|(Click on any of the
pictures to see a larger version.)
Kyoto: this is one of the many famous historic temples and shrines
which dot the hillsides on the eastern edge of Kyoto. It features a
huge wooden terrace which overlooks the city.
is a view of Kyoto from the terrace at Kyomizu. Kyoto was the capital
of Japan until 1868, and remains one of the country's most
This is a busy pedestrian mall in the Nanba district of Osaka. Osaka is the main city of the Kansai
region and is the country's second most-important city behind Tokyo.
The business to the left is a crab sushi restaurant.
A view of Osaka at night from the observatory atop the Umeda Sky Building.
The city stretches for miles in all directions, ending only when it
meets the mountains or the sea. The scale and density of Japanese
cities is amazing and is unlike anything I've seen anywhere else.
The busy port city of Kobe is to the west of Osaka. The city's recovery following a devastating 1995 earthquake is serving as inspiration to New Orleans, another city recently decimated by a natural disaster.
A view of Tokyo from the observation deck of the Tokyo Tower, looking westward. The cluster of buildings in the distance is Shinjuku-ku,
a major commercial, shopping, administrative and entertainment
district. Like most Japanese cities, Tokyo is multi-nodal; it does not
have a clearly-defined "downtown" or "central business district."
Tokyo at night. This view is
looking northward from our hotel in Shinagawa. To the left is the
brightly-lit Tokyo Tower, where the previous picture was taken.
The Meiji Shrine
in Tokyo. It was constructed in 1920 (and rebuilt after World War II)
to commemorate Emperor Meiji, who became the first emperor of "modern"
Japan in 1868.It is located adjacent to Yoyogi Park on the city's near
west side and is close to Tokyo's trendy Harajuku
district. Unfortunately, the rain kept all the teenagers in outlandish
fashions - the "Harajuku Girls" that Gwen Stefani sings about - from
coming out that day.
Here I am standing at the Tenjo Ropeway overlooking Lake Kawaguchi. We came to the scenic highlands surrounding Mt. Fuji hoping to see the great mountain itself. However, clouds spoiled our view.
Well, they say it rolls downhill! This sign, which we found at the Tenjo Ropeway, is an excellent example of "Engrish." As an English teacher in Japan, David quickly discovered that he had his work cut out for him.
We returned to Kyoto to see another famous temple, the Ginkakuji.
This Zen Buddhist temple features a beautiful and serene garden. One
could spend days upon days in Kyoto and still not see everything.
Deer roam freely about the ancient city of Nara.
They are said to be messengers of the gods and are considered sacred.
They are not afraid of humans; in fact, they come up to people expecting
to be fed.
One of Japan's most famous temples is the Todaiji
in Nara. This massive wooden structure, built at the end of the 1600s,
is actually smaller than the structure which preceeded it.
Inside the Todaiji is a
gigantic Buddha. It is six stories tall; pictures just can't do it
justice. Most Japanese are syncretic with regards to religion; that is,
they might practice both Shinto as well as Buddhist rituals. It is
quite common to find a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine on the same
my brother David at a kaiten-zushi, or conveyor belt sushi restaurant,
in Nishinomiya. Just sit at a table and grab what you want to eat as it
comes by. A sensor counts the number of plates consumed and totals your
bill. This is actually one of the less-expensive dining options in
Japan, and it's very family-oriented.
The Memorial Centotaph for Atomic Bomb Victims in Hiroshima commemorates the estimated 80,000 people who died as a result of Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on the city on August 6, 1945 from the Enola Gay.
In the distance is the Atomic Bomb Dome, which was the prefecture's
industrial exhbition hall before World War II. It is the only surviving
ruin of the atomic bombing and is a symbol of the destructiveness of
|My Trip to Japan
brother had been living and working in Japan as an English teacher
since April of 2004. In October of 2005, I was finally able to visit
him. Here is a recap of my trip, with some pictures. (Good thing I
went when I did; he returned to Houston in December.)
