Sunday, August 31, 2008

No bowling for us

Just another Sunday. We didn’t have to work today, instead we could do something totally useless (actually I think free time is way more useful than time I spend on the job). We decided to go bowling, in Amagasaki because we expected the bowling alleys in Umeda to be crowded on a Sunday and we didn’t really want to spend our free time waiting in line. So we went to Round 1 at Amagasaki Station and discovered that we still had to wait a whole hour before being allowed to throw some heavy balls around. All right then, we entertained ourselves with some discounted purikura while waiting.
But after waiting for an hour we found out we had to wait one more hour! Which is weird because when we went to check the bowling alley we found several empty lanes that stayed empty. Well, whatever our patience was all used up and we gave up on bowling. We went back to Osaka to have dinner at McDonalds and see a movie, just like last week. Only this time we saw ‘Sex and the City’ and it wasn’t nearly as good as the movie last week, actually it was a bit boring. But hey at least we didn’t work today!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Updating, again...

There I was finally up-to-date on my blog and then Obon started... My family came all the way from the Netherlands to celebrate summer vacation with me here in Japan, then unfortunately work started again and all my free time was eaten up by things like laundry and other such household tasks and catching up on sleep (which wasn't really a priority during Obon). And then this weekend I had another Dutch visitor… So I’ve kind of been neglecting my blog for a while, and so it’s time for yet another round of updates:

September 23: Futile geisha hunting in Pontocho and Gion, Bye bye Jeroen, Not working this Christmas!
September 22: Shopping in Nagoya, The Dutchies' last night in Japan, Karaoke for the last time, Bye bye Dutchies, Jeroen in Osaka, Arashiyama
September 21: Back to Inuyama, Shooting the rapids again, Checking out my old life in Inuyama, Hanging with Maiko and her family, Inuyama City Jail, Breakfast with Kumiko
September 18: Nara
September 15: Fireworks in the Japanese countryside
September 14: Umeda Sky Building, Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, The Dutchies at the sushi-go-round
September 9: The Cup Noodle Museum
September 8: Kyoto Station, Holy buildings and pure water
September 4: Orange tunnels
September 2: The Dutchies do Namba
September 1: Himeji Castle, Parents meeting parents, The Osaka aquarium
August 27: Unlimited Korean barbeque in Amagasaki, Karaoke Gy, Dutch gathering at Leopalace Tsukamoto
August 26: After-work reunion in Osaka, The Dutchies in Senri Chuo
August 25: They've arrived!

Bye bye Jeroen

Jeroen has an early flight back to Seoul today, which meant we didn’t have much time to do some sightseeing today because he has to be at the airport in time to check in and it takes about an hour to get there from Osaka. So, he came over to Tsukamoto to admire my new apartment and compare it to the old one in Inuyama. And although this one is even smaller than the old shoebox, we both agreed the new one is cuter somehow.
There’s a what the Japanese call limousine bus (but I just call it coach bus) that drives straight to Kansai International airport from Amagasaki, which is comfortable, convenient and not so expensive, so Yasu and I took Jeroen to Amagasaki. Where after a way more Japanese meal than last night at McDonalds, we said goodbye to Jeroen at the bus stop.
Isn’t the Hansin Salad Express a weird name for a so-called limousine service? But when the alternative takes longer and means lugging your heavy suitcase up and down the subway stairs and changing trains at several points, I would still prefer to transported to the airport in a salad bus.
More pictures

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Futile geisha hunting in Pontocho and Gion

