Thursday, April 8, 2010


Stephany was in the worlds largest metropolis for three days. I have a extra day and a half because I flew out later. Tokyo is a city of distinct districts so I have decided to write about these districts in groups instead of a day by day style.

This is the district where we spent the nights. It is built around the Sumida rive, which was the only body of water I saw during our stay. It's very easy to forget that Tokyo is a port city. Asakusa is famous for its Shinto/Buddhist shrine Senso-ji. Stephany and I wandered into Senso-ji during some late night exploring. We had the shrine completely to ourselves and we were able to take some great pictures that would have been impossible in the daytime tourist crowd (they are all on Stephany's camera).

This is a street located within Asakusa district. Stephany and I followed the guide book there thinking its was a large store that sold fake food (buying one being side quest of mine) instead we were pleased to discover an entire street selling everything imaginable. Giant mascots to place in front of your restaurant, signs, banners, teapots, accessories for a American themed diner and of course fake food. These miniature works of art aren't cheap and we oohed and aahed over gems like "Donut on the Gold Chain" and "Floating Fork with Spaghetti." After lengthy consideration I walked away with a prefectly replicated bite of steak on a key chain. Money well spent.

Home to the worlds busiest pedestrian intersection, Shibuya is a shoppers dream. Or in my case nightmare, as I was too cheap to by anything. We took in the sights and sounds of Tokyo's high and low brow shopping. There was one store that ranked all the products sold in Japan (in very small categories like face mask or stationary set) and then sold the top three in its store. The entire store changes every week so the Japanese school girl doesn't embarrass herself by wearing last weeks lip gloss. Shibuya is also home to a quality skewers restaurant were we sampled everything from basic yakitori to lotus root.

We spent a huge chunk of time in Harajuku returning day after day. Stephany and I never spied the classic "harajuku girl" in her Gothic Lolita wear and if we did it was often westerners playing dress up. Harajuku is home to small unique shops. It reminded me a bit of 23rd st. at home except cheaper and a bit more trendy. Stephany even bought her own Loita dress here among the row and rows of the super floofy.

It seems that I was the only one in town who didn't know about this place. A thriving electronics market, Akihabara is also home to the strangest Japan has to ofter. Maid Cafes are a dime a dozen here as are stores selling pornographic comic books and figurines. Akihabara is the core of the strange counter-culture of Anime that has spread throughout the world. Stephany and I had a great time poking around, shopping for vintage video games and playing in the arcades. The arcades are a attraction in themselves. They are six of more levels of joystick pushing action. One of the floors is for picture booths. Stephany and I took our picture only to discover that its had automatically whitened our skin and magnified our eyes. Yes, we do look like aliens. The bottom floor is devoted to claw machines wear 100 yen buys you one shot at toys, movies, porn, live jellyfish and salamanders or cigarettes. As strange as this counter-culture is, it was a relief to see. I am still attempting to find some deviance in Korea.

For anyone who cares this is were I am planning on moving to. As soon as I learn Japanese and find a local job that is. Kichijori is a neighborhood a half hour train ride out of central Tokyo. Stephany and I came here because we had tickets to see the Ghibi Museum (for a Japanese animation studio). The museum was clever and whimsical. It was great fun tracking down all of the signatures, sketches and picture of my favorite Pixar artists as they are fans of Ghibi and often come visit.

What stole the show for me however, is the neighborhood. Quaint shops, tree lined streets and a large park with a lake. How could this fresh example of suburbia be so close to the largest city in the world? And further more how can I move there?

I love Tokyo and I apologize for only writing about snippets of our adventures. I really must rush because my flight for Beijing leaves in 48 hours and I still need to pack. Let me leave you with this.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the famous rockabillies of Yoyogi Park

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Kakegawa and Nara

The Kalks and Urhausens are a adventurous bunch, including my cousin Nikki who is teaching in Kakegawa. Stephany and I stayed with her one night in the midst of a torrential storm. The weather kept us from exploring much of the town. Instead Nikki introduced me to my two new favorite foods sake in a juice box and sakura mochi (pink sweet rice wrapped in a cherry tree leaf). Nikki works for Aeon and is lucky enough to teach adults and kids. The demand to learn English is much lower in Japan than in Korea. Nikki's Aeon was the only language school in her adorable town. Despite Kakegawa having fewer foreigners than in Daegu, the locals were nonplussed about Stephany and I hoofing around. Oh and by the way, if your ever in the mood for a macaroon the best ones are in Kakegawa. A bold statement I stand by.

After our overnight we were off to Nara. The capital of Japan for a brief period in the 700's, Nara ranks up with Kyoto in terms of Japanese history. We had a good deal of back tracking to do in order to see Nara and I want to thank Stephany for putting up with me, as I was determined to see the city. The main reason I wanted to see Nara was Todai-ji (remember ji= Zen Buddhist temple). The worlds largest wooden building, Todai-ji is one of the Japan's iconic buildings. It was originally built in 728 and suffered through several fires. The current building was finished in 1709 and is 30% smaller than the original. Inside sits the Daibutsu, a 50 foot bronze Buddha. I wish the weather would have been nicer that day as I wanted to see more of details engraved on the bronze. However the lack of interior lighting creates a feeling that the line between earth and the divine is being blurred. This "smudging"of mundane reality is the reason that when I travel my favorite thing to see is holy places whether they are shrines, temples, mosques or cathedrals.

In one of the pillars in Todai-ji has a large hole exactly the same size as one of Daibutsu's nostrils. Lore says that if you can crawl through the hole you will achieve enlightenment in your next life. I dared Stephany to squeeze through the pillar and she did! She had a large audience of school boys on a field trip. I started to chant "nice shot, nice shot" (a famous english phrase thanks to video games) and soon enough everyone joined in. This rush of dorky adrenaline has to be one of my favorite memories from the trip. The silliness in the temple was not out of place in the country where Hello Kitty sits on Buddha's lap.

Nara is also famous for its tame deer who are a religious symbol in both Buddhism and Shintoism. The deer are tame until the second you buy a deer biscuit from the vendor. After which, they will jump up on you like a dog standing on its hind legs to get a treat. I created the challenge to see who could get the best party pic (you hold out the camera with one arm and take your own picture) with a deer. The other tourists must have believed that we had gone off of the deep end as we ran around putting one arm over the deer and taking picture of ourselves. Not quite the proper way to treat the messengers of the Kami. Sorry Nara deer....

After a long day of traveling we returned to the bullet train station and begin the journey to our final destination, TOKYO!