I figured that 10 days into my trip would be a good time to write my frist ever `blog`, and to let you all know that I`m having an amazing time in Japan! It`s such a crazy country. You`re surrounded by the strangest technology, things that would seem inconceivable at home (I`ve never seen toilets with so many functions... warming and cooling, automatic seat opening and closing, spraying jets that help you to poo and then a sort-of hand-dryer but for your bum are all standard!) and on the other hand the country is full of traditional culture - shinto shrines, buddhist temples, tea cermonies and and festivals. On more than one occaision I`ve walked past a row of shops, or even been in a mall, and inbetween two shops there is a temple. The whole place is mad... but I`m loving it!
I arrived in Tokyo after an exhausting 12 hour flight. I left heathrow at 1 o`clock, so by the time I arrived at my hostel my body was telling me it was 3am.... in Tokyo, however, it was 11am the next day! I couldn`t check in until 3 so I hung around in the living-room area for a bit, half snoozing and half watching the clock, then went for a sleep for a couple of hours as soon as I could get at my bed. When I awoke I had a bit of a chat to my fellow room-mates, Brad from Australia and James from the US, and we decided to go out for some food. We ended up at a noodle shop not far from where we were staying. When we went in, we had to go to a machine, on which there were lots of buttons and Japanese writing. The waitress didn`t speak any English, and none of us could understand any of the Japanese, so ordering dinner that night was interesting. There`s nothing like feeding your money into a machine and pressing a random button to order your dinner, not knowing what will turn up in front of you! Thankfully she only bought over a steaming bowl of udon noodles and some soup (the idea is you put the noodles into the soup bit-by-bit so they get covered and flavoured in the liquid, then eat them and drink the remaining soup). It was SO GOOD, and at four pound a bowl I certainly wasn`t complaining. Afterwards we went back to the hostel and managed to round a few people up to go out. It was James` last night in Japan, so we decided to go to a Karoke bar for a true (modern) Japanese experience! The idea is that you and your group rent a room for the hour (we ended up with 3 hours) and you get as much as you can drink, all for a fixed price. As you can imagine, things got messy.... but it was a good start to my time in Tokyo none-the-less!
The next morning, nursing my hangover, I decided I should get up and go (sorry, Action Jackson mention for those at Ockendon), so I headed out to do some sight seeing. I took a strole down to the largest and most important temple of Asakusa, called SENSO-JI TEMPLE. Inside (apparently) there is a golden image of Kannon, the Buddhist god of mercy, which has been there since 628AD. The entrance to the temple has a huge lantern, and the walkway leading down to it is full of market stools selling souvenirs - a bit like a Japanese Covent Garden if you like. When you get down to the temple area you can pay 100yen to get your "fortune." If you like what it says, then you keep it, if not, then you tie it onto special racks which are supposed to stop it from coming true. Fortunately mine was good. After walking around for a bit I decided to head out to an area called SHINJUKU. For those of you that have seen the film "Lost in Translation", I believe this is the area in which that was set. I walked around there for a couple of hours, soaking up the atmosphere and doing some people watching... very interesting indeed! And I even took a peek at the red-light district... although everything is pretty much off limits to foreigners anyway.
My third day in Tokyo was spent with someone I`d met on the first night at Karoke, an English gal called Paula. We headed out of Tokyo to a place called KAMAKURA. Kamakura was the capital of Japan from 1185 - 1333, and is full of Temples and Shrines. We didn`t have too long there, as we`d both booked up to do a sushi making course back at the hostel, but it was good to see some of the most revered temple`s in the whole country. Kamakura also fit my own image of Japan... even if they did still have very sophisticated toilets!! That evening a few of us headed out to an area called RAPPONGI HILLS for a few beers in a bar overlooking Tokyo. The view by night was outstanding, and I`d definately recommend it to anyone visiting Tokyo.
After 3 days I decided to move on (I will be back in Tokyo for 3 days at the end of my trip anyway to see the Sumo competition). I`d booked a night in a Buddhist temple in a place called TAKAYAMA, up in the mountains of the HIDA prefecture. The temple was great, as was talking to the monk who let out the rooms inside, however the other guests were really odd. Normally there`s a really good atmosphere in backpacker places, but the people staying in this temple hardly even spoke - very odd. ANyway, I didn`t spend much time there. Afetr getting lost trying to find the start of a hiking trail (yes, my geography is still s***) I decided to go to the morning markets instead. There were lots of different varieties of food on offer - sticky rice cakes, fish caught fresh in the river that morning, all prepared and cooked in front of you! One stall owner started to talk to me in English, asking where I was from and what my profession was. When I told him I was a History teacher he was so excited - asking me all sorts of questions, including why the French and British hate each other, LOL. We talked for about an hour, and he bought me some dried octopus as a gift. The people here are so generous and polite! After that I went to a local museum which had examples of the floats used in the bi-annual Takayama festival, and then took a walk down by the river and got some HIDA BEEF - the most succulent beef I`ve ever tasted. Delicious!
That evening I got the bullet train down to KYOTO to meet my good friend Wakako, who I lived with in Ottawa 3 1\2 years ago. We`d always talked about meeting up in Kyoto, where Wakako is from, so actually being able to do it was great! The first day I was there was crazy. We went into the city to visit RYOAN-JI TEMPLE, the main attraction of which is its famous zen-garden. I personally couldn`t see the appeal of staring at 15 arranged rocks, but the temple itself was nice anyway. Next we went to the famous KINKAKU-JI, the Golden Temple. The reflection of the gold onto the surrounding lake was beautiful. Wakako thought it would be fun to go and try some Buddhist meditation (or ZAZEN as it is known). When we got to the temple we had to go inside, remove all jewelery and sit in the lotus position (OUCH!) The monk then explained a little about Zazen... how you have to straighten your back, half close your eyes and try to clear your mind. He explained that many people find this hard, so to start the session he would stand in front of us, we had to bow down and he would hit us 4 times on our back with a big stick (a bit like the old metre rule`s teachers used to use of the blackboard)! He demonstrated on someone, and the noise of the crack made myself and Wakako`s jaws drop.... we couldn`t believe we had paid for this! When the session got going the monk walked up and down, and he said that he would hit us again if we couldn`t concentrate.... well theres nothing like a man with a bit stick threatening to hit you to stop you from clearing your mind. Everytime I saw his feet through my half closed eyes I thought to myself "please dont stop please dont stop!" It wasn`t until afterwards that I found out that Wakako was thinking the same thing. Neither of us found enlightenment that day, LOL.
AFter that we went back into the city and I tried some more Japanese food - OKONOMIYAKI which is kinda like a cross between a pancake and an omlette. Translated literally it means "cook what you like" - you order the topping and they bring over the ingreadients for you to cook it for yourself on a hotplate in the middle of the table. We went for squid - it was superb, and definately the best thing i had eaten so far.
That was 3 days ago, but I`m out of time here to carry on! I`ll update again soon with more news, including my experience of REAL SUSHI!!! Hope you`re all well! Leave me some messages to let me know how you are, and I`ll be in touch again soon.