Saturday, March 29, 2014

Japan 2014: Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka

Continuing from where I left off previously- here's day two in Kyoto. I forgot to mention this in the previous post, but last night I did manage to find the famous Pontocho alley, and stumbling past several restaurants which all looked as if they could easily burn a hole through my wallet, I came across a little restaurant with a small takoyaki kitchen at ground level. I had six of the best tasting takoyaki I have ever had: hot, puffy, steaming, creamy little round balls of fluff. Hats off to the chef.

Today was New Year's Day in Kyoto, though I had completely forgotten about it at the time. I hopped on a ridiculously packed train to Inari station, and after a short walk uphill I found myself at the Fushimi Inari Taisha, another one of Japan's 'top sights', known for its snaking rows of bright orange torii. Once again, I forgot to mention something- the rest of the train followed me out. It was Hatsumoude, or the first shrine visit of the new year, for most people. Technically, Hatsumoude can be done at any time of the year- though most people just go during the first week of the new year, since it's a national holiday then. It's probably not as fun to drop by an empty shrine in the middle of July when you can do in on 1st Jan and everyone is out in their finery- the ladies in their kimonos, at least- and the guys... are mostly ogling them. Um.

Back on track- the path seems to trail around a hilly area, or a up a mountain- I'm not too sure, and I actually lost my orientation: which way did I come from? From the left? Right? East? West? No idea. All I knew was that I started somewhere further down and made my way up, along with a great crowd of people, through row after row of bright orange gates bearing names of local companies, small family shrines (if that's what they're called), and statues of Inari fox guardian spirits, before deciding that I'd had enough of the place for the day. I must have gone about halfway up before giving up, and heading down into an even more massive crowd outside the train station.

Not entirely sure what to do next, I decided to try another popular spot, Arashiyama- I'm pretty sure that boy band Arashi has nothing to do with the name- perhaps the place has a high ratio of thunderstorms compared to the rest of the region. In case you're wondering, that's how I consoled myself as I walked through town slowly dampening like patch of moss as light rain fell from up overhead. I ignored the rain, and passed through the staple sights- the "Moon Crossing Bridge", Togetsukyo; and the famous bamboo grove. It doesn't have a name, but just google "Arashiyama bamboo grove" and pictures will pop up. A few people whom I showed photos of the place to thought the trees were artificial- they just looked too perfect. With nothing much left to do there- I headed back to Kyoto, and with no idea what else to do, hitched a ride on a train to Otsu, for no other reason but to carry out a certain swordsman's proposition to his doomed lover- "Otsu e!" (Ruroken fans should know what I'm talking about here). The lake was unexpectedly large- I wouldn't be surprised if ancient wanderers got lost and thought they had reached the sea- but Otsu city itself probably wasn't the best place for me to get off- there wasn't much of a beach shore to walk on. The city was pretty much dead too- I suppose everyone was either shut indoors or out in Kyoto.

2nd day of 2014! I boarded a shinkansen in the morning, and had a pretty reasonable bento set on the train. An hour or so into the ride to Tokyo, and I found myself nodding off- I had quite a long night last night, having stayed up late to assemble a 1:144 model kit in my capsule (I wonder if the endless snipping and clipping noise kept anyone awake), but anyway- at one point I happened to glance out the window, expecting to see more of the same snow-covered countryside (no snow in the cities, though), which I did, but in addition to that there was one familiar looking snow-capped mountain dominating the landscape. Say hello to Mt Fuji.

Once in Tokyo- I made my way to Seijo for a meet up with my host for the night- let's just call him Horace for now (if you're reading this right now, H, you might find my reasoning for the pseudonym amusing- unless you're actually related to the chap I have in mind- in which case, sheesh). I'd thought of giving Couchsurfing a try- an interesting concept I'm still not very comfortable with, since I don't really take to total strangers quickly, but Horace turned out to be pretty nice, luckily, and I actually bumped into him on the way to his place- 2nd stroke of luck in one day. He spotted me first as I trudged along deep in thought, idly staring at the houses I walked past- I suppose I did stick out quite a bit though. We headed to Harajuku after lunch, checking out Meiji Jingu along the way (packed, of course), and walked through Takeshita-doori- quite an achievement in itself, given the massive crowd. We parted ways there- I headed to Akihabara to stock up on books, and with time to spare, managed to hit Nakano as well.

