Friday, February 29, 2008

Here a shrine, there a shrine, everywhere a shrine shrine

Wednesday, Candice and I decided to do a day trip out to Kamakura. It's a seaside town and is essentially the shrine and temple capital of the world. (I made that up. But, for reals. There's like a trillion shrines and temples there.) We did such a good job buying our tickets and getting the type of train we needed and blah blah blah we're totally awesome and the smartest American girls to ever descend up on Tokyo yada yada yada.

So we arrive in Kamakura and the first destination on the list, Engaku-ji Temple, was all of about 15 yards from the station. Score. This is off to a pretty fabulous start, eh? In case you're interested, Engaku-ji is the largest of Kamakura's five great Zen temples and was founded in 1282.

This is the sanmon (main gate).

And some subtemples, as they happen to be called...

Kencho-ji was next on the list and only about 700 metres away. Double score. Things sure are going smoothly, aren't they? Kencho-ji was founded in 1253 and is the foremost of Kamakura's five great Zen temples and the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan (still in operation).

The sanmon

The butsuden (Buddha hall)

Next up was Hachiman-gu Shrine, a mere 400 yards away. Triple score. Could this get any easier?? This day is going so perfectly well!!! (You may realize at this point that I'm leading up to something. The sarcasm - it's being layed on thick.) Hachiman-gu was built by the sea in 1063 and moved to its current location in 1191. Y'all like how I'm droppin' dates like"1063", "1191", "1253" and "1282" like it's nothing?

The colors on this one were so amazingly vivid.

The unbelieveable detailing

A view from the bottom of the steps

The lotus ponds and bridges

The massive red torii (gate)

And as seen from underneath it... We were really lucky the day was so clear and the sky so blue.

After we followed our noses to an Indian restaurant for a cheap lunch, we decided to take a taxi to te next temple, Zuisen-ji because it was in a pretty secluded area and we were starting to run short on time.

We were the most excited about this one because we had read that the grounds were beautiful, there was a waterfall and that in February, the plum trees are in bloom. Sounds amazing right? In fact, this particular temple was the whole reason we chose Kamakura over other possible daytrip destinations.

Perhaps expectations were set a tad high. Granted, it is February (not exactly Mother Nature's best work) and this country would be even more amazing in the spring during cherry blossom season, but we were still excited. I mean, PLUM TREE BLOSSOMS! Doesn't that sound BEAUTIFUL?!? Sure it does. And were they beautiful, you ask? Hell if I know. Because, the blossoms? They be late this year.

Well, that's okay! We've still got the waterfall to look forward too, right?!? Wrong. Because, the waterfall? It be all dried up this year. Pfffffftttttttt.

All that said though, the walk up the many steps to the temple was still lovely...

And there was this great little Buddha statue.

Okay, this is where things start to go a little wonky. It was easy to get a taxi from the town up to the temple but I have to say that those taxis aren't exactly queuing up the side of the mountain to take us back down. We tried to work a Japanese payphone because our driver had given us a card so we could call for a pick up when we were done. The operative word in that sentence being "tried". Long story long, we found a little cafe and asked the dear woman who owned it if she would call us a taxi and she very happily did so.

Now this is where things start to go really wonky. We think we're soooo smart with our mad train skillz so we very confidently jump on this cute little electric train that runs from Kamakura down towards the sea to get to our last sight of the day - the Great Buddha. The most famous sight in Kamakura. Apparently, you ain't really been to Kamakura if you ain't seen the Great Buddha. So we're of course hell-bent on seeing the Great Buddha.

Unbeknownst to us, we happened to get on one of the express trains or something because before we know it, we're like seven stops past Hase - where the Buddha is. We get off at the next stop, see that the train going back the other way is sitting there and proceed to sprint across the tracks to get to it. Do you think we made it? Hells no. Have I mentioned that Candice is supposed to be back in Tokyo by between 5:00 and 6:00 to get ready for a dinner? Have I further mentioned that it is currently 4:35? And have I also mentioned that Kamakura is an hour away from Tokyo? Finally, have I mentioned that we have no idea what time the train leaves from Kamakura? No? This is a recipe for greatness.

However, before too long, another train comes and thankfully, stops where we need it to stop. We jump off and speed walk to the Great Buddah. And it really was pretty Great.

Huge. 44 feet tall to be exact.

And we decided that after the hell we'd been through to get there, we needed our picture taken with Mr. Great Buddah.

Oh, you thought that was the end?

