Friday, August 14, 2009

Minke and Eelco's last night

Of course, I couldn’t let Minke and Eelco leave without doing some purikura with them. We’ve wanted to do this earlier and we tried, but things got in the way, like the lines we too long, or we needed to catch the last train, or we couldn’t find a purikura machine. So on our way back to Osaka from Kobe we got off at Tachibana (the station near Yasu’s house in Amagasaki) just to take some purikura pictures at a small game center at the station:
After exposing the Dutchies to the wonders of purikura we took them back to Tsukamoto for a few more hours of karaoke before we had to say goodbye. And even though this was only their second go at karaoke, they already seemed to enjoy it like pros!
Then just before midnight, Minke and Eelco had to run to catch a train back to their hostel, where they’ll be leaving in the early morning. They won’t be leaving Japan (next on their schedule is climbing Mount Fuji and sightseeing in Tokyo), but they’ll be leaving Osaka and our company. We had so much fun showing them around in Kansai and wish they could have stayed here longer! But we hope they’ll enjoy the rest of their vacation in Japan!

Minke and Eelco in Kobe

Kobe is Japan’s sixth largest city and the capital of Hyogo prefecture (where Yasu lives). Kobe is a port city and was one of the first cities to open for trade with other countries. These day it’s famous for being cosmopolitan, its Chinatown and the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995.
First place we checked out was Chinatown, with it’s many interesting looking building and gates and with loads of interesting things for sale on stalls. Minke and Eelco bought a mountain of souvenirs for their friends at home there, and a few for themselves, like a Frosties bag for Eelco.
At the square in the center of Chinatown we found statues of all the Chinese zodiac animals, so of course we all had to take a picture with our zodiac signs. Minke is a Fire Snake, Yasu is a Water Boar, Eelco is a Water Ox and I’m a Metal Monkey!
Of course, Chinese food had to be eaten in Chinatown too, and we tried most of it, ramen, gyoza, dumplings, fried shrimp cake, flavored rice, pork burgers, almond jelly and best of all nikkuman! All that food in the burning sun made us thirsty so we got some drinks from the ¥100 Sangaria (Japanese beverage brand) vending machine, which inspired Eelco’s Sangaria dance (with two fingers in the air) which we had to keep on the dancing the rest of the day.
We paid a visit to Kobe’s Meriken park to learn more about the devastating earthquake of 1995 that killed so many people and destroyed most of Kobe. They have kind of a open air exhibition there with a small part of the harbor left untouched since the earthquake to show its effect.
We wanted to climb (by elevator) Kobe’s Port tower and enjoy the view, but it’s Obon so it was way too crowded. We had to skip it and instead we had fun taking pictures at some mosaic art bell tower and having drinks in Harborland.
Before going leaving Kobe, we took the Dutchies to the best ¥100 store I’ve ever seen in Japan, Seria in Harborland. I’ve been to many Serias, I used to live next to one in Inuyama and they’re always good, but this one is totally amazing! Of course we were way too busy shopping to take pictures!

Minke and Eelco in Tsukamoto

On the last day Minke and Eelco are spending with us in Japan, they finally visited my little apartment. We hadn’t had the time so far because of all the busy sightseeing, but we managed to squeeze it in today.
And we also managed to squeeze the four of us in my apartment. The grand tour of was over in a minute, and even though they agreed it was small, they thought it was livable and cute. Most of their time in my shoebox was spent unwrapping gifts they brought from home. My mom had sent Minke many packages by post to bring to Japan and Minke and Eelco also brought their own gifts to make us happy with. The most remarkable one being a Jon Bon Jovi action figure... Not sure what to do with that, but it’s interesting.
It was fun showing Minke and Eelco how I live and the places where I shop or have dinner. The only thing I forgot to show them were my neighbor’s washing machines on the street. I had told them about it earlier in the week and they couldn’t believe that people did their laundry on the street before their house. I still can’t believe it either.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Minke and Eelco at a Japanese game center

