Archive for July, 2008

apparently I am google

For some reason, I get a lot of wrong-number SMS messages. Sometimes they’re explicable: it made perfect, if annoying sense that I’d get text messages from teenagers in area code 817 (Dallas, TX) since my phone number is in 718. Sometimes, however, they made so little sense as to make me suspect that Verizon was just completely mis-delivering messages.

Case in point, from the day before yesterday:

425-765-6XXX: Circa 1980’s music video done in black & white, guy in coffee shop & gets pulled into newspaper comic strip then crumpled up & thrown away?

Me: “Take On Me” by A-Ha. …btw, who is this?

425-765-6XXX: So sorry! Have no idea how u got this message, was sent to 1 person on contact list of which u r not one. Must have been glitch, but thank u very much for info!

Me: happy to help!
I guess it was just lucky that this person’s message got delivered to someone with an encyclopedic memory of early-80s MTV programming.

Area code 425 is apparently northern Washington state. I have no idea.


Sadly for my ability to tell further tales of geek commerce frustration, but happily for my ability to, you know, make and receive phone calls, yesterday’s story ended rather anticlimactically: I walked into the AT&T Store at 20th & Mission, and hadn’t even gotten a quarter of the way into my tale of woe when the support rep there kindly cut me off: “oh, right, you need to do a relocation and port!” Apparently this is common enough that the people there have done it before. An awesomely competent young woman named Monica wrote a few details down on a post-it note, told me to hang loose while she went in back and made some phone calls, and about 40 minutes later it was all over: I didn’t even have to wait 6 hours for the port to complete. She even wished me a happy pre-birthday. I think I may have to take back at least half a few dozen bad things I’ve said about AT&T.

Of course, it’s still a little sad that if they’re aware enough of this scenario to be able to quickly fix it that it still happens in the first place, but considering that my first job out of college was actually at AT&T, where I was paid $10/hour to take fan-fold dot matrix printouts from one database and type portions of it into another database… well, it’s just not that surprising.

(That job is more or less responsible for the strange thing I call my ‘career’ today. After two weeks of possibly the most intense tedium that I have ever encountered as a human being, I finally found one of the floppy disks that the printouts were being made from, and taught myself enough MS Access BASIC to write an import program. Two months later, they finally noticed that despite the fact that the database kept getting populated I appeared to be spending all of my time reading, and one of the IT staff there gave me the name of a tech recruiter: a month later, I had my job at BBN. For all I know, that program may still be in production use there.)

So yeah, I can has iPhone. It’s shiny!

Also: happy birthday to , , and the eternally blogless but still awesome Hurricane Kari! Oh yeah, and to me.

bring back ma bell

9:10am — get an SMS message on my Treo, explaining that there is a new Critical Firmware Update for my model Treo on Verizon Wireless, and that I must install it immediately in order for billing to continue to function directly. Oh god. The last time I tried to do an firmware update on my Treo, it took most of a day. Fuck this noise: I already knew I was going to get an iPhone, may as well bite the bullet.

Arrive Apple Store Palo Alto 11:10am. Get in line. A few minutes later, a perky young woman in an orange t-shirt comes up, asks me what model iPhone I want, hands me a ticket for that model, and explains that I can wait in line (estimated 45 to 90 minutes) or come back later. I ask if I’ll still have to wait in line if I come back later: in fact I will. Fine, I will wait: I’ve got a zipcar until 1:30pm, and I’m parked in a 2-hour space.

11:55am — arrive at the head of the line. Not bad, not bad. A chipper young man takes my ticket, leads me into the store and starts asking me about what kind of plan I want and do I already have an AT&T account? I’ve got my Verizon account info in hand and know exactly which plan I’m signing up for: he’s happy, this is going to go quickly.

12:30pm — four different attempts to port my old cell phone number have failed. Each attempt requires starting the entire process over from scratch, including running my credit card through for a credit check and having me manually input my SSN into the chipper young man’s handheld. Each attempt to run my credit card through the handheld takes 5 minutes of frantically swiping in hopes that this time it will actually read the magnetic strip. Finally after the fourth try, the now less-chipper young man suggests that maybe we can set up my account with a new number, and then I can walk into an AT&T store and have them do the port there. He says he’s sorry about this, and that usually he recommend as little contact with AT&T as possible. I assent.

12:40pm — the now strongly aggravated young man goes in search of a new handheld unit, as his one is no longer even pretending to be willing to read any of my credit cards.

12:50pm — the first attempt to register the account with a new number has failed. He calls AT&T, tells them the magic words, and they tell him that it’s because he entered my billing address as “Box 12345” instead of “P.O. Box 12345” and that the system doesn’t support this. He relates this information to me with an expression of incredulity. A few moments later, he gets cut off from AT&T and has to re-dial them. As he is attempting to re-establish contact with someone with a clue at AT&T support the session on his handheld expires and the unit resets.

1:05pm — I am starting to get a little nervous about my borrowed car and its parking space

1:20pm — After two more tries, with an AT&T rep on the phone with him, he succeeds in activating a number! I’m done, right?

1:21pm — No, apparently the phone has to be connected to a computer running iTunes, right now, in the store, and activated. I call zipcar and let them know that I’ll be returning the car late.

1:31pm — I leave the store, clutching my new phone and a receipt.

1:45pm — at work, at my desk, I realize that they gave me someone else’s receipt, unless my name has recently changed to “Matthias Vaska” without my knowledge. Call Apple Store.

1:55pm — finally make my way through the voicemail tree and hold queue. Am informed by a different chipper young man that they can’t email me my receipt, but if I come back to the store any time in the next few days they can reprint it. Great.

2:00pm — Figuring that I may as well get all of my time-wastage done at once, call AT&T, am transferred to the porting department.

2:25pm — Am told the following:

1. In order to port my old 718 (New York City) area-code number, I will need to have the operating area of the phone temporarily changed back to new york city.
2. To do this, they will need a NYC address to associate with the account, even if it’s never used for billing.
3. Then they will need to issue a new SIM card with a temporary NYC number and install it into the phone.
4. Once the new SIM card is installed, THEN they can port my Verizon number.
5. …and since this requires physically changing SIM cards, the only way to do this is to personally walk the phone into an AT&T corporate store.

Best retail experience EVAR!

I’m sure more hilarity will ensue once I actually make it to an AT&T store. Stay tuned!

best thing about The Dark Knight?

Hey, I own several of those knives!


A number of people have, quite reasonably, said something along the lines of “jesus you’re an overly verbose bastard. I kinda liked your travelogues, but I’m going to have to catch up on them later.” And it’s true: I wrote way too much.

So for those of you who were planning on going back and reading it during some hypothetical future moment of leisure that may or may not ever come, I have helpfully provided a one-stop shop:

And now, at long last, you get to hear me STFU about this damn trip, for which the rest of the world is undoubtedly grateful.

teach your children well

You know how when most people say “I have this kind of embarrassing question, but I’m asking for a friend?” they’re transparently asking for themselves? Well, I have a question for a friend (or rather that my friend asked me that I didn’t have a good answer for, and rapidly found interesting enough to bring to a wider audience), and it’s sort of tangentially not worksafe, but since it involves having a 13-year-old son (which last I checked, I do not), I get to say with assurance that it really is for a friend. So here goes:

Is there any “how to talk to your teenager about pornography” parenting-advice material — books, web pages, what have you — that doesn’t completely suck?

I spent some time combing through the most popular google search results for “talking to kids about porn”, and oh my god the stupid it burns. Just wall-to-wall awful. Here’s a quote from the number one search result:

You need to be worried about your son’s frequent, intense relationship with pornography primarily because of what it teaches him about sex and women. If you allow porn to be the principal sex educator of your son, you risk serious impairment of his healthy psychosexual development. Porn will teach him that girls and women want and enjoy being sexually used, dominated, and humiliated by men. It will encourage your son to try out the harmful fantasies that porn offers, including the fantasy that women secretly want to be taken forcibly or that they want to be raped. Porn will teach your son to objectify women, to treat them as toys who exist solely for his sexual gratification. Pornography is devoid of tenderness, caring, or loving in its images.
How do you compress that much Wrong into a single paragraph? Oh, I know: make sweeping generalizations, avoid historical context at all cost, omit any and all qualifying adjectives, and leap instantly to the reducto ad absurdem case! Feel free, you’ve got a Masters of Education, you’re qualified to do it!

…I mean, god knows, internet pornography has certainly turned me into exactly the sort of psychopathic monster described there.

So in my hypothetical perfect universe, there would be a “talking with your horny adolescent about porn” pamphlet that would contain the following:
  • No implicit anti-sex bias.
    • Acknowledge that porn has existed for a good long time.
    • Acknowledge that men and women have looked at (and created) porn for a very long time.
    • Acknowledge that masturbation is okay. (Seriously, you would be amazed at the amount of material on this subject that either never mentions it or only coyly alludes to it. It’s like they’re talking about porn as experienced and used by some alien species only distantly if at all related to humanity.)
  • An explanation that porn is (mostly) Not Real.
    • Emphasize that it’s a paid performance job.
    • Contextualize porn inside the larger world of fantasy entertainment (real police don’t act like they do on cop shows, so therefore..?)
    • Delve into the un-glamorous mechanics of producing porn: enemas, viagra, vats of lube, editing, lighting, overdubbing, photoshop, etc.
  • Healthy skepticism about the porn industry itself
    • Emphasize that it’s just a job, and it’s often a crappy job.
    • Explain the realities of how porn workers are often paid and treated.
    • Explore the incentives the profit motive creates.
    • Acknowledge that some pretty despicable behavior has and does gone on in the making of a lot of porn.
  • Reality-based commentary
    • Actual interviews with current and former performers, not just ex-officio pronouncements by some random PhD, and ideally a mix of positive and negative commentary.
    • Acknowledge the limits of generalization: “porn” encompasses a lot of territory, and different people will experience it differently both as producers and consumers
  • Actual historical background
    • Greek vases, the Song of Solomon, Sappho, Walt Whitman, 1920s muscle magazines: nothing takes the wind out of a teenager’s sails like realizing that he didn’t invent sex himself…
    • Some acknowledgement that there have always been wildly differing opinions on porn’s morality and effects, and that it’s an ongoing debate.

Does such a thing exist? Could such a thing exist? For that matter, is there some aspect of it that I’m missing?


(Politely, please. People who forget to cite sources or prefix opinions with “I think” will be swiftly and mercilessly disqualified by the judges.)

nyc contract sysadmin?

Hey, are any of my NYC-area geek friends interested in a 2-week contract sysadmin gig? The client is a friend and former boss of mine, and they need someone ASAP. Drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch.

method and madness

Someone made the mistake of actually asking me how the hell I wrote all of these travelogues while actually getting to do anything in Japan. For your sins, I will now proceed to tell you. At length.

First, the technical details. The thing that made this trip (and the Zürich trip) so much different (and verbose) than all of my previous trips? Very simple: I brought my laptop. Zürich was a work trip, so of course I had to bring it. Japan was for pleasure, but unlike China, Thailand or Vietnam, there’s no reason whatsoever not to bring your laptop computer with you: just leave it in your hotel room. It will still be there when you get back. It will still be there if you forget to lock the door. It will still be there if you leave the door standing wide open. It will still be there (and this we personally verified) if there isn’t a single door with a lock between it and the street and most of the walls are made of paper.

This level of safety made it possible to not only bring my laptop, but to bring two cameras: one an SLR, and one the same trusty pocket Canon that I took on my last few trips. Don’t want to lug the big camera around at night but still want to be able to take photos when necessary? Drop the little camera in the pocket and leave the SLR in the room.

…and bringing the laptop along pretty much revolutionized my travel writing. Every other trip has been a painful struggle to get enough time at an internet cafe somewhere to write up the last 2-3 days worth of stories, and uploading photos was a nonstarter. With the laptop, I could come back to the room every night, download every photo I’d took that day, pick 10 or 20 to upload to flickr, then tag and title them. In general, I’d upload and tag the day’s worth of pictures, and then write up the previous day’s travels using the pictures I’d uploaded the night before as my notes and reminders.

This also made carrying around additional memory cards for the cameras unnecessary: even at my most prolific, I never came close to filling up either camera’s card in a single day, and every morning I started out with an empty card.

This did mean sacrificing many nights after 8pm to pounding away at the laptop, but this ended up working out pretty well: not speaking Japanese and being 8-to-16 hours jetlagged meant that we weren’t going to be making any serious inroads into Tokyo’s nightlife in any case, and in the smaller cities there just wasn’t that much to do after dark unless we wanted to go sing karaoke. So it was easy to get a lot of writing done. I did miss a couple of nights due to plans or just being too tired, but I was always able to use the inter-city travel time to catch up.

Oh, the other thing about traveling in Japan that really helped this process: wifi everywhere. The only room swe stayed where I couldn’t find an open (usually the hotel’s, but not always) wifi network was the original backpacker hotel in Tokyo and the Cerulean Tower. (The Sakura offered in-room internet but our jack was broken — no matter, they had wifi in the cafe downstairs. The Cerulean had no wifi, but had an ethernet jack in the room.) Everywhere else — even the Zen monastery, the mountainside ryokan and the dodgy B&B — had wifi in the rooms, usually a solid 5 bars of reception.

This was all so incredibly helpful that I’m going to have a hard time not bringing a laptop on my next trip. But since that will probably mean carrying it with me during the day, I think I’m going to need a lighter laptop. A much lighter laptop.

With regard to the actual mechanics of doing all the writing, I had a simple trick up my sleeve: write poorly.

Writing is a never-ending war against cliche and repetition, and most writers that we think of as “good” are people who’ve managed a standoff. The “great” ones tend to win a few skirmishes and bury the evidence of their defeats. Everyone else goes down like Custer at Little Bighorn. And like in most creative endeavors, you can have speed or quality, but not both. The nice thing about travel writing from this perspective is that, putting it charitably, expectations are low: in a few months, I’m going to look back of all of this and want to commit suicide when I notice all of the hackneyed phrases, over-used adjectives and stilted descriptions, but the travel section of the New York Times frankly isn’t much better, so I can coast a bit. Actually rather a lot.

Okay, that’s maybe a bit overdramatic, but the point is: one thing I learned from my never-really-completed Vietnam travelogue was that writing well is good, but writing now is better. If someone wants to offer me money to publish this junk, then I can go back and tighten it all up.

So yeah, I managed to write somewhere in the range of 50,000 words, mostly by balancing a laptop on my knees in a series of hilariously small Japanese hotel rooms. Maybe I should think about writing a novel or something: apparently it can be done when you’re not even noticing it.

In addition to all of the verbiage, between both cameras I managed to take… exactly 2,222 photos. (For real.) This was my first trip carrying a DSLR, and for the most part I loved it. The only real problem is that… I’m not used to holding a SLR, which involves looking through the viewfinder while gripping the camera with one hand and adjusting the zoom if necessary with the other. I’m used to holding a pocket camera in front of my face with one hand and looking at the nice live image on the screen. As a result, some horribly large percentage of my photos (I’d guess at least 40 if not 50-60% — the ones I uploaded were selected carefully not to show this) are cockeyed about 10 degrees counterclockwise. I’m going to be spending days in iPhoto correcting this: if anyone has any advice about how to avoid doing this other than “practice practice practice” I’d love to hear it.

Two last notes on the technology: I was spoiled by my equipment on this trip, but I got to thinking: you can now buy 16gb memory cards for cameras for under $60. That’s a lot of space: I never came close to filling it up during the day. Why on earth doesn’t every camera in the world have a small microphone and the ability to record voice notes as I’m taking the photos? This would make it much easier to identify where photos were taken, which can get to be an issue when you’ve seen a dozen similar-looking Buddhist temples in a week.

…or even better, why not stick a GPS receiver into the camera itself, and tag every single photo with latitude and longitude coordinates? This is apparently starting to become available on some high-end pro cameras, but isn’t really available on consumer kit yet. This strikes me as ass-backards: pros already know where they’re shooting, or have workflow to let them figure it out already hammered out. It’s your average lost tourist who desperately needs this feature.

Okay, that’s it. I’m done now, for real. I’m also back in San Francisco and have to go to work tomorrow morning. God knows when I’ll actually wake up. Sleep well, kids.

the end

Kyoto defeated us. I have no compunctions about admitting it. We stayed five nights and saw, on average, three amazing historical sites per day there, and yet barely scratched the surface. There are easily another dozen places in the city limits alone that we’d highlighted as worth going to, and dozens more that hadn’t made the initial triaging round. Five nights wasn’t enough. A month probably wouldn’t be enough.

But five nights is what we had, and we’d used them all. So on Friday morning, we woke up, repacked all our bags, and were graciously given a lift by our hosts to the nearest subway station. While we were casually packing up the car, we asked them how long they’d been doing the B&B thing, and were shocked to be told that they’d been at it for 5 years. I guess they’re just pretty casual about it.

We took the subway to Kyoto station, and dropped our bags into lockers. We didn’t really have any time to go sight-seeing (we had to catch a 1:45 train in order to make it to Kansai airport in time for our 5pm flight), but we did have time for one last meal in Kyoto, and we had a recommendation for what was supposed to be an excellent Japanese set-lunch place just a few blocks from the station…

…which was closed. A sign in Japanese was posted on the door: as close as we could puzzle out, they were gone on vacation. Oh well, there was another set-lunch place next door that was open and appeared to be doing steady business, so we walked in and ordered two out of the three available set lunches at random and trusted to fate. They weren’t life-changing, but they were very good, and I can now report that Kyoto does a mean Irish-style fried fish.

Lunch over, we walked the few blocks back to the station, and headed down to the basement for some last-minute provisioning. The food on the flight from SF to Tokyo had been pretty dire even by airplane standards, and it had occurred to me that as long as we were in a country that had basically perfected the idea of take-out food on this planet, there was no reason to put up with that noise. So we headed into the basement food courts underneath the station to stock up: I got a pork cutlet curry takeaway from a Japanese take-away chain called San Marco (completely Japanese fast food, but it was what I was in the mood for and it wouldn’t be hurt by the wait for the plane), Miranda got a bento box, and we both got a few random dessert items mostly based around red bean paste. This left us with another 45 minutes to kill, which we spent mostly having a cup of tea at a cafe: we were pretty walked out by that point.

On the way back from lunch to the station, I stopped at the post office to drop off the dozen or so postcards I’d been needing to mail for days now, and on our way in to the station I saw something that I decided would serve quite well as The Last Photo I Took In Japan:

And that’s about it. We took the express train from Kyoto to Kansai International, and suddenly we were no longer in Japan but in that everywhere-yet-nowhere land that my friend Ofer calls “Airportia.” We disposed of our remaining yen in the duty-free shops, tried and failed to find an electrical outlet for my laptop, I found a new English Haruki Murikami book in paperback at the newsstand, and eventually our seats were called. The stewardesses roundly approved of our choice of carry-on food. 9 hours later, we were home.

Goodbye, Japan. We’ll be back. I waited 15 years too long to get to you, and I’m not done with you yet by a longshot.

I love a parade (when I’m not in imminent danger of dying or committing homicide)

As the penultimate entry, and one which covers a very, very long day, this is gonna be a biggie. We are crushed by crowds and awed by big things on wheels. Then we investigate the floating world and the Shogun’s old vacation castle. We make a new friend, she takes us to dinner, and we do some serious drinking. A record-setting 35 photos for this post. Just click…

I gave up on using iCal events as an alarm clock (seriously, I do this shit for a living, and my whole-vacation record for getting iCal to reliably open an alert at 6:30am Japan time was 2 in 6), and instead installed Robbie Hanson’s Alarm Clock 2, and you can consider that to be the official product recommendation of this travelogue, as it worked consistently and flawlessly. As a result, we were up and moving at 6am on Thursday morning, and were out of the house by 7:30, ready to find ourself a good float-watching spot along the parade route.

…but in a weird way, we got up too early. We’d been thinking of the Gion Matsuri parade in terms of the New York Thanksgiving day parade, the route for which is packed 10-deep hours before the parade ever starts. We were planning to show up hours early, and had intricate backup plans for what to do if our preferred watching spots were unavailable. We severely underestimated how efficiently this event would be run, to the point that when we got off the metro at Shijo station at around 8am, we were a little worried by the fact that the metro didn’t seem to be particularly full at all, and we weren’t seeing anyone dressed up in kimonos or yukatas. In fact, the subway seemed to be kind of empty for nearly rush hour on a weekday morning in Japan, and when we got up to street level, there were still cars driving freely in both directions. We started to get a horrible suspicion: had we somehow misjudged the schedule, and missed the whole parade?

Well, there was nothing for it to walk over towards where the parade was going to be and find out. We saw a few cops standing on the corner, and that gave us hope. Miranda walked up and asked one where the parade was going to be, and he happily pointed her down the street at the kickoff point. We walked a bit further down, saw a small collection of people on the sidewalk, and calmed down quite a bit: we’d obviously missed nothing. Fine, time to make our way to our corner: we walked down the road towards the corner of Shijo and Kawaramachi, and started looking for a space. This turned out to be pretty easy: there were a couple of dozen, maybe a few hundred people hanging out on the corners, but nothing overly dense: maybe the pre-parade party was more popular than the parade itself? We carefully picked a corner of the intersection that seemed to be likely to stay in the buildings’ shade for most of the day, and parked ourselves. It was about 8am.

The really impressive thing: our parade programs (there was an English edition) claimed that the parade would start passing our corner at around 9:45am, and traffic continued flowing in both directions down Kawaramachi until roughly 9:25am. Think about that: the biggest on-street event Kyoto sees in a year, a parade substantially larger than the Rose Bowl parade or the Macys Parade, and they keep the streets open until 20 minutes before the parade passes by. We were agog.

…and in addition to being agog, we were a little smushed. The crowd of onlookers, which had started out so innocent-seeming at 8am, had slowly grown more and more dense over the next 90 minutes. See, we’d been told by several people that we wanted to stay on one of the corners so that we could see the floats turn. (More on that later.) What nobody had warned us was that every other person in Kyoto was going to have the same idea. By 9am, the police were having to form corridors to get people across the street. By 9:15, it was starting to resemble a packed subway car at rush hour. By 9:30, I couldn’t shift my weight from one foot to another without leaning on one of my neighbors. What I’m trying to say here is: it was a little crowded. The weather was warm and clear with only occasional bursts of wind: even though we were in the shade, I had sweat dripping in rivers down my back, and when the wind wasn’t blowing it felt like the temperature immediately shot up another 10 degrees. I was seriously beginning to question the wisdom of this plan, but damnit we’d come to see some floats get turned, and I was going to see at least one or two.

Thankfully, we didn’t have too much longer to wait. At about 9:40, the first procession strode proudly around the corner:

…and shortly behind them, two parallel rows of men in white robes, easily fifty deep, pulling on ropes. And pulling. And pulling:

More men and more rope kept coming into view across the corner, and at last something began to emerge from behind the department store building:

…something very, very large. The first float in the parade is always the “Naginata Boko”, and at the top of it a man stands with a longsword (the ‘naginata’ of the float’s name), sweeping it back and forth to sweep away the disease and evil that the festival was originally commissioned to combat.

Now the thing about the big floats in this parade is that the parade dates from the 9th century A.D. Most of the floats have been in continuous usage since the 17th century if not earlier. They’re made of wood and iron, are 26 feet tall (not counting the spire, which can reach as high as eighty feet), and weigh in the range of 25 tons. They’re enormous:

…but the age of their design, versus the grid layout of Kyoto’s streets, presents a bit of a problem. Their axles are fixed: there was no such thing as a differential gear in the year 869, and so the wheels can neither lean nor turn independently. So how do you get a 25-ton float to turn a 90-degree corner? Simple: you put a series of several dozen bamboo rods onto the concrete, arranged carefully at the right angle to the wheels. You wet them down with water to make them slick, you roll the front wheels onto them, and lay a few more wet rods down…

…and then you get your team of 40 men to line up with their ropes at the correct angle, and HEAVE for all that they’re worth:

Sure enough, you can turn a 25-ton float this way. Sort of. Each yank on the ropes usually manages to turn the float about 30 degrees. So to get one of the big floats around the corner, you have to set up the bamboo rods and break your back pulling three times in a row. In the middle of a Kyoto summer. We could understand why people were crowding into the corners to watch this: it was astonishing. After three solid pulls, the first float was completely turned, and ready to head down the street.

After the first big float came one of the portable shines. The shrines are much smaller, and weigh a “mere” 1.5 tons each. They’re still on fixed wheels, but the turning process is much simpler: the 14-24 people who’ve been pushing/pulling the float simply pick it up, turn it the full 45 degrees, put it down and continue on their way.

We watched two of the large floats get turned at our corner…and we were done. Very, very done. It was possibly the single most uncomfortable moment we’d both had in Japan: it was starting to push 90 degrees, it was impossible to move without elbowing someone in the face, and there was no way to even get pictures without holding our cameras above our heads. Miranda was feeling faint, and I wasn’t doing much better. There was an alleyway entrance about a dozen feet from us, and we resolved to make a break for it: if we could find our way to a less packed spot further down the street, great. If not, no parade was worth getting crushed to death for. Shouting “sumimasen!” at the top of our lungs, we forced our way back to the rear of the sidewalk against the nearest building, where there was actually a small single-file current of people moving their way along. A few seconds later, we stepped into the alleyway and thank you god could actually sit down, stretch out our legs, and breathe without inhaling our neighbors.

After taking a few seconds to savor the relief, we walked to the nearest parallel street, hooked a left, and walked two blocks up to another service alley. Even as little as a block from the parade, Kyoto’s streets were amazingly calm and uncrowded: if it weren’t for the ongoing sounds of Gion festival music, you’d never have known that anything was going on. We tentatively walked down the new alley, planning to flee with great alacrity if the crowds were anywhere near as dense. Instead, when we got back up to Kawaramachi, we found… the perfect spot. There were people, but an entirely manageable number of them, and most of them were schoolchildren who were actually sitting down on the concrete. The alley mouth was directly behind us, nearly completely empty, and offered a quick path of retreat. And even standing in the alley, we had a great view of the floats passing by. Best of all, there was a convenience store on the south corner of the alley, so we could dash in and get some sorely needed water. Just as we were contemplating the perfection of our new vantage point, something buzzed past our field of vision and Miranda gave a small yelp. Something had landed on her backside. Something very, very large. I swept it off with my hand-fan, and it landed on the street behind us and didn’t move. Damned if it wasn’t the largest cicada I’d ever seen:

Cicadas are notoriously stupid even by bug standards, and apparently this one had mistaken Miranda’s green shorts for a shrub or something. They’re harmless, but their legs have strong hooks to let them hang onto tree bark, so apparently having one land on you is a memorable experience.

Once that excitement was over, we settled in to watch the rest of the parade in relative comfort. There are a total of 32 floats and shrines, and this is already a picture-heavy post, so I’ll just show some edited highlights here.

Float #9 was the ‘Niwatori Boko’, which is decorated with, of all things, a 16th-century Belgian hanging tapestry depicting the Trojan war:

float #15 is the “Ayagasa boko”, which is preceded by “dancers and a music troupe…led by a bear waving a halberd”:

Six of the dancers are children, done up in Edo-era makeup and with an attending train of umbrella-carriers to keep them from spontaneously combusting in the summer sunlight:

Next up at position #16 was our old friend the Toro Yama, better known as the Praying Mantis Float, looking even sharper in sunlight:

Much later on came what was probably the best float of all, the “Fune Boko”, or as I liked to call it, “The Pirate Ship Float.” Alone among the floats, its very shape is part of its story:

It’s not actually a pirate ship, but a depiction of a story from the “Chronicles of Japan” (Nihon Shoki), in which the Empress Jingu Kogo crossed the sea to conquer Korea. For some reason, Jingu Kogo was then deified as the goddess of easy childbirth. What does easy childbirth have to do with conquering Korea? I have no idea. Um, look, a pirate ship!

By the time the parade got into its last third, the crowd had thinned out significantly — at exactly 12:30, all of the Japanese schoolchildren around us picked themselves up and vanished, leading us to speculate that they’d only gotten a half day off of school. We got to stretch out even more, and even chanced stepping into the street to get another requisite goofy tourist photo. HI MOMS!

More cool floats: the second-to-last float is the “Jomyo Yama”, and depicts a dramatic scene from the Tale of the Heike in which one warrior-monk leapfrogs his comrade to jump into the enemy’s camp:

Finally the last float, the “Minami Kannon Yama,” heaved into view. We’re not 100% sure, but we think this was the same float that we were allowed to climb up into two nights previously.

As noted previously, the floats are on fixed-axle wheels, being dragged by teams of 40 or so very sweaty men. Since the wheels are fixed, if the float starts to drift off course it’s an issue: under no circumstances not involving slicked bamboo rods do you want to drag the wheels down the concrete street. So to keep the floats moving in the right direction, a pair of men with big wooden wedges are constantly hovering around the front wheels, dropping a wedge under a wheel at key moments to do course corrections:

Finally the last float passed, and we watched the whole train receding toward the route’s next corner:

And that was that. 12:30pm, plenty of time to grab a quick lunch of ramen and see two more interesting things before the day was out. The crowds were already dispersing as we started to walk toward the subway station, and random people who may or may not have been volunteers were picking up any litter that might have been dropped on the street, of which there was already shockingly little. You could already tell that in another hour there would be no sign that the parade had ever happened.

