Samantha in Japan

Swine flu madness!!


Over the weekend, I met up with my academic adviser from my home school here in Japan. She’s got a position here, teaching at a college in Kobe, so we decided to meet up once she arrived and started teaching for the new semester. It was nice seeing her again, and we made plans that involved me going to her college and doing a little presentation for one of her classes later this week. However, I got an email from her Sunday night. Just as we were joking about swine flu (we had gone out to eat pork), the classes at her college ended up canceled for the entire week, so we had to postpone the presentation until next week.

In the meantime, I had studying for finals to do. It’s finals week here at Gaidai, and the schedule runs like this– all students take their Japanese language exams on Monday and Tuesday, while other exams are scheduled for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

So, I studied for my Reading/Writing Japanese exam and went into school early on Monday morning because I wasn’t sure what time my exam exactly was. I ended up arriving two hours early, so I had a lot of time to waste before I had my exam to take. As I was walking around, I noticed that a lot more people than normal were wearing masks.

Now, in Japan, it’s absolutely commonplace to see people wearing masks all over the place, even when there isn’t some pandemic. But this time around, even the international students were wearing them (for the record, international students generally don’t wear masks– sometimes, but VERY RARELY, they do. We don’t really feel comfortable wearing them/we weren’t raised doing so/we look silly), so I was thinking, ‘What in the world…?’

Anyway, the hours passed, and I went up to take my final exam (and got a good laugh out of one girl walking into the room and proclaiming, “DOOM!” before the exam even started), took that, went downstairs to hang out in the computer lounge while I waited for my friends.

I kept getting told by other international students AND Japanese students alike that the classes were canceled for Japanese students for one week. Why? SWINE FLU!

Apparently, swine flu popped up officially in Japan over the weekend, and most of the cases are in the Osaka and Hyogo prefectures (I’m in Osaka). I wasn’t even aware it WASN’T here before.

But anyway, the international students all grumbled amongst each other that if this came one week earlier, we’d wouldn’t have had classes either! Some of us had a “nande ya nen?!” moment, because… really, were they going to cancel classes for the sake of keeping the Japanese students healthy… but leave the international students to fend for themselves in little old CIE. I wasn’t aware that a super immune system was part of my gaijin superpowers!

A rumor started spreading around that KGU was going to shut down the entire campus for the week, and there was a little bit of chaos around CIE while people wondered what was going to happen with our finals. I remember joking around with my friends and asking, with my best, hopeful puppy-pout, “Finals are canceled~?” I had about HALF the room looking up at me with anticipation on their faces, haha.

Nevertheless, within about 45 minutes, people suddenly started running around, clapping, and urging others to read their email. So I popped open my email, saw a notice from KGU (beautifully titled “URGENT!!”)–

Dear international students,

We are sending this message to inform you that the University has decided to cancel all classes starting from 1:30 pm today, May 18, until Sunday, May 24, due to the outbreaks of the H1N1 flu in Osaka and Hyogo prefectures. This decision has been made in accordance with advice from local authorities and Japanese government.

The university will be physically shut down during the above period. Accordingly, you will not be able to take further final examinations as scheduled.

……..

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!

Our graduation/completion ceremony is also canceled, as well (it was scheduled for Saturday), and I’m a little disappointed about that, but more than anything else, I am PUMPED for nearly TWO WEEKS of sheer playtime in Japan!

Oh, Japanese paranoia, how I love thee. All the KGU students are taking this brilliantly. Finals canceled… for influenza! I’ve already heard it referred to as Flu Celebration Week.

Dear Japan, it’s the flu! We’re in a developed country! We’re going to be okay!

There are already signs all over the dormitories advising us to gargle water and wash our hands, haha. (Not including the one in the picture above, that one’s a bit less specific, haha.)

For the genuinely concerned, I feel absolutely fine. No flu symptoms whatsoever.

In other news, I got back from a WONDERFUL Golden Week in Tokyo safe and sound last week. The friend who I went with and I did a lot of window shopping (well, I did the window shopping, she did the actual shopping), explored Shibuya at night, ate chicken heart at yakitori and got a free baked potato from the chef to commend us for it, saw TWO(!) AKB48 shows (I saw one alone, as you have to win tickets for it; THAT was interesting, too– finding my way through Tokyo alone for a little bit. Not difficult or scary in the least, but just fun!), saw Tokyo Dome and went to the amusement park right outside it, and just generally had a lot of fun. I had to stop at the Krispy Kreme in Shinjuku (Krispy Kremes are ONLY in Tokyo in Japan) to pick up a box of originals, because I got requests from other KGU students to do so while I was there. Riding the train home from Kyoto once I arrived there was funny as all hell, too– I was getting the STARE-DOWN from other passengers. Well, at least my GIANT BOX of donuts was. (“WHERE DID YOU GET THOOOOSE?!!?!”) I got advised to disguise my box in a shopping bag before bringing them to KGU, because I’d surely get MOBBED otherwise.

Anyway, I’m off to Okinawa for a few days starting Sunday, and the rest of the time, I’ll be running around and playing in the Kansai area, celebrating the cancellation of finals, and exhausting myself so I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything. 🙂

(And yes, all photos are from the chaos today, just before they kicked us all off campus grounds.)

Don’t worry, don’t worry, I haven’t fallen off the face of the Earth… yet.

I’ve just been super busy.

To sum things up: Went to view the cherry blossoms all over the place, namely Yoshino (climbed the ENTIRE MOUNTAIN, WHAT), went to Nara to play with the deer and see the big Buddha, went to Arashiyama again with a few friends and had the most hilarious day ever (me + rowing a boat + one friend helping me navigate + the other sitting in the back like a stowaway = amazingly memorable disaster), went to Fushimi-Inari, constantly running around Kyoto and Osaka, constantly getting approached by Japanese people. The last part is really, really… just, amazing. Without fail, I get approached by someone, if not multiple people, every week, just amazed at the fact I’m a foreigner and wanting to play. Or, in the case of an encounter last week, this Japanese guy didn’t know I understood Japanese, so when he was looking at my face as I walked into a store (and not talking directly to me, but to a friend, rather), and remarked on foreigners being there, I was like, “Yup, that’s right. :3” in Japanese right back to him. EPIC RESPONSE. The guy blushed about ten shades of red and apologized profusely before chatting with me for a good five minutes.

But, really, to anyone who wants to know more/I haven’t told already, I’ve got so many stories. My friends and I are curious Japanese people magnets, for some reason. I think it’s because when we’re approached, we WILL respond– we want to PLAY. You say something to me in English, I’ll say something right back. They try to ninja in there and sneak in some English every now and then, but I am PREPARED for stuff like that.

Anyway, back to the summary of sorts.

Now, Golden Week has started. I ran around Shinsaibashi and Nanba all day with a friend, and it’s just SO fun people-watching, even amidst the chaos of Golden Week. Osaka really… exploded with people. Eventually, we had to head home and catch the last train, but stuff like that is just so amusing.

This week, I’ll be hanging around the Osaka-Kyoto-etc. area, doing… whatever comes my way. Until Wednesday night, when I leave on a night bus for… Tokyo trip number two! Surprise!

I’m super pumped. Tokyo was SO fun when I went back in March, and I’ll be there for a little longer. On the agenda: exploring Harajuku, Shibuya, Roppongi, Ikebukuro, and wherever else our travels may lead, seeing an AKB48 show (MY FRIEND AND I WON TICKETS! YOU ALL HAVE NO IDEA HOW HAPPY I AM!), and just generally having fun. We’re staying at a REAL hotel this time, and not the Capsule Inn, just for reference. Ironically, the Capsule Inn in Akihabara has ceased operations as of a few weeks ago. It was really weird, opening up my email and seeing a notice about their closing; I only receive it because I stayed there and was on their mailing list or something. But, just… wow. I feel like I got in there to experience it just in the nick of time, haha.

Anyway, I’ve got to get up early in the morning and it’s already going on 3:30 AM, yikes.

Pictures will be coming eventually. I uploaded over 300 from my camera today… that’s going to take FOREVER to resize.

It took weeks to find the time to do this, and then hours upon hours to finally get this done. But it’s finally here. The long-awaited picture album from Tokyo, Yamaguchi Prefecture, and beyond.

Click–> http://picasaweb.google.com/yumestarlet/Japan?feat=directlink

I apologize yet again for the absolute LACK of substance in this post. I’m in the midst of uploading my pictures from my camera, and due to the sheer volume of them, I’m just going to be making an online album and not going to be doing a more in-depth display like I usually do.

