Sunday, August 26, 2012

Japan (It's pretty new. You've probably never heard of it.)

Hey ho and what have you. So I just got back from my summer vacation in Japan, which was pretty great. Guess I should give you the blow-by-blow, huh? Here goes...

To get to Osaka, I took the Panstar ferry service from Busan. The main reason I went with the ferry instead of a flight was cost, although I've been told I should have checked out Air Busan before I opted for the ferry ticket. Either way, I don't regret taking the ferry. I got to see a lot more of the country by sea, traveling past  Tsushima island and through the Seto Inland Sea, than I would have by air. Japan is a fascinating country to see from the water. There's large amounts of fishing and commercial boat traffic on the water and several large suspension bridges (including the Akashi-Kaikyo bridge in Kobe, the longest suspension bridge in the world), plus it's just fascinating to see how a country has managed to crowd 127 million people onto a collection of very mountainous islands. (Japan doesn't always look very big on a map, but the distance from Kyushu to Hokkaido is roughly equivalent the distance from Boston to Jacksonville. So Japan is pretty much like taking the east coast of the United States, moving in about 15 million more people, putting the Appalachians in the middle of everything and then making it a separate country.)

While I was waiting to board the boat in Busan, I ran into another American passenger, who, in the interest of keeping this blog consistent as pertaining to the use of pseudonyms instead of real names, I will call Reggie. Reggie was a fellow former Los Angelean who had been working in Seoul as an English teacher and needed to go somewhere to renew his tourist visa while he waited to hear about a possible new teaching job in Busan. Once I got on the boat, I also met Sal (again, not his real name, just for the sake of consistency), who was another ex-Angeleno and an English teacher in Osaka. As three of the only English-speaking passengers on the ferry, we got to know each other pretty well over the course of the overnight trip, and Sal was nice enough when we landed to help Reggie and I get oriented in the city. Once we got oriented, Reggie decided to stick with me, since he came to Osaka without any real travel plans other than a lifelong desire to see Kyoto. So, much like Doctor Who, I suddenly found myself with a traveling companion.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm really glad I ran into Sal and Reggie on the boat, but after two and a half years in Korea with a rotating cast of compatriots who don't always share the same sightseeing aspirations as me, I've gotten kind of used to traveling alone. Of course, if you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that there's several disadvantages to traveling alone, with not having anyone to talk to or hang out with being primary among them. On the other hand, once I found out that Reggie, a guy who I had just met, was going to be tagging along with me, it was a bit difficult to snap out my usual "Loner, lone gunman, get it?" attitude and be grateful for the company, especially since I only had about five days (less, actually, since I had half a ferry trip on each end of that schedule) to see as much of the Kansai region as I could. Traveling alone does have its advantages, the greatest one being that you never have to coordinate or argue with anyone when time gets tight.

At any rate, I did manage to find my hostel and still make it to Osaka Castle before closing time on the first day with Reggie in tow. I didn't make it back to JR Osaka station in time to buy my rail pass before they closed (well, technically they closed at 8 PM and I made it there at about 7:57, but they wouldn't sell it to me at that point - you know how that goes) but while we were there we took the time to check out the view from the sky garden at the Umeda Sky building. Osaka's famed nightlife would have to wait for the return trip, but at least I had gotten a taste of the city on day one.

On day two, it was time to head for Kyoto. Kyoto was a capital of Japan before it moved to Tokyo, so the city is full of palaces, temples and other vestiges of Japan's storied past. Day one in Kyoto started a bit late as I had to buy my rail pass and we had to get oriented in the city, and we lost some time in the mid-afternoon due to a sudden rain storm, but I did get to see the quite stunning Zen gardens at Daitokuji temple and still manage to make it to the famed Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji. (Reggie and I agreed that, as beautiful as the Golden Pavilion was, it seemed a bit ostentatious compared to the Zen gardens at Daitokuji.)

By the way, if you ever find yourself traveling to Osaka and the surrounding region, you may wonder whether the Kansai Thru Pass, which allows you to use any bus, subway or train in the region other than the Japan Rail (JR) lines for one price, is worth the money. The answer is a resounding "it depends," based on my personal experience and the opinions of just about everyone I asked about it. Trains, buses and subways in Japan are relatively expensive, and the trains can be confusing since many of the lines are run by separate private entities, with some rail lines even running parallel to each other and making almost the same stops. On the other hand, almost every city in the region has all-day passes for the bus and subway systems (but not both for the same price, unfortunately) that are comparable or lower in price than a day's worth of travel on the Kansai Thru Pass. The good news is that, if you've invested in the Kansai Thru Pass and you have large amounts of travel scheduled on non- consecutive days, you can choose two or three non-consecutive days on which you want to use the pass with no penalties - the pass is basically good for two or three 24-hour periods, and doesn't become activated for the day until you use it at least once on a day. And having the pass is extremely convenient, if you don't mind possibly paying a premium for that convenience. On the other hand, if you're looking to save money, you might be better off simply paying as you go and buying day passes, or saving the pass for the days when you know you're going to be doing an inter-city train ride and a lot of bus or subway travel when you arrive.

