Posted on July 6th, 2012 at 6:45 AM by admin
From Hiroshima we took the fastest Shinkansen to to Japan’s former capital–Kyoto. We had free time the first night we arrived and I thought I would finally take the opportunity to look for some shoes. Having heard that it is hard to find large shoe sizes here I mistakenly thought it would be easier to find small sizes. No such luck! But we did find some T-Shirts with cool sayings written in Japanese Kanji. I’ve never payed upwards of $40 for a plain T, but I figured I may never return to Japan so what the heck!?!? We ventured out on a bus that night and then ran out of money paying for the fabulously overpriced T-shirts. So we did what we had come accustomed to doing in Japan–we searched for a 7-Eleven where we could take out money without extra charges. Unfortunately we came to find out that we were in the only place in the entire city where there wasn’t a 7-Eleven within a 10 minute walk. I think we must’ve walked for almost an hour before we found one. We were tired and hungry so we did the only logical thing to do. We decided to buy “Chu hi” a wine-cooler like beverage that you can buy in just about any convenience store. Then we got back on the bus to get closer to home before seeking out a restaurant for dinner. We got lost for a few minutes on the way back since the bus dropped us off in a different spot that we got on but at least we were able to make it back to the hotel. At that point we had no energy to go back out and ended up eating a very good yet expensive hotel meal.

5'1" = Japanese giant

Day 2 in Kyoto was rainy but we still were excited to head out on our optional tour to experience first hand Buddhist Zen meditation and see some of Kyoto’s most famous temples. The rain was ideal for our meditation practice. We did a 10 minute round and then a 15 minute one. It was hard for me to not give into my eczema but in the end I only moved a couple of times. The best part of this experience was when the monk who lead us told us about how he could help us concentrate better if we were having trouble. He then pulled out a huge piece of wood (imagine a rounded off 2×4). One of our guides demonstrated. We were to bow our heads, put our hands together as if we were praying in order to request his help. I thought for sure this piece of wood was going to be used to correct our posture but the monk, who was standing right in front of me, laid the wood on our guide’s back and before I knew it he flogged the man hard about 4 times as I recall. The sound was loud and it looked incredibly painful. I was in such disbelief that I started to laugh. Was this guy for real? Would anyone in our group actually ask for that? Wait. Would anyone ask for that in general?  But they did! I kept seeing his shadow behind me with the piece of wood and had to hold back laughter as I was actually a bit scared this guy was going to hit me even if I didn’t request it. Afterwards another one of our guides told us that he hit her even though she didn’t request it. “Maybe he think I not concentrate enough,” she told us. Wow…

The monk that showed us what zen is really about!


On the way up Fushimi Inari

After our “zen” experience we headed to two temples –Ginkaku ji (Silver Pavilion) and Kinkaku ji (Gold Pavilion). The second temple was particularly special because the outside was covered in 24 carat gold. Even on our overcast day this temple shined. The water and trees behind it only added to this beautiful scenery. It was hard to take pictures in the rain but I thoroughly enjoyed this site. Our temple viewing experience was followed by a traditional Japanese meal. We sat on the floor and everything. We received a variety of small plates of mostly sushi and the main course was tofu that we were to dip in soy sauce with some other herbs to flavor it. It was actually quite good.

Cool rice bowl at lunch...

Naomi on the famous "Philosophers Walk"

love taking pics of flowers in the rain!

Temple visiting in the rain...

Lunch was followed by a visit to the handicrafts center which consisted of two buildings full of Japanese souvenirs. Naomi and I were a bit disappointed as most everything was quite overpriced but we purchased a few gifts there anyway not knowing how much time we’d have to shop later. This visit concluded our tour but we were still pumped to see one more temple–the Fushimi Inari temple. This temple had orange gates one after another leading a pathway up to the top. We got there just before dusk and didn’t have the energy to make it all the way up. It was still very unique and very enjoyable though. Afterwards we ventured out to an izakaya near the hotel. An izakaya is a restaurant in Japan that serves drinks and small plates. The one we went to only had 3 or 4 tables and was full of locals besides us. The server spoke English pretty well and seemed very excited to serve us American tourists. We tried some interesting yakatori (skewered and barbequed meats). It was a great finish to another excellent day!


