Friday, May 25, 2012

Kyoto, Japan - Arigato Gozaimasu

When I told my students on Friday that I was taking a spontaneous trip to Japan the next morning.. they started freaking out about the Japanese not knowing English very well... and they were worried because I didn't know a lick of Japanese.. I wanted to tell them that the Koreans don't speak English very well and I hardly know Korean.  But I refrained from that discussion and simply replied.. of course I know a little bit of Japanese... SUSHI!  Happy?

I now know some Japanese though post-trip, the words are quite fun to say :)
Arigato Gozaimasu - Thank you
Konichiwa - Hello
Sayonara - Goodbye

Success... it took me 2 full days to fully grasp 'arigato gozaimasu'.. sometimes I would just freeze.. wait a few seconds, then say "uh..Thank you" and scurry away!  Such a tongue twister and mind boggler.

Couch Surfing
Chelsea and I's first order of business was finding our COUCH SURFING HOUSE!  Thankfully, two of my friends had JUST visited Japan 2 weeks earlier, they stayed with a couch surfer and highly recommended him... I contacted him, and he had room for us even with such short notice!  It was actually quite amazing, he had a separate small house that he used just for couch surfing.. he travels a lot, and he wasn't using the house.. so now it is exclusively "The Couch Surfing House"... it was wonderful, there were a few French people there, a British guy, and some others... it started off as 5 of us, and ended with 12 by Monday night! We met Soji on the last night, because Chelsea and I kept waking up at 7AM and not returning to the house until 11:30PM each day.. but we finally got to meet him, and he was super nice!!

It took us a while to find the house.. he lived right outside of the city and a 15-20 minute walk from the subway/train... once we figured out how to get there it was quite simple.. however on our first night, we were both tired, it was dark, we had our backpacks on, and the map I was emailed was all in Japanese (as were the street signs! :) )... so it was a bit of an egg hunt!  After asking a few people, we finally found it.. after walking past it 2 times!  

Day 1 - Nara - Deer, Giant Buddha, Nature
Wow is Japan expensive.. I had always heard that.. and the rumors were definitely true!  Of course, it is nothing compared to Europe/America.. for Asia it was quite ridiculous!  

 Chelsea and I woke up at 7AM, and jumped on the train to Nara.  Nara is about an hour & a half outside of Kyoto, it is more countryside than city and quite famous.  I was most excited about Nara because I had seen my friends' pictures of the deer there.  There are heaps of deer that just wander around a park, you can feed them, pet them even, and it's simply their home.  Legend has it that when a the Kasuga Taisha Shrine was founded, a god came to Nara riding a white deer.. and since then, the deer have been respected and protected as divine messengers by the people.  They were obviously very proud of their deer.  There were all sorts of deer souvenirs you could buy it was quite hilarious!

I was like a kid in a candy store as well... living in Korea, you rarely see animals of any form.  They've all died off, I've seen 2 squirrels since last August, I've seen quite a few birds and cranes, no deer, no wild animals that's for sure!  It was like being surrounded by a little piece of home.

The first Japanese person I had a real conversation with was an 80 year old man at the tourist information center in Nara.  HE is the reason I think I really fell in love with the place.  He pulled out a map, circled everything on it and told us why we should go there, he told us which order to go to the places, and he talked to us about where we lived, and where he had been.. he was so good at English, and so kind.. I didn't want to leave!  He had just finished making a crane, so he gave me one.. and he said "Do you have a minute?  I will make another one for your friend!"  Of course I about died, and said "Of course, Of course!" Holy Japanese dreams coming true!  It doesn't get more stereotypical than that!

We mainly wandered around the park area sweating our booties off, walking through temples and shrines, seeing one of the largest Buddhas in Japan and relaxing by the many lakes/ponds in the area.  It was so great... can I go back now??

Before Chels and I got back on the train, our stomachs demanded to be fed!  And we luckily found a DELICIOUS noodle house... O M G, I can still taste the curry noodles and the whatever the other noodle dish we got.  It was awesome.. and there is rarely English on the menus/signs in Japan.. so when we found a restaurant with pictures on their menus.. we could rest easy!  Luckily neither of us are picky eaters.. thank God my taste buds are ready to try ANYTHING now.. definitely WASN'T the case a few years ago! :)

Day 1 - Kyoto - Just a bit
We arrived in Kyoto at about 5PM and headed to Ponto-cho, which is a popular night-out district.  The famous Shijo-dori street is there, which is a historic street that looks extremely traditional, with heaps of expensive restaurants, possible geisha spottings, and it allows you to get lost in another world.

