Mexican with a side of Heavy Heart

(Note: the complete lack of photos is due to my oversight… I forgot to bring my camera on this trip!)

Tourist Monday on the same week I got over my cold included a trip to Osaka to shop. I went with Caroline, and we did some exploring on Namba Walk. All of my efforts to find clothing that fit me were confounded by my unusually big shoulders and tragically oversized feet. The day also included visiting Junkudo and my successful resistance to buying any books. I was at the tail end of my cold, and my recovery thus far was going smoothly. But while I was wandering through the streets of Osaka, one stop in particular brought on a new kind of illness.

After walking to Shinsaibashi, Caroline and I decided it was time for lunch. There was a Mexican place on the eighth floor of a tower, and we decided to eat there. We left the busy streets of Osaka behind and stepped right back into the heart of my hometown.

I come from a place where Mexican restaurants are really common. They’re a dime a dozen, and each one is the same: poorly lit, seventeen variations on the same three or four food items, combo meals or platters… for a moment, I wasn’t in Japan. For a moment, I could leave and call my friends up. For a moment, I could go get an Iced Capp at Tim Horton’s with Melissa before dithering around Barnes and Noble and JoAnn’s for an hour. For a moment, I needed a car to get home instead of a train. For a moment, I was so homesick that I thought I would cry. Between the atmosphere and the food, I wasn’t in Osaka. I was in America, in my hometown, where everything familiar was right outside the door. I wasn’t a tourist or a gaijin. I was a native homebody. For one instant, I was back.

But reality came back the minute I exited. I was back in Osaka, a gaijin who couldn’t navigate her way out of a paper bag and who doesn’t know that Limited Express trains cost extra to ride (at least until that trip to Osaka… I think people could tell I didn’t belong on that train. Maybe because I was sitting in somebody’s seat? Or maybe because I wasn’t wearing a suit and tie…). Japan, for all its splendor, also has its moments of solitude.

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Uji: The Land of Rice and Matcha

Six weekends ago, I felt brave. Very brave. So brave, nothing could stand in my way! So brave, I could do something incredibly stupid.

So, I decided to go to Uji.

I’m not saying that going to Uji is incredibly stupid. Uji is a beautiful city that’s about 30 minutes away from Nara by train. Famous for Byodoin Temple (the temple on the 10-yen coin) and its Matcha (powdered green tea), it seemed like the perfect place to escape to. Oh, and did I mention the Tale of Genji museum? That’s the world’s first novel… oh, and it was written by a woman (stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Hemingway). The stupidity comes in when you consider the fact that I–the most directionally challenged gaijin in the history of history–was going to Uji alone.

Aside from the training I do in Osaka and my trip back from Kizugawa the previous weekend, this was my first solo trip on the train. I’m still very wary of trusting the train schedules and maps, so I always use my broken Japanese to ask where the train is going. That way, I never get on the wrong one. So, off I went to Uji. The tourist center is right next to JR station, and they speak English. Awesome. Equipped with a map and some directions, I went off in search of Byodoin.

And I found a snowman.

Snowman

What the HECK is this doing here?

Having found something that reminded me a little more of home, I proceeded down the extremely narrow streets and continued my search for Byoudoin. My adventures took me past Agata Shrine, which I stopped at briefly. It’s kind of a roundabout way to get to Byoudoin according to my map. But my navigational skills did not fail me for once, and I wound up finding exactly what I was looking for, only it was in a less than ideal state.

Byoudoin

Byoudoin Temple: Phoenix Hall. Tragically under construction.

It’s rather ironic… I came to Uji for two things: a look at Phoenix Hall, and a matcha parfait. The first of two was easy enough to find, but it was under construction and will be until 2014. Nonetheless, I got to admire the cute construction guys, tour the gardens around Byoudoin, and go through the museum, all for the low low price of 300 yen. The gardens were gorgeous and relaxing, and the museum was pretty awesome because it has artifacts from the original Phoenix Hall, including some glass beads dating back to 1000 A.D. and one of the original bronze phoenixes from the roof, as well as 27 Bodhisattvas (I think…), each with different instruments like lutes and drums. You’ll notice there are no pictures; it’s because photos are strictly prohibited in the museum, and even if I am completely incompetent in the Japanese language, I am fluent in common courtesy.

