Wednesday, April 14, 2010


April 9 - We spent our last morning wandering around a market close to our hotel. It was mostly fish, stalls but also lots of vegetables and entire stalls with foodstuffs that I didn’t recognize at all. The market ran for what seemed like miles down little alleyways that often ended in a temple - quite fascinating! Many different sights and smells. A uniformed taxi driver came to our hotel at exactly the time he was supposed to, to take us to the airport, but we didn’t know how far it was and we drove for what seemed like hours. I was beginning to have visions of my children getting a phone call demanding ransom! We did see some signs to the airport, but then they would disappear again. Anyway, we were eventually (2 hours later) delivered safely and got on the plane. It was one of those weird experiences where you actually arrive before you leave with the international date line, so we settled in to zone out for about 24 hours. The flight to San Francisco was fine - lots of movies and food. San Francisco to Denver was a little less fine as we were getting pretty tired, so we were very happy to get into the Saskatoon-bound plane. We had been flying for about 1 ½ hours when the captain came on and told us that there was a really bad storm in Saskatoon and that we were turning round to go back to Denver. Apparently quite a few other flights had already been re-directed into Regina so they couldn‘t take us, so I’m actually typing this in the Denver Airport where John and I have spent an interesting night. We got back in around 10 pm local time and were told we could go to a hotel at our own expense and return by 7 am. Denver is a huge airport and our internal time clocks were completely out of whack so we decided not to bother with finding a cab and a hotel where we probably wouldn’t sleep anyway, and opted to spend a fun-filled night in the airport which apparently never sleeps. A lovely little cleaning man scrounged up a couple of foamies and a blanket for me and I had my earplugs and eye covers, so I settled in on the floor for a nap, However, they don’t turn off the PA system over night and every half hour, a lady would yell at me that the terrorist code was now orange and I was to report anything suspicious to an airport employee. At the moment, the only airport employee I can see is a cleaner who evidently uses this end of the airport as his hideaway during his night shift. He came roaring around the corner on a mechanical sweeper thing and set up shop a few benches away from me. He’s been there for ages, either texting or doing something with his i-pod! So our grand adventure has ended somewhat

Japan day 8

April 8 - We had the day to ourselves today so we had a late breakfast and started getting organized for tomorrow when we leave. The weather has perked up considerably - sunshine and much warmer than yesterday. Kyoto is much less of an international city than Tokyo e.g. no English language TV stations and almost no readily available tourist information in English. Since we were mainly on a tour here, I hadn’t done much homework and didn’t have a guidebook, but I had picked up a French brochure yesterday and was able to figure out that one of the Geisha schools puts on a music and dance recital every day in April. Since we are both completely museumed- and shrined-out, this sounded like a good thing to do. The theatre turned out to be in the Gion area which is within easy walking distance of our hotel, but Hartley was bound and determined that we were going to ride the subway in Kyoto, so off we went. In Tokyo, all the subway information was in Japanese and English, but not so here. We stood looking lost in front of the automatic ticket machine until a nice Japanese man came along to help. He didn’t speak any English but we showed him where we wanted to go and he helped us with the tickets. Then a nice train conductor told us which platform to go to, so we managed to arrive intact! A map has been our constant companion in Japan as Mabel won’t work here (our GPS lady) and we found our way to the Gion area which was quite fascinating. It’s one of the older parts of Kyoto with many old buildings and little alleyways that lead who knows where. It seems that almost every doorway leads to a restaurant! We found the theatre and bought our tickets for later in the afternoon and then we were stopped by a French family who had seen us looking at our map. They were looking for a very beautiful area where a little river runs through Gion and there are lots of tiny bridges and of course, cherry blossoms. So we poured over the map together and John and I decided that it sounded like a hopeful area for us to look at too, so off we went. It really was quite lovely and we found a nice little restaurant for lunch. We wandered back to the theatre again for an extraordinary experience. It was extremely professional with incredible costumes (all Geisha-type with incredibly rich fabrics and intricate head-dresses). The performance took an hour and there were 8 scenes which took us through the year from spring - spring. The music was provided by ladies playing drums, flutes and shamishens (the guitar-things which they play with huge picks) and singing. Of course the music is very strange to our western ears (Christie would be amazed at some of the things they can do with their voices!) And the dancing is all very ritualized. The dancers were amazing, completely in unison with their fans, stamping their feet and graceful movements. The scenery also was wonderful with parts of the stage popping up with dancers and scenery. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photographs inside the theatre - but there are some good pictures in the brochure I have.

