First of all – I AM SO RIDICULOLOUSLY UNBELEIVABLY STOKED ABOUT BARACK OBAMA WINNING THE ELECTION!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I just got back from a trip around the Kansai region in Japan –and it was amazing. Worth every bit of extra money I had to throw down. The Kansai Trip, as it is known to the JSP program, is an extra trip that is optional for all us JSP students. A lot of us went, but there were a few who opted for cheaper trips or to just stay home.
For anyone with the slightest interest I will now go into way too much detail about what I did.
Day 1: Water Temples
We all got to take the Shinkansen which is the Japanese bullet train- a train that shortens an 8 hour trip into three. It was like a road trip only no one had to drive and there were bathrooms included. Most people slept. At this time we met our trip leader whose actual name I don’t remember because my friends and I all called him by the nick-name he gave himself “Masa-kun.” By the end of the trip he had gathered quite the cult following because of his sharp suits, ability to produce tickets magically, and his efficient manner. =P
The first day we landed just outside of Hiroshima really close to the sacred island ‘Miyajima.’ The Island is gorgeous and marked as one of the worlds cultural heritage places – which means they now put that on signs and made a giant rice scooper in commemoration. The draw to the island really comes from the Buddist shrine that has been maintained for hundreds of years, and part of that shrine is a giant gate (I don’t remember the proper term) that stands in the bay and at high tide is surrounded by water. Also on this island there are a lot of very friendly deer. So we wandered around and ate the classic food of the area which is maple leaf shaped breads filled with red bean, cream cheese, and chocolate. They were delicious. The Island was beautiful. I took a lot of pictures.
After the temple and our free time we met back up to take the ferry and a bus back to our hotel for the night. The first night we stayed a sort-of traditional hotel. The architecture was all glass and sparkly lights but we slept on futons and ate a group dinner in our yukatas that the hotel provided. Also my friends and I braved the women’s Onsen (which is huge group bath). The dinner we had was complicated, involving a lot of candles and tiny iron pots and strange foods. The Onsen was a weird experience because you have to be naked in the onsen a lot, and naked with a bunch of Japanese women who were not very happy about a huge group of gaijin girls giggling all over the place. But it was relaxing. We all went back and slept on our futons in a group room and woke up the next day happy – but with sore backs.
Day 2: History Lessons
Wednesday was the depressing day with a trip to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum where I held back tears and sort of wallowed in what it meant to be a citizen from a country that dropped the deadliest bomb on a country that I had fallen in love with. The message that comes out of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial isn’t one of blame, and it isn’t about warfare. The message is that atomic warfare is terrifying, that anyone who experienced even a little of the mass destructive of an atomic weapon naturally wants that weapon destroyed. Instead, of course, the museum charts the growth and development of nuclear warfare. We sort of wandered through the peace garden and saw the ‘ABOMB Dome’ a shell of one of the few buildings that withstood the atomic blast and has been preserved to remind people of the devastation. From there you pass the flame that won’t be put out till all the atomic weapons are destroyed and then to the children’s memorial where people from all over the world send huge strands of paper cranes. Varying in all sizes and some used to make signs that say things like ‘peace.’ At the end of the park you reach the museum and you pay 50 cents to go in. I bought the additional audio track because I like torturing myself. So for the next hour I listened to what happened and the Japanese ministers desperate pleas to get the world to destroy nuclear weapons. The final part of the exhibit is the gruesome parts – where they explain the effects of radiation and have a section where mannequins show what victims of the blast must have looked like, children with their skin hanging off and clothes torn into pieces. The worst was the man with a hand that was exposed to the blast and whose fingernails started to grow in black on his mangled hand and the nails had blood-veins inside of them so that they would bleed when they were cut. They had a picture and a sample of these nails.
The group had gotten split up in the museum and I had made the voyage in relative silence so when we finally got out I couldn’t really talk. I get choked up about things like huge bombs being dropped on a very crowded places and black fingernails, but I don’t really cry until I try and talk about it. The same thing happened a few weeks after the world trade center was hit – I didn’t really cry about that until I had to talk about it at camp.
Thankfully we planned on eating lunch afterwards and so we all headed in the direction of the local specialty – okonomiyaki. A pancake of sorts mixed with cabbage and vegetables and other things depending on the region. In Hiroshima they included eggs, noodles and, in my case, cheese. A friendly okonomiyaki restaurant and good food made me feel better about the horrors of mankind.
After that one shorter shinkansen trip and we were in Kyoto.