That, and there were ladies dressed like flight attendants before crossing into every room, and they made sure no photos were taken.

After my adventures in Byoudoin, I wound up wandering a little more. I had planned to visit The Tale of Genji Museum, what with being a literature buff and all, but I wound up getting distracted by a big, shiny Uji Shrine and an even bigger promise of a nice view from the top of Daikichiyama. I hiked all the way up to the observatory, weaving around spiders and breaking halfway because my hometown in America does not prepare one for walking up mountain paths. The view at the top was breathtaking, and I’m totally glad I did it.

Uji City

From the top Daikichiyama, a beautiful view of Uji!

Of course, climbing up all that way meant that I had to climb back down. No problem. Gravity, for once, would help me out, and I was back on the ground in no time, with practically no energy and no food.

It was time for lunch.

I wandered around for a half an hour before finally entering a completely random cafe. I don’t know the name of it, but it is next to Uji River, and they serve very delicious food at an affordable price. My lunch was around 1,200 yen, with the main course and the matcha parfait I ate afterwards being roughly equal in price. Still, I didn’t mind paying the money. Uji is famous for its matcha, so even with being almost out of yen, I bought some matcha on the way out of town and have been eating it on ice cream ever since. I’ve also had a few cups of matcha tea as well. So, with food in my stomach and matcha in my bag, I was ready to head back to Nara and get to work.

Except for one thing.

Apparently, the matcha parfait, in all of its deliciousness, made navigating anything impossible. I wandered the same strip of road for 40 minutes… 40 MINUTES!… and still couldn’t figure out where I was. I would go about two or three minutes one way, change my mind, and start going the other way. Then, I would stare at my map and try to find out where I was. Failing, I would turn around and go back the other way. And the fact that I was panicking definitely did not help matters.

Bridge

Oh, God… was it this bridge I crossed to get here?

I finally walked back to Uji river and navigated my way back to the train station, much to my relief. With fall coming soon, another trip to Uji is surely in my future. Even though I had a bit of trouble coming home, I can’t wait to go back for more matcha and the Genji museum.

Solo Gaijin’s Crazy Nara Koen (and more) Adventure

On Sunday, I wrote eight lesson plans. My coworkers kidnapped me at 8 pm and forced me to take a break. I almost felt guilty. Almost. But I had already done so much, I just leaned back and enjoyed the caviar (yes, caviar… among other things).

Monday, I slept in late, then got up and checked to see if one of my fellow trainees had decided whether or not she wanted to come down to Nara. Since she declined, I decided to be bold and travel myself. I’ve been planning a trip to Nara Park for three or four days, and it is a famous tourist attraction, so I figured I’d start there. I walked from my apartment to Nara Park. I knew I was there because I saw a shika (deer). I scared it off before I could get a picture, but I knew there would be more.

Shika Bow

In old country, you eat shika. In new country, shika eat youuuuuuu…

Next thing I know, I am practically up to my neck in deer. They had no idea that I often eat their American cousins, and for that, I was very fortunate, and unlike American deer, they are completely laid back. They let you walk right up to them, even pet them. Yep… there’s nothing that can make them lose their deer little minds (pardon the pun).

Except for one thing.

All over Nara Park, there are places selling biscuits you can feed the deer. I thought I’d be clever and ask for the vendor to take a picture of me while I fed them. Before I could ask, she cut me off with a “don’t-o stop-u.” Three seconds later, I am completely surrounded by shika. Suddenly, they don’t look so friendly. They looked completely and totally possessed by their newest thinking organ: their stomachs. By this point, I’m fumbling to get them unwrapped. And that’s when one bit me, right in the stomach. So, the little bastards did know about me eating their American cousins… Things happened too quickly for me to get a good picture of the feeding. I’m just lucky I didn’t get eaten alive.

Once the biscuits were gone, we went back to being peaceable, civilized friends.

I saw Todaiji Temple, but I didn’t go inside today. I’m waiting until my parents come to visit. Then, we can all see Daibutsu-san together.

I also walked the Shimononegi-Machi quite a ways, then turned back for fear of getting lost. My wandering took me to a shrine near the entrance to the path, and I took a seat across from another traveler, who simply looked at me once and smiled. Exhausted and a bit disoriented by my hunger and my long walk, I took a mental note of the woman’s reaction. I considered lunch, then told myself I should wait. After all, I had to pinch my 1-yen coins as much as I could. I had already eaten my first real bowl of ramen on Saturday night, and I had spent 2,000 yen at the grocery.

