Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Day 9 and 10: Takarazuka and Coming Home

Ah, our last free day has come. We learned too late that, instead of museums being closed on Sundays, such as things are in the U.S., in Japan, they are closed on Mondays. Which was incedentally our last day, and the day we planned on going to the Nara National Museum and the Kamigata Ukio-e museum. This was not to be.

Instead, we went to Takarazuka- a small city known widely for being home to the Takarazuka Revue- an all female acting troupe that performs gigantic musicals in lavish costumes, from their staple "Rose of Versailles" and other manga-based shows, to eastern and western acts, such as "West Side Story."

But I was not here for the Revue (maybe another time. Can I have another time? There is just so much to do here...) but for the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum. Tezuka is known as the "godfather" of manga, and is most well known as the creator of "Astro-Boy" (Tetsuwan Atom.)

Takarazuka turned out to be a beautiful little city. The path to the museum (and the Grand Revue Theatre) was a flower lined path called "Hana no Michi" (unmysteriously meaning "flower path.") It was blooming in full with cherry blossoms, dogwoods, tulips, and more. I was especially in love with the giant purple dogwood flowers. The path also had statues representing Revue show genres, which were very cool.

Finally, we arrived at the Tezuka Museum. It was small, but dense with interesting information. Tezuka was prolific, and so each room was packed with information and pictures.

The first things we saw were states of his famous figures. The giant Phoenix stood outside, and life sized Princess Ribon and Astro Boy were inside. Luckily, we were permitted photos in almost every area of the museum!

The first room had rotating tubes exhibiting original comic pages, cels, sketches, paintings, and merchandise from his works. It was amazing to see the process. Some of the comic pages were over fifty years old, with the lettering paper having faded to brown. I always find "sketch to ink to paint" processes especially fascinating, as well as drawings of original concepts that final products deviate from in interesting ways. And it is always amazing to revisit the obvious similarities between "Kimba the Jungle Emperor" (1950) and "The Lion King." (1994)

Moving on, we found a exhibit of all the volumes of his works, from the late 1930s and onward, including reprinted volumes. It was stunning to see the sheer number of volumes he created. We also saw a wing dedicated to his early apartment-mates- manga artists from the 40's and 50's that lived in one apartment building and formed fast bonds. It was a touching dedication to the community he worked in. Each artist was highlighted by the apartment they lived in, the work they did, and photographs and drawings.

The whole museum was decked out with his work- walls, ceilings, fixtures- even the elevators had frosted glass mirrors depicting his characters.

After that, we went back to Osaka. Our job was to find the second Mandarake Store in Umeda. So it was back to Dotomburi! We hard a rough time figuring out where it was- we did a lot of walking- only to find that it was mere meters away from where we had gone to Karaoke earlier in the week. This shop has less figures and more doujinshi (fan comics.) I finally got up the nerve to ask where some of my favorite series comics were, and I'm glad I did, because I found some really good ones, for really cheap!

Afterwards, we met up with Rob for one last hurrah. We ate at a nice variety restaurant where I had chicken katsu, potato wedges, burdock root tempura salad, and tried sake. Which wasn't terrible.

We did one final karaoke, and then went home to pack up. We had a full day- nay, over a day's worth- of travelling to do starting in the morning.

Everything fit in our bags, on the lucky account that I packed our bags only half full. There were stuffed to the brim upon return, though. I blame the stuffed ram and Mami dolls.

We took a taxi to the train station. We took the train to Osaka Station. We took the Hikari train 3 hours back to Tokyo. We took the Narita Express one hour to the airport. We took a 13 hour flight to Atlanta (which DID give us vegetarian meals this time!), and then a two hour flight back to Boston, where JShea rescued us, and then we drove the last two hours home. We had been travelling for 30 hours.

We're happy to be back!

There will be more blog posts to come- summaries on shopping, traveling, eating vegan, and communicating, so continue to read if you're interested!

More pictures:

Monday, April 5, 2010

Day 8: More Koyasan, Wakayama

This is part two of our Wakayama adventure! Be sure to read part one here!

Summary: Morning Buddhist services, train to Wakayama city, car to Watarase Onsen (hot springs) and shrines.

We woke up early for 6:30 services. It was chilly on the mountain- it felt like camping in the fall- though our bodies were toasty in the futons, our heads were chilly!