After returning from the country we went for a walk through ‘downtown’ Kyoto. We started at the Kamo river, where we found numerous couples sitting on the river bank enjoying the view and cooling effect of the water. Being a couple seemed to be a rule, and we were a group of three so instead we explored Pontocho, which is a very narrow street in Kyoto’s traditional nightlife district, one block west of the river.
Apparently one might be able to spot a geisha in this narrow alley, but all we spotted were super high prices for dinner with a view of the river. So we decided to walk to Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, in hopes of spotting a geisha or maiko. But all we spotted were other tourists, deserted streets and some drawings of geishas from behind.
It was a bit disappointing and our Dutch tourist didn’t seem too impressed with Kyoto so far, so I felt we needed to take him somewhere a little more exciting. So I returned to nearby Yasaka jinja, a.k.a. Gion Shrine, which I had found to be very beautiful last week and very interesting to look at from a foreign point of view. The shrine was even more striking in daylight than at night, and even though I’m not sure whether Jeroen was captivated by all the lovely old Japanese building on display, I believed it was a wonderful ending to our sightseeing in Kyoto.
It was time for dinner, but none of us was really hungry (I still blame the heat) so we decided to take the rather long train ride back to Osaka hoping we would arrive there hungry and ready to eat. Jeroen’s last Japanese dinner turned out to be a McDonalds meal, kind of because we still weren’t very hungry and we needed to be quick as we were going to see a movie. By the way, the movie we saw ‘What Happens In Vegas’ was totally hilarious and definitely the best movie I’ve seen for a while.
More pictures

Arashiyama

Jeroen like most foreign tourists really wanted to see Kyoto, so that was our destination for today. We took a train to Kyoto Station where Jeroen got to admire all the stairs and escalators first and then we all waited for about an hour for a bowl of ramen. The ramen was good, but I’m still not good at the waiting thing and I just kept going this time because we had to pay before we joined the line, so we couldn’t escape without losing money.
Having just spent a lot of time wondering the streets of central Kyoto last week, we went to a touristy district at the outskirts of Kyoto named Arashiyama. There we checked out the Tenryuji Temple, built in 1339 and ranked first among Kyoto’s ‘Five Great Zen Temples’. It is famous for its landscape garden which is still in its original form, and where all the pebbles are lined up perfectly.
We were liking the Zen Temple and ended up rushing back to the station to catch the Sagano Romantic Train from Arashiyama to Kameoka. I had a painful leg cramp while running to catch the train, but couldn’t stretch it because we were way too late and we had already bought the tickets earlier. I told myself I’d be sitting in the train soon enough where I could relax my leg and enjoy the beautiful views of the canyon following the course of the Hozu river. Boy was I wrong, apparently we’d bought standing tickets (the ticket lady never bothered to tell us) in a crowded train. There’s nothing romantic about standing in the aisle with dozens of others like a bunch of commuters on the subway. The seated people weren’t that lucky either because us ‘commuters’ were blocking the view because there was constantly a mountain on one side of the train. Then there was some guy dressed up as a wolf, trying to entertain the kids while pushing his way through the aisle. And at the same time there was a lady pushing the opposite way through the aisle taking Polaroid pictures of the seated tourists and trying to sell them.
To sum it up there was way too much pushing going on, while trying to stand in an unsteady train with bad views of the canyon and way too much time was spent driving through dark mountain tunnels. All in all, a very bad experience and not worth the 600 yen we had to pay for the ride. And as an extra bonus I ended up with a rather severe calf muscle injury because there was no way to relax and stretch my leg properly.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Jeroen in Osaka

My old housemate Jeroen visited me in May this year and he came back today. He is moving back to the Netherlands next week, and I guess he wanted to see a little more of Asia before returning to Europe. He picked me up from work today, so he could check out the school, before returning to Umeda with me to meet up with Yasu for dinner and karaoke!
Last time Jeroen refused to go to karaoke with me and Maiko, and he’d regretted that and announced before arrival in Osaka that this time he would go to karaoke with me. Unfortunately, we had to wait for a long time before there was a room available as it was Saturday night and the Japanese love to karaoke just as much as I do. We only got to sing for about an hour, still it was a good way to end the evening.
More pictures

Friday, August 22, 2008

Not working this Christmas!

