Korea/Japan 2009: Wrap-up
I've not been very studious about my Japan update and for that I'm sorry. Life's been a bit crazy since I returned "home" and I guess I figured that if I put up the pictures, I could put it off a bit but as the details of the whole trip are beginning to fade from memory, this is becoming more urgent.
So where shall I start? Lets start with a good one: Susan is awesome. Our relationship before the trip was a rather disconnected one. We knew each other only a little when I left Toronto, but I honestly believe that we've grown much closer as a result of this trip. It's always a risk, choosing to travel a foreign country with a friend and I'm really glad that it worked out so well. She compensated for my weaknesses and I for hers. I just thought that I might get that out first.
Japan is an interesting place. Though not as foreign as you may think, it's still quite different from Canada. This became quite clear to me no less than 15minutes after we landed at Narita Airport: I was fingerprinted as I came through customs. Those of you who know me know that this was quite traumatic for me. I've managed to go 29years without being treated like a criminal and here I was, at customs in a foreign country where I didn't know my rights in this regard. The man pointed at the little computer, and holding my passport he said: "Fingers. Put". I complied and it's really been bothering me ever since. I've even found myself trying to think of ways to mutilate the tips of those two fingers...
So yeah, Japanese folk seem to have fewer concerns about how much power the State has over them. This probably bothered me more than anything during my stay. A close second though would be the social acceptance of smoking over there. They still ask you: "Smoking or non?" when you enter a restaurant. Nasty. At least they can't smoke on the subway.
The subways were a bit of a disappointment really. All those stories you hear about pushers on the trains? Never saw one. In fact, the trains we were on never got any more crowded than a TTC or Seoul subway car does. From what I hear though, the JR Line trains from the surrounding areas are what started this rumour, as they support the suburbanites, but since we never went there, it never happened.
Transit is a good place from which to segue into Tokyo though. My gods it was impressive. Not so much the stations or the trains themselves, but the sheer number of lines and how the city manages its mass. Tokyo supports within its borders the entire population of Canada. 12million in Tokyo proper, and 33million when you include the suburbs.
But here's the kicker: you wouldn't know it. Excluding a few famous intersections, the focal points of the city are sufficiently dispersed that you don't have the "downtown" problem that plagues most North American cities. Instead of funnelling all 33million people into a single urbanised core, Tokyo supports many, many "cores", each with a mix of residential, commercial and even industrial uses. People will often live in Shinjuku and work in Roppongi, both "downtowns" in their own right, but within the same city. For the Vancouver people, imagine if Burnaby were a real destination for people, or if it wasn't unique to live in Vancouver but work in Richmond. Now imagine that all of that space were one great big city. That's Tokyo -- but with real transit.
One more note on the transit: it's massive. It's a mesh of 13 subway lines and 282 stations (not including the commuter rail (JR) lines) criss-crossing above and below ground, all different colours, sporting hard-to-remember names and managed by two different private companies. Now, imagine that even with all of that complexity, that it was super-easy to navigate: Each station is sequentially numbered and colour-coded so if you're going from A to B, you find the coloured line you're likely to take on the many free multi-lingual maps, find the start and end points and take their numbers. If you're going from 13 to 26, then you make sure that the numbers are getting bigger as you ride. If not, you're going the wrong way. Transit way-finding in Tokyo was never a problem.
Another common myth people hear about Tokyo is that it's a concrete desert, but nothing could be further from the truth. True, much of it is paved, but there are beautiful gardens everywhere, and I'm not talking about these lame Toronto-style parkettes, or these new mini parks that are popping up in Vancouver, I'm talking about acres of tended streams, trees and flowers right in the midst of the city. Some like the The Hama Rikyu Teien Gardens near the Tsukiji Fish Market cost a few hundred yen (100¥ was roughly $1.30CAD), and others like the Meiji Shrine are totally free. Beautiful landscaped public spaces nestled between the urban spaces to help keep people sane. It's really very impressive.