The first service involved a lot of chanting, and the second involved stoking a fire. Both were pretty cool.

When we got back to our room, another shoujin ryouri feast was waiting for us! We ate up and then dashed out in order to catch our series of transports back to Wakayama. Back to the bus, to the cable car, to the train, to the other train (which we missed the first time), to meet Take in Wakayama city. He took us on a three hour car ride through the most beautiful mountain regions!

The ride was worth it. We stopped briefly at Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine, where I made offerings and prayers to each of the four shrines, and left a prayer written on a block to be burned at the summer festival. At the base of the shrine walk, we stopped in a shop where we had traditional (powdered) green tea and mochi snacks before moving on to the onsen.

Take's car light had been left on, so some friendly firemen came and jumped the car so we could be on our way. We went on to the hot springs, which took a little finding. Windy mountain roads had us turned around for a while until we finally landed in the right place.

Peter and I were able to get a private bath. The hot water from the springs is supposed to be restorative an beautifying, and whatever the effects, it felt awesome! Afterwards, we picked up some orange cookies and Take bought us a bottle of Wakayama specialty Plum wine.

Mission accomplished, we all drove back to Wakayama city, had a pasta dinner, and took the train back to Osaka. Exhausted, we quickly prepared plans for our last free day, and went to sleep! What a weekend!

Tomorrow: To Takarazuka!
-Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum
-Mandarake store #2 in Umeda
-More Japanese food
-More Karaoke

More photos!

Day 7: Mount Koya

This is part one of our two-part Wakayama weekend. Read part two here.

Summary: Took a long ride up a chilly mountain to hang with some Buddhist Monks and eat tons of vegan food and eight preparations of tofu.

We woke up early to catch a train to Wakayama, transferred to a train that took us to the foot of Mont Koya, and up a cable car to the top of the mountain. It was a long and scenic trip, full of views of mountain ranges, rivers, waterfalls and cherry blossoms.

Once at the top, we still had to take a long bus ride to the remote town of Koyasan. Koyasan is dotted with Buddhist temples and history, known for those as much as it is for its vegan Buddhist cuisine, shoujin ryouri. We dropped our luggage off at our temple inn and went to explore the sights of the town.

We ate lunch at a restaurant that served shoujin ryouri. Peter got a great big bento box of tasty food, Rob got Oyako-don, and I got some udon noodles with "inari tofu" on top. It was all super delicious. As we ate, some monks stopped in to dine as well.

We went to an artifact museum, some temples, and a mausoleum. Nothing too extraordinary, but pretty. We couldn't check in until 2 PM, so we had to poke around a bit.

Our temple inn, the Enoin, was a modest complex with a little koi (carp) pond in the center. Our room was a traditional Japanese paper walled room with ink paintings on the sliding doors. We had some tea as we waited for dinner.

Dinner was totally amazing! When it arrived, two training monks came in with a big tower of dinner trays that they laid out in front of us. We had several kinds of traditionally prepared tofu, including the Koyasan specialty, gomadofu. We also had soup, pickled vegetables over rice, vegetables tempura, fruit, and salads. Some oolong tea to top it off and we were set. As soon as we were done, we called to have them take the trays away so we could go have a hot public bath!

I was excited because they had prepared yukata for us- this is a Japanese robe. I think they're fun to wear, and we all geared up in them and walked across the temple campus to the bath house.

The baths were split for men and women, so I went off to my bath and the boys to theirs. It was extremely relaxing, and very very hot! In the end, I was the only one in there anyway!

We went to bed at about 8:30, we had a busy and super fun day. More monk fun in the morning!

Tomorrow: Morning services and Wakayama for Onsen (hot spring) and more temples.

More pictures:

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Day 6: Fushimi Inari Shrine

Today was a totally pleasant surprise. We did our laundry and then went back out to Kyoto to visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine.

Inari is the god of, among many things, rice and worldly success. One-third of the Shinto shrines in Japan are dedicated to Inari. This particular shrine was a major one, known for hundreds of vermilion colored gates that line its paths. Peter was ready to call Christo a fraud, but apparently these gates' role as inspiration for the Central Park installation is a well known fact (on Wikipedia).

