Thursday, May 31, 2012

Kyoto, Japan

Bamboo Forest, Kyoto

Light filtered through the pale green bamboo, casting everything in a cool, softer hue. Everything was calm and quiet. Tiny leaves trickled down from far above. "If you catch one it's good luck," Julius told me. At that moment everything in Japan was magical.


Kiyomizu-dera Temple

At Kiyomizu-dera Temple, tourists disguised themselves as geishas unsuccesfully. Their posture and body language gave them away, revealing that they weren't more distinguished than any of us. It's extremely rare to see real Geishas in Kyoto.

"Geishas"

No matter where you are on the social ladder in Japan, everyone can have their own throne. The abundance of hi-tech toilets is fascinating. I've never had so much fun in the toilet. There are so many special buttons and gadgets. There’s a fine spray that tickles. For a more powerful spray, use the bidet option. And if you're embarrassed about making noises whilst using the toilet, don't flush to cover it up - use the flushing sound button! It's much more eco-friendly. Japan must be the country with the cleanest butts in the world.

Hi-Tech Toilet



Toilet Controller


















Upon strolling through the gorgeously groomed zen gardens of Ginkakuji, the Silver Temple, I paused to look for frogs. I heard them, but I couldn't see them. My theory is that it was a frog sound effect and that there weren't really any frogs, but Julius disagrees. Japan is a country that values vocal prompts - the Japanese ambulence boasts a woman's voice telling everyone to get out of the way - so it wouldn't be too incredible to have a croaking noise in a frogless garden. If anyone knows the truth, I'm dying to know!

Ginkakuji Temple

Kinkakuji Temple
Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple is a too much bling for me, but it is amazing. They didn't use gold paint as I first thought, but sheets of gold paper clothe the temple. I'm surprised people don't try to rob the temple over night - it must be heavily guarded.

The Imperial Palace was enormous and the surrounding natural gardens were immense. Most of the walkways are gravel, and workers are paid to tidy and straighten the rocks to make them look presentable. This must be why unemployment in Japan is so low.

Our friends took us to a very good Japanese restaurant where we enjoyed a colorful and delicious dinner. Each dish was a work of art.

A sashimi garden on a plate

I loved Japan and would have stayed longer if my credit card would have allowed it. I was used to the constant bowing and the bus drivers who thanked every single person as they left the bus. Removing my shoes at people's homes and even some public places was easy and made sense, but it was time to move on to the next destination: China. I knew it would be a shock, but I didn't know how much of a shock...


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Nara, Japan

Nara

Japanese culture has a lot of great things going for it. I've met a lot of friendly and considerate Japanese people, like the guy who went above and beyond to help perfect strangers.

Lighting incense
Julius and I had to change trains to get to Nara, but we didn't know where to go. After waiting on the platform for ten minutes without success, I asked a Japanese man where to go. He knew about as much English as I knew Japanese, so we didn't get very far with words. Through a lots of gestures and much nodding, I realized we had to go to a different platform. I thanked him and went on our way. We were halfway to the other platform when the man came running after us, and accompanied us to the correct platform. Instead of leaving us to our own devices and saying "oh well, stupid tourists can find their own way to Nara," he went out of his way to help us get on the right train.

In Nara we visited a massive temple. Smoke from the incense burning in an enormous metal urn floated through the air, carrying a soothing scent with it as it rose up through the gaping doorway toward the giant Buddha statue sitting regally at the temple's entrance.

The temple was a very calm and spacious place. Although there were lots of people, I felt like we were alone. Time moved at a leisurely place, and there was no need to rush anywhere.

Old men were creating beautiful calligraphy. Many people brought their own ornate book where they collected stamped and signed pages from every temple they have visited.

Beautiful calligraphy and stamps from the temple in Nara

There was a queue of people who wanted to crawl through a hole in a beam that supported the roof. Later we found out that if you were able to crawl through the narrow hole, you could make a wish and it would come true.

Outside the temple we went to refresh ourselves at a fountain with bamboo cups. These fountains are very common at temples in Japan.

Fountain for drinking and washing

Nara is known for its deer. The temples and parks are full of them. People feed the deer, pose for pictures with them, and occasionally get head-butted. I also had a bit of a run-in with a six-pack of deer.

I was hungry and sat down on a bench to eat a banana. Soon a deer was coming towards me, then two, then three, then four.. then I was surrounded. These deer looked so desperate for food that they would stop at nothing to get my banana. I had to think fast, so I threw the peel away from me to divert them, and a ravenous deer swooped in to devour it in one swift motion. The others were still surrounding me, so I shoved half of the banana in my mouth and tossed the other half to Julius. We were about to make our escape when a high pitched whiny noise stopped us in our tracks. Was the deer farting or... no, that sound was coming from his mouth! Confused, we got out of their as quick as we could.