Because I’ve been slacking with the blog lately, I’m going to open up the floor for suggestions.

What do you want me to do in Japan?

I’ll be your guinea pig. Suggest some stuff, I’ll try to do it, and I’ll write about it. The restrictions are as follows:

– If it’s a specific place you want me to visit, it must be in the general Keihanshin region (Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe/surrounding cities) OR Okinawa (I’ll be going there at the end of May). I MAY be going back to Tokyo, but that’s a HUGE may. Don’t count on it. I get increasingly broke every day.
– Must not put me in physical danger. Like… approach a creeper on the streets of Osaka and threaten him while using Kansai-ben– yeah, that one’s a no-go.
– May be simple ‘write more about X’ requests if you know I’ve already done something you’d like to hear more about. This can include Tokyo stuff; I know last time I did a brief overview of some of the places I went/things I did, and if you want to hear more about something from there, I’ll write about it.
– I’m not eating natto. Just throwing that out there. Akan.

All right, now that we’ve got the guidelines established, go crazy!

I apologize for the absolute dry spell as far as updates have gone these past few weeks. I’ve been incredibly busy, and putting together a blog entry always takes several hours, so it’s been near impossible to do recently. From March 14-22, I was on spring break and travelling the entire week, and last week has been midterms week at Kansai Gaidai.

By the way, dear Kansai Gaidai, the idea to have all the classes have midterms the WEEK WE GET BACK FROM SPRING BREAK is one of the stupidest ideas… ever. It was an absolute week from hell last week; I had five midterms and an hour-and-twenty-minute presentation. I’m pretty sure 95% of Kansai Gaidai’s student population went out drinking Friday night after all of that nonsense.

Anyway, let’s backtrack to spring break.

Even my pre-Tokyo travels became adventures. I had to take a night bus from Umeda to Shinjuku on Saturday night, and for some reason, one of the friends I was going with wanted to get there… two and a half hours early. We met up with her at Kyobashi station, got lost in the JR station, made it to Umeda, wandered around, found the bus place, realized we still had a ton of time to spare, and decided to find some food.

We stumbled upon a pirate-themed Italian restaurant. Could you pack anymore awesome into one eatery? I don’t think so. It was just sheer, luck, too. My friend and I spotted an Italian flag, and we were like, “Ooh! Yes, Italian food! We’re going!” We followed the signs and found ourselves in front of this… HEAVILY, HEAVILY themed restaurant. A big, wooden door with a skull in the middle was closed, there was some cannon going nuts outside the entrance. We skittered in, got the shit scared out of us by waiters who mess with their customers before taking them to their table, and got to enjoy a pizza-tossing show. Amazing.

The night bus to Tokyo was so much better than I expected. My friends and I decided to forego comfort in order to get the cheapest tickets, but it didn’t matter at all. I slept most of the way to Tokyo; it wasn’t very sound sleep, but I managed, and the seats weren’t uncomfortable at all. I’m lucky to have a very, uh, sturdy bladder, so having no bathroom on the bus wasn’t on my list of concerns in the first place.

The minute we got into Shinjuku, we had things to do. It was around 6:30 in the morning, and Tokyo was desolate. I had planned to meet up with someone in Harajuku that morning because we were both fans of AKB48, and they were having a handshake event in Harajuku that day. Yeah, why the hell not, I figured. He warned me that I may have to line up early in the morning– no problem! I was going to be there anyway! Before that, we stumbled out onto the streets of Harajuku, and when we headed down into the streets, we wondered why Tokyo had died. We were virtually the only people on the streets. My friends wanted to grab some breakfast before we went to line up, so we darted into a 24-hour McDonald’s. There were SOME people in there. 90% of them were fast asleep. I’m not even kidding.

After breakfast, we wandered around Harajuku until we found the place where we had to line up, spent about an hour and a half out in the cold, being gawked at by other people (yes, Japan, we like your musics), and trying to keep warm. Bought a couple CDs that got me tickets into the handshake event, and then headed off to drop of my luggage at the capsule hotel.

The capsule hotel doesn’t officially open for check-in until 5:00 PM or so, but they accept luggage for storage at 10 AM. By time we bought our CDs, it was ~10:30 or so, so we headed over to Akihabara, found the place, dropped our luggage off, and then headed back to Harajuku. We spent most of the day wandering around, people-watching (Sundays are BIG in Harajuku– lots of people dress up in crazy fashions; or so we heard… I only saw a few people looking REALLY decked out in crazy Japanese fashion here and there, but it was more concentrated there than elsewhere in Japan), visiting the Johnny’s store, looking in on shops, and getting absolutely SQUISHED in Takeshita Street. Around 4 PM, it was time for the handshake event we’d bought tickets for before, so we ended up MASSIVELY DELAYED by the human traffic jam that was Takeshita Street. The guy who I was meeting up with earlier was waiting for me at the event, and he ran me to the back of the line when he spotted me, informing me that the place had suddenyl EXPLODED with people, and no one had any idea why the line had gotten so big. I spent the next… two hours, I believe, stuck in line. It was insane. There’s too many irrelevant details I could list, but I ran into REALLY, REALLY bad luck. The “timeslots” I wanted to attend were at 4 and 5, and I didn’t even make it in until 6; things changed with the event because of that, so I was totally bummed.

But while I was standing in line, my friends and I were planning what we would be doing over the next few days, and we ended up asking/pestering the shy Japanese guy standing next to us in line for information about what’s [such and such place in Tokyo] famous for/what’s good to do. After a while, this guy opened up a little more, or at least got used to the crazy foreigners he got stuck in line next to, and started asking us which members [of this group] we were planning on meeting. My friends barely knew the group at all, and were just total troopers in standing in line with me for this event the whole time, so I answered the guy, and he showed me some of the stuff of the group he had collected, and concernedly checked the internet listing of which member was at which time for me. He said that the 5:00 timeslot was my last chance to meet the person I wanted to meet; at that point, we still had about 45 minutes left before that timeslot was up, and we were SO close to the building that I thought we’d get in.

No such luck. We rushed and rushed, and the Japanese guy literally took me under his wing and PLOWED me through the crowd in a desperate effort to get me into the timeslot, even tried convincing a staff member to let me in– all in vain. Like I said before, I was TOTALLY bummed out about not being able to make it in in time. The Japanese guy said, in English, “Ahh, it’s just bad luck, just bad luck,” and proceeded to give me a PRESENT [part of his collection].

It sounds corny, but I was absolutely touched by the undeserved kindness I got from this random stranger I met in the line. My friends and I must have been obnoxious with all of our questions, and he just seemed so shy for a while, but then he was like, “Hay, I’m gonna take care of you, don’t worry!” and did EVERYTHING he could possibly do [and everything that he did was out of sheer kindness] to get me through, and then gives me a little freebie in the end.

Anyway, I got into the event, met a few celebrities (Maeda Atsuko, Urano Kazumi, Kuramochi Asuka, Katayama Haruka on THAT day, but I met Miyazawa Sae, Takahashi Minami, Kashiwagi Yuki, and Minegishi Minami on the day before, in Osaka, when I went to a mini-show/handshake; if ANY of these names have any significance to any of you, haha), went back outside, ran into the guy from earlier randomly on the street (not the guy who gave me the freebie, the other one, who I know from before), and he introduced me to another [Japanese] fan of the group, who wanted to meet me, and proceeded to show me some of his own collection [it sounds redundant, but he’s been a fan for a while, so he had some really cool stuff to show], gave me ANOTHER freebie, and tried to arrange something else that will take too much explanation here for me.

Just, again, sheer KINDNESS OUT OF NOWHERE. That day was draining– physically from standing in line for hours, dragging luggage around crowded streets, and walking everywhere after a night of poor sleep, and emotionally, from being stressed out and being overwhelmed with the sheer amout of kindness coming my way.

All of this may not sound like much, but I will never forget that Sunday in Harajuku and all the amazing people I met.

On Monday, we went to Asakusa, took a tiny “cruise” down a river in the middle of Tokyo, and wandered around Shibuya. Asakusa was pretty, and the boat ride was interesting (it’s easy to forget that Tokyo has a RIVER in it), but Shibuya was really fun. We got to walk in that huge, famous crosswalk, we took a walk around the famous 109 department store, we went to karaoke in this really swank place, found Krispy Kreme donuts (we got free donuts while we stood in line!) AND TGI Friday’s. After having a big old, American-style dinner, we were planning on going to Roppongi. See, in Japan, almost everything closes at 8 PM. It’s ridiculous. My friends and I figured Tokyo would be different– things would be open at least past 8 PM… right?! Well, Sunday night, after we had gotten dinner, EVERYTHING was closed, and we had nothing to do but go back to the capsule hotel for the night… even though it was only 9 PM. So that night, we researched, and found that Roppongi is apparently the nightlife spot.