Lunch was grabbed at one of the dozen or so ramen restaurants on the 9th floor of the Kyoto station mall, a meal that wasn’t in and of itself memorable, but was made slightly hilarious by the fact that we got lost in the station food court trying to find ramen row: we’d taken the wrong escalator, and ended up on the 10th floor, not realizing that the food court spanned two floors and as many different shopping centers. Only in Japan. While on our way there, I took the opportunity to snap a few more shots at the station.

Lunch consumed in proper breakneck Japanese ramen-slurping fashion, we jumped onto a JR train to our first destination, the Sumiya Pleasure House. We’d sort of hit temple/shrine saturation over the last few days, and we’d vowed that any post-parade sightseeing we did today would involve neither Buddhas nor Toriis. Sumiya, a former restaurant and bawdy house that was at the heart of Kyoto’s “floating world” entertainment district in the 17th through 19th centuries, seemed like just the thing: secular to a fault, and located just 3 blocks from the JR station according to the Lonely Planet map…

…which of course was wrong, or at least slightly misleading: the LP map showed Sumiya as being exactly adjacent to the JR tracks, just a few blocks back toward Kyoto from Tanbaguchi station. After walking about six blocks down the tracks, past a Kyoto city sanitation department garbage transfer station (in midsummer, lest we forget), we realized that we’d been sandbagged again, and started looking down parallel streets to see if we could find anything that looked much like a popular 18th-century bordello, and instead saw nothing but residential houses, tiny stores and gas stations as far as we could see. Oh, and a largely run-down children’s playground. We began to despair. Really, this is what it looked like in all directions:

Finally we gave up, and ducked into a small ryokan in hopes that the owners might be present and willing to lend a hand with directions. A few seconds after stepping into the lobby, an older man hustled into the front room, and on hearing our question practically bent over backwards to help us: he instantly produced a detailed single-page map of the neighborhood that was apparently printed up for use by the ryokan’s guests, gave us a copy, then walked outside with us to the nearest intersection, marked our position on the map with a pen, marked Sumiya’s position, and counted off how many blocks in each direction we’d have to walk. We’re staying with him the next time we go to Kyoto, I swear.

As it turns out, Sumiya had been so close it could have bitten us: it was directly on the opposite side of the ruined children’s playground we’d passed, protected from view by a fence.

Sumiya was one of the largest of the restaurant/concert house/brothels (ageya) of Kyoto’s Shimabara entertainment district in the Edo period, but by the time of the Meiji restoration most of the real action had been moved to the Gion district closer to the city’s center, and Shimabara slowly turned into the quiet residential district that it is today. Sumiya is one of the few ageya left, and is now operated as a museum by the city, although you can only get to the second floor by arranging a guided tour in advance, which is only available in Japanese. The first floor itself is plenty impressive: a massive kitchen, two enclosed gardens, and huge banquet halls looking out on them, faced with ornate painted screens:

We didn’t have much of an idea of how long it was going to take us to explore Sumiya, but it turned out to be pretty small (it was, after all, largely just a restaurant), and even given the time we’d lost trying to find it we were finished up by around 3pm, which gave us enough time to catch the JR train going out one more stop and jump on the Tozai subway line over to Nijojo-mae station to see one of the sites that had eluded us yesterday: Nijo castle. The subway stop is just around the corner from the castle’s entrance, and on the walk over we were treated to an awesome old-vs-new Japan composition:

Nijo Castle was the Kyoto headquarters of the Edo (Tokugawa) Shogunate: the actual capital was far away in Tokyo (Edo), but the Shogun needed to maintain a residence in Kyoto in order to do business with (and keep a close eye on) the Imperial family in Kyoto. The castle actually consists of two separate palaces, behind two separate lines of fortifications. At the main exterior gate, we were greeted with a slightly more detailed set of rules than usual:

Apparently it’s okay to be a drunkard at all of Kyoto’s other historical sites, or at least we never noticed any strictures against them there. Anyway, after paying for our tickets, we began to slowly move toward the entrance to the first palace, unsure if we were going to go inside or look at its gardens first. Then an announcement over the loudspeaker informed us that the Ninomaru palace itself would be closing at 4, so we hustled over.

Ninomaru Palace was where the Shogun did business while staying in Kyoto, and it’s consequently imposing-looking: the walking path through it led us through a series of thousand-plus-square-foot rooms, each dedicated to a particular court function, and then through the Shogun’s personal quarters, complete with mannequins posed to represent the Shogun himself and all of his assorted female attendants. The floors of the halls all squeaked and creaked as we walked down them: this was apparently an intentional design feature to discourage would-be assassins from thinking they could easily sneak by the shogun’s bodyguards. (They’re called “nightingale floors.”) All of the rooms were decorated with painted screens along their perimeters by a succession of famous Edo-era artists, but for my money the best art in the place was on the upper panels in the hallways, which were a series of abstract and geometric forms, including a pattern of linked squares against a cloudscape that looked nothing so much like a premodern Japanese Kandinsky painting.

No pictures of the interior of the castle are allowed, largely due to the screen paintings: flash photography would just accelerate their already significant deterioration.

Having completed the walking tour in time to not be kicked out of the palace, we had another hour to walk through the castle complex, starting with the main gardens, which are largely in a more western style than the typical stone-and-moss construction of the gardens at religious sites we’d seen.

Past a second moat and second fortification line is the Honmaru palace, which is clad in cedar planks, but is not open to visitors:

Since the garden trees afforded a great deal of shade, we spent another half an hour or so slowly walking through the gardens. The sky was brilliantly clear, with dramatic clouds at every angle.

After a bit of walking, we found the second set of gardens, which are in a more classically Japanese mode:

By this time, it was getting on 5pm, and we were panting a bit from the heat. Near the exit, we found an enclosed souvenir store and snack stand, and gratefully stole 10 minutes at a table to drink some water and sit down. But soon enough, the P.A. system started playing… Auld Lang Syne? Yes, the universal sign that a tourist attraction in Asia is about to shut down. It was time to sort out our dinner plans: we’d been playing email tag with for most of the previous week, and this was the night we’d picked to go have dinner and drinks. There was a pay phone in the building with us, so I dropped a few 10-yen coins into it and dialed…

A warning to those people not familiar with Japanese pay phones. The small note in English on the phone instructions mentioning that “change is not given from 100-yen coins” may tempt you to drop in a few 10-yen coins instead if you think your phone call is going to be short. Do not do this. The extra 40-60 cents is well worth avoiding the aggravation of finding out the hard way that 10 yen buys you about 20 seconds of talk time and that no matter how good your reflexes are, the phone is guaranteed to cut you off before you get more ¥10 coins fed into it. Just trust me on this.

suggested meeting up by Kyoto City Hall in order to check out some of the restaurants near Pontocho, and that turned out to just be 2 stops away on the subway, so we got there a bit early and killed about 20 minutes resting on a park bench at city hall plaza, being harangued by another loudspeaker van that was intent on sharing its views about Japanese nationalism with everybody in the immediate vicinity whether we liked it or not.

(who I’ll henceforth refer to as A, since typing out LJ IDs is clumsy, and I dunno if she cares about having her real name used in these contexts) showed up shortly after the trucks left, and took us on a quick tour of Pontocho alley and its immediate surroundings. Pontocho is a tiny strip of street in downtown Kyoto that’s surrounded by the normal tall garish overbuilding of any typical large Japanese city, but is itself still mostly composed of 1- or 2-story classical Japanese merchant buildings and restaurants that are either hundreds of years old or built very carefully to look as though they are. It’s also where the last remaining embers of the Geisha tradition are still… if not burning, then at least glowing fitfully. There are less than a thousand Geisha left in Japan, and many of them work on Pantocho, so it’s a good place to good place to go geisha-spotting in the evenings.

We didn’t see any Geisha, but dinner was so good we didn’t care. A. took us to a restaurant specializing in “Kyoto vegetable cuisine”, which apparently the au courant thing in Kyoto’s restaurant world. In operation it’s pretty similar to izakaya in that it consists of a lot of small plates which can be ordered continuously over the course of an evening, but the plates are focussed on (mostly local) vegetables (although yakitori skewers and other meat dishes are available), and the atmosphere is a bit more restaurant-like than bar-like. The restaurants all place baskets out front filled with examples of the veggies they’re specializing in, and unlike the plastic food in front of many Japanese restaurants the baskets appeared to be filled with the real thing.

(Okay, I have to admit that the first sentence of the last paragraph was a little white lie: I really wouldn’t have cared about seeing Geisha even if dinner had sucked: I know this makes me a bad Nipponophile, but the whole Geisha thing just never interested me that much. Women in white pancake makeup singing atonal Japanese classical music? Check please.)

The menu at the place we ate (no clue about its name, sorry) was all in Japanese— thankfully A. was not only fluent but also literate. Over the course of the night she probably translated about 90% of the menu for us, and all of the dishes were delightful. There were quite a lot of them, covering all sorts of preparation methods from steaming to stewing to frying; special mention should go to the tempura-fried ginger shavings and a cucumber-in-miso dish who’s name apparently translated literally and quite accurately as “you cannot stop eating this.” (And after our protein-and-starch-heavy diet of the last few weeks, a plant-focussed meal was really something of a relief.)

We also had a few drinks with dinner, and I allowed myself to be re-introduced to Shochu. Shochu and I have a bit or a tortured history: the one true oh-god-please-kill-me-now hangover I’ve ever had in my life happened after a night at a Korean karaoke joint in Manhattan where people kept brining me shochu-and-fruit-juice cocktails. The hangover was like someone had set off a concussion grenade inside my skull: it had been about 7 years since that night and I’d avoided the stuff assiduously ever sence. Still, A assured us that the local stuff was quite good, and recommended one that was apparently made from fermented sweet potatoes. Who doesn’t like sweet potatoes? How could sweet potatoes ever hurt you? Sure, I ordered a glass on the rocks. It wasn’t bad going down, but it had a strongly medicinal aftertaste that I didn’t much care for.

As we were eating, we noticed a bit of a commotion going on outside our window:

Apparently while we’d been poking through castles and bordellos after the parade, the floats were being broken down into their component pieces, and the evening was to be devoted to the float teams (by this time quite inebriated) carrying the top-parts back to the places where they are stored between parades: several teams of them passed by while we were eating our dinner.

The night was still young when we walked out, and A was promising to take us to one of her favorite bars in the city, but we wanted a slight break in the drinking before re-applying ourselves to ethanol, so we grabbed some ice cream from a nearby convenience store and walked down to the river to sit on its banks and have dessert while the various float-tops were carried by over the bridge.

Now would be as good a place as any to mention that A. really did not know us from Adam: she was a friend-of-a-friend-or-two who happens to live in Kyoto, and who we got put in touch with us by email when we mentioned to our mutual friends that we were going to be in Japan. Despite having no idea who the hell we were, she happily toured us around the city, took us to dinner and drinking, and generally went way above and beyond the call of duty to make our last night in Kyoto utterly awesome. We’ve always done amazingly well relying on the kindness of near-strangers when traveling (hi, Belle!), and our lucky streak definitely kept up in Kyoto. There’s a lot of favors in the bank — hopefully we’ll get to return them all one day.

Our ice cream finished, we headed off towards A’s favorite 24-hour bar, which necessitated crossing a stream of post-parade revelers. One we got close to one of the float-part carrying crowds, we realized that not only were many of them quite happily (and understandably) boozed up (not that we could cast any aspersions ourselves at that point), but many of the men were down to their shirts and loincloths. Oh well, even after dark it was still pretty damn hot.

Once there was a break in the crowds, we headed over to… well, here’s where I confess that we’d already drunk a bit at the restaurant, and when we got to the bar we had rather a bit more. So until I can track down the name of the place, you’ll have to content yourself with knowing that we spent the rest of the evening drinking at “the little 24-hour bar above the Brazilian restaurant with the really nice bartender with the tattoos who plays mostly ska and the Beatles on the bar stereo.” (However it is not, for the record, the Beatles Bar.) The bar was a tiny little place that could seat 8 at the bar and potentially a few more on a couch next to it, but there were only 6 people there including us and the bartender— which was great, since the bartender was a friend of A’s, the other guy was a friend of the bartender, and the woman next to him was a bartender from another bar. We spent the rest of the night happily drinking and chatting, and A handled translation duties awesomely.

Embarrassingly, when I’d walked in I’d seen the sign for the Brazilian restaurant downstair, assumed that the bar itself was Brazilian, and started off my drink order with a Caipirinha. It wasn’t until the bartender, bless his soul, started calling the guys downstairs on his cell phone to get advice on how to mix one that I figured it out. Oops. For the record, he made as good a caipirinha as one can with rum instead of Cachaça, and I switched back to shochu after that, and then gin and tonics.

Side-note: apparently the American habit of charging extra for “top-shelf” liquors is unknown in Japan. If you want a gin-and-tonic, it will cost you the same amount with Bombay Sapphire as with anything else: it’s all imported anyway. (If you want to drink cheaply, live dangerously and drink shochu.)

The drinking and chatting went on for a while, as these things tend to, largely revolving a series of somewhat sozzled conversations about the differences in sex and dating experiences between Japan and the US, resulting in a great deal of mutually buzzed hilarity. Certainly by the end of it, we would not have been eligible for entrance into Gijo castle! Finally around 11:30 I made the mistake of looking at my watch: oh dear, we did sort of have an airplane to catch tomorrow. We’d even planned on packing up our luggage that night, although that was looking less and less lightly. We said our goodbyes and… well, we weren’t actually drunk enough to “stumble”, but I have probably walked better in my life.

Unfortunatly, we’d waited a bit too long to make our exit: all of the Kyoto busses back to our station had stopped running for the night. A. earned her final purple heart for the evening by walking with us to the Keihan line train station, which was more or less her route home anyway, and which had a stop about a half mile from where we were staying. We waved her goodbye on the train, and lurched through the humid Kyoto night back home and to sleep.

…or at least that was the plan. It was a hot, humid night. A very hot, very humid night: probably the hottest and wettest since we’d been to Japan. I fell asleep pretty quickly once I lay down of course — ethanol will do that — but about 2 hours later when I mostly sobered up, I woke up: hot, sticky, and with a not-insignificant headache. Damn you, shochu! I’d been smart enough to pack a new bottle of ibuprofen in my bags, and so I crawled off my futon (n.b. not due to drunkenness: when both your bed and your bag are on the floor, crawling is the fastest route), located my toiletries bag by feel and managed to get two tablets out of the bottle and into me without waking anyone else. Back in bed, I switched through the usual number of uncomfortable positions until a small rain shower around 4am dropped the temperature enough for me to get back to sleep for a little while.

Oh well, you play you pay. It was still an awesome way to wrap up the trip.

unsorted notes

Before we get to the grand finale and epilogue, a few random observations that I never really managed to shoehorn in anywhere else:

— Japan still has coin-operated left-luggage lockers, everywhere. Every train station. Every airport. Every large bus terminal. Most larger tourist attractions. Many of the smaller tourist attractions. They usually cost a dollar (¥100), and sometimes they were even free. Even though the Tokyo and Kyoto subways were plastered with “terrorism alert” posters due to the G8 summit, and even though Japan has adopted the same idiotic carry-on luggage rules as the USA now, nobody there has thought to make an issue about public lockers. Let me tell you: this was great. Backpack getting too heavy and hot on a summer day? Just leave it in the lockers. I did this constantly.

— Japan is handicapped-accessible. Let me reiterate that: as far as I could tell, the whole country is handicapped-accessible. Elevators everywhere. Chair lifts where they couldn’t shoehorn in elevators. Sidewalk cuts everywhere, almost no exceptions — and in situations like the Gion Matsuri parade, we saw cops forcing their way through crowds in order to help people with wheelchairs get through them. And this wasn’t just in the cities: hiking in the Japanese Alps, which you’d expect to be strictly a pursuit for the bipedal, we saw a family quite successfully pushing an older relative in a contraption that appeared to be an all-terrain wheelchair. I have no idea if this is just due to cultural reverence for the elderly or a Japanese version of the ADA, but coming after trips to China, Cambodia and Vietnam (short form summary for the disabled: rotsa ruck), this was unexpected, shocking and really really nice to see.

— Another note on vending machines: I probably mentioned that you can buy alcohol and cigarettes from them. What I should also have mentioned: you sometimes have to be careful not to buy alcohol from them. The alcoholic drinks are sometimes mixed in with the soft drinks, and on the scorchingly hot day in Kyoto when Miranda and I were walking back from the Daigo-ji temple, we ended up sharing what was basically a white peach sake cooler, because it was not immediately obvious that we were not buying a can of carbonated peach juice. It tasted great, but drinking it may not have been the wisest tactical move of the afternoon.

— Things that Japan, a famously clean and fastidious country, is strangely short on:

  1. Hand towels in bathrooms. Running water? Yes. Soap? Always. Some way to dry your hands other than shaking them into the sink, looking around hopefully and then sighing and wiping them on your jeans? Well… other than a few hotels and tourist attractions that obvious expected lots of westerners, no. As far as we could ever determine, most Japanese carry around a series of little washcloth-like terrycloth squares that they use to blot sweat off their foreheads on hot days, and dry off their hands any time they visit a restroom.

  2. Wastebaskets. This one really surprised me. You never see litter in Japan. Never. But on-street wastebaskets are rarer than bathrooms with hand towels. Apparently everyone just puts their litter (and there is a lot of potential litter, because everything you have heard about the Japanese propensity for wrapping everything individually is pretty much true) into their bags and carrys it home to dispose of.

CANDY! Oh god, the candy. There’s so much of it, and it’s almost all perplexingly good. If I ever lived in Japan, I would gain a hundred pounds just on the Meiji Green Apple Chocolate Mint chews alone. It’s a good thing we walked everywhere.

— Tipping. Does. Not. Happen. Ever. I miss this already. It’s part of the reason food is so expensive: restaurants, cafes, hotels and the like have to pay their service employees a decent wage up front, and so they don’t have to dance for the customer to get paid. To my mind, this is really just a win for everyone.

— And speaking of money, I’m afraid Japan has made me reconsider my enthusiasm for the dollar coin. The smallest bank note in Japan is a ¥1000 note: roughly $10. Below that, there are coins for everything from ¥1 to ¥500. Result? After any day in which you purchase so much as a single thing, you inevitably end up with a bulging, heavy, noisy pocket of change. Maybe the dollar bill isn’t such a bad idea after all.

— All of the guidebooks warned us that Japan was a very cash-happy place and that western credit cards would be mostly useless there. This turned out to be a bit overblown: the only lodgings that wouldn’t take a credit card were the Zen temple and the dodgy B&B (not so surprising in either case), and I’d say that a good plurality of the restaurants we went to would take them. One thing that was noticable is that nobody blinks in the slightest about having to make change from a larger denomination bill. If you ask for ¥10,000 (more or less $100) from a Japanese ATM, it will give you a single ¥10,000 bill, and if you drop that bill on a street vendor for a ¥1 riceball skewer, they do not so much as blink. Once in all of Japan, we got politely asked if we had enough small-yen coins to round up to an even number, and that was it.

— Even odder, just about every single vending machine (of which previously noted there were lots) would happily take high-denomination bills. Want to buy a soda with a ¥1000 bill? Go ahead. More to the point, want to buy a ¥210 subway fare with a ¥10,000 bill? Not a problem, and it’ll give you exact change.

— While a great deal of signage, sloganeering and t-shirt decorative English in Japan appears to be dedicated to environmentalism, recycling, saving the forests (um, not the whales so much) and so forth, to the point that you’d really think it was a major trend, this does not prevent any retail establishment in any city in Japan in summer from opening its front doors wide open and blasting frigid air-conditioned air onto the sidewalk in hopes of luring customers in. I am not too proud to admit that this completely worked on me several times.

Okay, now on to the major verbiage…

when herbivores attack! (day trip to Nara)

We take a day trip to Nara and are mobbed by voracious deer! We see big things, then even bigger things! No seriously, you have to see how big these things are. There are pretty views, a few key facts about restaurants, a hall with a MILLION ARMS. Then I go on about expensive department stores and we meet the Japanese DuffMan. It’s all pretty awesome, and to read it you just click here.

Wednesday: the plan was to wake up at the crack of dawn and jump on a train over to Nara, to wander through its park and meet its famous deer herd. We didn’t quite make the whole ‘crack of dawn’ part of the plan. Firstly because I’d been using my laptop as an alarm clock, and iCal’s ability to handle alarms set in non-primary time zones is pathetic, and secondly because the previous day’s thunderstorm had actually dropped the temperature to the point where I could sleep, and my body was making the most of it: I rolled out of bed at the relatively luxurious hour of 8:30am, and Miranda followed shortly after.

Figuring that 9-9:30 wasn’t really that late to be getting out of the house, we kept with the plan and after showers and breakfast found ourselves on a JR train to Nara, a roughly 50 minute ride away on a “rapid” train, which is basically JR’s equivalent to a New York, Boston or Philadelphia commuter train.

(JR also runs local trains that run on the same lines as the rapids, but stop at every little hamlet along the way, and look in their interiors much more like standard subway cars., and of course on the opposite side of the spectrum there’s the Shinkansen which runs on dedicated tracks and is the most awesome thing ever. But we’ve covered that already.)

Nara is a small town by Japanese standards: at around 370,000 people, it’s larger than Ann Arbor, Michigan, but smaller than, say, Cleveland. But once upon a time, Nara was the imperial capital of Japan. It was only the capital for about a century, but in that time it managed to accumulate rather a lot of temples, shrines and other buildings of historical importance: there are eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Nara. (There are a total of 20 in the entire United States of America, just for comparison, and only about a third of those are man-made.) Happily for day-trippers like ourselves, most of those are located in a single, easily walkable park just a few minutes away from the JR train station.

Of course, I couldn’t manage to get from the train station to the park without finding at least one thing amusing enough to take a photo of:

In addition to its temples and shrines (which we’ll get to in a minute), the Nara Park is famous for some of its living inhabitants as well: a herd of over a thousand sika deer which have inhabited the park since at least the 1500s. The deer used to be considered divinities, and killing them was punishable by death: nowadays they are themselves registered National Treasures of Japan, and presumably killing them is still discouraged — although we saw one shop offering deer antlers and hides for sale! (I presume that these were either from deer who died of natural or accidental causes or from deer not living in the park, but we didn’t think to verify it.)

The deer of Nara Park aren’t tame, but it’s a stretch to call them wild. They are very used to having inquisitive humans wandering up to them, and we saw several of them consenting to be petted for a while. (However, stern signs all around the park warn you against trying to pet any of the fawns, no matter how cute: the signs were all in Japanese, but the drawings of enraged deer parents made the self-correcting nature of that error perfectly clear.) Much if not all of their comfort with humans stems from the fact that for ¥150 you can buy a pack of deer biscuits and feed them by hand, and man oh man have the deer figured out that free food is awesome.

I bought my pack of biscuits from a vendor who warned me “keep moving.” I think she might have more accurately said “run for your life, son.” The moment I cracked the paper seal on the stack of 8 biscuits, I was immediately beset by a fast-moving herd of extremely hungry deer, none of whom were at all inclined to wait for me to carefully get each cracker into my hand and positioned for safe deer-mouth insertion. Instead, impatient deer heads butted at me from all sides, and when my hands (and their biscuity contents) were not accessible they began snorfling at my shirt and my pockets: by the time the process was over I had a good deal of deer drool on my t-shirt. The vendor’s advice to keep moving turned out to be very very wise: I made the mistake of slowing down for a second, and quickly found all of my paths of exit blocked.

I had to throw a few biscuits ahead of me to distract the damn things from my shorts and open up an escape route. My supply of deer cookies quickly exhausted, I opened my hands and raised them above my head, and damned if the little bastards didn’t know exactly what that meant, and quickly meandered off in search of the next gullible tourist to assault.

Miranda had had the camera in hand and was taking photos when not doubling over laughing. Since it had been so hilarious to watch me nearly get trampled by a herd of sacred deer (and just in case it’s not coming through: yes, this actually was hilarious, and I was giggling madly the entire time, even when I was nearly losing fingers), it was obviously only fair for her to try it next.

Unfortunately for Miranda, the deer did not seem so willing to believe that she was out of biscuits when the time came (perhaps they smelled the human-snacks in her backpack), and a small herd of them stalked her down the path for a good distance.

We eventually managed to outpace our pursuers (well, actually they just got distracted and wandered off), and made it to our first non-animal destination in the park, the Tōdai-ji temple.

To get to the main hall of the Todai-ji, first you have to walk through the enormous entry gate:

…with its stunning and not coincidentally also enormous guardian deities:

…but once you get past the gate and into the main complex, you find yourself having to revisit your assessment of the entry gate as “enormous.” Because beyond the gate is the Great Buddha Hall (Daibatsu-Den), and it dwarfs the gate. It dwarfs your house. It might well dwarf your city:

The Daibatsu-den is the largest wooden structure in the entire world. Let’s put a few tourists into that photo for scale:

The brain-melting thing is that this is the second daibatsu-den: the first one was built sometime in the year 740-ish, was destroyed in a fire, and had to be completely rebuilt in 1709… and the 1709 version is a third smaller than the original. (The original was also flanked by a pair of 5-story-tall wooden pagodas, which were never reconstructed.) This is really the scale model daibatsu-den, and it’s still nearly 300 years old and the largest wooden building anywhere.

Walking up the path to its entrance, you get the disturbing sensation that it’s looking down on you and is completely unimpressed:

So why would you build the largest wooden building ever, in the eighth century? Well that’s obvious, right? You build a Great Buddha Hall to house a Great Buddha:

The Great Buddha (daibatsu) of Todai-ji is a cast bronze statue that is just shy of 53 feet (16 meters) tall, and weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 440 tons. I’m not sure if it’s still the biggest Buddha in the world, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and bet that in the year 746 when the statue was originally cast (it’s been recast a few times since then due to earthquake and fire damage), it was the Greatest Buddha by a good long yard.

Once again, let’s put in a full-size Miranda for a sense of scale:

There’s not much in the Daibatsu-den other than the Daibatsu itself (and two smaller gilt Buddhas — both Kannons if I recall correctly), but you’re allowed to take photos (really, what’s an in-camera flash going to do to a 50-foot-tall bronze statue?), and you can circle around the entire statue to see how it’s mounted into the building superstructure. Behind it, there’s a small attraction: one of the support pillars for the roof has a roughly 20-inch-wide hole drilled through it: it’s said to be the size of the Great Buddha’s nostril, and tradition holds that if you can squeeze your way through it, you’ve got a decent shot at enlightenment. Needless to say, enlightenment is best pursued by madly giggling six-year-olds:

Our circle of the Great Buddha complete, we checked our watches and our map: it was a little after noon, which was a bit later than we’d originally planned, but the park was small and it didn’t seem unthinkable that we could see one or two more of the notable sites there before taking off back to Kyoto. We’d been snacking from our horde of wasabi peas and crackers, so lunch wasn’t a high priority anyway. So we set off down a likely-seeming trail toward the nigatsu-do temple, which turned out to be a cute little hall and series of outbuildings a bit uphill and up a flight of steps from Todai-ji, with a tea shop just outside it that afforded a great view of the top of the Daibatsu-den and an expanse of the park looking back down.

Almost as importantly, when we reached the tea-shop we spotted another set of visitors having the single largest plate of shave-ice we’d ever seen in our lives, topped with green tea syrup. The temperature had been rising a bit (especially since the hall, on the hill, was free of tree cover) for the last few minutes, so this looked like about the best idea ever. As it turned out, it was the best idea ever:

Sharing a big bowl of green tea shave ice, sitting on a nicely padded bench, looking out over the park and an ancient Buddhist prayer hall? Simply awesome.

On our way away from the Sangatsu-den, we followed signs to the W.C. and found next to it one of the most thoughtful things we’d seen in Japan, a country not normally noted for slouching in the thoughtfulness department. It wasn’t clear whether it was run by the monks at Sangatsu-den or by the civil park authorities, but in any case, right next to Sangatsu-den was a huge “rest area”: a building nearly as large as the prayer hall itself, with chairs, tatami-mat tables and sinks. The ceiling was high and big fans kept the air circulating, and best of all it had free hot water and tea. Having just bought a huge shave-ice, we weren’t really needing any of the amenities there, but several families were seated around tables eating picnic lunches they’d packed, and were obviously grateful for the chance to take a break.

Our way back to the main path led through the rest hall and back around, past some unmarked buildings that appeared to be part of the Sangatsu-den complex. On a high beam near our heads on one of the buildings we were passing, we noticed a slightly frazzled looking bird, chest puffed out, holding its ground firmly and staring at us. At first we though it might be injured, but then we heard a small cheeping sound from the ceiling nearby:

Aha, mama bird was guarding her nest! All tourist pedestrian traffic suddenly ground to a halt as everyone pointed their cameras upwards to take pictures of the babies, no doubt frazzling the mom’s nerves even more.

