Sunday, March 25, 2012

hunger games - the movie

I almost passed out on the bus today. I don't know what it is about me and buses but there have been many incidents where I almost fainted or actually did faint on the bus. I don't think I should drink any more pearl milk teas on an empty stomach. The cold drink makes my stomach hurt. Also the bus was getting super crowded and the lack of air flow was making me super nauseous and sweaty. I had to rush off the bus because I was seriously afraid I was going to hurl or collapse. As I was getting off the bus and trying to head over to the bus stop seat, my legs buckled under me and I semi collapsed on the sidewalk. No worries I got up readily enough and I just made it seem as if I slipped on the floor. Right... I had to sit there for awhile to cool down and to stop feeling so faint.

After all that I still went downtown. I've been debating on whether or not I should go watch Hunger Games by myself. I've never watched a movie by myself before and going by myself seems to give off such a lonely, pathetic attitude. Well after the whole almost fainting on the bus thing I was like screw it I deserve this movie to make myself feel better. I assume people pick their seats but since I spoke English, the ticket lady just gave me a seat. I was seated between a couple and a family. Nice loner isolation!

The movie was really good. I really liked the books and the movie didn't disappoint. I think it helps that the author of the books also wrote the screenplay for the movie. The movie cost $260 NT which is almost the cost of a movie in America. It's nice to know that movies come out in Taiwan the same time it does in the US. I finally found the market area with the alleys and alleys of clothing stalls. My friends had taken me there awhile back but I couldn't find it again on my own. Too bad I didn't find it sooner to bring my sis or Erica. I do a lot of wandering around since I'm too scared to enter the stalls by myself. I know that most salespeople in Taiwan would just acknowledge you and then leave you alone but if I'm the only person and the stall is as big as a closet its kind of hard to ignore me...

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

tsu, mie

There's an awesome mochi shop near the Tsu train station. I bought an ichigo daifuku there that was super delicious. Expensive at 170 yen for one but worth every penny! I crave it so much and can't wait to get my hands on another! I went back later to grab four more of these babies with one of the green and one of the white ones. They weren't as great since they were filled with red bean (not my flavor). I'm gonna be eating about 10 of these ichigo daifukus while I'm here.

Vinnie told me about Yuki Shrine which has hundreds of plum blossom trees. I was riding the bus by myself and had asked the bus driver that I wanted to stop at Yuki Shrine. I had it written on a piece of paper and sat in the front seat to make sure the bus driver would tell me what stop to get off at. I ended up riding the bus all the way to the end of the stop! So the bus driver didn't tell me where to get off and I had to pay the entire bus fare. Since the bus fare is based on distance I was hecka annoyed. First negative experience this whole trip! The trip to the shrine was definitely worth it and the blossoms were amazing! Makes up for the fact that I came too early for cherry blossom season.

My friends took me to their local hangout spot, Coucou Cafe. I loved the atmosphere of the cafe! The owners knew my friends and were offered us different kinds of tea to try. Love the hometown feeling of this place!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Ise, Mie

Ise, Mie is home to the Ise Grand Shrine which is known as the most sacred of Shinto shrines. Most of the buildings are closed off to the public and you can only spot some of the roof behind the fences. This place had a lot of shrines that consisted of a building where people just prayed in front of. Every 20 years the shrine is rebuilt due to the Shinto belief of death and renewal of nature. Such a big feat considering there are so many buildings. The next rebuilding it going to take place in 2013!

1. Uji Bridge - gets rebuilt every 20 years
2. The rebuilding of the shrines and bridge are adjacent to the old site. The rebuilding alternates between these two sites.
3. These chickens roam the grounds. They are the messengers of Amaterasu-ōmikami whom the shrine is dedicated to. Has anyone ever seen such a white chicken with long feathers?!?
4. Can you see what this bridge resembles? An old Japanese man pointed it out to me!
5. Oharai Machi - a street near the entrance to the Inner Shrine that has a bunch of omiyage shops. I loved the architecture of the buildings.
6. In Oharai Machi you can find the original akafuku shop. Akafuku is pounded rice cake topped with red bean. I'm not a fan of red bean so didn't think I would like this but it was delicious! Also super expensive for two small pieces. You can find boxes of akafuku in omiyage shops around Japan but they don't have any preservatives so should be eaten fast!
7. In Okage Yoko-chō an area that branches off of Oharai Machi you can find a lot of eateries. You can find Ise Udon which is another famous delicacy here in Ise.
8. Tofu donut - this was just meh to me. Not a big fan of donuts and a tofu donut didn't add any wow factor for me. This shop can be found in the Oharai Machi section.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

