The Yen for Zen

Tokyo Travel Blog

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At Fushimi-Inari Shrine just outside of Kyoto. My favorite place in Japan (and maybe the world)
Here it is, the last e-mail from Japan. Only a few days left to go and the yens are starting to run out, so you won't hear from me again until my plane has safely landed and I get to wear something other than the 4 pairs of pants that I have brought with me on this trip. When I left you, I was preparing to head to Tokyo and to my capsule hotel experience. I left Kyoto at 10 am and was in Tokyo by 12:45, unfortunately the only time it was cloudy was right about where Mt Fuji is, so it appear that seeing from 30,000 feet is about as good as I am going to get on this trip. I really had no plans of what to do in Tokyo, so passing the Tokyo Wendy's on the train, I decided that would be my first stop. I had gotten some suggestions from one of the professors about what neighborhoods to go to, so I marked my map and figured out my subway stops and at a Big Bacon Classic. I started off in Shinjuku and went to the top of the Tokyo Municpial Government Building and had a great view of the city, well except for Mt Fuji. Tokyo is actully a cluster of neighborhoods, lots of neighborhoods, each with its own set of skyscrapers and train stations. It stretches out as far as you can see. I was really near the Park Hyatt (from Lost in Translation), but I was pretty schlubby looking so I passed on my visit to see if Sausalito was still playing -- it gives me a reason to go back. I headed over to the Shibuya area, which is where I planned to stay. Its the area in Lost in Translation with the dinosaur walking across the building. It was so busy and congested, intersections with what seemed like thousands of people crossing the street, plus cars in every direction, and then layer upon layer of flashing sign and music and buzzers. There is no doubt that Tokyo is the loudest place I have ever been to. I decided to check in to the hotel, the Shibuya Capsule Land as it is called, but it was only 3pm and check in didn't start until 5, so I left a few things with the desk and headed out to Omotesando -- the 5th Avenue of Tokyo. When I first got there I just saw J. Crew and The Gap and was a bit disappointed, but then the Dior store and Prada store and all the beautiful people that go with them came into view. It was a nice walk, great people watching. I had my cake settu (cake set, cake and coffee) at a French outdoor cafe among flower box after flower box of white and yellow tulips -- it really didn't seem very Japanese, but apparently this is where it is at in Tokyo. It was now after 5, so it ws back to Capule Land. The pictures from the trip will go up soon and I did take a few from there. It really wasn't bad at all. Everything is provided for you from boxer shorts to breakfast the next morning. You start off by turning in your shoes, which get locked up and then you get the key to your locker. It was up the elevator to the locker room, as the door opened, there was a naked man standing there. I swear, I have seen more naked people in Japan than I have up to this point in my life. I guess when you cram almost half of the US population onto a mountain covered island the size of California, you lose some personal space. The locker room is next to the showers, sauna, and sento (the traditional Japanese bath). You are given a yukata (a cotton robe, boxer shorts, towels, toothbrush, razors, and q- tips. I put my bag in the locker and headed up to the capsule itself on the 7th floor, there were 28 per floor. It was small but big enough to sit up in, and over 6 feet long, so I fit in perfectly. It has a light, a fan that blows cold air, a light, a tv with earplugs, a rice hull pillow, and a duvet. It was really comfortable. For privacy there is a curtain that locks down at the open end. I cleaned up and then headed out to see Tokyo at night. I went to the Ginza, through Shibuya, and back to Shinjuku. Finding places in Tokyo is really hard, its easy to get around, but once you are in a neighborhood, those who don't read Japanese are sort of doomed. The address system is basec on sections of the neighborhood and then the number of streets you are away from unknown landmark streets, and then building numbers. Once you find a building you have to find the right floor and then the right tiny door to go in. It took my an hour and a half to find the bar I was looking for listed in my guidebook as foreigner friendly, by the time I got there I didn't mind paying 10 dollars for a beer. Being a westerner, the prostitutes kept coming up to me and offering there services, and in turn, them being Japanses and very polite, were very accomodating in me saying no but still asking for help with directions, thank God for Tokyo prostitutes. I got back to the Capsule a little after midnight and it was packed with salarymen (Japanese business men). The capsules really only cater to men. I got my shower and tried the sento -- it was hotter than I can even describe -- guidebooks suggest that once you are in the water you not move or it can burn you -- it was close to 70 degrees Celcius according to the thermometer. I turned in for the night, but as I mentioned Tokyo is a loud city, and even 7 floors up it is loud, so it was hard to fall asleep. I wrote my friend Jason, who sent me on this trip, a haiku: Capsule room is small Neighbor passing gas is heard Tofu has gone bad Sorry Jason, you had to see that again. Actually, the loudest thing were the ambulances going down the street with loudspeakers with the driver talking, they sounded like they were driving through my floor. I headed back to Kyoto the next morning and it was pouring rain, a very subdued saturday. Other highlights from this week: Monday, I went to Heian shrine, which