in our own secluded paradise. The second had some baths separated by sex, as we were used to, and some that were mixed; the Japanese don’t have the same shyness about nudity in front of the opposite sex as we North Americans. We weren’t yet ready to do as the locals do, though, and we bathed separately again. At first we were confused about where the changing rooms were, though, and thought we were supposed to undress in the washrooms and walk the halls of the fancy hotel in our birthday suits. We realized just in time that the changing rooms were directly beside each individual bath, and we laughed for the rest of the afternoon at the thought of the faux pas that we nearly committed. The baths here were in a bamboo grove with stone Buddhas adding to the relaxed atmosphere. One bath had a deep area with a bamboo swing to help hold you up. The third onsen was the fanciest we visited, but it was also exclusively mixed. We hid behind small ‘modesty towels,’ but they have to go in a sort of less-than-stylish turban on your head once you’re in the clear water. We enjoyed one outdoor bath beside a huge waterfall, and one inside a cave. It was all very relaxing and indulgent, and we reflected on how lucky we were to spend a day in such fantastical surroundings.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Our plan after Kyoto was to hike for a few days on the Kumano Kodo trail, an ancient pilgrimage through a forest in a nearby province. The night before we were to leave, we decided to stock up on necessary supplies, especially snacks in case we needed lunch on the road, or in the rare event that we got lost and needed sustenance. Yann, the ever-cautious planner, decreed that we should take at least twenty packages of food each. In the interests of reason and the weight of our backpacks, we settled on ten snacks per person. We had fun at the 100 yen store picking out our survival packets.

But we never got to go on our trek. Later that night, amongst the snacks that nearly covered our small hostel room floor, Antonia had the urge to check her email, even though it was late and we had to get up very early to catch our train and start our adventure. It was very lucky that she did, because she had just received an email from the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo advising us about Typhoon Guchol, forecast to land in Japan the next day. We broke the news to Yann and Emilie, and together we did some research – sure enough, the typhoon was heading exactly where we were going on our trek. After much deliberation, we decided to to postpone our hike and head to Hiroshima first. We half-joked that our snacks might become emergency rations, depending on what Guchol decided to do.

We took the Shinkansen to Hiroshima and when our hostel upgraded us to a Japanese-style room with an ensuite bathroom for no extra charge, we decided to stay two nights. We were very glad that we did, because Hiroshima is a lovely city. Although it will always be known for being the site of the world’s first atomic bombing, Hiroshima’s citizens have proudly rebuilt a vibrant city where we were able to balance learning about the terrible tragedy with having fun exploring the rest of the city.

On our first afternoon, we set out to find a particularly strange arcade game, called Cho Chabudai Gaeshi, that we had learned about in Canada. Chabudai Gaeshi is a Japanese phrase meaning to flip a table in anger. The table-flipping video game is equipped with a plastic table that the player can pound in anger, and then flip at the right moment.

The game measures how hard the table is flipped, and has an animation of the damage that would have been done. James had done some research and located an arcade in downtown Hiroshima that likely had such a device, and we finally found the strangest game we would see in Japan. We each played it, trying out different scenarios that are designed to make you mad enough to flip a table. Scenario 1: You are a boss at an office and your employees aren’t getting any work done, so you flip the table. Scenario 2: You are a bride at your wedding reception, and your family is complaining about the food, so you throw the table under your multi-tiered wedding cake. Scenario 3: You are a businessman who has come home from a hard day at work. You sit down to a dinner that is not adequately delicious. To make matters worse, your two bratty kids are texting and squabbling at each other at the dinner table, so you flip the dinner table. Scenario 4 (the most sympathetic one to us): you are a teacher and your class isn’t paying attention to you, so you throw your desk across the room. The actual table-flipping is very fast; most of the game consists of the animated set-up and then hilarious replays of the flip in slow motion, complete with a slowed-down replay of whatever angry tirade you were shouting at the time, from about fifteen different angles. Then scores are added up based on how many objects your table destroyed and how many fires it started. (It should be noted that James scored first place for his scenario). Here is Yann playing as the angry school teacher:

