Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Retrospective #1: My trip to Kyoto and Nara

Although I have left Japan, there are a few trips that I've made in the last few years that I wanted to blog about and never did for various reasons.  So my plan is to do a couple retrospective blog posts.

Today's retrospective: In November 2014, a friend from Washington came to visit, and the two of us took the shinkansen to see Kyoto and Nara. Sadly, my computer totally crashed - unrecoverable - immediately upon our return from Kyoto, and I spent the next several weeks trying to get it fixed. The positive is that, while I lost everything that had been on my computer because I was an idiot that never bothered to find out what the heck Time Machine is, I hadn't downloaded my Kyoto photos yet. But all of the computer trauma/drama delayed my review of the photos long enough that then life got away from me, and the blog post got set aside until some nebulous point in the future. Of course, now it's been so long that I don't remember a ton. But I can give you a handful of key photos and a quick run down of where we went!

For those who may not know, Kyoto was Japan's capital from 794 to 1868. It has tons of history, with thousands of temples, gardens, imperial palaces, and shinto shrines. It's also the city most famous for geisha (followed by Tokyo and Niigata (and Osaka?)). A fairly common thing to do is to rent a kimono for the day and then go to the many temples and shrines and gardens. Our visit to Kyoto was fairly short, so we sadly didn't have time to rent kimonos. Basically, I looked at japan-guide, and if it didn't have three red dots, we didn't do it. 

We started at Kinkakuji - aka Golden Pavilion - which was the retirement villa of Yoshimitsu Shogun until his death in 1408, at which point it became a Zen temple. It's beautiful. 

I took this picture just outside the grounds of Kinkakuji. The leaves were just starting to change color in Kyoto, and some of them had fallen onto this plastic ice cream cone (advertising a place to buy ice cream cones - it wasn't just a random ice cream cone - although, that wouldn't have really surprised me in Japan).

We then walked down the street to Ninnaji Temple - the one exception to my three-red-dots rule, but it's a World Heritage Site. The temple is also known as the Omuro Imperial Palace and is the head temple for the Omuro School of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It was late, so we actually couldn't go up to the temple, but we were able to go through the Goten, the former residence of the head priest. It is beautiful, with lovely, peaceful rock and pond gardens.

The next day, we took the train to Nara, which was the first permanent capital of Japan, from 710 to 784. It's main temple - one of the most famous temples in Japan - is Todaiji, or Great Eastern Temple. It dates back to 752. The current main hall, which dates back to 1692 and is only 2/3 the size of the original main hall, is the largest wooden building in the world. Inside is a 15 meter tall Buddha and two Bodhisattvas.

The other thing Nara is famous for are the deer. Wild shika deer wander around freely. Up until just after World War II, they were considered to be sacred, as one of the four gods of Kasuga Shrine is said to have visited Ibaraki riding a deer. They are no longer considered to be sacred, but they are classified as national treasures. You can buy deer crackers to feed them, but be aware that they know that you can buy crackers to feed them, and they can be a bit aggressive about it - crowding you and pulling on your clothes until there are no more crackers left. It's still fun though!

Of course, Nara fully embraces being a city where deer wander freely, so you see them everywhere, including on light poles and in arcades.

On the way back from Nara, we stopped at Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is famous for having thousands of torii gates. It's really cool to walk up the hill through the tunnel of torii. What's funny is that it's one of those shrines that all of the foreign tourists go to, but according to all of the Japanese I've talked to, pretty much none of them ever go.

We started the next (and last) day at Ginkakuji - or "Silver Pavilion." It was originally the retirement villa of Yoshimasa Shogun, who was the grandson of the shogun who built Kinkakuji. There are lot's of different theories as to why it's the "Silver Pavilion" even though it's not silver. But it's pretty and has a "unique" dry sand garden and beautiful grounds.

These were just some pretty things we saw when we were walking around. I loved how even the little shrine was made kind of cute and sparkly!