The next interesting-looking site along the path was the Kasuga Shrine, about 1.5km away. The walk was mostly shaded under trees, and was quite pleasant by Kansai summer standards. Along the way there, though, we passed a stark reminder of why while you can still smoke in restaurants and bars in Japan, and non-Japanese signage is in general only spottily attended to, in all of Japan’s major historical sites, there are dozens of “no smoking” signs printed in every major world language, and repeated so that you can never fail to see them:

This wasn’t anything of historical importance: by the look of it, it was just a souvenir shop. But it had been made of wood to match the historical style of the park’s monuments, and when it had gone up it had taken everything that wasn’t made of stone adjacent with it.

The Kasuga Shrine is a shinto shrine dating from the middle 8th century, and is famous for lanterns: stone ones lining all of the paths approaching it from all directions, and brass ones on the inside. Obviously approaching the shrine near dusk when some of the lanterns are lit might have been preferable from an ooh-and-ahh perspective, but it was still utterly gorgeous.

I have to say: from a purely aesthetic perspective, visiting a Shinto shrine after what seemed like 8 or 9 Buddhist facilities in a row was actually a bit of a relief. Shinto houses of worship tend to be… not “spare” precisely, but there are few enormous looming buddhas with thousands of arms flanked by dozens of warrior demons. Kasuga in particular was very much focussed on a few key visual elements: the central stone gardens, the enormous and ancient trees that in some cases grew through the temple buildings themselves, the hundreds of lanterns inside and out, and the lovingly cared-for orange walls and internal passages:

…not that this reminded me of anything. We never made it to the Inari Shrine in Kyoto, so this felt a bit like that experience in miniature.

The inside of Kasuga lies behind wide orange walls, and has a path for visitors to walk that takes about half an hour to 45 minutes to get through, and lets you see just about everything other than the main temple itself, which is off-limits (although you can spot it through the internal gate). One particularly cute bit was a nearly windowless building used to store… what else, more lanterns.

Once we’d finished strolling through Kasuga, it was a little after 2pm, which presented us with a small dilemma: spend the rest of the afternoon walking through Nara park and its various sites, or hustle back to Kyoto in hopes of making it to one of the, oh god, more than a dozen sites still on our prospective itinerary, most of which would be closing by about 4 or 5pm? I’d been specifically interested in seeing Nijo Castle in Kyoto, and we’d passed on it for now two days running because we kept being on the wrong side of town. Its gates closed at 4, but the complex itself was open until 5, so maybe we could just make it…

We set off at a good clip down the central path in the park that headed straight back out toward the JR station. And we might have made it, if it hadn’t been for our meddling stomachs: by the time we reached the outskirts of the park, it was getting on 2:30, and a few handfuls of wasabi peas and some shave-ice were no longer cutting it as nutrition. Luckily, the park dumped us out onto a retail district, which itself was adjacent to one of Japan’s omnipresent covered shopping arcades, and we figured it would be a simple matter to find a take-away meal.

Here commenced a quick and thorough education in a small but important cultural difference between American and Japanese food service: in general, it appears, sit-down restaurants in Japan don’t do take-away. Or at least none of the ones in Nara do. Or perhaps we were using the wrong word for take-away. Point being, three restaurants in a row turned out not to do it, and while almost immediately after giving up on the restaurant approach we found a supermarket which did have premade and build-your-own bento boxes to go, the time spent asking for it added up, and we ended up on a 3ish train back to Kyoto…a local train. Midway through the ride, it became obvious that we were going to need a Plan B. Most historic sites in Kyoto close up at around 4pm, so our options were thin, but after some frantic page-turnig in Lonely Planet, we found one that managed to fulfill the tripartite criteria of being something one of us had previously flagged as interesting, was open until 5pm, and was close enough to Kyoto station to get there no later than 4.

The lucky winner was the Sanjusangen-do temple. Sanjusangen-do is a temple to Kannon (AKA Guan Yin), the goddess (or sometimes god) of mercy and compassion in the Buddhist canon. Sanjusangden-do is a nearly 400-foot-long hall, populated with a central statue (about 15 feet high and 8 feet wide) of the Thousand-Armed Kannon, flanked on each side by a thousand smaller (merely roughly human-sized) smaller Kannons, making for a thousand and one Kannons total, and one million and one thousand arms if you do the math (and accept a certain amount of fudging in the actual arm count: in objective terms, each statue only has a few dozen arms). The smaller Kannons are arranged in ranks ten deep, and you still have to walk past hundreds of them before you can even see the larger Kannon in the center of the hall.

I will probably be reincarnated as something scaly for having had Land of a Thousand Dances going through my head while walking down the aisle, but regardless, the row upon row of gold Kannons were monumentally beautiful.

Sadly, there is no photography of the interior of the Sanjusangen-do allowed, so you’ll have to either take my word for all of this, or look at the wikipedia page or this site, which somehow have a few shots of the inside.

The path through the temple is pretty much a closed loop: you enter on one side, walk past 1001 Kannons, then come back the same distance through a smaller hallway in back, which had a pair of unusual features: scale models of both the hall itself and one of the attending Kannons, in brass. The models were actually provided for visually impaired visitors so that they could “see” the hall and the statues by feeling them, which I thought was an especially nice touch.

As we were coming through the return hallway, the P.A. system informed us that the temple would be closing to visitors soon, so we hustled back to reclaim our shoes, walked outside and found a bus going back into downtown pulling up just at that instant, which we jumped on. We had vague plans of getting something to eat or maybe finding something non-religious to look at, but at least of getting closer to the subway. We found ourselves on Shijo avenue, distressingly close to that evening’s pre-Gion Matsuri street fair, which we didn’t feel much of a need to repeat. Casting around a bit, I noticed that we were across the street from Kyoto’s outpost of the Takashimaya department store, which we’d originally planned to visit in Ginza back in Tokyo, but had somehow managed to completely fail to find. Well, we didn’t have any other pressing engagements, so no time like the present, right?

My particular fascination with Takashimaya comes from the fact that alone among the major Japanese department store chains (high-end or otherwise), they have an outlet in the states, on 5th Avenue in New York City. Miranda and I had gone there for tea one sunday morning in 2003-ish and had then taken a quick peek through the rest of the store, where we’d managed to have what we’d thought were reasonably jaded New York sensibilities shocked by the prices: the single most reasonable thing I saw at their 5th Av store was a gorgeous grey men’s wool bathrobe that I had fallen instantly in love with until I’d turned over the pricetag and found out that true bathrobe love was going to set me back $750. Then we saw the furniture, and the zeros kept getting tagged on: I’d never personally beheld a six-figure price tag until then, and have not since.

Anyway, point being: in the states, Takashimaya is the most insanely overpriced department store I’ve ever gone into, and I was curious to see if it held true in Japan or if the US prices were a combination of shipment costs and marketing. The answer was: a little bit. In NYC, their store was relatively small compared to a Macys or a Barneys, and really stocked almost entirely Japanese brands. In Japan, they’re much more of a full-service high-end department store, and their clothing departments had little sub-stores devoted to all of the usual high-end American and European houses in addition to the Japanese ones: as Miranda pointed out, there wouldn’t be much point in stocking Burberry at the NYC store, since Burberry themselves have a store just a few blocks down the avenue. So in general, the prices were merely “breathtakingly expensive” rather than “grand mal seizure expensive”. Impressively, most of the attendants in the menswear section didn’t attempt to ignore my sweaty, grubby, be-sandaled self, and one self-sacrificing soul in the Issey Miyake section even offered to let me try on a jacket that I’d obviously been eyeing a little lustfully: after a moment’s hesitation (during which I contemplated both the state of my armpits and the store-wide hilarity that had accompanied my one attempt to try on a long-sleeved anything in Singapore), I regretfully declined.

After realizing that even the wallets and man-purses were in the “too overpriced to even consider as an excessive gift to someone cute” category, we headed down to the basement, because it is apparently the law that all Japanese department stores must have enormous food courts in their lower levels, and this store was no exception…

Oh god, have I just gone on at more length and detail about a damn department store than several centuries-old temples? Yes, I have. I am very, very sorry. I’ll try to wrap this up soon.

…and surprisingly, the food courts at Takashimaya seemed to only be a little more expensive than the food courts at any other department store we’d found in Japan. It did, however, have a few things we hadn’t seen before. Like… a bagel stand! Which, when we got to it, was selling… um… um… these:

Bagels, filled with ice cream. They also sold non-iced bagels, in varieties ranging from “arguably normal” (an “everything” bagel that seemed to have sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and cracked black pepper) to “outright insane”, such as the Green Tea And White Chocolate bagel. We bought one of the everythings and one of the green tea white chocolate ones, and I’m a little surprised to say that… they weren’t bad. They wouldn’t have passed muster at H&H, nevermind the mighty Brooklyn Bagel Hole, but they were better than a lot I’ve had elsewhere: chewy enough to suggest that actual boiling was involved, and a reasonable heft to them.

Having bought the bagels, a plan formed: since tomorrow seemed like it was going to require waking up really really early, for real, in order to stake out a viewing spot for the Gion Matsuri parade, why not just self-cater a meal from the food court, eat it at home and make an early night of it? Thus, we ended up with break from a French(-style) bakery, salami from a german(-style) deli, Japanese-made kimchi from a pickle vendor, some fresh fruit and handful of sweets involving red bean paste. Clutching our bags, we made our way to the bus stop, trying to skirt the edge of the ongoing street fair— a goal we mostly succeeded in, but we did have to stop and take a shot of this guy:

…and at the bus stop itself, as we were waiting, we noticed that in front of the illuminated bus sign, a very industrious spider was in the last stages of spinning a gorgeous web, and the next ten minutes of the warm night passed quickly as we watched her weave the center of her spiral. Just as the bus pulled up, she connected the last thread to the last spoke, and settled into the center to wait for what the night would bring.

And that would be a perfect end to this post, but I’m going to drag it out for one more small observation. I may not have made it entirely clear just how much into vending machines the Japanese are. The entire time we’ve been here, I don’t think we’ve ever managed to walk more than half a mile without encountering at least a soft drink machine, and often beer/sake and cigarette machines as well. And it’s not just in commercial neighborhoods: the rest stops on the paths in the Japanese alps often had them! So as we got off the bus and walked to the house, it seemed appropriate to stop and take note of this lone vending machine, light up brilliantly against the dark, in the middle of a completely residential neighborhood, with no other creatures stirring for blocks:

And that is actually the end of this day.

none more gold: kyoto day three

Okay, apologies in advance. This one may be a bit more, uh, telegraphic than the last few: we need to get up stupidly early tomorrow in order to fight our way through the crowds at the Gion Mastsuri, and if I don’t get this written tonight it ain’t never gonna get written. Plus I have like 15 postcards to write and address. Kill me now.

Anyhow, Tuesday started out a bit more comfortably than Monday, relatively speaking anyway: there was so much cloud cover over Kyoto that the sun couldn’t penetrate much. Sure, it was still hot, sticky and humid, but it was merely in the mid-80s fahrenheit, and after that last two days, that felt positively human-friendly. I even managed to catch up on a bit of sleep: perhaps even a bit too much, as we didn’t make it out of bed until about 8, and we’d originally planned to try to get up as early as possible to beat the crowds to the golden temple.

So it’s worth noting here that the “Silver Pavilion” is simply a common name for a temple that has no actual silver on it. The emperor who ordered the silver pavilion built had plans to cover it in silver, but it never really happened. So you might think that the “golden pavilion” is a metaphor for the grandness of this particular temple. Or maybe it’s covered in straw, or painted bright yellow, or catches the early morning sunlight in a particularly lovely way, right? Wrong.

You take the bus to Kinkaju-ji station, pay your ¥600, walk down a short wooded path, and through the trees you can see a glint of something. Then you turn the corner. Hello:

The Golden Temple is called the Golden Temple because it is in fact covered nearly from top to bottom in 24-karet gold leaf. The gutters are covered in gold. There is nothing else like it on this planet that I know of. Let’s take another look:

The golden temple in these photos is actually the second golden temple. The first one was burned to the ground in 1950 by a monk who had formed an unhealthy (to say the least) psychosexual fixation on it — a story that Yukio Mishima would have had to have invented if it hadn’t actually happened. As it was, he merely got to write a book about it. The temple was rebuilt in1955 as an exact match of the original, except with a great deal of the gold that had apparently worn off of the first version restored.

The Kinkaju-ji is probably the most efficient of all of Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There’s a small garden and a few tiny shrines behind it, but really you’re there for the Golden Temple, and they waste little time hiding it from you. You come, you see, your brain melts, you stare slackjawed, you move around for another view, and then you move on.

Our ultimate next destination was far on the other side of the city, so we went there by way of a stop in downtown Kyoto, figuring to avoid a bit of the midday heat by browsing through the Nishiki food markets. I’ll get to that in a second, but first I need to show you a building that we saw on the way. I’m trying not to overdo it with photos of amusing uses of western languages, but I really couldn’t pass this up. Ladies and gentlemen, the Salon de Messiah:

I’m going to hell for the caption, but it was worth it.

Anyway, the Nishiki food markets are a nearly half-mile long covered arcade of food shops, selling fish, pickles, rice, tea, strange gelatinous things, stranger gelatinous things, crackers, bread, and basically everything else you might want to eat or prepare food with in Kyoto:

While there are a few obvious wholesalers there, Nishiki is on the whole pretty retail-oriented: you can browse around the shops, sample various foods, and if you walk slowly from one end to the other, get pretty much all of your day or week’s shopping done. Nishiki is actually one of about half a dozen covered shopping arcades scattered throughout Kyoto, and it’s probably the most highbrow of them all. We succumbed to the food smells after about 45 minutes, and ended up eating a lunch comprised of catches from several different stalls on a tatami-covered bench just across from a stall that I could only dub the House Of Deep Fried Everything:

Sadly the thing we got from the House of Deep Fried Everything turned out to be cold deep-fried fish cakes of a particularly unfriendly-to-Nathan spongy/gelatinous texture. On the other hand, the fish-shaped hollow cookies filled with red bean paste were awesome.

Also in Nishiki were several kitchen equipment stores, including a knife store that’s been around since 1560:

I went in. I drooled. I drooled some more. I decided to think about it over lunch. So far, the balance still stands in favor of “I don’t prepare sushi often enough to justify owning a $150-400 sashimi knife that cannot realistically be used for anything else, and I already have a perfectly good santoku.” But I reserve the right to have my will completely break before we leave Kyoto.

Lunch attended to, and the day still overcast enough to make wandering around outside a possibility, we grabbed the metro out to our next destination: the Daigo-ji temple complex in Kyoto’s far southeastern suburbs. This proved to be… a bit of an adventure to get to. The Tozai line has apparently been extended two stops since the 2008 Lonely Planet guide’s publication, and Daigo-ji is no longer the end of the line. That was easily enough surmised. Once we got to the station, there were a series of helpful signs for the “Daigo Community Bus” which we were assured would whisk us quickly to the temple. We followed the signs to a bus stop a few yards away from the metro exit, checked the timetable we saw there, and decided that a bus was just three minutes away. Sure enough, three minutes later a bus pulled up, we got on, and the bus took off…

…to god knows where. It was actually a pretty interesting trip: I’ve mentioned already that outside of its historical sites, Kyoto is a pretty working-class city, and we were very obvious in one of Kyoto’s lower-to-middle class outer ring neighborhoods, which bore a not-insubstantial resemblance to a far-east version of Northeast Philadelphia: big square apartment buildings, wide roads packed with auto dealerships, A/V stores and the occasional blocky shopping mall. It was about as far from the picture-postcard Kyoto as you can get, which was great except that we were specifically trying to get to one of the picture-postcard parts. After about 10 minutes on the bus (the book had assured us that the temple was a 10-minute walk from the metro stop), I accosted the driver at a stop and tried to figure out if we were actually headed to Daigo-ji. The answer was a very clear “no.” Apparently what we’d done was read the wrong timetable: instead of the “Daigo Community Bus”, we’d ended up on a random Kyoto city bus. The driver dropped us off at the next stop with instructions to look for the number 22 bus at the nearby train station, and pointed us in its alleged direction.

We walked a few block in the direction the driver had indicated, and found that the train station he’d pointed us at was in fact the new terminus of the Tozai line. Since we had open bus/train passes, we decided not to chance looking for the #22 bus (and trying to figure out what direction to take it in), and just got back on the subway and took it back to Daigo station to try to get on the right bus. Japanese subways being what they are, this took only ten minutes.

Round two: FIGHT!

Getting back to the same bus stop we’d left now about half an hour before, we looked a little harder, and found the timetable that had “Daigo Community Bus” plastered all over it and instructions in both Japanese and English. You can lead a tourist to information, but you can’t make us read it, apparently. The good news was that we were definitely in the right place. The bad news was that it was going to be 25 minutes before the next #4 community bus to Daigo-ji. We managed to wait just shy of 15 minutes before my patience expired. This was all over a 10-minute walk, and the route in the LP book had agreed with the map we’d seen posted in the subway station. So we set off.

This might not have been the brightest idea I’d ever had. The clouds weren’t quite breaking, but they were certainly thinning out, and as we walked — uphill of course — toward where we thought the temple was, the heat and humidity started climbing, and I started sweating through everything I own again. We got slightly confused by some side streets and… hell, this travelogue has had enough of me wandering around lost already. Suffice it to say that it took about 20 minutes to get there, but get there we did, to find the massive western gate under an enormous tarp. High summer is apparently low season for Daigo-ji, and while we could enter, a great deal of the temple complex was under construction for renovations.

This all is starting to sound like Daigo-ji was the low point of the Kyoto trip, and I think I’ve been complaining too much. In fact, Daigo-ji was awesome. We had the entire complex practically to ourselves, excluding a few schoolchildren and a handful of monks and workmen. And the thing I’d specifically come here to see was most certainly not under renovation. Ladies and gentlemen, the Daigo-ji pagoda, the oldest standing structure in Kyoto and possibly the oldest pagoda in the world:

It’s five stories tall, made entirely of wood, and it was built in Anno Domini Nine Hundred and Fifty One. 951. It’s over a thousand years old, and it’s still standing. Fires, wars, typhoons, earthquakes: it’s seen them all and lived. And it’s enormous. We’ll add a full-sized Miranda to that picture for some scale:

Let me put this another way: in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and this damn thing was already over 500 years old.

I probably spent a good half an hour just staring slackjawed at the pagoda, and we took some time after that to wander through the rest of the complex, or at least the bits that were open to us. Daigo-ji is gorgeous, but I have to admit that it looks like it sorely needs the facelift it’s in the process of getting: most of the halls and temples were pretty weather-worn, and the paths between them were rutted and cracked enough to make getting around in tevas a bit of a challenge.

Plus at this point, the sun was starting to occasionally punch through the clouds, and “punch” is very much the operative term there. It was about 3pm, there was really nothing else in the immediate vicinity to explore, and obviously it was time to move on. We trotted back to the subway station, and planned our next assault while on the train. Most of the things I’d considered doing that afternoon were going to close at 4 or 4:30, so Miranda suggested one I hadn’t flagged: the Kiyomizu-dera temple in southern Higashiyama, which she’d been to with her mom in 2003 and which she thought I’d underestimated. As it turns out, she was right.

But when we got out of the subway at Higashiyama station, I dug in my heels a bit. The clouds had completely burned off, and the temperature was rising quickly. I was going to call in wimpy for the next 30-60 minutes thank you very much: there was a likely-looking cafe across the street, and it seemed like a good place to wait out the peak heat with some ice cream inside air conditioning. In fact it was a great place to do that, and we passed the hour with plates of green tea ice cream and some Japanese fashion magazines.

By 4pm, the clouds had rolled back in, and we deemed it safe to venture outside. We settled our bill and grabbed a bus, which put us at the foot of the small street leading uphill to Kiyomizu-dera. The street was lined with mostly unmemorable gift shops, ice cream stands and cafes, but this one stood out a bit:

Kiyomizu-dera is a series of halls and shrines built into the side of a mountain. You walk past the last of the ceramic shops on the way up, and suddenly you see this:

It’s a very popular shrine, and was probably the busiest of the ones we went to. Part of this is due to the “lover’s walk” that’s situated up a short path from the main hall: a pair of large stones are sunk into the pavement about 20 yards apart, and a sign informs you of a local legend that you’ll get what you desire love if you can start a one rock, close your eyes, and walk to the other rock without deviating off course. This provides endless amusement for watching Japanese teenagers and middle-aged European tourists attempting this, and more often than not walking facefirst into another tourist or into one of the small shrines that surround the walk.

The main hall is built into the mountainside, and even lets you take some photos inside the hall itself.

But the main attraction is the verandah. From inside the main hall, it’s merely a large wooden porch offering sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and Kyoto. But then you walk about 5 minutes down a path that goes to another platform on the mountain and turn around, and suddenly you realize what it was you were standing on:

The path winds around a small pagoda and then heads down to the base of the hill underneath the verandah, where an old waterfall has been channeled into three spouts:

The waters are said to have healing properties, and people line up to take a cup on a long pole from an ultraviolet disinfecting station (seriously) and reach out to fill it from the waterfall, either to cure what ails them or just because it makes for a good photograph:

The path continues to curve through several lovely gardens and monuments as it goes back toward the original entrance; I’m forbearing on photos here in order to keep this to a reasonable length. Finally we emerged back at the entrance, and began to poke through the gift shops on the street back going back down to the bus stop, looking for the perfect Maneki-neko. It had been intermittently spotting rain since we had been on the verandah, but we apparently dallied a bit too long in the shops, because suddenly the skies opened.

The water started coming and just didn’t stop. And the shops were closing. We dashed from one open awning to the next— of course I’d gotten cute that day and hadn’t brought my backpack or my umbrella, and was just carrying my camera in my hand. I protected the camera with the high-tech expedient of wrapping it in a plastic shopping bag, and after waiting 15 minutes to see if the storm would blow over, I gave up and paid the ¥450 stupidity tax for one of the fragile clear plastic umbrellas that everyone in Japan seems to use, and we huddled together underneath it as we gingerly walked down the one-lane street dodging strangely aggressive taxi drivers on their way down from the temple.

At the bus stop, we joined a crowd of very bedraggled people. The bus shelter itself was full, so we waited in the over-hung doorway of the bank next to it. As we stood there, we could see the mountains in the distance over the buildings slowly disappear into the haze: this was going to be a corker of a storm. Suddenly I realized something strange: I’ve been in big storms in Asia before, and they’d all had one thing in common. One thing that was missing here. The storm sewers were not flooding. Not even a little bit. Buckets of water fell from the sky, buckets of water vanished into big grates. It was not what I’m used to.

Eventually a bus pulled up heading towards our station. In the 2 seconds it took for us to dash from the bank doorway to the open bus door, we got wetter than we had in the entire walk down to the bus stop.

By the time we made it back to our neighborhood, it had finally calmed down to a trickle, and the temperature had dropped at least 15 degrees from when the storm had started. Ah, blessed relief. I slept well for the first time in days.

squid on a stick: kyoto day two

Another really long one. I bitch about the heat, we have an amazing experience at a zen temple, I bitch about the heat even more, I rave about ramen, we geek out at a manga museum, we discover Superman’s strange Japanese ancestor and strange foods are consumed. All that and more, just click here…

Monday morning started pretty much the same way that Sunday night had ended for me: stretched out on a futon, trying desperately to find some sort of optimum position of skin exposure that would both allow enough perspiration to cool me down to a range where I could sleep, and yet keep enough of me under a cover so that the moving air from the fan over my body didn’t jolt me awake with the sensation of insects crawling over me. Really, I am just not a hot-weather animal. Then the sun crested the horizon, and as the house’s owner had warned us, slammed directly in through the front window and into our faces, raising the temperature in the room by about 5 degrees instantly. I struggled to my feet to close the blinds, but the damage was already done.

So to answer the question on nobody’s lips: “Has two years of living in San Francisco turned Nathan into one of those horrible SF pansies who can’t tolerate so much as a minute of actual weather, hot or cold?” The answer is… well, I could probably make a good argument that the answer is “bite me, I always hated humid summer weather,” but I think it’s best to just succumb to the inevitable and admit it: I’ve become one of them.

But oh well, adequate amounts of sleep or not, it was time to get up and face the day. What followed was a replay of the hilarious sequence of events that used to happen every morning in the summer when I lived in Philadelphia, Boston or New York before I finally just bought a damn air conditioner: jump into the shower, rinse the night-slime off me, towel off furiously, then twist around like a circus contortionist in front of a fan on its highest setting, trying to get the water to dry off before I started sweating anew, so I could have one moment of blessed dryness in which to pull on a t-shirt and underwear. As always, this never quite worked. I managed to struggle into clothing regardless (much to Miranda’s amusement: she loves this kind of weather), and after a quick slice of toast and cup of tea downstairs, we headed out into the bright, bright sunlight to our first stop: the Ginkaku-ji, better known in English as the “Silver Pavilion.”

The Silver Pavilion was within walking distance of our lodgings, so we’d planned to wake up early and get there just as it opened in order to beat the heat and the crowds. Well, we certainly beat the crowds. The heat, however, beat me. By the time we’d gotten there, I’d already sweated through my t-shirt. We walked into the entry path (an 8-foot wide lane surrounded on both sides by tended shrubbery a good 12 feet tall, so you wouldn’t see the pavilion until you turned the last corner), only to find a sign letting us know that, regrettably, the Silver Pavilion was currently undergoing renovations to give it a new roof and shore up its foundations, but that all of the other portions of the facility including the zen garden were still open. It was only ¥300, so we paid up anyway and walked in.

Yup, under construction. Oh well, there was still a huge zen garden in front of us.

The zen garden at the Ginkaku-ji is, obviously, a masterwork. The following picture is of a conical structure that was the first thing you saw coming around the corner, but the zen garden itself stretched for several dozen yards in each direction behind it. It was all immaculately white, and there was a uniformed attendant doing maintenance around the edges with a small hand-come, apparently sorting out any non-matching pebbles that had somehow gotten mixed in from the pedestrian path.

What my picture here does not show you is, um, the swarm of bees. The entire zen garden was buzzing with bees, each easily twice as large as the standard american honeybee, all of them excitedly flying into and out of tiny holes in the collected sand mass. There was no signage that explained this, so I have no idea if the garden normally plays host to a beehive or if this was some sort of unexpected infestation. It certainly made us a little nervous to hang around too closely, so we moved on to the moss gardens further back, which in addition to being largely bee-free were also much more shaded.

The moss gardens were gorgeous and much, much cooler. There was even a tiny three-sectioned exhibit of the various mosses used in the garden, labelled “Very Important Moss (like VIP!)”, “residents of Ginkaju-ji” and (inexplicably) “Moss the interrupter.”

Since the main attraction of the site was under wraps, we only spent about half an hour wandering around the gardens, and after grabbing what would be the first of many waters from a vending machine on the way out, we headed down the philosopher’s path to our next destinations.

But first, a word about vending machines. I’m pretty sure that Japan has as many vending machines as they have people, or possibly even a few more. I don’t think we have yet once, except in the middle of the Japanese Alps, managed to walk more than 10 minutes without encountering at least a soft drink machine, and on most days the soft drink machine will be flanked by one selling cigarettes and one selling beer. On train platforms, there will usually be on selling hot and cold coffee drinks as well. The smoke and booze machines have little signs on them indicating that nobody under the age of majority is to use them. I’m told that people actually pay attention to these signs. I can’t personally vouch for that, but I can at least confirm that I never saw a teenager using one of the beer machines, whereas back in the states there would have been a line. And the best part of all is that the prices never vary. If a 500ml bottle of iced green tea is ¥150 in a desolate suburb of Tokyo, it’s also going to be ¥150 in front of the busiest shrine in Kyoto. It’s really pretty awesome.

Back to the path: the “Philosopher’s Path” is a famous ancient pedestrian path adjacent to a canal that connects some of eastern Kyoto’s most famous and important temples and shrines. From the description in the books I’d read, I’d been expecting a path between willow trees or maybe towering pines, winding its way through some sort of austere park dotted with temples. In fact, while certainly beautiful, the Philosopher’s Path is these days a completely urban artifact: a paved trail that follows a canal with steep stone and concrete sides, through several residential and commercial neighborhoods. Dozens of little cafes and stores, and not a few private residences abut the path, and it’s used daily by commuters, joggers and dog-walkers as well as tourists and monks.

It turned out to be a pretty good visual metaphor for Kyoto itself. From reading tourist books about Kyoto, it’s pretty easy to get an impression of it as a semi-mystical city, built entirely out of 1000-year-old shrines and populated by zen masters. In reality, Kyoto after a few days started to remind me rather strongly of Philadelphia: a city with a great deal of history, and which is filled to brimming with sites of amazing historical interest, but which outside those areas is a little on the gritty, industrial and working-class side. I like Philadelphia a lot, and I think I like Kyoto a lot too— it’s just that the contrast between the imagined and the actual is pretty vivid.

…of course in Philly, the sites of historical importance are colonial-era brick and wood buildings. In Kyoto, once you get to the doors of the right shrine, the magic bit really does exist:

That’s the temple gardens from the Eikan-do (aka Zenrin-Ji) temple. It’s one of at least a dozen shrines or temples along the Philosopher’s Path, but far from the most famous and it wasn’t actually our next planned stop, we just entered on a whim.