On Tuesday I arrived at work with swollen eyes, because I cried too much the night before when I had to say goodbye to the Dutchies. The manager asked me if anything was wrong, and I explained the way my eyes looked was just a souvenir from the night before and that I was fine at that moment. She sympathetically asked when I’m going to see my family again and I replied well that depends on you, on whether you’ll give me those 4 days off in December I need to go home for the holidays. Honestly, I never really hoped to get those days off as I officially only earn one day off per 2 months and I’ll be working here for 7 months in December and another native teacher already asked for the exact same 4 days off to go home himself. But apparently our manager can work wonders and has given both of us those 4 days off! So that’s right I’m going home again!
I just booked my flight, with KLM of course. I never want to fly another airline again as this one comes with flight attendants that speak Dutch and serve carbonated icetea (my favorite drink but hard to get outside of the Netherlands). This time I’ll be arriving at Schiphol on December 21st and departing on January 4th, so I’ll be home for two whole weeks! Yay!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Bye bye Dutchies

Yasu picked all the Dutchies and all their suitcases up in Tsukamoto and drove us all the way to the airport, which is at least an hour by car from Osaka. On the way from the parking lot to the terminal the Dutchies were all still in their karaoke mood and redid ‘Walk like an Egyptian’, which made it impossible for me to get that not so great song out of my head.
They’re flying with Emirates to Dubai, from there they’ll take another plane to Düsseldorf, Germany where their trusty car is parked, and then they still have to go through a long drive home… It would have easier if they just stayed here, but I guess they didn’t agree because they still checked in for flight EK 317 leaving at 23:15…
After getting their boarding passes and getting rid of their suitcases, we still had time for dinner and coffee. And of course we took the opportunity to behave like crazy foreigners one more time, even Yasu joined in and behaved rather peculiar.
But way too soon it was time to say goodbye… again. I really don’t like airports and I like saying goodbye at airports even worse. And I have no idea when I’m going to see the Dutchies again, because I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll get the needed 4 days off with Christmas to go home for the holidays. But even though it’s another sad occasion, and I usually start crying way before I actually have to say goodbye, I hadn’t cried any tears… yet. We hugged and kissed a lot and I even pointed my dry eyes out to the Dutchies and Yasu, who were all just as surprised as I was. As they know me and they’ve all said sad goodbyes to me at airports before. Then they walked away about to go into customs, and then suddenly an explosion in my eyes… there were the tears we were all expecting! All the Dutchies came running back for a couple of more group hugs and even a group kiss.
But of course they still had to leave and they did. They went through customs and security and waved as they went down the escalator out of sight. But the guys kept popping their heads back to wave one more time, and one more time… I kept crying and waving. Where was my mom though? She was already halfway down the escalator, but when she saw the guys waving again, she ran back up the moving stairs, tripped at the top, bruised her knees terribly, but still waved at me one more with a big smile. Poor Moem… Then they were gone for real, heading towards the plane that took them away from Japan. And Yasu was left with a 28-year-old crybaby.
But don’t feel sorry for Yasu, because he loves to make fun of me when I’m crying. So he enjoyed teasing (because he’s a mean boyfriend) and comforting (because he’s also a sweet boyfriend) his girlfriend at the same time, when we drove back to Osaka.

Karaoke for the last time

We survived the hot night in my even hotter shoebox sauna, it was quite tight with 4 people and all those suitcases, but it was also nice to have everybody near their last night in Japan. Their plane isn’t leaving until late tonight, so before packing up to go the airport we went to Namba one more time... to do what? Karaoke of course! It’s so hot here and I really can’t cope well with heat, one thing it does is diminish my appetite. So far I’ve forgotten about lunch the whole time the Dutchies were here, and the hungry men in our group had to keep reminding me that food needed to be eaten. And today was no exception, so we had a quick lunch at Bikuri Donkey before checking in at Shidax.
After their first karaoke experience one week ago the parents have been looking forward to what we’ve done today: free time! Which means many hours of karaoke for one low flat rate. During the week the parents made a list of songs that they wanted to sing and we worked through almost all of them and more of course.
We only ended up doing about 4.5 hours, which might sound like a long time but it sure isn’t when you’re in a karaoke room. We didn’t want to go when we had to, but the Dutchies have to catch that damn plane tonight. A plane that’s going to take them away from me again…
More pictures

