Thursday, July 31, 2014

Touring Kyoto

Our Monday in Kyoto started at our ryokan (Japanese inn) with a traditional Japanese breakfast.

We had ordered a western breakfast for Kai, but he didn’t eat much of it.

To see the sights in Kyoto, we made arrangements to have a jumbo taxi take our crew of eight to several of the most notable sights.

First stop was Ryoanji Temple.

Our taxi driver was also a tour guide who provided explanations at each stop (in Japanese, which my wife translated for everyone).

Ryoanji is most famous for its rock garden. There are 15 stones in the garden, though a person can only see 14 of them from any one vantage point. It was planned so only the Supreme Being above can see all 15 stones.

Next is the beautiful golden pavilion, Kinkaku-ji.

Although you can’t tell from the picture, the place was loaded with visitors. And after walking around the grounds, Kai was getting very cranky and wanted a break to use his iPad.

We thought that it would cause too many difficulties for everyone if we tried to get him to see the next sight, Kiyomizu Temple, so we decided to let him stay in the taxi so everyone could take their time to see the spectacular sight.

My wife volunteered to stay back with Kai, but I wanted her to help translate the explanations for my sister, brother-in-law and nephews, so I stayed in the taxi with Kai while they went to see the temple.

Kai was happy to have some quality time on the iPad.

I am glad that he was so content, because we were locked in the taxi (with the air conditioning on) so it would have been a huge problem if he wanted to get out.

It took nearly two hours before the others returned from seeing the temple and nearby charming streets. That was just in the nick of time as Kai had started to get antsy to see Mom and get some lunch.

After lunch, we went to Sanjsangen Temple:

The main attraction there are the 1.001 golden statues inside the temple. Photographs are not allowed inside.

Our next destination was the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine.

Among the features are the foxes that are messengers often found in Inari shrines.

However, the main attraction at Inari are the thousands of torii gates of all sizes that line the path.

It was really spectacular, as the gates seemed to go on forever. We turned around and headed back before reaching the end of the path.

We got back in the taxi and made one more quick stop to see one small part of the Nishi Honganji Temple.

And then we got dropped off at the hotel where would spend this second night in Kyoto. The ryokan was really nice, but expensive, and we wanted to save some money. The rooms at the hotel, though, are very tiny, with barely enough room to spread two suitcases out next to the bed. The bathrooms are equally tiny.

For dinner, we went to spot along the Kamagawa River where we could sit outside and enjoy the ambiance. It was a perfect night for outdoor dining; not as steaming hot as it had been a couple days earlier.

Kai has been handling the sightseeing relatively well, certainly much better than we had feared. Some of the keys to success are always having bottles of water handy when walking around in the hot weather, and giving him access to his iPad.

Though the iPad hasn’t been a complete win. He is hooked on a couple apps that require access to the network, and there has been several times when he wanted “five more minutes” at the hotel to do something before he lost the wifi connection. Or he would get upset if we didn’t come back to the hotel early enough to have a lot of wife time before heading out for dinner. I’ve been tempted to cut off his access to those apps. But I think overall, having the iPad has enabled us to do a lot more than we otherwise would have.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

On to Kyoto

On Sunday morning, we packed up our bags to go to Kyoto.

But first, we had to walk about a mile from our hotel to get to the rail station where we would catch a local train to take us to Tokyo Station. Walking in this heat is challenging enough, but pulling or carrying a couple pieces of luggage made it an ordeal.

All was good once we were on the shinkansen (bullet train) that would take us to Kyoto in under three hours.

After lunch, our first stop was the Nishijin Textile Center where they make kimonos. We saw a kimono fashion show.

Kai is at that stage in life where anything related to romance or love is yucky. But he seemed smitten with the ladies in kimonos. Afterward he said he fell in love. When I asked with which one, he said all of them.

We then took a look around the textile center. One of the most interesting things was seeing live silkworms.

After that, we took a bus over to the famed Zen temple, Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), which dates back to the 1400s.

After that, we went over to Nanzen-ji, another Zen Buddhist temple established in 1291.

When we arrived there, Kai seemed to be getting cranky so I was surprised when he eagerly joined me as I went up to the top of the main gate.

We had a great view of the temple.

Kai is getting to be an expert at lighting incense and praying at temples.

We then took a cab to the ryokan (Japanese inn) where we would be staying the night. We had to give Kai his iPad time, but it wasn’t too long. We went to Gion Corner to see a one-hour sampling of 7 Japanese arts: tea ceremony, flower arrangement, koto zither, kyo-mai dance, gagaku court music, kyogen (comic) theater, and bunraku (Japanese puppet theater).

As the performance started, Kai was got very frustrated when he could not see as tall people were sitting in front of us. He started to express his frustrations loudly so my wife and father-in-law took him to a spot in the back where he could stand up and see everything, and relax in between the various arts.

I was wondering if he would enjoy any of the performances, but it seems like he actually enjoyed some of it, especially the comedy portion.

After that, we went back to the ryokan. I introduced my nephews to the Japanese bath. Then we had dinner dressed in our yukatas (casual kimono) that are provided during our stay.

Dinner was the traditional Kyoto kaiseki, a lavish, multi-course feast with highly refined artistic presentation consisting of about ten different small dishes.