Getting there and back was possible because I had accumulated enough
Continental OnePass miles (although it took me a dozen years to do so,
since I don’t fly nearly as frequently as I would like) to fly
for free; all I needed to pay out-of-pocket were about $60 in various
fees and taxes. Most of the flights were on Continental’s
codeshare partner, Northwest. This meant that, in order to get to and
from Osaka’s Kansai International Airport (which sits on a
man-made island out in the bay), I had to fly through Northwest’s
hub in Detroit. I left Houston the morning of
Thursday October 21st and, after transfering in Detroit and crossing the international date line,
arrived in Japan the following evening.
I thought that flying on a 747 for the first time would be a fun
experience. It was not. The plane was cramped and I was stuck in a
middle seat between two other people for fourteen hours straight.
I could not get any sleep because it was simply too uncomfortable to do
so, given the cramped conditions and intermittent turbulence. None of
the channels on the plane’s audio system worked, either, making
the headphones they passed out to everyone essentially useless unless
we wanted to watch the crappy in-flight movies they were showing.
Eventually, the flight landed and I wearily made my way through Kansai International Airport.
The woman at passport control got upset with me because I didn’t
fill in the line on the immigration document stating what my address
and telephone number in Japan were going to be. None of the books or
websites I read about traveling to Japan said that this information was
required, so I didn’t bother to get David’s address or
telephone before I left. I was about to tell her to go outside and ask
him where he lived, because he was out in the terminal lobby waiting for me, but she finally
let me through. I collected my suitcase, passed through customs, met my
brother and we took a bus back to his apartment in Nishinomiya.
is a municipality located roughly halfway between Osaka and Kobe on the
north side of Osaka Bay. To be sure, the north and west sides of Osaka
Bay essentially constitute one large urban area, and there isn't any
physical distinction between individual municipalities. However,
Nishinomiya's relatively central location did make for easy day trips
to other cities in the Kansai region, such as Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara. This made it easy for David to plan out an extensive itinerary for me.
Thus, the next several days
were a whirlwind of traveling, sightseeing, eating and drinking. The
first full day I was there, Saturday October 22, David, his girlfriend
and I went to the ancient capital of Kyoto, about an hour and a half
from Nishinomiya. Once we reached Kyoto we made our way to the imperial
palace grounds so we could watch the Jidai Matsuri
(Festival of the Ages) parade. It was an interesting parade which
depicted different eras and personalities in Japan’s history with
ornate costumes, musicians, horses and palanquins (portable shrines).
Afterwards we made our way across the river to eastern Kyoto where most
of the famous shrines and temples are located. We visited the
Kyomizu temple, which is famous for its hillside view overlooking
Kyoto, and afterwards strolled through the streets of the nearby Gion
district, walking through parks, looking at other temples and shrines,
and stopping for ridiculously overpriced coffee. We then made our way
back across the river and dined at a restaurant along Kyoto’s
waterfront. (David has more detail about this particular excursion on his blog).
On Sunday the three of us went to Osaka. We toured the Osaka Castle and
Museum, went to a crab sushi restaurant in the central Nanba district,
and then went to the Floating Garden observatory atop the Umeda Sky
Tower to see an amazing nighttime view of the city. That evening,
David's girlfriend drove us over the mountains to the town of Sanda,
where we ate dinner at a friends' house. Japanese homes are a mix of
the modern and the traditional, with fully-automated kitchens just
steps away from traditional washitsu with tatami mats.
On Monday, we took a trip to Kobe, the port city that had to be largely
rebuilt after a devastating 1995 earthquake. There we rode the ropeway
up a mountain overlooking the city and later went on a boat cruise of
the busy Kobe harbor, which allowed us a great view of the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge,
which is the longest suspension bridge in the world.
On Tuesday October
25th, my brother and I embarked on the "big" excursion, a two-day
journey to Tokyo and the highlands around Mt. Fuji. David was looking
forward to the trip as much as I was because, in spite of being in
Japan for a year and a half, he had never ridden the Shinkansen (bullet
train) or visited Tokyo. Neither failed to impress either of us.
