Friday, 31 December 2010

Day 9: At Splendid Heights

This entry is pretty short, because there's only so much one can say about climbing a mountain beyond admiring how nice the scenery was. As with the Osaka Aquarium entry, I'll put in a few more photos than usual to pad it out a bit.

I woke unaided at my usual time of 8am on the morning we were to spend up on Mount Takao, and waited around for my friends, who eventually woke at 10am. After a brief schedule re-arrangement to allow us to spend another day in Akihabara later on in the week, we headed off to Ginza on the Hibiya line.

Once there, we found the Sony building fairly easily, and wandered around inside. There was a wealth of high-tech gadgets, including a number of stereoscopic 3D displays, a camera that compensated for being shaken and a head tracking system. Prices went up to around ¥400,000, although nothing topped Osaka’s inkstone. There was more interactivity than we had expected, and most of the electronics could be tried out.
At ten million yen per square metre of floorspace in Ginza,
it pays not to cut costs on making your shop front
as impressive as possible.
You could buy this television for 399,000 and its speaker
set for 99,000. Or you could get an inkstone for the same price.
We were in there for around an hour and a half, although some of that was spent looking for each other, after we had separated to explore in pairs and then alone. We would have liked to spend more time in Ginza, but it was around 12:00 by the time we left the Sony building, and I was worried about not leaving enough time for Mount Takao, so we headed back to the station, and set off on the long train journey to Takao.

After about an hour and twenty minutes of sitting on and changing trains, we arrived at the base of Mount Takao. There was an option to take a cable car up to the half way point, and after some deliberation, and some persuasion from the team of those eager to climb the mountain unaided (Mark and I) we headed up the steep slope.
A statue on the rather scenic walk up Mount Takao.
The sights from a high place are best experienced after the climb up there, or so I have always believed. Indeed, after a few rest stops and much panting, we arrived at the visitors’ centre half way up Mount Takao, and were rewarded a fantastic view over Tokyo, which was all the more satisfying for having worked to earn it. We stayed there for ten minutes and caught our breath, and then headed on upwards.
The view from the rest area.
If I were an evil spirit, I'm sure I'd be warded off
pretty effectively.
The rest of the climb was more relaxed, and passed through a couple of Japanese religious structures reminiscent of those on the way up to the Inari shrine. The view from the top of Mount Takao itself was more scenic than that from the visitors’ centre, looking out over mountains and forests rather than over Tokyo. After spending a short time at the rest area at the top, we headed back downwards.

A long discussion about Final Fantasy with Mark made the journey downhill go by quickly, and we didn’t have to stop for rest breaks. Darkness had fallen by the time we reached the visitors’ centre, and Tokyo was spread out beneath us as a great carpet of lights. We stopped to admire it briefly before heading on down the steep paths to the bottom.
The view from the top of Mount Takao.

The path back down in the dark.
The journey back felt much more relaxed than the journey there. The train from Takao to Tokyo was fairly empty, so we could easily get seats together, but none of us spoke very much, all content just to relax in our exhausted states. I took advantage of the fact that the journey was almost exactly as long as Blind Guardian’s excellent At the Edge of Time album, and listened to it from start to finish as the starlit countryside rushed past us.

It was nearing 21:00 by the time we arrived back at Minowa station, and rather than make another journey out to find somewhere to eat, we gave in to Henry’s request to eat at the Chinese restaurant near our hostel. It wasn’t as refined as the food at the restaurant on Pontocho nor did it have the authentic feel of the udon restaurant on the way to the Inari shrine, but it was filling and tasted good, so we were more than happy. Somewhere near the beginning of the meal, Mark and I engaged in a discussion of When the Seagulls Cry, an incredibly tough murder mystery visual novel (and, as far as I’m concerned, the best murder mystery ever written – not that I’ve read very many). It improves upon the murder mystery genre with a number of systems that, as far as I know, are unique to it. The most prominent of these is ‘red text’: whenever a sentence spoken by a character is highlighted in red, that statement is definitely true (for example, ‘Jessica was outside the mansion at the time of the murder’), which will often be used in incredibly devious ways. Our discussion lasted almost three hours, and we came up one or two plausible theories and a great many implausible ones. This lasted us all the way through supper, back to the hostel and by 0:00, having just realised that one of the crucial pieces of information we had been basing most of our theories on probably wasn’t true after all, we gave up and settled down to sleep.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Day 8: Inside the City of Cloth

‘Inside the City of Cloth’ is probably the best title I came up with, as a modification of the final track of Katatonia’s ‘Viva Emptiness’ album. That said, this is the only section that was actually difficult to write, and has had to go through three drafts. I’m still not really satisfied with it, but I can’t imagine it’ll get much better with a fourth draft.