Japan day 7

April 7 - If I thought yesterday was rush, rush, get on the bus, today was even more so. The temples/shrines tend to all mix together by the end of the day and I’m really glad that John took 625 photographs today (!) because when I went through them in chronological order, the day made more sense than it did at the time. I’m sure the tour is organized on some kind of principle, but it seems very confusing to the end-users. There were about 4 different groups on the tour bus today, some having lunch, some going on to the train station, some with the tour all day. The tour guides seem very harried (not surprisingly) as they have to try to keep track of all these different people who are all wearing different colored stickers - you feel a bit like a sale item in a store. Everywhere was very crowded because it’s peak cherry blossom time and everybody wants to see them, so I don’t envy the guides trying to chivvy about 40 tourists (not all of whom have English as their first language) through the crowds, explain what we are seeing and make sure we all arrive safely back on the bus at the right time. I don’t think we lost anyone today, but some idiot in our party decided to take a photo in a temple where we had expressly been told NOT to take photos, and he was seen by a monk. Silly idiot then denied that he had taken the photo, so I’m not sure what his excuse was when they took his camera and looked at the photographs. So we were delayed a bit while our guide went through all the motions to apologize to the monks for this guy (a) doing what he was told not to, and (b) then lying about it. Anyway, our first stop was the Nijo Castle which was built in 1603 (they love dates and numbers!) for the first Tokugawa Shogun. He was obviously a somewhat suspicious guy because all the floors have built-in squeaks, so you can’t move without a chorus of sound - this was to ensure that no “assassinators“ got to him. They are actually called nightingale floors which I thought was lovely - they do sound quite melodious! It was absolutely freezing today - I was very glad I had gloves and in desperation, I put the hood of my sweater up to keep my ears warm. We asked the guide how the Shogun had kept warm - charcoal braziers and lots of layers, apparently! The palace was huge and decorated with gorgeous paintings on the walls and lots of inlaid metal work. Next stop was the Golden Pavilion which really is covered in gold. It is set in a lovely garden (cherry blossoms, of course) and it is right on a pond so the famous photograph is the Pavilion with its reflection in the pond. We were all given lucky tokens which look like a large bookmark with Japanese writing and red stamps on them. Our guide (who was VERY sweet - a tiny little lady who wore a red hat and waved a sprig of cherry blossom to keep her retinue in line!) explained that when we got home, we were to “hoist” them to a high place in a living room and the gods would bring us good luck. However, we were NOT to stick them up with a pin because that will hurt the god (who is part of the token) and he will be angry and bring us bad luck. Then we were lucky enough to be able to go into the Kyoto Imperial Palace which is often closed to the public. I have run out of superlatives to describe these places (and to be honest, we have seen so many shrines and temples that they are all beginning to run together a bit) but the palace was amazing. They had opened up the doors to the throne room so we could see the two thrones (but we couldn’t actually go in.
And that was the morning’s tour! We had lunch at the Kyoto Handycraft Centre which was 7 stories of souvenirs!!! I had sworn that I wouldn’t buy another thing, but of course I did. They had some beautiful wood block pictures (and although there was a description of how they are made, it is still something of a mystery to me) so I had to buy a couple and some silk scarves.
Back on the bus in the afternoon together with a whole bunch of different people and off to the Heian Shrine. I don’t have a pamphlet on it, but I think this is where we saw the most amazing cherry blossoms of all. In the private garden (which somehow we had access to) there were trellises for the weeping cherry trees and they were quite spectacular. In a few days, all the blossoms will be gone, so we really did time the trip right on (pure luck as each year the season is slightly different). Then we went to Sajusangendo Temple where there are 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity Juichimen-senjusengen Kanzeon. They stand in ranks in front of an enormous Buddha. They are guarded by terrifying-looking guardian deities to scare people away. Last stop was the Kiyomuizu Temple where there is a 3 storey pagoda and (wait for it …..) more cherry blossoms! By this time, we were all lagging a bit, and our guide gave us about ½ hour to shop. John and I made straight for a little shop which had a delicious cinnamon smell coming from it which turned out to be cinnamon pastries stuffed with vanilla stuff. Topped off with a cup of tea, it was very welcome.