Once we arrived in Tokyo, we took a bus tour of the city's main sites
including the Tokyo Tower, the grounds in front of the Imperial Palace,
and the Asakusa Temple. We later checked into our hotel in the
Shinagawa district, and dined at a yakitori restaurant in the city's
upscale Roppongi district. In the process of traveling around town, we
familiarized ourselves with Tokyo's impressive subway system.
The following day, David and I took a leisurely walking tour of some of
central Tokyo's major districts, including Nihonbashi, with its famous
zero-milestone bridge, the upscale Ginza district, and the riverfront
Tsukiji district. We then took the subway to across town to see the
Meiji Shrine and the trendy Harajuku district. Finally, we made our way
to Shinjuku station and boarded a highway bus which took us out of
Tokyo and into the highlands. We spent the night in a ryokan on the
shores of Lake Kawaguchi.
On Thursday the 27th, David and I spent time in around Lake Kawaguchi,
hoping to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately, we had no such
luck; clouds obscured our view of the majestic mountain all day long.
Dejected, we took a bus from Kawaguchi to Mishima early that afternoon
so that we could catch the bullet train back to Osaka (and, from there,
a local train to Nishinomiya). However, the ride was slow and
circuitous and my eventual need to find a restroom caused the two of us to get off the bus at a
village outside the town of Gotenba. There we found the necessary
sanitary facilities as well as a delightful little shine which led to
an overlook that, on an clear day, would have afforded a great view of
Since we had time to kill until the next bus to Mishima arrived, David
and I went to a small cafe near the overlook for a cup of tea. While we
were there, David explained to the cafe's owner that we had come to see
Mt. Fuji, but were frustrated by the clouds and therefore were on our
way back to Nishinomiya.
We had finished our tea, paid our bill and started walking back towards
the bus stop when the cafe's owner ran behind us, calling for us. Had
we forgotten something? No. She had felt so bad about the fact that we
were unable to see Mt. Fuji that she wanted us to have two snapshots -
from her own, personal, photo album - of the mountain.
Although the woman need not have given us her own pictures of the
mountain, David and I gratefully accepted the photos; it would have
been rude, in the Japanese cultural context, to do otherwise.
Besides, it was a wonderful gesture on the cafe owner's part and it is
a unique little memory of Japan that my brother and I will always have.
In retrospect, I'm glad that my need to use the restroom caused us to
stop at that village!
We caught the next bus to Mishima, grabbed a bite to eat once we
arrived there, and then took the next Shinkansen back to Osaka.
Friday October 28th David and I returned to Kyoto, this time to see the
Ginka-kuji (Silver Pavilion) temple and its beautiful and serene Japanese
gardens. We also took a stroll down the “Philosopher’s
Path." The following day, we took a day trip to Nara, one of Japan's
oldest cities, to see more temples and shrines as well as the deer that
roam freely about the city.
On October 30th, I took the
Skinkansen to Hiroshima. David was unable to make the trip with me, so
I was "on my own" for the day. Despite not speaking any Japanese, I was
able to find my way from the main train station to Hiroshima's Peace Park and
back without trouble. Hiroshima is a vibrant, bustling city. Other than
the serene Peace Park, there really is no visible indication that the
city was obliterated by an atomic bomb in August 1945.
I returned home on Halloween Day, Monday October 31st. The return trip
was slightly better. This time, I had an aisle seat, so I had a bit
more room to stretch out. The flight was also a bit quicker because the
eastbound plane was flying with the jet stream instead of against it.
One audio channel was working, which meant that I could at least listen
to the same songs over and over again. However, I couldn’t get
the audio for any of the in-flight movies they were showing (and they
were actually showing something I wanted to see on the flight back!),
and the overhead reading light didn’t work, either. Northwest
Airlines, having declared bankruptcy, is clearly deferring nonessential
maintenance of their aircraft.
My original itinerary back to Houston required me to land in Detroit,
go through customs, languish at the Detroit airport for a couple of
hours, take a short flight across Lake Erie to Cleveland, languish at
the Cleveland airport for a couple more hours, and then fly to Houston.
