Monday, February 16, 2009

My trip to Central Japan

These are the pictures of my trip. I hope that you enjoy them.

Day 1 (23rd) - I started my trip on the 23rd, which is the emperor’s birthday and a national holiday. My friend John (from New Jersey) and I met up early for the 7:00am train out of Ichinohe. We stopped in Morioka and purchased our “Seishun Juuhachi Kippu” (the local train pass). This ticket cost us about $120.00 US, it but allowed us to do the majority of our traveling for the entire trip. When we arrived in Sendai, John and I went shopping. There are a few shopping malls right outside of the train station. One of them had an English book section. There is also a covered shopping arcade that spans a fair amount of the city. We went exploring down the shopping arcade on a quest for a post office. Shortly after finding the post office, the two other friends we were to be traveling with (Peter from England, Jar from Northern Ireland) arrived. We met up with them then went to dinner. We found a yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers) restaurant and ate there. After dinner, we went to a sports bar and had a few drinks. We met some friendly university students there. I practiced my Japanese on them; they practiced their English on me. We left the bar around midnight, with our newly met Japanese friends and headed to karaoke. The karaoke place we went to was a cheap alternative to a hotel room but it cost us any chance of sleep. We planned to stay out all night then sleep on the early train to Tokyo.

Day 2 (24th) - We caught a train heading for Tokyo at 5:30am and even though I had not slept the night before, I was only able to catch 2 or 3 hours of sleep on the trains. One of the disadvantages to traveling by local train is that you must transfer trains every few hours. I believe we had 5 transfers and we arrived in Tokyo shortly after lunchtime. Upon arrival, we headed to the famed Shibuya. Shibuya is known for having the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. This is where much of the youth (both Japanese and foreign) meet up. There are also some great shops. This is where I found my beloved Toyko notebook. Some of the other guys did some more shopping to pass the time until we could check into our hotel. We stayed at a capsule hotel in Shinjuku, the business district of Tokyo. One of the guys insisted that we stay somewhere nice on Christmas Eve; this place was not all that nice. We were placed on the 7th floor of the hotel with no other guests. It became apparent that 7th floor is rarely used because the locker area for the gaijin, I mean guests, on the 7th floor were blocked by laundry bags and the lockers had not been renovated like all of the other floors’ lockers had. Anyway, after we checked in, we immediately headed for the public bath. The bath wasn’t the cleanest or nicest either, but damn it felt great to sit in the sauna and the hot bath until we noticed the man rolling around on the floor rolling around, scratching himself vigorously for close to 30 minutes. That was discouraging, but so far, nothing has come from it. We treated ourselves to hearty Christmas Eve dinner of hamburger steak then we went to Roppongi and spent the evening looking at Christmas lights around Roppongi Hills shopping area. There was a sort of “German Town” setup around Roppongi Hills where sausages, liverwurst, and wooden toys were being sold. It was nice.

Day 3 (25th) - The first time I’ve had McDonald’s breakfast since leaving the states was on Christmas morning. I guess that Santa no longer gives out coal. After breakfast, we went to Omote Sando, a street in the Harajuku area of Tokyo. Omote Sando is littered with high-end shops and, more importantly, architectural celebrities (if you will). Obviously I was excited and not because of Dior. The guys were also excited because they could go shopping for the presents they thought they were supposed to get. The only store that had my presents was the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) Design Store, but the prices didn’t fit a traveler’s budget. I was proud of myself for holding off. I think I could hear Tyler from 15 time zones behind telling me that I should save the cash for later. Jar led us to Akihabara (dubbed “Electronic Town”) in search of a digital camera. He has been living in Japan since the middle of August with out a camera. Absurd. He found a pretty good deal on one just like mine and purchased it. After Akihabara, we went to the area around Tokyo Station. We briefly peaked into the Imperial Gardens but they were closing. The walls around the mote and the gardens were decorated with Christmas lights. This area was really beautiful. I dragged the gang over to Tokyo International Forum, a building that has been described as an example of Japan’s outrageous spending habits in the early 90’s. It is a building that Tyler and I visited when we came to Tokyo on our school trip. It was great to visit it again. We left the forum to find a place to eat a suitable Christmas dinner. We settled for Italian. After dinner, we had delicious coffee/coco and Christmas cake from Starbucks, then headed back to Shinjuku to get onto our night bus heading further south. Peter split up from us here. He headed to Fukuoka, where he studied Japanese a few years ago.

