Awww Shucks!

We’ve gotten some pretty awesome care packages in the 10 months we’ve been here.  (I’d like to think we’ve sent some cool ones too.)  But we got an off the hook envelope yesterday.  It had something we didn’t even realize we missed.  We took turns passing it back and forth until we’d finished the whole thing.  I’m sure we’ll pass it on to other foriegers who miss it as well.

Happy fellas

What could possibly inspire such joy? The Sunday funnies.

Thanks Ptz!

Nara, the 1st capital of Japan, and Kyoto, the 2nd

From Osaka, we went up to Kyoto, which was the capital of Japan for several hundred years. The trip up there is amazingly simple, as there are several competing rail lines in Japan. So we had the choice of JR (the national line) or Hankyu, the regional private operator. We went up by the JR express, which was nice enough, and only took about 40 minutes to go the 35 miles north. This may seem slow, but when you consider the population density in Japan, the mountains, and the traffic invovled, it’s really quick.

Once in Kyoto we hopped on the subway and got up to the

Enjoying the hotel's common space.

region with our hotel. Once we came up from underground, Kyoto impressed us with its small-town feel. There were lots of wood-frame buildings, kind of like a ski village feel. Our hostel was located on the same street as a traditional, covered market, with fresh fish on display next to tofu and radishes, and kindly old merchants watching us warily as we dragged our suitcase down the narrow streets.

Finally, we got checked in to the Hostel Haruya, which was a charming, traditional old Japanese house with sliding screens, tatami floors, and a narrow, steep staircase that was best gone down backwards, like a ladder, to avoid falls and injury. Our host, like everyone else we met, was friendly and generous, always telling us the local sights, and how to get there.

We started out with a nice walk up

Rubbing Buddha's Belly

into the hills surrounding the Eastern edge of Kyoto. This random walking, like all walking in Kyoto, took us up into a temple grounds. This one happened to be under renovation, though the grounds were still beautifully landscaped. We passed through an old traditional village just below Murayama park, an area filled with narrow cobblestone streets, kind of a touristy area, with signs pointing out several sculptures whose bellies you could rub for luck. We tracked down several, and took our fill.

From there we wandered back into the city, stumbling onto one of the most famous districts in the city: Gion. This is where the greatest concentration of the traditional Geishas live and work.

Sushi chefs at work.

The Gion district has elegant lanes of reed screens, cobble streets,  and a bamboo lined creek.  There were a few  adult-looking storefronts, but there’s also a lot of good food in the area.

It was here that one night we found a place serving Paella from a chef who had trained in Spain. The next night we ate at a sushi place with a highly affluent-looking crowd, served by stern, older master sushi-cutters. On the third night, still hungry for more sushi, we found a Kaiten Sushi restaurant, where the sushi is put on a conveyor belt and led around a counter much like a toy train on a track, and you grab plates till either the conveyor belt is empty or you can’t stuff in any more. Each plate was 130 Yen ($1.60), which sounds like a good deal until we looked up and found the plates were stacked up to our chin. The sushi kept coming, but we were no match for it, and left stuffed and happy.

The next day we went to the Toji flea market. It was amazing.  It is in the Toji temple.  Beautiful.  We were walking along the aisles for two hours and we barely saw anything.  As the day progressed and  the crowds got thicker it started to rain.

rice drink at the flea market

Annoying, but we were amazed and stuck with it.  There were nick-knacks and tchotchkes, fabrics, yarn, snacks, paintings, clothes, plants, tools, anything and everything you could ever want.  I was on a mission.  There is very little fabric down in Mokpo.  And most of it is yucky rayon and polyester.  I was shopping for fabric.  I got some amazing silk pieces intended for making kimonos.  I wllll be making a skirt. I also bought two thin scarves that I will use as a belt.  They were made with hand dyed, hand spun silk.  Awesome!  Afterwords a traffic cop directed us to this fabulous noodle shop that looked like Sister Fun exploded all over it.  I had soba noodles with broth, green onions, and raw quail egg.  Mike had an enormous bowl of Udon.  I think we sat there for an hour people watching and decompressing from the crowds before we went to see more temples.

In Korea we are accustomed to people seeing us and shouting “waygookin” (foreigner!)

Koreans we found in Japan

So we were only a little surprised when we were walking through a quiet Japanese temple and we heard “Waygooken!”  I (Akasha) turned and saw five boys pointing at us.  I really wanted to point out that they were gaijin (Japanese for foreigner.) Turns out they attend the university in the biggest city near us.  They asked to take our picture, also common, and we took theirs.  The pose was “rock, scissors, paper!     

