A Travellerspoint blog

September 2008

Nara, Nara... Nara, Nara... Hey, Hey, Hey... Kansai

Shoguns, Shrines, and Shinkansen in the heart of Japan

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On Monday, September 8th (which already feels like a lifetime ago, but more on that in the next post...), we arrived in Nara, a smallish city that is part of the great urban sprawl known as the Kansai. This large mass of human habitation combines Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and others into Japan’s second-largest megalopolis. Like Tokyo and Yokohama, Osaka and Kobe are pretty much one big endless city; Kyoto and Nara are both about a half-hour’s train ride through rolling hills. Nara was our choice for a home base from which to explore the region.

The city of Nara from the surrounding hills

In the 7th century, Nara became Japan’s first capital city, and during this period the world’s largest wooden structure, the Todai-Ji temple, was built.

The entry to the Todai-ji: burn some incense for good luck

Now, when I say the world’s largest wooden building, I know what you’re thinking -- “Hmm, OK, it’s the world’s largest wooden building. *yawn* What else ya got?” I know this, because we thought the same thing when we read the description in the guidebook. “Well, it’s the world’s largest wooden building, and the reason people come to Nara. I suppose we should go see it.”

What you fail to comprehend is that this temple is big. I mean, really big. Words and especially little pictures on a blog in no way communicate the immense hugeness of the Todai-ji. You don’t even realize how big it is from a distance. You see the thing from a fair way off as you’re walking up to it, and you think you’re not that far away; then the walk is a lot longer than you thought and the temple just keeps looming bigger and bigger. When we finally stood at the bottom of the front steps, we both looked at each other and said, “This thing is really... big.

For perspective, note the size of the people in the doorway

Oh, and for the record, the current building was built in the 16th century after the first one burned down... and it’s only two-thirds the size of the original.

Inside the Todai-ji is a very large (of course) bronze Buddha. It is also quite amazingly huge. And again, you don’t really realize how big it is when you’re first looking at it, until you notice a guy standing in front of it for perspective.

”I’m the Buddha, and I am way bigger (and more enlightened) than you will ever be.”

We stayed in Nara with a very pleasant couple, Mayumi Anzai and Rob (never got his last name). Mayumi runs a restaurant called the Cafe Youan in the old part of the city.

Mayumi and Rob, hard at work in the cafe kitchen

She lives in the rooms upstairs and starting hosting couchsurfers. Rob came to visit, wound up staying for a while, and they became an item and he’s been there since (apparently, they are not the first host/guest couple who have met through Couch Surfing...). Mayumi is quite the whiz in the kitchen, and whipped up a fantastic batch of veggie tempura for us while we were there.

Oh, and that salad in the foreground? Seaweed -- the Japanese love it... imagine wet spinach

The next day, we took the train an hour or so west to Japan’s most perfectly-preserved medieval castle, the Himeji-jo.

Himeji-jo castle: Samurai not included

Through most of the Middle Ages, Japan was a collection of feuding city-states. Each local warlord built his own castle like this, with a massive central tower. When the extremely ruthless shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa consolidated control in Tokyo in the 16th century, most castles were destroyed, but Himeji-jo fortunately was spared.

Muskets inside the castle

Now, I have always found this phase of Japanese history fascinating -- bushido, the samurai code of honor, the Jesuit missionaries and persecution of Christians under the Tokugawas, etc. I think it started when I played Ko-Ko, the inept Lord High Executioner in Gilbert & Sullivan’s brilliant comic operetta The Mikado, in eighth grade. Pardon me for a brief lyric interlude from its opening chorus...

If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan
On many a vase and jar, on many a screen and fan
We figure in lively paint, our attitudes queer and quaint
You’re wrong if you think it ain’t...

I venture off into this cultural tangent only because this traditional view of the Japanese culture it portrays...


...is so far from the reality of today. As was illustrated to us that evening when we stopped in Osaka on our way back to have dinner in Dotombori, the riverside entertainment district.

