Sunday, July 29, 2007

Tokyo, Chicago, Madison, Appleton

What follows probably isn't interesting. Actually, the past four weeks' worth of entries probably weren't that interesting. Too bad I put a disclaimer at the end and not the beginning, huh?

6:03 AM: I woke up to the air conditioner starting up, which was absolutely freezing, and all the lights being suddenly turned on. Finally, we were freed from our prison, and now I'm back on the fourth floor lounge, waiting to be able to check in.

10:13 AM: That was strange. The oldest man in the world approached me (right as Harry and Voldemort were facing off, of course). I could see the entire shape of his skull through his skin. He explained that he had his middle school students with him, and he wanted to let them practice English on me.
Suddenly I'm surrounded by six nervous students reading questions from sheets of paper. They asked easy questions like, "What is your name?" and "Where are you from?" but then moved onto much more difficult questions like, "What is famous in your country?" (I was a bit of a jerk here - I said, "The Statue of Liberty, hot dogs, and the Atlanta Braves") and, "What is most important thing in life?" which just left me baffled (I considered giving them the same three answers as the previous question). Never a dull moment, not even in an airport.

11:47 AM: Nearly 24 hours after I arrived, I finally got through security. Since I'm flying Business Class, I got into the Red Carpet Club, which is totally awesome. Now I can enjoy all the free drinks and food I want, and nap in relative luxury. Also, they gave me a ticket for a mini suite during my layover in O'Hare, where apparently I'll be able to shower and eat breakfast. I'll have to see what that is all about, but right now I'm in heaven.

11:50 AM: I finally discovered where the smell of vomit has been coming from - my track jacket. I foolishly shoved it into my backpack while it was still damp after the typhoon in Kyoto, and it must have gotten mildewy or something, because the worst smell of all time is coming from it. I have to remember to keep that pocket closed on the flight to avoid embarrassing myself my first time in Business Class.

11:54 AM: I tried to get a Time or a Newsweek, but all they had was hardcore pornography. Way to stay classy, Japan.

4:34 PM: Well, we're up in the air now, and it's totally awesome. Not only am I in Business Class, but I have the front seat, so I've got a crapload of leg room. The seats recline, with leg and footrests, and I'm constantly being waited on. The second I sat down, I was given orange juice by one of the flight attendants, who saw my book and was impressed that I had gotten Harry Potter in Japan. Then I was given a menu, showing all the elaborate courses in the meal service. Soon after, I was given course after course of the best-tasting airplane food I've ever had, while I watched The Last Mimzy.
The one downside is that while the food tasted good, it is airplane food. Let's just say it's a good thing I'm within ten feet of the bathrooms.

10:23 AM: I finally finished Harry Potter. Little did I know that all the flight attendants were waiting the 10-hour flight so I could tell them what happened. The second I closed the book, I was called up front, where I proceeded to ruin the entire book for five eager flight attendants.

Even though it's been over a week since I got back, I figure I should finish this. Long story short, I got stuck in Chicago, but luckily my sister was in Chicago at that time, about to head back to Madison, so she picked me up and brought me to her apartment, where my mom met us and drove me home. One week later and my body is just beginning to readjust to the time difference. The jet lag is killer.

Looking back, I can't believe what an incredible trip I had. I'm not even 21 years old, and I've been able to see and do some amazing things that some people much, much older than me haven't even been able to do. The main purpose (besides fun and seeing some really crazy things) of my trip was a success - I am so confident in my ability to survive on my own in a completely foreign world, and I am no longer nervous about getting by in Egypt. In fact, Egypt should be a breeze compared to this - I certainly won't be hopping from train to train every day! I look forward to stepping off my plane and onto African soil, but until then, I'm happy to have these two extra weeks to spend with my friends and family at home. Check back here on August 22nd for my first Egyptian update.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Tokyo - Trapped in Tokyo

Pearl and I woke up bright and early for a super-important and super-nerdy mission: to get the seventh Harry Potter book. It was being released in Japan at 8 AM, which I assume is midnight in London. But it's only 6:00 PM back home, so I was able to feel great about the fact that I had it 6 hours before my much more obsessed sisters could get it. Losers! Of course, I was the only person in Tokyo to have bought it, since it hadn't been translated to Japanese. The people standing at the sad little Harry Potter table outside the bookstore practically went nuts when I bought it. They also gave me a gay little bright orange Harry Potter bag to embarrass myself with on the subway.

We packed our crap up and left for Tokyo Station. Pearl would be returning to camp, and I would be going to the airport to try to get my flight moved up two weeks.

Some of you must think I'm crazy for cutting my vacation (a vacation from not working, however) short by two weeks. But any of you who have been to Japan for more than two weeks probably know that - no offense to Japan - it all starts to become the same. All the temples and shrines blur together, and same goes for all the neon cities. I'm sure it would be a great country to live in, but sightseeing here for six weeks in a row can get a bit redundant. And rather than two weeks (back to being alone, mind you) of the same old, I thought my time would be better spent at home with my friends and family before I take off again.

So Pearl sat and waited with me for my train, where we had a nice, half-hour goodbye (she really hates goodbyes, but loves to drag them out, apparently). I can't help but be struck by the fact that four years ago, when I stopped in the hall at school to comfort a little Asian girl crying about failing a Spanish exam, I was setting in motion events that would lead to the two of us hugging goodbye in a train station in Tokyo. I think she and I are both in agreement that our time together in Japan was a bit surreal. But I am very lucky to have had her there with me - she puts up with my sarcasm that often borders on being just a plain old asshole, and she knows how to have a good time anywhere (much to the bewilderment of the quiet, reserved Japanese). It's a shame she won't be in Cairo with me.

So anyway, I got to the airport and, as expected, things turned sour. Since my tickets were bought with frequent flier miles, they could only get me specific seats, of which there were none between the 21st of July and the 5th of August, my scheduled departure date. I tried several different ticket agents, all of whom appeared to be heartless, ignoring my cries of, "My sister was hit by a car!" (Five years ago, but I didn't tell them that.) One guy even started yelling at me when all I asked was, "Isn't there anything you can do?" I think I found my very first mean Japanese person!

Since it was a Saturday, there was literally not a bed in Tokyo or any nearby city, unless I was willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for the Park Hyatt (where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson stayed in Lost in Translation). Which I wasn't. So I settled down for a nice, long weekend in the airport, even though I knew it would be impossible to change my flight before the 5th.

After searching online to no avail for any room of any kind, I began to explore flight options. I found one that was fairly cheap (read: cheaper than two weeks in Japan) from Osaka, so I called my dad, waking everyone at home up at 3 AM - sorry, family - to ask if I should do it, since I would have to book it and hop on a train to Osaka as soon as possible if I was going to make it in time. By calling, I regrettably ruined my planned surprise - I really wanted to beg my way onto a flight from Tokyo, so I should show up at my parents' doorstep in a few days, much to their surprise. My dad said he'd look for better options online, and said he'd call me back. And that's where we are now. I'll try to provide updates as things go along.

5:32 PM: This couple has officially been in this airport lounge making out for three hours now. I got to watch the whole process as they introduced themselves, and now this. I can only hope I'll get to see them break up within the next couple of hours.

5:34 PM: Why do they pick the most nasal woman to do the announcements?

5:39 PM: My dad just called. He said he's just going to use miles to fly me from here rather than Osaka. Isn't he the best? By the way, I forgot to mention that when Pearl and I were leaving the hostel, Sebastian the creepy German said, "See you later," even though there's no indication they'll ever be able to find each other again. Unsettling.

