Friday, May 28, 2010

Tuesday, May 25 – Friday, May 28, 2010-

What a great day of fine weather, lots of exercise and even better friends. Today alone, I actually biked around 20 kilometers and kayaked another 23! The warm, breezy, 80˚ weather was just right – leaving me with a nice sunburn and one of those “I’ve had a successful summer day” feelings.

My homeroom fishery classmates and I actually got to kayak right from the backyard of our fish school (separate from the main school) right down the Nakagawa River. The water was running high and fast due to heavy rain in the beginning of the week, but that just added to the thrill of the day. We had moments of high intensity, running rapids crashing and swirling higher and deeper than myself, and moments of sheer relaxation, floating backwards on our kayaks only worrying about how sunburned we were going to get, not if we would be. As you can imagine, I wasn’t exactly going to risk bringing my camera, no matter how many ziplock bags were offered. Therefore I have sadly few pictures and none of them are that interesting! Haha, maybe I can download some from the local paper if it prints them soon.

Today being perhaps one of the last big hurrahs with my fishery classmates, I was happy to enjoy the company and laughs that inevitably occur when you allow fifteen teenagers to each captain their own little boats, each able to zip and zoom (and of course CRASH) as much as their poor paddlers can manage.

The crew all set to go

One other highlight was having a Japanese National Kayak Team Member be our guide. He and I even had a cool conversation about how he’d never been to Minnesota but that he’d kayaked through some of the Great Lakes and competed in the Kayak World Cup when it was held in Toronto, or something. He was a really funny guy who never failed to impress us with his rapid shoots and barrel rolls!

Other than kayaking my week has been pretty ordinary, lots of rain! I did get a chance to discover this cool backwoods shrine near our house (along with a four-foot long snake that scared the crap out of me when I almost stepped on it!! Don’t worry, not poisonous). The following pictures are from my escapade there.

These gateways are the symbol for the path of a god, leading them straight up into the shine
The ascent
Can you spot the tiny stone shrine buried in the undergrowth?
Crescent Moon
All alone in the woods
Ancient stone writing
One other highlight of the past few days was a tour of Koisagoyaki Pottery
The kilns
Anyone know what these are? Nope, not bear claws, they're a type of pottery thermometer. The three strips start as kind of nails, the first softer than the second which is softer than the third. When the kiln reaches a certain degree the first melts, followed by the second, and when it's finally reached the proper temperature, the third one melts, telling the potter that their wares are done firing
Random but a delicious soba and tempura lunch. I made it all by myself so I had to brag! =D

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sunday, May 16 – Tuesday, May 18 & Monday, May 24, 2010-

Back to Tokyo! Our travels in Kyoto were certainly highlights, as you can tell, but Tokyo was most definitely a great success as well. The capital city is far different from its predecessor, being much more glitzy, industrial, and skyscraper-ish than the gentle sprawl of temples and shrines that is Kyoto. However the comparative youth of Tokyo is still noticeably punctuated by patches of history and tradition. For example, our Monday afternoon trip to the sumo rink, followed by a tour of the famous Asakusa Temple certainly felt like “Traditional Japan,” yet our late night dinner out on the town with Ayano Baba and Mai Maruyama Sunday evening would certainly be “Japanese” in my mind as well. In other words, we experienced both world and enjoyed each of them. I think that Andrew said it best when we were looking back over our trip on the way to the airport Tuesday afternoon. He turned to me and said, “No regrets man! I feel like we packed as much as we could into this trip and each day was something a little different. Definitely a success.”

No doubt about it, the trip held a number of firsts for both of us. For example the return trip from Kyoto to Tokyo was actually on a night bus which left at 10:40 in the evening and arrived in Tokyo at 6:15 am the next morning. NOT a lot of sleeping took place! So that Sunday morning we dropped our bags off at our hotel but were told that we couldn’t check in until 3 pm. So what did we do? Grab a coffee at Starbucks – No, not for the caffeine, but for the comfy chairs. A quick hour or two nap in the back of Starbucks was just the ticket. We headed over to Shinjuku on our way to the Tocho Towers, basically the city organizational offices. They are basically a pair of tall towers overlooking the city that you can access free of charge. On a clear day they’re definitely worth the trip.