The next day was our last full day in Japan. We had a wrap-up meeting in the meeting to discuss our experiences as well as provide feedback to the sponsoring organizations and afterwards we were on our own. We decided to head back into town to do some more shopping at slightly more reasonable rates than the handicraft center in order to get the rest of the things we wanted to take back from Japan. It was a nice relaxed day. We even had one last chu hi. That night was our farewell dinner which was another very traditional Japanese meal. We had 90 minutes to consume all the beer and sake we could. I must of had a couple of beers and then 7-8 shots of sake. How I didn’t feel drunk I still do not know but I was still pretty sober when we headed out on the town for some Geisha sighting. One of the guides took us out but Naomi and I got separated from the group when we went into a shop to by a gift. We did manage to see a Geisha on our own…looking pretty raggedy I might add!

Have you ever seen a cane store?!?!


 

Naomi got stuck with all the bags! Even mine..haha

The next morning we only had time to eat breakfast and pack up before heading to the airport. Sayonara Japan. It has been the trip of a lifetime!

Farewell dinner with our guide Mari and our tour buddys Steve and Jan with whom we hung out nearly every day

Posted on July 1st, 2012 at 9:37 PM by admin

Shinkansen (train)

Shinkansen! That’s what the Japanese call their fast trains. They also have special names denoting how fast they go. The fastest”bullet train” is called nazomi but we took a slower one for our trip to Hiroshima. From Toyota it took about 2.5 hours because the slower train’s max speed was “only” around 240 km/hr and made several stops in the smaller cities. I was pretty happy about this down time as I was finally able to update this blog for you! After arriving we went on a hunt for the city’s specialty–Okonomiyaki. It took a while to find it though because I asked three different people at the hotel where to find Okonomiyoki. Note to self (and future tourists): one vowel wrong and you have made yourself completely incomprehensible! Finally someone realized what I was trying to say and we got a map and were on our way. That was not the end of our hunt though. It was dificult to figure out just which building this restaurant was in and since the name was not written in English characters I had to match up the Kanji to make sure we were walking in the right restaurant.


Okonomiyaki for those of you who don’t know is the Japanese version of pizza. It is made of rice tortillas with a variety of  topings along with noodles if you like and then topped with a Japanese sauce. They are cooked in the kitchen but then served on a stove top in the middle of the table which is at 120 degrees during the entire meal. Might I also add that the middle of the table starts about 4 inches from the end. No elbows in this table while eating!!! Luckily the menu at Goemon was in English but the servers had difficulty understanding us to say the least. We ordered two Okonomiyaki and a beer each to start for four of us. They were so delicious that we attempted to order two more but ended up receiving four. We tried our best to finish them and felt terrible wasting what we couldn’t finish since that is clearly against their culture to do so, but we just couldn’t quite eat the last one! Oh well!

Ringing the bell for the Hiroshima victims


The next day we set out for a tour of Hiroshima including the Museum which details the Atomic bombing that devistated this city at the end of World War II. It was an emotional tour very much reminding me of the tours I had done in the past at concentration camps. We even got to here the story of a “Hibakusa” (survivor) of the A-bombing which was pretty amazing and miraculous. 140,000 people died within 6 months of the bombing. I know it’s history at this point but I was less than proud to be an American on this day. So many innocent people died and so many more were permanently damaged by the radiation. The suffering they must have experienced due to the hate waves is unimaginable to me. I hope that no country ever drops one of these bombs again. I believe humans are capable of less destructive solutions to their conflicts. Let’s hope I’m right!

Hiroshima memorial

Before the A-Bomb...

...and the only remains after the A-Bomb.

To pull us out of our Hiroshima History depression we got a boxed lunch on the box and promptly headed to a happy place –the island of Miyajima. Miyajima was absolutely beautiful. There is a gate there that actually lies in the ocean water. The island also is very picturesque with many temples and shrines scattered throughout nature. We were also able to find a shot glass and a Sake set with Miyajima written in Japanese. There was also had the biggest, freshest and most delicious grilled oysters I’ve ever had in my life and the dark Karin beer we had along side the oysters was pretty darn good too. We also got to try maple shaped Japanese cakes filled with many different flavors of paste.