Time for a culture shock moment. This may surprise you, but the foreigners in Japan aren’t really that friendly. They actually strike me as quite aloof. Me, I live here. I jump on the opportunity to talk to someone and understand what they’re saying. I’m not sure why it’s different for tourists (and you can tell who they are because they aren’t dressed up fancy like businesspeople). So, in the middle of sitting on the bench, this little old Japanese woman comes up and says, “Konnichi wa. Achi desu ne.” (Hello. It’s hot, isn’t it?) I agreed immediately. Next thing I know, she’s offering me food, asking me where I’m from, when I’m going back… all of this in five minutes. She asked me something like, “Tsugi wa doko ni imasuka?” (Where are you going next?) To which I responded, “Wakarimasen.” (I’m not sure). I’m not really sure what happened after that, but she said in Japanese, “Do you want to go to Nigatsu-dou?” And like the onsen, for a moment, I was completely taken aback. My next reaction was to give up, throw caution to the wind, and let the adventure take me wherever it wanted to. I answered that I would go, and we walked. I’m not really sure how it happened, but we climbed a bunch of stairs and made it there.

And my God, was it beautiful.

Nigatsudou

A view of Nara-Shi from Nigatsudou.

I didn’t even know about Nigatsu-dou, but the temple overlooks the entire city of Nara. There are mountains in the background, and you can see Todaiji Temple… and practically everything else… from right there. We rested. I felt that church-like divine peace take over. She gave me a 10-yen coin to drop into the offering box, and we prayed in the simplest manner I’ve ever experienced: we clapped our hands together, bowed our heads, and then continued on for complimentary tea. After that, we went to a garden, another temple, a McDonald’s for coffee, and finally Daiso, my next destination. When everything was said and done, Michiyo-obaa-san wound up feeding me, providing 10 yen, buying me a coffee, and presenting me with an omiyage: a paper fan. Then, she said good-bye and left me wondering if I would ever see her again. Still, I learned a lot from my impromptu tour guide: the word for uncooked rice (okome), the word for Japanese maple (momiji), the word for pond (ike), and the lay of Nara Koen.

I shopped at Daiso for a little while, mainly buying things for my apartment. I then proceeded to the other Hyaku-en store in the area, Seria. By the time I was done, it was pouring, and I decided to wait it out. I contemplated lunch again, but I still held back, preferring to poke around at all of the goods instead.

Once I left Seria, I continued wandering and found myself caving to hunger. Food was no longer a want but a need. All I had eaten today aside from Michiyo-obaa-san’s cookie and mysterious dried snack food was a slice of bread with fig jam. I caved and went into Mellow Café, ordering an epic salad and an even more epic parfait. They also had an English menu, which helps because at least I know what I’m eating (so I can eat it again, of course). 1,200 yen and one good meal later, I hunted down an omiyage shop and just decided to poke around for a bit.

Parfait of Wonder

My first parfait in Japan! Bananas fried in spring rolls with chocolate sauce, strawberry sauce, vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream. So good, I even ate the garnish.

And then, kaminari.

My plan was to walk out without buying anything, but the shop owner, another little old woman named of Kaimi-san, asked me about my home, where I was living, etc. Obaa-san: the sequel. I bought a small lucky cat with the left paw raised (to attract the money I keep spending) and learned the Japanese word for porcupine (harinezumi, literally needle mouse). And then, just as I was about to leave, the storm that had been building all day broke.

And was it a storm. It struck the fear of God in me three times over.

So, I stuck around until I thought things were clear, got caught in a downpour, and found that my bag soaked through to the point if warping my passport and my phrase book. I couldn’t curse the rain, though, because it brought the first temperature below 80 that I’ve experienced since I got here.

Omiyage

Michiyo-obaa-san’s parting gift to me. I am grateful for the tour, for the snack, for the offering, for the coffee, and for the fan, which somehow miraculously survived the downpour. ^_^

It’s Tuesday, and my bag is just now drying. I’m happy to report that all of my paperwork has recovered… aside from a few receipts I had been hoping would disappear. Tomorrow features cell phone and bank adventures. Oh, and I get my inkan. ^_^