Archive for April, 2008

April 23rd 2008
Accidental Izakaya

Posted under Japan

After a wonderful but long day of non-stop sightseeing, Tina collapsed on her bunk with a book and I decided to experience a little of Japan on my own. Reassured by our hostel manager that one of Kyoto’s ubiquitous ramen shops was a one-minute walk away, I ducked (literally, to avoid the curtain hanging above the door) into the first shop that I saw with a big red Japanese lantern out front. I was greeted with an enthusiastic ‘Irasshaimase!’ (Welcome!) by the husband-wife proprietors of the small, dimly lit establishment. I removed my shoes and took a seat at the counter in front of a small glass case displaying the day’s fresh fish. I sat staring at the five raw specimens, gutted and neatly displayed on a thin layer of ice cubes, their glassy eyes eerily returning my gaze. I flipped through the menu only to discover that it was entirely in Japanese. There were four tiny photos but they were too small to distinguish. A pang of anxiety coursed through me – the twinge of fear that you feel in that moment between realizing you’re in an uncomfortable situation and realizing that you can handle it.

A young couple on my left sipped cold sake, casually sampling their first course. A grey-haired, fifty-something salaryman sat drinking beer, chain-smoking and picking at his sashimi. Two short tables sat unoccupied on the tatami floor mats behind me. When the waitress arrived and greeted me in Japanese, I pointed to the salaryman’s beer mug; she smiled and nodded, returning quickly with a large draught beer. “Ramen?” I asked. She shook her head. As anticipated, she spoke very little English but was eager to help me order. With hand language and a lot of patience on her part, I managed to order a plate of soba noodles and a serving of chicken balls (like meatballs but made with ground chicken). It’s always safer ordering a vegetarian meal if possible, but at this point I knew that I couldn’t be too picky. In general, we have found the food in Japan to be of high quality.

The other patrons at the bar were now fully aware of the presence of a gaijin (foreigner) and the couple to my left smiled and attempted to initiate conversation. While it was a truly kind gesture, forced conversations between people who don’t speak the same language usually end in uncomfortable silence and soon I began staring once again at the fish in front of me. Slightly bored and certainly out of place, I ordered a small bottle of hot sake. The evening markedly improved with each sip.

Three cigarettes later, the chain-smoking salaryman departed and my dinner finally arrived. The noodles were swimming in a brown, gravy-like sauce, topped with octopus tentacles and thinly sliced pieces of mystery meat. The chicken balls were skewered and covered with a sweet and salty brown sauce, most closely resembling teriyaki. Ravenously hungry and eager to please my gracious hosts, I inhaled the surprisingly good meal.

As I was finishing my dinner, a man and a much younger woman sat down next to me at the bar. They lovingly entwined themselves as they glanced at the menu. The gentlemen inquired about one of fish in the glass case. The chef presented his best fish, enthusiastically exhibiting its freshness and quality. The couple nodded and the chef began preparing the fish as an appetizer. Minutes later, the dish was presented. The head of the fish was positioned face up on the left side of the plate and the tail was on the right, with the freshly carved boneless, skinless raw sashimi in the middle. Now that’s fresh!

Enthralled with the entire experience and slightly intoxicated, I hadn’t noticed that the restaurant had filled to capacity with throngs of cigarette-smoking salarymen. Eager for the fresh air awaiting me outside, I paid and left, merry, full and satisfied with the night’s accomplishments. Only later did I learn that I had stopped one shop too soon in my search for the ramen shop. I had stumbled upon an Izakaya, a traditional Japanese pub, and was treated to a truly authentic evening. No matter how much we may try to plan during this adventure, sometimes the most memorable experiences are accidental.

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April 22nd 2008
Zen and the Art of Deer Feeding

Posted under Japan

From our home base of Kyoto, we hopped onto the train for a day trip to Nara. The Japan train and metro systems have proven to be wonderfully clean, easy to navigate, punctual, and ultimately efficient. Before arriving in Japan, we had purchased a Japan Rail Pass, which has enabled us to scramble around Japan at our usual manic pace with relative ease.

