Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Shirahama: a little bit of Australia in Japan, Part 2

Arriving in Shirohama, I met up with my friends and boarded a bus to the beach, about 15 minutes away. They'd arrived at an earlier train (the first one of the day), but had spent the extra hour or so looking for a hotel for the night (everything seemed packed to the gills, so the few spots still available were being hawked for a tidy sum, around $90 per person per night).

The beach was small, but beautiful. The sand, as promised, was white and reasonably fine. For a Japanese beach, there was little trash around, too. (Tip: don't assume that beaches in Japan are as clean as the city streets usually appear to be; over the course of the bike ride we did some beach cleanups and pulled out what seemed like an unlimited supply of bottles, cans, cigarrette butts, remains of fireworks and other assorted junk out of the sand.) The water was a very pretty blue and the area was a bay -- shallow for a long way out with very calm waters. Also, unlike the water around Hokkaido or even Sado, the water here was very pleasantly warm. There was plenty of space to lounge on the beach, great snorkeling areas, and a good handful of people walking around the beach in furry boots or high heels to make fun of.

After a few hours of enjoying the warmth (no direct sun, it was cloudy the whole time) and walking around the beach, we walked over to the hotel so my friends could check in. Took them a bit to get settled in, but I didn't mind in the least -- right outside their hotel was one of the "ashiyu", or foot baths, spread around the area. It looks a bit like a fancy bus stop on a street corner, with a nice bamboo reed roof. Underneath is what could pass for a small and pretty city fountain, except that it's surrounded by wooden seating (enough for about 9 people or so, around the three sides that aren't the street) and it's constantly flowing with natural hot spring water. Passerby are welcome to take their shoes off and soak their feet in the hot water, so that's what I did for a good 20 minutes, chatting a bit with the people who were sitting around me. (Tip: conversations in Japanese in such circumstances generally feature the word "kimochi" -- literally, "feeling", usually used to mean "feels good". Use that with slightly different intonations and you've covered about 70% of what most native Japanese would say. Another 20% are probably onomatopeas. :) )

We asked around a bit as to what else there was to do, since by that time there were some clouds rolling around and we felt an occasional drizzle. Most people there were a bit flustered when we asked, though. Not sure if that's because everyone else researches what they're going to see there before going (instead of just showing up and seeing what happens like we did), or because there really isn't anything besides the beach.

We settled on walking along the coast for a bit and, besides beautiful views, also found a small aquarium (they were closing for the day by the time we got there, though it didn't seem like it was quite the attraction to travel all the way there for), a small cave (with space to hide and scare the daylights out of your friends behind you), and a glass-bottom boat boarding area (would have been really pretty there, there were tons of fish even close to the main beach; sadly they, too, were done for the day). On the way back, we noticed several dozens of people had joined the handful of fishermen previously sitting along the coastline. Given the obscene number of cameras mounted on tripods facing a small island with a natural archway behind which the sun would set, we figured out they everyone was dutifully waiting for the sunset. Since it was cloudy and drizzling and the sun wasn't visible anyways, we left them to it and made our way back to town.

Although I'd brought my camping gear, I decided to call it a day and head back home. Camping on the beach is great, but rain takes away a lot of the fun. (Plus, if I want to get rained on at the beach, I can go to Half Moon Bay back home anytime. :) ) Fortunately, I did get a seat on the train back home. There are some advantages to boarding a train at its first station. :)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Shirahama: a little bit of Australia in Japan, Part 1

Following the Japanese government call for more money to be spent traveling within the country, I decided that today it would be fun to spend some time in the sun, digging my toes into the fine white sand of a good beach, and set off to meet some friends I met recently at a lindy hop event in Osaka.

My destination was Shirahama. The place, as the name in Japanese suggests ("white beach") is known for its fine white sand. (What they only mention on the footnote, however, is that much of the current sand is imported from Australia.) It's in the Wakayama district, south of Osaka, and therefore a good 3 hours of train riding away from where I'm staying in Shiga. That meant getting up very early to get there in time to enjoy the day. Most fortunately, the sun still shows up for work at a very, very early hour in the morning around here. Nothing like the daft pre-4am sunrises we got in Hokkaido in August, but still early enough that the day was well along its usual routine by the time I biked off to the train station at 6:45.

