Category Archives: Haru Jang

The Ghibli Dream

Image
The Ghibli Dream

The last post has come, and boy, do I have a lot of stuff to tell you. You won’t believe what Komame has been up to all this time. In fact, I wasn’t sure if I believed it when I heard.

The day started off… wet… cold… and M I S E R A B L E.

Not only had Haru almost forgotten the museum tickets she and Kristina ordered almost a month beforehand, but she was late getting to their rendezvous point. While Haru may not be the most punctual person in the world, she tries. Unfortunately, remembering that the tickets were back home about halfway to Tokaichiba station, she had go back for them. It was a pain trudging through the mucky rain on the way there, but it was brutal going all the way back and out again.

Let’s just say that by the time we did meet up with our good friend, we were all a bit low in the spirit and just wanted dry feet and some place warm and cozy to eat lunch. Rainy days tend to do that to people.

So after arriving at Mitaka station about an hour and a half later, we found a little Italian restaurant near the station and set up camp there. After two steaming bowls of spaghetti and a sweet strawberry dolce later, we talked a bit more about what we would see. The girls talked about what their favorite films were and why, but all I wanted to do was to go back to the station and catch the bus!

It’s no Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ), but it was still pretty obvious where this one was headed. The bus was crowded, and while the journey there wasn’t too long, I decided to take a nap.

When I did wake up, Haru was rifling through her bag for her umbrella and almost made us late getting out of the bus. Again.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t take photos indoors. But we’ll use some visuals from Google to help you see what we saw.

I’ll tell you a bit about the inside. But don’t worry, I won’t spoil it all for you. It’s something you’d have to see for yourself, especially if you’re a Studio Ghibli fan and know the movies inside out.

Like Kristina and Haru – they got pretty emotional the instant they walked into the first room. It’s not like they were crying or anything, but Haru did have her handkerchief out, just in case. Those two have probably been watching those movies since they were in diapers. They were pretty overcome with nostalgia, particularly when they saw their favorite characters in action.

There was a platform with little figures of Satsu, Mei, the Totoros, etc. The order of repetition for the figures didn’t make much sense at first, but then when someone presses the switch, everything goes dark and suddenly there’s this flashing light. Then inside the case where the platform is, you see the characters’ figures moving. It’s bizarre at first, but once the lights stop, you can see how the platform had been turn around and around like a roulette wheel.

I didn’t get it at first, but Haru explained that it was only an illusion. But somehow, the figures really DID look like they were moving! I swear, and I’m even allowed to swear!

Aside from all the cool little displays inside, the rest of the museum is built like a cozy house – just like something out of their movies. There’s this really cool windy, wrought iron staircase that’s sort of like a bird cage if you look at it from afar.

And there are all these wooden bridges and stained class windows. On those stained glass windows are Ghibli characters.

We even saw Chihiro and dragon-Haku on the colored panels.

There were even secret rooms with tiny doorways. We got lost once or twice and stumbled into the bathrooms. If there was ever a bathroom where you felt like something magical would pop up… maybe see No-Face rise out of a toilet or flowers to start growing under your feet… it was there.

Those bathrooms were a work of art.

Of course, there’s the Catbus. However, this one’s only for little kids. The museum got itself a bigger one though, where adults could sit inside and enjoy the scenic windows of Saitama’s farmlands in the summer time. All we needed was a plate of chilled watermelon, iced green tea, and yukata to wear.

And we can’t forget about the theater room where a Ghibli short was playing. The day we went, there was a showing of Ghibli’s short film, Water Spider Monmon (水グモもんもん). It’s very cute, even for the arachnophobic. It’s about a water spider who falls for a water strider. While the water strider is scared of him at first, she eventually learns to accept him and become his friend.

It’s amazing how a 15 minute film can make the warm and fuzzies grow all over you.

Next up are photos Haru took outdoors. Having been all enchanted and warm inside the building, the instant we stepped out, we were met with the cold and wet unpleasantness all over again. However, it was still pretty cool.

There was a real water pump out back, just like the one Satsu and Mei used.

And Haru got to meet her… knight in shiny armor. Despite being rain drenched, the girl wanted to throw her arms around it. Anyway, it’s that giant Laputan robot from Castle in the Sky (天空の城ラピュタ).

Walking around the museum grounds was like walking around in an alternate dimension. You just never know what’s watching you behind your back…

All that wandering around made us tired, so we went and got some food. A hot dog for Kristina, and two milk-flavored ice cream cones for the both of them. But I was not feeling hungry, and chose to mull quietly to myself.

Our days were numbered here in Japan, and I still couldn’t find Komame anywhere. I looked everywhere we went, even as I helped Haru with these blog posts. But nothing… I knew my kitty was gone.

Seeing my long face, Kristina offered me her cone, but even then, I turned it down. Milk was Komame’s favorite flavor.

That was when Haru started messing with my wig, knowing it was the best way to annoy me/get my attention.

I was going to tell her to leave me alone when I realized she was holding Komame out to me!

“Where did you find him?!”

Haru looked bemused as she put Komame in my lap.

“Well, where to start?” she asked.

So she told me how she had known I was upset since the day I lost him when we went to Kamakura. She’d also known why because she was the one typing my blog posts for me. I guess I feel sheepish now – I thought she was ditzy all around, but I really should have given her more credit.

I remembered that day in Kamakura. I wouldn’t tell her about it all semester, because I had wanted to find him myself. She entrusted him to me, so it was my responsibility to make sure he was safe. But when he got lost, I couldn’t bear to tell her and ask for help.