When we got back to Osaka we had some time to kill before dinner, so we introduced Minke and Eelco to a Japanese game center. The most enjoyable in such a game center are always the taiko drums, where you have to play the drums in time with music. Yasu and I showed the Dutchies how to do it, and even though they enjoyed it, they found the UFO catchers way more interesting. They gave it a couple of tries before our delicious dinner of all-you-can-eat yakiniku (table barbecue).
After yakiniku we were so full (again) that it was hard to walk, so we needed some exercise to get our digestion started. What better way to get rid of that over-full feeling than jumping up and down in excitement and frustration in front of a Care Bear UFO catcher?! Minke couldn’t believe it when she saw the Care Bears because they haven’t been around in the Netherlands since we were little girls. So she just had to try. With lots of help from the friendly staff, who kept opening the machine to move the bear closer to the gap and show us exactly where to push (instead of lift) it to get it out and many well-thought-out-tries and many excited screams (from all four of us), the bear was finally conquered! When we calculated how much the bear had cost, it turned out to be really cheap and all the excitement and being won in Japan made the bear extra special of course. The bear was named Umeda and will be emigrating to the Netherlands soon.

MInke and Eelco in Nara

In Nara we visited the famous Buddhist temple complex called Todai-ji. The Great Buddha Hall is the largest wooden building in the world and inside it has the world’s largest statue of Buddha, known as Daibutsu. And of course this temple is also listed as a World Heritage, everything in Japan seems to be one though.

Like in Miyajima, deer roam the streets of Nara freely. Big difference is the behavior of the deer though. The deer in Miyajima are aggressive and even a bit scary, in Nara they’re calm and almost respectful. The only time they will really ‘bother’ you is when you buy the special deer cookies, because they know they’re going to be fed.

In Miyajima there was no special deer food on sale because we weren’t allowed to feed the deer. So whenever they saw any kind of food, or sometimes even bags, they tried to take it away from you. The deer in Nara are curious but they don’t try to take stuff from you. They get fed so regularly that they’re not interested in what the humans around them are eating. Minke and Eelco ate their okonomiyaki without one deer even coming over.


At Todai-ji we did the typical temple stuff again, like lighting incense and drinking holy water. It never seizes to fascinate us tourists.


Another favorite tourist activity is taking pictures. At the Great Buddha Hall we tried a new perspective, from below:


Inside the temple there’s a pillar with a hole the size of one of the Daibutsu’s nostrils. Legend says that if you can crawl through that hole you’re an honest person. The hole is not very big (but huge for a nostril) but Yasu tried and fit through it! It wasn’t easy but he did it. My boyfriend is honest, good to know. Me on the other hand...

Of course this wasn’t my first time to visit this temple, and I’m already getting used to the enormous size of the Daibutsu. But it’s interesting for new tourists so it’s always good to take visitors here.
Minke and Eelco in Nara

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Wakayama

Today Minke and Eelco went to Koyasan in Wakayama prefecture by themselves to check out all the awesome sights there and spend a night in a temple amongst real monks. They’ll be eating vegetarian food only and attending a very early morning fire ceremony. And of course Minke is excited about the huge forest of graves, because she’s always been crazy about cemeteries. Don’t ask me why.

We went to Wakayama too, but Wakayama city (not just prefecture), and by car (not by train). Just because we love to drive and we wanted to go back to that barbecue place we went last year. We really loved it then, and today it was good too, but not nearly as good as last year. In general when you return someplace of which you have really great memories, it’s hard to re-experience that feeling. And of course it was really hot because it’s August. But it was still fun to do some driving with Yasu.
Wakayama