In between meals in Kyoto, we went to Nara, which was Japan’s very first capital, back in the day the feuding warlords gave way to an Emperor (710- 784 b.c). Legend has it that when the capital was established they prayed for God to come to Nara.  When they looked up they saw  a white deer bowing to them. They took that as a sign that God was present.  In respect for that deer, all deer are considered sacred, and are allowed to wander about the park freely. They sell little wafer cakes you can feed to the deer, the deer bow to you in exchange for a deer cake. They get very aggressive. Akasha bought some deer cakes, and for her trouble was butted (literally, on her butt) several times by pushy deer looking for handouts. (They kept lifting my dress up!  Freaks.)

A deer, asking for a snack. With his head.

There is a deer sanctuary in the park where deer are assisted with illness, delivery, and have their horns filed down.

Big Buddha at Nara

We were also lucky in finding a guide in Nara. At the train station’s information booth, we were told of a free guide service provided by the local YMCA. We snapped up the offer and for the next four hours were guided around Nara by a lovely woman named Yasuko, who teaches English at an immersion kindergarten.

We saw the two main Buddhist temples, one of which is the largest wooden building in the world, and houses a bronze Buddha which is several stories tall. Here, one of the support posts has a small tunnel carved into the base. It’s locally know as ‘Buddha’s nostril’ and, according to legend, anyone who crawls through it receives enlightenment in their next life. Mike decided to take the challenge, and after a few moments of panicked scrambling (the opening is about the same width as his shoulders), he made it through! So now he has enlightenment coming in his next life, which is, you know, better than never.

Shinto lanterns

With all that luck, we moved on to the third major site in the Nara park, the large Shinto shrine. Shinto and Buddhism are separate religions, but many Japanese overlap.  Our guide said that many  practice both, so shrines and temples are often kept together. The Shinto shrine we visited is a sharp contrast to the Budhist temple, which are set in fields. The Shinto shrine is set on the mountain side in the middle of an primeval forest. Also, they have collected over 2,000 stone and wooden lanterns over the years, and they stand alongside the wooded paths, often two or three deep. They are also mossy, and it gives the scene a peaceful, surreal feeling.

After our tour our brains were full.  There are so many things that we see all the time in Korea and have never understood that she explained.  She took us to a lovely restaurant where we prcessed everything we learned as we enjoyed a typical Nara meal of kakinohazushi, or salmon/ mackerel sushi wrapped in a cured persimmon leaf and a bowl of somen, or thin noodle soup

From there we returned to Osaka, which we covered in our previous post.

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Moving Day!

I’ve been geeked out by this since we moved here.  This is how our neighbors move.  

We live on the 9th floor, the neighbors lived on the 12th floor.  You’ll note that they load the object out the patio window onto the flatbed without any straps or devices to hold them down.  I also pan down so you can notice the lack of safety equipment and protocol that we are accustomed to in Minneapolis.  There isn’t anyone standing around supervising, there aren’t any orange cones.  There is one guy in the truck unloading the flatbed.  I have also seen movers ride up on the flatbed with the objects to keep them stable. The most amazing time was after the intense typhoon had blown out the windows on the 15th floor.

Replacing windows

The movers carried up the glass, floor to ceiling windows, on the truck and inserted the windows into the frames from a flatbed with little railings attached to 3 sides.  They were up there for hours.  It made my head spin.  The pounding was so intense my own building was shaking, yet they were floating up there without any visible safety equipment.

This is a preview of an entry we have been planning called “stuff that wouldn’t fly back home.”  I think we might hold off until after we have finished our first contract… I’m sure there is some spring stuff that will boggle us as well.

We now resume your regularly scheduled Japan vacation blogging.  Sorry for the interruption.

Wow! I can’t believe we ate it all.

As public school teachers in Jeollanamdo, we get 24 days of winter vacation.  (There are also national holidays, summer vacation, and  a vacation for renewing our contracts.)  Anyway, we took 10 of those days and went to the Kansai region of Japan.  It was an overwhelmingly mind-filling trip. It was a deliciously stomach filling trip as well.

Sadly, it started with my (Akasha) getting a nasty stomach virus.  (I’ll post on the awesomely different Korean public health care system later.)  We had to stay home a bit longer and miss our previously planned Seoul leg of the trip.  On Sunday night we headed up to Busan for two nights.  I was tired and only “eating” broth, so I got to watch Mike eat a beautiful burger and  Korean grilled lamb ribs as I nursed myself up to drinking smoothies.  Torture.  I love lamb. It is like really cute bacon.  I miss hamburgers so much…

Leaving Busan Harbor

On Tuesday the 17th, we left for Osaka on the 16 hour long Panstar Ferry.  It is pretty cool.  For about $200 USD round trip each, we went to Osaka.  There is a cafe with full bar and 3 window/ walls providing a spectacular view of the ocean with wifi.  The bunks in our rooms were small but comfy.  The buffet was okay.  The “show,” which was either a guy with a ponytail playing the flute or a woman in a ballgown playing electric cello, both to a pre-recorded background music (sort of a jazz-fusion karaoke) was as ultra cheesy, as you’d imagine.  The staff was kind and the boat was very clean.  It is in serious need of a costmetic update, has very 80’s decor, but the staff are constantly polishing every bit of glass and brass in their downtime.  It had a Korean style spa that needs an update, but the facilities were clean.  Best of all, we traveled internationally without the stress and rush of an international airport.(grrr, airports aren’t fun anymore)

