Monday, September 28, 2015

Everyone's Kyoto

Sure people have heard of Japan’s infamous week off called Golden Week, but have you heard of Silver Week? Bronze Week not yet confirmed. Silver Week however, is a very very real and very very awesome thing that happens in September. In 2015, it happened from September 20th-23rd. If you're a mathematician like myself, you’ll notice right away that four days isn’t quite the length we’d attach the title ‘week’ too. To that, all I have to say is that, it was two extra days I didn’t have to work so does it really matter? The answer is a clear no. Where a four days exist, so does a mini vacation. When I knew I was coming to Japan I wanted to do two things - climb Mt Fuji and go to Kyoto. Check and check. (Yes, yes, Fuji post is still coming)

Kyoto! Known for it’s tradition, culture, and overall awesomeness. I needed to see this amazing hotspot of, er, Japaneseness(?). This mini vacation sounded like such a great idea to me, the timing was perfect! It turned out that half of Japan agreed with this sentiment because Kyoto was damn well packed. Not just a flood of Japanese tourists but also foreigners from ever neck of the woods imaginable. I was no better. Sunday and Monday were crazy town but Tuesday and Wednesday calmed down much more. Kyoto station was out of its mind.

The plan was to meet up with those lovely folk I trained with back in early May. Since they are all in the Nagoya region I’d take the Shinkansen over to Nagoya, we’d all board the same train, and bullet ourselves over to Kyoto land. I was quite surprised when this plan worked out perfectly. I love it when a plan comes together. I found this ridiculously awesome house to rent via AirBnB for stupid cheap for five guests. EVERY hotel in Kyoto was booked and super expensive. This was a HOUSE, with two floors, two bedrooms, a full bathroom, a kitchen, and lobby only one 5-minute train stop from Kyoto.

I of course was suspicious of ye ole ‘too good to be true’ situation, but, I have to say, it was actually just perfect. For the five of us, for three nights, it was $100 per person. Unheard of. This was my first time using AirBnB but I can guarantee I’ll keep it in mind for the future. The person we rented the place from even met us at the train station, have the cab driver directions, and showed us the place. He spoke good English, was friendly, gave us a map in English, and offered suggestions and recommendations to us. What a guy.

Stop one on this great adventure was one of the reasons I wanted to go to Kyoto, Fushimi Inari-taisha. If you’ve ever seen pictures of the Japanese shrine with what seems like infinite reddish torii gates, that is this place (as seen above). Beautiful, truly f’n beautiful. It completely lived up to the hype. It was a slight hike up a mountain, but well worth it. From the top, you could see all of Kyoto and even a the tops of some of Osaka’s highest skyscrapers in the distance. Breathtaking is cliche but the truth. Never have I seen so many torii gates or fox statues in my life - 10/10, highly recommend, would go again. The rest of the night was spent walking around Kyoto proper and eating at a delicious izakaya.

The next day we were off to the west side to the aen power spot known as Arashiyama. This is where the fabled Bamboo Forest exists, dozens of zen gardens, and over all peaceful gardens. The illusion was a bit shattered by the moving walls of people, but my imagination is strong. Our next stop was Kinkaku-ji aka the ‘Golden Temple.’ I have mixed feelings about this place. Was it cool, yes. Hell, it was a golden temple. However, that really was all that was there. It’s a bit small and you can’t enter it. Was I satisfied, yes. Did I expect more, yes. That’s all.

We then met up with someone I met back in the states at my recruitment for my current job. She ended up taking a different teaching job but still came to Japan. We met several of her coworkers, drank beer from yard long science beakers, got hammered, then returned to our house for more beers. She stayed with us and joined us on Tuesday’s adventures.

While sure, I’ve used the phrase “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” before, but this was different. Our main goal with this day was to get full on kimoned up. The girls booked a reservation to get dressed up by professionals. From start to finish, it took about two hours before we were on the road all decked out. For women, there are looooots of choices on what to wear for each part of the outfit, as you may expect, it took some time. While for a man it is far simpler, it still took a bit and a level of knowledge that is beyond anything I’ll ever understand. How I wore that, how she put it on me, how it stayed on… unknown.

