Tokyo! Hai!

See our gallery of photos tagged with “tokyo”.

After breakfast and some late-morning Christmas shopping on our last day in Kyoto, we made our way to the south side of the train station where the Shinkansen high-speed bullet trains depart for Tokyo. We paid a small premium to take the super-fast Nozomi service on the new N700 series train. This bullet train is capable of traveling 270 km/h (170 mph) and does the 476 km (296 mile) trip to Tokyo in 2 hours 20 minutes. It was fast.

N700 Shinkansen
N700 Series Train, Kyoto Station

We got there in the late afternoon, and navigated the subway system to the Hanzomon station, just west of the Imperial Palace, and right in front of the Hotel Monterey Hanzomon. The hotel was great, and became our home in Tokyo for the next six nights.

Our first mission after arriving in Tokyo was to find a good bowl of ramen. Remembering an experience I had in Shibuya on a work trip a couple years ago where I struggled to use a vending machine for payment but was rewarded by a tasty bowl, I talked Abby into trying to find the same place. We took the subway to Shibuya, wandered the crowded side streets for a while, and finally stumbled across Kamakura Ramen. Yum!

Kamakura Ramen
Kamakura Ramen

We spent the remainder of our time in Tokyo wandering through what Lonely Planet listed as one of the 10 weirdest cities in the world. During our time we saw washlets (the future of toilet technology), a sumo wrestling stadium, umbrella cover applicator machines, banks of vending machines, karaoke bars, and even a cartoon video of a singing pea in Kiddy Land. Great stuff!

At the same time, we did a lot of shopping, since Christmas was quickly approaching:

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Abby posing in front of the Prada Building. We didn’t buy anything here.

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Shoppers in Ginza. We didn’t buy anything here either.

And of course spent a lot of time wandering Tokyo’s various neighborhoods.

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Shinjuku

One neighborhood we spent a lot of our time in was the up-and-coming neighborhood of “Marunouchi”, which we read about in a recent article in the New York Times. The neighborhood was a short subway ride away from our hotel, and had a great range of food options, as well as the store where I bought Abby her official temporary engagement ring.

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Marunouchi

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Abby with ring

And finally, here is a short video taken while crossing the street in the heart of Shibuya. We were amazed by the number of people in this area and had to capture some of the action on video to give you just a taste of Tokyo’s energy.

http://www.flickr.com/apps/video/stewart.swf?v=63881

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Nara — In pictures

See our gallery of photos tagged with “nara”.

While staying in Kyoto, we took a day trip to the town of Nara, a former capital city of Japan. We were strongly encouraged by several friends to include Nara on our Japan itinerary and we are very glad we did. The town is full of temples and has a very chill vibe. We visited several beautiful temples and had a great time wandering the streets of old-town Nara. This is also where we saw the yomogo mochi machine that was featured in in the latest round of What is it??.

Here are some photo highlights from our visit:

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The five-story pagoda of Kofuku-ji is seen in the background of an object that we actually can’t identify.

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One of the many deer that wander the temple grounds in Nara. They seem to be fearless of humans and wandered right up to us.

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This main hall of the Todai-ji temple complex is the world’s largest wooden building. This place was one of the most impressive sights of our entire trip.

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A huge Buddha — and Japan’s largest bronze statue — sits within the building pictured above.

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Lanterns along the large wooden terrace of Nigatsu-do.

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More lanterns lining a wall of Kasuga Taisha.

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These moss-covered stone lanterns lined the paths leading up to and away from the Kasuga Taisha temple. The paths were very quiet and beautiful.

http://www.flickr.com/apps/video/stewart.swf?v=63881
Video showing 360-view of lantern-lined path.

Finding inner calm in Kyoto

See our gallery of photos tagged with “kyoto”.

We knew things were off to a good start when we walked out of the doors of the Kyoto train station and were greeted by a group of about ten 9- to 10-year-olds with clipboards (clearly on a school assignment) and big smiles. “Excuse me,” they all said at once in English. They then asked us if we had a minute to answer a few questions. They took turns asking us questions like where we were coming from (Osaka), what we were excited to do in Kyoto (visit temples, eat local food), and what our names were. One of my favorite moments was when they asked us where we were from. First we said “the United States.” Confused stares. Then “America,” and they understood. Then we said “Seattle – Ichiro,” and they erupted in smiles and cheers. After that, they very officially shook our hands and gave each of us a calligraphy drawing. We walked away smiling and excited to experience more of this welcoming city.

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Posing with our new friends at the Kyoto train station

After checking into our fabulous hostel and enjoying a great bowl of ramen from a local shop where we were the only westerners, we began our quest to explore as many of Kyoto’s myriad temples as we could in two and a half days. Our first visit was to Kinkaku-ji, which the school kids told us was their favorite sight-seeing stop in Kyoto. This spot is famous for its golden pavilion, reflecting pond, and strolling gardens — and was definitely a beautiful sight.

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Kinkaku-ji’s golden pavilion

Next up was a visit to Ryoan-ji, which is most famous for its dry landscape rock garden, which is a very simple and abstract Zen garden that proved quite relaxing and thought-provoking even to a complete newbie like myself. In spite of the beauty of that garden, our favorite part of this temple visit was definitely a walk through one of the gardens behind a smaller temple on the grounds. We were just wandering and found a garden area that was completely deserted. We were the only people walking this path and the combination of colors and quiet was just stunning.