Today’s “gentlemen of Japan” posing amid the Dotombori neon

Osaka is Japan’s Chicago -- a hard-working, broad-shouldered merchant city that really knows how to cut loose and have a good time. They even have a unique slang word, kuiadore, that means to eat and drink until you collapse (thank you, Anthony Bourdain, for inspiring us to stop and experience it). And they have a specialty that I was dying to try: okonomiyaki, an omelette-like pancake of egg, cabbage, and meat smothered in mayonnaise and barbeque sauce that you cook yourself on a griddle-table. Sounds kind of nasty, but darn tasty: good, solid, hard-working-and-partying “Take your fancy sashimi and shove it” food.

Eggs and chopsticks: a difficult combination to master

We spent two days exploring Kyoto, which is kind of like going to Italy and spending only two days in Florence -- there’s so much to see there, you can barely scratch the surface in a week, let alone a couple of days. At first glance, Kyoto is not a particularly attractive city; the visitor expecting to step off the train into a woodblock print of old Japan is facing disappointment. For starters, the train station itself is a modern architectural wonderland...

Kyoto station: keep taking the escalators up and don't look down

...and the city itself is, well, just a city.

Downtown Kyoto from the 15th floor of the station -- which, yes, has 15 floors

Like an oyster, Kyoto’s exterior is tough, gray, and ugly, and you have to work hard to pry it open.

Nice metaphor, eh?

Well, I can’t extend it to come up with something in Kyoto to compare to the nasty filter-feeding creature inside... but the point is that deep inside if you look hard enough, you find beautiful pearls. Peaceful shrines, tree-lined canals, geisha hurrying to appointments in the alleys of the Gion entertainment district: this is the real Kyoto, and it’s waiting for the patient seeker to find it. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking...

Torii in the Fushimi-Inari shrine, made famous in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha

Wearing kimonos for a walk in the bamboo forest

Wooden bridge in the Arashiyama district in the waning sunlight

Strolling along the Philosopher’s Walk

Backstreets of Gion

Two maiko, apprentice geisha, out in their finery at dusk

It seems appropriate that Kyoto is the very soul of Japan, because it has a talent for working its way into your soul and making you sorry to leave it.

And so, with our time in Japan ending and the necessity of our return to the United States looming, we headed back to Tokyo aboard the shinkansen, or bullet train -- one of Japan’s most iconic engineering marvels. Head to the station and find your platform...


Smile in wonder as the sleek white machine glides to halt almost silently...


And settle in as you are whisked past the Japanese countryside at over 250 miles per hour.


A very pleasant way to begin a not-so-pleasant detour.

Posted by Bwinky 12:54 Archived in Japan Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

The Very Shy Mountain

Searching for Fuji-San

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We climbed a mountain, but Fuji-San wasn’t there.


We crossed the water, but Fuji-San wasn’t there.


We flew through the sky, but Fuji-San wasn’t there.


So we took a train somewhere else, and Fuji-San still wasn’t there.


“Ah, Fuji-San is very shy,” said the lady who ran the B&B we stayed at in Moto-Hakone, a mountain town by the shore of Lake Ashi, near Mount Fuji. It’s no surprise that we weren’t able to see Japan’s iconic volcano, really -- summer is very humid here and the sky is hazy. You can really only be sure of seeing Fuji-San (the suffix “-San” is used as both an honorific title, like “Mister,” and a word that means “Mount”) in the winter, when the air is totally clear. At other times, Fuji-San mostly remains bashfully cloaked in a swath of clouds.

It’s OK that we came to the mountains of central Japan and didn’t get to see Fuji-San, though. There’s plenty else to do and see in this resort area, including hiking on cedar-lined trails that were once the main highway between Kyoto and Tokyo...

The old Tokaido Highway. You can almost hear the clip-clop of the hooves of a passing samurai’s horse.

...As well as soaking in onsens, spas that feature baths in natural hot springs.

Obviously, I couldn’t take pictures inside the baths, because they were full of naked people, including us. And my camera has a phobia of hot steamy water. This is the outside of the Ten Zan onsen.

