Shirakawago, Obuse and Matsumoto (The final leg of Tim’s Travels)

Need a distraction from the work week? Read on for the fifth and final part of the “Tim’s Travels in Japan” series, covering my brother and my trip through central Japan!

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Background music –

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=9&v=G6earlGo0b0

Shirakawago

On the heels of our Kyoto exploits, we took a bus into the mountains of Gifu.

Shirakawago is a very isolated area in the Gifu mountains, whose main draw card are its 250-year-old gassho buildings. The steep roofs of the homes are said to resemble hands together in prayer. The less romantic, more practical reason for the angle of the roofs is so the structures can withstand the weight of massive amounts of snow and house silkworms in the attic space. The majority of the buildings are still actively lived in – a home like any other, with the added experience of busloads of tourists admiring your house every day.

My brother and I booked to stay overnight in one of the gassho homes in Ogimachi, better to admire up-and-personal. I was never going turn down sleeping in an actual UNESCO World Heritage Site, I’m an absolute sucker for those kind of bragging rights!

The only reason we were able to grab a place in this tiny town was became we visited in an off season – neither during the full snows, nor during the summertime green. Personally I think the melting snow had its own charm – winter literally melting away to reveal spring. Is that.. birds chirping? Rays of sunshine? A harp strumming?

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Our lodgings were quaint but cozy, and our host was kind. Think ryokan/traditional Japanese inn, but more low key – it’s someone’s home after all. With Japanese cuisine included!

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Where we stayed – The Shimizu Inn

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Our room

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Dinner inside the inn with an open hearth

Things to do in Shirakawago aside from eating and sleeping? Well, Tim and I spent most of our available time wandering around the village – to the shrine, trekking to The Viewpoint (ask anyone in the village and they’ll tell you which one), and exploring the outdoor museum, featuring many of the older, unused buildings.

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For the more intrepid explorer who doesn’t mind slipping around in socks, the buildings have open attic crawl spaces

You have to admire the people of Ogimachi, to live in such an isolated area, gawked at daily by a steady stream of tourists, in very old homes which require constant upkeep. What keeps them there? Family loyalty? A love for the tourism industry? Maybe its the quiet mysticism of a small community living the same way they have for hundreds of years.

By the village, we found the following text on a stone tablet –

To live in the steep mountains is to live in Paradise on Earth. Even when the lamplight grows dim, we talk fondly of the unending good old times. The young men don’t leave the village, but stay on and support the elderly. When we build roads, we do not sell the trees for lumber. The old trees grow thick on the mountain, enriching our hearts, even if we have no other wealth.

To clear the land and till the soil and support oneself is to obey the laws of nature. He who sells his fore-bearers’ estate loses his native place and brings ruin upon himself. Let him who would hear the song of the birds in the mountains endeavor with all his strength to grow fruit trees there. He shall pass his days in joy gazing at the stars. Happy days still come to the lonely woods in the steep mountains. The light of peace glows on in the eyes of the horses and cattle.

After discarding the idea of quitting our day jobs to live the simple life in the mountains, we hopped on a bus and made our way to Nagano.
Obuse

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The first time I had fizzy sake! You can now purchase this brand in New Zealand.

Waiting for us at Nagano was our dear friend Georgina (who I had previously visited when we saw the famed hot-spring snow monkeys).

As per tradition, we began our stay with yakitori, edamame and good kiwi yarns at an izakaya. Back at Georgina’s, Tim had his first experience of sleeping under a kotatsu (a low table with a blanket and a heater underneath – otherwise known as the gods’ gift to all in Winter. Am I still bitter that I couldn’t bring my own kotatsu back to New Zealand? Definitely.)

We spent the next morning visiting the highlights of Obuse, the town in northern Nagano where Georgina lives and works. First stop – Ganshoin temple!

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Within the walls of Ganshoin features a sprawling ceiling painting of a phoenix by ukiyo-e artist Hokusai, the same guy who created the Wave off the Coast at Kanagawa. If you’re thinking of that one print of a wave that’s on every Japanese souvenir ever – bingo! That guy.

The painting is known as “Ho-O staring in eight directions”, as the phoenix glares at you wherever you stand in the room. Can confidently say, the sassiest depiction of a phoenix I have ever seen. I couldn’t get a photo (the phoenix looked like he would have ratted me out) but I’ve googled it for you here. Hokusai painted this masterpiece when he was 89 years old!

(Fun Pokemon tid-bit – Ho-o (Japanese phoenix) = Ho-oh)

The temple is also well known for its garden full of frogs. Famously, these frogs were an inspiration to Kobayashi Issa, one of the four haiku great haiku masters of Japan. He wrote the following haiku about two frogs fighting over their love interest:

Scrawny frog,

Hang tough!

Issa is here.

Many believe this poem actually alluded to his sickly infant son, who later died.

We spent the rest of the day with Georgina feasting on the good foods Obuse has to offer, including pork katsu and chestnut ice cream (Obuse does chestnuts reaaally well).

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Matsumoto

Most people would have called it a day there, which probably would have been sensible. Being Not-Most-People, we decided to fit in one last sightseeing stop in Matsumoto.

While I’m sure there are many things to do in Matsumoto, I was there for one thing only – the castle, sexily known as “Crow castle” for its dark and brooding colour scheme.

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so brooding

We briskly made our way to the castle site, only 15 minutes walk from Matsumoto station. We made a mental note of both the train that would take us home, and the fact that if we missed it, we wouldn’t make it for the connecting last train. Suspecting that we had little time to spare, we opted to skip the inside tour. We set ourselves up on a park bench,where we had a killer view and a good supply of Pocky.

It was lovely actually, sitting back, taking in the majesty of the castle, plum blossoms rustling overhead, swans circling below.

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So engrossed were we of Crow Castle, that we lost track of time completely.

The 15 walk to the train station became a 5 minute sprint.

And then, we were back! Back in Tokyo, my second home. We reached my apartment at around 11pm, with just enough energy to get McDonald’s delivered.

Tim’s final two days in Japan were a whirlwind of ramen, Harajuku kimonos, yakitori and karaoke.

