This late spring/early summer, my parents and I were invited to Kyoto, Japan, to stay with my exchange sister’s family for both her wedding and vacation. Megumi was our exchange student back when I was still in high school and lived with us for a year. We bonded during that short time, and kept in touch over the years–she visited us in Alaska multiple times, and once in Washington with me just last Christmas. It was our turn to cross the waters for the biggest event of her life, and I hope to visit many more times in the future.
The following sections are divided into temples/shrines (a bit huge, I apologize!), various other establishments like a bathhouse, aquarium, and zoo, restaurants, the wedding, and random final thoughts.
Iwashimizu Hachiman-guu Jinja
I had the fortune of staying in a home at the base of the mountain where Iwashimizu Hachiman-guu shrine sits. Every morning, my exchange father and mother would take their dog, Lemon, for a walk up to the shrine for the morning Radio Exercise at 6:30AM. I actually went up with them a couple of times, first to exercise along with them, and later to wander the grounds and hike the excellent paths crisscrossing all over the mountain. The main shrine itself boasts a fairly large ground area, including a Thomas Edison monument that commemorates the inventor’s light bulb with the long-lasting bamboo that he used from the shrine’s groves.
Touji is located very close to Kyoto Station, and is one of two major temples that once stood adjacent to Rashamon, the gate to the Heian capital. This eastern temple has the tallest wooden pagoda in Japan, and is a popular symbol of Kyoto. When we went, it was luckily the 21st of the month, and we were able to visit the market that is only open every 21st. I didn’t buy much of anything, except for some taiyaki, but it was a lot of fun to see the local goods and the most foreigners I had seen since arrival. Standing up close to the pagoda is stunning given its height—there were quite a few silly picture takers who jumped up high with their arms in the air for some choice shots.
The taiyaki itself was much smaller than I had imagined, but very tasty to me since I adore red beans. I have determined that I’m someone who attacks from the head instead of the tail :p
On my way to the Fushimi Inari shrine, I stopped by Fujinomori Jinja, a shrine that is renowned for its hydrangea gardens. Regardless of the many mosquito bites I picked up while there, I was glad to have visited the great variety of hydrangea. Tickets are required to view the garden, and there is a neat samurai statue nearby that I recommend you glance at should you visit.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Here, I met up with draggle and a friend of his to do a bit of shop browsing and climb up through the many torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha. The main shrine is at the base of the mountain just beyond a short street of shops and restaurants, while the inner shrine can be reached by hiking through the red gates to the top. Something that surprised me were the advertisements for Inari Kon Kon, Koi Iroha in a few places around the shrine. I picked up a box of strawberry-flavored yatsuhashi with Inari Kon Kon decorative paper, and took a picture with the cardboard cutout of Uka-sama by one of the entrance gates. I was hoping to see some spectral foxes darting up along the sides as I passed through the torii, but was simply accompanied by my friends, the pleasant scenery, and a few cats. There are some signs along the way that indicate the astronomical prices that can be thrown down to add a gate to the line, starting around $1,700! And if that doesn’t pull your purse strings enough, those foolish enough to come along without their own water bottles will be greeted repeatedly by beverage vending machines. There are even a couple of restaurants selling shaved ice and other delicacies.
After our trek to the top, we killed some time before my train looking through the nearby shops at the base of the shrine. The street of stores and restaurants conveniently leads straight to the Keihan Line train station. Food tried included udon, takoyaki (waaaaay gooier than expected!), silken todfu ice cream, and beef skewers. As much as I love the image of the takoyaki stall and cute characters mouthing steaming hot bites, I did not like the snack at all. I felt like I was eating snot, and ended up munching on the cooked outside and picking out the bits of octopus on the inside.
On our way up to Kiyomizu-dera, we decided to take the jinrikisha—a dangerous two-person carriage pulled by a single person. They do charge an exorbitant fee for their services, however, so we indulged ourselves in the mostly declined mode of transportation. The runners’ legs are huge, and remind me of some of the cyclists’ legs that I’ve seen here in Seattle. Our runner had pretty decent English, and despite riding along with Hiromi who could have translated small sections for me so he could speak Japanese, he opted to mostly speak English. The final hill to the temple is considered their trial, as it is the steepest section of the ride, and many shop owners along the way cheer them on and wave at tourists. One passerby opted to help push the jinrikisha that my parents were on, laughing along the way.
Kiyomizu-dera is probably best known for its gigantic porch along a small cliff. Many images show the temple from that side alone. Before heading to the main temple, I detoured to the Jishu Shrine, a gaudy gold-infected area more for novelty than it is genuine. Just for fun, I ran up to the stone and touched it for good luck for KWoo and me. When you get to the porch itself, it’s pretty neat to see just how wide the balcony is and how many people can fit on it. But if you want the really good pictures, don’t stand directly on the balcony; go even further to the next building and look back to where you can see the entire porch and the drop-off.
Our last excursion of the day in Arashiyama was at the nearby Tenryuuji, a world cultural heritage site popular for the Sougenchi Garden and the Heavenly Dragon. Unfortunately, the Heavenly Dragon was elsewhere for the day, so we didn’t enter the actual temple. It had rained earlier in the day, but the flowers were actually more impressive after the rain, with the petals covered in droplets. There is a large pond behind the large abbey building that serves as the centerpiece to the gardens. There is one main path you can take around the water with some deviating trails. Some of my favorite sections include not only the pond, but also the bamboo grove and a smaller pond with a couple of frog statues. After walking around, it was peaceful to just sit at the front of the large abbey and gaze out at the water.