Inari's messenger is the fox, so there were hundreds of beautiful fox statues flanking entrances, paths and graves. They are usually depicted carrying a scroll, a bell or a pine brush in their jaws.

After entering the main gate and photographing the foxes, we proceeded through the first tunnel of orange gates. They led to a main square that branched off into many paths. Unable to read the map we chose a small dirt path off the main route. It kept leading us higher and higher, and we encountered fewer and fewer people until we were completely alone. Soon we found ourselves walking through a bamboo forest leading up what turned out to be Mount Inari. We passed giant graveyards and shrines tucked away in the forest. It was a magical experience, on this gorgeous day as sunlight streamed through the trees. Eventually it brought us back to town. We bought some gifts and hopped on the train back home.

That night, we met Rob's friend Take, and we went back out to Dotomburi once more for one more Puri Kura. We hung out in the arcade, playing a taiko drum game and trying the crane machines (unsuccessfully) a couple of times. We consoled ourselves with more gashapon.

Tomorrow: Wake up early and take a train to Mount Koya and hang out with some Buddhist monks!

More pictures:

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Day 5: Shopping!

-Hello Kitty "Gallery"
-Anime Store Mandarake
-Japanese L.L. Bean
-Conveyor Belt Sushi
-Ramen Shop
-Purikura (sticker machines)

Today was an Osaka shopping day. We were actually going back to areas previously visited- Dotomburi and Umeda. Our first stop was at the Hello Kitty store. One of the hello kitty, stores actually, as there are five or six of them. This one is the one in Osaka. It was called the "Sanrio Gallery" and was three floors high.

The first floor was pink and featured a few Sanrio characters. The second floor was a "punkish" hello kitty store- in black and magenta. The third floor was the jackpot as far as hello kitty goes - hello kitty figures in just about every costume imaginable on phonestraps. Hello kitty as a sushi? As a chicken? As a samurai? You name it, she's done it.

After we'd had our fill of Hello Kitty, we moved on to the Mandarake anime goods store. Four floors of antique, old and new anime stuff! I hunted through piles for figures and toys, and managed to find some really good deals. I got figures and goods from Creamy Mami, Dirty Pair, Rayearth, and Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei. Peter was bothered by the titles of these shows.

We then moved on to Umeda where we visited the Japanese L.L.Bean store. Peter proceeded to confuse the staff by showing his employee ID and taking a ton of photos. It was really very similar to the American stores, except smaller, and a few key items that had, instead of Maine icons, graphics representing Japan.

While we waited for Rob to get out of work, we went to a snack bar and ate "fried potatoes" and crepes. When we reunited, we went to a conveyor belt sushi place.

One simply grabs whatever looks good from the moving belt as it passes by. It was cheap, too - all three of us ate our fill for less than $20. I needed to try a ramen shop at least once, so after sushi we popped in a ramen place for a bowl. It was very meat-fatty, the broth was made with lard and the noodles were topped with layer of pork. The noodles were tasty, though! And I could say I'd had some actual ramen in Japan.

We moved on to a PuriKura arcade. We stood in a booth and took photos that we decorated on a moniter later. We weren't aware that this particular booth made your eyes huge. Very creepy. The results:

More photos:

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Japan: Day 4, Kyoto!


-Abe no Seimei Shrine
-Cherry Blossom Viewing
-Impromptu Kyoto Guide Yoshi

Abe no Seimei was a heian-era onmyoji- like a wizard, or court mystic. He's a legendary one, kind of like our Merlin. In any case, when Peter told me we were going to Japan, one of the first things I thought was "OH BOY, I GET TO GO TO THE SEIMEI SHRINE!"

Needless to say, I was looking forward to this trip. The shrine is in Kyoto, which is a city of "old Japan." There are 500 shrines there, and lots and lots of cherry blossoms.
Historical fun fact: Kyoto was one of the cities considered for the atomic bomb in WWII because it's large intellectual population would be able to "able to appreciate the significance of the weapon." In fact it survived the war, and much of its history remains to this day.

We found the shrine with no problems. It had a beautiful courtyard, statues guarding the gate, a statue of Seimei, and even an attending shrine miko (maiden) (though I think she was just selling things.) Seimei became very popular after a series of comics and movies in the 90's portrayed him as a beautiful, suave young man solving mysteries with his musicial friend, Minamoto no Hiromasa. The young girls went wild. So he is highly merchandised. There was a shop both inside the shrine gates, and immediately outside on the street. I can't say I didn't partake of them.

