Nikko is nearly two hours north of Tokyo, in the mountains. The only thing keeping the town alive is the presence of Toshogu Shrine and Rinnoji Temple, but those two places alone make the trip worthwhile. On our trip there yesterday (Friday), we spent most of our time at Toshogu; it’s so vast, with so many stairs to climb, we ended up spending three hours there. Leaving the apartment here in Harajuku yesterday morning, Marla asked me if she should take a jacket. I said I didn’t think it’d be that cold. When we stepped off the JR Nikko Express a couple hours later, it was freezing! Well, not freezing really, but it was cloudy and in the low 60s with very little humidity. Much cooler than Tokyo, in other words. Getting to Nikko meant we had to take the Yamanote Line to Tokyo Station, the switch to the Tokkaido Shinkansen and ride it to Utsunomiya, then change trains there and take the local JR Express to Nikko. With each train change, we left the big city farther and farther behind. The Nikko Express was so small, passengers had to push a button if they wanted the doors to open when the train stopped at each of the six stations along the way.
Since it was a Friday afternoon, and school has already started, I expected Toshogu would be fairly empty. It was not. There were lots of kids there; it looked like at least half a dozen schools had decided to take a field trip to Nikko. It’s always funny to see these field trips: one adult, carrying a flag of some sort, leads hundreds of students through the train stations. The kids, all dressed exactly alike, follow that flag like little ducklings follow their mother. At Toshogu, however, the kids were allowed to run free and that’s exactly what they did. I’m tall enough that I was able to take a bunch of photos that looked like the shrine was deserted, which is how it was the last time I was there, in 1999.
After seeing all there was to see at Toshogu (plenty of information about Toshogu is available online so I won’t post it all here), we were all pretty cold and tired. Most vending machines sell both hot and cold drinks but we couldn’t find any of the hot Milk Tea we all liked so much on our last visit; all they had were coffee drinks. It was going to be at least 6:30 by the time we got back to Tokyo so I was glad we’d stocked up on lunch on our way out to Nikko, having picked up a large bento of Chinese buns and shumai in Tokyo Station. I always love eating on the train, watching Japan unroll beside me.
Our bento from Tokyo Station reminds me of our trip to the Isetan Department Store in Kyoto Station a few days ago. Like a very upscale Fred Meyer, all the Isetan stores sell everything from fashion to food. When Marla and I visited the one in Kyoto, we arrived just as they were opening. All the employees were standing at their stations, and each bowed to us and greeted us as we walked by; we felt like royalty. Throughout the store, various displays were set up where we could sample the food. This was new to me; I’ve never seen anything just given away in Japan. We tried all kinds of things and I bought some pickled cucumbers (not the same as ‘pickles’ at all) and a whole bunch of food we ended up taking back to the apartment and eating the rest of our stay in Kyoto. Their deli was unbelievable! The place we shopped yesterday, in Tokyo Station, wasn’t as large or as extravagant as Isetan, but the food selection was still outstanding. I could’ve spent a week eating there and never had the same thing twice.