I met my expectation of being the first to wake up on the morning of Harajuku. I was pretty excited at the plan I had for today, thinking that the combination of Harajuku and Shibuya might even surpass Akihabara. I awoke at 7:00, a full two and a half hours before anyone else got out of bed. I filled the time by bringing my notes up to date, doing hygiene-related things and reading. Once everyone else was fully awake and we had eaten breakfast, we headed off at around 10:30.

Harajuku is the centre of fashion in Tokyo, and especially popular on Sundays. Japan-guide and Wikitravel, the two sites that I had made the most use of in my planning, had described it as being a popular location for cosplaying and for dressing in extreme fashions, such as gothic lolita. As everyone who knows me reasonably well will be confused at this point by why I was interested in fashions, I should probably clarify. As far as I am concerned, Japanese women are far more attractive than English women; I was a lot less excited at the prospect of looking at the clothes than I was at looking at the girls wearing them.
The Takeshita-dori, Harajuku 
Arriving at Harajuku station, we orientated ourselves and then set off. We headed first down the Takeshita-dori, which was easy enough to find, and incredibly crowded. Despite being one of the most popular streets for clothes shops, it wasn't terribly wide, and fairly difficult to move (the fact that there didn't seem to be any particular system of keeping on one side didn't help), and we therefore moved down it at a fairly slow pace. I didn’t mind at all, however – it gave me a good chance to look around at both the attractive female population of Harajuku and into the windows of the huge numbers of clothing stores. We eventually emerged onto the Omotesando, the largest street in Harajuku.
Smorking is naturally forbidden.
Surprisingly, so is the usually legal shoplifting.
It was at least pleasantly cool walking down the Omotesando, as trees grew over the paths on either side, providing some measure of shade. We decided to give KiddyLand, the huge toy store across the road, a miss, and instead headed for the Oriental Bazaar, a shop that, according to my research, sold traditional Japanese things that made good souvenirs.

The Oriental Bazaar sadly turned out to be the most awful shop we entered on our trip. It had a polished look with a high ceiling and stone floor that was clearly intended to appeal to westerners. I wouldn't have been at all surprised if it had been set up by an American. Indeed, other than the shop assistants, the only people in there were western tourists, all buying their 'traditional Japanese' souvenirs (miniature swords and dolls and so on) that had presumably been manufactured in some third-world country. Perhaps I'm being overly cynical, and perhaps I shouldn't judge the place too harshly (my friends all bought things from there), but (as melodramatic as it sounds) it was almost as if this shop was personally insulting me. I had spent a very long time meticulously planning a trip that was unique to us and didn't follow any preset routes, and I had felt so far that I had experienced Japan in really quite a special way. Entering the Oriental Bazaar, it seemed like someone somewhere had decided every tourist wants pretty much the same things out of their trip to Japan, and wouldn't it be a bright idea to package those things up and sell them in a shop built to resemble a western department store. Considering the amount of time I've spent on this paragraph trying to explain properly why that shop left me feeling so dead, it still feels rather incoherent, but suffice to say, I didn't want anything, and I was very glad to leave.
The Oriental Bazaar. Ugh.
Coming out of the Oriental Bazaar, we headed back up in the direction of the station. By the time we arrived, I was wondering if I had made a mistake in my research. Other than gawping at pretty young women, one of the main reasons to come to Harajuku had been to see cosplayers – people who dress themselves up as musicians and characters from film and anime. Whilst ‘dressing up’ in the UK is often thought of as a children’s activity, in Japan it is often considered more of an art form, with people putting incredible amounts of care into extravagant clothes and make-up. The sites I had researched had implied that while extreme fashions could be seen everywhere in Harajuku, the cosplayers tended to gather around a certain bridge. Unfortunately, the station bridge (where I had thought they would be) yielded no results, but we crossed it in any case, and headed into Yoyogi Park, the large green space across the railway from Harajuku.

The first thing that met our eyes upon entering the park was a sign telling us which way the nearest temple was. We considered looking at the temple, but I was rather determined to find the cosplayers that I had been looking forward to, and so we instead set off in the other direction.

