Thursday, April 13, 2017

Helpful Hints

When we first arrived in Osaka, we had some American money, which the hotel could change for us, but had the bulk of our travel money in an card.  After trying several ATM's with various credit cards and none of them worked, we began to panic.  Here we were in Japan with next to no money.  Luckily the wonderful man at the hotel desk told us, "Wait until morning, and use the ATM at the post office".  My first thought was, "Airport post office?"  The post offices all open at 9am, and yup, the card we had worked like a charm in their machine.  Even better?  They have a button to push to have the commands in English!  Score!  There are post offices everywhere.  At the train station in Kyoto there is a post office next door, very convenient for the traveler.

I don't remember why, but the day we visited Arashiyama, Hubby sent me alone to the post office.  Off I go, confident in my ability to accomplish this mission.  I arrive at the post office, a short walk from our hotel, go in push the buttons stick in the card, and that's when the trouble begins.  So, you know that the first number you poke in arrives at the end?  Poke the "4", and the machine reads, ".04".  As you poke the zero button the number grows, right?  Ok, so far so good.  Now, I have an issue with numbers and the Japanese currency tosses me head a good one.  I needed to withdraw an amount equal to USD 400.00, and poked the button, it spit out the money, a quick fold and step step, back to the hotel and off-ski we went!  Hubby pulled out the money to buy the train/boat tickets and promptly freaked.  He had lost $400!  We back tracked, but to no avail, the money was gone, gone, gone.  Needless to say he wasn't a happy camper and it really put a crimp on the first bit of our trip.  As we sat on the train, I began to think......and decided that maybe I didn't add enough zeros to my withdrawal....  After getting off the boat we walked to the post office in Arashiyama he put in the card, and sure enough, I had only drawn out $40.00.  That was the very last time I was trusted to withdraw money.  What I should have withdrawn was 40,000.....

For a quick and dirty translation of Yen to USD, move the decimal point over one number to the left.  So if the price is 1425Y it rounds off to about 142.50-ish.

While the Japanese work long hours and often begin and end their days with a long commute, you will notice as you get on buses and trains, or walking down streets you never see anyone eating or drinking.  That is because it is considered rude to eat and drink while walking.  If you are a gum chewer, that to is a no-no to walk and chew gum.  Riding on a bus or train you may sip quietly and slowly, just make sure not to gulp it.  Eating is forbidden however on all buses and inter-city trains and subways.  Trains that travel to other cities it is allowed to eat and drink, and will often sell bentos on the platforms and the bullet trains sell snacks on the trains.  While standing on the platform waiting for any train, or if you are lucky to snag one of the few seats at the platform, it is acceptable to eat and drink.  Just be as neat and quiet as possible.  It is polite to stand and drink and eat, just don't make a great deal of noise with the packaging and loud crunching.

If you are walking and are thirsty, step out of the flow of foot traffic and stand and drink.  Conbinis sell all manner of sandwiches and other ready made food.  Some of them offer a few places to sit, but most do not.  What to do?  Stand out of the way on the sidewalk outside the conbini, and eat your sandwich, yes folks will look at you oddly.  One day we sat on the side of a building to eat our conbini lunches, and folks driving by did look at us weirdly.

There are very few trash bins to be found.  Many vending machines at bus stops and train stations have a recycling bin built into the machine!  And most train platforms have trash bins with pictures to show what sort of trash goes in which bin.  But the easiest thing to do is to have a plastic grocery bag in your messenger bag/backpack/purse/coat pocket to hold any trash until you get home.  One day while eating conbini boiled eggs and some packaged fruit at a bus stop I realized there was no place to throw away the trash.  Luckily we had purchased several souvenirs, and used one of the bags to hold my trash.

If you are not proficient with chop sticks, get some and practice!  We were in several restaurants that only had chopsticks, and spoons for soup.  It can be tricky to get the hang of at first, but I can pick up a single sunflower seed now.  If I can do it, I know anyone reading this will be able to learn.  There are several rules on how to politely use chopsticks.  Do NOT suck or lick them.  If your food comes on a tray, keep the dishes on the tray and lay the chopsticks between you and the plate on the tray.  Don't leave them on your plate, or next to your plate, as it is considered rude due to them being in your mouth.  Do not spear food with them, or lick them.  Also, do not stand them up in a bowl of rice, as that is a ritual used after someone has died.

