We haven't had time to edit our photos, so you're getting ALL of our pics- good, bad and ugly.

If you'd like to download any of our photos, you should be able to get them from flickr.com You'll have to create an account though, if you don't have one already. (Let us know if that link does not take you directly to our photos)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Taking The Slow Boat to China

We're getting on a boat tomorrow and heading over to China. Hopefully, this will be a great experience and not the 'slow boat' we've all heard so much about...

The pic to the right shows all of the routes by sea from Japan to its neighboring countries. We'll be going from Kobe to Tianjin. I think that it should be pretty cool because we'll be navigating through the Japanese islands during our first day on the boat. The second day might be kinda boring because we'll just be at sea. Hopefully, there will be some other westerners around that speak English.

We'll let you know how it goes!

Last Rainy Days in Japan

"You will return, like rain to the rice fields at the end of every Summer". That was a line in the book that I am reading right now, which takes place in Southern Japan, and it must apply because it has rained the last couple of days. We did not let that deter us and still kept on schedule...at least yesterday, today the rain beat us and we retreated to the internet cafe.

We started the day at Nijo Castle. This castle was built in 1603 by the first Shogun of the Edo period. It actually has never burned down or been destroyed, one of the few. It is a very large sprawling one story castle made of wood with paper windows. This guy was so paranoid that someone was going to assasinate him that he made all the floorboards slightly loose, so that they sang--called nightingale floors. Plus he had hidden compartments where his bodyguards would hide in case he was attacked. Behind this castle was another built in the same mold around the same time called, Hamaru Castle. Hamaru was actually brought here from Tokyo and was where the Emporer stayed when his Tokyo castle burned down.

We saw the amazing Arisheyama--or the Bamboo forest. It was pretty cool with these forty foot bamboo trees packed in all over the place. It also contained a sort of convent/temple/shrine of purification, all of the Emporer's unmarried daughters had to spend a year there before marriage to purify themselves.

Today, our last day, before catching the boat to China, we went to the temple of Inari. Surrounding this temple ar thousands of Toriis or gates. All of them are side by side and cover the walk ways. They have 2.6 kilometers of them, mostly they are donations from companies and individuals. The temple is dedicated to a Budhist God--probably Kannon, goddess of mercy, but has tons of fox statues since the fox was considered to be a sacred animal and messanger of the gods.

We are lookingforward to China but will miss Japan. This is an amazing country and I feel as though we have only scratched the surface. I would highly reccomend this country to anyone, it is rich in culture, history and food. Plus it is remarkably safe and clean. We also did not find to be outragously expensive like everyone was telling us. Prices are very close to those in the United States and actually, since the yen has fallen some, a little cheaper.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Japanese People

The Japanese people have been very interesting. I just thought I would give you some quick observations.

These must be the cleanest people on Earth. Everything is scrubbed spotless everyday. You could eat some noodles off the subway car floor. Our hotel room in Tokyo had a shared bathroom and the lady who cleaned it would use a toothbrush to get the grout on the floor.

Bikes on the sidewalk.
This drives me crazy. I found out the other day that they were supposed to drive these things on the rode, but they don't. You are just strolling along looking at a Budhist shrine, when you hear a ring ring behind you. Usually it is an eighty year old lady with a very shaky grip on the handl bars, weaving in and out of walkers. I told Sarah that if soneone hits me with their bike, I am going to punch them in the nose--unless it is an eighty year old lady, who I'd probably just help up.

They are exceedingly polite. Always bowing, wishing you welcome, and thank you, and good luck, all the time. They have reserve seats on all trains and subways for the elderly, handicapped, pregnant women and women with babies.

This is a national obsession. You see everyone texting everywhere. At least they are not blabbing on the phones, but man, the sidewalks are very crowded and half the people are walking at a snail`s pace while they text their friends.

Teenage T-shirts
All of the teenagers have these tee-shirts written in English that don't make any sense.
some examples we have remembered: "I Love Pillows. Am I Evil?" "House Dust" "Sexy Right Sweet Mouse"

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Temple Hopping in Kyoto

It took us about 2.5 hours to go from Tokyo to Kyoto by bullet train- isn't that amazing? We traveled at over 250 miles per hour and the train felt like it was barely moving. In fact, I thought that we were still stationary after leaving one station after we had already started traveling again. The bullet trains here are on magnetic tracks so they hover and it makes for a very smooth ride.