My goal for the night?  Find a geisha.

Chelsea and I first grabbed a beer, and headed down to the riverside where lots of people were gathered having picnics and watching fire shows/musicians/artists... so relaxing, great for people watching (however the people watching in Japan is NOTHING compared to the amazingness of people watching in Korea!!!... the Japanese are MUCH MUCH MUCH more tame).

Then, we visited the most famous market in Kyoto.. it was much 'nicer' than what I expected.. very clean, not too crazy, no shouting.. lots of random food items!


After eating dinner, I told Chelsea... I WILL NOT be a happy camper if I don't see a geisha tonight, because if I don't.. and I don't get to see one tomorrow night, then my chances are OVER.. my life dreams will not come true.  So I looked in her Lonely Planet, and mapped out the 2 popular streets to possibly see a geisha scurrying from one appointment to the next.  They are so mysterious, I still have a lot of research to do on their 'job' but apparently a type of 'hostess'... they are very skilled at singing, poetry, dancing, tradition.. they aren't prostitutes, but I believe sex may be involved with the right clients.. they are more like respected entertainers.. in the 1920's the amount of geishas peaked at 80,000... nowadays there are less than 1,000.. most of which are in Kyoto because Kyoto is the most traditional city in Japan.

After getting close to the supposed popular geisha street, and not being able to find it, I got quite bummed.  We were exhausted, looking for WiFi (which was surprisingly was difficult to find), and I had pretty much given up.  When all of a sudden, I'm blankly staring down the street figuring out my next move, and THERE SHE IS... here comes a geisha... I tried to snap a picture, but they walk soo fast and look straight ahead (on a mission, really) it was difficult.  Chelsea was embarrassed, because I sort of... followed her down the deserted street for about a block (Chelsea standing in the same place we were before)... but it was so interesting, I had so many questions, I just wanted to watch her!  Creepy, and stalkery, and TOURISTY.. I KNOW!  But I got to see one :) .. so we went home for the night! 

Mission... Accomplished!

Day 2 - All Over Kyoto
Another 7AM wake-up, woohoo!  I apologized to Chelsea.. but it's not my fault I only had 2 days in Japan.. blame it on my job :).  Our first stop was Nido Castle.. unfortunately we only looked at it, there was no way that our cheap butts were going to pay $8 just to look around a castle... when I look back at it now, it seems a bit silly.. but you gotta do what you gotta do to stay on a budget!  It looked nice from the outside though.


The fun thing about being well traveled, is that we aren't afraid to try out the bus systems in countries.. even though the subways seem super easy, you see SO much more on a bus.  And honestly, I think the buses were a bit more efficient than the subway system anyways.. hardly any of the lines connected.. Kyoto, shame on you for your horrible transportation system, shame shame!  We hopped on a bus and headed to Kinkakuji.. also known as the Golden Temple.. it was gorgeous!  Kyoto was so nice for that reason, it was very easy to all of a sudden  be totally surrounded by nature.  At the temple, I lit a 'cancer get well' prayer candle for my Aunt, and I felt like a kid again unwrapping a slip of paper with my fortune on it.

Although the fortune wasn't inside of a fortune cookie, it was very interesting.  So there were four fortune MACHINES at this temple.. you put in 100Yen ($1) and a folded up piece of paper pops out.  If your fortune is fair-excellent, you should keep it.  If your fortune is less than fair, then you are 'supposed to dispose of it as suggested'... from what I could figure out.. that meant you either caught it on fire, put it in the proper 'dust bin', tied it to a nail.. etc... that's just my guess from what I saw around me.  Mine was excellent, and quite interesting.

I found the first part of it very interesting. "Beyond a pinetree in the garden in the morning sun, happily is a crane calling out to his mate." ... SO Buddhist.. Hello Japan!