We then walked through Higashiyama District - one of the best preserved historic districts in the city - on our way to Kiyomizudera Temple, aka "Pure Water Temple," which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's most famous for it's wooden balcony that extends from the main hall. Since the temple is on a mountainside, with the balcony about 13 meters above the hillside, it provides a great view. The Otowa Waterfall is at the base of the main hall. The water is split into three streams, with each stream providing a different benefit to the drinker - longevity, success at school or a fortunate love life. You can't drink from all three though, because that's considered greedy. Sadly, we didn't drink from any of the streams. There were a TON of Chinese tourists there, and we didn't want to wait in the very long line. 

Looking up at the main hall from the Otowa Waterfall
Some girls dressed in kimono at Kiyomizudera

And that was basically our trip! We got a very quick peek at Gion, the geisha district, on our way back to the hotel, but we didn't really have time for it. I would love to go back to Kyoto some day and explore some more. There's just so much to see!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Sayonara, Tokyo!

Happy summer, everybody! My last five months were pretty full, so here's the quick run down.

In February, I went to New Zealand and Australia. I'll do a separate blog retrospective on that trip, but for now, suffice it to say that I had a wonderful trip! I spent ten days going all over New Zealand, and then I hopped over to Sydney, Australia, where I met up with my lovely Australian friend who I haven't seen since we lived in Brazil, seven years ago. It's such a blessing to have friends who you can pick right up with no matter the time that has passed!

In March, I enjoyed my final hanami in Tokyo. This year, a friend and I went to Nakameguro to see all of the cherry trees that line the canal there.  It was beautiful! 

April was the G7 Agriculture Ministers meeting in Niigata, Japan. That involved a lot of work and a lot of late nights. But it all went pretty smoothly, so that was great. Of course, at the end, I was so tired that I slammed my head into the baggage rack on the shinkansen and had a nice little bump along my hair line for the next three days. Oh well.

Ikinariya (Edo-era restaurant)
Pepper was there to give advice on tourist sites in Niigata.
The Ag Ministerial was the second of a whole slew of Ministerials prior to the G7 Summit is Ise-shima. So during the month of May, while I had a significant amount of empathy for my colleagues that worked on the many other G7 Ministerials/Summit, I have to admit to a certain amount of joy/relief knowing that my Ministerial was done. But I was also very busy sneaking in some last minute excursions, packing out, getting ready to leave, and saying goodbye to people. 

Mickey and Minnie!
There were two last minute excursions in May. The first excursion: I finally went to Tokyo Disney Sea! It has been on my list for five years, but I just hadn't done it. I particularly wanted to go to Disney Sea (rather than just Tokyo Disney), since Disney Sea is unique to Tokyo, and it's known for being a little more adult-friendly. So a friend and I picked a date that worked in our schedules, and off we went. Unfortunately, that was the only day that week that had rain. All. Day. Long. Fortunately, that also meant there were no lines! And since it wasn't cold, and we were able to buy Minnie Mouse rain ponchos - an excellent investment! - it made for a super fun day full of riding rides, seeing shows, and riding rides again.  

Rainy and windy. But still fun!
The mountain actually explodes!
The second excursion: Some friends and I hiked Mt. Fuji. To be more specific, we hiked the lower part of Mt. Fuji - up to the 4th station. Normally, people drive to the 5th station and then walk up to the summit from there. But people with asthma aren't supposed to go above 10,000 feet, and Mt. Fuji is taller than 10,000 feet. So instead, I hiked the bottom half. Again, I managed to pick the one day with rain. But again, it was a light rain, the temperature was good, and we had rain ponchos (Minnie Mouse rain ponchos, thanks to Disney Sea!). So off we went! We had a great hike up to the 4th station, stopped for lunch, and then hiked back down and went to an onsen before heading back to Tokyo. Due to the rain, places where we could have had great views of the five lakes, it was just a giant cloud. But it was still a beautiful hike. 

The 2nd station

Bridge just after the 3rd station
At the 4th station!

Pack out went fairly smoothly this time. I did the regular closet purge (just because you CAN zip it up, doesn't mean you SHOULD) and medicine cabinet purge (why did I take expired medicine on an international move (twice!)? and wow, I have a lot of medicine that expired in the last four years!). So that's always useful. The cat was somewhat disturbed by all of the purging going on, but got really upset when I started sorting the cat toys. She sat down in the middle of them and gave me a very stern talking to, all with a very worried look on her face. So I had to wait until she was out of the room before I could sneak some of her toys into the air shipment pile and some for the suitcase. The movers were probably the best I've ever had. Not only were they nice and efficient, but they would also ask questions on occasion - a very important point considering that I am only one person, unable to keep an eye on everybody packing in three rooms on two floors simultaneously, and had forgotten that the throw pillows for the government's sofa had been stored under the stairs. 