“Remember the bus we took here?” she began, “Well, I couldn’t take my eyes off this cat shadow. I thought it looked familiar.”

So that was when she caught Komame almost sneaking off the bus. Luckily, she managed to catch him. He had been trying to get off at the wrong stop anyway.

When she asked him why he would run away and worry us like that, Komame told her he hadn’t meant to. He was just tired of being a simple house cat and had bigger dreams to fulfill. He’d been searching for Studio Ghibli all this time to get a job. He wanted to be their new mascot!

“So why didn’t you leave a note?” Haru interrogated sternly.

Komame said he didn’t have fingers. He did have a point…

Either way, Haru gave my little friend another lecture about running away regardless of what he wanted to do. I also knew she didn’t want to mention it, but aside from the obvious Totoro merchandise, Studio Ghibli already had a mascot. He was also a snarky black house cat, except his name was Jiji.

Now that I knew, I couldn’t help but feel badly for my friend. I hadn’t meant to be ignorant of his dreams… I was just so caught up with my own. You know, being a world explorer-journalist and all.

Haru wasn’t done explaining.

“I’d known Komame was missing all semester since you used to take him everywhere with you. But I wanted you to tell me on your own.”

I was puzzled. “Why?”

“This is the Studio Ghibli museum,” she grinned, gesturing all around, “Think about what most of their films have in common.”

I thought hard, but couldn’t think of a thing. There was lots of magic and lots of characters.

The characters would make lots of friends…

And with their friends’ help, they would solve their problems, and…

Oh.

“Sorry I didn’t tell you from the beginning, Haru,” I said quietly, “But thank you for bringing him back to me.”

Haru just smiled and told me not to worry about it because she’s always watching over me. She was just happy I learned more about friendship and what it means to be a friend.

“You grew up a little,” she told me. And I knew she wasn’t talking about my height.

“Yeah, but I’ve got some ways to go.”

Hugging Komame to myself, I wondered what my next adventure may be. But whatever it will be, I’m just glad I’ve got my friends with me now – and I can’t wait to meet those I haven’t met yet.

May all of you out there find good friends to keep, and visit as many corners of the world as you can!

Rowan

Ps. To see what other mischief I get up to on Haru’s country-hopping trips, go check out her personal blog: Sincerely, Nobody. Catcha later!

Banzai, Kansai!

Image
Banzai, Kansai!

After this post, there is just one left.

But before Haru gets all weepy over her keyboard and short circuits her computer, I’m gonna tell you all about our happy memories from the rest of the Kansai trip.

It was another early start for us the next day, so it was hard getting out of bed to go explore Kyoto one last time. But we did manage to drag ourselves out of our warm, plush futons and leave the temple/hotel.

Here’s another photo, to prove that yes, we stayed overnight at a temple.

Next up, Haru and friends went to see Sanjuusangen-do (三十三間堂), famous for being the temple that houses 1000 Kannon statues and 28 guardian deities. For those of you who don’t know much about Japanese Buddhism, Kannon is a bodhitsattva, one who is about to reach enlightenment, but holds back for the sake of others. Kannon is associated to compassion for this reason. Originally a masculine entity, Kannon’s masculine image in the East has long since evolved into a feminine one.

Photography isn’t allowed inside, so here are two photos from Google for the curious eyes. And as you can see, every single statue is unique with different faces and different decor. If you think about it, it’s kind of like those terracotta soldiers in China, huh?

Before we left to go see other Kyoto hotspots, here are some photos of the gorgeous gardens surrounding the area.

Have any idea where we went next? I’ll give you a hint – check out one of the main gates and one of the shrines behind it.

And here’s a hint.

For those of you who have seen Memoirs of a Geisha, you’ll definitely remember the scene where a young Sayuri tears through the stone path between the gates on her way up the mountain to pray for luck. Here’s another image courtesy of Google.

This shrine is the Fushimi Inari-Taisha (伏見稲荷大社), or the main shrine of the Inari. Not only is the mountain named Inari, but Inari-Ookami (稲荷大神) is also the Japanese kami, or god, of worldly success and agriculture. Back in the old days, rice was the main business. If you had no gold, you paid in rice. It is also said that the kami’s messengers take the form of white foxes, or kitsune (狐). Therefore, they are highly revered and seen throughout the shrine grounds.

This kami is so popular in the Japanese culture that there are well over 30,000 smaller shrines dedicated to this same kami throughout Japan. However, Fushimi-ku’s is especially popular, being the main shrine. It has the most torii gates to date, and sum up to the main attraction of the site. The torii gates seen here were all donated by businesses hoping to reap some luck and garner the favor of the Inari-Ookami. So if any of you are ever down on luck or something, here’s a place to make your pilgrimage!

Here are our friends wondering which path they should take. Hard choice, don’t you think? They both look the same!

And here’s an extra photo of Haru walking under the gates, courtesy of Yuan who caught her unawares.

Wrapping up our trip in Kyoto with the Fushimi Inari shrine was awesome, but after going to see sacred foxes, we went to see sacred deer.

And no, we did not photoshop the photo and place those wild deer so close to people!

These deer are so used to people, they’ll let you pet them. They’re called Shika (鹿), meaning “deer” in Japanese.

However, the deer weren’t there for no reason. According to religious stories, the historical buddha made his first sermon at Sarnath, or “deer park” in Hindi. Also, These deer are considered sacred messengers to the Shinto religion here in Nara.

And “here” is the Toudai-ji (東大寺), a HUMONGOUS buddhist temple. In fact, that temple is the largest wooden building created by man – IN THE WORLD! See how tiny people are compared to it?

