The temple on the cliff – Kiyomizu-dera

Temples are to Kyoto as castles are to Germany. They’re everywhere. Big and small, seemingly around street corner, you’ll find a temple in Kyoto. Needless to say, while my group was in Kyoto, we ran around endlessly visiting tons and tons of temples and shrines.

Nijo Castle.

Heian Palace.

Tenryuji.

Kinkakuji. The temple is covered with a very thin gold leafing.

On our last day in Kyoto, my group actually had half the day free. But instead of going home and sleeping as we all desperately needed to do, we opted to visit yet another temple.
Hey. Might as well keep the streak going.
The Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺, literally clear water temple) is a temple literally built into a mountainside, a little ways up from the city itself. As a result, the temple offers amazing views of the city, which are especially popular during the cherry blossom season and autumn. Still, visitors flock to Kiyomizu-dera at all times of the year. Three other students and I decided to join the fray.

Kiyomizu-dera is definitely a tourist attraction, and we could tell. The street leading up to the temple was lined with stores selling everything from sweets to food to fans to the area’s famous Kiyomizu-yaki pottery.

The Kiyomizu-dera was as awesome as rumored. It was raining by the time we got there, but the view was still incredible:

And it turns out that the Kiyomizu-dera was not the only shrine there. My group stopped by the Jishu Shrine, devoted to the god of love and matchmaking.

The most famous attractions at the Jishu Shrine are the love stones. These two stones are placed about 20 feet apart. It is rumored that if one can walk safely, with their eyes closed, from one stone to the other, the person will soon find true love. If assistance is given, however, a go-between will be needed. Thus the area was crowded with schoolgirls trying to find their love:

And of course I had to try it as well.

I walked forward, bumping into the dozens and dozens of people swarming the shrine…

I’m rather unbalanced, so I walked slowly. Very slowly. To the point where people started becoming impatient…


And then I started going off track…

I reached out with my hands, frantically searching. And then… finally…

Apparently, I will find my true love—but only with the assistance of, oh, a dozen or so people. Figures.
Still, Kiyomizu-dera was gorgeous. The temple was full of shops selling charms and fortunes. There were numerous shrines to make an offering at (usually spare change) to make a wish for the gods. Kiyomizu also features the famous Otowa waterfall, which is divided into three streams for visitors to drink from. Drinking the water also apparently grants your wishes.

These temples are just full of superstition. But, hey. I might need twelve people to find my true love—but I will find it in the end, right?

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DO NOT FEED THE DEER. They will chase you down and eat your clothes.

For those who are interested– there are more photos on my tumblr!

There’s this little city about an hour outside of Kyoto called Nara. Nara is famous for its several temples, its numerous stone lanterns, and its countless deer.

Yes. Deer.

Deer, according to legend, are heavenly animals. They protect the people and the city of Nara. As a result, Nara residents have historically revered deer, and do not harm them.

So the deer take advantage of it.

Modern day Nara is swarmed with deer. Deer have grown accustomed to humans, since we feed and pet and don’t harm them. It’s gotten to the point where they’re a huge tourist attraction for both Japanese and non-Japanese alike.

They were a tourist attraction for us, too. One day in Kyoto, we decided to escape to Nara instead. We hopped on a train to Nara, where our sensei had set up volunteer English tour guides to take us around the city.

We started with the Sarusawa-ike pond, where captured fish is often released. I saw more turtles than carp, though.

And then we moved on to Kohfukuji, one of the many famous shrines in Nara.

And then.

I saw them.

The deer.

There are stands all over Nara selling senbei, crackers that tourists can feed the deer. Deer tend to hang around these stands. There was a stand at Kohfukuji, and thus a little patch of deer just chillin’.

My first reaction was to scream.

Second was to run up and pet them.

And then I immediately purchased some senbei. Which seemed like an excellent idea, until…

If you have food, these deer will get it. They will chase you. They will push you. They will eat your clothes.

And I was thus harassed by deer in Nara.

This wasn’t going to work. I was saved by the ingenuity of a fellow student:

I quickly passed out the remainder of my senbei so the deer could go and bother other kids.

In all honesty, though, Nara was kind of…super awesome yo. The deer, especially the adults, are friendly and let you casually walk up and pet them. And the deer bow. The deer bow. There is actually a correct way to feed the deer, besides running-away-while-frantically-holding-out-bits-of-cracker, which looks like this:

I took a video, which I wish I could post—but here in Sapporo, I’ve been unable to connect my laptop to the internet. The old computer they have here is a bit too slow to handle youtube uploads. Perhaps when I get home. But I swear it’s true—the deer will bow to you to ask for food.

