Silver Week Adventures – Part 2

While we had originally only planned on staying one night, we decided to extend our stay in Kyoto another night. Even though it was Silver Week, and most places were fully booked, Annin was friends with the hostel staff so we got to stay in the same “share house” (guest house) for the same rate as the night before. And we also had a room to ourselves. It pays to know people 🙂

In any case, this meant we could have a bit of a lazy morning on Sunday before hitting up a few more tourist must-sees around the city.

I was told this crowd was pretty much the same as usual for Kiomizu-Dera. That is to say, there were lots of people. And this is why I'm glad I live in Kyushu...
I was told this crowd was pretty much the same as usual for Kiomizu-Dera. That is to say, there were lots of people. And this is why I’m glad I live in Kyushu…

We decided to check out the closest attraction first, and walked over to Kiyomizu-dera, which sits on top of a large hill.

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By the time we reached the top we were a bit tired, but the temple was amazing.

Taking in the view of Kyoto and enjoying a few minutes away from the crowd
Taking in the view of Kyoto and enjoying a few minutes away from the crowd

We walked around the grounds and took a short hike to a less-visited temple on the grounds, where we got a lovely view of Kyoto and a quiet moment to ourselves. It was really pretty.

Fortunes were placed in the water and when the papers sink and disintegrate, the ink remains at the top!
At one of the temples you could write your worries and troubles on slips of paper and place them into this bucket. The idea is that as the paper dissolves, so do your problems, but what I really liked was that the ink remained on the surface of the water even as the papers faded away.

On the way out we walked past a famous feature of the temple – the massive fountain.

Cleansing water. You can see people reaching out with the ladles to catch water (It's way harder than it looks - the water flow is really strong, and not particularly close).
Cleansing water. You can see people reaching out with the ladles to catch water (It’s way harder than it looks – the water flow is really strong, and not particularly close).

Cleansing oneself is a major part of Japanese religion, and as such there is always a fountain and ladles to wash your hands with before entering the complex. They’ll also be placed near the entrance to any smaller shrines or temples on the complex. Though I wanted to try my hand at this fountain as well, the line wrapped around the corner and looked like it would take at least an hour, so I decided to pass.

We took a last look around and made our way to the next destination. Along the way we stopped in some cute shops and passed by a few smaller temples, and it was nice to get a feel for the city.

Walking around Kyoto
Walking around Kyoto

Finally we made it to Ginkaku-Ji, or the Silver Pavilion. It was meant to emulate the golden pavilion, and in the original design it was supposed to be covered in silver leaf. For some reason this never happened, and the temple remained as pictured. While the building itself was not as striking as its golden counterpart, the gardens were amazing. Sadly I wasn’t able to get any pictures, since we went at exactly the wrong time of day and all of my pictures are too dark to see much of anything. But I assure you, it was beautiful. Japanese gardens in Kyoto are so amazingly lush and green, and even though the temple was crowded, walking through the gardens was a very peaceful experience, the trees seemed to soak up the excess sound.

At the end of the day we walked around the Gion area (busy shopping/dining/bar district) looking for dinner and ended up in a small donburi restaurant, where we ate “oyakodon.” “Don” is a rice bowl, and oyakodon is rice with chicken, onions, and a raw egg. They serve the bowl really hot, so by the time it gets to the customer it’s already a little bit cooked. Actually, you can eat a lot of raw dishes in Japan that you would never want to try elsewhere. Miyazaki is known for a raw chicken dish that I’m wary of, but my coworkers and friends assure me it’s salmonella-free, somehow. Anyway, the name “oyakodon,” the dish I was eating on this particular day, is a bit strange. It literally means “mother and child” (chicken and egg), which seems decidedly un-kosher, but I suppose that’s never stopped me before.