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If your rice is served in a small bowl, the rice must be eaten plain and alone.  If rice is served in a large bowl with acres of room, then you may add anything you wish to it.  At breakfast buffets at large hotels you might see stacks of eggs in those flat egg cartons.  These eggs are raw, and are beaten with chopsticks into hot rice at the table.

It is nearly impossible to substitute one thing for another at a restaurant.  While we see any meal as separate parts, they don't.  A "set meal" is just that a set.  Western eyes would see a bowl of rice, a plate of meat/fish/tofu, a small dish or two of vegetables, they see a single item, "beef" lunch set.  However, I have to say that with my very polite "please don't feed me these foods" card and using as much Japanese as we possessed, they quite often fed me just the parts of that 'set' that I could eat.  But we were polite, and smiled and I always started out our conversation with the staff by saying, "go-menn-sai", which is "I am very sorry".  This is a super polite way of apologizing.  That let them know that I was sorry for causing them trouble, and it worked.  Sure I got told no quite a lot, but still the few times I was able to eat out, I was never sick.

Many of the larger train stations have a taxi stand advertising drivers with some English.  They are a huge help, and most are chatty and are willing to go the extra mile. Yes, you will encounter the rare surly one, but thankfully they are mega rare.  Hubby took a cab to have an acupuncture treatment.  I had written the address and name of the shop in Japanese.  It was in a very very old part of Kyoto where cars cant fit!  So, out of the taxi Mr. Taxi Man jumped after parking on the main street and motioned to hubby to follow him, as Mr. Taxi Man didn't speak English.  Off they went down one street and up another, and still it was no where to be found!  Luckily I had included their phone number, Mr Taxi Man called them and then the shop was easily found.  Remember that tipping isn't allowed, so he didn't do this for a big fat tip, and had hubby pay before they got out of the taxi.

Write down any address in Japanese if you are going by taxi, and just to be safe, write the phone number as well.  Write down the name of the town or shrine/temple/etc in Japanese so if you do get turned around people can help you find your way.  Most kanji isn't super hard as long as you take it slow and study the strokes so as to know which ones to do first.  Long strokes first, followed by the smaller ones, with the very small ones last.

If you are staying in a hotel, grab one of their Japanese pamphlets so if you do get lost, or tired and decide to take a taxi back, they won't have any problems understanding where you wish to go.  The Mr. Taxi Men will place your luggage in their trunk, and will be offended if you try to help.  They also like to open to car doors for you, let them.

Many if not most of the etiquette rules stem from eons of the Japanese living in very close quarters with neighbors cheek and jowl close.  Remember that there were no glass windows, but used paper instead, so sound traveled easily from room to room and house to house.  That is why on the whole people are very quiet out in public, its rare to be overwhelmed by someone's perfume or aftershave, as that too is considered a form of "noise" and is rude.  No using ones phone in trains or buses, except for text or reading, and all ring tones and alert sounds are muted.  On mass transit, give your seat up to elders, mums with small children, or those who are ill.  Stand up, smile, nod, and move out of the way.  Large and bulky backpacks will prove to be an issue on buses and trains, so take them off and use the handle on the top while in the bus/train/subway.

On buses, you board from the back of the bus, and either pull a ticket from the machine or have purchased an all day pass.  Exit thru the front where you'll either pay for the trip or show your pass.  Train platforms will often have a set of footprints showing where to stand to wait for the train to be mostly out of the way of folks exiting the train.  And remember!!!  If you are riding a bullet train, your train WILL arrive about 5 minutes prior to when it's stated on the ticket.

Bathrooms as a rule are not equipped with hand dryers and never with paper towels.  The Japanese all carry wee pretty/cute wash cloths towels with them.  After finishing, just fold up and its ready for the next visit.  That need makes a great first souvenir.  At some of the temples one must pay 1 Yen for a packet of toilet paper, or just handy a pocket size kleenex pack.

Also handy to carry with you are flat slippers, especially if you have small feet, or large feet.  The slippers only come in a size or two at temples and shrines and you must take off your shoes to enter.

Have fun and good luck!!