You mostly can’t take pictures inside the Eikan-do, which is a pity, since the temple’s two main halls are both stunningly beautiful, and the second hall houses something called the “Mikaeri Amida” — a statue of the Amida Buddha who appears to be looking backward over his shoulder. Most Buddhist altars tend to look pretty similar to (my) untrained western eyes, but this one was visibly different in a very obvious way, and the story that goes along with the statue (in which the Buddha looked over his shoulder at the former head monk of the shrine and said “Yokan, you are slow” was fascinating.

And that was just another random stop in Kyoto. Our actual destination was a bit further down the path, and it was pretty easy to figure out when we’d gotten there:

That’s the main gatehouse (san-mon) at the Nanzen-Ji temple, and if you think it looks imposing in that photo, you need to come see it in person. It’s built entirely of wood, was raised in 1628, and it’s enormous.

For a bit of scale, the wooden risers on the floor between those pillars come up almost to my knee. The second floor is accessible by stairs for a fee, and provides some amazing views of the scenery below:

The Nanzen-ji was probably my favorite of all of the historical sites I visited in Kyoto, and it managed to be so in spite of the fact that it was really the only one that completely nickel-and-dimed you on entry fees: climbing to the top of the san-mon was ¥500. Entry into the gardens was another ¥400. Entry into the main temple was (I think I recall this correctly) ¥1000. It was all worth it, but ouch.

On the grounds of the temple complex but outside any of the ticketed buildings, there was a large roman-style aqueduct: we searched in vain for any explanation of what it was doing there.

The first stop we made after the gate were the Nanzen-in cultivated gardens. They were predictably jawdroppingly beautiful, and again — importantly — shaded. I don’t really have a lot useful to say about pretty gardens at this point, so here’s a pretty picture:

After the gardens, we went into the main temple itself, and once we stepped in pretty much every qualm I had about the ticket prices fell away. After walking through a small series of rooms facing out onto cultivated gardens every bit as impressive as the nanzen-in if not moreso, you entered a wide hallway with a blast of white light coming in through the open screens on the left-hand side. As you approached them, what you see is this:

That’s the “tigers” section of the “tigers and cubs” zen garden: the three large rocks are the tigers. It was still early enough when we arrived that there were only two or three other visitors looking at the garden when we arrived, but more importantly and luckiest of all, we walked out onto the porch as a prayer ceremony had started in one of the rooms behind us: two monks were chanting sutras and beating drums while several older people read along in books on a smaller prayer mat beside them. We sat and stared at the rock garden while the chanting went on behind us.

You go to Rome to see men in funny red suits walking across the floor of St. Peters holding censers filled with incense. You go to Paris to see Notre Dame. You go to Salt Lake City to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. You go to Jerusalem to see the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock. And if you go to Japan, you cross your fingers and hope that you get to sit on the floor of a temple older than your entire country, listening to chanting monks while looking at one of the most famous Zen gardens in the world. So we sat, and we listened.

Eventually, sadly, the service stopped and the monks left. We then got to realize just how lucky we’d gotten: with the monks gone, a narration in Japanese over a short repeated loop of Japanese Classical music came on. We moved on around the corner, where we could see the other half of the garden.

The rooms facing out onto the porches and gardens could be looked into but not walked into or photographed, which was understandable since their internal screen walls were covered with stunning examples of classic japanese paintings, including the famous “Tiger Drinking Water” by Kano Tanyu.

We spent a little more time wandering the halls and open verandas of Nanzen-ji, but the majority of the temple is still a working religious institution and is thus off-limits to visitors. And by this time, it was around 12:30 and we were starting to get a bit hungry, and even in the shade it was starting to get just brutally hot, so our thoughts turned to lunch, preferably somewhere air-conditioned. LP didn’t offer much in the vicinity of Nanzen-ji…except what they claimed was their favorite ramen joint in all of Kyoto. Hot soup sounded a little dicey at the time, but we set off in search of it anyways, and this turned out to be an excellent idea.

Amazingly, by cross-checking several maps, we were able to make it to the restaurant in just about 20 minutes. Karako turned out to be awesome. While Lonely Planet claimed that it was “not much on atmosphere,” I can only assume they’d gotten scared off by the semi-industrial neighborhood it’s in. Karako has exactly the kind of atmosphere you’d want from a great lunch joint: it’s small (one table plus the bar, which seats about 8), and is run by The Guy. The Guy is a middle-aged man with a short but solid build, and a completely no-nonsense expression. The place is a little cluttered, and there are posted menus with caricatures of The Guy on them, but you don’t need them because you’re going to order ramen. The kitchen is busy, and the A/C is powerful enough to keep the place cool despite the vats of soup. The Guy obviously knows most of his customers very well, and knows what they’re going to order before they ask. You walk in, he asks you if you want ramen, you get ramen. That’s atmosphere aplenty.

And oh my GOD the ramen you get. Obviously homemade noodles. A broth that’s thick enough that you would consider ordering it as soup all on its own. Fresh scallions and bean sprouts. No nasty white-and-pink congealed fishcake thing. And the pork…

…now at most ramen places I’ve been to in the states, the sliced pork in the ramen is really just there as a flavoring agent, and obviously got bought in bulk from somewhere else. It’s rarely bad per se, but you’d never think about it: it’s just another thing floating in the soup, and you’re concentrating on the noodles and broth. The pork slice at Karako was a 5” wide generous cut from what was obviously a rolled pork loin roast. An excellent rolled pork loin roast. One that I would have paid money for on my own. (In fact, if I interpreted some of the signs posted inside the place correctly, you could do just that.) It tasted of smoke and pork and bacon and it fell apart on your tongue.

Sorry, no pictures of the soup. I would have had to have stopped eating it. Wasn’t going to happen. You’ll just have to go to Kyoto yourself.

Sated and happy, we plotted our next move. We’d been to three temples in one morning, and that was feeling like enough temple for the day: like in Rome, it’s easy to get churched-out in Kyoto. It was also, now…

…well look, I have no idea how hot it was, and I’m running out of adjectives and cute similes. Many hours later, when we got back to the house long after dark, we checked and at about 9pm the temperature in Kyoto was still about 86f. Japan isn’t big on the whole “thermometer outside a bank” thing, so I don’t know what the high temperature on the 14th was, but if it didn’t crest 100f it made a good solid crack at it, and the humidity certainly never dropped below 95%. It was not comfortable, and it wasn’t looking like it was going to get any more comfortable until much later in the afternoon. So whatever we were going to do next had to involve no Buddhas and be climate controlled.

Luckily, Kyoto has a newly built International Manga Museum. It was time to hoist the otaku flag and go commune with Astro Boy. We jumped on the metro, took it a few stops down, got off, wandered around for only a few minutes looking for a museum that we knew was only half a block from the metro stop before finally noticing the huge “M” logo.

The IMM is housed in a converted primary school in downtown Kyoto, and is surprisingly accessible for English-speaking visitors. Of course one of the main draws of the museum is somewhat lost on us: the enormous “WALL OF MANGA” with several tens of thousands of volumes available for any visitor to pull down and read, but the exhibits in the main galleries had subtitling in several languages, and did a great job of showing how manga evolved out of older forms of Japanese popular graphic art, and how manga reacted to major events in Japanese history.

One of the most fascinating parts of the whole museum was a live demonstration of something called kamishibai. Kamishibai (“paper drama” or “paper storytelling”) was a form of street theatre that was hugely popular in Japan in the pre-war and immediately post-war years, and involved a storyteller standing in front of a box with a window cut into it. Inside the box were a series of illustrations, each one to be revealed by pulling out the one in front of it and placing it in the back of the stack. The illustrations were essentially a dialogue-free comic book, and the kamishibai performer would add the dialogue himself, working from (and likely embellishing) a script given to him by the same company that he rented the box and illustrations from. A performance would be announced by walking through a neighborhood clapping two sticks together, and once a crowd of enough children had gathered, preceded by the candy sales that actually funded the whole operation. Each story would go through 15-20 illustrations, and would always end with “…TO BE CONTINUED!” At its peak, there were apparently around 50,000 kamishibai performers in Japan, working from material created by dozens of companies and hundreds of artists. In manga’s weird parallel evolution with American comics, this was the newspaper serial years.

Even more interesting — to me anyway, some non-nerds have probably tuned out at this point but screw ‘em — was that the Kamishibai we saw that day was one taken from a real 1920s series: the continuing adventures of The Golden Bat and his nemesis Doctor Zero. The Golden Bat apparently debuted in 1930, and was an invincible, flying hero (with the head of a skull for some reason), wearing a skin-tight outfit with a cape, who would regularly laugh off rains of bullets from Doctor Zero’s hapless masked minions before swooping down to save the day. Sounds familiar, right?

Very familiar, except here’s the funny thing: Action Comics #1, the first Superman story, debuted in 1938. The Golden Bat’s first appearance is hard to pin down (the Kamishibai companies didn’t really keep good records), but appears to have at least been as early as 1930. It’s a funny old world.

As we made it to the end of our circuit of the manga museum, it had clouded up and was starting to rain a little bit, so we headed over to the museum cafe to grab a tea and wait out the weather. The slight rain quickly turned into a tropical gale, and we ended up staying in the cafe until around 4pm, watching as the horizontal raindrops occasionally convinced the automatic door sensor that they were customers trying to get in.

After the weather had mostly passed by, we walked out into a Kyoto that was if possibly even more humid, but which was thankfully a hell of a lot cooler. Our next stop: Kyoto Station, this time not laden down with a ton of baggage. This probably also falls as much into the category of high nerdery as the manga museum, but big, pretty train stations are a small obsession of mine, and in Japan train stations don’t get much bigger or prettier than Kyoto Station. Built in 1997, it’s a 15-story semi-open building that houses stations on the local metro and bus lines, as well as the Kyoto JR and Shinkansen tracks, a 2-level basement shopping mall, a hotel, dozens of restaurants restaurants, a live theatre (currently playing “West Side Story”) and an observation deck and skywalk that you reach by going up 15 stories of continuous escalators:

Now that’s a train station. It’s also, in a very hypermodern way, completely beautiful. After a morning spent looking through 400+ year old temples, this was a good change:

After spending about an hour going up all the escalators, finding the helipad on the roof, walking over the skyway to the other side, going down more escalators and then amusing ourselves sampling pickles and confections in the food courts of the shopping malls (and nearly getting sucked into buying more sake), we decided that it had officially cooled off enough to risk some actual outdoor activity: checking out the floats for Thursday’s Gion Festival. This was a return to the scene of the previous night’s aggravation, where we’d had to wade through the float-happy crowd to get to our dinner, but this time we were actually ready for it.

The Gion Festiva dates back to the year 869, and started out as a purification ritual to appease plague-happy gods. These days, there appears to be little overt religious context to the festival, but it’s a great excuse to get dressed up in traditional summer kimonos, open up your house or shrine to show off your heirlooms, and ideally help push a three-storey float down the street. In the three days leading up to the festival, large chunks of downtown Kyoto are made off-limits to cars, and the floats are displayed on the streets while a huge street fair rages around them.

Some of the floats will even, for a small fee, let you climb up and inside: we found a 2-storey float topped with a cypress tree that welcomed visitors for ¥300, and we clambered on up, waved at the crowds, and took a few pictures.

The funny thing about the street fair is how similar in a lot of ways it was to any summer street fair in New York City, and especially the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy. Huge crowds of gawping tourists? Check. Endless rows of booths on the sidewalk selling street foods? Yup. Cotton candy? Check. Meat-on-a-stick? Check. Ice cream? Check. Funnel cakes? Ayup. Candied apples? Check. Beer? Of course. Chocolate-dipped frozen bananas? Of course, there’s always money in a banana stand. Bags of nuts? Yup. Doner kebabs served by bemused Turkish guys? You bet. French fries? Sure! Enormous armoured beetles? Wait, what?

Enormous armored beetles. 4 to 6 inches long, evil-looking as all hell, with huge pinching mandibles Apparently being sold as pets, although given their location between the fried-checken stand and the funnel cakes I can’t completely vouch for that. How devoted am I to peace, harmony, international relations and not getting my ass tossed into a Japanese jail? So devoted that I didn’t immediately burn this booth down to the ground and stop up and down on the ashes. I should get a medal or something. As it was, I merely backed away very quickly once I realized what was in the little plastic cages. I could have easily gone my entire lifetime without knowing that those little fuckers existed, much less that I was currently sharing an all-too-small island with them.

And while we’re on the subject of the awful and gross, we passed this:

No, we did not eat there.

Back to happier topics, one of the things that’s apparently done in the lead-up to the Gion Festival is to open up your house’s front room to the street to show off the family heirlooms, and we got to stick out head in and gawp at a few, most impressively this painted screen:

And of course, there were the floats. Dozens of the things, two to three on the large blocks, but single ones hidden in the little alleys. They ranged form the somewhat bare-boned (so much so that I think they might have still been under construction), to elaborate ornate things with built-in puppets. Of the latter, our favorite one by far was the mantis float:

Yes, that’s an enormous praying mantis marionette on top of the float. Even better, beneath the float and in a temporarily attached tent, there was a motherload of kawaii: a smaller mantis figure that little kids could operate by turning a crank. The mantis would rotate away from the child to a hopper, where it would make a bowing motion and in return a little white ball would fall out of the hopper to be caught by the mantis. The child would keep turning the crank and the mantis would rotated back around to present the ball to the child. There was a good long line of 4-year-olds waiting to try this, and some of them were singing what I can only assume was the mantis song. Zorak would have been proud.

Behind the float, in the window of the facing house, was another mantis marionette, this one an automated one that flickered its wings and moved its mandibles about.

This all went on for block and blocks, and it seemed like all of Kyoto was there with us, checking out the sites. A lot of people were dressed in traditional Japanese summer kimonos. The older people tended to go for the more formal look, but some of the kids not so much:

It’s probably worth noting that in addition to all of the bog-standard street fair food noted above, there were also tons of vendors selling very non-standard but very good street food. Huge poofy pork bao. The aforementioned octopus balls. Peking duck. Broiled eel. And of course, squid on a stick! Squid on a stick? Yes, squid on a stick.

I prefer my squid deep-fried, but I had a nibble of Miranda’s squidcicle, and it was pretty good.

And that was one day in Kyoto.

new adventures in being totally fucking lost: Takayama morning, Kyoto afternoon.

This should be a bit shorter than the previous epic: in every major trip, there’s inevitably sooner or later a day that’s largely lost to travel and uninteresting stuff, and this was that day. We woke up, quickly packed our things, took a cold shower (damn you, water-hogging swiss tourists!), and rushed off into the morning haze to grab some breakfast and do some shopping. Tea and toast? Eaten. Assorted pickles? Acquired. Several pieces of lacquerware? Sorted. Two or three tiny sake sampler sets? Done and done. We were a little more efficient than we’d even planned on being, and ended up with a little time to kill, so we stopped at a cafe that offered TEA AND CAKE OR DEATH… okay, actually just tea and cake, and killed about half an hour there before returning to the Zen Ro Ji to assemble our suddenly much less wieldy bags and lug them back to the station.

From Takyama to Nagoya is about a 2 hour and 45 minute train ride, and at least the mountainous areas offered some incredible scenery if you were fast enough to catch it. Since this wasn’t a shinkansen, the front car of the train actually offered windows open to the front and sides, which was amazing to watch in person, but proved a bit difficult for my pocket camera to cope with:

The views out the side were a bit more its speed.

Getting off on the platform at Nagoya was like being slapped in the face with a hot, wet towel: we were no longer up in the cool mountains, but down in the lowlands again, and it was summer in earnest here. We had about 20 minutes to make our transfer, so we hustled ourselves over to the Shinkansen platform, lined up at the marker for the car our tickets indicated, and jumped onto the train the moment it got into the station and disgorged its passengers, knowing that we’d need a minute or two to stow our luggage. (Japanese trains are not big on luggage compartments: a lot of people make use of services that, for a stiff fee, forward your bags between hotels.) We did this and walked through the car to seats 6A and B, only to find them occupied by a family. We stared at our tickets for a second, started to look around for a conductor, and then I looked at my watch…

CAZART. Wrong train. In Japan, if your train is scheduled to depart at 14:22, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that a train coming onto the platform at 14:15 is your train. Because it’s not: what on earth is unusual about turning around two super-express train departures on the same platform within 7 minutes of each other? What would be at all difficult about that? Oops. At more speed than I would have given us credit for being able to produce at that point, we ran back to the end of the car, grabbed up all our luggage, and jumped off the train just as the sunny JR “all aboard” jingle began to play.

Just imagine Amtrak trying to do that. Now stop crying and forget I said anything.

Seven minutes later, our train pulled onto the platform and half an hour later we were in Kyoto station, a hypermodern, 11-story-tall temple to commerce and transit parked in the middle of a 1200-year-old city mostly known for 1000-year-old shrines. We’ll be going back to take proper pictures of the station later, but this stood out a bit on our way through:

Apparently you can add Cafe du Monde to the list of places making a little money on the side in Japan.

The proprietors of our B&B had offered to pick us up at a subway station near their place, which was looking more and more like the best idea ever: we didn’t have a good notion of where they were, we were pretty loaded down with bags from Takayama, and it was stupid hot. We took the Kyoto metro up to Imadegawa station and called them to let them know we were there. About ten minutes later, a Japanese/American couple picked us up in an somewhat weatherworn Isuzu, and drove us to their house, a hundred-year-old Japanese-style house in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the north of Kyoto.

We’ll call them K. and B. for now: I’m going to grouse a little bit about the service, and since I liked them fine on a personal level, I’d rather not have google attach my whingings to their name permanently. We kind of got the impression that they were either new to the business, or just weren’t that into it and were doing it halfheartedly to bring in some money on the side. Really, the problem was that we’d gotten the impression via email that they were running a full-on B&B, and really what they were doing was renting out a room in their house to the occasional traveller… for $50/person/night. Nothing wrong with that, but for $100/night (more than we paid for an actual hotel in Matsumoto), we were expecting a little more…organization. Little things like maps, a business card so that we could use a taxi to get home if all else failed. Failing that, printable directions to the place, or even an explanation of how to get there on public transit that involved a bit less hand-waving at the nearest mountain, and a bit more on-street landmarks and left-right turns.

Luckily, Miranda has an excellent sense of direction, or we’d still be wandering around Kyoto trying to find our way back to the house after our first night out. As it was, they quickly left to run some errands after we’d disembarked, and since we wanted to at least do a little exploration (not to mention get dinner) that evening, we walked out of the house, looked around, and had a bit of a sinking feeling: long, unmarked (of course) residential streets stretched in each direction. The Lonely Planet maps promised to be as useless as ever. Obviously, drastic action was called for: we took off in the direction of what we hoped K. had indicated as the nearest major bus stop, and along the way there I kept my eye out for anything that might prove to be a useful landmark. In about two blocks, we passed a hair salon that was still open, and I got a bright idea, walked in, and confused the hell out of them by asking in pidgin Japanese for their business card. After a little back and forth, they handed me what appeared to be a paper brochure, but it had what I was looking for: a map showing their location, so we were now at worst one taxi ride away from “close to home.”

Next item of business: a real map, followed by some sightseeing and possibly dinner. Lonely Planet didn’t mention any international bookstores, so we figured we’d head back to Kyoto station and find the tourist office there. A few block later, we found a bus stop, and even better, it had an obviously not-Japanese person there: a French (or possibly Haitian: I couldn’t peg the accent in the brief conversation) guy who pointed us around the corner to the right bus stop. Victory!

…sorta. As it turned out, we really should have taken the bus to the nearest metro station and taken the subway from there: downtown Kyoto is basically a week-long traffic jam due to the preparations for the Gion Festival later this week, and it took us the better part of an hour on a packed, barely-moving bus to finally pull into the station. Did I mention that it was hot enough to melt glass? We had, at this point, been in better moods. Whatever, we found the tourist office, got a 2-day bus and metro unlimited pass, grabbed a fistful of map-like things, and directions to a bookstore in the vast basement of Kyoto Station (more on the hugeness of Kyoto Station tomorrow), with a not-very-promising suggestion that they “might” have a proper book-form bilingual street atlas of Kyoto.

Well, the English section of the bookstore did have one street map of Kyoto, but it was a flat paper fold-out map, and didn’t have block broken down into building numbers. Oh well, by this time we had at least three map-like objects not counting the LP book, and it would just have to do. Other priorities were asserting themselves, primarily getting some dinner before we murdered each other or any passers-by. A quick consultation of LP provided few suggestions for the station area, but there was an at least interesting-sounding unagi-don place one station away, so we grabbed the metro heading north.

For the record, if you are ever in Kyoto Station during the week of the Gion Festival, are tired, sweaty and cranky, have grave doubts about the quality and locatablity of your lodgings, and are all-in-all one step away from smacking the next fool who looks cross-eyed at you, do not take the subway a station north in search of an unagi-don restaurant that you only have a vague notion of how to find. Because you will exit the subway directly into a mob of happy revellers all out for a night’s stroll to see the Gion Festival Floats and Shrines that are parked at strategic intervals every block or so in the neighborhood a bit north of Kyoto Station, and thus there will be several hundred thousand slowly moving people between you and your dinner. What you should do is take the escalator up to the “ramen restaurant food court” on the 9th floor of the station, where you could be eating an excellent bowl of ramen in air-conditioned comfort a mere five minutes later. But we didn’t figure that out until the next day. Suffice it to say that we found our way to the unagi place…eventually. The unagi-don was good, but $16/plate for eel over rice is a bit stiff even for Japan.

Still, a plate of hot food in an air-conditioned restaurant did a fair bit for restoring our sense of equilibrium, and while it was long past closing time for most of Kyoto’s temples and shrines, we decided to take a stroll around the Gion Shrine, itself, on the theory that the shrine at the center of the upcoming festival should have something interesting going on in or near to it.

Getting off at the nearby subway stop, we found that the shrine was lit up and people were streaming into and out of it, so our suspicions were correct. We heard the sound of flutes and drums from around the corner and decided to investigate that first…

…and were completely foiled. The flute-and-drum music was coming out of the P.A. system of a store hoping to cash in on Gion Matsuri fever. Bother. Back to the shrine, which was gorgeous enough to make all of the evening’s frustrations seem worth it.

Lanterns were lit all over the various courtyards and pathways inside the shrine, casting a friendly glow over everything and everybody. In the center courtyard, a stage was lit with dozens of lanterns on each side.

On the stage were the portable shrines that would be carried at the head of the parade on Thursday.

We spent a good half hour wandering the shrine grounds, taking occasional pictures and managing to relax a little bit. Then we headed out into the nearby neighborhood: a former pleasure district that still sees the occasional geisha (one of the 1000 left in the world) walk by, but is mostly now, like central Takayama, a series of streets of old merchant homes that have been converted into shops and restaurants. In the evening, it was quite pretty: Kyoto is much less illuminated than Tokyo, and some of the side-streets were actually dark.

Around 8:30, our feet were starting to hurt and we realized that we had no idea how long it was going to take us to find our way home, so we gave up our search for ice cream, pulled into a streetcorner and opened up…well, all of our maps. We had an English bus map that omitted various routes and stop names. We had a complete bus map that was all in Japanese. We had Lonely Planet and the Kyoto Tourist Guide, and we had the map I’d bought at the station bookstore, which had metro stops but no bus stops.

It’s at times like this that I am very glad that I date a former travel professional with an innate sense of direction, and even better one who knows enough Chinese characters to be a bit dangerous reading Japanese Kanji.. After a bit of cross-checking between the maps, Miranda decided that the 202 bus would likely put us back at the intersection where we’d started our adventure in the afternoon… and that the nearest 202 stop was about two blocks away. Which it was. And the next bus was three minutes away. Miracle of miracles, we were home less than 45 minutes later.

And thus ended our first day in Kyoto, with me trying fitfully to go to sleep in an un-airconditioned room on a hot summer night, and only occasionally succeeding. But I’ll save my real weather whinging for tomorrow.

hida beefin’

Oh god, this is really long. Markets, castles, rantings about maps, the shogun’s torture chambers, 300-year-old parade floats, and a surprise guest appearance by Tommy Lee Jones, it’s all inside:

We were woken up by the burbling sounds of the fountains and fish outside our room, and by the less burbling sounds of our Scottish and Irish next-door neighbors chatting in the morning. There’s nothing quite like staying in a building with paper walls to give a little insight into the historical Japanese cultural emphasis on quietness, manners and politeness: when your merest whisper can be easily overheard by everyone in a house, you’ll probably consider learning sign language too.

After making the small internal pilgrimage necessary to hit the toothbrushing sink, the western-style toilet and the shower all in a single morning, we were ready to head out and see Takayama proper. Takayama is a small town arranged around two rivers with bridges over them basically about every block, and alongside one of the rivers is one of two early-morning markets. The markets are a combination of working farmers’ markets selling fresh produce and pickles to the locals, and local arts and crafts fair, selling snacks, knick-knacks and thingies (and pickles) to visitors.

Along the way, we saw our first sign that the time-honored tradition of western movie stars making a quick buck by doing a product endorsement in Japan is still alive and well: apparently Tommy Lee Jones has lent his craggy visage to my favorite brand of canned ultra-sweet Japanese iced coffee:

We’d gotten up a little later than we’d hoped to, and by the time we actually got to the market it was about 10am and we were both getting to be on the cranky side of hungry, so on the theory that the market would still be there in another 20 minutes, we aborted our first pass at it and went back across the river to a small cafe/teashop that was offering a ¥450 set breakfast. Sadly for me, we didn’t look too closely at what the set consisted of,, and a few minutes later we were presented with identical trays consisting of a large piece of thick Japanese toast, and a single hard-boiled egg. For the record, I’d probably eat a pound of the congealed mountain yam stuff before a bite of a boiled egg, so Miranda traded her toast for my egg, and I resolved to get a bit more food at the market. While we ate, we had a lovely view of the river, and noticed that there were several schools of koi swimming in the river itself, putting a fair bit of effort into keeping stationary against the current. It wasn’t clear if they’d been put there intentionally or were escapees from some residents’ koi gardens, but they were very pretty and immediately visible in the crystal-clear water.

Thus fortified, we re-crossed the river and made our way through the market, which had obviously passed its peak time and was slowing down at lot. We leisurely moved from booth to booth, sampling various pickles and sweets, and making notes for the next morning when we figured we’d be doing the majority of our shopping.

Once we hit the end of market, we had to put a bit of effort into fending off a hard sell of black sesame brittle candy, and then turned around and headed back toward our next top, the Takayama-Jinya.

The Takayama-Jinya is the former seat of government for Takayama-Hida during the Edo period, when the Tokugowa Shogonate replaced the local governor with direct control over the province, in order to more efficiently extract rice taxes, timber and minerals from an area that was rich in all three. Possibly a little too rich for its own good: according to placards placed at the Jinya, on many years the province didn’t have enough rice left to feed itself after taxes were levied, and several of the Shogun’s representatives either had to put down riots or flee from them.

The Jinya is one of the few buildings of its type and era left, as many of them were either torn down during the Meiji restoration or afterward, or destroyed (by bombs or for firewood) during the war. It’s been carefully preserved and restored, and is large enough to spend most of an afternoon wandering through.

The Jinya and its outbuildings sprawl around a series of gardens, and the internal rooms are carefully arranged so that by opening screens and doors, you can catch any hint of a crossbreeze. The Jinya also provided a visceral reminder to me that pre-war generations of Japanese were much, much shorter than the current average, as I managed to crack my head against the overhanging crossbeams on two separate occasions. For the record, they are of very solid construction.

Along one of the passageways was a privy, which had the most signs in the most languages of any of the rooms in the place:

Further down was the “interrogation room,” where people who had made the mistake of displeasing the shogun’s local representatives (probably by, say, withholding rice tax) could be questioned at length, usually kneeling on wooden spikes, or having their legs broken by enormous stone blocks. The interrogator himself got to sit on a nicely raised tatami platform looking down on the poor unfortunates.

After the interrogation room we left the main building and entered the storehouses, which have been converted into a museum of Edo-era documents from when the building had still been in use — survey maps, tax collection tables and the like. There were also pictures and short biographies of the various governors: which ones had managed to put down riots, which ones had been killed by mobs and so forth. Ironically, not only had several of the Edo-era governors been killed by the locals, but so had the Meiji-era reformist governor, who died in prison shortly after a riot by enraged conservatives. Governor of Hida was apparently a pretty thankless job, if you don’t count the money, power, influence and the lovely house.

From the Jinya, we walked back toward the center of town, where three long streets are comprised of the original private merchant houses that were the town’s center in the 1700s. Most of the houses have been converted into stores for the purpose of separating visitors from their money as quickly as possible, and while that sounds kind of tacky it mostly wasn’t: Hida’s local craft specialties have been doll-making, sake-making and lacquerware for apparently decades-to-centuries now, and those crafts were on prominent display in the stores. Multiple sake breweries were represented (denoting by huge cedar-stick spheres hanging from their entrances) and offered free tastings. The effect was like a charming mix of Napa and the Jersey Shore.