Japan sits smack-dab on top of one of the most geothermally active parts of the planet, and hot water bubbles up from below all over the place. The Japanese love to soak themselves in it; in fact, they say that the onsen is the only part of their culture that is uniquely Japanese, not imported from mainland Asia.

Some onsens are free, but most cost anywhere from $10-25 to visit. You take off your shoes upon entering (like almost everyplace else in Japan) and pay your fee, then men and women go their separate ways. You put your clothes in a locker and take a shower (major faux pas to go into a public bath without cleaning the naughty bits first), sitting down on a bench and washing, using a bowl to rinse yourself. You have a sweat in the nuclear-hot sauna if you like, then step outside into the rotemburo, a series of pools of various degrees of heat and bubblocity. Most of the pools are lined with natural rock and nestled in overhanging foliage. It’s quite beautiful, and very relaxing. Settle in, and if you’re going totally Japanese, drape the little towel you use to cover yourself outside the baths over your head.

After a good long soak in the bath of your choice, you shower off again, put on a yukata (light cotton kimono) and relax with tea and a book. It’s all very peaceful and reinvigorating after a long day hiking (or slaving in the office, if you’re Japanese).

Nothing but the sound of the waterfall outside

After a couple of Fuji-less days in Hakone, we moved on to Takayama, a small city on the edge of the Japan Alps.

Takayama from the foothills

The riverside old town has beautiful streets lined with perfectly preserved wooden and half-timber houses built during the era of the Shoguns, from the 17th-19th centuries.

Edo-era shops and houses

Waiting for a fare

Needless to say, it’s a very popular weekend trip for Japanese families.

”I refuse to smile for foreigners just because I look so darn cute in my kimono!"

Takayama is full of ryokans, traditional Japanese inns.

Ryokan Irori Sosuke

For about $100 per night, you get your own futon in a tatami-lined room with sliding paper doors, a yukata, and a bath down the hall.

I think I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so...

For a bit more, you can get meals downstairs, by the irori, the small fireplace in the living room.

Inside the ryokan

Refreshed from our time in the mountains even if we didn’t see Fuji-San, we headed onward to the cultural heart of Japan, the Kansai region: a big conurbation of the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and our destination -- Nara, Japan’s 7th century capital and home to the world’s largest wooden building, the Todai-ji temple.

Posted by Bwinky 20:04 Archived in Japan Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)


We would ask for you prayers, friends. We found out earlier this week that Lynn's brother-in-law, Mark Allen, has passed away after a long battle with amyloidosis, a cancer-like disease that has been destroying his heart for the past year or so.

So today, we head back to Tokyo. Tomorrow, we have to find funeral attire, since our ratty travelling clothes won't really be appropriate. Then on Sunday, we fly Tokyo to Beijing to San Fransisco to Phoenix and drive to Tucson for the memorial service on Tuesday. We will stay in Tucson for a week or so, and the following week fly with Lynn's sister Gail to Stuttgart, Germany, where she and Mark lived (he was ex-Air Force and worked for European Command) to help her pack up so she can move back. Finally, we will fly from Germany to Seoul, Korea, some time in mid-October to pick back up with an abbreviated second half of our trip.

Thank goodness for travel insurance.

Sometimes the detours are as interesting as the main route...

Posted by Bwinky 17:21 Comments (3)


Dazed and confused in Japan’s “urban rabyrinth”

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First of all, let the record show that the above subtitle is NOT a politically incorrect ethnic slur: the letter “L” really does not occur in Japanese, and really does get switched for an “R” in borrowed English words, my favorite example of which is the word for a mid-level corporate drone: sarariman. Sound it out if you have to, with the emphasis on the first syllable, substituting an “L” for the first “R.”

Besides, I dare you to say “urban rabyrinth” out loud, and not giggle. It’s funny, OK -- lighten up.


So Tokyo is big. Really, really big. You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts compared to Tokyo (apologies to Douglas Adams). It was the largest city in the world for some time; now I think it’s been passed up by Mexico City and Sao Paolo or something, but anyway, it’s still really, really... REALLY big.

Like, this big:

No end in sight...

