Friday, September 29, 2006

My god it's full of temples...


The sound of me messing up an attempt at esoteric meditation. How did it come to this?

The cable car

It all started when Zach left half of his huge luggage at my house. He admits that carrying both suitcases to my place from Nagano was one of the stupidest things he ever did, and wasnt about to tackle it while trying to find a new apartment in Osaka. So he asked me if after a few weeks I could bring the second Bag of Doom down to his pad in Kansai. Like a fool I said yes, but to make the trip a bit more worth while Zach suggested we then decamp to Koya-san in Wakayama Prefecture.

Our Temple

In a high mountain valley, reachable by a very vertigiganous cable car ride, lies the Buddist retreat of Koya-san (Mt Koya). Founded in 819 by one very famous monk named Kukai, Koya-san in the center of Esoteric Shingon Sect Buddism. Of course what is really important is that out of 110 (or so) temples that lie scattered about the area, around 50 of them allow visitors to stay overnight.

When you spend a year in Japan you do get the chance to see a LOT of temples. Big temples, small temples, new temples, old temples. Enough that they really start to blend together in your memory. However to go from just a tourists glance to actually staying overnight, now that is a rare cultural opportunity. A chance to experience something really new and fascinating, and eat delicious temple food!

Our temple was over 200 years old, and the art was amazing. Our room had gold leaf covered shoji screens, I wonder if it was Kanazawa gold leaf?, a beautiful view of the garden, and an area larger than both of our apartments combined. Despite the 12 months of residence, I rarely get the chance to sleep on tatami, which is a shame as it really is quite comfortable. Its too bad you can't say that about the rice (beans?) filled torture implements that pass for pillows around here. My ear always feels like Ive been fight Mike Tyson when I wake up!

With some time to kill before evening meditation and supper, Zach and I set out for a quick tour of town. We encountered this amazing Demon lamp right down the street from our accomodations.

A litte further into town we saw this incredible statue. It is one of the most creepily realistic statues I have ever seen.

One of the buildings had a pitch black basement that I assume is a Buddist hell. In it were a few displays, including this awsome neon looking one. I have absolutly no idea what significance it has! Looks cool though. ;-)

Of course even in a Buddist mecca like Koya-san, there is a Shinto Shrine tucked away, just so nobody forgets that there are TWO major religions around here. This was a beautiful, if rather dilapidated, Inari shrine, which if anybody has been keeping track is still my favorite Shinto deity. Any god that uses foxes as his representitives is OK in my book.

After we got back we settled down in the main chamber along with 5 Spanish travelers and tried our hands at esoteric meditation. The head priest told us to count forward one to ten and then do it backwards. I talked to Zach later and he said we should have done that once, and then emptied our minds. Heh. I thought we had to do it over, and over, and over again. So for around thirty minutes I sat there in a very painful lotus position counting 1-10 10-1. Wow was that an interesting experience, but not one I think I will ever do again. Meditation doesn't seem to be for me.

After our experiment in pain thresholds and sleeping legs, it was time for a fully vegan dinner. No fish, animals, or dairy was harmed in the making of our meal. Despite this fact it was delicious. We had tempura, famous Koya-san tofu, rice, tea, pickles, and a few dishes that I have no idea what they contained. While the lack of steak was troublesome, the meal was amazing. Everything there was delicous, there was not a single bad dish.

After we finished, the mother of the head priest came out to give us a history lesson. She was 84 years old and still very vital. Luckily for us she had earned an English Literature degree at Tokyo University in 1939 or so, and she spoke excellent English. She was great fun, describing both her own life in Koya-san and the history of the area, all the way back to old Kukai. She told us how Kukai didn't actually die, he just decided to start meditating in a cave nearby, and has been at it for over a thousand years! And then it was time for bed, as our wakeup call was 5:45 the next morning.

Next: I got up HOW EARLY?!?!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sensory Overload

Last weekend was a weekend of shattered expectations. My original plan had been to go to the Komatsu Airshow on Sunday, but then I was offered the opportunity to go to Gifu prefecture and see a world heritage site. I was thrilled at the chance. Sadly they had over-commited and there was no room for me. Could I go hiking in Nagano on Monday instead? Well that was Ok, I could still go to the airshow and I do love hiking, and haven't been at all this summer. Then it started raining all day Saturday and was forcast to do so all weekend. I felt very dininclined to go to an airshow, by myself, in the pouring rain. As well the hiking was called off and the Round 1 Sports Stadium was swapped into the picture instead as a typhoon was scheduled for Monday. Sunday dawned bright blue and beautiful. *sigh*. Monday was also sunny and hot, if a bit windy from they remains of the typhoon. *sigh* Two beautiful days, no outdoors for Grant. Well I made the best of it indoors, saw X-men 3 on Sunday and of course, went to Round 1 on Monday...

