Monday, January 9, 2012

The Return

So by the way, I'm back in the USA now and got back just after midnight, the morning of December 24th. For the couple days leading up to that, I stayed at my host family's house, packed, went out to eat a couple times, and did a little last minute shopping.

At a crab restaurant

At a yakiniku restaurant the night before I left

Played a game of shogi with Kotaro

All packed and ready to go

After that, we went to the airport and ate at a tempura restaurant that once again busted the myth of small portion sizes in Japan. We had weighed my luggage ahead of time and thankfully there were no problems getting it checked in. A few other students on the other hand, found that their bags were far overweight and had to get through by paying fees, begging desperately, and having their host parents send them at a later time. Then there were lots of tearful goodbyes and hugs that for me were cut a bit short by the approaching departure time, probably for the better.

From there, the trip went pretty smoothly, from Sapporo to South Korea to Chicago to Washington DC. It was just very long. In the airport in Korea we walked by a small parade of people in traditional garb, marching to music. Apart for that and a big Doraemon themed area at the Sapporo airport, not much of interest happened and I made it home safely. As for reverse culture shock, the biggest difference was that there were more rude employees at American airports and that there was much more variety in the appearance of people in the US. But overall, it felt good to be home.

So I suppose this will be the last blog post. I don't know if or when I'll return to Japan, but I definitely have to thank my host family for making this trip a good one. In the midst of it, I was pretty stressed and bogged down with schoolwork, but now, in retrospect, I have a lot of good memories, experiences, and stories to tell, all neatly recorded in this blog. I made new friends and improved my Japanese language skills significantly and I intend to continue my studies in the future. I'll be graduating this spring and from there, who knows where I might end up.

Thanks for reading and if you want more, there are loads of pictures not used in the blog that you can view in the web albums to the right or right here.


Monday, January 2, 2012

(12/21) Nara: Deer and Big Buddha

On the last day of our Honshu trip, Wednesday the 21st, we went to Nara. We went by bus to our first stop, Todaiji, a really big temple with a giant statue of the Buddha Vairocana in it (there's more than one Buddha nowadays). But outside the temple we saw the other thing that Nara is famous for: wild deer.

And there were a lot of deer all over the place, not just at that temple either. You could also buy little crackers to feed the deer and if you held them up in the air in front of them, they'd give you a polite bow as if asking for the biscuit. On the other hand, they weren't really that polite because they tended to surround you and butt you in the butt if you weren't paying attention to them.

After feeding the deer, we made our way into the temple and saw the main giant building which housed the giant Buddha statue.

There were also a few other statues if you walked around the statue and models of what the temple looked like before, since it had burned down twice in its history. There was also a small hole that was the size of the Buddha statue's nostril and if you were able to crawl through it, you got good luck or something.

Our other stop for the day was Kasuga Grand Shrine which was very close and also had wild deer roaming around. It was more of a normal shrine except that it had a buttload of stone lanterns leading up to it, making the already pretty area even nicer looking.

We grabbed a bite to eat near the shrine and then went back to the bus to be driven back to the airport and fly back home to Sapporo for our last couple days before returning to America.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

(12/20) 1% of the cities have 99% of the shrines. Occupy Kyoto.

On Tuesday the 20th, we headed to Kyoto which is famous for having lots of history and beautiful shrines and temples. Our first stop was Sanjuusangendou (33 Ken Hall), which I had also been to on the 2010 May Trip. It was a long hall of 1000 gold colored statues of Kannon, a Buddhist sort-of deity ("sort-of" because explaining Buddhism in terms of Western religion isn't usually quite accurate). Unfortunately, there were signs everywhere in there prohibiting the taking of pictures and even ones that said they'd check your camera to make sure you didn't take any pictures, though I didn't see anyone actually doing that. Here's a picture from the internet:

Next we went to Kiyomizu Temple, which I had also been to before. It's a big temple with a nice view from a stage that sticks out from the side of the mountain. Apparently in the Edo period, people jumped off of this stage in order to have a wish granted if they survived the 13 meter drop. Because of that, now there's an expression in Japanese "to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu" which is like the English phrase "to take the plunge". On the way up to and down from the temple, there were a whole lot of gift shops along the sides of the road as well as places selling traditional Kyoto sweets and desserts. I got a good bit of shopping done there.