Okay, Marla and Jacob are awake; it’s time to get rolling. Here are some photos from Nikko:
To make a long story short, I got my iPhone back! If you’re ever going to lose your phone in a city of 4 million people, make sure that city is in Japan. Somehow, even with my cellular data turned off, and my volume turned off, I was able to retrieve it. Most of the credit, however, goes to Erick Benitez, the owner of the Airbnb place we rented last week. He’s who I emailed once I realized my phone was missing, since he’s the only person I currently know who lives in Japan and is fluent in English and Japanese. For some unknown reason, when we took a taxi from Osaka Station to the Hard Rock Cafe in Osaka, I kept the receipt. That, and Erick’s help, were what saved me. Using the information on the receipt, which lists the cab number, Erick was able to call the cab company and ask them to contact the driver and have him look in his cab for my phone. When he first inquired, a few hours after I’d lost the phone, the driver said he didn’t see a phone in his cab. I went to bed that night thinking it was lost forever, but I still wanted to go back to Osaka and look around the Hard Rock. All that next day, Tuesday it was, was spent in Osaka, either at the police station (filling out a report, which took 8 police to figure out 😁) or at the Hard Rock; but I still couldn’t find the phone. I emailed Erick again (thankfully, I still had my iPad) and asked him to try continually calling my number, since my voice-only roaming was turned on. Maybe the driver would hear the phone buzzing from wherever it had gotten stuck, and he’d see the local Japanese number on the screen and call that number back. And that’s exactly what happened! Apparently my phone had fallen into some kind of bag in the front seat, which is where I’d sat; I’m guessing the driver only looked around the back seat when he originally looked for it. I can’t believe the battery was still working, even though I had WiFi and Location Services both turned on. As soon as he found it, the driver called Erick, Erick emailed me, and I went back to Osaka and got my phone. Amazing.
So that was all a few days ago. It’s now Friday morning and we are back in Tokyo. Taking the Yamanote Line from Tokyo Station, it felt like coming home; Kyoto is a fine city but I’m completely lost there. Here are a bunch of photos from Kyoto, after the side trip we took to Himeji.
Nanzenji Temple was on my list of must-see temples so we went there on Wednesday. I must have lost my phone on Monday, which meant we went to Himeji that day and I must’ve lost my phone Monday night. The days are a blur but I know today is Friday and I know we spent yesterday packing up and leaving Kyoto, then coming back to Tokyo, so that must mean we went to Nanzenji on Wednesday. On the way there, walking in the rain, we stumbled upon Chion-in Temple. Like most of the temples in Kyoto, Chion-in is surrounded by forest and the misty weather made it feel like we were stepping back in time. Adjacent to the temple was a very large cemetery, marching its way up the hillside. As I was looking for the best angle to photograph all this, a huge bolt of lightning lit up the sky, followed almost immediately by a long, low roll of thunder. The skies opened up and we took shelter under the main entrance to the temple, a massive gate of old-growth timber. It rained for quite some time and we finally thought we’d better get moving or we’d never reach Nanzenji in time.
As it turned out, we didn’t. It was quite a long walk to Nanzenji, some 45 minutes, and most of it was uphill in the rain. Luckily, Kyoto is so beautiful, there was lots to see along the way. When we finally reached Nanzenji, and saw the hordes of people walking towards us, I knew we were too late to go inside. However, it was still stunning from the outside so we saw all we could until it was finally dark, at which point we caught a subway for one stop, grabbed some street food by the station, then splurged on a taxi to take us the rest of the way.
Himeji Castle is located in the heart of the Kansai region. I first visited Himeji back in 1997 and it was a cold and wet day. Later visits were always sunny and warm, which is the best way to see the castle, since it’s almost pure white and a deep blue sky in the background makes for great contrast. Our trip there yesterday yielded both results: it was rainy on our approach and sunny as we exited. It was so rainy on the walk from Himeji Eki (eki means station), I had to stop in a Family Mart and pick up three umbrellas. I opted for the clear ones, so we could hold them directly over our heads and shoulders and still see what was in front of us. As soon as we got to the castle grounds the rain stopped and those umbrellas became mini greenhouses, quickly heating up the air around our faces. It was still quite cloudy, and very humid, so the white castle got a bit lost in the sky behind it. Nonetheless we marched on, taking pictures all the way (because who knows when we’ll be back?). Once we got to the main entrance, it was full-on jungle hot so I hid the umbrellas on top of a bank of coin lockers — too high for all the locals to see — and we went in. Now here I must confess: I’d never seen most of the interior of the castle before. There are multiple places where visitors must remove their shoes and I’d always been wearing sandals; they wouldn’t let me in barefoot. I wore sandals yesterday, too, but I also brought along a pair of socks in my pocket, just so I could finally see the inside! What did I see as soon as I was inside? A bunch of dudes walking around barefoot…
So anyway, seeing the inside of the castle was amazing. I hadn’t realized how many steps there were! The stairs were almost vertical, and there were easily a dozen sets to climb, with each level getting smaller and smaller until we reached the top. By the time we got to the top floor, some two hundred feet above the courtyard, it was blazing hot and the view was stupendous. The sun had appeared and the whole castle popped out of the blue sky. Exiting, I had to re-shoot all the pictures I’d taken on the way in, since the backdrop was now much better. Here are a few photos. The first one was shot with my iPhone; I believe that’s the last photo I’ll ever take with that phone so I’m glad I emailed it to people and had a copy saved in my Sent Mail folder.