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Dutchies' last night in Japan

Of course, dinner in Nagoya had to be had at Yamachan, the tebasaki king. Maiko came to Nagoya to join us for dinner after Gyano invited her earlier in the day via email. And naturally the Dutchies all loved Yamachan’s tebasaki, but several other dishes also kept being reordered by the hungry men at our table.
With the Queen of Purikura in our midst we had to take some new purikura pictures after dinner. Maiko has hundreds of purikura pictures in her cell phone, I think she goes to a purikura booth every week and she taught me how to do purikura. Now she was going to help fine-tune Gy’s purikura skills:
While the rest of us waited patiently (by now the parents had had enough of purikura) Maiko did all the writing and Gy did all the decorating with glitters and more on the pictures and here are some of the results:
After all this it was really time to say goodbye, again… Maiko is one of those few Japanese that loves to hug so everybody had to be hugged a couple of times before we finally really said goodbye. I wish I could move her to Osaka with me, but at least she is not as far as the Dutchies are going to be again from tomorrow on… By the way, don't you think the Dutchies are getting really Japanese with those experienced v-signs everytime I take a picture?
We took the Shinkansen back to Osaka and this time the bullet train was nearly empty so we had the freedom to move some of the seats around to create a nice little corner with 6 seats, one for all 4 Dutchies and all their shopping and presents from our Japanese friends.
This is going to be the last night the Dutchies spend in Japan, and this time it won’t be in a so so hotel room or in a luxurious prison cell, no tonight we are all going to sleep in my apartment, a.k.a. a sauna the size of a shoebox! Quite an experiment… The parents will share my bed and Gy and I will share the floor, it’s going to be cosy.

Shopping in Nagoya

For some reason The Dutchies couldn’t get enough of shopping in Japan, so I changed today’s schedule to shopping in Nagoya instead of sightseeing in Nagoya, which made the Dutchies like me very much. Sometimes one needs to be flexible, besides these poor people have endured enough sightseeing for a year, so it was about time to reward them with a day of shopping. And being in Nagoya made finding the kinds of stores they needed way easier than if we were in Osaka. Gyano wanted to spend his last bunch of yen on new clothes so I took them to a ‘cool’ store down in the Esca at Nagoya station.
We found some pretty cool stuff there, unfortunately he didn’t buy any of the shirts or sunglasses on these pictures, although I still think the ‘Smoke Love Peace’ shirt really suits him. Anyway he did manage to satisfy all his clothing needs with slightly less controversial clothes and emptied his wallet successfully. My mom and Guido couldn’t wait to spend several hours and several yen in the Loft (they had a sneak peek in this store earlier this week in Osaka) again. Lots of DVDs and CDs were also purchased at HMV, which is also where I found my birthday present from the parents: two DVD boxes of an American TV show for me to watch at home instead of chaotic and incomprehensible Japanese TV.
In between all the shopping and walking from store to store I did manage to sneak in some sightseeing of some of my favorite places in Nagoya. In Sakae, I took them up to the Aqua roof at Oasis 21, after bribing them with some ice cream from Baskin & Robbins. We also quickly admired the TV tower and the naked lady fountain before returning to Meieki where we briefly checked out the Midland Square building, rode its glass elevator (scaring Guido) and took pictures of Nagoya Station’s Twin Towers.

Breakfast with Kumiko

Maiko’s parents are friends with the owner of Inuyama City Jail and they arranged free breakfast for us in the prison cafeteria. My mom choose the Western breakfast and the rest of us tried the Japanese version. Turned out it didn’t matter which one you chose, they were both quite yucky. Another reason not to book a cell here in the future. Good thing we’d planned to have breakfast at Denny’s with Kumiko, before we found out about the free breakfasts. So after being released from the slammer we walked over to Denny’s to meet up with Kumiko and have a decent meal.
It was fun for my family to meet Kumiko, especially because she is fluent in English (she’s also an English teacher), so communication was a lot easier than yesterday with Maiko and her family. Kumiko and my parents exchanged gifts and after a little over an hour it was time to say goodbye again, to Kumiko and to Inuyama.
After inspecting a map of the city and pointing out all the places we’ve been in Inuyama we got back on the red Meitetsu train back to Nagoya. It was awesome to finally be able to show the Dutchies around in Inuyama, I just wish we had some more time because I wanted to show them so much more in this little country town.