Thinking I must have been mistaken about the station bridge, I was convinced that there must be a bridge somewhere where the cosplayers were gathering. There were a few small ones over the road, but none of them were covered in cosplayers, and probably unlikely to be the ones we were looking for. We found a Sri-Lanka festival, at which we stayed for no longer than five minutes, and a rather impressive fountain that shot jets of water high into the air. By around 13:00, our stomachs were growling from walking around all morning in the heat, and we decided to abandon the search. Irritated with myself for not doing the research for Harajuku properly, I got out my directions for my recommended place for lunch, which was an okonomiyaki restaurant. For once, everyone agreed to go with my experimental option rather than seeking a safer alternative, and we headed back in the direction of the Omotesando.
The Yoyogi Park fountain

Passing back out of Yoyogi Park and over the station bridge, we finally saw them: two girls dressed in brightly coloured yukata with face masks. Apparently, cosplayers aren’t morning people: the station bridge had been the right one, but we had just been too early for anyone to be there.

In some ways, I suppose two girls was a bit of a weak offering compared to the mass of cosplayers I had been expecting. Even so, I was very glad that we had found what we were looking for, and that a fault in my planning hadn’t caused us to miss anything exciting – indeed, glad enough that I took out my camera for the first time on the trip and got some photos of them, one of which is displayed below. I stood around watching them for a while, but was quickly forced to give in to the requests to get going, and relinquished my gaze on the brightly coloured couple for the much less important business of finding somewhere to eat lunch.
The station bridge cosplayers
In Sakuratei, everyone cooked the food themselves on hot plates in front of them. Although it was an okonomiyaki restaurant, they also had a few other options, such as yaki-soba. Yingke, Mark and I went for the former, whilst Henry ordered the latter. We waited for a short time, and were then brought a bowl of ingredients. There was only room on the table for two people to cook at once, so Mark and I went first, and attempted to follow the instructions which would allow us to turn our assortments of interesting meats and vegetables into edible food.
Partially cooked okonomiyaki
(mine is the one on the left, pre-flipping)
My portion of okonomiyaki included vegetables, bacon, seafood, egg and sauce, and in theory, was meant to end up as a sort of pancake. Whilst Mark commissioned Henry (who had experience working in a restaurant) to flip his pancake at the required times, my determination to cook my own got the better of me, and I ended up with something resembling an explosion. Even when broken, it was delicious, however. After having eaten, Mark and I settled down to wait for Yingke and Henry. I would like to think that Yinke was only completely successful at producing a perfectly round okonamiyaki because he had learned from my mistakes, but perhaps he was just not quite so badly co-ordinated. It took us almost two hours to eat and, when we had finished, we headed back towards the station.

We found the ¥100 shop on our way back to the station, and looked in briefly, but didn’t stay long. The main purpose of £1 shops (and therefore the main appeal of ¥100 shops) is for people to impulse buy things they don’t actually have any use for because they are cheap. Whilst the store owners had managed to grasp the concept of filling a shop with things nobody in their right mind would want to buy, the idea of pricing everything at ¥100 seemed to have been beyond them, and indeed, we didn’t manage to find anything at all that was exactly ¥100. Slightly confused, we exited the shop, and headed back towards the station to catch our train to Shibuya. We had another glance at the station bridge on the way, but there wasn’t much else. The girls who had been there earlier had moved down the street slightly, and there was a cluster of people dressed in gothic clothing on the far side of the bridge, but no more cosplayers. Had I been alone, I would have hung around the station bridge longer in the hope of seeing something else interesting, but I felt that I had already asserted my own desires enough for one day, so I didn’t make the suggestion. We moved back into the station and used our Pasmo cards again to get us onto a train to Shibuya.