6:37 PM: My god, how things turn. I am now flying business class directly to Chicago tomorrow. I'm still spending the night in the airport here, which I'm fine with (although I'm beginning to suspect that since I'm not past security, I'll be kicked out on the streets at some point), but I figured I would try to check in 20 hours early and spend the night in the Red Carpet Club lounge. I was so excited to deal with the nice Business Class people rather than the frigid Economy Class bitches, but when I went to the Business Class area, the desk was empty. So I went back to Economy, and asked if they would be back so I could check in.
The woman said I would have to wait until tomorrow, and when I asked what time the counter opens, she actually rolled her eyes at me, like that was a totally inane question to ask. Then she shrugged and said, "I don't know. 11:30?" Brilliant customer service.
Now my problem is that I got from the ATM a crapload of money in anticipation of staying here for two more weeks, so I bought an enormous pile of junk food for my dinner, and then settled down in my seat/bed for some Harry Potter. Just another wild night in Tokyo.

10:29 PM: For the past three hours, I had been watching this lone security guard walking in a circle around me and the three French guys also sleeping in the lounge up here on the fourth floor. He was visibly nervous about saying anything to us, since there were four times as many of us as him and he was uncomfortable with using that much English, I took comfort in his unease and slept up there even though it was obvious it wasn't allowed, as did the French dudes. Next thing any of us know, he's waking us up, saying, "Stay. Follow me." And then he just walked away. All of us were confused - did he want us to stay or follow? He stopped about 20 meters away and just stared at us. Finally, one of the French guys went over and asked him what was going on. He came back and said to me, "If I understand, we have to go to ze first floor to a zpecial area."
So we all gathered up our stuff and followed the security guard through the strangely deserted airport. It wasn't so much a parade as a hilarious shuffle, since the security guard was sort of meandering at his own pace without even looking back to see if we were following.
Eventually, we got to the lounge on the first floor, where a couple guards watched over thirty prisoners - er, passengers. One by one, more passengers shuffled in, escorted by guards, looking as confused as the rest of us.
The worst part is we had to leave the empty, perfect quiet of upstairs to this cramped, loud lounge that has been totally taken over by a huge, sleepless group of Japanese teenagers.

10:59 PM: Now all of our guards are making their way through the crowd, checking passports and tickets. It makes sense, since we're not behind security so we could be hobos or something, but it isn't detracting from the prison feel they've got going here. The guy that checked my information wasn't happy with my lack of a ticket, or the fact that all the info I had about my flight was scribbled on the back of a receipt. But I think I passed, and I don't have any reason to fear being taken out behind the dumpsters, where I saw them take a Jewish family who never came back.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Tokyo - 1 Crab Hat, 2 Crab Hat, Red Fish, Blue Fish

I woke up to the creepy German guy who sleeps across from Pearl hitting on her. He was so obvious in what he wanted, and his lines were hilarious. Stuff like: "You're funny," and when she kept her sheet on like a cape, "Are you going to save the world?" Or my personal favorite, claiming he spoke "three and a half" languages, but quickly amending it to five, because apparently he forgot he speaks Italian and French. Pearl was strong enough to resist his charms, but I was tempted to hit the greaseball in the face.

We wanted sushi for breakfast, but when we couldn't find the sushi place we were looking for (after that, I stopped carrying Lonely Planet entirely), we settled for the first place we found, which had a lot of great tempura.

After that, shopping. This time, however, it was for me. I needed to get a lot of gifts, but more importantly, I had to get these frog hats I've seen all over Japan but haven't been able to find. Eventually I found some hats shaped like crabs made by the same company, so I bought one, settling for my more unique hat. As we were leaving the store, I came up with a brilliant idea: any time anyone is fighting in front of me or acting crabby (get it?!?!?!?!), they have to wear the crab hat. For the two people fighting, though, I would need a second crab hat, and I was much too embarrassed to go back for a second one. So I gave Pearl my debit card and she bought the second (and last) crab hat, laughing hysterically while I peeked around the corner as she paid.

We then went to the Sony Building to check out all their amazing things. But mostly we just sat in several of their high definition lounges and watched high definition home videos of babies with skin rashes and creepy clowns. The place was really cool, though, and we got to try out some stuff that isn't even available for you suckers yet.

Exhausted from all the walking and the madness of Shibuya, we returned to the hostel for a little nap. For the second time that day, I awoke to the now-shirtless German trying and failing to get into Pearl's pants. She was nice enough to try to sneak out to get a cake for possibly my last day in Japan (we'll see about that tomorrow), but couldn't find a cake shop. It was still a nice gesture, though, and she did end up buying me sushi, a crepe, and another small meal later. But mostly because I had run out of cash and Japan hates credit cards.

We went back to Shibuya to see it at night on a Friday, and it didn't disappoint. The neon was overwhelming, and there was an insane amount of people. We ended up getting a little pre-meal at a stand-up sushi place. What you do is you just walk in, stand at the bar, and yell your orders to the chefs, and then pay at the end based on how much and what kinds of fish you had. We were a little confused, but one chef took pity on us and gave us a giant English menu, and he made sure to ask us what we wanted, since we didn't know how to get his attention. It was really fun, and the sushi was pretty good.

Later, we met Ixchell and Kaz for karaoke. Unfortunately, the karaoke place was filled with Japanese businessmen waiting to get in, and we wouldn't have a booth until 11:50, and that was too late due to hostel curfews. So there went my last chance for Japanese karaoke. Instead, we went to an arcade, where we played a Dance Dance Revolution-style drumming game, and marveled at all the ultra-high tech games. There was horse race betting more realistic than the actual race tracks, some weird, giant undersea roulette thing, and this really crazy game where kids move their Magic cards around on this sensitive table that somehow reads the cards and then acts them out on a video screen. It's hard to explain, but it was unreal. Watching the kids who have mastered this stupid game move different cards to fight off approaching armies was a bit like watching Tom Cruise work the computer in Minority Report.

We returned to the hostel, which had become twice as packed as before. It was already impossible to sleep there, but with all the new people, sleep became some sort of foreign concept.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Tokyo - "It would be so nice if something made sense for a change." - Alice

We woke up bright and early (okay, not that early - only 6:00) to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market. For some reason, the French people that were up the night before at 2 AM were still awake at 6:00, all of them on the internet. I guess the French have no need for sleep.

When we got to the fish market, the majority of the really crazy stuff was finished, but we still some some cool octopi, eels, huge tunas, and the like. We picked a sushi shop for breakfast and watched the chef prepare our meal right in front of us from fish that were alive only a couple hours prior. Of course, it was the best sushi I've ever had.

After the fish market, we kind of strolled around the downtown area of Tokyo, which was a bit mindblowing. We were absolutely exhausted, so our schedule consisted of finding comfortable places to sit down. First we stopped at a cafe that overlooked the busy intersection, where I ate an entire second breakfast, to Pearl's disbelief. Then we went to a bookstore so I could stock up for when I surely get stuck in airports (more on that in a couple days), where we sat in the really comfy chairs and Pearl actually napped.

Although still exhausted, Pearl called her two friends from her English camp - Kaz and Ixchell, who have lived here for more or less five years. The first thing we told them to meet us at - the giant Sony Building in central Tokyo - they were unable to find. Then Kaz suggested we meet at Shinjuku Station, one of the busiest stations in Tokyo. When I asked where specifically, he said, "Uh... the exit." So far, not so good. Then he called me half an hour later, saying they had gotten off at the wrong station. And they were supposed to show us around?