 

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Tim’s last days in Tokyo! I don’t think these photos require any explanation 🙂

These ten days together were perhaps the longest my brother and I had spent together since we were children. We’d always gotten along really well, but I’d like to think we’re all the closer for our shared adventures.

Where to next, Tim?

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Kyoto’s Greatest Hits, or, “Kyoto in a single day” (Tim visits Japan Part 4)

Kyoto – capital of Japan for one thousand years, with a tourist attraction on every corner. Can you cover Kyoto in single a day? “It can’t be done!” they cry, “You must be crazy!”

“Why yes, yes I am,” I say with a wink as I scuttle into the sunset, camera in hand.*

* Who are we kidding – All of Kyoto in one day would actually be insane, guys. The following is just another account of me biting off more tourism than I can chew!

[Background music – “Life is full of dreams”. Sheena Ringo is one of my favs, and has taken a real jazzy turn recently which I’m loving]

 

Fresh from our Osaka sumo adventures and now settled in for the night before our day in Kyoto, we put together the Kyoto-Greatest-Hits game plan. Armed only with a map of the city, a bus timetable and some crayons, the scene looked a lot like this –

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Tim, my trusting brother, was happy to sign up for my crazy plans.

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The street we stayed on. Pretty typical of the neighbourhood

Tenryūji

The day began bright and early with the Zen temple Tenryūji in the Arashiyama district.  Originally built in 1339, the name (天龍寺) looks to literally translate to “heavenly dragon temple”, which is, you know, pretty badass.

The temple indeed had a huge painting of a dragon, of which I don’t have photos, but I’ve done the hard work for you and googled it here.

The epicness of the dragon paintings were balanced out by paintings of Daruma – a distinctive looking gentleman credited with bringing Buddhism from India to China and founding the Zen sect of Buddhism.

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Looking from inside the temple to the garden, an attempt at zen?

Arashiyama bamboo forest

My favourite part of the Arashiyama district however was the bamboo groves – about 500m of pathway through a thick bamboo forest. It’s a really popular attraction, so I recommend getting there early in the day so you can hear the rustling wind through the leaves. How’s the serenity? So much serenity.

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Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion)

Next up on the trip – Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), one of the most popular buildings in Japan. The top two floors are covered in gold leaf, and before being reconverted to a temple was the retirement villa of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. The current structure was rebuilt in 1955 after being burnt down by a fanatic monk in 1950.

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Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion)

Just like the golden pavilion, but silver! Except, also, not silver. The name comes not from its colour, but to contrast it with the Golden Pavilion by which it was inspired. Tim tells me that this was his favourite of the temple grounds we saw. There was some top level serenity going on here.  As is the case with zen gardens, every pebble, every blade of grass feels deliberately placed in a way that is calming, not stressful.

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How?

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The Philosopher’s Path

At this point I was dead set on traversing the “Philosopher’s Path” a 2km path so called due to famous Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro practicing meditation here on his daily commute to Kyoto University. I had heard tales of endless sakura, old boutiques, cafes and restaurants…

We were a few weeks early for Kyoto-sakura however, and most of the stores were closed. Being the stubborn (*cough* “determined”) person that I am, I insisted we still walk down it a good way “so we can say we did it”.

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Most of my meditation on the Philosopher’s Park was about lunch

Honen-in

We did get a lucky break, in that the path led us to Honen-in, a small 17th century temple that was significantly more chill/relaxed than the other tourism heavyweights we had seen that day.

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It was at this point I think that we got lost. For like, an hour, wandering the streets. We had factored in “getting lost” time however, so no sweat, and we worked out a big appetite for before yatsuhashi.

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As happens in a city with around 2000 temples and shrines, we stumbled upon a huge shrine by accident

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We also wandered around Gion for awhile! The above are just tourists, but I sweaaar I saw a maiko (apprentice geisha) shuffling down a deserted street

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On any other day that would have about wrapped up our sight-seeing, as many sites close around 5pm in Japan. Luckily for us, we had stumbled into Kyoto during the “Hanatoro” lantern festival. During this time, Higashiyama district (the district we hadn’t explored properly yet) is open until 10pm, decked out with special light displays. This allowed us to in effect double our sight-seeing. Noice!

Kodaiji

According to the brochure we were handed on the way in, Kodaiji was built in 1606 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s wife Nene (Hideyoshi is one of the most famous Japanese historical figures – one of the three unifers of Japan, along with Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu). The pair are both enshrined at the temple.

In preparation for this blog, I read around trying to find out more about the pair, and found this letter from Oda Nobunaga to Nene, which reads – I particularly looked with admiration upon your features and your appearance which seemed doubly [beautiful] since we last met.  That Tokichiro [Hideyoshi] is said to be ceaselessly dissatisfied is a great wrong, beyond words. However far he searches, this bald rat will never find again anyone like yourself. 

Love me some juicy gossip!

Back to the present day – We were herded along the designated route around the temple, which included a large raked rock garden where they played a light show (which I spectacularly failed to capture on camera). No mention of bald rats.

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You can see Ryozen Kannon temple from Kodaiji. The statue was built in the 1950s to honour the fallen on both sides of WWII.

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A particularly eerie mirror lake that looked like you could step into it and end up in a parallel dimension or alternate reality. Probably just get wet to be honest.

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Close-ish to Kodaiji was the Sanmon gate to Chion-in. The temple grounds were closed, but the gate was so impressive I’m still happy to have ticked it off the list!  

We spent the next part of the evening literally jogging/speed-walking through the streets, street food in hand, trying to get to the last spots on our hit list. The cobbled streets lined with lanterns had an other-worldly feel now – a feeling that only increased when we were passed by an unannounced wedding procession, carting by rickshaw a woman wearing a white fox mask. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but I’ve since read that seeing it is said to bring good luck.

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Kyomizudera

The final track on our Kyoto’s Greatest Hits collection was Kyomizudera. Founded in 780, the temple is known for its 13m high wooden stage which was built without the use of nails.

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The entrance to Kyomizudera

At the base of the main hall is a small waterfall, divided into three small separate streams. We went behind the waterfall and used a cup on a long pole to drink from one of the streams. The three streams, depending on which you choose to drink from, can grant you longevity, success at school or a fortunate love life. Drinking from all three is considered greedy. I must admit I don’t know which I drank from, but any of those would be good!!