So what do we find inside? Treasure? Other giant wooden buildings nestled inside it like Russian nesting dolls?

Close enough. Inside was a giant buddha, a Daibutsu (大仏) that was even bigger than the one we saw in Kamakura. To be fair, it is the statue of the Vairocana buddha, the celestial/omnipresent body of buddha, so it had the right to be as large as life.

And there WERE other buildings inside the temple – only they were too small for people to walk inside and look around in.

Next up, we traveled over to Osaka where we we ate okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) at Dohtonbori (道頓堀) in a very flashy shopping area near Namba station. It used to be a red light district, but now it’s just a really lively part of town.

Talk about some good food here! Everyone was stuffed by the time they were done eating.

The following day, we started with Osaka castle. If there was anything more famous here than the okonomiyaki, it was definitely the castle.

And to our good fortune, all the sakura were in bloom!

The last place we went to see was the HEP Five ferris wheel just a few minutes walk from Umeda station. The view was great, and we couldn’t stop taking photos. You would think that it would take forever to ride a a ferris wheel as big as that, but it was over all too soon.

To commemorate our visit to Osaka, we headed into HEP Five, which is a massive shopping mall complex all on its own. But we didn’t buy anything there – we just went to check out the Purikura (プリクラ), short of “print club.” They’re these popular photo booths developed by two very famous Japanese video-gaming companies, Atlus and Sega.

The end result?

Four starry-eyed girls floating among pink clouds and candied hearts. But did you know that at some Purikura places, boys can only go in if they are accompanied by girls? While I’m not sure if this was one of those places, I declined taking part in the shoot. Being virtually smothered to death in a sea of pink hearts was not what I called manly!

After scarfing down our final okonomiyaki dinner at Dohtonbori (again), we raced back to the international hostel where we were staying at to rendezvous with the rest of the group. Then it was a Shinkansen ride straight back to Tokyo.

As fulfilling as it all was, we were completely exhausted when we got back home in Yokohama. What an adventure.

But our adventures in Japan are still not quite over! However, in case Haru and I run out of time to post the rest of our adventures up here, feel free to keep up with us in her personal blog: Sincerely, Nobody.

The next post will be our last…

So here’s a sneak peak at our next story!

And if there’s anywhere Komame will show up at, it will probably be there. I hope.

Later gators,

Rowan

From Tokyo to Kyoto

Image
From Tokyo to Kyoto

Get ready for a storm of pictures – pictures that will make you never want to see another cherry blossom or temple ever again.

Just kidding. But seriously, if you want to see your share of sakura, temples/shrines, and geisha – you must make your way to Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, and the heart of its ancient culture.

First up, we all met at Shinagawa station in Tokyo. Everyone had to wake up super early to meet up, so half of them were half-asleep while the other half was buzzing with excitement. Luckily everyone showed up on time, so we all hopped on the Nozomi Shinkansen (新幹線), otherwise known as the famous bullet train. And yes, it travels very, very fast.

Here I was, all comfortable and reclined, ready for a nice long nap… only to be woken up about three hours or so later, to discover we were already in Kyoto. Talk about fast.

After switching to a local train, we took it to the… middle of nowhere. It was a huge change of scenery for most of us, as many of us hadn’t seen such open land in a long time. Tokyo isn’t exactly the most river, forest, and mountain friendly city here in Japan. So we took our time, taking everything in, and simply absorbed our surroundings. It started to get drizzly, so Haru had to put me back in her bag. It was a good thing too, since our next event was the Hozugawa (保津川) boat ride.

Here it is: our vessel. Haru and a few of her friends got front row seats, which meant some serious splashing form the rapids. Therefore, before we went anywhere, the lot of them were bundled up in plastic sheets.

It was a good thing too, because the weather was ridiculously unpredictable. One minute it was sunny, the next it was raining, and after that it was HAILING. Yes, hailing. Here’s a photo of Brittani and Yuan huddled under the plastic sheet wrap.

Next up was the Rurouni Kenshin bridge, for those of you who know what I’m talking about. That’s not its real name, but we couldn’t remember the real name of the bridge – just that it was the inspiration for the scene where Kenshin and Misao defeated a gang of thugs by destroying said bridge. At least that’s what Tonghwi said. And I’ll take our awesome student guide’s words at face value. After all, he’s lived in Kyoto for a while, and goes to Kyoto University too.

Anyway, you can also see a maiko, a geisha in training, walking with her entourage. There were plenty of them walking about Kyoto. It’s just not something you see here in Tokyo.

After eating lunch nearby, we went off to see Tenryu-ji (天龍寺), a super famous Buddhist temple with its famed gardens.

Although it was still rather cold and not all the flowers were blooming, it was still a sight to behold.

Soon after, we went to visit the Nonomiya Jinja (野宮神社), a Shinto shrine situated almost right next door. The shrine is especially famous for its amazing bamboo path. When the wind breathes through its sheltering foliage, the entire area is filled with music so sweet and a feeling so enchanting, that its as if the path belonged to another world altogether.

It was so beautiful, so otherworldly, that I believe I have turned into a poet during my short stay there.

Of course, for those who wanted to see sakura, or cherry blossoms in bloom, Kyoto had them by the road-full.

Here we are, walking into the Gion district. And if you are familiar with the name, you’ll know its home to the geisha. While we did pas a few geisha in training, Haru was more interested in capturing scenic photos.

With our three Kyoto University student guides leading us, we walked through the area visiting several stores.