Nara’s got more to it than just deer, though. There are several shrines, including the Todaiji, the largest wooden structure in the world:

There’s also a forest path lined with hundreds of stone lanterns. During Obon, every single lantern is lit with candles. It was already quite a sight in the daytime.

A big thing at temples is to purchase small wooden tablets on which you can write wishes to the shrine’s god. In Nara, perhaps because it’s swarmed by schoolkids, love wishes seemed to be popular. Very popular.

So yes, Nara was pretty darn cool. I’ve never been anywhere like it—but I suppose that’s a common theme on this trip of mine. And on that note—please enjoy this plethora of deer photos!

Studio Ghibli is a giant magical amazing treehouse

This is a bit out of chronological order– but I’m short for time, so I do what I want! Also, you can check out more photos on my tumblr.

For my high school friends:

One of my group’s most anticipated outings was our visit to the Studio Ghibli museum, located a little while away from Tokyo. We hopped on the train to Mitaka, where we expected more urban Tokyo—but were instead surprised by a little hike through the woods:

After about a half-hour or so of walking, we reached the museum, where we were again surprised by how quaint and charming it looked:

And then we went inside and it was magic:

The museum, as I discovered, was designed not only to show off the films, but also to absorb its visitors in that magical, beautiful spirit that is Studio Ghibli. There is no set path through the museum; rather, it is a bunch of rooms and little staircases and miniature doors for visitors to get lost in. Literally, the theme of the museum is, “Let’s get lost together.”

I technically wasn’t supposed to take photos—but I snuck one just for you:

And I wish I could have taken more. The museum was amazing, full of gorgeous moving displays, rolls of film displaying exclusive animations, a 猫バス (You know—the catbus from My Neighbor Totoro) that you could sit in… it was incredible. There were walls covered in Hayao Miyazaki’s art, real-life sets recreating scenes from Ghibli films, and miniature models of Ghibli characters and locations. For instance, there was a full-size version of Sophie’s hat shop from Howl’s Moving Castle, and the complete dollhouse from The Secret Life of Arrietty. To make up for my own lack of photos, here’s some pictures I stole from Google Images:

The catbus, kid sized. There was also a larger one for adults.

The interior.

A screenshot from the exclusive short shown in the museum. Mei shares her candy with a baby catbus.

A room displaying concept art and inspiration.

I was speechless the whole time.

Visitors were even allowed to watch a short, 15-minute film only shown at this museum. It was called a “sequel” to My Neighbor Totoro, where the little girl, Mei, befriends a baby catbus and gets to meet the catbus family. And all of us were just like

Luckily, there was a rooftop garden where we were allowed to take photos:

My absolute favorite part of the whole place, though, was the concept art room. There were a couple rooms set up to actually look like an animator’s studio. The walls were pinned with beautiful watercolor concept art for various films, including Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle. There were huge scrapbooks and pasted with photos of trains and buildings and landscapes—inspiration for the animators. We could flip through giant books showing all the storyboards for the films. We could get a look into the thought process behind the films. It was… it was just…

The place was just amazing. It truly tried to capture the spirit of Ghibli in its design and displays. It was just… incredible.

Now I’m going to go watch My Neighbor Totoro on loop. Please don’t mind me.

And then this bald old man whacked me with a stick

This trip has been nuts. Every day has been packed. We get up early and come back late. As a result, it’s been impossible to blog about all the places we been to– so I’ve been trying to pick out the better stories.

Here’s one:

My group is in Kyoto now. And I have to admit, I might be liking it more than Tokyo. While Tokyo is big and wonderful and busy, it really has that western, New York City feel. Not Kyoto. Kyoto is nestled in the mountains, full of old-style Japanese houses and shrines and temples and just beautiful, beautiful Asian architecture.

So we’ve been running back and forth from shrine to castle to palace to temple. And one of these temples was the Tenryu-ji Zen Temple, World Heritage site and popular tourist destination. We weren’t here just to look, though– our sensei somehow got us in with an American monk to try out a little meditation.

