Guess what? I’m alive. After a few days of sleeping and drinking a lot of Vitamin C drinks and medicines, followed by 2 days back at work, I am at the beginning of the weekend and almost at full health. I am able to breathe out of my entire nose, and all that remains is a cough. I should be good to go. The only partial negative on the weekend outlook is that fact that Monday is another Japanese holiday; Coming-of-Age Day, for people turning 20, meaning they are legal for everything pretty much. This is all fine and dandy, but since Monday is always a day off for me, I get screwed out of an extra holiday. AEON recognizes that us Tues-Sat teachers get boned when this happens (quite often). Not that they do anything about it, but they recognize it and give us a “S.O.L.” in the policy manual.

But anyway, here we go; I will now not-so-meticulously tell you a tale of my trip down to the Kansai region of Japan. Hold on to yer butts.
Thursday, December 28: Arrival
Headed off to the station in the early morning to meet Blanchard in Soga, then headed to Tokyo to grab a Shinkansen. No sleep the night before made a 7AM train out of Goi quite the painful experience. Grabbed some slightly overpriced but good curry at Tokyo station for breakfast, and went to the Shinkansen platforms. It’s interesting that the Shinkansens, being the premiere trains in the country, have the nicest and most fancy looking platforms. The schedule boards are all huge and in color, and things just in general look nicer. I guess since you’re paying tons more for these tickets, the least they can do is make the platform nicer. The trains themselves are of course, nicer as well. More like an airplane but a bit more room, the freedom to walk around, better/bigger bathrooms, and even pay phones and vending machines. I treated this trip like an airplane and of course slept the entire way.

Arrived in Osaka, and made our way to the hotel, which was only about a 10 or 15 minute walk away from the station. We made a wrong turn so ended up walking for longer, but it was closer than that. Along the way, Brian noticed a statue of a giant cat, maybe a manekineko. But while that would have been sweet, I saw it and thought it was something even better. Yes, that’s right. It was the Mayor of Namja Town. More on that later.

Checked into the Maruichi Hotel (website), which was a cheap hotel I found via the English page of Rakuten, sort of like a smaller Japanese Expedia. It was 8400 yen for a room with two single beds, or 5000 yen each for single rooms. We had decided to splurge the extra few hundred yen a night to get our own rooms. It was pretty nice hotel for the price, complete with a toast and egg breakfast every day, nice retarded old man at the front desk who could kind of speak English, and a relic of a computer running Windows 2000 in the hallway that could at least connect to the web. For it being so close to JR Osaka and Umeda subway stations, I think it was definitely a good place to stay for the trip. It was a bit sketch that it was in the middle of a red-light district, complete with a bunch of strip clubs, massage parlors, love hotels, and hookers who were probably 70 years old. Made me feel like I was back at home in Goi!

he looks so happy!Next big pleasant surprise, however was when we headed out of the hotel to explore Osaka. Less than 2 buildings down the street there was a Bikkuri Ramen! Yes. Cheap ramen and gyoza, what else could a tourist ask for. We of course ate there and then headed to find the Mayor. Apparently, there is a whole Namco building, with arcades and medal games, and at the very top there is rightfully the Naniwa Gyoza Stadium. Not as ridiculous as the Sunshine City one, but it was free to get in and they had a good number of gyoza iron chefs there. They also apparently had some birthday special, where if your birthday was within 5 days then you got a special present. Since my Christmas bday was within range, I asked about it to some girl working, and yes I did feel like a tool. I’d say it was worth it though. I got a free plush gyoza keychain, a polaroid with a Namjarian girl and the Mayor, and also a necklace good for 10% off all gyoza. We weren’t planning on eating at all, but with 10% off, we decided to try some of the Naniwa Stadium’s gyoza. And it was delicious.

Checked out Namba and Dotonbori in the southern part of Osaka at night. It was cool, with lots of lights and a giant Don Quixote store. We walked around trying to find either Den Den Town or America Town, but it turned out to be too difficult and we were too tired and cold, so we headed back to the hotel.

Friday, December 29: Nara (and tons of deer)
Woke up early and ate our toast and hard-boiled egg breakfast at the hotel. Headed out to Nara, which takes only about an hour from Osaka station. It was really funny once we walked out of JR Nara station, because I immediately remembered it from when I stayed in Nara that summer in high school. What was that, after my junior year? Like…5 and a half years ago or something. I’m glad my brain at least isn’t totally senile in my old age, and I can remember places that I was in the past. It was really fun actually to walk around Nara, because I remember hanging out all around there that summer. I have no idea how I did anything back then without a cell phone though, because even getting on trains and stuff these days usually calls for me to whip out the old Brown Mocha Pokedex phone.

Walked from JR Nara station though the market/store filled streets up the hill towards Turtle Lake. Then went up to the Kofukuji area with the 5-story pagoda, which was cool but maybe a little boring. Saw this guy that I’m pretty sure went to the IU B-School, but I don’t really know him so I didn’t talk to him. I think he was on the same train coming into Nara as us actually, but oh well. Pretty sure he recognized me too. From Kofukuji we began the long journey through Nara Park to Todaiji, which I think is one of my favorite temples/sightseeing spots/awesome areas in all of Japan, because it seems so isolated and peaceful. Not to mention that it’s massive and amazing looking. I think it’s based on the Forbidden City in China, which is of course more awesome, but this is closer and stuff. I suppose one of the features of Todaiji is the Big Buddah, which is cool but kind of boring to me, at least compared to the rest of the temple and the buildings.