The weather was lovely in Hiroshima, so we figured that the typhoon had blown over or never materialized. We decided to head back to the Kumano Kodo, and Emilie and Antonia booked a hostel for the start of the trek. When they returned upstairs after using the phone, the boys had turned on the news, which was devoted to coverage of the typhoon’s destruction in other parts of the country. There was footage of cancelled trains and 900 homes being evacuated. We tried to downplay the significance of 900 homes in the scope of the entire, densely-populated country, until we learned that all of these homes were in the town at the start of the Kumano Kodo. We decided to reassess our plans the next day.

We headed out for dinner in the beautiful evening and found an okonomiyaki restaurant just down the street. We had loved the okonomiyaki in Kyoto, and now we had the opportunity to try the Hiroshima style. This restaurant was run by a very sweet elderly couple who must make a very good earning on baseball nights, since we were just metres away from the stadium of the beloved Hiroshima Carp, main rivals of the Tokyo Giants. 

We sat at the counter and watched the couple grill our pancakes right in front of us – this time they were thin, with piles of cabbage and sprouts, a fried egg on top and grilled noodles underneath – even tastier than the fluffier Kyoto version.

Here is the finished product:

The next morning we boarded a local ferry to visit Itsukushima, an island off the city, site of a famous shrine and thought to be so holy that laypeople weren’t allowed to set foot on it for much of its nearly 1000-year-old history. The torii to the shrine is in the water off the shore of the island, allowing people to pass through it in their boats without having to step on the holy island. The water torii are very beautiful, with a reflection in the water and the mountainous shoreline behind them. 

After taking a ferry to the holy island, we visited the torii and wandered through the shrine, which is also built over the water, and was one of the prettiest we have seen. We even got to see a shinto wedding ceremony taking place. Like Nara, the island is populated by sacred deer, but visitors are not supposed to pet or feed these ones, as they are more wild. In fact, one walked right up to Antonia and began trying to eat her shirt and then her belt!

That afternoon we paid a sombre but worthwhile visit to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the site of the memorials and museums dedicated to the victims of the atomic bomb that fell over the area on August 6, 1945. We first stopped at the Atomic Bomb Dome, the ruins of a building that stood almost directly under the epicentre of the blast. Most buildings in the city were made of wood at the time and were totally demolished the instant the bomb exploded. This was one of the few stone buildings in the city at the time, and the remaining skeletal structure stands as a strangely beautiful, stark reminder of the destruction that ravaged the city within seconds. Nearby, we met a man who was in utero during the explosion, and speaks to tourists everyday about Japan’s experience after the bombing. He provided us with information that he said wouldn’t be available to us in the official museums. For instance, the Japanese government does not like to acknowledge the true number of atomic bomb victims because of its commitment to compensate them financially, and also because it would like to deflect responsibility for bringing the country into a war that had such devastating effects. He also told us that many Japanese stigmatize survivors, preferring not to date them, for example, because of the fear that they carry disease and mutation. It was interesting to learn about the controversy over the use of nuclear power in Japan - he told us that a majority of citizens are against it because they have witnessed the effects of a nuclear disaster, but the government relies on it for power generation.

Next, we walked to the Children’s Peace Monument, dedicated to all children who died as a result of the bomb, and in particular to Sadako Sasaki, who developed leukemia after the bombing, and folded one thousand paper cranes as a wish for recovery. She died when she was just twelve years old, but she has become a symbol for peace. Her statue is now surrounded by millions of cranes that have since been folded by children around the world, arranged in colourful patterns. We saw a group of adorable children holding a ceremony to dedicate their cranes to Sadako’s memory.

