A Bit of Culture, a lot of Deer

After Sam and I parted ways I decided to take the remaining day and a half of my trip to soak up a bit of culture, starting with Osaka Castle.

thumb_IMG_5365_1024

Osaka Castle is one of the most famous castles in Japan, and it’s very impressive to see. There’s a huge park surrounding it so you get a nice view walking up the path towards the actual castle. If I had been there just a week or two later, I might have seen some fall foliage, but as it was, the leaves were just starting to think about changing. But looking back I can’t be too upset about this – the weather has been so unseasonably warm throughout Japan that the leaves skipped changing color and just fell in many places, including where I live. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to see some real “koyo” (the Japanese word for fall foliage) next year.

When I arrived at the actual castle they were just about to close for the day, so I couldn’t take a tour. Instead I spent a while looking at the massive castle, taking pictures, and doing a bit of people watching. I really liked the tigers on the sides of the castle (you can see them in the top photo), but I gotta say, I think I liked Himeji Castle better. After a bit of reflection on the past few days I returned to town for a bit more shopping and planned out the next day.

Osaka is a great place to visit in Japan, not so much because it’s an amazing city (though I really like it!) but because it’s so close to lots of other places you might want to see. Kyoto is a 45 minute train ride away, and Himeji isn’t too far either. But since I went to both of those places last time, for this trip I decided to go to Nara – home of the famous deer park.

thumb_IMG_5392_1024

Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital, established in the 700s. There’s a ton of history to be found in Nara, along with dozens of beautiful temples, and of course, the (in)famous deer.

Nara park has hundreds of free-roaming, somewhat domesticated deer. I’m guessing this is because they’re protected within the grounds of the park, which has several important Buddhist relics and temples. Deer have a special place in Buddhism, because the Buddha gave his first sermon in a deer park, though not this particular one. So the deer are sacred and protected. You can find people selling senbei (crackers) to feed the deer all over the place, and they’ll eat them from your hands. Personally, I decided against feeding the already overfed deer, since I’ve had my fair share of interactions with sacred animals, and really didn’t feel the need (you can’t really beat being blessed by an elephant!) Plus, I’d heard stories about their persistence and bad temperament, and the signs warning of head-butting didn’t really do anything to change my mind.

But besides the deer, I found Nara to be quite a fun trip. After walking through the deer park I arrived at Todaji, the main temple. Pictures don’t really do it justice, this thing is huge, as is the giant Buddha inside.

I made my way through and around the temples, taking in the various sights. Since I was traveling solo I went at a slow pace, which was nice, and managed to see almost every place I had set out to find, except for the sacred forest, which was kinda far away.

My favorite temple in Nara had to be Kasuga Taisha. It’s known for its lanterns, both stone and brass, and I almost missed the place because I took the wrong route and skipped the massive line of stone lanterns leading to the main entrance. Luckily I saw a huge group of people and figured it was probably worth visiting, whatever it was, and found out that certain parts of the shrine were open for just one day because it was Bunka no hi, or Japanese Culture Day.

The lanterns were gorgeous, and they even had a dark room where they lit a few and let people get the full effect of what it would be like at night or for festivals. It was beautiful, and photos don’t really do it justice (or, my low-quality iphone photos anyway).

thumb_IMG_5467_1024

It was finally time to head back, and as I was walking toward the train station I passed by a parade. Everyone was dressed in period clothes and at the end of the procession there was a princess. Very cool.

I bought myself some tasty donuts and coffee at the train station and started the journey back to Osaka when I decided to double check my flight time. Turns out I was wrong, and the flight was actually an hour earlier than I had thought. I panicked a little, but there wasn’t much I could do – I was already on the train to my airbnb, and I needed to get my bags.Once I actually made it back to the apartment and grabbed my stuff, I remembered that the train to the airport was not exactly fast, and it was another painful hour of “will I make it???”

thumb_IMG_5489_1024
Culture Day Parade

Of course, the answer is yes, I made it just in time. After a bit of arguing with a lady at check-in about how much stuff I could carry on (I tried putting on every layer of clothing and shoving all devices into my pockets to outsmart the bag scale, but was still a little overweight), she eventually gave in and let me through, and I promised to never do it again. Really I just learned that if I look panicked enough and struggle a bit more than necessary trying to speak Japanese I can get away with anything! But really, I don’t want to do that again…

I made it onto my flight and returned home without incident. All-in-all, it was a fantastic weekend.