Nara is a small city but it is full of beautiful historic sites. It would be a push to see it all in one day but we were feeling equal to the task. We began our walking tour in the Nara-koen area – an expansive, centrally-located park around which many of Nara’s most impressive sites are situated. The park itself is well-known for its resident deer population which numbers around 1,200. The idea of this deer-filled park was thrilling for two reasons: first, because you never see that many deer in one place and second, because like most adorable, sweet-faced furry mammals, the doe-eyed deer remind us of our little angel puppy whom we miss terribly.

Immediately upon entering the park area, deer were indeed everywhere. In contrast to most wild deer, which are skittish around humans, these deer are completely approachable and even initiate interactions with people passing by. This behavior was most certainly learned by generations of deer being hand-fed shika-sembei (deer biscuits) which are available for purchase at numerous sidewalk carts around the park. As we passed by one of the carts, a middle-aged Japanese man in business casual attire had just purchased a stack of biscuits and taken a few steps away from the cart to tear off the paper packaging. Before he knew what was happening, four impatient deer surrounded him, pulling on his sport coat and nudging him simultaneously until he finally dropped the biscuits and scurried away. We watched other tourists along the way attempting to feed the deer and getting similarly harassed, which was endlessly entertaining.

At my request, we stopped off at Issui-en, a magnificent secluded garden just a couple of blocks off the main road. Aaron opted to wait outside but urged me to take my time inside. Excited by the prospect of a rare moment of solitude, I slipped through the entrance and walked slowly around the grounds while all sensations of stress and urgency dissipated into the fragrant air. It was a garden scene from a fairy tale. As we have come to expect from Japanese gardens, Issui-en was meticulously kept and seemingly designed to coincide with the practice of Zen – “a school of Mahanya Buddhism notable for its emphasis on mindful acceptance of the present moment, spontaneous action, and letting go of self-conscious and judgmental thinking” (Wikipedia). Even a short stroll through one of these oases of serenity gently propels you into the remaining day’s embrace in a calm, cool and collected frame of mind. When I rejoined my husband, he could immediately discern by my peaceful expression that I had found my happy place.

Back at Nara-koen, we spent some time watching the deer snooze in the sunshine and interact with the people. Any person carrying food, be it deer biscuits or an ice cream cone, was fair game. While the park spans a large area, the learned deer naturally gravitate toward the biscuit vendors, meaning that the highest concentrations are on and around the pedestrian walkways. There are multiple city employees whose sole responsibility seems to be sweeping deer droppings from the sidewalks. The deer at Nara are “the descendents of the sacred messengers of gods of the Kasuga shrine” located in Nara. ( Because they are sacred, they are protected by law. Between the absence of predators and the prevalence of deer biscuits, they have thrived and multiplied.

We somehow managed to tear ourselves away from the deer long enough to check out Nara’s star architectural attraction, Todai-ji – an awe-inspiring Buddhist temple that is also the world’s largest wooden building. The entrance gate to the temple complex houses two enormous, thirteenth-century wooden statues. The protective screens and the statues’ gargantuan height precluded us from getting a decent photo, especially with our little point-and-shoot camera, but to give you some perspective, the statue’s pinky toe is two to three times larger than the average human head. Having served as Japanese gargoyles, the statues are monstrous and lifelike.

The main hall of Todai-ji, called Daibutsu-den (Hall of the Great Buddha), contains a sixteen-meter-tall bronze Buddha statue. Since it was originally cast in 746, repeated earthquakes have caused the statue’s head to fall off; while the body of the figure is the original, the Buddha has undergone restorative procedures to reconstruct the head after each of several decapitations.