We then walked past the eternal flame, which will only be extinguished when all nuclear weapons have been destroyed, and the cenotaph, where ashes and names of the dead are buried, to reach the Hiroshima National Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. This modern, minimalist museum is centred around a large, bright, round room that is empty except for a small fountain in the centre, and serves as a quiet place to reflect on the bombing and its victims. The hall also has screens displaying the pictures and names of the victims, and we visited an exhibition of personal effects discovered in the ruins and stories of survivors.

We spent most of our time at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which details the history of the city during the war, the bombing, and the rebuilding periods. It is an excellent museum that taught us a little about nuclear physics and the Manhattan Project. It also displays personal effects and stories from the aftermath of the bombing, and provides information about the movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons. We spent hours here, but we admit that we didn’t have the wherewithal to look closely at every display. The intensity of the tragedy was overwhelming. We can’t properly convey what we saw, and we will just affirm that it was an unimaginable atrocity. Proponents of nuclear deterrence should see the list of the sixteen times the US has considered using a nuclear weapon since 1945, as well as the long list of accidents involving nuclear weapons. Every time any nation has launched a nuclear test since 1945, the mayor of Hiroshima has written an official letter of protest.

Looking to lighten the mood, we went to a nearby izakaya - a Japanese pub – for dinner. It was intimidating to walk through the door into a room full of businessmen smoking and drinking, but the staff sent us up to the third floor where it was a little quieter. We ordered beers and cocktails like plum wine with soda, and ate delicious Japanese pub food like tofu pizza and edamame. 

When we checked the weather in the Kumano Kodo, they were still experiencing heavy rains, and we decided that we would have to forgo our hike for more time visiting the volcano at Mount Aso. We are still carrying some of the mountain of survival snacks, but they have come in handy on long days of sight-seeing and train rides.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


The first exciting thing about our time in Kyoto was getting there because we took our first ride on Japan’s bullet train, the Shinkansen. Like everything else in Japan, riding the train is easy, efficient, and comfortable. And when you ride the Shinkansen, it is also very fast - 300 km/h. It’s especially impressive when you are stopped and a station and another one whizzes by, and you realize just how fast you were going.

Kyoto was the capital city of Japan until 1869, and was the site of the country’s important religious and cultural development from the 8th century until then. It is therefore still viewed as the cultural repository of Japan – a guidebook compared Tokyo to a trendy teenage sibling of the gracious geisha that is Kyoto (and by the way, have you ever noticed that Tokyo and Kyoto are the same words with inverted syllables?!). Seventeen of Kyoto’s hundreds of shrines and temples comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site for their importance to world religion and architecture, and we spent five days exploring as many of them as we could. Our days were full of temple-hopping and we were always exhausted by dinnertime. But we didn't want to leave anything out – each temple or shrine was truly special: the first zen garden in the world, or the largest wooden structure in the world, or the one ensconced in a fantastical bamboo grove. If any city had even one of these sights, it would be a large draw, so it was amazing that we were in a city with dozens of them. We learned the lesson, though, that variety is the key to a successful day of sight-seeing, and we probably shouldn’t have tried to do all temples, all day.

So we will spare you from a day-by-day log of everything we did, and instead show you some of our favourites. The nice thing about the first day was that we rented bicycles to get between temples, and the first place we visited was a definite highlight. Fushimi Inari shrine, founded in 711, has thousands of vermillion torii lining the circuitous paths to the many smaller shrines in the mountain complex.

It was lovely to stroll inside the trellis of gates with sunlight streaming in, and peak at the all of the other shrines in the forest.

The final temple we rode to that day was also one of our favourites for its amusing spiritual activities. Kiyomizu-dera was founded in 798, although the present structure – built of wood without using a single nail – was built in 1633. It is famous for its large veranda built on wooden pillars overlooking the city, and for its natural spring water that is said to have spiritual healing powers (Emilie and Antonia tried the water – James and Yann weren’t brave enough).

We also spent some time at the love fortune-telling rocks at the temple. It is said that if you can walk in a straight line between two stones 18 metres apart with your eyes closed, you will have success in your love life. We all tried, but only Yann and Antonia succeeded. We figured that one success per couple was enough to ensure our lifelong happiness.

