Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Hydrangea Season is Serious Business

On June 27th I had my welcome party. Your first thought it probably why was your welcome a party a solid month after starting? Well, the school likes to plan events and spread them out. Since the previous party was the going away party for the leaving teacher, this was just how it was spread out. In all honesty, it didn’t matter when it was. It was however, pretty great. Much beer was drank, I got to socialize with many students I’ve never spoken to before, had to give some impromptu speeches, and overall was pretty swell. The second party involved more drinking and the students agreed to pay for me so I didn’t spent a yen all night.

Despite an, ehem, last start the following day, I decided to take a solo day trip to the highly recommended Kamakura. It was off an on raining but clear enough to brave. It’s the rainy season right now and if I let rain stop me from exploring I’d have to wait about another month and that’s not happening. By local train it took about an hour and a half with only a few transfers. This was quite the achievement for me since it was the first time traveling by train completely on my own without any precise explanations from others. Both Google Maps and an app called HYPERDIA make train travel elementary. I didn’t screw up at all either there or back and that’s a huge win for me. On the way back I found a route that only required one transfer and that was down right awesome.

So Kamakura is temple and shrine happy. They are everywhere. I went there having no idea where I’d be going or what I’d be doing. I looked up some of the larger sites on my phone on the train ride and asked some friends recommendations - then I just sort of hoofed it. My first target was the giant Buddhist Temple known as Hase-dera. This is where a giant Golden Buddha exists. This thing was beyond awe inspiring. I respected the signs and didn’t take a photo but I really wanted to. I just stared at it for a few minutes. Truly remarkable. This location also had a cave that I had to duck to travel through. It was filled with tiny Buddha statues and dim light, you know, something that seems like it would only exist in like an Indiana Jones flick.

I happened to visit Kamakura and especially Hase-dera during hydrangea blooming season. I was quick to learn that this is quite the big deal. While I imagine the place is normally covered with tourists, it was especially busy this day. Loooots and lots of people. There was even a Hydrangea Viewing Path that had a roped off waiting line. The moral of the story is that hydrandeas are serious business and shouldn’t be taken lightly by any means. I mean, sure, they are pretty and all, but hot damn the people.

Even getting my fill of Buddha, I needed some Shinto action. On Google Maps I saw what appeared to be a huge shrine near the station. That would be my next destination. First though, food. I walked for a bit waiting for something to speak to me - then is spoke. Of all things, a burrito restaurant. Before you roll your eyes you have no idea how few Mexican style restaurants I have seen since I’ve been living in Japan. The second I walked through the door a Japanese woman in perfect English greeted me. I chose correctly. The burrito was like a burrito / wrap hybrid but very delicious. I chatted with her a bit and then head back off.

Google Maps was correct, this shrine was massive. Tsurugaoka Hachimangu is Kamakura’s most important shrine. There are archways on the street that lead to it. Apparently during cherry blossom season the place is absolutely beautiful - not that I was complaining when I went. I visited some of the side shrines before going to the main area. Here I noticed a bunch of money just laying on the ground. I looked around and saw a man and an elderly woman looking over the ponds. I slow English and my limited mixed Japanese I asked if it was theres. The woman checked for sometime and realized it was hers. They were both super thankful and it felt really good. Since it occurred right in front of a shrine, I donated to it and prayed for a spell.

The two main building were quite impressive. This place had full time shrine maidens working - the real deal. Just exploring all the areas I was permitted to go was pretty amazing. I kept finding side shrines in strange locations which was awesome to me. The main building was on top of a hill that you have to climb a tall flight of stairs to reach. From there you can see much of Kamakura and especially all the street arches which lead to it. I can’t even imagine how busy this place must be come New Year.

At this point it was getting late but I was still an hour and a half from home so I marched on. Unfortunately the larger shrines close down around 4:00 pm thus my window had long ended. It was sprinkling and I was definitely getting exercise at least. I passed by a place claiming it had award winning glazed pork bellies over rice so I had to try of course. I’ll admit, it was pretty damn good. It came with a side of udon - really good stuff. With that though, it was time to call it a day. I was pretty damn exhausted. The night before slowed me down a bit, I got to a late start, it rained, but I regret nothing. I’ll return to Kamakura - the place is beautiful. I’d love to see it with the cherry blossoms instead of the hydrangeas.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Oh no, there goes Tokyo go go Godzilla!