Also along the way is Zuigudo Hall, dedicated to Buddha’s mother. Not knowing at all what we were getting ourselves into, we paid a small entrance fee and were shepherded down some stairs underground. It got dark, really quick. Pitch black, in fact. Our only guide was a rope of large beads, which we clung to for quite a way before reappearing into the light via stairs on the other side. I’ve since read that wandering this basement is meant to symbolize passage through a mother’s womb.

 

By this stage, we were hungry and it was really late, so we went back into the CBD proper to find dinner. And oh my, we walked for the longest time. I wasn’t really sure where we were going, but we eventually (emphasis on eventually) found our way to a modern looking restaurant, where we were promptly served raw chicken as an appetizer. Sore feet and empty stomachs allowed us to chow down on this with only a few qualms. We returned to our inn by midnight, and left Kyoto the next morning. And that, my friends, was Hannah and Tim’s version of Kyoto’s Greatest Hits.

Next time: Shirakawago!

Happy Easter everyone. I hope you’re all surrounded by friends and family, or, if not, copious amounts of chocolate.

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Tim visits Japan Part 3 – The Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament

I’m currently writing this from our apartment in Wellington, and they obviously knew I was coming because when we moved in they stuck a big billboard of McDonald’s fries in the middle of our view-

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Last year, I had a rather different view –

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This one has a lot more … skin

But first, background music! I chose this one because a) it’s pretty catchy, and b) it’s veeery loosely based on the Japanese folktale of Momotaro (“Peach Boy”), a youth who slays ogres with the help of a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant. In one of our English classes in Japan, the students had to do a book report on a book they had recently read in English. About half of the class (having not done the readings) decided to talk about Momotaro. For some context, doing your book report on Momotaro is sort of like doing your book report on the “Three Little Pigs”.

 

Last I wrote of, my brother Tim and I had just finished our quick trip to Hiroshima, after which we took the next bullet train up to Osaka.

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We had bento on the shinkansen – featuring salmon, egg, lotus root, and.. some.. other thingggssss (I didn’t know the names of the things I was eating but it was good?) You can also see in the first photo the wet paper towel that comes with each restaurant meal in Japan. When we came back to NZ for a long time we felt dirty not wiping our hands on them before eating at restaurants!

The Osaka grand tournament was during Tim’s trip to Japan, so we planned most of the travel around being in Osaka for one particular day. Sumo wrestling isn’t an every weekend deal in Japan – there are several “grand tournaments” during the year, which run for a few weeks at a time, then it’s the long wait until next year.

From what I remember, once we reached Osaka we found the stadium with relatively little difficulty. We just headed in the right direction until we saw a stadium surrounded with rapid fans hoping for glimpses of the wrestlers, who seemed like they were pretty major celebrities for those in the know.

Our pre-purchased tickets from the English website in hand, we headed towards our seats in the stadium.

 

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Inside the Sumo stadium

Didn’t take us long to find our seats either, as it turned out that tickets from the English website = seats in a bubble of Australians and assorted English-speakers. Looking around though, we weren’t the only ones separated out via the seating plan. The two most prestigious areas included the cushioned cordoned-off areas, full of salarymen and the odd geisha, and the front row seats around the ring. Seats truly for the most daring as it turned out – it wasn’t unusual for the wrestlers to be thrown into nearby spectators!

Going to a sumo tournament for the first time, I definitely had certain pre-defined conceptions of what it would be like. Many of these weren’t disappointed, ie. the huge amount of ceremony involved, the caricaturesque feet stomping of the wrestlers before each bout, and the devoted fans.

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Things that we did find surprising included the amazing variety of outfits the referees had (so much silk! so many colours! that hat!), the number of foreign sumo wrestlers, and the ad breaks. Yeah, ad breaks. Every now and then staff would walk around the stage with large coloured banners from sponsors, which at first I thought were some sort of cool ceremonial thing. The appearance of the Nescafe logo soon put that naivety to rest!

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It was a day of  copious pushing, slapping, grappling and foot stomping. We had a lot of fun randomly picking a wrestler to win before each match and inevitably getting way too invested in the outcome.

At the end of the day, we had a whistle-stop dinner in Dotonbori –

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– and then took a late train to Kyoto, navigated the buses, walked the final steps and reached our home for the next two nights!

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What did we do in Kyoto? …that my friend, is a story for another post.

In honour of the name of this blog, I thought I’d also really cheekily pop this photo in here of me and my brother at a different time –

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I got admitted to the bar as a barrister and solicitor, thus making “hannahlee bengoshi” slightly more legit!

Also shout-outs here to everyone who helped me get to this ceremony, most notably my lovely references, Kikuchi who had to translate some really hard legal stuff into Japanese so I could get some necessary documents, and of course the endless support of my family.

And look who else got admitted at the same time – long term guest star of my Japan adventures, Doug himself!

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Until next time, my neglected yet ever patient readers xx

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Tim visits Japan Part 2 – Hiroshima and Miyajima

Happy New Year! I hope you’re all jolly on delicious food and good times. I told a whole bunch of people I would finish the last eight or so chapters of this blog, so, if you’re interested, let’s relive the last months of my stay in Japan together!

[Princess Monoke is the best Studio Ghibli film and I’ll hear no argument about it but anyway please enjoy this emotional background reading music 😉 ]

Hiroshima

Last we left off (a number of months ago, apologies!!!!), my brother Tim was visiting me in Japan, and we had just spent the weekend exploring Tokyo, and Hiroshima was next on Tim’s must-see list. I had left the purchase of the plane tickets to Hiroshima a little late, so could only get a flight which left Tokyo Haneda airport at 7am. I lived over an hour away from Haneda airport by train, so to be in time to board at 6.30am my brother and I had to take the first train a little after 5am in the morning. For all those who know how much of a notmorning-person I am, you’ll appreciate the magnitude of this success..!

(sidenote – I paid for the plane tickets at a combini, how cool is that? Truly the king of convenience, our humble friend the combini)

Anywho, this turned out to be a particularly stressful train ride as I thought I’d sorted an early check-in online, but due to a few translation errors had done no such thing. Bleary eyed on the train I had to frantically delete a bunch of applications from my phone (read – every app except for Google Maps, Instagram and Facebook) to make room for the bulky ANA airlines app that would let me check in on the way, because there would be zero time to check in at the airport. Even pre-checked in we were the last passengers on the plane.. but we made it! Woo!