is the one from Lost in Translation, I had my picture taken on the stones in the water, it was beautiful. Tuesday, I went to Himeji castle, apparently the finest original castle left in Japan, at least that is what is on every sign as you walk through it. It was a beautiful day, and they were even filming a samurai movie there, which made it even cooler. It is known as the White Egret Castle, because it is supposed to look like a bird in flight. If you have seen You Only Live Twice, then you have seen it, it is used for lots of movies and tv shows, it seems. I went into Kobe that afternoon and went to the Earthquake Museum. It opened last year and was in an incredible glass building floating in the middle of a reflecting pool. It started off with a pretty cheesy multi-media Disney-esque experience to put you in the middle of the earthquake. Lots of shaking, strobe lights, and Godzilla like effects. Other than that the museum was great. Volunteers who work there, led me through the exhibits and explained things in great detail as much of it is in Japanese. I even had a Japanese engineer showing me engineering principals of the building code there in the experiment room, he was so into it, causing miniature earthquakes on a table that made building fall and showed liquifaction, yelling and making grand points, it was actually really wonderful. I then went to see the Akashi bridge, which at almost 4 km, is the longest single span suspension bridge in the world, during the earthquake it grew by a meter, making it even longer. The observation deck is built into the undercarriage of the bridge. It shakes and bounces around alot, plus has a glass floor in parts, 150 feet over the water, needless to say, I didn't stay very long. Wednesday, I went to Ryoanji, probably the most famous garden in Japan, it is the Zen garden with the 15 stones placed so you can only see 14 at a time. I stared at it for about an hour. Its just gravel, stones, and a wall, but after a while it becomes amazing when you really stop and think about it. Unfortunately, most of the students contemplated it for about 3 minutes and then went home and took naps. That afternoon I went back to Kobe with the professors for Kobe steak, it was really good and very rare, the wind was barely knocked out of it. Actually, one of my favorite stories from the trip happened to one of the professors. Last weekend he was in southern Japan visiting some friends. When they went to dinner, they asked if there was anything he wouldn't eat, and he said he could try anything. As the clipped the tentacle off the live squid and the mother in the group grabbed one with her chopstick it sort of coiled around it and she popped it into her mouth. He was offered the head, which still alive, was flashing white to purple as squid will do under duress. He said he could see the "surging brain fluid" as he popped it into his mouth, he now knows how to answer the question, is there anything you won't eat -- well anything, as long as it isn't alive. After steak, Mark, the professor of surging brain juice fame and I went into Osaka to try karaoke. It is very different here, as you don't stand on a stage or even really perform, you just sit at the bar and they pass the mike to you. 99 percent of the songs are ballads, and to top it off the computer grades you on accuracy at the end. Needless to say with that kind of pressure and my terrible singing voice I passed and just watched my fellow bar mates sing their hearts out. On the way home, the train back to Kyoto was pretty crowded with business men going home late. The salaryman next to me, fell asleep on my shoulder, sort of a funny way to end the night. One thing I lvoe about Japan is how honest and trusting the people are. You really notice it on trains, as I have actually been on trains and subways where every single person on my car is asleep. Head rolling sleep. Mouth open sleep. Full on snoring. Every single person but me. Purses and briefcases open, but crime is almost unheard of, and everyone seems to wake up just in time for their stop. Last night I went to bed watching Best Hit TV, the one from Lost in Translation, the blond Japanese guy exists, and he is quite funny. He was having an eating contest with a chicken. Japanese TV center on a few things, eating being the predominate one, as you flip through the channels, there is more often than not a group of people travelling through Japan, shoving local delicacies into their mouths with chopsticks or slurping up some noodle dish. Literally, every minute of the day, there are at least 3 shows on with people jsut eating, not cooking or showing recipes, just trying food and oohing and ahhing over it. Thursday. Today I took the best walk I have been on here, it was to Fushimi- Inari shrine. It has a pathway of thousands of torii gates through the woods and up a mountain. It is gate after gate, at times you can't even see the woods you are walking through because the gates are so packed together. It was really cool. After that, I went to the last temple on my list, Kizumidera, which is spelled wrong, but it was beautiful. Its built on a cliff of a gorge overlooking the city and a waterfall that you drink from to make your wishes come true. Its hard to believe I am heading home soon, there is still so much to see and do. I thought three weeks would be so long, but its not nearly enough. When I first got here, I thought Japan wasn't particularly beautiful, but now that I know where to look and to give it time, I love everything about it. I was sort of like the students, I was giving it 5 minutes when it really needs a lot longer than that to understand and to appreciate. See you soon.
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At Fushimi-Inari Shrine just outsi…
At Fushimi-Inari Shrine just outs…
photo by: maka77