Kyoto

Kyoto is the final stop on my Kansai journey, and one of my absolute favorite places in Japan. Kyoto is truly the cultural capital of Japan, with buildings and temples that are hundreds of years old and rich history around every corner. Kyoto served as the capital of Japan for over a thousand years (until 1869) and was formerly known as Heian-kyo, or “the capital of tranquility and peace.”

A first glimpse of Kyoto- along the canals

A first glimpse of Kyoto- along the canals.

Although Kyoto is only the 8th largest city in Japan, millions of tourists flock to Kyoto to check out its amazing fall foliage, spring hanami, beautiful temples, and more. With over 2000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, Kyoto is one of the best culturally preserved cities in the world.

Kyoto

I began my journey at Yasaka Shrine, a Shinto shrine that draws thousands of people for New Years celebrations and the Gion Matsuri, a world-famous festival and parade. Just inside its gates, you can purchase Japanese street food from a variety of vendors as you make your way to other sites.

Yasaka Shrine Kyoto

Yasaka Shrine

Yasaka Shrine Kyoto

Many people pass through Yasaka Shrine on their way to Maruyama Park, another extremely popular place to view cherry blossoms in the spring and autumn foliage in the fall. The park has dozens of beautiful walkways, ponds, and Japanese gardens, and many people come here to take pictures in kimono or traditional dress.

Maruyama Park

Maruyama Park KyotoMaruyama Park Kyoto

Maruyama Park Kyoto

Maruyama Park is a perfect place to take pictures. Many tourists visit in beautiful kimono, such as this woman.

From Maruyama Park, you can easily walk to other temples or cultural heritage sites in the area. My favorite was the Higashiyama district, one of Kyoto’s best preserved historical areas. Between its narrow lanes, wooden buildings, traditional architecture and hundreds of small shops, you truly feel as if you are in Heian-kyo or the old capital city.

Higashiyama district kyoto

The crowded streets of the Higashiyama district.

Higashiyama district kyoto

The district is based on the lower slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains, so the walk includes many sets of stairs and inclined walkways. However, the hundreds of traditional shops definitely make up for the physical effort. These souvenir shops, cafes, traditional goods markets, and restaurants have been open for centuries. They continue to sell many local goods- including sweets, fabric crafts, pickles, pottery, and more- today.

Higashiyama district kyoto

Kyoto is famous for its fabric goods, which can be found in many of its traditional shops. These are little plush sushi souvenirs!

Higashiyama district kyoto

Higashiyama district kyoto

A sign for a famous cosmetics company in Japan

When walking through any part of Kyoto, you may also see young women dressed in bright and elaborate kimono, with white makeup and intricate hairstyles. These women are known as geisha, Japanese entertainers who perform traditional arts such as dance and classical music. Geisha are often regarded as one of the most famous cultural symbols of Japan, even though their numbers are severely decreasing. While there used to be over 80,000 geisha in Japan during the early 20th century, today there are less than 2,000.

Kyoto geisha

Kyoto geishaHowever, most of the women you see dressed up on the streets are not true geisha, but tourists who pay anywhere from $100 to $500 to be dressed up, have their photo taken, and walk around. Real geisha are often swarmed by photographers as they leave their homes or entertaining sites, and carry themselves in an extremely sophisticated and professional manner. Many of the “geisha” you see on the streets in Kyoto are laughing, taking silly pictures, or are wearing accessories that aren’t appropriate for the current season. Either way, they still look beautiful!

Kyoto geisha

Kyoto geisha

These girls definitely knew that I was taking their picture.

Kyoto geisha

This girl is a gaijin (foreigner) dressed up. I still could’t resist taking taking her picture.

Gion, a traditional district in Kyoto that originated during the Middle Ages, is one of the most well-known geisha districts in all of Japan. This district may sound familiar; it’s the setting for Arthur Golden’s famous novel Memoirs of a Geisha. The streets, which run along the Shirakawa Canal, have a number of traditional teahouses (called ochaya) and other entertainment venues that geisha still frequent today. We didn’t see any, but it was still an amazing experience to walk along the same streets that I had only read about before.

Gion kyoto

Gion kyoto

A beautiful lantern in Gion

Gion kyoto

Shirakawa Canal

Gion KyotoAlthough there are thousands of beautiful temples and shrines to see in Kyoto, one final point of interest that I recommend is Fushimi Inari-taisha, a Shinto shrine that is famous for its thousands of torii gates. This shrine has walking trails up a mountain that are flanked by thousands of wooden torii, which are donated by businesses and individuals. This shrine is the most important out of thousands of shrines across Japan dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice.