The first thing I noticed walking in was how utterly loud the place was, with dozens of arcade machines, slot machines, and those crazy UFO catcher machines. This does not count the general din of conversation or the large constantly playing TV screens. The group hung out for about an hour waiting for others to join us, and I took the opportunity to eat a hotdog for lunch. This was not a wise move, never before has so ghastly a dog passed my lips. Seriously, this thing was atrocious. Atrociously expensive too. The day was NOT off to a good start.

Things started to pick up soon though. I'm always up for bowling. Two totally non-competitive games later and I was in higher spirits. Though certainly not because of my score! (87 and 60 something? Bowling is not my strong point.) There were 38 lanes and every two lanes had their own giant TV screen, so if you do the math you get 19 screens looping the same inane j-pop videos. That was bad enough with just normal videos, but when they played Razer "HG" Ramon's YMCA cover, it was just horrifying.

Of course the girls were cute when they got all dressed up in the bowling pin costumes!

Now *this* is more like it! Pocket motorbike racing is one of many, many attractions and was certainly the most fun on hand. Speeds are naturally not very high, but when you are so close to the ground that is rather comforting. It was great fun, and I wouldn't mind trying it again. On the same rink they also offer rollerblading, which we didnt do this trip but has be interested for next time. Its been a looooong time since I strapped rollerblade to my feet, I wonder if I could still pull it off? After the bikes we killed some time in another arcade, but since you had to pay by the hour to get in to the top levels, it was all free. Yup, a huge arcade with stuff like Dance Dance Revolution, Soul Caliber 3 (on linked machines for Versus play no less), shooting games, driving games, drumming games, flying games, anything you can imagine it was there. I loved it.

There were plenty of other pursuits that we didn't have time to try. Like fishing. The disturbing thing with this is that you are fishing in that little pond for REAL FISH. The same fish get caught day in and day out catch and release. I've never felt terribly sorry for a fish before, but man that really seems a bit cruel. It's one thing if the carp has all of a lake to hide in, but that little pool seems a bit confined.

On a lighter note they also offered... mini-golf, archary, tennis, table tennis, mechanical bull riding, soccer, basketball, karaoke, pool and I'm sure a few other things I've fogotten. Well Round 1 Sports Stadium didn't quite make a good substitute for the Mountains, it was a fun day all the same. It will be a great place to go in the frigid depths of the Kanazawa winter, which is right around the corner.... *shudder*.

Next: Koya-San

Friday, September 15, 2006

1 Year! : The second half.

March kicked off my spring 'visitors season' with my first guest. My best buddy for ages, Matt, arrived in early March for a two week visit. We had a great time, and for the short time he had he managed a lot of sight-seeing. Nagoya, Kanazawa, Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. Not bad!

Then in April I took a weekend and went to visit Zach up in Nagano. We celebrated his 25th Birthday and then went to the nearby wasabi farm for a taste of wasabi ice cream. Spring was really creeping up on us, and the weather was great. Of course back home in Ishikawa it spent most of April raining.

Spring brought out the famed Sakura blossoms, sending the whole nation into a frenzy of flower viewing and sake drinking. Good times were had by all, and honestly the cherry trees really are amazingly beautiful. Spring itself was great, the weather got warmer, it stopped raining every day, and life just took a turn for the better. And of course, my next guest arrived!

My next visitor was my mother, who came out for Golden Week. We relaxed and walked (and walked and walked) around Kanazawa. We went to all the interesting museums and touristy spots that I had previously ignored. It was a great time, and the chance to see family again after so many months was simply amazing.

While Mom had no great desire to travel every day and see a lot of Japan, unlike Matt, we did take a daytrip to Kyoto. We saw some of the more famous temples and shrines and of course ate some delicious rotation-sushi at Kyoto Station. Mom really loved her sushi that trip, I don't think I've ever eaten sushi twice in one day before... or since! ;-)

A mere week after Mom left my Sister, Liz, arrived. She had scraped together almost three weeks of vacation time, so we had a lot planned. I took a week off myself and we went way south to Kyushu, taking in cities like Fukaoka and Nagasaki. It was some of the most fun I've had all. The scenery was, unlike say in Tokyo, absolutely breathtaking.