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hiroshima-yaki

Okonimiyaki is a very popular dish in Japan. Osaka-style okonomiyaki is prepared much like a pancake. The batter and other ingredients usually things like cabbage, ginger, green onion, pork and squid are fried on both sides on a hot plate using metal spatulas that are later used to slice the dish when it has finished cooking. Cooked okonomiyaki is topped with sweet, thick brown okonomiyaki sauce, seaweed flakes, fish flakes and Japanese mayonnaise.
In Hiroshima, the ingredients are layered rather than mixed together. The amount of cabbage used is usually 3 to 4 times the amount used in the Osaka style. It starts out piled very high and is pushed down as the cabbage cooks. The order of the layers may vary slightly depending on the chef's style and preference, and ingredients will vary depending on the preference of the customer.
We a hard time finding the restaurant because it was hidden on some secret second level of a building. But we really wanted to try the Hiroshima-yaki, so we didn’t give up. Taking the escalator up from the first floor actually landed us on the third floor instead of the second, very peculiar. We had to explore the third floor a bit to discover the secret stairs down leading the the illusive second floor. And finally the restaurant famous for its delicious okonomiyakis.
Okonimiyaki supposedly originated in Osaka but the people from Hiroshima claim that they know the correct way to make okonomiyaki. And I think I prefer the Hiroshima way, it’s less mealy, more crunchy and I couldn’t detect any ginger. The Dutchies loved their okonomiyakis too and Yasu is always happy when he’s eating okonimiyaki. A good birthday dinner!
Hiroshima

A-Bomb Dome

On August 6, 1945 at 8:15 the nuclear bomb Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima, directly killing an estimated 80,000 people. About 70% of the city’s buildings were completely destroyed and the rest severely damaged. The A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima is an impressive reminder of that event.
On the schedule for today was a visit to the Peace Memorial Museum near the A-Bomb Dome. But we totally lost track of time at Miyajima and ended up in a Hiroshima tram hours later than planned, totally exhausted.
When we finally arrived at the museum it was almost 7 p.m., and that’s when the museum closes and the entrance even closes 30 minutes earlier. We were too late. And this was our only chance to see it, as it’s really expensive to travel to Hiroshima especially for the visiting Dutchies. It was disappointing, but at least we could still enjoy the Memorial Peace Park and its many monuments. Like the Cenotaph for the bomb victims. The monument resembles an ancient arch-shaped house, in part because of the desire to shelter the souls of the victims from the elements. The stone chest in the center holds the registry of the names of persons who died from the bombing. Names can still be added and there are already more than 220,000 names in there.
Hiroshima was proclaimed a City of Peace in 1949. And there’s a Peace “Watch” Tower at the entrance of the museum, protesting nuclear weapons and counting the days since the first atomic bomb to be used against mankind (the one in Hiroshima) and the days since the latest nuclear bomb test. The city government continues to advocate the abolition of all nuclear weapons.
The A-Bomb Dome or Genbaku Dome, was the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall at the time of the bombing. It was the closest surviving building to the location of the bomb's detonation. Because the bomb exploded in the air almost directly above the building some walls escaped total collapse, everyone inside was killed. Now its is a historical witness that conveys the disaster of the first atomic bombing in history, a symbol of the vow to pursue the abolition of nuclear weapons and enduring peace and another World Heritage Site.
Even though we couldn’t see the exhibitions in the museum, our visit to the Memorial Peace Park was still impressive and instructive because Yasu and I just used the internet on our phones to learn more about the war, the bombing, and the aftermath.
Hiroshima

Miyajima

So I turned 29 today and we celebrated this with a trip to Hiroshima in the west of Japan to see the famous Floating Shrine. Itsukushima Shrine is a Shinto shrine on the island of Itsukushima, more popularly known as Miyajima, in the Inland Sea of Japan and it’s a World Heritage Site. The Torii (traditional gate at the entry of a Shinto shrine) only appears to be floating at high tide; when the tide is low, the gate is surrounded by mud and can be accessed by foot from the island.
The Shinkansen was so full that we couldn’t get reserved seats anymore, so we had to try and fight our way into some seats in the unreserved section. I was the only one who managed to get a seat of the four of us. There were at least twice as many people as seats, so loads of people standing in the aisle with a long trip ahead of them, including parents holding babies and elderly people. There was one family who had somehow managed to get 6 seats, for only three adults and three tiny children. Some people complained and tried to get the adults to put the children in their laps so that more people could sit down, especially a fragile looking elderly woman. We were shocked when they flat-out refused to make space for her, especially since two of those kids could have easily fit into one chair. I know us Dutchies are considered rude and the Japanese polite, so we really couldn’t believe their behavior. And of course I beckoned the old lady to come and have my seat. The reactions of the other Japanese passengers were interesting, like they were shocked a foreigner could be so nice, and some actually thanked me. What a strange experience.
From Hiroshima station we had to take another train and ferry to get to Miyajima (shrine island). After our little birthday ceremonies on the ferry and island (which wasn’t easy with the sacred and very aggressive deer freely roaming the Miyajiman streets) we headed out for our photo shoot with the legendary floating torii.
Lunch consisted of cold udon and one of the local specialties anago donburi (conger eel over rice). It was very expensive, service was really slow and the food was a bit bland, but at least Yasu taught us all how to slurp noodles the Japanese way.
After lunch we were surprised to see it was low tide and therefore possible to walk to the torii. Which of course we couldn’t resist doing ourselves, although the tiny sea creatures, thousands of crabs and other creepy crawlers almost kept me from doing it.
We were only supposed to spend an hour or two on Miyajima, but we ended up spending almost the entire afternoon there. We admired the shrine buildings, relaxed a bit with our feet in a cooling stream until the deer came to bother us, tried some local snacks and of course made loads of silly pictures.
The 16 meter high gate was one of the places I still wanted to see before leaving Japan and it was really worth traveling all the way to Hiroshima for. Although it was very very windy on the ferry back from Miyajima:

Miyajima

Celebrating #29

Another birthday, another year closer to thirty, my last year as a twenty-something.
Just after midnight Yasu serenaded me with a Dutch birthday song (Lang zal ze leven), and it was impressive! Only in the end he substituted the ‘hieperdepiep hoera’ (hip hip hurray) with a ‘hieperdehoe goedzo’ (hip how good job). Which obviously was very cute, as were his birthday presents and card.
This was my first birthday ever without my mom physically near me so I started the day with a birthday chat on Skype with my mom, and also Gyano and Guido. It was just past midnight in the Netherlands and seven in the morning in Japan, and therefore my birthday in both parts of the world. They opened with that Dutch birthday song and a birthday cake, and I blew out the candles all the way from Japan through Skype. And my brother Djamo who lives in Belgium left a musical birthday message on our blog.
On a ferry to Miyajima, the Dutchies decorated a box of small cream puffs with ‘Happy Birthday’ and ’29’ candles, which they kept unlit while singing ‘Lang zal ze leven’ en blowing soap bubbles from tiny champagne glasses. And after the song I faked blowing out candles for the second time today!
My mom had sent many presents through mailmen Minke and Eelco, whose suitcases were many kilos heavier than intended thanks to my generous mom. And many Dutchies (Minke, Eelco, my mom and Guido) financed my expensive Shinkansen day-trip to Hiroshima today, thanks so much!
Miyajima

Monday, August 10, 2009

Minke and Eelco at Hanabi in Uji

During the summer in Japan fireworks festivals (hanabi matsuri) are held nearly everyday someplace in the country, in total numbering more than 200 during the month of August. The festivals consist of large fireworks shows which usually last for about an hour and attract thousands of spectators. Many Japanese men and women don yukata (summer kimono) when they attend hanabi. People come in large groups of family or friends to have a picnic while enjoying the fireworks show.
Street vendors set up stalls (yatai) to sell various drinks and Japanese snacks, like karaage, takoyaki, cold cucumbers, meat skewers, yakisoba, okonomiyaki, kakigori. The quality isn’t really great and the prices are enormously high, so many people bring their own food. We didn’t, so we spent a lot of money on food and drinks and it wasn’t very good, except for the ramune (Japanese summer drink).
But as always the fireworks were spectacular, and nothing like what I normally see at New Year’s at home.
We had to come early and walk pretty far to get to the fireworks place, and then spend some time searching for a spot in between the thousands of Japanese already there, but it was fun. I think our Dutch guests enjoyed it too, although Minke got bored after a while because it lasted so long and it looked all the same to her. Hope she still enjoyed one of Japan’s typical summer activities.
Minke and Eelco at Hanabi in Uji