After the city towers we went straight to the Tsukiji fish market, which is recognized as having the best sushi in the world!! Score – this was a place I’d been wanting to go all year so I was in heaven as we explored the side streets, restaurants, and stalls. The market is really just a series of alleyways down near the harbor where the fishing boats unload. Andrew had the great idea of eating small portions at a number of restaurants rather than just devoting ourselves to one place. The first stop was a tiny, very Japanese style bar where the chefs prepare everything right before your eyes, later I had THE BEST OYSTER IN THE WORLD while walking in and out of the various stalls, and finally we ate even more at a Kaitenzushi (conveyer belt sushi) restaurant. Before long we had stuffed ourselves full and Andrew had experienced maybe a little too much of the Japanese fish cuisine than he’d bargained for. When I convinced him to try sea urchin I had no idea he’d almost hurl all over the innocent sushi chef standing in front of us! Haha, luckily he had a good chaser of green tea and everything went down rather than up, but he said that that was an experience he never wanted to repeat again! God, I love sushi =) Thank you, Big Guy, for inventing the Japanese people!!

The adventures of the sushi market left us full and cheery, so an afternoon baseball game in the Tokyo Dome was a great way to kill a couple more hours. I had bought two cheap, standing section tickets beforehand so we entered the dome and slowly made our way over to the energetic (okay, CRAZY) Tokyo Giants Fan Section out in right field! It was hilarious to experience their endless stream of cheers, chants, and jeers. I feel like I’ve seen some serious fans (I mean, hey, I am an American!) but these guys could roll with the best of ‘em. This video above is of them cheering after a three run homerun. Pretty fun – best part: Andrew’s face. I feel like in real life it seemed even more crazy! Definitely worth our 10 dollar tickets =)

Sunday afternoon was a much needed nap and shower at our hotel, but by Sunday evening we were back on our feet just in time to grab a delicious Korean BBQ dinner with my two great Japanese friends, Ayano and Mai! They took us to their favorite authentic Korean place down in Shinokubo where we had fantastic grilled meat, veggie wraps, and this cheesy, spicy fried rice thing that Andrew and I both couldn’t get enough of! Following dinner we went to Shinjuku in order to see the famous lights of the city. That area is probably the most elaborate, neon-filled, glamorous area of the city so it was really fun to walk the busy streets. Admittedly, some of the institutions in the area are a little less reputable, but still, the streets looked awesome flashing in enough signs and advertisements to make you think it was still daytime. A final, sweet honey soaked cake dessert at one of Ayano’s favorite bars and we had to head back to the train station. A great night, girls, thanks again from both Andrew and me. We had a blast exploring Tokyo with you =)

Monday was equally busy. I started early by waking up to retrieve my bag from KTP’s place in Ikebukuro. We chatted a little bit more, but as Andrew was still across town in Ueno I couldn’t stay long. But Kathy, Evan and Lia have also all been wonderful friends to me this year and I can’t wait for a fun reunion night back in Northfield!

Kaminari Mon - The Lightning Gate at Asakusa

Andrew and I went straight to Ryougoku, the national sumo arena. The flags were flying and the sumo wrestlers were out in force, but the cheapest tickets were still a little too pricey so we opted simply to grab a good lunch and walk up the river to Asakusa. The temple in Asakusa is my favorite one in Tokyo and the alleyways and stalls nearby are all perfect for an afternoon stroll. That evening we once more met up with Jake, who we’d met in Kyoto, for another terrific night of Karaoke, games, ramen noodles, and more sushi. We were both glad we could see Jake once more before we headed home, and during a road trip he has planned with a buddy. You’re welcome any time, man! Stay in touch.

Tuesday (can you believe it’s here already!) was a short but sweet day. We walked through the nearby Ueno park, visited the Ueno Zoo, and ate a filling Tonkatsu pork cutlet lunch. After picking up our bags at the hotel (and barely making our connecting train – oops, too much fun at the zoo) we were on our way back to Narita airport once again. Saying good-bye was tough, but like Andrew had said before, “No regrets!” And that’s the honest truth.

Andrew, this was the trip of a lifetime, man, and I was honored to have taken it with you. Thanks so much for being a great partner in crime, be sure to let me know next time you want to conquer a foreign country or something – because we totally ruled Japan!

Crashing in Starbucks
The Tochou Towers
Tsukiji Fish Market
Our first sushi bar
Tuna, Tai, Salmon, Horse, and Scallop, all slightly cooked with a blow torch right before being served to you!
Andrew dreaming of "Deadliest Catch"
My new best friend, she's the one who served me one of those giant oysters with soy sauce and vinegar for only 300 yen!
My sushi rice bowl down below, our chef up top, and right in between (the half black half brown pieces) are Andrew's favorite Uni Sea Urchin!
Andrew returning to his childhood a little bit =)
The Tokyo Dome is actually just like the Metrodome back in Minnesota. It was fun to think of all the Twin's games Andrew and I have been to back at home, and then to realize we were doing it once again but with a foreign team and with a bunch of rowdy Giants fans
Do you see those flags waving on the right? We were right behind those!
Andrew at his first Korean BBQ
Ayano, Mai, and our Korean hot plate!
Andrew, Ayano, and Mai down in Shinjuku. Other areas were even more lit up than this! Try to imagine the Las Vegas strip...
Ayano drooling over our Cookies and Cream honey bread toast cake
Andrew in front of the Ryougoku Sumo Arean
Lunch nearby
Andrew in front of the golden poop (excuse my childish humor) and the Kirin Beer Building. The gold skyscraper in the back is supposed to be the color of beer, with a white foam layer on top. Can you see it?
The Asakusa Temple
Andrew wrapping off his bad luck fortune!
Meiji Jingu Shrine
Jake showing us his mad hand stand skills Monday night. So many laughs - Great night!
One of Andrew's first words in Japanese was Kiji - Pheasant
This is how tired we felt by the end of the trip!!
And finally, our last Tonkatsu lunch in Ueno
Phew - I did it! That's all of the photos and blogs. Hope you enjoyed it. Let me know if you've got any questions for me =)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Saturday, May 15 & Sunday, May 23, 2010-

