Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Continuing my recent blogging vein with a tantalizing taste of my Japan adventures.... Some highlights:

*I was lucky enough to have a university friend, JJ, to stay with during my time in Japan. JJ even trekked out from Tottori (a small city where he was teaching English) to Osaka to meet me at the airport and spend the weekend in Osaka. That meant that instead of affording a sense of deep, overwhelming anxiety, jumping head first into Japanese society was exciting, fascinating, and generally great.

The Osaka skyline
*To start with, we had a fantastic night out, trying all sorts of delicious Osakan foods, wandering the streets of the city's ultra-trendy neighborhoods, stopping in a British-themed bar where I had my first umeshu (totally delicious plum wine), admiring the crazy out-there Japanese fashions at a particularly notorious intersection, and capping the evening with--what else--karaoke

*JJ convinced me that I had to experience a "capsule hotel," a unique Japanese experience where in a hotel-goer stays in what is essentially an enclosed train berth (but much more high-tech and futuristic feeling) in a huge hall full of said berths. The hotel had an extraordinary otherworldly feel to it (more on this in my later post on Osaka), replete with super-high tech gadgets (don't get me started on Japanese toilets...). In the women's bath I met Violetta, a Romanian mathematician with a Japanese husband who invited me to come see her in Matsue, a small city near Tottori

An awkward photo of my capsule* JJ and I splashed out on tickets for the semi-annual sumo wrestling tournament (which is held only once a year in southern Japan.) It was spectacular, a complete cultural immersion, an event which in many ways felt like it could have been taking place centuries in the past. Completely worth the money.

At the sumo tournament

*JJ and I took a day trip to Nara, where there are some temples and lots of tame deer walking around. The temples include both the oldest and largest standing wooden structures in the world. They are soberly gorgeous examples of Buddhist architecture (and, thanks to a course on the topic, JJ was able to regale me with the wonders of that architecture)

The largest wooden structure in the world (the dots are people)

JJ feeding a deer
The one on the left is the oldest standing wooden structure in the world


*Tottori is a little city about 2.5 hours northwest of Osaka. To say it doesn't get much in the way of tourism is an understatement. In fact, I met a Tottori-ite in Australia and told him I was planning to visit in March. He looked at me and said, "Why?!" Nevertheless, I spent more than a week with JJ just soaking in everyday Japanese life. I met his fellow teachers, tried lots of delicious Japanese food (including sushi, for the first time!), went to a local onsen (Japanese bath), explored the fabulous local toy museum, and relished the feeling of being in one place for awhile.

Going to "kaiten sushi" ("conveyor belt" sushi)
Octopus at a fish market in Tottori
At the fantastic toy museum in Tottori
*When JJ wasn't working, we went sightseeing together. He showed me his favorite tea house/garden, and we went together to the 'famous' Tottori dunes and on a lovely boat ride on the coast. I also got to see his taiko (traditional Japanese drumming) troupe preparing for a big performance.

The coast near Tottori
JJ practices with his taiko troupe

*JJ had long-standing plans to go to South Korea for a long weekend, so I made good on Violetta's invitation and took the train to Matsue, a city a few hours from Tottori. I stayed in a ryokan, or old-fashioned Japanese inn, and during the days Violetta showed me around her favorite Matsue sights. We took a walk around the lake, visited the castle (one of the largest in Japan), went to a beautiful temple complex/tea garden, ate at an incredibly charming 9-seat restaurant and splurged on a pre-set menu with all the delicacies from the lake, and went for a drive with her husband to the stunning Sakaiminato coast.

The most adorable restaurant

Mother and daughter who work at the restaurant
Sunset on the Sakaiminato coast
Matsue castle by night, complete with cherry blossoms and people having celebratory drinking parties (called "hanami") underneath them
*I was lucky enough to have a few chances to visit Mochigase, a picture-perfect where JJ taught part of the time. The first time I visited the school to watch JJ teach, the second time for the Mochigase doll festival, and the third time to give back to the school and help JJ make a giant English-language poster including several of my travel photos from the trip thus far.

*Visiting JJ's school was great fun. In each class he introduced me and had me tell the students a little bit about my trip. Then I helped them play a game of English grammar battle ship. During free periods we chatted with the other teachers and sat in on a music lesson.

Walking back from school through the adorable streets of Mochigase
*Happily, the annual Mochigase doll festival, a spring fertility festival which celebrates women's strength, took place about half way through my time in Japan. During the festival, all the houses in town put out beautiful displays of traditional dolls, people float similar dolls down the river to pray for their daughters' growth, and those daughters dress up in their best kimono for the same purpose. The day itself was beautiful and warm, and I was maybe the only Westerner in all of the proceedings. I wandered through the scene taking pictures, ate some delicious homemade mochi (pounded potato-flour candy), and set my own doll off down the river to pray for strength for me and any daughters to come.

A beautiful example of the traditional doll displays

Everywhere I looked there were little Japanese girls wearing kimono and having a cute-off contest. (They all won.)

Floating the dolls down the river

*I spent my last long weekend in Japan exploring the wonders of Kyoto. First I met up with a fellow Boston couchsurfer, Mike, and we explored the fantastic Shinto shrine-filled mountain of Fushimi Inari and walking the geisha district in awe of the beautiful tea houses.

Shinto gates at Fushimi Inari
The stunning beauty of Gion geisha district tea houses in cherry blossom season
*For a couple of days after that I stayed with Mami, the Japanese girlfriend of one of JJ's co-teachers, and we spent an exhausting and amazing 11-hour day walking all over the city exploring temples, a Zen garden, and the Temple; celebrating the sakura (cherry blossom festival) with harp music and traditional food; and capping the evening off with a mountain temple complex, the Kyoto castle, and an exquisite (if expensive) meal in the Pontocho bar district.

The golden temple

A shinto shrine complex with its sakura in full bloom and its festival booths up to celebrate
The mountain-top temple by night
*Finally, JJ arrived in Kyoto, and we spent a couple of days exploring his former home (he had studied in the city for a year during University), going to a traditional fan dance performance, having our own hanami with some other Wesleyan students on the same program, and splurging on tickets for the miyako odori, the semi-annual dance performance put on by competing geisha houses in the city to showcase the talent of their new students.

The fan dance performance

Our very own hanami
A scene from the miyako odori
A geisha spotted on the street near Gion

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