Since it's a national holiday, the express commuter train I boarded towards Osaka was understandably on the empty side, with a few bleary eyed riders reading a book, plugged into a music player, or just simply passed out. In Osaka, however, I boarded a limited express train towards Shirahama (tip: "limited" express is faster than express... the "limited" does not refer to the train's speed OR the extra money the train company feels entitled to charge for riding those trains). Around here, you can be sure you're taking a special train when it has a name and number. I was waiting for "Ocean Arrow #5". Since I bought tickets at the last minute, I only had unreserved seat tickets (these special trains usually have a few reserved seat wagons and a few unreserved seat wagons). The catch is that an "unreserved seat ticket" only guarantees that they'll let you be in the unreserved seat wagon on the train (general laws of physics and biology permiting). It most definitely does not guarantee a seat.

Turns out I wasn't the only one to think Shirohama might be cool for the day, so I got to stand for a good hour and a half in the train, an honor I shared with what felt like at least 40 or 50 other people just in that one wagon. Not packed by Japanese standards (packed=so crowded that everyone is wedged in to the point where it's physically impossible to fall, tip, sit, turn, etc), but definitely cozy. Fortunately Shirahama wasn't the only destination, so I did eventually manage to grab a seat and catch a good 30 minutes of sleep before the little jingle came on over the loudspeakers and a chipper conductor announced we were arriving in Shirohama.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Japan Biking Tip: Dealing with the Heat

It's not just hot, it's hot and humid, so heat management is very important while biking here in Japan in the Summer. Here are some thoughts so far:

- Drink tons of water. Seriously. I usually go through about 4 liters (over a gallon) in a day's ride, and I'm usually still a bit dehydrated when I arrive. Take every opportunity to drink a bit of water (barley tea or juice works great, too), it's better than trying to chug a liter of water every other hour. When you're close to town, traffic lights work well as reminders, farther out use road distance markers. :)

- Buy ice. Most convenience stores will sell a bottle of frozen green tea or orangeade for about $1.50. Put that in the back pocket of your jersey for instant cooling action. Plus, you get to drink something that's ice cold as it melts. (Note: if you drink all the liquid, the ice won't be touching the bottle walls anymore, meaning your back won't be getting cooled anymore. To remedy, just add water to the bottle after drinking. As long as you don't mind slightly diluted tea, it works great.)

- Towel and handkerchief. I've started carrying a towel on my handlebar to dry off occasionally. Unlike in dry climates, where sweat dries off and cools you in the process, around here it just soaks your skin for the most part. To avoid heat rash and make it easier for the sweat that remains to cool you off, just towel off occasionally. The handkerchief I soak in water and tie around my neck to help with cooling. (They also sell something for that purpose in sports stores around here for about $10. Advantages include keeping more water and dripping a lot less, so it cools you for longer. Disadvantages include not working as a handkerchief should you need one, possibly looking dorkier, and being pricier than a handkerchief.)

- Take a long lunch break. The hottest part of the day is usually around 1-2pm. That's also the best time to find a restaurant or michi no eki (see below) and spend sometime out of the sun and in the a/c while refueling and drinking as much water/juice/tea as you can.

- Stop at michi no eki's (translates as "road stations"). They're really nice, have good food and a selection of local produce and goods, and plenty of space to relax for a bit from riding. Not all areas have them, though, so check ahead. If you're in an area where there aren't any michi no eki's, there will likely be convenience stores (not nearly as nice but, well, convenient, and they're always blasting the a/c at artic settings). Another stop that works is a Gasuto ("guest") chain restaurant. I like them mainly because they have a drinking water spiggot I can use freely during the meal, so I don't have to bug the waitstaff to refill the tiny water glass eight times during the meal. :)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Host Family Visit

Left Uji this morning and made my way to Otsu, where I'm getting to visit my host family for the first time in 12 years! なつかしい! :)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Kyoto Daytrip - Part 2

A short ride on the subway later we found ourselves on the right side of the mountain, and within 10 minutes had arrived at our first large temple. It was already mid-afternoon by this point. Wanting to make sure we didn't get to Kiyomizu Temple too late to go in, we crammed 5 people into a taxi cab for the last 3 km of the way there.

Kiyomizu Temple is still one of my favorite places in Kyoto. Not only are the temple buildings themselves incredibly beautiful, but the whole thing is set on the Eastern Kyoto mountains, giving both beautiful green scenery and a view of Kyoto itself that even the 12 floor fancy department store rooftop terrace can't match. The main pavillion is made entirely out of wood (meaning no nails, glue, rebar, etc, went into its construction... it's sort of like a centuries old set of Jenga that, fortunately, no one has played).

There are (at least) three interesting 'side attractions' there as well. The first one is a temple with an underground passageway. A handrail guides visitors through a winding maze where part of the path is in complete darkness, underneath the temple area. Supposedly it's to simulate the experience of rebirth and renewal. Definitely fun as a self-powered "ride". Your spiritual experience may vary.