June saw the big Kanazawa festival, with food booths, dancing in the streets, and plenty of Taiko. As Mo would say, it was an overdose of Awsome. It was amazing, unlike anything you would ever have seen in the US.

July was Hot. Hot and Muggy. The first part of July was the rainy season, and while it didn't rain very much at first, it was always a threat. High humidity and high temperatures conspired to keep us all indoors even when it wasn't raining. But all was not lost, it was Lost. Nate, Fiona, Mo and myself all banded together and started watching Marathon sessions of the hit TV show Lost. We all got hooked and it provided a pleasently airconditioned and cheap activity for the muggy months of Summer.

August was Hot, brutally Hot. Luckily the rain had finished in July, but August saw days and days of some pretty intense heat, which made for some great visits to the beach. While Uchinada Beach may not make a list of worldwide beach destinations, for us it was heaven. Sand, waves, beer, burgers, what more do you want on an August evening?

And so we come full circle back to September. Its been a pretty good year, lets home the next 12 months can top it!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

1 Year! : The first six months.

Well, this is it. On September 14th 2005 at around 4 in the afternoon I arrived in Japan. It has been a seriously crazy year, and I sometimes can't believe it has all actually happened! To refresh memories, mine and others, we have the Travelingrant 1 Year retrospective!

The Totoro House at Expo 05>

After arriving in sunny Nagoya in September, my first real adventure was the Aichi 2005 World Expo. We went on a Monday Holiday, and suffered from an excess of heat and visitors. It was still a great time, and a good way to kick off life in Japan.

I quickly fell in love with industrial Nagoya. Despite a preference to concrete, I found it an interesting and vital city. In October, I really did a lot of local traveling, visiting Nagoya Castle, Inuyama, Gamagori, and of course Zach up in Nagano.


Kiyomizu-Dera, Kyoto

In November I made a quick Shinkansen excursion to Kyoto to glory in the Fall colors among Kyoto's many temples and shrines. The weather and the trees were glorious. It was mid-November! And the trees were finally at their peak in a riot of orange and red. Of course despite it being a Monday everybody and their second cousin was in Kyoto that day, at least that's what it seemed like. And I thought the Expo crowd was bad!

December saw a visit by Zach, an international Christmas celebration, and the most snow Aichi had seen in 60 years. Of course as I soon learned, heavy snow in Aichi is nothing compared to snow in Ishikawa.

For the New Years break Jared and I went traipsing all over Osaka. Takoyaki (octopus balls), Okonomiyaki (meat pancake thing?) and of course, Spa World! It was a great New Years, even though the initial impression of Osaka was rather negative, as the Hostel was in a pretty dodgy neighborhood. Then again what do you expect for 2,000 yen a night?

January was a time of new beginnings for sure. Okazaki school closed and I moved 3 hours away to the Japan Sea Coast. Kanazawa, Ishikawa. It was a trial by snow, I arrived in a swirling storm that dumped two feet on my new city. Well it could have been worse, the same storm made life pretty difficult farther north. I also first ventured into Kenroku-en, Kanazawa's famous garden.

In late January I ventured forth again, this time back to Osaka and then to the ancient capital of Nara. I have heard it, and concur, that Nara is the best day-trip in all Japan. Its fantastically beautiful and small enough that you can fit in all the sights in a single visit.

February brought more snow, and a few more friends. I visited Fukui and met Nick and Phil, our two closest teachers, and I met Nate as well. Life in Kanazawa was off to a chilly but interesting first couple of months.

Well, there is the first six months. It's already a crazy and fun year, and we still have another half to go! Tune in tomorrow for the rest... Visitors, Surfers, Volcanos, and Raw Horse.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Tokyo: The Return Part 3 Ueno Zoo

Our second hotel was nearish to Ueno Park. One could say Ueno Park is the Central Park of Tokyo, there are lakes and museums and Tokyo's oldest Zoo. There are even a few shrines, and the battlefield where shogunate forces were finally defeated in the Meiji Revolution. As you can imagine,that is quite a lot for one park to hold. And its quite a lot to take in, so our goal was simply Ueno Zoo.