After arriving at Hiroshima airport, we had breakfast before bussing into the city proper. We were a bit sick of public transport by the time we reached the city (having taken a train, a plane and a bus all before lunch), so walked to the hotel.

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I was taken aback by how different Hiroshima’s vibe was from Tokyo. Which I guess makes sense, seeing as the kanji for Hiroshima looks to literally mean “wide/broad island”. The city definitely had a very wide open spacious feel, in comparison to the crowded buildings in my part of Tokyo.

The first place we wanted to go in the area was Miyajima, island home famous for a torii gate which appears to be floating, known as one of the three most scenic spots in Japan. I’d previously researched the tide times for that day so we could see the torii at peak time, so a few rushed tram and train transfers later (hey, what’s another few public transport trips), and we arrived at the port for the ferry that would take us there.

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Tim on the ferry to Miyajima

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The approach to the island

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Itsukushima Shrine, which includes the floating torii, dates back to around the 6th century. Apparently back in the day due to the island’s sacred status, most people weren’t allowed to step foot on the island and had to approach the shrine by boat, passing first through the torii. These days however the island is a bit of a free-for-all, aside from the rules against dying or giving birth nearby.

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All the wild deer on the island was a cute surprise! Unlike the Nara deer, these guys still had their horns. Thankfully they didn’t try to headbutt us like the Nara guys liked to

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One of many secret spots on Miyajima

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The area around Itsukushima Shrine. For those days where you’re like you know what, I want Nara but, like, tropical?

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My trusty backpack’s first real outing

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Itsukashima Shrine. I was hella proud of this photo 😛

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Really close to Itsukushima is also Senjokaku Hall, literally, “pavilion of a thousand mats”. No exaggeration, as it’s approximately the size of one thousand tatami mats (which come in standard sizing). We found it by accident as we wandered up to have a closer look at the five-storied pagoda right next to it. A 16th century building, it was technically never completed, which explains the lack of walls on most sides. The sparseness is part of its charm though, and it’s relaxing to stroll around trying to find the oldest/coolest paintings on the ceiling. The hall sits on a hill, so actually the lack of walls works for it as you can look out at the island.

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We were really hungry by this stage, so we snacked on street food and wandered the old streets. Tim had a meat skewer and some oysters, and I had dango (common Japanese street food, which I’ve heard described as a sweet dumpling, but is more like its own thing, all I know for sure is it’s made of rice flour, sort of like mochi? Super common in Japan anyway). The area is also famous for manju so we snacked on that too (filled with red bean paste, which I’m having major withdrawals for in New Zealand!)

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Being stalked through town

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As the saying goes, we crossed that bridge when we came to it

I had heard rumours that there was a ropeway on the island that took you to the top of the mountain where it’s apparently super mystical (remember Kobo Daishi who guided us through Koya-san? He had a temple here too!), so I rushed us up to find it.

Now in my head, when I heard “ropeway”, having spent a number of years in Wellington with its cable car, I didn’t exactly realise that the ropeway car would be actually above ground. Like, not touching the ground at all. In fact, quuuite a ways above ground. In a tiiny little suspended carriage with a see-through panel on the floor.

By the time I’d realised this, we’d already bought tickets and were being ushered in to the tiny four-seater carriage. Have I ever told y’all how I feel about heights??

You’ll have to ask Tim how the ropeway trip actually went, as I spent the entire time staying as still as humanly possible staring at the seat cushion. I think Tim was getting nervous that I would want to hike down the mountain instead of take the ropeway again, as he casually mentioned a few times how long it would take it walk down.

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You can thank Tim for this photo, too!

After what felt like an eternity, we finally reached the top. When I lifted my hands from the seat and there was a perfectly hand-shaped sweat spot where my hand had been, which was a little embarrassing, haha.

That was then I made another realization – we were only halfway up the mountain, and there was a second ropeway to take.

This one went horizontally across a valley, and you had to stand in it. The more people they piled in, the more fidgety I became. I figured that on an island where you weren’t allowed to die lest you taint the purity of the shrine that they’d have more rigorous safety measures…? *Hannah rocks slowly back and forth while everyone else relaxes and enjoys the view*

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But then, we were rewarded with this view –

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From this point, you could choose to embark on a quick half hour hike to the very top of the mountain, where a temple complex related to Kobo Daishi was built. There was only half an hour before the last ropeway down the mountain however, so Tim and I made the decision to be content with staring wistfully at the mountain top for a bit and then head back down the ropeway.

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At least we were gifted with a badass lens flare before the descent

By the time we reached the bottom (a less stressful journey by the second as the ground came closer and closer), the sun was setting and the tide was out, which gave the torii that cool silhouette aesthetic.

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We stayed to watch the sunset, then caught the next ferry back to the mainland. By the time we got back to the hotel we were exhausted, but still managed to gather what remained of our energy to head into Hiroshima downtown. I’d heard rumours of a mystical tower that only sold okonomiyaki…

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Okonomimura!

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Hiroshima style okonomiyaki has noodles 🙂

The Okinomimura is a building of several floors with dozens and dozens of okonomiyaki joints with different themes all crammed together. Tim and I ended up at a baseball themed okinomiyaki bar with baseballer signatures covered all over the walls. There was way too much food for us, but we made an extra effort to finish as much as we could because we wanted to make a good impression on the staff.

Our hotel was right next to the Hiroshima Peace Park, so that was our first stop the next morning. Armed with onigiri from the nearest combini we sat below the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (the Atomic Bomb Dome) to think awhile. You can’t not reflect heavily in the Peace Park about what happened here, what it all represents.

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If we thought walking around the Peace Park was a sobering experience, it was nothing compared to the emotional wallop to the chest that awaited us inside the Peace Memorial Museum dedicated to the documentation of the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima in WWII. I thought I could deal, until I saw remains of school uniforms. I believe it’s a really important place for anyone to visit that is able. I feel that it’s wrong to go into detail here, but suffice to say no graphic detail is left unexplored at the museum, so bring tissues.