Somewhere in Kyoto
Somewhere in Kyoto

After dinner we wandered the shops again before going back to the hostel. On the way back we passed a bright purple search light and decided to investigate. It turns out Kiyomizu-dera was having a “light up” that night, in honor of silver week. We were tired and our feet hurt, but we decided to suck it up and see what this was all about.

Kiyomizudera at night
Kiyomizudera at night

Oh man, I’m so glad we went. The temple was lit up, as promised, but in a very subtle, pretty way. There were very few people around, and it was amazing to have the massive temple to ourselves. The fountain I had passed on earlier was still open, and there were barely any people in line. It was a fantastic night.

The next day it was time to leave Kyoto, and I’ll tell you all about our last day there as well as my time in Kobe and Himeji in part 3!

 

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Silver Week Adventures – Part 1

This past week Japan had a super rare week-long holiday called Silver Week. Many may be familiar with Japan’s spring holiday, Golden Week, but Silver week is a relatively new holiday. It only happens every five years or so, when three regular fall holidays line up just right and allow for Monday-Wednesday off of work. Lucky me, I happened to arrive in Japan just in time for Silver Week!

Because of the rarity of this holiday, many people didn’t even know it was coming up. A number of JETs in the area tossed around ideas for a trip, but when the time came to commit to these ideas, prices were high and hotels were filling up. I happened to call my friend Annin, who is entering her second year on JET, and asked her what she was up to. She had no plans, so I quickly bought a plane ticket to visit her. It all happened rather fast and with very little planning on my part, but ended up being really fun.

Annin lives in Hyogo Prefecture, which neighbors Osaka. Once again I had great luck, a direct flight from Miyazaki to Osaka had just started service at the beginning of the month, and I was able to snag a ticket. So after work on Friday I raced to the train station and made my way to Miyazaki Airport. A quick note about flying domestically in Japan – it’s the best! By far the easiest, most painless security I’ve ever gone through. I don’t think I ever showed my ID, shoes stayed on through security and there were no restrictions on liquids. I was a bit shocked, but I certainly won’t complain!

Miyazaki to Osaka isn’t too tough, just a 1 hour flight

I arrived in Osaka on Friday night and stayed in the “Osaka Guest House Drummer’s Dream,” which was both inexpensive and close to a train station. It turned out to be a super cute old-style house with only three guests and a very friendly host. I would recommend it for anyone (well, any hostel-goers), though it is a bit out of the way. In any case, the next day, after several confusing train connections, I met up with Annin and we made our way to Kyoto.

Welcome to Kyoto
Welcome to Kyoto

After dropping our stuff of at her friend’s hostel, our first stop in Kyoto was the famous Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavilion.

The famous Kinkaku-Ji!
The famous Kinkaku-Ji!

I swear the photos don’t do it justice – this thing shines like you wouldn’t believe. The top two floors are covered in gold leaf, and it’s absolutely stunning.

After wandering around the gardens and picking up a few o-mamori (talismans sold at temples and shrines around Japan) we left Kinkaku-ji and made our way to destination number two: Ryouan-ji.

I’d never heard of Ryouan-ji, but it’s one of the more famous temples in Kyoto, and is known for it’s rock garden. In fact, it’s widely considered the finest example of a dry garden in Japan.

Ryoan-Ji Dry Garden
Ryoan-Ji Dry Garden

As Annin explained (and google confirmed) the garden has fifteen stones of varying sizes placed within the garden, surrounded by gravel. It’s meant to be seen while sitting on the steps to the temple, where you can sit and contemplate life and whatnot. The trick of the garden is that at a glance, you think all of the stones are visible, but in fact you can never see all fifteen stones at once from any vantage point. I looked from a few different spots but always counted 14 stones. We decided this must be a metaphor for life, and how you can never really know everything, no matter how hard you try. It’s said that all of the stones are visible if you achieve enlightenment.

On the way home we stopped into a shop and met Peppa, a friendly robot. Annin had a nice conversation with him. Only in Japan.
On the way home we stopped into a shop and met Peppa, a friendly robot. Annin had a nice conversation with him about love. Only in Japan.

