Ten Days in Japan, Part 4: Enjoy Your Antler Man-Baby Monk Rice Crackers!

Well, I suck. This blog series has officially become outdated & irrelevant. But since I’m now too poor to be able to go on any non-Texas trips for approximately the next decade, I’m going to finish it anyway. Also, I’ve barely even talked about temples &/or shrines so far & that was half the fun.

Sento-Kun, Antler Man-Baby Monk of Nara

So, Day 6 in Japan, we attempted to do Nara in a day. Nara is a smaller city than Tokyo or Nagoya and was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784, which is again one of those mind-boggling dates that makes you remember how much longer the rest of the world has been around than us. (1776, seriously, we’re such babies.) In fact, they are recognizing the 1,300th anniversary of Nara being the capital. As part of the celebration, they introduced a mascot, an insane-looking man-baby monk with deer antlers. You can see him pictured to the left. He’s not cute. Let’s just say that if he was an Olympic mascot, we might actually not find London’s one-eyed alien steel droplets that weird anymore. And just in case you might think it’s a cultural thing, “Sento-Kun” appears to be universally despised.

In any case, Sento-Kun is everywhere in Nara & the city officials are apparently determined to go full-court press with marketing him on signs, key chains, t-shirts, cookies and rice crackers. And it worked too, because by the end of our one day in Nara, Sento-Kun had officially stopped being creepy and started being awesome. Gen even bought from Sento-Kun rice crackers for her office.

In case you were wondering why the ugly man-baby monk has antlers, it’s because Nara Park, which is pretty much the main gist of Nara, has deer roaming all over it. They just walk around all over the place, including inside temple sites, cuddling up to tourists in order to obtain food, by force if necessary.

Nara is home to a number of extremely impressive temples and/or shrines, most of which are randomly located somewhere in the massive Nara Park, which we spent the day hiking around, one step away at all times from dehydration, heat stroke & imminent death. (Seriously, listen to me, don’t go to Japan in August. Foolish!)

The most awesome of all the temples and/or shrines was Tōdai-ji Temple, home to Daibutsu, the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana.

Daibutsu is 49.1 feet tall & let me tell you, you go into a temple being told you’re going to see a giant Buddha, but you still aren’t prepared to see that. It’s amazing.

Besides the giant Buddha, the temple also features four other ginormous, extremely impressive statues, including two scary warrior guardians, along with Yakushi Nyorai, a Buddha of medicine and healing, outside. Yakushi Nyorai is, essentially, a wooden statue dressed in a comical red hat & blouse. It kind of looks like a terrifying version of the Big Bad Wolf in Grandma’s clothing. You’re supposed to touch a part of the statue, then touch the corresponding part of your body & Yakusi Nyorai will heal whatever ailment you have there. I tried it with my bronchitis but Yakusi Nyorai totally let me down. I probably did it wrong.

So, good times, Nara. Next up, final stop, Kyoto. Home to the geisha district, the Kyoto Sana F.C. Soccer Club…and 2,000 more temples and/or shrines.

-Amy Yen

Ten Days in Japan, Part 3: Storming the Golden Carp

Sorry for the delay in posting! (And I was doing so well there for the first two days.) I tried to sleep for 48 hours straight this weekend in an attempt to beat jetlag & bronchitis into submission. It was marginally successful.

Osu Kannon Summer Festival

Anyway, day 4 in Japan, we left Tokyo via Japan Rail (JR) bullet train. Can I just ask, why the hell don’t we have bullet trains in the States? Why? Can you imagine how awesome that would be, to be able to get from like LA to San Francisco in like two hours? Somebody get on this, please.

Sidebar: helpful tip for anyone planning to visit Japan, getting a JR Pass is excellent value & super conveinent. Highly recommended. You can’t actually get one in Japan, so buy it before you go. End helpful tip.

From Tokyo, we went to Nagoya, automotive capitol of Japan. We elected not to visit the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry & Technology, although I kind of thought it might be fun to see just how awkward the Recent History wing was. Mostly we spent our time in Nagoya randomly walking around until we found, say, a Japanese variety show, featuring a portly man dressed like Sailor Moon, being filmed. That’s the kind of thing you just randomly wander into in Nagoya, it turns out.