However, I was able to avoid the extra layover by convincing a very
nice Northwest gate agent to put me on a direct flight from Detroit to
Houston. My bags were already checked through Cleveland, however, and
so even after I arrived in Houston my father and I had to languish in
the baggage claim area for a couple of hours, waiting for the plane
from Cleveland to arrive so I could collect my luggage. Oh, well. At
least I made it home safely, in spite of all the languishing.
If I ever fly to Japan again, I think I’m going to go with
Continental’s non-stop service from Houston to Toyko and then
take the Shinkansen to my final destination. Having to
transfer to and from long international flights is no fun; I prefer
getting through customs and going home. Besides, the spacious,
comfortable environment of the Shinkansen is a welcome relief from the
cramped quarters of the plane, and with a 7-day Japan Rail Pass
currently costing about $250, it pays for itself even if you only ride the
Shinkansen a couple of times.
Being in the transportation planning profession, I obviously found
Japan’s extensive network of trains fascinating. From the sleek
Shinkansen to the rickety streetcars of Hiroshima, from the extensive
JR (Japan Railways) system to the various private railways (including
the Hankyu system, which David and I used the most), from the
relatively young and small subway system in Kobe to the bewilderingly
extensive subway in Tokyo, Japan is a veritable rail nation. With an
overall population density that is an order of magnitude higher than
that of the United States, high-capacity transportation is not
an option. As a result, the entire country is crisscrossed by every
conceivable type of rail system. Most of it is electrically-powered,
but I did see at least one diesel multiple unit (DMU) consist at
JR’s Osaka Station. Japan’s main railway stations double as
shopping centers; in many cases, in order to connect from one line to
another you have to literally walk through underground malls.
My brother made sure that I got to experience many different types of
Japanese food while I was there. The evening I arrived, for example, I
managed to shake off my exhaustion long enough to go out with him and
his girlfriend to eat okonomiaki, which could be described as a
combination of a pancake, an omelet and a pizza. It was actually pretty
good. I also liked the yakitori (grilled skewers), chabu chabu (which
could best be described as a Japanese fondue), and izakaya, which is
similar to Spanish tapas in that you generally order a variety of small
dishes and share them. We also went to a conveyor belt sushi
restaurant, a photo of which can be seen to the left.
I think my favorite dining experience was the kushikatsu restaurant in
Kobe, however. This type of dining featured a deep-fryer in the middle
of the table and a nearby buffet stocked with meats, shrimp and
vegetables on skewers. We chose what we wanted to eat, brought
the skewers back to the table, dipped them into a batter provided at the
table, stuck them in the deep fryer and then ate them. The buffet also featured a salad bar and
a self-service udon soup bar, just in case anyone got tired of deep-fried
skewers. It was very good, and it was all you could eat - and drink -
as well… but only for two hours. After our two hours were up,
the waiter came to our table and politely told us to get lost.
The food and drink weren’t cheap, however. As I quickly
discovered, everything one hears about Japan being an expensive place
to visit are true. Although most of the lunches we ate were reasonable,
oftentimes the dinner tab for the three of us (myself, David and his
girlfriend) would approach $100 US. One night the three of us managed
to run up an $80 bar tab after only a couple of drinks apiece.
I brought back several items, ranging from exquisite lacquered wooden
bowls from Kyoto to tea and sake from the supermarket near David's
apartment. One of my purchases was a
battery-operated Fortune Cat
with a moving left paw. Lori says I got the wrong type of Fortune Cat;
we need one with a raised right paw, which attracts money. A Fortune
Cat with a raised left paw only attracts visitors...
I wish I could have stayed a few days longer, but considering all that
I got to do and see while I was there I think ten days were
sufficient. I came, I had a good time, I saw a lot of interesting
stuff and ate a lot of interesting food, I took lots of pictures and
video, and, most importantly, got to finally travel to a country I’ve
always wanted to visit.