Fushimi Inari-taisha Kyoto

Fushimi Inari-taisha Kyoto Fushimi Inari-taisha Kyoto

I unfortunately visited Fushimi Inari-taisha in the dark, but the thousands of torii were still breathtaking. I recommend visiting with plenty of daylight left, so you can climb the mountain and enjoy some spectacular views of Kyoto.

Fushimi Inari-taisha KyotoDSC_4762 If I ever return to Japan, I want to spend at least a week more exploring Kyoto. There’s so much to see and do, and yet I barely scratched the surface!

Thanks again for reading, and happy Thanksgiving!

How Large is Tokyo?

Via flickr

Via flickr

Just exactly how large is Tokyo?

A view from the 35th floor in a building near the Tokyo Sky Tree

The answer: mindbogglingly huge.

Whenever I try to explain how large Tokyo is, a lot of people have trouble imagining the vastness of a single city. They imagine other fairly dense cities like Boston or New York, where you can hop on a train or drive from edge to edge in just an hour (never mind traffic, of course!).

Via flickr

Tokyo, however, isn’t just a city. It’s the largest metropolis in the world.

A satellite view of Tokyo

A satellite view of Tokyo

By official counts, Tokyo is a mere 845 square miles and has a population of around 8.9 million people. However, if you consider the greater Tokyo Area, these numbers swell dramatically to an area of 5,200 square miles and a population of 40 million.

40. Million. People.

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Even when you live at the center of Tokyo, it’s sometimes hard to grasp that you’re living in one of the densest population areas in the world. The greater Tokyo area is only .036 of Japan’s total landmass, and yet accounts for 30% of Japan’s population (10% if you only count the 23 wards).

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Because 70% of Japan’s land is made of mountains and forest, a lot of people don’t appreciate how large and dense Tokyo actually is.

The picture below was taken from a helicopter and covers the greater Tokyo area- the 23 wards of Tokyo, areas west of Tokyo, and the surrounding prefectures Chiba and Saitama. (via Reddit)

The picture below was taken from a helicopter and covers the greater Tokyo area- the 23 wards of Tokyo, areas west of Tokyo, and the surrounding prefectures Chiba and Saitama. (via Reddit)

In comparison, this photo shows some of the major railways and landmarks of Tokyo. I went to school near the Tokyo Tower, and took the Yamanote line (green) for half of my commute. The Yamanote line is a circle around the center of Tokyo. Over 3.6 million people take the Yamanote line per day. In comparison, the busiest airport in the world (Atlanta International, USA) only services 240,000 people per day….that’s how many people in Tokyo use public transportation in a half hour. (via Reddit)

In comparison, this photo shows some of the major railways and landmarks of Tokyo. I went to school near the Tokyo Tower, and took the Yamanote line (green) for half of my commute. The Yamanote line is a circle around the center of Tokyo.
Over 3.6 million people take the Yamanote line per day. In comparison, the busiest airport in the world (Atlanta International, USA) only services 240,000 people per day….that’s how many people in Tokyo use public transportation in a half hour. (via Reddit)

 In Tokyo, it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. But if you do rise above the urban sprawl, it’s absolutely amazing. Being in Tokyo can make you feel ridiculously small and insignificant, but at the same time, it’s enchanting. You’re part of something so much larger than yourself.

via Flickr

via Flickr

Nara Prefecture

Although I spent most of my time abroad in Tokyo, I had the amazing opportunity to check out other famous cities and areas in the Kansai region of Japan. One of my favorite places to go was Nara, a small prefecture and city about 3 hours away from Tokyo by bullet train. Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784, and lends its name to the Nara period.

While the city itself isn’t much to look at, Nara is rich with history, particularly when it comes to temples. There are 8 temples, shrines, and ruins in Nara (known as the Nanto Shichi Dai-ji), which remained powerful even after the capital of Japan moved to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto) in 794.

Nara Park Nara Japan

However, my favorite part about Nara was…the deer.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Hi there!

Yes, that’s right. I said deer. According to local folklore, deer in Nara became sacred after one of the four gods of the Kasuga Shrine appeared on a nearby mountain riding a white deer. From then on, the deer were considered to be divine, and killing one was a capital offense punishable by death. Although the deer were stripped of their sacredness after World War II, they’re still considered National Treasures of Japan.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Whutcha doing?

Sika Deer Nara JapanToday, the miniature Shika deer can be found wandering around Nara Park and on some temple grounds. They’re extremely friendly and can be pet (although you might want to wash your hands afterwards).

