Sanja Matsuri, Asakusa 2007

Japanese theatre in Asakusa

Seen in Asakusa during the Sanja Festival, 19 May 2007.

We never did find out what mythology was being played out here, and were slightly disappointed that the main characters never actually enacted the swordfight that kept being alluded to.

Japan Trip, Day 3, Part 2: Meguro, continued

I seriously doubt I’m going to get through blogging the remainder of our Japan trip in the next few days. We’ll see, though.

When we last left off, we had just finished walking through the Meguro Parasitological Museum. Considering that it was free, and that we got to see elephantitis of the nuts, we felt it had been worth our time.

As we made our way back to the subway station, we saw that the city was finally awake and alive, unlike when we’d first arrived. Sure, salarymen and women had been crowding the crosswalks on their way to work, but no restaurants or retail stores had been open yet…
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Japan Trip, Day 3, Part 1: Meguro Parasitological Museum

Don’t laugh. I know it’s been almost six months since I blogged about last year’s Japan trip, and nearly a year since we took said trip. I just feel like I should really finish documenting the last awesome vacation before we go on another one.

When we last left off, we had just finished Day Two of Seven. So far, we’d gotten to Japan, gone on a day tour, and took our first trip on the subway to Akihabara. On Day Three, we visit the Meguro Parasitological Museum, peruse the awesome otaku-centric stores at Nakano Broadway, and eat dinner at the Curry Lab…
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Japan Trip, Day 2, Part 5: Asakusa, Ginza, and Akiba

Diana and Aaron at the Kaminarimon Gate, Asakusa

When we last left the Dynamic Tokyo Tour, we had just arrived by boat in Asakusa.

Along with the rest of the tour group, we walked to the Kaminarimon Gate (“Thunder Gate”), the entrance to the Nakamise Dori, the shopping avenue which runs from the gate up to the Sensoji Temple. Historically, shopkeepers would sell their wares to pilgrims traveling to the temple. In modern times, they’re mainly selling to tourists, pilgrims of a different type.

A Japanese couple who wasn’t part of our tour group approached us and asked us to take a photo of them in front of the gate — a standard tourist picture. Then, as appears to be polite among tourists, they asked if they could take our photo for us. It hadn’t been a photo I would have sought out or asked a stranger to take, but I’m glad they offered, because this is now one of my favorite “Us in Japan” photos, just because it’s so obvious where we are.

For more Japan travelogue, read on…

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Japan Trip, Day 2, Part 4: Imperial Palace and Sumida River Cruise

I know it’s been a while, and you’d probably given up on me actually finishing the narrative of our trip to Tokyo in May. Even though some of the freshness of the moment has faded, I do want to document the rest of what happened in Japan. You might want to review the previous entries to get yourself back up to speed on our trip so far.

Day 2 in Japan was the Dynamic Tokyo Tour; so far, we’d visited the Tokyo Tower, participated in a group tea ceremony, seen 500-year-old bonsai trees, and had a Japanese BBQ lunch. Next on the agenda was a visit to the Imperial Palace grounds…

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Japan Trip Travelogue Interruptus

You may have noticed that it’s been a while since I documented anything about the Japan trip back in May. You may also have noticed that I haven’t even managed to document our entire first full day in Japan yet. Daunting, yes.

But, you can listen to Aaron and myself talk about the Japan trip on his Weekly Anime Review Podcast. What we’ve covered so far is:

  • Part 1: Our arrival, our bus tour, and our impromptu trip to Akihabara.
  • Part 2: The Meguro Parasitological Museum and Nakano Broadway.
  • Part 3: Ginza and the Sanja Festival in Asakusa.

I have photos up through Day 4 on my Flickr, if you choose to peruse. I still have a couple days’ worth of photos to upload, and I’ll get on that soon.

We really need to go back to Japan someday.

Japan Trip, Day 2, Part 3: Japanese BBQ

When we last left our travelers (myself and my husband Aaron, that is), the Dynamic Tokyo Tour was leaving Happo-en Garden and heading toward Chinzanso Gardens for a Japanese BBQ lunch at Mokushun-do Restaurant.