Inuyama City Jail

So last night I slept in a hotel in Inuyama for the first time, and I won’t do it again, at least not in that hotel. Actually, the hotel was pretty nice, the rooms were big, the beds were comfortable and the price was reasonable... but I really don’t appreciate being locked up at night. This hotel actually has a curfew, you have to be inside by midnight, which is when they lock up the hotel and you can’t go outside or come inside anymore, until the hotel opens up in the morning. And we discovered they were going to lock up just 5 minutes before midnight! Well, excuse me I thought I booked a room at the Inuyama City Hotel instead of the Inuyama City Jail. The parents were pretty tired, even though they thought locking us up was seriously weird, it didn’t matter much to them because they were off to bed. But Gy and I haven’t gone to bed before 3 this whole vacation and we weren’t planning on starting today and definitely not because some hotel tells us to. Besides I was going to take Gy on a walk through Inuyama to show him some of my old hangouts. Maiko unsuccessfully tried to negotiate something with the hotel clerk several times, but they were determined to lock us up… What kind of stupid hotel doesn’t have a night door?
Well, Gy and I are quite stubborn and we were determined to break out of jail. Apparently they could lock us up in the hotel, but they sure as hell weren’t going to force us into our luxurious cell on the 9th floor. So we parked our asses in the lobby chairs with some booze and snacks, planning to drive the clerk crazy with our 2 person party. But before Gy finished his first cigarette and I finished my phone conversation with my boyfriend the clerk already got the point, and told us a ‘midnight walk’ would be ok after all. He then showed us how to unlock and lock the door and let us out of prison. We celebrated our breakout with some dessert at Denny’s.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Hanging with Maiko and her family

For dinner we hooked up with Maiko and her mom again and this time they also brought along her dad Shigemi. We drove to a buffet restaurant in Komaki named Viking. I remember driving past it with someone else telling me Viking was cheap and lacking quality, but I’m happy to say that only the cheap part was true. Actually, it was perfect for us, because they have so many different kinds of Japanese foods, and now the Dutchies could try anything they hadn’t tried seen before without the risk of ending up with a meal that was too disgusting to finish. The seven us gathered up so much food that it didn’t even fit on the huge family table. Gui and I really loved the barbecue seafood, like crab and scallops, my mom discovered she loves yakimochi, and Gy indulged himself in fried food, meat and a whole lot of miso soup. And I surprised Maiko into a scream by drinking a half cup of miso soup, which she didn’t believe I was starting to acquire a taste for.
After dinner we drove back to Inuyama (Maiko and her mom had some troubles getting their car out of the Viking parking lot) to see Inuyama Castle by night and visit Maiko’s house, which is at the foot of the mountain Inuyama Castle sits on. There the Dutchies also got to meet her dog Jump and her brother Yoshi. We did a small tour of their huge house (I mean Maiko’s room alone is almost bigger than my whole apartment), stayed for drinks and the Dutchies received presents, and before we left Yoshi successfully took a picture of the whole group with his camera’s timer function.
I used to love hanging out with Maiko and her family because they’re all so wonderfully crazy, I just feel right at home with them. And like I suspected my family and Maiko’s family had no problem getting along either, when everybody is pleasantly disturbed it can only lead to an enjoyable time together.