At around 16:30, we arrived in Shibuya. Other than generally looking around, our main objective was to go to a Mahjong parlour. I had picked out Shibuton as one that was fairly beginner-friendly (assuming that we were beginners by Japanese standards), and we were able to find amongst the high-rise buildings that made up Shibuya without too many problems. The parlour itself was rather smoky, but otherwise had a nice atmosphere. We were brought drinks shortly after sitting down while an assistant tried to explain non-verbally how our automatic table worked. We eventually got the hang of things, however, and once he saw that we all knew how to play, he left us to our game. It was the best sort of game we could have had - long and dramatic. There were a good number of big hands and two one-shot tsumos. Mark, Henry and I were all in the lead at some point. Yingke who had had rather a run of bad luck, pulled himself back up into second place with a dealer limit-and-a-half (worth 18,000 points) in South 4. Fortunately, I was able to win a quick, cheap hand and end the game with myself in first place before he could combo more than once and rack up any more points. (I apologise for the fact that those last few sentences will have been almost complete gibberish to anyone who doesn't play mahjong.)
A starting hand heading for toitoi, yaku-hai, dora 4
for a limit and a half? Not bad...
Even with the help of the automatic tables, which dealt and shuffled for us, our game took almost three hours. We were charged ¥6000, which seemed a bit steep, but we didn't really complain. When we got back outside, it was around 20:30, and night had fallen. Shibuya is one of Tokyo's main nightlife districts, and looked much more dramatic after dark than it had during the day. The streets were illuminated by dozens of neon lights and crowded with young men and women. Rather than the nightclubs, however, our destination was Sweets Paradise, an all-you-can-eat restaurant which has a few savoury dishes, but mostly specialises in cakes. It didn't look like a very easy route on the map, but we got there quickly enough, and paid our ¥1500 entrance fee.
The crossing outside the Shibuya 109 building
Sweets Paradise was decorated in a red and pink colour scheme, and for a moment, we were worried that it might be a repeat of our evening meal in Osaka. We found out quickly that the groups of people there were a mix of genders, however, and, feeling more comfortable, we headed over to pick up plates. I managed two large plates of noodle and rice dishes, before moving on to cake, of which I managed slightly more than two more plates. There was a fantastic variety, including some delicious chocolate and coffee cakes and one bright green one that tasted absolutely disgusting. After two plates of cake, the usual all-you-can-eat conflict set in, where I felt like I really should keep eating to get my money's worth as far as possible, but couldn't quite bring myself to transfer any more food from my fork to my mouth.
Part of the incredible selection of cakes
at Sweets Paradise
When Sweets Paradise closed at 22:00, we headed back out into Shibuya. It was even livelier than before, and I tried my best to take in all of the sights and sounds of the packed district before we reached the station again and embarked on the long train ride back to Minowa. My friends and I were separated on the train on the way back, as we were all tired enough to accept the free seats distributed around the train, even if doing so meant depriving ourselves of each others’ conversation. This did, however, give me the chance to use my MP3 player for the first time on the trip. I had been rather neglecting music so far (indeed, I think the first few days in Japan were the longest I have gone without listening to music in several years, which speaks for itself). Even so, rather than going for my usual power, progressive or black metal, I listened to some Olivia, the only Japanese artist I have any music by, which matched the mood rather well.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Day 7: Great Ocean Passage

I was the first to wake of the four of us, but as it was my turn to buy the shopping, I filled the time with a trip down to the 24-hour supermarket next to the hostel. I bought our usual melon bread and fruit for breakfast, and then read until the others woke up.

We had a slightly later start than usual, and unfortunately, we missed our 10:16 train to Osaka. Fortunately, there was another that would get us there leaving at 10:39, so we hung around Kyoto station, ate our breakfast and watched a bit of Japanese baseball. Although baseball is generally thought of as an almost exclusively American sport, it has widespread popularity in Japan. The four of us had a general idea of the rules from a reasonable number of anime series that focus on the topic, ranging from the psychological mind games of One Outs to the carefree atmosphere of Taisho Baseball Girls. Although it isn't something I would want to watch regularly, it was interesting to see it played, and between us we managed to work out most of what was going on before it was time to leave to catch our train.

The trip to Osaka was just as painless as the one the day before, and a couple of short train journeys later, we found ourselves at the station for the aquarium. From there, finding the aquarium was a trivial matter of following the signs. Osaka aquarium, described as one of the best aquariums in the world, is one of the main attractions of Osaka. Admission was accordingly expensive, costing us as much as the Unlimited Pass we had bought the day before.
The impressive aquarium exterior
After we had managed to find the entrance to the aquarium itself, which wasn't clearly marked in English, and had bought our tickets at the ticket machines, we were allowed entrance. After passing through a tunnel surrounded by water filled with impressive-looking fish, we emerged into an area with rocks and waterfalls. There were some rather inactive but also rather beautiful otters and a well full of crabs clinging to the sides. This didn't last for long, however, and we were soon back in the main part of the aquarium and could start looking at the tanks.

Whilst I can't remember everything we saw (and I'm sure a list would bore readers), my favourites were a breed of very large otters that had a wonderful technique of doing everything on their backs, including swimming and grooming. Several of them were also making good use of the length of their tank, swimming laps of it at impressive speed, and somersaulting whenever they reached one end or the other. Other highlights included the dolphins, which jumped up out of the water at regular intervals (sometimes synchronised, two at a time) and the huge tank containing a whale shark and a number of rays (some of which appeared to have smaller fish riding on their backs). According to my folders, Henry and Yingke between them took over 300 photos of aquatic creatures, and an aquarium is probably better experienced visually, so I'll put a few more photos in this entry than I normally would.
This particular breed of otter wasn't
terribly dynamic
The capybara is the largest breed of rodent
alive today
My favourite giant otters, the masters
of backstroke
The dolphins were apparently fairly successful at
thwarting attempts to get good photos of them mid-jump

The whale-shark, in all its glory
One of the more impressive specimens
in the jellyfish room

We spent most of the morning in the aquarium, and once we had passed through the final rooms (including a jellyfish room) and had a go at touching rays and other fish in the touching pool, we headed back out into the bright sunlight. It was approaching lunchtime, and we were all feeling rather hungry, so we decided to wander around and find some lunch.

