Back to Kyoto

It was raining when I woke, so I decided to skip my sightseeing plans in Tokyo, and head back to Kyoto.

Emerging from Kyoto station felt like coming home to a smaller, warmer place.

Posted: November 10th, 2007
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Tokyo

Tokyo is an endless, sprawling megalopolis, a bustling sea of humanity, neon eternity.

Upon my arrival, I was blown away by the sheer volume of people in the station, and when I made my way via subway to Shinjuku to find a hotel, I was even more blown away. Shinjuku station’s daily traffic is one of the highest in the world, and one has to almost fight one’s way through it. Better yet, simply go with the flow. This place makes NYC seem like a farming community.

Posted: November 8th, 2007
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Geisha

Maiko in Respectful ReverenceI was wandering aimlessly around Gion today, when I nearly blundered into a Geisha. It happened when I was crossing a busy street (Shijo-dori), and she sort of appeared out of nowhere. She could have been a Maiko, or apprentice Geisha, but I really don’t know how to tell them apart. As the next hour unfolded, I managed to spot a few more scurrying around, and even snapped up a blurry pic of one being escorted to Pontocho by her matron. This place is so surreal. It’s almost like living in a story. Almost, but not quite. The illusion got ruined when I walked a few more blocks and found myself in the red light district, surrounded by Japanese business men in their starched suits. Eyed warily by seedy sentinels posted outside various establishments, I quickly made my way back to the hostel.

Posted: November 6th, 2007
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Kyoto

My birthday came an went like passing clouds. It was an eventful day, complete with travels to a new city, new accommodations, and the feeling of independence associated with cutting out on one’s own.

After I did some sightseeing, I checked out Kyoto Station for some meal options. I found a place which allowed me to feed money into a slot and choose my meal by pushing a button. Then, a hostess came and seated me, and I looked around as I waited for my food. Most of the patrons were locals, but there a couple of foreigners inside. I watched carefully how the natives handled their chopsticks with their right hands and their spoons with their left as they deftly attacked the bowls of soup. When my food arrived, I managed to mimic them effectively, down to making the slurphing sounds characteristic of the eating style. However, I cant figure out how to do it without splashing my clothes with soup.

After I ate, I met Meri (a Japanese native, who is an acquaintance through my musician friend Jan Sebon), and we took the bus to the Kyoto Art Institute Student Festival, which was quite the event. There were beautiful student art works, cool bands playing, and great food. I had a blast. At 7 pm, I went to see Meri perform in an African dance performance, performed entirely by Japanese women. OK. I have seen, heard, and performed African dance and music. This was something else. I was blown away. From the first few beats of the dun-dun drums, I knew I was in for a good show. Imagine a group of attractive, young Japanese women playing African drums, while others danced skillfully to the music. Wow. There was one djembe player who could have given some of the drummer I know a run for their money, and she’s only been playing for two years! I told Meri they should seriously consider touring.

Posted: November 2nd, 2007
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Birthday

I met Soke Tanemura Shoto (the Genbukan Ninpo World Bugei Grandmaster) today. Nick Shihan helped me get introduced, and I shared with him my emotional experience at Ise Jingu. He told me to continue with my training, and that he would see me in Milwaukee for the Tai-kai in 2008.

Posted: November 1st, 2007
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The Endless Bus Ride

Today, we went to Nijō Castle in Kyoto, as part of the tail end of our sightseeing after the Tai-kai. The castle features a nightingale floor, which is an ancient security measure. The simple act of walking across the floor produces a series of squeaks and chirps which, when combined, resemble the sound of birds.

Bus ride hell. We must have been on the bus the whole day. Sightseeing is essentially worthless if you have to eat lunch in 10 minutes, and rush around in the place you are visiting. Japanese travel itineraries are somewhat unrealistic. I’m glad I extended my trip by an additional two weeks.

After we returned to Osaka, I enjoyed some “Western” style food for the first time in a week. I never thought I would enjoy a plain salad as much as I did.

Tomorrow is my birthday, and marks the passing of a phase of my trip. I will join 3 others as we cut out on our own in Kyoto, and after they leave on November 5th, I will be on my own in Japan until November 13th, when I return home. This culture is far removed from any I have experienced to date, and the language barrier makes it especially challenging. I’ve learned a couple of important phrases to aid me in my travels, but I am a far cry from being able to communicate effectively.

Posted: October 31st, 2007
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Ise Jingu Shrine

Tori-i at Ise JinguI had the most amazing experience today. We went to Ise Jingu, the main Shinto shrine, and witnessed a dance ritual. We weren’t allowed to video or take pictures, but I will forever remember the feeling in my soul. When the music started, and the dancers danced, I felt deep emotion welling up inside. I wasn’t able to hold back the tears. When the music stopped, they subsided, and when it continued the tears resumed. I was moved not only by the music, but by the dancers themselves. Their costumes were long and flowing, and had elements of nature included as part of the regalia, including flowers and leaves.