temples temples temples

Vinnie finally didn't have to work so we headed over to Kyoto to check out the Hagishiyama District. Vinnie wore a kimono because she heard that you could get free entrance to some places if you wore one. NOT TRUE! Still she looked really cute in it. There were people asking her to take pictures with them. I'm wondering if they thought she was a geisha or something. It was funny cause a girl asked me in mandarin for permission to take a picture with Vinnie. I answered yes cause you know Vinnie's mine to pimp out as I please.

1. I allowed Vinnie to take this pic with this girl. ALLOWED
2. Huge torii in front of Heian Shrine
3. Kiyomizu-dera. The view is pretty awesome - but imagine if all the cherry blossoms were in bloom
4. Love the architecture of the buildings around the Kiyomizu-dera
5. Went to the Gion Corner where we saw traditional Japanese arts being performed - maikos dancing and bunraku puppet theater were my faves! 
6. Hanatoro which means flower and light road is an illumination event that is held in Higashiyama District in March. There were dance performances and the temples are lit up. I think because of Hanatoro we got free admission into Kiyomizu-dera. Score!

Not pictured were some of the other temples we visited that didn't allow pictures to be taken.
Sanjūsangen-dō is known for having 1000 statues of Kannon. There is a sign that states that cameras will be checked for illegal picture taking - that didn't happen. Really wanted some pictures... The next is Yogen-in which is on the same block as Sanjūsangen-dō. Yogen-in is known for its ceilings. Fushimi Castle was a place where thousands of soldiers died and some committed ritual suicide which soaked the floorboards with blood. When the castle was dismantled these boards were sent to temples like Yogen-in to be reused. You can still see the prints left by the dead bodies on the boards. There is a tour guide who brings you around this very small temple. Tour is only in Japanese and some of it is done with an audio tape. Because of this people have talked about being refused entrance if you look like a foreigner. Good thing Vinnie can speak passable Japanese and we fit right in looks wise!

Friday, March 9, 2012

kyoto: saga toriimoto

Saga Toriimoto is one of the protected areas of Kyoto, designated for the preservation of historical buildings. One of the things I really love to do is check out the architecture of buildings of the country I'm visiting so being able to see some historical Japanese architecture was really cool.

thatched roofs!
This area contained a lot of different architecture but because of how big some of these houses were it was really hard to take pictures of them together. Added to the fact that there were random vending machines that would ruin the picture. Darn you vending machines! Because this area is a designated preservation area, the outer facade of the buildings must be kept to resemble its former glory. However on the inside most of these buildings hosted restaurants or souvenir shops that could be seen through the screens or windows which would also ruin the oldsy time feel of my pictures. There are a bunch of temples around the area but since it was past 4pm when I went, past visiting hours, this area was pretty dead. I didn't see anyone else but myself and all the stores and restaurants had closed for the day. I assume they have the same hours as the surrounding temples to cater to temple visitors. I got pretty lost trying to find this area and then leaving I got even more lost because I took a different route and ended up near farmland and in suburbia with the only sign of life being delivery drivers.

Below I have provided some directions on how to to reach the Saga Toriimoto via public transportation which mostly just includes walking after taking the bus. I'm pretty sure if you go during the busy times (when the temples are open) there will be others who will be heading there and so you can follow them. I didn't see other people complaining about how hard it was to find this area so I'm not sure what they used to reach this area but on foot it was pretty hard.