Next we were going to go to Nijo Castle but it was unexpectedly closed so we continued on to the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It was very pretty and had nice Japanese landscaping/gardens all around it. One thing that made these traditional gardens look particularly nice and exotic is that the ground was just covered in light colored moss and there was no grass to be seen.

After that we went to Ginkakuji, The Temple of the Silver Pavilion. It also had lots of traditional Japanese landscaping and moss surrounding it with the addition of sculpted sand.

In the evening, we checked into our hotel and went to a fancy, several course, Japanese-style restaurant. There was also sake, which I didn't like much, and a small bowl of citrus sake which everyone including me loved.

After that we went to Kyoto tower and looked at the view which was pretty amazing with the free viewing telescopes which everyone was amusing themselves with by pointing them in creepy places that were watching people eat or do things in their hotel rooms.

Then we just walked around a bit and hung out. It was probably our busiest day on the Honshu trip.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

(12/19) Amazing Osaka

On Monday, we took the train to Osaka, which wasn't too far away. The first thing I noticed was that it seemed to have more litter and bad city smells but that it also seemed to have a lot of interesting places to go. Our hotel was the nicest one so far, but before we could check in we had to kill some time so we split up into two groups, the main group going to Osaka Castle with Mr. Nagashima (the other group ended up getting interviewed for the news about the death of Kim Jong Il at the place they went to). I went with the main group to Osaka Castle which was quite impressive from the outside. We even saw two guys with a giant video camera who we assumed were filming a documentary.

The inside of the castle, however, was nothing like a castle and entirely like a gutted out building turned into a museum. We checked out the museum and the view from the top of the castle, then went out to check out the gift shops and get some takoyaki (fried octopus), one of the famous street foods of Osaka along with okonomiyaki. While eating our lava-hot takoyaki, one of the people in our group noticed two people with backpacks running around being chased by a cameraman and sound guy.

Then someone in our group suggested that they might be on the Amazing Race, but I wasn't sure because I couldn't see any of the telltale red and yellow Amazing Race flags or bright yellow clues. But the possibility was irresistible so I ran after them to get a closer look. They seemed to go the wrong way once, then spotted their goal from the top of some stairs/a wall. My group was also leaving so on the way out I kept a lookout for any route markers for the Amazing Race and then saw a camera crew on a hill interviewing the team we saw earlier. Upon getting closer we were able to see the show's host and discover that it was indeed The Amazing Race. I got a picture and snuck as close as I could to get another one through the bushes before one of the show's crew noticed me and asked me to leave.

One of the people in our group asked if it was The Amazing Race, even though it was now obvious that it was, and the guy said he didn't know and that it was some Korean show, which I hear is what they're required to say when asked. It was hard to tell but I think the team we saw got eliminated. Maybe. Honestly I have no idea.

After returning and checking into our hotel, some of us headed out to check out the Studio Ghibli store in Osaka which we had assumed was particularly big since it was specifically mentioned on the schedule. In reality, it was significantly smaller than the one in Kobe and the one I went to in Otaru, but it was still cool. We also got some neat Harry Potter collectibles out of one of the many capsule dispensers and stopped at the Osaka Pokemon Center which ended up being quite big and fancy, with lots of people of all ages standing around playing DS and buying Pokemon merchandise.

In the evening, Dai and I ventured out to an onsen from a guide pamphlet and were able to find it and use it on our own. At the onsen, which was on the roof of a building, we removed our shoes, bought tickets from a machine for entry and towels to rent and then brought those tickets to the counter to receive our towels and continue in toward the changing room. In the changing room were lockers for putting in all of your clothes. Next was the same as on the International Camp trip: shower, then soak in any of the variety of hot baths, scented baths, cold baths, or in the sauna. Surprisingly, there was more variety than at the onsen we went to previously. After that we went back to the hotel feeling quite refreshed.