The large open area just outside the temple distracted us from this objective, however. A juggler had gathered a crowd of people, and we watched him juggle increasingly large numbers of balls to an increasingly impressive height. The second distraction took the form of a Japanese rock band, who had set up near the river behind the aquarium. A number of people were sitting down to watch, and I stayed for as long as I could justify staying in the circumstances (the others were keener on finding lunch than watching the band). Their sound wasn't particularly unique for a J-rock band, but they put on a much tighter performance than one usually sees from English amateur bands, and their bassist had a few impressive runs. They were also dressed much more colourfully than most bands I had seen before, although I am vaguely aware of the Japanese culture of ‘visual-kei’ bands, which often play live dressed in very flashy clothes, with heavy make-up and radical hair-styling.
The rock band. God knows what the
guy on the left with the rabbit is doing.
Reluctantly leaving the band, I followed the others to find a shopping complex nearby. Upon entering, we were greeted with yet another show. A group of girls were dancing on a central platform on the second floor, and people had gathered around the railings which circled this platform. We only stayed briefly before heading downstairs to where it looked like the highest concentration of food outlets was. Henry and Mark ordered from a KFC, but Yingke and I, in principle against the idea of eating at another American chain in Japan, found a Japanese fast food place. Unfortunately, my ordering didn't go as well as it had at the Mos Burger in Akihabara. Whilst I successfully managed to convey the burger and drink that I asked for, the message that I wanted chips didn't quite get through (something that I only realised after I had paid and joined the others).

We found a free table (which wasn't terribly easy) and sat down to eat. Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say. I had finished my insubstantial lunch within a couple of minutes and, taking advantage of this, I abandoned my friends temporarily and headed back upstairs to watch the dancers. The performance itself was quite impressive, and the girls were very well synchronised. I cringed at some of the song choices, however - I doubt even classes of five-year-olds in England put on dance performances to 'Barbie Girl', nowadays.

Having re-convened and laughed at Henry for walking into the women's toilets by accident, we were just about to leave when we spotted a Taiyaki vendor. Taiyaki is a Japanese snack that consists of hot bean paste served inside pastry in the shape of a fish. Henry and I, both fans of Kanon, where Taiyaki comes up repeatedly as the favourite snack of one of the main characters, ordered some and, having waited for a few minutes for it to cook, sat down again to eat it. It had a rather unique (and, I imagine, acquired) taste. I quite liked it at first, but it had rather an overwhelming sweetness to it, and I was only just able to finish it.
Contrary to what its shape would suggest,
Taiyaki doesn't taste remotely like fish
When we were finally outside, it was rather later than we had anticipated. A combination of missing our early train, and my misjudgement of the amount of time we would spend in the aquarium meant that, had we gone to Nara as we had planned, we would have been quite tight for time catching the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. As missing it would have been a real disaster, and as we were all quite tired, we decided to give Nara a miss and instead head straight back to Tokyo.

We were right to do so, fortunately. The journey back was very long, and involved four changes of trains (including the long Shinkansen ride), and it was around 21:00 by the time we finally arrived back at the hostel. We checked into our new room and showered before heading back out at around 22:00 to find supper. Henry was, as always, a strong proponent of the idea of eating at the Chinese restaurant near our hostel, but the rest of us felt that a restaurant would take too long, and were inclined just to sleep as soon as possible. We therefore did as we had done on our first night in Tokyo and bought instant noodles from the supermarket, settling down to eat them in the hostel's lounge area before heading up to bed.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Day 6: The Abyss of Yuri

I woke at 8:00 to find that Mark had already bought breakfast for us. I was pleased to discover that Melon bread still hadn't lost any of the qualities that made it delicious, and after eating and doing some washing, we headed off to get the train to Osaka.

Osaka is a major commercial metropolis, as was made evident by the skyscrapers and high-rise office buildings that increased in density as our Shinkansen drew further into the city. Fortunately the trip was only fifteen minutes this time, and we reached Osaka by 10:30. Once we had picked up Osaka Unlimited Passes for ¥2,000 a piece (which gave us free travel on the city's railways and free entry to a number of tourist attractions) we headed off to the first point of interest: the Kanon bench.