We found a couple of very promising sakes and one lacquerware and furniture store that could easily have soaked up all of our discretionary income for the next decade or so, but we left everything where it was, figuring again that we’d do all of our actual shopping the next morning and not have to lug bags around town for the rest of the afternoon, so we merely carefully noted the location of a few key stores and moved on.

At this point, we were getting a bit peckish again.. god, this travelogue does really seem to revolve around my stomach, doesn’t it? Oh well, I knew I was going to eat my way across this country when we bought the tickets. Anyway, lunchtime. Restaurants were thick on the ground in the Sanmachi district, and we passed a very promising-looking one that had a menu on the outside that mentioned duck-meat ramen. That’s about the best idea I’ve heard in months, so we walked in and got a table. Sadly, it turned out that the duck soup was a seasonal dish only, but we did well anyway: we’d managed to stumble into Ebisu, a restaurant that’s been famous for soba noodles for just over a hundred years. And yes, they make their own:

After an amazing lunch of cold soba and hot tempura, we crossed over to the west side of town and to the Kusakabe Folk House museum, wherein one of the larger merchant houses has been opened up to the public. The brochure at the museum made the interesting point that Takayama, due to its direct administration by the shogun, had never had much of a local samurai class, and so there had been room for the local merchant class to actually stretch out a bit and put together their houses and stores in the center of town.

The Kusakabe house was one of the largest of its type, with two floors, about 15 rooms, and a garden and tea house in the back.

This wall-hanging was found on the first floor, and was bereft of English signage, but we guessed that it commemorated the driving of the train tunnels through the alps, something that probably opened up the Hida area to a heretofore mythical amount of commerce:

In some ways, the Kusakabe house was prettier than the Jinya: absent the need to crush the visitor with imperial grandeur, there was more room for whimsical details, like the carved panels over the door lintels:

Apparently unusually, the house had not been directly constructed by its residents, but commissioned of and planned by the town’s master carpenters, and they’d done an amazing job: the primary structure of the house was made of three beams, each easily 40 feet long, made from single red pines:

The same attendant who told us about the beams offered to take our picture, and since certain relatives have complained that there were very few pictures of us in this narrative, we consented to the inevitably goofy-looking “roundeye tourists posing in old Japanese architecture” photo:

From the Kusakabe house, it was a short walk to the Takayama Festival Float museum. Takayama, like many towns in Japan has several local seasonal festivals. Takayama’s festivals (one in autumn, one in spring) involve floats. So far we’re not too far away from carnival or mardi gras, but Takayama’s floats are a little…different. For starters, they’re 30 feet tall.

There are eleven floats in total (plus a portable shrine, but we’ll get to that), and the float museum has a rotating selection of a few of them on display at any time. The floats which are not in the museum are kept in enormously tall sheds scattered around the town center; walking around, you would inevitably pass them: in an area of Japan where the average building was two stories tall at most, the looming whitewashed doors were a little hard to miss.

The museum has on permanent display the original portable shrine that used to lead the parade. “Portable” is used somewhat advisedly: the shrine apparently weighs two and a half tons: the upper sections were made of various hardwoods, and the black band around the middle (and an unclear amount of the undercarriage) was made of, um, iron. The shrine required 80 people to carry it, 40 at a time and switching off frequently. According to the taped narration that we got to carry around the museum, it’s been retired from active duty (and replaced by a much smaller shrine) because it’s become impossible to find 80 people of exactly the same height to volunteer to carry the damn thing along a multi-mile route twice a year; an unexpected side-effect of post-war Japan’s height boom.

(For those of you who are scratching your head rather than giggling: the Osbourne 1 was the first “portable” computer, from 1982. It weighed 35 pounds, was the size of a large samsonite suitcase, and was “portable” by virtue of having both an internal 5” CRT monitor and, well, a handle.)

The floats were kept inside a huge glass-walled chamber (hence any odd reflections on these photos), and a path circled it, rising slowly from floor level to above the floats. The float in the last picture here has a marionette on the front, which apparently does multiple tricks involving both itself and the two smaller puppets on the side, and requires 8 puppeteers (operating 36 strings) to operate while the float is moving.

Also according to the tape, most of the floats are about 250 years old, and the oldest one is a little over three hundred years old. All of the floats are registered National Treasures, and the reason that they all look brand-new is that in addition to the amount of gold and lacquer used in their construction, the government funds their continual repair and upkeep.

Next door to the float museum, and free for holders of museum tickets, is a small building that contained, according to the somewhat worn audiotape we were listening to, “a scale reconstruction of the (mumble mumble) temple complex at (mumble mumble), with a computer controlled lighting system to simulate day and night as seen from (mumble mumble).” Figuring that it was free and air-conditioned, we walked over to take a look, only to find ourselves in a basketball court-sized room filled with an exact scale replica of… the Tosho-gu temple complex at Nikko. Nikko, I feel compelled to point out, is no more than four hours by train or car from Takayama. Apparently the model had been commissioned by a rich devout Buddhist, had toured the world on several exhibitions, and he’d requested that it be permanently installed near the float museum in Takayama, proximity to the original be damned. As with much of Japan, it was pleasantly baffling.

Quickly exhausting the amusement value of a miniature representation of somewhere we’d been less than a week before, we walked back out into the heat, and took a walk down Takayama’s shrine path: a 2km walking path that winds through nearly a dozen Buddhist and Shinto temples, each about a few feet from each other. None of the shrines was open to visitors, so we got to briskly move from building to building, through their various gardens (green and stone both), keeping to the shade and taking pictures.

The path crossed one major road, and a pedestrian underpass was helpfully provided. This was the second underpass we’d used in Takayama (the first on the previous day, on the way out to the folk village), and while they’re not exactly interesting per se, they’re notable for what they lack:

Note carefully the complete lack of graffiti. Or of urine stains. You can’t tell from a photo, but there was also no smell of urine. It’s not very clear in this picture, but the decorations in the middle of the tunnel are simply hanging from strings on hooks, and they were obviously several months to several years old, and completely unmolested.

America, this was not. Not coincidentally, as we were making this walk, our bags, including my laptop and one of my cameras, were sitting in a room made largely of paper, with exactly zero locks between it and the street. Our level of worry about the stuff in our room? Zero. Japan’s lack of crime is pretty much a cliche, but it’s also basically true, and for an American — especially a resident of, say, San Francisco or New York City — it’s a little unnerving. I’ll leave theorizing about the reasons for it to professional sociologists and criminologists, and merely say that it’s amazing how quickly you learn to trust in this, and a little depressing to think how quickly I’ll have to un-learn it once we get back to the states.

One of the last temples along the path is the Tensho-ji, which is also the local youth hostel, and had by far the most gorgeous garden we’d seen yet.

Having gotten through as many shrines as we were capable of in the midafternoon heat, we sauntered downhill toward the hotel to drop horizontal for a while, upload photos, catch up on email and so forth.

A few hours later, it was time for dinner. (Like an army, this blog travels on its stomach!) While it’s largely unknown in the states, inside Japan the Hida area is as famous for its beef as the Kobe region, and apparently takes similarly excessive care of its cows. Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and the “Takayama Gourmet Guide” that Tommy had provided all agreed that a restaurant called Shosuya was the best place to sample the stuff, so after checking the map, we strode out into the balmy early evening in the restaurant’s direction.

…more or less. Between the LP map and the Hida tourist map, we ended up about a block from it without having much of an idea where it was, before we had the bright idea of asking the ice cream vendor we were standing in front of while helplessly consulting the maps.

Quick digression: Japanese cities have streets, but by and large the streets are not named, and while buildings are technically numbered, they are not numbered in relation to the streets. Instead, cities are divided up into districts (ku), each ward is divided into neighborhoods (kinjo), each neighborhood is subdivided into sections comprised of 6-20 blocks (chome), each block in a chome is numbered, and each building in a block is numbered, but both numberings are not necessarily in any obvious sequence. Street signs, when they exist, will usually tell you which kinjo and chome you are in, but at that point you are on your own, roundeye, and the problem is compounded by the previously mentioned fact that tourist maps (nevermind the crap in LP) will often omit smaller streets, making block-counting (which is really your only viable option for navigation) an inexact science at best. The only thing that keeps this all from being fatally aggravating is that much like, say, London, it’s apparently just as confusing to the locals: you’ll often see Japanese people staring distractedly at maps on streetcorners, and judging from the ads we saw on the Tokyo metro, there’s a very brisk business in hand-held GPS navigators. Also, back at the Takayama-Jinya, one of the documents on display in the storehouse section had been a very detailed street map of Takayama, including prominent labelled landmarks for navigation: apparently everyone in Japan has been lost for hundreds of years at a minimum.

But I digress: there was an ice cream vendor on the street corner where we were standing, and after we asked her “Shosuya wa, doko desu ka?”, she was very amused to point out that it was about twenty feet away, around the corner.

Hida beef? Fucking amazing. I’m not much of a red meat eater these days, but this was a strong contender for the best meal I’ve had in Japan so far. It was simplicity itself: a dozen slices of Hida beef, a white-hot charcoal brazier, some rice, and a few vegetables to grill on the side. The brazier was hot enough that in about 30 seconds you could get a good sear on the outside of the meat while leaving the inside still pink-to-red, and it was… god, I don’t really have the vocabulary for this stuff. Salty and irony, with that full-mouth “beefy” flavor, but delicately textured, amazingly marbled and basically no connective tissue at all. I ate about a third of it raw or barely cooked at all. Miranda had a piece and asked for seconds. It’s a good thing that there’s basically no equivalent in the states for under a hundred dollars a plate, or I’d be a lot heavier and a lot poorer.

Miranda had a “mini-sukiyaki”, and I fear I’m doing it a disservice by talking about it after that glowing description. It was also fantastic; I’ll let her handle the descriptive details if she cares to.

More than sated, we took a quick stroll around the darkened city center, and then returned home to pack.

goodbye kamikochi, hello takayama

Our last day in Kamikochi dawned much like the previous one: to the sound of running water and a slight breeze through the room, and then with a staggering gorgeous breakfast in the dining room.

After breakfast, we packed our bags and bid farewell to our room with not a few sighs and wistful glances. As if to taunt us, the morning was clearer than the day before, and we could clearly see the mountains from our back veranda. But time and the maid service wait for no man, so we rolled our bags down to reception and took off on a quick morning stroll.

Kamikochi? Still unbelievably gorgeous.

We took roughly the same path down to the onsen-hotel that we’d taken the day before, but cut closer to the river.

Finally at 10am there was no avoiding it, and we turned around, retrieved our bags, and got on the bus to Takayama. This was a two-stage bus ride, transferring through a small onsen town on the other side of the mountains, and the highway took a winding route through rockfall zones, plunging canyons and mile-long tunnels drilled straight through the mountains. There was very little traffic: apparently most of the region is closed to private cars during the summer months, so the only other things on the road were other busses and the occasional taxi — which was good, since in several places the road was effectively only a single lane wide, and busses had to make use of pull-outs to get past each other going in opposite directions.

We got into Takayama around noon, and easily found our way to our hotel: Takayama is a small place, with less than a hundred thousand residents, and you could easily walk across the entire city in half an hour. Getting to our hotel took about five minutes even with bags. We were to be staying at the Zen Ro Ji, which is actually a Zen buddhist temple that rents out rooms to travellers, run by a somewhat gruff but English-fluent monk named Tommy. Our room wouldn’t be open until 3, so we dropped our bags and headed out to our first destination: the Hida-no-Sato Folk Village.

A quick word: the Lonely Planet delicately calls the walk from the city center to Hida-no-Sato “unpleasant,” and recommends taking the bus instead. An intrepid traveler might look at the mere 1.5km distance and scoff at such wimpery. What LP, with perhaps a bit too much British understatement, is attempting to convey is that the first half of the trip is through a shade-free industrial/shopping area along a major highway with few crossings, that the second half is up a constant 15-to-20-degree grade, and that there is little to no signage for pedestrians. It wasn’t the worst mistake we’ve ever made as travelers, but if you ever visit Takayama? Take the bus.

Somewhat sweatier than we’d anticipated, we arrived at the folk village, which is an outdoor museum consisting of about a dozen old peasant and merchant buildings from the 1600s through 1800s that have been preserved and moved to Takayama-Hida from various points in the surrounding prefectures.

Walking up through the village, there was an odd odor of smoke in the air, the source of which became obvious once we went into the first house: not only did all of the houses have a working firepit, but in most of them a slowly burning fire had been set up.

Signs explained that the smoke from the fire was actually an integral part of the preservation of the houses: Takayama has a humid climate in the summer and tons of snow in the winter, so the smoke regulates the humidity in the houses, drives out insects, and keeps the wooden or straw roofs from rotting.

Some of the roofs were made from cedar shingles, weighted down with stones. A small building described as a “sawhouse” had pictures demonstrating their manufacture: essentially two men wielding a massive hand-saw cut a single yard-wide cedar trunk into quarter-inch-thick sheets. By hand, did I mention?

Other houses had thatch roofs, which were comprised of two-foot-thick and roughly two-yard-long bundles of straw that were tightly bound together with straw or hemp rope, and then tied with more rope to the structure of the building:

Another one of the outbuildings was a charcoal kiln, for making the all-important winter fuel. I’m not sure why greenery had been allowed to become part of its straw roof: the kiln was not in operation, and it may simply be a good demonstration of what happens to a straw roof when smoke isn’t applied regularly:

Further down the path was a shinto shrine. I’m not sure if ‘deconsecrated’ is an applicable concept in the Shinto religion, but in any case it seemed to have most of the religious accoutrements removed from the altars and allowed visitors the run of the place, including a signboard on the main bell encouraging people to make a wish and ring it:

The trail eventually led back down to the lake at the entrance, where one of the last buildings passed was a true bit of rural pre-modern Japan: a water mill, where a trickle of water into two “scoops” eventually weighed them down enough to pivot down and dump their load into the lake below and then spring back up, powering a hammer on the other side of the beam that would rise and then fall down with great force into the pestle below.

Cleverly managing to avoid buying any of the stunning pieces for sale at the lacquerware-making exhibit hall by arriving on a day when that building was closed, we headed downhill towards the Hida-Takayama Museum of Art. Which, incongruously enough for a town that does most of its tourist trade based on artifacts from premodern Japan, is actually a museum of the decorative arts, focussing primarily on art nouveau and art deco glassware from 19th and early 20th century Europe. The museum is originally the work of a single, never named, and presumably enormously wealthy collector, who put together an insane number of pieces and commissioned a gorgeous modern building on a hillside overlooking all of Takayama:

Without a doubt the centerpiece of the collection is a room with a single exhibit: an art deco fountain that apparently used to be at the head of the Champs-Elysses shopping arcade in Paris. How on earth it got into the hands of a private collector in Japan I cannot possibly imagine, but it was practically worth making the entire trip just to see it:

Possibly not obvious from the photo: not only is the fountain still working, but the entire room is lit with recessed lighting that shifts colors every few seconds matching the shifting of the colors of the fountain’s interior lights. It’s a little beyond awesome.

Also awesome: an entire room full of Émile Gallé pieces, of which one here:

And last but certainly far from least: a dining room comprised entirely of works by Charles Rennie Mackintosh:

It’s a pretty small museum: about 12 rooms of the permanent collection on the second floor, and then a (currently empty) temporary exhibition room on the first floor. We practically had the entire place to ourselves — there were only three or four other visitors — which would have been worrisome for the museum’s future, except that it was very obvious how the place kept in business: weddings, weddings and more weddings. There had actually been a wedding in progress when Miranda visited this place in 2003, and several discreet stands in the hallways had a spread of brochures and pictures hinting at the obvious advantages to hosting your wedding at the museum: for starters, for some amount of money that I hesitate to even consider, you can have your wedding photos taken with the bride and groom seated on one of Mackintosh’s couches.

The museum cafe, the Mackintosh Tea Room, had a set-price tea-and-cake that we availed ourselves of. The cafe was of course also stunning, done up in deco-style black wood with white accents, with an old full-size music box in a corner and tunes from it playing on the sound system. We had a cake-and-ice cream dish that was practically a work of art itself, and then we made a fatal error and decided to check out the gift shop.

A gift shop in a museum dedicated to art deco and art nouveau glassware? What the hell was I thinking? And more importantly, how the hell am I going to get it all home without it shattering into a million pieces? Um, further details as they happen: this promises to be hilarious.

Thoroughly laden down, we strode to the exit, only to find that the museum — and its primary exit — had closed at 5pm. Well no worries, there was another exit past the gift shop, so to only a small amount of tittering by the shop ladies we backtracked and went out that way. The museum runs a shuttle — an actual old red london double-decker bus that goes between the museum and the town central bus terminal, and lo and behold there was the bus idling in the parking lot! Only when we got to it, the driver in a burst of Japanese pointed us at the bus stop sign on the other side of the parking lot. It seemed a little odd that he’d have a preference as to which side of the lot we boarded on, but whatever, we walked over to the sign, and sat down on the bench while we waited for him to finish his cigarette break or whatever the issue was…

…and waited a bit, and watched him turn off the bus, carry a bag of trash from it to a dumpster, and then walk in the direction of the museum and disappear. Huh, perhaps the timetable posted helpfully at the bus stop bore further examination? Oh dear: museum closing, 5pm. Last shuttle bus: 4:55. Last municipal bus: 4:45. Us: screwed.

Oh well, the clouds had come in over the last few hours and it had cooled off considerably, and we were heading downtown this time. Switching off the gift shop bag between us, we made it back to the hotel in about half an hour, stopping only at the odd sight of the “City of Denver Park”, a park apparently built to commemorate Takayama’s sister city relationships (of which Denver was the one in the USA: there were four more in Japan, and one in China), with apparently a tree planted for each time the Mayor of Denver had visited. Note to my sister: run for mayor, it comes with a great free junket.

At the hotel/monastary, we were shown around: it’s a bit of a sprawling place, and our room, the lavatories, the sinks the kitchen and the showers are all in different wings. Our room was actually nearly as large as the one in Kamikochi, but was one of several rooms in a row facing out onto the central garden, with only paper shoji doors in between them. Obviously loud athletic sex was not to be on the menu for tonight. This being Japan, there was even a wifi signal to be found in the room, although it was weirdly intermittent and seemed to maybe be coming from a neighbor — the hotel’s actual wifi only covered the nonresidential bits.

Tommy was kind enough to provide a “gourmet guide to Takayama”, which listed every restaurant in the city by type, as well as noting whether they took credit cards or had an English menu. After two straight days of kaiseki cuisine at the lodge in Kamikochi, we were both up for something a little more straightforward, so we found an izakaya called Murasaki, and as it happened Takayama is small enough that the tourist map is almost entirely accurate, and when we found ourselves on the street that we thought Murasaki was supposed to be on, a bemused sushi barman let us know that we were one street off. Only a single street off! Progress!

Murasaki turned out to be a pretty active local watering hole, and if you’re ever in the area, I recommend it without hesistation. The English menu was simply the Japanese menu with english names on white stickers over the Japanese ones, so the whole gamut was available to us, and everything we had was great. Their gyoza may have been the best that I’ve ever had: scallion-laden on the inside, crunchy on the bottom and soft on the top. We went through two 180ml bottles of what turned out to be really excellent local sake (Takayama has several breweries and is noted for the stuff), and after settling our bill did a small, slighly tipsy wander through downtown Takayama before returning home.

monkey business: kamicochi continued

Thursday morning dawned with the sun occasionally breaking through the clouds, and us cocooned in our blankets. I could have happily stayed the rest of the day in bed, but breakfast was at a set time, and there was some hiking to do. After a quick shower, we were getting ready to head to the dining room again when our phone beeped and an automated (I think? I hope?) voice let us know that our table was ready. We hustled our way down to the dining room, and oh lord here we go again:

Words fail.

After breakfast, we went back to the room to put together daypacks for a hike, and of course while we’d been at breakfast the beds had been put back into the closet and the table was back in the center of the room. It was eerily like having house-elves.

We walked back to the bus stop where the visitor’s center was, and apparently made the day of the young woman working the counter there by being the only people to ask her anything that morning: she was all alone in this huge, obviously recently refurbished visitor’s center, and nobody else seemed to be coming anywhere near the place. She loaded us down with maps and guide, and we picked a 4-hour, 12km hike that would loop us up and around some of the major sites on the river, and then down past our hotel and on towards one of the outdoor onsen for a post-hike soak.

Once you got onto the path and away from the bus terminal and hotels, you were very quickly away from any sign of civilization save for the trail itself: an occasionally raised-on-stilts path through primeval woods, alpine streams and small reflective pools. A mixture of conifers and tall deciduous trees towered overhead, while lush greenery covered the forest floor. The path mostly held close to the side of the river, but occasionally wandered away to cross small tributary streams and skirt around the swampier areas.

For the most part, the path was clear, but as we approached Myojin pond we started encountering more and more Japanese schoolchildren, somewhere in the 12-14 years old range, all in identical blue tracksuits: obviously some kind of school day trip was in progress, and by the time we hit the pond itself we were surrounded by dozens of them, and I can only assume that they were not from a large city, because the sight of two white people, one redhead and one with purple hair, both of whom could say “konnichi wa”, was just about the most hilarious thing ever to them, and we ended up being asked to pose for pictures with them amid much hilarity. This was about the only time so far I’d ever felt conspicuous in this sense: mostly in Tokyo we just got politely ignored or quickly glanced at, but this was the full-on Gaijin Are Hilarious! treatment.

(Interestingly, my hair did attract a small but consistent amount of attention in Kamikochi, but other than the one horde of junior high school children, it was almost all from senior citizens at the resorts here.)

The pond itself cost a small (¥300) fee to get in, and was obviously the main day-tripper draw up here and for good reason: it’s ludicrously picturesque. It stretches for nearly a mile across in each direction, slightly sub-divided into smaller pools by spars of land, crystal clear with a shallow sandy bottom, reflecting the towering mountains above.

Once we moved on north of the pond, the crowds quickly fell away again, and with the exception of the occasional backpacker/mountaineer who passed us, we had the trail largely to ourselves again. This area was like crack to me as a photographer: every few dozen yards, the trees would break open to reveal yet another staggering view of the mountain peaks overhead:

…and if you got tired of mountains at any point, there was almost always something else to distract you, like this tiny waterfall created by a newly formed stream cascading over the path and down a cliff:

And of course, every once in a while you’d cross the river itself. The spring snow-melt being largely past, much of the riverbed was dry rock that you could clamber over:

After about another hour of walking, we hit the northern tip of our route, and crossed back over to the west side of the river to follow the forest road back to the onsen. Looking at the map, I’d been a bit dubious about taking the road back, since it seemed like it would probably skip most of the interesting territory, but by this time our legs were a little tired and an easy walk back to the onsen seemed pretty appealing. And as it turned out, the road had some appeal of its own. After about half a mile of walking, Miranda noticed what could only be described as a distinctly, uh, mammalian turd in the middle of the road. We’d seen “do not feed the animals” signs around the bus station that included a silhouette of a monkey, was it possible that…

…about fifteen steps later, there was a bit of movement over my right shoulder, and why yes:

Sitting on a branch a few yards away from the road, watching us warily, was a monkey — red-faced and about a foot tall. And then we noticed a smaller brown spot walking along the branch towards her:

We appeared to be in the middle of an entire pack of monkeys: as we walked down the road, we saw at least six or seven more of them, none of them paying obvious attention to us, but all of them largely keeping their distance. As we walked into a clearing a little further on, I turned around to see one particularly brave one cross the open space behind us:

After a few more yards we stopped seeing them, and the last trace of them we saw was another monkey turd in the middle of the road: Miranda hypothesized that the poo marked the beginning and end of their territory, and it certainly looked that way.

The rest of the trip back to the onsen was less monkey-filled, and was merely beautiful.

Feet starting to hurt in earnest, we passed the bus terminal and our hotel, and slowly walked the remaining 15 minutes down to the onsen. On the way, we passed the Weston memorial. The Rev. Walter Weston was a mountain climber who wrote two of the original books in English about mountaineering in the Japanese Alps, and was responsible for popularizing the regiong among the world’s climbers, and also popularizing alpine sports inside Japan, and not incidentally turning Kamikochi into the bustling tourist concern that it now is. Weston is memorialized with an embossed plaque in the mountainside facing the path, with a small bubbling spring in front of it.

Turning around, you could see from the view why Weston was so taken with the place:

A few minutes later, we found the onsen, which was inside yet another hotel. After only a few minutes of staring blankly at the ticket machine, it dawned on us that there were english labels on the buttons (we may have been a bit tired), and managed to buy two tickets and two towel rentals. Or so we thought, but more on that later. We gave our tickets to the inordinately chipper attendant, found our way to the washrooms and dove in. Separate facilities for men and women of course, but comparing notes later they seemed to be almost identical: first the changing room, then the washroom, which also contained the first (and only indoor) hot bath. Then through a sliding door to the outside, where a stone pool that could easily have sat 40 was flanked by a pair of single-person tubs made out of enormous wooden barrels.

There was only one other person in the men’s bath, a middle-aged gentleman who I thought I recognized from my hotel; in any case we nodded at each other and I very gently eased my way into the main bath: it was formed of river rocks set in concrete, and was very hot, so it took a few seconds to pick my way over to the most likely-seeming perch and lower myself in. At that point it all got kind of hazy and steamy, in a good way: my companion eventually left, and I just sort of sat there melting. After a little while, I decided to try one of the wooden tubs for a change, and then switched back to the main bath. The outdoor section was carefully sculpted, with bamboo fences, artfully placed foliage, and a view of the mountains. More hot water bubbled in constantly from various sources; some above, some below. I could have happily moved in.

Finally, I hit that recognizable “about to overheat” stage, and padded back to the washroom to pour some cold (or at least tepid) water over myself. Walking past a mirror, I noticed that pretty much every part of my body from the neck down bore a distinct resemblance to a post-boil crawfish, and decided it was time to walk my pale self out of there before I poached.

Miranda had apparently come to the same decision at about the same time as me, and I found her waiting for me near the gift shop downstairs, which was when we found out that the towels we thought we’d rented were in fact towels that we had bought. Oh well, we’d had to rent towels at two hotels already, so this would just save us a little money going forward.

Back to the hotel, where at 6pm we hurried down to the dining room for another dinner that counted as a major work of art. Interestingly, it was a nearly completely different menu from the night before, and we spent a while wondering if they changed the menu every day, until by virtue of some rubbernecking Miranda figured out that there was an ingenious labor-saving ploy at work: several people in the dining room who we hadn’t seen the night before were eating the same menu we’d had on our first night: obviously the menus were “first night”, “second night” and so on. The interesting unanswered question: if we came back in a few months, would we get the first night’s menu again? Only one way to find out…

Back in the room, the beds had magically appeared again. We kicked around for a little while checking email and updating the universe on our whereabouts, then contentedly retired.



Oh god, I’ve been waiting days to be able to make that joke.

Kamikochi is a little resort… you can’t call it a town, and even “village” would be a stretch. It’s really a handful of hotels, ryokans and lodges parked in the middle of a nature preserve in the middle of the Japanese alps. To get here from Matsumoto, you take a non-JR private train line — a line so “local” that I’m pretty sure in at least three cases the end of the platform on one stop was only a few feet away from the beginning of the platform of the next stop — from Matsumoto halfway up the mountains, and then take a “Highland Line” bus the rest of the way up to Kamikochi, through a bunch of heartstopping switchbacks and through what appeared to be a series of hydroelectric dams.

When the bus dropped us off at the Kamikochi terminus, a light mist was coming down and everything was shrounded in a green curtain. Our hotel, the Kamikochi Nishiitoya Mountain Lodge was about five minutes walk down a well-tended path, and on entering the polished wood lobby, we were divested of our shoes and shown up to our room, which smelled astounding: fresh tatami mats have a unique odor, a little pine-y, a little green-y, but very much its own thing and hard to describe. A teapot, a thermos of boiling water, and a small assortment of sweets waited for us on the lacquer table. And when we opened the sliding doors to the veranda, this was what we got to look at:

(Except a lot mistier the first night: that shot is actually from the second day, when the clouds broke for a while.)

Dinner service was at 6, and the rain was coming down hard enough to make hiking in sneakers seem like a dubious proposition, so we poured ourselves some tea, sat down and tried to relax. It wasn’t difficult at all.

Then at six, we padded down to the dining room to meet our dinner. Formal introductions seemed warranted; frankly I’m not sure its parents would have approved of it hanging out with the likes of us:

No, seriously. We sat there stunned for a while before we were able to work up the nerve to actually start eating any of this. It largely tasted as good as it looked, which was particularly impressive in my case: anyone who’s eaten with me knows that I have… well, somewhere between “issues” and “outright horror” of foods of a certain gelatinous/mucilagenous/colloidal texture type, and Japanese food — especially this strain of Japanese cuisine — tends to be pretty heavy on the jelloesque textures. But the only true show-stopper for me was (not pictured above — it got served later) a whipped white root vegetable concoction that Miranda identified as something that had been called “mountain yam” to her on her last trip: its taste was actually pretty inoffensive, but the texture was reminiscent of lightly poached snot. I felt a little guilty about eating around it since it’s apparently a regional speciality, but everything else (including even some of the tofu, which is usually a nonstarter for me) was awesome.