It gets better. We speed walk back to Hase station to get back to Kamakura for our train to Tokyo and as we're about a block away, we see the lights start flashing and the safety arms come down to stop traffic crossing the tracks. I'd say that's a pretty sure sign the the train is freaking coming. So we run. Sprint, actually. Candice gets through the gate just as the train pulls up and I realize that my ticket is not in the pocket where it has been residing all day. I freak. I start digging in my bag. Shoving my hands into any and all pockets on my person. No ticket. I yell at Candice to "Get on that train! You have to be back! Go on without me! Seriously! I'll be fine! I'll make it back by myself!" And of course she yells back "No way! I'm not leaving you out here!" and we have this whole "never leave a soldier behind" moment.

Miraculously, the train is still sitting there. I don't know why. But I finally pull my ticket out of somewhere (I still don't remember where. I think I had a divine intervention or something and the ticket just materialized in my hand.) and shove it through the reader and we somehow made it onto that train.

Oh, you thought that was the end?

It still gets a little better. When we pull up to the station at Kamakura and get up to the platform where we need to be to get back to Tokyo, a train is arriving. We think it's ours but we're not sure because the English information on the screen is taking a long time to show up. So we hop on and ask someone if it goes to Shinjuku station. After he debated with himself for what seemed like an eternity, he decided that no, this train did not go to Shinjuku. I turn around to jump off and the door is closed behind me and there is no Candice. I still don't remember exactly what happened because I guess the panic made me blank but I got off somehow and we figured out when our train was coming.

And that, people, is indeed the end. We got back to Tokyo just fine and Candice made it to her dinner.

Jason and I are leaving tonight to go to Kyoto for the weekend so I probably won't have another chance to blog until I get home next Monday. Sayonara!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Chaos vs. Calm

Well, we've been going pretty much non-stop over here and I have lots and lots of photos to prove it.

Tuesday, Candice and I hit up Senso-ji Temple - Tokyo's "most spectacular and most sacred" temple according to our guides. Since I don't practice (or even know that much about) Buddhism, I can't vouch for the sacred bit, but I can certainly confirm that it is indeed spectacular. As can, apparently, most everyone else in Tokyo since the entire population seemed to be there at the same time as us:

The alley, Nakamise-dori, leading up to the site is filled with market stalls selling all sorts of things ranging from tacky souvenirs to food to some really nice ceramics, etc.

Hozo-mon Gate

This is a detail shot of the lantern-ish looking things that are hanging from the gates here - no idea what they're called but they're really striking.

The five-story pagoda

Nade Botokesan Buddha

The beautiful painted ceilings inside the main hall

The juxtaposition of the crazy-ness and masses of people leading up to the temple and the tranquility of this garden right next to it was pretty unbelieveable. I really couldn't believe how calm it was when it was so chaotic just several metres away.

The pagoda as seen from the garden

I don't really know exactly what these are but they are very pretty, no?

A buddha in the garden

My freshly made rice cracker - sooooo good. It was warm and had a delicious soy sauce glaze.

After some shopping and bargaining on Nakamise-dori, we decided we were ready for lunch. Our books recommended this one little tempura place - a real local neighborhood joint. So we made it our job to try and crack the non-sensical address system and find it. After only 10-15 minutes or so, success was ours.

And funny enough, we had walked by this place like five times during our shopping and we kept saying that something smelled sooooo good. It was the cutest little place... The door was one of the traditional Japanese sliding ones and it was so low we had to duck down to get in. Then, our knees wouldn't fit underneath the table. Talk about feeling like a big, bumbling American... We also noticed that all the little old ladies who worked there were teeny-tiny little things. It was like a slightly miniature restaurant!

And the BEST tempura I have ever had. No lie. The BEST. This was the sign on the outside of the restaurant. Hmmm, I'd say it's a act of Buddah we ever found it at all.

Then it was on to Harajuku, home of the teens (the "Harajuku Girls" Gwen Stefani sang about on her L.A.M.B. album) who dress up in the crazy get-ups - ranging from ultra-goth to little-bo-peep-ish frills and hair ringlets and everything in between. Although the "official" day that they hang out is Sundays, I did get to see a few of them out and about.

This is the new tube stop for my flat in London. "You just get off at Sexy Dynamite and hang a right. Yeah, baby. I'm very switched on."

The other side of Harajuku - the posh designer shopping street. There were a few people there that day, as you can see...

In keeping with the theme of "chaos vs. calm" of the day, this is the entrance to the Togo Shrine just steps away from all the madness on the Harajuku shopping streets.

And the amazingly tranquil water garden within... The only exception was the nearby construction noise. It was fu**king up my chi, man.