Behind the Buddha is a wooden support beam with a hole born into it, the size of which is identical to that of the Buddha’s nostril. Legend has it that those who can pass through the hole will achieve enlightenment. We watched in amusement as schoolchildren on a field trip passed through the hole with relative ease. Still, as the skinny, nimble pre-adolescents slipped through, there did not appear to be much excess wiggle room. Being naturally small-boned, I slipped through almost effortlessly, despite my newly-acquired travel chub. A group of European backpacker-types stood around the opening, sizing it up for a grand attempt. We walked away while they were still debating the possibilities but, as we neared the temple exit, Aaron decided that he wanted a chance at enlightenment too. We turned around and headed back for the beam, passing the Europeans who, having slightly narrower frames than Aaron, had shied away from the challenge. When we told them that Aaron was going to go for it, they too turned back to watch the big guy get stuck in the hole. After doing a few stretches to limber up, the brave Bear, who had by then attracted a good-sized audience, crouched down and inserted himself, arms first, into the opening. The outward appearance of the hole was deceiving because it was a bit smaller in the middle than it was on either side. Aaron managed to slide his arms through far enough for me to grab his hands and gently yank his shoulders and torso through. From there, he was able to pull the rest of his big bear body through, much to the amazement and applause of the crowd. Aaron was a hamming it up for his fans and I was relieved that my dear husband would not have to wallow in the depths of ignorant darkness while I basked in the bliss of enlightenment.

Back on the street, we leisurely climbed the hill to another hall in the temple complex – Nigatsu-do – to take in the beautiful view of Nara from its upper level. Most of the cityscape resembles the drab, boxy architecture of Kyoto; however, the graceful curves of the traditional Japanese rooftops were quite impressive. We walked by the Kasuga Taisha shrine (again, trying to pace ourselves on the interior shrine/temple/castle tours so as not to get “Buddhaed out”) and later the temple called Kofuku-ji. Kofuku-ji consists of two pagodas, one of which is a five-storey, tower-like pagoda which, in my mind, epitomizes historic Japan.

Somewhere between the temple and the shrine, I had a momentary lapse of reason and decided that I needed to feed the deer. The quiet road was seemingly buffered from the bustling Nara-koen but the terraced hill on one side was nonetheless populated with twenty or thirty deer. The nearest biscuit-cart was unmanned but I saw a small stack of coins in the corner of a cardboard box top which also contained several stacks of deer biscuits. I counted out 150 yen (about $1.50) and exchanged my coins for a single stack. As expected, several deer had followed my every move around the biscuit cart and quickly moved in on me as I attempted to tear off the paper packaging. Having seen the deer in action with other tourists who were crazy enough to attempt the hand-feed, I had anticipated the encroachment. I was not prepared, however, by their aggressive attempts via synchronized nudging, bucking and nipping to score the coveted treats. I tried desperately to keep my composure long enough to break the biscuits into pieces so that the weaker contenders might have a chance at a few crumbs but, as I held the stack out of their desperate reach, the alpha member nipped me on the little piece of chub right under my belly button. Damn! I knew I should’ve been working on my six pack! It didn’t hurt but startled me enough to drop the biscuits with the wrapper still attached and run. We laughed later as we discovered that Aaron caught me in a photo at the precise moment that the little perpetrator had my chub in his grip. The expression on my face went from nervous excitement to pure terror. Needless to say, I don’t recommend feeding the deer in Nara, no matter how sweet and docile they appear. While they may let you pet them and pose with them like little angels, they will not hesitate to bite the chub attached to the hand that feeds them.


April 20th 2008
Kyoto Temples and Gardens

Posted under Japan

Our first night sleeping in the dorm was pretty rough. There was a Japanese guy snoring relentlessly about three feet from my head and my bed dipped in the middle. As the events of the day continued to spin my wheels, I couldn’t sleep; then I got a scolding from a bed-faced Bear who peered down from his top bunk penthouse to find me playing online at 2am. I’m sure that I responded with a muffled, snide remark but I knew I was busted. I resigned myself to the fact that the next day would be impossible without a steady flow of caffeine coursing through my body. Hi. My name is Tina Young and I am hopelessly addicted to caffeine: the means of doing twice as much on half the sleep.