For instance, here’s the Studio Ghibli store that Haru and her friends just HAD to visit. Being fans of Ghibli films and all, it was something none of them could pass up.

Of course, visiting this area also meant having to see the Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), an Eastern Kyoto temple that has achieved super-star fame as far as Japanese temples go. It’s associated to making wishes come true, such as finding true love.

In the Edo period, people actually believed that jumping from the Kiyomizu-dera’s stage and surviving the 13 meter drop would grant their wishes. Don’t try it though, since it’s more suicidal than anything. Not only is it prohibited these days, but let’s say you wish to become the world’s best-looking athlete. Even if you survive the fall, surely you’d have a few permanent injuries to the limbs and face. How would that wish come true then?

Anyway, the walk through the temple at night makes for a fantastic spot for a night time photo shoot. But even photos cannot capture what it actually felt like being there, watching the temple grounds light up at night.

After the walkthrough though, this is what people looked like.

As night fell, it was time to head to the hotel for some good food and a good rest. And it wasn’t just any hotel we went to – we actually lodged at a temple, the Hongan-ji Monpo-Kaikan to be exact.

The food was delicious, and the rooms were super comfortable. And for my public-bath-loving friend, it had a great hot tub.

Our adventures in the Kansai area are not over yet! Next up, I’ll tell you about the deer we met and fed in Nara.

Until then,

Rowan

This Izu a Day of Fun

Image
This Izu a Day of Fun

Just as a warning, this will probably be the most photo-intensive entry Haru has written so far. Who knew one could do so much in just one day of pure fun?

One Sunday not long ago, Haru shot up out of bed just before the crack of dawn and ran out the door by 5:30am. She took her hour and half commute from the Yokohama area into Tokyo, where she left with a bus full of her classmates and friends before the clock hands struck 7am.

Excited, but tired, the kids on the bus spent most of their time trying to keep each other awake. Sleep won out, but before long, a few hours passed and everyone found themselves in Izu, Shizuoka, Japan.

What did we do first here in Izu? We picked strawberries!

And the further we journeyed into the greenhouse, the bigger and juicier the strawberries got. The white stuff on the left is condensed milk. It’s popular here in Japan to eat strawberries dipped in milk sauce. We’ve gotta do that in the States! I wish could’ve tried some.

And here are a few of Haru’s friends enjoying their strawberries.

After the 30 minute time limit of strawberry picking was up, it was time to thank the strawberry farm owner, wash off sticky red fingers, and hop back onto the bus.

Next up was visiting Joren no Taki (浄蓮の滝), a famous local waterfall here.

It was pretty cold and humid, and on top of the rocky path being so wet, Haru couldn’t take me out. But there were so many things to be seen! I wish I could have come out, but here you can get an idea of what she saw on the way down to the waterfall.

The further they journeyed down the slopes, the more… spiritual things felt. It wasn’t just that we passed an old shrine that gave it away. All you have to do is watch Hayao Miyazaki’s film, Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫), to understand the feeling. There was a powerful quietness there, a silent strength in every fiber of the wood.

It was as if there was a fine line separating this world and the outside one where all the tourists came from.

On the way back up the slippery, rocky slope, it was impossible to leave without checking out the area’s famous merchandise: wasabi ice cream!

Up next, it was time to experience the Dogashima (堂ヶ島) beach and boat ride.

To the docks, people – Captain’s orders!

I didn’t think a doll could feel seasick, but it was all I could do to stay in Haru’s bag and keep myself together. As for Haru, she didn’t want to wear a life jacket or get wet, so she stayed inside the boat and took pictures from there.

Apparently, we passed by a lot of amazing island structures, and even went into a cave. The drivers here in Japan are amazing! Be they bus or boat drivers, they can maneuver through the tiniest of spaces.

Once we made it back to land, it was off to see the trails.

The sun-dappled walkways led straight to a resting area, where even the Showa emperor came and sat down for a bit. But I wonder if he went rock-climbing like the rest of us!

Not too many people were climbing up and down the slopes since it could be steep and dangerous at times, but boy was it a great view.

There weren’t just tourists on these rocky faces though. We even saw a fisherman at work on the other side. How he got there, we’re not really sure. It would have been quite a jump from our rock to his side of the neighborhood.

Here’s a photo of Haru looking like she’s about the fly off the side of the cliff.

And here’s a photo of two guys who actually did. :D

After seeing Dogashima, it was off to the hot onsen baths. Now, this onsen was a lot bigger than the one the girls had the luxury of using at Zao in Yamagata prefecture. Unfortunately, Haru didn’t have the luxury of taking photos of the baths here in Izu this time, because there was a never ending queue of naked bath-goers. Even I didn’t get to see it, but according to my friend here, it was pretty amazing.

They had a salt bath, in which it was practically impossible to sink to the bottom of. It also stung any open cuts, so don’t go in that one if you’ve cut yourself shaving. There were tea baths and baths with water the color of white rice. From what we heard, some of these baths contained healing properties, like the various medicinal baths they had… Although to Haru, they smelled more like chicken soup than medicine. How about that?

By the end of the onsen visit, it was evening. To a horde of hungry, wired college kids, that means the unhappy sounds of grumbling bellies. However, thanks to Nahomi here, our awesome event coordinator, everyone’s painful, talking stomachs were taken care of. We ate at a kaiten-zushi (回転寿司) restaurant, or a restaurant that serves sushi on a conveyor belt for those who don’t know.

…and this is just the beginning of the feasting frenzy.

Here are just a few of the dishes that our group of seven snatched off the conveyor belt. Just watching everyone eat plate after plate of translucent, succulent fish makes my hollow, resin middle feel even hollower.