Take either the #28 or #91 bus all the way to the end stop at Daikakuji which is also the site of the Daikakuji Temple. The bus station is right across from the temple so as you're exiting the bus station make a left onto the street. Keep walking straight until you see this shanty on your right hand side.
You'll want to stay on the main road which will be to your left and will head down the hill. If you keep walking straight past this shanty you'll be entering farmland and will be going in the wrong direction. Trust me I did this because I had no clue where I was going and then thinking I might be going the wrong way (not like there was any signs either way) I walked back out and asked a random granny I had passed beforehand. Thankfully she pointed me in the right way or I would have never found this place on my own. Yes it is that obscure. You'll be walking down the hill for awhile passing a whole bunch of fields as you go. You'll know you've reached the bottom when directly in front of you is what I would term a "big" intersection because the road consists of two lanes allowing for two directional traffic. Usually streets are so small that cars can only go in one direction at a time and the other has to pull over to make room - hence my usage of big here. You'll want to walk straight across this "big" intersection until you hit a barbershop where you will make a right. In case the barbershop isn't there anymore it shouldn't be a street or two past this big intersection. After you make a right you'll walk straight till you hit a major crosswalk Kiyotaki michi. Continue walking straight and you'll find yourself on Sagashakadomae which is where the Seiryo-ji is located.
Enter the temple grounds and then leave through the left hand exit and immediately upon exiting turn right. You'll be walking down a road that is lined with a lot of trees and fields and you'll feel like you're going in the wrong direction since it seems like you are entering farmland again but this is the right course! I had gone down this path and started doubting myself again and had go back into the suburb area and accosted a delivery driver on a scooter for directions. This area needs more English signage and more clear cut directional arrows. You'll keep walking until you hit another intersection at this point you'll turn left and will be heading uphill. If you turn right at the intersection you'll be heading toward a busy intersection with cars, sounds and civilization. Walking up this hill some more you'll eventually reach the preserved district! On the way you'll pass by modern looking houses and farmland which can be really disorienting and there will be no signage so good luck :P

One of the reasons I ended up getting lost when I tried to head back to the bus station was because I wanted to check out the Sagano Doll House aka the Kyoto Japanese Folk Dolls Museum. When I got there it was already closed and since I had no idea where I was at this point I thought I would just walk down and eventually hit the main intersection. No such luck I somehow ended up being on the opposite side of a river that I couldn't cross and had to wander around until I eventually managed to find a field that I could cross to get back on the right side of the river. At this point the lack of people and the setting sun was freaking me out because I did not want to get stuck out here in the dark without a phone or anyone even knowing where I was. Then after I finally arrived back in Kyoto and planning to take the train back to Tsu to spend the rest of the week with Vinnie I made the mistake of taking the local train from Kyoto to Osaka. What was suppose to be a very fast train ride ending up being super long as we stopped at every little obscure stop. If I knew the train system better I should have known to get the hell off at the first major stop before it started its slow route through the small stops but of course I had no idea so even when we hit the big stops I just stayed on. I had originally planned it so that I would have plenty of time to grab some dinner in Osaka before making the long trip back to Tsu but of course the slow ass local train made this impossible and I barely caught the train that would allow me to reach Tsu before the trains in Tsu stopped running. ARG. Riding the trains back to Tsu is so much more difficult since it isn't a destination stop and therefore I need to know beforehand which destination stops will include a stop at Tsu which is different from big stops like Osaka and Kyoto which are always listed.
In one of the windows of a restaurant/store there was a whole scene made out of these cute little dolls. So adorable and such excellent details!
Real life version. I saw a bunch of these rickshaws in the Arashiyama area. I hope these guys didn't run/walk all the way from there! I love the buses in Japan! Not only are they efficient and seem to run on a schedule but they also have stop buttons everywhere! In addition to the stop buttons all over the walls of the bus they also have one on the back of each seat so it isn't necessary to stand up to hit a stop button. Amazing, how come other country buses don't do this?? At bus stops you don't have to wonder when the bus will come because they tell you...
This signage board shows the last few stops before yours and when a bus is there the little bus icons actually flip and move in accordance with the real life buses. How awesome must it be to have a time table for the buses and not just a vague every 15-30 minutes.