So anyway, we were sitting in TGI Friday’s, and one of the waiters came over to chat with us– just about where we were from, how we like Tokyo, etc., etc.

Waiter (W): So, what are your plans after this?
My friends and I (M): We’re going to Roppongi! 😀
W: *looks down at his watch nervously*
M: …?
W: You all know the number for the police, right?
M: LOLWTF!!!!
W: It’s dangerous in Roppongi! And you’re going now?!
M: Well, that’s where all the nightlife is!
W: True. But… just in case, tell me the number for the police.
One of my friends: 119! 😀
W: … WRONG. That’s the ambulance! D: It’s 110 for the police! Are you sure you’re going to be okay?!

We assured him that we’d be fine, and as I was waiting outside by the entrance before leaving, the waiter tapped my shoulder, and reminded me of the police number, and told me to stay safe.

Well, the waiter guy had no reason to worry, because we didn’t end up going.

This is another thing I am determined to fix about Japan. (Yes, I am determined to fix it. One day, I’m coming in with a giant hammer with the intention of redoing stuff. Gaijin style.) Transportation. It was around 10:50 when we left TGI Friday’s, and when we got to the subway station, we looked at the times the trains ran, and discovered that the last train stops at midnight. … !!! MIDNIGHT?! It would take some time to GET to Roppongi, and some time to get back to Akihabara, so that would leave us with absolutely no time to actually go out and explore Roppongi.

It’s the same all over Japan, too. The buses around here [Hirakata] stop just before 11 PM, the trains stop at midnight. What the hell, Japan?! I would like to go out and do stuff at night and not be stranded until morning, thank you very much!

Well, anyway, that concluded my Monday.

On Tuesday, we went to the Tokyo Tower, wandered around Akihabara, went to a maid cafe, went back to Harajuku to see if we could get some decent shopping done (it was just too damn crowded on Sunday), and then took another night bus back to Osaka at the end of the day.

I was able to rest for a little bit before heading down in the other direction of Japan for the rest of spring break, haha. I met up with a friend and took another bus to spend a couple of days at his home in Yamaguchi-ken, practically got adopted and fawned over by his amazing family, visited Hiroshima, speed-toured Miyajima at NIGHT (it was breathtaking), explored Yamaguchi-ken, went spellunking (…lol, I love that word), took another boat tour, and just generally had a great time. We took the shinkansen (bullet train) back up to Kyoto (which was insanely fast, but went through too many tunnels!), and by time I got back to my dorm on Sunday night, I had to scramble to study and do all the homework I didn’t even touch over break.

Then this week was all tests and presentations and tiring nonsense.

This weekend was great. Went shopping in Shinsaibashi, went to karaoke around Hirakata, went to Kiyomizu Temple on Saturday night, because they’re open late for hanami (flower-viewing) purposes. Cherry blossom season is big in Japan, and they’re generally supposed to start blooming around now. A friend and I were joking about the whole thing, because at lunch earlier this week, we were wondering aloud when the cherry blossoms would bloom. A friend of ours promptly replied, “March 28,” and we burst out laughing, joking that if we feel the earth rumbling on the morning of March 28, there’s no reason to fear, it’s not an earthquake, it’s just ALL the cherry blossoms of Japan making their grand entrance. Right on time.

But anyway, the weather’s too cold, so the forecasted day got delayed. Either way, we decided to go up to Kiyomizu because it was bound to be pretty when it was all lit up at night. That didn’t disappoint at all. Kiyomizu itself was gorgeous, and the city of Kyoto in the backdrop was equally beautiful.

And finally, today, I went with one of my classes to see a Takarazuka show. It was interesting to see, but I was utterly lost half the time. Ah, well. I mainly went for the experience, anyway. After the show, a friend and I went to a MEXICAN (!!!!!!!) restaurant in Shinsaibashi for dinner. Mexican food is a true RARITY in Japan, so to find that restaurant was like stumbling upon a diamond in the rough.

That pretty much catches you all up to now.

Don’t worry, there will be pictures of spring break/whatnot coming soon. At the moment, I have hundreds of pictures waiting on my camera, and I need to sort through them to find the good ones, upload them, resize them, and get them posted somewhere. That’s a process that takes hours, and at the moment, it’s 4:30 AM, so it just CAN’T be done right now. There’s no way.

To use some Osaka-ben, shindoi (I’m exhausted). So I’m off to bed before class in… a few hours.

(Welcome to Japan, sleep is for the weak.)

After an incredibly long week, it’s finally hit haru yasumi/spring break time over here at Kansai Gaidai.

I apologize for the lack of updates this past week, and this one is going to be a pretty unspectacular update, as well. Classes have been gearing up with lesson tests and midterm prep and papers and everything else you could think of, and in between, I’ve been trying to work out the details of my spring break trips.

Over the weekend– er, well, the weekend plus Monday, I went out to Osaka each day. Saturday–> shopping. Sunday–> USJ. Monday–> emergency shopping. Yes, emergency shopping. Getting a portable charger for my iPod is an emergency, thank you very much. I’ll have pictures from USJ later on– after spring break, because my free time from here on out is pretty much nonexistant.

I have about one day in between my Tokyo and Hiroshima/etc. trips, but I can’t promise any updates then, just yet. That might be time used for some much-needed sleep, haha.

Anyway, needless to say, I’m ridiculously excited. I mean… come on, it’s Tokyo. It’s like a must if you’re visiting Japan. The plans are all settled– we will be staying in a capsule hotel, visiting… as many places as we can (namely Harajuku, Shibuya, Tokyo Tower, Akihabara– just, yeah, anywhere’s good), and most likely getting epically lost along the way.

I leave on a night bus tomorrow night. That alone should be… an experience. At least it’s cheap. That’s pretty much the only reason we chose that route! I just hope I’ll actually be able to sleep, because we get into Tokyo around 6:30 in the morning, and I don’t particularly want to be a walking zombie when I get there.

So, yeah, anyway, I’m off to take a much needed nap before packing and planning and then exhausting myself tomorrow with a day-trip to Senri-chuo before I leave at night.

I apologize for the total pointlessness of this entry, but I just wanted to throw an entry in here before I disappeared for another week. I promise I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth/in a little manhole somewhere on the streets of urban Japan just yet! You never know, though, with my knack for clumsiness. (For the record, today was an all-time high in clumsy events for me– I dropped my coin purse on the sidewalk and coins went spilling EVERYWHERE, the strap that I had attached to the purse shattered when it hit the concrete, I almost fell on some poor lady on the bus when I lost my balance, and a charm from my bracelet broke off). Yeah, it’s definitely time for me to go pass out for a bit, since I’m running on an hour and a half of sleep as it is. Hopefully I’ll have a bit more composure when I get to Tokyo!

Have a nice weekend/week, all!

** This entry was written over the span of two days. I started writing on Sunday night/Monday morning, but I finished this entry on Monday night/Tuesday morning. Just for reference if you’re like, “WTF? Get this girl some rest, she can’t even get the date right.” **

Well, look at that. Sunday night already. Well– technically, Monday morning for me. Being the constant insomniac that I’ve always been, here I am, sitting at my laptop at around 3:15 AM (this is still “early” for me, folks, don’t worry), sorting through my pictures and working on another blog post.

The problem: I went a little picture crazy this weekend.

I took somewhere around 145 pictures within the span of two days.

… now, seriously, what the hell could I have been doing that prompted me to take one hundred and forty-five pictures?!

Touring temples and being outdoors.

It’s kind of funny the lengths we’ll go to in order to find and document pretty things. Taking 145 pictures came about as an afterthought, for me. Yuuki said he wanted to take me to Arashiyama this weekend, so I was like, hey, okay! At this point, I can honestly say I came to Japan for the culture, but I fell in love with the nature along the way. This sort of opposes the thoughts I have on, say, Iceland. People always laugh when I say it, but I do just want to go to Iceland one day. Why? Because it’s so damn pretty. I fell in love with Iceland through pictures. Is seeing it up close worth the cost of the trip one day? Yes. Well, I hope so, at least.