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

You can also buy stacks of rice crackers from vendors along the road and feed the deer from your hands. Just be careful though- once the deer know you have food, they won’t leave you alone. I was stalked by a deer for a good 15 minutes, and when I wouldn’t keep feeding him, he head-butted me several times.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

This deer knows what’s up. He’s stalking one of the cracker vendors from behind.

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Here’s my stalker deer friend literally moments before he head-butted me. Notice the sheer terror in my face.
Don’t worry though, I survived.

The deer are also extremely intelligent and have been known to wait at stoplights before crossing the street. You can even bow to the deer, and some will even bow back! I had an elderly Japanese couple laugh at me when I tried this, but once I walked away, I saw them trying the same exact thing.

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

Like I mentioned earlier, Nara is home to several important temples and shrines in Japan. I visited Todai-ji, a large Buddhist temple complex. Todai-ji is known for its Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden), which was the largest wooden structure in the world until 1998.

Todai-ji Nara Japan TempleDSC_5086

Todai-ji also houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, which stands at almost 50 feet tall. The statue was completed in 752, has undergone several restorations and repairs since then.Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Guardian of the Great Buddha

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

At the Great Buddha Hall, visitors can see the many statues, purchase ema, and visit a small gift shop with deer paraphernalia.

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Japanese ema (prayer plaques)

Todai-ji Nara Japan TempleNara may not be as exciting as downtown Tokyo, but it still has plenty to do. Check out ancient Japanese history, enjoy a relaxing day in the park, and pet some deer. Just make sure to bring some hand sanitizer, and plenty of money for rice crackers.

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I’m staying in the Kansai area for next weeks Travel Tuesday, so make sure to keep an eye out! Until then, thanks for reading and enjoy!

Alice in Wonderland Themed Cafe

As you’ve probably noticed in my past blog posts, food in Japan is as much about the experience and presentation as it is about taste. Today, I’m continuing this trend by visiting a themed restaurant in Shibuya, called Butou no Kuni no Arisu.

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Can you guess what it’s designed after? That’s right, Alice in Wonderland.

Although a bit pricier than your average fare, themed restaurants in Japan are extremely popular. You don’t go here just for dinner- you go for the lavishly decorated interiors, interesting shows, or just downright bizarre themes. When I was in Tokyo, I saw themed cafes for almost anything you could imagine. My friends visited one restaurant called The LockUp, where you’re handcuffed and spend your night eating and drinking in a prison cell. Other themes include ninjas, Gundam (a popular space anime), vampires, robots and more.

Down the rabbit hole! (or down the stairs into the restaurant)

Down the rabbit hole! (or down the stairs into the restaurant)

DSC_2461Butou no Kuni no Arisu, or Alice in Dancing Land, is a completely Alice in Wonderland themed café. Everything- from the décor to the wait staff and menus- relates some way to this popular children’s tale. We came early since we didn’t have a reservation and were lucky enough to be seated with a waitress who spoke English! She was very excited to practice speaking with us, as she was going to study in England in a few months.

Our first glimpse of Alice in Dancing Land

Our first glimpse of Alice in Dancing Land

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The restaurant made us feel as if we really were in Wonderland. The entire restaurant was covered in drawings from the movie, and was enchantingly mysterious. Even our waitress was themed, wearing a cute ruffled version of Alice’s iconic dress.

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DSC_2474Alice in Dancing Land serves western fare, from pasta and risotto to meatloaf and pizza. You can also indulge in a variety of creative cocktails, each with a twist that makes you feel like you just fell down the rabbit hole. We tried delicious tea, and felt like we were next to the Mad Hatter at his tea party.

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Fruity tea and a light salad- served in a tea cup!

Fruity tea and a light salad- served in a tea cup!

Creamy shrimp and spinach pasta

Creamy shrimp and spinach pasta

DSC_2485 My favorite part of the meal, however, was the dessert. We ordered the warm brownie and ice cream- it came shaped like a heart, with a cute pasty cut out of Alice on the top. And best of all? It was doused with liquor and lit on fire!

DSC_2489DSC_2491 I wish I had a chance to try more themed restaurants in Japan, as Butou no Kuni no Arisu was such a unique and fun experience. Perhaps next time I’m in Tokyo, I’ll get adventurous and see what it’s like to eat behind bars or enjoy some cannibalistic sushi.

DSC_2492 Would you like to try a themed restaurant? What kind would you like to go to?

Halloween in Japan, Japanese Ghost Stories, and Tales of Yokai

Happy Halloween everyone!