The colorful koi fish who swam over, I guess, hoping we would have food for them. Candice tried to make up a Haikku about why we couldn't feed them so they wouldn't be sad. (There's lots more brownish grey ones that you can barely make out in the photo because they're about the same color as the water.)

The main hall

And the pretty Ume blossoms

That's a wrap on Day Three. Stay tuned!

P.S. Just wanted to say that there have been a few emails expressing concern that I'm spending my time in Tokyo blogging and emailing. Some of you may know that Jason and I are pretty early risers. So to clarify, the blog posts are generally being written sometime shortly after 7:00 AM, after our 6:30 AM breakfast. So, rest assured. Blogging time is not cutting into Tokyo time.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Nani? Doko? Dochira?

Another cold but beautiful day in Tokyo... Lucky for me, I have a playmate to hang out with while Jason is slaving away at work. We owned Tokyo today. We took this city by the scruff of the neck and said "You listen to us, Tokyo. We're going to master your subway system and crack the da Vinci Code of your ca-razy street address system." And we did. For the most part.

Sunrise over Shikjuku

We intended to visit the gardens of the Imperial Palace but, wouldn't you know it, they're closed on Mondays. Tokyo - 1, Us - 0.

But we walked around the perimeter and saw some very nice views anyway. Tokyo - 1, Us - 1.

"ROAR. You stay out of my fence. Or something bad will happen. See these red characters? That means something bad. ROAR."

Me and Lucky Cat

Despite there being basically no street names around here, we somehow managed to find our way to the beautiful Koishikawa Korakuen garden. Tokyo - 1, Us - 2.

Korakuen means "garden of pleasure last". Construction started in 1629 and finished 30 years later.

Though we're a bit early for the Cherry Blossoms which are basically one of the most beautiful sights in the world, we did get to see the Ume Blossom Festival in the garden.

The Engetsu-kyo (Full Moon Bridge) - called that because the the reflection of it in the water makes the half-moon shape of the bridge look like a full moon.

The Tsutenkyo Bridge

The Sawa-Watari (Marsh Crossing)

For our last trick, we hit up Ginza for a spot of afternoon shopping. This street is exactly how I had pictured Tokyo in my mind before getting here. And believe it or not, we managed to find the first two stores that were on our list with the greatest of ease and bought some beautiful Japanese stationery. Tokyo - 1, Us - 3.

This Cartier building was amazing - all in gold. This picture doesn't quite do it justice but it positively glimmered in the afternoon sun.

Ya, books. Fuk u. Who needs you anyway?

The last store on our list posed a small problem. We walked up and down the main street in Ginza and could not find it anywhere. Tokyo - 2, Us - 3. We were just about to give up and get back on the subway to head back to the hotel but decided to just try and ask someone if they knew where it was. And lo and behold, she pointed us right to it! It was on a little side street (a few blocks off the main drag) that we probably would have never gone down. Not to mention the signage was all in Japanese characters so even if we did go down that street, we probably wouldn't have found it. But holy mary was it ever worth it.

It's a Japanese handicrafts store and hand to god, I don't think I have ever seen so much stuff in such a small space in my life. There were beautiful handmade decorative chopsticks all over the walls, more types of little ceramic chopstick "props" than I ever imagined existed, gorgeous little ceramic bowls and cups, fans, dolls, games and about a thousand other things. This is the best part though...

As everyone knows by now, I'm a rather avid teacup collector and back in a corner, blockaded by about four square feet of merchandise was a really lovely painted teacup and saucer. Candice is like "Well, you have to have that." and calls over the shopkeeper. He comes over, takes off his shoes, and proceeds to start climbing the mountain of stuff to get the teacup. We were wigging out because it wasn't incredibly stable so we were basically just praying he didn't fall and take down the whole store or something. And I'm thinking "Please lord don't let this thing be too expensive because, of course, I absolutely have to buy it now that he's risked life, limb and store to get it for me."

But it was very reasonable and had a really cool little bonus feature - in the bottom of the cup, you can feel some little ridges and bumps (for lack of better descriptive words) and I assumed it was just a potter's mark or something but he holds it up to the light for me and when you look at it in front of light, it's an image of a geisha! I mean, it looks like a black and white photograph, it's so detailed! I can't really put it into a description that does it justice but take my word for it - it puts the awe in awesome.

We were so proud of ourselves for getting around so well all day that when we got to the top of the steps of the subway station at our hotel, we did the "Rocky".

Now that I've bragged so much, we'll probably get so lost today that we'll end up in Osaka.