I managed to drag myself out of bed around 8:30 the next morning, mostly because the Bear was already dressed and shuffling around impatiently. We fueled up with a cup of free instant coffee from the hostel kitchen and set out on another day of exploring, starting with Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple) in northwest Kyoto. The three-story temple was plated in gold and set on the edge of a tranquil pond. It was originally built in 1937 as a retirement villa for a Japanese Shogun and later converted to a temple by his son. The grounds were secluded and buffered from the noise of the city; the sublime gardens were so serene that we felt as if we had stepped into an oasis of tranquility.

After walking the perimeter of the temple grounds, we took a break from temple-viewing to check out Nishiki Market – a long, covered alley lined with stall after stall of local handicrafts and colorful arrays of raw fish, bulk spices, sweets and other specialty foods. We are continually intrigued by food markets around the world. The colors, smells and crowds overwhelm our senses as we walk from one shop to the next, checking out the merchandise on display. What is unique about Japanese markets is geometric precision employed by the various proprietors in displaying their wares. Rarely do you see even bulk items in a pile but rather fish, spices and produce are neatly arranged in rows and geometric shapes. The individual shops are small and personal, usually attended by the owner.

As we walked through the market, which spanned several city blocks, all of the food displays naturally sparked our hunger so we stopped at a kaiten-zushi restaurant – a sushi bar in which individual servings of sushi, tempura and sashimi are rotated on a conveyor belt passing by each table. Patrons pull the plates that they want and, at the end of the meal, a waitress tabulates the bill based on the number of plates stacked on the table. We ordered some drinks and watched a few rotations before grabbing one little plate after another, accumulating a respectable stack. The sushi was of mediocre quality but we were tickled by the conveyor belt experience.

Our last stop of the day was at Nanzen-ji, which is one of the finest temples in all Kyoto. We walked the beautiful, expansive grounds and through a few of the historic buildings in the temple complex, marveling at the architecture and gardens. The Japanese have definitely mastered the art of tranquility. The dark wood inspires a feeling of engulfing softness, despite the straight, clean lines incorporated into all of the interior designs. The rooms are simply decorated with tatami mats on the floor. The walls are most often plain though occasionally adorned with muted paintings or lattice screens. Sliding panels of wood or rice paper invite the breeze on a summer’s day. My favorite room in the Nanzen-ji complex – the Hojo Hall dining room – had a simple, elegant dining table over a pale pink, floral-design Oriental rug; the exterior wall encased a floor-to-ceiling window framing a seemingly mythical view of an idyllic Japanese garden. It looked like paradise.

The Japanese gardens are brilliantly designed to invoke relaxation, meditation, prayer and contemplation. They all seem to incorporate a water feature – you always find the calming sound of trickling water in the garden ambience. Many also include a rock garden with a wave-like design raked into it, which strangely inspires you to sit and stare across it, allowing your undeterred thoughts to flow. As I walked the grounds of Nanzen-ji, I was overcome with feelings of contentment and harmony. Amid the chaos of endless distractions that dominate our normal daily lives, an oasis of quiet solitude often seems impossible to find. Centuries ago, the Japanese perfected the art of creating that oasis and, while the modern Japanese population seems to have succumbed to the Western frenzy of work more, do more, buy more, I hope to bring home the wisdom of the early Japanese architects. It is admirable to create something aesthetically beautiful – like a finely furnished room – but it is endlessly rewarding to create or find an atmosphere that inspires prayer, reflection, and manifests the beauty within the beholder.