I’ll leave it here for the moment, but stay tuned, because next up is SUMO WRESTLING! *fist pumps*

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Tim visits Japan Part 1 – Tokyo

Classes are over, I have no visitors staying at my house, my Japanese exam is behind me… and now I finally find myself with free time. Let’s do this.

Ok, I swear I didn’t choose this song as background music because it’s called “Brother”, that’s just an embarrassing coincidence!! It’s on the drama 火花 I’m watching because the constant advertising for it in Shibuya got to me.

*Edit – apparently the above link doesn’t work in NZ, so here’s the live version *fingers crossed*

So, awhile back now, my little brother came to visit me in Japan! I say “little” brother even though he’s twenty-one and, like, twice my height, but hey- I’ll always be the big sister.

I wasn’t able to be in New Zealand for his 21st birthday last year, but his big present from the family was a plane ticket to Japan, so it all worked out. Instead of a few hours spent together at a party, he was forced to spend an entire 10 days traveling with me! Mwahaha!

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He arrived early on a Saturday morning, and not ones to waste time while in tourist mode, we quickly dropped off his bag at mine, skyped the folks for proof of survival and headed off to Ikebukuro.

Ikebukuro (which you’ve heard me mention many times by now) is my favourite place to take my guests on their first day. It’s a convenient place to set people up with whatever they need (looking at you, tourist-sim-cards at Bic Camera) and provides a good introduction to Tokyo terms of being a flashy, busy, yet manageable area… that also happens to have the hallowed Pokemon Mega-Centre. Sentimentally, it was the first area of Tokyo where I really found my feet and learned how to get around without a grasp of the language. After so long feeling like an outsider (or a “forever-guest” as we’ve taken to calling it), having someone from your old life appear within your new world does bring home how much you have learned, and how much your new city actually has become a part of you. But enough of the sappy stuff.

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Killing time in Shibuya. This gem was a kinda fancy place just across from the Scramble crossing. Climb up from Tower records and the Starbucks and just keep climbing, you’ll find it

Once we’d exhausted all we had to do in Ikebukuro, we Yamanote trained to Shibuya, where we killed some time before meeting some of my friends for yakitori at Torikizoku. Torikizoku has become a bit of a running joke as it’s where we ALWAYS go for any squad meet up comprising of more three members. Hey, don’t fix it if it ain’t broke amirite. We went home and crashed kinda early, because by that stage Tim had had an overnight flight and a full day touristing without any rest.

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The next day we headed over to Suidobashi for the primary reason of going to the sushi train there, the same one I talked about at the end of this previous post.

Tim also decided he had to go on the rollercoaster which ran (literally) through the mall and had some sort of ridiculous 80 degree drop. Being the supportive older sister that I am, I waved him off and offered moral support from afar. There was also a Jpop girl band performing on the outdoor mall stage to keep us entertained. The almost fanatical devotion displayed by their mostly male audience was also interesting to watch. No judgement here – I can also fangirl pretty hard – but it did make for some interesting people watching! I considered using one of their songs as the background music for this post but.. I couldn’t sit through a single song :/ I’ll let you Google them yourself if you wish – カントリー・ガールズ
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The same afternoon, we rushed to the national museum in Ueno and ran around in there the last hour or two it was open. We were impressed enough that they had national treasures from 700AD… but then we turned the corner straight into artifacts from 10,000BC. Coming from lil ol’ NZ with its 700-odd years of human history, it hurt our  brains a little to see human artifacts from over 10,000 years ago. In a good way of course. Good, somebody-pinch-me-this-is-incredible-I-can’t-even-comprehend-this type brain hurt.

We still had a bit of time before our restaurant booking, so we sat and ate Pocky at the entrance to Ueno Park, watching the area go from sunshine to fluro. We also saw our first sakura blossoms of the year, which is pretty special in itself. We had a good catch up while taking in the Ueno lights.

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Ueno Park

I feel like themed restaurants are part of the Tokyo experience, so Tim and I decided to really go for it and empty our pockets at the Akasaka Ninja restaurant. I realise that the representation of ninja is wildly historically inaccurate of course, but it made for a fun evening.

We entered the restaurant through a pretty nondescript side entrance, into a small dark room with a desk. From there we were led through a maze with low ceilings and traps doors (and some sort of trick-moat??) by a very acrobatic (ninja) fellow to our table. The place was an absolute labyrinth, with different themed sections laid out through different interweaving corridors. Before being left at the table, our (ninja) waitress told us it was important to memorize our table area code, which of course I then promptly forgot.

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Featuring edible ninja stars, a bonsai tree and Tim’s photogenic t-shirt

The dinner itself was amazing, with lots of magic tricks involved in the presentation. At one stage, a (ninja) server stopped by to put on a little magic show for us, involving lemons and cards and all sorts of things appearing from different places. They were the sorts of tricks you often see on TV and at the time you’re like oh yeah whatever, but it’s quite another thing to see them done in person. I still have the card with my signature on it that he produced from a zipped pocket and man I don’t even know but my socks were definitely figuratively knocked right off.

At one stage I had to go the bathroom (you know, as ya do) and got really lost. I had some fun wandering around looking at the different themed sections of the restaurant (one looked to be kind of pirate-ninja themed??) but was eventually stopped by a (ninja) waiter who asked what my table code was. You know, the important one I had forgotten instantly. That was kind of awkward.

Straight up, I’d say it was one of the best meals we had on the trip. It was one of those course meals where everything that comes out looks tiny and you’re like dude I paid you how much for this? But in the end it’s all okay because there ends up being like a zillion of them and they’re all really high quality.

Then we went home, for a very early morning flight awaited. Join me next time for our Hiroshima trip! I’ll try to post it in less than two months this time, I promise 😉

In more recent news…

It’s summer time! We braved the rainy season (where it didn’t actually rain all that much? Most suspicious) and now we’re in the height of picnic/BBQ season. OJT and I were lucky enough to be invited to a BBQ in Saitama by a colleague’s family with a few other young families. There was wagyu beef! Also the largest watermelon I’ve ever seen. I was kind of confused when all the toddlers in the group were given a large stick and told to take turns smacking the watermelon until it cracked open, but then I looked around and saw all the other groups in the area doing the same thing. Turns out that it’s some sort of Japanese summer tradition called suikawari. It was really cute to watch!