Advertisements

A Magical Halloween in Osaka

So I’ve been in the middle of writing this post for quite a while, and while I said I was waiting for photos from my friend really I was just procrastinating. But now that the students are on winter vacation, and I’m just waiting for my own vacation to start, I thought I’d finally finish my story about Osaka trip #2.

A few months ago I happened to send a message to a friend of mine from Pac Rim. We hadn’t talked in a while but something made me think of her. I suppose the universe was sending me a sign, because as luck would have it my friend was preparing for a trip to Japan, and of course we should meet up! And even better, the end of her trip fell on a holiday and a day I didn’t have classes, so we decided to meet in Osaka for a long Halloween weekend.

thumb_IMG_5230_1024
Dotonburi – one of the most famous streets in Osaka

While I’d been through Osaka on my trip to Kyoto, I hadn’t really spent any time in the city itself. I was excited to explore one of Japan’s biggest cities and see a few friends. I flew out of Miyazaki on Friday, Ocotber 30, just in time to meet up with friends for Halloween the next day. My friend Sam and I wandered around on Saturday morning and had a lovely bagel breakfast at a shopping center near our airbnb (which we both tried for the first time and were very pleased with!). And while a bagel breakfast may not be the most exciting thing to all of you back home, but living in a country where decent (read – non-squishy) bread is hard to come by, it was absolutely amazing. I mean, the bagels were mediocre, but a mediocre bagel is far superior to no bagel, and they had a whole selection of uniquely Japanese flavors. We bought a whole bunch to sample later, and found that the soy milk and edamame bagel was surprisingly delicious, whereas purple sweet potato and white chocolate was a bit of a dud.

In any event, after breakfast we met up with Annin and set off in search of Liberty Osaka, a “human rights museum” that a friend had recommended. It wasn’t the easiest thing to find, but it was certainly interesting. There were exhibits detailing the various minority groups in Japan and the discriminatory practices and events that they have faced (and in many cases continue to face). While Japan is often presented as a homogenous and peaceful society, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface that never really gets discussed. For example, the people of Okinawa are not considered to be Japanese, as they belong to their own ethnic group, the Ryukyuan. For a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here they have historically been discriminated against for their heritage, and today you can still find apartments that refuse Okinawan tenants, and many people do not consider them to be Japanese. Similar things are said of the Ainu, an ethnic minority from northern Japan. And of course there are tensions between Japan and Korea, and the museum went into great detail about the hardships Koreans  and people of Korean descent have faced in Japan. I really wish my Japanese reading skills were a bit better so I could have read all of the displays (the English translations were a bit sparse) but ultimately I was glad I visited, and would recommend it to anyone who finds themselves with a bit of extra time in Osaka.

thumb_IMG_5233_1024

After the museum it was time to get ready for Halloween! Sam and I were feeling a bit lazy on the costume front, so she wore some cat ears and I dressed as Marty McFly from Back to the Future (it was just after “BttF Day, so it seemed topical enough) because I already had most of the outfit. Annin and her friend got a bit more into the spirit of the holiday, and she had a pretty great “Where’s Waldo” costume. Once we were all dressed and ready we met up with a Japanese friend of Annin’s and went out for okonomiyaki, an Osaka specialty. It’s one of my favorite Japanese foods – essentially a cabbage pancake with whatever savory toppings you want, topped with a variety of sauces. As with most Japanese food it’s hard to explain, but rest assured, it’s delicious.

thumb_IMG_5235_1024
Okonomiyaki

Dinner was fun, and it was a great chance to once again practice my Japanese (mostly listening) since Annin’s friend didn’t speak English. Sam and I both studied Japanese at UPS, so we were up for the challenge and understood most of what was said.

