Tuesday, August 24, 2010

All Around Japan

Two weeks of travel post-program (even though my bank account is not looking so hot right now) was one of the BEST decisions of my life. Because honestly, I was getting quite tired of Japan as HIF was winding down – tired of learning Japanese from a textbook (and continuing to suck at kanji), tired of the politeness factor, and tired of little Hakodate. (No hard feelings for Hakodate though – I’ve definitely had some good moments in this quaint Japanese town, but I’m starting to realize how much of a big-city person I am.) But after 12 days of jumping around Tokyo, Fukuoka, Hiroshima/Miyajima, Himeji, Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka, Japan is really starting to grow on me. Honestly, if I had limited myself to Hakodate, I might never have thought about coming back for something other than studying Japanese. But now I could definitely see myself working here after Yale, at least for a couple years. Once again, many thanks to the Light Fellowship for helping me learn things I couldn’t have learned, even at a school like Yale.

One thing that surprised me about my travels was how DIFFERENT each city was. I mean, I guess you wouldn’t say that LA and New York are that similar either, but it was so much easier to sense the atmosphere of each city in Japan. For example, if Tokyo was the New York of the U.S., then Fukuoka would be somewhere in California. Palm trees, people in T-shirts and shorts, and a really pretty seaside park. I originally didn’t have Fukuoka in my plans, but with the two-week JR pass, why not, even only for a day?

Fukuoka at night -- isn't it beautiful?

Next stop was Hiroshima, where I rendezvoused with my lovely sensei from Yale, Mammoto-sensei. We had Hiroshima’s famous okonomiyake before she walked me to the Peace Memorial Park and the A-Dome. Pretty moving, especially the Japanese children ringing the bell at the children’s memorial.

With Mammoto-sensei at Hiroshima

Ringing the bell at the children's memorial at Peace Memorial Park

After the park, I headed to nearby Miyajimaguchi station, where I took a ferry to Miyajima to visit the famous Itsukushima Shrine, known for its “floating” torii gate that seems to be floating on the water at high tide. Although I went at low tide, it meant I could walk right up to the gate and see just how massive it was. Someday, I think I’d like to come back and see it at high tide too.

 Giant torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine

Next day, I stopped at Himeji for an afternoon before finally crashing at Kyoto. I was at an all-time high in Himeji because the JR station gives out free rental bikes! I have been itching to ride a bike in Japan ever since the first few weeks I’ve been here, not to mention the fact that EVERYONE, from high school guys to white-haired grandmas, is whizzing by on their bikes in Japan. In fact, I was so pumped about having a bike that I biked around for two hours after visiting Himeji-jo and Koko-en and got myself lost in the process. Ah, how I missed biking.


Kyoto was an extended stay because I had planned to visit Nara and Osaka too as day trips from Kyoto. So I’d been going at a pretty rapid pace in terms of sightseeing, but I KILLED myself while I was in Kyoto. The first full day, I saw Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), Ninna-ji, and Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion, even though it’s not silver) before walking the 哲学の道 (Path of Philosophy) to see Nanzen-ji. In the evening, I knocked out Higashi and Nishi Honganji by the station. I think I enjoyed these two the best that day because when it comes to temples, I prefer size and the ability to walk around inside (plus they were FREE!). Kinkaku-ji’s a little overrated – and Ginkaku-ji has such a nicer garden – but I guess the golden color is enough to make it famous.

Daibutsu at Todai-ji! Picture quality isn't that great, but there are lots of other beautiful sculptures at the temple too.

Day two at Kyoto, I decided to do Nara – the Daibutsu at Todai-ji was so worth the 45-minute walk from the JR station in the heat. I also visited some other shrines and temples following the recommended route in the Lonely Planet, but I found myself already back at the station by 1 p.m. So instead of going back to Kyoto, I decided to do Osaka in the afternoon. I was so EXHAUSTED by the end of the day, but once again, it was completely worth it. Osaka is definitely dirtier than Tokyo, and this could just be a really shallow generalization, but did the people seem more tan? (especially the guys). But I loved Osaka too, especially when I caught the Obon celebration on the river in the Dotonbori area.

Osaka's Obon celebration in the Dotonbori

For some reason, I didn’t give myself much of a break the next day either. I did another Lonely Planet route for the Higashiyama area in Kyoto to see various shrines/temples/parks, including Kiyomizudera, one of my favorite, if not my favorite, temple in Japan so far – the view from the veranda is simply breathtaking. I also walked through the more traditional areas of Kyoto nearby (Sannen-zaka and Ninnen-zaka), but the shops weren’t even open in the morning, so I promised I’d come back later. 

Kiyomizudera - much more impressive than Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion)

I finished all this and Nijo-jo (which was just as impressive as Himeji-jo I thought, but perhaps this is only because of the renovations that are blocking off the main parts of Himeji-jo) by noon, so I headed on the train for Fushimi Inari Taisha, the shrine that’s famous for its pathways of never-ending torii gates. This was one of my most anticipated sights in Japan, and it didn’t disappoint at all. One of my favorite shrines right alongside the one at Miyajima. The entire walk is around two hours – I didn’t plan on going the whole way, but then I found myself asking, why not? Even with the heat and the uphill climb, once I reached the top, I had such a rush of adrenaline that it was no problem going down. The top isn’t really much of a view, just a shrine like all the other spots on the way up, but just being able to say I did the entire pilgrimage of torii gates counts for something, right?

The journey is worth so much more than the destination...

In the evening, I went to Hanakomichi to catch a glimpse of a few geisha heading for their evening appointments. I felt kind of bad for them, since the tourist swarmed around like flies every time they stepped out to get into a cab. But my, they were pretty! 


Finally, finally, I slept in (well, not really sleeping in for most people, but still more than usual) on my last day in Kyoto. I went to Nishiki Market to take in all the wafting smells of Kyoto cuisine before revisiting Ninnen-zaka and Sannen-zaka when the omiyage and teashops were actually open. Last thing was visiting the Kyoto Imperial gardens in the afternoon (although the Tokyo Imperial East Gardens were much prettier). Honestly, I loved every city that I went to, and I can’t even choose a favorite because I had so many amazing experiences in each one.

In the end though, I think if I had to choose a place to live, it would be Tokyo – cleanliness, the immense size, and the transportation system that connects it all (so much better than Kyoto’s slow, crowded buses!). Although I liked the easygoing feel of Fukuoka and Osaka, I feel like there is so many possibilities in Tokyo – for whom, I don’t know, but maybe we’ll see in a couple years? I realize now I haven't posted any pictures of Tokyo, but I really couldn't choose one that captures this city - just come and see for yourself ;) 

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sparks said...

WOw, i absolutely loved this post.
you've been everywhere in japan!!! so jealous.

jglc said...

wow. That's awesome! Next time you go, I'll come over and you can be my tour guide =D

Ning Ning said...

I love your posts!!

Emilie said...

AMAZING! I wish I could have come with!

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