You may recall that, at the very beginning of the tour, our tour guide had asked us if both beef and pork were OK for lunch. We’re crazy omnivorous Americans, so we agreed that both were fine. En route to Chinzanso, Junko asked again for a show of hands of who didn’t want beef, and who didn’t want pork. After a quick count, she seemed perplexed, and told us that some people had apparently changed their minds, because the counts were different than earlier. After two more shows of hands, Junko finally went through the entire bus one more time, asking everyone individually whether they wanted only beef or only pork, and making it clear that it would *not* be OK for us to change our minds after this point. Being that this didn’t really affect us directly, the whole scene was more amusing than anything else.

Japanese BBQ, as with other styles of Asian BBQ, involves a server cooking the food at your table. At Mokushun-do, we were served pork, beef, sweet onion, asparagus, and Japanese sweet potato, all grilled at the table and dipped in a light BBQ sauce before serving. Each table at the restaurant was equipped with a large square griddle in the center; we could feel the heat put off by the griddle at our table before we even sat down. All of the tour participants sat six to a table, two on a side, with one side of the table reserved for the chef/server. Aaron and I ended up sitting with a younger couple and an older couple, who both turned out to be from Sweden.

That was one interesting aspect of our English-speaking tour: most of the tour participants were not native English speakers. There were Swedish people, Japanese people, and I’m sure there were other nationalities and languages being represented, as well. English just seemed to be a common second (or third) language for most of these people. It made the tour more interesting, I think — especially during the earlier tea ceremony, when Junko-san had to repeatedly tell the Japanese-speakers to please be quiet until the end of the ceremony.

Back to lunch. Our server came around and tied apron-bibs onto all of us who were seated at her table. The photo ops that ensued became yet another way for us to meet our fellow tourists and get photos of ourselves:

It was at this point when we learned that our table-mates were all Swedish — and, no, the two couples were not together. They were visibly excited to learn that they were compatriots, which was fun to see. It was also fun to see other people use up all the conversational English they knew. ^_^

As our server put the meat and vegetables on the griddle, she would tell one person in the group what it was. There was one item that Aaron and I didn’t catch, though, and that eventually offered me an opportunity to use my Japanese again. We were served one piece of meat and one vegetable at a time: pork and asparagus, beef and onion, etc. When the mystery item was served, I got our server’s attention and asked, “Kore wa nan desu ka?

“Japanese sweet potato,” she said in highly accented Japanese — so it came out “Japanesu suweetu potehto.” Then she told us that it was very different from normal sweet potato, and we agreed and thanked her. After she told us, we could totally tell that’s what it was. The insides were white and the skin looked purple, but the texture and taste became immediately more recognizable, once we knew what it was.

A moment later, our server gestured to my chopstick hand and said, “Good chopstick!” I thanked her, once her meaning sank in (I forget whether I did so in English or Japanese), and Aaron and I briefly compared chopstick styles. Aaron uses kind of his own style, while I do it the way that the disposable chopstick wrappers describe, with their pictures and their great Engrish. Our server saw the way Aaron and I were silently comparing notes, and how Aaron was realizing that he was doing his chopsticking some kind of effed-up way, and she giggled. It was a cute moment.

After four or five mini-courses, we had a dessert of vanilla bean ice cream (with cute little spoons!) and a different kind of tea than the standard green tea served with lunch. After dessert, we were given 30 minutes to walk the grounds and make our way back to the bus. Aaron went to untie his apron-bib, and our server jumped into action and apologized, helping him remove his bib. The level of service in Japan is really an experience in itself.

We made a quick restroom break at the restaurant, then headed out to see the grounds — in the rain. Luckily, Chinzanso was kind enough to provide umbrellas for their guests, so we each borrowed an umbrella and struck out into the rain. I would have liked to have spent more time in the gardens, as there was so much to see: a 500-year-old sacred tree, with branches held up by crutches; Shiratama Inari Shrine, a three-story pagoda, and various gods/idols and water features and bridges and such. Alas, we barely had time to check out the few things we did, and the rain really started to come down as we were walking. We made it back to the main building on time, dropped off our umbrellas in the waiting rack, and headed out to the bus. Next stop: the Imperial Palace.