The dessert also looked scrumptious and ready to die for! Cream puffs, pudding, and chocolate cakes – I could really have some right now!

Here’s a photo of Yuan with about half the amount of plates we piled up during dinner. Workers and other dinner guests who passed our table kept giving us these curious, mystified looks – and I’m pretty sure that seeing a resin kid standing on the table had nothing to do with it.

Cheers to a dinner well devoured!

After everyone stuffed themselves, a long ride to Shinagawa station awaited us. While much of the time was spent on singing really out of tune karaoke, the rest was spent catching up on homework for some people.

For others like me though, it was time to hit the sack. Lights off, please!

And in my sleep, I dreamed that all was well, and that Komame had been there too. Boy, do I hope I find him by the end of our stay here in Japan.

Only one month left…

Good night all,

Rowan

Korea Town in Tokyo

Image
Korea Town in Tokyo

Mid-terms have been railing hard on Haru, so she didn’t get a chance to write much as of late. However, in the eye of the storm, she took some time to hang out with her good friend Kristina, also a previous host student who stayed with Haru’s host family last semester.

Together, they went to Shin-Okubo, also known as Korea Town here in the big city of Tokyo. There, they met up with Haru’s childhood friend, whom she hadn’t seen or heard from since elementary school!

Here’s the beautiful Kristina. :D

And here’s Justin, a pro at using chopsticks and speaking Japanese. Maybe I should get him to teach me? He’s been living here for a while now. It’s funny how both he and Haru met up again coincidentally through Kristina. A miracle-worker, that girl!

The three of them ate at a small Korean restaurant tucked away somewhere near the station.

Judging the expressions on their faces as they dug into their food, the food must have been pretty delicious. Personally, I’m no fan of hot, spicy food, but Haru and her friends were. Here are some pictures of their meal.

For those of you with weak insides like me, doesn’t this just make you feel like you’d get a stomach ulcer?

Haru also got herself a peach and 日本酒 cocktail. Feeling pretty grown up, I guess. She was just happy they didn’t card her. Back in the States, Haru got carded all the time, even though she’s almost twenty-two now. She’s so old, and yet last time she was babysitting on Halloween, a neighbor thought she was a middle school student and offered her candy. When asked for her age, the poor woman went all bug-eyed when Haru said she was a junior in college.

After their lunch, they went out to explore Shin-Okubo with Justin as their guide.

There were so many stores selling beauty products, books, food, etc.

Perhaps the staple look around here though is the sheer amount of Korean band merchandise. They were everywhere! Here’s a photo of a music store on the second floor, with an entire staircase dedicated to Korean bands.

After the tour and wandering from bookstore to product store and back again, the three of them walked around Shinjuku briefly. Tokyo truly is a city of neon lights and sounds, but infinitely cleaner than Philly.

It was getting late, so it was time to part ways with Justin as he lives in Chiba prefecture, and the girls live in Yokohama over in Kanagawa prefecture. Before parting though, Justin and Haru goofed off like old times. Thanks to Kristina, a few jests were captured. It’s amazing how even in heels, Haru barely comes up to Justin’s chin. When they were both ten, Justin was the shorter one. I can’t imagine this, but Haru promised to show me her old photos when we return home to the US.

Before turning in for the night, Kristina and Haru dropped by Machida station, just four stops away from Haru’s home station. There, Kristina described Machida as somewhat of a college town where a lot of college kids gather, shop, and hang out. It’s a very lively part around here for young people.

Here, the two of them got their milk tea and tapioca drinks at Tapioca World. Bubble tea is pretty popular in Asia, and it’s been getting pretty big in the West too. If you’re in the Philly area, just drop by Chinatown or Upenn’s campus, and you’ll see bubble tea shops springing up around there.

By the time we reached Machida though, I was asleep inside Haru’s bag. Haru told me they went to a coffee shop to talk over some dessert.

While I didn’t get to hear what their conversation was like, I did hear a voice that I wasn’t really familiar with.

I’m still bummed that Haru hadn’t woken me up and let me try dessert. So whoever it was, better not have been eating my share!

Until the next post everyone,

Rowan

Bueno Ueno Zoo

Image
Bueno Ueno Zoo

A good day at Ueno Zoo for penniless college students is one that includes no entrance fee.

Which is a great thing for Haru and her friends, Kristina and Emmy that the zoo was allowing free entrance onto their grounds. Of course, that meant braving the huge crowds. But honestly speaking, when IS Ueno Zoo ever NOT crowded? Besides, it was still Spring Break for the students here in Japan, so that meant a surplus of little kids going to see the zoo. Including me, of course! I’ve been on a permanent break of sorts, so it was awesome when Haru told me she was taking me to the zoo with her.

I got to see a lot of cool animals that I’ve only ever heard about. Unfortunately, they were all locked away behind fences and cages so I couldn’t see them up close and personal. Like this elephant. Talk about huge!

Of course, after seeing a real elephant, I wanted to ride one. That was impossible, but I COULD have rode on the fake one, but Haru said no. As usual…

We also got to see Monkey Mountain, which wasn’t as much of a mountain as it was a small rocky hill with monkeys on it. Having all those people gawking at them the whole time, I’m not surprised that they turned their backs to all the visitors… It made me want to go Tarzan on the spot and set them all free. Haru would kill me, but I know she felt the same.

After seeing the monkeys, we went off to ride the monorail! I was really excited, and people who saw me kept staring like they’ve never seen a pint-sized kid before. It made me feel rather awkward.