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Our private peaceful path in Ryoan-ji

Now … on to Day Two. Get ready for some photos. And between Dan and myself, we have about 150 more from this day that didn’t make the blog. Today we would head to East Kyoto, where the temples are packed in and fairly easy to walk between. Our first stop was Fushimi-inari, which is the head shrine of the Inari cult and dedicated to their god of rice and sake. What makes this temple spectacular is its network of orange gates that snake up Inari-san mountain along various paths. It is truly a striking sight and there were stretches where it was just the two of us wandering this maze of bright orange gates on a mountain hillside in the fresh, cold air.

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A view down one stretch of Fushimi-inari’s orange gates

Our next stop, Shoren-in, was not part of our original plan as it was barely even mentioned in our guidebook. We decided to pop in since we walked right by its gates and it looked promising from the outside. We ended up spending at least an hour in this peaceful spot that is a former residence of the imperial family. There were many tatami-floored rooms with open floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked a pond and beautiful hillside garden. We sat and admired the view (again, completely by ourselves in the quiet) before exploring the entire maze of rooms. We then walked through the gardens and basked in the Zen of it all.

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Tatami-floored rooms in Shoren-in’s main residence

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Shoren-in’s garden

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View of bamboo trees at Shoren-in

We also spent some time wandering through old-town Kyoto’s side streets, where we ran into several geishas in full traditional garb. We’re pretty sure, however, that the woman in the photo below is not a real geisha. We read that many tourists pay to be dressed up in the full geisha costume and then walk the streets of old-town Kyoto. After we saw this woman pose for her boyfriend while pretending to push a button on a beer vending machine, we had our doubts.

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“Geisha” in old-town Kyoto

Our final temple visit of the day was to Kiyomizu-dera, which is built on wooden stilts and spans the expanse of a valley. It was also quite beautiful, but very crowded with tourists and school groups, which detracted from the experience somewhat. Or perhaps it was my exhausted legs and feet … not sure. But we did see a beautiful sunset here before walking back down the hill to catch a train back to our hostel.

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Wooden prayer tiles at Kiyomizu-dera

All in all, it was a very full two days. Full of walking, full of Zen, full of quiet, full of cold air, and full of total beauty. (It was also full of great food, but we’ll hold ourselves back on the food front for this post at least.)

Okonomiyaki in Osaka

See our gallery of photos tagged with “osaka”.

With our tight schedule, we only had one full day to explore Osaka, our first stop in Japan. We began our day by visiting the ever-popular “Mr. Donuts” chain for a quick donut, but decided to save our yen by skipping the restaurant’s three dollar coffee, and buying a one dollar hot canned coffee from a street-side vending machine instead. More on these later…

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Typical Osaka side-street

Now caffeinated, we took the subway to Osaka-jo, the famous castle in the middle of the city and Japan’s most visited sight. Here we wandered the grounds with a few other tourists and school groups.

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Osaka-jo

However, before we knew it, the US military police had stormed in with a recruiting bus.

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Wait… what’s going on here?

After talking to one of the personnel, we learned that a TV drama was being filmed here. Too bad they didn’t need any extras!

After the castle, we wandered along the river and then went to “City Mall”, a large shopping mall nearby and headed for the restaurant floor at the top of the building. Here we found a nice sushi restaurant with a good lunch deal that included sushi, miso soup, and tempura.

After a brief break back at the hostel, we headed out to Dotombori, a popular entertainment district in Osaka. This neighborhood is packed with restaurants, bars, shops, and most strikingly, large neon signs:

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Abby in front of the famous neon Glico sign

In this neighborhood, we headed to Dotombori Gokuraku Shotengai, (also known as the Osaka Food Theme Park) a restaurant complex recommended by our guidebook. This food center occupies the top three floors of a building in the center of the neighborhood, with an early-1900’s theme and over fifty restaurants, many featuring Osaka specialties. Here we found a restaurant serving okonomiyaki, one of these specialties, which is a large grilled meat and vegetables pancake. First cooked by the chef, it was then transferred to a grill in the middle of our table where we further cooked it to our liking.

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By the time we finished the okonomiyaki, we were beat. We wandered the streets a little more, then headed back to our cozy hostel.

What Is It?? Round VIII – Official Results

After a brief hiatus, Allison springs back into action and wins the eighth round of “What is it??”. Yes, the delicacy being produced here is Yomogi Mochi, also known as Kusa Mochi. We found this machine in Nara, Japan with an audience of spectators and patrons. As Allison noted, Yomogi Mochi is infused with mugwort, which gives it its green color, and inside was a sweet red bean paste. Tasty!

Also note that this machine represents a huge advancement in the production of Yomogi Mochi, and is far safer and less tiring than the traditional method:


Courtesy of japanvisitor.com

What is it?? Round VIII

As we have entered the final week of our 18-week journey, we thought we would kick it up a notch and introduce the first video installment of What is it??. Same rules apply. Best of luck.

P.S. We are purposely not revealing our current location to make things a bit trickier.