So we arrived in Kyoto and checked into our hotel with no problem. We ended up meeting this Swedish guy who was just checking out so we went to have lunch with him. He had just returned from a monestary where he had been living for the last two months! He had done it to learn Japanese but didn't really end up learning all that much because the monks meditated more than that talked and when he wasn't with the monks he and the other students all went out drinking! So, when we ordered at the restaurant he really couldn't speak much more than we can (and we only know three words).

He left for Tokyo and we went out to see the city. By the time we were all checked in, it was already dark out so we headed over to a downtown street that hasn't really changed much over the last hundred years or so. It's very narrow (only two or three people can walk abreast at once) and there are no street lights. All of the light on the street came from little lanterns that were put out by restaurants to draw attention to their place. There were also many women dressed in kimonos walking around! This is also a good place to spot geisha but we didn't see any. We're thinking about going back there before we leave to see if our luck improves any...

The next day we started temple hopping. These temples are all really funny because they've all burned down several times and have since been rebuilt! They're all still a couple hundred years old though so still pretty impressive by American standards. First we went over to the 'golden temple'. This one was burned down pretty recently (in the 50's, I think) by a monk who had fallen so in love with it that he just had to set it on fire. Can't really understand his thinking here... Anyway, it was rebuilt exactly as the original had been and it was quite beautiful. It also has some amazing gardens surrounding the temple.

Next, we visited the Zen rock garden temple. Also beautiful, but in a very minimalistic kind of way. It has 15 rocks in the garden but you aren't ever able to see all 15 at once. You have to visualize them--- very zen :)

Here's a pic of Sean thinking deep thoughts alongside the rocks...

We then hopped on a bus and went over to the Emperor's Palace. This is the one that he doesn't use- the real one is in Tokyo and you can only visit on New Years and on his birthday. Anyway, we signed up for the only tour that they have for the day. I guess we were pretty lucky because there were only about 80 people on our tour with us- the limit is 300!
One other thing about this castle. I has burned down so many times that they actually built another castle nearby so that the reigning Emporer could stay there while his castle was being rebuilt. The standby castle has amazingly never burned down and is around 500 years old.

Our final stop was the temple that was recently nominated as one of the new wonders of the world. I can't remember now what it was called, but it was beautiful.

Kyomizu Temple

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Toilet Observations

I am in constant amazement at Japan's bathrooms. This may sound odd since our own restrooms are so mundane but there is a surprising variety here. First off all, everyone should know that they are amazingly clean. I'm talking eat off of the floor kind of clean- totally different set of standards.

There are two different types of restrooms here, high tech and low tech. The high tech ones are usually the Western style toilets that we're used to but they come with an entire control panel just for the toilet! You can change the temperature of the seat, use different angles of water for the bidet function as well as change the water temperature and strength. There is also a fake flushing sound that you can activate if you don't want others in the restroom to know what is going on in your stall! I broke out laughing when I saw that one but I've since heard several people use it. There are some other buttons too but since they're all labeled in Japanese, I haven't figured out what they do yet.

There are also the very low tech type of toilets. I've taken to calling these squatters. Yup, you actually get to squat over these to do your business. I'm really glad that I've gone camping a lot so I have plenty of practice :) I'm savoring the Western toilets now because I'm pretty sure I'll only have access to the squatters once we leave Japan. These are also tough if you have bad knees which Sean is a little worried about.

There are two other things of interest in the bathrooms here. One is that the more high tech sinks automatically give you soapy water first before switching to plain water- ingenious. The other is also a great idea. In many of the women's stalls there is a high chair looking thing on one of the walls so that women can pee in peace with out trying to juggle their baby along with the toilet paper. Man, all bathrooms should have one of those!

Walking Around Tokyo

Man, my feet hurt and I've got a blister on my heal thanks to all of the walking that we did today! We started out this morning in the Tsukiji fish market which was really cool. It's this place in downtown Tokyo where all of the fishermen bring in their catch and display it for restaurants to buy. It's pretty amazing how many kinds of fish are available not to mention the octopus, squid, clams, shrimp, etc. A lot of it was still flopping around! There was so much action going on- people buying and selling, rickshaw type things bringing in more fish and these crazy little cars that kept trying to run us over. Unfortunately, we both got splashed with fishy water but other than that it was very cool.