Anyway, back to Japan– I really do seem to just happen upon pretty things here, rather than actively tracking them down myself, but the truth is… they’re all over the place! Some of the cities here can be a terrible, terrible eyesore at times. I was doing a reading assignment for a class a week or two ago, and I couldn’t help but to nod my head in fervent agreement with part of the text–

Any watcher of anime or reader of manga is accustomed to the conventions of its urban settings: the jumble of skyscrapers mashed together at sometimes bizarre angles and stretching endlessly into the deep horizon, the oppressive and impersonal sameness of every block in Akira’s futurustic neo-Tokyo, the narrow back alleys and circuitous side streets into which characters disappear– or have dramatic, yet isolated, confrontations. Like many anime heroes and heroines, the city seems to metastasize into a monstrositiy, a marvel of the artists’ imagination.

But those who actually visit Tokyo, Yokohama, or Osaka are likely to realize that the city scenes in anime are not that much of a stretch. Urban layouts in Japan are a far cry from what our minds have absorbed if we are coming from New York or London, or, for that matter, Beijing or Shanghai.

Bombed-out Japanese urban centers rose from the ashes of World War II at record speeds, and in some respects, they look it: an ancient temple and garden in the shadow of a fifty-story sky-scraper, adjacent to a dilapidated two-story hulk of wood and rusting iron, leaning to one side and missing a door; nameless streets dotted with fluorescent-lit convenience store chain outlets, all of which look exactly the same; a dead-end alleyway with a leafy grove on one side and a garish pub, an Italian restaurant, and a family cemetery on the other. Not a few western commentators and tourists, especially from older generations, find Japan’s urban hodgepodge decidedly ugly.

On the micro level, the contemporary Japanese city is like a maze, or a Gordian knot never completely untangled. On the macro level, it is either a vision of a thrilling, almost incomprehensible mass landscape– or terrifying proof of the human capacity for unchecked development, cancerous construction. Japan’s river banks are encased in concrete, as are most of its shorelines, many unnecessary walkways, and the now notorious public works projects: country roads leading to nowhere. Japan’s bucolic tree-lined streets are rare and treasured.
Roland Kelts, “japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.”

People are short on space here. In the cities, if families are lucky enough to have them, their yards are four feet wide and stuffed with what little decorations and plants they can fit. There’s barely any (if any) space between neighboring houses.

But don’t fret just yet! There’s still countryside, and, well, reserved nature/tourist spaces. The Osaka Castle was set apart from the city of Osaka almost entirely– it was its own, peaceful little sanctuary, surrounded by trees and water. If you climbed to the top of the castle, you could look out and see the skyline of the city, but if you avoided that route, it was all too easy to forget that just outside of the castle grounds, the second-largest city in Japan was alive and well.

This weekend, as I mentioned earlier, I went touring around some temples, led by two Gaidai-sei, on Saturday, and went to Arashiyama with Yuuki on Sunday.

Let me just remind you that you’re getting the abridged version here, in terms of photos before I get started. We all clear? All right, here we go.

We got out of the train station in Kyoto, and the first thing that we were greeted with was this massive, old-fashioned building. Our “tour guides” told us that it was a place used for kabuki (traditional Japanese theater) performances. It was absolutely gargantuan, so I couldn’t capture much of it, but it was really cool-looking–

As we headed up the street, our tour guides gave us a tiny lesson in Kyoto-ben (Kyoto dialect/slang) before we got up to the first temple, whose name I was never told.

As we walked in, my friends and I found a little table where you could get your fortune. I did one of these back at Kiyomizu Temple when I went a few weeks ago– you shake a big, wooden block, and inside there are numbered sticks that rattle around. Whenever you want to stop shaking the block, you turn it upside down, and a single stick will fall out a small hole in the bottom. You look at the number, tell the guy taking the monies what it is, and he gives you a paper with your fortune on it for approximately 150 yen.

I got a terrible fortune when I was at Kiyomizu, so I was like, ahh, what the hell, maybe it’ll be different this time. So I shook the block, tipped it over, looked at the stick, my tour guides crowded around, and we all simultaneously erupted into screeches of–

“YON?!!?!?!?!?!!!”

Yon is the number four. Four is considered an unlucky number in Japan. Four actually has two pronunciations– yon and shi. Shi has the same pronunciation as death.

Great. Before I even read my fortune, it sucked. Regardless, I headed over to the money man and got my fortune. I unrolled the scroll, my tour guides gathered around, we read a few of the words, before simultaneiously erupting into screeches of–

“Yabaaaaaaaaaai! Yabai, yabai! EEEEE?! EEEEEE?” (Slang for like… dangerous, no good, etc.)

Another bad fortune. Hooray. The tour guides translated some of the tougher parts for me– something about having poor fortune if I have a fake heart. (I impassionedly protested to them, in Japanese, that I didn’t have a fake heart!) Either way, they decided that I should tie up my bad fortune and attach it to a big string of paper– so thaaaat’s what those things are for! The picture below is actually from Arashiyama, but you get the gist of it. So, yeah, if you get a bad fortune– tie it up on a string! It’s like a polite, “GTFO!!”

After that little fiasco, we headed further up the grounds. There were some pretty sights along the way– a big willow tree at the very top of a hill, another massive tree that hadn’t bloomed yet, but looked to cool not to grab a picture of (pictured below), and a guy surrounded by pigeons (this guy had one on his KNEE! Crazy!)

One of the prettiest spots around this place was this long walkway leading up to a different section of the temple grounds. There was a bamboo wall enclosing one side of a long stone path, with little channels cut in on the two sides of the path where water flowed.

At the top of the path were a few more cool-looking buildings and statues– including a huge, HUGE Buddha statue way out in the distance (that one didn’t make the pictures’ cut, sorry! But trust me, it was HUGE.)

When we headed back down the path again and back out onto the main street leading around the temple, but we all came to a stop when we suddenly noticed a splash of color out of the corners of our eyes.

Spring’s approaching, however slowly that may be, and the trees and flowers are starting to bloom. We couldn’t help but leap at the chance for a photo op in front of a just-blooming ume tree.

We headed out of the temple grounds and out onto the streets of Kyoto again, with our tour guides leading the way. For a while, we all followed behind them, marveling at the things in little tourist shops along the way. After a good deal of walking, though, I felt like I’d been in the area before…

That little fan shop… geez, that looks familiar. Wait, that funny painted statue of the old woman? I could swear I’ve seen that somewhere before. Those stone steps… didn’t I walk up those? Oh, look, it’s that ninja dog again–

… WAIT A MINUTE, THERE’S NO WAY THERE’S TWO NINJA DOGS IN KYOTO. WE’RE NEAR KIYOMIZU!

You guys have no idea how excited I was just at the fact that I recognized this place– in Japan, where everything looks the same, I actually remembered what these particular crowded streets looked like.

Turns out the girls were taking us up to Kiyomizu. I didn’t mind going back– it was pretty there the first time. Unfortunately, when we got there, a lot of things were closing up. One of my friends did the “love walk” from the two love stones to the other, and safely made it (with some intervention on my behalf– hey, she was about to trample a little kid!)– I think I mentioned the details of that in my post about Kiyomizu. Near the entrance of Kiyomizu, there was a gorgeous tree that was starting to bloom and was showing its colors quite nicely.

Another view with the tree in it, looking down on the city of Kyoto below–

After exploring what was still open of Kiyomizu for a bit, we headed back down into the streets (but not before running into a giant tree… growing through a concrete bridge! — pictured below), shopped a bit, and saw a few cute, quaint little sights.

This one was just a pretty park along the way–

I’m not entirely sure what this was, but it was cute. Side note– no matter where you go in Japan, you’ll find cute things. Seriously. Hello Kitty– everywhere. Cute little statues like this– everywhere. Cute… sidewalks (seriously, the ones near the school’s main gate have chibi animals drawn on them)– you’ll find them. Cute $10 bags– in no short supply. This is both amazing and terrible on my wallet. Anyway, yeah, I think the statues had something to do with folklore about protecting children.

We even found an entire store dedicated to Miyazaki Hayao’s work! (Google him and WORSHIP if you don’t know who he is already.) Everything in there was cute… just… not cheap!

After shopping around, we headed out for some noms (I got shio ramen, for the record), and called it a night. Well, I did a little shopping at the train station before officially calling it a night, but we headed back to the dorms after that.