Friday, November 4, 2016

Wiping tears at 200 mph

As the date to leave Kyoto grew ever closer we began to reminisce about our first wobbly steps in this jewel of a city.  Now 30 days later, we jump on and off buses and local trains like a native, know how to navigate a grocery market, and which vending machines have our favorite drinks. 

While at the train station one day we stopped into a travel agency and purchased tickets to Yokohama and the transfer to Zushi.  I was so excited, we were traveling by bullet train!!!! 


 Not wanting to drag our luggage along with us, we had it shipped to our Zushi house.  And if you are wondering, yes we did bring an extra suitcase and yes its now filled with gifts and souvenirs.

The hotel gives us a ride to the train station, and we excitedly head to the shinkansen platform.  

Due to our extreme excitement at getting to ride this marvel of machinery, we arrived very early.  The strangest thing to us is the lack of seating at train stations.  There is no place to sit at most train stations, while a few will have at the most seating for 12.  Twelve!    There are NO! seats on this platform.  

While we are standing about numerous shinkansen trains pull into the platform making very little noise, pause and then nearly silently zoom off.  I have no idea what this thing-a-ma-bob does, but to us it looks like a giant sized spark plug, doesn't it?

So, we stand around awhile, and then walk down the platform looking into all the snack shops and what they were offering.  Greg spies a train station lady selling sushi on the platform from a portable cart and decides to buy a bento of some he has had before and loves.  It's a type sold in the Nara area and is wrapped in a salted persimmon leaf.  The fish and rice are tasty and finds the leaf adds an interesting addition to the flavor and texture of each bite.

By this time we were a goodly ways down the platform from our cars entrance marker, when a train pulls up.  Now when the Japanese train recording says, "This train will make a brief stop in ____."  They are NOT kidding!  

shinkansen pulls up, people get off, and we begin to RUN!  Car 7, car 6, car 5, car 4!  Phew!  Finally!  Greg jumps on and the doors begin to close before I can get on!!!  He jams his arm in the door and it bites him hard, but he won't leave me behind!  Finally the train makes a chime and the door opens up and I quickly jump in.

Relieved that we had gotten on the train, and with hearts pumping, we walk down the aisle to find our seats.  There is a lady sitting in my seat!  Tickets are pulled out, yes, we have the exact same seats!  We find a twosome empty seats and are just glad to be on the same train and not separated by hundreds of miles.  
   Looks like the inside of an airplane doesn't it?  Only the seats are 1000% more comfortable and there are acres of leg room.

A nice young train conductor walks by and the lady in our seat stops him and a conversation ensues.  He asks to see our tickets, and...... we got on the wrong train.  It's headed towards Tokyo, with a few stops, one of which is Yokohama, but we jumped into an earlier train.  He stands with a wee train pad and types for a very long while, then writes something upon our tickets and has us follow him to a different car. 

The shinkansen's leave every 10 minutes or so, and linger only around 5 minutes tops at the platforms.  So, if you find yourself on the platform of a bullet train and one pulls up, make sure that it's your train!  And if you miss yours, no worry there's another one right down the track.

We settle into our new seats and I'm excited by the idea we are actually on a bullet train!  And then the motion sickness begins to take hold and it takes me quite a long while to get used to the motion of this train.  The only thing I can equate it to is being on a boat, the train seems to glide sideways by the tiniest bit, confusing the eyes and the ears.  This train goes so fast that its impossible to focus on anything near, because just as you see it, 'tis gone.

Greg remembers he is hungry and lowers his seat tray and sets his Nara sushi out and begins to eat.  Suddenly the lady across the aisle jumps up and takes the sushi from his hand!  She unwraps the sushi and says, "No! No! No!" And shows him that you don't eat the leaves!!!   Before she left she made him pinkie promise not to ever eat the leaves again! 

Pulling into Yokohama is only leg one of our trip.  Now we need to find the Zushi line and the correct platform, and that is my job.  I go up to a station fella, hand him our tickets and he tells us which platform to get onto.  We go and stand around, remember the lack of seats?, and finally our train pulls up after a ginormous wait of about 6 minutes.  All the trains we have been in have had the station names in both Japanese and English.  Some of the trains have a recording of two different women saying the stop and any connections from that station.  Zushi is the very last stop on this line and off we get and into a taxi and quick as a wink, we are at our new house for the next few days.

Zushi is a small town on the ocean with a beautiful beach.  It is packed to the gills in the summer by tourists from Tokyo wanting to cool off and party at the beach.  By November the town's population has shrunk back to the resident population and all is quiet.  Its a good place to end our travels with a few day trips from Zushi.

Beautiful metal work on the sidewalk rail, with the beach in the distance.

The beach

 Shells collected at the beach, with a wee piece of pottery!

 A scenic canal

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A giggle, confusion but mostly about food

While most of the translated English in Japan is perfect there are a few oddments, like  on a restaurant menu, "hole wheat bread".  But this sign was to funny to pass up.  Trying to be respectful I waited until no one was around before I snapped the sign.  This was at an Buddhist Temple that we haven't blogged about yet.

Every single toilet that isn't in a home has this how to use sign.  I'm not sure what the issue is, are their people who are worldly enough to travel, but don't understand how to use a modern toilet?  The used toilet tissue though has a reason, some Asian countries toilet tissue is very sturdy and can't be flushed as it will muck up the works, so when they visit Japan, they don't know they are to flush used tissue here.

Without a doubt, this is the best fake food I've seen.  I have a real thing for plastic fake food.  Doesn't that ice cream and whipped cream look real?  Amazing!

Oh, and I've had to buy a small wash cloth to carry around and about due to very few of the restrooms having either paper towels or hand driers.  Of course I just had to get a cute one from Hikone-jo!  Got very tired of drying my hands on the leg of my pants....

The very first meal we ate out together was a grilled meat restaurant right down the street from us.  We both tried Wagu beef, and it is everything folks talk about.  Tender as a summer day, flavorful just fantastic.  When sliced super thin, it basically melts in your mouth.

While in Arashiyama I had a fantastic meal, as we were walking down the street a menu board announced "gluten free set"!  I was in googolplex heaven, the hellz with that flimsy 7th heaven!  Besides the duck, this was the best meal I've had in all of Japan.  Greg saw a sandwich on their menu that he just had to try, Grilled cheese and egg salad.  He loved it!

While in Nara we ate at a traditional Japanese restaurant.   Looky at the amazing meal Greg got!  He loved every bite too!  The clear bowl is a dessert made of cubes of sweetened agar agar, pineapple a sugared bean and a sweet light "broth".  At first Greg was hesitant  about trying it, but he loved the desert "soup".

KFC is quite a big deal here, so is McDonald's but we haven't gotten there yet.  The translated biscuit is a weird cross between a biscuit and a donut, and is fried and served with honey-maple syrup.  Greg gave it a 5.4 out of 10.  However, he loved the chicken sandwich!  The usual fried chicken tastes the same, just less greasy.  They sell a fried chicken tender that has a sweet bbq that he enjoyed.


While out and about one day, Greg was feeling a mite peckish and I saw this sandwich that I'd heard about and was eager to find out how it actually tasted.  Poor Greg has been my pinch hitter in the taste buds department and has eaten quite a lot of things he didn't want so I could find out what they tasted like.  He loved this sandwich.  Strange as it sounds its mega fluffy white bread, crusts removed filled with sweetened whipped cream [no vanilla only sugar] and slices of fruit.  That sandwich disappeared quick as a wink!

This has to be the smallest sink in the entire world!  My hand is about 6.5 inches long.

Aren't the carrots and peppers tiny? We used my iphone for comparison.  I've yet to see any that are larger, but they pack in a ton of flavor.  The peppers are thin walled and are closer to a banana pepper in texture than the peppers sold in the US.

Candy and rice crackers are popular souvenirs.  And am amazed at the wrapping on the rice crackers, they are nearly to adorable to unwrap!

Monday, October 31, 2016


Hikone is a small town on the east side of Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan.  Kyoto is the blue marker at the bottom of the lake, and the giant area around the southernmost blue marker is Osaka.

 Li Naomasa, was a fearsome general and fought hard for Tokagawa and after defeating Ishida Mitsunari was gifted his castle for a job well done.
However, he hated living in his enemies castle and asked to build a new one on the site.  Tokagawa agreed and construction began on what is now Hikone-jo [Hikone Castle].  The earlier castle was dismantled and the parts of it were used to build a new castle. 


