Friday, January 19, 2007

Entry #3: Hakuba Dec. 31st - Jan. 3rd

So begins the telling of the final chapter in the triology that was my Christmas holidays. It's about damn time, is all I can say. Enough of the dilly-dallying. Let's get to the meat of this entry.

Kyoto came and went. If you read the previous entry you will know how wonderful of a trip that was. If you haven't read it stop now and get your scrolling finger working. I'll wait for you to finish and talk with those who are already caught up to date. So, how's things? Same here. Bought myself a new laptop. A flashy one! Acer, fast as all get-out, etc... I'll take some pictures and show it off like a newborn child. Oh, sorry to cut this short but everyone's all caught up. Pretty good trip, right? Well, guess what? This one is even better!

I got back from Kyoto at around 6 PM on the 30th of December, travelled home, changed my suitcase full of dirty clothes and souveniers to some less dirty clothes and warm clothes. had a drink with the roommate, showed them some pictures and slept very little. I was up at 6 AM catching the train and all night I tossed and turned worrying about missing the bus and messing up the entire remainder of the holidays. I made it to Shinjuku with plenty of time to spare, got my ticket all set, had breakfast at McDonald's (no matter where you are an Egg McMuffin still tastes heavenly after very little sleep) and jumped on the bus. Four hours later I was off in beautiful Hakuba, filled with mountains and several feet of snow! Oh, I saw snow in Kyoto but it barely stuck around to make a Canadian's wish come true. Now, I was surrounded by so much I was actually starting to be sick of its cold. Not really though. After waiting a bit at the bus stop I came to realize that I was probably at the wrong stop since Rina said she would pick me up within a couple of minutes. She called me and I made the revelation much to Rina's chagrin. She rolled around to where I foolishly got off the bus and she introduced me to her sister. Then it was off to her house.

Now, Rina's parents own a quiant B&B in the hills of Hakuba. It is beyond beautiful and they were nice enough to house me for 4 days. They even gave me my own room in the hotel! And fed me! It was fantastic. Rina showed me around, made mention of a few things we may do over the holiday and then immediately put me to work. I cut seeweed into tiny strips for the soup course of tonight's meal way better than Rina! Rina wanted to compete so I did what every guy does when challenge: beat the living pants off of her! Oh, there was no contest! Rina, if you are reading this I apologize for rubbing it in so much but even you gotta admit how bad you got beat! Hahahahaha.

Anyways, after relaxing in the lounge and a few games of chess (a couple wins and a loss, well played Rina!) dinner was served. Now, let me tell you about this first meal because I have not been fed like this since my last family meal back home. 6 courses rolled in and 6 empty plates rolled back out. Starting with a fantastic appetizer, pumpkin soup and salad the main dishes began to roll through. First came a fantastic white fish with lobster sauce and then came a SECOND main! Lamb with black truffles! Good gravy I haven't felt full since leaving home. The final topping came out in the form of homemade mint ice cream. All the while Rina and I played our on-going game of What If... for almost the entire meal. I found out many things that night with the main point being that the argument between hairy vs. smelly still rages on. After a bit more relaxing in the main room we rang in the New Year watching the different temples in Japan unfold their festivities. Around 1:30 I drifted to bed and crashed.

Day 2 brought about the promise of cross-country skiing. Now, I haven't cross-country skiied in well over 3 years and it is definately not something that came back to me like riding a bike...well, if you consider my history with bikes maybe it did! All that crashing and so forth. It was painful and tough as hell but it was fun and well worth the sights. I got some amazing pictures of Rina and I on the mountainside in our crazy get-ups and such. After a bit more skiing we came to the final descent to the bottom of the mountain. Downhill is not even close to my forte so I unsnapped the bindings and jogged/hopped down the hill. Sore beyond all belief but feeling more relaxed than I have felt in a long time we made our way back to the house and relaxed a little more. A couple games of Chairs later (like Jenga but with plastic chairs) we had the traditional New Years meal of sweet preserved fish and meat. More relaxing, more chatting, another game of chess (another sweet victory) and it was time to call it a night.