Day 4 (26th) - I didn’t mind the night bus last time I took it, but this time, I wasn’t able to get much sleep and neither could Jar. John slept fine and we resented him for it. This was my first time in Nagoya. Nagoya has some really impressive Architecture, so again, I dragged the guys around looking for “Oasis 21” bus terminal. This is a building/structure that I had briefly looked at for one of my projects while in school, so I have a place in my heart for it. Unfortunately I didn’t really have a good idea of where the building was, so we walked around, a lot. While walking around, we came across another famous building called the “Mode Gakuen Spiral Tower”. This was probably the most intriguing building I have ever seen in person. See for your self. Jar and John were pretty cooperative and they didn’t feel that it was a complete waste of time. Around lunch time, we began our travels to Kyoto on the local trains. We met a nice man named Ken on the train that Jar and I spoke with for most of the trip. We arrived in Kyoto as the sun was going down. We checked into our hostel then went exploring. Kyoto is known for its history. Kyoto has, perhaps, the largest concentration of temples and shrines in Japan. It was too late to go to the shrines so we met up with John’s friend, Bethany from California and her friend Rich from England and we had dinner. After dinner, we found an Irish pub with foreign beer and food and live music. There was a pretty authentic Irish group playing pretty authentic Irish music. Jar’s face lit up as soon as we stepped into the pub.

Day 5 (27th) - We started the day off early by meeting Bethany and Rich for breakfast. We had Waffles! After breakfast, we went to Sanjusangendo, a very long temple that houses 1001 human sized statues. The sight of all these statues was breathtaking. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos of the statues. We walked from Sanjusangendo to Kiyomizudera. Kiyomizudera is one of the most famous temples in Kyoto. I have been to this temple before, but it was great to see it again. It is a large temple built on an impressive wooden terrace. There are some great views of the city from this temple as well. As you leave the temple, you are directed onto a thin street lined with shops selling everything from souvenirs to clothing to jewelry. We did a little shopping as we made our way back to the train station. I split from the group when we arrived at the station to go take pictures of Kyoto Station. The station is one of the largest stations in Japan. It has stairs and escalators on either side of the main area that creates a 10 story tall valley. We went back to the hostel shortly after dinner to do laundry and write post cards.

Day 6 (28th) - We went to the Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion) right after breakfast. This is another temple that I’ve been to before, but I was looking forward to seeing it again. As the name suggests, the temple is covered in gold leafing (I’m guessing). There is a pond that surrounds the pavilion and a beautiful garden within the temple complex. There is also a silver pavilion, however, it is not actually silver and we didn’t make it there. After we left Kinkakuji, we traveled to Osaka. Osaka is only a 45 minute train ride from Kyoto and it only cost about $5.00 to travel between the two. Shortly after we arrived in Osaka, I realized that I didn’t have my camera. We checked in to our capsule then Jar (whose Japanese is a little better than mine) and I went to the train station to try to track down my camera. It had not been turned in. We were told to check again tomorrow. We went back to the area that our capsule was in, had dinner and a beer, then we went to sleep.

Day 7 (29th) - We began our day by traveling to Osaka Castle and meeting up with Rich and Bethany. The castle (I believe) is not the original rather, it was built in the 1600s after the original had been destroyed. The castle apparently serves as a museum now, but it was closed for the holidays. That was alright with me because I had to try to track down my camera. Fortunately, Bethany is fluent in Japanese and she was able to call the train station for me. The train station had not received the camera, so we called the bus station in Kyoto. My camera had been turned in at the bus station! I split from the group and headed back to Kyoto to retrieve it. This task only occupied couple of hours and I was back in Osaka pretty quickly. I met up with the others at the harbor where I only missed a ride on the “World’s Tallest Ferris Wheel” and a trip to the aquarium. I had a late lunch and took a few photos then John and I went to Umeda, the Northern downtown area of Osaka. I found a bookstore with an amazing selection of Architecture books in English. I must have spent an hour and a half in the Architecture section. John became hungry and tired of the bookstore so he met up with the others for dinner. I stayed in Umeda to find the “Umeda Sky Building”. The Sky Building is an interesting building that is basically two separate towers that connect at the top and become one building. There is an observatory at the top that I spent the rest of my night at.