I visted Ueno in 2005 on a daytrip from Zach's homebase in Nagano, but I was glad to be able to return in the Summer and not freeze my toes off. This particular zoo is famous for a few things, but the star attractions are the pandas. While they are cute, I find the Red Pandas much more interesting, and cuter. But of course the really great thing about visiting a foreign zoo is the 'exotic' animals that hit a bit closer to home.

Like these cute little Prairie Dogs! Those left behind in Colorado may see them as pests or coyote bait but here in Japan they are fully kawaiiiiiii! (cue Japanese high school girls in unison). I'll have to admit the little buggers did warm the heart. But just a bit.

They also had this tree scaling porcupine. I had no idea that these prickly little dudes could climb trees. He looked a little cautious on his climb down from the heights.

This fellow is to be commended. He was so lazy that he just fell asleep with his head underwater. Never bothering to pull his bulk around, he'd just peek up from the depths every minute or so to take a breath then settle back down. Really that seems like more work than moving...

Pliffskin ploffskin...

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Tokyo: The Return Part 2, Museum Hopping

When I told my students I was going to Tokyo 'On Vacation' they looked at me aghast. Tokyo is certainly not considered a viable vacation destination in Japan. You go to Tokyo on business, you go to Kyoto on vacation. That said there were a couple of interesting museums that I missed last time, one of them being the Tokyo Maritime Museum.

Needless to say a museum filled with model ships is not all that attractive to women, so I had to go it alone. Mo wandered off into Shinjuku by herself for the day. Like anything worth getting to in Tokyo, it was quite a trek to the artificial island that held both my museum destinations. Two subway lines and a docklands elevated rail later, and I was in the ballpark. The Tokyo Maritime Museum is pretty easy to spot, being shaped like a giant concrete ocean liner.

One of the more interesting exhibits was a display of the history of ships in the world in detailed model form. Many of the models were 1:50 or 1:60 scale, so you got a very good sense of how much larger ships have become lately. From the HMS Victory to the Brittanic to the supermassive crude oil carrier Universe Ireland. That particular model must have been at least 15 feet long, if not longer. Of course oil tankers do lack some of the mystique and beauty of the older ships. There were also demonstrations of ship design, construction and propulsion. In the submarine corner was a video periscope that you could use to peek at the neigboring water park.

On the second floor there where exhibits devoted to Japan's place in the sea. They had exhibits related to shipping, fishing, defense and the coast guard. Of course I went straight for defense. Using dozens of tiny models there was a visual representation of the entire Imperial Fleet of WWII. It was astounding, those little ships filled a very long case. Among them were some rather famous (or should I say infamous) names like the Akagi and the Kaga and the rest of the Pearl Harbor strike force.

The centerpiece of this part of the museum is the large and very detailed model of the Yamato, the largest and heaviest battleship ever built. She was commisioned a few days after Pearl Harbor, but despite supermassive 20 inch guns the days of the Battleship were over, as the Imperial Navy had themselves proved. She never sunk another ship and was herself destroyed by US Navy planes towards the end of the war.

On the upper 'decks' of the museum are an observation lounge and a mock ocean liner bridge. The best part of the bridge is the working radar display that allowed me to track the harbor traffic for a couple of minutes, and that was pretty fun. Next door
were two museum ships, one another Antarctic exploration ship that was equally boring to the Fuji that I saw in Nagoya harbor. The other was an old ferry that was the primary linky between Honshu and Hokkaido before the current tunnel was completed. It too was nothing terribly special, but next door was a pretty cool museum.

The Musuem of Emerging Technology is a science museum aimed at the younger set. Despite an emphasis on the 'hands on' (or because of it?) I found it fascinating, if a bit loud. The centerpiece at the moment is a traveling exhibition of a frozen mammoth skull. Rather disgusting but totally awsome. There was also a giant video ball showing weather sat pictures of Earth. It would display the last 24 hours of world weather in a loop, as well as land and sea temperature for the month. It was one of those things you could just stand there in a trance and watch for a good long while. There was also a demonstration magnetic levitation railway, a deep diving ocean research sub and some great space related displays. They had a wall with the photo and name of everybody who has visited space, and the best part is they had managed to collect signatures from a significant number of both astro- and cosmonauts. There was also a neat display concerning distance in the universe. It showed what was happening on earth when light left various stars and even other galaxies. From the Berlin Wall falling to the American Revolution to the Dinosaurs ruling the earth.

It was a great but exhausting day to be sure, and I will admit I had my fill of museums! It was time for a change... the zoo!