I had to divide Kyoto into two halves just to fit in all of the incredible experiences we had there. Last Saturday was some of the best weather we had all trip, highs in the mid-80’s and yet a decent breeze out of the hills to the north. Right away when I woke up in the morning I knew it was going to be a shorts and t-shirt day, and who doesn’t like one of those in the middle of May?

As the morning began, one of our new Ichi En Sou guesthouse friends, Jake Ehrlich, joined our crew. “And so my wolf pack, it grew by one.” Haha, Jake would be a great addition to any group and we were glad to have him with us that day.

We did another walking tour of the city and May 15th turned out to be a great day to be visiting the ancient capital. The Aoimatsuri Festival and once-monthly craft fair were both being held in Kyoto that day, so we made a fun loop up to the festival held near the imperial palace, over to the craft fair along the river, and down to the Kiyomizudera Temple complex.

So during that morning we watched a parade of ancient garbs and regalia, went out to a delicious tonkatsu pork cutlet lunch, and walked up the banks of the Kamogawa River. Taking time to enjoy the crowds, we slowly found our way through the city, stopping at random temples or parks whenever we happened along one. The streets were busy and the market we visited was an interesting conglomeration of cheerful crafts, foods, and people. I think we each bought a good selection of fun souvenirs while walking through the grounds of this old temple, turned for just one afternoon into a busy city market.

After the market we made our way south, reaching the second most famous temple in Kyoto, the Kiyomizudera. It is known for its sprawling complex of temples, pagodas, statues, and so forth. Yet the place that makes it perhaps the most well known is the tall balcony overlooking the city of Kyoto far below. In Japanese, when in English we would say to “to take the plunge” the Japanese people would say “to jump off the ledge at Kiyomizudera.” It’s supposed to be that idea of going all out. As we walked the complex we even visited a famous love stone and a really interesting fountain of luck where three streams of water come flowing out of the mountain above. Apparently if you can catch the water from all three streams, when you drink of it your wishes will all come true; “So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice”

Perhaps my favorite shot from Kyoto, I went out in the streets of Gion late Friday night and happened upon this Maiko-San. It was just the two of us on the street and I asked her timidly if it would be okay to take a picture and she politely said yes and even gave me a rare smile...she was totally into me =P

After the temple, we walked back to the guesthouse one last time in order to go out to dinner with Yashi, Sunam, and the other guests. A group of about twelve of us walked along the well-lit banks of the river, eating food from a nearby restaurant, and watching an awesome fire dancing street performance. It was a great last memory of the city, but before long we had to grab our bags back at Ichi En Sou and hop on the night bus bound for Tokyo.

And so ended our last day in Kyoto, my new favorite city in Japan, and a place Andrew and I (and also Jake, I’m guessing) will always look back on with great memories.

The Aoi Matsuri Festival Parade
Sir Bumblebee
The festival is one to celebrate the greening of the trees and flowers
Exactly how I'd want to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon!
Pigeons being chased by a hawk
Jake crossing the turtle bridge
Andrew on his turtle
A river straight out of the mountains
The entrance to the temple grounds where the "Handmade Market" was being held
The crowded rows of stalls and people
Heian Jingu Shrine
So elaborate
The coolest trees I've ever seen in my life
The largest wooden gateway in Japan
The roofs of the city
The side streets leading up to Kiyomizudera Temple
The temple's pagoda
Overlooking Kyoto far below
Andrew and I at the ledge of Kiyomizudera
Near the love stone
A fox shrine
Isn't it incredible
The Otowa waterfall springs
Jake and Andrew with their long cup handles
It's harder than it looks and Jake's good humored attempts gained some laughs from the locals
Make a good wish, Jake
The fire spinner near the river
Our group at dinner
Our last picture in Kyoto before boarding the bus, that's the Kyoto tower in the background