We had discovered that the real-life location of the Kanon bench the night before, when Henry had been looking up anime pilgrimages and found that some scenes from Kanon had been based not only on a place in Osaka, but a place that was just a couple of stops out of our way on the route that I had planned for us. Mark, who wasn't a fan of Kanon, was unenthusiastic about the idea of visiting it, and after we arrived, I rather saw his point: it didn't feel particularly magical or special, and was, in fact, just a bench. The others took photos, but may well have shared our sentiments, for despite the fact that I had trips to Washinomiya Shrine (the setting of Lucky Star) and the Kyu-Furukawa Gardens (the setting of When the Seagulls Cry) lined up for later on in the trip, we made mutual decisions not to visit either when the time came.
It really was just a bench
Leaving the Kanon bench behind, our next destination was Nijo Castle, a much more satisfactory trip. After arriving at the station, there was a twenty minute walk to the castle which I hadn't anticipated. We were all getting used to the very high heat levels, however, and there were good views of the castle and its moat and walls from the outside, so it wasn't an unpleasant walk. We wondered, as we passed uphill over two moats and under the castle's massive stone walls how an enemy would go about capturing such a thing. We also caught our first glimpse of the legendary 'sailor uniforms' used as the standard school uniform by a few Japanese schools and massively over-represented in anime secondary schools.
This moat formed the first obstacle for
attackers of Nijo Castle
We were fairly hungry by the time we reached the castle itself, and even though it was fairly early, we made the decision to eat lunch at the fast-food restaurant at the top, which was really the only option. My rice dish arrived quickly and was very filling. It also came with a small plate containing a couple of slices of some bright yellow vegetable and a sour plum. I tentatively tried both, and found the yellow vegetable pleasantly tangy and the sour plum exactly as disgusting as you would expect semi-rotten fruit to taste.
Nijo Castle
Approaching the towering castle, at last, we detached the coupons that gave us free entry from our unlimited pass, and after passing up a flight of stone steps and past a rather menacing cannon, we stepped inside. The interior felt much more modern and polished than the archaic exterior would suggest, but perhaps it shouldn't have been entirely unexpected - we did know that the castle had been destroyed and reconstructed at least once. After getting our heads round the idea that we were meant to explore the castle from top to bottom rather than the other way around, we headed up to the 8th floor, which was an observatory. There were some quite impressive views out over the city. Once we had taken in the view and spotted some of the places we were going to later, we headed down through the museum, reading the descriptions and looking at the artefacts.
A rather impressive cannon
It was around 15:30 by the time we had finished looking around the castle, and we weren't quite sure whether we had left ourselves enough time for the Osaka Peace Museum. It was just next to the station that we were headed for, however (which wasn't the station we had arrived at), so we made our way over there and, upon seeing it, decided that we probably did have enough time. Our passes once again covered the entrance fee, and once inside, I was very glad indeed that we had come. The museum was small but well-presented, and had interesting exhibits on the American bombings of Japan in the Second World War (with particular reference to the incendiary bombings of Osaka) and an apologetic display on the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.

Our next destination was Namba, the southern shopping district of Osaka. Other than simply to explore, Yingke wanted to buy some sandals to replace his trainers, which were slowly falling apart from all of the walking. We headed along the very long Shinsaibashi shopping arcade, walking slowly to avoid getting lost and to take in all of the surrounding stores. As we were to discover throughout our time in Japan, buying clothes is very easy if you're female and very difficult if you're male. The ratio of clothing stores aimed at young women to clothing stores aimed at men must have been close to 30:1. It wasn't an uninteresting walk, however, and on our way, we saw a display from a woman trying to sell puppets. She had one out on display, and it appeared to be moving all by itself, sometimes doing acrobatics and sometimes imitating her movements when she bowed or put out her hand. It seemed fairly magical, although we all suspected that it was somehow being controlled by the man standing a little off to the side and moving his feet in a rather suspicious way.
Twenty minutes of walking found us a shop that had two or three pairs of men's sandals amongst their massive stock of women's shoes. Yingke sat down to try them on and Henry stayed with him while Mark and I had a look at the upper floor (more women's shoes) before glancing around the surrounding shops. The most interesting one we found was an antique shop which contained the most expensive item we saw in our entire trip: an inkstone for ¥500,000. It wasn't a terribly attractive object as far as display items go, looking much like a large black rock, but it would obviously be far too expensive to use for its originally intended purpose. We were left wondering what on earth one would do with such an object, and not at all willing to empty our bank accounts for it. By the time we had finished marvelling at the inkstone, Yingke had bought his sandals. It was too late to go to Shitennoji Temple as I had intended, mostly thanks to the Kanon bench, which had shifted the schedule down by an hour or so, so we travelled instead to Umeda, the northern shopping district of Osaka.