We said hello to the conductor and found a seat right behind him.

It wasn’t much of a ride since it was so short, but it was still cool seeing the zoo from high above everyone else. Take a look!

 

Before we knew it, it was time to get off. Haru and the others couldn’t believe that we waited in line for over half an hour for that, but I thought it was well worth our time!

We then proceeded to come across birds. Lots and lots of birds, including crows, which are not part of the zoo at all, but are Haru’s favorite animals. She took way too many pictures of them when she should have been looking at penguins.

Among other birds we saw were flamingoes. There were those of the pink variety, and then those that were not. These blue ones were HUGE.

Haru was able to find her way closer to the blue flamingo (that’s what the sign said, anyway), and she almost dropped her camera when it turned to look her dead in the eye. After that, she told us that she would never call Big Bird ugly ever again.

The birds were fun, but the girls wanted to go look at some furry creatures in the small mammal exhibit. Unfortunately, the day was growing late so they ended up leaving without seeing much. Besides, the exhibit was cramped and dark – not a great place to take photos of the cute and furry things inside.

On the way out of the zoo, we passed under the monorail. It was cool being in it, but there was something really cool about being under it!

Everyone wanted to take last minute photos, so we hurried up the ramp to the outdoor balcony. Here’s a photo of Emmy taking pictures. Seriously, Haru should just quit school and join the paparazzi. She takes too many candid shots.

We didn’t stay up there long, because Emmy said she felt the ground tremble. Immediately, everyone thought of earthquakes and collapsing balconies, so the three of them ditched the scenery and headed straight for the exit.

It was a great day out – nice weather, cool things to see, etc. But a part of me couldn’t help but feel badly about how weary-looking all the animals were. Also, I couldn’t help but feel badly for the parents who took their kids to the zoo – they also looked really exhausted.

Before we left the premises though, I saw the children’s zoo, which I assumed was a petting zoo. I begged Haru to take me there, but she really wanted to go home and sleep, so I didn’t push it…

Even though Haru’s anything but a parent to me, I wondered if she was tired too, like the other sleep-deprived parents milling dazedly around with their kids. Finals have really wreaked havoc on her and her friends as of late, and I worry about her sometimes. But looking at her tired, but happy face that day, I was glad I got to come along and enjoy the zoo with her.

We apologize for the late entry, but stay posted for more adventures! Coming up, I’ll cover our trip to the Kansai area of Japan: Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka. I promise you that that’s a story you won’t want to miss.

Au revoir!

Rowan

Seen a Hina-Matsuri?

Image
Seen a Hina-Matsuri?

It was March 3rd this past Saturday, and like many famous Japanese holidays, this holiday fell on an odd-number day.

Think about it: 1/1 is the day after New Year’s (お正月), 3/3 is Girls’ Day (雛祭り), 5/5 is Children’s Day (子供の日), and 7/7 is The Lovers/Star festival (七夕). This past weekend meant Girls’ Day was in session.

Why couldn’t Haru have planned to stay in Japan till after May 5th?! Children’s Day is also thought of as a Boys’ Day… It would have been so much more fun then.

But since it was Girl’s Day, Haru went out and bought stuff – girly stuff to be specific. Take a look at this! It’s called Hina-Arare (ひなあられ), or “snow pellets.” There was nothing cold about them. Just popped rice with a sugary coating, and voila! – snow pellets. There were even pink-white-green Hishi Mochi (菱餅) being sold, but she decided her snow pellets contained enough sugar to keep her awake for a week.

I suppose Haru was a little irritated with my sourness. She said to “stuff it.”

Next was dinner, which was o-sekihan (お赤飯), which was rice mixed with sweet azuki beans to give it its red color and sweet taste. It’s one of Haru’s host sisters’ favorite dishes. Talk about a sweet tooth!

So as I was pouting, the girls looked at me mischievously. Identical eerie grins split their faces, making me concerned. Very, very concerned.

Wondering if there was something funny going on, I looked everywhere. That’s when I noticed these two hiding under my elbow. Sure they startled me, but it was more because this was the first time I’ve seen dolls that were smaller than me.

That’s when I noticed one of their heads was wobbling… AND NO ONE WAS TOUCHING IT.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

… I wasn’t scared! I just felt like raising my arms, okay?! It’s called exercise. There was too much sugar consumed that one day, so someone had to do it!

After having her fair share of sweetened red rice, it was time to take photos of less disturbing dolls.

Did you know that for every daughter in a Japanese family, it’s tradition for them have to have a set of Hina dolls (雛人形)? This elegant pair belongs to Tomomi, the older daughter in our host family.

This set belongs to Minori, the younger daughter. She wanted Haru to take a picture of them kissing…gross, gross, GROSS!

These dolls were made to represent the Emperor and Empress of the Heian Imperial Court, the era from which the tradition of making Hina dolls originated. And it’s not just the Emperor and Empress dolls – it was the entire Imperial court! That would mean a seven-tiered set. HUGE, not to mention EXPENSIVE. Some sets can cost thousands in US dollars! I have a piggy bank back home that Haru gave me, and I’ve got a few dollars saved up, but it took me forever. I can’t imagine how long it would take to save up for a set – not that I, as a boy, ever would!

So for the sake of space and money, both Tomomi and Minori each only have a pair of official Emperor-Empress dolls.  The rest, they made on their own!

And as beloved as their dolls are, their mother put them away by the end of the night. There’s a superstition that says if the dolls are left out until the next morning after March 3rd, the daughters will have bad luck and get married late. If you ask me though, I think most people these days like getting married later rather than sooner. Haru said I’m going to become a cynic at this rate, but also admitted that she was one too.