Japan day 6

April 6 - We rode the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto today. It goes at something over 200 km/hour, but doesn’t actually seem that fast when you’re in it. I was most impressed with the train staff - all the conductors and the lady with the food cart all stopped and bowed as they came into the carriage and then turned and bowed again before they left - quite extraordinary! You are supposed to be able to see Mount Fuji from the train in a couple of places, but it was still pretty cloudy and we couldn’t see any of him. We had a nice lunch at a hotel in Kyoto and then set off to Nara for the tourist-thing. First stop was the Todai-Ji Temple where the Great Buddha lives - and he is HUGE! His thumb is as tall as a man. Almost impossible to describe - this enormous, implacable statue surrounded by amazing carvings, colours and statues. It was very crowded when we were there and although our guide did have a microphone, it didn’t work that well and again, her English was heavily accented (we have had 3 different guides so far and they have all tried hard, but haven’t been easy to understand - there would be a roaring trade in accent reduction for retired speech therapists here!). The Temple is in the middle of the Deer Park where, surprise surprise, there are many deer! You can buy deer cookies to feed them, but of course the deer learned many years ago that tourists are food sources and they are not shy in coming to request goodies. They were actually quite a pest and get quite aggressive at times. We then went on to the Kasuga Shrine (Shinto) where there are many, many stone lanterns. Again, many people and hard to hear what the guide was saying. April is the height of the tourist season because of the cherry blossoms (and we have seen some amazing blossoms), but it does mean that the tour is very rush-rush, get on the bus, get off the bus. We are seeing the high spots, but don’t have time to poke around and enjoy.

Japan day 5

April 5 - Pouring rain! We were transferred from our hotel to our meeting point by taxi which was quite an experience. The cab drivers wear a uniform rather like an airplane pilot, complete with cap and white gloves. The cabs are absolutely immaculate with white antimacassars (something that my grandmother would have had over the backs of her chairs to protect the chairs from the hair cream that gentlemen wore back then!). I have got very good at bowing at everyone at every opportunity - people here are unfailingly polite. The tour appears to be rather fragmented - 22 of us started out, but we all seem to be going in different directions at the end of the day, some by train, some by bus and some staying here. We are quite a mixture of people and the tour guide is trying very hard to keep us all going in the same direction, but her English is heavily accented and she is easily flustered so understanding what she wants us to do is challenging! We transferred to a bus which drove us to see Mount Fuji but unfortunately he was not to be seen. The weather really is dreadful, fog and rain and wind so we couldn’t see a thing. One poor man from Finland on our tour had been to Japan 4 times to see Mount Fuji and hadn’t managed it yet. The tour company thoughtfully provided us with a postcard showing Fuji in the spring, something they do if he can’t be seen in reality! However, onwards and upwards to Lake Ashi where we went on a rather peculiar ride in a “pirate ship”. You can imagine John’s excitement at that! And of course, we couldn’t see anything because of the rain. But we met two really nice couples, one from Hawaii and one from Dallas, so the time passed quickly. Then another rather peculiar ride in a cable car (could we see anything?) and then on to our hotel. I had booked (or thought I had booked) us into a ryokan which is a traditional Japanese inn, but it turned out that we are staying in a western hotel which has some rooms in the Japanese style. So it’s a bit of a mixture. There is tatami matting on the floor, but we have a TV, hairdryer etc. and our dinner will be in the Japanese restaurant rather than being served to us in our room. Two lovely young men have just come in to make up our bed (I’m sure there is a proper name for it …..) so that will be another experience. There is a hot spring here so I have just come back from a traditional segregated soak in a lovely hot tub with a few other middle aged naked ladies! (Re-reading that, I realized I had better explain that although I had just come back from the hot tub, I WAS in a kimono-thing when the lovely young men came in!)
Later - Just came back from a wonderful 6 course Japanese meal, served by kimono-clad ladies. It was all beautifully presented (and they told us, in good English, what it all was!) Sometimes that was a good thing - sometimes not. When she put a bowl in front of me and told me it was baby squid (and I certainly would have recognized them on closer introduction), I nodded politely and passed it on to John at the first opportunity. Raw fish is fine because it doesn’t have a face, but those little guys lying there with all their tentacles drooping were just a bit much! I did eat the tofu which I normally detest, but it was OKish.