An old man feeding deer in Nara

Later that day, with revenge in my heart I ran up to a couple of unsuspecting deer munching on grass, shouting and waving my arms. The deer jumped back a little, but didn't run away like I had hoped. He just stood their grinning at me. This never would have happened if Fenton had been by my side. He would have had those deer running for their lives. Watch the video below and you'll see what I mean.  


After Nara we had an amazing sushi dinner. We had some difficulty ordering as there was no English menu. At one point I tried to order "mackerel" and ended up with "maguro", which is tuna in Japanese, but hey I love tuna so that was no problem! Eventually we decided to just grab stuff off the conveyor belt because that was easier.

Julius with the wasabi powder
At this restaurant we noticed they had this bright green powder wasabi, which we had never seen before. When we were mixing it with the soy sauce, the waitress started waving her arms and took our concoction away saying "o-cha des", which means "that's tea!" I'm surprised she wasn't rolling on the floor laughing at that point, which is what I would have done. I'm kind of disappointed we never got to taste the green tea soy sauce mixture, because that probably would have been really delicious!

The remnants of all the sushi we ate






So to recap our first day on our own in Japan: We got lost in a train station, attacked by deer, were given tuna instead of mackerel and mistook green tea for wasabi, but we survived!  We had some language difficulties, but this made things more challenging and funny, and wasn't anything we couldn't handle. Overall, it was a great day.







Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Japanorama


Springtime in Japan

It's springtime in Japan. Birds are chirping, bees are buzzing, flowers (and allergies) are in full bloom. Japan is coming out of the long winter slumber, which I had conveniently skipped in Singapore. As a result, the first thing I experienced was climate shock. Although the temperature in Japan was around 15 degrees Celsius, it felt freezing cold to me, coming from a sweltering 30 degrees Celsius. I was used to wearing shorts, skirts and dresses every day, and hadn't put on a pair of jeans in three months. That all changed in Japan, but it was nice to be part of the cycle of the seasons again, because when you've been in Singapore for awhile where it's perpetually summer, it starts to feel like time is standing still.   

Japan is pleasant country to visit, if you can afford it. Public transport is top notch and runs smoothly, which is probably why it's so expensive. Don't go to Japan unless you're ready to blow your savings, and you should know some survival Japanese, or be willing to learn a few phrases. You won't find many people who speak English, or many English menus in restaurants. But if you're on the fence, pluck up your courage and go for it! Japan is a fantastic destination and you won't regret it.

Julius and I stayed with some friends in the Kyoto area. Our first night in Japan they took us to dinner in a nearby town called Nara. We followed our guides down a pedestrian street to an alleyway dimly lit by a single red Japanese lantern. I pulled back a sliding door revealing a tiny hole in the wall restaurant. Jazz music mingled with sizzling chicken filled the air. There were eight seats around a bar, behind which stood the one man show. Playing the role of chef, bartender, and waiter, he ran everything himself. It was a small space, but he had everything he needed; a grill to make skewers, a deep fryer to make tempura, and a wok for sautéing. Bottles of sake and other liquors lined the bar and shelves, as well as spices and a toy race car and robot figurine. It felt like having a meal at a friend's place.     

The chef/bartender/waiter in his lair at the tiny chicken restaurant in Nara

The next day was Children's Day in Japan. We went to Miyama, a small village of thatched-roof houses very popular with Japanese tourists. Its old-fashioned houses and fields haven't been altered much by time, and are kept in pristine condition by the owners. Our friend's father had grown up there, and Julius and I were thrilled by the invitation to participate in a Japanese family lunch.  

A thatched-roof house in Miyama

Their house was extraordinary, and looked similar to the one above. The roof was a traditional Japanese structure made of grass and reeds. Inside there was a kitchen where you took off your shoes before going up a few steps to several rooms with traditional Japanese floor mats made of rice straw called tatami. Apart from the living room that had low table and a television, the rooms were sparsely decorated. In Japan many people sleep on futons, which are thin padded mattresses placed on the floor and then folded up and put away when not in use. 
Friendly frog

We ate outside at the edge of the fields. I helped set up a table that was three planks of wood pushed together and resting atop stumps of wood. I looked down at the gravel beneath my feet and found tiny ants crawling and even a tiny spider having a stroll. Japanese bees were flitting around, as well as majestic black butterflies. The springtime sunshine had inspired all the bugs, birds, and butterflies to venture out from their hiding places in the adjacent fields. Even a little green frog came to say hello. Everything was bursting with life.



A springtime picnic in the Japanese countryside 

After lunch we walked through the village and visited a museum in a thatched-roof house. When we came out of the museum we were surprised to see that the weather had not held up, and it had started raining and become chilly, at least by my standards. We turned back and had dessert in the living room, our legs tucked beneath the kotatsu. Kotatsu is a low table covered by a blanket on which the table top sits. A small heater is attached underneath the table top, and the blanket keeps the heat in. It's used almost exclusively in Japan, and is how people stay warm in the winter, as a substitute for central heating. 