Eventually they found us, and they turned out to be really cool. Kaz speaks fluent Japanese, so he was a huge help, and Ixchell is hilarious. They took us to Harajuku, this crazy shopping area for teenagers. And I mean crazy. These kids have decided to completely avoid any sort of real fashion and have invented their own. The only way I can describe it is if an acid-crazed clown raped Alice in Wonderland. Some of the girls wear Alice-type dresses, complete with awful shoes and huge, floppy bonnets or bows. Others tan themselves until they look like dark chocolate, and then dye their dreadlocks different neon shades. It was horrifying. We entered a few of the frightening stores, which unfortunately don't let you take pictures (but I did sneak one of a gay pirate outfit for sale), which was a shame. I was dying to take pictures of the girl in the baby doll dress standing in front of a huge mirror, trying to decide which giant bonnet worked best with her outfit.

After that, we went to the famous Shibuya, which many of you will remember as that busy intersection in Lost in Translation. It wasn't as packed as usual, but it was still very chaotic.

First the automobiles rule the intersection...

Until the chaos begins.

Then the shopping started. The girls dragged Kaz and I to an unbelievable amount of stores. It was brutal. But I did find some good gifts. Hours later, we returned to the teen area, which was much more filled than it was at noon. Strangely enough, the girls started going into the stores we were making fun of earlier and actually started to buy things! By this point, my feet had already gone numb.

After a lot more people-watching and shopping, we went to a photo booth. I don't mean a normal one where you take four pictures in a little booth outside of a store. In Japan, entire buildings are filled with these little booths. You take about six or eight pictures, and then you run to the back side and throw all these tacky graphics and words and effects on the pictures until you can barely see your faces, and then you finally print them out, hours later. Against my will, it was actually a lot of fun. And these girls take their photos seriously. It seems some girls could make a whole day of photo booth-going.

We went to get some tempura, where Kaz was kind enough to order for all of us. After a long time filled with excellent food and great conversation, we all split up, since Pearl and I were exhausted. Pearl literally fell asleep the second she sat on her bed.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tokyo - Too Many People

The first order of business was getting the hell out of Osaka. We were worried that the anal retentive employee at the front desk would be mad that we were cutting out early, but since this is the only place I've ever seen where you pay day-by-day, I'd imagine this sort of thing happens quite often here. In our haste, we neglected to follow some of the hundreds of pre-check-out rules. We definitely did not "fold your brankets" (I'm not making fun of their accents - that's how they spelled it on the signs).

We boarded a train to Tokyo (oh, how I missed these long train rides), and three hours later we were in the middle of the madness of Tokyo. I've been in Japan for nearly a month now, but nothing can prepare you for Tokyo. It has to be the craziest city in the world.

After a few not-so-difficult transfers, we were at the station closest to our hostel. The problem is I had felt so rushed at the Apple store in Osaka that I hadn't written down the name of the hostel we were staying at. All I had was a hand-drawn map that said to cross some water, pass the Mercedes-Benz store, and eventually take a right.

Unbelievably, we were unable to find the hostel with that detailed information. We wandered for close to an hour through tiny little residential and warehouse neighborhoods. The woman at a nearby information center pointed us to the Mercedes-Benz building, so we were at least in the general area of the hostel. We asked several people, but none of them knew any English. At one point, Pearl just opened the door and walked into some old woman's home. In her defense, the woman had decorated her house like a hotel, and even had a little "welcome" sign out front. The woman was pissed at us.

Finally, a nice cop gave us directions. It was to the sister hostel of the one we were booked at, but they pointed us the right way. And then we had to wait at the hostel for the receptionist to get back from lunch. Luckily for Pearl, they had an open bed that night, so she wouldn't have to go back to that old woman and ask to stay at her house.

The hostel is a step up from the one in Osaka (a pile of feces would be a step up), but it's filled with loud French people. Pearl and I are sharing a room with these three guys from California currently skateboarding around the country while sporting really trendy 1980s moustaches (when asked, "Where are you going next?" one responded, "We just go where the boards go, man.") The place is really hard to sleep in, but we shouldn't be here long.

After checking in we tried to find a cool-sounding restaurant in Lonely Planet. Of course, the maps were wrong and we never found it. I'm done following these maps. In fact, Pearl called her friends in Tokyo to show us around the next day so we don't find ourselves completely lost anymore. Because Tokyo is really, really big, believe it or not.

We went to the neon craziness of Shinjuku, where we had Chinese food, much to Pearl's dismay (it's like me going to Japan to have a hamburger). But she did speak in Chinese to the waiter, who made fun of her Wisconsin-accented Mandarin. The food was incredible, and I ate two full-sized meals, because it was an absolute steal. I spent the rest of the night wanting to either vomit or die, I was so full.

After dinner, we had only one destination in mind: the red light district! Lonely Planet was wrong again, but after about half an hour, we found it. You can tell when you're there, because there are hundreds of signs showing you all the choices you have for dancers/entertainers/sex slaves. Most of them are actually men, which was surprising. It was really funny to see some of the male escorts sitting outside their clubs, talking on the phone and doing normal stuff in front of the billboards offering them for sale. One guy in his picture was in full S&M gear - he even had The Gimp's mask from Pulp Fiction. It was a really freaky area, in short.

We then made our way back to the hostel at only 8:00, since we were exhausted from getting lost all day, and we had to get up early for the first market the next morning. Plus my modeling shoot should be coming up and I need to look well-rested.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Osaka - Osaka Sucks

Before we took off, we got up to watch the Gion Matsuri parade that marks the end of the festival. And boy, was it hilarious!

There were thousands of people lining the road - the crowds stretched all along the route and were almost an entire block wide in some places. The cops tried to control the masses, but it was literally surging against them as they tried to make a human wall. I should mention that the crowd was 75% senior citizens. These people go nuts over their traditions.

It was incredibly hot as well. Within ten minutes the sweat was pouring down my back. Finally, the first float showed up. But these things are centuries old, and they're not that advanced. It's this ten-story thing on wheels, pulled by two teams of about twenty guys (half of whom were white and looked like confused tourists that somehow wound up pulling massive floats). Oh, and the floats don't turn. At all. They had to lay down all this bamboo and water the ground to drag the float 90 degrees around corners. The process literally took half an hour per float. And there were roughly forty floats.

This sex kitten stood pressed against
my shoulder throughout the parade.

Then people started dropping, after only the first float had passed. All sorts of old people were being carried by the cops to ambulances, but still the crowd tried to push past the cops to get a better view. It was pandemonium, and I began to see why the parade is such a big hit - it's a really, really fun time. After about five floats, though, we had enough, so we pushed backwards through the crowd, which was quite the ordeal, and went back to check out.

We went to Osaka and found our hostel, which we had booked right before we got on the train. Katie had written me earlier that they were in a "HELL HOLE" in Osaka, so we were worried we would be at the same one. We weren't, but we might as well have been, because our hostel could only be described as a "HELL HOLE". It was so ancient and strict (probably due to the Christian owners and managers) - no eating or drinking in the rooms, lights out at 10 PM, showers (group, not individual) are only operational for 45 minutes, one room key has to be shared by all eight dorm members. It was hilarious. Pearl and I planned to stay for three nights before going to Tokyo, but within about ten minutes we had shortened it to two nights. And later that night, we decided just to go to Tokyo the next day.

