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.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Mount Fuji

Disclaimer: While we were physically at Mount Fuji, the fog never lifted enough for us to get a good look. Please do not expect any grand photographs of the mountain in this post.

After four days in Tokyo, we were headed for the resort village of Kawaguchi-ko, at the base of Mount Fuji. Taking the bus there was yet another example of the great care that the Japanese take to ensure that everything is easy and efficient. Before we left Tokyo, we had to activate our Japan Rail Passes, which we had purchased in Canada and allow us unlimited use of the excellent train systems. Using a colour-coded highlighting system to keep track, a clerk checked that each letter of the information we gave exactly matched our passports, then another clerk double-checked each letter. During this meticulous process, they apologized several times for the wait. A comparison to the processes that we encountered in India will underline how surprising all of this is for us: when we had to get special permission to travel near the TIbetan border in Himachal-Pradesh, we waited an entire afternoon for a clerk to transcribe our names incorrectly on a pass that was never carefully checked by anyone when we passed official posts. And when we took the bus in India, we were never really sure if we were getting on the right one. We had to climb on top of the bus and strap our bags onto an overflowing pile of miscellaneous packages while praying that the bus didn’t take off until we were back inside. When we lined up in Tokyo for the bus to Kawaguchi-ko, a white-gloved luggage man took our bags from us and gently placed them in the bottom of the bus, but only after confirming twice that we were getting on the correct bus for our destination. As we climbed into the hills and then the mountains outside of Tokyo, announcements in Japanese, Mandarin, and English announced each stop.

We arrived at our hostel in Kawaguchi-ko and were very pleased to find that it was a world away from our squished and noisy Tokyo residence. As a bonus, we had been placed in a Japanese-style room, with tatami (bamboo) mats, a low table to kneel at, and sliding paper screens on doors and windows. At night we would move the table and pull out the futon mattresses from the closet to turn it into a bedroom. It felt like we were on a little vacation away from the big city, and everything we did at Fuji was more relaxed than the frantic sight-seeing that we felt we needed to do in our short time in Tokyo.

The first thing we needed to do was to find something to eat, so we decided to try the local specialty at a restaurant recommended to us by the staff. Kawaguchi-ko is famous for hoto – thick, handmade noodles in a miso and pumpkin broth. 

The restaurant was large and beautifully decorated, with traditional tatami floors and wooden walls covered in Japanese art. While Antonia was taking this picture, she gently knocked into a large wall-hanging as the shutter went off. The picture will tell you who first realized it. (The hanging swayed back and forth slightly but was unharmed – we left immediately, as it was decided that we were not graceful enough to be in such fine surroundings.)

Skies had been cloudy and foggy since we arrived, so we hadn’t yet caught a glimpse of the famous mountain, even though we were right at its base. Our guidebook describes Mount Fuji as ‘notoriously shy,’ and it’s actually rare that the fog in front of it clears outside of winter months. Our best bet, though, was very early morning, so we set an alarm for 4 am, then 5 am, then 6 am, getting up each time to see only a completely grey morning sky. As it wasn’t raining, we decided to rent bicycles and cycle around the circumference of Lake Kawaguchi-ko, visiting some points of interest along the way. 

Our favourite site was the Itchiku Kubota Kimono Museum, set up by Kubota, a textile artist, in an amazing building nestled on the mountainside and made of 16 thousand-year-old cypress trees. The gallery itself was a piece of art, with wood, glass and stone used together in creative ways. Just as beautiful was the display of hand-dyed kimonos depicting Fuji landscapes in bright colours. We learned that each kimono was dyed over thirty times and took a year to complete. Photographs inside the museum were prohibited, but you can see some of the kimonos here.

By the time we were exactly halfway around the lake and farthest from our hostel, it began to rain hard and we were thoroughly soaked when we returned. We decided it was the perfect time for our first visit to an onsen. Onsen are hot springs that originate from volcanic sources – since Japan is an archipelago largely made up of dormant and active volcanoes, the country is covered with onsen and bathing in them is an important leisure activity for locals. Luckily, there was one just around the corner from our hostel, and we spent a lovely afternoon bobbing around in it. All of the bathing areas were very clean and bright, similar to a Canadian spa, but it cost only ten dollars to spend all day. It was separated by sex, and Antonia and Emilie tried both indoor tubs – each a different temperature, one very bubbly – before heading outdoors and sitting in the hot pools while a light, refreshing rain fell on them. Their favourite was a row of small baths for individuals, like large cauldrons, being filled by their own spouts and spilling over into a larger bath. They spent a lot of time relaxing in those, quite sure they looked very just like Roman goddesses in a Botticelli painting. James and Yann also enjoyed outdoor tubs but most likely looked less like Roman goddesses.