The whole experience gave me a strong impression of nature worship. I also kept thinking about Jahmes during the event, knowing that he too would have a emotional/spiritual experience as I did. The gift shop sold little pieces of the shrine (it gets rebuilt every 20 years or so), so I’m bringing him a little portion of it.

Tomorrow, we leave the Ise area, and head back to Osaka. Most of the group will head back, and I will continue to Kyoto with Franco, Michael, and Phil.

See more pictures of the trip.

Posted: October 30th, 2007
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Karaoke Nightmare

Holy moly.

All in one night.

I went to a karaoke bar in this hotel (which, I might add, is a resort, on an isolated peninsula in the middle of nowhere) and we had no idea that there was a $12 surcharge per person. So our fricking bill ended up being $114 for 5 people, and only 2 of us sang. Fortunately, we got 3 video clips of us singing, which makes up for the feeling of being robbed.

This place is a trip.

Don performing Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”

http://youtube.com/watch?v=3Ay7rW3a9PQ

Don doing Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”

http://youtube.com/watch?v=Ol5_BFDex70

Me doing Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild”

http://youtube.com/watch?v=Hb3HecpJfCE

Drunken Japanese Karaoke Session

http://youtube.com/watch?v=WzIqNWIS16I

Drunken Brawl

http://youtube.com/watch?v=94MDibO0EjI

Posted: October 27th, 2007
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Sightseeing

I slept well last night. It felt like I was up for a really long time, because we were travelling with the sun, and it didn’t set on us until we got to Osaka.

Osaka Night 2The hotel window opened to a low-railed balcony that overlooked the city from the 31st floor, which yielded some nice breezes. Breakfast was not traditional Japanese. It was a smargasbord of Japanese and Western foods, and allowed the diner a choice of pickled plums, okra, seaweed salad and other Japanese treats, along with bacon, eggs, ham, croissants and the like. It was a bit disconcerting to find Western foods there, to be honest. I guess they’re trying to cater to our tastes.

As I sit here waiting for our tour bus to take off, I’m reminiscing about some of the more interesting parts of yesterday:

Self-portrait in Japanese heated mirrorWhen I emerged from the steamy shower, I could see myself in the mirror! Instead of finding a fogged-up mirror, I was surprised to see a clear, unblurred reflection of myself peeking back at me. Heated mirrors! Furthermore, the toilet has a heated seat (complete with high/low temperature controls), and features a built-in bidet and sprayer. In other words, your toilet sprinkles your tushie clean. America needs better bathroom technology.

Our tour guide is an interesting old Japanese gent who seems to insist on talking the whole time. Ok, not the whole time, but enough to make me check out for lack of patience. He has just informed me that Osaka is known as the “Kitchen of Japan.” Cool.

We visited the Todai-Ji Temple today. The scale of this structure was staggering. It is apparently the largest wooden structure in the world. There was a pillar with a hole in the bottom that people would pass themselves through, and I slid right through. People were cheering as I pulled myself out, probably because most of the people going through were kids, and they were probably amused to see a gaijin (foreigner) pulling himself through a tiny hole in a giant wood pillar. I also tried some strange, fried starchy balls, some octopus dumplings, and some tea-flavored ice cream. Yum.

Later, we had lunch at a hotel. Our meals came out in an obento box, which is a typical lunch box of assorted meats and seafood, accompanied by bowls of miso and rice.

Did I mention the incredible gel drink I had last night? Wow. It was like drinking slushed up jello in a squeezy container. Yum. I wish we had something like it in the USA. They had assorted flavors, and many of them had vitamin and mineral supplements added.

Later on our sightseeing trip, we visited Takamatsu Sensei’s grave. The whole process was a bit rushed to me. It seemed appropriate that it was raining. The world was crying for the great loss of a Ninja Master.

After a really long bus ride, during which the back of the bus got caught in a whirlwind of humor and proceeded to laugh ourselves to tears, wherein the simple mention of the word “splint” would send us into peals of laughter, and a delicious treat called Pocky – Men’s was passed around freely amid Indian/Sri Lankan accents aplenty, we finally arrived at our hotel.

The dinner spread was ridiculously huge. Even I, with my voracious appetite, was unable to completely devour what was placed before me.

See more pictures of the trip.

Posted: October 26th, 2007
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Japan

…is intense. I have seen wary eyes peer at me and my compatriots as we walk around Osaka. Perhaps they are daunted by our collective size. Not only are we physically bigger, but everything else is smaller scale! I had no idea I was such a big person, at least until I checked into a Japanese hotel room.

Noodle dish at an Osaka restaurantA bunch of us went to get a bite. Wow. That was an embarrasing adventure in lack of communication. We somehow managed to order meals by pointing to items in the window. The food was decent. Dana, a member of our group, is a vegan, and he had some trouble getting something to eat. When he thought he ordered tofu, he got pork. Oops.

I’m going to bed now. I am wiped out.

See more pictures of the trip.

Posted: October 25th, 2007
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