We quickly got out of there (since we had only a few hours before bed time), and I dragged Pearl to the Osaka Aquarium. It was actually the best aquarium in the world, I'm going to assume. They had all sorts of crazy fish, and they tried to make their tanks as large and realistic as possible - they even had spider monkeys and sloths in the rain forest section. But the star attraction is the freaking whale shark. That thing is huge, and it's at the center of the spiral-shaped building, in the world's largest aquarium tank. It was so cool. Consider my aquarium thirst quenched.

We then went to the "America Village", which is supposed to be filled with people living the "myth of America", but is actually no different than the rest of Japan. We also hit up some small little neon-filled streets. And then we were out of things to do in Osaka.

We went to an Apple store for free internet, and decided to look for a place in Tokyo for the next night. I found only one place available, since it was the weekend, and booked myself a bed. Pearl went to do the same, and I had gotten the last bed! We laughed for about five minutes in the middle of the Apple store, and then left quickly after receiving glares from the staff for abusing their free internet. We would have no option but to beg for Pearl's sake at the hostel in Tokyo.

We quickly raced back to our creepy little hostel in the middle of the woods, since it was almost curfew. But on the way, I got stopped by a young Japanese man. He claimed he was a fashion designer, and started asking me my measurements. He then offered me a job as a male model, to shoot in Tokyo on the 20th and 21st. I lied and said I was going home really early on the 20th. He then held a finger to his ear, like he had an ear piece (he didn't) and said, "Oh! It was just changed to the 19th!" I don't know how legit of a career this could be, but he was persistent, so I let him take several shots of me right there on the sidewalk. I tried to make a Zoolander face, but he wasn't having that. And for those of you who don't model (unlike me, of course), let me tell you - it's the most awkward thing in the world. I suddenly became extremely conscious of my hands and feet, and I had no idea what to do with them. I kept kind of raising my hands up, and then crossing my arms, and then just letting them dangle. I'm positive that guy got some really awkward pictures of me.

He claimed he was sending the pictures to Tokyo tonight, and said he'd either call or e-mail me (I gave him my roommate Bodnar's phone number and e-mail address) before the nineteenth. The whole thing seemed very sketchy, and I'm sure he's just masturbating to the pictures. But it won't stop me from telling everyone I'm a model in Japan, and Pearl can attest to the fact that my ego began to swell throughout the rest of the trip.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Kyoto - Gion Goodbye

Today we had one plan only - no shrines and temples.

Unfortunately, Pearl took that as permission to spend the day dragging me into hundreds of stores selling the exact same bags, of which she bought several. I only bought a quirky Japanese shirt for my sister.

After our rather painful shopping extravaganza, we went to the conveyor-belt sushi place we had eaten at with Katie and Laura. The food was just as good, but there weren't as many varieties. But still, you can't beat that quality at those prices.

We went back to the hostel for some rest, watching the devastation from the earthquake on the news. Around 5:30, Pearl said she was going out to take some pictures in the area (but secretly she was doing more shopping). We agreed to go out to the festival at 7:00, and she said she'd be back in roughly an hour. So when she hadn't shown up at 7:30, I was a little concerned. You see, she has no sense of direction in big cities, and she asked me about ten times that day if it was Sunday, so she clearly isn't good with time. So I knew she was either lost or oblivious to the passing of time. I told the awesome girl at the front desk to tell Pearl to wait for me if she showed up, and I set out to find her.

Now, if you remember from yesterday, this festival is total madness. The second I walked outside, I realized that I literally had to find one specific Asian person in a group of one and a half million. It was the hardest game of needle-in-the-haystack I've ever played. And I've spent many hours searching for needles in haystacks. I walked around hopelessly for half an hour and went back to the hostel. The girl shook her head, so I went back out. I walked even further, scanning the crowd. I couldn't help but think of how I would describe her to the police ("Asian" is all that came to mind). But then I got really hungry, so I grabbed a kebab. Even rescue parties have to eat! But the kebab didn't sate my hunger, and I was left with a huge dilemma. I really wanted this great noodle dish I had the previous night, but you have to sit down to eat it, and I knew I would feel guilty if Pearl washed up on the shore of the river and I had been sitting with a box of noodles in my lap. So I stuck with standing-only foods, because I'm a really good friend.

I returned to the hostel at 9:00, and the reception girl said she had showed up but then left again and hadn't returned. Luckily it was me looking for Pearl and not the other way around, because I knew the girl (I call her that, by the way, because I never asked her name in the ten days I was there - she was just one member of the Holy Trinity of "She", our name for the three interchangeable receptionists) was joking. When I told the joke to Pearl later, she was confused why she would have said that, since she hadn't gone back outside. And that's why it's easy to like Pearl.

We did the usual thing - carousing stalls, getting stuck in massive crowds, sampling octopus balls, etc. Since it was the last night, there were all sorts of mini-parades going on, which was exciting. And we were able to go up in the giant floats the musicians play in. However, Pearl and I just walked in, without realizing you had to pay. The poor woman taking tickets looked like she wanted to say something, but she didn't know how, so she let us go up for free. When I realized our mistake, we didn't right it - we just took off running. Hey, free float tour!

The festival ended quite suddenly at 11:00, with cops shouting through bullhorns and forcing stalls to shut down. On the way back to the hostel, we saw this really incredible band. It was made up of some number of kids - fifteen, maybe? They kept changing instruments and walking away in the middle of songs, so it was impossible to tell who were actually members (according to their website there are only four, but I promise you more than that were involved). They were an unbelievable amount of fun. They all got so into the music, and everyone had great voices and were awesome at their instruments.

They sang mostly American songs from the 60s and 70s, which made them even better. The whole thing was really informal. Everyone just filled in which words they knew, and they tried to coerce us Americans and some British girls into singing for them. At one point, everyone was singing "Purple Rain" together, and one of the last songs was "Let It Be", although their version was more of "Ret It Be". It was the perfect ending to my time in Kyoto.

Watch them try to remember the words to "Let It Be":

I think I'll look back on this city with the best memories from my trip. I met some great people, Pearl joined me here, and I had an absolute blast. It was actually pretty painful to have to leave.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Kyoto - Enjoying The Festival, Deer?

Pearl and I took a day trip to Nara, since the typhoon had gone by, and it was a beautiful day - I saw blue sky for the first time since Wisconsin!

It felt so nice to be on a train again. It felt a bit like going home, as sad as that sounds. Believe me, though, that Japan's trains are awesome. We watched all the storm damage go by, and then arrived in Nara. Since the festival was still going on, Nara was relatively empty, which is odd for a weekend. It's a very nice little city, and the majority of it is actually a park.

The highlight is this enormous temple that houses a huge statue of Buddha. I believe it is sixty feet tall. His nostril is large enough to fit through, and they had a hole behind him the same size as one of his nostrils, so you could experience crawling through Buddha's nose. We passed, since the line was pretty long.

On the way out of the temple, Pearl said to me - and I kid you not - "Now let's go find that giant Buddha. I wonder where it is." Needless to say, I laughed at her for days.

Another interesting part of Nara is its deer. Much like Miyajima, the deer in Nara are extremely tame. I pet tons of them, and there were a couple eating maps and bags they stole out of people's hands. It was so much fun to watch kids with deer cakes you could buy to feed the deer, running and screaming while a huge buck chased them down.

We returned to Kyoto that night for a much dryer repeat of the previous night. We thought last night was busy, but everyone showed up on this night due to the perfect weather, so the place was crazy. There were literally at least a million people there. That may seem like an exaggeration, but even the five- and six-lane streets were packed to the point where you were pressed shoulder-to-shoulder and front-to-back with everyone around you. It was just one slow shuffle, and you had to decide where to turn quickly, because it took quite a while to get over to the sidewalk. All the lines for food were insanely long - not to mention impossible to tell where they began and ended - but we managed to sample a large amount of different food. I have absolutely no idea what I ate, but it was unbelievably good.