After dinner, we explored the lodge a bit and found its onsen — a heated, communal (gender-segregated) bath that’s one of the main attractions of a vacation in this area. We ran back to our room to change into our yukata (bathrobes, basically) and went for a dip. Onsen etiquette is pretty simple: there’s an external bathing room where you pull up a small footstool in front of a water tap that’s on knee level, soap yourself up, rinse off by pouring a few buckets of water over yourself, and then enter the main pool room where there are some number of baths ranging between “hot”, “scalding” and “blistering”, and submerge yourself in them for as long as you can stand. If you like, return to the washroom, pour some cold water over yourself and then return to the hot pool. The lodge’s onsen was indoors, but faced an enormous glass window that would have provided a great view of the mountains had it not been after dark and completely fogged over from the steam rising off the bath. It was still gorgeous, and I stayed in it for about 20 minutes, when my head began to swim.

Returning to our room, we found that the table had been moved off to the side, and our beds had been set up in the middle of the room: two futons, pillows, and a pair of enormous down blankets. We left the window open and drifted off to sleep to the sounds of mountain rains and a running river.

A boy could get used to this.

new york people: pay attention

Trust me, you want to go to this:

The RETURN of Dr. HAL!
FRIDAY, JULY 11th 2008
9 PM at
The Theater For the New City
155 1st Avenue BETWEEN 9TH & TENTH STS.

A Journey through the Lands of Legend (& back
again) with side-trips into Science & the Dismal
Swamps of Superstition, conducted by an Old
Campaigner. Lyric Poetry, Gags, Secret Lore &
Painful Anecdotes, Humor both Intentional &
Inadvertent. Audience Question-&-Answer to follow.

Dr. H. Owll, a.k.a. Harry S, Robins, is a cartoonist, artist, radio & stage
performer who has performed the Fashion Show at Burning Man for the
past ten years. His night club act, “Ask Dr. Hal” with Chicken John, KrOB
and others, when in session runs weekly in San Francisco. A Founding
Member of the Church of the SubGenius, Dr. Hal has shown himself to
be only too happy to speak at (seemingly endless) length about that Cult’s
bedrock principles, e.g. The Conspiracy, Slack and “Bob” (J.R.“Bob” Dobbs).
He is the voice of Dr. Isaac Kleiner in the well-known computer game Half-Life.
!!!! —with special appearance by
N.Y.’s beloved performance-art sensation—
Z E R O B O Y !
—who can probably be persuaded to take over the show.

NOT TO MENTION— Games, Novelties and (if we’re lucky} Videos from KrOB,
San Francisco. Come one, come all. Para Adultos, but bring the kiddies, if no
childcare available. Comfortable lodge seating. Fully Air-Conditioned.
Scientific, educational, memorable. Dobbs Approved. AND ABOVE ALL

A D D E D B O N U S:


Wednesday morning started out with breakfast at the hotel, which was in some ways our most “Japanese” breakfast so far: mostly in Tokyo we’d been grabbing european-style baked goods from various breakfast counters, and the lodge in Nikko had made us french toast, but this was seasoned rice balls, miso soup, and… a pickle bar! Six different kinds of pickles for breakfast! Why don’t I live here again?

Our plan for the day was a side-trip to nearby Hotaka, site of Japan’s largest wasabi farm. We left our bags at the hotel and took a tiny little 2-car JR train 30 minutes to Hotaka station.

Hotaka is a tiny little semi-rural hamlet, and it’s really just stupidly charming. Its primary function appears to be wasabi and rice farming, and its secondary function is internal tourism, with gaggles of Japanese tour groups coming to see the wasabi farms. At the station, an effusive man at the tourist information office gave us a map and highlighted a path that would, on bicycle, show us most of Hotaka’s major attractions in about an hour’s riding. Bike rental was ¥200 an hour, and there were three rental places within a block of the train station. Picking up bikes was dead simple (they didn’t even ask for a deposit: this really is a foreign country), and after waiting a moment for the bike shop proprietor to adjust my seat height, we were off. Hotaka is on a plateau at the foot of the Japanese alps, so the riding was completely flat, and there was really no traffic to contend with. Within a few minutes, what little of Hotaka was built-up dropped away, and we were riding leisurely down a nearly empty road in the sunny Japanese countryside, past rice paddies and… a blueberry field? With a roadside sales stand? Oh hell yes.

Fortified with half a kilo of fresh blueberries, we rode the remaining five minutes over to the wasabi farm. Dai-oh wasabi farm is the largest wasabi farm in the area, and I suspect probably in the world. In addition to being very much a working farming concern, it also seems to function as a major tourist draw: the (nearly empty this day) parking lot looked like it could accommodate several dozen tour busses at least, plus a small fleet of cars and bicycles. But much like a pick-your-own orchard in New England, the touristy nature of it doesn’t really distract from the charm, and charm it had in abundance. Wooden bridges and gravel paths led you through vast covered fields of wasabi, which grows in neat gravel paths that are semi-submerged in clear, cold running water that is glacial run-off from the nearby mountains. The river had a few sets of rafters going down it, and the farm’s old water wheels still fronted it. The farm appears to be family-operated, and there are several small shrines dotted across it (including a pair of cave shrines), plus a monument to the family patriarch and matriarch.

With the exception of a few marked-off areas, visitors pretty much have the run of the place for as long and as far as they like, and after a while we found ourselves in a wooded area behind the farm, following a dirt road. We could hear in the distance something that sounded like rapids or a waterfall, and were hoping that the road would lead us there. It never did, but instead it led us to the biggest damn eagle I’ve ever seen outside a zoo: as we were crunching our way down the road, we apparently startled it, and a few dozen yards ahead of us an enormous raptor that had apparently been sitting on the ground took off quickly, its wings audibly cutting through the air. It was easily 5 feet wide, and sadly I wasn’t fast enough with my camera to get a shot of it while it was still close and at eye level. It came to rest only a bit further down the road from where it had been originally, and we crept forward a bit more slowly in hope of getting a better shot, but this is about all I managed:

Chasing the eagle (or whatever it was) further seemed likely to just annoy the bird and muddy our shoes, and the road was curving away from whatever was making the waterfall-like sound, so we turned around and headed back to the main part of the farm, where the multiple gift shops were. It’s worth noting at this point that admission to the farm was free: the only catch was that in order to get from the parking lot into the pretty hiking area, you had to pass a phalanx of stands, in front of each of which was a woman who would run up to you and offer a free sample of whatever wasabi-based concoction her stand was selling, ranging from freshly picked and scrubbed wasabi roots (rhizomes actually, but who’s counting?) to wasabi-infused pickles, to wasabi peas, wasabi crackers, wasabi sweet chewy things: a whole gamut of wasabi products, and they were apparently gambling quite successfully that if you liked wasabi enough to come visit a wasabi farm in the first place, the odds of you leaving without purchasing something wasabi-flavored were near zero. For my own part, they had me at wasabi ice cream:

How could I resist? My only complaint with it: not enough wasabi. The first few licks really only tasted of vanilla, and it wasn’t until I’d gotten through a bit more of it that a subtle wasabi flavor began to build up.

Polishing off my ice cream, I wandered into the gift store proper, and walked out about fifteen minutes later with a very large bag full of wasabi-themed stuff, some edible and some not. I managed to avoid buying the scrubby towels emblazoned with Hello Kitty wearing a wasabi root costume, but only just. Sadly, what I could not buy at the wasabi farm was any actual wasabi, which was heartbreaking since they had piles of the fresh roots for ¥500 each. But we had no way of preserving them for the next week, and would have had to smuggle them back into the US in any case.

Wasabi-ed out for the time being, we took a leisurely bicycle ride back into the town, during the course of which we found out that both the English and the Japanese maps we had to work with had only a passing resemblance to the actual roads of Hotaka. This wasn’t much of a surprise in the case of the English map (which was pretty obviously not to any scale nor even attempting to be accurate), but a little moreso in the case of the Japanese one: the best I could describe it would be cubist: roads that in reality were meandering and many-forked were displayed on the map as neat straight lines with few or no intersections. We got predictably pretty far off course, which was aggravating but not panicking: we were still primarily in flat rice fields, and getting back to town would have been do-able by dead reckoning alone if need be, but we eventually ran into of all things a little regional art museum, and the woman behind the counter was able to point out our rough location on the Japanese map and give us rough directions back into town.

Hotaka’s other main draw is the Rokuzan art museum: a tiny little museum comprised of several small gallery buildings spread around a cute little park. The museum is primarily dedicated to the works of Rokuzan Ogiwara, “the Japanese Rodin”, a Meiji-era sculptor who travelled through Europe and the middle east, studied briefly with Rodin and left a very small but impressive body of work behind before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 31. Unknown in the west, and probably not very well-known in Japan either, but the museum made a very good case for him as a potentially major artist, sadly lost far too early.

Seeing the entire museum only took about 45 minutes, and since we were facing a multi-step train and bus ride to our next destination, we decided to head back to Matsumoto. We returned our bikes and found that we had about 40 minutes until the next train, and were getting hungry again. It was at this point that I realized that we’d been in Japan for over a week and had still had no ramen. This was clearly not acceptable, so we went off in search of a ramen stop, figuring that there was bound to be one near the train station. We figured correctly: it was about a block and a half away. The lunch rush (if there is such a thing as a rush in Hotaka) was long over: the place was inhabited only by its owners, a pair of middle-aged Japanese women watching a television. They sat us at one of the kneeling tables, made a small fuss over my hair, and brought us our ramen.

God it was good.

Ramen is fast food in Japan, and so we’d picked the perfect thing for a quick lunch ahead of an impending train departure: we finished our soup with just enough time to settle the bill, say our goodbyes, walk to the station and step onto the train that came onto the platform three minutes later. Next stop: Kamikochi.


Getting to Matsumoto from Nikko was a bit of an adventure: a three-hop train trip involving a shinkansen back to Omiya, another shinkansen to Nagano, and then a “limited express” train to Matusmoto. Japan Rail continues to live up to its nigh-unbelieveable reputation for punctuality: each train left pretty much instantly on schedule, and arrived within 60 seconds of its posted time. As a lifelong user of American commuter train systems, I can only say: it’s fucking eerie.

The conductors sing out “Maaaaaatsumotooooo” when the train pulls in to the platform. It’s adorable.

Our accommodations in Matsumoto were the local branch of a chain of business hotels called the Toyoko Inn, and while the tour guides tended to rubbish such places as soulless, I can’t fault it for value: we had an immaculate room that while certainly small by American standards nonetheless had a double bed, a desk, and an en-suite bathroom (and also a safe, free internet, and a trouser press!), and enough room for us to move around without falling over each other. There was a coin laundry on the first floor, and an included breakfast of rice balls, Japanese pickles, miso soup and tea or coffee: for $85/night, if they set a branch of this place up in New York City, people would call it the best deal running.

One thing to note about Japanese hotels in general: while American places are generally able to handle it if you show up early, when Japanese hotels say “3pm check-in” time, they mean it: they’re not going to show you to your room any time before then. They are, however, usually quite happy to hold your luggage at the front desk for you, and since it was only 1:30pm when we got there, we did just that, and trouped off to Matsumoto’s primary attraction, the castle.

We got to the castle’s threshold when we realized that it was nearly 2pm and we’d last had a proper meal in Nikko around 8:30am. Restaurant pickings at the castle park entrance were slim, so we ended up getting a plate of cold soba noodles (a local specialty) from a little place (a sobateria? if that’s not the word it should be) a few steps away from the ticket office. Restaurants near major tourist attractions can be pretty dicey, but this place was apparently a local institution: the walls were lined with autographed photos of olympic athletes and sumo wrestlers. It was pretty dead when we walked in (it was a weekday, and the lunch hour was long past), and I personally find soba to be somewhat bland, but the appetizer we got was fantastic: a mixed tempura plate in which about half the pieces were fresh battered eel. Mmmmm…eel.

Fed, we took the remaining few steps to the castle. And what a castle it is. Built of stone and hand-hewn fir and cypress logs, the castle’s primary tower is seven stories high, providing a commanding view of the parkland around it. A self-guided tour takes you through most of the castle, from the “warrior’s walkways” on the lower floors (extra-wide hallways to accommodate samurai in full armor running single-file toward the nearest point of defense) to the daiymo’s room at the top of the main tower.

Most exterior walls are lined with tiny portal windows for pointing rifles out of, and in fact on the 5th floor there was a small museum of 16th-through-18th century Japanese riflery, with many gorgeous (and intimidating) hand-forged guns ranging from flintlock rifles to blunderbusses to early revolvers. Wall hangings near the museum area were of samurai toting and cleaning their rifles, or of pitched battles between armies. I found this all fascinating: probably due primarily to James Clavell’s baleful influence, the samurai era is usually thought of in the states as a swords-and-shields epic, but in reality feudal japan had the rifle from the mid 1500s on (courtesy originally of the Portuguese, I assume), and seeing the tasteful watercolor scrolls of samurai shooting the hell out of each other gave a little more historical context into how Japan went from an isolated island kingdom to kicking the Russians’ asses in a very short amount of time.

In a lower section of the castle was the “moon-viewing room”, which was actually a much later (early 1700s, I think) addition to the castle: the feudal war period was largely over by this point, and so this room unlike all the others had wide, open windows from which the castle’s operators (you can’t really say “residents”: the castle was a battle fortification, not a house) could sit back and watch the moon with a cup of sake in hand.

The tour ended on a path through the castle’s mammoth stone wall and over a red lacquered bridge over the carp-filled moat. We sat in the shade for a while, and I lurked and hovered until finally, after about 10 minutes, there was a shot of the castle and bridge containing… no other tourists!

From the castle, we walked over to Matsumoto’s other noted attraction: Nakamachi street, a Meiji-period warehouse district whose white-walled buildings were converted over primarily to jewelry, ceramic and art shops, as well as the occasional ryokan, sake store and restaurant. We found a few little things to bring back, and then walked back to the hotel along the riverside, itself a charming pedestrian-only arcade where most of the shops and little decorations had a distinctly froggy aspect to them. This turned out to be due to a somewhat elaborate pun in Japanese: the words for “shop” and “return safely” are both homophones to the word for “frog” (“Kaeru”), so the shopping district to which they hoped you would return was, essentially, Frog Street.

Also along the riverside was a small shrine with a huge straw circle at the entranceway. There was no English in the signage, later googling suggested that the temple is dedicated to the four Shinto gods Amenominakanushinokami, Takamimusubi, Kamimusubi, and Amaterasu Oomikami.

We’d seen in the Lonely Planet book that Matsumoto had a “Timepiece Museum”, and walking back toward our hotel we spotted a building that, just at a guess, might have been it:

Sadly, the museum was closing up by the time we got there.

After chilling out in our hotel room for a few hours (doing laundry, catching up on email, etc), we headed out into the night to try to find dinner. This ended up being a bit more difficult than we’d expected, and here I’d like to indulge in my constitutional right to whine like a four-year-old for a bit: Lonely Planet is a great resource, but their maps? Their maps suck rocks.. Their one-third-page map of Matsumoto might as well have been a Rorschach blot for all the relation to the actual streets it bore. We tried supplementing it with a local tourist map, but while certainly much larger, the tourist maps we’ve found so far in Japan aren’t much better: they tend to omit lots streets that they consider unimportant for some reason, and since Japanese cities are organized by block numbers rather than street numbers, this is basically fatal to any westerner trying to navigate.

(Obvious question: google maps? Aggravating answer: Google Maps Japan appears to only use Japanese characters for both input and display. Try to search for “1-1-23 Shibuya-ku, Tokyo” on gmaps, and you’ll end up being directed to Japantown in Los Angeles. I have suspicions as to why this is, but refuse to put the effort into verifying them while on vacation.)

The obvious point of all this whining: our first destination, a restaurant called “Kura” that according to both maps was mere minutes from our hotel, may as well have been in another city for all of our ability to find it. After stumbling around getting hungrier and crankier by the minute, we decided to just chuck our carefully laid plans and just try the first place that looked promising. And lo and behold, a few seconds later we smelled something good cooking, and found ourselves on the doorstep of an izakaya.

An izakaya is a brilliant invention that doesn’t really have a direct analogue in the states, and I wish we had them. Basically, an izakaya is a grill restaurant and bar: they have a large selection of beers and sakes, and an equally large selection of “stuff that can be cooked on a brazier or in a deep fryer”, i.e. meat skewers, vegetable skewers, salted fish, random regional finger foods and the like. It’s sort of like a combination of a tapas bar, a sushi bar, and a korean barbecue joint: you order your drinks and the first round of plates, then more drinks and more plates as the urge strikes you, until you are too full or drunk to move. Each plate costs somewhere between $1 and $5 dollars, and even more miraculously in Japan, the drinks are reasonably priced: Miranda and I each ordered a “small” ¥350 sake from the sake menu (picking one at random, as the sake menu was not translated), and the small sake turned out to be roughly a half-pint. This izakaya even had an English menu… sort of.

Yes, that really says “the hormone burning.” No, we were not brave enough to order it. Most of the English translations made a certain sort of cockeyed sense, but the most benign explanation for “hormone” that we could think of was thymus gland (sweetbreads), and the other possibilities just got more and more horrible from there, so we stuck with things that we were pretty sure we understood the intent of. We had an order of tempura, grilled asparagus, grilled minced pork “meatballs”, some sashimi, two different kinds of broiled fish and some stewed baby potatoes, and it all came out to about ¥4800 including our drinks: by Japanese standards this was an insane bargain. Stuffed and not a little sozzled (it was really much more sake than we’d been expecting), we walked somewhat carefully back to the hotel and to bed.

misty mountain hop (Nikko)

Nikko is about 2 hours outside of Tokyo by train, but might as well be in another country. Nestled in mist-covered mountains and home to a series of ancient imperial shines that are a UNESCO world heritage site, Nikko is almost relentlessly picturesque. It’s also about 10 degrees cooler than Tokyo, which was a welcome relief.

Our hotel was a little place called the Nikko Park Lodge, a few miles uphill from the train station, so we took our first taxi ride in Japan to get to it. The lodge was really our first unequivocal hotel success in Japan: the Sakura in Tokyo was simply functional, the Cerulean would be an experience best enjoyed on someone else’s expense account, but the lodge was both affordable and delightful. It’s a small inn tucked away in the hills far away enough from the town center to seem semi-rural, and is run by a small group of Buddhists who also give yoga lessons. Business has apparently picked up a lot for them since they landed a Lonely Planet writeup, and as a result they’re dealing with an influx of western backpackers, such as ourselves. Nonetheless they were unflaggingly polite and helpful, and our room was actually large enough to have a bed and a couch, plus windows that opened up onto a lovely view of forest and farmland.

After sloughing off our bags, we got a map from the front desk and headed off towards Nikko’s shrines. Along the way, we passed what appeared to be a largely abandoned playground in the fields, which had a suspended roller slide that ran what appeared to be several hundred yards across a small creek and into the next field over. (In fact, it wasn’t until we talked to the people back at the hotel that we ascertained for sure that it was meant as a childrens’ slide and not perhaps some way of delivering firewood from one end of a farm to another.) Since the slide was dripping water and had not a few rust spots, we elected not to sacrifice our pants and bags to it, and walked on toward the shrine area.

Even along the main highway, Nikko is like something out of a painting or maybe a Miyazaki movie: mist hanging over mountains, impossibly green forests, lush plant life everywhere that wasn’t paved over. There had been signs at both the train station and the hotel proclaiming the local tourism slogan: “Nikko is Nippon”, and it’s an interesting parallel to the U.S. Both countries are, by the numbers, largely urban and cosmopolitan (there are more World of Warcraft players than there are farmers in the USA), but their self-conceptions are still conspicuously rural: the heartland is still what people think of as the country’s center, even if increasingly few people live there any more.

After about half an hour’s walk, over a dramatically rock-strewn riverbed, we reached the shrine complex. Once again, I took more pictures than any sane human should: about 200. I’ll be posting them all eventually, but here’s a small sample:

At the Rinno-Ji temple, there was a structure that I can only describe as a Buddhist Rocket Ship: a pillar with four supports that is apparently filled with a thousand scrolls of Buddhist sutras. The pillar is called Sorinto:

Inside the Rinno-ji temple (and predictably off-limits for photos) were three of the largest gold buddhas I have ever seen in my life. They were an Amida Buddha flanked by two Kannon (Guanyin) Buddhas: the left one a Bato (“horse-head”) Kannon, and the thousand-armed Senju-Kannon on the right. Each Buddha was about 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide, covered in gold leaf and sitting on a gold lotus flower. The statues were not at all far away: the dais they were on was about a foot in front of you, and the Buddhas towered above you. “Imposing” doesn’t even begin to cover the effect. (Some less respectful soul than me appears to have snuck a picture of the Amida Buddha statue here.)

One other thing that we were not able to take pictures of: in one of the outer temples of the Rinno-ji shine, we walked into a service in progress. A single monk in yellow robes was sitting on a dais in the middle of the temple, in front of a small brazier. While chanting and occasionally rapping on the dais with a metal hammer, he kept the fire fed by stacking on the wooden votive prayer boards that at various parts of the different shines had been offered with a brush for people to inscribe their prayers on. It was beautiful and hypnotizing to watch, and also was the answer to a small mystery: I’d been wondering over the course of the day what happened to all of the boards, which were hung by the thousands on stations at each shine. It was also impressive to watch the monk’s movements, since at no point did his long flowing robe sleeves burst into flame, which seemed like a distinct danger.

At the Tosho-gu shrine (a shrine built in the honor of the first Tokugowa Shogun by his son), one of the buildings is the Shainyosha stables, which is covered with relief carvings of monkeys. One of the panels is the original “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys, which was carved as an illustration of the principles of Tendai Buddhism:

Slight further down in the same temple complex is the tomb of the third Tokugawa shogun (the one who actually commissioned the entire complex), the entrance to which has a carving of a sleeping cat, the nemuri-neko. For some reason that neither our guidebooks nor anyone around was ever able to really adequately explain, the nemuri-neko is possibly the most famous thing in the entire temple complex: you have to pay an additional ¥520 to see it, and it’s surrounded by photographers at all times. I will allow that it is a very cute carving of a sleeping cat, but I’m not sure I got the appeal.

Less restrained (to put it mildly) is the entrance gate to the Tosho-gu memorial. And by “less restrained” I mean “completely over the top.”

One last shot of many, this is the entrance to the Taiyuin-byo shrine:

After three hours wandering from temple to temple, we were about shrined out. (There were some other highlights, but my ability to assign names to locations is poor: go read , I’m sure she’ll have more, with better and probably more accurate details.) The only other thing on our agenda in town was the Jizo path, but we weren’t entirely sure how to get there, so we wandered in to town and after getting turned around a bit finally found the tourist information center, where we were given directions by bus to the path.

The walk from the bus stop to the path was pretty gorgeous itself: passing through the outskirts of town, it entered a nature preserve around the local hydroelectric power station, which was a verdant forest around a dramatic ravine called the Gamman-ga-fuchi Abyss. The river was clear-to-blue mountain runoff, occasionally turning white as it rushed through rock formations that had apparently been cut by a lava flow several thousand (million?) years ago.

After walking through a small park that had another Buddhist rocket ship in it, we came to the Jizo path. The Jizo bodhisattva is the protector of women, children and travelers, and you’ll often find tiny statues of him in any wooded area in Japan. He is especially said to look after the souls of children who died young or were stillborn, and most of the statues will have a red cloth cape tied around them, and some small offerings and/or stones placed in front of him. The path alongside the ravine in Nikko has hundreds of Jizos:

…some nearly new, some old enough that their heads or their entire bodies have worn away:

In the damp woods, with the only sound coming from the rushing river below, the effect was quieting and even a little creepy. This was amplified by what we found on the way back: an ancient cemetery, with most of the stones covered by luminous green moss. Later at the hotel, we found out that this is the monks’ cemetery:

Back at the beginning of the path, we followed the river back into town. The river remained gorgeous:

Early July appears to be low season in Nikko, as the vast majority of restaurants and shops that we passed on the way in were closed up tight. We ended up at a place that the LP guide recommended: a okono-miyaki restaurant, which is a sort of cook-your-own savory pancake on a griddle that’s part of the table. Typically for any place that’s in LP it was overrun with british and australian tourists (really a danger in small towns where LP might be the only guide that an anglophone can get), but there were also a smattering of locals there, and the pancakes were tasty and filling.

From the restaurant, we took a cab back to the hotel, where I made a vain attempt to get all of my photos sorted, and quickly crashed out.

In the morning, we had breakfast at the hotel, which as previously noted is under a bit of an anglophone backpacker onslaught due to getting a Lonely Planet writeup. Our breakfast companion was a genuine eccentric: an older African-American man named Carl, who split his time between San Diego and Osaka, with a Japanese wife who spoke very little English (Carl appeared to be fluent in Japanese). Carl was wearing a yarmulke, and claimed to be a convert to Orthodox Judaism. He apparently taught in a private school in San Diego (we never quite ascertained what), but spent most of his vacation time in Japan, and was hoping to move there permanently. Carl was a bit of a conversational monopolist, peppering us with questions about our opinions on various aspects of American politics, which we fielded as best we could: I got the impression that despite his professed love of Japan (and his relief at “not having to wear a .45 to walk outside”, which was a little puzzling given what I know of San Diego), that he was a bit homesick: certainly I can’t imagine that there’s much of a community of Black Jewish Nipponophiles for him to connect with, here or in the states.

After breakfast, we packed up and were efficiently delivered to the train station by the hotel’s minivan. Now we’re on the train to Matsumoto. To be continued.

a timeless question, answered

Who likes short shorts?

Why, every woman under the age of 25 in all of Japan appears to like short shorts.

And now you know.

oh no, there goes Tokyo…

Monday morning was blessedly much cooler and there was even an occasional drop of rain against our window. We woke up and bid a sad farewell to the glass-walled shower, the electronic toilet seat, the king-sized bed and most of all the astonishing view of our room in Shibuya. Quickly repacking our bags, we found that we actually had a little time to kill before grabbing the train up to Nikko, so we decided to do something a little shameful. We’d noticed that there was a coffee counter overlooking Shibuya crossing from the second floor of one of the facing department store buildings. The only problem was that it was… a Starbucks.

Quick digression: a lot of people have a (to my mind) slightly weird anti-Starbucks obsession. Me, I don’t get it: sure, the coffee is a little over-roasted to my taste (although not by much: back when I drank coffee I always liked it a little on the heavy side), and sure their omnipresence is a little creepy sometimes, but as a former resident of Manhattan, I have to appreciate the fact that Starbucks has become the de facto clean attended public restroom system that New York City so desperately needed, and whatever one’s qualms with their coffee there’s no denying that the average quality of New York coffee was substantially worse before their arrival. Plus they offer health insurance to food service workers and pay them above minimum wage, and if you think that’s small change you can have my old shift at the Great Barrington Burger King. So no, I don’t fear the green…

…but going into an American chain restaurant while in a foreign country has always struck me as an admission of defeat. Still: location, location, location — they had the space we wanted to be in, so we bought a latte, a tea, a muffin and a scone, and walked up the stairs to watch the flow of people. Interestingly, Shibuya crossing during rush hour on a Monday morning wasn’t anywhere near as crowded as it had been on the weekend. I can only assume that most of Tokyo’s schools and office jobs are elsewhere, and the department stores and boutiques of Shibuya are really more of a weekend destination:

Finishing our food (and sadly I have to note that the pre-made food in the Japanese Starbucks are substantially worse than their emrican brethern: given the astounding average quality of just about every bit of baked goods we’ve so far had anywhere else in Japan, I’m a little puzzled as to how they managed this), we returned to the hotel, checked out, and took the metro over to Tokyo station to catch the Shinkansen to Utsonomiya, and from there the JR line to Nikko.

I’ve already rhapsodized about the Shinkansen, so permit me to ramble a bit about the Tokyo Metro system. The question, with apologies to Stephen Colbert, is simple: is it merely a great metro, or is it the greatest metro? And I’m honestly not sure. There are a few crazy-making things about it: it’s comprised of multiple interlocking independent systems, and tickets for the Tokyo lines aren’t valid on the Toei lines, nor on the in-city JR lines nor vice-versa. It doesn’t run for 24 hours, which is a little surprising in a city of Tokyo’s size. During rush hour, it’s unbelievably crowded.

…but those are all complaints that really can only be made inside the context of the system itself. It’s not perfect, but is any other metro system better? Certainly none of them are bigger: by the number of passengers, stations and lines, Tokyo outclasses even New York and London. And even holding aside the incredible density and coverage, it simply works astonishingly well: the trains and stations are spotlessly clean, and the trains arrive at an astounding pace. Except for the time that we tried to take a train at 5am, I don’t think we ever waited more than three minutes for a subway. And nothing ever seems to break down. New York has the advantage of being 24-hours, the Paris Metro is perhaps prettier (Moscow’s certainly is), but mechanical failures are a frequent thing in both systems, and if you asked either of them to carry the same number of passengers at the same speed as Tokyo’s commuters are used to, they would shatter into a million pieces.