kyoto: iwatayama monkey park

The highlight of the day was the Iwatayama Monkey Park in the Arashiyama area. When you climb up the steps you'll immediately notice a small shrine setup and then to the left of that is the entrance to the monkey park. Even though there is an attendant sitting at the window, you'll need to purchase the park ticket from the vending machine and then take the three steps to the attendant and give her the ticket. I'm not sure how this makes sense but I guess during busy times the line would form in front of the vending machine and not block the entrance way (even though they are so close to each other I don't think that would necessarily work). The park is located on Mt. Arashiyama so there were a lot of stairs to climb. While climbing up the mountain you'll start seeing monkeys climbing trees and walking on the roads around you. I was going pretty crazy at the sight and kept taking pictures of them. I even managed to spot some deer but they were fast and quite a distance away.
It's pretty cool to see wild monkeys crossing the road right next to you or climbing the trees over your head but it's also pretty nerve wracking because there wasn't anything to prevent these monkeys from fanging me to death or going berserk and attacking me. It wasn't like I had anything to protect myself with or even slightly prepared to protect myself. Sad moment for realizing how weak I really am. The monkeys at the park are the Japanese macaque and are also known as the snow monkeys because they live in areas where snow covers the ground for most of the year. Apparently Japanese macaques are the most northern living primates, besides humans. At the peak is a hut where you can buy bags of food for 100 yen to feed the monkeys. You have to stay inside the hut and feed the monkeys through the screens. It was raining harder at this point so this arrangement was perfect for me. I was the only one there so I could take as many pictures as I wanted and got to choose who I wanted to feed and take pictures with. I loved the screen because it prevented the monkeys from snatching my food away before I had gotten my pictures. Remember the deer from Nara?
I really wanted to feed the smaller monkeys because they were so cute but there was this one monkey that if she got onto the screens all the other monkeys fled so I had to feed her too. She's the head monkey of the place and so I guess all the other monkeys are scared of her. There was a lot of information posted on the trails and inside the hut about the monkeys and they were in English so that was even better.
This monkey was my favorite. Even though I had run out of apples this little guy just stayed perched near me and would grab my fingers even though I had no food in it. I even got to touch his feet which flexed open and close. It was so amazing! I took really retarded videos of myself gushing and awwing like some fangirl but it was just so fantastic. Honestly seeing the monkeys at this park made it worth the fact that I had to come out to this area twice. I highly recommend anyone visiting Kyoto to check out this park. The monkeys give birth around April to July which means cute babies! Dang-it it seems monkeys and cherry blossoms are in season at the same time, should have booked my tickets for later. At the top there is also some pretty fabulous views of the surrounding area. Just imagine if all the trees were full of autumn leaves or cherry blossoms, the view would be even more awesome.

The Details
Iwatayama Monkey Park
8 Arashiyama Genrokuyama-cho, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto 616-0007, Japan
tel: 075-872-0950
hours: spring & summer: 9:00am-5:00pm, winter: 9:00am-4:00pm
entrance fee: adult: 550 yen, child: 250 yen, under 4 years old free
the website provides all the information you'll need to know concerning transportation, monkeys, etc

Access: Arashiyama Area - UPDATED APRIL 2014
Bus line # 11, #28, and #93 go to this area but only #28 goes all the way to the Kyoto Main Station. As of March 22nd 2014 the Kyoto One Day Bus Pass is also valid in the Arashiyama Area!

kyoto: nijō castle

After checking out the free temples, I caught a bus to the Nijō Castle which was just a couple stops away. The only thing I really know about this castle is that its known for having nightingale floors. The floors were constructed in such a way that anyone who steps on the floor would cause it to squeak and was used as a security measure against intruders. I loved all the English information that could be found here. Not only were there English signs in each of the rooms describing their usage there was also signs located on the grounds that you could press a button and have information told to you in several languages. The only thing was that it had started raining and since most of these signs were outside I only managed to listen to some of them and they went on for awhile so I didn't stay till the end.