Checking out my old life in Inuyama

Besides my old workplace, the Dutchies really had to see where I used to live and shop too. We went to Pearl Hills, my old and ugly apartment building with nothing pearly or shining about it. Sean the guy that lives there now is in Osaka right now with Kristin and some of my old students. Great timing isn’t it? So sadly, we won’t be seeing any of them while we’re here, nor the inside of my old shoebox apartment. I still rung the doorbell, just in case he changed his mind about Osaka and decided to stay in Inuyama, but of course that wasn’t the case.
After a shopping spree at Seria, the huge 100 yen store (which I really miss and still haven’t found a good replacement for in Osaka) and a bathroom break at Yamanba, the internet café, both in the same street as Pearl Hills, we walked (through the rain) to Ito Yokado. The small mall next to the train station, where I always used to my grocery shopping both Japanese and foreign (at a small foreign food store for which I also still haven’t found a replacement in Osaka), buy stationary goods and presents (there’s a Loft in Osaka so I don’t need a replacement), and buy ice cream at Baskin & Robbins (which they’re building a replacement for in Senri Chuo, to open in October).
The day is nearing its end and we haven’t checked out the castle Inuyama is famous for, yet. It’s a small castle and Japan’s oldest, and a national treasure. Still, the Dutchies have already seen Himeji Castle and I’ve seen both and concluded that there’s not so much new to discover here in Inuyama. So we’ve decided to scratch Inuyama Castle from the to-do-list.

Shooting the rapids again

One of the most entertaining things I’ve ever done in Inuyama is shooting the Nihon Rhine Rapids on the Kiso river. When I discovered it in Golden Week I was so enthusiastic that I was back on another boat no less than 2 weeks later, and it’s not cheap! It’s a relaxing way to experience Inuyama’s beautiful valley scenery and it’s especially refreshing when it’s superhot like it is during the Japanese summer. So the boat ride was a must-do on my little Inuyama list, so after dropping off our bags at the hotel we met up with Maiko and Masa again at Inuyama Yuen station, who are two Inuyama locals but have never tried shooting the rapids before.
Shooting the rapids sounds dreadfully frightening, but don’t worry it’s just a fancy name for sitting in a wooden boat being steered over the relatively mild Kiso River by some Japanese men with funny hats. The ride itself is thrilling and the view from the boat is breathtaking, but the all the waiting that precedes the boat fun can be downright boring. First you have to wait at the office at the riverbank near Inuyama Yuen station for some bus to pick you up. The bus ride itself is crowded (most of us actually sat on little stools covering the aisle path, pulled out from the regular seats) and long. The bus takes you to the starting point of the tour, where you can buy your ¥3400 tickets and wait again until they call your name and it’s time to board the wooden boat. Good thing that we were a big group with lots of catching up and getting to know to do.
And then our time finally came, they called out ‘Louana-san’ which my mom found very entertaining, and we all made our way to our wooden ride back to Inuyama. I’ve really been looking forward to taking my family here, but it wasn’t as perfect as I had imagined because of believe it or not the weather. I was expecting the typical Japanese summer heat, which makes you really appreciate the coolness of the river water splashing everywhere when riding the wilder parts of the Kiso river. The bright sunlight that enables you to really admire the river’s beautifully green and clean water, the bushy scenery, and the weirdly shaped rocks and. But the weather today was disappointingly gloomy.
In the end it even started to rain which made the boat guys cut the ride short, which meant no river view of Inuyama Castle and not hearing the end-of-trip music which for some strange reason is the same as the Dutch national anthem, and I wanted the other Dutchies to hear, just because it’s so weird. Overall, I think they enjoyed it, but they weren’t nearly as impressed as I was during my initial trip over the river when it was hot and sunny in Golden Week.