We also went to the Osu Kannon Summer Festival at Osu Kannon Temple. The festival featured live jazz, which is apparently big in Japan, along with, happily, another impressive display of Japanese street food. Amy F tried takoyaki, or fried octopus balls, which is not as gross as it sounds. After the festival, we walked to Sakae, the downtown area, to find the finals of the World Cosplay Summit.

Seriously? It was amazing. There were people everywhere, dancing & posing in crazy ridiculous costumes & carrying around giant fake swords & generally being awesome. Don’t believe me? Here’s a video:

That’s just what we randomly saw around the grounds. We weren’t actually allowed to film what was happening on stage. While we sadly missed seeing the winners, which were somehow not Japan (it was Italy), but we did get to see a very impressive showing from the Brazilians, in which they actually rigged one of their players, who had on angel wings (of course she did), to fly. As you can imagine, the crowd went wild. You can check out the video here. Because when I think cosplay, I think Brazilians.

Cheers to the Golden Carp!

Anyway, it was pretty hard to top that experience, although we tried on day 2, when we attempted to storm Nagoya Castle. In an improvement over the Imperial Palace, Nagoya Castle featured not only a moat, but curved castle walls, to prevent, presumably ninjas & particularly annoying tourists from entering. We did, however, get plenty of photo opportunities with Nagoya Castle’s most famous feature, the golden carp, which I am continuing to call the golden carp even though the museum inside kept calling it the golden dolphin. Let’s just be real with one another, it doesn’t look like a dolphin. It’s a carp, let’s call it a carp.

Once again, while the golden carp was marketed impressively aggressively by the Nagoya Castle gift shop, I was not able to walk away with a golden carp USB port & therefore, it still does not match the level of marketing genius of the Taipei National Palace Museum & its Jade Cabbage.

So that pretty much did it for Nagoya. Next up, Nara, one-time capitol of Japan & home to the world’s creepiest antler baby mascot. And here we thought everything in Japan was cute…

-Amy Yen

Ten Days in Japan, Part 2: Giant Fish and Weather Balloon Bombs

So, actually, our jet lag wasn’t really that bad. Really, it only lasted a day, which turned out for the best because 5:30 in the morning is actually the perfect time to hit up the Tsukiji Fish Market, the biggest fish market in the world. It’s so big in fact that at one point, we actually kind of got lost in it, in the sense that we could not for the life of us figure out how to get out. Here’s a video (pay attention to the size of the knife being wielded by the guy at the end):

Also on Day 1 in Tokyo, it was raining so we decided to go to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which is a museum about the history of Tokyo going back to the Edo period. The museum had a number of very interesting exhibits, which were explained to us via our own personal English-speaking guide, but the most important piece of information came at the end. It kind of went like this:

Guide: “And here is a replica of a weather balloon bomb, like the kind used by the Japanese to attack the US in World War II.”
Us
: “…wait, what?”
Guide
: “They were kept secret by the American government so as not to cause panic.”
Us
: “…wait, WHAT?”

Japanese weather balloon bomb. Wait, WHAT?

Yes, it turns out, the Japanese had an experimental program using something called “fire balloon” to send bombs across the Pacific attached to hydrogen balloons. When we asked how the Japanese could aim a weapon like this, the guide told us they couldn’t. The bombs basically dropped wherever the balloon ran out of air. Which is why bombs dropped in places like Utah, Idaho & Nebraska, as well as — and I found this particularly hilarious — many parts of Canada.

How the hell have we never heard of this? I took AP US History & this was definitely not discussed. I am now very suspicious of all weather balloons.

On Day 2 in Tokyo, we went to the Imperial Palace, which turned out to be surprisingly underwhelming, although it did contain an authentic moat, which we obviously attempted to float. What did begin to dawn on us around this time

though is just how young the US is, and just how old Japan is. Tokyo has actually only been the capital of Japan since the mid 1800s; before that it was Kyoto for years & before that, Nara…way back in the 700s. In fact, while we were in Nara this year, they were celebrating the 1300th anniversary of being established as the capital of Japan. Meanwhile, the US will be coming up on our 300th anniversary as a country pretty soon, give or take like 60 more years.