We are in the land of enchantment. After the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, which is a big part of why I love that city, it’s nice to be here in the laid back city of Kyoto. Also, for the first time since arriving in Japan, we saw blue sky yesterday! The Shinkansen was late leaving Tokyo Station due to heavy rain but when we passed through all the mountain tunnels and got near Kyoto, the sun was out. Stepping out of the train, the heat hit us like a wet blanket. It took some time to find the cab stand, and the cab driver almost couldn’t find the apartment, but he got us close enough that the photos of the building, provided by Airbnb, were enough to help us find it. The apartment is a five story walk up and we are in room 402. The view from the balcony is nice.
We’re staying in the Gion District, which is chock full of small wooden houses and narrow, lamp lit streets. Walking around last night, with a warm breeze in our faces, was awesome. The river that runs through the city (the Kamogawa?) is fronted on one side by block after block of restaurants, all of which have outdoor decks above the river. We spotted one that looked like it had an empty table and were soon seated outside where we eagerly awaited our first meal in Kyoto…Italian food. That one’s for you, dad!
Later in the afternoon, same day (Sunday, September 25th). After watching the Oregon game, live, this morning on the iPad and seeing the Ducks officially end their season after only four games, it was time to hit the trail. I wanted us to see Kiyomizu Temple, Kodaiji Temple, Yasaka Shrine and the Nanzenji Temple today; all of which are within walking distance of our apartment. It was super hot this morning, with the sun shining in the east and thunderheads building in the west, so I’m really glad I had plenty of Pocari Sweat (i.e., Japanese Gatorade). The walk to the first temple, Kiyomizu, took about 20 minutes, the last half of which was up a steep hill. I remember walking around with my dad in Kyoto, back in 1999, and we got lost in the hills. Those were the pre-Google days and we had fun being lost anyway, so it was cool. Today, since our apartment is so close to everything, it was pretty easy. The narrow little street leading up to Kiyomizu was aswarm with women and girls in full kimono; even some of the guys had them on. They were so ubiquitous, they occupied a lot of space on my camera’s memory cards. Here are a few photos.
So those are a handful of the way-too-many photos I took of women in kimono. Here are a few photos of the various temple. Right now I’m looking at the photos Jacob took with his iPhone 6 and his color rendition is way better than what my $4500 Canon (with lens) can produce. Cmon, Canon….
I will also post a few photos I shot with my own iPhone, all panos, a little later.
Here are the photos I took with my iPhone 5S:
Today is Tuesday, September 27. We went to Himeji Castle yesterday, and it was amazing, but then I lost my cell phone in Osaka last night and trying to find it has consumed me ever since so it may be awhile before I post again. On a side note, if anyone travels to Japan, and tries using their iPhone, here’s a crucial tip: don’t dial 001, followed by the country code, followed by the number. Instead, hold down the 0 on your phone for a couple seconds and a + sign will appear. That + sign takes the place of 001. Then you just dial your number, including the country code. For example, if you want to call somewhere in the States, it’s the + sign, followed by 1, followed by the number you want to call. If you’re calling somewhere in Japan, it’s the + sign, followed by 81, followed by the number (and remember, if you’re calling a Japanese number with a US phone, or from anywhere outside of Japan, don’t dial the 0 that is normally the first digit of any Japanese phone number).