It’s October 31st here in the states, and all I can think about is what I was doing a year ago in Tokyo. Now, Halloween in Japan isn’t really a holiday- it doesn’t have any religious background like it does in the US, nor is it widely celebrated. In the past, it’s mostly been an excuse for foreigners to dress up in costumes and go out drinking, rather than allow children to trick-or-treat.

Japanese girls trick-or-treating in my hometown in Tokyo

Japanese girls trick-or-treating in my hometown in Tokyo

However, thanks to the influence of American popular culture, Halloween is starting to grow significantly in popularity. Today, many stores put up decorations, sell Halloween treats, and host themed parties. Although you still won’t see pumpkin carving or widespread trick-or-treating, it’s turning from an obscure western holiday into a fun day for youth.

My halloween costume, maid cafe girl! It'll be making a comeback this year, so keep an eye out!

My halloween costume, maid cafe girl! It’ll be making a comeback this year, so keep an eye out!

In honor of Halloween, I want to share some of Japan’s most obscure ghost stories and folklore. Most of Japan’s mythology focuses around supernatural monsters called yokai, which is made up of the kanji characters for “bewitching” and “apparition.” Yokai can be terrifying and malevolent or simply mischievous, and can appear human or have animal characteristics. Just make sure to read this post with the lights on, as I’m not sure you’ll be able to sleep tonight otherwise.

1.    Aka Manto

Watch out for this creepy dude next time you're in the bathroom.

Watch out for this creepy dude next time you’re in the bathroom.

Aka Manto is a malicious spirit that haunts public toilets. If you are sitting on the toilet, a mysterious voice will ask you if you want red or blue paper. If you answer red, he will slice you apart until your clothes are stained red. If you answer blue, he will strangle you until your face turns blue. Definitely don’t ask for yellow paper, as he will force your head into the toilet. If you try to trick him by asking for another color, Aka Manto will drag you into the underworld. The only smart way to respond is no paper.

2.    Gashadokuro

Are these terrifying or what?!

Are these terrifying or what?!

Gashadokuro are giant skeletons that roam around Japan, also known as “starving skeletons.” If they see any humans, they will attempt to bite off their heads. These creatures are formed from bones of people who have died of starvation, and the only way to detect them is hearing a bell-like ringing in your ears. Gashadokuro often target people when they are alone, and roam around after midnight.

3.    Kuchisake-onna

NOPE

NOPE

Kuchisake-onna, or the slit-mouthed woman, is a lady who was viciously mutilated and murdered by her jealous husband. She returned to this world as a malevolent spirit, and appears to children walking alone at night as a woman wearing a surgical mask. Kuchisake-onna will stop the children and ask, “Am I pretty?” If the child responds no, the woman will kill the child with a pair of scissors. If the child answers yes, the woman will take off the surgical mask to reveal that her mouth is slit from ear to ear. Kuchisake-onna will then ask, “How about now?” If the child answers no, they will be cut in half, and if they answer yes, the woman will slit their mouths like hers. It’s impossible to run away or escape from her, as she will just reappear in front of you

4.    Teke Teke

DOUBLE NOPE

DOUBLE NOPE

Teke Teke is the ghost of a young schoolgirl who fell onto a railway and was cut in half by a train. She too returned as a vengeful spirit, and haunts train stations, railways and schools. Teke Teke carries a scythe or saw and drags herself around using her hands or elbows. Her dragging torso creates a scratching sound, “teke teke,” which gives her her name. If Teke Teke encounters anyone at night, she will slice him or her in half at the torso.

5.    Akaname

Go home Japan, you're drunk.

Go home Japan, you’re drunk.

Akaname quite literally means “filth licker,” and is a yokai that personifies the fear of using a dark bathroom late at night. Akaname comes out late at night to lick up the filth and dirt in bathrooms that untidy owners leave behind.

 6.    Toire no Hanako-san

Another bathroom ghost. I'm beginning to see a trend here…Why are toilets such terrifying places?!

Another bathroom ghost. I’m beginning to see a trend here…Why are toilets such terrifying places?!

Toire no Hanako-san is similar to the western urban legend of Bloody Mary, and haunts Japanese school restrooms. If someone goes to the third stall in the girls’ bathroom on the third floor, knocks three times, and asks, “Are you there, Hanako-san?” a voice will answer “I’m here.” If you go into the stall, there will be a small girl in a red skirt. Hanako-san is typically benign and will usually just vanish, but if you’re unlucky enough, she might just pull you into the toilet and kill you. Calling her name is often used as a rite of courage or hazing ritual in schools.

Pretty creepy, right? If this isn’t scary enough for you and you need a little more terror in your life, check out this great article on the 10 most haunted spots in Japan. But in the meantime, happy Halloween, and be careful tonight! You never know what sort of monster you might run into.