Vamping at the castle

After a night being swayed gently to sleep by the rocking of the boat, we arrived in Osaka at 10 or so on Wednesday morning, and began to look around the city. Our previous stay had been in Fukuoka, a smaller, working class city; by contrast Osaka is larger (22 million in the Kansai region), more cosmopolitan, with a host of world class attractions including huge ferris wheels, long suspension bridges, and great art museums. We intended to see as much as we could in the five days we had.

Our first hotel was the Hostel 64 Osaka , a quaint hostel run by an architecture firm, so it was artistic and comfortable, with a great, friendly staff. So we checked in, dropped off our bags, and started the walk across the city to Osaka castle.

Shinsekai district

From here, we took the subway down to the Shinsekai district to get a look at the great tower that was first built over a hundred years ago, then rebuilt after World War II. The district around here is retro-futurey, with lots of exposed steel, neon, cheesey golden statues, crowded streets and colorful ‘characters’ who want you to eat in their shops and play pachinko in their parlors.

Then, it was up to the HEP 5 shopping mall, where there is one of the two great ferris wheels of Osaka.

Hep 5 Ferris Wheel

We went up just as the sun was setting, so we saw the city spread out below us in the great reds and oranges of the sun reflecting off the glass and metal of the buildings in the great sprawl of Osaka. It was romantic, and beautiful, and we wished we could go around again, but it was getting late and we had to find dinner.

The next day was cold and rainy, which was a disappointment, as we had planned to take a short train ride up to Minoh and see a waterfall in the region. But no matter. One of the hotel clerks, a very friendly woman named Nami, gave us directions to the art museum, which was right next to her favorite Udon noodle place. So, we spent the afternoon with a belly full of fresh-made noodles, looking at some recent modern art by Yayoi Kusama, who I’d never heard of but has been creating conceptual and ‘obsessive’ art since the 1950’s. Good, but weird, stuff.

After completely exhausting everything there is to see in Osaka in 36 hours (Mike jokes) we went up north, to Kyoto, former capital of Japan and still its traditional cultural heart. But Kyoto deserves its own post.

Exhausted in the subway

Not the real whale shark

When we returned to Osaka, three days later, there was surprisingly still a lot of city to see, and a lot of great meals to be eaten. First, we went to the Osaka aquarium, which has one of the largest tanks we’ve ever seen. This one was large enough to hole an entire whale shark, a school of groupers, and devil rays about the size of a beach umbrella. We stood enchanted, watching them circle, for at least two hours. Then there were jellyfish, giant crabs, and seals that wanted to kiss Akasha through the glass. It was amazing!

After the aquarium, we’d planned to ride the other ferris wheel in Osaka, a monster called the Tempozan, which is one of the largest in the world. However, due to strong winds, it had been shut down. Akasha was very disappointed. But, this meant we could go have burritos in a place across town. Bad news, however, was that the burrito place was closed, so we had to go across the street to a bistro that served up some nice pizza, a fruit tort that was pretty incredible, and wine by the glass.  They were playing Amelie on their wall .

Minoh Waterfall. No monkeys.

The next day, we were able to take a day trip up to Minoh, a small town on the end of the Hankyu line. This was another nice little town whose main road leads up the side of a mountain until the village disappears and you’re taking a nice nature walk that ends in a pretty fifty-foot waterfall. We kept seeing signs that featured monkeys, and wondered why. Later, we learned that Minoh is famous for semi-wild monkeys. How we missed them, we have no idea. Maybe their vacation matched up with ours, and they were out of town…

When we got back to Osaka, we made another attempt at the Ferris wheel, and it was working! So we went around and got another spectacular view of the massive sprawl of Osaka. And then feeling lucky, we returned to El Zocalo, the burrito place that had been closed the day before, and… it was open! So we had a lovely dinner of burritos, homemade chips, and Dos Equis. El Zocalo is run by some Osakans who lived in San Francisco for years and the burritos were the real thing. Osaka is a fantastic international city. We also chatted with a nice guy named Guido, who turned us on to the best sushi place in town, which we vowed to visit before our ferry left the next day.

After the sushi

The next day we ended our Osaka adventure by visiting Endo Sushi at the Osaka fish market.  This place is amazing.  It is allegdly where the fish buyers go to taste what they buy.  It is open from early dawn until 1 p.m.  These bloggers did an excellent job describing the experience, I’ll let them do it for us.

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