And around the excursions and the packing out, there were a number of sayonara parties/get-togethers (two involving karaoke!) and just regular life. I tried sweet potato kitkat and sake kitkat. (Liked the sake kitkat. Can live without the sweet potato kitkat.) I found a creme brûlée candy that wasn't as tasty as I had hoped. I discovered that Japanese face masks come not only in camellia and soy, but also in snail, snake venom and bee venom. (What we won't do for beauty!) And I decided that my final visit to a Japanese nail salon deserved nothing less than Hello Kitty.

I left Tokyo on June 2, and now I'm in the middle of home leave. It was a wonderful tour, and I'd be happy to go back there in the future, if that's where life takes me. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to a few months in the U.S. catching up on a whole bunch of training before heading off to my next adventure in the Dominican Republic!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (a little late)!

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season! I had fun here in Tokyo. November was really busy. We had the Marine Ball at the beginning of the month. A week later, there was a high-level visit, during which I saw ANA's R2D2 plane!

To give credit where credit is due, one of my colleagues took that picture. Isn't it great!  

The work visit was immediately followed by the fun wedding of two of my friends and then a Thanksgiving dinner with TONS of food. Seriously. I think there were four turkeys. So. Much. Food. And lots of great people too. 

And then it was December!

In December, I went to Nagoya to visit a port, a feed miller and a whiskey distillery. On the way down there, I saw Mt. Fuji from the shinkansen.

Back in Tokyo, I went to an excellent sushi dinner where I saw real wasabi - an unusually large real wasabi - for the first time. Wasabi is so difficult to grow and rare enough that often what is called "wasabi" is actually green colored horseradish. But he grated this up right in front of us. It had a much more complex flavor than what you usually get with horseradish. ("Complex." Like that? It sounds very foodie.) We had a private sushi chef who was really interesting to talk to. According to him, to become a sushi chef, you spend several years just running errands and making bentos (carry-out lunches) for the chefs. In year four, you're allowed to stir the rice. But not to touch it! I think you get to touch the rice in year five...

Also in December was a fire drill at the housing compound. The fire department came with their big trucks and their earthquake simulator. It can be fun. They even pulled a couple people off the roof of one of the buildings.

And of course, the big event of December... I went to see the new Star Wars movie!

So much joy. I'm so happy with this movie. I'd love to go see it again. We saw it in 3D Dolby Atmos, or something like that. It was great. There was 4D too, but I think that could get annoying. One of the great things about Japan - or at least this theater, which is the only one I've been to - when you order popcorn and drink, it's given to you on a tray with a drop down thing that fits into the cup holder on your chair. So you don't have to juggle anything! It's brilliant.

And then it was Christmas!

That was my Christmas tree. I may have been a slacker the last few years when it comes to baking and everything, but at least I had my Christmas tree!

There was the annual German Christmas market at Roppongi Hills, where you could buy Christmas decorations and then have some hot spiced wine and a ton of german sausage.

And there were holiday light displays all over Tokyo.

At Roppongi Hills
In front of Midtown.  The leaves were really late this year!
The illumination at Midtown
Behind Roppongi Hills, with Tokyo Tower in the background
Christmas Eve was a fun dinner with a group of friends. Christmas day, a group of us went to the Christmas brunch at New Sanno (the military's hotel here), where I also saw this great Star Wars gingerbread house.

And then that night was hanging with friends, eating lots of food - including the traditional Japanese Christmas meal of KFC chicken and champagne! - and watching the first Star Wars movie (episode IV). All told, a wonderful Christmas time with lots of good friends and good food!

And now it's January (for another day or two). I went hiking one day at Mt. Takao (where I went my first year in Japan) - and enjoyed another view of Mt. Fuji and a nice, warm udon lunch at the tiny restaurant at the top - and then some of us went to the Trick Art Museum that is across the street from the train station. That was a fun day.

I wish you all a wonderful 2016 and a happy Year of the Monkey!