After making our way through the market we went across the street where there are lots of restaurants serving incredibly fresh sushi. There were big crowds outside of most of them so we picked one and joined in. It was a really cute little place where the chefs cut and wrapped everything right in front of you and this little old lady went around serving tea. We got the set plate for about $20 which included 8 pieces of sushi and 3 rolls. Unfortunately for me, I discovered that I really don't like raw sushi when it's not rolled in something. I kept gagging on the big pieces or raw fish! Sean loved it though and helped me out by finishing off my squid tentacle, fish eggs and one other piece. It was a really cool experience though and I'm glad we did it.
Sean: This was the freshest sushi I have ever eaten. The fish practically melted in your mouth. One of the pieces was octopus, which is usually chewy. This one was firm and just broke apart when you chomped down...man that was good.

We were probably still stinking of fish when we went over to one of the nicest areas of town, Ginza which is compared to Park Avenue in our guide book. We window shopped for awhile and got some coffee before checking out the Sony building. It was full 8 floors of all of the latest stuff from Sony, lots of things I had no idea that they had. Once we'd had our fill of glitz, we got back on the train and went down to Koen park, home to the national museum. The museum housed an impressive display of Asian art with a focus on Buddhism through the ages. We saw lots of carvings, kimono, masks and scrolls. It was also air conditioned and a nice escape from the heat and humidity.
Sean: One of the exhibits had all the armour and weaponary used by Samurais throughout the ages. One of the Swords they had on display was made in the 13th Century by a man thought to be one of the greatest sword makers who ever lived. That sword was in use and passed down from Samurai to Samurai for over three hundred years until it was given to the Shogun of the time as a present from its owner in the late 16th Century. The sword even had its own name. I'll bet you could take it off the wall and chop up some firewood even today.

We ended the day back in our neighborhood with a makeshift dinner. We discovered a place that sells lots of different kinds of prepared foods so we were able to sample different dumplings, salad and skewered meats. All of it was really good but we have no idea what we actually ate since we ordered by just pointing to each thing that we wanted!

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Catastrophic Costs of Mt. Fuji

I want to start this post off by stating that most of our experiences in Japan have been positive...this one just so happened to not go so well.

The other day we decided to go to Mt. Fuji to get some pictures and maybe go on a hike to Japan's most famous mountain/Volcano. We first used our Japan Rail pass to get to the end of our first leg then we were just going to hop onto the next train when the ticket person made us pay a $20 fare because this train was operated by a different company...no sweat, we payed, Fuji awaits.
We finally arrive at Kuchigoku, the town with a supposedly fantastic view of the mountain, a charming lake in front, reflecting Fuji off of the water. One problem, we get there and the mountain isn't there. We look at our map, glance at the place where the cylinder-shaped Fuji should be and just see a large mess of clouds and no sign of getting clearer--we are also about 10 miles from the base of the mountain.

Undeterred we look into any transport to the base for a closer inspection. Without batting an eye, $25 each to go to the 5th station (halfway up), $40 round trip...and we may or may not be able to see the top. The cost doesn't bother us as much as the fact that once we get to the 5th station we can hike 4 hours over gravel and sand to get to the crater...where visibility may only be 30 feet, not ideal for photos. The only pic we were able to get of Fuji is the one to the right, which is one of their manhole covers.

OK as a side note, we are not obsessed with money, but we are on a budget and unemployed...and our cash has to last us about another 115 days, so just throwing wads of Yen at bus drivers is not what we want to do here.

We decide to switch to plan B; we are flexible and Fuji-san has decided not to cooperate. Plan B was to soak in one of the local Onsens, or thermal pools in the area...we heard that they were beautiful and relaxing, plus a long hot soak sounded ideal to us. We also decided to stop at the shrine that Buddhist pilgrims dedicated to Fuji around 700 AD, which means hopping on a local bus. One thing you need to know the buses here work a little differently. You get on the bus and pay before exiting. It's like a giant taxi, where all the fares are calculated on a giant board above the driver depending on the stop you get on. For example, you get on the bus look at the board, box 6 is the last one with a number in it, you watch that number as you go, then pay the amount shown in that box when you exit.