Everyone had gotten dressed up in their finest kimonos, both men and women, so the people-watching was perfect. Two girls in front of us at one point held up their phone to take a picture of themselves, so I put my head above them and smiled into the camera. When they looked at the picture, they started laughing and blushing, showing it off to their two friends, who also started giggling. I was quite a big hit, I tell you.

Even better, near the end of the night, we happened to be outside a restaurant as six geishas were climbing into two cabs. Pearl snapped a picture of one in the back of the cab, but her camera was on night-vision setting, so for a few seconds before the flash, the poor geisha had a bright green light shining in her eyes. She doesn't look too thrilled in the picture, but it came out absolutely amazing. It really looks like a tabloid paparazzi photo, and it may as well have been one. Everyone crowded around them, snapping pictures like they were movie stars. It was the perfect ending to that crazy night.

At the bottom right, you can see one
geisha in the back of the cab; the other is
in the center with her back to me. You can
see her white neck. I didn't say I was
the one with the good picture.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Kyoto - Picture Oktoberfest In A Hurricane

The first part of the day was devoted to the almighty shrines and temples. To be honest, I don't remember anything we saw, and neither does Pearl. But I bet they were old and expensive.

That night marked the beginning of the Gion Matsuri, Japan's largest festival. Which means it was the perfect time for a typhoon!

That's right, a typhoon was quickly headed our way with increasing intensity. But no one seemed worried, and I was actually a little excited to see one, so we went out to the festival.

It's practically impossible to describe that night. Basically, for three nights proceeding the big parade on the seventeenth, they close off literally the entire downtown of Kyoto - roughly one square mile - and pack it with stalls. Every street down to the one-lane-wide winding back streets are filled with stalls offering crazy amounts of various things - all sorts of strange-looking foods, tons of games for kids, souvenirs, clothes, candy - everything! It's absolute madness. And once you throw in the hurricane-like rain and wind (I ruined two umbrellas and the next day we saw entire bamboo forests that had been leveled), it was utter chaos. And yet the streets were still packed.

We took in the sights for a while, tried some delicious (albeit soggy) food, and called it a night when we became so soaked our clothes were dragging us down.

Here are the only pictures I could manage during the typhoon:

Friday, July 13, 2007

Kyoto - Slapstick, or: Lonesome No More

Today Pearl showed up. She was supposed to get here around two in the afternoon, but she arrived around 5:00 instead. Either way, my loneliness had ended.

On the way to the hostel, I took her to the street where I had seen a lot of geishas, and who happened to be there? Laura and Katie! They were geisha-spotting on their last day in Kyoto, so we stood and talked with them for a while as a few geishas strolled by. We made plans to meet for dinner, and Pearl and I went to the hostel.

Later that night, Pearl and I met Katie and Laura outside our all-purpose landmark (Baskin Robbins), and after being hit on by a gay man from Atlanta, we set off for one of those sushi places that have all the dishes on a conveyor belt. The food was pretty great considering how cheap it was, and the whole evening was a blast. How could I not have a great time with these three ladies?

After dinner, we said goodbye - the girls were spending their last night here in a traditional Japanese inn rather than our little hostel. It sucked saying goodbye to them again - Kyoto wasn't really the same after they left (not to mention the fact that everyone left at the hostel was obnoxious). Of course, within about four hours Laura had already asked me to be friends on Facebook, so I have a feeling we'll say in touch.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Kyoto - Temples And Shrines And Movies, Part 2

Life in hostels is like nothing else. In fact, we're quite baffled that no one has made a show about students traveling - it's better than Big Brother! It's very strange to wake up with four new people sleeping around you who definitely were not there at 2 AM - and all of them in only underwear. But that's not quite as strange as watching relationships form so quickly due to the forced intimacy. For instance, two people arrived in the hostel separately, and within twelve hours of meeting each other, they were coming back to the dorm at 3 AM, making out. And then Katie, Laura, and I all laid in our three-story bunk bed and watched in disbelief as she climbed into her bed, and after a quick glance around the room, the guy stripped down to his underwear and dove into her bed head-first. The girl kicked him out within five minutes, thank god. I can't wait to watch for the next couple days as their relationship blossoms and then ends, I'm sure with them screaming at each other on the sidewalk outside.

Anyway, my day started - how else? - with temples and shrines. I've decided I will not be paying to enter any more of them, since that's ridiculous, so I hit up one that Lonely Planet told me would be free - and we all know what that means, right? It's not free.

But I didn't know that, so I took the subway out there, and was met with the hardest rain I've ever seen in my life. Lonely Planet said to get there and head east towards the mountains, but since I couldn't see ten feet in front of me, I obviously had no idea where the mountains were. I just went uphill, assuming mountains are usually on high ground, since "high ground" is pretty much the definition of mountains. It was the right choice, but I didn't learn that until I actually got to the temple. The rain was flooding the streets, so traveling uphill was literally like trying to wade upriver. It was very, very entertaining.

When I arrived at the temple, the rain stopped completely, so I decided to walk up a path into the mountains that would surely have shrines that were free to see. A woman coming downhill looked at me, down at my sandals in the thick mud, back at my face, and put her hand on her hip while shaking her head, as if to say, "Classic Danny." I walked for about fifteen minutes in my sandals through the nasty mud before I gave up and went back to the subway, washing off in the cleaner-looking puddles along the way.

When I got back to the city, I ran into Katie and Laura, who were supposed to be going to a hot spring, but it didn't open until three. So we went to a little food market to eat all the free samples we could find, and Katie and I ended up getting some delicious pork kebabs.

I went with the girls while they ogled all the expensive clothes at Zara, since I'd rather do that than another temple at this point, and then went back to the hostel for a bit of a break while they went to the springs. They invited me along, but my reasons for not going were threefold: I'd still be alone, since I'd be in the men's half; I'd have to be naked with old Japanese men; and the sulfur I'm allergic to would probably make all my skin fall off like it did in New Zealand.

The girls came back later that night, and we had a lovely and very British night. I bought some yellow cake, since it was their last night, they taught me the proper way to drink tea, and we watched Casino Royale. I even practiced my English accent, which they found entertaining for some reason. We spent the rest of the night having a really hilarious time in the common room that had kind of become our own room by this point - people actually asked our permission to use the computer.

I was really sad to say goodbye to them. It was so nice to not only finally have people in a hostel that spoke fluent English, but to have two girls who are absolutely hilarious and know how to have a really, really good time in any situation. They were also on the same wavelength with me for most things. The second I mentioned Lonely Planet's maps, Katie cut me off, yelling, "They're so wrong!" During Casino Royale, when Bond is running to get to a bank before someone steals all his money, Katie joked, "This is the bit where he's in the Lonely Planet, saying, 'Where's the fucking bank? It's not where it says it is!'" And the three of us were able to confess that our favorite part of Japan is the trains. I claimed I wished I could spend all five weeks on the trains non-stop, and Laura and Katie were jokingly planning to make a day of just riding the trains to and from Tokyo (which they actually did later, so they tell me).

I'm very lucky to have met them, and they saved my time in Kyoto from being five horrible days of loneliness to five really fun days. I guess it really wasn't all luck. When I first met them, I apologized for America, and Laura explained to me on the last night that she had told Katie earlier on their trip that, "I don't mind talking with Americans, just as long as they apologize for their nationality."