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April 19th 2008
Geisha Safari

Posted under Japan

Arriving in Kyoto on the morning train from Osaka (a thirty minute ride), we lugged our load for what seemed like an hour in search of the Kyoto Cheapest Inn. Kyoto, a former capital city of Japan, is one of the nation’s richest cultural cities and a definite hotspot for tourism. After several fruitless attempts to secure private accommodation, we agreed to try a dorm-style hostel room. The eighteen-bed dorm room was on the second floor of a converted office building. Our designated bunk beds were situated next to the single sink and toilet. Each bed had a privacy curtain made out of a bed sheet. The small kitchen area and shower stalls were located on the ground floor and the only stairwell was outside, like a fire escape. We had booked in advance for four nights, planning to use Kyoto as a home base for day trips via train to the surrounding cities. The accommodation was pretty awful but it would encourage us to stay out longer, seeing as much as possible in our two-week sprint through Japan. With our packs stowed snugly under our lower bunk, we headed out for the day.

The macro-level cityscape of Kyoto is quite drab and unimpressive but the city is full of cultural treasures, including seventeen UNESCO World Heritage sites. We rode the city bus to Southern Higashiyama, Kyoto’s premier sightseeing district, and set out on a walking tour, as recommended in our guide book. From the bus stop, we walked up Chawan-zaka (Teapot Lane), a pretty, narrow lane lined with food stalls and souvenir shops. At the top of the hill lay an ancient Buddhist temple called Kiyomizu-Dera with a large pagoda and beautiful blossoming cherry trees. We paid 100 yen (about $1) to descend into the Tenai-meguri, which is a narrow, pitch-black stairwell and corridor descending to a dimly luminated stone engraved with Japanese characters. In the blackness, we had only a strand of rope strung with large wooden beads to guide us; it was disorienting but I found that, when I closed my eyes, I became more steady and sure. When we reached the stone, I gave it a gentle spin, as is the custom, and made my humble wish for healthy babies, healthy babies, healthy babies.

Back in the light of day, we continued on, stopping for a soft serve ice cream cone of green tea and cherry blossom swirl. We walked down Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka, two charming streets lined with traditional wooden homes, teahouses, and shops. We then took a brief detour onto Ishibei-koji – arguably the most beautiful street in all Kyoto – which was a cobbled lane lined with elegant traditional inns and restaurants. There were many people out for a casual stroll and many of the women donned the traditional Japanese kimono. The atmosphere felt a bit like stepping back in time in some exotic place, almost nostalgic but a familiarity existing only in our imagination.

The narrow streets led us to the Kodai-ji Temple, renowned for its beautiful design and exquisite craftsmanship. The extensive grounds around the temple include two sixteenth-century teahouses and a Japanese garden designed by famed landscape architect Kobori Enshu. We followed a narrow stone walkway around the grounds. The landscape was utterly breathtaking with old, twisted trees protruding from moss-covered mounds of earth, glassy ponds bordered with boulders, soft flowering shrubs and a small bamboo forest. A narrow wooden bridge crossed over the pond to the Kaisan-do (Founders Hall). In the center of the bridge was a four-pillared pavilion with a Chinese-style bark roof, designed to allow viewing of the moon’s reflection on the pond. The entire temple complex was peaceful and exquisite. One can easily envision Buddhist nobles of earlier centuries contemplatively traversing the garden and attending elaborate tea ceremonies.

From Kodai-ji, we continued on to a beautiful city park called Maruyama-koen. We crossed a bridge that arched across a large carp pond and walked along the meandering path to the upper reaches of the park. A young, shirtless martial artist exercised in a grassy clearing while two giggling girls looked on. Picnickers and casual strollers smiled in the sunshine. We walked happily, taking in the scenery that spread out beautifully in all directions. The pond fed a shallow brook, speckled with tall swamp grasses and contoured stones, which curved through the park. Dreamlike Maruyama-koen would have been the perfect place to take a rest but the excitement of all that we had seen fueled our momentum; our legs carried us on as though the Energizer bunny was pounding out the beat of our stride.

We found our way to Gion, a famous entertainment and geisha district with modern architecture and crowded sidewalks. We were getting hungry and cold and walked along bustling Shijo-dori in search of dinner or a hot coffee to sustain us through the sunset chill.  We stumbled upon an interesting side street with traditional buildings, the two-story facades dimly lit with Japanese paper lanterns. Since entering Gion, we had considered ourselves to be on a “geisha safari”, determined to catch a glimpse of the notoriously elusive icons of enchantment and elegance. As we would later learn, our coincidental detour was the street where geisha are often spotted on their way to and from appointments.