Once I had my fill of Seimei, we took a cab to the other side of Kyoto where we could walk the Tetsugaku no Michi (the "philosopher's path") a beautiful stretch of walkway along a stream. It was absolutely gorgeous. There were shops along the path, with vendors trying to sell scarves, food, candies, and cherry-blossom related gifts. There were also some cats scattered about, playing in the trees and on the sidewalk, and whenever one showed up, the path became crowded with picture takers.

When we neared the end of the path, we looked at a map to try and find our way back to the subway station. A Japanese fellow asked us, in English, if we needed any help. He was in Kyoto on his day off to view the cherry blossoms, and asked if we wanted to accompany him to some other sites on our way back to the station ("We join?"). His name was Yoshi and loved the Boston Red Sox. He spoke very good English and we conversed about our respective countries (although mostly about the Red Sox.) He showed us a very large wooden gate, a aquaduct bringing water in from over the mountains, and abandoned railway tracks.

We parted ways and headed home. On the way, we stopped at a Hyaku En (100 yen, or Dollar store). It was pretty much exactly like dollar stores back home, just a little cleaner. I acquired a Dragonball Z character in a light bulb.

We returned to Osaka station to meet Rob for dinner. After some tasty Indian food, he showed us where to do karaoke!!!

Karaoke was so much fun, and I got to drink lots of melon flavored sodas! We sang Bohemian Rhapsody, some 80's songs, songs from high school drama, and even some Japanese tunes.

It works like this: You rent a little room with equipment, and they make their money by delivering you drinks that one can order from a phone in the room. It was so much fun that we stayed for two hours.

On the way home we stopped at a grocery store and marveled at Japanese food packaging. MMmm... spamsushi

-Hello Kitty Store in Dotomburi
-Anime Store in AmericaMura
-Japanese L.L.Bean
-Conveyor Belt Sushi
-Ramen shop
-Puri Kura (Photo sticker machine)

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Japan: Day 3, Osaka Tourist Stops

-America Mura
-Dotomburi Sega Crane Arcade
-Shittenouji Temple
-Delicious dinner with Rob

Today was a day to putz around the tourist stops of Osaka. We were really getting a hang of the trains and subways, so getting around was a breeze.

We got off the train on Midosuji Street. We had two shopping destinations, Americamura and Dotomburi. Our mission was to find me a sweater or jacket, because Japan turned cold when I arrived. We began by walking in the totally opposite direction. As we stumbled around Osaka, we came across a number of little shrines. We watched business men stop to make offerings and pray, and admired statues of Buddhist Lion-Dogs and Inari's fox messengers.

Eventually we made a call to Rob to get un-lost. Our landmark was the Apple Store (which, incidentally, is branded exactly the same as in America, genius bar and all.) We finally located it and dove into America Mura.

It's hard to describe America Mura. Part Punk, 80's, NYC-esque fashion and attitude, but four years out of style, it felt like a strange shopping district from another country and time. We proceeded to Dotomburi, which was blocks and blocks of covered shop streets- lots of shoes and fashion, all presided over by the Glico running man.

In Dotomburi, we also came across a Sega Crane Arcade. You know those impossible stuffed-animal crane game you see at chain stores and arcades? This was an entire arcade of them! I wouldn't have ventured so far in, but I saw a giant, tubby stuffed ram, and I needed to have him. Ten tries and 1000 yen later, he was mine! We also got a gashapon of a Hello Kitty dressed in a Godzilla costume.

After shopping, we went back on the train and went to Shittenouji temple, the oldest temple in Osaka. It was big, and very pretty. There was a large pond filled with turtles! We ate lunch there, and proceeded home.

On the way back, we exited the wrong gate coming out of the station by Rob's house. After walking in the wrong direction for too long, we called him and had to go back. So to summarize: We are excellent at getting around on the trains, not so much on foot. We were so done with walking by the time we finally reached the house. Rob made us a delicious fried rice dinner, and then we fell sound asleep!

-Semei Jinja
-Tetsugaku no Michi
-100 yen store (dollar store)