We only had three days in Tokyo though, so we couldn't possibly have seen everything we wanted to. Squaresoft and Joypolis would have to wait for another time. We did however see the busiest intersection in the world, in an area of town called Shibuya, visit Asakusa for its beautiful old Buddhist temple, walk through Shinjuku to see some awesome architecture as well as the Imperial Palace (though we couldn't wake up early enough to get inside the grounds). Tokyo is awesome, but expensive. You should go, but make sure that you're prepared to drop about $75CAD a day... assuming that you're staying in a hostel.
Like every rational country, Japan links its major cities with high-speed rail that plugs into local transit. You can take the subway from Asakusa to Tokyo station in 20minutes and without leaving the building, hop on a bullet train to a city hundreds of kilometres away. We were in Kyoto in a matter of hours.
Kyoto is pretty much the opposite of Tokyo. Where Tokyo is sky scrapers and 33million people, Kyoto is a quiet, traditional Japanese town riddled with centuries-old temples and a less-than-impressive subway system. You don't come to Kyoto for the bustle and night life, you come for the culture, history and peace.
Susan had booked us into Tani House, a hostel that bills itself as a traditional home converted for hostel living. We got a whole house to ourselves, complete with kitchen, living room, bathroom and a few bedrooms and the old woman who runs the place even made us tea when we arrived. We ate on the floor, we slept on the floor in the paper-walled bedroom and let the high-energy memory from Tokyo fade away. It's a great place to stay, I muchly recommend :-)
While digging around for a link to Tani House, I happened upon this YouTube video of the interior. Check it out if you're interested.
We didn't have a lot of time there, so sightseeing of Kyoto was rather rushed. We spent one day visiting the Imperial Palace1 complete with English language tour and acres of cherry blossoms and continued into the rest of the city to do some general sightseeing. Kyoto is divided by a massive river that the public uses for everything from jogging to picnics to makeouts. It's really quite beautiful. Have I said that enough yet? We spent an evening in Gion at a lantern festival, and we even paid a rather entertained cab driver to take us to The Nintendo Building. That's right, I can has culture.
Kyoto: Learn Your Pronunciation
One final note on Kyoto before I move on. We realised early on in our stay there that as Kyoto is overrun with beautiful old temples, the locals (and for the sake of this story, the cab drivers) usually navigate by the temple names rather than street intersections. This can be dangerous if you don't have the pronunciation down.
We'd done everything right. Susan had acquired a map of the city and directions to our hostel. We'd found the temple nearest our hostel (Daikaku-ji) and circled it on the map and after a long day of sightseeing, figured that a cab ride home was only appropriate. We handed the map to the driver, pointed at the circled portion and we were off.
It wasn't long before Susan and I both started to feel as though we weren't on the right track. The surrounding areas looked less and less familiar as the ride continued on and eventually the city began to fade away. With fewer and fewer lights on the streets outside, we started to freak out just a little. We asked the driver: "Daitoku-ji?" and he smiled, though looking a little confused and nodded. We had put all of our faith in a map and a stranger and now there was a lake coming up on our right.
30minutes and about 30 000¥ later, he pulls into a dark, deserted temple and asks for his cash. We panic. Much confusion ensues. Clearly he was sure that he'd taken us to the right place, but this was obviously not where we wanted to go. The driver figured that we did in fact want to be at this temple, we just didn't know where our hostel was from here. He turned off the meter and took us a little further into town where he proceeded to ask strangers for us regarding the location of this "Tani House" place. No luck. We got him to take us somewhere near civilisation, paid the incredibly patient man and got out. It was 10pm and we were on a strange street in a foreign country with a phrase book, an (apparently useless) map and just under about 100000¥.
It took us some time (and a few fruitless enquiries with non-English-speaking locals) to figure out that when we'd initially circled the temple on the map, we'd gotten a syllable wrong. Daikaku-ji was in the middle of nowhere. Daitoku-ji was where we wanted to be. It hadn't been a problem before because we'd followed the aforementioned directions to our hostel the first time.
So let this be a lesson to you kids:
- Get a map
- Make sure you've got the right place on that map.