Minori also showed us a little drawer with candy offerings to the dolls. Real cute…  and real girly! Yuck!

Ever the practical joker, Minori decided that playing with her Hina dolls was not enough, so she tried dragging me into her games.

GIRLS – I don’t get them at all! They must be aliens or something! What a nightmare!

But according to this worn out Kuma-chan here, I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Till next time!

Rowan

Starstruck at Ebisu

Image
Starstruck at Ebisu

Ever had one of those moments when you think, “Well geez, this sure ain’t Kansas anymore”?

I think the reality of where she actually is, finally hit Haru hard across the face – in a good way of course. She was just surprised really, but I had to remind her not to leave her jaw behind as she traipsed her way through the Ebisu Garden Place (恵比寿ガーデンプレイス) with her friend, Yuan.

Before I get to that, how about I tell you why we were in Ebisu in the first place. For those who don’t know where it is, it’s close to the middle of Shibuya and close to Roppongi as well. In other words, it’s a pretty famous place around here with museums, stores, restaurants, and gardens around.

In our case, there was a class field trip this past Saturday to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. It was a tiny place inside a huge building. But I think the archives were most impressive – behind the librarian’s desk was an automatic double door. And behind those doors, it looked like it would lead into the Matrix. I was almost expecting Neo or Agent Smith, to stride out of there with a rocket launcher in hand.

While we couldn’t take pictures inside, here are some photos of the enormous plaza leading to it. Everything was just so… grand.

But here’s the really fun part – watching Haru and Yuan go goo-goo-eyed as they struggled between melting and exploding at the same time. Here’s a photo taken from my point of view of what got them so excited. It just looked like a stick of rotten swiss cheese, with square holes instead of round ones.

It really didn’t seem like anything to me, other than another monument stuck in the middle of brick desert with random people trudging around. I made my exasperation quite clear, so Yuan decided to break the news to me about why Haru would stand comatose for one moment and then go into a photo-shooting frenzy the next.

“That’s where Tsukushi Makino and Tsukasa Domyouji met for their first date!” Yuan bubbled, as she jabbed her finger towards the stone monument, “That’s where Tsukasa waited hours and hours in the rain for Tsukushi to show up. It’s romantic, don’t you think?”

I guess, I can’t say what I think because I don’t know. I’m just a kid after all! And only after asking more questions, did I realize Yuan and Haru were talking about characters from a famous Japanese drama, and not about real people! But I couldn’t help but wonder why the girl character from Boys Over Flowers, or Hana Yori Dango (花より男子) would think to stand up the guy character in the first place. Didn’t she realize that standing up friends was a bad thing? Then again, I don’t know their whole story.

While Ebisu Garden Place may have been a famous set for a famous drama, luckily, we didn’t spend our entire time standing there, gawking. For instance, we met a sweet old lady walking her dog! He’s in his sixties in dog years, but in human years, he’s nine. Haru thought he had a dashing personality, and Yuan was more than happy to play with him and talk to his friendly owner!

Yuan got hungry so we followed her to Saint Germain Bakery for some tasty pastries. I tried talking Haru into getting something, but she was saving her stomach for dinner. Everything they were selling looked so yummy though!

After that, we went about touring the grounds. It was such a big area! People looked so tiny milling about.

And beyond it was the famous Taillevent-Robuchon restaurant, catering to gourmet food lovers and お金持ち, rich people, or at least anyone who can afford to eat there!

It wasn’t open when we were there, but we still went ahead and looked around. Here’s a photo of Yuan scoping the place out!

It was getting late, and the girls had to hurry back to Minato to meet up with their friends for a dinner Haru planned earlier in the week. But here are some twilit scenes at Ebisu Garden Place. It looks totally different than those earlier photos, huh? The place took on such a completely different feel when day descended into night, it was almost like magic was afoot there.

On the way back to Ebisu Station, we took the Sky Walk route. It was scenic as well as convenient, like most things here in Tokyo.

Not only was it a walkway that spanned several blocks, it was also somewhat of an underground mall – or rather, an “overground” mall.

Here are some photos of a flower shop Yuan and Haru passed.

It was stocked full of expensive, freshly cut flowers; an explosion of color and scents.

There was a very nostalgic air in there for Haru, as it reminded her of a local flower shop near her home back in the States. But this time, the knowledge of being in another country came with an intense feeling of severe homesickness.

On the way back to the Minato area, Yuan and Haru took the wrong train and ended up in Naka-Meguro, when they should have been going in the other direction. But the awesome thing about Tokyo’s transportation system is that it’s fast and intuitive so finding the way again wasn’t so hard.

Finding the way again… Wherever he is, I hope Komame’s finds his way back to me.

We’ll meet again, right?

Rowan

No Boys in the Girls’ Hot Springs

Image
No Boys in the Girls’ Hot Springs

Welcome to Zao Onsen Resort in Yamagata, Japan – home to avid snowboarders, skiers, and hot springs enthusiasts.

In other words, welcome to the coldest, most boring place that a resin kid could possibly be.

It wasn’t all that bad, really. I just couldn’t go anywhere, except stay in Haru’s bag or watch the room that she and her friends were spending the night in… mostly because Haru was too busy face-planting down the mountain side to take care of me on the slopes.

Apparently, riding a snowboard is not like riding a bike. Ten years of neglect leads to eating a lot of snow, and complaining about bad joints like an old lady.