Yoyogi Park has also been a lovely place to hang out, along with innumerable other groups, each armed with the quintessential Tokyo-picnic blue tarp. Oh, and the hundreds of Pokemon Go users, too. They were there. They were everywhere. It was really eerie. I can say bitter things like this because it turns out my phone is literally too old to even download the app. But anyway.

Photos from Hugh

Squadtimes. Can you tell which one of us is leaving the country soon??

We also got to see a little firefly festival! I thought we’d missed them all, but it turned out by Trees’s lake there was a one-off firefly viewing evening that was free if you waited for around an hour in line. Which we did, and I’m glad we did because it was pretty special! I’d never seen fireflies before so it was pretty fascinating. The tiny pinpricks of lights looked like little stars, in their own fluttering galaxy. Pretty sick, yo.

So yeah,  take care and see you again soon – either in the blogosphere or in NZ! So sooooooon!

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“Ibaraki Secrets” (or; “Drinking with monks because that’s how I roll”)

(Less than 100 days left in Japan. Intense, right?)

Earlier this year we had a random day off in the middle of the week, so I continued my mission to exhaust all possible day trip locations within reach of Tokyo. I hadn’t been to Ibaraki prefecture yet so that’s the uninspired story of how I came upon the Ushiku Daibutsu, the most bizarre Buddha statue I have yet to experience. Would recommend 10/10.

I hopped on a train to Ibaraki with very little prior planning, and arrived at the closest station to find out I’d just missed the last bus to the daibutsu for two hours. My wallet cried a bit as I hopped into a taxi, but had to be done. The taxi driver was friendly enough, chatting away about how lucky I am that Japan is such a safe country for lone female travelers, and how BIG the daibutsu is. Actually, he mentioned it many times, very enthusiastically, using various synonyms for large. Okay, I get it! How big could it be?
Well, turns out, pretty big! Large, humongous, massive, staggeringly tall. In fact, the tallest statue in the world until 2002.

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Spot the teeny tiiiny little people!

Actually, when I told the principal of my school that I was going to the Ushiku Daibutsu, he laughed really hard.  I could still hear him chuckling away from down the hall for a good five minutes afterwards. From what I gather, this particular daibutsu was only built in 1993, and no good tourist would visit when the historic Kamakura daibutsu is so close. However, as you know, I’ve already seen the Kamakura daibutsu a few times, and needed something different. Well, different is what I got!

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Kamakura daibutsu on the right at 14m, Statue of Liberty in the middle at around 40m, Ushiku daibutsu on the left at 100m. If you take into account its base, it reaches a grand total height of 120m!

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I wasn’t sure what to expect as I moved towards it. My taxi driver mentioned something about an elevator, but I thought that maybe I hadn’t understood his Japanese.

As it was a random day in the middle of the week during off season, there were only a few other tourist stragglers. After taking my shoes off in the space provided around the back, an elderly woman came out to greet me from a side door and led me through another. She said something in Japanese I didn’t understand and promptly left, leaving me alone in complete darkness in a small enclosed room.

I’m still standing in this darkness when a booming voice starts up over the loudspeaker in Japanese. “A long time ago…” was literally the only thing I could understand. I stood stock still in the darkness listening until it finished, at which moment new doors in front of me automatically opened.

The music. Oh god the music. It wasn’t this exact track, but it had a very similar vibe.

I was now in the ground floor central chamber of the daibutsu. The room was still relatively dark, with a beam of light shining down upon a golden statue on a pedestal in the middle of the room. Shifting abstract images were projected high on the wall, below which were lines of holographic(?) buddhas. The music continued. The elderly woman from earlier entered from behind me, said a few things which I did not understand at all, then left me alone again.

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I tiptoed through past the statue to the other side and followed the signs from there. In the blue areas along the wall were floating projected lines of buddhist scripture.

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Still following the arrows, still not quite sure what’s going on

That’s when I find out the taxi driver wasn’t lying about the elevator. A stern looking tour guide どうぞ’ed me inside (“after you”), and I’m taken up a number of floors then ushered out. What followed was a series of different floors, each pretty different from the next. My personal favourite was this room containing 3000 golden buddhas along the wall wrapping around the inside of the daibutsu.

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At the top floor, you could peer out the holes in the statue to the view below, from any direction. Seeing what the daibutsu sees.

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The viewing windows on the right

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You could walk along on top of the base as well. The little golden squares at the base of the petals have actually been all individually placed by visitors to the site. Again, check out the size of the thing – the gentlemen to the left gives a sense of the scale!

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Also, if you’re still listening to that creepy as-all-get-out soundtrack, maybe take this opportunity to scroll back up, turn that off and listen to some earworm jpop! Or, continue to listen to Odyssey 2001, though I imagine it’ll give a totally different vibe to the rest of the post 😛 …

I had only recently bought a new camera at the time, so I had a lot of fun wandering around by myself taking heaps of photos. Unfortunately I came at exactly the wrong time to see any of the famous flower beds in action, but did manage to catch the beginning of plum blossom season. Just look at that sky, too! It was a great day. It was one of those days where you walk around with this huge grin on your face that won’t go away. Happiness!

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Let us show you the flowers you would have seen if you had come at literally any other time of year

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By mid afternoon it was time to leave. Obviously I hadn’t learned my lesson from that morning, because I just missed the bus again, and the next wasn’t for another hour and a half. This place is in the middle of nowhere, so I trudged back to the little cafe at the entrance pretty dejectedly. I overhead a monk say to the owner that he had also missed the bus, and on a whim I called out わたしも (“me too!”) . And that, my good friends, is what led to drinking sake with a real, honest-to-god(honest-to-buddha?) monk while we both waited for the bus. He didn’t have much English so it was mostly him talking and me trying to get the gist but hey it was memorable! He showed me his monk chanting notebook (?) where he had scribbled all his chant instructions, and had a chat about how the world would be a better place if we all learned to communicate straight from the heart. It was a pretty cool end to the day.