- Trust the cab drivers in Kyoto, they're awesome, but feel free to second-guess yourself.
- Make sure that you have lots of cash -- just in case.
For those who already know, I apologise for stating the seemingly obvious, but since I didn't know, I must assume that I'm not the only one. Written Japanese is in fact three different character sets: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Most people know this much but what surprised and impressed me was the fact that each of these character sets have their own purpose -- ie. they're not exactly interchangeable.
Kanji for example is probably the closest thing to what Westerners often assume all Asian languages are like. Each symbol is a single character (as opposed to Korean which is a composite of symbols representing a syllable) which represents an idea or thought. "Home" has it's own symbol, as does "food" and "vehicle". These symbols are then combined into statements, often only a few symbols long that culturally mean something. "Car parkade" cannot be represented in Kanji, instead they symbol for "vehicle" and "place" are used and everyone understands.
The problem with Kanji though is that it's limiting. You can't really create full sentences with it easily. For this, hiragana is provided as the sort of "glue". The symbols are noticeably different and actually "spell out" into words rather than independently represent ideas. I don't really understand much more than this.
Lastly, there's katakana, which as my guidebook explained, is often used for foreign words. My name would be spelt with katakana as would "Vancouver" or probably even "meat loaf" as there's likely is no Japanese word for it. katakana appears deceptively similar to hiragana (for the uninitiated) so understanding signage with a little guidebook is really tough.
If there's anything that I've taken away from this trip, it's that I apparently have an aptitude for languages, or at the very least a sincere interest. I managed to pick up the basics in no time and have little touble handling navigation and simple conversation. It's fun! You should try :-)
If you're interested in finding more information about the various writing types in Japan, I found this handy site that covers not only the modern usage, but the historical roots of all three types as well.
Frankly, I was surprised that you can't take a train to Okinawa. Of course I knew that it was an island, but I figured that Japan of all places would have tried to run a train there :-) Sadly, this wasn't the case though, so we took a train from Kyoto station to Kansai airport in Osaka and boarded a short flight to Okinawa where we met Susan's friend Yasuko (pronounced "yes-ko") who would serve as our awesome guide for the duration of our stay in Japan.
The differences between Okinawa and either of our previous destinations are night & day. Everything from climate (tropical) to urban design (far more suburban) to culture (it's like another country) is drastically different from either Tokyo or Kyoto. Where Tokyo has skyscrapers, Okinawa has decaying low-rises, instead of subways, there are highways. The presence of Americans too is staggering. There's a US air force base within the city limits and everywhere you look you see American military types with their families. It's amazing how your personal feel for safety changes as well. In Kyoto Susan watched a girl leave her laptop on a table in a Starbucks while she went to the bathroom, but that kind of thing is much less likely in Okinawa.
But outside of the city, Okinawa is surrounded with tropical forest. Yasuko drove us all over the countryside to holy shrines and sleepy little villages where we took pictures of the flora, were eaten by bugs and enjoyed the scenery. We ate at a little place called "Pizza and Sky" with an amazing view and visited a series of cottage factories where people were making glass sculpture by hand. This is the kind of thing you just can't do on your own and Yasuko made this possible. She is awesome.
Our last big stop in our Okinawa trip was the Churaumi Aquarium a massive building on the shore that plays host to hundreds of different aquatic species. There was the traditional dolphin show as well as the biggest fish tank I've ever seen. I saw a fish that was bigger than a house dude. Crazy, crazy stuff.
All of the above took place in the space of a week. There was more of course but as it is, this post is already way too long. Japan is just fascinating. With its mountain of cute toys (Hello Kitty anyone?), ancient culture and honourable people, it's an amazing place to experience. I'll have to go back, as I just didn't have enough time for everything I wanted to see. Next time I'll have to spend more time in Tokyo and Kyoto and be sure to visit Hiroshima as well. When I do return though, I hope that Susan will come with me too. She was fun :-)
- Kyoto was actually the original seat of the Emperor from way back in the 8th Century. In fact, "Kyoto" means "capital city". It was later moved to Edo (Tokyo) in the 1800's.