thumb_IMG_5247_1024
Halloween in Osaka

After dinner we hit the streets to find a few other local JETs, and boy were we in for a treat. Based on my students’ knowledge of the holiday, I didn’t really think Japan did Halloween. But it turns out the big cities are pretty into it. We were in the heart of Osaka and people were out in droves, donned in amazing costumes.

thumb_IMG_5246_1024
A group of Totoros

Lots of people did group costumes, which was probably my favorite thing because it was so different from what you’re probably thinking. Rather than going as a group with a theme, like the gang from Scooby Doo or something, with everyone as a different character, Japanese group costumes are all the same. So you’d have a group of six Shaggy’s, or, as was often the case, about 20 Where’s Waldo’s. Waldo’s were wandering the streets in droves. It was quite a sight. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that we decided to grab drinks at a local conbini and just people watch for a few hours.

After a while we made our way to a “zombie bar” to meet a few more people, but Sam and I had a busy day coming up and decided to call it quits a bit early. We walked home through the hoards of costumed people (and cars!) and went to bed.

The next day was the centerpiece of our plans – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter! We took the train to Universal Studios Japan in the morning (after a breakfast of leftover bagels) and stood in a long line to get into the park, followed by another long line to get our timed entrance tickets for the Harry Potter area. Even though it was the day after Halloween, the holiday spirit was still going strong. Lots of visitors were wearing costumes, so Sam and I bought “face stickers” to join in on the fun. We wandered around the park and rode the Back to the Future ride while we waited for our entrance time, and  then we made our way to Hogwarts.

So USJ’s Harry Potter theme park is basically set up as Hogsmeade, with lots of shops and butterbeer galore, with the Hogwarts castle perched on a hill overlooking it all, with the great lake beside. Now, unlike American theme parks, Japanese parks seem to focus on atmosphere and shows over actual rides, which meant there were only two rides in the Harry Potter area, and one was a kid’s roller coaster. The line for the main ride, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” was at least two hours long, so we decided to get some food at the Three Broomsticks before getting in line.

Every detail of the park was amazingly well done. Even the food was pretty authentic-looking. And of course we had to buy ourselves a frozen butterbeer (in the collector’s mug!) while we waited in line. As expected, it was super sweet, but we both managed to finish ours in the two hour line.

thumb_IMG_5297_1024

The line for the main ride takes you back behind the castle (the ride is in the castle) and you go through the Herbology gardens as you wait, which is nice. Sam and I had far too much fun waiting in line, catching up on each other’s lives and enjoying the nice weather. Sam was an especially great sport considering that the week before her host family had actually taken her to USJ, and this was her second trip in as many weeks. But her host family weren’t big Harry Potter fans, nor were they serious shoppers, so she said she was happy to go back a second time with me, and we really had a great time.

Finally we got to the ride – once the line takes you into the castle you have to drop your bags in a locker, then you walk through the castle up to the ride itself. You walk through Dumbledor’s office, past a Japanese-speaking Harry, Ron and Hermione, and onto the ride. Now, I’m not a huge fan of roller coasters. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever really ridden a proper roller coaster. But this ride was FUN. It’s so amazingly well done. You take off on broomstick to follow Harry through Hogwarts, the Forbidden Forest, into the Chamber of Secrets and through the Quidditch stadium. You’re on a roller coaster track but of course the whole thing’s inside, and switches between 3D screens (they give you Potter-style 3D glasses at the beginning) and animatronics and awesome sets. I can’t explain it properly, but it was soooo amazing and fun. Honestly, I got off the ride and seriously considered getting back into that 2 hour line to go again. So much fun!

But it was getting dark so we decided to check out the shops instead, since both of us needed gifts to bring home. We slowly made our way through the shops and out of the park, just in time for the “Zombie Nights” event to start, and we wanted no part in that. Literally, as soon as we stepped out of the rides area and into the shops that lined the exit, the lights in the park went out and people started screaming, presumably because a hoard of zombies had just appeared. Fun, but not my thing. We left the park and ate a takoyaki dinner (fried balls of dough and octopus) and went back to our hotel.

thumb_IMG_5337_1024
Leaving on the (not quite) Hogwarts Express)

Day three was all about the shopping. Sam and I discovered that we were shopping soulmates while we were on Pac Rim, and when we get together it’s hard to stop us from shopping. We had a pretty fun time looking around some of the major shopping areas in Osaka before we stumbled upon the “Gudetama Cafe.” Gudetama is literally a “lazy egg” character, and he’s super popular right now. It’s hard to explain, but Japan really loves cute mascots, even when they don’t really represent anything except themselves, as is the case with Gudetama or Hello Kitty. But in any case, we ate at the cafe before Sam had to take off to return to the US. It was great seeing her, and we were both super happy that our schedules lined up so well.