It’s also exceptionally confusing for the first time foreign visitor. English signage is limited, and there are fewer people who speak English than you might guess. I’m not sure we would have figured out how to get from Narita airport into the city if a very kind young woman named Yukiko, who spent some years studying in Topeka, Kansas, had not taken pity on us and spent the morning helping us figure things out. She was a real God-send. She even showed Lynn the intricacies of Japanese toilets, which is a story for later...

Now, you have to understand that I pride myself on my sense of direction and my ability to figure out my way around any city and its public transportation. But Tokyo has been my nemesis. There are hardly any street signs, because most streets do not actually have names; addresses are something like “1-11-2-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku,” which is area number, block number, building number and floor, area name, ward. And the numbers are not necessarily consecutive, because prior to the 1950s, they were assigned by building construction date.

I shudder for any poor fool attempting to become a taxi driver.

More specifically, I have developed a severe phobia of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. Shinjuku is the largest hub in the city for Japan Rail, the Tokyo Metro, and various private rail lines, and it is one of the largest and busiest train stations in the world. I’ve been in some big railway stations: Grand Central, Victoria, Gare du Nord, Termini... Nothing prepared me for the organized chaos of Shinjuku. I’m used to walking into the main hall of a station and seeing a big Arrivals/Departures board with platform numbers, and a bunch of ticket counters and stores. In contrast, Shinjuku looks like this:

”Umm, which way do we go now?”

That’s one small segment of a very long, very wide maze that runs through the center of the station -- which is three floors high, incidentally, and takes over 20 minutes to walk through. Branching off of this very crowded central hallway are lots of smaller areas for different rail lines, like this one:

”If that little old lady in a kimono can find her way...”

As a side note, those yellow lines on the floor have patterns in them so blind people can follow them. How on earth they figure out where to go, I have no idea...

Tickets for the metro and suburban rail lines are purchased from automated machines, like this one, in front of large rail network maps -- which frequently do not feature English translations!

”One of these red ones is Ikebukuro, I think...

This leads to such misadventures as spending $50 on what we thought were two multi-use passes that turned out to be a single-ride tickets we used to go two stops (and should have cost $1.60 each).

I find myself waking in a cold sweat just thinking about it. After several days here, I started finding routes that specifically avoided Shinjuku, prompting Lynn to taunt me: “C’mon, Brad, what are you... Chicken? Caw-cuh-caw-cuh-caw!”

(Right now, our Mercy Hill friends are falling off their chairs laughing at the visual image of Japanese commuters staring at Lynn doing the Arrested Development chicken strut in the middle of a station...)

All that said, the Tokyo metro and rail system is quite effective. Sure, the map resembles nothing so much as an accident at a pasta factory, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not so bad. Yes, at rush hour it is extremely crowded...

Did I forget my deoderant this morning?

...but at other times it’s nice for a little snooze.

Must wake up when we get to Asakusa...

The stereotype of the Japanese as hard workers is most definitely based in fact, and we wondered when they actually find time to sleep -- until we saw it with our own eyes. Amazingly, they sleep through a dozen stops and then wake up just in time for theirs. I have no idea how this gets programmed into their brains.

And how do you get to the subway station?

Dang, I know I left it here somewhere...

So. From all of this kvetching, you might think that we do not like Tokyo.

You would be dead wrong.

Tokyo is confusing, confounding... and absolutely amazing. It is everything that you expect, and total surprises. A dynamic mix of the modern and the ancient...

Shinjuku by night

A traditional 18th century house near where we stayed

The classic and the crazy...

Out for a pizza

Teens strutting their stuff in Harajuku

The peaceful and the chaotic...

The Imperial Palace gardens

Ginza crossing, the world’s busiest intersection

The sacred and the profane...

Senso-ji temple

The Kabukicho “entertainment” district -- full of host and hostess bars for women and men looking for company

The sublime and the ridiculous...

Cocktails atop the Tokyo Metropolitan Building

Need I say more?

We spent our nights in Tokyo at a distinctly less-than-traditional kind of place: Yuji Hidemura’s apartment.

Yuji, the man, the legend

For the record, some of you may be wondering about this whole “staying with people” thing. We are members of The Couch Surfing Project, an international hospitality organization that matches visitors with locals who like to host international travellers. We’ve been members for three years, and have hosted people in our home about a half-dozen times. Well, we’re nothing compared to Yuji, who is a bonified Couch Surfing legend. Yuji lives in a two-bedroom apartment in this building on the outskirts of Tokyo:

Yuji’s place

Yuji and Marie at the stove

Last year, Yuji hosted over 700 people. At any given time, there might be a half-dozen or more international travellers crashed out on the tatami (wall-to-wall woven straw mat) floor in Yuji’s extra bedroom:

Home sweet home

We shared the bedroom with Marie, from Sweden, and Maxime and Deborah from France while we were there. Yuji has a whole system worked out because he works crazy hours as a Yamaha piano salesman: he sends you an email with picture directions, and if you don’t come while he’s home, someone else will be there to let you in. He has a fridge and computer for surfers and a notebook full of advice on everything from where to do laundry to martial arts. Unlike most couchsurfing hosts, he asks for a small donation, since hosting 700 people per year has a major affect on his water and electric bills.

One night we were there, we went shopping with Marie, who made Swedish pancakes. Yuji decided to take them with fruit and blueberry whipped cream, and make them into sushi. He used to be a sushi chef, so I guess it’s in his blood...

”It’s not exactly seaweed wrap, but I think this can work...”

”Mmm... better than wasabe!”

”Swedish Pancake Fruit Sushi! Hai!”

Frushi, anyone?

And after that bit of weirdness, I have nothing more to add on the subject of Tokyo. From there, it was off to the mountains of Hakone... in search of Mount Fuji.

Posted by Bwinky 15:07 Archived in Japan Tagged train_travel Comments (1)

Fruity 'n' Fishy

Getting adventurous with Alan and Daphne in Kuala Lumpur, and Jacob and Amelia in Melaka

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From Kuching, it was a short flight across the South China Sea to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city. We only spent one night there before heading south to Melaka, because frankly KL is a big city and not real long on must-see sights -- not unlike Jakarta, but a little nicer.

The Kuala Lumpur skyline, dominated by the Petronas Towers

There’s the Petronas Towers, which were the tallest building in the world for a few years before the Taiwanese decided to outdo them, a few strangely Indian-looking colonial buildings left over from the days of British rule (guess the Brits figured if it was part of their colonial Empire in Asia, it deserved to look Indian...), and a fantastic museum of Islamic art. But beyond that, we didn’t find it too thrilling.

What was a thrill, however, was meeting Meng Kiat “Alan” Tiong and Ping Yi “Daphne” Tan, a Chinese couple that hosted us for the night we stayed. Alan is an executive at a company that builds gasoline storage tanks, travels all over Asia, and speaks about a dozen languages (I am not exaggerating). Daphne is an executive assistant in Johnson & Johnson’s contact lens division. We really hit it off and had a great evening with them, despited being delayed getting home by a downpour of Biblical proportions -- when it rains in Asia, it can really rain. Alan is a worship leader at their church, and we had a great time playing guitar together and singing old worship songs from the early ‘90s.

Alan Tiong and Daphne Tan

Incidentally, we learned a few interesting tidbits about Chinese culture from them. When Alan and Daphne married, they became “the Tiongs” and you might call Daphne “Mrs. Tiong,” but when referring to her individually, she is still “Daphne Tan.” Also, I did not realize that the Western names many Chinese use are given by their parents along with their Chinese names.

But the most fun we had with Alan and Daphne was learning about Asian produce. Daphne picked up a bunch of interesting fruit for us to try, and Alan took us out to pick up the king of Southeast Asian fruit, which I’ve been dying to try: the durian (previously mentioned in the post about Jakarta). Here’s a few of the highlights:


This is a pulasan. It looks like a purple sea urchin, and you twist it apart to reveal a white rubbery fruit that looks sort of like a peeled grape with a big pit.