Japan day 4

April 4 - first day of our tour and it turned out to be interesting. We were taken to the main bus station along with hundreds of other tourists and told exactly which place to register, which bus to get on and which seat to sit in. Once we got started, something just didn’t feel right, and when we sailed past the Tokyo Tower, which was supposed to be our first stop, we knew we were on the wrong tour. However, it was a bit late to do anything about it and it turned out that the one we were actually on was much more to our liking than the one we were supposed to be on, so it was all good. We went to a Shinto shrine, the Meiji Jingu Shrine which was set in some spectacular gardens with hundreds of trees. At both ends of the roof, there are golden fish tails which are supposed to protect the shrine from fire (fish live in water ….) However, the shrine had apparently been burned down at least twice in its long life, so don’t place your faith in a fish tail. We were lucky enough to witness a traditional wedding - kimonos, head dresses etc. although we couldn’t stay long. Back on the bus, and then on to the east gardens of the Imperial Palace which were very formally laid out. Not much was flowering except the cherry trees, but I can imagine that in a few weeks it will be pretty amazing. Then on to the Sensoji Buddhist Temple which was very beautiful - highly decorated and ornamental inside and out. Again our timing was good - when we came out of the Temple, a group of traditional dancers, singers and musicians were just starting a performance. I find myself saying “That’s quite extraordinary” a lot - these kinds of things are so foreign and so interesting. The musicians were playing the guitar-looking things with big picks and there was a man playing a sort of flute. The dancers (men and women) were dressed in strange costumes with long dangly sleeves which were caught up between their legs in festoons. They all had red headbands on which were part of the dance - sometimes the bands were untied, sometimes put on like a babushka and sometimes tied on top with a bow. All the movements were ritualized and of course, the singing is atonal, so sounds very strange to western ears. It was quite extraordinary!! We decided to leave our tour at that point as they were going on to the Ginza where we had already been and it was quite cold, so we found a little hole-in-the-wall noodle place where once again we pantomimed what we wanted. John thought he had ordered shrimp for me, but I ended up with some very tasty noodles in broth with vegies and 3 pieces of quite unidentifiable meat. I did eat them, but I have no idea what kind of meat it was…... By that time I was tired with wandering, so we came back to the hotel where I had a lovely hot bath (real tub here!) and John went out in search of some item of electrical equipment that apparently we can’t do without.

Ja[pan day 3

April 3 - We met John’s friends, Tai and Kazue, their son and his wife and their two children for lunch today. As soon as I shook Kazue’s hand, she gave me a huge smile and presented me with an enormous carrier bag full of the most beautiful Japanese fabrics - lots of silk and gorgeous patterns. She knows I quilt! They took us to a beautiful hotel close to where we are staying where there was an amazing buffet - absolutely everything you can imagine - Japanese, Chinese, salad, roast beef, pizza - including tuna fish head (no, I didn’t!). It was a lovely sunny day after the wind and rain of yesterday and we had our coffee outside on the patio. Tai absolutely insisted on accompanying us sightseeing in the afternoon and he very kindly took us to Ueno where I had heard there is a beautiful garden and lots of cherry trees. I was right on both counts, but hadn’t taken into consideration that it’s Saturday so most people were not at work - and remember the cherry blossom parties I wrote about yesterday? - well, we witnessed them in all their glory. Actually it was all rather weird - there were literally thousands of people all having picnics under the trees. It was all extremely organized - each party had a cordoned off area and the gawkers (us) could walk down a long boulevard with these amazing cherry trees on each side with all these people eating, drinking, playing cards and generally just having a party on the ground underneath them! Those who couldn’t get a spot under the trees were camped out anywhere they could find a square inch to set their sheet on. It was quite the most extraordinary sight I’ve ever seen. Tai then took us to the Ginza which is the main, swish shopping area - Gucci, Armani, Dior etc. etc. etc. Since I’m not a shopper, it was interesting from a people-watching perspective! We dropped Tai off at his subway stop and then wandered some more. Hartley was fascinated with the Sony store which had all the latest gadgets e.g. 360 degree TV. All that wandering was getting to my knees (John’s seem to be fine) so we came back to the hotel for a “nanny nap” and then returned to the Ginza for supper (the trains are really easy once you get them figured out - all the stations are numbered and there are even really helpful station people who can rescue you if you look lost!) John had really wanted me to see al the lights at the Ginza at night and it really was quite a sight - something like Piccadilly Circus. We had no idea where to eat so we chose a hole in the wall that looked promising and it turned out to lead downstairs into quite a large, very traditional Japanese restaurant. The young waiter spoke a tiny bit of English and as the menu was all in Japanese, it was interesting trying to order. We ended up with potato salad (not sure what happened to the translation there!), really good bowls of noodles with all kinds of stuff in them, some amazing sushi and Japanese beer - total bill about $35 Canadian. So we got really lucky.