I didn’t get much time to rest before I was off on my next trip. I got up early (well, early for me) on Sunday morning to head over to Arashiyama. I agreed to meet Yuuki at a train stop closer to him, and halfway into the trip from my dorm to Kyoto. That was the first time I used the trains alone, actually. It was pretty cool, just traveling along on my own and chilling out. I had to take a bus to get to the train station, so when I got on, I grabbed myself a seat, popped in my earbuds from my iPod, and zoned out until I got to the station, grabbed my ticket, and navigated myself around to find the right platform. I felt… so Japanese. Haha. So, yeah, I met Yuuki halfway, and we headed up to Kyoto together. Once we got into Kyoto, we wandered around a little to find a smaller train station, and eventually got on this super gorgeous old-fashioned train. It was decked out in brown and gold colors, ornate little accent paitings along the side of the train– it looked like something right out of a movie.  After that train ride, we got off at Arashiyama.

As a forewarning, there’s no possible way that pictures can even convey how gorgeous this place was. I took a ton here, especially, because, just… augh, it was absolutely stunning. The minute we got through the main gate, we spotted some pretty architecture, and… trees starting to bloom!

If I’m this impressed by just-blooming trees now, barely sporting any color just yet, I’m going to be absolutely blown away by the end of the month, when the weather warms up and the flowers really start to bloom.

A little walk down this long stone path led us to a small temple. We didn’t end up going inside (there was a line and a fee, so we passed on it, haha), but it was pretty from the outside.

Just past the temple was a huge tract of land that was just stunning to look at. Like I said before, there’s no way these pictures can accurately give you all a sense of what the place is like. The pictures are pretty, sure, but the place was absolutely surreal at times.

There were more trees blooming–

A close-up–

The walkways were lined with short, bamboo fences, and led the way toward hills covered entirely with trees and moss.

Long, stone stairways cut a path up the hills to small outcroppings, where you could get a better view of all the land below.

There were a few small lakes in the middle of the grounds, surrounded by gorgeous foliage, and filled with the most gigantic koi fish I’ve ever seen.

This next picture isn’t of some temple building, as pretty as it is. It’s a restaurant! Poor Yuuki was hungry, and pouted when he turned back around to let me know that it was closed. The bright lights you can see through the door aren’t from a television– that’s a stained-glass window on the other side.

All of the paths in this area ultimately led to one place– the famous bamboo grove. The weather was a little overcast, so the sky was still bright, but the sun wasn’t glaring through the trees. It’s my personal favorite kind of weather (I don’t know, light grey skies appeal to me more than blue ones, but maybe I’m just weird), so I was in love with the entire scene before me.

When you’re walking in the middle of these huge rows of bamboo trees, you feel very, very small. There was a little wind, so the tops of the trees were swaying back and forth like crazy. From the outside of the grove, it looked like the entire forest was about to come crashing down whenever the wind blew, but inside, those things were as sturdy as could be.

There were some trees of different… species, I suppose they’re called, mixed among the bamboo, too.

See, this next picture demonstrates what I was talking about– the light in this photo isn’t from the bright rays of a sun, uncovered by clouds. No, the sun wasn’t in sight a lot that day, but the sky was just bright enough to give off this light that filtered in through the bamboo trees.

This next photo is just a close-up on one of the bamboo trees, with some ivy crawling up another tree behind it.

We spent a good deal of time just walking through this grove, snapping pictures and admiring the scenery, but when we finally decided to head out, we found ourselves still surrounded by bamboo– whether it was cut down and made into the doors and walls lining the path out of the grove, or another small bamboo forest enclosing a road leading out into the small city surrounding the park.

We headed over to the Togetsukyo Bridge– a very famous spot in the Arashiyama area. It’s apparently gorgeous when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, but I thought it was gorgeous as it was then!

From the bridge, you could see gorgeous views of the surrounding city and the mountains in the background.

This one’s one of my personal favorite photos out of the bunch–

After a walk along the bridge, we went back into the city in search of some snackage. I had an ice cream cone with four flavors in it– but not your, uh, typical American four flavors. Japanese style– vanilla tofu, green tea, “brown tea” (whatever that is), and plain vanilla. I’m not a fan of tofu at all, and I could taste it in the vanilla tofu portion, but luckily, it was at the top, so I got that out of the way first. My favorite was the “brown tea” flavor.

We headed back to the little train station, but once we saw that we had a while to wait for the next train to take us back into Kyoto (well, the main part of Kyoto, anyway), we spotted a place where you could take a… foot bath! Yuuki convinced me to join him, and it actually turned out to be pretty nice. The water’s hot as all hell. My skin was two-toned when I left the bath– I looked like I’d gotten a really bad sunburn on my feet alone! But it was really relaxing. I snapped a sneaky picture when the other people there weren’t looking, shh!

Once we got back into Kyoto, Yuuki and I found ourselves with unhappy stomachs (we really just ate junk all day, to be honest) so we tracked down an actual restaurant.

Wanna guess what it was?

ITALIAN.

I was overjoyed. I’d been craving Italian food for… a month? Real Italian food. Not… microwaveable pasta, that is. So when I saw the restaurant, my heart was set on eating there. I had some amazing spaghetti dish with a cream sauce and… ham, I think, and just… omg. ❤ The pasta was actually AL DENTE! AL. DENTE. I was in love, and my stomach was satisfied.

After dinner, we headed back to the Kyoto train station. When we walked inside and got smashed in between a flood of people, Yuuki looked around, turned back to me, pointed up, and asked, “Do you want to see?” I laughed– “See what?” He headed away from the crowds, out toward an opening leading into another section of the station, and beckoned me along– “It’s beautiful up here, come on.” So I followed after him as we found an escalator– no, a series of escalators leading up to the very top of the station. We jumped off one of the escalators about halfway to catch a view of the Kyoto Tower, all lit up, and just… absolutely IN YOUR FACE. It was so close! After I marveled at it, Yuuki brought me back toward the escalators and we headed up even further. At the very, very top of the station, there’s a cute little man-made park– benches and trees and all, overlooking the entire city of Kyoto. I think I’ve mentioned it in an earlier post– I think cities are absolutely gorgeous at night, when they’re all lit up and you can see lights for miles and miles out. And there it was– the entire city of Kyoto at night down below for me to see. It was a fantastic end to the day.

So, all in all, it was quite an incredible weekend. Kyoto is such a stunning place.

I’m currently tired as all hell. I’ve gone on some kind of trip/outing (whether day or night) for the last five days in a row. Today, I finally started spotting the signs of sleep deprivation hitting me. See, when I’m sleep deprived an in a bad mood, I turn into a complete zombie, near unresponsive and zoning out all the time. When I’m sleep deprived and in a good mood, I act like I’m a happy drunk. Everything is ten times funnier than it should be. That’s what I was like today– wobbling around, giggling for extended periods of time at things that were slightly funny, bouncing around in my seat while I was eating a donut, gesturing wildly… yep, yep, check. Got all the symptoms.

So, Samantha, what’s your solution?! Get some rest, right?

Of course not, silly! It’s 3:15 AM, and I have a 9:00 class. It takes ~30 minutes for me to get ready, and then 30 minutes to walk to school from the Seminar House. This means I’ll be waking up around 8:00. So… by time I’m ready for bed, I’ll probably end up with 3 and a half to 4 hours of sleep tonight.

I wonder if I’ll be in zombie-sleep-deprived or drunk-sleep-deprived mode tomorrow…

One of the English words that a lot of Japanese people seem to know and use often is enjoy.  The speaking partners I’ve met here– “Let’s enjoy tomorrow!” or “I really enjoyed today!” The actors who spot foreigners and decide to speak English (more on this later)– “I hope you enjoy such exciting show!”

Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere– enjoy. Luckily, I always do seem to be enjoying myself.

My week itself was fairly uneventful– just the usual monotony of classes. I’m a notorious night owl, so by the end of the week– after going out on the weekends and staying up during the week anyway, my body decided to revolt, and decided that I should sleep in late… two days in a row. Thanks a lot, boy. On Thursday, I woke up around 11:30. Seeing that time on my phone was not a pretty sight for my weary eyes; I only have two classes on Thursday, and the last one ends at 11:50. It takes 25-30 minutes to walk to school, so at that point, it wasn’t even worth rushing. Ah, well. I suppose I needed the extra sleep. But then it happened the next day, too. I set my alarm, somehow slept through it, and woke up about 50 minutes after my alarm was set to go off. I rushed around, throwing a quiet fit (trying my best not to wake up my roommate), got dressed, dashed out the door to put my shoes on, and what else do I see– but a bus sitting there, waiting!

‘Ah, that couldn’t be more perfect!’ I thought. I dashed on the bus, got out 220 yen (ALL bus rides cost 220 yen, no matter how far you’re going unless they’re really long ones you take big trips on; it’s so strange!), and the bus headed out. For the first time since I’ve been on a bus in Japan, we ran into traffic. By time I got to school, there was about 10 minutes of class left, so I made my way up the stairs in defeat, preparing to just turn in my homework late and explain the situation. My professor was massively, unexpectedly kind, and actually let me sit in on the next class (it was a language class, and the next class happened to be the same level I was taking)! Amazing. Sometimes I can’t believe my luck. I definitely don’t deserve it.