This is a mangosteen, which you crack open between your palms to reveal wedges of fruit.


And this is a duku langsat (which I can’t help thinking sounds like a villain in Star Wars), which looks like a nut and cracks open to reveal a little white fruit.

What do all of these taste like? Well... umm... grapes, kind of. Hard to describe.

And then there is the durian. This thing looks like a little spiky green cantaloupe. It only grows in Southeast Asia, and it doesn’t travel well, so you can’t get it anywhere else. In fact, I seem to recall that Queen Victoria offered a huge reward to anyone who could get one back to London. The first thing that you notice when you’re around one is... the stench. They honestly are about the worst-smelling thing that has ever crossed my nostrils. Some people describe it as smelling like rotting flesh. I don’t know, I think it smells more like an old towel left in a high school locker room in the heat of August. Let’s just say it’s really stinky.

And yet, someone chose to crack one open, taste it, and declare it a delicacy. Some Asians are addicted to them, others can’t stand them -- and Daphne is one of the latter. But she kindly acquiesced, and so our mission to taste durian was fulfilled. Inside the spiky rind are little sacks of creamy yellowish pulp, kind of like slightly stringy custard.

Durian, in a to-go box

And so, we had a durian-eating party on the balcony of their apartment overlooking the city...

Lynn, going for it. Hold your nose and swallow!

Alan is a fan. Daphne -- not so much!

C’mon Daphne, open wide!

I can eat anything with a view like this!

And the verdict? We didn’t care for it much. The taste wasn’t bad, sort of vanilla-ish yet fruity, kind of like over-ripe banana, but the stench keeps rising up your throat even after you swallow it and into the back of your nose, which in case you weren’t aware works just as well in reverse. We’re glad we tried it, but once was enough.

The next day we took the bus a couple hours south to Melaka, a smaller colonial city on the west coast of the Malaysian penninsula.

Melaka’s colonial Town Square

Melaka has quite an illustrious history. Founded by a Sultan, conquered by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally handed over to the British, it was the trading center for the spice market for centuries. It’s full of beautiful old colonial buildings, most of them painted a beautiful red.

Foogie and Amelia, our new friends in Melaka

We stayed with Foo Guan “Jacob” Sim, aka Foogie, and his girlfriend Qiu Xuan “Amelia” Li, who are both computer security students at Multimedia University in Melaka. Amelia just moved into an apartment of her own but was still paying rent at a dorm apartment, so we were able to sleep in her old room.

We did a lot of walking around the city at night, and it’s quite spectacular: many of the buildings are lit up red, reflecting the look of the day time.

Melaka by night, reflected in the canal through the city

Jacob and Amelia introduced us to a lot of great food, some of it Baba-Nyonya, or Straits Chinese: cuisine that developed independently among the Chinese living in Melaka through the centuries. One meal that is particularly memorable was at a little family-run outdoor cafe on a back street, where they served plates of steaming seafood -- snails, cockles, clams, squid, you name it -- all for about a buck a pop. Really good.

If you cook it, they will come...

Lynn’s looking awfully happy considering her spinach came piled with squid on top!

We made one final quick stop on the Malaysian penninsula: Singapore, just for an afternoon. I didn’t plan more because my impression of Singapore is that it’s a big, sterile modern city that’s great if you like expensive shopping.

Singapore, Southeast Asia’s Manhattan

Well, that was a mistake -- Singapore is actually quite fascinating. The downtown riverfront is beautiful...

Kind of reminds me of Chicago...

...and there is a lot of history from the British days, when Sir Stamford Raffles watched over the colonial city. This guy governed Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, plus established the London Zoo before dying at 34. Makes me feel like a slacker. He now has a famous hotel named after him, where they invented the Singapore Sling.


The Asian Civilizations Museum is one of the best in the world -- we had only two hours, but could have spent two days. But we had a flight to Tokyo to catch, so we had to leave Singapore’s ultra-clean streets behind.

Anyway, it’s a little fascist for my tastes -- they ban durians from the subway.

Posted by Bwinky 05:28 Archived in Malaysia Tagged food Comments (2)

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