A short train ride later, we emerged into Umeda as the sun was setting. My original plan was to head to the Sky Garden first and then do the HEP FIVE Ferris Wheel after dark, but considering that we had all walked a long way and were fairly tired, we decided to go for the HEP FIVE first, as it was much closer to the station, and then eat before heading over to the Sky Garden. Predictably, it wasn't very difficult to find (a huge Ferris wheel on top of a tall building tends to be fairly noticeable). After entering through the glass doors, travelling up to the top floor in glass elevators and detaching our coupons (which, sadly, were not made of glass), we boarded the wheel.
The view from the wheel
Night hadn't quite fallen as we moved slowly upwards, but the view over the city in the dusk was still very beautiful (so much so that I even took a photograph or two, something that I had avoided doing for most of the trip). The best views were offered as we moved over the top of the wheel, and had unobstructed views in every direction, although the view on the way back down over the northernmost parts of Osaka was unfortunately obstructed by a large flashing Coca-Cola advertisement.

We stepped off the Ferris wheel into the top floor of the HEP FIVE building, and decided, as I'm sure had been intended by whoever was making money from us at that particular point in time, that we would eat at one of the restaurants there. Having wandered around and explored the options, we settled on an Italian restaurant that nobody objected to, and which looked like it served some interesting variation on pizza.

"The gay scene in Japan is hard to find, and the lesbian scene even harder", thus spoke Mark's guidebook to Japan. Perhaps the multi-coloured letters with the name of the restaurant should have provided a clue, or maybe we should have realised that we weren't wanted when Yingke commented that it was the first time we had stood outside a restaurant and hadn't immediately been offered a table. When we were finally led inside by a waitress wearing a sports uniform to see that the only diners were pairs of young women, however, we realised to our horror that the clientele of the restaurant we had wandered into was exclusively female. More specifically, the diners were pairs of women, each of whom seemed rather keener on her partner than is normal for two women. In short, we had wandered unwittingly into a Yuri den.

The waitresses were perfectly polite to us, but even so, it was quite clear that we weren't meant to be there, and it really was profoundly awkward. It's very difficult to be in that kind of situation without talking about it, but at the same time, terrifying to talk about it without the worry that you're being understood. Still, our money was as good as everyone else's, and so whilst we weren't actively wanted there, they didn't seem to mind serving us. Somewhere in between hearing one of the waitresses address a customer as “onee-sama”, and trying to sink into the floor when Yingke let slip some rather explicit terminology in Japanese, we managed to eat our pizzas. Once we had at last finished, paid and left like proverbial bats out of hell, it was, of course, all hilarious.

After supper, everyone seemed to have recovered enough energy to go and search for the Sky Garden. Sadly, the traumatic experience of being in a room full of Japanese lesbians seemed to have skewed my navigation abilities, and I set off confidently in the wrong direction several times under the mistaken assumption that we were at a completely different point on the map to where we actually were. When we had finally got our bearings properly, it was unfortunately too late to attempt the journey to the Sky Garden. It was a shame, but we had done a lot on our trip to Osaka, and visiting more attractions was rather secondary to ensuring that we got the last train back to Kyoto (it would have been a disaster had we missed it). An uneventful four train journeys later, we had arrived back at the hostel. Exhausted as always, we collapsed into bed and slept well.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Day 5: For the Sake of K-ON!

Perhaps something in the plum liquor didn't agree with me, as I awoke at 4:30 the following morning, having woken up repeatedly in the night. By around 5:30, I felt that I had established fairly soundly that I wouldn't be able to get to sleep. After having dressed, brought my notes up to date and done all of the hygiene-related things that I could think of doing, I decided to go for a wander around the surrounding area.

Kyoto was wonderfully peaceful in the early morning, and I greatly enjoyed watching the number of people around me slowly increasing as the morning sun emerged over the horizon. As the time drew closer to 7:00, I began to see particularly keen students on their way to school, and caf├ęs serving breakfast opening their doors. Although I had masses of fun whenever I was with my friends, being alone has its own advantages, and I was glad for the chance to be able to concentrate fully on my surroundings. Feeling properly awake, I returned to our hostel room and read by torchlight until Mark woke up. We headed down to the lounge and alternately used the computer and tried to figure out what was going on in some of the manga he had bought in Akihabara. With someone to talk to, the next hour went by quite quickly, and by 9:00, the others had woken up.