(12/18) Kobe beef, it's what's for dinner

The next day we went to Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima which is famous for its large red gate that is out in the middle of the water (when the tide is in) and also for its wild and friendly deer. It is one of the top three views in Japan. We had to take a short ferry ride to get there and then went with a tour guide to check out the area and take pictures of the gate and deer. We were also able to go shopping for souvenirs and there was a good deal of interesting stuff, though most of the stores had the same things. Also, on this day especially, there was always someone who was late, missing, or almost late so Mr. Nagashima and some of the students got pretty frustrated.

After that, we took a shinkansen (bullet train) to Shin Kobe, famous for its Kobe Beef. The bullet train was quite fast and comfortable and you could turn the seats around to face each other if you wanted to. Mostly I just walked around with Julia, Dai, and Mr. Nagashima and spent time in a touristy place with a ferris wheel, small rollercoaster, an arcade, and a bunch of stores. As usual, Mr. Nagashima and Dai spent a good deal of time in the arcade, but we also went to a Studio Ghibli store, rode coin operated animals, and found a restaurant that had relatively cheap Kobe beef. Unfortunately, the restaurant ended up being a little stressful because of food constraints, unexpected service fees, and not very good service. It still tasted pretty good for the most part though.

At the hotel, it had been a problem both this day, the day before, and all future days because we only had one room key between three people and the three of us usually wanted to split up and return at different times. We left the key at the front desk so that the first person back could get it, but if I wanted to go to sleep, there wasn't really a way to let people in unless I left the door open a crack. To remedy that, I left the door open a crack, put the TV on to make it obvious someone was inside the room, put a piece of paper outside the door saying "security device enabled" and put a metal trash can right in front of the door so that anyone opening it would hit and wake me up. It worked pretty well although I was still awake when Dai came back anyway. And we were just about to go to sleep when the foot light switched itself off and another light switched itself on and we heard a ringing alarm coming from out in the hall. Sure enough, there was a power-outage for some reason and none of the other lights would work. The elevator still worked though, so we stupidly took that down to the lobby to check what was going on. As soon as we got down, a guy said that he was working on it and would have it fixed soon but that we shouldn't use the elevator to be safe so we immediately headed back up using the stairs, to the 13th floor. It was more amusing than anything though.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

(12/17) Hiroshima

Our first stop on the Honshu trip was Hiroshima. We left from the college at 7:30 on Saturday morning and took a plane to Hiroshima, changing planes in Tokyo. On the way, I was able to see Mt. Fuji.

Once in Hiroshima, the first things I noticed were that it was significantly warmer than Sapporo and that there were more traditional looking buildings.

For the most part, my time in Hiroshima was exactly the same as the last time I went to Hiroshima which was with a class in May 2010. We went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the statue with the paper cranes all around it, and the Peace Memorial Museum. Outside, there were a lot of people standing around collecting signatures as a petition to ban nuclear weapons. I wasn't sure how they were going to convince countries like China, North Korea, and countries in the middle east to stop developing nuclear weapons by collecting signatures, but it was a nice thought anyway.

The Peace Memorial Museum is not a particularly fun place to go to, but is very informative and surprisingly unbiased about the history of the atomic bomb and its use. The first half of the museum is mostly about the history and the second half to two thirds is dedicated to artifacts from the aftermath of the bomb and stories from various individuals. At the very end were guest books where you could write your name and thoughts. Since I had seen it before and read a book about for a class, I already knew how many people did not die in the explosion and died in agony with severe burns or radiation poisoning, and how survivors were often discriminated against. So because of that, I made my way quickly through the museum and relaxed on the bus.

In the evening, we stayed at the same hotel that I stayed at last time and went out to eat in several groups. After that, I wasn't really up for doing much else so I just walked around on the streets near the hotel with a couple other people and then returned to the hotel.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Honshu Trip Pictures

I haven't gotten a chance to write up the details of my Honshu trip so far, but here's some teaser pictures.

So far I've been to Hiroshima where I saw the Peace Memorial Museum and Itsukushima Shrine. Then Kobe where I had Kobe beef and a somewhat amusing experience with a power outage in the hotel. Today I've been in Osaka where I went to Osaka Castle where we coincidentally saw the filming of The Amazing Race at a distance and went shopping at some places. We're planning to go to an onsen tonight. Tomorrow we're going to Kyoto and the next day we're going to Nara. Anyway, check out the pictures and I'll write up details when I get around to it.