On Saturday, I had to drag myself out of bed again, because I was going up to the Kyoto Studio Park/Toei Movie Land. After a great deal of confusion in the train station (“Which way? Which way?” – “Umm… okay, up the escalator!” – “Okay, nevermind! Back down! OH! I SEE THE TRAIN!” – “WAIT, THAT’S NOT THE TRAIN, HANG ON!” <– this ensued for a good 15 minutes. The funny part: the people leading us around were Japanese! See– if even the Japanese can’t figure out this train station system… no one can!), we finally got to the Park.

Toei Movie Land focuses more around the filming of samurai-like dramas and movies, so there were a ton of actors dressed up in costumes like these all over the place. The guys pictured below were fighting just moments before I took the picture. Too bad I couldn’t catch them in action!

There were rows of different houses and sets all around.

This one was apparently used as a sake house–

Complete with barrels on the outside of the building.

Look! A lake … almost!

The miniature Nihonbashi was too cute.

Here’s one example of a set inside one of the houses–

This one was supposed to be a fire house.

One of the funniest attractions there was this little special effects corner. When we walked over in this direction, all we saw was this little setup of man-made rocks and trees, with a little gate in the far back.

I snapped a picture then. But there were people in the area shouting to stick around for another minute or so. Suddenly, the rocks and trees started moving back and forth, and water started rushing down them– to simulate some kind of earthquake, I think. I thought it was pretty cool, but then they suddenly started playing disco music, and the rock with the gate in the far back started rising up, only to reveal this–

While we were in Movie Land, we went to see two mini-shows. One was a performer, dressed up like a samurai, and demonstrating the use of a katana, with a little comedy on the side. Later on, we saw a short live drama, about 30 minutes long, featuring actors doing crazy acrobatics in the middle of an overdramatic script. No pictures were allowed though– sorry I couldn’t snap some! During the middle of the show, the lead actor came out for a little crowd interaction bit. He went around asking for peoples’ names in the front, and then… he spotted my group. It was just me, my friend (an American, who happens to be tall and blonde… an instant attention-grabber in Japan!), my speaking partner, and his friend, but he locked right on to me and the other American! As soon as he said, “Welcome, welcome!” my friend and I looked at each other like, “Oh god, we’ve been spotted!” He asked where we were from, so I shouted New York back to him, and then he repeated that we were from New York in Japanese, and the crowd applauded. He then said something along the lines of, “Welcome to Kyoto! I hope you enjoy such exciting show! We will make it… more exciting from now!” Awww. At the very end of the show, when all the actors took their bows and the curtain was dropping, the actor kept jumping around, waving at us, and shouting, “Thank youuu! Thank youuu!” in English.

I wasn’t quite sure where to fit this in, but here’s another photo from Movie Land. Pretty self-explanitory, and yes, for some reason, they gave my friend and I… the boys’ hats, too. Haha.

After playing around in Movie Land, we headed back to the Kyoto station, and decided to go up in the Kyoto Tower.

We got there just in time to catch the sunset!

The views were spectacular up there. The signs said that on a clear day, you could see all the way to Osaka from the tower.

I’m not so sure that Osaka was visible at that point, but I was able to spot a few temples and other popular attractions with the use of the telescopes up on the observation deck.

After the sun set, we headed back down into Kyoto, and we decided to go grab some yakiniku! That was quite the experience. Yakiniku is grilled meat, and the way that it’s served is rather unique. My speaking partner had found a good yakiniku place online, so we walked a bit to find it, and we ended up having to wait about a half hour to get a table, but it was well worth the wait. Interesting point number one: you take off your shoes before you go in! I know it’s commonplace in Japan in general, but it felt funny to do that at a restaurant. It was pretty cool, though– walking around this traditional-styled yakiniku restaurant with socks on.

So we got to our table, and my American friend and I both gawked at the grill in the middle of the table. At these places, the waiters bring out the meat, and then you grill it yourself. Just as we were settling in, the first huge plate of meat came in. The meat that they serve is cut up into thin pieces, so some of them almost looked like bacon strips. We played around with the heat settings, and then left the grilling up to the boys. I’m pretty sure I would’ve burned things way too much.

Over the span of the night, I’m fairly certain they served us every possible kind of meat under the sun. Since I’m a reformed picky eater, my philosophy concerning food here is, “Don’t ask, just eat.” So I didn’t ask for clarification on what anything was, but seriously, folks, we had everything. As soon as we thought we were done being served, another plate was dropped off at our table. Plus, we had rice, vegetables, ice cream… it was, just… NEVER-ENDING, in the purest sense of the word.

The above picture was just… a snapshot in time of the meal, very early on. If that looks like a lot of food to you, you ain’t seen nothing yet. In accordance with the sheer volume of food we ate, our bill was pretty expensive for the night. The boys paid for most of it– oh, those kind souls. As we headed out of the restaurant at the end of the night, the boys admitted that they literally had no money left! My friend and I were concerned about them being able to get home, but everything turned out all right.

My advice to anyone planning on visiting Japan– go to a yakiniku restaurant at least once. The whole thing was fairly expensive, but it really is an experience, and, I say this as a person who doesn’t even really like to eat meat all that often– the food was delicious.

Just make sure to keep an eye on that grill if you go. We burned a few things here and there, but one of the most hilarious parts of the night happened when some flames were reaching up too high and growing way too fast for comfort; there was a small lamp hanging above our table, and it was getting way too close to that for us to just wait for it to go down. So the boys started freaking out from the fire, and they looked around for the tray of ice cubes they gave us at the start of the meal. Unfortunately, none of the ice cubes were left. My friend and I were in hysterics, watching the boys freaking out, so we were totally useless. But suddenly, my speaking partner decided that he would try to douse the flame by pouring his beer on it. As he picked up his glass, my friend and I shot up, flailing our arms to try to get him to stop. He looked up in surprise, as we were screeching, “Nononono!” and put the glass back down. Alcohol and fire do NOT mix well, silly! Then, he reached over and grabbed my emptied drink, picked out a few ice cubes, and tossed them on. The flame sizzled a little and backed off just enough for us to have enough time to wait for the heat to go back down. Crisis averted– narrowly.

So after Saturday’s excitement, I didn’t get much time to rest, because on Sunday morning, I headed off to Osaka once again. This time, we visited the Osaka Castle. LOTS of walking was involved this time around, too. I tried to snap a few pictures that captured just how high up this place is. It’s quite separated from the rest of Osaka as it is, but just… seriously, guys, this place was massive.

Here we are in front of the castle– it’s still quite a walk up to get into the building itself, and at that point, we’d already walked up a ton of stairs.

Here’s a better shot of the castle itself, taken from a scenic spot in front of the entrance. There was a little wall right there where a bunch of people had climbed up these steep steps to take a better picture of the castle, so I grabbed the opportunity to snap a picture from that angle.

After a whole lot of climbing, we made it to the observation deck. Most of it was fenced in to keep things/people from falling, but I managed to take this photo at a small opening. The gold fixture at the bottom is a part of the front of the building.

2009 is the year of the Ox in Chinese astrology, so the entrance in front of the castle was decorated with this little ox-shaped flower display.

Another view of the entrance area–

Please excuse the silliness, but while we were there, we just couldn’t resist posing for a picture at one of these…

Some random old woman came up and snapped a picture of us posing there, too. Weird, but… okay!

We didn’t really go into the city very much. We grabbed lunch and dessert over at the train station (you could seriously LIVE at train stations here, by the way. They have EVERYTHING– food, shopping, heat, and… obviously, transportation), and for the first time since I’ve been here, I had some completely Western food. Well, that’s a lie. I have had McDonald’s here, but that’s just boring old fast food. We found a pizza place, and I ordered a pizza carbonara. The second I took a bite, I was in absolute heaven. Oh, Italian food, how I miss thee…

For dessert, I had the biggest slice of strawberry shortcake ever. I was so happy to eat something with strawberries in it, because for the past two days, I’ve had an overpowering craving for anything with strawberries in it. And it’s not like strawberry-flavored things are hard to find here; quite the opposite! If you love strawberries and strawberry-flavored things, you’re in luck if you come to Japan, because they’re everywhere. But anyway, I was just happy to eat something with strawberries in it. I was tired of walking past cake shops and staring in at all the strawberry goodies!

