Sunday, August 17, 2008

Vacation in Japan

We arrived in Akita Japan on August 3rd to visit Jeffrey and to tour parts of Japan. We flew into Narita Airport and took a train to Tokyo main station and then a Sinkasen (bullet) train to Akita arriving after 11:00 p.m.

Below is a picture of Jeffrey's apartment building taken on the 4th of August.

And here is Jeffrey with Gavin and Judi in front of the apartment building.

This is a picture of Jeff's living room. He has a TV with video games. What more could a young man wish for.

Also, below is a picture of Jeff's bedroom. As you can see, a Japanese style bedroom consists of a Tatami Mat floor with futons to sleep on. We slept on the floor at all of the places we stayed at in Japan. The Tatami mat floors are actually softer than conventional wood floors and breath to keep down the possibility of mildew or other effects on the bedding.

Below is a picture of the High School where Jeffrey teaches English. It was taken from his apartment window. So you can see, he just has a short stroll to go to school each day.

And here is Jeffrey with Judi and Gavin in front of the school.

And here is Jeffrey in one of the class rooms. We met some of the school staff who were working even though school is out for the summer. One of the people we met was the school Principal, Mr. Susumu Yoneta. Unfortunately, I did not think to get his picture with the other staff members.

The evening of the 4th, we went into down town Akita to watch the Kanto (Lantern) Festival which is a Festival that involves different groups marching through the street with lanterns hung on bamboo poles. Below is Jeffrey and his girlfriend, Caito who is also a Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) teacher in the Akita Prefecture, standing at the local rail way station with two Japanese girls. As you can see, they dressed in traditional Japanese dress for the occasion.

The lantern festival appears to be a competition to see which group can assemble, erect and carry/balance the lantern arrangements consisting of up to 46 lanterns and stay within certain areas on the street. Somehow, the festival is linked to a wish for a great rice harvest, i.e. a sort of Shinto prayer. On the way to the festival, we saw the two characters below in the train station. Supposedly the Akita people warn their children to be good or these characters will steal them away.

We joined a JET group at the festival for dinner before going down stairs to view the parade / festival activities.

You can get a feel for the size of the lantern arrangements from the picture below. There are literally dozens, if not hundreds of these arrangements with a team of people taking turns carrying the lantern arrangement by balancing them on their hands, shoulders, forehead, or hips. The action is supported by loud Japanese drums and chanting of encouragement that accompany each team. Some of the arrangements can be up to 12 meters high and weigh up to 50 Kg (~ 110 lbs) with 46 lanterns. It takes a lot of strength and agility to balance and carry such an arrangement.

In the picture below, you can see one of the accompany drum sets behind the lantern arrangement.

Jeffrey had a turn at a smaller arrangement and tried to balance it on his shoulders.

Gavin is showing how the arrangement can be balanced on ones hands.

On the 5th of August, we visited the castle ruins at Akita. You see Caito, Jeff, Gavin and Judi standing in the door to the castle grounds.

There is a small museum on the castle grounds with armour. swords and other materials for Samurai warriors.

As with most castles, it was located on high ground with a surrounding moat to make it more easy to defend. The picture below shows the city of Akita in the lower ground.

On the evening of August 5th, we joined a small group of Akita high school teachers (Yoko in green and Yoki in black) as well as the school nurse in spotted dress( whose name I don't remember) for dinner at a sushi restaurant. Yoko had spent some time in the United States up in Monterray California and is Jeff's supervisor at the High School. The sushi was actually quite good. I like the tuna shushi best.

On August 6th, we left Akita and traveled by Sinkansen train back through Tokyo to Kyoto. That is a fairly long trip, i.e. about 6 hours if I remember correctly. Below is a picture of a Sinkansen train unit as it was pulling into Kyoto station. We purchased Japan Rail (JR) passes before our trip. The passes are for tourists and provide unlimited travel between cities at a fixed price given period of time. Our passes were for 14 days and definitely saved money over paying the local Japanese rate.

In Kyoto, we stayed at a Japanese Inn (Ryokan). That ment small rooms and sleeping on futons on Tatamie floors. We stayed at the Ryokan below for 4 nights. Its name was written in Kanji or some other script, and I can't read its name. All I know is that the rate was reasonable (Y48,000 Yen or less than $120 per night for four of us) and I could pay by credit card

In Kyoto, we road by subway and bus to see several Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples. I believe the picture below is of the Heian Shrine in Kyoto. The shrines all have an entry gate with posts on either side and cross beams at the top Inside the gate is a compound is a courtyard sorrounded by other buildings and at the back is a building with a place to place offerings (money) and to clap ones hands twice, and/or pull a rope that causes a clapping sound to get the God of that schrine's attention before making a prayer. Also, in front is a water place with dippers to cleanse ones hands and mouth before entering the Shrine grounds. Most Japanse follow both Shinto and Buddhist religions. Shintoism seems to be concerned with how one leads ones life on earth (being clean / pure) and Buddhism has to do with existence after death.