For those who aren’t familiar with Buddhist meditation– it’s all about, as far as I could tell from the guy’s explanation, emptying the mind. To release all thoughts, and simply exist. To go beyond what we think defines us– our life, our background, our memories, opinions– and find our true inner self, the one not defined by external influences. Buddhist monks go to some crazy extents to find enlightenment. They’ll sit for days, weeks, even, letting their mind go free.

Or, oftentimes, not.

It’s easy to lose focus during meditation. So, Zen Buddhism utilizes something called a keisaku, which is basically a big wooden stick, to help the monks along. When the monks meditate, there will be one dude walking around and looking for sleepy or distracted monks. And when this dude finds one, he will hit the mediator on the back.

He will hit you with a stick. 

I was a little nervous about Zen mediation.

But our monk, who often receives groups like us was very understanding. He declared that, during our 30-minute period of meditation, he would only hit us if we wanted him to. We’d signal him by clasping our hands together as he walked by.

And with that explained, we entered the temple and started the meditation.

No, Vy! Physical pain is not the issue! Empty your mind! Empty your mind! 

My mediation was not going so well. And then the monk walked by…

I opted out. I opted out! But getting hit is part of the Zen experience! How could I?! I resolved that, if he walked by again, I would volunteer to get hit. Which didn’t help my concentration at all, due to the fact that I’m a massive pansy when it comes to physical pain.

And finally, he walked by. I bowed, and allowed him to hit me with his stick…

The hits barely stung. And the monk hit exactly on some pressure points on my back, so when I sat back up, I actually felt more relaxed. Other students who got hit agreed with me.

Before I knew it, our Zen meditation ended. I didn’t reach nirvana, to be sure– but it was very relaxing. It definitely didn’t feel like a half hour. We also got a tour of the temple, and a special guest meal– as shown in the photos below!

So in my opinion? I’d gladly get hit by a stick again.

F#ck yeah Engrish

For those who are interested, there are more photos from my trip on my tumblr! I haven’t been able to blog about everything I’ve done, so it shows several places I visited but haven’t mentioned.

This country is the best, especially at English. I’d just like to take a moment to share these wonderful gems I happened to encounter during my time here…

Extra Dope Wear Select Shop:

RIDE YOUR SEXY BODY: the night surfers

SPANK ME!

Actually, that’s probably exactly what it sounds like.

Plane-flavored ice cream:

No drunk:

The Real American Underwear:

Wait…what?

Baby Shoop:

It’s kind of hard to see here, but here’s just an example of the ridiculous fashions we saw in the 109 Building, Shibuya. The entire mannequin was dressed with bling reading “BABY SHOOP.” Pardon?

Titty & Co:

UP YOURS TO SWINDLER:

Limited Express Romancecar:

This is an actual… thing on the Odakyu line in Tokyo.

Candy Stripper:

Why wouldn’t you name your company that?

Miracle Battle CArddAss:

Let’s quench insensibility and indifference to fire!

BOSS COFFEE is the boss of them all:

Boss Coffee is actually a huge brand over here.

for Female, Fetus, Family & Future:

No scribbling here:

While I’m at it, I’d also like to share this series of signs explaining the rules of the Tsukiji fish market. While the English isn’t that bad, it’s amusing nonetheless.

That’s all for now. Until next time!

Makudonarudo (McDonald’s, Japan-style)

For those who are interested, there are more photos from my trip on my tumblr! I haven’t been able to blog about everything I’ve done, so it shows several places I visited but haven’t mentioned.

After going to a McDonald’s in Germany, and being shocked at how good it was, I was super determined to go to a McDonald’s in Japan.

Call me weird for wanting to eat American fast food while in Japan, but I wanted to know! One day, on my own, then, I visited a マクドナルド (McDonald’s, pronounced Makudonarudo—or Makudo for short) and ordered some food.

The first thing I noticed was the familiar plastic chairs and tables. It lacked the class of German McDonald’s.

But I ordered food anyway. First was a teriyaki burger…

And then I got, of course, some fries.

It was saddening. But, 大丈夫だよ!Here in Japan, there are plenty of other foods to keep me occupied. During this trip, we get a 1500 yen allowance (about $12) a day to buy food. Mostly (as cheap college students) we’ve been going to cheap restaurants and convenience stores in order to keep within budget (though I’ve definitely been overspending, as I am perpetually hungry.) It may sound bad to you—but to me, I find it delicious:

Chankonabe, a hotpot dish traditionally eaten after watching a sumo match. (Which we did!)