We get off the bus at what we think is the shrine (pic below), take some pics, then get back on the next bus. Then we pass what is the actual shrine, we ask the driver to stop, but he passed the stop by about 50 feet and was stopped at a red light. We figured it would be no problem to just open the door since we were at a full stop anyway but he refused to let us off. "No, next stop". The Japanese are not very flexible we are finding out...we end up going 3 or 4 miles up and down big hills, he stops, then opens the door for us, we decide to stay on the bus, the hot springs were sounding better by the minute. Now we got on the bus on stop 4, and we think this town is only a few miles down the road. We end up riding for another hour and go about 35 miles farther...By the time we reach our destination box four is up to 1,450 yen, about $14, and we are very salty. We try to get off at the bus station and the driver says "ok you pay number three", we tell him no, it's number 4. "Hey! Hey you! You pay number three!" this goes on for like 5 minutes--I really think this guy was from New York; we relent pay the extra $5 difference--the ole Japanese nickel and dime.

We then go over to the town map and discover that the baths that we want are 10 miles back the way we came, then another 5 miles up another road. So to get to the bath we would have to take two buses there, two buses back and it was getting kind of late and we weren't sure just how long we would be able to soak anyway....then we would have to get back to Tokyo...all and all we would be looking at around $100 each to just ride a bunch of buses all over the Japanese countryside, and who the hell knows what the thermal pools would be like. I then looked up at the station and noticed that it ran a train, that we could use our pass on, back to Tokyo...we decided to cut our loses...Damn you Fuji!

After we got back to Tokyo, we headed over to an area known for it's hyperactivity. There were tons of people out on the streets- everyone from young teenagers to businessmen to kimono clad women. It was a great people watching experience and as the day faded to night, the lights of Tokyo began to come on.

The Cost of Japan

We're finding that Japan is not nearly as expensive as everyone says. We heard all kinds of crazy things before leaving on our trip but we've found it to be pretty similar to the US. The exception is the transportation which is prohibitively expensive. Foreigners can get around this buy buying a Japan Rail Pass before arriving in Japan and even though you may balk at the price, it's totally worth it. Here's a breakdown of what things cost:

Hotel: $50 per night
We have a shared bathroom and we're not staying in the touristy part of town but we're able to get anywhere in the city with our trusty JR pass so it's not a big deal.

Food: $5 - $20 per meal per person
This totally depends on where you eat. You can get a tasty bowl of Ramen for $5 or a sushi meal for $20. There are also lots and lots of pricier places but I'm just saying that there are definitely lots of other options.

Entertainment: depends
We've been going to lots of typical tourist places- temples, shrines, etc as well as seeing a lot of things that are free like the shopping districts, Mt. Fuji, etc. These charge the expected admission prices, something like $5 - $20pp. If you were to go clubbing you could easily spend a lot.

Transportation: $400 each for 2 weeks
This is because we bought the Japan Rail (JR) pass. We can use the JR lines to get almost everywhere but we do usually spend about $10/day on the subway which isn't included in the pass. We also spent a whopping $25 for the two of us on a 20 minute bus ride (check out the Mt. Fuji post for details)! This is definitely the most expensive part of Japan. The up side is that there aren't any bums riding around on the trains with you :)

So, don't let the rumors deter you- visit Japan!


The other day we took a trip to a little town outside Tokyo called Nikko. It was recommended as a nice day trip by our guide book. This is a town about an hour and a half away by train. We heard that it was a really cool place, with a temple and shrine area set back in a pristine forest environment.

The temple is a Buddhist temple built in the 7th Century AD, destroyed by an earthquake, then rebuilt again in the 1600s. It's a beautiful complex tucked away in this picturesque place. Steep mountains covered in 100 foot cypress pine trees and clear blue river running thru it. The Buddhist temple is dedicated to mercy and peace.