Ibaraki Kairakuen

Continuing on our plum blossom buzz, Jess, Trees and I decided to attend the Plum Blossom Festival in Kairakuen, considered one of the “three great gardens of Japan”. I’m told there were over 3,000 plum trees in the park.

*Enter establishing shots!*

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The festival was your typical delicious streetfood (predictably, I had karaage), but with the added bonus of the cutest performing monkey in a vest you ever did see, and women handing out little cups of plum tea. We also had a few of those “we’re not in Tokyo anymore, Toto” moments when we were approached by various people interested in where we came from.

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Fair warning, this is the part where I post all the plum blossom photos I’ve been holding back for months!

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Another day, another squadventure!

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Spot Trees!

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We couldn’t figure out where the music was coming for ages. Then we utilized the scarily stalker zoom on my camera..

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Well uh my name does mean “flower” in Japanese! It also means “nose” but let’s just stick with flower

Just to keep on theme, we missed the train back by a few hours. There were no more trains running that day because it was keeping special festival times, leading to a mission to the next station through a particularly creepy area. Still not sure we learned our lesson though

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Corridor photo mine, other two Trees(c)

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Also! This doesn’t really fit here because it was in Saitama, not Ibaraki, but still a spring festivity? We were able to participate in a little mochi ceremony. Mochi is a type of rice cake made from pounding rice down into a paste, and then molded into little balls of deliciousness. We were invited by a work colleague of ours and his lovely family. It was really nice to be involved in something small scale and local and delicious!

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Making mochi

In other news, last week I beat OJT in a game of paper scissors rock. A more important match than most. The prize? The spare ticket for the kabuki theatre field trip with the 6年生 (17-18 year olds). I think I’ve explained kabuki in an earlier post, but for newcomers, I think the best way to explain is like Japanese Shakespeare, but with more music. Fantastic moving stage contraptions seems to be a thing too. I enjoyed it, but all of the students I asked.. didn’t so much. “I would rather be at school” was one response! Unless they were just trying to be cool. Then again, I counted like five different students sleeping through it so maybe they weren’t lying. I had fun though 🙂

Until next time!

 

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“Winter in Tokyo” (or; “The Misc Folder”)

After a few weeks of manic travel over Spring break, I’m now in the throes of an equally frantic need to study Japanese. My Japanese conversational skills are still woefully inadequate, but (I’d like to think) my kanji reading ability has been coming along pretty well, to the stage where I can kind of make my way through basic manga books in Japanese without throwing them down in frustration. As such, the last few weeks have been relatively uneventful outside of school hours. Now all of a sudden it’s Golden Week! No major travel plans as of yet though… Golden Week is notorious for being an incredibly busy and expensive time to travel.

Instead, let us reminisce about those quieter Winter months! Or, more accurately, “random photos I took in Winter which haven’t corresponded to any of my other blog post themes yet”.

(Background music! Ps. apparently some of the videos I have posted can only be viewed from Japan? Let me know if that’s the case and I’ll try to add some overseas-friendly videos too!)


Earlier this year on a regular ol’ school morning, I opened my apartment door to this –

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The pretty view from my front door!

Coming from the North Island of New Zealand, I’d never quite had to deal with snow like this before. Stomping out the door in heels was probably my first mistake.

Blocking my way to the footpath was an area of untouched snow, which I assumed from the movies I could just walk over. I realised this was my second mistake when I sunk up to my calf in wet snow.

Third mistake. Trying to run in heels on the icy road to catch the train. *skids*

Fourth mistake. Not realising that it is entirely possible for it to rain while there is snow on the ground. Luckily, my security guard friend saw me slowly stepping my way down the street in the rain and called out 大丈夫か?? (are you okay??) and generously gave me one of the construction site umbrellas.

By the time I finally reached school I was about 15 minutes late (maybe not so late on New Zealand time but very late on Japanese time), one of the vice-principals was standing at the front gate greeting late-comers. He had a giggle as I slipped and skidded down the icy road towards him. I called out “始めて雪です!” (= It’s first time snow!) in my pigeon-Japanese speak so I think he got the gist, and extra luckily for me there were no consequences for my lateness.

That evening I went to the department store and bought some solid looking snow boots. My fifth mistake – by the next morning, most of the snow had been washed away in the rain. And so began and ended my one real encounter with snow in Tokyo.

食べ物
We had many free bento lunches at school and they were delicious!

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水道橋
Douglas and I discovered that the train line that runs by my house goes directly to Suidobashi, which is now one of my favourite stops on the Mita Line. In Japan, December = Winter Illuminations, and the Suidobashi Tokyo Dome area has some fun ones, including a light tunnel set to music. Made me a bit nostalgic for the Wellington LUX light festival to be honest. They also have a Bubba Gump restaurant there, which was so, so good. Usually I do my best to eat as much Japanese food as possible but sometimes you just feel like something a little more familiar and comfort-foody, you know? Also we saw Forrest Gump in one of our English classes, so kind of on theme 🙂 (though who knew that movie had so many scenes we’d have to fast-forward through for high-schoolers?!)

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At the same mall there is a robot who wheels himself around helping newcomers, which is kind of REALLY ADORABLE.

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Trees and I went to a Pre-Raphaelite art exhibition in Shibuya. I’m talking John Waterhouse and Rosetti type stuff. This art style is my all-time-forever-and-ever favourite, so to be in the presence of the real stuff for the first time ever…my mind was blown.

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No photos inside allowed, but I do have this one from Trees’s phone?

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Our work Christmas Bounenkai (translates to “forget the year party”) was held on the 59th floor of Sunshine City in Ikebukuro at a pretty swish Chinese restaurant. There were rounds of bingo, quizzes and many speeches (which I didn’t really understand but it’s the vibe of the thing, you know). This was followed by nijikai at a bar and then sanjikai at karaoke (like round 2 and round 3 of the bounenkai at different places on the same night). Karaoke with the teachers was fun, if a bit nerve-wracking because everyone was so skilled! When it came to my solo-song time, I pulled out some Lion King Hakuna Matata and it seemed to go down okay. Thank you Disney for giving a memorized repertoire of songs that I can sing in funny voices to mask the fact that I cannot actually sing!