Laura's the left, Katie's the right.
You can't tell from this picture, but we
do have facial features.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Kyoto - I Swear It Wasn't Because We Had Just Watched Saw III

Sometime around 3 or 4 in the morning, I'm guessing, I was having a nightmare. In it, I was on the phone with my mom, and I was all alone in a park in the middle of the night. Suddenly, some guy came up behind me and grabbed me, saying, "I'm going to kill you!" I dropped the phone in the grass, but still tried to call for help, yelling, "Mom!"

The thing is, I had screamed that part out loud.

I've been so worried about snoring in the dorms, so it's only fitting that I would cry out for my mom in the middle of the night in a dorm in a strange country. Someone above me - either Katie or Laura - let out a little laugh, and everyone started shifting in their beds, so I knew the whole room had woken up.

For the next half hour, I had to keep my hand over my mouth because I was laughing too hard. The muffled laughter sounded a bit like I was crying, and the last thing I wanted was these people thinking I cried out for my mom in the middle of the night and then started sobbing quietly to myself. The thought of that only made me laugh harder.

In the morning, I apologized to Katie and Laura, who didn't remember it at all, as well as everyone else in the room. So if I hadn't apologized, no one would have known. But instead I had to tell them the story, which gave the girls quite a good laugh. The next morning, Katie asked me, "Did you happen to yell anything else out last night?"

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Kyoto - Temples And Shrines And Movies

Temples and shrines all day: that's what I did. And just to warn you, that's the plan for tomorrow, too. Katie and Laura say they never want to see another temple or shrine again. I can't imagine seeing six months' worth of these things like they have. Not to say I'm not having fun, though. This is still a very exciting country, and it's nice to have people to talk to at night again. Plus, Pearl gets here on Friday.

As usual, all the excitement came after I returned to the hostel. Katie and Laura followed not soon after, and we - what else? - picked a movie out. Laura had been pushing for The Devil Wears Prada since I first met her, and some new people from London supported that decision, so I was outnumbered. Surprisingly, it wasn't that bad, even though it was extremely predictable.

Later that night, Ben and I put in Saw III to pay the girls back for the previous movie. It was pretty disgusting and also really stupid. Then we just kind of talked for the rest of the night. Ben and Andrew were appalled that I've eaten almost all of their national animals, and Katie and Laura were trying to figure out what to do now that they soon have to return to the real world. I went to bed peacefully - and not at all frightened by Saw III, might I add - blissfully unaware of the embarrassment heading my way in a few hours.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Kyoto - Gold Or Silver, It's All The Same

It was kind of a late start in the morning, due to the late night before. But I had business to do, if you catch my drift, so step number one was finding a western toilet. I struck the jackpot with the seventh floor of a department store - western toilets not only in separate stalls, but separate rooms. Unfortunately, the store is only open from 10 AM to 8 PM, so I'll just have to get my body on some sort of schedule. This makes two poop-related stories so far, for those of you keeping track.

I then made my way to Kyoto Station to attempt to figure out the bus and subway system. And let me tell you, Kyoto Station is impossible to miss. It is absolutely enormous, and almost entirely covered in glass. I spent about an hour there, exploring the millions of shops and restaurants inside, and then piked up my two day bus/subway pass. I first took a bus out to Kinkaku-ji, a famous golden temple. It was nice, but I have seen much better temples, and for free, too. Plus it was way, way too crowded. I had a feeling that would happen all over Kyoto.

The next stop was Ginkaku-ji, a famous silver temple that was never completed and therefore has no silver on it. But I figured I should get the golden and "silver" temples out of the way. Before going to the actual temple, I took some side paths next to it, which wound up into the mountains. I ended up spending hours up there. The area was just little houses and cafes mostly around this small little river, and it all had a really European feel to it. Up in the mountains were all sorts of really ancient forests and temples and Zen gardens. There were only a couple other people exploring these back roads, so it was perfect. Reluctantly I went back to the main temple and paid 500 yen to get in and see gardens and temples crammed with people and inferior to the ones I had just been in for free. Unless something looks amazing, I will be doing my best to avoid paying for any other temples.

By the time I got back it was starting to get dark, so I strolled along the river again, where I saw at least five geishas pouring tea and sitting at tables with businessmen at one restaurant. I snapped a picture, but you can't see much, since I tried to sneak it.
There's one in yellow next to the three
guys in white on the left, and one in pink.
Of course, I could be lying and you
wouldn't know the difference.

After dinner, I returned to the hostel, where Ben was watching Crank, that really stupid Jeremy Statham flick. After that, we started A Night At The Museum, but it kept skipping, so we turned it off and Ben and Andrew went out to meet a friend. Katie and Laura were just getting back, and a new girl from Australia named Chloe had just gotten in, so we all decided to watch a movie. We put Laura in charge, who chose The Devil Wears Prada. I vetoed it, and she came back with The Prestige or Happy Feet. The Prestige it is!

What followed was an hour of four adults trying to get a DVD player to work. Eventually the girls forced me to go up to the fifth floor lounge and steal their DVD player without providing any excuses for what I was doing. Of course, we couldn't get this one to work either, and just as we were all starting to complain about what we would do all week (Me: "I want to go home." Katie: "Laura, this is half the reason we booked this place for five more nights!") Andrew and Ben came back. Andrew is a technology whiz, so he got the thing going in roughly three minutes. But then the disc was bad, so he ended up just hooking his computer to the TV so we could all watch Sin City from it. Hopefully it doesn't happen again after Andrew and Ben leave the hostel, because we'll all be screwed. The best I could do was turn it off and turn it back on, and then unplug it and plug it back in. And the best Laura had was, "At home we just press the button with the arrow coming out of the square. Do we have that here?" It's good to see I'm not the only one challenged by simple things.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Kyoto - "Alone In Kyoto"

I had a tearful goodbye with my room before setting off for Kyoto. It took only two hours to get there, and the hostel was directly next to the subway exit. Very convenient.

The hostel is actually pretty nice. First of all, the girl at the front desk is not only fluent in English, but from her total lack of an accent, it seems she was raised in America. She's very nice and helpful and, by the way, totally hot. The place has air conditioning, a big screen TV with lots of movies to choose from, free internet, yadda yadda yadda. But here are my only two complaints: I have to share a room with 11 other people, and the place doesn't have western toilets! Call me prissy, but I'd really prefer not to squat. God knows what I'm going to do for the next 9 days.

I had no plan for the day, so I just explored downtown Kyoto and went to a couple nearby shrines. It was still the weekend, and I couldn't believe how packed the streets, stores, and restaurants could get. For those first few hours, I wasn't too happy. It was extremely hot, loud, there were lots of people, everything was way more expensive in this city, Kyoto seemed like any other big city, and worst of all, I was realizing that I still had five days all alone before Pearl joined me.

But then the sun started to set, and things got so much better. First of all, it wasn't 90 degrees anymore. But then I started to walk along the river that runs through Kyoto, and all of the sudden I heard this really loud jazz music. I just assumed it was some loud stereo, since there is no shortage of those in Japan. But it was a band made up of what looked like 15- or 16-year-olds. There were five trumpeters, a guitar, a standing bass, a drum set, a piano, three trombones, and four saxophones. And these kids were amazing. Without a doubt the best live amateur band I've ever seen. They played a lot of jazz and funk, and I sat and watched with the rest of the crowd, all of us just sitting on the pavement next to the river. It was a really great way to start my ten freakin' days in Kyoto.