Day 3 was highlighted with a trip to Nagano and Zenkoji Temple: one of the largest temples in Japan. There were several unique features of this temple: there was this large, octagonal pillar that, if you spun it once, and by spin I mean push with all your might, you would get the same enlightenment as reading the full teachings of Buddhism; there was also an underground path in the main temple building that was pitch black but held within it a metal key that if you touched it, you were given instant access to Heaven (look out Heaven, Don found the key!!). After a fortune that stated I would be prosperous all year, we headed out and found a great noodle restaurant, did a bit of browsing at shops and headed back to the hotel. Since we were all pretty beat we once again crashed in front of the TV. Now, the rumours about Japanese TV are all 100% true! We watched some crazy variety shows, the Hakone Marathon and a wonderful show called Run For Money, in which 12 people are let loose in Shibuya and are chased by suited hunters. $3 was added to the pot every second for a full hour, which is about $10,000 (I think...can someone do the math for me?) The show finished, 1 AM came and reared its ugly head and we prepped for the journey home.

We left Rina's house the next day and drifted around downtown Hakuba visiting the Nagano Olympics Ski Jumping hill, ate some octopus balls (octopus cooked in a cheese sauce and rolled into chicken ball-like form) and hit the bus only to find out that Rina and I were to be on different buses. After 5 hours on the bus back, a finished book and several text messages about who we were stuck beside on our bus later we made it back to Shinjuku. Rina and I parted ways and I headed back home and finished my holidays at home.

And so ends the trilogy. So let it be written, so let it be known.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Entry #2: Kyoto Dec. 28th-30th

Well, well, well...it has been a while! Almost a month since my last update...where does the time go, I ask you faithful readers who have dealt with the blogging absence? "Into thin air and passes into a realm we can never reach again, no matter how much we long for it." is a solid answer, well spoken! There are reasons for my absence: a lack of time, work bogging me down like an elephant stuck in a tar pit, exhaustion from the travelling I did over the holidays (half of which will be documented here) but that is no excuse to leave people out in the cold. So, come on in! Pull up a spot next to the fire and warm your chilled bones. You've been stuck out in the cold for far too long and it's time to throw a blanket around your shivering shoulders and tell you the tale of Part II of my Christmas vacation: Kyoto.

After the house party had wrapped, the house been cleaned and the pictures been put on display for everyone to see, I prepared myself for my first real trip since coming to Japan. How fitting then that the first trip by the most stereotypical tourist spot in Japan: Kyoto. Known for its ties to Old Japan (I believe it was once the capitol of Japan way back when but don't quote me on that) I asked around and found two others who were also interested in visiting this lovely part of the country: Dawn and Graham. Dawn is an American from Ohio, Graham (spelt differently but whatever) is a Scottish fellow. The three of us sound like a bad joke gone wrong: "So, a Canadian, an American and a Scottish person get on a bullet train..." You get the idea. So I book the tickets, make the arrangements, deliver the good news and await the 28th of December when we are to leave for Kyoto.

The 28th shows up quicker than expected and I am, fortunately, well prepared in advance. I take the trains to Tokyo Station, the metropolitan hub that holds our Shinkansen (which is Japanese for 'bullet train') and my two anxious travel companions. But alas, my two chums are absent. I call up Dawn and ask where she is. "I'm in front of the Shinkansen gate. Where are you?" I reply "I'm in front of the Shinkansen gate. Uh oh." Turns out Dawn and Graham are at the other end of Tokyo Station and have...oh...10 minutes before the train takes off with or without us. They hustle their asses over to my gate, the correct entrance, and break through the turnstile without even buying a ticket. We haul ass up the stairs, hand our tickets over, jump on the train and sail off with seconds to spare. What a way to begin things! There is never a dul moment when Don, Dawn and Graham get together!

The Shinkansen is exactly as it is imagined with the added bonus of a fantastic view of Mt. Fuji on clear days. You race through Japanese towns with the quickness and percision of a ninja. The comfort is first class all the way with enough leg room to make even the tallest of gaijin comfortable (Travis, you would be in luck). We arrive in Kyoto 2 hours later and have only the slightest difficulty finding the hotel. We get in, unpack and look out the window to see an amazing view of the city. Graham spies a five-story Pagoda that looks completely black so we make that our first stop. Realizing that I forgot to bring my laptop I start rationing pictures knowing what we're gonna be doing the next day. I still snap off a bunch there (my favourite being the stump poses and the crazy Japanese folks who took our pictures first then got in a photo themselves) and we move on to look for another place. After wandering with no idea where we are going Graham asks this lovely middleaged woman where the nearest temple is. Not only does she tell us but she leads us right to the entrance! Talk about going out of your way to help others! You hear the stories but just don't expect it to happen. Unfortunately, the place is closing soon but we still barge through, snap a couple of pictures, sneak into a closed tatami room and head out again. With the weather starting to chill us to the bone we wander around closer to the hotel, find a really interesting looking tower, hit a couple of shops, have some ramen and gyoza and head back to the hotel room where we crash and watch CNN Internation's coverage of the Saddam Hussein hanging.

