Tuesday May 22nd: Deer Nara,

I had decided after arriving in Nagoya that I wouldn’t spend a day at a hostel in Nara, rather I would spend an extra night at the hotel and simply commute to Nara. It was only about 100 minutes hotel to station. That and I really didn’t want to move again and then walk somewhere around 15km to explore Nara (not that I knew I would walk quite that much), and then 3 more in Nagoya.

Commuting also meant that I would have a chance to briefly get a few pictures of the Nagoya subway, Kyoto shinkansen platform, and Kyoto station interior, not that any of those came out particularly well.

Well, the shinkansen arrival picture was okay.

Continue reading

Thursday’s Photos: Jazz, Scotch, Sake, and Zen Buddhist Vegetarian

Dropbox here.

Wednesday: Tea, Monkeys, and the Yakuza

I decided to go visit the monkey park and maybe the bamboo forest. Realizing I hadn’t been in a tea ceremony, and that there was a place just East of the hostel, I would sign up for one Thursday. I went up there and tried to schedule the ceremony for noon. However as he checked with the tea master, it turned out noon wasn’t that good tomorrow.

“Tomorrow noon is not so good. How about right now?”

“Uhh, okay, sure.”

I should note, I may be wrong, but from the very beginning he seemed a little overly happy that I was there. I’m now not sure if it was because of the camera I had dangling off my neck, but it almost seemed like there was an air of desperation? The shop looked to be in good order, and I don’t think they were encountering difficulties I say that because another person came in for a ceremony just after mine.

Still, it was a little odd at first. Perhaps it was also that he got to practice his English, though it was quite good, especially for someone who has lived in Kyoto all his life, in 110 year-old house built by his grandparents. Later the tea master (his wife) seemed quite pleased that the reason I came in was the note on the sign outside. Perhaps it was her idea.

His mother painted these and two more (sorry for low light).

Getting back to it… I was in hiking clothes, not really prepared for a ceremony, but he assured me it was okay, as it was more about what was in my heart coming into the ceremony than anything else.

I was provided a sheet of paper describing Chado “The way of Tea”. I will say reading the wiki, what I encountered was not that complex or long, but I also didn’t pay a huge amount of money, and it was already quite a bit to take in.

This is matcha unlike what I have had before. It also includes an opening confectionery which is wagashi in Japanese. They were basically uncooked sweet azuki mochi with some hint of rose, as they were to celebrate the blooming of roses (Spoiler: I saw some roses later).

As formal as I had assumed it to be, the behaviors were much more strict. Positions on the tatami mats was important, as was the direction of the bowls… though as they are old bowls that were hand painted, I guess that makes sense. Keep mouths and fluids off the paint if you can.

The worst of it was that the traditional form of sitting is to have your legs folded directly under you, knees forward, and guess who scraped up his knee just 30 hours prior? That’s right. They said it was okay if I sat cross legged, but I eventually found a way to sit ‘correctly’ without angering my knee.

Most of the actions preformed were by the person learning to make the tea being instructed by the tea master, I just had to copy the woman acting as the recipient’s guide.

First thing was entry into the room, which I had to kind of skip due to my knee, but you start from a sitting position, outside the threshold, and then sort of lift and push yourself into position saying something at each point. The next bit was the confection, which you slice into smaller pieces using what looks like a tiny chopstick crossed with a toothpick (sadly I didn’t get a picture of that). After cutting a wedge, you take it using the took like a toothpick in a bit of cheese.

These are tasty, no joke.

This is done while the water is heating. Once both are complete, the maker opens the jar of matcha, adds the amount needed with a wooden tea scoop, which is a straight wooden tool with an upward curve at the end, and what looked like a groove cut into the center length wise, to better hold the powder.

Water is then added, using a wooden cup on a bamboo arm, but not a large amount, maybe 1/5th of the bowl. Finally with a bamboo wisk, it is mixed together into a smooth and very bright green liquid. The bowl is rotated in the maker’s hand to admire the bowl, and is then placed in front of the guest with the display prominently facing the guest. The guest then bows to the tea master, the tea maker, and the next guest.

Once bowing is complete the guest takes the bowl with their right hand, places it into their left, rotates about 90 degrees to the side containing no artwork, and then drinks the tea. Finally the bowl is set back down, and is admired from the left and right.

There is also a part where the tea container and scoop are displayed to each of the guests, however that part I only observed. After which thanks were exchanged, and we exited the tea room. I chatted a bit more with the owner while the tea master and maker started to prepare again. It was then I told him I wasn’t just traveling, I was taking pictures and writing about it. More so than ever, he lit up. Quickly he translated this discovery to the others, and they invited me to pretty much take pictures of anything and everything.

So I did.

Afterwards we thanked each other, and I went outside to get a picture of the exterior, as I was just about to head off, he came running out with a card for the store.

Why not? If you ever find yourself in Kyoto, they are on the North side on the Eastern part Gojo Street, just a block or so East of the Gojozaka bus stop. You can stop by on your way to Kiyomizu. They even have a meditation garden. Also also pottery.

Tou Tensei Kawasaki Pottery Shop

After this I headed Westward. I encountered a big and tall clothing store, and figured hey, comparatively, right? Well, turns out I’m at about the bottom of the scale, and their cheapest pants were about $60. Guess I can probably try elsewhere.

I decided to save 220 yen and use my JR pass which meant more walking, but hey, I’d see more. I’d also have to go back to the main train station. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad when I didn’t have my luggage and could actually move. Go figure. I hopped on the train to the Saga-Arashiyama station, which is, kind of a midway between Saga and Arashiyama mountian.

Roses on the way to the monkey park.

The monkeys were on the Arashiyama side, and both parks closed at about 17:00. Thankfully the Monkey Park was actually open until 17:30, and they’re kind of soft on that once you’re inside. That was really good because if you walk casually, it takes about 20 minutes just to get to the viewing area. I did kind of break the rules and took a few pictures on the way there, mostly of signage, no one was coming in so I wasn’t slowing people down. Probably because it was near closing time and it was raining and… oh yes. Let me get side tracked a moment.

As I got to the river just off of Arashiyama, a dark cloud rolled overhead. I heard rumblings. I’ve yet to see lighting even now, but this is the second time in a few days I’ve heard thunder. What the hell was I doing? I’m going to a park, on a mountain. Higher elevation, and trees. This goes against everything I learned as a child about lightning safety. Still, it’s a forest, and it seemed to be staying in the clouds. Real life isn’t Final Fantasy 10, you don’t have to dodge lightning, it goes after more attractive conductors, and really, in a forest of conductors, chances seemed pretty good. I would have been pissed though, as I would have lost my pictures. Well, that and I would have been struck by lightning. Had I survived though, loss of pictures would have been a major disappointment because I captured a few good ones.

Clearly I have my priorities straight.

Monkeys. Wow. Okay. So, the viewing area. As I approached I actually saw a monkey in the distance, I figured what better time? Turns out every minute up in the viewing area. The monkeys are wild, but very accustomed to people. I mean really used to us. They actually were sort of blocking the path and I didn’t really want to get closer lest I disturb them, not knowing yet how they react (or don’t), besides they were still good pictures.

Minimum focal length is 1.5 meters.

So yeah, I had seen monkeys before at zoos and the no longer named as such San Diego Wild Animal Park, but I had never been surrounded by monkeys before. Or been within a few meters of an infant monkey. These Japanese macaques sure don’t mind a whole lot though, as long as you follow the no staring in the eyes bit and the whole keeping food out of sight bit.

Always looking for mom’s attention.

There was also a fishpond and a warthog. I didn’t remember the sign mentioning warthogs, just birds and deer. I decided to wrap up about five minutes after closing, not that anyone had said a thing, but I didn’t want to make it an issue. I hiked back down the return path which was less paved and more slick clay than the way up, so I put the camera away. It already got one shock test this week, no need for a second one on rougher terrain.

I decided to walk further up the single lane path that nominally would lead to a zen temple, but it has been closed for it looks like quite some time. Everything beyond the signs looked pretty deserted, I’m not sure if it has been a few harsh seasons, or years. I saw another crane, making three for the day, but this one was less friendly. I just missed it going into flight twice, but that second time was it, as it had enough of me being within eyesight. There was also a tiny duck that I was about to take a picture of, when it dove under water and swam quite quickly, resurfaced about 30 feet away, saw that I could still be seen, and dove again swam beyond what I could see.

Not pleased I was taking pictures (270mm).

After the duck, I gave up on this side, and went over the other side of the river, discovering there was a hydroelectric dam there, which explained all the other bits along the river. I also discovered my shutter speed was too fast to capture all the numbers on the real time kw/hr output display.

The sun was really setting now and I was focused on getting some neat pictures (I just noticed the vertical images are not re-sized correctly, so this will be fun), not really paying a whole lot of attention. Turns out the people waxing their car were Yakuza. Didn’t really know they had a notable presence in Kyoto. They do. Also Seattle’s Sister City, Kobe, has the headquarters for the largest Yakuza gang in the world.

Anyway it turns out that they don’t really like people with big cameras anywhere near them, their nice car, nor their horrible fashion sense, and for the first time since arriving, I heard anger. I apologized profusely for daring to be on a public sidewalk with a camera, switched lenses to the 300, found a safe distance and grabbed a few for fun.

Don’t try this at home kids.

The reason the Yakuza are tolerated is because they don’t bring violence to innocents and typically ignore foreigners. Sure they extort money from companies big and small, sure they had a hand in about 10% of the bad loans during the bubble and crash. But I guess they responded faster than the government during the earthquake in Kobe 15 years ago. Still public favor is beginning to wane due to the increase in drug abuse and for a time an increase in open violence. This led to the large crackdowns in Akasaka during the last decade. They may still go out in an obviously public way there, but overt illegal behavior is supposedly rarely seen, at least in Tokyo.

I made my way towards the closed bamboo forest, and hiked a bit on the open paths, though so well walked I would hardly call it hiking. Still, there were some further beautiful vistas, and I think I saw the temple under reconstruction, as well as further dilapidated shops along the way. I did find a portion where it would have been true hiking, but it was too dense, and with the sun about down, I decided to head back home.

Just like leaving Kyoto, they waved me through before even really looking at my JR Pass. I can now see how a roommate in Tokyo accidentally (that was the word he used anyway) used his a day after it had expired. I actually managed to read a bit on the train back to Kyoto, for the second time now. I’m much busier than I had ever anticipated.

I supposed I shouldn’t be too shocked. When I’m not out adventuring, I’m turning this into a job that doesn’t pay, updating daily, sorting an increasing number of pictures a day. Yeah, I’m smart.

I still don’t know what I’m doing today, but it’s getting into the afternoon, it’s nearly 15:00. Maybe I’ll walk down South and see the really unassuming Nintendo headquarters.

Monday: Kyoto Take Two

I fear this post may be a bit shorter than the last, I already went through the accident at the end, and for a large part of my day there really wasn’t a whole lot to say.

For my second day in Kyoto I decided to set off further North to try to reach the Heian Jingu Shrine, which has some of the latest blooming Cherry Blossoms in Kyoto. It was also featured in Lost in Translation and the garden is one of the most famous. It’s also about 3-4 times larger than the garden I went to in Minato-ku Tokyo.

I covered much of the same ground I did in the late afternoon of Sunday, but I would have about 2km further to walk. I once again passed the Fire Station, which is required if I’m going pretty much anywhere, it appeared as though they were preparing for some sort of drill.

Also there was a dog tied to a fish tank display.

I made my way further down the street and noticed a sign pointing to a shrine I hadn’t noticed. Oddly it was a street I had been down, but came from the opposite direction. When I came across the garden with the statues I knew I was right, but somehow, I didn’t look the other direction.

Easy to miss, really.

I went a bit further up but it appeared closed off, so I went back to my mission only to be once again distracted once I made it past the furthest shrine I saw on Sunday. It appeared that there was a fairly long street through a gate, followed by another doored gate, followed by quite a few steps, and then temple grounds.

Yeah, like that.

There were signs indicating that a the central temple was closed off for construction. This is partially correct. The building is under construction, but it appears that they are far enough along that parts of it are actually open to the public. Large parts of the building were unpainted wood, and even the parts that were, looked like simple modern construction designed to vaguely resemble the traditional designs. I presume it is just a starting point, but it still looked a bit strange.

High contrast construction.

Finally, I worked my way around, followed a sort of canal bypass street which still had a partially open, granite drain for the water to flow down to a street that was a straight shot to the target shrine. Now I had heard that the gate in front of the shrine was big, but… they’re not kidding. Outside Kyoto’s National Museum of Modern Art there appeared to be some sort of small film production going on. Had I been smart I would have taken a picture of the back of the chairs, but I’m not.

No tricks of prospective, it’s just huge.

Finally arriving at my primary goal for the day, I found myself inside a large courtyard covered with a thin layer of off white gravel. The grounds themselves were quite interesting to look at, and the cougar and dragon guardians were quite photogenic.

Finding myself finally there, I did notice looking past the entrance to the garden, that the cherry trees, had not one blossom upon them, nor even any to be seen on the ground and the entry fee was 600 yen. I hemmed and hawed but eventually decided that it was probably going to be worth it regardless of cherry blossoms.

Avid readers will remember I mentioned two missteps when talking about my Monday night accident. This was the figurative one.

Don’t get me wrong, the garden is still quite beautiful, however it was, at least at the moment, not worth the price of entry. Unlike the garden in Minato, it is overly reliant upon cherry blossoms. It seemed the second largest arrangements are lilies, which have only just started to bloom, there are few parts that will be interesting the entire year.

Now pretend those lilies are blooming.

The worst of it is that the garden is quite linear, direction signs everywhere, back tracking is discouraged, every small island was closed. The steps in the image above, were closed off. And the entire last quarter of the garden was closed. None of this information was available even via pictograms or map updates. I’m not asking for English, but something would be nice.

I don’t want to come across as though I didn’t enjoy the garden. It was still quite pretty and the water was so clear you could see the turtles without issue. Regardless, I would have rather gone back to the one in Minato as it seemed so much more relaxing and they ensured something large was always in bloom.

Damnit, I really wanted to walk across the stone platform bridge thingy!

Hindsight appears to be harsher than I felt at the time, and I really do want to get across that probably most of my frustration is now amplified due to the accident later.

Though far too late to actually go inside, I decided to look at the Imperial Palace grounds, which are primarily giant parks, and is nearly 1.5km long. I would need to cross over a semi-dry riverbed, and past Japan’s first commercial hydroelectric plant.

Bricks were in back then.

I would also find a liquor store which had fairly decent prices, such as Lagavulin 16 for $68. Grocery stores also caught my eye, a more expensive Fresco, and one of two stores claiming to be co-ops but appearing to actually be brands, and are at best the same price as Fresco. This was the first time I looked at the price of rice. The largest bags are 5kg, and the cheapest I saw was 1980 yen. That’s about $25 for 11lbs. Rice. Potatoes are 38 yen per 100 grams, which puts them at about the same price as rice.

At least the booze is fairly reasonably priced.

Shockingly I eventually made it to the park, and began walking around, it was so vast you could completely forget the city and find a place thick enough with trees you could forget there was anything else.

In the middle of a city.

I decided to look at the front gate of the palace, and it was okay. Just prior to getting to them I was a little distracted by a giant white dog. Near the gates, out of the corner of my eye I saw a small cat running into the bushes, hiding from a man on a bike complete with a dog in the basket. At first I thought the cat to be overreacting, but the man was actually chasing the cat around.

A mean man, a dog staring at the cat, and Annie.

After he left, I tried to see if I could calm the cat down, I softly approached, attempting to mimic the meow the cat was making through my cold. While the cat continued to talk back, once again, like all but one cat, it remained distrustful of me. Later on another man on a bike came, and he bore food. That seemed to get the cat’s trust. Go figure.

Hiding from the bikedog.

I was always afraid meowing at cats would get me in trouble. Just as I was giving up on calming down the cat (or kitten or I don’t even know, so many of them are so small, I wonder if they get enough food to actually grow) I heard something like, “You have a pretty good meow.”

“Years of practice.”

“Where?” “Seattle” “Hawaii, Big Island” “Sean” “Annie”

Cleverly I take advantage of the conversation to actually sit down for the first time in six or seven hours.

Turns out she is studying abroad, majoring in English Lit and Linguistics focusing on Japanese, which she can speak a fair amount due to half of her family, but living in Hawaii, never really had much to practice reading with. During this conversation I also discovered that mosquitoes like this park, and me.

She had a test on kanji today. Hopefully she did well.

At this point all natural light had faded. I began walking home, thinking I might make a rectangle of my trip, but then I realized I didn’t want to walk all the way back to Fresco, so I would only venture so far before cutting back to know streets.

I found yet another liquor store, and it had even less of a selection of regular items, it was pretty much all alcohol. The selection was amazing, and unlike the last place it had better prices, and the scotch I was looking for.

Also the best in the world, the Yamazaki 25, for $1200.

I probably spent 30 minutes deciding if I would actually buy the Miyagikyo 12, but I eventually pulled the trigger. It was expensive, but still about $60 cheaper than you can get it in Canada… since it doesn’t come to the USA. I also picked up a can of stout from Japan’s first micro-brewery. It was okay.

On my way back, I investigated the subway, but I couldn’t find anything that would get me near the hostel, and the information guy wasn’t sure of anything that went near Gojo either. I didn’t think it would be a big deal, just would have been nice for the future.

I also investigated drug stores to check prices there on pain killers, which is when I found out how expensive those are. However I guess that takes us back to Failure Snatched From the Hands of Victory.

Right after the “shock test” to check for lens damage.

Which means I’m finally caught up, since the update for today will be to write, something like: “I processed photos and wrote the updates you’ve now read while I healed from my injuries. It took all day. I didn’t buy the sashimi because I wasn’t hungry after having the thing I purchased for lunch.”

Hooray! Done with my work that I technically don’t have to do, but feel compelled to do so anyway.