“Behind the closed doors of the exclusive teahouses and restaurants that dot the back streets of Kyoto, women of exquisite grace and refinement entertain men of considerable means. Patrons may pay more than $3,000 to spend the evening in the company of two or three geisha – kimono-clad women versed in an array of visual and performing arts, including playing the three-stringed shamisen, singing old teahouse ballads and dancing.” (Lonely Planet Japan 2007)

Your first glimpse of a geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha) on the street stops you dead in your tracks. Swarmed like Hollywood celebrities by fascinated tourists and their flashing cameras, the geisha walk with their eyes downcast in short, quick kimono-restricted strides. Their powdery white faces and brightly-colored kimono stand out among the crowd. At one intersection, two young maiko stood on the corner, posing for photos and creating a diversion for the more senior geisha to slip away in the back seats of chauffeured black sedans. As the cars passed, the maiko and geisha gracefully bowed to one another, as evidence of their artistic respect and flawless etiquette. The whole experience was surreal and we glided away giddily to resume our quest for sustenance.

Our first day in Kyoto was richly diverse and immensely thrilling. There is so much to see here, so much intriguing culture to absorb. We are like two kids at Disney World for the first time, amazed by everything we see.

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April 17th 2008

Posted under Japan

Arriving at Kansai International Airport in the late evening, we wearily endured an hour-long line at Immigration, a frustrating scavenger hunt for an ATM, and a two-hour train ride to Osaka. It took us about ten minutes to figure out the train system, since all of the signs and schedules were in Japanese and our hostel, J-Hoppers, was another ten-minute walk from the train station. We were both exhausted and running on fumes so we dropped our bags in the room and walked to the convenience store down the road for some late-night provisions: water and ramen noodle cups.

We had done little in the way of research and planning prior to arriving so, the next morning, we stopped for breakfast at Mister Donut to discuss the day’s exploits. Very few Japanese people speak English. “This difficulty is largely rooted in the country’s appalling English education system, and is compounded by a natural shyness, a perfectionist streak and the nature of the Japanese language itself, which contains fewer sounds than any other major world language (making pronunciation of other languages difficult).” (Lonely Planet Japan 2007) Since we speak about two words of Japanese, this is a challenge but smiles and hand gestures seem to go a long way. Still, it can be intimidation when, everywhere you go, people speak to you in Japanese, a language so dissimilar to English that you have no chance of picking up a key word here and there. We smile and nod and say “Arigato” (thank you), which is one of our two words. So we pointed out our donuts and took a seat, chuckling over the thought of eating at Mister Donut in Japan. It is always interesting to see which Western franchises thrive in foreign countries. McDonalds, Starbucks and KFC are everywhere, often appearing like an oasis in the desert, but Mister Donut definitely caught us by surprise. The place was packed; apparently, the Japanese like their donuts and coffee.

We decided to start the day with a visit to the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, boasting the world’s largest (holding 5,400 cubic meters of water) aquarium tank, which in turn houses a member of the world’s largest fish species – the whale shark. Two of our recent scuba destinations – the Red Sea and Tofo, Mozambique – are known to have concentrations of whale sharks but we had yet to see one. The aquarium was beautifully designed with habitats from the “Ring of Fire” (the ring of geothermic activity which surrounds the Pacific Ocean), such as Antarctica, the Aleutian Islands, the Great Barrier Reef, Monterey, Panama Canal, Japan Deeps and the Cook Strait. We spent hours wandering through the corridors of illuminated tanks full of seals, sea otters, sharks, rays, iridescent jelly fish and scores of other creatures of the sea. The main tank was three stories high and housed at least ten different species of sharks, a manta ray and other types of rays in addition to the whale shark.