And for a metro system in a country with a language spoken and written basically nowhere else on earth, they’ve made it incredibly easy for tourists to navigate: stations are numbered as well as named, and the signs in the stations make use of that to make it visually obvious in what direction each track leads. Plus there are overhead signs that alternate between Japanese and English, and most of the train lines have crystal-clear audible announcements in both languages. I tried to think of what it might be like for a Japanese tourist to navigate San Francisco’s transit system, and nearly died of embarrassment.

Yeah, actually, maybe the greatest.

Oh god, I just spent four paragraphs talking about trains again. Right, on to Nikko.

Shibuya Rock City

The streetlamps in Shibuya sing to you. This is not a crappy metaphor: there are loudspeakers in the streetlights in Shibuya, and they play J-pop at you as you walk past them.

Ah, Shibuya. We’d thought that Harajuku was the epicenter of madness. How wrong we were.

After getting back, we took an hour in the hotel room to cool off, rehydrate, recharge the camera batteries (ahem) and ourselves. From our window, we could see our next destination: Shibuya. We could also see… a soccer game?

Girding ourselves for battle, we descended into the fray. If you’ve ever seen a modern movie (even an animated one) about Japan, you’ve probably seen Shibuya crossing: it’s a huge, 4-way intersection which alternates between a large auto interchange and a pedestrian free-for-all every few minutes. The car streetlights all turn red, the crosswalk lights all turn green, and underneath more neon and LED signage than you ever thought existed, easily ten thousand people surge across the huge intersection in all directions. And then a few minutes later, it happens again. Times Square, Trafalgar Square, the Arc d’Triomphe — none of these even remotely compare.

At the corner we were crossing toward was another noted Tokyo phenomenon: the scary right wing ranting sound truck. Apparently there are dozens of these things set up at various junctions in Tokyo all the time, allowing various nationalist politicians to harangue passers-by for hours on end. This one was loud enough to be heard above the din of the crossing, but of course I have no idea what particular sect they were advocating for:

Our first destination was the 109. (Actually the 109-2, but who’s counting?) What’s the 109?

Well okay. After a few days in Tokyo, it’s impossible not to notice that the Japanese use roman languages (primarily English, but also chunks of French and German) much the way that some westerners use the Chinese alphabet: for decoration, largely independent of any grammatical sense or meaning. Specifically, you cannot throw a rock in Tokyo (if you were so insanely rude as to be throwing rocks) without hitting at least two, possibly three (ricochets being what they are) people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with a completely incomprehensible phrase or two in English. (“Do Not Be Influenced by Feeling Black Lady”, passim.)

…and one of the interesting side-effects, for me, of being rendered instantly illiterate by being in an Asian country is that I’m constantly scanning my visual field for any written communication in an alphabet I recognize. In Tokyo, as often as not there’s a hit, but it’s usually on a t-shirt with a phrase that makes no sense whatsoever. After several days of this happening several times per block, I’d come to hypothesize about the existence of a Great Engrish T-Shirt Shopping Mall, a multi-story building filled with nothing but t-shirts with mysterious pseudo-English phrases on them.

Ladies and gentlemen, that shopping mall exists, and it’s called the 109 in Shibuya. Seven solid stories of mutilated English silk-screened onto cotton for $30-60 per shirt. Each floor packed to the gills with stylish Japanese teenagers, occasionally dragging their confused-looking parents in tow. If Tokyo’s youth culture is a particle accelerator, this is where the beam hits the ball, and heretofore undiscovered quanta of fashion are emitted.

For instance:

Yes, those are men’s (we think) briefs with “I (smile) KY” emblazoned on them. There was a moment where I actually found myself considering them, until I looked at the price tag, and realized that $40 was a little much for briefs that I could only really consider wearing at Pride.

109-2 is actually, unbelievably, the annex to the primary 109 building (into which we never gathered the strength to venture), but it’s also the only one of the two buildings with mens’ clothing, and I actually found a pair of metallic red leather shoes which (miracle of miracles) fit me, and I came painfully close to blowing more money than I care to mention on them. Luckily, common sense intervened.

After making our way through all seven stories of the 109, we shocked ourselves by actually managing to navigate to our next destiation: Pink Dragon, the rockabilly shopping mall.

The Pink Dragon is architecturally mad even by Tokyo standards: on the outside, it’s an L.A. Art Deco style building with pink accents. On the inside, um:

…and yes, it’s a rockabilly shopping mall, for all your rockabilly needs, from leather jackets to Elvis-emblazoned Zippo lighters. It’s also the home of Cream Soda records, one of Tokyo’s oldest rockabilly labels, and I picked up one of their samplers before leaving. I’ll report back when I can.

Our next planned amusement in Shibuya was to find “love hotel hill” and poke through some of the establishments there, but on the way we (well, really “I”) got distracted by the entrance to Mandarake:

Mandarake is Japan’s largest comic book store, and it’s a veritable labyrinth of manga To reach it you have to walk down about four flights of dimly- or strobe-lit stairs…

…until you finally emerge, blinking, into the enormous, sprawling basement, every inch of which is packed with manga, anime and figurines. The pretty-gay-boy manga section alone was larger than most comic book stores in America. Just idly browsing the racks and looking for the elevators back up took about half an hour.

No crucified Ultramen though. Maybe that’s more of an Akihabara thing.

Finally, we hit our objective: love hotel hill. We picked a likely-seeming place at random (called “Shibuya Strawberry Jam”), and made our way down a brightly lit set of stairs in search of the lobby, which various guides assured us would be full of garish pictures of the themed rooms for rent.

Instead, what we found was a pair of panick-stricken Japanese men who immediately started shouting “Japanese only!” at us the moment we walked into view, and staring oddly at Miranda Oops, this was not a love hotel, this was an actual brothel, the likes of which normally employ enormous bouncers to keep whitey (and blacky and browny and probably Korean-y and Chinese-y as well) very far away: apparently it was early enough that the bouncers hadn’t set up shop yet, and we caught them by surprise. We beat a hasty retreat, but I snapped a photo in their stairwell, just because:

Around the corner, we found the actual love hotels, which functioned as promised: walk in, see pictures of rentable rooms. This one was all art deco and art modern-style rooms, and if we hadn’t already had a perfectly nice hotel room of our own, we might have been tempted:

Our Shibuya missions accomplished, we trekked back to the hotel in time to shower off the inch-thick layer of sweat and sunblock, and change into nicer clothes for dinner: the Cerulean Tower is the home of “Szechuan Restaurant Chen,” the flagship restaurant of former Iron Chef Chinese Chen Kenichi, and this was to be the site of our one semi-extravagent restaurant dinner in Tokyo.

We ordered a la carte, so since there weren’t menus to take away, this will be from error-prone memory. We had the day’s special appetizer, which was a combination plate of a few slices of what I think were pickled pigs ears (kind of like a crunchy/chewy head cheese: I liked it, but I suspect this wouldn’t be to many westerners’ tastes), a piece of steamed pork in some sort of peppery sauce which was good but not necessarily memorable in any way, and a small pot of what appeared to be fungi in some sort of egg or soy custard: since “egg or soy custard” is pretty much kryptonite to my palate, I had one of the mushrooms (which were excellent) and let Miranda finish the rest. Her appetizer (which I stole quite a bit of) was “steamed chicken in hot and spicy flavor sauce”, which was perfectly steamed chicken in a red pepper sauce that certainly qualified as “spicy” in the sense of being strongly spiced, but didn’t really register as “hot” to me.

My entree was “smoked Szechuan duck,” and was fantastic: a smoked duck breast (finished, I think, by searing or broiling, since the skin was a little crispy and the fat layer underneath not too thick), sliced thin like salami, with some mixed greens and pancakes to eat it with. As good as the duck was, Miranda had spicy eggplant cooked with minced pork, and that was probably the winner of the night: spicy enough to bring at least a little flush to my face, the eggplant was perfectly done and only restraint kept me from licking the bowl after she was done.

For dessert, Miranda had coconut ice cream, and after a small linguistic dance with the waitress in which we ascertained that first, second and third choices were off, off, and “twenty minutes to prepare” respectively, I crossed my fingers and ordered the “dessert special”, which was presented to me as “chinese wine pudding,” and indeed was an oddly grey-colored pudding with a bit of caramel and a preserved plum on top. I tasted it with a little apprehension (pudding textures can be touch-and-go for me), and as god is my witness, “chinese wine pudding” was, in fact, Maotai pudding. And even stranger, Maotai pudding turned out to be really good.

I’m a little hesitant to offer an opinion of the food per se: we got what looked good to us, not necessarily what the kitchen considered its specialties. So take this for whatever it’s worth: what was had was very very good, but it wasn’t the same sort of imaginative brilliance we had at, to pick an example at not-at-all-random, Morimoto in Philadelphia. This was top-of-the line Sichuan cuisine, done to Japanese standards, meaning no bones in the meat and despite the enormous decorative bowl filled to overflowing with red chilis in the restaurant entrance, not actually very hot. As a night out, it was good if a little oddly paced: one waiter was refilling our water glasses after practically every swallow, but our primary server took about 15 minutes to take our dessert orders after our entrees were cleared — but to be fair we were the only westerners there and I have no idea if this was simply a difference in how service is expected to proceed in Japan. If I went again, I’d probably order one of the chefs-choice menus and let the kitchen take a bit more control— and I’d certainly go again if the opportunity arose.

The meal over, we went back to our room to plot the next day’s journey to Nikko. Being dressed in good clothes and not wanting to go back outside into the soup to get our JR tickets, I had the brilliant idea of asking the hotel concierge to use the JR website to make our reservations for us. This was probably a good idea in theory, but it turns out that you can’t book JR Rail Pass tickets via the web or over the phone, and it took longer for the increasingly flustered and apologetic concierge to figure this out than it eventually did for me to skip out of the hotel, down three blocks to Shibuya station and over to the JR ticket counter to pick them up myself. I get the impression that the Cerulean does not get a lot of the American backpacker trade, and fair enough really.

Finally back in our room, we watched the pretty lights until it was time to go to sleep:

Wild Zero (Yoyogi Park, Harajuku)

(metanote for those following via livejournal: lots of cuts? one big cut? no cuts at all? I normally only cut for really big images, on the theory that long text scrolls are what the page-down button is made for, but I know I’m being pretty verbose here, and I’m happy to cater to people’s needs. Anyway, trying the ‘lots of cuts’ approach this time.)

Sunday morning found us rolling out of bed at the inhumanly late hour of 8am. Perhaps not quite fully on local time, but at least our nightlife expedition led to us being asleep during hours that could be more or less described as “night.” Since we were changing hotels, we packed up as quickly as we could, and lugged our bags onto the metro and over to Shibuya station. From there, it took us a mere 20 minutes of staring at the street atlas and asking several people for directions until we found our new hotel, which was merely a 40-story tower looming over Shibuya with its name emblazoned on the top.

At the hotel, there was a moment of true, heart-stopping terror: after an agonizingly long time of watching the desk clerk try to find our reservation, a lightbulb suddenly went on over his head, he looked carefully at our receipt, and reprovingly informed us that our reservation had been for last night. There was pretty much nothing to do but put on our best stupid gaijin faces and blame Orbitz furiously, which I suspect would all have availed us nothing, except that mid-July was apparently low season there, and the hotel had a room they could give us at close to the same rate. Thus was mercy amply dispensed. (As far as I can figure out, what actually happened was that I’d made the reservation back when we thought that the 5th would be our last night in Tokyo, and when we decided to take an extra night there, I never remembered to move the reservation. Um, oops.)

Our room wasn’t going to be ready until 2pm, and it was still only around 10, so we did a bit of quick on-the-spot repacking (undoubtedly annoying the hell out of every other person in the lobby, of whom there were mercifully few), gave our larger bags to the bellhop, and headed back out into the heat towards the day’s objectives: Yoyogi park, home of cosplayers and rock bands, and Harajuku, Tokyo’s notorious youth fashion district.

By this time, the fact that I’d only had a light dinner the night before and that it was now after 10am and I’d had no breakfast was beginning to take its toll. I managed to walk into the Metro without even noticing the teeming insanity of Shibuya crossing right next to me, and what was supposed to be a leisurely stroll from Omotesando station to the park was done with gritted teeth, clutching my bag of pastries that we’d grabbed at Shibuya station, and sweating buckets.

Did I mention the heat? Tokyo is famously uncomfortable in the summer, but for the first few days it hadn’t been that bad: warm and humid to be sure, but only in the low-to-mid 80s or so. No worse than Zurich had been, and nothing on (say) an August day in Manhattan. On Sunday though, Tokyo let us know that it had just been toying with us and put the spurs in: it was easily 90 in the shade, and so humid that the line between walking and swimming was uncomfortably blurred. I have to say: I haven’t missed this kind of weather at all, and will be perfectly happy to go back to chilly, foggy San Francisco when the moment comes.

Somehow we managed to make it into the park without me completely deliquescing, and we grabbed a shaded park bench so I could wolf down my food. This improved my outlook on life about a thousandfold, and I actually took notice of the fact that I was in a lovely urban park and there were things happening around me. Just down the sidewalk, Yoyogi’s famous rock and roll bands were setting up their generators and their drumsets. One band was even playing a first set, but they were being drowned out by the noise of what appeared to be a stand-up Taiko drum troupe twenty feet away from them.

One thing we hadn’t really seen any of were cosplayers, and from looking at the Time Out and Lonely Planet books, it was a little unclear if we were in the right place for them. As we were contemplating our next move, a Japanese kid with a north american (Canadian, it turned out) accent came up to us to hit us up for a donation for what he claimed was earthquake relief in China. We were a little dubious (Tokyo is not heavy on tourist-scamming, but the whole pitch sounded really sketchy), but I gave him some of my loose coinage, and Miranda sussed that he was about the right age and asked him where the cosplayers would be found. The answer, apparently, was not really much of anywhere: there were a few of them left by the pedestrian bridge, but “really it’s been pretty dead all year.” Apparently Tokyo’s ever-churning youth culture has mostly moved on.

Oh well, cosplay or no, it was time to start exploring Yoyogi. Figuring we’d come back to the bands once they were a little more geared up, we first wandered through what appeared to be a combination flea market and Earth Day fare, where we found that even Tokyo has hippies:

Next, the park’s centerpiece: the memorial shrine to the Emperor Meiji. The shine is vast, kind of a park within the park: it’s a five minute walk up a carefully tended gravel pathway (three car-lanes wide) until you arrive at the entry torii, which is easily 30 feet tall, made out of Japanese cypress trees:

On the way up the path, there was a sign pointing to “restrooms, cafe, gift shop and wedding arrangers”, and if that last one sticks out a little, well…

Weddings at the Meiji shrine turned out to be very popular. We saw no less than three (possibly four; it got a little hard to keep track after a while) wedding processions going on, of which the bride above was part of the first. She was standing on a pillow, being laboriously sewn into the outer sections of her kimono, while a small horde of tourists (not to mention the official wedding photographers) snapped away. Eventually, her husband joined her.

It was at this point that a minor catastrophe struck: my camera battery expired. I’d forgotten to charge it the night before, and apparently 600 shots without a recharge is its limit. Oops. I dug in my pocket for my little handheld camera, but that one was out of juice as well. Sensing my incipient panic, Miranda was kind enough to loan me hers.

After watching another several weddings walk by, we headed back out to the park proper to sample some street food: chicken yakitori skewers in my case, and fried octopus balls for Miranda:

Next to where we were sitting and eating, a Britney/Janet/Abdul-esque dance troupe was practicing their moves:

Then it was time to wander Yoyogi park in a daze. Yoyogi is a pretty quintessentially Tokyo experience: it’s complete sensory overload. Down a sidewalk path, what appears to be every rock band in the city has set up all of their amps and drum kits, and is putting on shows right next to each other. They manage to stagger the songs such that the bands don’t completely drown each other out, but it’s still pretty cacophonous. I wandered down the length of the rock’n’roll sidewalk, and some of the bands were actually pretty good. The only one who’s name I managed to get was the slightly improbable Venomstrip: a trip to venoms? A strip of venom? Hard to say, but they gave it their all:

Closer to the park’s entrance was the rockabilly area, and there was some serious dedication to fashion going on there. The temperature felt like it was cracking 100f at this point, and the air could charitably be described as “soupy,” but that didn’t stop these guys from flying the colors — and in this case, the colors were “black,” “black” and “more black.” Even from a few meters away, sweat was visibly running off them, but that didn’t stop them from pulling on the leathers and putting eggwhites in their pompadours:

…and as if what they were wearing wasn’t heatstroke-inducing enough, a group of them set up a boombox playing Chuck Berry and proceeded to do, yes, the Twist again:

Heading out toward the park towards Harajuku, we passed what apparently is the bitter dregs of Tokyo’s cosplay scene. Interestingly , a good 25-33% of the kids in costume were caucasian. Dunno if they were tourists, exchange students or residents, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this ratio officially marked the cosplay phenomenon as over:

From there, we walked to Harajuku, which is where the descent into total madness began. Harajuku street is like… wow, what is it like? Take St. Marks Place in Manhattan, combine it with Rodeo Drive in L.A., add in a dash of the Upper Haight in San Francisco and South Street in Philadelphia. Mix them all together, compress them down into a ball of degenerate matter, load them into a railgun and fire them straight into a wall built of Hello Kitty. The resulting mile-long crater would strongly resemble Harajuku, only it would probably be quieter and have fewer people in it.

Harajuku is where Tokyo’s 10,000kph youth culture goes to see, be seen, and buy new outfits. And holy god, the outfits. Picking two random examples out of thousands of completely insane stores, we have “Wonder Rocket”, the Alice in Wonderland themed clothing store, the mere sight of which would have made Lewis Carroll die of priapism:

And then about a block or so later, we found… this:

Never quite figured out the name, but it was like a head-on collision between Patricia Field, Vivienne Westwood and a paint factory:

The streets were a surging sea of Tokyo’s 16-to-25 set, with fully costumed greeters outside every store shouting “Irryashimae!” as loudly as possible, perhaps the most impressive of which were these two, who had to be nearly melting in the heat:

After about six blocks of Harajuku, we’d had more than enough, so we took a quick detour over to the Togo Shine, where Miranda had read that there was a flea market going on every weekend. The market was still mostly setting up when we got there, but the shrine is, yes, to that Togo, so it afforded this astonishing shot:

Also at the shrine was… another wedding:

By this point, it was nearing 3pm, and we were tired and dehydrated. Time to head back to our hotel, claim our room, and explore Shibuya. Which will be the next chapter.

the nightlife ain’t no good life

I’m writing this on the Shinkansen. This makes me deliriously happy: I’ve wanted to ride on the bullet train since I found out that such a thing exists, and here I am, carving my way out through the never-ending Tokyo suburbs at something approaching 200km/h. The train moved through the Tokyo city stations like a domesticated cat, picking its way patiently down the tracks, but once we got past Nomiya station, they dropped the hammer and away we went. It’s whisper-quiet, spotlessly clean, comfortable and SWEET MOSES FAST. I want to live on this train, or maybe marry it, I’m not sure.

Of course, this means that we’re leaving Tokyo, which I’m honestly pretty sad about. Four days was barely enough to get the measure of the place, and like all of the great cities I’ve been to, what was found wanting in the end was me, and time itself. More days, more weeks, a month, a year, wouldn’t be enough to see as much of this place as I’d like to see. I’ll be back. Oh yes I will.

And also, surprisingly, Tokyo made me a little nostalgic, for a path I didn’t travel before. When I was 19, I had been studying Japanese for a year and had transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia because they had a Tokyo campus and I wanted to spend a year there. For reasons that seemed to make sense at the time, I transfered back to Simon’s Rock and never made it to Japan as a youth — never made it anywhere as a youth, really, and it’s part of why I travel obsessively as an adult — and looking back, the reasons for not doing it really boiled down to “I got nervous and distracted,” which even for a 19-year-old is pretty piss-poor especially considering how much I now know I would have loved the place then. Oh well, apparently when they say “live and learn,” neither are actually optional.

Anyway, when we left off on this travelogue, we were back at the hotel in Jimbocho, trying to gear ourselves up for a second attempt at seeing Tokyo at night. And amazingly, despite fatigue and the pulsing crowds, we managed to go out for a while. Our friend’s friend was still tending bar at a place in Koenji called “Amateur” (which turned out to be the same bar there that the Tokyo Damage guide recommended), so we braved the JR line, which was packed to the gills with young, fashionable Tokyoites on their way out, and followed the bar’s website’s directions through Koenji Central Road:

Koenji Central Road is a cute, bohemian little strip of yakitori restaurants, bars, used record and clothing stores and other mysterious (to the Japanese-illiterate) Tokyo miscellany. In retrospect, I’m a little sorry we didn’t head there earlier so we could spend some more time exploring.

Of course even though there were explicit directions and the bar was on the ground floor of a street leading directly from the JR station, we almost didn’t make it, since of course in Tokyo buildings are only haphazardly numbered from the street, and the landmarks on the map were all for places with signs in Japanese. Luckily, Amateur had an open door and a large window, and just as we were about to run out of street Miranda spotted a white guy tending bar, which seemed to be a likely sign. We walked in, made our introductions, and sure enough we were in the right place.

We spend a few hours nursing sakes and beers and chatting with the bartender about his life in Japan. After a little while, we were joined by an older, Japanese friend of the bartender, who he introduced as “the boss of this street.” This gentleman (who’s actual name I either failed to get or retain in my jetlag-and-alcohol haze) was, and I cannot think of any better word for this, an operator, in the finest sense. He’d apparently worked in high-tech for many years, but now ran, as they say, “a number of interests” which appeared to be a bit of real estate, a bit of tech consulting, possibly owning the bar we were in (it wasn’t clear) and probably a few more things on the side. He was very interested in talking about Android: apparently his future plans involve starting a cell phone company. He said that I should move to Tokyo and go into business, and while I’m not sure I see that happening I gave him my card: it never hurts to have the local operators have you in their rolodex.

At this point, hunger was beginning to make itself felt (we’d not actually managed to have any dinner, and it was now about 10pm). We’d passed any number of likely-seeming yakitori and noodle places on the way to the bar, but we asked for a recommendation and were pointed at a place with no English signage but a display of live fish out front, and were instructed to just point to a fish and ask for “omakase”, or chef’s choice.

We found the place easily enough, but what followed was one of those inevitable linguistic adventures that you just sort of have to roll with when traveling. On being seated, a scarily chipper waitress tried to take our orders, but of course there was no English either printed or spoken in the establishment. No worries, we were surrounded by hip Japanese college students enjoying some late-night snacks, and we had our instructions. So we pointed at a small dish on the next table over that appeared to be deep-fried sardines, and then I coaxed the waitress out front, pointed at what appeared to be a red snapper, and asked for ‘omakase.’ What followed was a conversation that I thought went somewhat like this:

me: that fish there, just one of them, please ask the chef to prepare however he likes.
waitress: ah, omakase! would you like some sashimi as a starter?
me: that would be fine.
waitress: excellent.

So I tromped back to our table, and a few minutes later the dish of fried sardines appeared. There were about six of the finger-sized things, and they were wonderful. Then as we were finishing that, a dish of about six pieces of sashimi, obviously from the fish out front (which was not a snapper, but some other thing that I didn’t manage to grasp) came, and we very happily tucked into that, and then we waited for the rest of the fish to appear.

And waited.

And waited.

After about 20 minutes, I ran back through my memory and came up with an ominously plausible second interpretation of my conversation with the waitress:

me: that fish there, just one of them, please ask the chef to prepare however he likes.
waitress: ah, omakase? okay, how about sashimi?
me: that would be fine.
waitress: excellent

At this point, while we were still a little hungry, we weren’t starving any more, and we were beginning to think dark thoughts about when the final JR train back to Shinjuku would be. Figuring that if we tried to settle the check while more food was being prepared we would be set straight immediately, Miranda signaled the waitress over and made the universal “check please” sign. Sadly, this was immediately assented to, which was when we found out that in addition to there being no more fish on its way to us, we were going to be charged an additional 5,000 yen cover charge for making use of the restaurant’s late-night amenities.

Oh well, the fried sardines were really good.

We hustled our way back through Koenji, perhaps looking somewhat forlornly at the multiple full and boisterous yakitori joints we were passing. There was, thankfully, a takeaway bakery still open just before the station, and we grabbed some raisin rolls to go before getting on the second-to-last train back to Shinjuku.

Shinjuku itself, sadly, will largely have to be on the “next time in Tokyo” list, but once the train pulled in we figured we had enough metro service left that we could at least take a quick stroll around the station and see the pretty lights:

This accomplished, we declared victory or at least lack-of-total-defeat over Tokyo nightlife, took the metro back to Jimbocho and collapsed.

movin’ on up

This is the ‘view’ from our first hotel. There was really no way to get the entire 6’ wide scope of the room into the frame without a wide-angle lens, but I think you get the general gist:

This is the view from our new room at the Cerulean Tower Hotel, in Shibuya:

We’ve upgraded hotel a bit for our last night here in Tokyo. More later, once I’ve finished playing with the electronic toilet.

to the high catbus (Studio Ghibli Museum, Akihabara)

Last night’s plan A: take the JR line out to Koenji, where a friend-of-a-friend was tending bar, and try to sample some of Tokyo’s nightlife.

Last night’s actual activities: realize at 8pm that we were barely able to move, much less drink. Send apologetic emails, then stagger to the nearest grocery store to get some takeaway fruit and veggies (Tokyo dining so far having been pretty light on both), eat them in our room and collapse. Perhaps not our most glorious moment as intrepid world travelers, but the jetlag demons will have their due. But it was all for the best: we managed to sleep (if somewhat fitfully toward the end) until about 6am, allowing us to get up, shower and shave leisurely in plenty of time to go hit this morning’s destination. Where were we going to?

Aw yeah…

(If at this point you’re confused, my recommendation is: go rent My Neighbor Totoro. Then Spirited Away. Then Kiki’s Delivery Service. Then come back. I’ll wait. If you’re a little pressed for time, just read this.)

Getting to the Ghibli Museum involved taking Japan Rail out to Tokyo’s outskirts, a cute little neighborhood called Kichijoji. A few blocks from the JR station is Inokashira park and nature preserve, and on the edge of the park is the museum. Since the museum doesn’t open until 10am, we killed some time walking around the perimeter of the lake that is the park’s centerpiece. Along the lake is a small shinto shrine dedicated to Benzaiten, behind which is a stone dragon fountain:

Orb spiders had woven webs in many of the bushes in the park; this one was along the footbridge to the shrine:

Our plan had been to skip getting breakfast in Jimbocho, but to get some food before the museum opened by availing ourselves of one of the many cafes and vendors that Miranda knew to dot the park from her last visit here. Unfortunately, 8:30am on a Saturday turned out to be a bit before the operating hours of any of the cafes, and not only did we not find any food, but we found ourselves being eyed balefully by the park’s many, many enormous crows, all of whom looked like they expected us to provide or at a pinch be breakfast.

There were, of course, vending machines in multiple locations in the park, but the only one selling non-liquid items was dedicated to vending tins of caramel corn, which seemed like a pretty unhealthy breakfast even by our standards, so we decided to just wait until we got to the museum, on the theory that there would certainly be a cafe there.

Continuing along the lake, in a wooded area there was a tiny shrine to the Jizo buddha:

At multiple points along the lake, there were seating areas set up where you could watch the turtles surface to sun themselves:

After making our circuit of the lake, we followed the signs to the museum entrance, where a queue of excited children was already forming. And no wonder, considering who was taking the tickets:

Even at the beginning of what was promising to be a sweltering morning, the Ghibli museum was a very popular draw:

Understandably but unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside the museum, so there will be no photos of the catbus for you all. And yes, there was a catbus. A nearly full-scale catbus, covered in fake fur, being climbed over and through by a horde of delighted Japanese children ranging from about one to six years. (Adults were, sadly but again understandably, prohibited from joining them.) The smallest children, who couldn’t even make it into the bus under their own power, could lurch around in a pair of tiny depressions on the floor which were filled with stuffed soot sprites. Cute? Kawaii? You don’t know the meaning of the words.

The museum itself was an interesting mix, serving as it had to the dual masters of “museum/mecca for serious Ghibli fans” and “amusement center for six-year-olds.” The building itself was appropriately beautiful: an organic-looking poured concrete structure with rounded stained glass windows depicting scenes from various of Miyazaki’s movies. There is an internal movie theatre showing short films (admission to the museum gets you in to one showing), a re-creation of Miyazaki’s office and studio, and a gift shop with appropriate amounts of Miyazaki miscellany. There’s also a room with multiple kinetoscopes depicting Ghibli characters and scenes, and lots of little nooks and crannies for children to explore, some with ceilings and entrances sized for them. The building has exterior patio sections on every level, including a cafe on the 2nd, and a rooftop garden:

I’d like to report back on the food at the cafe, but I can’t: it didn’t open until 11, and by the time we got there at roughly 11:05, there was already an hour-long queue to get into it. An hour-long outdoor queue, in the ever-more-oppressive Tokyo summer heat. As we were near-fainting with hunger at this point, it took all of about 10 seconds to decide to bag on the cafe and use the nearby take-away window serving hot dogs and ice cream, the line for which was moving briskly. So I guess I can report that the Ghibli Museum serves a perfectly serviceable hot dog.

