Jessica and I just got back from Japan. This was the best holiday we've had in years. Japan is Jessica's dream location. The place that she has always wanted to see. Mine was Ireland (which we did in '98 and did not disappoint).
I had a ton (I actually just spelled it tonne. It kinda seeps in through osmosis. weird huh!) of vacation time left. If you work on a holiday here not only do they give you time and a half but you also get a day off in lieu of working it. That and four weeks of vacation. Four weeks, people!! I had to fight badgers at Borders to get two weeks off after working 10 years.
It was a last minute kind of trip after finding a great deal so we had about two weeks prep time. Jessica tapped into some kind of Virgo recessive gene from her Mom and churned out this detailed itinerary involving maps, subway and bus routes, timetables, weather calculations, etc. etc... ( thanks to Harvey
for helping her with that!). It was like we were breaking into Japan and we had to disable the security system. I was waiting for the laser pointer, powerpoint presentation, and.......... catsuit.
Japan was always kind of a scary prospect not only because of the size and expensiveness, but also because of the extreme language barrier. I encountered that before in Egypt. When you can't even read the alphabet it can be a little difficult. We prepared ourselves by checking out a slew of Japanese language books and cramming for useful phrases. Also we rented Shogun the '70's miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain. (not only was it entertaining, we learned some key Japanese phrases pronounced like a seductive British John Wayne, "Ko-nichi-Wa, baby.") . Jessica wrote down every possible variation on the theme of, "I don't eat ANY animal products!" Which is a very hard thing to communicate to a culture that considers pork a vegetable. Whereas I wrote down things like ,"That was delicious.", "I really do have a reservation." and "Could you please tell which train goes to Monster Island?"
We both mastered the phrases, "sumimasen, arigato gozaimasu, and gomen nasai." (Excuse me, thank you very much, and I'm sorry.) and the most used "wakarimasen" which is "I don't understand."
The flights were rather nice because they were not very full so we got to stretch out. (well as much as you can stretch out in something designed by the same people who I think design those gynecology stirrups and roller coaster safety bars.) After a 12 and 1/2 hour flight, 42 movies, and having every bit of moisture sucked from our bodies (Seriously, airlines would it kill you to invest in a simple humidifier...and maybe a couple of house plants to give it that homey feel.) we landed in Tokyo, the largest metropolitan city in the world.
Tokyo is a psychedelic mix of neon and noise, noir and newness. We got around the city thanks to J's maps and my compass. The thing that amazed me most was the friendliness and helpful people in a city of that size. I love Tokyo, and much to her surprise Jessica did as well. It has been awhile since I have been in a large city. Kapiti, while gorgeous, is
like living in Mayberry, so it was good to breath a little smog again. The Japanese are light years ahead of us in toilet technology (and yet they still have many Asian squat toilets. It's a conundrum.) Any toilet that comes with instructions is okay in my book. I love a city where a large number young people dress up in the coolest outfits and hang out in the Harajuku district. They read manga, and have little cartoon characters representing everything. I also love a city where I am of average height for the first time in my life! And best of all.......They had a Krispy Kreme.
Could I have a moment please....?
So what did we do in Tokyo? We shopped. I bought ice cube trays that make ice in the shape of false teeth. It's soo cool. ahem
Kyoto (the anagram lovers Tokyo) was a little disappointing at first glance, but when you start to look you find all these wonderful secrets the city hides. We visited temples and shrines. Kyoto is arguably the cultural center of Japan. You see geisha walking small alleys virtually unchanged for 500 years. Hawkers stand outside the shops welcoming passers by. One of my favorite places we visited in Kyoto was
Kiyomizudera. The temple dates back to 798, but the present buildings were constructed in 1633. The temple takes its name from the waterfall within the complex, which runs off the nearby hills. Kiyomizu means pure water, clear water or limpid water. It is notable for its vast veranda, supported by hundreds of pillars, that juts out over the hillside and offers impressive views of the city. The popular expression "to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu" is the equivalent of the expression "to take the plunge". This refers to an Edo period tradition that held that, if one were to survive jumping from the stage, one's wish would be granted.
The fall is 13 meters, but the lush vegetation below the platform might cushion the fall of a lucky pilgrim. However, the practice is now prohibited. Two hundred and thirty-four jumps were recorded in the Edo period and, of those, 85.4% survived. (I wouldn't want to see the .4% guy)
Beneath the main hall is the waterfall Otowa no taki, where three channels of water drop into a pond. Visitors to the temple collect the water, which is believed to have therapeutic properties, from the waterfall in metal cups on poles (which, though shared, are sanitized in UV trays) or commemorative plastic cups. (we opted for the cup) It is said that drinking the water of the three streams confers wisdom, health, and longevity. However, some Japanese believe that you must choose only one -- if you are greedy and drink from all three, you invite misfortune upon yourself. I think we drank from the wisdom stream, but I can't verify that.
We decided just to walk from our hotel in Gion to find Nanzenji. We found ourselves up in the wooded hills and came across this little shrine built into a small cave. It was incredible to feel so far away in this serene untouristed spot and yet know the rest of the city was just five minutes away. On way back down we stumbled (okay maybe not stumbled) across a very large bell. (How large was it?) It was soo large that it takes 17 monks to ring it!
Next was Nara. We stayed in a ryokan which is a traditional Japanese Inn. They typically feature tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yukata (house robe of sorts) and talk with the owner. Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to
784. Nara is dominated by a large park where about 1200 deer roam free. The deer are considered sacred and are believed to be protector spirits. Let me tell you those spirits are hungry!! You can buy these "shika sembei - Deer Biscuits" and suddenly you have a lot of new friends. Friends who will pull on your clothes with their teeth. Nara is home to Todaiji temple, the largest wooden building in the world that is home to the largest Buddha in Japan. Around the back is a wooden pillar with a hole in it. It is said that anyone who passes through the hole (which is the size of the Great Buddha's nostril) will achieve enlightenment. I would have to achieve Jenny Craig long before enlightenment. There were several future enlightened children who made it through.
We took the bullet train back to Tokyo for our flight home. Again we were lucky in that the flight wasn't that full. The flight back was even longer because we had to fly from Tokyo to Christchurch to Auckland to Wellington. I got questioned a little by security while in Christchurch. Okay guys anyone
who has been on a plane for 14
hours looks like a terrorist!
It was a great trip. And surprisingly, we didn't spend all that much. It was one of those rare vacations where you feel invigorated when you come back. We find ourselves looking at the teach English in Japan jobs online. hmmm. I'm pretty sure given half a chance we would go back.
Mainly because I didn't get to Monster Island.
Ill fortunes drawn at Heian Jingu Shrine.
Waterfall from inside Nanzenji Temple
Golden Pavilion, Kyoto
Ladies in Gion
Jessica and Macaque in Arashiyama
Yasaka Shrine in Gion
Tenryuji Zen Temple in Arashiyama (near Kyoto) Gion - Ponto Cho