Previous: Day 2, Part 2: Tokyo Tower and Happo-en Garden | Next: Day 2, Part 4: Imperial Palace and Sumida River Cruise

Japan Trip, Day 2, Part 2: Tokyo Tower and Happo-en Garden

When we last left off the trip narrative, Aaron and I had just finished an overpriced breakfast buffet and were preparing to embark on the Dynamic Tokyo Tour: a nine-hour whirlwind bus tour of Tokyo, taking us to lunch, a tea ceremony, gardens, the Imperial Palace, and more.

As we sat in the hotel lobby with both of our jackets, my camera, and Aaron’s shoulder bag, waiting for the bus, we noticed that other gaijin were joining us at a distance. Two couples were talking about their impending day-tour of Mt. Fuji, so we knew they’d be on some tour, but not ours.

Eventually, we went outside to wait for the bus — once it arrived, a Sunrise Tours representative got off the bus, asked if we were waiting for the tour, and presented us with a colored slip of paper bearing our names and the tour we were going on. Then all of the tour-awaiting gaijin boarded the bus with us, and it was explained to us that we would trade in our colored slip of paper at Hamamatsucho Bus Station for a printed ticket. Once we arrived at Hamamatsucho, that’s exactly what happened. We presented our blue piece of paper and received a large printout in return. The nice lady behind the counter explained our tickets to us, told us at which gate our bus would be arriving, and pointed us in the right direction.

As we waited for our tour bus to arrive, we not only saw our first glimpse of vending machine goodness (which another gaijin was also photographing, so I was less shy about it myself), but we also got talking to a nice seemingly-Japanese man who said he was visiting from Australia. Small talk, but it was the first real conversation we’d had with someone other than each other since our arrival. Funny guy.

We traded in part of our giant-ass ticket printouts for bright yellow stickers, which were to act as tickets to particular places, in addition to keeping us all wrangled together. As we did this, the woman who took our tickets (who turned out to be our tour guide) informed us that we would be eating beef and pork at our Japanese barbecue lunch, and confirmed that this was OK with us. (It was, of course — we’ll eat just about anything. Although we did hear that sea urchin is pretty vile… we didn’t try any while we were there, nor did we try natto.)

After that, no problem. Bus arrived, we boarded, and we were off to the Tokyo Tower.

The Tokyo Tower (in case you haven’t figured it out from previous photos) is a replica of the Eiffel Tower. It was built in the 1950s, and it stands 333 meters tall. Our magic yellow stickers got us up to the mid-level observation deck; it was trying to rain, though, so we couldn’t see much. We opted to go in front of our tour guide, Junko (“Just remember ‘junk’ with an ‘o’ on the end!”) and do our own sightseeing. Usually, Fuji-san is visible from the Tokyo Tower, but not that day. We did see our hotel, which was right across the street, and a couple pretty neat views of the city.

There’s also a crapload of souvenir shops, eateries, and general touristy stuff at the Tower. We walked by the Sanrio shop, but didn’t get the opportunity to really buy much at the Tokyo Tower until later on in our vacation. (It was right next door, after all, so no big loss there.)

Next on the tour: Happo-en Garden.

At Happo-en, we broke into two groups: one group watched a tea ceremony, then got time to visit the grounds, while the other group got to see the grounds first, before their tea ceremony. Aaron and I were the last two to make it into the first group. As such, we ended up sitting not on the bench surrounding the table in the tea house, but on small wooden and canvas stools, instead. Turns out that I got the best seat in the house for photographing the tea ceremony.

The tea, it was explained, is actually dried and powdered green tea. It’s much stronger and more bitter than brewed tea, and is served with small sweets beforehand. The sweets we received were sugary confections in the shape of a green maple leaf and a purple hydrangea. I’m ill-suited to explain the entire ceremony and the significance of everything therein, but the Tea Master basically checks all the bowls and utensils for purity and quality, ritualistically cleans and wipes them, then prepares the tea with a combination of boiling water and cooler water, so as not to destroy all the nutrients and flavor in the tea.