Reggie couldn't get a reservation at my hostel so we split up in the evening so he could look for lodging. After dinner and a quick shower, I decided to head out to Kyoto's fabled Gion district to see a little of what the geisha thing is all about. I already knew there was no way in hell that I could afford to hire out a geisha for a performance, since apparently having a classically-trained performer pour tea for you is something that only the very rich and powerful can afford (which I'm sure is a big part of the appeal). But I figured I could at least enjoy the old-style architecture and maybe try to snap a few pictures of geisha on their way to work, which apparently annoys the geisha but amuses Western tourists to no end. Nothing I had read or heard about Gion had prepared me for the reality, though. The vibe in Gion at night is just indescribable, although the first word I would use to try would definitely be "heavy." First, all the geisha clubs have doormen with radios, so you feel like you're walking past CIA headquarters or something as you walk down the streets and alleys. The clientele mostly show up to Gion in Kyoto's fancy black cabs, and the drivers hover around the borders as groups of suited businessmen saunter or stagger to the clubs and steakhouses - sometimes in small groups of two or three, sometimes with fully-costumed geisha, sometimes with at least one not-to-be-fucked-with security guard, but never with any female companions who aren't performing. There's also some clubs in Gion that are decidedly less traditional, with girls in sassy schoolgirl costumes or cat ears standing outside to promote what's inside. (As far as I know, I don't think there's any actual prostitution in Gion - every source I've read insists that geisha don't perform sex acts of any kind, and the prices posted outside the other joints indicated that they were probably strip clubs rather than sex clubs. Either that or I missed out on some fantastically cheap opportunities to pay for sex.) [Yes, Mom, Dad, and all my female friends, that last bit was a joke.] Either way, it's impossible to take an evening stroll there without feeling like there's something very, very secretive and heavily guarded going on behind every door, even if it's only a Japanese woman in white face paint and a kimono singing for some drunk business executives.

Day two in Kyoto was both astounding and a little bit frustrating. In short, Reggie and I had somewhat incompatible travel preferences. Since I had a very limited amount of time to travel, I wanted to travel to as many of the big-name spots on Kyoto's east side as I possibly could, snap as many photos as possible, and collapse in a heap when I got back to the hostel. Reggie, on the other hand, was much more interested in taking it easy, spending ample time at each site we visited and stopping for coffee breaks. I tried my best to be accommodating but Reggie could probably tell that I was chomping at the bit in some places. I really didn't want to be a dick about things, especially since I know I can tend to be a bit anti-social and I'm trying to change that for the better, and I really did appreciate his company for most of the trip. But like I said, I'm a bit of a lone wolf at heart, especially when I'm traveling and trying to see the sites. Our first stop that day was Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine, a shrine (maybe a Shinto shrine? I don't know how clear the distinctions are between Buddhist and Shinto shrines in Japan) famous for its mountain paths covered by hundreds of red-orange torii gates, in long rows like dominoes. Scattered throughout the mountain paths are pockets of shrines with altars and statues of stone foxes, all gathered in seemingly disorganized mobs, especially when contrasted with the orderly rows of torii gates spanning the paths. It was all pretty overwhelming (especially in the mid-thirties heat and high humidity). From Fushimi-Inari-Taisha we walked to Tofukuji Temple, which wasn't on my itinerary but had been recommended to Reggie as a good Zen temple to visit. I learned something important about Kyoto at Tofukuji - it's not a city that you can see in only one or two days. For every temple that you read about in your guidebook that's listed as a must-see but turns out to be a chaotic mess when you arrive there, there's another that you're likely to skip past that will blow your mind. Maybe some people aren't as impressed by Tofukuji's white-and-brown Zen simplicity, but I was stunned by the immensity of the buildings there and the beauty of its natural setting. I'd say it's a can't-miss if you're coming to Kyoto (especially if Fushimi-Inari-Taisha is on your itinerary) but there's just so many can't-misses in Kyoto that it's impossible for me to label almost any one site taken individually that way.