I returned to the hostel after they finished, intent on reading and watching TV or something. But when I went into the first floor lounge, I saw three people were already in there watching The Departed. So I joined them and got to see the awesome end of the movie again.

Long story short, I ended up staying in the lounge for about five hours. The majority of the time it was me, two Australians named Ben and Andrew, two London girls named Katie and Laura who were traveling in Asia for six months, and some girl also from England whose name we tried to remember when she left the room - I think Roxanne? The night was pretty great, as I haven't had a real English conversation in ages. We talked some politics, which was awkward for the only American in the room, made fun of all the Scandinavians hiding up on the fifth floor lounge, and then watch Lucky Number Slevin, which I figured out about halfway through, impressing everyone (but, really, when do I not impress everyone?) Now, if only that place had Western toilets...

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Hiroshima - No Need Ta See Ya, Miyajima

I awoke to a clear day (which means it'll most likely rain tomorrow, when I have to lug my backpack to the station), and thus the perfect day for a day trip to Miyajima.

I got on the correct train this time, and it wasn't too long before we arrived. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I had to take a ferry to Miyajima, since it's apparently an island. Clearly I've done my research. Luckily, the ferry was run by Japan Rail, so my rail pass got me on for free. I say "free" instead of "included", because I believe around day four I had gone on enough trains that would have totaled more than I paid for the pass. So now I can just think of all of this as free, which is awesome. It's also great because if any boat, train, or bus has the holy "JR" symbol on it, I just flash my magic pass and I'm instantly waved on. I tell ya, it's beautiful.

So anyway, I took the short little ferry across to the island. And what was the first thing I saw upon disembarking? Deer! So this is where the tame deer are! I snapped a few pictures and pet one. Have you ever pet a wild deer? Didn't think so. They're amazingly tame, although the bucks with the antlers are supposedly slightly dangerous and you should avoid them. This is conveyed by the signs around the town with a little cartoon showing a kid getting to close to a buck, and the buck turning and yelling something at him. And god knows I do not want to be insulted by a deer. But the younger ones and the females will actually stick their faces in your bag to search for food.

After admiring the deer I went to see the big tourist attraction of Miyajima - the world's largest rice scoop! No, seriously, they have that. But they also have the Floating Torii, this really old giant archway or something out in the ocean that commoners had to paddle through to reach the sacred island. It was nice, but after that, I realized there wasn't much to do. I went into some shrine, which was really just a glorified pier, and came out at the other end, feeling even more at a loss. However, I started to see signs promoting the Miyajima Aquarium. And I'm a huge sucker for aquariums. Jessica and her brother will remember in Washington, DC the $20 cab ride to the "National Aquarium". And not the real one in Boston or Philly or wherever. This is some cheap imitation that is literally about fifteen tiny tanks filled with fish you can see in a pet store in the basement of some government building no one had anything better to do with. And the place cost $15! I had to end up paying for both of them to get them to come in with me, even though I had just remembered I had been there years before with my family, and we had all hated it.

So anyway, I can't resist an aquarium. And once I saw the signs showing seals with balls on their noses and girls riding whales, I knew I couldn't miss out on all the fun, so I went.

It was pretty okay, as far as aquariums go. I saw the sharks eat, which was terrifying, since a couple were nearly twice as long as me. I also saw some dugongs - or is that a kind of Pokemon? They were some sort of whale or dolphin or something. And I got a seal to follow my hand around. Plus their otters were acting like crack addicts badly in need of a fix - running headfirst into the wall over and over. Thrilling stuff, no?

But once I left, I was back where I started. The town is far too tourist-oriented. All the restaurants serve the same food, and all the stores are souvenir shops literally selling the exact same gifts. I experienced deja vu every two minutes. So I decided to turn my day trip into a five-hour trip, and took the next ferry out of there. Seems a lot of people got the same feeling as me, because several American couples on my ferry in were on the same ferry out.

It's a nice town, but it really doesn't have much to offer that the rest of Japan doesn't already have. Tomorrow: Kyoto. Because I think it's about time I see a shrine or maybe a temple.

The world's largest rice scoop!!!!!

Friday, July 6, 2007

Hiroshima - I Assume They Play This Joke On All Americans Here

When I woke up, it was raining again. So I decided to put off Miyajima another day. Instead, I visited some areas of Hiroshima I hadn't been to before, and tried to get some of my gift-shopping done.

Lunch was at some Japanese restaurant, and the whole thing went terribly.

The food was good, but at one point the waitress brought out this little teapot filled with still-boiling water and indicated that I was supposed to pour it into some broth or something and drink it. But the kettle was very confusing and what looked like the spout was definitely not the spout. So I ended up pouring scalding water into my lap. And then my horrible instincts kicked in, and out of shock I dropped the entire kettle - all in my lap.

"Daijobu desuka?" the waitress asked, running over. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, yes. Daijobu," I replied, clenching my fists under the table to stop from yelling.

Eventually the burning sensation abated - although it did leave a rather nice red spot on my right thigh - only to be replaced by uncontrollable sweating. So I just sat at my table in the corner, laughing and sweating.

Having embarrassed myself enough, I got up, paid, and left. The waitress came running out after me, yelling, "Wait!" and brandishing my forgotten umbrella. Another smooth move.

The rain had turned into a fine mist, which failed to make the rest of me wet enough to cover up the giant spot on the front of my pants. So the whole way back to the hostel - nearly a half-hour walk - I had to watch the eyes of the hundreds of people I passed look first into my face, then down at my soaked pants, then hurriedly away.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Hiroshima - Day Tripper (Almost)

Things didn't quite go as planned today. I woke up, ready to take a day trip to Miyajima, which is home to the second most photographed attraction in Japan (after Mount Fuji, of course). But, to make a long story short, the train I was told to get on went in completely the opposite direction, and it was almost two hours before I was able to get off and on a train back to Hiroshima.

So, with four hours of my day suddenly vanished, I decided to put off the trip until tomorrow, since today would no longer be my last day in Hiroshima. Instead I just kind of wandered around the city with no real plan. I kind of treated today as my day off from doing much of anything - now that I have two days more in this city, I don't have to pack everything into one day.

My biggest decision of the day was when I came upon a sign that said "Comic Book Museum" with an arrow pointing up a steep hill. Ultimately, my dislike of exercise triumphed over my love of comic books, so the museum will have to wait for a less hot day. I wonder how many visitors they get a year - clearly no fat comic book nerd is going to climb a mountain to look at a bunch of comic books they probably already have at home.

For dinner I had pizza. Yes, pizza. And it was good, damnit!

I have to say, if I were to live in Japan, so far I would choose Hiroshima as my home. The people are great, the city is beautiful, the food is outstanding, yadda yadda yadda. So I'm really glad to be staying here two more nights. Another reason is that I have yet to see any of Hiroshima's famously tame deer (in fact, in a recent poll, when asked what they thought of when they heard the word "Hiroshima", 58% of Americans said, "Deer," and 37% said, "Didn't some buildings fall over or something?") But I have yet to see a single deer, let alone pet one like that stupid little girl in that statue I'm always seeing.

I don't know what's been going on at the department store next to the hostel, but for the past two nights, there have been huge crowds behind police barricades, obviously waiting for someone to pull in. A lot of them have hand made signs to hold up with hearts drawn on them and some stuff written in Japanese - I assume the usual stuff like, "I love you Brad!" and "Take me with you, Ashley Angel from O-Town!" Whoever this dude is, I don't know why he's coming to the same store twice in a row, but I figure if it was anyone I cared about they would have written his name in English. If these people are here tomorrow night, I suppose I'll have no choice but to stand with them and find out what all the fuss is about.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Hiroshima - A Very A-Bomb Fourth Of July

It was completely by accident that I ended up in Hiroshima for the Fourth of July, but when I realized it on the train here, I decided to save all the bomb museums for today. I can't explain why - it just seemed like the thing to do. I guess a lot of people had that same idea, because the museums were packed with American families.

I woke up to pouring rain, the hardest it has rained yet. And why shouldn't it rain? I can't remember a Fourth of July that hasn't had fireworks delayed by rain, so something as simple as being in Japan isn't enough to prevent a rainy Independence Day.

Unperturbed by the rain, I set off to the Peace Memorial Museum. They've done their best to make all the bomb-related parts of Hiroshima free, to make sure everyone can see them. This was the most expensive museum - roughly 40 cents. It starts with a short history of Hiroshima, followed by an elaborate exhibit detailing the war and the events leading up to the bombing. The entire thing was extremely fair and unbiased - as much as they pay attention to the US's scouting of the best cities to bomb that would give scientists a good view to study the after-effects of the bomb on unsuspecting people, they also focus on Pearl Harbor and Japan's reckless leap into the war.

Then you walk past the wall of pictures taken by people of the mushroom cloud, followed by a small walk-through replica that makes you feel like you're in the center of the destroyed city - complete with manikins with melting skin and horrible burns. But that's nothing compared to the second half of the museum.

The rest of the building is filled with pictures and artifacts. There are tons of tattered, bloody outfits schoolchildren were wearing when they died, a tricycle a four-year-old was riding, locks of hair mothers cut from their children's bodies, and so on. Some of it is really gory, such as the pictures in the hospital of people with horrible burns, and the pictures of deformed bodies due to radiation. One of the more striking exhibits is an entire section of stone steps someone was sitting on. The explosion seems to have totally obliterated the person and turned the stones white, with the exception of the parts of the stones where the person was sitting, leaving a sort of permanent shadow. You are also allowed to touch a few things, like melted roof tiles, twisted glass, and fused-together bowls. It was really shocking, but it serves its purpose well - there's no way you could come out of there thinking nuclear weapons are okay.

I visited some more small memorials, such as the memorial hall with a fountain shaped as a broken clock stuck at 8:15 - the time the bomb went off - surrounded by a mosaic panorama of the destruction, made out of 140,000 pieces, one for every person supposedly killed in the explosion.

It's impossible to get the feeling this place gives you by reading or hearing about it. You really need to see the collection of broken wristwatches stuck at 8:15 or the pieces of broken glass that are still occasionally removed from survivors when they go to the hospital complaining of strange pains. It's completely surreal, and absolutely necessary to see.

After that, I had a nice pick-me-up meal and headed to some old castle or something. I was the only one there other than the employee, who was simply an elderly volunteer with a passion for history. He laughed when I forgot to take my shoes off, but I guess it endeared me to him, because he let me go in a blocked-off area of the castle that was pretty cool.

The next stop was the Prefectural Art Museum. The place is mostly modern, which I am pretty lukewarm about, but I did have a specific reason for going - they have a Salvador Dali room, and he is my favorite artist. I kind of flew past all the stupid squares and triangles that are supposed to represent something, and came face-to-face with Salvador Dali's "Dream of Venus". It was beautiful, and crazy as ever. The wall was also filled with little sketches he did, all of them of course filled with twisted, disgusting people doing bizarre things. The rest of the museum and the garden outside were whatever.

For dinner, I decided to go to some place recommended by Lonely Planet. We all know what this leads to, so I'll make it short: they're retarded. They made it look like it was one block from the A-Bomb Dome, when it was really three. For some reason, they omitted an eight-lane street from the map. Nonetheless, I found the place.

The first floor is this enormous bakery. It is filled with any baked good you can imagine, in addition to other delicious-looking treats. I didn't explore it until after I had already eaten, but I'll definitely have to go back. The second floor is a sort of upscale food court. There are various counters from different nationalities, and then a bunch of tables in the middle. I settled on Chinese and got some shrimp fried rice. This is the problem with English menus - all the food is probably good, but I'm not going to try anything at random like I have in other restaurants, since I get scared away by the descriptions. But the shrimp fried rice was unbelievable - I don't know how I can go back to that crap back home.

Overall, this city has had the best food of my trip so far. In addition, there is so much to do here, and it manages to maintain a small city feel, even though it is home to well over a million people. I planned on going somewhere else for my final two nights before I go to Kyoto, but I think I've decided to stay here two extra days. I promise the private room and delicious ice cream weren't too influential in my decision.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Hiroshima - Lonely Planet Strikes Again

In the morning, I set off - albeit reluctantly - to Hiroshima. In the ticket reservation line, the old man in front of me was kind enough for some reason to let me go before him, even though I wasn't in any sort of hurry. I felt guilty, because after serving me, the counter closed and the guy had to wait over half an hour until the next counter opened. Sucker! You could tell he regretted it, because a woman tried to sneak in front of him and he sharply reprimanded her.

Seven hours later (why does it always take seven hours for the train rides?) I arrived in Hiroshima. I was a bit nervous, even though I've heard only good things about it. But still - we destroyed the place! So far, though, they've been the nicest people in Japan - everyone greets me on the streets as I pass, and they're all extremely helpful.

The hostel was rather far away from the station, but Lonely Planet highly recommended it, and even though they suck at directions, their recommendations are always spot-on. What I didn't count on was the walk taking over an hour, and since this is the most southerly point of my trip, it's outrageously hot.

Finally I got to the hostel, soaking wet. Luckily they had a room open. Turns out it was worth the walk, because this place is amazing. It's called a hostel and the prices are hostel prices, but it's pretty much a hotel. I've got a private room and bathroom nicer than my room back in Aomori. Not only that, but the lounge has a vending machine with about 20 different flavors of ice cream. And if the mint chocolate chip is any indication, I'm going to be spending all my money on this stuff.

Since I hadn't eaten anything since the day before, I immediately set off to the nearest restaurant. According to the bible, it was on the second floor of the Clover Building. But when I got there, I learned that, of course, the Clover Building was some sort of fitness center on all four floors, and the woman at the front desk had never heard of the restaurant I was searching for. Bravo, Lonely Planet. You never miss an opportunity to disappoint. So I just went to the next restaurant, which was Italian.

I know most people don't go to Japan for Italian food, but they should. I can't believe how delicious this food was. I had some sort of pasta with a cream sauce and huge chunks of snow crab mixed in. I'm going to have to resist temptation to go back and get it every meal.

I then strolled around the Peace Memorial Park. It was dusk, but even without that, it would have been extremely beautiful. All over the park are small monuments to those who died from the bomb. In the center of the park, there's a small reflecting pool with an eternal flame that won't be shut off until the last nuclear weapon on Earth is destroyed. The pool had tons of fresh flowers left by it, and I saw a few people stop to pray on their way back from work.

At the end of the park is the A-Bomb Dome. Essentially, it's a building with a dome on top, and the bomb detonated almost directly above it, preserving the frame of the dome. It stays lit even at night, which makes it even eerier.

After that, I just came back to the hostel (I swear it wasn't just for more ice cream). And now I'm laying in bed with a hot mug of free green tea, flipping back and forth between Die Hard 3 in Japanese and Sister Act 2 in English. Try and tell me it doesn't get any better than this, just try to!