A single hot-dog wasn’t really cutting it for either of us, so after making the requisite stop in the gift shop, we headed back into the park in hopes that some of the cafes would now be open, and were rewarded by finding of all things a French-style crepirie about five minutes walk from the museum. Set in what looked like a small converted house, the restaurant’s seating area was on an enclosed porch, with windows looking into the kitchen. (Which had, unusually, an all-female cooking staff.) On stepping into the porch, an older Japanese tourist immediately rose to take my picture, which seemed only fair considering how many unsuspecting Tokyoites I’d managed to snap (inadvertently or otherwise) over the last few days.

After finishing our crepes (which were lovely, but I’ll let Miranda relate that part of the story), we walked through the “ART MRT” — a row of vendors set up by the lake selling various homemade knicknacks, and I picked up a few postcards to send home to people.

Walking back to the JR station, we found Kichijoji’s main drag to be substantially more lively than it had been first thing in the morning, including a shop selling goth clothing, complete will full-length skull-and-crossbones-covered Kimonos:

From there, a long train ride brought us to Akihabara.

Ah, Akihabara. If you’d brought me to this place when I was 15 years old, you would never, ever have gotten me out of there. I would have set up camp in one of the many anime/manga stores there and refused to have left. As an adult, well, I haven’t watched any anime in years, and I haven’t wanted to buy a model anything in longer than I can remember — but it’s hard not to appreciate Akihabara, Tokyo’s nerd nirvana. How can you say no to a 7-story megastore where the first two levels are all giant robot toys, and the third level has an actual radio-controlled slot car track:

…and the next level consists of nothing but model trains, including a working track:

…and the next floor is nothing but wall to wall scarily-realistic looking airguns, targets, and re-creations of various police and military uniforms and equipment?

And that was just one store, out of dozens. But better even than the stores are the tiny alleyways between them, filled with vendor after vendor, each selling a distinct variety of electronic kipple. Want diodes? The diode man has them. Need LEDs? Go to the LED booth, just around the corner. Resistors? Talk to the resistor guy. Solenoids, motors, lathes, line testers, casings, tubes, joints? Yes to all of the above! But wait, whatever it is you’re building, you’ll need a switch to turn it all on! No problem:

Then just when you think you can’t take any more, you pass a small opening and realize that there are stairs. Going up. Up to a shop selling the rarest of things in Japan: used goods.

Oh and of course, there were video arcades. Dozens of the damn things, each one a 5- to 7-story monument to the latest in Street Fighter-esque beat-em-up games with the occasional giant robot shooting game to round things out. I wish I could say I liked them more than I did, but I have a few basic problems with Tokyo’s arcades. First, people smoke, which I realize is not technically against the necessary ambience of an arcade, but certainly makes it personally difficult for me to enjoy it. Second and more seriously: I hate basically fighting games, and blame Street Fighter for killing off the gloriously creative videogame industry of the 1980s — and Japanese videogames are basically all Street Fighter clones, descendants and ripoffs. Lastly, Japanese game console are nearly all identical white sit-down units with the game title on a printed sheet of paper held in a display over the game: I completely understand the economies of scale and service that this provides to the arcade owners, but for a lover of unique and weird old videogame consoles, it’s a little dispiriting.

Anyway, there was one completely cool-looking game in the Sega arcade: a Taiko drumming rhythm game! Playing it ourselves was pretty out of the question (nevermind the game instructions being in Japanese, but the songs you had to play to were all j-pop), but luckily two young men were happy to show off the the crowd:

What you can’t see in that picture is that the kid on the left was playing despite the fact that one of his hands was in a cast. That, ladies and gentlemen, is dedication.

We spent about another hour sticking our noses into Akihabara’s various corners, but after a while all of the electronics and anime and porn and maid costumes start to blur together. With one exception. This didn’t blur with anything:

I braved a strict “no photographs” rule for this one, and it was completely worth it. Click through to flickr so you can get to the full-size version of the photo. Look a little more closely on the middle shelves. Wh yes, that’s a row of crucified Ultramans.

No, I have no explanation. I’m not sure I want one.

Outside, we took another few minutes to explore a raised skyway that connects several of Akihabara’s office towers, but other than an enormous live billboard promoting a J-Pop single, there wasn’t much to be found up there.

…so we took the train back to Jimbocho, where we emerged into a sudden flurry of kimonos. Again, no explanations on offer:

Tonight: we’re going out, come hell or high water.

imperium denied (Senso-ji, Ginza)

imperium denied

Our plan was simple: check our email at the hotel, and then walk to the Imperial Gardens and take a ton of pictures there. Well, parts one and two worked out just fine: the gardens were about a 10 minute walk from Jimbocho. There was only one slight snag: they’re closed on Mondays and Fridays. Oops. So we took a quick walk around about a third of the moat that surrounds the Imperial Palace:

…and then lit out for Plan B: the Senso-ji Temple complex in Asakusa.

But first, since looking at a map revealed that we were close to Tokyo Station, we decided to go convert our Japan Rail Pass vouchers into actual passes. This involved a bit of a trek through the bowels of Tokyo Station to find the Magic Window where you could do the conversion, but it only took a few false starts to find it, and the young women at the window were almost overwhelmingly helpful, copying out in longhand a timetable for the trains to our first post-Tokyo destination. Also, the ‘bowels’ of Tokyo station are in fact a sprawling, sparkling and spotless shopping mall and food court, which managed to remind me that breakfast had been raw fish at 7am, and perhaps it was time to start thinking about lunch. But first, Senso-ji.

Senso-ji is an enormous temple dedicated to Kannon (AKA Guanyin), the Buddhist goddess of mercy. To get to this place of repose and reflection, you walk from Asakusa station on the end of the Ginza line, past this amusing building (which I am certain I should know the name of, but am presently drawing a blank):

…and then through a mammoth, never-ending pedestrian mall full of tourists (Japanese and external) and shops dedicated to separating them from their money.

Backing up a bit, regarding the tourism thing: it’s a little odd. In some ways, I feel far less conspicuous as a tourist than I have in any other Asian country: Japan has a huge internal tourist industry, so it’s perfectly normal to see huge groups of Japanese people gawping and taking zillions of photos right next to you as you gawp and take photos. On the other hand, how much do non-Asian (and really, non-Japanese/Chinese/Korean) people stick out here? We’ve now twice recognized people from our plane flight as we were walking around, something that I can’t imagine ever happening in, say, London. Non-Asians stand out in a crowd so much that you can’t help but spot them instantly, and seeing yourself in a mirror is a little jarring: ethnic homogeneity is really frighteningly easy to get used to.

I remember reading a while ago that non-Japanese immigrants tend to go through a phase of trying to stay as far as possible from other non-Japanese, and I think I get that: as long as you are the only gaijin in a crowd, you can kinda-sorta suspend disbelief. But as soon as that second face arrives, it’s all gone…


Senso-ji is a massive temple complex, with an entrance pavilion, a main temple, and then about a dozen smaller shines and memorials scattered over about half an acre. It’s also very, very busy: between the active worshippers and the gazillion tourists (and a fair number of people who seemed to be both) it got a little hectic. We spent about an hour exploring the various shrines before hunger and heat forced us out. I’m kind of an easy mark, photographically speaking, for Buddhist temple complexes (as the fifteen or so rolls of film I shot on Putuoshan Island in China will attest: thank Elvis for digital cameras), so I took about a hundred photos; I’ll be nice and only post four:

Lunch was a noodle shop in one of the quieter corners of the attached pedestrian mall: it wasn’t ramen, but something with a different name that I failed to retain. Pretty similar in practice, but the broth was fish-based, and the contents were just noodles, scallions and three slices of fatty pork. It was brilliant.

I came here expecting to eat my way across the country, but one thing that hadn’t sunk in from all of my reading was how many restaurants here are single-dish operations: they serve one thing only, and they do it really, really well. It’s a very different feel from how most American and European restaurants work, and I have to say I appreciate the focus.

Once we left the noodle shop, we managed to get about three yards away from it before we passed a gelato store, and were powerless against its evil radiation. It was, after all, starting to get pretty hot. That duty disposed of, and the weather still muggy and getting hotter, I suggested that the height of the afternoon might make an excellent time to check another requisite starter Tokyo tourist item off the list and poke through the expensive and (key feature) air conditioned department stores of Ginza.

Well, I can in fact report that the department stores of Ginza are as expensive and as climate controlled as promised. We spent the most time in Mitsukoshi, which had an entrance from the subway station that lead directly into their basement food court, which is completely berserk: two basement floors of food stalls selling exquisitely prepared foods for prices ranging from the vertiginous to the heart-stopping:

But it wasn’t until we got to the “insane food gifts section” on the top floor that we hit the true madness. Ladies and gentlemen, behold the hundred-dollar honeydew melon:

As “Bob” is my witness, I will never bitch about the prices at the Embarcadero Farmers Market ever again in my life.

The really odd part about the super-expensive fruits (not pictured: the $70 peaches, the $50/kilo cherries, the $45 apricots, etc) was that Miranda notices that none of them smelled…much like anything. Which is just weird: to my mind, half the point of a basket of fresh fruit is that putting your nose into them is a quasi-sexual experience, but these ones were apparently bred for size and visual impact.

Between the basement and the hundred-dollar honeydews were 5 floors of clothing, exactly zero items of which were going to fit Miranda or me. I tried on a snappy-looking straw boater out of a feeling of misplaced optimism, and it sat on my head like a beanie. There’s really nothing quite like a clothing store in Asia to make you feel like a large, hairy ape: even glancing in the mirrors in the escalator seemed to indicate that my stubble (and I am, um, not hirsute) was growing at a thousand miles an hour.

Having had enough self-abuse, we walked out into the steamy Ginza sunshine.

Walking up and down Ginza’s main drag revealed mostly more of the same: department stores, clothing boutiques and coffeeshops. Which was pretty much what we’d been expecting from Ginza, so that was alright. We walked through the basement food courts of one or two other department stores, largely on the theory that you can’t see enough eel-on-skewers in one lifetime. Then just when we thought we’d had enough of Ginza, we ran into Hakuhinkan Toy Park, which is like a 5-storey F.A.O. Schwartz, only much, much cooler, because F.A.O. Schwartz never had half a floor dedicated to Totoro and Catbus dolls. Only extreme self-control and the fact that we’re going to the Ghibli Museum (which presumably has a giftshop) tomorrow kept me from walking out of there with multiple 72” stuffed Totoros (and probably a few dozen soot sprite keychains and cell phone charms). And then there was the Wall O’ Gundam toys! And the Wall O’ Tarot Decks, which included the Gay Tarot! Which was not a misprint or an Engrishism, but was really a Tarot for gay people! (Sadly, my enthusiasm did not survive noticing the $40 price tag.)

It also had an entire room of… well… these things:

…and, ugh, these:

Escaping Hakuhinkin with a surprisingly small haul of crap, we decided to hit the Sony building as our final destination in Ginza, and promptly ended up half a kilometer away from it before we gave up and broke out the map. The Sony building itself ended up being not all that interesting, but on our way to it, we saw two brilliant things. First, right next to it, there is a building nearly as tall with a facade that appears to be made entirely out of glass bricks, and has a statue of a horseman on top:

…and as we were waiting for the light to change, this little piece of awesome drove by:

Inside the Sony building, I managed to leave my camera on one of the displays. This being Japan, it was of course still there when, two floors later, I noticed that my hand was oddly lighter and ran back in a panic. But we decided that bit of absentmindedness was a good sign that it was time to get the hell out of the sun and back to the hotel. So, here we are.


fish madness

Ah, jetlag. Last night, we decided to see about getting dinner in the neighborhood, and wandered around a little following the salarymen around to see where they ate. Tokyo’s density of restaurants, even in a relatively non-central neighborhood like Jimbocho, makes this astonishingly easy: so far any not-strictly-residential district we’ve been in has tended to average a minimum of six restaurants per block. After just a few minutes, we found a tiny little place that, as far as we could determine from the display outside, served nothing but gyoza. And I, for one, love gyoza. So we dropped inside, and after a bit of pointing ended up with a plate of about 20 steaming hot fried pork dumplings, redolent of scallions. They lasted about five minutes under our assault, and cost about $5. First meal in Japan: resounding success.

Afterward, we spent a little time poking around Jimbocho, which as a neighborhood seems to primarily specialize in used bookstores, record stores, musical instrument shops and the occasional porn store. I dropped into a “Taito Inn,” a video arcade owned by Taito (the Space Invaders people), but after a few minutes decided that I didn’t need the humiliation of having my ass handed to me by a seven-year-old in a fighting game I’d never seen before.

After about 45 minutes of walking, we were both pretty thoroughly wrecked, and it was an easy call to go back to the hotel and fall dead asleep. The plan for the next day was to wake up really early and head to Tsukiji fish market in time for the morning auction. We completely failed to figure out the alarm clock, but figured that since we were retiring at the late, late hour of 7pm, it probably wasn’t going to be a problem.

Sure enough, we both popped awake at about 2am, and managed to doze semisuccessfully for only about another hour before giving in to the inevitable. We showered, dressed for incipient rains of fish guts, and strolled out into the early morning rain (oops, Tokyo has weather) to hit the subway. The nearest entrance to the hotel was closed, which was a little panic-inducing, but the one across the street was open, and it turned out that the automatic ticket machines spoke fluent english and would give change for pretty much any size bills. Once we got down to the tracks, it became apparent that either the station had just opened, or we’d hit a relatively dead time for the Tokyo Metro; we were the only people in the station, and it was 25 minutes until the next train:

Connecting to the Oedo line to Tsujiki, a few more souls started to trickle in at various stops, including a young man in what is, so far, the single best t-shirt I’ve seen in Tokyo so far:


Getting off at the station, we walked across the street, and straight into…

Tsukiji is a madhouse. A madhouse of fish. It’s a huge semi-open warehouse, easily the size of a New York City block, divided up into rows and rows of stalls, with large aisles between in which drive homicidal diesel-powered go-carts laden down with the day’s catch at tourist-crushing speed. If you can survive the walk to the back, you’ll find signs pointing to a visitor’s observation station in the auction room, which is chilled to about 45f so that the massive, flash-frozen fish on the floor don’t spoil or (quickly) defrost.

The way it works: a batch of fish are laid out in neat rows on the floor. Buyers circulate among them, inspecting the meat. After they’ve had a while to poke and prod the fish, a man rings a bell and all hell breaks loose: the density of people around that section of the floor suddenly quintuples, and after the bell stops ringing the auctioneer (usually the same guy as the bell-ringer) starts barking. In about five minutes the entire lot of fish is sold, and someone starts ringing a bell on the other side of the room. It’s beautifully berserk.

After about half an hour in the auction room, we escaped to wander the stalls:

This man was disassembling a newly bought tuna loin with a sword that was as long as he was tall:

At this point, it was about 7:30, and we were hungry. Very, very hungry. Luckily, we were surrounded by fresh fish. And where there’s fish, there’s sushi. Really, really good sushi. We picked a place at random, and the fish was good enough to immediately shoot it into the top-five sushi I’ve ever had in my life:

After breakfast, we wandered outside of the fish market, which is surrounded by… another market. Some stalls sold fish, others sold produce, non-fish meats, plateware and kitchen equipment:

Our original plan had been to get back to the hotel before rush hour even began, but we lingered a little too long in the outer market, and ended up on the subway at about 8:15am. Luckily we were skirting the major business districts, so the trains we took were merely “Manhattan at rush hour” crowded, and not “crowbars, body lube and can openers” crowded.

Tokyo, so far, is a trainspotters’ delight. The interlocking train systems are a little confusing, but they’re fast, they’re clean, they’re everywhere, and the ticketing systems are largely self-explanatory: the worst that’s happened to us so far is that we’ve misjudged the fare a few times and ended up having to use the far adjustment machines at the disembarking station.

Now: wait out the rest of rush hour at the hotel, check email and walk to the imperial gardens.

oh no, here comes tokyo

Japan so far: living up to obvious expectations quickly. In the 2 hours it took us to get from Narita to our hotel, we have already seen:

  • embossed hello kitty luggage
  • a bored-looking otaku on the Keisai train solving a rubiks cube… one-handed.
  • a fashionable young man wearing a t-shirt with an incomprehensible English slogan: “Don’t Be Influenced by Feeling Black Lady”, over an image of a (white) young woman in photonegative
  • a building with the words “Ritchie Blackmore” emblazoned on the front for no discernible reason whatsoever
  • a hotel room (ours) so small that it’s necessary for one person to be on the bed (or outside of the room) for another person to get from the door to the desk

We are at the moment at the Sakura Hotel in Jimbocho, which appears to be a cute little backpacker-oriented place. The room… well, I’ll try to take a picture of it, but it might have to be from the hallway to get the full effect.

I am, as predicted, somewhere on the loopy side of jetlagged. My body’s clock is somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic ocean, but the rest of me is in the middle of the Pacific. We’ll see how long I can manage to remain upright.

Tomorrow morning: Tsukiji, and the madness begins in earnest.

the last of zurich

This is being written from a combination of the United departure lounge at SFO, as I wait for my plane to Tokyo to board, and on the plane to Japan itself, so it may be a bit more telegraphic than usual. For those keeping track, that will be three continents in four days. I expect to emerge on the other side of jetlag, a new, post-sleep human.

In any case, Sunday:

Woke up, rolled out of bed and downhill toward the Hauptbanhof for another mandelgipfel. That’s basically “almond pastry”, and actually really more like “marzipan inside a croissant”, and even in a land not noted for light foods, it was probably the single least-healthy thing I ate. Needless to say, it was awesome.

From the station, I took a leisurely walk down the riverside past the mostly closed festival booths, and then uphill about half a km to Zürich’s largest art museum, the Kunsthaus. (Literally, “house of art.”)

The building itself isn’t that much to look at, but the exterior sports the single largest Calder mobile that I have ever encountered:

…and a 12-foot-tall casting of Rodin’s “The Gates of Hell”, which even by Rodin standards is imposing. The gate is roughly the size of the monolith in 2001, and is covered with intricate figures of sinners being cast into the abyss. In the main, they look properly tortured, but one group of them on the upper left of the lintel seemed to be having what looked suspiciously like a really good time. Really, I think I’ve been to this party:

The primary exhibition at the museum was something called “Shifting Identities: (Swiss) Art Now”, which like any group show had its ups and downs, but you’re largely going to have to take my word for it, as it was the one section of the museum that prohibited photography. I did cheat a little bit though: one installation involved building an raised, enclosed platform in the middle of the (very large) exhibition hall that could only be reached by ladders. Having climbed the ladder, you found yourself in a small room with a TV (displaying just a Grundig logo: I never found out if that was part of the piece or if someone had forgotten to hit ‘play’ somewhere) and a box on the floor with a small hole on top that you could peer into to see a kaleidoscope. Next to the box was a set of three steps ending in a small platform, which if you stood on (and were over about 5‘6”) your head would stick up through a single open space in the tiles of the dropceiling, giving you a 360” view of the area between the dropceiling and the roof. Since nobody else was in the room and the museum’s dropceiling was not the artist’s creation, I felt pretty okay taking a shot:

I’ll spare you (for now) most of the many, many photographs of other people’s art that I took. The Kunsthaus is a relatively small museum, but it’s pretty well-populated for its size, with a good balance of ‘old masters’ and contemporary pieces. The highlight for me was probably the entire room full of non-“Scream” Edvard Munch paintings, none of which I had ever seen before.

Over in the “avant garde” section of the primary collections, there was an installation piece that from a distance appeared to be a paper mache dead horse, which was disturbing enough:

…until you walked to the other side of it and saw the all-too-real mane, leading to the inescapable conclusion that the fake dead horse is actually covered with the skin of a real dead horse:

And one last shot just for fun: a Mondrian painting shot through a scupture that I neglected to get the name of:

My only bone to pick with the Kunsthaus is that for an art museum in the city where Dada was created, they really didn’t have much to show from that movement: I saw one Man Ray in the photography section, a single George Grosz piece, and… well, that was about it.

Having had my fill of art, I took a quick lunch across the street at a ridiculously posh cafe called “Terroir”, and then grabbed the #6 tram up to Fluntern cemetery. And when I say “up”, I mean it: while downtown Zürich is pretty flat (being along a river and lake), the rest of the city rivals San Francisco for sheer, random verticality. It is in the middle of the mountains, after all. After about 20 minutes of solid climbing, the tram dropped me and half a dozen families off at the Zoo (the nearest stop), and I did my country proud by only completely missing the cemetary entrance the first time I walked past it.

So why go to a cemetery in Zürich? Well, as usual, someone famous is buried there. But it’s not really who you’d expect to be buried in a tony Swiss cemetery. See if you can guess who it is:

If it hadn’t been for the inset box in the Lonely Planet guide, I would have never known about this either, but yes: that would be James Joyce. Also his wife and child:

Fluntern on a Sunday morning is a stunningly beautiful place: surrounded by woods and artfully landscaped gardens, and far enough off the road that in most places all you can hear is the birds at the nearby zoo calling each other. I spent a good two hours wandering through the plots, taking photos of the more interesting headstones and details, of which there were many:

By midafternoon, I’d had my fill of the place, and I took the tram back down to the city. I got off a bit early, planning to walk down a dirt path down the hill by the university that I’d seen earlier in the week. Sadly I was foiled: the path was closed during the weekend. But I did manage to get a few interesting shots near the university:

By the time I got down to the river, the party for the Euro 2008 final was in full swing: pretty much the entire city, plus several other cities worth of people was slowly trickling into the riverside area:

My original plan had been to park myself somewhere in the “FANZONE” (and you really have to imagine that word pronounced by an excited monster truck rally announcer) area near where they had a 20’ tall floating projection screen anchored out in the river, and watch the game (and the people watching the game) from there. This plan was quickly scuttled by the security checkpoint on the outside of the FANZONE: they were patting down people for weapons, but also apparently cameras were prohibited, and I was clutching my large and conspicuous SLR in my right hand. (Why a ban on cameras when every single cellphone in Europe has at least a 3-megapixel camera built into it? Search me, mate.) My attempt to brazen it out by playing clueless American tourist got me nowhere, so I detoured around the FANZONE and walked a bit further north to where I’d been when Germany won the semifinal at the beginning of the week, as I remembered there being a projection screen on one building’s wall there.

On my way there, after basically an entire week of wandering unrecognized through Zürich, I managed to run into first my coworker Alex and his family. Then once I reached the viewing area, I heard my name being called, and saw my coworker Christoph and his girlfriend across the street, who I joined. Ten minutes later, my coworker Travis walked by, on his way to join some friends further down the river. Apparently football brings everyone out here.

…and by everyone, I mean everyone. In the 90 minutes or so between my arrival and the start of the game, our little section of the street went form “busy” to “crowded” to “packed”, and continued on through “jammed”, and “mobbed” before finally arriving at a density of humanity that was in obvious danger of gravitational collapse. I’m sure that the singularity thus produced would have looked like a soccer ball and had an UEFA logo stamped on it.

With grim predictability, I ended up next to That Guy. If you’ve ever been to any sort of large outdoor public event in the states, especially in California, you’ve met him: late-50s to early 60s, scary bronze tan, open shirt (if any at all), long thinning hair, clutching a beer can, trying to say “hey pretty lady” to every woman who walks by. The Swiss-German version of That Guy says “Wie Gehts?” to every woman walking by, but is otherwise undifferentiated from his American cousin. He was largely harmless, and luckily spoke so little English that his one attempt at starting a conversation with us foundered instantly, but over the course of the evening as various people attempted to shove their way through us to get in or out of the crowd, he would sometimes, following some sort of internal sine wave of semi-drunken belligerence, cross his arms, plant his feet, and refuse to let them pass. In the states, this would have probably led inevitably to a fistfight; here, people mostly just sighed, groaned and worked their way around him.

The best part of it was… did I mention that people in Switzerland still smoke? The first few days there, I kept being startled by the number of times I’d smell cigarettes when passing a bar or restaurant. Apparently the mere challenge of lighting up and ashing while in a crowd so dense that getting your arm from your hip to your lips and back was a multi-minute exercise in applied geometry was not going to stop anyone: looking out over the crowd as the sun went down was like looking over the smokestacks of some old industrial plant: a puff here, a puff there, another puff over there, all in never-ending concert.

Hm, I suspect I’m making this all sound pretty horrible, and I should interject here that I was having a grand old time. It probably wasn’t a good place to be if you’ve got claustrophobia or dislike standing on your feet for a few hours, but the crowd was largely happy and enthusiastic, the weather was gorgeous, the people-watching excellent.

Before the game started, there was the requisite pre-game entertainment at the stadium, and as much as I like to mock the overblown pre-game and halftime shows at professional American football games, the show at the Euro2008 final gave me a new appreciation for the NFL’s willingness to pay lots of professionals to put on their spectacle: the UEFA’s pre-game was surprisingly threadbare, involving primarily a pair of pyramidal cages of chicken wire filled with balloons in the national colors of Germany and Spain circling each other for a while before releasing their meagre handful of balloons into the air, while a shellaced-looking Enrique Iglesias sang something in… well, let’s call it Europopese. I’m sure it was uplifting, in any case.

Oh, the game? Well, like most Americans I’ve only got the thinnest understanding of how football is played at all, never mind the intricacies and subtleties of the game at the continental championship level, and all of the broadcast commentary was in German, so I didn’t really learn anything more that day. But like most sports, it’s easy to at least get carried along by the excitement of a crowd of appreciative and demonstrative spectators. As far as I could tell, Spain pretty well routed the Germans: the 1-0 score belied the exceedingly small amount of time that the Germans spent playing offense.

At the end of the game, the Spanish contingent of the crowd went predictably bananas:

…but once the game was done, the crowd thinned out quickly enough that I was able to bid Christoph and his girlfriend (who’s name I am completely failing to remember) goodbye and walk back to the hotel to pack up for Monday’s flight.


A brief day. I got up early, showed and shaved, then grabbed a tram in to the station to pre-buy my train ticket to the airport and mail a small stack of postcards. The main post office is across the street from the Hauptbanhof, and predictably enough the Swiss post office is clean, quiet and blisteringly efficient: I was in and out within five minutes. The queueing system is actually pretty similar to the CA DMV: you get a ticket on entering the room that has a number on it, then about a dozen well-lit displays tell you which window is serving which ticket number, and you can wander around the room as you care to while waiting for your number to come up.

A light stroll down Banhofstrasse later and I made it to Cafe Sprungli, which was already doing a brisk business at 7:30am. Oddly, I encountered my sole bit of linguistic difficulty there, where the extraordinarily goodlooking attendant in their main sales room didn’t have enough English to ask me if I was going to be carrying my chocolates around the city in midday and would I like an icepack to slip into my bag: this was eventually accomplished by pulling one of the icepacks out of the drawer and cocking an eyebrow, which got the message across perfectly.

Then back to the hotel to pack the last of my bags, and from there back to the station, where I was greeted with a stunning sight: the dismantling of the enormous footballer statues, which looked like a scene from some surreally soccer-themed Terminator movie sequel.

From the station, the train to the airport took about 12 minutes, in some sort of entirely successful attempt to make me appreciate BART even less. I checked in without incident and had an uneventful flight to Copenhagen.

In weird contrast to the border control inbound to Zürich, where I was waved through without stamping or even really looking at my passport, the Danish insisted on having us queue and be stamped twice: once while disembarking the plane, and once before entering the departure gate area. In-between, the path routed us inevitably through a series of ridiculously large duty-free stores, where I disposed of the last of my Swiss francs and discovered a completely awesome thing that only the Scandinavians could (or, more to the point, would) have invented: smoked licorice candies, which are totally brilliant.

Arriving at Sea-Tac airport after Copenhagen was dispiriting. Enormous signs at U.S. passport control sternly warned foreigners that they would be fingerprinted and photographed before entry, while a bored-sounding man constantly repeated into the microphone which line you should be in and which papers you needed to have in order. Past immigration, the baggage carousel and customs were downstairs in the windowless basement, and after customs anyone with bags to check forward had to detour into a dingy room with a conveyor belt and a hassled attendant who was there largely to inform people that despite the fact that the bottles of wine and liquor that they’d bought at the duty-free were still sealed in the duty-free bags, and despite the fact that they were never going to leave the secure corridor, they still had to re-pack their checked luggage in order to somehow cram the bottles inside, because they were not going to be allowed to carry them on. This dubious ritual was then followed by another queue to be re-x-rayed and re-metal-detected, presumably in case someone had managed to pick up a bomb or a switchblade from one of the many weapons vendors to be found in the U.S. Immigration and Customs areas. Compared to both Zurich and Copenhagen’s airports, Sea-Tac looked dingy and decaying: combined with the pointless bureaucratic aggression it was hard to avoid the impression of decline and desperation.

The flight to San Francisco was delayed half an hour, giving me time to upload more photos and bang out the previous installment of this series. We then lost another 45 minutes circling over SFO waiting for a landing slot, and then to complete the experience my taxi driver managed to (accidentally?) miss our exit and thus go another $10 out of the way. No matter: I was home, and Miranda, the cats and my own bed were inside.

…all of which I got to enjoy for a day, before getting onto a plane to Tokyo, where I am right now. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, or more likely when I’m too tired to move any more.