Day 2 in Tokyo. Almost two months have passed since this (actual) day, and it's hard to drag up memories of what actually happened- so much for using this as an alternative to my physical diary because I'm too lazy to write (I've ended up procrastinating instead). So what happened, then? Uh. The day started with a fire. Yup. Not where I stayed, of course, but along the train tracks near the JR Yurakucho station. It mostly affected shinkansen travelers, and luckily enough I didn't need to think much of it for the rest of the day. I stashed my bags in a locker in Shinjuku, and headed for Odaiba, with two objectives in mind. The first- to take in the sight of the 1:1 Gundam; and to find the car that shares my name, the Toyota AE86 Levin, both of which I accomplished, to a point. The statue was most impressive- to all the gunotas (Gundam Otakus) dreaming of using one for the daily commute, amend your dream to include a hangar as well. Meanwhile I did find a life-size replica of the AE86 (I'm not sure if there was an engine in the thing), but they didn't have any model cars of the right size for me to bring back.

Back to Akihabara for some last minute shopping after that, and I took a leap of faith to try out one of those 'maid cafes'. A regrettable choice. I went into Maidreamin- the place was about 75% full, with one long table occupied by what seemed to be a bunch of tubby Malaysian/Indonesian chaps (I'm putting my money on Malaysian)- I did my best to ignore their antics while waiting for my parfait (which took quite some time to arrive and wasn't tasty) and trying not to think too much about the pricey 'entrance cost'. Or whatever it was called. A maid eventually came over to deliver my parfait and we did a little magical charm over it, chanting 'oishikunare oishikunare moe moe kyun' (I only remembered the first word and had to Google the rest of it), and making a heart over the ice cream with our hands, trying very hard not to let my already crooked smile twist into an honest expression of my deepening horror. I just didn't belong in a place like that. Never again. I rushed out for a dinner meet in Shinagawa (a place I knew of only for Murakami Haruki's lovely short story, 'A Shinagawa Monkey') with some acquaintances through work- a lovely dinner on a company tab (many thanks!)- and a seeming job offer (or it may have been ego and alcohol clouding my memory) which I might resurrect later on.

4th Jan. I didn't have a place to stay in the previous night, and was actually thinking of spending the night in a manga/internet kissa (cafe), but a combination of being offered two places to bed in for the night (one of which was amusing, but which I turned down due to it being an office space) and my being too lazy to look for a manga kissa led me to take up an offer for a night in Yokohama- my first look into the home of a real-life Tokyoite bachelor (unexpectedly neat though), and conveniently close to a shinkansen station as well.

It took some time to find my bearings once in Osaka- I eventually found my hotel, the A La Maison (the owner's a french chap), near a street filled with shops selling hina dolls- why they were all clumped in one area is anyone's guess. My room (I'd decided to splurge a bit- but not by much) was a traditional looking one, with futons, a closet similar to the one Doraemon uses to sleep in, and even a kotatsu (which I didn't bother to turn on). I walked over to the Kuromon shopping street- took about 20 minutes, I think- bad move though, as almost all of the shops were closed, and there wasn't anything to see. Had a bowl of udon with duck meat to warm up. I've no idea what I did after that (no thanks to my not taking many photos), but I ended up in Dotonbori for dinner- I found a spot with a nice view over the river (or storm drain? I've no idea), and a well priced takoyaki+okonomiyaki+drink set.

5th Jan. My last day in Osaka/Japan. With my flight at 4.10PM I didn't have much time to spare, and just went out for lunch and a last minute book buying spree. The flight back (by Airasia again) was rather odd though- the captain/head steward announced over the PA system that the delay in departure was caused by one passenger being deemed 'unfit to fly' (which could mean anything from him/her being detained for drunkenness or a sudden death); lights flickering in the cabin, staying on despite the order for the lights to be dimmed; and finally one passenger who collapsed while in the loo. The flight crew went for the first aid box and tried to revive him, but I've no idea what happened to him. Besides that, the rest of the flight was uneventful, and I got home safely- around 3AM... and after a short rest, off to the office at 7AM.

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