That evening our friends took us to an onsen, which is a thermal bath. There is no thermal water source in Kyoto, so the water is brought in from elsewhere in Japan. The water is believed to have healing properties due to the minerals it contains. The facilities at that particular onsen included a steam room, indoor bath, three different outdoor baths, and a decorative waterfall. 

Men and women bathe separately, and everyone is completely naked. You can only bring in one small white towel if you wish. First you wash your hair and body before going into the water: You sit down on a little stool in front of a mirror. There’s shampoo, body soap, and a bowl for you to use. When you press down on a handle, water flows from a shower head at the top of the mirror. After you've finished washing, you turn over your bowl and leave it on the stool, and an attendant comes and cleans the station immediately. Then, if you have long hair you tie it back and wrap your towel around it if you wish. My Japanese friend and I went to the steam room, and then to one of the outdoor baths which was around 40 degrees Celsius. When you've finished, you don't need to rinse off or wash again, and you can go to your locker, dry off, and get dressed. If you need to dry your hair, there are plenty of professional quality hair dryers to use.  

After the onsen we went for ramen at a place called Tenkaippin. The broth is a secret recipe. It isn't a thin watery soup, but a thick gravy made of chicken broth with lots of noodles. It was the perfect ending to the perfect day.

After such a phenomenal day, I was already envisioning myself living in Japan, going to the onsen a couple times a week, and speaking Japanese. I conveniently overlooked the fact that until that point we had been with our friends the entire time, so the next day would be the real test. We were on our own. 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Stuck in Singers

Sitting beneath a giant Banyan tree in Fort Canning Park

We were supposed to leave for our trip to Kyoto and Shanghai last night, but we are stuck in Singapore for a few more days. How did this happen? Well, it happened because we made a rookie mistake. We've been so preoccupied with moving, planning for the wedding, and tons of other things that we forgot to get our visas for China. It just... slipped our minds somehow. So now we're paying for it.

If it hadn't been for one small detail, we would have got our visas on Tuesday with impeccable timing and left on our flight to Kyoto as planned. But thanks to the lovely holiday called International Labor Day falling on May 1st, the Chinese Embassy was closed and the soonest we could get our visas was Thursday morning.

We had two options: Change our flights and delay the trip by two days or cancel it altogether. It was all going to come down to cost. I called Orbitz with my fingers crossed.

Our flight was with China Eastern Airlines and Orbitz told us we couldn't change airlines, but to change dates it was only 30 USD per person and the difference in fares. In the end it was only about a total of 300 USD to change our flights. We didn't have to cancel our trip!

We were also quite lucky the flight change fees were so low because they generally average 120 USD per person with Orbitz. From now on we're going to check the fees before booking and most importantly, check well in advance to see if we need a visa for every country we go to.

Luckily we got this all sorted out Monday night and were able to relax and enjoy Labor Day on Tuesday. We went to see The Avengers in 3D with Heath and Alex. The movie was so long and intense that the bulb burnt out on the projector, causing us to miss the very last scene. We complained and each got a voucher for a free movie.

Then we went to visit the Istana, which is the President of Singapore's residence and open to the public only five times a year. We timed our visit perfectly, because President Tony Tan Keng Yam pulled up in a golf cart right when we arrived and we managed to get a picture of him.

Kelly with the President of Singapore Tony Tan Keng Yam

There wasn't much to see inside the Istana apart from some sparkling chandeliers and a collection of the decorative gifts Singapore has received from various countries over the years. We also saw the President's official chair and the room where he entertains and receives all the decorative gifts from state dignitaries.

Kelly and Julius in front of the Istana, which means palace in Malay

The grounds of the Istana were beautiful. There was a lovely pond with a statue of Queen Victoria from Singapore's colonial years.

Pond with a statue of Queen Victoria at the far end

How can you keep off a pond? 


There was even a narrow pond with a little bridge over it. The bridge was off-limits, so I jokingly suggested we jump across it. Heath must have thought this was a good idea, and he managed to jump over it without falling in, but not without tearing his shorts in a very obvious place.

The pond Heath jumped over

On our way home I got the opportunity to pose in front of the famous MRT sign of illegal stuff.

By the way, we are actually currently homeless, so our current "home" is with our friend Sierin on campus at NTU. She has a pet rabbit called Floppy to whom we've been feeding carrots. 


Hanging out at Sierin's place with Floppy the Rabbit

























There's an amazing building on campus that has grass growing on the roof that I just had to post because it looks so cool.

The School of Art, Design, and Media at NTU

The sun has set on our time in Singapore. Although this may be my last post about Singapore, please stay tuned for the bonus stories from Kyoto and Shanghai, assuming all goes well and we receive our visas on Thursday! 

Sunset at NTU