Sunday, April 13, 2014

Japan Day 2: Nara

Day 2: Finally after two days of traveling, we were ready to start seeing some of the things we came so far to see! We hopped another train to Nara.

While on the train, we sat by some Japanese school children on a trip with their grandparents during Spring Break. They had never met "gaijin" (foreigners) before and were very excited to practice their English with us. They asked us if we were also going to Horiyuji. This sounded familiar so we said yes. They helped us catch another train and then a bus to the temple at Horyuji.

Starting to catch the beginning of the sakura (Japanese Cherry Blossoms)

While it was neat to see, we didn't have enough time to pay admission to get in past the gates and our real destination was actually Nara.

They were so cute I can't blame them for "tricking us" into following them to the wrong place.

So after a few pictures, we made our way back on the bus, the second train, and to Nara. 

Fountains for washing hands and mouths were outside most of the temples.

Nara has this funny little mascot with antlers named Sento-kun...

Time was ticking so we caught a taxi to the temple site to see the "big Buddha," Daibutsu at Todai-ji. Let me tell you, the taxis are nothing in Japan like they are in the US. The biggest difference is, they are so clean! You sit on big white doilies looking out curtained windows while a white gloved gentleman drives you to your destination, only to let out out of an automatically opening door.
...because of the deer. They are quite tame and you can feed them and try to pet them. But they can get aggressive (this sign warns you they can kick, bite, head butt, etc).


The gates are guarded by these intimidating figures.

When you finally make it into the main gate, you are greeted by beautiful grounds and a huge wooden temple, evidently the largest wooden structure in the world!

Inside sits the Great Buddha. He is impressive in size, a reported 16 m tall, and the largest Buddha figure in Japan. 

After seeing Daibutsu, we continued our exploration of the grounds. This was probably my favorite part of the day. I felt very aware that we were walking in a place where people had been walking for over one thousand years. The forest had almost a mythical feel with large trees with knotty roots and friendly deer interspersed with old rock lanterns and staircases up mountains to more and more temples.

How Japanese: a crane and cherry blossoms! 

Beautiful gardens

Amazing views
 We continued our way across the street to catch the last of daylight at the park across the street. This was a somewhat eery (maybe just at dusk) and beautiful walking path lined by hundreds of moss covered lanterns and ancient trees.

We walked back through the different gardens and temple sites to the train station.

We finally made it back to Kyoto and had a late dinner (finally...we had hardly eaten all day!) of okonomiyaki--Japanese pancakes (with vegetables and meat and other things you might like mixed in). Yummy!

Maybe it was because it was my first real exposure to Japan, but Nara was probably my favorite place in Japan.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Japan Day 1: Planes, Bullet Trains, and Mt Fuji

Lucky capture of cherry blossoms and Mt. Fuji 

Day 1: After staying up until almost 1 am, we woke up about 4 am to leave for our early morning flight. We made a short connection to Chicago, followed by Toronto (wrong way!). It made for a LONG travel day, finally arriving in Tokyo about 4:45 pm, about 6 am the next day (Iowa time). 

I unfortunately do not sleep well, if at all, in planes or cars. So I was pretty wiped out when we finally arrived in Tokyo. Despite the long day our flights went smoothly and much faster than I anticipated. It was helpful to be able to choose movies to watch from my own viewing screen at my seat. There were a bunch more movies I wanted to see but didn't get to...that's a good thing-- less time to get bored. Things I did not or sleep.

Some cinnamon pretzels for breakfast in Chicago...He looks way better than I do on such little sleep!
I was very impressed with the terminal we were at in Toronto. They had cozy little tables and nooks with ipads for general use with free wi-fi. We grabbed some food and bought a few neck pillows (lifesavers!) while considering whether we should be a pack of those oh-so-Canadien maple candies or a bag of ketchup chips. Somehow we escaped without any of this.

As we were waiting for our bags in Tokyo I said to Abe, "I'm so glad we checked bags this time." Normally we are carry-on people. It wasn't too long after we found out Abe's bag was stuck in Toronto. And wouldn't arrive for days...It took like what seemed forever to get all settled at the bag claim desk, only to need to make it through the rest of immigration.

If you ever travel in Japan, you need to get a Japan Rail Pass. The JR trains run throughout the country and are an affordable way to get around on many of the bullet trains and subways. You do have to purchase in advance, before arriving in Japan, and activate them once you arrive. Unfortunately for us, the line was VERY long. They finally opened another counter and we booked a train into the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. We also exchanged our dollars to Yen (1 yen is almost equal to 1 cent) and rented a cell phone so Abe could contact some of his friends. And strangely the first people we met in Japan was a family from Des Moines. (Cue: "It's a small world after all...")

(Also, on a side note, 7-11 is a very popular company in Japan and a great place to make international ATM withdrawals. I think you may even be able to do money exchange as well.)

~4 hours of sleep in 2 days..but finally on a train into Tokyo
This was a frustrating way to start our trip, but more so because we were supposed to meet our friend's mom Aiko so we could get the key for her place where we would be staying in Tokyo (talk about generousity!). We had limited ability to communicate so she was stuck wondering if a few Americans were lost on the streets somewhere. She kept going to the police and train stations asking if they had seen any Americans. We were so glad to arrive and she generously took us to eat at a local restaurant. It was Italian and we had escargot. Not what you'd expect in Japan. I was disappointed we couldn't go with her to dinner earlier where the cherry blossoms were being lit for the night.