On the way to Miyajima

Sake barrels!

The friendly deer of Miyajima

Naomi and I at the top of the Daishon Temple

Gate in the ocean on Miyajima. Too bad it was low tide!

Beautiful Pagoda on Miyajima

The streets of Miyajima

That night we were craving Udon noodles and went to a place recommended by our guide although she was uncertain they had any menus in English. Fortunately the did have English menus and we each got the Udon soup of our liking. Delicious. Afterwards we explored the city a bit to see the castle (Japanese temple style of course) that was lit up. Our cameras didn’t do this view justice but we took some pictures anyways and then headed back to the hotel for a drink. We first tried to go to the top of our hotel (the 33rd floor) but never made it past the menu which displayed alcohols ranging from about $50 a bottle to around $4000. We ended up in the 1st floor restaurant sipping some sweet and more reasonably priced Sake to end the night. What a great day it was!

Our last time in Hiroshima was spent in the Calbee factory where the make Japan’s most popular snacks – shrimp crackers. We were told that “Cal” stands for calcium and “bee” stands for vitamin B1, but most of us weren’t convinced that the snacks were really healthy. Although the do back the crackers and then spray the fat on rather than deep frying them so we will give them SOME credit. This was definitely an interesting tour as I had never seen a food production facility in person. Many of the conveyor belt systems were, however, familiar to me from my family’s business. The best part of this tour was tasting the fresh snacks right as they came off the line. Once bagged I was less impressed by them though. The company’s success was remarkable. They started from nothing a few years after the bombing and now they are very successful just recently having entered the public stock exchange.

Posted on June 29th, 2012 at 2:04 AM by admin
The second stop of our Japan-in-10 days-trip was Toyota. What better place to see daily life in a smaller city than the automobile capital of Japan. On our way to Toyota we stopped at a beautiful hotel to eat lunch. The lunch was delicious and the description of it was even better (see picture below). As soon as we arrived in Toyota we did a fairly extensive tour of the plant which was certainly cleaner and more efficient than the US plants I’ve seen. Afterwards we hit the Toyota museum as well. I was disappointed that they didn’t have a Celica (my car) but the Japanese were very appreciative when they heard that I own a Toyota Celica and a Suzuki motorcycle. During my short stay in Japan thus far I’ve noticed that the cost of living is very high but it is interesting to note that the Japanese cars here are still cheaper than the ones in the US. Hmmmm…

Some very entertaining grammar mistakes on the lunch menu...

We were admittedly all a little scared of what staying with a host family was going to be like but we were pleasantly surprised. Both my and Naomi’s host family were very friendly, funny and hospitable. They were friends with each other and members of an international group that enjoys doing international exchanges via home-stays in order to learn other languages. How perfect I thought!! There were two 30-year old daughters in my family and both of them had done exchanges in the US in their teenage years. My host mom and I exchanged words in at least 3 different languages albeit mostly greetings and expressions relating to food. She also liked to laugh especially at herself–a characteristic to which I am always drawn.


The next day we spent the entire day visiting schools again. It was interesting to see some subtle differences between Tokyo schools and Toyota schools but I was pretty schooled out well before the day was over. I also set a personal oolong tea drinking record as it was the only beverage we were offered all day. That night I went to Naomi’s host family’s house as we were to have a barbeque together that night. The first thing her mom offered me was oolong tea and I promptly refused with explanation. We hung out a while, playing some card games with Naomi’s 13 year-old host brother Yushi until the guests arrived. In the end there were many people who came to this party and we were of course a main attraction. Communication was labored at times but still possible and even enjoyable!

Naomi and her host mom

Me and my host mom

The next day our host families met again and we all went to a look out point of Toyota city together. Afterwards we grabbed lunch and headed to meet our group again. My host mom gave Naomi and I gift (even though she had already given me some neat Japanese coasters that morning) and we said our goodbyes. The two days that we were all somewhat dreading turned out to go by much too fast. I was very impressed with the Japanese culture and hope some day I will be able to be a host to them as they have been to me.