Arishiyama was highly recommended to Chelsea by some of her Japanese friends, and the guidebook highly recommended it as well (I only wanted to go there for the monkeys... and I knew that Chelsea HATES monkeys.. so I secretly acted like we had to go, because it was so popular.. hehe).  

Something I should tell you about Chelsea and I... we enjoy the challenge of saving money.  You won't even believe what we did to save $2!!!  So we had bought an unlimited bus/subway ticket for the day... unfortunately Arishiyama is right outside of the limits for our ticket... and we were told we needed to pay $2 to ride all of the way there.  We asked to see a map, and decided it looked easy enough to walk there.  I took a picture of the map, and off we went.

30 minutes later, we were grumpy, tired and HUNGRY.  Once we finally reached a town area and not finding a single restaurant for a good while, we FINALLY found one.  And it ended up being a ramen restaurant (see food section below).. it was amazing, the service was awesome.  Unlike other restaurants in Japan where you rarely say a word to the waitstaff, these people were hootin' and hollerin' everytime someone came in, they were shouting the food orders at each other, constantly smiling and helping us.. and the English menu they had .. had hilarious grammar.  A+ find... my favorite meal in Japan!  And we never would have found it had we not taken the less traveled path!

A 10 minute walk,and a sweet lady literally taking us to our destination, we found Arishiyama.  There were SO many Japanese tourists, but it was such a lovely area.  I've never seen so many Kimonos in one area in my life.. we were in Japan during a Japanese holiday, that was our only guess as to the reason everyone seemed like they were leaving a party, with a few of their friends wearing kimonos.  HOW JAPANESE?!

We wandered along the river, tried to stop by some temples and a bamboo forest (there are monkeys rumored to be living in the bamboo forest).. they all were charging $5-8 to get in.. we found it so ridiculous, I guess we were spoiled by Korea.. but I found it 'let's take their money any way possible' kind of rude.  I admitted to Chelsea that I REALLY REALLY REALLLLLLY NEEDED to see some monkeys, so we headed to the monkey park across the river... it was $6 to get in, but fully worth it.

We got to do a bit of hiking, saw an amazing view of Kyoto from the top, HEAPS of Japanese SNOW monkeys (sans snow)... it was all amazing.  Even Chelsea agreed it was worth the money, mainly because of the view.  The monkeys are free to roam all over the big mountain.. but we saw most of them at the feeding center.  At the top of the mountain, you enter a human cage/house basically.. and the monkeys climb all over it from the outside and you can feed them... my, how the tables have turned! mwahahaaaa.  

Unfortunately none of the monkeys went down the slide at the playground.. you can see my friend Dana's picture below of a monkey going down the slide after she had gone down the slide... taking the phrase 'Monkey see. Monkey do.' to a different level!

After Arishiyama, we went back to Kyoto Station to map out how to get to a cheap sushi restaurant that was listed in the guidebook (see the food section, for an amazing sushi story).  After sushi, we wandered around Ponto-cho some more, it was a bit rainy unfortunately but totally doable.  LUCKILY, saw another geisha... woohoo!  And we retired slightly earlier because I had to wake up at 5:30Am to get on the train to head to the airport!  KYOTO I LOVE YOU!!!

Japan is famous for its noodles.  They are 90% of the time homemade.. obviously with the price.  We paid $9 for homemade Ramen.. and it was SO worth it!!  Salivation!  My goodness, they put really thin meat (like you would eat in Shabu Shabu) in it, lots of flavor, it's not very spicy, and the noodles weren't wavy like the instant kind.  I am now a believer in Japanese ramen!  T-totally worth the price!

The okanomiyaki that I tried was not as delicious as I had imagined... however, I think it was just the place I tried it at.  Although the food wasn't delicious, the restaurant sure was interesting... it was filled with random lady mannequins... as in most tables had a mannequin sitting at the table, awkward if you ask me, but quite entertaining to take pictures of.