That night, we slept on the floor on futons that are laid out over tatami mats.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Steamy Saturday in Tokyo

Kai commented, “Japan is fun. But it’s also a big challenge.”

Our destination that morning was the Meiji Shrine. Here's my wife and Kai at the entrance gate:

Many shrines have barrels of sake on display. Sake is donated by brewers for festivals.

Kai remembered to purify himself before entering the shrine.

Later in the morning we went to Omotesando, home of many upscale stores with well-known premier brands. At a couple stores, people were lining up to get in. One store was a chocolate bar, and the other was a popcorn shop.

After lunch, we walked over to Takeshita Street, a narrow street in Harajuku filled with small independent shops that are said to be the bellweather for upcoming fashions. The vibrant scene there was quite a contrast to more staid Omotesando.

I think every person under 30 in Tokyo was there.

Pictures just cannot capture the vibe. It was crowded, loud, hot, and an overload of senses, but Kai seemed to enjoy it.

Next stop was Roppongi Hills.

We went to the Roppongi Hills Skydeck to get a great view of Tokyo.

Kai was more interested in seeing the special Pokemon exhibit that was promoting the new movie that is now showing in Japan.

After that, my wife took Kai back to the hotel for his daily afternoon break. We didn’t forget the iPad this time.

I went with my sister and her family to see Shibuya. Shibuya Crossing is famous for its scramble intersection which is said to be among the most busiest in the world.

I was getting a full appreciation of just how massive Tokyo is.

Late in the afternoon, we all met back up at the hotel and walked over to dinner.

We walked through the Kabukicho area of Shinjuku that is somewhat of a red light district. Fortunately, Kai seemed to be too innocent to notice anything.

Dinner was at an all-you-can-eat, cook-it-yourself, yakiniku restaurant.

Gotta love all that meat!

We capped out day by visiting the skydeck at the top of city hall to see the night skyline. There was no wait to get to the top, but as soon as we got off the elevator, we saw a huge line of people waiting for the elevator to take them down. As soon as Kai saw that, he had no interest in seeing the view as he was concerned that his free time back at the hotel would be consumed waiting in the elevator line.

Still, I snapped off a few quick pictures.

And then I got in line with Kai to take him back to the hotel.

The Tokyo portion of our trip was now over. We had a few bumps, but overall it went better than expected.

I am loving sharing this experience with my sister’s family, especially seeing the excitement of my nephews as they see Japan for the first time.

And, of course, it is a dream come true to be able to visit Japan with my wife and Kai. At one time, we did not think that would ever be possible. That Kai is handling it all so well is a very pleasant surprise.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: Fish Market, Buddhist Temple, Maid Café

We woke up early on Friday to head over to the Tsukiji fish market. This is where the wholesalers sell their daily catch to the restaurants.

It was a bustling place with vehicles zooming by from all directions with loads of boxes of various types. Kai was not happy to be such a place and did not seem to care about the various fish I tried to point out to him.

Here he is standing next to a couple octopuses.

We soon found out that we weren’t supposed to be there. A security guard informed us that visitors are not allowed before 9AM (the time when things start to settle down), and children are not allowed at any time. That explains why it seemed so unsafe to be there.

We quickly made our way out, happy to have caught a glimpse of the famed market.

Tsukiji is surrounded by markets and restaurants. The plan for this morning was to find a sushi restaurant where the fish was bound to be fresh and tasty. There are many tiny restaurants, some with room for only two people to stand and eat, but we found a bigger place where we could sit comfortably together.

Kai had his favorites – shrimp and octopus sushi, along with a big bowl of miso soup filled with clams.

After breakfast, we walked up and down the narrow streets, checking out the various shops.

Here is a shop that sells fruits. The watermelon was priced at 5,000 yen, approximately $50 for one. Peaches were more reasonable – 2,000 yen for a box of four, or $5 each.

Kai was content walking around in the heat as long as we had bottles of water or other drinks. Here he is with a Japanese soda.

After that, we walked over to a Buddhist temple.

My wife and Kai walked up front to say a prayer.

While we were there, we got to witness the Obosan (priest) doing a ceremonial prayer with a couple.

Next stop was the kabuki theater.

We did not see a performance but went through a small museum.

Here’s Kai standing behind a cutout of a kabuki costume.

From the seriousness of a Buddhist ceremony and kabuki theater, we went to the ridiculous.

We had lunch at a maid café. What is a maid café, you ask?

Apparently all the rage in the Akihabara district, young, innocent-looking waitresses dress up in maid costumes and treat customers as masters. It seems to attract a certain type of young male clientele, and tourists as well. During the day, it may be more kid friendly.

After lunch, my wife and Kai headed back to the hotel to take a break and use the pool. On the way back, they realized that I was carrying the iPad and Kai freaked out about not having his precious iPad during his break. My wife called to find out where we were and I could hear Kai screaming in the background. He was still upset when we met up.

I headed back to the hotel with them, and went to the pool with Kai. At an extra $20 per person per day, we decided that we didn’t need to both go to the pool with him.

Later, we went to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which gave a great history of the city from the Edo period up to post World War II.

Dinner was at a chankonabe restaurant. Chankonabe is a Japanese stew eaten in large quantities by sumo wrestlers as part of their weight-gain regiment. We sat on the floor in traditional Japanese style.

And so it was another good day overall. It seems like Kai likes Japan.

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