Yingke was feeling a bit off-colour when he woke up, so he stayed in the room to recover whilst Henry, Mark and I headed out into the bright sunlight. We bought our staple melon bread at the shop next door to the hostel, and an experimental purchase of sweet dumpling's (the sort that Nagisa was so fond of, but without eyes, sadly) and sat down by the river to eat them. After I had finished my bread, and we had collectively come to the conclusion that the bird across the river from us was probably a crane and that none of us really knew anything about birds, I tried one of the dumplings. This was a mistake, as it turned out. I was never quite sure what it actually tasted of, but it had an incredibly rubbery consistency that caused me to retch every time I tried to swallow it. I could hardly spit it out in public, but I did eventually manage to get it down in small parts after chewing it for an awfully long time. Avoiding the amused expressions of the others, I resolved not to eat any more.

It wasn't until 11:30 that we finally managed to actually set off, which was much later than I had intended. The journey to the Golden Pavilion (which was the most complicated journey of our trip and involved three trains and a bus) went much more smoothly than I had expected, however, and this made back some time. We arrived at around 12:30, and walked the short distance to the Golden Pavilion.
The Golden Pavilion
The signpost outside provides a good description of its history. I'll post the image rather than transcribing it (obviously you'll need to view the image in full size for it to be legible):
The history of the Golden Pavilion
In many ways, the Golden Pavilion was magnificent, overlooking a lake with its golden roofs shining brightly in the midday sun. Even the lake and scenery around the temple appeared perfectly and meticulously maintained. It was easy to see why it was a spot so frequently photographed by amateurs and professionals alike; indeed, provided one pointed a camera in the general direction of the pavilion from anywhere in the vicinity, I think one would probably struggle to take anything other than a magnificent photograph. I imagine everyone (including me) was rather glad that my idea of the four of us standing in front of the Golden Temple and acting out the scene from K-ON! that took place there never took off, however.

We wandered around the Golden Pavilion, and then continued along down the path that wound around a beautifully maintained garden. At several points, there were bowls, and we saw people attempting (for the most part, unsuccessfully) to throw coins into them from behind the railings that kept us on the path. We all had a go; I used up my three ¥10 coins on three rather poor throws that didn't land anywhere near the bowl that was our target.
I imagine there are supermarkets less profitable
than this bowl 
When we emerged from the temple, it was lunchtime. We ate at a small udon restaurant whilst we debated where to go next. The choice was between a Ryoanji Temple with a famous rock garden, the monkey park visited by the K-ON! girls and the manga museum followed by Nishiki market (my excessively optimistic programme had, of course, had us visiting all four places). A fierce debate ensued, with tactical voting almost reminiscent of Saimoe and attempts to persuade members of the opposition parties, but eventually, we settled in favour of the monkey park and set off on the fairly long train journey.

A long discussion of both the concept and the storyline of Fate/Stay Night sustained us all the way to the entrance to the Monkey Park. Having paid the entrance fee, we climbed the hill, at the top of which we were greeted by a large crowd of monkeys. After a brief look around outside, we entered the hut to get out of the sun. As in K-ON!, monkey food was sold inside the hut, and the windows of the hut was covered with a wire mesh with gaps just large enough to admit a monkey's arm. They clambered around outside the bars, and we took it in turns to feed them from our hands. Our attempts to feed the one baby monkey were foiled by its mother, who would immediately snatch and eat any food presented to her offspring.

Outside once more, we sat down for a while on the benches and watched the monkeys, who were surprisingly tame and, whilst they didn't actively approach humans, certainly weren't remotely afraid of us. Monkeys are like cats in that they're really quite relaxing to watch, and we stayed up there for a good half hour. When we saw that the sun was threatening to set, and the amusement value of the male monkey who was being groomed by two females had at last been exhausted, we headed back down.
What a legend
Upon reaching the bottom, we found another small shrine, and a rack on which people had hung wooden boards with prayers and wishes. Predictably, there were a good many Kyoani and K-ON!-related wishes (including a rather impressive drawing of Mugi). Henry decided to pay ¥500 for a board, and after some discussion, wished for Maria-sama ga Miteru Season 5 and an animation of the Heaven's Feel arc of Fate/Stay Night, wishes that I heartily approved of.
A sincere prayer
It was dark by the time we reached the hostel, and exhausted from the day's walking, we lay down to rest for half an hour before heading off to supper. I hopefully suggested eel again, and found that Yingke had become a proponent of the idea over the last twenty four hours but the other two were still not keen. We instead asked for recommendations at the hostel and, after being given them and walking for a considerable distance without finding them, we decided to head into a place that served yaki-soba. Unlike udon, yaki-soba has much thinner noodles, and is fried and served without soup. It's very filling, and Henry and I had two portions, whilst Yingke had one portion following a serving of okonamiyaki (a pancake dish that I will explain in more depth on the report for Harajuku, where we went to a restaurant specialising in it).

Satisfied, and starting to feel the effects of being awake since 4:30, I headed back to the hostel with the others and fell asleep before they had turned the lights off.