Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Jo's trip to Japan... (by Jo)

I visited with Callie last April and she had asked me to write about my experience . . . Where do I even begin?!

I took Japanese Cultures in college, but I never thought that I would actually make it out there. I had never been to Asia or anything like it, so I left Chicago with an open mind and a suitcase full of goodies for Callie.

I flew non-stop from Chicago to Narita, and then from Narita to Sapporo Chitose. I think the first flight was around 13 hours, but it flew by after a nap and some movies. It was not as bad as I thought it was going to be.

When I finally arrived in Sapporo, I was tired, scared and excited all at the same time. I was supposed to grab my things and get on a train to meet Callie, alone. Ahhh! I use the trains at home all of the time, so how hard could it be???

Train Station . . . check
Ticket Kiosk . . . check
Button for English . . . check
Ticket to Sapporo Station . . . check

Now what? I started to panic because I couldn’t figure out which platform to take. With a simple point and “Sapporo Station?”, I was able to ask a man which platform to take. Bless his heart, he didn’t even try to speak, he simply held up 5 fingers for my platform number, and there I went, uncertain but hopeful . . .

Sidenote: For any of you traveling out that way, do not get off at “Shin-Sapporo”.

I must admit, uncertainty made my solo destinations very exciting. I had no idea if I was going to make it anywhere without getting lost, so when I did, I was overjoyed!!!

I visited Japan for 10 days, and each one of those days felt like 3! Here is a brief rundown of what we did . . .

Callie’s School & Kaiten Sushi
I visited one of Callie’s schools and met her supervisors, students & co-workers. Everyone was soo nice! The gals in one of Callie’s classes did presentations about Japan for us. They even dressed me in a yukata! After school, we visited with some of the school’s clubs like Kendo and Broadcasting. I thought I was going to get my head lopped off on the sidelines at Kendo! After we left school, we went out for Kaiten Sushi where I had my first and only taste of unagi (eel). The flavor was good, but the texture left something to be desired. I will have to try it again.

Sapporo Station, Susukino, Okonomiyaki Round I & Milk Village
I wandered over to Sapporo Station on my own and spent all day in the Esta Tower! I don’t do much shopping at home, so I took my time gawking at all of the neat stuff! Bic Camera, Uni Qlo & Loft are three of my new favorite stores! After a long day of shopping, Callie and I met up with some of her friends for Okonomiyaki. I wasn’t really a big fan of it the first time around, but it might have been because we made a mess of it? Afterwards, we wanted some sweets, so we wandered over to Milk Village for some frozen yogurt and liquor. Everything there was “soo cute”.

Mister Donut, Taiko, Izakaya & Karaoke & the Break In (we think)
We were out and about all day! We met up with some of Callie’s former students for coffee, donuts & chit chat. Then we headed over to Callie’s Taiko class. Callie and her classmates practiced and I got to try the drums as well! After class, we headed over to an Izakaya with one of Callie’s classmates and then we wandered around Susukino until we ran into a group of people who wanted us to Karaoke with them. How could we say no?! Unbeknownst to us, someone broke into Callie’s house and stole all of our money . . .

The Robbery, Don Quixote & Soup Curry
Before leaving the house, Callie woke me and said that she thought her money was missing. Half asleep I responded “you probably misplaced it”. Ten minutes later I realized mine was missing as well. I immediately checked all of the windows and found that the glass in the sliding door had been broken! A swarm of police were at the house shortly thereafter and although the situation was terrible, we decided that it was certainly a grand adventure! When else will we ever get to see a policeman fingerprinting a crime scene in front of our very eyes? After a day with the police, I wandered around Don Quixote where I spotted tons of odd costumes, and then Callie and I met up with a friend at a soup curry joint. It was here that we decided to serenade our waiter.

I spent most of the day in Otaru. It is about an hour north of Sapporo by train, and it faces the Ishikari Bay. This town is known for glass blowing & music boxes. I couldn’t find my way around, so I asked a lil ol’ lady for help, and she walked me to my destination. She even shared her umbrella with me! I also tried to find a glass elephant, but since I didn’t know the word for the animal, I had to improvise and use charades. You had to be there, but it was pretty comical. After I returned from Otaru, I spent my last full evening in Sapporo wandering around on foot.

Shiroi Koibito, Departure from Sapporo, & Kobe
I spent my last day in Sapporo at the Shiroi Koibito factory. This place is known for these fantastic chocolate filled cookies (available in white or milk chocolate). The scent inside the factory was heavenly! We got to see how the cookies were made and we got to do some cookie decorating too! It looked like something Willy Wonka himself would have created. Check out Callie’s post about her visit there . . . After I fun filled day I said goodbye to Sapporo, and Callie & I flew to Kobe. Upon arrival, we chased down our hotel shuttle (literally), checked in, and proceeded to explore the night life. We encountered many a drunken businessman and also ate the best ever bowl of Ramen