Ueno

Two weeks ago I took you to Asakusa, a traditional Japanese district in the northeast reaches of Tokyo. Today, I’m heading to Ueno, a nearby district that showcases some of Tokyo’s best points of interest.

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Ueno is home to a wide variety of activities and is a particularly appealing destination for tourists. This district is home to a huge park, ponds, a zoo, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, a major concert hall, and many well-known museums, all within walking distance. Whether you’re looking for a nice nature walk or want to learn more about Japanese culture, Ueno definitely has something for everyone.

Walking in Ueno Park

Walking in Ueno Park

DSC_0550My favorite part about this district was Ueno Park, Japan’s first and most popular public park. Ueno Park surrounds Shinobazu Pond, a small body of water with extensive lotus beds and marshlands. As you walk along the shoreline, you can see many varieties of birds that have taken shelter in the marshlands, as well as carp, turtles, and other wildlife. Ueno Park is also home to a huge population of feral cats, who you can see slinking around under the trees.

Shinonazu Pond

Shinonazu Pond

Huge carp in the pond

Huge carp in the pond

One of the many feral cats that call Ueno home

One of the many feral cats that call Ueno home

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Check out how mossy these turtles are!

Check out how mossy these turtles are!

DSC_0579Although I didn’t get a chance to see them, Ueno also has over 800 sakura trees. From the end of March to early May, thousands of people flock to Ueno park for hanami (flower viewing) to see the beautiful cherry blossoms throughout the walking paths.

Thousands of people in Ueno for the flower viewing, or hanami

Thousands of people in Ueno for the flower viewing, or hanami

Vendors along the walking trails in Ueno offer a variety of street foods during hanami

Vendors along the walking trails in Ueno offer a variety of street foods during hanami

The park itself is also home to several Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, one of which sits on an island in the middle of the pond. At the temple, visitors cleanse themselves with water, purchase incense to burn, find out their fortunes, or even leave prayers behind in hope that they’ll be answered. I’ll cover some of these practices more in another post about religion, but until then, enjoy some of the pictures from that area.

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Before entering the temple grounds, guests purify their hands and mouth using water provided in a small fountain

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Visitors can purchase sticks of incense to burn while they pray.

Visitors can purchase sticks of incense to burn while they pray.

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Japanese ema (Shinto prayer plaues). Visitors purchase an ema and write a prayer on it, then hang them up at the shrine where the gods can receive them

Japanese ema (Shinto prayer plaques). Visitors purchase an ema and write a prayer on it, then hang them up at the shrine where the gods can receive them

DSC_0525If you’re in the mood for more nature, Ueno is also home to Japan’s oldest zoo, which opened in 1882. For around $6 visitors can see over 2500 animals and 450 species, including giant pandas, giraffes, hippos, tigers, elephants, and more. Ueno Zoo is definitely a popular spot for families, but I think that no one is ever too old to enjoy a zoo. I know I did.

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This monkey was not pleased to be photographed.

This monkey was not pleased to be photographed.

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This guy…

Ueno also showcases a dozen different museums, including the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Nature and Science, the National Museum of Western Art, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and the Shitamachi Museum. It’s a great place to visit to learn more about Japanese art, or even the history and culture of Tokyo.

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DSC_6571DSC_6164It’s easy to make a full day of travel out of Ueno’s attractions, but before you leave, make sure you try one of Ueno’s specialties: panda pan. It’s a great way to leave Ueno on a sweet note, especially after a full day of walking.

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What was your favorite part of Ueno? Thanks for reading, and let me know in the comments below!

Shugo Tokumaru- “Katachi”

I recently stumbled across a Japanese music video, and if you have a few moments to spare, I highly recommend checking it out.

Katachi, by Shugo Tokumaru, is a stop motion video that represents an abstract flow of both good and bad memories. Katachi, which means shape, uses over 2000 PVC silhouettes that were cut out using a computer-controlled cutter.

Even if you don’t understand Japanese, it’s a really neat video to watch and a super catchy song. I’ve posted a rough English translation of the lyrics below. And if you’re interested in learning how exactly this video was made, check out the producer’s blog.

I hope you enjoy it, and let me know what you think!

Katachi by Shugo Tokumaru

Before the source of voices which boil down gets past the throat
if you spit out what you have seen up until then

The source of different voices reaches the throat
before what you have seen up until then gets erased

Keeping the shape unchanged
waiting on that same path

Before the source of different voices gets past the throat
before you put some oil ’cause you can’t move from where you are
before even languid memories get erased

Keeping the shape unchanged
waiting on that same path