It’s already Friday morning here, in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo. We arrived on Wednesday evening, some 12 hours after leaving PDX. The jet lag is still with us and we were wide awake early yesterday morning. Looking at the clock on my iPad, and seeing it was 1:30, I thought it must be 5:30 am here in Tokyo (since my iPad clock has never altered itself before, when changing time zones), and I was stoked to get on the subway and head to the Tsukiji Fish Market. Then I looked at the clock again and realized it had been updated, which meant it was only 1:30 in the morning, Thursday. We went back to bed until five or so, them I got up and checked the hours for Tsukiji. We really wanted to hit the market while we still had jet lag, since the early morning hours, during the fish auctions, are the most fun. What I’d forgotten, however, was that yesterday was a Japanese holiday: it was the solstice! So the market was closed.
Open since the Edo period, the Japanese fish market moved to Tsukiji in 1923 and has been in business ever since. It’s an institution. Whenever I come to Tokyo, I always try and make it to the market my first morning. There’s something fun about having ultra-fresh sushi at 7 am, shoulder to shoulder with a lot of the fish market laborers. On my first visit to Tsukiji, in 1997, there weren’t a lot of tourists there; Google hadn’t been invented yet (had it?). I remember trying to hand money to the sushi chef, after my meal, and how everyone in the tiny restaurant (it could seat 8 people) looked at me as if I’d just sneezed on the fish. The chef kept refusing my money, and waving me away, so I thought he was being polite and buying my meal for me. When I started walking out the front door, a small woman I hadn’t previously seen came running out from behind the counter, yelling at me in Japanese. Then I understood: I was supposed to pay her, since her hands never touched the fish (in the highly misogynistic world of Japan, women were considered unable to ever handle raw fish, as their hands were deemed too warm to keep the fish fresh). That was nearly 20 years ago, which seems impossible. The last time I was at Tsukiji was in 2008, when I took Marla and Jacob to Japan for the first time. Then, the market was full of tourists and all the best hole-in-the-wall sushi joints had lines stretching down the alleys. I’m guessing that will be the case this morning, since the Tsukiji Fish Market is slated to relocate next month, to a remote area of Tokyo called Kotoku, and tourists won’t be as thick, since it won’t be readily accessible by train or bus. Nearly 20% of current fish vendors, and the vast association of other businesses associated with them, are closing their doors for good once the relocation gets underway. So this will be the last time I’ll get to go. Marla and Jacob are up and ready to brave the rain once more. I’m glad the nearest subway station is only a two-minute walk from the Airbnb house I rented here, near Harajuku. Tsukiji is nearly an hour from here, after changing trains twice, but it’s all underground. Then we have a 10-minute walk from Tsukiji Station to the market. More later, and I’ll post some photos from yesterday (all shot with my iPhone, since it was too stormy to carry an umbrella and my camera at the same time).
It’s now just after seven pm and I’m still awake, an hour later than I stayed awake last night. Woohoo! After 11 hours of walking around and riding subways I’m pretty beat but not too tired to go out to a place called Baird’s Taphouse that’s within walking distance. They make their own IPA and I’m curious to see how it tastes. But first, a bit more about our day. We did indeed make it to Tsukiji in time for the fish market and we found a hole-in-the-wall sushi joint that must’ve made it onto the TripAdvisor site.
There’s nothing like eating sushi in Tsukiji so we got in line and were seated within 30 minutes. Ahead of us in line was a couple from Silicon Valley and they asked if they could buy some yen off me, since they weren’t aware that most businesses in Japan don’t take Visa (and none of the shops in Tsukiji will take it). I made sure to tell them not to try and pay the chef when their meal was over.