Shibuya Crossing

We also visited a few other popular areas of Tokyo: Shibuya, Harajuku and Rappongi. In Shibuya, we joined the mad rush of people in Shibuya Crossing & walked rapidly past the famous overlooking Starbucks, which featured Yuzu flavored Frappuccino, which I’m a little sad we didn’t get a chance to try (we also did not try the McShrimp at McDonalds).

Finally, on Saturday, we went to the Sumida River (or Sumidagawa) Fireworks Festival, one of the largest fireworks festivals in Japan, which we attended with, literally, one million other people. Seriously, I have never seen so many people. Needless to say, we got nowhere near either the river or the fireworks, which we watched from the streets while eating delicious Japanese street yakitori. Afterwords, we went to a great izakaya (Japanese pub) called Andy’s, which has (awesomely) its own Facebook page and the best scallops I have ever had.

So that was pretty much Tokyo. Next time, Nagoya & Nara, where we saw a man dressed up like Sailor Moon & a Buddha the size of a house, respectively.

-Amy Yen

Ten Days in Japan, Part 1: Konnichiwa to Awesome

So first off, the bad news. It turns out that, despite all indications to the contrary, being in Japan is not, in fact, like being in the future. In fact, I did not see one robot the entire time I was there & I was pretty disappointed, if you want to know the truth, but that’s beside the point. The point is, due to the shocking lack of readily available wi-fi, you may have noticed that I didn’t actually blog at all during my ten days in Japan. But I’m here now, so I’m going to try to write what I can remember. I’m sure I’ll miss a great many things, since, as my traveling buddy Gen put it, being in Japan for ten days was a lot like being in the multi-level dream sequence in Inception. Time moves differently, you’re in an entirely different reality & when you wake up, you don’t quite know what to do with yourself.

The first thing you should know about Japan is: if you’re thinking about going there in late July/early August like we did…don’t. Because wow, I thought I knew humidity. Summer humidity in Japan makes summer humidity in Taiwan seem like a pleasant mist. Yes, it turns out, we were extremely stupid for deciding to go to this place during the summer, not to mention we also missed both cherry blossom season AND sumo wrestling season. (Seriously, it’s so sad, I can’t even talk about it.)

First impressions of Tokyo:

  • Everything is very clean. Which is remarkable because there are no trash cans anywhere in sight. Apparently, the Japanese did a study that showed that having trash cans readily available in the streets actually causes more trash & littering. If you’ve been to New York, you’ll realize this kind of makes sense. So instead, everybody carries their trash around & their eyes light up like Christmas trees when they finally do spot a trash can because that means they can finally unload like 10 items from their purses, or at least that’s what happened with us. Actually, I don’t know that I saw any actual Japanese people throw any garbage away or create garbage of any kind, but I spent virtually the entire trip carrying around at least two items of trash on my person at all times.
  • There are vending machines everywhere, you are literally never out of visual contact with one. Contrary to reports, most of the machines just have drinks in them, not that the variety wasn’t impressive. Amy F & Gen & I quickly got addicted to Calpis, which is a yogurt drink. Various teas & sports drinks like the awesomely named Pocari Sweat are also very popular. And yes, there is beer in vending machines.
  • It is not at all difficult to get around & do stuff in Japan without knowing Japanese. Toward the end, Amy F started picking up important key phrases, such as “beer,” but I got by almost entirely on “arigatou” (thank you) &, more relevantly, “sumimasen” (excuse me/I’m sorry). The service pretty much everywhere is amazing. Basically, everyone in Japan is the nicest person you’ll ever personally meet. Also, Tokyo in particular is especially designed to deal with particularly stupid foreign tourists who didn’t bother to learn any Japanese. There are English signs everywhere on public transportation & in museums, you get “This Way, Stupid” signs, so you don’t get lost:
  • I got to check off one item off my “Things I Really Want to See in Japan” list, which also includes “geisha” & “complicated electronic gadget five years away from being available in the States,” which was “random American celebrity taking large sum of money to appear in otherwise humiliating Japan-only advertisement, a la Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.” I am including it here for your enjoyment:

In my next installment, which I will get to when I am next conscious, I’ll discuss our trip to the Tokyo Fish Market, during which we saw a tuna the size of my LA apartment.

-Amy Yen