Minke and Eelco at Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Taisha

Next on our Kyoto schedule was Fushimi Inari Taisha. Fushimi Inari is the head shrine of Inari sitting at the base of a mountain with many trails up the mountain leading to smaller shrines. Inari is the god of business so many businesses donate torii (orange gates) because they worship Inari for wealth. All the donated torii line footpaths and create an impressive scenery of orange tunnels. Foxes (kitsune) are found all over the shrine because they are regarded as magical messengers.
On the way to Fushimi Inari Taisha, Yasu treated our visiting Dutchies to some yaki onigiri (baked rice balls with soy sauce) and I treated them to some surume (dried shredded squid). And I think they liked these typical Japanese snacks, especially the rice balls.
At Fushimi Inari Taisha we spent lots of time taking pictures with the orange tunnels and trying to read which companies donated the torii. Of course Yasu had no problem deciphering the Japanese but Minke studied some katakana at home, and she tries to practice her katakana skills as often as she can. She’s way better than I was during my first week in Japan!
There are so many more things to see and do in Kyoto, but unfortunately their time in Kansai is limited, a.k.a. way too short, so choices had to be made. Maybe next time...
Minke and Eelco at Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Taisha

Minke and Eelco at Kyoto's Kiyomizudera

Minke and Eelco’s first full day had to be spent in quintessential Japan, so of course we went to Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan. And even though it was rainy today, Kyoto was still as beautiful and mystical as it has always has been.
After we arrived at Kyoto station, armed with cheap umbrellas, Minke and Eelco learned how to use a fair adjustment machine, to make sure they’ll never pay too much for the Japanese train.
Kyoto’s attractions are often hard to reach by train so we took a bus to the temple of pure water: Kiyomizudera. Where we enjoyed cleansing ourselves with pure water and endured not so pure water falling from the sky.
There are lots of things to experience at a Japanese temple and they’re all things to improve yourself. Like lighting incense and wafting its smoke toward yourself to become smarter and healthier.
Eelco had read about omikuji (sacred lottery) at home and really wanted to give it a shot. So he shook the omikuji-box, collected the numbered pin that fell out and received the fortune with the same number. When the predicted fortune on the omikuji paper is bad it’s custom to tie it to some rope somewhere in the temple grounds, hoping the bad luck with hang around there instead of attach itself to you. When the omikuji predicts good fortune you keep it. Eelco was lucky indeed and received the second luckiest omikuji available, so he happily kept it.
Inside Kiyomizudera’s temple grounds we found Jishujinja shrine, dedicated to Okuninushi the god of love and good matches. There are two love stones, placed 18 meters apart, which you can try to walk between with your eyes closed. If you’re single and lonely and successful in this venture you’ll find love, and someone is allowed to help you but then they’ll have to help you achieve love too. Not sure what happens if you’re in a relationship already, but we thought it couldn’t hurt. We all walked the 18 meters with our eyes closed, with the verbal guidance of our lovely partners, and were very happy to touch the second stone and achieve even more love.
Of course, we also had to sample some of the pure and holy water from the Otowa waterfall, where three streams of water fall in a pond. The three streams are believed to confer either wisdom, health and longevity, and you’re not supposed to drink from more than two streams otherwise your greed will turn into bad luck.
Besides loads of pure water and luck we consumed some other Japanese things today as well. Like onigiri from the konbini. Which was quite an adventure if you can’t read the characters describing the filling of the rice balls and if you’ve never opened one before, but Minke and Eelco loved the Japanese snack. And they’ve also been drinking a lot of Japanese tea, they’ve almost completely adjusted.
Other intresting snacks in Kyoto are soft serve ice cream with funny flavors and yatsuhashi. We tried to find the salt soft serve I had last year, but they didn’t sell it this year, so Minke tried some mango with Japanese green tea and Eelco had some black sesame with honey and vanilla. I think that with Japanese soft serve it’s usually the weirder, the better and I think they kind of liked it too. They also sampled loads of yatsuhashi, which is soft rice cake wrapped around sweet red bean paste, and they even bought some to take home and share with other Dutchies.
Being so obviously foreign can give you many stares in Japan, but also free food, as Minke and Eelco experienced today with two very friendly and talkative old Japanese ladies. They were very eager to share their homemade lunch of makizushi with the interesting looking foreigners and strike up a conversation in their broken English and our broken Japanese.
The day is only half over and already Minke and Eelco have experienced so many new things, and they’re not even over their jet lag yet!
Minke and Eelco at Kyoto's Kiyomizudera