Still though, one of the coolest things about Nara Park is the free-roaming deer who are all over the place. They just walk around and try to get you to feed them. They’ve been in Nara forever and have become totally accustomed to humans and modern life. To illustrate this, the Nara deer even know how to use crosswalks. I kid you not. We witnessed one of the deer actually waiting to cross the street, looking from side to side, etc. The whole nine yards. There are some humans who don’t know how to do this correctly, yet I saw a deer do it perfectly. It would be interesting to see statistics for how many (if any) deer are killed in traffic accidents in Nara. Considering that there are I think a LOT of deer in Nara, I’ll bet the percentage getting hit by cars is really low compared to other places.

When rabid deer attack!Nara deer will also come right up to you to get food. Don’t happen to be car
rying any deer food around with you? No worries, as there are stands all over the place that sell “deer senbei/cookies” for only 150 yen (about a buck fifty) with which you can feed the deer. However, the deer know exactly how this works, and as soon as you receive your bundle of deer cookies they will gang up on you. Literally. They will all look up, drop whatever they’re doing, and head straight for you. You have no choice but to hurry up and feed them all as quick as you can, running around in a circle like a crazy person, then hold your palms up in the air and yell “I have no more! Leave me alone!” These deer aren’t super playful about it either. The males, especially, will headbutt you and even bite at you and your clothing to try and get the delicious deer cookies. Thank goodness Nara cuts off the antlers on these guys, because I’ll bet people would DIE otherwise. These deer cookies must be really tasty. Oh and it was also funny when we saw a little kid (about 2 maybe?) get handed a pack of deer cookies, only the be mauled by a pack of deer. The kid ended up getting knocked face-down on the ground, then a deer hopped on and off his back! It was amazing. Since his parents were laughing at him, I figure it’s okay for me to also. However, I’m sure that kid will now require years of intense psychological therapy, and will have an aversion to Santa Claus and his reindeer for the rest of his life.

Saturday, December 30: Kyoto Day 1
Although we woke up at like 10:30, it was oversleeping according to our plans and we also didn’t get to eat our free toast and egg. I seriously woke up and bad a split-second panic, as if I had overslept for a test or for work. Anyways, we grabbed a special rapid to Kyoto from Osaka, which took like a half hour and was very convenient indeed. Kyoto Station, first of all, is a sweet building. Super futuristic looking. Anyway, it was time to see some sights. Since Kyoto is not as conveniently or closely arranged as Nara, mainly because there is so much more stuff and many more temples, we decided to buy a bus pass to save us from miles and miles of more walking. Luckily, there is a 500 yen All-Day City Bus pass which makes itself worth it if you ride just 3 times one-way. Score. We headed to Kiyomizu temple first, which is the biggest and baddest temple in Kyoto, in my opinion. We got off on the bus stop, and got distracted by a smaller shrine almost across the street from the bus stop. It was some kind of mausoleum. Anyway, it looked kind of cool. From there, we followed signs to Kiyomizu, which involved walking a mile maybe up a hill. I don’t really know the exact distance, but it was far. A mile would not be far-fetched. Anyway, since we were going up a side path from the mausoleum, we didn’t walk past any of the usual shops, but instead walked through a graveyard. It wasn’t like an American graveyard though, since Japanese ones are much more compact and tall. There must have been thousands of grave markers, all over the side of this hill/mountain we were walking up.

We finally got to the top of the hill, and entered Kiyomizu land. This temple is cool because it’s built on the side of a mountain so it has a really nice view and is just huge in general. It apparently is also nominated for the New 7 Wonders of the World. There really isn’t that much to report here, just look at the pictures if you want to get an idea of what Kiyomizu is all about. In Kyoto, I think this is my favorite temple/shrine, although the Nijo Castle is also pretty high up there on my list.

After Kiyomizu and the walk back down the market street, which included eating some really good soy milk donuts fried in pure lard, we hopped on a bus and headed towards Kinkakuji. I don’t think that Blanchard or I had really thought about how much time the bus trips would take, plus we were both really tired still so we didn’t really care. I don’t really know how long it took because I fell asleep most of the way on the bus, but I’d say it took us around 45 minutes or more to get to Kinkakuji-michi, not included a transfer at the Kitaoji Bus Terminal. Also a quick note: there was a homeless guy or a really lazy tourist on the bus with us for a bit, and he smelled absolutely awful. For anyone going to Kyoto, please try and remember that if you are riding the bus, the stop “Kinkakuji-michi” is NOT the same as “Kinkakuji-mae.” The latter is the stop right in front of the temple gate, while the former is just some street that is somewhat close to Kinkakuji but not really. We found out the hard way, since we got off at Kinkakuji-michi and figured we would just walk. Since Japan gets dark in the winter around 4PM or something ridiculous, it was pretty much pitch black and freezing cold. I used the NaviWalk GPS on my phone, which almost never steers you wrong, and we ended up walking around the entire circumference of the Kinkakuji park area. Of course, the only part we didn’t walk around was the actual entrance, but it didn’t really matter because we found out that the temple closes at 5 anyway. Boooooo.

