Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Day 13 - Our First Vulcano

Today's plan was to go on the summit of Mt. Aso. In ancient times, Mt. Aso was a monstrous vulcano which created the world's largest caldera (124 km diameter), in which several villages were built. In the middle of this caldera formed today's Mt. Aso, much smaller than his predecessor, but still quite large (almost 1600 m high). Since the vulcanic activity increased last year, the way up to the crater rim is not accessable anymore. What a pity, because the caldera lake is the same temperature and colour as the turquoise jigoku, yesterday. But the crater's steam contains too much toxic gas.

Large toxic steam cloud above Mt Aso

So, we spent our time on the big parking lot next to given-up restaurants on a picnic bench with a view of the steaming crater. As we left the bus that drove us (lazy like we are) to this place, a woman talked to us "ooohh where are you from blabla". When we came to speak about ages, the woman and her two friends guessed us much older than we are, but we guessed her around 40, 45 - she actually was 64. In the meantime we shot some photographs of us together with the Japanese elderly women.

Female European tourists above 1.75m seem to be automatically considered to be fashion models, so don't be surprised if people ask you to be photographed with them (this was actually the third time in less than two weeks).
Before returning to our ryokan, we decided to visit the Aso Shrine. Luckily we came to see a religious theatralic performance where you could watch a devil dance his devil dance to some rhythmic drum and bell music. This play also seems to be comprised of a large number of verses; we left after ca. ten minutes.

Due to this extensive breakfast (we needed one hour for eating) we almost did not need any lunch. This was the first time we had a full Japanese breakfast, in contrast to corn flakes and muesli that we are used to.
  • Far left our room key with our room name. Why use numbers if you can name your rooms after flowers? (in order to find your room, you either need a good spatial memory or good pattern matching skills)
  • An ikebana flower bouquet that changes every day in all the vases in the house (uncountable)
  • Some seaweed
  • A cooker with eggs sunny side up, Frankfurter sausage and mushroomes
  • A miso soup
  • On the green plate a cooked salmon, some egg thing and its spices
  • To its right a salad
  • In the yellow box some pickles, to its left some yoghurt with raspberry jam
  • Behind some ugly beans that tasted bitter and sour at once and looked like they were cooked with melted cheese (picture)
  • On the right some fresh tofu, green tea, different sauces and spices and a rice bowl

Day 12 - Three Hells and a Heavenly Dinner

The reason for our short stay in Beppu were the jigaki. While onsen is a hot bath with a water temperature around 40 degrees, something that every Japanese wants to use on a regular basis, jigaki (or hell onsen) are hot springs that are 80 or more degrees hot - its about watching (and smelling) and not about bathing. In addition to the jigaki, Beppu also has hundreds of onsen and is therefore extremely popular with Japanese tourists. You don't see many non-Japanese tourists here. Beside the onsen and jigaki, enjoying a singing traffic light and playing pachinko, there is not much to do here. When we tried to go to the beach after buying some food items in the 7-11, we first walked along a big wall until we found some stairs, but only to discover that there was another dam so that we couldn't see the sea at all. As mentioned earlier: If you are after a beach vacation, Japan is the wrong place to go.

On our way in the cab to the jigoku we already saw many steam clouds coming out of the ground. After some beautiful water lily pools with black-blue dragonflies and monstrous bees (3-4cm long), we came to see this turqoise steaming water. I really was surprised to see some food cooking in there, because the colour seems like poison, but it's said to be over 80 degrees hot. Even the steam smelled like sulphur, like addled eggs.

In the cage on the bamboo stick, something is being cooked
Even in red-brown
Okay, so that's a proof for the existence of hell

Not far from the water hells, there are these mud hells. Sometimes it seems like if grey bald-headed men (Voldemort) came out of the ground. What the bursting bubbles leave behind looks like an abstract painting.

After we've now been to the sulphur hell and the mud hell, we visited a third  one - the pachinko hell. Pachinko is really a Japanese favorite with slot machines where you play with small metal pellets. If you wonder why you don't see any smoking Japanese on the street - they're all sitting in one of the many pachinko halls, blowing their eardrums away in this unbearable noise.

After having eaten a Pizza for the first time in Japan (gosh this was amazing), we took the Trans-Kyushu Limited Express. Since the train starts its journey in Beppu and we were early at the platform, we had a chance to grab seats in the first row of the first car. The trip from Beppu to Miyaji took almost 2 hours, during which we could watch the train driving through a wonderful scenery from a engineers perspective. I did not know before, that engineers have to point on every signal they see to stay alert (and show others that they are alert). And there's another useful system: Since Japanese hate to ride trains in a backward direction, all train seats can be turned. If the train turns, the staff will turn around every single seat so that every passenger sits in the direction of travel. 

As one can see there doesn't exist any bus stop number 9.
That's because the syllable ku reminds people of the verb
kurushimu (>to suffer) whereas 4 is sometimes skipped like
13 in the western countries, due to tetraphobia. 24, 42, 43,
but especially 49 (sounds similar to >to suffer until death)
are very unlucky numbers.

Our ryokan in Miyaji (its name is "Aso no Shiki") is simply perfect. Even though we're still sleeping on the ground (on futons), there don't exist any curtains to dim the daylight in the morning, and we're the only non-Japanese guests here, the service is incredible: First we were picked up at the railway station and greeted with green tea and rice cake. Before and after the multi-course dinner we took a bath (naked of course) in one of the four private onsen. The water is 40 degrees hot and under free air in a Japanese garden. All over the house you can find beautiful ikebanas. I've never seen a more buoyant person than the junior innkeeper.

In the photograph you can see:
  • a grill in the middle of the table with two fish on top
  • a sashimi plate in the front
  • to the left a rice ball
  • more left some onion, corn, tofu, pepperoni and a white ball (ingredients unknown)
  • in the background some Kobe meat and chicken
  • on the right some salad
  • wasabi, soja sauce, other sauces, a potty for sake and a coke
What came in addition during the meal was:
  • a miso soup (that you have to slurp of course)
  • a vegetable plate
  • three pieces of tempura
  • sake (rice wine)
  • a wonderful dessert (gelati, green tea mochi with jelly and some vanilla cake)
I thought I would burst into a thousand pieces.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Day 11 - Hiroshima: Undeniable Emotions

Fortunately, I was quite good prepared for Hiroshima (I mean historical background) by school and by the book about the famous Sadako Sasaki, The Day of the Bomb by Karl Bruckner. The first really sad emotions came up when we got to the Peace Memorial Park, in which one can contemplate the last standing ruin of the vanished Hiroshima. When I read the information text about this Exhibition Hall of the Hiroshima Prefecture, all my emotions about this tragic happening came up and I immediately had tears in my eyes. The imagination about Hiroshima being so different from now, all the people living their lives here and from one second to the other everything’s gone and nothing’s left except ruins and dust like this Exhibition Hall. At this point I have to admit that I wasn’t aware that Hiroshima still existed, because I believed that all survivors left the contaminated place and the only think you find would be grey ruins everywhere… As I realized that this is not the case at all, it was my first surprise. I was told that the people that time just needed the space and couldn’t just let it ruined, so they began to build their houses up, directly on the radiative ground. They were also not completely aware about the medium and long term effects of radiation. So many people that stayed or returned became sick, often fatally.


I was recommended to visit a so called Hiroshima tree. In the evening before we got to Hiroshima, I looked up its location on the Internet. There exist at least three very special Gingko trees in different places that survived the bombing on August 6, 1945. The one we came to see is located in 3-3 Tera-machi, Naka-ku near the Peace Memorial Park. I recognized it at once, in front of this grey temple house, in the middle of a huge cemetery. In 1994 the Gingko tree was decided to leave it growing there, even though they wanted to rebuild the temple that got destroyed due to the bombing. The temple now got adjusted to the tree, the stairs is divided into two parts that surround the Gingko. The engravation says “No more Hiroshima” and prayers for peace. It really was unbelievable, that this Gingko survived this unimaginably and destructive heat even though it was just 1 kilometre away from the hypocentre. That’s why the Gingko trees have become a symbol for hope. It was an amazing feeling to touch a witness of that horrible event.

After having cried at the Gingko, we walked through the Peace Memorial Park with tears in our eyes. On every corner there was another installation to pray for peace, and to let people know your hatred against war, for example this Peace Bell.

We dedicate this bell
         As a symbol of Hiroshima Aspiration
         Let all nuclear arms and wars be gone,
         and the nations live in true peace.
May it ring to all corners of the earth
         To meet the ear of every man,
For in it throb and palpitate
The hearts of its peace-loving donors.
         So may you, too, friends,
         Step forward, and toll this bell for peace!

Dedicated September 20th, 1964
By Hiroshima Higan-No-Kai

Maybe I was too upset and angry that I did not notice the warning table, so I swung the battering ram to sound the bell a little bit too heavy. My sister and I couldn’t hear any more for a few seconds, but maybe this reached some ears on this planet who are in need for this kind of message.

When we got to know that the next installation was the Children’s Peace Monument, tears came up again. It became worse when we learned that this monument was created for Sadako Sasaki – the theme of the biographical book by Karl Bruckner. There’s a girl on top of the monument, holding a big paper crane about which I’ll tell you later. On the two sides there are a girl and a boy representing all the children who died from the A-bomb. One could ring a bell again - so we decided to do so, of course. And then we couldn’t hold our emotions back in, we couldn’t deny any longer, it was too sad, especially if one knows the story behind the monument.
When we left, we saw five or six elderly persons in wheelchairs with their children or caretakers who probably experienced the bombing themselves that time. They brought paper cranes and other memorables to the monument. Very impressive.

On our way to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum we came across this long monument which holds the names of each and every victim of the A-bomb in Hiroshima - Not only the ones that died immediately, but also the names of the persons that died because of diseases due to radiation in all the following years, even still today. There were many flower bouquets in front and if you looked through the bow, you can see the Hiroshima ruin with an eternal flame in between, to underline one’s emotions. I have to admit, I felt a little ashamed of crying so heavy in public, because I thought that the persons living in Hiroshima might not be so emotional every day. I think I did not oppress my feelings to not deny all the innocent persons who died.

57-58: Fused coins, 62-63: Melted glass bottles
A little bleached out by the time:
The shadow of a man

In the Peace Memorial Museum I found several items that really touched me, for example melted down glass bottles or fused coins like in the photo! It must have been an incredible heat. This heat also created the (in)famous “shadow of a man” – unbelievable. The nuclear lightning bleached the granite around a man sitting at a house wall: the man evapourated very fast but his shadow stayed on the granite. We also learned about several persons having horrible diseases due to radiation, for example Sadako, who got sick with cancer 10 years after the bombing, or another girl that seemed to die for a moment, but recovered, and then after some time got every sort of cancer you can imagine. It’s terrible. But the most shocking was that so many innocent persons had to lose their lives for a test! For some part the bombing just took place to see how it works, how bad the destruction is, how the atmosphere changes due to the A-bomb radiation. I can’t believe that.

In the above photo one can see some of the more than thousand origami paper cranes folded by Sadako during her hospital stay. There are much more delicate than you think, most of them are only 2cm high. She even folded some with a needle, which are only half a centimetre high. Somehow she was convinced that if she folded a thousand paper cranes, a wish would come true. Her wish was of course to fight and survive her disease. So she folded and folded, and each of these cranes carries her wish. All in vain. How deeply saddening.

Day 10 - 550 Vertical Meters through the Sauna

It doesn't sound like much? I probably was never this much out of breath as on our today's hike. Because I was a little sick my thought was that a meditative hike to two temples would cure me a little. And I really felt so much better arriving on the top - but the hike was hard. After less than a quarter my father and me had to take our first break because we couldn't handle all that sweat. Fortunately the path lead mostly through the forest, so the sun didn't burn too much. But the downside of hiking through the woodland was that there wasn't hardly any wind, just stuffy sticky air. It felt like walking through a sauna while stepping a multi mile stairs. As a bonus, we had to watch out for venomous snakes and aggressive bees (my father got stung by a huge black-red flying insect that hurt quite much).

Before we found the right path to the mountain top, we came across the wonderful Daisho-in temple, where we experienced so many different temple areas, for example a footpath with hundreds of little buddha sculptures lined up, all of them wearing a handmade knithead in various colours. In another area we found a submerged hall with a zigzag path through buddha sculptures and prayer rolls under a ceiling full of lanterns. Or another few shrine rooms, and some hand- and mouthwashing wells. Note: It's amazing how you feel attracted by the buddhism, as a main reason because of the boundness and love to nature, the beauty of the shrines and temples and the (for us) exotic way of praying.

After arriving at the shrine gate close to the summit, we first ate onigiri from our backpacks and dried ourselves a little in the cool summit breeze. From the shrine gate to the main building we had to hike another ten minutes, and when we did arrive, there was a deer eating all the good wishes on the cords.

I haven't mentioned the deers on Miyajima Island so far. It's incredible! When we arrived by ferry on Friday, the first thing we saw were some tourists and many many deers who ate their paper bags! At first I loved being so near to these normally shy animals, but just after some short time, they began to annoy me quite a bit. When I had my first Italian-Japanese ice cream today at Baccano, they did not go away for anything. Even when we walked away, they followed us for a while. So my feelings turned by 180 degrees from one to the other day, because the night before, we found a herd of them in the dark eating the restaurant's food garbage, and there was a bambi too that couldn't have been cuter.

Another thing that annoys as hell are these herds of hundreds of scouts from Norway, Sweden and even the Netherlands. Why in the world must scouts travel to a small Japanese island and instead of hiking around as scouts should do, take instead the cable car, hang around at the summit, and yelling around? For two or three days, half of the people we saw were Northern European scouts…

A religious sculpture decorated by local stones as a symbol for balance and materially sacrifice to buddha 
What I learned? Just accept and explore every religion, because you never know how it really feels, if you have not experienced it your own way. So be open for everything and do not have any prejudices when travelling into an unknown country with unknown behaviors and culture. 
The summit of Mt. Misen

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Day 9 - Around Miyajima

On our second day in Miyajima we went to the beach (wow, there's a beach for swimming in Japan!). There weren't so many people but all the bikini wearing persons seemed to be European tourists. The Asian looking persons all wore wettie-like bathing shirts and pants. We were happy that there was a beach at all, because swimming in public places is not customary in Japan. The reason we went to the beach was that our O' torii visit made us sweat so much. It was low tide again and possible to walk to the toriii over the sea ground. It's interesting to see that in this religion, there is not a special bucket where you put your donations or money sacrifices in - you can stick it instead into every crack you see on the torii (or you throw a coin into special tin boxes - they more it clings, the better the gods will hear you).
I love this vermillion colour, in which every Shinto temple is painted and which actually looks very attractive.

The O' torii by low tide

In the evening we went to one of the very few restaurants that don't close after 5 p.m. Most tourists only stay for a day trip and do not sleep here because the hotels are quite expensive. However, we went for the first time to a really small restaurant, like a pub with a bar, where only ten people fit in and you could watch your food getting made by an elderly woman and her (probably) daughter. They were cooking the local Hiroshima dish okonomiyaki on a teppanyaki cooker. Okonomiyaki is basically a thin egg pancake with cabbage, noodles, some pork and other ingredients, just the way you order it. Final topping barbecue sauce and shallots. (First restaurant in which I didn't freeze)

The hot metal teppanyaki cooker
Our Hiroshima dish

What I learned? The smaller the restaurant, the more memorable the experience.

Day 8 - Himeji and Arrival in Miyajima

As today our two-week circular trip of Southern Japan began, we had to buy the rail tickets for the next days at Kyoto Station - which took already a quarter of an hour because it is quite complicated. You need not only the base fare ticket for the distance in kilometers, but in addition for every leg an express surcharge ticket and maybe even additional surcharge tickets, e.g if the travel covers more than one railway company. For four persons and several legs, you might leave the ticket counter with more than 20 single tickets. Our first Shinkansen impressions were surprising because it looks quite small from the outside, but the inside is amazingly spacious and looks like you are travelling in a plane. 

On our way to Miyajima we made a brief stop in Himeji to visit Himeji Castle. I really can recommend to visit this castle - it is only a 15 minute walk from the Shinkansen station. Among the three most famous castles in Japan, it is the only one that never burnt down - all the others have been reconstructed several times because they were either destroyed in civil wars or by accidents / lightning. The entire castle was built as a complicated a beam construction around a central thick huge pillar. The main tower consists of 5-6 floors with narrow and steep stairs. Since the castle is famous and can be reached easily, you will join masses of domestic and foreign tourists that want to take the tour and climb the narrow stairs. I find very reasonable that in most places in Japan you have to take off your shoes (and useful too for sweating temperatures to air your feet a little). In situations like this, you will often see the traditional Japanese socks in which every toe gets its own place - a somewhat strange look for westerners.

Himeji Castle
After getting on the Shinkansen again, we finally ate our lunch, this time the famous bento. A bento is a box with different Japanese food items that you buy at the railway station and that everybody is eating at lunchtime in trains. The local train from Hiroshima main station to the ferry port was as full as you would expect trains and subways to be in Japan, especially during the rush hour.

After a 15 minute ferry trip and checking-in in a Ryokan (a Japanese guesthouse), we immediately had to see the main attraction of the wonderful island of Miyajima: The O'torii in the water with the Japanese mainland (even though it's actually an island) and a wonderful pink sunset in the background. The torii is the regular entrance component of every Japanese Shinto temple, and here is one of the few places where it has been built in the (shallow) sea because the shrine used to cater to fishermen. All along the boardwalk on the left and right side from the shrine, hundreds of lanterns decorate the island and support the romance.

The O' torii on Miyajima Island

Our first Ryokan experience was quite special. You basically are provided with one big room (in this case for four persons) which serves as a living room during the day and as a bedroom at night. How it works? You sleep on futon beds that are rolled out in the evening and rolled together again (and stored in a shelve) in the morning. Of course, the removable day furniture is no European furniture, but a very low table and sitting pillows. You basically spend the day like the night - on the floor, i.e. on Tatami mats made from rice straw (and smelling like that). Luckily, we only booked Ryokans with private bathrooms (although they are really tiny). Of course, every decent Ryokan provides its guests with a shared (well, one for men and one for women) hot bath in the basement. We did not try that very Japanese experience here in Miyajima, but will try it later.

Room setup for the day, futon beds in the background

What I learned? Always take a light jacket or a scarf with you. Either you're sweating or you're immediatly an icicle whenever you get into an air-conditionned waiting room (that's probably why I got sick).

Saturday, July 25, 2015

First Week Japan: Day 7 - Matsuri

Kiyomizu temple

As today was good weather again, we decided to visit the famous Kiyomizu temple on the hill with a view over Kyoto. Unfortunately we had to hurry a bit because the temples sometimes close at times that differ a little from what is published in the travel guide or on the web (yes, most of them run an informative English web site). Even though the terrace building was very impressive and not common at all that time.

Continuing we drove our bicycles downhill to Gion. It took some time to find a not too illegal and unpaid parking spot for the bikes. Yes, bike parking in the city is mostly paid. Although bike parking automats are in Japanese only. we found out (partially with the help of friendly Japanese) how to store, lock, pay and unlock your bike there, and needed some time to left them somewhere.

We were lucky enough to visit Kyoto during their matsuri festival which is considered to be one of the three oldest and most famous festivals in Japan. Back in the sixth century, a big misfortune came over middle Japan; the harvest couldn't be worse, the need couldn't be greater. As a result the mighty Emperors went to visit the Shrines very often with special costumes decorated by aoi-leaves, which were supposed to be very powerful as the bad luck changed. The festival runs for over 500 years now, always during the entire month of July. Beside the religious purification ceremonies, the highlights are processions of large floats around the city. These floats are up to 12 meters high and are either carried or drawn by dozens of people. Every float belongs to a quarter of the city, and the people around their float are dressed on their quarter's yukatas.
On some floats, groups of men sit and play traditional music with flutes, tambourins and bells - together with some singing comments that sound quite strange for European ears. The following video is a short excerpt from the song that seems to have at least 100 verses...

We missed the big processions, but were able to enjoy the last night before the procession (there are three festive nights for each of the processions). The floats stay put in these nights, but music is played, people stroll along the streets and the wealthy locals display their precious wand screens in their windows. 

Private treasures on public display with ikebana decoration

What I learned in this week: I'll give you an advice. I suggest not to visit Japan in summer. It is so incredibly hot and humid, you're practically sweating out of every pore just by standing in the shade! But if you do, please do not bring any plastic cloths that make you sweat even harder. If you don't want to seem like a hyper-tourist as much as you anyway do, get some skin-covering but light clothing with you. Long trousers are customary - you are not in the Bermudas or in Mallorca. And don't forget an umbrella (they are expensive in Japan because they mostly sell only _expensive looking_ ones) for rain and especially for sun. And never mind how you look, not a single combination is forbidden.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Day 6 - Lucky Rain

So, as today was a really really rainy day, we decided even though not to stay at home and get depressed, but to go outside into the pouring rain - and get depressed. Unfortunately, many people are so regardless to let their umbrellas drop on your clothes so that you will be freezing to death in the next air-conditioned place. Okay, it was not so cold, but I did not like getting wet either. And there were SOOO many people visiting the temples and gardens even in this uncool weather. Fortunately we knew about the weather being bad today, so we just wore short trousers and flipflops. This is much preferable to wet trousers and wet shoes. It really was bucketing the hell out of the clouds. I've never experienced such a heavy rain in Switzerland.

Kinkaku-ji: The Golden Temple

At the end the rain was not so bad. At the latest in the amazing (and already more than 500 year old) rock garden of Ryoan-ji, we were enjoying it. If there hadn't been so much rain, you wouldn't have felt the way you did by looking at these rocks. Because actually the rocks are meant to be mountains on a island around which the gravel is harked in the manner of moving water with its breaking waves. It creates a sense of meditation that I did not expect. You just sit barefoot on that bench and everybody around talks very quiet or even remains silent so that you can hear every single raindrop singing happily til the ground. You feel so clean and feathery when you leave. Even the garden around this rock garden is stunningly perfect and really big! We even saw some gardening workers who picked out grass and weed with tweezers and cut the little bushes with scissors... I believe this perfection and precision is what characterizes Japan in some way.

Ryoan-ji: The gravel sea with rock mountains on moss islands

Heated toilet seat and baby seat
As a last note, because yet I've mentioned earlier the traditional Japanese toilets. Whenever you find a so called Western Toilet, don't expect them to work like those you are used to, e.g., from Switzerland. Nearly all of them are high-tech toilets. You don't need toilet paper because there exist several ways for cleaning with a water fontain in numerous strengths, directions and heat levels - including a blower to dry and, if you're lucky, artificial sound to cover embarrassing toilet noise. And of course the toilet seat is heated so that in winter it must be hard to get people off the toilets.

What I learned? Never accuse something as bad fortune at first sight. It might turn to be the opposite (for me: the rain).

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Day 5 - University Impressions

Today I met my dear Japanese friend again. After 40 minutes by bus I arrived at our meeting point  and I was so glad to see her waiting for me. Very impressive that the bus driver wears suit-like clothes, white gloves and a captain's hat. Some drivers even announce the stops themselves or comment the traffic situation to prevent dangerous situations, for example an immediate moving off.

Editing computer in the purikura photo booth
We walked to a big mall where one can buy anything from groceries to sweat towels (a very useful accessory for the humid Japanese summer) - and where you also find purikura photo booths, Of course we invested 400 JPY to try one. Unfortunately everything was in Japanese and the booth's software created a lot of time pressure. But the output was surprisingly awesome! First, one can choose the song one wants to listen to in the cabin and the picture backgrounds. After the photos were taken, one can edit them in so many ways! Changing the lip colour, choosing the grade of skin smoothness, putting in some stickers or adding some text! I really need a second time, because everything happened so fast and I couldn't try all the options.

- - Interesting, that the example pictures show beautiful blond blue-eyed young girls - -

Also my university experience was interesting. After making the pictures we met her friend who only speaks Japanese and French (fortunately I speak French too), so it was like kind of a language smoothie:

As we got to the university campus, we went straight to the cafeteria and met her other friends. I think the rest of the students were surprised to see a European girl in their Japanese university. As in most Japanese restaurants, you could choose your food by plastic models - I was full for only 360 JPY! I enjoyed talking to many other Japanese people of my age... okay, "talking"... Some only could speak Spanish and others were too shy to speak English with me. One guy talking to my friend hided his face behind a fan so that I couldn't see him anymore. Or, the other extreme, a quite too crazy guy making exageratingly funny faces to us... I had nice conversations about life and everything, in particular life in Japan. I often heard that people don't like all these rules in Japan and would like to live somewhere else - but exactly because of that I came over here. 

One idea I liked was mentioned by a French speaking friend: he produces stickers with different country flags and the words "Hello, can I help you? I speak English!" By using these stickers in many different country flag versions, tourists are encouraged to start a conversation, avoid misunderstandings and better enjoy their time in Japan.

My friend's German class also was an interesting experience. She did not inform her teacher about my visit to the lesson. The teacher immediately got nervous like idunnuwhat, but she allowed me to participate in her lesson. In the middle of these 90 minutes, the teacher began to introduce me to the class and that they should ask me questions about me or about my country, no matter in what language. However, only three questions were asked. It is a difference to study a language in theory or to practice it with a real person. I enjoyed it very much!

Hokan-ji Temple
Yasaka No To (Pagoda)

In the evening we drove to Gion by bike. This quarter of Kyoto is famous for its nice temple complexes and also the often overlooked five-storey Yasaka No To (Yasaka Pagoda)! Everything is really impressive at night.

What I learned? Recycling in Japan is different. They separate all sorts of plastic, they remove labels and they wash containers before they put it in the trash - but paper isn't separated from biological rubbish. I believe now that in some parts of Japan, bicycles are driven as often as in the Netherlands. And please first check whether your bike lighting works...

Monday, July 20, 2015

Day 4 - Fushimi-inari

I never thought I would see so many many many kimonos! Especially while I'm in Japan, there's this special Gion-festival season and today was the holiday Sea-Day, so many people went out with their festive kimono cloth. I was also amazed by the shoes they wore: A straight piece of wood foot size with two wooden blocks underneath. Must be uncomfortable but looks so great!

And I never thought I would sweat so much. As today was a holiday I thought I might have to wear something knee covered and so I decided to wear this long white skirt. Not only it was quite difficult to drive safe on my bike but also the heat condensated on my legs underneath the skirt. After a while the cloth and my skin were glued together and it was even a challenge to walk all these steps to the top of the mountain and back down. It took us like three or four hours, the up and down, but it certainly felt like more. I can't imagine not to die of heat with long-sleeved shirts, long trousers and not even sandals to air your feet! And you see a lot of people like this. It is amazingly incredible... In the meantime an elderly Japanese lady fortunately recognized my shortness of breath (or my huge amount of sweat) and asked me to sit down on that bench. I thought this was so kind and made use of my Japanese vocabulary: domo arigato gozaimasu, I said. She immediately started some kind of monologue with a smile from one ear to the other and when she finished I just smiled in return and said hai what means yes. I guess I nailed it.

The Fushimi-inari Shrine by the foot of the hill

A spectacle, quite simply. I cannot guess the number of toris I walked through today. I believe the whole hill is full of! And the incredible thing is that all these toris are donated by wealthy people. The big ones that you can walk through cost far more than 50'000 CHF. You can even buy really small toris (15cm height) for little money if you aren't that wealthy. We also came across many wells in which you could wash your hands and mouth before going into the temple or to a holy place - but you mustn't touch the water with, it has to touch you (by pour it over your hand with a dipper). I even remarked loud slapping and some sort of cowbell ringing at every sacred place - to call attention to their God.