That evening we decided to attend a dance ceremony at a shrine close to our hostel. We were perplexed when one priest of obvious importance called musicians up one by one to perform and then stood perfectly still with his eyes closed while the music played – had we come to the wrong event? Where was the dancing? Upon much closer inspection, we realized that the priest was in fact moving his feet one at a time in minute, infrequent steps.

Kyoto is the birthplace of the zen garden, and we got to see several of the most famous arrangements of rocks and moss in the world. The idea behind these elegant gardens is to recreate a landscape – large rock formations might represent mountains in a ‘sea’ of raked gravel.

The ability to meditate on the essence of these natural formations is thought to transmit the mystical significance that is always around us, but difficult to interpret. At one temple, the rocks represent animals that are at different stages in their zen development. A foolish turtle is swimming against the tide, trying to hold onto his youth; a resting cow has accepted the impermanence of life and has begun asking existential questions. Our favourite was the large enclosure of nothing but raked sand representing eternity at the Daisen-in temple. Two conical mounds of sand are the only structures, waves radiating away from them. There are no rocks because in this eternal universe, there are no more obstacles, only a free flow of energy.

We can’t say that we learned much about the meaning of life from the zen gardens, but it was very exciting to see our first one, and they were among our favourite sights of Kyoto. They do somehow inspire peace and introspection; we noticed that visitors are immediately quiet and respectful in a zen temple, despite the lack of any signage requesting it. At least, we tried to be respectful – while approaching the entrance to one of the most famous zen temples, Emilie stopped to take a picture and stumbled as she got out of her optimal-photographer pose. She landed right in a bed of carefully raked gravel, leaving a few dents. Luckily no one was around to witness our desecration, but we felt very sorry. When we turned the corner and crossed the threshold to the temple building, we noticed a sign prohibiting photography with an explanation that photographers can ruin the ambiance of the garden. No kidding.

Zen temples also like their bamboo, and we got to visit Japan’s largest bamboo grove at Tenryu temple. We enjoyed our stroll through the shady path, with sun glinting through the swaying bamboo. It was a slightly grander way to create the same peaceful feeling that we had at the rock gardens.

After the bamboo grove, we took a break from both the spiritual and the peaceful with a fun visit to Iwatayama Monkey Park. The 170 macaques who live in this park are wild, but the promise of food entices them to the viewing area. We climbed a steep mountain path and were very excited to see our first macaque at the feeding enclosure, but there were so many monkeys, and we could get so close to them, that soon we didn’t bat an eye at crossing inches from a monkey who was beside our path. We first entered the feeding enclosure, where people are the ones who are caged and monkeys cling to the sides of the chain link to take peanuts and bananas from our hands. Outside the enclosure, where there is no feeding and the monkeys are more calm, we were able to come very close to them and watch them play or pick fleas off each other. The best part was seeing the babies – one was just four days old – and the cute young ones who were old enough to jump and play, but without much coordination.


On our last day in the Kyoto area, we took a day trip to nearby Nara. Nara was the first capital city of Japan, from 710 to 784, and is famous for the magnificent Todai-ji temple, which houses one of the largest Buddha statues in the world, as well as hundreds of tame deer that roam the temple complex. When Todai-ji was founded in 728, deer were thought to be messengers of the gods, and were encouraged to live in the surroundings. They have since become mascots of the area, and protected National Treasures of Japan. There are even caricatures all over the small town of a cute Buddha with antlers. When we read about Nara, we pictured an idyllic forest with peaceful deer scattered about to add to the serenity. The temple is located in picturesque, forested grounds, but unfortunately the entire area is overrun with tour buses and school groups – anything but serene. The deer are calm enough to be approached and pet, which was a fun experience.