Back to Inuyama

After a week of extensive sightseeing in the Kansai region of Japan, it’s finally time to check out Nagoya and Inuyama, where I used to live and work. Our journey started at Shin Osaka where we took a Shinkansen to Nagoya Station. Obviously this was the first time for my family to ride the Japanese bullet train, and I haven’t used one since Golden Week as I don’t really need it anymore now that Yasu and I only live a bike ride apart. The Shinkansen is always very comfortable and spacious and I think everybody enjoyed the 1 hour ride to Nagoya.
Being back in Nagoya, felt a little bit like coming home from a long vacation. Having started my Japanese life in this city, it kind of is my Japanese ‘hometown’ and I know my way around this city way better than around Osaka. But we’re going to hang out in Nagoya tomorrow, today is Inuyama day, so after getting off the Shinkansen we immediately went to the Meitetsu train station to catch a train to Inuyama.
The first thing we did was take pictures of the Dutchies in front of my old workplace, which I can’t show here because I’m no longer allowed to divulge the name of my employer on my blog. Of course the school was closed as it still is Obon vacation, so taking pictures with a closed school was all we could do. Although they did briefly meet the new assistant manager who rushed past on her way to catch a train. Luckily, Al Centro, my favorite Inuyaman restaurant next-door to the school was open, so we went in to have some lunch. The owner hadn’t forgotten about me yet, and treated us to a portion of fries with mayonnaise instead of ketchup (the Dutch way, like I taught him). Halfway through lunch, Maiko and her mommy Masa joined us. They were very happy to finally meet my family, something they’d been looking forward to for a long time.
Lunch was awesome, I just love Al Centro’s spinach pizza and missed it a lot, and seeing Maiko and Masa again was wonderful too. There are so many things we want to do today and so many things I want to show my family about Inuyama, but we’re only here for one day so I’m going to have to set some priorities… Well, at least I finally got them here, even though I don’t live here anymore.
More pictures

Friday, August 15, 2008

Nara

Today Yasu tagged along with us Dutchies, and he took his family’s car to drive us to Nara, the ancient capital city of Japan. We went there to see a super Buddha in a temple and lots of tame deer on the streets. According to legend some mythical Shinto god arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital in the first century. Ever since then deer have been regarded as heavenly animals there to protect the city and the country.
So Sika deer roam the streets of Nara freely and they are mostly considered tame, except when the deer notice you have some shika sembei a.k.a. ‘deer biscuits’ on you. The deer love these thin round cookies (I wonder what’s in them) and they will nudge and shove you pretty hard if they see you you’ve got some of the deer food. I heard sometimes they even bite, but that didn’t really happen to us… except when one deer mistakenly thought that Guido’s bright red fan was a deer biscuit and totally deformed it by trying to take a big bite out of the plastic device. Even though the deer have no problem convincing tourists to hand over all their biscuits with some bodily contact they never dare bothering the numerous snack vendors selling these biscuits, I guess they’ve trained the deer by pulling out a whip every time a deer gets near their merchandise. All the biscuits we bought the deer made them pretty thirsty so Yasu decided to share his water with the deer, who drank it from a cup in his hands.
The Japanese love buying souvenirs, especially local snacks, to bring home for their friends and coworkers. Obviously, touristic cities like Nara have no problem catering to these needs and sell numerous kinds of snacks and candies. And the most popular would have to be the easiest to come by in deer laden Nara, deer doodies. I mean who wouldn’t want to receive a bag of delicious bambi droppings? Of course, frugal tourists can just collect their own deer manure in Nara Park, but this shop has already done the bothersome work for you and even put the excrement in a pretty gift bag for you:
On our way to Todaiji (Eastern Great Temple), another World Heritage site, we passed a National Treasure named Nadaimon or the Great South Gate. This gate is very old but that’s not what’s scary about it, it’s the two more-than-800-years-old, more-than-8-meters-tall, wooden Nio guardians inside the gate that will give you the creeps.
After being scared enough by those two huge statues we continued our way to Todaiji, where they were, like any decent shrine and temple in Japan, burning incense in a big vase at the entrance. And like always the smoke has magic properties, waved at your head the smoke will make you smarter, waved at your midriff it will make you healthier and according to Yasu waved at your crotch it will make you hornier…
The incense smoke became to much to bear, especially in this heat, so it was finally time for my family to meet Mr. huge ass Buddha inside the Buddhist Temple. The 16 meter tall statue was completed in 751 and to give some perspective on its size: one of his fingers is the size of a human… The head you see here is a little bit newer, as the original head suddenly fell off in 855 and a new better-seated head had to be built, I guess they did a much better job because it’s still sitting there in 2008. And in 1994 Bon Jovi among others (like a Buddhist monk choir) performed here at an international music festival called ‘The Great Music Experience’.
A typical Japanese summer beverage is ramune. It’s a carbonated soft drink sold in very special bottles, called Codd-neck bottles (after the British inventor Hiram Codd). They are glass bottles and sealed with a marble, which is held in place by the carbon dioxide in the drink. To open it you have to push the marble inward where it rattles while you drink ramune. When you hold the bottle upside down the marble blocks the flow, which is fun but can also make it hard to finish the drink.
Next was food, it was too late for lunch and to early for dinner, but we were super hungry and after an extensive search for a restaurant that would serve all the different cravings of all the different people in our party, we finally sat down at two tables (they didn’t have a table for 5) in Sato, which advertizes itself as a Japanese (oh really?) restaurant. They have an extensive menu. Shabu shabu, sukiyaki, karaage, sushi, tempura, donburi, soba, miso soup, ginger pork and even fries were ordered, and we had a big Japanese feast. Everybody was happy.
We ended the day with some shopping at a mall, where we bought more ramune and souvenirs for people at home, drank coffee at Starbucks (yay) and of course took some purikura of the 5 of us. Unfortunately, we’re having a hard time finding the machines that’ll send you all 6 pictures for free to your cell phone, but hey at least they send us 2 pictures to share with you:
It was another tiring, but fulfilling day, and it was fun to have Yasu around again. Tomorrow, we’re taking a Shinkansen to Aichi, to check out Nagoya and Inuyama. Can’t wait to show them around there, and introduce them to some of my friends.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Fireworks in the Japanese countryside