The sushi was amazing and it left me wanting more food from the market, like the soup from this stall:
The woman in this photo seemed pretty upset when she looked up and saw the camera pointed at her so we decided to just scoot on down the road and go to Hama Rikyu Gyoen, one of my favorite meccas in Tokyo. Situated along the Sumida River, Hama Rikyu is the perfect oasis in an otherwise bustling area. Walking towards it, a place I’ve been a dozen times, I didn’t recognize the area at all; everything is being revamped for the upcoming Olympic Games. In fact, that’s the reason the fish market has to relocate: a road is being built in its place, a road for the games. There are a handful of brand new, 30 story buildings that have sprung up around the entrance to Hama Rikyu and it took me awhile to get my bearings. It was still raining, but only just, and the whole park was enshrouded in a low mist, awesome. Here are a few photos from Hama Rikyu:
After Hama Rikyu we walked back to the Hibiya Line and took the subway to Ueno, where I exchanged our JR vouchers for JR Passes; I also booked us on the Shinkansen to Kyoto tomorrow at 1:00. Ueno was fairly close to Asakusa, and to Sensoji Temple, so we walked there. Jacob used his phone to get us there the fastest way and it took us on a route I’d never walked before, through lots of quiet, narrow-laned streets. The sun was about to set so we made our way to the temple before it was dark and it was still crammed with people, mostly couples.
And that pretty much covers our day so far🙂
It’s now Saturday morning and we are lounging around the house. Our body clocks seem to have fully adjusted and we’re getting ready to go to Kyoto in a bit. The Baird Brewery Taphouse, where we went last night, was amazing! It felt like I was back in an Oregon microbrewery. Then I looked at the prices ($10 per pint) and realized I was in Japan, plus the fact that I was able to order grilled saba (mackerel). The best part about the place? It’s smoke free! I cannot tell you how many times I went out with Kaz, or with my classmates at ICU, and came home reeking like an ashtray; it would take a few days for my hair to finally smell normal. Now that I think about it, every place we’ve eaten at so far has been smoke free. What a difference.
I forgot to transfer some of my iPhone photos to my iPad (this is being written on the iPad). These are panoramic shots, which is the reason I bought the iPhone in the first place. I will place a caption under each one.
Our much-anticipated journey has come to an end (be sure to see my other posts, from Kyoto and Nikko, to see what’s happened since I last posted from Tokyo). We are almost home, waiting here in the Vancouver airport for two more hours for our flight to Portland. It’s always funny to fly from Tokyo to home: we left Narita at 5 pm on Tuesday and now we’re in Vancouver and it’s just past noon…on Tuesday. We went out to Shinjuku last night but it feels like two nights ago. It was our last night in Tokyo, and it was warm and humid. Marla said she wanted to try one of the crepes that are sold all over Tokyo so we made the 5 minute walk from the apartment to Takeshita Dori, which was crammed with people on a muggy Monday night, and perused the handful of crepe shops on the three block stretch of Takeshita. I opted for the strawberry shortcake and Jacob got a mixed berry. Tokyo crepes are different from the ones I had in Paris many years ago: those were flat, more like a thin pancake covered with Nutella and whipped cream. The Tokyo ones are all rolled up like a giant ice cream cone. After the first few bites, which were delicious, Jacob and I were both too full to continue. Marla nibbled a bit from each and we hunted around for a place to throw the rest away (there are almost no trash cans anywhere in Tokyo). I thought we were gonna head back to the apartment but Jacob wanted to go back to the Kabuki-cho area of Shinjuku so we hopped on the Yamanote Line and made the 2-stop trip. I didn’t think it’d be that crowded there, since it was a Monday night, but it was as packed as I’ve ever seen it. Thrumming with life, the neon lights blazing and the insanely loud music blaring out of the pachinko parlors, Kabuki-cho did not disappoint. Twisting and turning, taking any little alley that looked intriguing, we stumbled across a Mexican restaurant. A Mexican restaurant! In Tokyo! When I lived there, the one thing I craved was Mexican food but I never saw a place to get it. We had to go in. There were no complimentary bowls of chips and salsa on the table, ubiquitous to every Mexican restaurant I’ve been to in the States and in Mexico, but they did have good food and tequila. A few shots later we were ready to do some more walking. I was glad we were making the most of our last night and not just sitting in the apartment, waiting in that we-have-to-leave-tomorrow kind of vibe that can permeate the end of any long vacation. The subways stop running at midnight so we didn’t stay out too late, but we definitely gave it our all. Walking back to the station, I looked up and saw the subway entrance platform that I’d slept on back in 2000, when I and a bunch of kids from ICU missed the last train and had to crash in Shinjuku until 5:00 the next morning, when they began running again. It was strange to see it, almost like an anachronism, something that seemed completely out of place. There was no way, back in 2000, that I’d ever thought I’d be at that platform again sixteen years later with my life in Japan as mere memory. The platform looked just the same, and I think nobody else had slept on it since I’d done so (we all had to climb up to get on it, and it’s in full view of one of the busiest plazas in the world), so that was cool.