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未来館
Seeing as I’m teaching at a school that specializes in science and engineering and whatnot, I thought I should probably pay a visit to one of Tokyo’s science museums, the Miraikan (literally, “Future Museum”). The museum makes for a great day trip, and has huge amounts of signage and support for English speakers. It’s in Odaiba, so when you’re all scienced out you can go to one of the crazy malls in the area. It’s also next to where my highschool will be relocating to next year!

It was here I found all the futuristic Japanese robots and gadgetry that the movies had been promising me for years.

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Pictured above is ASIMO, which officially stands for Advanced Step in Innovative MObility, but  instantly makes me think of Isaac Asimov (Is that Dad I can hear all the way from NZ saying “I-click-as-I-move”? 🙂 ).  A couple of times a day in the Miraikan ASIMOV puts on a little show, where he demonstrates his ability to walk, run, hop on one foot and sing songs.

He’s not the only robot at the Miraikan, but probably the least intimidating. There were a number of other robots on display that have definitely moved into uncanny valley territory..

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The “news broadcaster of the future”. She was alone in a huge white room that you had to peer through a crack in the wall to see

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This little guy supposedly had emotional reactions to touch

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For this robot, you went into a separate room where you could speak into a mic and control her facial expressions. To any onlookers, it looked like she was actually speaking with you. Quite unsettling really. Ask Douglas if you’d like to see the videos we have of us getting her to say very strange things to people walking past haha

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And the prize for cutest robot goes to this guy. Ain’t nobody takin’ his box

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That one time a teacher at our school secretly trained as a tea ceremony master for ten years and OJT and I were lucky enough to learn some tips and tricks (no exaggerations)

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I’m told that this particular pot of matcha was extra expensive, which made me a little nervous, but also very grateful! (OJT’s photos, my hands)

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The first time I visited Tokyo Tower, I thought that I had reached the second tallest part. Turns out we didn’t even get to the lowest observation deck. One evening in December, Douglas and I resolved to go all the way to the highest observation deck and really do this cliche tourist spot properly.

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This was about the time that I decided that I really do live in Star Wars’ Coruscant :3
One cool secret I didn’t realise the first time, but from atop Tokyo Tower you can see its double on the ground – an illusion made by the street layout (see bottom photo). It’s really easy to spot once you know it’s there!

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I didn’t technically go in Winter (actually I think it was early Autumn) but turns out there is a massive Daibutsu within walking distance of my house? Itabashi-ward secrets…

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横浜市
I feel like every second post I mention Yokohama, but it’s so cool! The same day Douglas and I saw that awesome Star Wars movie props exhibition, we also saw a bunch of other stuff.

Kairakuen Plum Blossom Matsuri

I took the daylight harbour view photo on a separate visit to Yokohama with another friend (also a fun day!) but it provides good context to the day’s activities. Can you see the red warehouse to the right?

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Akarenga!

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There was an amazing German Christmas market by the red warehouses. Mulled wine, giant pretzels, you name it. And now I have a craving for both of these things, sigh

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On very clear days, you can see Mt Fuji from the sixth floor of our school!

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Again, OJT’s photo


Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook may have already seen the great majority of these photos, but hey, they’re of really cute owls so I’m sure you won’t mind seeing them again 😉

You may remember from the last post about the monkeys that we had a chat with other tourists on their way in to see them. Well, they were talking about things they had done on their travels, and a wonderful experience at Akiba Owls was near the top of their list. I’d been to a rabbit cafe previously, so I took this as a sign to move further up the food chain.

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I was really impressed with Akiba Owls. The number of guests allowed in at once was strictly controlled and the owls were well taken care of. We were allowed to pick two owls to hold during our allocated time there. For my first owl I picked a tiny guy named Ostrich on purpose so that it would be less scary (third photo down on the right? The photo with my face in it). Ostrich, however, had other ideas. Jess and Douglas’s owls were super chill. Meanwhile, Ostrich was pooping everywhere and chewing up my hand with his beak and talons. He was really cute though so I forgave him. I should have seen it in his eyes though. Just look at him, scheming away. My second owl was the Queen of Hearts (top left photo). She was an absolute beauty, and could only be held by females (I wonder how she can tell??).

A month or so later, I went to a similar owl cafe in Ikebukuro. The star of the show for me was the Morepork, who a) reminded me of New Zealand and b) had a permanently shocked expression.
We tried to get a photo with the owls named Mikasa and Eren (Attack on Titan fans will know) but they weren’t having any of it. The top right picture below is I think the one calm photo we got. The second photo is a more accurate representation of how it went! Picture us squealing and clutching the owl ropes while they flew around the room and you have a pretty good picture of our experience with Mikasa and Eren 🙂 Also note how far away I’m holding Mikasa from my body hahah (save me)

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生鳥 (bad segue?)
OJT and I have been to quite a number of work parties now (the details of which I’ll have to tell y’all in person sometime, I think I’ll get in trouble for disclosing antics of others who were under the influence of alcohol. Needless to say they’re lots of fun and everyone is always really nice to us 🙂 ). At this one particular party we were served raw chicken! I survived without contracting salmonella and it tasted pretty good to boot.

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羽子板
Just in case you thought I’d been neglecting festivals..! We made it to the final hours of the Asakusa paddle festival, Hagoita-ichi. The paddles were originally used in a children’s ball game, but as the ball-hitting motion was similar to the motion used to ward off evil, they came to symbolize the latter.

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お休みなさい
3am! I am running out of time and space, so I’m afraid our journey through my lost Winter photos must end here. I hope you enjoyed reading about some of the tidbits of my time here!

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The Shiodome Winter Illumination. It took us forever to find, but once we did, it was worth it!

Looking back at this post, I’m reminded of the current issue of how social media can over or under-represent how exciting someone’s life is. I mean, yeah, my life is more exciting this year than it has been in previous years because you know JAPAN but also please bear in mind that the above is a conglomeration of an entire season of activities. Also, another thing that living overseas has taught me is to take advantage of the free time you do have. I do work full-time but I now know how much can be done both on a budget and within even the space of an afternoon if you really put your mind to it. Also, I think many of us perhaps take New Zealand’s beauty for granted. When I return to New Zealand, I will be extra motivated to really get out there and explore my own Kiwi backyard 🙂 Night, all!

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Wellington, New Zealand 🙂

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