Nijō Castle is made up of two rings of fortifications. Basically if enemies managed to cross the outer moat and walls, they would still have to cross an additional moat and fortification before they could gain access to the Ninomaru Palace where the shogun resided. I guess in this context Nijō Castle isn't the name of one structure but rather the name for the entire complex. One of the attractions of the castle is the Karamon Gate, which allows access to the Ninomaru Palace, was under renovation and so I couldn't see it in all its Chinese glory. Its expected to be closed until September 30, 2013! Bummer that it's gonna take that long.
The Ninomaru Palace is just on the other side of the Karamon Gate. The outside isn't very impressive but inside the floors are made up of tatami mats and sliding screen doors. No pictures or video taking were allowed inside the palace. What a bummer! So you can pretty much guess what I spent the entire time trying to do while inside the place. If you guessed sneakily taking pics and videos then you guessed right! I was so obsessed with trying to capture everything down on camera that I totally forgot about the nightingale floors. I was getting annoyed by all the squeaking sounds I was hearing when I snapped out of my sneaky phase and realize that those squeaks were the famous nightingale floors at work! I had to take a moment to rush around the hallway to make the floors squeak.
Most of my pictures came out blurry since I had to snap the pictures at around chest level where my camera was hanging and so I had no idea what I was capturing most of the time. Lol. The videos I have showed the rooms in better detail but when I tried to screen capture them to upload as a pic - they became grainy. In the beginning of the tour the rooms consisted of waiting and audience rooms. Only the highest ranked officials got to enter the main audience room where the shogun was seated while the lower ranked officials had to stay in adjoining rooms without a direct view of the shogun. Right next to where the shogun was seated was a closet or a pair of doors with red tassels hanging on them is where the shogun's bodyguards stood by ready to defend the shogun if needed. The inner rooms were the living quarters of the shogun and only female attendants were allowed entry. Besides the lavishly painted doors and ceilings where gold leaf was used in abundance, there was also some rooms that had wooden wall screens that had different pictures on each side. In one room the wood carving was of a peacock but if you saw the wood carving on its opposite side, from the adjacent room, you would see a bunch of flowers.
Honmaru Palace is another palace on the grounds but is only accessible during special events. Despite the rain, I walked around the grounds trying to enjoy the different gardens and plum trees they had here. Even tossed my umbrella to the side so that I could take some pictures of me cheesing it in front of the plum blossoms.
During cherry blossom festival the grounds would be amazing, but now most of the trees are bare and remind me of those monster trees that grab kids from childhood scary movies.

The Details
Nijō Castle
541 Nijojo-cho, Nijo-dori Horikawa-nishi-iru, Nakagoyo-ku, Kyoto 604-8301
tel: (075) 841-0096
hours: castle 8:45am-4:00pm; ninomaru palace 9:00am-4:00pm  - gates are closed at 5pm
closed: every Tuesday in Jan, July, Aug and Dec.
admission fee: 600 yen
directions: from the Kyoto Bus Station you can take Bus Line #9,#50, and #101. Get off at Nijojo-mae stop.
english info about Nijō Castle
guide map of ninomaru palace

I didn't get either of the above documents when I visited, they provide more information about the different rooms in the palace and about the different structures on the castle grounds than the brochure I was given. Both of the PDF files came directly from the official website of the castle so at least its legit!

kyoto: wood and hair

Woke up and decided to tackle Kyoto on my own. Since the train station is in Central Kyoto, I decided to take the 10-15 minute walk to check out the Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji, which together are the head temples of Shin Buddhism. Both of these temple complexes are free which was a motivating factor to check them out since practically every temple or touristy thing in Japan requires an entrance fee! I'm so use to attractions being free in Taiwan that it makes me cringe to have to pay entrance fees.

The Nishi Hongwanji' wasn't really interesting. Besides it being a massive size and pretty to look at with all that wooden architecture, there wasn't much going for it. It had also started to rain which sucked since the whole courtyard is dirt so I was forced to walk only on the stone pathways. They also had a bunch of construction going on so that and the rain really annoyed me and impeded my picture taking process of this place.

On the maps Nishi Honganji and Higashi Honganji look like they are right across from each other. But don't let the maps fool you because what they don't show is all the small little alleys that separate the two temple complexes. I just headed directly across from Nishi Honganji and kept in that direction while navigating the small little streets.