At the end of the day, we went to purikura again. I mentioned the sheer insanity and speed of these things before, but this time around, I managed to get them sent to my computer, so here’s one of the pictures we took–

This one’s a little tame, but you can really go crazy with the clipart and decorations if you know what you’re doing.

Agh, tomorrow it’s back to the grind, unfortunately. Spring break is approaching fast, at least. I’m planning on spending a few days in Tokyo (we’re going to stay at a Capsule Inn! I’m sure I’ll have a lot to write about from that!), and a trip to Hiroshima during that week is in the planning stage, too.

But that’s it for now!

Let me just note that I got word from home that people were having a hard time figuring out how to comment on my entries. If you look at the top of each entry, there’s a box with the date in it in the middle of the page. It’ll either say “Comment” or “# comments” below the date. Click on that, and you’ll be taken to the comment section, where you can read other comments an fill in your own. Just fill in the blanks down there– name, e-mail, and comment are the only fields required. You can leave the website field blank. Then hit “Submit Comment” and there you go, it should be posted right away. If your comment gets interpreted through the automatic filter as spam, don’t worry, I’ll go in and manually add it. But otherwise, there shouldn’t be any problems with commenting. So really, don’t be shy, I love comments! 😀

It’s been a busy past few days.

As I mentioned in my last post, I decided to move out of my host family’s house and return to the dorms. I did that on Friday morning, and while leaving my host family was difficult, I am much happier now because of it.

There are four dormitories at Kansai Gaidai, and they’re all called Seminar Houses. Seminar Houses 1, 2, and 4 are more traditional-style dorms, while Seminar House 3 is designed more like an apartment complex housing a bunch of people in one apartment. Anyway, just to highlight my constant relocating– I’ve now officially lived in four out of the five living options offered by Kansai Gaidai– three Seminar Houses (all but #3), and a dormitory. Four weeks… four rooms. Hopefully this one is permanent, now!

But anyway, now that I’m back in the dorms, I feel like I can actually relax at the end of the day. I don’t have to put on a special show for anyone, I don’t have to worry about offending anyone, I don’t have to feel guilty about everything. My roommate’s really quiet, but I prefer that over someone who won’t stop talking to me (or yelling at me…)

So, Friday was exhausting, but it was all worth it in the end.

Let’s see… Saturday was Valentine’s Day. Japan has interesting customs involving Valentine’s Day. While in America, Valentine’s Day is kind of the… “Oh, hey, I’ll celebrate it if I have a significant other/feel like being sweet to my friends,” day, where both men and women give gifts, if they decide to. In Japan, it’s a little different. In the weeks before Valentine’s Day, there’s advertistments EVERYWHERE for chocolate– in stores, on TV… just, everywhere. Chocolate sales generate so much profit during this holiday because in Japan, women buy chocolate for the men in their life. They buy giri choco, or obligation chocolate, for their male co-workers and acquantainces. This is the more inexpensive stuff. They also buy honmei choco, or sweetheart chocolate, for the men they have romantic feelings for. The day after Valentine’s Day, signs immediately pop up advertising White Day, which was invented by the Japanese. On White Day (March 14)  all the men who received chocolates (giri and honmei) are expected to return a gift to the women they received chocolate from (the gift can be anything from chocolate to jewelry, though it’s expected to be more expensive than the gift the woman gave to the man). I think the whole tradition is cute and, at the same time, genius in that… evil kind of way. It’s one giant marketing venture pushed by the confectionery companies who have a stock in all of this. I personally just think the concept of giri choco is amusing; that… obligation to buy a gift (however small it may be; I’m sure the expenses really add up) people you don’t even know really well, and then their obligation to return a gift in thanks. Ohh, Japan. 🙂

Well, anyway, my Valentine’s Day wasn’t spent splurging on chocolates to give to people, thankfully. Yuuki and I went out to a cute little cafe for lunch and spent the rest of the day outside enjoying the nice weather. It was gorgeous this weekend– the temperature was up in the 60’s! Since it’s the middle of February, that was just stunning to me. (It was freezing again today, though. It even snowed for a few minutes! That’s nearly unheard of, down here! I’m sure all my friends/family at home are like, “What a wuss! Is she really from New York?!”)

On Sunday, I went into Osaka for the first time. It was exhausting, but incredibly fun. A few of my friends and I wanted to do some shopping and just see Osaka, so my friends’ speaking partner (and her friend) brought us there. I took pictures, of course!

The minute we stepped out of the subway, our eyes were bombarded with a million things to look at. If I had to describe Osaka with one word, it would be busy. It is the second largest city in Japan, after all. There are lights and signs and sounds and people coming at you from every direction. Total sensory overload, but somehow, not unpleasantly so.

The streets in Osaka are very narrow. Hell, the streets in Japan in general are very narrow. But that aspect seems exaggerated when you cram around 2.5 million people into them.

While the picture above helps emphasize the cramped, sensory overload feeling that I was talking about, it was mainly taken to document the guy in the bottom left of the picture. Look at that hair! This was not a tall man, either. Maybe around 5’2 or so. His hair alone had to make him at least 5’5. We ended up walking behind him for a while, out of chance, and we affectionately nicknamed him, “Crazy hair.”

They weren’t all over the place– but there were a good deal of people dressed up in crazy fashions. Wild hair, wild clothes. I even saw a few girls dressed up in Lolita fashion! I adore Lolita fashion, so my inner Japan geek was impressed. (And for those of you who have NO IDEA what Lolita fashion is, Wikipedia explains it better than I can. It’s just really ornate and gorgeous.)

We walked along the famous bridge at Dotonbori, one of Osaka’s popular attractions.

And posed in front of this famous sign. For everyone that needed proof that I’m actually in Japan through a picture, there you go. 🙂

We did a ton of shopping, which was awesome, and awful… on my funds. See, I’m in the process of getting a bank account opened right now. I applied for one three weeks ago, and I’m waiting to get the word that it’s open soon. My debit card doesn’t work here, and Japan’s a country big on paying for almost everything with cash. I took out a loan a couple weeks back so I could actually pay for food and transportation, but now, my money’s running kind of low again. I’ve got enough to survive, but… man, I really wanted to shop more! I got a few tops (here, here, and here, for those interested in that kind of stuff– one of them has my initials on it, I HAD to get it!) and new earbuds for my iPod, since my last pair kicked the bucket on Thursday. These new ones were so much cheaper than they are in the states AND they have BLING. I’m not even kidding, I am now in possession of earbuds with pink and white rhinestones on them. I am very pleased.

I also went to purikura for the first time, which was quite an experience. The American equivalent would be… photo booths, I guess, but imagine them with more space, more stuff to do to customize your pictures, and a thousand times more intense. Everything’s on a really quick timer, so you seriously need to go in with a game plan. Pick your backgrounds within a very short period of time, pose for your pictures, and then rush out of the booth to decorate them (with text and clipart), again, in a very short period of time. It’s… I can’t even put it into words. One of the most hectic things I’ve ever seen here. Totally adorable, but absolutely insane.

We went to a little udon place to eat afterwards, and by time we were done, it was nighttime. As with most big cities, I think the scenery is a thousand times prettier at night.

The picture below is of a gigantic crosswalk we were waiting in front of. I took a pretty poor picture, but I was trying to get the expanse of the space, and the HUGE crowd gathered on the other side. The two sides of the street looked like idling stampedes waiting to happen.

We returned to the bridge at Dotonbori. There was a guy dressed up in lime green clothes, holding up a sign that read, ‘FREE HUGS!’ (in English), and shouting and dancing wildly to attract attention. He saw my friends and I laughing at his bizarre display (though it was cute to see they have those free hugs things in Japan, too!), so he yelled “FREE HUUUUGS!” out to us and kept waving us over. One of my friends ran up and actually gave him a hug. Too cute.

Down below the bridge there’s walkways alongside a long, narrow canal.

While my shoddy pictures hardly do the area justice, it actually was really picturesque. Even gave off a little romantic vibe.

At the end of the night, we grabbed another bite to eat at Mister Donut, Japan’s equivalent of Dunkin Donuts (although Wikipedia tells me it’s originally an American company… huh, you learn something new every day). I had this amazing little chocolate donut with strawberry filling. I don’t remember if I mentioned this before, but the sweets here are way better than in America. No contest. Even the chocolate tastes better here! I discovered that I love wagashi, particularly sakuramochi. Insanely delicious stuff. I’m definitely taking some home with me when I go back to America.