Unfortunately he died before the building was completed and it was passed down to his two sons.

This walkway was constructed in such a way as to be easily knocked down making the castle nearly impervious to attack.

 The view while on the bridge.

This is what the majority of the castle looks like from inside.

This is not a good sightseeing experience if you have bad knees as there are 130 some steps just to get to the castle from the ticket gate.  These steps are the long low steps rimmed in stone and filled in with cement. 

Now these steps are doable, as you can just motor up them at your own speed.  However, once within the castle there are two short staircases that lull you into complacency, don't fall for it!  After those two wee staircases of about 6 steps each and a bit of a walk around, you'll find yourself facing 3 stair cases of doom!  These are stairs that in a previous life were ladders and were just faced with stair material.  No, I joke about that, but going up it is remarkably like climbing a ladder due to its extreme steepness of grade, with hand rails.  It's the coming down bit that nearly unnerved me.  With no embarrassment I'll happily admit to being afraid of heights and ladders are an issue for me.  Coming down these ladder steps was a terrifying ordeal for me, where a time or two my terror was barely contained.  The steps on these ladder steps are SLICK and the handrails held no comfort for me.  By the time we regained the ground floor I was in a bit of a quiver and it took me a while to regain my equilibrium.

From the walls of the castle its possible to see for miles, both across a great expanse of Lake Biwa and the the surrounding area.  While there are trees growing on the castle walls, during the time this was an active castle it was stripped bare of vegetation.

The castle and the town have a mascot that is freaking adorable, and everything you could think of has this image either stamped on, or made into stuffed animals.  Grandson scored a stuffed mascot plushie, and it's a darned good thing I adore him or he wouldn't be getting it!

They had a mascot show while we were there and it was cute to watch, isn't he totally adorbs?

So, the Li family had a bell that would alert the surrounding area to invaders, in the 1800's the bell was moved so that it could be heard all over the western side of town.  Today the bell is rung 5 times a day and we hung around to see/hear it rung at 13:00.  Even though we were crazy close to the bell, it wasn't all that loud, but had an extremely long reverberation.  They ring the bell 3 times each time it's rung.  However, unlike western bell ringing, here it is rung at about 30 second intervals, about the same time as the last reverberation has ended is when the bell is rung again. 

Friday, October 28, 2016

Fushimi Inari Shrine

There are 10,000 torii gates in Fushimi!  'Tis an astounding amount of anything, much less torii gates.  They are donated by merchants hoping to get some divine help in making their business thrive, and are removed every 10 years.

The earliest structures were built in 711 before the move of the Imperial family to what would become Kyoto!

The main gate into the Shrine.

Inari is one of the best known kami of the Shinto religion and she/he is the goddess/god of rice and prosperity.  Inari doesn't have a set image nor gender, but is usually shown as an old man sitting on a pile of rice with two foxes or kitsune in Japanese, or that of a beautiful fox-woman.  Many people confuse Inari with kitsune, but kitsune is a messenger for Inari, not a kami.

Fushimi Inari is filled with different kitsune statues and besides the torii, is the image that most people know.

Greg was kind enough to take me to Fushimi Inari not once, but twice, I love it that much.  There is something there that gives me the chilly willies that dance up and down my spine, and I feel as though this is my souls home.

Walking under the torii gives one an interesting feeling, where with the turning of the path new horizons open up, and the past is closed, finished.

 The torii stretch for  a total of 4 miles, and as you climb to other side shrines and areas, you can see the torii from many different angles.

For some unknown reason, its now become wildly popular to rent kimonos and visit shrines and temples, even if the lady dressing up isn't Japanese.  Today we saw a sweet faced young woman wearing a kimono and a Muslim headscarf!  But no matter the why or reason it became popular, it just seems fitting to see young ladies dressed in the style of the past in old shrines and temples.  Off to the right of the photo are school kids in their uniforms.