Reggie and I stuck together in Kyoto as far as Kiyomizu-dera Temple, typically considered one of the definite must-see sites for all visitors to Kyoto. We had already agreed by that point that he would probably break away to take a rest after Kiyomizu-dera while I continued on to other sightseeing destinations on the east side of the city. Unfortunately, we got separated by the crowd halfway through Kiyomizu-dera and had no way to get back in touch with each other since neither of us had a working phone. Kiyomizu-dera was impressive, but it was extremely crowded and at least one of the major buildings was covered for repairs. (This is another major headache in visiting Kyoto, and Japan in general - since almost all the classic buildings are made of wood, it's almost certain that part of some major site you want to see will be closed, or have only limited access, for renovations.) I wandered out of the temple and into the side streets of the picturesque neighborhood nearby, and determined to make the best of the time I had left before sites started closing for the evening. The good thing about Kyoto is, no matter where you go, especially on the east side of the city, there's almost always something to see. I mean yeah, I think I walked right by a couple temples I wanted to see but couldn't find, I found out Chion-in Temple was under major renovations when I got there, and I may have accidentally left an incense offering for Japan's dead soldiers from World War II at another temple. Sorry, they handed the incense to me as I walked in and I didn't read the whole brochure. And there was a really big Buddha statue there! Also, I think they had a monument to all the unknown soldiers of World War II from all sides at that temple, so at least they were trying to be accommodating. It's the thought that counts, right?

Even though it was after 4 PM by the time I found a bus stop, I still tried to make it to the northeast edge of the city to see Ginkakuji Temple, another one of the city's widely-regarded must-see sites, before it closed at 5 PM. As you may have guessed, I made it there at 5:05, and the guard at the door had no sympathy for either me or the two French tourists who arrived at that time. Really, when it comes down to it, two days is not enough time to see Kyoto. I don't really have too many regrets about what I did see, though. I only wish that I had more time to see more of the city. It would be easy to spend a week exploring Kyoto, if you had that kind of time. Oh well. Maybe I can come back some day...

When I got back to my hostel, I tried to email Reggie to talk to him about the next day's plan to go to Nara. I really wanted to leave as soon as possible in the morning so that I could maximize my time there and still have time in the evening to see more of Osaka. I didn't get a definite response from Reggie until the next morning, but when he swung by the hostel at 7 AM he said that he was too tired to join me that day. I hate to admit it but I was secretly hoping he would make that decision. (Loner, lone gunman, get it? I like the lifestyle, the image.) Again, I had nothing against him personally, actually he was a really nice guy. Plus I'm not gonna say anything bad about the guy here because I'll probably be sending him a Facebook friend request some time soon and there'll be a link to this blog post on my account. But like I said, as much as I'm trying to teach myself not to run in fear from all forms of interpersonal relationships, I do prefer to travel alone, and I was on a very tight schedule. So off I went to Nara on my own, going down the only road I've ever known. Like a drifter, I was born to walk alone...

Nara was incredible. First, there's the deer. Nara is famous for its deer, which are protected by law and fed by all the tourists, so they've become completely tame. Seriously, you can stand nose-to-nose with an eight-point buck in Nara and most of the time he'll only sniff you for food. It's like another world there, where deer and man are somehow equals. Don't you just love Buddhists? Second, there's Todaiji Temple. Todaiji Temple is huge. Yeah, there's lots of huge temples in Japan, but Todaiji Temple also has Japan's largest bronze Buddha statue, which is just plain ol' HUGE. (And it's indoors, so you know that's a big ol' temple right there.) Third, the main tourist area in Nara is very walkable and surrounded by undeveloped hills, forest and grassland, and there's some very nice gardens in the area that take full advantage of that natural beauty. Here's the shot of Isuien Garden that I posted to Facebook to make my friends jealous:

This is the crappy iPhone version of this shot. The good Fujicolor 100 shot isn't back from the photo lab yet. (I kick it old school.)

It's fairly easy to see the main sites in Nara in about half a day, so I had plenty of time to enjoy the Nara National Museum, which has quite a nice collection of Buddhist statues and other artworks from the Kansai region, and still get back to Osaka at a reasonable hour. Yes, I appreciate the irony that I ended up ditching Reggie so I could leave early for Nara, and then it turned out that I spent a leisurely day there with time to spare. Whatever, these things happen.

Back in Osaka, I had heard that Den-Den Town, the city's discount electronics district, might have some camera shops with old manual 35mm equipment, so I headed there in the evening. I didn't find any camera shops, but I did find out that Den-Den Town is also apparently Osaka's otaku (roughly translated, "fanboy") district, so I did pass a wide variety of interesting record shops, toy stores, video stores and "maid coffee" establishments. "Maid coffee" is apparently a popular form of entertainment in Japan in which you go to a coffee shop where young girls dress like maids and you can play board games with them. Personally I don't understand this Japanese fascination with infantilized, subservient young girls and women. Why not a cafe with girls who can wear whatever they want and rub it in your face when they school you at checkers? Oh wait, you don't have to pay for that, that's what friends are for...