At this point in the ceremony, an assistant came out of the back of the tea house, carrying two trays of prepared bowls of tea. They were passed out to each of us, set carefully on the table in front of us with the decorative pattern on the bowl facing us. This was so we could contemplate and admire the loveliness of the artwork, which was truly very classic and simple. Then we held the bowl in our left hand and turned the bowl with our right (yes, just like the tea ceremony in Karate Kid II), because you don’t want to sully the side of the bowl that has the design on it. We all took one small sip, and the Tea Master (the woman who prepared the tea) asked us something in Japanese.

We’d been primed for this en route by Junko. She told us that the Tea Master would ask us how the tea was. Even if we didn’t like it, we were required to say kekko desu, which I’d learned from my Pimsleur lessons means “it’s fine,” or “all right.” (What Pimsleur didn’t tell me, though, is that kekko desu is apparently an older phrase, not often used in normal society these days. I wonder what kinds of looks I would have gotten, had I used it…)

As a learning aid, Junko had a notebook in which she had written the words in giant letters: KEKKO DESU. Then, on the next page, she wrote: KATE CALL THIS. If we couldn’t remember kekko desu, we were to remember “Kate call this,” or just say “Kate” and mumble the rest. As for some other helpful Japanese, she had written out arigato gozaimasu, or “thank you,” then on the next page GO THY MUST. She also drew a nice picture of an alligator and told us to remember “alligator” without the “r”. Priceless. Simply priceless.

Back to the ceremony. When the Tea Master asked how we liked the tea, we all obediently chorused, “Kekko desu.” We were then directed to drain our bowls of tea, and to make an appreciative slurping noise at the end. We then each took our thumb and forefinger and wiped off the place on the bowl where our lips had touched, then wiped our fingers on the paper on which the sweets had been served. Then we turned the bowl back around to admire the pattern again before setting the bowl back down on the table. The ceremony was over, and we all left the tea house to admire the scenery.

Happo-en Garden has a collection of bonsai trees ranging from a few decades to a few hundred years old. They also have a pond with multicolored carp, and some beautiful flower gardens. We definitely could have spent a longer time here just enjoying the views and walking the grounds, but we had a date to keep at Chinzanso Gardens for a Japanese barbecue lunch at Mokushun-do Restaurant.

Previous – Day 2, Part 1: Breakfast | Next – Day 2, Part 3: Japanese BBQ

Japan Trip, Day 2, Part 1: Breakfast

We learned something about Japan on Thursday morning. Something important, but something that no one happened to mention to us in preparation for our trip.

Sunrise is around 4:30am.

Since we’d crashed out at 7pm local time, and the sun beamed in through the shears at 4:30am, we ended up being wide awake at 5am after a long and healthy ten hours of sleep. Since the hotel restaurant downstairs didn’t open until 7am, we decided to take a walk around the block, to familiarize ourselves with the new neighborhood.

I got to compare the mental image of my Google Maps exploration of our new ‘hood with the reality of where everything was and how to get there. We walked past the Tokyo Tower, past the Tokyo Prince Park Tower Hotel, and past Shiba Koen, where a group of adults appeared to be doing some early-morning Tai Chi (or some similar Japanese internal martial art). It was peaceful and smelled like spring.

Then it started raining.

We hoofed it back to the hotel (which, luckily, wasn’t far), went up to our room and dried off, then went down to breakfast at one of the hotel restaurants.

The restaurant cashier didn’t speak as much English as the front desk staff had, and we had a little communication problem as we came in to breakfast. I got to use the first of many useful Japanese words and phrases: Wakarimasen, meaning (in this context) “I don’t understand.” Eventually he simply told us, in English, “two people,” and the price for each of us, which was roughly 2000 yen apiece (a little less than US$20). Yep, the hotel breakfast buffet was a little pricey. In retrospect, we figured out that he was asking us our room number, so we could charge the meal to our room.

Breakfast was good, if expensive, and we had a fantastic view of the private hotel gardens. There was rice, miso soup, tamago (sweet omelettes), some sort of roe, various fish, some sort of stew, and lots of other good food that we didn’t have the balls to ask what it was. 🙂

After breakfast, we paid the confused cashier, went back up to the room and gathered our things for the all-day bus tour…

…which I will blog about tomorrow. In the meantime, you can view the flickr photos of Day 2, if you want some spoilers.

Previously – Japan Trip, Day 1 | Next – Day 2, Part 2: Tokyo Tower and Happo-en Garden