Next is a 'love' temple, where people come to pray for finding someone to be with. More amusingly, there are two stones at the temple, about 20' apart. Story goes that if touches the first stone, closes their eyes, then manages to walk in a straight line and find the second stone while thinking of a person, then that person is their true love (or equivalent). Makes for fantastic people watching, especially when a big group of students rolls by. Sadly, by the time we got there, that part of the temple was already closed.

The third bit of folklore I like is about the three branches of the spring at Kiyomizu. There is a platform, and from above that the natural spring water comes down in three streams. The original story I heard was that the spring is a wish-granting fountain. Each of the three streams would grant something different to the drinker: health, longevity, or wisdom (in some stories love substitutes one of those three). The catch: you only get to drink from one of the fountains in your life. Which one would you pick?

New to that area this year was a sign that, besides hawking the new 'holy bowls' that people could buy for 200 yen to drink out of (the old steel ones are still there, still hold water just fine, still cost nothing), also talks about the fountains. It explains that, although many believe that each branch of the spring grants something different, "the Temple has no comment" on those stories, and holds that the fountain is a wish-granting fountain. So apparently you get a long, wise, healthy life (with great love to boot), and you can drink from one or all three of the fountains, as many times as you like. (They did stop short of mentioning that wishes would work better if one drinks from the 200 yen holy bowl. Though I suppose it might be healthier, since you're not sharing with hundreds of other people.) Definitely more pleasant, but it does kinda take the introspective aspect out of the legend of the three fountains of Kiyomizu Temple. (Kiyomizu, by the way, means something like 'clear water'.)

Leaving the temple, we wound our way through the densely packed tourist shop street that leads up to the temple gates and sells everything from local sweets, tea, ice cream, to chopsticks, painted fans, keychains, and whatever doodahs you might wish with 'Kyoto' printed on them somewhere. We picked up some suprisingly bland green tea ice cream (come on, Kyoto, you can do better!) and some really great black sesame sweets.

Back in the streets of Kyoto, we stopped at a kimono (traditional Japanese clothing) store. One of our friends wanted to get a yukata (less formal clothing, generally worn during festivals; seen on the streets of Kyoto more often then elsewhere in the country), so we spent the next hour or so watching as she tried on and eventually was outfitted in a beautiful yukata. (She actually got a very nice yukata, on the formal end of the spectrum for that style.) The woman at the store who helped us and who patiently taught her how to put on the yukata (hint: there's more ties than just the big pretty 'obi' holding eveything in place... two extra for yukata, three for kimono) and how to tie that fancy bow on the obi (sash).

One interesting bit of trivia: in Japan, dressing someone into a kimono is a licensed profession, and takes three years of night school to get licensed into it.

From there, we walked (slower now that one of us was wearing traditional Japanese wooden shoes, 'geta') to a nearby Japanese restaurant that the shop clerk had recommended. Beautiful tatami room (with the merciful cutout under the table, so we didn't have to sit on our legs for the whole meal), great decor. Only catch: the menu was entirely in Japanese calligraphy. No pictures, no translations, nothing printed. Fortunately, the place specialized in odengo, or essentially bits of various yummy things cooked in broth. Since there were only 12 different things on the menu (that number keeps coming up, no?) and 5 of us, I just ordered one of everything.

About halfway through, the lady who helped us at the kimono store stopped by to say hello, on her way to her own meal. She really stood by her recommendation. :)

On the way back to the hotel, we still stopped by some temples in Gion that were lit up at night for some photos. We also made a stop at a hole-in-the-wall place for some really yummy croquettes. (I actually got an egg croquette, which is essentially a sunny side up fried egg -- made inside a small metal circle to keep it croquette-sized -- that was then battered and deep fried like a croquette. Quite good.)

From there, my friends headed back to their hotel and I made my way back to the train station and eventually Uji.

Kyoto Daytrip - Part 1

It cooled off significantly around Kansai today, making for perfect weather for walking around town. Uji is part of greater Kyoto, so a quick 20 minute train ride had me at Kyoto station with nearly two hours free before my friends arrived from Tokyo.

The Kyoto station was thoroughly rebuilt twelve years ago (the new building opened round about when I was leaving, so I never got to explore it much). I don't know the story behind it but, roughly, a big department store asked wouldn't it be nice if there was a 12 floor fancy department store and hotel on top of the Kyoto train station. And while at it, why not make it more exciting by cutting out the middle of the building out and putting stairs and escalators that go in an uninterruped, 45 degree angle, straight line from street level to the rooftop 12 stories up? I don't get vertigo easily, but the sheer scale of looking directly up (or down!) 12 floors of steps is a bit daunting. Sure, there are landings every floor or two, but those do little to dispel the mental image of slipping and tumbling 12 floors. Very nice view from the top, though! (Oh, and the terrace at the top is called 'Happiness Terrace'. No explanation given.)