Sunday, December 31: Kyoto Day 2
Bling bling!Woke up in time for toast and egg breakfast, and headed back to Kyoto for some more sightseeing. I was a bit worried about visiting any temples on New Years Eve for fear that some Japanese people would do their new years shrine visits early, but luckily that wasn’t the case and the only small crowds we had to deal with seemed to be mostly Korean, Chinese, or old white people. Kinkakuji was our first stop, and this time we took the right bus and got off on the right stop. Sweet. Kinkakuji is a pagoda decked out in gold. It’s the samurai version of bling bling. One day, you may see Lil Jon in a video with this entire building hanging around his neck. Okay well probably not, but it’s a very shiny building and very sweet. Again, please just look at the pictures to get the effect of Kinkakuji. Oh, and you may find it amusing that I really had to pee the entire time I was at this temple, so as we were walking around the designated path, I was in slight pain. And of course, when we reached a toilet about 75% through, there was a sign that said “Closed for Cleaning.” And yes, I had to hold it until the end of the area. Never really reached panic mode, although I think that would have made it funnier in hindsight. Thank goodness there was a working toilet at the end.

After Kinkakuji, it was a short bus ride to Nijo Castle, built for Tokugawa way back when. I was really looking forward to seeing this place, because when I went back in high school it was way sweet and had the ninja floors that made noise whenever you walked on them. Tokugawa was pretty bent on keeping his castle ninja-proof, and that’s no joke. Unfortunately, we were up for disappointment when we found that Nijo Castle had been closed for a week because of New Year’s, and wouldn’t be open until later in January. Oh well, no Nijo Castle this trip. We decided to hike to a Gusto instead, which I found with NaviWalk, and indeed this time the GPS did not disappoint. Gusto burgers all around. We then happened to be conveniently close to the Kyoto Imperial Palace area, so we explored around there (closed to the public though) and the courtyard/park areas, which was cool. On the way back we found a special shrine for boars, which was lucky because 2007, according to the Chinese zodiac, is the year of the boar and I am also a boar, so I picked up a lucky talisman thing (in the shape of a cell phone strap). That was about it for Kyoto.

umaiAfter returning to Osaka, we decided to go to this all-you-can-eat shabu-shabu restaurant near our hotel that we
saw the night before. 2500 yen for all you can eat was the advertised price. We decided to go for the 3000 yen course, though, because you got better choice of meat. Anyway, shabu-shabu is, basically, thinly sliced strips of raw meat that you put in boiling water/soup, then eat. It’s kind of the same as nabe, since you have a hot pot on your table of all kinds of food. The restaurant was really cool; we had a Japanese style room with lots of space. There were two Japanese people in the same room, but they left when we were about halfway done, leaving the entire room for just two people eating tons and tons of food. It was a good time. A bit expensive, but for all you can eat of this high quality, it was well worth it. It really is quite disgusting how much we ate. As you can kind of see in the picture here, the meat came in these square box-like plates. Each had about 8 thin slices of meat. We ate 9 of those total between the two of us. Add to that 2 full plates of vegetables, 2 extra orders of tofu, and 2 extra orders of shiitake mushrooms. Also an entire pot of soup, since when we were done, there was not much left in the pot but sludge. As you can probably imagine, we felt like death afterwards. But damn was that a good meal.

Since we were too much in pain afterwards to do anything, we spent New Years Eve in the hotel watching the Kouhaku music special on TV, as probably a lot of Japanese people do. New Years Eve here is definitely not the same as in the US. No big parties, no Dick Clark’s retarded show on TV, no drunks at Caleco’s. It seems to be a pretty quiet affair, with the TV at 11:45 turning to footage of temples all over the country ringing bells.

Monday, January 1: Sky Building
Checked out of the hotel at 10AM, put our luggage in a coin locker at Osaka station, and went out to explore for a few more hours before our Shinkansen back to Tokyo. We were able to get to the Umeda Sky Building, which is huge and awesome. I think a website or guidebook said that it looks like a futuristic Arc d’Triumph, which is pretty accurate. Luckily, it was open on New Years Day, which I was a little surprised at. You ride an elevator to the 35th floor, then an escalator up to the 40th, and then you can stand on the roof garden and look out all over Osaka. Definitely cool. A good way to end the Kansai trip. We also checked out the giant Umeda Yodobashi Camera, and then explored around Umeda a bit more before heading back to Tokyo. This time I definitely slept the entire ride.

OK so wow, this post was unnecessarly long, and you probably skimmed through a lot of it. That’s probably for the better. I’ll be putting up more pictures this weekend as well. Since this blog post was composed over an entire evening, and I watched 2 movies in between and during writing it, you can see how I started off giving a lot of detail about every day, then gradually ended up summarizing things. Ah well. I’m going to bed now.

Happy New Year everyone!