At half past five we finally got our lunch in a local restaurant called Kendonya that we luckily found due to a picture on tripadvisor, because the name was written in Japanese characters, though... Nice beef curry udon, if you somewhen get there, too.

Thousands of toris with the donators' name engravings

What I learned? Growing old in Japan must be hard and I have great respect for the elderly Japanese ladies and gentlemen. Even with my young 17 years my back and butt hurt from sitting or sleeping on the ground the whole time. Second: never wear a long skirt if you have to ride a bike - it's the most unexpedient thing you could ever do. And take the Japanese as an example: always keep an umbrella and a towel with you. It might be pure burning sun and your sweat pouring. In this humid heat you'll be thankful for every shady and dry place. And you won't receive weird looks though everybody uses this strategy.
The final tori on top of the mountain with a view at least over Kyoto

Day 3 - The Reunion

First I want to tell you about the amazing feeling of going though the most beautiful garden of Kyoto. You think you're breathing the smoothest and clearest air on earth, and not only because there's so much moisture. In addition, in many corners you find no-smoking signs. And everybody follows the rules! I really can't imagine this in any other country. I give you some impressions by the following photos of Kyoto Ginkaku-ji Temple with its breathtaking Japanese Zen garden.
As you can see the main part is green and mossy (because these gardens are unbelievably old), but there are also some parts held with gravel like in these special Japanese gravel gardens. I even found some beetle cuties in shimmering red and in the tourist shop my favorite Japanese painting motive on cotton: Hokusai - The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura)!


Further, I've never dreamt of Japanese kitchen being so different from my imagination of sushi, mizo soup and tofu. First of all I was so glad to see my dear friend that was an exchange student in our former class once! The reason we met this early (on day 3!) was that we were invited by her father for dinner - which is a really amazingly big honor in Japan and we appreciated this so much. It was an incredibly nice evening with our both families, 9 people. I'll make a list of our dinner-courfor you.

  • First course: We got some kind of bento filled with seven cold nibbles. In the small porcellain bowl you see vinegar seagrasses with some decoration. On the right, yes, there's a snail (that I tried the first time in my life and it was quite surprising but maybe it takes another few years until I eat my second one). Left bottom there's a noodle-sushi, on its right some sake (tuna) and to its right konnyaku made of imo (potatoes). The yellowish was some tamago (egg) with carrot gelatine with little fish's eggs and in the grass a rice ball.
  • Second course: Was the famous rice cake in a fish's egg sauce. Normally you eat it only on very special events like New Year's Eve or weddings because it is very hard work to make. (How to make Rice Cake, Mochi)
  • Third course: I liked this course the most. It was some sort of sashimi plate.
  • Fourth course: A hot bowl with some soup with black rice cake (again), some fish, a konnyaku-star again, a green bean and a idunnuwhat...
  • Fifth course: Another hot bowl filled with tasty vegetables, spicy tomato and fish in a soup.
  • Sixth course: In the glass bowl some eggplants and asparagus in an (unfortunately) idunnuwhat.
  • Seventh course: In the porcellain bowl, already destroyed in the picture, was a crispy rice ball with fish crumbs in a soup served with pickles.
  • Eighth course: Cool tofu-green-tea-foam with sweet red beans - great dessert!

So, not a single piece of sushi. That's because sushi is the poor people's food, that means we ate a really special and festive dinner! It was a very interesting and honoring experience and totally different from what we know in Europe.

First course
Second course
Third course
Fourth course
Sixth, seventh and eighth course 

Fifth course 

Talking about food, I find it very funny that all the meals are showed in plastic-appearance in the restaurant's windows. So that's actually quite helpful for foreigners to choose what they like. But they not only make plastic-meals but also plastic-gelati...

What I learned? Try everything when you get the chance, especially in Japan you might be surprised by the taste.