The Onsen Experience
I have returned from the Onsen today, having gone with a close friend of mine. WOW! AMAZING, SUGOI!!! We went to this place in Tokyo actually (most are located by natural hot springs...a bit outside of the city). The name is Oedo Onsen. So upon walking into this fabulously decorated establishment, we took our shoes and put them in a locker and took the key. Then we received our bracelets which had a number a barcode. The number was for the main locker and the barcode to keep track of all expenditures within the establishment. Next we received our rental Yukatas (Summer Kimonos - traditional Japanese dress)! We then walked into the main area and there were many different pictures on the wall, anime characters around and lanterns hanging, along with a slew of restaurants...it was like a theme park! This was new to my friend, who said he had never seen a place like this. We entered the bathroom changing area, removed our clothes and Yukatas (after taking many pictures of ourselves in the Yukatas) and explored the areas! There were all types of baths, so we tried the indoor ones and the outdoor ones! The indoor ones ranged from all different temperatures, super hot to super cold! We relaxed in the bubble bath one, and then headed to the micro-bubble bath, where some machine was producing this type of water and you could see the water appeared milky white. Then we had a shave and went to have lunch in the main area! We then relaxed a bit after lunch in this main room with tatami mats and headed up to the foot bath area! Unlike the baths, this area is not separated by gender, and everyone is fully clothed. You walk through these different pools about ankle to knee-high in depth which contain these smooth rocks which are laid out in different patterns on the bottom of these pools. I kept cringing and exclaiming "itai, itai!" meaing, "it hurts, painful!" haha, but it was interesting, and there was a sprinkler there too! Next we went up to the relaxation room! There we sat in superbly comfortable chairs and my buddy fell asleep! Some chairs even had television sets attached to them and you could also have paid for massage chairs! When I woke my friend up, we got some green tea ice cream downstairs and then we went back to the bath! We went to our favorite spot - the outside natural pool, hung out there for a bit before going in the super cold pool, the bubbly one and the sauna and another one or two. Then we went for real sit-down, traditional style Japanese showers, and grabbed a drink (milk for me, coffee for him). We finally gave back our yukatas and the dirty towels and gave our bracelets to the woman at the counter to scan. It is a very high-tech system, where every extra item you purchase such as food or souvenirs inside is added onto your "tab" which is held in the bar code of the bracelet and then you pay for it all at the end. (There is a receipt given for every additional purchase you make)...Oh and there is no time limit as to how long you stay either! It is 1980 yen to enter during the weekdays and 2180 yen during the weekends...either way about $25-$30 USD! This system pretty much eliminates error and the need for you to carry money around. I was very impressed...and then we got our shoes and left! It was a really wonderful bonding experience!!
Tokyo and Side Trips!
Tokyo is the world's largest Metropolis, and it can be a bit hectic. I recommend a week here ABSOLUTE MINIMUM. Let me do my best to break down the important areas for you:
Tokyo Station - here is perhaps Tokyo's most central hub. (Speaking of "The Hub", it is the also the name of a British pub that is relatively cheap, has 48 branches in Tokyo and brings in a lot of people and excitement, especially for soccer/sporting events!) Expect lots of crowds, but also a very upscale and modern feel here with the palace so close by!
Ginza - NOT cheap...the cafes and bars will empty your wallet - try the 300 Bar - you can imagine the price of the drinks here...
Shinjuku - this place is crawling with fun! You can find many bars and izakayas here! It may be the most visited area in Tokyo!
Kabukicho - located in Shinjuku, and just within minutes of walking from Shinjuku station you can find Tokyo's notorious red light district here. It is more of a hassle than fun walking around as a single guy, because you will definitely get hassled (often physically). Guys go in a mixed-gender group or with a girl if you want to be left alone!
Roppongi - a super modern area where there a bountiful amount of clubs! This is where most of the foreigners in Tokyo hang out.
Shibuya - home to Tokyo's famous and largest crossing...prepare to get lost in the crowds! Here you will find a fair share of bars, along with a trendy clubbing scene! You will find fewer foreigners than Roppongi in this area and very fashionably dressed people!
Harajuku - a part of Shibuya, you can find the infamous Meiji-Jingu Shrine here, along with a lot of cheap shopping on the famous Takeshitadori street! Here you will come across MANY strange fashion statements, trends such as gothic, lolita, girls looking like characters from Candy Land and beyond!!! Go explore for yourself and see what you find!
Ueno - an entertainment district, however home to nature and cultural things such as temples as well. The zoo is here as well!