We also visited Nijo-jo Castle in Kyoto that wis built in 1603 and was the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu. At one time, the Shoguns controlled Japan and only returned control of Japan to the Emperor in the 1800s.

The castle actually had a moat around the outer circumference and an inner moat. In this picture, Jeffrey and Judi are standing on the road passing over the moat. I may add a picture or two of the moats later on.

One of the streets in Kyoto had a pottery festival. The word festival seems to be used a lot in Japan for almost any occassion. But the pottery festival seemed to be where people and businesses broght their pottery (mostly dishes) out to booths out on the street for display together with food stands. Below you see Judi and Jeffrey talking to one of the ladies at one of the stands. The only thing we bought were a couple of porceline dolphins and some food. With all the walking, we were always hungry and thirsty.

One of the highlites of our time in Kyoto was a Johnny Hillwalker's Johnny Kyoto (Hajime Hirooka) walking tour of Kyoto. It included fan shops (houses where fans are made and sold). Below you see a picture of a man on his knees at a low table glueing the sticks on a fan. It may be something his father did and passed down to him and it may be passed on to his children as a trade.

I will try to add additonal pictures of Johnny and his tour later on.

On August 8th, we traveled to Nara for a day and returned back to Kyoto that night. Nara was also a place of parks, shrines, temples, and museums. In the park a Nara, there were a lot of Japanese deer. They are very tame since tourists feed them. Below you can see Jeffrey has bought some deer food (biscuits of a sort) from a vendor to feed the deer.

And you can see Gavin entertaining us by standing on posts in front of one of the shrines.

One of the Buddhist temples in Nara claimed to have the largest indoor Buddha statue in the work. Below are some pictures of that temple and the Buddha. Unfortunately, the light was not adequate to really see the Buddha.

In Nara, there is a massive Buddhist temple complex at the top of the hill surrounded by cemetary grounds all the way down to the city. Below is a picture of a part of the cemetary that we passed by on the way up to the Temple.

And below is a picture of Judi, Gavin and Jeffrey at the top where ther are several temple buildings. All crowded with tourists and worshipers (mostly Japanese).

On August 10th, we traveled back to Tokyo. I snapped a few pictures of the rice patties along the way. Most of Japan's flat land between cities looks to be planted in rice. I know we all ate a lot of rice while we were in Japan.

Back in Tokyo we stayed at another hotel (Ryokan) in a section of Tokyo called Asakusa. Our hotel is called the Asakusa Mikawaya hotel. We stayed at this hotel for five nights and traveled around Tokyo mostly by subway on the 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th before returning home on the 15th. Below you can see a picture of our room. I think that it was not a regular guest room, but rather the hotel's entertainment room. They had a Karaoki machine in the room and the bathroom and shower were down the hall from this room.

Asakusa is one of the main tourists stops in Tokyo. Besides the Shinto Shrine and Buddhist temple, it has dozens if not hundreds of shops around the shrine selling tourist items such as fans, t-shirts, you name it. Below is a picture of a pagoda at the Temple.

While we were visiting the Temple, we were approached by a man and his daughter who asked if he could take a picture of his daughter with each of us and record our names and where we came from. This was a school assignment that his daughter had.

While we were in Tokyo, we took a one day bus tour of Tokyo called the Dynamic Tokyo Tour. One of the first stops was a visit to a garden with a tea house to witness a tea ceremony. At the garden, we walked along a path to the tea house that had bonzai trees, some of which were over 500 years old. Below is a picture of me with one of the bonzai specimans. I don't think that I will take up bonzai gardening as a hobby.

We had our picture taken at the entrance to the tea house with the two tea masters (ladies) who conducted the tea ceremony.

Also, the Tour included a visit to an entrance to the emperor's palace grounds. Below is a picture of us with a guard tower / building in the background.

A part of the Dynamic Tokyo tour also included a boat trip from down town Tokyo up to Asakusa. The boat we took is similar to this one tied up at the dock.

Here we are enjoying our boat tour.

Back in Asakusa, we saw several places for Rickashaw rides shuch as the one below.

Also, we ate all of our meals in restaurants. Most restaurants have displays of their dishes in the window such as shown below.

One evening in Tokyo, we visited the Ginza district to see a Kabuki performance. Photos are not allowed inside the theater, but the performance was very very interesting and entertaining. In Kabuki, all female parts are played by men and the movements are highly stylized.

Below is a second picture of the pagoda at the temple in Asakusa. Each pagoda has five tiers which represent the five elements (earth, water, fire, air/wind, space/void).

And a picture of the entrance to a Shinto shrine in Ueno which is another section of Tokyo where the university of Tokyo is located and where there is a zoo.

All of Tokyo is crowded. Below illustrates about how crowded it is just outside the subway station in Ueno.

But there are also a lot of parks with lakes and lots of water lilly's with lotus flowers such as shown in the photo below.

All and all, I would say our vacation to Japan was once in a life time, memorable, interesting, fun, and hot and humid experience. And, it was great to see Jeffrey after a year away from home and to meet his girl friend Caito. So for now, Sionara.