I still had another day and a half in Osaka, but I’ll save that for next time, since this post got pretty long, as they tend to do. Next time: A bit of culture at Osaka Castle and Nara Deer Park.

thumb_IMG_5352_1024
Next time, Osaka Castle

Customer Service and School Dumpster Diving

I know it’s been quite a while since I wrote last but I have a (not so) quick story today since this literally just happened to me and I am still in a bit of disbelief.

So everyone’s heard of Japan’s legendary customer service, how the customer is god and employees will bend over backwards to improve your shopping experience. Everyone shouts “Irasshaimase!” when you enter and thanks you profusely for buying even the smallest thing. So far I’ve found this really helpful at best, and at worst mildly overwhelming, but today just blew me away.

This morning I went to the post office to send a package to a friend in the US. Communicating was a bit of a struggle, and I had a feeling the woman who was helping me didn’t quite know what she was doing, since at one point she told me I could leave and I pointed out that I hadn’t given her an address yet. So it’s no surprise that over the course of the interaction we misunderstood each other several times. She wrapped the fragile gift in a sheet of plastic and was going to send it off when I stopped her and told her I wanted a box. I bought the box, we filled out the forms again, and she had me pay for shipping again. I thought the shipping price went up due to the dimensions of the box, but since it was still under $20 I didn’t really think too much about it. I really wanted to stay and see the package through to the very end of its wrapping and form-filling, but I had to get back to school and decided to leave it to fate.

I got back to school and went about my day. Met with a student for lunch, graded papers, etc. After lunch I gave the junior high students’ practical speaking tests and when I got back to the teachers’ room I was told to go down to the office, someone from the post office wanted to talk to me.

I figured there must be something wrong with my package and someone had called (actually, come to think of it I have no idea how they found my place of work….) but I went downstairs and the woman who had helped me earlier was there. We struggled through another conversation and I understood that she had charged me twice for the same shipping, and wanted to refund the first transaction. I said that sounded great, and she said she needed a receipt.

Normally this would have been fine, since I keep all of my receipts to record them in my budgeting spreadsheet. But I had entered them in as soon as I got back to school, and thrown them away right after. And naturally cleaning time had already happened, so the students collected the garbage. I tried to explain that I no longer had the receipts, and she looked panicked. I told her I didn’t care about the $3 and she said no, she couldn’t go back to work without the receipt, was there any way to find it?

We had a circular conversation in my broken Japanese for a few minutes, with me feeling worse and worse for this poor woman, who apparently could in no way resume her normal day until she returned with a receipt in hand, until I eventually asked one of the Japanese teachers for help. She basically repeated the same things I’d said, and when the woman kept asking if there was any way to find the receipt, we went up to see if by any chance the garbage hadn’t been thrown out. It was raining today and sometimes the boys who are in charge of taking out the garbage get lazy. We found a bag of trash and took a quick look, but didn’t see a receipt.

When we told her it wasn’t there she looked like she was on the verge of tears. We stood awkwardly in silence for a few minutes while she tried to figure out what to do. Eventually she gave me the $3 refund and a pack of tissues (businesses here hand them out as promotional items all the time) and said something about coming back tomorrow. The teacher and I then went upstairs and she suggested we check the garbage again.

We picked through the garbage by hand, piece by piece, until we somehow, miraculously found the receipt. The teacher called the post office and I took it down to the front office so the woman could come by and pick it up later.

The whole exchange has left me utterly confused. This is truly something that would NEVER happen in the US, and my American mind couldn’t find any way to make sense of how much time and effort was spent (on all sides) refunding $3. Japan is a strange and fascinating place.