By the time we left Ryouan-ji (which means peaceful dragon temple) it was almost 5, and all of the temples were closing. So we headed back to the hostel for a quick nap and some food before going out with a few of the hostel employees for drinks. We went out to an Izakaya, or traditional Japanese bar w/ cheap food and drinks, and spent a few hours drinking with a university group from Portugal and the hostel staff. Everyone was really nice, and it was a great chance for me to practice my Japanese listening skills. At the end of the night some people went out to a club, but Annin and I decided to call it a night and hit the hay.

A Gorgeous sunset over the city
A Gorgeous sunset over the city

When I sat down to write this post I ended up with entirely too much information for a single post, so stay tuned for part 2 🙂

Month One – A Quick Summary

Hello everyone!

Pancake breakfast with friends before a roadtrip
Pancake breakfast with friends before a roadtrip

I’m so so sorry I’ve neglected my blog since arriving in Japan. It’s been a fantastically busy month, and every time I’ve sat down to write, something fun has popped up and I couldn’t say no. So, while I’d love to go into detail on all of my adventures thus far, I’ve decided to at least start with a quick summary and lots of photos!

Bonchi Matsuri

Ready to dance!
Ready to dance!

Before I’d even left St. Louis, I signed up to dance with the Miyakonojo International Association at Bonchi Matsuri, the city’s largest summer festival. I showed up to city hall on Saturday afternoon and was promptly helped into a yukata (a summer kimono). The process was fascinating, and there’s no way I could have done it on my own.

All dressed up in a yukata
All dressed up in a yukata

Once we were all dressed it was time to learn the dance! For the festival, lots of different groups around town each learned a different dance to the same song, and we all performed together on the city streets. In what I would learn is typical matsuri fashion, the streets were lined with food stalls, offering all sorts of food on sticks, shaved ice, ice cream, and tons of other tasty treats. These proved to be very distracting during the actual dance, when after 20 minutes we all wanted to take off the tightly-bound yukatas and gorge on yakitori (chicken on a stick) and nikumaki onigiri (fried meat rice balls. These turned out to be delicious). But somehow we made it through the dance without messing up too badly, and were able to change back into our normal clothes for the rest of the night. If you want to see us dancing, click here for the video!

Tasty treats! (Photo by Lauren)
Tasty treats! (Photo by Lauren)

The evening wrapped up with a fireworks show, because Japan loves fireworks.

Himawari Matsuri (Sunflower festival)

Look at all the sunflowers!
Look at all the sunflowers! (photo by Meagan)

The following weekend I set out with some friends to check out the Takanabe Himawari Matsuri. The entire event was essentially a giant field (usually used for farming squash, I think) was covered in thousands (possibly millions) of sunflowers, and somewhere in the middle they set up observation decks and food stalls. That’s basically all it was, but it was pretty stunning to look at. We also quickly discovered that one of the stalls sold authentic Chinese food (the owners were from Taiwan) which was amazing. While I have yet to grow tired of Japanese food, my companions were entering into their 4th and 5th years in Japan, and were overjoyed.

The whole gang - all of us are ALTs in Miyakonojo
The whole gang – all of us are ALTs in Miyakonojo (Photo by Eddy)

Continuing the foreign food trend, we joined up with another group of festival-going JETs and stopped by a Thai restaurant in Miyazaki City on the way home. It was delicious, and it was nice to learn that Miyazaki has a decent selection of foreign foods, since I know come winter I’ll be missing certain foods.

Posing with the Miyazaki Ken, and my friend Phil (photo by Meagan)
Posing with the Miyazaki Ken, and my friend Phil (photo by Meagan)

Miyazaki Orientation

Seemingly everyday things here still amaze me. For example, how did everyone fit their cars into this lot, and how on earth will they get out???
Seemingly everyday things here still amaze me. For example, how did everyone fit their cars into this lot, and how on earth will they get out???