Once I met up with my friends, we went in search of food. Since the whole escalator thing is an experience in itself, we went to the top and checked out the restaurants there. Food prices in Japan are often relative to how far off the ground the restaurant is situated, so after a quick tour of menus with lots of zeros, we decided that it would also be fun to ride the escalators down before lunch. Somewhere around the 2nd basement level, two floors below street level, we found tons of yummy food at good prices. :)

From there, they went to check into their hotel. That place, too, is new since the time I lived here. Of interest, it's right next to what used to be the street car stop I used every day to go to school in Kyoto. There used to be a small garden there and a few houses and buildings. Now a subway line took the place of the street car, and a very nice, very, very fancy hotel has taken over for the garden and houses.

From there we took a beautiful walk around the mountains. Unfortunately for us, being on the wrong side of the mountains from the temple we wanted to see, the pass on the map the hotel provided didn't actually exist according to the more accurate maps by subway stations along the way. (Note: if you're ever lost in Japan, look for a subway, train or bus station, they generally have very detailed local maps. Note 2: if, like me, you're a purist and like your maps oriented so that North is up, be ready for North to be just about any direction BUT up on those station maps.)

To be continued...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tea Time in Uji

My current stop is Uji, a major tea producing region in Japan, and possibly the one with the best tourist industry built around it.

The city lies along a river, close to some mountains that make the whole place incredibly picturesque. Along a few streets, tea shops and restaurants line up and compete for attention from the passerby. This morning I was up before most restaurants opened, so I headed to Byodo-in, a temple complex nearby.

The main feature is the Phoenix Hall, so named both because the building layout has two wings and a rather unusual "tail" hallway extending behind it, and because the two main ornaments on the highest roof are phoenix statues. The hall is a World Heritage Site, and the phoenix statues themselves are rated National Treasures in Japan. The building has a beautiful reflecting pool in front of it, and is surrounded by well maintained gardens, winding paths, and about 100 middle-schoolers on field trips, all taking turns posing for photos in front of the Hall. (Number of middle-schoolers may vary.) The inside of the Hall is said to have been designed to portray the land of the Buddha (it gets more complicated than that, but the intricacies are best left to someone who actually knows more about Pure Land Buddhism than me).

Since I was last here, they've built a gorgeous museum and used computers to simulate what the Phoenix Hall probably looked like when it was first built, around a thousand years ago. Wars, reconstructions and time have taken most of the glitter off it, but it must have been quite dazzling at the time. The Hall itself has escaped fire damage for its whole life, so much of it is actually original. A lot of the surrounding buildings did not survive, however, and the current area is smaller than the original complex.

After sightseeing, some of the stores were opening for business, so stopped to get a green tea ice cream, with powdered green tea on top. Except for inhaling green tea on the first bite (not recommended, though it amused everyone around who had already choked on their powdered green tea earlier), it was truly delicious.

I eventually found a place serving handmade green tea udon (thick noodles) for lunch. In the afternoon, a tea house overlooking the river served me some kabuse cha (green tea that, for part of the growing period, had nets spread over the plants; the shade forces the plant to increase the amount of chlorophyl, making the tea a darker green) and as much hot water as I wanted. (The tea was strong, but really smooth and rather sweet. Delicious.) Finally, to top off the late afternoon, I got some green tea shaved ice that was probably the best shaved ice I've ever had. I think I actually had enough green tea for the day. :)

As the day drew to a close, I stopped by the Tale of Genji Museum (also quite new and beautifully done). Besides lots of kimonos and drawings, they had built a few scenes from the story, put together a "smelling area" with samples of the smells referenced in the story (fortunately, being a romance, they were largely very pleasant smells), and had a movie theater with an HD projector showing a 20 minute enactment of the story. Not bad! (The Tale of Genji was actually writen, supposedly, around Ishiyama, close to Lake Biwa, to the Northeast of here. However, part of the story was set in Uji -- something along the lines of "we'll always have Uji".)

Although the day was quite warm, a strong wind cooled things off in the later afternoon. The place I'm staying at overlooks the river and, besides being a hotel, is also a souvenir shop and small restaurant. My room is enormous by Japanese standards, with two 6-mat rooms and dividers between the two (that's about two 12'x12' rooms). Interestingly, looks like the inner room used to be a tea room (there's a telltale cutout on the tatami mats for where the water heater goes for a tea ceremony). No wonder I slept so well last night. :)