Saying good bye to our host families

 

Posted on June 27th, 2012 at 12:01 AM by admin
After an unfortunately long hiatus I have finally had the opportunity to travel again. This time I was lucky to be able to accompany my girlfriend on a business exchange to Japan. I long thought I would never make it to this distant island of a country but I am so glad the opportunity presented itself because I am really enjoying this beautiful and clean country as well as it’s polite and super friendly culture. And I’ll be honest–I don’t mind the sushi either!


Our first stop was the country’s capital–Tokyo. The evening we arrived was pretty much lost as most of us had hardly slept on the 13-hour flight over and the 13 hour time difference had our bodies thoroughly confused. I was so exhausted and dizzy upon arrival that I left my suitcase in the hotel lobby and had to have my girlfriend get it for me as I passed out around 8pm local time.


After a good night’s sleep we were slightly less exhausted and became very energized by the amazing hotel breakfast buffet. The hotel served the biggest selection I’ve ever seen including Japanese-, European- and American-style buffet all in one. We gorged ourselves with several plates of food and then headed to our program orientation. Afterwards we went on a city tour of Tokyo. Still tired we were glad to be hauled around from site to site on a bus and then after we had our own time to explore the various Shinto temples in Asakusa. Once night time hit we wandered the streets in search of a unique yet delicious dinners. Many places looked empty but then we saw a group of Japanese people headed to a very tall building called “Cheers!” It was a building that had a different cuisine on every floor. The food of each floor was highlighted at the bottom of the building and we promptly decided to head to the floor with Korean food. They had no English menu so we pointed to what we recognized and/or what looked edible. Alongside some beers of unknown brand we thoroughly enjoyed the Korean food and authentic atmosphere.

Wine rack at the breakfast buffet at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel

On day 2 I visited an elementary school and my girlfriend visited a combo junior high-high school. I observed several lessons in Japanese ranging from writing Kanji to table manners. I was even able to teach an ESL lesson myself to a group of 5th and a group of 6th graders. Although the Japanese are typically not at the level of many countries in Europe, I was impressed with how much English they knew already at such a young age. This group of children was the most enthusiastic group of learners I’ve ever seen, especially when it  came to learning English. Culturally, it was interesting to note that the classrooms were much louder than is typical in the US but they weren’t misbehaving. Also the students carried out nearly all of their routines without any guidance from the teacher. They even solved disputes on their own with the use of “paper, rock scissors.” Perhaps most interesting was their sense of ownership of their community’s school. By this I am referring to the fact that there is no need in Japan for school janitors as the kids–yes the kids–clean the schools themselves. Wow, wow and wow! We Americans could certainly learn a thing or two from this culture.

On the third day we were finally starting to overcome the jetlag, but were still waking up about 4:30 in the morning each day. My girlfriend and I decided we would take advantage of this situation and head to the biggest fish market in the world which opens early in the morning. Unfortunately we realized once we got there that they close every other Wednesday and unfortunately it was one of those Wednesdays. We soon forgot about our disappointment though since the day’s excursion was trying on kimonos. First we watched a Japanese woman show us how to put them on and then we watched them again as they put them on us. It is certainly a process that one must spend a lot of time learning and perfecting! I was surprised at how much I liked the kimono I tried on! They really were absolutely stunning. After our kimono experience we walked around town for a bit of shopping, had a tour of a museum of historic Tokyo from a very cute old Japanese man, and walked through a lovely park. For dinner we went to one of many Ramen noodle restaurants near our hotel where we had a unique (at least for an American) ordering experience. We ordered our dinners from a machine and simply handed the waiter the receipt that the machine printed for us. Talk about efficiency!

Pastry hotdog?!?!

 

Japanese Snacks!

Nightlife in Tokyo

It is now day 4 and we are sitting on a spacious train on our way to Toyota. There we will visit Toyota Motor Company and meet our host families where we will be for the next couple of days. Stay tuned!

Kimonos!!!