While not quite as exciting as the previously mentioned festivals, the official orientation in Miyazaki City was a big part of my first month, and it gave me a chance to see a bit of the capital of Miyazaki. As with Tokyo Orientation it was three days of lectures and seminars, but this time much smaller, and with a bit more focus on what we will actually face here in Miyazaki. I enjoyed trying out local restaurants during lunch time and spent one night in the city with friends, which was a lot of fun. It was also my first time using trains in Japan, and the experience proved to be very easy and comfortable. Sadly, trains aren’t as convenient here on Kyushu as they are in other parts of Japan, but I’m sure I’ll use them at least a little in the coming year.

Driving back from Miyazaki with Molly, as she learns to drive on the left side of the road. (Photo by Phil)
Driving back from Miyazaki with Molly, as she learns to drive on the left side of the road. (Photo by Phil)

Kumamoto Day trip

Lots of Buddha statues in Kumamoto
Lots of Buddha statues in Kumamoto

The weekend following orientation I went to Kumamoto City with two friends who were meeting up with someone visiting from Tokyo. Kumamoto isn’t too far away, and turned out to be a much bigger city than Miyakonojo. We went to a temple with 500 Buddhas, which was apparently known as the location where a famous book was written. We didn’t really know much about that, but it was pretty.

Kumamoto Castle
Kumamoto Castle

Then it was on to Kumamoto Castle. It was hot and muggy and there were tons of people around, so we decided against going into the actual castle and instead went to the nearby shrine. Turns out that’s the best place to get photos of the castle anyway, and far less crowded.

Castle selfies w/ Maegan and Eddy, and the castle's mascot (notice how everything has a mascot here?) (Photo by Meagan)
Castle selfies w/ Maegan and Eddy, and the castle’s mascot (notice how everything has a mascot here?) (Photo by Meagan)

We wrapped up the evening by walking around the city center, and I had my first experience with “purikura” photo booths. I gotta say, I think these things are kinda scary. The idea is that they take photos and automatically make them glamour shots by whitening your skin, enlarging and brightening your eyes, and generally making you look like an alien. But it was a lot of fun, and I’m sure it won’t be my last time.

"Purikura" falls somewhere between ridiculous and a little be scary, but it's all good fun
“Purikura” falls somewhere between ridiculous and a little be scary, but it’s all good fun

Day Trip to Aya

Aya Suspension Bridge
Aya Suspension Bridge

For the last weekend of the month I had planned on going to the Cape Toi Fire Festival, but sadly the event was rained out. Instead a group of friends took the day to drive up to Aya, a mountain town nearby. It’s famous for a massive suspension bridge between two mountains, and a castle.

First up we visited the bridge, and it was amazing to look at. I’m proud to say I walked all the way across and back, and rewarded myself for the feat with mango soft serve on the way out. One thing I’ve recently discovered is that Japan has pretty fantastic soft serve ice cream, and I foresee this becoming a bit of a problem…

Aya Castle

After the bridge we went to Aya Castle, which had a small museum inside and offered a nice view of the town from the top.

Group photo at the castle
Group photo at the castle (photo by Maegan)
The view from Aya Castle
The view from Aya Castle

We ended the day with burgers back in Miyakonojo, at this adorable diner. The owner is apparently obsessed with American diner culture, and makes a mean burger. I’ll definitely be back!

Look at that beautiful American-style burger!
Look at that beautiful American-style burger!

That’s about what I did for my first month in Japan. I’ll write more about where I live, what it’s like getting around, and what the food is like in a later post. A quick word about my school though, because I have been asked about this recently. Student privacy is taken very seriously in Japan, and as such I will not be posting photos of my students, school, or anything else that could be viewed as an invasion of privacy by the school. Toto, we’re not in Vietnam anymore.

Japanese Countryside in Kumamoto
Japanese Countryside in Kumamoto