I hadn’t been to an aquarium in years. While I feel disheartened by the thought of wild animals in captivity, I cannot deny that I was mesmerized and thrilled by the experience of viewing such unique wildlife species at close range. When you see them in the ocean, they are not as clearly visible or vibrant as they are in the illuminated tanks but they are so beautiful and free. Visible colors are lost underwater, at varying depths, so images tend to appear muted. The color red disappears in a mere three meters of water; orange is lost at five meters and yellow at ten. Green and purple begin to fade around twenty meters, leaving only blue at depths of thirty meters and beyond. This means that a beautiful fish or coral garden on the ocean floor under thirty meters of water may contain all the colors of the rainbow but, to the natural eye, it will all appear blue. In the Great Barrier Reef habitat inside the aquarium, a reef was displayed in shallow water and all of the colored coral was amazingly vibrant.

Just outside the aquarium sits the world’s largest Ferris wheel and keeping with the day’s theme of “world’s largest _____”, we decided to give it a whirl. The single rotation lasted fifteen minutes and, from our enclosed glass car, the highest heights opened up beautiful panoramic views of the city and Osaka Bay, including a small grove of blossoming cherry trees. We disembarked from the Ferris wheel and giddily raced toward the cherry blossoms.

Cherry trees are indigenous to Japan and, for a few weeks each spring, the cities are brightened with breathtaking displays of snowy pink blossoms. The centuries-old Japanese custom of hanami, or blossom viewing, is thriving among the current population as evidenced by the throngs of picnickers, families and large groups of teenagers out enjoying the beautiful view on a sunny Sunday afternoon. We strolled along the paths with clouds of blossoms overhead and a carpet of fallen blooms under foot. It seemed as though everyone around us was smiling and happy. The ubiquitous sensation of joy was intensely contagious and we marveled at our good fortune in witnessing this treasured and ephemeral season in bloom.

Our next stop was the Osaka Castle, a concrete reconstruction of the original granite castle, which was destroyed by war in 1615, rebuilt, and then destroyed again 1868. This seems to be a recurring theme among many of Japan’s castles, temples and shrines. The castle is striking in appearance, standing five stories high above a stone wall foundation and surrounded by a moat. The original castle was erected as a display of power but my first impression was of stupefying beauty and opulence. It was our first glimpse of Japanese architecture and it left us wanting more. We walked the perimeter of the castle without going inside (trying to pace ourselves for the numerous temples and shrines throughout Asia) and wandered the surrounding grounds. The adjacent park was beautifully landscaped and we discovered another large grove of cherry blossoms in which no less than a hundred young men and women were casually gathered. As we leisurely passed by, we remarked on the Rock ‘n Roll fashion of Japanese adolescents and young adults. The hairstyles are trendy and layered – especially the men who undoubtedly use more hair products than their female peers. The girls’ attire is artistic and feminine with a lot of cinched waists, high heels and knee socks.

From the castle grounds, we hopped on the train to Dotombori, Osaka’s liveliest nightlife area, and walked the arcade, a long street illuminated by colorful storefronts and flashy neon signs. The narrow streets were packed with people out for a night on the town. We ducked into the sanctuary of Starbucks to recharge and absorb the scene outside from a table by the window. The baristas at Starbucks did not speak English but, thankfully, a “skinny white mocha” is still a “skinny white mocha” even in Japanese. When we were sufficiently warm and caffeinated, we hit the streets again, walking through a covered shopping arcade which spanned several city blocks. It contained high-end boutiques, specialty food stalls and a variety of basic mall stores. The Japanese, comprising the world’s second largest economy after the U.S., have definitely fallen victim to Western consumerism.

At the end of the evening, we were thoroughly exhausted. After a series of wrong turns onto darkened streets left us completely lost, we gave up on walking and hailed a cab. We collapsed into our respective bunk beds and fell into a deep sleep. So far, Japan has exceeded our expectations. The language gap has proven to be our biggest challenge but one that we embrace with an adventurous spirit because it makes every exchange – ordering donuts, asking for directions, navigating public transportation systems – a little more interesting.


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