After a very long drive from Amagasaki we finally arrived in Yagi, some small town somewhere in the Japanese countryside. I’m not a big fan of the country but when they’re hosting an hour-long fireworks spectacle I’m more than happy to travel all the way out to the sticks all the while dragging my family along. Yasu drove us all the way out here and after a difficult search for parking we walked through the small country roads in search of restrooms. We finally found some, with the required long line in front of it and after waiting about 30 minutes my mom and I discovered that they only had those Japanese style toilets (basically just a hole in the floor like in France) which we can’t use. So we had to watch the fireworks with full bladders. After working our way through thousands of people and mosquitoes we found an empty spot on the floor right in front of the stage where we sat down. Time for the fireworks to start:
The beautiful fireworks kept shooting into the air for about an hour, and it was really worth the long drive out, especially the explosive ending. The only thing missing was some dramatic music to which the fire flowers can explode in rhythm to (like they have on TV), which makes it all even more impressive. It’s great to be able to look at such beauty for such a long time, but sitting on the hard floor for such a long time just isn’t so great. Yasu had no problem of course, he’s Japanese and therefore trained to sit on the floor, but us older Dutchies parked our bums on the edge of the (now empty of sponsors but almost full with other spectators) stage halfway through the show. Young Gy and Japanese Yasu still sat on the ground but this time on a soft river bank.
All good things come to an end and sadly so did the fireworks, somehow even a whole hour still didn’t seem to be enough. So we and all the rest of crowd all did some chilling in between the festival food stalls, where they had some really interesting ways of cooking food. Somehow I only ended up with one picture of a standing fish-on-sticks barbecue. We bought edible things from several different vendors and collected a delicious and varied dinner that way, and again I didn’t take any pictures… I guess after taking fireworks pictures for an hour exhausted me? But I did take a picture of Gy and Gui with a few yukata-clad girls and a heap of trash next to the trash can.
The trash (or actually the lack thereof) in Japan is what has surprised the Dutchies the most it seems. They’re constantly telling me how clean the streets and trains are, no trash, dirt and graffiti anywhere. I never really realized it that much until they kept pulling my attention towards it, and they’re right. The weirdest thing is that the general lack of trash cans on the street doesn’t even seem to entice the Japanese to throw all kinds of crap on the ground. Even when thousands of people are gathered for a fireworks spectacle they all still clean up after themselves and organize all the garbage in one big heap next to the overloaded trashcan.