Himeji Jo, Japanese Gardens, Mt Shoshazan, Arrival in Osaka, Okonomiyaki Round II, Balabushka (Pool & Darts Bar) & Takoyaki
This was one of the most beautiful days during our travels! We had some miso soup and onigiri for breakfast, and then we headed out to Himeji-j_, one of the most famous castles in Japan. The original castle had been around since the early 1300s, but it had been burned, bombed & and rebuilt a few times since then. The grounds even housed a ghost at Okiku’s Well. After the castle, we spent some time at the beautiful Nishi-Oyashiki-Ato Japanese Garden. This was built on the outer grounds of Himeji-j_ on land that was once used for the former Lord's Residence and other samurai houses. This garden had a large pond with the biggest Koi Fish that I have ever seen! After the gardens, we headed up the Mt. Shosha Ropeway to the Shoshazan Engy_-ji Temple where we spent the rest of the afternoon photographing Buddha’s & walking around. It was gorgeous!!! Both Himeji-j_ and the Shoshazan Engy_-ji Temple were used in “The Last Samurai”. After a very long and spiritual day, we headed out to Osaka to meet some new friends. We had another Okonomiyaki dinner, and this one was much better. To Callie’s dismay, we ended up at an Americanized pool & darts bar. I was overjoyed as they were playing music that I both understood & liked! We had a good time and after a few drinks, I was brave enough to try takoyaki! I imagined that it would be like a hush puppy, but the consistency was much mushier. I ended up burning my lip on one of these and it hurt sooo bad!

Universal Studios & Sam & Dave’s
I had never gone to Universal Studios in the States, so when Callie suggested it, I jumped at the idea! It was fun to run around and act like a kid for the day. We got to see Spiderman, Snoopy, The Terminator, ET, and a cast of others speaking in Japanese! At the end of the ET ride, he bid us farewell using our first names, “Goodbye Carrie, Goodbye Jo”, it was hilarious! The park had typical costumed characters snapping pictures with tourists, but the selection was a bit odd. Initially we ran into Woody Woodpecker & Betty Boop, and later on we saw The Peanuts. I was pleasantly surprised to see a whole section of Alice in Wonderland (my favorite book) characters & floats during the lights parade. After a long day at the park, we headed out for a taste of Osaka nightlife. We went to a club where we danced the night away. I was pleasantly surprised with the music selection as it wasn’t all the same monotonous headache inducing crap that some clubs tend to play. We definitely had a lot of fun that night!

Saturday & Sunday
Temples & Shrines in Kyoto (Kinkaku-ji/Golden Pavillion, Bamboo Forrest, Okochi Sanso’s Villa, Ry_an-ji)
We spent a lot of time between Saturday & Sunday walking around and exploring all of the temples & etc that we could. Kinkaku-ji/Golden Pavillion was definitely one of the nicest temples that we saw. Most of it was covered in gold and the grounds that surrounded it were also very pretty. One of my favorite sights was the Bamboo Forrest that we walked through in Arashiyama, just outside of Kyoto. It was soo serene. I also found a new home! No not really, but Callie and I both decided that we would like to have lived at Okochi Sanso’s Villa. It was the home of a 1920s silent movie actor named Denjiro Okochi. The tour of his property also included a warm matcha tea service (a thick green tea), which we welcomed as we were slightly cold and wet. We also checked out Ry_an-ji, which is a famous Japanese rock garden. You could get lost in those stones. I guess the idea is to sit back and try to visualize how you see them, and if you have an imagination, that could take some serious time.

So there you have it.

Also, totally random, but I was very surprised to see a lot of European sweets in Japan, like cakes, pastries and the like. I had one of the most delicious cream puffs ever while I was there!!! Some of my favorite things to nosh on were miso ramen, baumkuchen, salmon onigiri, and ham & cheese sandwiches. I also had some really good prawns in Kyoto. I would find new things to try on a daily basis, and I seemed to have introduced Callie to desserts!

Japan was pretty much amazing and I think I can safely say that I was overwhelmed! I really fell in love with the place and I cannot wait to go back! I was in tears almost the entire way home. I didn’t know what to expect, but at the same time, I had no idea that I was going to like it soo much. The whole experience was just indescribable, and it has changed me a little bit for the better.

Now I was saving the best for last: I have to also mention the people out in Japan. I cannot even describe to you how nice everyone was! Random strangers helped us out on a daily basis, as did other not so random folks. I was really taken aback by everyone’s kindness. For example, after we were robbed, Callie’s faculty put together a substantial gift for her; that was soo nice! Or while we were in Kobe, we chatted with some folks on our train, and when Callie told them that I liked Omiyage (souvenirs), they gave us some charms and cookies that they had purchased for themselves. We tried to say no but they insisted. They were just too nice!!! It wasn’t only strangers either. Quite a few people helped us out with all kinds of things: tour guide stuff, places to stay, translations for the police, etc. You all know who you are and I thank you! It was much appreciated. I really enjoyed talking to all of the people that I met along the way and I will always remember my trip to Japan fondly. Many thanks to Callie as well for putting up with me for 10 days! :-)

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