 If you'd like to see bamboo without fighting the hoards of folks at Arashiyama, and in a quiet peaceful setting, that is free to boot, come to Fushimi and the trail breaks to the right and left.  To the left is a shrine area that looks like this,

 to the right is a sign pointing up, take that and walk past the first shrine and you will find the bamboo.  You can hear the wind play and sing in the tree tops, listen to birds adding their joyful trills, and only a stray voice floats up from the main path.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Shrine a lunch and a Temple

Hirano-jinja Shrine is a very small shrine established in 794 by Emperor Kammu when the capital moved to Kyoto.  The shine has enjoyed Imperial visits and patronage through the eons.  The shrine is best known for its cherry blossoms of which there are 40 different varieties.  Each year since 985 the city of Kyoto has walked under its alley of cherry blossom and marveled at the beauty.

In October there are zero cherry blossoms, sigh.  The description of the shrine sounded interesting and the bus we were taking to a temple was making a stop there, so we de-bused and took a look!   [yes i know that de-bused isn't a word, but it should be!  if you can de-plane, and de-camp, why can't you de-bus?]

A pleasant walk lined with trees covered in leaves rusty with the beginnings of fall.  The grass grows long under the trees off the path and the city street noise seemed to funnel into the shrine.  The path gradually took a bend to where there was a tori, and the most amazing thing occurred when we stepped through the first tori. 

The sounds of the street were gone!  Replaced by bird songs and breezes playing with the leaves.  Hirano-jinja is a small shrine, but houses so much peacefulness that it floods every pore and cell.  A few people came by to do a quick prayer before continuing with their day.  The grounds not only hold an amazing amount of cherry trees, but one of the oldest camphor trees in Kyoto, around 400 years.

We have no idea the significance of this tree, damn us for not being able to read, or speak Japanese!  But this cherry tree is a well cared for tree.

Jumping onto bus 205 we continued north to  Kinkakuji Temple better known as The Golden Pavilion, one of the most famous landmarks in Kyoto, if not in all of Japan.  As we walked up the path into the shrine we saw bus after bus after bus of tourists and school kids.  We were having a leisurely stroll up the long path when we saw ahead of us people running to the entrance gate.  

The crowds were unruly, noisy and out and out rude, pushing and shoving and yelling back and forth to each other about who knows what, as nearly every language on earth was available to our ears. 

When we finally got close enough, by dent of being pushy, we were remarkably underwhelmed.  Yes, the building on the upper half is covered in gold leaf, and yes the reflecting pond did it's job well by reflecting the gold shine into the water, but the whole experience left us with a giant, meh.  Could it have been the crowds that left us being less than impressed?  Or maybe it was the fact that it was just another temple in a long line of temples?  There has been only two temples that we felt a presence at, and it wasn't this one.

If you do ever go to Kyoto, and want to experience Kinkakuji for yourself, be there at 9 am when the gates open, the tour buses don't show up until 10 am. 

Just an arty pic of a water grotto...

Wandering around for several hours left us starving.  Fresh air and elbowing your way through crowds will do that.  Leaving us to wander around the main street looking at all the displays of "plastic food" that are so helpful to tourists who don't read Japanese. 

Noodles, no....shrimp! oh hellz no.  For those of you who are reading this and don't know, I'm a celiac who carries around epi-pens due to a severe shellfish allergy. Eating out has been extremely difficult, most restaurants when I give them my allergy info sheet will read it, re-read it, and then give the "no" hand sign.  They are sorry they can't accommodate my food needs, and are very kind about it, but have spent a great deal of time being hungry while out and about and cooking nearly every dinner at the apartment.

 We walked further and further down the street and I was about to call it quits and go and get shio eggs and some fruit and chips when we saw a doorway with stairs leading up, up, up.  Deciding to take a chance we climbed those very steep stairs, a common architectural feature of Japan, hoping for a safe delicious meal.  Turns out the man who owns the bar was raised in Oregon for a while as a child, spoke passable English and was so eager to feed me he served me something off the dinner menu, and then refused to allow us to pay for it!! He charged us only for Greg's burger, both times we stopped there he charged us less than the prices on the menu. The bar is decorated with an old west theme, and a tv over the bar plays American adventure movies with the sound off. 

He served Greg a mountain of a hamburger that he said was one of the best burgers he had ever eaten, it came with potato salad, fries and salad.

 I was served duck medallions that had been grilled and had a sauce made of balsamic vinegar.  It was smokey and flavorful, one of the best duck dishes I've ever eaten.  I was so hungry and it smelled so divine that I ate a piece or two before I remembered to snap a photo, sorry.