Haru couldn’t take me with her because it was too hazardous, for one. It was also too cold to take many pictures on the mountain, because the camera buttons kept sticking. But here are some shots that her shaking, frost-bitten hands didn’t mess up!

Check out how thick the snow is! Entire trees and shops were covered up from head to toe. Yamagata is actually known for its “Snow Monsters” or Juhyou (樹氷). It literally means “tree ice.”

Haru didn’t get to see them, since she didn’t go all the way to the top of the mountain, but here’s a photo borrowed from Google Images so you guys get the picture.

Of course, it’s not fun going to a winter resort, only to freeze to death. A hot meal, like hot-pot or Shabu-Shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) warms the belly well enough.

There was also sashimi, tempura, nabe, and other traditional Japanese food to enjoy.

However, a body melting hot spring, or a hot onsen (温泉), is probably the best way to go. Though I was cold, there was no way I would go to the girl’s hot springs! And there was no way Haru could take me to the boys’ area either, so all I did was lounge around some more in the room while the girls played dress up and went to the onsen together.

Here’s the girls’ changing area – don’t worry, no naked bodies were present when these photos were taken. While everyone else went skiing and snowboarding on day two, Haru spent it taking a five-hour nap in the hot springs by herself. Lazy bones.

Not to mention, Haru also spent quite a while enjoying the massage chair.

Here’s the indoor onsen. Before you can even go into the hot springs, you must be squeaky clean. That means you take a shower first before going in for a soak.

This door leads to the onsen outside, in the freezing cold. Many people wouldn’t dare walk stark naked into below freezing temperatures, but a short trip from the door into the onsen to stew a few hours is rewarding, according to my onsen-loving friend.

Haru told me that even though she was outside in the ice and snow, she only had to submerge her legs to stay warm. I could barely believe her, but then again, that steaming water looks like it could have boiled a lobster!

While she slept much of the time away in the onsen, Haru also spent much of her time reading while taking her bath. Old bookworm habits die hard it seems.

Looking at these pictures makes me envious of her. Perhaps one day when Haru trusts her snowboarding skills again and saves enough money to buy me some proper winter clothes, I’ll get to come back and see the view with her. Komame too… once I find him.

Until the next adventure,

Rowan

Mango Snowballs and Dragon Parades

Image
Mango Snowballs and Dragon Parades

Spring is here! And that means – go to Yokohama’s Chinatown and see how spring flings are really flung.

Did you know Yokohama’s known for its diversity here in Japan? I know I didn’t, but there are huge cultural communities here, including Hispanics, Indians,  Filipinos, Koreans, and more. One of the biggest hotspots though is Yokohama’s Chinatown, Yokohama Chukagai (横浜中華街). There are other Chinatowns riddled throughout Japan, like Kobe Chinatown and Nagasaki Chinatown, but Yokohama’s is arguably the most well-known.

On top of being one of the biggest Chinatowns around, it also throws some of the biggest parties. While Haru and her host family didn’t get to go to Chinatown for Chinese New Years (it would have been impossible to navigate around anyway), they got to go see this particular event: The Spring Festival (春節).

Parents even had little kids sitting on their heads just get a glimpse of the show.

Of course, it’s to see one of these – and to get one to “bite” your head to make you smart (頭がいい). Luckily, I was inside Haru’s bag when all this was going on. I’ll be honest and tell you I don’t like seas made of people and scary dragons flying around the place.

Nearby to  the event grounds is a really famous temple, Kanteibyō (関帝廟). It’s another must see here in Chukagai!

After that, it was time to tour the rest of town. Including, food, food, and more food. Here’s a “mango snowball” which is shaved ice with mangoes on top. But there is something unique about the shaved ice because it melts in your mouth in such a way, that it feels more like snow than shaved ice.

Haru also bought ice cream (again) in the middle of a cold spell. It may look like vanilla ice cream, but this is actually almond flavored. If you’ve never tried almond ice cream, you really should. It’ll turn anyone into a sweet tooth addict.

Now, some foods are made of ice. But others come in plastic or billboard.

Later when it was finally time to visit Yamashita Park (山下公園), I wanted to get some fresh air. I was really groggy at first. But soon came to realize this place had been very different than anywhere else I had been to in Japan so far.

But even with Haru and Kristina, I still felt… lonely.

Haru loves the sea though, and made sure she and Kristina spent plenty of time looking around the boardwalk and taking pictures. Beyond where I’m pointing is Sakuragicho (桜木町). It’s got a ferris wheel there, but unfortunately, we didn’t get to go on it.

I garnered a lot of attention from other visitors, including a sweet, old lady, who was the only one unafraid of coming up to Haru and telling her I was adorable. She really brightened up my day! It’s always nicer to hear people say that, than hear people say how creepy I look. Really now! I’m right there, and I understand everything perfectly too. I just can’t say anything or look angry – the downsides of being born with a resin face.

Behind her was the Hikawa Maru (氷川丸), an old Japanese Ocean Liner. This old ship survived World War 2, and has a very long history. Now, it’s a floating museum, which Haru was too much of a lazy-bum to go see. But seeing it from afar was already pretty cool. SHIP AHOY, MATEYS!

At the end of the day, I couldn’t help but have a look at the nice sunset. Yamashita Park is known as a popular site for couples and friends to meet. Haru tells me Valentine’s Day is next week, so it will be very crowded then. I might as well get a good look at the place while the quiet lasts.

Omake (おまけ) – extra things – including possessed, singing pandas, Hello Kitty pandas, and panda doorways. In other words, a whole lot of pandas.

Rowan