Day 3: The Best Lunch Of My Life
This was the day of the bus tour around Kyoto, where we got taken to two temples, then to lunch, and then on a boat ride down a river. The temples were packed full of school trips and kids in various uniforms. Actually the whole trip was filled with kids in various lines of uniforms and bright strange matching hats. The high schoolers do not suffer the hat humiliation but they are all dressed identically. So not only was I a gaijin girl with blonde hair but I was dressed in street clothes. Of course all the places we visited were huge tourist draws so there were a lot more gaijin there than usual.
Anyone the first temple was big and on a hill and surrounded by huge forests that were big and magical looking. At this temple they had a lot of love charms and things you did for luck. Temples are places you pace five cents and pray, or pay five dollars and buy charms, or pay a few dollars and drink some water for love. Or walk between two stones with your eyes closed to pray for love. I went all out- drank some water, walked through stones, and then bought a charm. Desperate? I call that security. And also the prevailing superstition about these things that makes me wonder what will happen if I do not make such wishes. I am a sucker for luck.
The next temple was a Buddhist temple and was filled with a thousand statues of Buddha. Which we were all frustratingly forbidden to take pictures of. I guess taking pictures of sacred things is kind of sacrilegious. I bought a book of pictures instead and also more tiny charms and fortunes. The fortune I got told me I would have a late but happy marriage and that I had dry skin that I should keep moisturized.
After that temple the bus dropped us off at a buffet of every American food I had missed, some I didn’t know I missed, in a delicious form. I had cheese and crackers – and I mean real blue cheese and some strong form of cheddar cheese, and I had really good roast beef and prawns and curry rice and tiny cakes and bread. Everyone had about four plates of the buffet and by the time we were done everyone was ready to pass out. So the hour bus ride to our boat ride was definitely a kind of relief.
The boat ride turnout out to be a boat that was mostly pushed through the shallow water by a giant pole that one of the boat guides stuck in the water gondola-style. Only what this guy did seemed like a lot more work than any gondola ride I’ve seen. We were on the boat for about an hour and for a long time it was pretty much just a slow scenic tour of the Kyoto mountains and not that different from an American touristy thing. Then our boat turned the corner and another boat sidled up to ours and it turned out to be a store off sorts ready to sell us octopus legs they grilled, beer, sake, and oranges. It was fantastic. Japan is ready to sell you food and beverages at any moment. Even in the middle of a river. We actually passed another boat ready to do the same thing.
That night in Kyoto I met up with a friend from high school who coincidently happens to work in a high school around Kyoto. We went to the Gion district (or the Geisha district) and tried to find a restaurant. Which we did but with a little difficulty. Then we went out for drinks at a bar that is notoriously friendly to Gaijin people. It was fun and expensive. And afterwards we joined the native Kyoto teenagers drinking by the river near our hotel. It’s weird running into people from high school halfway around the world.
Day Four: I Play Tour Guide
Thursday was our free day and as a group we were let loose to do whatever we wanted to in the Kansai area. We were told to research what we wanted to beforehand and I had magically found a Japan guide in my room the weekend before. Which had maps and guides and trainlines. So I made a plan. And about ten other people thought it was good enough that they just joined me in my trip. We all went to Nara and Osaka.
Nara is famous for it’s deer- which you can feed. And so we took a lot of pictures of deer and people feeding them. And I pet one. I pet a tiny deer. Which is kind of weird to think about.
The other thing Nara is really famous for is one of the biggest golden Buddah’s in the world. And when I say big I mean really really big. Probably the size of a house. I kept taking pictures of it but none of them really conveyed how huge the Buddah was. In the picture below the butterfly you see is really as big as my head, if that makes things easier. Around the back of the Buddah there was a piece of wood with a hole cut in it to show the size of nostril and if you could fit through the hole you are sure to reach enlightenment. A lot of tiny women and children were squirming through the hole and my tiny friend Emily tried but apparently any woman with hips is a no go for enlightenment. The same goes to men with shoulders. One of the tall skinny boys managed to do it do the great enjoyment of the tiny women and kids standing around. We all ate lunch in Nara and then took another train to Osaka and headed for the giant aquarium and one of the biggest Ferris wheels in the world.
The Aquarium was amazing. It was basically a huge tank that you walk around and slowly spiral down. The reason the tank is so huge is because it encloses two whale sharks. Which are, as the name probably signifies, huge sharks. Again – pictures couldn’t really capture it. There were also giant stingrays and giant crabs and jellyfish. I love Jellyfish. We ate in ‘a traditional Edo-styled cafeteria where we could sample all of Osaka’s food specialties.’ We had gyoza. We capped the night with the Ferris wheel ride at night and watched the lights in Osaka. Overall everyone seemed pretty pleased with the day. And me and my guidebook take a bit of credit for that.
Day five: Going Home
The least exciting day – in which we went home on the bullet train. And I bought presents for people.
And that was my exhausting review of my vacation in my trip.