Shimo Kitazawa - Live music, look no further. This place is not huge but you can certainly hear your fair share of live performances here! You can find some interesting bars here too!
Akihabara - where otakus (Japanese "geeks") hang out. Here you can find a lot of anime and manga, pornography of all sorts shapes and sizes, sexy outfits, sex toys, maid cafes, and lots of electrical appliances (this is why it is called electric town). ***On a side note, Westerners would perceive Japan's sex culture as weird. It has more to do with cosplay (dressing up in sexy outfits), and fetishes that are considered taboo in the western world. The idea of school girls and of innocence and youth in general is seen as sexy unlike in Western culture where men are considered perverts for being attracted to girls as young as in high school.***
Asakusa - where the cheapest hostels can be found, backpackers you want to stay here. It is also home to a famous temple and the famous Tokyo Sky Tree (an extremely large tower)!
Tsukiji - where the famous fish market is...prepare to arrive at 5am (or before) if you want to see the famous tuna auction (which takes place every day) because only 120 visitors are allowed to observe in the guest box!
Ryogaku - this is where all of the Sumo action takes place. You can watch a match in the big stadium or catch the famous sumo's dish in one of the surrounding restaurants. You can even often visit a sumo stable to watch a practice (super early in the morning!!! 6-9am usually), but you must call one day before to ensure that it is okay that you visit.
Ikebukuro - this area has many places to eat and a plethora of bars too...like Shinjuku but less well known.
Takadanobaba - this student area is by Waseda University so expect to find many students here! Of course, along with the student population comes great deals for cheap shopping and a bunch of cheap bars and quick-eat shops!
Back to my experiences...I went to Chiba last weekend and met some friends of my friend! It was a truly amazing experience! That group of friends had been friends for so long, and you could really feel the love! This was a very nice feeling, and I definitely felt accepted as a member of the group! We went to the grocery store to buy the food and drinks for our barbeque and ended up going to an old Samurai House (3 actually) before the barbeque! It was quite nice to see three different styles (broken down by economic status) of Samurai houses that are still in existence. I learned about how they cooked, ate, took baths, and about their overall lifestyles. I even saw some of the land that the feudal lords owned back in Japan's history when they reported to their leaders (shoguns I think they were called). The castle had been destroyed so we could not see it, but having my friend's friend as a guide was amazing...I felt so lucky! I really enjoyed seeing with my own eyes what I had learned about just a few semesters ago during my undergraduate degree! I had even wrote my final paper on Samurais so this experience was so cool for me!
After the Samurai House experience, we visited a place that had a wind mill...European huh? I was explained that during the Edo Period (Mid 17 to 1900s in Japan) trade between Japan and other nations was closed...(this I knew) except that trade with the Netherlands still took place...in two places in Japan one in the West, and Sakura (in Chiba) where we were! It was cool to see the tangible evidence of the trade by observing the windmill!! Next, we went to have the Barbeque! The Japanese know how to cook. They also know how to prepare. This venue had been reserved for weeks, the proper tools were given to us, the day was lovely and the sky blue, the Sangria-making process having been started 20 days earlier... I just enjoyed everyone's company and the amazing assortments of meats, breads and vegetables, along with trying numerous new drinks (and creating some of our own!!! Pocari Sweat - a sports rehydration drink mixed with Sangria, POCAGRIA!!! Pretty good!!!) We all caught sunset together that night, before heading back to watch a video of the same group of people on a trip they had taken a few years ago! The video was so well-put together with pictures, videos and songs that I was supremely impressed. I thought about how detailed it really was, and remembered how long it took me to make a film like this of a much shorter duration of time with Windows Movie Maker...HOURS!!! So to achieve the quality of this video and for its length, who KNOWS how many hours this guy put into it! This was such a cool way to remember a wonderful trip that I was really inspired! Next weekend I am going back to Chiba to hang out and help them put the video of OUR BARBEQUE experience!!
Yokohama was another side trip that I took from Tokyo. It proved to be amazing too!! I met with a friend and got to go to a festival, was guided through the famous (and Japan's biggest) Chinatown, saw the harbor and some parks, visited a famous garden called Sankeien Garden and even saw antique foreigner houses! One morning I had the lovely experience of helping to teach my friend's class! These kids were so cute!!! They were between a few months and 3 years old and we practiced identifying colors, introducing ourselves, painted fans together, sang songs and I read a story to them! I really enjoyed it and had a lovely time! I went to my first sento (bathhouse) there. If you are from a Western country, you might not feel comfortable taking all of your clothes off in front of many strangers and bathing in a variety of types of baths. Well, in Japan, as shy as they are they have no problem at all doing this...and all Japanese LOVE it! At first I felt a bit uncomfortable but after a while got used to it and really enjoyed the experience! We have this idea in our heads that it is weird, but I can now see it in another light having tried it. When we entered we had to pay for our ticket through a vending machine (as is normal in Japan). I left my shoes in the locker outside of the bath and then went in with my clothes on. I removed my clothes and put them inside of another locker (for all lockers you must hold the key but for the ones right before getting wet they give you a water-resistant band with a key that slides in and out of visibility to wear around your wrist so no worries about losing it! Before entering the bath I had to take water from a bin and wash my body, and then it was off to the races!!! I tried all of the different types of baths, ranging from large basins, to REALLY HOT and REALLY COLD baths or "pools of water" we can call them. Some were inside and some outside! For the ones outside, some baths even had rocks and were made to seem very natural. There was no roof at part of it so I felt out in the open and even in the middle of a big city it felt quite natural! I was able to try some of the pools that produced bubbles so strong that you had to hold on to the railings provided! I even laid down on the ground with my head on a stone for a bit and then made my way to the relaxing zone where you do the same but on a more comfortable surface with water flowing all around your body. I finally made it to the sit-down shower where I had a nice shave before heading out! I had to wipe my body off before entering the locker room to put my clothes back on. What a different and nice experience!
From Yokohama I took a day trip to visit Kamakura. I saw one of the main temples there along with the many Sake storage bins, really cool! I also saw one of the five famous Zen temples! Later I took a stroll on the famous Yuigihama beach before heading back to Yokohama! Kamakura's old town was beautiful and reminded me a lot of Kyoto so I intend to return to do more sightseeing there! Upon my return, I tried one of Japan's diners which was very nice! It was inexpensive (for JAPANESE standards) and you just push the button (as usual) to have the waitor or waitress come over to you and take your order. In some places, you can actually order everything right on the electronic screen.
I took a day to see a University friend while back in Tokyo! By visiting the Asakusa area and getting information from a hostel, I learned a lot! We visited the skytree and caught a sunset from a tower in Shinjuku that is free to enter (forgot the name, but you do not need to pay for a good view in Tokyo, there are places to see it for free!)
I also attended a friend's Soka Gokkai meeting the other night and observed! The chanting took a lot of time, aimed at raising energy and a group feeling of togetherness. Two important goals seem to be to respect the laws of the universe and to chant to bring good karma. An article was discussed after the chanting and I felt lucky enough to have a translator! It was a story about a trumpet player who found a connection through Soka Gokkai and then we all shared a story or an event from the week! Overall, a wonderful learning experience about a religion which I belive perhaps 10% of Japan practices...
- in many places where you receive service, it is not uncommon for the worker to kneel down on one or both knees when speaking with you as a sign of respect. I have seen this in department stores and even pharmacies!!!
- the Japanese never floss.
- Smoking areas are so rare outdoors that smokers often smoke in the house! ...smoking inside many establishments such as sections of restaurants and even McDonalds are okay. (By the way you can buy a McDonalds gift card out of a vending machine here!) I believe it is so that Japan's streets are kept clean. It is the COMPLETE opposite of the USA and most places I have been where oftentimes smokers struggle to find a spot INDOORS to smoke so they go outside to smoke!
- Apparently there are no janitor jobs in Japanese schools because the children have a certain time each day where they clean. They are taught MUCH different values than in most societies I know. It is DEFINITELY different than China and India where instead of cleaning, the kids contribute to the garbage problem by polluting because they are taught that it is okay to do!!! Also, lunch seems to work differently in the schools - it is delivered rather than bought and the children all eat together! Cleaning and eating times should be a good way to meet and connect with the children on a more personal level!
- I played a Japanese Samurai or Ninja game (I think it was Tenchu) where I kept hearing this really strange "complaining-sounding" noise from an insect, almost a whining bug noise in the background. Strangely enough, in natural locations here in Japan where there are many trees, forests, plants, etc. I HEAR IT!!! It is like the cicada but has a different, whining tone to it.
- AKB48 is a pop group here in Japan, falling under the J-Pop (Japanese Pop) category. There is a strange obsession with these 48 young, attractive female singers, which can get a little nutty when you find their pictures in areas like Akihabara. Others strongly dislike them!
I have settled into Tokyo now and am enjoying the life here. Japan seems to have price controls set in place. Whenever you walk into a convenience store like a Family Mart or a Seven Eleven, the prices are relatively the same if not identical. Even at touristy locations, and in Tokyo (the most expensive city in many ways) you will find that the prices remain the same in the convenience stores which I think is fair and I like!!
I may have mentioned this in the past, but Japan is CLEAN and it can often be difficult to find a garbage can!!! There are MANY types of recycling bins and this can get rather confusing to a foreigner...the best way is to look at the pictures (if there are any) and even this can be unclear...
Japan's food is FRESH. Everything ranging from the food served in convenience stores to the food served in restaurants is fresh and there is a lot of care taken in keeping it and serving it that way. I have never heard of anyone having any issues with food poisoning here (although I am sure that it has happened on rare occasion). I believe that any food over one day old is thrown away. The raw food that is served is kept fresh too...there must be some government regulations concerning this matter.
So the sink/shower combination is not uncommon in a Japanese home. However, for a foreigner such as myself this combination is rather strange and has caused me much misfortune. On more than one occasion, upon preparing for bed and aiming to turn the sink on to brush my teeth, I have accidentally wet half of my body to my dismay...
Kabukicho is the most well-known red light area in Tokyo and possibly in all of Japan! I expected to see glamorous young ladies dressed up in all sorts of costumes, aiming to seduce possible patrons into coming in for a drink and potentially more. WRONG. Actually, what you find are a handful of Japanese gentleman (whose English is usually decent) aiming to guide you inside of their establishments and more than a few dark-skinned fellows from all around the globe who make you feel anything but comfortable, trying so hard (even physically) to get you inside of their bars. This actually made me quite uncomfortable and not want to visit the area again at night time.
Upon shopping with a friend, a strange situation (in my opinion occurred). She finished shopping, brought the item to the front desk and then had to actually go upstairs to another floor to pay! Once she paid and brought the receipt down, she was able to take her purchase with her. Also while accompanying a friend in the hospital, a similar situation occurred, where she went to pay, but actually had to wait to insert the card she was given until her number was called. I find that Japan's organization systems can be so orderly that I am unused to it and actually find it strange and confusing at times!
The 1,000 yen haircut is a budget traveler's dream! You pay the vending machine for your haircut (500 Yen for just your bangs [girls usually] and you pay 1000 for a haircut). The job is supposed to take 15 minutes, but can and usually takes upwards of 30 minutes. barbers are neat and efficient, using a large hose which I have never seen before to suck all of the hair off of your face! You leave feeling tidy and clean, and with a heavier wallet than you would have had you visited a normal barber shop! On the topic of vending machines, I have found machines specializing in selling each of the following items: cigarettes, red bulls, cold drinks (energy and sport drinks, etc.), beer, condoms, and USED WOMEN's UNDERWEAR! Actually, that machine was more like a gumball machine, where you put in 500 yen and you got a random pair of used panties! I have heard there are actual vending machines selling these "goods" however there are probably few if any left because apparently it recently became ilWhat a strange place it really is here...
Walmarts are not in Japan, however their INFLUENCE is. I saw Walmart bags the other day in the grocery store. I also have seen many times, the "Great Value" brand on sale, which I know to be Walmart's brand. Globalization 2012.0 folks - it's here, it's real, it's scary. Please stop taking over the world Walmart, thanks!
On another random note, the Japanese are never just free to hang out, always busy! Unlike where I could just send a message a day or two before to friends in Taiwan for example, the culture here seems quite different. It appears that you must make formal plans with the Japanese and a good deal of time before the date in order to see them. If you ask plans the same day or a few days away, from my experience at least it seems that you are unlikely to have any luck...another example of how organized Japan is - its own people's behavior!
Maiko, Geisha or Guise?
Japan is a country of utmost beauty. Nara is a great exemplar of Japan's beauty and is an AMAZING day trip from Osaka (and even from Kobe or Kyoto) because the Japanese trains connect all major locations well! Japan Railways (JR) along with Hanshin and Hankyu have lines running through the Kansai region so it pays to do your research first to find the quickest and cheapest trains! Almost every Japanese person has a way to find this out with their smartphones now. Back to Nara: if you get out at the Kintetsu Nara station (Hanshin Line I believe) it puts you in great access to see the small natural place! You can get a tourist map in English right in the train station and get really helpful information from some pretty friendly English-speaking staff...all for free!! You can walk all around Nara and see soo many beautiful things...once again, FOR FREE! You come to a point where you DO NOT NEED to pay JUST TO ENTER every temple you see. Oftentimes, you can enter the grounds of the temple and only have to pay for to enter a certain portion of the place (This is true in Kyoto as well, for example beautiful Ryoanji Temple is free, except for the 500 yen charge of seeing a the Zen Rock Garden, which is not worth your money anyway in my opinion). So the deer are amazingly friendly as well, much unlike the ones from back home in New York that run away from people as soon as one comes too close. There are some beautiful temples and pagodas lined around the main walking area. The best part is that it is ALL walkable and doable in one day! When you explore some of the smaller temples and nature you can find some visually appealing views and sunset-watching spots!
Yesterday in Kyoto I saw Kinkakuji Temple (400 Yen). This Golden Temple has three levels and each level has its own architectural style. The place is surrounded with a beautiful pond and this was perhaps the most beautiful place I visited in Kyoto so far!
Later that night I went to a maiko performance. A maiko is a geisha in training. They wear the same dress usually, but are younger. They wear very traditional Japanese dress (usually kimonos) with wooden clogs and thin socks. Their faces are a little child's worst nightmare, painted a GHOSTLY white, while the rest of their makeup is quite distinguishable from the rest of their face, like the red lipstick which catches your eye from quite far away. They "flirt" from what I understand, while having conversations with the customers to entertain them (although I don't understand much because it is in Japanese), along with performing a fascinating dance routine. There were two dancing together in the performance that I saw and there were fans involved, so cool wow!! You cannot generally be entertained by a geisha unless you already know her or you have a friend of hers or a current client introduce you. They are quite mysterious, and there are rumors that they can be prostitutes but I cannot attest to the validity of that, for I do not know. One thing I can say is that their company usually requires upwards of 15-20,000 Yen, which would be about a $200-300 USD night...Japan is not for the poor I state again and again.
Today I got up early and stopped at a temple and got some breakfast at the bus stop where I needed to transfer buses. Then, I headed to Kiyomizudera which is a temple up high which has a decent garden! I hung out in the preserved old Kiyomizu Area for a while after, and even caught a glimpse of a geisha and a maiko...OR SO I THOUGHT! Apparently the ones you see in the daytime are not REAL ones I am told. How should I know?? They looked real to me! How can one tell the difference between the real ones and the frauds?? Kiyomizudera was nice, but I liked Kinkakuji better! Then I took a bus to Tofukuji Temple and after that headed over to the Fushimi Inari Shrine! That place was really cool, offering hundreds of these red gates placed closely together, forming a walkway...and can continue walking for QUITE some time up the mountain. From there I headed to Ryoanji temple and explored the pond and forest there, LOVELY! I just did not pay for the overrated rock garden (as stated before). I then visited Ninnaji Temple before finally exploring a path by my friend's house and calling it a day. Wow, what a day!!
Tenryuji Temple is lovely, has a beautiful garden and pond and behind the exit is a MUST-SEE Bamboo Garden!!!
- The bus system in Kyoto is WAY more convenient for getting to almost all major sites than the metro so during your stay in Kyoto I recommend that you buy the One Day Bus Pass EVERYDAY you plan to tour. It is 500 yen and you can purchase it on the first bus you jump on in the city (does not matter which one). You can also buy it at Kyoto station (The main railway (JR) and bus station). Also, each ride costs 220 Yen whereas the all day pass is 500, so take a bus to one location and back and you are already only 60 yen short of getting the full card's value for the day!
- If you are on a budget, do your research first as to what places you want to visit and map out a subway or metro gameplan. Taxis are WAY too expensive here. Also, check entrance fees because those add up quickly and much of the money paid is not worth it!! Check the following out: http://www.templefees.com
- Bus drivers (especially in Kyoto) will bow and recite some sort of really polite oral discourse, something along the lines of "thank you so much for riding this bus". Though the "blah blah blah maaaaaaaaaassss" sounds a LOT like Darth Vader of Star Wars (especially reminds me of this with the dusk masks they wear), it is a super friendly experience! There are even notifications that the driver will change, and and an electronic screen tells you the next stop in Japanese AND English. When you wait at any major bus stop, there is a moving icon depicting how far away the next bus you are waiting for is, wow!!!
- Random, but Asians all put their blood type on facebook and Westerners do not. Please have a look if you do not believe me...also don't forget to check facebook anyway for all the awesome pictures that go along with these whacky tales!!!
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.