The next day holds travel, travel and more travel. Luckily, hotels in Kyoto provide bus passes for 5 bucks a pop that allow all-day travel and the handiest of maps to get to as many attractions as possible. The first stop on our journey is Ginkakuji: The Silver Pavillion. Oh, and by the way, it snowed in the night so if you haven't seen the pictures already take a look at what Kyoto looks like with a blanket of the powder covering its most famous landmarks. Jealous yet? Thought so. The Silver Pavillion is just a building that was supposed to model the Golden Pavillion but never got coated in gold. Amazing gardens and pathways through and over hills make this a great beginning, no matter how bitterly cold my hands become I snap picture after picture (Personal Favourites: the group pic in front of the Silver Pavillion, Dawn on the staircase, the snow, more snow and all the other snow pictures.)

Next stop is Nijojo Castle but, for some bizarre reason, the place is closed for the holidays. Damn, there goes that attraction. Oh well, gives us more time to hit Kinkakuji: The Golden Pavillion. This place lives up to the name and is, in fact, a Japanese style house that is covered in gold leaf, as ordered by the owne back in ancient times. The area around the Golden Pavillion is majestic! Islands in a pond that is crystal blue, waterfalls around duck-filled ponds, Japanese trees blanketed in white, powdery snow and with more snow falling all the while. There are no particular favourite pictures because this place is what Japan is all about: enough beauty to fill thousands of memory cards. This is a must for anyone wanting to see Japan at its finest. The crowds do take away a little from the amazing spectacle that is the Golden Pavillion but everyone is too dumbstruck by the simplistic beauty and amazement to really concern themselves with all the tourists. Just amazing.

After a quick lunch at the coolest looking McDonald's I've ever seen we hop to Heian Shrine, a massive structure that is more hidden to the gaijin eye. While the entrance and main buildings are impressive it is the garden pathway that really must be seen to be appreciated. Miniature lakes, shubbery the likes I will never see again, stone pathways across water that look like samurai could have trained their balance and co-ordination there years prior and a bridge that will leave you speechless. The pictures started to fill up my camera here (Favourite Pictures: The three nuts on the rocks, the bridge pictures, Graham's confusion over the signs.)

Gion was the next stop on the tour; an area famous for their geisha population. Now, there are three levels of geisha in Japan 1) Geisha. The top rank. 2) Geiko. Geisha in training. 3) Maiko. Assistants to Geiko. Think the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. You had the young girl who scrubbed the floors (maiko) and assisted the bitchy, catty young woman (geiko) who ruined the kimono of the head woman of the household (geisha). It's difficult to find a geisha just out and about in Gion and I wish I could tell you that we found one but unfortuantely our luck had seemed to run out at that point. Gion, luckily enough, is a really cool marketplace with lots of sights to see, smell, taste, touch and listen to.

It was long dark by this point so the three weary travellers headed back to the ramen restaurant and chatted about the mysteries of relationships and life itself. An interesting conversation topic with people I really didn't know too too well but it was nice and really made me feel comfortable with these two. We all found out that we were in similar boats paddling our way around the ocean of life. This time we just happened to leave the ocean behind for a few days and wander the shore. We called it quits for the day but not after we ribbed Graham for his embarassing situation at Heian Shrine. Graham had been repeating the Japanese that was spoken to him for some odd reason so when he heard a nice young woman say "Ichi, ni, san" and take a picture of her family in front of the main gate, Graham thought nothing of repeating it in not the most quiet of voices. Well, turns out that while Graham may have found it ok, the young woman in the red pumps took alot of offence to it. The look she gave him chilled even the bowels of my soul. I was standing next to him and we both froze when that stare of hatred pierced our auras and drilled into our minds. Graham felt like shit for doing it but since you can't have do-overs in life he'll have to just live with ruining that nice young lady's day. It was too funny.

Day three brought about our departure day but not without visiting one last site: Kiyomizu Temple. Situated high in the hills of Kyoto, Kiyomizu has the best view of the city and the coutryside. I used the last little bit of memory card space I had left save for two pictures for the Shinkansen. We wandered there until we had to leave for the train. We arrived well early this time, bid Kyoto adieu and flew back to Yokohama. I left Dawn and Graham at Shin-Yokohama Station with pleasantries and thanks, burst through the gate and raced home to prepare for Part III of my epic trilogy: Hakuba. Stay tuned tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion.