Friday, August 14, 2009

A little publicity

I have a little writeup on the Oberlin college website that went up this week. You can check it out here.

I left out two pretty major aspects of the trip, though, I guess because I wanted to keep the story short. However, I really ought to give them their due.

My mom taught me a lot about having fun while touring. She was a rockin' mentor. It was also great to see how Japan would look from the eyes of someone totally new to the culture. I'm glad I got to show her parts of the country where few foreign tourists venture, particularly in Kyushu.

And my trip would not have been anywhere near as wonderful if it weren't for Siena. She was my lifeline, my rock, and all those other goofy romantic things. Some people say "We'll always have Paris," but Siena and I will always have Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto, and Amanohashidate.

Friday, June 19, 2009


So that's the end of my pictures to post. My next little project will involve arranging photos on the Google map overly that Siena made, marking every time I told her where I was. However, that will have to wait until I ship my computer to Palo Alto and find the time while starting my new job (at Facebook!).
Oh, and you can check out a short series of ads about smoking and subway etiquette that I put up here.
I think there are a lot of wonderful aspects of Japanese culture (like hot baths and not having to tip), but there are also plenty of aggravating things (like xenophobia and a lack of good bread). I thought I might have some reverse culture shock, but instead I just find myself appreciating all the English everywhere. I also really enjoy how everything around me in the US is organized and decorated in a symbolism that I can easily understand. And it's great to be able to get food that I love, and to understand all the nuances of a conversation with a random person.

I feel pretty great about the area I covered and the things I've seen, and I'm also glad that I still want to visit Japan and study Japanese. But I'm ready to go back to a steady consumption of Japanese popular culture and contemplation of their history and social issues.

I also want to thank everyone who helped me along the way. There are a lot of you, and no one wants to read a long list of every memory I have of being helped. But thanks.

Back to Tokyo

After rebooking my flight, I had a few days to wander around Tokyo. There was something refreshing and exciting about coming out of the subway in Asakusa. The first thing I saw was the Asahi building.

The bartender at the hostel suggested that I check out 井の頭公園 Inokashira Park, since I'd seen most of the major tourist destinations in Tokyo. It turned out to be perfect for an overcast day, and also for adjusting back to the city.
It looks rural, but I am on a jogging path and behind me up the hill are apartments.
I can't stop taking pictures of shrines and temples. This one might actually be a teahouse. Anyways, I liked the bright red sticking out of the greenery.

Inokashira Park is also home to the ジブリ美術館 Ghibli Museum, which I saw described as the anti-Disneyland. Only about 60 people are allowed inside at a time. You also have to buy tickets ahead of time for a specific time of the day, and your reservation expires if you are more than 20 minutes late. I didn't go in, but I got some pictures.

I had seen a picture of Mike and Mog in front of this robot, but I never would have guessed it was actually on the roof.


The next day we woke up in that soccer field and headed to Nagano. Our first stop was 善光寺 Zenkouji Temple. I had thought that by this time I would be sick of temples, but this one was actually pretty awesome. The signs led us to the back way, so this is what it looked like from that angle.
So we toured it backwards, starting with the main building and working our way down to the front gate. We weren't really supposed to take pictures in the main building, but Gray stood outside and zoomed in to take a picture of me rubbing this Binzuru healing statue.
There was a really active tourist info booth, where we learned that お焼き oyaki are the local snack food, basically vegetable dumplings. I naturally went for かぼちゃ kabocha pumpkin, and it was delicious.
We had missed a special once-in-five-years display of an ancient hidden Buddha statue (although Wikipedia says it's only a replica on display). The pole in this picture is attached to the statue (not sure if it's the real one or the replica) by five golden strings, so everyone likes to touch it afterwards.

Then we got waylaid by another English-speaking volunteer guide, who took us all around the temple complex. This included the main sanctuary and a pitch-black tunnel that goes under the holy of holies. Inside the tunnel is the "key to paradise," which felt like a door knocker. Having touched it, I am now guaranteed to be reincarnated in the Pure Land, where it's super easy to attain enlightenment.

After that, we participated in a tea ceremony that had been arranged by the conference that had taken up all the hotels the night before.

And then our guide took us to the museum where they have replicas of a number of the statues on site. My favorite were the three-headed Hindu-inspired ones that live in the main gate.

Despite having an awesome morning, as we were starting our climb out of Nagano, I reached the end of my tether and decided to turn back. From my perspective now, I think it was a very good idea to give myself a full 8 days to sort everything out before moving to California. Also, three months is a very long amount of time to be travelling in a foreign country. Someday I'd like to go back, but not for a few years.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On to Matsumoto

The next day we descended to Matsumoto, through some fairly unpleasant, narrow tunnels. Along the way we stopped at a 道の駅 road station which just so happened to have REAL BREAD!

The actual bakery was just across the street, too! It was expensive but I got really excited.

Matsumoto was surprisingly picturesque. I've already mentioned how nice it was.

It's got a castle, where I was waylaid by an English-speaking volunteer guide. It also had a ton of little touristy sites downtown, most of which are in that statue album I posted recently. We stayed for two nights, and since we had access to a kitchen, we decided to shop at the local supermarket for dinner. Being from Pittsburgh, we were excited to find this:

On our rest day, I was excited to go to the Japan Ukiyoe Museum.

Ukiyoe is the Japanese word for woodblock prints, although it literally means "pictures of the floating world." Apparently it houses the largest collection of woodblock prints, collected and passed down by a wealthy merchant family since the art form's heyday in the Tokugawa era. I was also treated to a slideshow in English, and then right afterwards the narrator appeared behind the ticket desk.

To be honest, though, I was more impressed with the Matsumoto museum of art.

It focused mostly on native artists, but they were pretty cool, including Yayoi Kasuma. I also really enjoyed an exhibit devoted to a landscape painter that included a reconstruction of his studio.

The next day we headed for an "organic pizza restaurant" that was on my map, which turned out to be in an artsy farm-y town north of Matsumoto. It started to rain as we zeroed in on the area, and then based on my reading of the map we had to push our bikes along an unpaved path to get to it. I'd say it was probably one of the most magical moments on the whole trip. The food and decor and atmosphere were all very comforting, and I even shelled out the extra money for 玄米 brown rice, because you can never find it in Japan. These pictures don't really do it justice, but I'll post them anyways.

They are actually called Shalom, and right now the literature they gave me is tucked away. They've got a ペンション bed and breakfast, a cafe where you can see them make the bread, and a "bazaar". What actually made me almost cry was hearing American folk music playing in the bazaar.
So after a fun evening in Takayama, which included eating dinner at a curry place called Jakson's (best Japanese curry I've ever had), we set out for the serious
mountains I'd thought about all trip. We soon could see them in the distance.

This gave us some inspiration during a totally exhausting climb.

We camped just outside an onsen town, where I tried the "onsen egg," which is just an egg cooked in hot spring water.

And I have to post this picture, because it's so silly and it worked so well.

The next day we had planned to leave our gear and bike up this crazy climb, but Gray hadn't slept well, and I couldn't find any decent climbing food. So I took the bus, which turned out to take about an hour. I think we made the right choice, because it took Aston Martin 3 hours to climb the road, and 30 minutes to get back down. The top looked kinda like this:

I only had about an hour between busses, so I quickly climbed the peak that the maps said would take 15 minutes, and then wandered around the shops. Here's me at the peak. Although I sort of trimmed my beard in Takayama, it's gotten pretty long since I last shaved in Tokyo.

That afternoon we crossed 安房峠 Abou Pass. I'm not sure how much we climbed in 7km, but we ended up at 1790 meters above sea level. Either way, this one was a little easier, and had better views.

Note that that is the road I was just on over there.

The top happened to be the border between Gifu and Nagano Prefectures, so we got a nice dramatic view.

Then we coasted down, learning that Nagano Prefecture likes to post signs counting their hairpin turns, and the proceeded to climb up to Kamikochi. Inside a tunnel. At 11% grade. For 1.3 kilometers.

After I recovered, we were greeted by monkeys! The scenery here was also completely gorgeous.

That's me on Kappa Bridge. Immediately afterwards we discovered that there are no restaurants in Kamikochi, and that everyone had either brought food for their camping stoves or were eating at exclusive hotel restaurants. I suppose we lucked out that some hotel receptionist was willing to sell us some rolls and rice balls, but it was one of lower points on the trip.
The computers at Asakusa Smile, the hostel I stayed at in Tokyo, left a virus in every folder on my ipod.