What a lovely day for an update. Yes, yes - perhaps I have been updating as much as I originally had planned but as to be expected of blogs. What is important, is that I DO update. Er, even if that update may come a week(s) too late. There is much to write about since last post so I’ll get right to it. My plan is to do a few posts this week to catch up. I want to give these memories proper justice so I’ll keep them as separate posts.

On June 21st I received my first tour of a little known place of Tokyo. Holy hell, that is some city. One of my fellow teachers was kind enough to offer to show me the ropes of this mammoth so of course I accepted. While I spent the majority of the day there, this goes without saying, but I only scratched the surface of the place known as Tokyo. What a place though, such a fun day. After all, it is the only way to do them true justice.

With a mere one hour Shinkansen ride I arrived in Japan’s capital. After a challenging 15 minutes or so or trying to find each other, we met up in Tokyo station and instantly jumped on a local train to one of the Mecca’s of geekdom - Akihabara. While I’ll admit it was far smaller than I expected, it definitely lived up to the hype. The core of the area was only about two streets but those streets each have three floors of shops on them. Everything from retro video games, cosplay shops, maid cafes, anime, manga, figures - you name it - you can get it in Akihabara and in abundance. While proving difficult to not blow the entirety of my life savings in a mere instant - I refrained from buying anything and used this trip as more of a, well, scouting, experience.

The next stop on this tour was a slice of historic culture. She took me to Sensō-ji in Asakusa. This was my first ever time visiting a Buddhist Temple and what a temple it was. It has a famous gate which I’ve seen in pictures before with storm gods protecting it. Here I got face deep in demon exercising incense. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it has been difficult to live 31 years without ever being purified of evil spirits. I must have worked since I drew the luckiest of all the fortunes from the temple. For those keeping score, this means from both a Shinto Shrine and Buddhist Temple I have pulled the luckiest fortunes twice in two pulls. What can I say? I’m lucky. I got the walkthrough in the process of how to pray after an offering, bought some incense, and we ducked out of the rain for a short spell.

I was gracious enough to warn my generous host that I’d be in full tourist mode for the day and she would have it no other way. Despite the Tokyo Skytree looking us in the face the entire day, we decided to visit its predecessor the now obsolete Tokyo Tower. On our way we stopped at a shrine that was putting on a Taiko performance - which we watched for a bit. Then we approached Tokyo tower. Not before resting to eat crepes. Tokyo Tower was quite the view. The day was rainy and overcast so we couldn't see forever but it was still beyond impressive. I’ve been to large cities before but Tokyo goes on in every direction as far as the eye can see. The view from the tower was 360 degrees and there wasn’t anywhere which wasn’t urban sprawl. What really surprised me, is that Tokyo Tower is like a mall. It even has its own gym. Unknown.

At this point it was time for dinner and drinks. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. This means we were off to get some official Tokyo grub - Monjayaki. This took us to Tsukishima Street in Chuo. Talk about capitalism at its finest. This entire street is all Monjayaki restaurants, right next to each other, on both sides of the street. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. Even stranger, they all had people in them. How do you choose? I just picked one that had a wooden rabbit statue in front of it - I’m only human. At the restaurant you order a few Monjayaki and pay for different toppings for them. The tables have flat-top grills on them. You’re handed the bowl and make it yourself. After being shown the process, I made a few of my own - I still have it. Despite eating a ton of cabbage, they were each pretty good.

Along side several beers and good conversation, this was the end of my first trek to Tokyo. We passed an underage kid getting arrested for being drunk, jumped on our the last trains towards our respected locations, and I started the hour long ride back home. Fun fact, the justified famous anime Evangelion starts June 22, 2015. My first trip to Tokyo, the place where Eva takes place (Tokyo 3), was the day before where the show starts. Pretty groovy. I didn’t see any Angels. Probably a good thing.