However, when they are being fed, they become crazed and a little scary. Antonia loved petting the deer and bought special biscuits from a vendor to feed them, but even before she opened the package, the deer that had previously been so peaceful got a crazy look in their eye and made an aggressive play for the chow. Four or five deer were competing for each biscuit, crowding Antonia, nudging her, and even butting her from behind. It was overwhelming, and from then on we settled for petting the deer without offering them a snack.

Before heading for Todai-ji, we stopped to see Isuien garden, said to be one of the loveliest in the area. We don’t disagree; its serene pond is surrounded by perfectly-manicured moss, stone paths, and bridges, and reflected the blue hills in the background.

Todai-ji is the largest wooden structure in the world, and indeed it was very impressive. We entered to gaze at the serene Buddha, one of the largest bronze structures in the world.

Because temples are always more fun when they come with zany activities, there is a hole cut out of a beam inside the temple, said to be the exact size of Buddha’s nostril. If you can squeeze through it, you will attain enlightenment. Children were lined up to try, as were many small, old ladies. We stood watching and some locals encouraged us to try, surely thinking of how much fun they would have laughing at us when we got stuck half-way. We decided that Yann’s slender frame would have the best chance of enlightenment in our group, and we convinced him to try it. To the crowd’s surprise and delight, he succeeded, and in his mind earned the last word in any disagreement until the end of the trip, since he is the only one who is certifiably enlightened.

In Kyoto we usually found lunch in a fastfood noodle joint - almost always ordering kitsune (fried tofu) with udon or soba, because that is the one vegetarian meal that we know how to order. Things got complicated when we had to deal with a vending machine that didn’t have pictures, and we would ask another customer for help. 

For dinner, we would usually cook in our hostel to try to save some yen. The standby was ramen with tofu and veggies, meaning that for days we ate some form of noodles twice a day – tasty enough, but a little repetitive. So we were happy to find the curiously-named but delicious Mr. Young Men’s restaurant. It specializes in okonomiyaki, which is a Japanese “pancake” of meat, fish, and/or veggies mixed in a batter and fried on a griddle. Since we were able to communicate our vegetarian needs and it wasn’t too expensive, we went back more than once.

After dinner, we would explore the traditional neighbourhood around our hostel. Gion is the centre of nightlife for Kyoto’s upperclass, and its picturesque streets are full of antique wooden buildings and lined with red lanterns. It is most famous as the epicentre of Japan’s geisha culture, as they are called on to entertain the clientele that frequent the centuries-old teahouses and restaurants. These establishments are so exclusive that patrons are admitted only by referral – as tourists without any connections in high places, we certainly couldn’t get into any. Seeing a geisha perform was therefore out of the question, but we did join in the popular tourist activity of trying to catch sight of one as she entered or exited the teahouses. This is a rare occurrence, as the geisha are only at work for a certain period in the evening, and they come and go discreetly through back entrances and small alleys. Many tourists at our hostel hadn’t managed to see one at all, so we thought ourselves quite lucky to see three on our first night. They are instantly recognizable in their chalk-white makeup and ornate hairdos, and they walk gracefully but very hurriedly so that they are seen as little as possible by the general public. They are very beautiful and really were exciting to see. The challenge for us became getting a good photograph of a geisha, and although it seems like a strange comparison, it seemed very much like wildlife photography: “I see one! Run! Which way is she headed? Go up the next alley and she’ll run right into you!” There are rules to follow, though, when you're trying to photograph a geisha, and we tried to be respectful by never obstructing her path or bothering her in any other way. This was the best image we could capture on our first night of geisha-watching:

By the third night, James and Yann were becoming experts. They would run from Emilie and Antonia at the first sign of a geisha down any alley (it was understood that Emilie and Antonia would only slow them down and perhaps scare away the shy subjects by tripping into something ancient and sacred).

They became very skilled at navigating the alleys of Gion and setting their cameras for the perfect shot, and they impressed many tourists who couldn’t hope for a photograph to remember a lucky sighting. One traveller that we came across even took a picture of James’ picture and had to settle for that.