So that was Osaka. It doesn’t take long at all to get there by train, and I had a good time, so I’m definitely going to go back to Osaka sometime. I’m going back out to Kyoto this weekend, so I hope I’ll have good weather then! Maybe I should make a teru teru bouzu

Just to wrap up here, I wanted to mention that while I don’t always reply to comments left on my blog, I am getting them, and I’m always reading them. I really appreciate them. 🙂

              This entry was originally written a few days back, and I didn’t get the chance to post it until now due to my lack of internet access. But as I was reading this entry over, I decided to emit a big blob of emotional whininess. I was feeling like an absolute jerk and had been crying way too much because of the whole homestay situation. To sum the events of the last few days up, I talked to CIE, and I’ll be moving back into the dorms on Friday. Now that I’ve had to explain myself a million times over to CIE and other parties, I’m much more in control of my feelings. I can’t put it in any simpler terms—the homestay family just wasn’t the right choice for me. My host parents are very sweet, friendly people, and I’m sure that they’ve made (and hopefully will continue to make) very good host parents for other students. But just not for me. I was feeling stressed out by returning home, and that just isn’t the way I want to feel in my short stay here. I’ve felt incredibly relieved over the last two days, in particular, now that the decision has been made. I still feel like a huge jerk for putting my host family through this in the first place, but the decision has been made, and I know they’ll be fine. And I’ll be fine.

So there you go. No need to prolong my strife. That’s what happened in a nutshell.

So that’s enough dabbling in the emotional stuff. As I mentioned in my last post, my speaking partner took me to Kyoto, and took time to show me around, rather than rushing me through like the three clueless “tour guides” did a week and a half ago, haha. So here are the pictures from that—

             

              I met up with my speaking partner at the nearest train station, and we headed out to Kyoto. The main reason for the trip was to visit the Kiyomizu Temple. On the bus ride from the Kyoto station to the temple, I was approached by a tourist. I suddenly heard an, “Excuse me…” and looked up, because—well, that’s not Japanese! I saw this guy leaning over my seat, and he asked me if I was sightseeing. I told him that I was, but that I kind of had a guide, so I wasn’t with a group or anything. He then asked about what there was to see in Kyoto—that he just wanted to see something. I kind of laughed in my head at the bizarreness of the situation—this random guy is on a bus headed out into Kyoto, but he doesn’t know where he’s going or what he wants to see. I told him that I was going to the Kiyomizu Temple, and he asked for directions on how to get there. I just told him to listen to the announcements running on the bus and wait until he hears, “Kiyomizu.” Generally, that’s how I get around—I might not be able to read the kanji, but I can decipher spoken words! Anyway, my speaking partner and I got off the bus for Kiyomizu, and the random guy (and his girlfriend/wife/whatev) followed us off. It sounds sketchy when I write it down, but it was really funny when it happened. I was following my speaking partner, and the couple was following me—so when we had to take a sudden turn, there was an entire tail of a group following my speaking partner’s every move. Once the temple was in sight, they were able to find their own way, and my speaking partner and I took a little casual detour window-shopping on the way up. So, anyway—the picture is my attempt at emphasizing how HIGH UP this place was. We did a whooooole lot of walking to get up to the temple. And the picture above is actually at the base of the temple, looking up against this stone wall that the temple was positioned atop.

              Lots and lots of walking. But not back-breaking walking, fortunately. A nice, leisurely stroll. It wasn’t tiring at all.

              Oh, before I get too far from the story of the tourist guy, I just want to mention how amusing I find it that I get approached like that. Honestly. I’m not trying to be facetious. I love these little, awkward experiences, especially in Japan. Out of all the people on that cramped bus, I’m the one who gets approached by the random tourist, who speaks English (I’m pretty sure he was Australian), because I clearly am not Japanese. It’s different from when I was in Finland, because there, I have no clear physical signs indicating that I am not Finnish. So I’d get approached by random people even there, but they’d be speaking Finnish to me instead. Here, there’s no mistaking it—I don’t look like the majority of the people in this country, so I probably speak English. I don’t stand out as much as a person with blonde hair does, but I still look funny. So these things will happen. Oh, that, and little kids like to stare. Not all of them, of course, but sometimes I’ll be standing in line somewhere, and there will be a little kid that unashamedly keeps staring up at me. I think it’s kinda cute.

              Right, back to the Kiyomizu Temple.

             

              This view is looking down from the temple. It’s hard to emphasize the height through pictures, but this was a HUGE drop. If I dropped my camera right then, I’d definitely need a new camera. That poor thing would’ve been beyond repair.

             

              So after a lot of walking, we reached the entrance to the Kiyomizu Temple. Which, of course, featured some more stairs. Even more surprising was the girls dressed up like geisha—formal kimonos, HUGE shows—walking up and down these stairs, with the assistance of another person.

              Most of the buildings around the temple shared this really vivid orange color. I love how temples can make any color look rich and traditional—even this neon orange.

             

               

              The photos above and below are more views of the ornate, crazy orange buildings around the temple area.

             

             

              I absolutely love the little details on these buildings, too—

             

              This next photo is of the highest building in Japan. All that walking paid off!

             

              Since the temple sits so high up on a hill, you can see the city of Kyoto everywhere!

             

              Another view of said vista—including the Kyoto Tower this time. The thing looks positively puny from all the way up there.

             

              And where there isn’t a view of the city, there’s a view of a whoooole lot of nature. I thought this scene was pretty cool—another temple off in the middle of a woodland.

             

              A cute little pond and garden in the middle of all the buildings—

             

              It seems obvious, but just in case… for the record, you do a lot of wishing and praying at temples. Toss a couple yen into a basket, put your hands together (like the guy in the middle in this next picture), and make a wish/prayer.

             

              Or there’s places like this, where you touch a statue for good luck.

             

              I’m not exactly sure what you do at this next place, but the story beside it described Okage-myojin, a god who is considered a “guardian deity, especially for the ladies.” The sign also described how women would nail a straw doll onto cedar trees as a curse to their enemies, and how even now, nail marks can be found on the backs of cedar trees from when that was practiced.

             

              This next one was the cutest. If you can’t see what the English text above the rock is, it says, “Love Stone.” It says that if you manage to walk safely from the stone in the picture to a stone on the other side of the walkway (it’s a straight line, not pictured above) with your eyes closed, you’ll have a wish granted. Someone actually attempted it while my speaking partner and I were looking on. It was so cute. He had one hand out in front of him with his eyes closed, and just kept saying, “sumimasen” (“excuse me”) as he walked forward. Mostly everyone leapt out of his way and looked on with smiles.

             

              My speaking partner and I both weren’t sure about what this was, exactly, but it looks like a bunch of (stone) dolls!

             

              This next one was a popular attraction. We lined up to drink this water. The gist of it is that drinking the water while praying will grant you a wish. My speaking partner was telling me that each little water stream represented luck in a different aspect of life. I found a little plaque in English while I was standing in line—it said that there are many local variations on the story—that each stream represents something distinct, but that the Kiyomizu Temple’s “official position” on it was that they all fulfill wishes. I lol’ed. Official position. It’s a temple! Anyway, I drank from the middle one, for the record.

             

              On the way down from the temple, this is another shot looking back up at how high this place is—

             

              And this one is probably my favorite of the bunch. We were walking along, just outside the main temple buildings, and my speaking partner leapt up on a little ledge alongside a tall fence, and he invited me up. When I got up there, I recognized the view instantly. This same view (minus the tree branch in the middle) has DEFINITELY been on postcards or posters or … circulated SOMEWHERE. I have definitely seen it before.

             

              One last photo, for giggles. This was taken outside of the temple, while we were browsing the little shops along the looooong road down the hill. Hello Kitty. Is. EVERYWHERE.

             

 

              All right, this post is getting too long as it is, so to wrap it up, I’ll end with a snippet of a conversation I had with my speaking partner today. We were looking at my Japanese homework, and I had to translate a sentence from English into Japanese. I was just checking if I knew the correct nouns in Japanese.

              Me: “Ahh, what’s wine?”

              My speaking partner: “Oh! Alcohol… you know, whiskey, beer…”

              Me: “[dying of laughter] Not like that! In Japanese!”


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  • Isa: No, there can't be two ninja dogs in Kyoto. But in April it was in Arashiyama! http://westwards.typepad.com/westwards/2009/05/fashionable-pets.html
  • Paula: Hey: I'm so glad you are swine flu-free. A little over-kill, don't you think? Anyway, I'm so glad you are enjoying your last few days there. Live it u
  • Paula: There's no place like home, there's no place like home!!! Can't wait to see you...we are counting the days.

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