Ramen shops were abundant and cheap in Tokyo.

Fresh sushi at a restaurant near the Tsukiji fish market.

A 280 yen beef bowl at Yoshinoya, a very cheap restaurant.

A bento purchased at a 7-11, which happens to be a very common convenience store around here.

So, yeah. Many exchange students who go to Japan report losing weight during the trip—probably because of the healthier Asian diet and all the walking—but me? Not gonna happen. Not when I have all this food to consume!

On being Asian-American in Japan

Now that I have internet, there’s going to be more photos coming up on my tumblr! Feel free to check it out. 

Japan is a very homogeneous place. It’s historically been isolated. It’s very difficult for foreigners to obtain Japanese citizenship. As a result, the large majority of people here are, naturally, Japanese.

As a result, Japanese people have an odd fascination with non-Japanese people, known as 外人(gaijin, literally “foreign person.”) We’re rare, after all. Groups like mine—with 18 college gaijin—get lots of attention. Little kids and middle schoolers in particular enjoy staring at us.

People have even taken photos of us.

Japanese people, as I’ve experienced, don’t expect gaijin to know any Japanese. Like, at all. So, unlike America, where we expect everyone to know English, saying any Japanese to a Japanese person them induces shock.

If you’re white in Japan, then, any effort is appreciated. But what if you’re not white? What if you’re Asian, like me, who at first glance could pass as a Japanese girl? I’ve been told that Asians that are in Asian countries, but cannot speak the native language, are totally rejected. I expressed my worries to a friend of mine:

Which, for the most part, has proven to be true. Except I mentioned before that I had a really bad cold, the worst I’ve had in years. I was coughing and sneezing and hacking and sniffing, hoping to god I wouldn’t get any of my fellow students sick. And in fact, there was a way I could prevent it. A very common thing in Japan, when one is sick, is to wear a hospital mask:

This way, the afflicted does not spread their germs. So I decided: Why not? When in Rome…

I wore the mask for a couple days, throwing the people around me into confusion.

Cashiers assumed I was Japanese, and didn’t hesitate to speak their language rapid-fire at me:

The best was when my group went to watch a sumo wrestling tournament, however. The guy at the ticket booth was handing out programs in both Japanese and English. To the rest of the kids, he automatically handed them an English flyer. But when I came up, he paused:

Otherwise, though, I haven’t experienced much trouble. Thank goodness! And now I’m better, so the mask is off. Besides, as soon as I open my mouth, people can pretty much tell I’m a foreigner.

My goal by the end of this trip is to be able to pass as a Japanese girl for 30 seconds. Think I can pull it off?

There is a whole street of maid girls beckoning me to enter their café.

I changed my mind. Harajuku can have someone else.

I was born to live in Akihabara.

Akihabara is an area of Tokyo known for selling electronics. More specifically, it’s known as a center of “otaku” culture—you know, anime, manga, video games—all the stuff I know and love.

So this place.

Is my paradise.

The main street in Akihabara, or “Akiba” for short, is jammed with multi-story shops selling all sorts of goodies from the latest, trendiest anime series. Figurines, manga, DVDs, CDs…

As if that wasn’t good enough, the street is also filled with arcades. Except these aren’t American arcades, with those old, clunky games of skee-ball and whack-a-mole. No, these games are the latest and greatest. And people get hardcore about them.

I, for one, tried out this awesome taiko drumming game…

…and also my all-time favorite, Dance Dance Revolution.

One thing that surprised me, though—crane games are actually a huge thing here! We have them in America too—those rigged machines where you try to scoop a stuffed animal with an incompetent mechanical claw. Arcades here had floors full of these crane games. And they introduced all sorts of new gimmicks, such as

I thought they were impossible—but then I remembered that this is Japan, where level = Asian. And I saw a girl walk by with her bag of crane game prizes:

Not all of Akiba is shiny shiny fun time, though. Sometimes the stores would delve into… more mature culture.

Sometimes, you don’t even see it coming.

What really got me the most about this place, though, were the maid cafes. These (extremely expensive) restaurants feature little Japanese girls dressed in cutesy maid outfits, speaking in very high-pitched voices and acting as “kawaii” as possible. The entire street was full of maids, handing out flyers for their café. These themed cafes weren’t restricted to only maids, however. I saw schoolgirl cafes, catgirl cafes, even a schoolgirl-themed massage parlor. I’d like to not think too much about that one.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to go to a maid café, which is extremely disappointing. Perhaps one day. But for now, I got to go to Akihabara—a place I’ve been dreaming of going to for ages! It was a beautiful thing.