I had no trouble sleeping that night as I missed a whole night's sleep by that point already.

Day 2: We did wake up earlier than I would have liked to get an early start on our trip to Kyoto. Aiko made us breakfast -- ham, toast with cream cheese, steamed cabbage with a soy saucy-sauce, and juice. I was thinking, "This is how Japanese people stay thin...they eat cabbage for breakfast!" Not sure if that was a Japan thing or just an Aiko thing but I thought it was a good idea!

Looking (and feeing) tired

She helped us navigate our way through the subway station and onto the JR train to Kyoto. She was heading home to Osaka, just a stop past Kyoto, so that worked out very well that we could ride together. I was so happy to meet her. She was such a neat lady, a professor of economics, and a former commissioner for fair trade in Japan (the only woman).

Aiko-san and Erin-san

Kyoto was 3-4? hours away by bullet train from Tokyo. I honestly cannot remember how long as it was a blur--maybe beause I realized that I can sleep (some) on trains. Sometimes. After jet lag sets in.

My first bullet train

We caught some great views of Mount Fuji on our way!

I love the little Japanese truck and the future rice fields in this one!

The Japanese call it Fuji-San. I think it is fun to say!

I think we got some good ones, especially considering they were as we sped by on the train!

We arrived in Kyoto about 12 or 1 pm. After leaving our bags at our hotel, we made our way back to the train and to Nara.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


I feel a bit like we've been caught up in a whirlwind--or should I say TSUNAMI? Life has been a little crazy and hectic with work and the job hunt and our trip to Japan!

We've been talking about going for years and decided, let's do it! We used the frequent flier miles we've been banking for 10+ years, stayed at a friend's parents' condo most of the time, and went for it. 9 days later we are back and I am in love.

I have so much to say about Japan and plan to say much much more...but I thought I would leave you with some of my initial first impressions.

1. The toilets. If you stop in the restroom at the airport it wont take long to learn you are in a new place. Toilets with multi-spray functions with adjustable power, driers, noisemakers (to mask any noises you make yourself), and even "powerful deodorizers." 

And yet, many of these same bathrooms failed to have handsoap and/or driers/paper towels. The women tend to carry around their own hand towels in their purses. Often in HelloKitty print.

2. Speaking of HelloKitty, (or Kitty Chan as they call her), she is everywhere! 

Even older women seem to gravitate towards the cutesy cartoony looks with cell phone charms, etc. Some of the Hello Kitty stuff was a crack up for me! Nasal strips?!? Ear cleaner? Most of the people I know using those wouldn't be very in to Kitty Chan...Then again, I found I was kind of a sucker for her stuff. What can I say, she's pretty cute. 

3. There are thousands of temples, shrines, castles throughout Japan. Some areas you can walk from temple to temple to temple. And a really big Buddha!

The hand gives you some perspective on just how big he is. 

4. Cherry blossoms. 

We were so lucky to have arrived in cherry blossom season. It made everything so beautiful. A Japanese man told me, "All Japanese LOVE cherry blossoms." I found they seemed as awed by them as I did as a first timer. I kept thinking, "You live here! This happens every year!" We ran into multiple cherry blossom festivals, they make foods with cherry blossom flavor, and have picnics in the park to "watch" the cherry blossoms. It is nice they take time to enjoy when they are living such a fast paced life. I even saw people taking pictures of blossoms floating through the air on a blustery day. They smelled, tasted, touched, watched and maybe you could even said, listened to the cherry blossoms. I can't blame them.

Hard to tell, but even McDonalds was decorated in a cherry blossom motif.

And sold cherry blossom items such as flavored shakes and cherry blossom teriyaki burgers.

5. Nara and Kyoto. Totally worth checking out these ancient capitals of Japan.  Nara was my favorite place we visited. Maybe partly because it was the first place we visited?

A girls college basketball team wanted our picture

6. Tokyo--my new favorite city! So many fun neighborhoods to explore, the people are so kind and polite, and wonderful people watching is eveywhere. I thought everything seemed novel and exciting. Even going to familiar places like McDonalds would yield a surprise (cherry blossom burger anyone?). 

The view from our place (too bad Tokyo Tower had already turned off for the night

7. Uniqlo

My new favorite store. Evidently you can find it in New York and California. Basically well made, fun, and inexpensively priced clothes (Chambray shirt for $18?) ! I read they have over 1200 stores just in Japan!

8. The food! After all, visiting Japan really is about the food. Unless Japanese food isn't your cup of (green) tea, then I guess you are out of luck!
My first Ramen shop! Perfect dinner at almost midnight.
This may have been a second dinner that same night (or rather, early breakfast?). Trying to squeeze in as many favorites as possible. Curry House.

Yoshinoya--you can find this in California

I wanted the real Japanese experience so went for the raw egg.
If you are looking for an exciting new destination, Japan should be high on your list! They have everything -- temples, beautiful nature, great food, kind people, and high tech toilets.

--er, but not always soap. Or paper towels.