Behind the temple is a shrine dedicated to Ieyushu Takugawa, who was entombed there as a god in 1643. Takugawa was the shogunate who consolidated all of Japan into one country at the beginning of the 17th century. It was during his rule that Japan was turned into a Feudal state,and practiced a strict policy of isolation. No one was allowed to leave the country, and the merchants could only trade with China, Korea and the Dutch. Even the Dutch only could dock on a separate island, which only contained hotels, restaurants and brothels--those crazy dutch. His rule would set up the next 250 years, which is called the Edo period.

The shrine was absolutely beautiful, with intricate gold carvings, containing dragons, images of gods, and even some dancing girls--hey Takugawa did not live on bread alone. They even put in one of the pillars upside down so that the gods would not be jealous of its perfection. In front of the shrine is a small stable with carvings of monkeys around the top, this contains the famous hear no, see no, speak no evil monkeys on it. Inside the stable is a totally white horse--a gift from the New Zealand government. Also in the complex is a five story pagoda (pic at top of post)that does not have a foundation, it is held in place with a long pole down the center to make it earthquake-proof (see the Japanese were crafty even back then).

Also on these grounds is an immaculate tea garden, and museum behind it. The museum used to be a guest house. Ulysses S. Grant stayed there in the 1880s--I asked the lady at the gate where they kept his whiskey while he stayed--she pretended not to understand, but I saw her glance at the storehouse. This was also the place where the Emperor stayed during WWII.

In addition to these mentioned there are other temples and shrines, but there is a lack of English at these sights, and no English tours available. There would be a long plaque by these sights with long explanations in Japanese, but it wouldn't say anything in English. However we did find out that there was a guide map in English available by the ticket counter after we were set to leave--just a heads up for any of you who head to Japan.

On our way out of the complex we were stopped by a group of schoolgirls who wanted to practice their English on us. They were there with their teacher and one of their mothers who filmed us the entire time. We agreed if they would pose for a picture with us. As we were leaving they each gave us a bag of little origami animals that they had made as a thank you.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Introduction to Japan

We woke up at about 5am this morning, thanks to the jet lag. We had anticipated this and had a plan ready- we were going to check out the fish market! This is supposed to be a really cool area where all of the fishermen bring their catch to sell to restaurants etc. only we don't actually know because we didn't get to see it. We were off of the train by 6am and rather than taking a subway one stop, we decided to walk it. This was a terrible decision! If you can't read the street signs and aren't really sure where you're going, don't try to walk! After about an hour of wondering around, we eventually came across a subway entrance and happily boarded the subway. Two minutes later, we were there.

As were were leaving the subway, we noticed a sign that said "Fish Market Closed Today". Our guide book hadn't said anything about this and since we really wanted to see the market, we denied the possibility that this could be true and went up to the market area. Unfortunately, all that we found were a few tourists wondering around! Lame!

We got lost AGAIN trying to take an alternate route back to the subway but we did eventually get back on and made our way over to the Imperial Palace. You can't actually go into the palace but you can wonder around the grounds which are lovely. The Japanese have also come up with a great idea to combat the heat- cooling rooms. Scattered around the park were air conditioned rooms that you could hang out in and recover from the heat. These were a lifesaver! They made the entire experience so much more pleasant.

After the palace, we went over to one of the shrines here. The story is that a fishermen was fishing one day when he hooked something strange. It turned out to be a little statue which everyone deemed a holy object. The statue hasn't been moved since that day and now there is a big temple built up around it so that people have a place to go to pray. There is also quite a lot of good shopping that has sprung up around the temple as well as some good restaurants. We had lunch here which was delicious- I had some kind of battered shrimp.

The jet lag was catching up with us by then so we went back to the hotel to crash.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

We're Here!

We arrived in Japan at 2pm but it felt like 2am to us. We hadn't slept much on the plane but the exhilaration of finally being here kept us going for quite awhile. Once we were off of the plane we went through customs without a hitch and made our way over to the Japan Rail (JR) office to pick up our rail passes. They gave us the passes and tickets into Tokyo and sent us on our way. What they didn't tell us is that the tickets couldn't be used like everyone else was using their tickets so rather than inserting our tickets and passing easily through the turnstile/gate we had them close on our legs. Eventually we discovered that we just needed to show the guards our pass and ignore the actual ticket all together. We're getting much better at the rail system now. Anyway, after a train change, we made it to our neighborhood Ikebukuro and our hotel House Ikebukuro.