Though now I’m down about ten million dollars. Hey, it’s not every day I get to go to Tokyo. It was worth it.

 

If I could live in Harajuku, I totally would

For more pictures, check out my tumblr!

After visiting the Meiji Jingu, my group headed over to Harajuku. After all, Meiji is located very close to Harajuku. Thank goodness, because at the time, the train station looked like this:

So while we had to brave the crowds to get to Meiji, we did not have to venture back in again. Instead, we walked over to the main street in Harajuku, Takeshita Street:

Harajuku is, essentially, a fashion district for young people. It’s known for its wild, trendy styles, dozens of subgenres of clothes (including: goth, punk, Lolita, visual kei, and many, many more) and, on occasion, even cosplay. Takeshita Street is totally packed during the day, full of trendy Asians out for a day of shopping, crazily dressed teens strutting their stuff, and nutty shops blasting electro remixes of Disney songs.

If there’s something I love, it’s absurdity. Harajuku was full of it. Please observe these wonderfully enticing mannequins.

While people often emphasize the crazy fashions worn in Harajuku, however, the people there actually wore some pretty toned-down clothes. It was fashionable and trendy, sure, but nothing was totally over the top. Well, except for this guy who I asked to take a photo of:

And anyway, who am I to talk? I’ve cosplayed before. I love this stuff. I’d buy a frilly dress in an instant if I could. Though, on that day, we didn’t have much time to actually browse the shops in Harajuku—I definitely saw enough to totally fall in love with the whole place.

SO I may or may not be down an undisclosed amount of money after my first day in Tokyo. Everything is so cute. EVERYTHING IS SO CUTE! And Asian. And HILARIOUS! The amount of ridiculous English around here is unbelievable. Just take this one girl I saw on Takeshita Street…

I ended up returning to Harajuku in our free time. I didn’t buy anything—but I did get to try on this crazy Lolita dress:

Super G, yo.

The only problem with Asian clothes, though—they’re built to fit a certain… body shape. A body shape that I do not have. So as I shopped around in search of a frilly dress, I encountered the same problem over and over again…

So I didn’t end up buying a frilly dress. But still— Harajuku and I—we were meant to be.

Honey, we’re not in Tokyo anymore… oh wait, yes we are. (The Meiji Shrine)

For more pictures, check out my tumblr, which will be periodically updated with photos!

I can already tell. Our days are gonna be packed.

So many places. So many things. I’ve been experiencing a sensory overload.

Here is my first full day in Tokyo, in summary:

It’s exhausting to be sure, but my god. I’m in Tokyo! And as you can see: So many things! I don’t even know where to start writing about it. It’s been puzzling me for hours.

But I believe a good post should tell a story, so I’ll start with the story of the Meiji Jingu.

Anyone who has learned a bit about Japanese history knows about the Meiji Restoration, a period where Japan adopted Western culture while still maintaining Japanese traditions. Emperor Meiji tried to turn Western technology to Japan’s advantage, adopting what would be beneficial and ignoring that which was not. During this period Japan saw a lot of growth and innovation. This Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken, are enshrined at the Meiji Jingu. The original shrine was actually destroyed in World War II, but was restored in 1958.

When I saw the entrance to the shrine, it surprised me. What was this peaceful, enclosed forest doing in the middle of urban Tokyo? I walked in and felt like I was out in the woods, not the middle of one of the largest cities in the world.

There was a long gravel path leading to the Meiji Jingu, with three large wooden gates coming before the shrine itself. Before I could enter the actual shrine, I had to purify myself: at a fountain, I had to scoop water into each hand and touch them to my mouth.

The shrine itself contains several buildings, each with a different function. At the main shrine, people were donating money and making wishes.

And for 500¥, you could write a wish on a wooden charm for the deities to fulfill.

We were there on a Sunday, when traditional Japanese weddings often take place. My group was lucky enough to see the procession!

And finally, all of the girls decided to get an omikuji, or a poem-drawing. Each omijuki consisted of a poem written by the late Emperor Meiji or Empress Shotoku, and what message that poem held for you. Here’s mine!

And did I mention that that was only the afternoon? It gets better in Harajuku.