The morning of our departure, we still hadn’t seen Mount Fuji, so we decided to take the cable-car up nearby  Mount Tenjō, renowned for fantastic views of Fuji, to look out into the blanket of fog and imagine what we were missing. Mount Tenjō is also famous as the setting of a beloved folktale, in which rabbit tortures a tanuki (Japanese raccoon-like animal) in various ways as revenge after the tanuki kills a farmer’s wife and tricks the farmer into eating her in a soup (the full story is here). As if that wasn’t strange enough, the rabbit and tanuki are mascots of the mountain, and there are caricatures of the rabbit torturing the tanuki everywhere, as well as a shrine dedicated to the rabbit at the top. Depicted here is the scene in which the rabbit offers to help ease the tanuki's bug bites, but puts on a peppery ointment instead:

On Mount Tenjō, we saw very nice views of the lake and surrounding areas, but we were surrounded by cloud when we got to the top. Here is the famous lookout spot - we could almost picture the lucky tourists snapping pictures of Fuji through the heart on a clear day.

Having given up on actually seeing Fuji, we began to descend Tenjō on a hiking trail, and arrived at a small rest area. 

We gazed in the direction of Fuji, and Yann was the first to spot something incredible  – a small break in the clouds allowed us to get a tiny peak of Fuji! We were ecstatic even to see a small bit of it, and we stayed to watch a few more porous clouds go by. Even though we only ever saw small, fractured parts of the mountain, this moment seemed miraculous to us since we thought we wouldn’t get to see it at all. The pieces that we saw gave us the impression that a full view of Fuji would have indeed been very magnificent.

We have seen many technologically-advanced products in Japan, but James believes that the single most impressive technological innovation here is the Japanese interpretation of the Western toilet. They are fitted with a set of a dozen or more controls to the side. Many are still a mystery to us, but we know that the toilet can the turned into a bidet, with several different possible water pressures and positions, and a warm air to dry you off afterward. You can also play the sound of flushing water if ever you would like to mask rude noises without wasting water. There is also a deodorizing feature. When you flush (different pressures are available, of course, depending on your needs), a little faucet pours above the tank so that you can rinse your hands before the water refills the tank. Antonia’s vote for best Japanese innovation goes to green tea Kit Kats.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Tokyo – part II

On our second day in Tokyo, we headed out in the rain to experience something well off beaten tourist path. Ever since we began planning our trip to Japan, James had hoped that we could see a keirin race. In this format of competitive cycling unique to Japan, eight competitors dressed in bright colours race around the track while spectators bet on the results, just like horseracing. We felt very lucky that during our stay in Tokyo, a major competition was taking place in nearby Kawasaki City. We enjoyed an afternoon at the races, although we didn’t attempt to decipher the vending machines used to place bets. In fact, it took us three tries to purchase the correct tickets just to enter. Without being able to read anything at the ticket booth but the seat prices, we opted to splurge for the most expensive seats (a whole $9) since this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. With our VIP tickets in hand, we were led to a smokey indoor room with plush chairs and screens displaying the latest odds - ideal for the big rollers, but not for us. And then we messed up once more. Eventually, we ended up with front-row seats at the finish line. The races began with the same formal ceremonies each time, including a synchronized entrance of the officials, a bow from each of the cyclists, and most delightfully, a cheerleading routine performed by two girls dressed head-to-toe in baggy rain slickers. We were the only tourists in the stadium, and people were more interested in us here than they were in more central parts of Tokyo. Everyone we encountered was very sweet; one man even approached us from across the room to give us a 500 yen (about $7) gift card to 7-11 as a present. 

Visiting the keirin stadium confirmed that the deliberate orderliness we had witnessed so far was not limited to the inner city. The day before, we had noticed two very serious traffic guards directing crowds onto the shuttle to and from the Ghibli Museum. The handful of people exiting the museum with us were asked to line up for the little bus behind a row of pylons and wait while the two white-gloved officers provided minute-by-minute updates about when the shuttle would arrive. Similarly, three different guards at the Tokyo Towers seemed tasked only with directing the traffic in and out of the elevators. White gloves directed us to enter and exit where there didn’t seem to be many ways to get lostAt the entrance to the keirin stadium parking lot the next day, three elderly men with whistles and megaphones directed the scant vehicles and people wandering through the single intersection. All of these officers seemed to take great pride in the importance of their duties, and Tokyoites always followed their instruction.

The rain wasn’t letting up after the keirin racing, so we decided to follow the lead of the locals and check out one of the main video arcades in Akihabara. We entered a windowless Sega building filled with floor after floor of games. We walked through each one, enthralled by the blinking and beeping of the games, and by the gamers completely engrossed in playing them. We even tried a few that looked accessible to us and had lots of fun, although Antonia was disappointed that she didn’t win one of the many varieties of adorable plush cats available as prizes.

We also had more time to soak up the atmosphere in Akihabara, which we had walked through the previous day to find a train station. We went into some manga bookstores and browsed the covers, many with sexual themes. Fantasy mixes with reality in Akihabara – the ‘maids’ dressed in anime-type costumes, and a sign that we read on a costume and lingerie store that offered a thirty percent discount if the manager could take a photo of you in your new outfit before you purchase it!