I had enough time left to check out at least one of southern Osaka's entertainment districts - maybe two if I was lucky. The main places to go for entertainment in Osaka are America-mura, which is mostly known as an area for trendy retail shops, Dotombori, which is known as the main place to party, and Shin-Sekai, which is known as a run-down shell of its former self that's now full of pachinko parlors. I, of course, headed straight to Shin-Sekai. What can I say, I love a good dive. Actually, I attempted to head straight there but got lost in some covered arcade south of Shin-Sekai that was home to some really, truly divey places. Ever seen someone doing karaoke loudly for a completely empty bar? It's not pretty. I did eventually find Shin-Sekai and get a couple shots of neon-clad Tsuten-kaku tower for the effort, but it didn't seem like the most fun place for a solo traveler. I suppose the right kind of group of travelers could have fun enjoying the Jersey shore (the boardwalk, not the TV series) type vibe there, but I wasn't going to find much to do there by myself. ("Hey," you're thinking right now, "maybe you would have enjoyed the nightlife in Osaka more if you hadn't ditched Reggie." Well, it's possible, but Reggie didn't drink, so I had kind of figured I would have to leave him behind for this portion of the trip anyway.) I did manage to get to Dotombori before the last train back to my hostel, and got some photos of the famous neon "Running Man" by the river, and got propositioned outside a hotel, which I think completes the Dotombori experience. So all in all I feel like I got to see the Osaka nightlife experience, even if I didn't fully participate in it.

I had to get back on the ferry on Friday, my final day, and they only thing I had time to do was check out the Osaka Aquarium. The Osaka Aquarium is allegedly the biggest in the world, and it's quite impressive. The entire aquarium focuses on animals from various locales around the Pacific ring of fire, and it's designed in a big spiral, so you start at the top with surface-dwelling creatures (including some aquatic birds and mammals) and as you continue farther into the aquarium you move to lower levels of the various tanks, so you can see the animals that typically dwell in much deeper parts of the ocean. The whale shark is the star of the show, although the otters, sea lions, dolphins and penguins do their best to steal the crowd's attention while they're still in the surface areas.

The first thing I noticed on the ferry ride back was that I seemed to be one of the only Westerners over the age of eighteen on the trip. Were I the type of person to see justice or a larger plan in the universe (which I don't), I might guess that this was some sort of karmic retribution for ditching Reggie in Kyoto. But since the universe is clearly a series of random, unconnected incidents, I spend the trip catching up on my favorite podcasts and catching up on sleep. Eat that, karma.

Hmm... is it worth including a closing paragraph to compare Japan to Korea? I could definitely see, while traveling in Japan, which country was the colonized and which was the colonizer. As grand as the temples and palaces were in Japan, it was hard not to retain some sense of the social injustices perpetrated on both the Japanese peasantry and, later, Japan's colonial conquests to build and maintain all that splendor. But really, I could say that about almost any world imperial capital. Why do so many truly great things in life seem to have to be erected on the backs of the less fortunate? I don't know. I do know that, when I got back on the cruise ship and got in line for dinner, and got pushed out of the way repeatedly by older Koreans, that I missed the Japanese sense of politeness and desire for social harmony. I definitely heard the Japanese phrase for "excuse me" more often than I hear its Korean equivalent here. But I think making comparisons is a fairly futile exercise. One has to accept every culture for what it is, both good and bad. Cultures do change over time, but not generally due to anything we can do about them. It's better to try to accept what we don't like about them, and try to remember to celebrate what we do like.

Well, the fall semester at work starts tomorrow morning, and it promises to be an interesting semester, if anything. They'll be some new teachers to meet, and some newly departed teachers to miss. (The current teacher at my middle school is vacating her apartment upstairs as we speak.) I don't think I'm going back to Korean class in Daegu, since at this point I'm pretty sure that twelve more weeks of lessons is not going to help my Korean to an appreciable degree before I leave. Also, I found out that the volunteer group that was helping me learn Korean might be a front for a cult. I mean, yeah, I knew they had some vague connections to a cult for a long time, but some recent information I've come across makes me more wary of spending time with them. (I'm sure there'll be a lot more about that in my next post.) I've been delving deeper into the book that's supposed to be helping me transition successfully into a new career when I leave this job, and all it's done so far is make me more confused about what I want to do and have more doubts about my employability in general. Clearly I have a lot more soul-searching to do in the next six months. And of course I still have to teach school and do a good job of it for the kids. Well, this chapter of the story may be winding down, but it's certainly not over. Let's see what twists and turns await before I can close the cover and start the next volume of this story.

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