SUSHI!  Amazing story.. so we were standing in the Kyoto Station looking at a map.. I don't think we looked confused or anything.. but 3 guys came up to us and asked if we needed help.  We told them that we thought we were okay, but thank you.  However, they insisted.. "What are you looking for?".. a cheap sushi restaurant we said, and we showed them the name and area.  They said hang on, and started looking it up in their phones to figure out the best way to get there (we had been to the same area last night, so we knew how to get there..) and they insisted we take the bus.. and they would go with us.  .. if you've ever been to Asia, you know that this isn't a creeper situation normally, they like to go out of their way to make sure you get to where you want to, and in some cases it involves them TAKING you there .. so we follow like puppies.  Their English was pretty good, turns out that they are soldiers (volunteer) and are purely studying English right now at their job.  So what great practice, aye??
After being on the bus for 15 minutes, we had to walk in the rain for 20 minutes (I THINK Chels and I could have gotten there faster AND drier, haha).. they 'found' the restaurant but it was under construction.  So they suggested a different restaurant they knew that was a few blocks away, however, it was more expensive.  We said totally cool, because we only planned on trying SOME sushi, not intending to make it a meal because 1.) It's super expensive 2.) Chelsea doesn't like seafood 3.) We wanted to save room for a new type of food 4.) It's freaking raw fish!!!
Chelsea and I ordered one soybean one and one tuna one (tuna is a mild fish, so she likes it) and we were going to share it.. both cheap, both small.
What happened next, was 12 plates of sushi on our table... only 2 ours.. and the rest ones that the boys had ordered even though ALL of them said they weren't very hungry.
The sweet guys, just wanted us to try them.. by us, I mean me.. because Chelsea doesn't like seafood.. I guess they couldn't quite wrap their heads around that one.  Some were quite scary looking, and I didn't want to try them.. but guess what.. ya can't refuse, especially when the cost had to have been out of this world.. I act like it was a problem, but it was so delicious.. although nerve wracking at times!
And the nice thing, is we paid our part.. they paid for what they ordered.. and there was no awkward goodbye or can we hang out with you, they needed to get back to the base for curfew.. and 2 of them had wives.. no awkward 'we want something ::wink:: in return'.. hallelujah .

Random things I loved about Japan
-the men in the crosswalk signs were all wearing hats
-eating sushi with 3 soldiers
-delicious ramen.. even if it was $9.. and in America it would have been 0.30
-seeing magazines (may sound random.. but I NEVER see magazines in Korea.. not in supermarkets, grocery stores, convenience stores.. for some reason, I guess I am homesick for seeing magazines!)
-not having to be afraid of bakeries (Koreans are not able to make a proper pastry!)
-not being afraid that everything is filled with red beans
-the subway arrival chime.. SO asian
-eco-friendly toilets (there is a little sink on top of the tank.. when you flush the toilet the sink automatically turns on, you wash your hands and the used water then fills up the tank!! genius!)
-alcohol vending machines

-not a mini-Korea whatsoever

-taxi cabs with automated doors (literally, the driver presses a button, the door magically opens, you get in, he presses a button, the door magically closes!!!!)
-Timberland shoes (on guys and girls.. non-thugs.. non-rednecks ) for fashion
-the popularity of girls wearing knee socks
-Animation (cartoon) porn magazines.. sounds crazy.. but in every convenience store,  correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm not so sure that westerners would be into this?!  Korean guys wouldn't even be into this!! SO bizarre!!
-less crazy lights and traffic like than I had imagined (so stereotypical.. not everywhere is like Tokyo! Kyoto is famous for strict codes to preserve its heritage)
-less English
-SO polite & quiet
-sake in a juice box

Main Differences from Korea
-more diversity
-less giggly girls
-clothing style
-less man bags, longer hair, more facial hair, more testosterone!
-rarely saw a smart phone, and people were not annoyingly glued to their phones 24/7
-more boobs
-Buddhism - they practice Shinto Buddhism (many gods)
-less 'fashion' glasses
-less noise
-they drive on the opposite side of the road
-rarely hearing music coming from a store (when you walk down a street in Korea, you hear about 7 different songs within one block)
-CLEANER, absolutely no littering (even though they still didn't have trash cans in public)
-no drunks blacked-out and sleeping on the sidewalk, no puke from a crazy night on the sidewalk
-no pushing.. or touching.. they paid much more attention to personal space
-less hideous huge apartment building clusters
-much calmer than Koreans, less craziness, less shouting

Things I Disliked
-less bad English written everywhere (it's quite entertaining to read signs in Korea)
-paying for EVERY little thing
-transportation system

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