Day 8 (30th) - We spent the majority of our day near our Hotel. Our hotel was close to the southern downtown area called, Namba. Namba is basically a shopping area. It has the famous chains that are prevalent in most large cities in Japan: Tower Records, Tokyu Hands, Apple Store, bookstores, etc. There were also restaurants and street venders. Osaka is known for its junk food (think carnival food); I personally tried grilled crab and okinomiyaki. Okinomiyaki is generically called a Japanese pancake or pizza. It’s similar to a pancake because it is made with a batter, but it is also similar to a pizza in that toppings are placed on top. The day was pretty uneventful. We stayed in Namba until it got dark, then we went back to our hotel and Bethany and Rich went to Tokyo on the Shinkansen.

Day 9 (31st) - We spent New Years Eve traveling by local trains to Tokyo. I believe we left Osaka around 7:30 and got in to Tokyo around 5:00. We did not have a hotel for the 31st, so we occupied our time before midnight by traveling and walking Tokyo. As the night progressed, we made our way to Roppongi where we had dinner and met up with many other ALTs. As a group, we made our way to Tokyo Tower. A New Years countdown celebration was being held at the tower and there was a temple nearby that was joining in on the festivities. At midnight, balloons were released, the tower’s lights were dimmed, and its display changed to read “2009”. We stayed around the tower for a few hours then went to a bar until the first train started around 5:00. Sleeping on the train is pretty common in Japan, so we did just that. There is a train the makes a loop around Tokyo that we slept on for a few hours.

Day 10 (1st) - We were very tired from staying up the night before and as you can imagine, this was one of our least productive days. New Years Day in Japan is a family holiday. Christmas Day and New Years Day (as we know them in the US) are basically switched in Japan. Christmas in Japan is a holiday that much of the youth will spend going on dates, eating at KFC (I don’t understand why), hanging around friends, and eating spongy “Christmas” cake. People report to work and stores and restaurants are open on Christmas day in Japan. New Years day in Japan is considered a family holiday. Many businesses are closed and the ones that are open are on holiday hours. Many families go to temples and will pray and eat traditional meals. I wanted to spend New Years like the Japanese did. We started our journey (after the train ride for sleep) at the Meiji Jingu Temple in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. This is a temple that Tyler and I visited on our previous trip to Japan. The entire complex was very busy with shuffling families and vendors. There were gift stands setup selling pendants and prayer sheets and arrows like the ones used in archery. I do not know what the significance of these arrows is, sorry. There were also food and drink stands selling Japanese foods that are traditionally eaten on New Years Day (as I understand). We stayed around the temple for an hour or so then we found our way to a “Tower Records” that had an entire floor of foreign books. We read books for a while then we headed to the Asakusa district to visit the Sensoji temple. The temple is located at the end of a narrow pedestrian street that is lined with shops. The street was completely packed with Japanese people trying to get to the temple. We decided not to bother with the crowds and walked around the main streets of Asakusa until check in at our capsule. Five o’clock came around and we were able to check in to our capsule hotel. We went to bed right after check in.

Day 11 (2nd) – After nearly fifteen hours of sleep, we started off for our last full day in Central Japan. We took a twenty minute train ride to Yokohama. Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan and it is technically separate from Tokyo, but the two are very close together and there is no distinct border between them. We spent most of our time in Yokohama at the Minato Mirai 21 district. The Minato Mirai 21 district is a modern area with shopping malls, restaurants, and a small amusement park. The Landmark Tower is also located in this area. We went up The Landmark Tower to its famed, highest observatory in Japan. From the observatory, we were able to see Yokohama Bay, Mt. Fuji, and some of the taller buildings in Tokyo including Tokyo Tower and Roppongi Hills Tower. Some of my favorite pictures from the trip were taken from this observatory. We left the observatory and headed to the Yokohama Port International Passenger Terminal. The passenger terminal is one of the most unique buildings that I’ve have ever had the privilege to visit. It is another building that Tyler and I visited on our first trip to Japan. The terminal’s roof is an undulating landscape made up of wooden planks and patches of grass. This space becomes a pedestrian area. When we were there, people were walking their dogs, photographing Mt. Fuji at sundown, and enjoying the nice weather. We stayed at the terminal until it was dark then we made our way back to Yokohama Station and headed back to the hotel to pack for our trip home.

Day 12 (3rd) – We left Tokyo around 7:00 in the morning to head back to home. We made a quick stop in Sendai so that I could stop by the Sendai Mediatheque (library). The Mediatheque was designed by a famous architect and last time we were in Japan, my class received a tour of the building. This time, the Mediatheque was closed for the holidays, so I was unable to go into it. We headed back to the station to continue our trip home. Our train leaving Sendai was delayed for forty-five minutes (which is very unusual) and we missed the last local train home so we took the Shinkansen home.