The next day was a sunny Sunday, so we set out for some people-watching in the Harajuku district. Harajuku is famous as a trendy area for young people to experiment with fashion and pop culture. It is filled with small stores selling anything from cute socks to goth costumes to Hello Kitty accessories. The streets are full of people parading their particular style by dressing up to extremes, whether it is as an anime-type superhero or a goth princess. While the Akihabara maids didn’t like to be photographed, posing was a main endeavour of the Harajuku crowd.

Contrarily, right in the middle of the chaotic neighbourhood of Harajuku is a shady oasis in the form of a large shrine complex dedicated to the late Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Before we hit the Harajuku streets in earnest, we walked around the peaceful, forested park to see the largest torii (Shinto gates) in Japan and the largest iris garden in Japan, which was really impressive, especially considering we are still at the beginning of the season and most of the flowers were still buds.

In the shrine itself we were lucky enough to see a Shinto wedding procession cross the courtyard shortly after we entered. There was also a bonsai competition on the grounds; we had never seen flowering bonsai before, and we learned that although the tree is miniature, the actual size of each flower remains the same, producing a beautiful effect.

After exploring the main drags of Harajuku, we headed to nearby Yoyogi Park, which buzzes with activity on Sundays. In the entrance, we were mesmerized by several groups of amateur dancers dressed like greasers and dancing to rockabilly music on their portable stereos. These people were obviously very serious about their hobby – they had matching jackets with their club names and had obviously put a lot of thought into perfecting their look. They danced for hours with undying enthusiasm, but the strange thing was that they weren’t particularly good (or maybe we were missing something?). No matter, they were thoroughly enjoying themselves, and so were their spectators.

When we finally pulled ourselves away from the rockabillies, we spent the rest of the lovely afternoon strolling the sprawling park for some of the best people-watching anywhere. This was a definite highlight of Tokyo for us, and we highly recommend it to anyone planning a visit. There were people of all ages relaxing in the park, but more often totally engrossed in whatever passion they practiced. There were Harajuku girls on parade, and some still getting ready with their hair and makeup bags spread out among them. There were tango dancers, and drummers, and a jump-ropers, and a group of ukulele players. Emilie remarked that there is a new, very specific club around every corner, at which point we promptly turned a corner and discovered a didgeridoo club. There was a group of people giving out free hugs.

Everyone seemed to be having a great time doing whatever they loved best, or taking it all in. These girls epitomized many cute, sweet and shy people we encountered in Tokyo; when we approached to take their picture, they covered their mouths and giggled, then fixed their hair and posed with the peace sign.

We then made our way to neighbouring Shibuya district to see some of the biggest crowds yet. Outside of Shibuya station is the world’s most famous pedestrian scramble. You have probably seen it before in any documentary trying the demonstrate increasing urbanization or the rapidly growing population of the world. When the lights change and pedestrians are given permission to walk in every direction, a turbulent sea of humanity swells onto the street. We watched this phenomenon from the outskirts for awhile before diving in ourselves. It was amazing to see the number of people crossing, and then to see that number being replicated again within seconds as they continued to pour out of the metro or the surrounding streets, waiting for the next light.

Also outside Shibuya station is a mural and statue dedicated to beloved Hachiko, a dog who would follow his master to the station every morning, wait for him all day, and return home with his master once he re-emerged on his way home from work. Sadly, his owner died suddenly while at work one day, and faithful Hachiko continued to wait for him, not leaving the station grounds for ten years, until his own death. He was sustained by locals who brought him food and water during his long, fruitless wait, and then memorialized him for his loyalty.

As it was our last night in Tokyo, and James somehow decided he hadn’t seen enough wacky manga stores, we headed out to a comic and figurine supermall. Floors two through four consisted of store after store of anime figurines of every size and variety. They also sold charms for cell phones and many other cute accessories that are unique to Japan. Goods ranged widely in price; they also ranged from child-appropriate toys to figurines that wouldn’t be appropriate to put on your desk at work.
Before heading to the Mount Fuji area the next morning, James, Yann and Emilie got up very early to visit the Tsujiki Fish Market, the largest in the world. Antonia decided that she would prefer sleeping in. Some other things she would have preferred include: getting a root canal, walking across hot coals, and squeezing lemon juice into an open wound. While approaching the market Emilie, Yann and James noticed that many people were leaving the market wearing tall rubber boots and figured that that wasn’t a good sign for travellers in sandals.  Boots were unnecessary, though, since James discovered that the market area, where retailers and merchants purchased their fish, was closed to the public between 7:00 and 9:00am.  Disappointed but undeterred, they explored the area around the fish market where restaurant supplies and vegetables were sold. There were also small sushi restaurants serving possibly the freshest sushi in the world.

That afternoon we said sayonara to Tokyo and headed into the Japanese alps to try to get a glimpse of the notoriously shy Mount Fuji – stayed tuned to find out if we succeed! Regardless, we are sure to have a fun adventure – so far, Japan is very different from Canada, yet travelling in it is quite easy. This seems to be a rare combination in travel destinations, and makes exploring it a pleasure.