On our way back to the apartment we passed by Afuri Ramen, a place that always had a line out the door. It was relatively calm at that late hour (but it does stay open til 3 am, every night) so we ducked in for a bite. We’d already eaten there a couple nights earlier, and had to figure out how to order: put money in the vending machine, choose what we wanted, take our tickets, then give those tickets to the chefs. After one bite I could see why the line was always so long; the ramen was outstanding. It was like eating at Pat’s Steaks, in Philly, after years of eating cheesesteaks on the west coast. Jacob had looked up some rules of etiquette, most of which I already knew, but I watched the other patrons anyway –all Japanese– to make sure I was eating properly. Even if the ramen is really hot, and if the amount in your chopsticks is really large, you never bite off the ends so you can have a manageable mouthful. Instead, you keep at it, using the chopsticks to continually feed the ramen into your mouth until it’s all gone, slurping all the way. It was fantastic. I noticed all the women were given little bowls on the side, bowls they could use to hold their chopsticks over as they took each bite so any drips wouldn’t spatter the counter. The men were given no such bowls and I am proud to say I finished the whole bowl (they’re huge) and didn’t spill a drop. That was the first time we ate there. When we were there last night, I was an old pro and devoured the bowl in half the time. Lemme tell ya, if you ever wanna upset your stomach, make sure to eat most of a humongous crepe followed by a big ass bowl of spicy ramen. My stomach hadn’t hurt like that since Dave and I were in Kyoto in 1997 and I had a huge bowl of spicy spaghetti followed by a trip to Baskin Robbins. It’s all better now, thankfully.
And that’s our trip! I will post more photos here, below, once I get back home and go through them. I did see another wedding at Meiji Jingu Shrine the other day, and the light was way better than the first wedding we saw there, a couple weeks ago.
Matt Emrich Photo
At this Jasper House Farms wedding, I wanted to create a scene using the amazing copse of trees near the ceremony site. The area was fairly shady but the background had a lot of highlights from where the sun was peeking through, so I knew I needed to underexpose the ambient light a bit, then use some off-camera flash to put some light back onto the bride. This setup reflects how our eyes would normally process such a contrasty situation but a camera hasn’t been made (yet) that can do so. I could’ve foregone the use of flash, and just exposed for the bride, but that would have meant a great loss of detail in the scene and since the bride had obviously chosen the venue for its beauty, I wanted to include as much of it as I could! I had the bride’s mother hide behind the large tree on the right, holding two Canon 600 EX-RT speedlites behind an umbrella that was aimed at a 45-degree angle to the bride, opposite the direction of the sun, then I shot from far away with my long lens (Canon 70-200mm EF f/2.8L II, stabilized).
Jasper House Farms is a new arrival on the Lane County wedding venue scene and it’s spectacular! I really like how many shady areas there are for mid-day photos. This image was taken yesterday and I thought I’d post it here, before the bride and groom left for their honeymoon.