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…


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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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