There we walked over to Kiyomizu-dera (awesome) in this Japanese traditional garb. Now, here’s the thing. We were basically looked upon like we were all members of a circus. As a foreigner in Japan you stick out. As a foreigner in Japan dressed in kimono you REALLY stick out. Everyone looked at us. Granted, we looked damn good, but was there more? I didn’t know if it was frowned upon or seen as us embracing the culture? I’m sure it’s different case by case but it was something alright. While we certainly weren't the first foreigners to ever wear kimono, some people certainly treated us that way.

Then came the photos. Soooooo many groups of similarly dressed Japanese people all wanted to take pictures with our group. We’d be walking and from behind us “kawaii” in a high pitched woman’s voice. So many pictures. No lie, at one point we had to tell this one group to wait to take pictures with them so we could take pictures with another group. Sure we may have been a circus act, but we also had our fans. It was a surreal experience. Kiyomizu-dera is also beautiful, my second favorite place we visited in Kyoto, and was the perfect place to take tons of pictures.

Then things started to go, well, not so good. Remember when I said I had no idea how to put the kimono on? Well, when it started to come undone that became a major problem. My fellow travel buddies tried to um, fix it, but honestly made it waaaay worse. We did this shamefully in a local shrine while a group of Korean women also in kimonos literally pointed and laughed at us. It wasn’t embarrassing at all! So I had to like hold it on. We left our clothes back at the shop. While I tried to tough it out, I finally broke and said I had to go back. I told the others I was very cool with getting changed and meeting them after but they sucked it up and went back with me and we all changed out. Good folk. After all that embarrassment we went to a delicious okonomiyaki restaurant and stuffed our faces. My friend left us that night, back to Osaka.

After ‘checking out,’ we gave Kyoto one final spin before returning to our respected towns. We stuffed our luggage in a train locker and went to the Kyoto International Manga Museum. This place was interesting; not in the way I hoped but in a different way completely. It was an old manga school now turned into an archive. People go there, pay 800 yen, and just spend the day reading manga. You can take any book from any shelf and read. There are outside areas, children areas, indoor - it’s amazing. So many people just reading manga. The museum part was underwhelming in size but interesting in material.

After the museum it was a short walk to the Kyoto Imperial Palace. A beautiful area but we couldn't get inside the palace walls. It was in a nice park though. Not getting in was a bit of a let down but still worth a look see. We grabbed some local ramen, grabbed our luggage bought out Shinkansen tickets, said our goodbyes, and returned to our respected towns. Kyoto trip - successful!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Reason #001 to Learn Japanese: Emergency Warnings

Imagine this scenario if you will. After a brutally hot summer, the last few nights have finally cooled down. So, you sleep with your windows open. The key word here is 'sleep.'


At 3 am you are awoken by what can easily fall into the category of top five most unholy sounds you've ever heard. Luckily, I've never heard an air raid siren in practical use before, but, an air raid siren is the closest match I can think of still. It was, well, loud. Needless to say, I woke up.

Being my first city-wide siren alarm clock, I woke up confused and honestly a bit panicked. What do I do? The siren only went off for only a few minutes. Then, silence.

Until, a voice started to echo through the streets. The voice was loud, firm, and had an air of no nonsense to it. Unfortunately, I still don't understand Japanese. I can only assume this voice was explaining the noise, explaining the situation, and maybe even giving instructions on what to do. Helpful to the right ears, waisted on me. This went on for minutes.

So it's about 3:15 am, there was a siren, there was a city-wide announcement, and I still have no idea what is happening or what I should do. No longer in that rocked out of bed sort of mindset, I'm thinking more logically but still a bit shaken. My phones got emergency messages in Japanese - sigh.

I look to the streets to gauge the level of panic. None. None at all. Is everything okay? I look up what an emergency alarm could mean. Heavy rain, volcano eruption, or tsunami. One isn't like the others. There has been heavy rain and thunder, or what I hoped was thunder and not eruptions.

So I did what I had to do. I went back to sleep - eventually. Oh, it was a tsunami warning by the way. It was backlash from the earthquake in Chili. It only ended up being 60 inches, but better safe than sorry.

For the first time in my life, I honestly didn’t know if the sound of thunder was actually the sound of a volcano eruption. That’s some shit.

I need to learn Japanese.