The most noteworthy thing at Higashi Honganji is the hair rope. I had such a hard time finding the place it was in. I kept walking past what looked like a huge construction site/building that was slabbed dab in the middle of the complex but didn't go in because it looked off limits and only workers were entering. Later after walking around in the rain and going to ask for directions twice I finally walked into the construction site and there the hair rope! I guess they didn't think it was necessary to remove it out of the building even though there was all this construction going on...

This is just one of the 53 hair ropes they have that were made from female followers. It weights 827 lbs and is 225 ft long. Ordinary ropes back in the day weren't strong enough to transport and hang the beams used in the buildings and so they included the hair to make it stronger. So crazy and to see so much hair all together is freaky. If you're short on time I wouldn't recommend going to either of these temples, there are definitely way better places in Kyoto to spend your precious time. However if you want some culture and don't have any money then these places are perfect!

The Details
Higashi Honganji
Karasuma Shichi-jō Agaru, Shimogyō-ku, Kyoto 600-8505, Japan
tel: +81-75-371-9181
hours: March-October 5:50am - 5:30pm; November-February 6:20am - 4:30pm 
website (english)

shuni-e: otaimatsu

The Shuni-e, Second-Month Service, is a ceremony held every year on the second month of the lunar calender as devotion and confession to the Bodhisattva Kannon. The most famous Shuni-e ceremony is the one held at the Nigatsu-dō of Tōdai-ji in Nara. The ceremony lasts for two weeks and I was fortunate to be in Nara during this time so even though I finished sightseeing pretty early, I stayed to see the ceremony being performed. The Shuni-e is known for two ceremonies the otaimatsu (fire ceremony) and omizutori (water ceremony), which this festival is also commonly called.

Otaimatsu is a spectacular sight where specially selected monks carry giant torches up to Nigatsu-dō's balcony and are held over the crowd. The burning embers are said to protect you from evil and to give you a safe year.

They weren't kidding when they said the torches were giant. On the day I went the torches were six meters in length and weighted 40kg. Since I had finished all my sightseeing I managed to get here an hour before the ceremony started at 7pm. It was a good thing too cause the yard soon filled with people and because I was there so early I managed to be right up against the fence beneath the balcony, an ideal place to get flaming embers to fall on me and to protect me from evil.

Since they have been doing this ceremony for hundreds of years these guys were well prepared. They had men stationed underneath the balcony with water bags and brooms to put out the flaming embers as they fell to the ground. Since everything is made of wood it would be disastrous if one of those buggers caught. They also had men stationed on the balcony that would immediately start attacking those embers after the monk made his run across.

I was so close no one was in front of me! I had an excellent view of the balcony and right in the center but I believe the best spot would be in the corner right next to the staircase. That position would have offered you an awesome view of the monks as they carried the torches up the staircase and that is also where the monks hold the giant torch, twirling it so that the embers fell down onto us. Rarely did they stop in the middle and they do stop at the end of the balcony but that goes over the a different set of stairs which people are prevented from crowding onto. I had no way to tell the time and I was anxious for it to start. There was a woman speaking Japanese but I had no clue what she was saying until all the lights turned off and it was finally time!

I loved it when they spun the torches because it would cause all the embers to fly everywhere. A lot of the times it seemed as if the embers weren't even touching me! I kept raising my arms and tried to catch those dang embers. Everyone was doing the same. Never seen a group of people who wanted flaming hot stuff to fall on them so badly.

Here a monk is running down the balcony with his burning torch. Even though several monks carry the torches up the stairs, only one runs down the balcony with it. The day I went there were 10 torches and the whole ceremony lasted for only 20 minutes. After it ended people weren't dispersing fast enough, instead they crowded towards the fence. I was wondering if there was something else that was gonna happen but instead the people in charge of putting out the embers were throwing the burnt plants that made up the torches into the audience. One got thrown my way and some nearby people were trying to snatch it but of course I was too quick for them and managed to bring home a souvenir for Vinnie!

It was hard keeping this crumbling branch intact and it smelled bad but it was worth it to bring it Vinnie and keep her blessed from evil. I even managed to keep some in a vial that I brought back with me to Taiwan! I was scared that it might be found since I'm pretty sure you can't bring vegetation across country lines but it was already super burnt and I didn't keep the green part just the black.

For more info about this festival or for future dates of when this ceremony will happen please click here.