The hotel is really cute and we get to sleep on traditional Japanese mats. They sound like they might be pretty uncomfortable but they're really not. What we didn't expect is the heat! It's about 95 degrees or so here and very humid. Our room has air conditioning but we sweat everywhere else we go. We thought we were leaving this behind in Texas!

We were pretty hungry when we got to the hotel so after checking in we went out to search for something to eat. We found several little streets with restaurants and discovered something amazing-- even though everything is in Japanese, the restaurants put little plastic models of all of their food in display cases so that we could actually see what we would be eating. This made it pretty easy to rule a few places out and find one that looked good. We walked into the one that we had decided on right after a couple of Japanese girls and saw them go over to a vending machine. We were totally confused by what was going on but we then figured out that you supposed to insert your money and select your meal from the vending machine! It spits out two tickets and gives you your change and then you take your seat. Our waitress came over, took our tickets, gave us some tea and said something in Japanese. We looked at her blankly. She eventually gave up on us and left. She went back into the kitchen (where we could see them laughing and looking over at us) and came back a little later with our food. Even with all of the assistance that we had, it still wasn't really what we were expecting but it was really good!

Monday, August 20, 2007

San Francisco

San Francisco was fantastic thanks to our amazing hosts/tour guides, Jeff and Cata. We met Jeff and Cata on our last long trip- we met in San Miguel and then got together again in Austin, Peru and Ecuador... and now San Francisco. Anyway, we had a lot of fun. We arrived on Thursday morning and went down to Fishermen's Wharf and the Ferry Building to check out all of the touristy stuff. We saw the sea lions in the harbor and ate clam chowder on the pier. It was a cool area to spend the day in but not the kind of place that you would want to visit over and over. After J & C were finished working, they drove us around to see some of the more famous neighborhoods and see the crazy, hilly streets of the city, including Lambard St. We also picked up our rail passes for Japan- $400 each! We're still a little shocked by this but their supposed to be worth it. We'll let you know.

We got up early the next morning to take a tour of Alcatraz. It was actually really cool and came with a great audio tour. Other than the expected info on the famous criminals, prison breaks and daily life, we also learned that the island was claimed by Native Americans in the late sixties and early seventies. Turns out that they have claim to any unused government land and since the prison was shut down they took over. This was the act that prompted people to start celebrating their Native American roots and has had a huge impact on the Native American population. After that we hopped a trolley to Chinatown for a little taste of what was to come. I'm a little worried about communicating now.... We had lunch in a place where no one spoke English and I'm really surprised that we both ended up getting what we wanted to eat. This does not bode well for the actual China.

One of J & C's friends works at google so we went to google's campus to meet her for dinner. That place is amazing! They have multiple restaurants and cafes serving different types of food which is all free to employees and their guests! We rode beach cruisers over to the restaurant which we wanted (they have multiple restaurants) and feasted on organic pastas, veggies, juices, fish... you name it, they had it! As we were walking over to try out the heated bidet toilets we had heard so much about, and we ran into the owner of the company! He chatted with the girl who works there for a bit and went on his way. I thought he was a friend of hers!

Saturday, we had a late breakfast at a local cafe (you should all try Swedish oatmeal pancakes sometime- delicious!) and went off to see some of SF's famous neighborhoods and the Golden Gate Bridge.

For our last day in SF, we headed out of the city and into wine country- Napa! It was only a 45 minute drive but the climate and scenery changed drastically. It was considerably warmer and dryer and we began to see rows and rows of grape vines. We had come at a great time of year- the grapes were just about to be harvested. As a last step, the leaves had been pruned away from the grapes so that they could be exposed to the sun. As a result, all of these beautiful purple grapes hung off of the vines in perfect clusters!

Sean wanted to try the Coppola winery so we went there first. We were greeted by a red carpet and valet service before heading inside where we sampled five different types of wine. Delicious! We added our names to the list for a late tour and went off to try another vineyard's wines. There we tried even more wine and took a tour of the production process. Their wine is stored in underground caves which they had carved out of the neighboring hill. This keeps the wine at the ideal temperature all of the time and saves them a bundle in cooling costs! We ended the day with steaks and ribs at a local restaurant before heading back to the city. Tomorrow, we fly to Asia!