When you go to Nara, this is one of the must-see sights, along with the Sika deer. Toudaiji houses the largest bronze Buddha, called Daibutsu, and its main structure has been rebuilt twice after burning down. There are also a few other gigantic statues within the temple, as well as an interesting pillar with a hole carved out at the bottom that is approximately the same size as the Daibutu’s nostril. If you can crawl through it, you supposedly will receive enlightenment in your next life.
The grounds of Toudaiji are also spectacular, with their well-manicured lawns and structured trees and shrubs. There are so many buildings on this property, that we really didn’t have the time to see all of them and other cultural heritages.
The second temple we visited in Nara also had a very nicely put together museum. After visiting the five-story pagoda, just outside for free, we made our way into the ticketed museum to view several notable sculptures, including Ashura and other Devas and the ten great disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha. While the pamphlet did have some English, I really wish that more of the cards inside the actual building by each display also had English like my favorite museum in Kyoto did.
The Gold Pavilion is probably the most visited site for visitors to Kyoto, and within good reason. Due to the many temples and shrines I visited during my two and a half week stay, I actually didn’t enjoy this site as much because of the large crowds, distance from the actual temple, and atmosphere. I felt like I was at more of an attraction than at a zen temple. I do wonder if the extent of gold leaf foil on the structure is truly how the temple was when it first became the Gold Pavilion. I also admired the reflection of the temple and surrounding nature in the pond—I wish more ponds in American cities I’ve visited were as well tended as this one.
Much more understated than Kinkakuji, Ryoanji is another popular destination due to its Zen rock garden. The walk up to the main residence is a beautiful one that navigates past the large Kyoyochi Pond, full of koi, turtles, and ducks. Once you do get up to the hojo, you can rest on the large deck and gaze at the landscape of raked pebbles and large stones. There are several ways that the garden can be interpreted, and the one discussed while I was there viewed it as an ocean with small islands rising up across the surface. I was just glad to rest my feet in the shade!
When you feel sufficiently at peace with yourself, you can continue on around the building, looking at the interior traditional rooms as well as at a famous water basin off to another side of the porch. It is small and low, forcing one to bend over to use it in a bow of humility. Most imagery I saw depicting Ryoanji showed both the rock garden and this basin.
Once we left the residence, we walked around the other side of the pond and enjoyed the shade of the many trees. I noticed that a good majority of the ground beneath the trees but outside of the path’s barrier was covered with a velvet moss. I made the mistake of reaching under the fence with my foot to press lightly on it and got yelled at by my exchange family. Stepping on the moss actually kills it, and the moss is carefully cultivated by groundskeepers.
The final temple of our visit was Byodoin, the temple that is on the 10-yen coin. This temple reminds me a bit of Kinkakuji, with its golden phoenixes on the rooftop, and gold foil-plated minarets. Phoenix Hall houses an Amida Buddha sculpture that is also gold plated, and the building is situated over a lovely pond that mirrors the gold on a clear day. We took a tour that brought us into the hall and were able to view the Buddha up close, as well as the surrounding artwork and the fifty-two Bodhisattvas figurines on the walls. You can even stand across the pond outside and look through the gate’s perfectly shaped window to see the Amida’s face peering through.
After the tour, we visited the Byodoin museum, which was easily my favorite museum visited in Kyoto. The exhibits were evenly spaced and perfectly lit, and each display included Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean. My favorite room was the one that had twenty-six of the Bodhisattvas dispersed along the walls for closer viewing. I loved how many of them held percussion instruments, and that they were all seated on lotus flowers and clouds, ready to take us away to Paradise.
A week or so into our stay, all us women in the family went off to experience a public bath house. Megumi’s mom outfitted us with our own sets of towels and advised us on the entrance procedures. I carried my towels, a bag full of my own toiletries since not all bath houses have free shampoo or conditioner, and two 100-yen coins. When we got there, I took my pictures from the outside since cameras and cellphones are not allowed inside the building, not even in the main lobby area.
One of the coins is for the shoe locker, while the other is for the clothes locker. When you are finished and leave, you actually get both coins back. The women’s side alone of the bath house was impressively large, with several rows of showering stations and many pools, both indoor and outdoor, to soak in. You must remove all clothing to enter the bathing area, and may only take your towel and toiletries. You should also shower before stepping into the pools. Some of the indoor pools have jets to massage away your aches, and there are others that are shallow and have hand rails so you can float on your back. I particularly enjoyed one of the outdoor tubs that had minerals in it advertised to help heal dry and irritated skin. All pools vary in temperature and color, so you can walk around trying them all to see which ones you prefer. There were also a couple of saunas, but I avoided them since they are significantly hotter than any I have experienced here in America; I couldn’t even breathe when I opened one of the doors. There is even a cold pool to finish up in and close up all the pores that have opened in the hotter temperatures.
After bathing, you can choose to rest in the lobby with the available restaurant food, vending machine drinks, arcade games, manga books, or massage chairs. You could seriously stay at the bath house all day and not be bored.
Kizakura Sake Brewery and Kappa Museum
Once Megumi’s dad, Ken, heard I was familiar with kappa, he brought us to the Kizakura Sake Brewery and Kappa Museum. I enjoyed seeing how the legend of the kappa has evolved over the years, as well as all the variations on the kappa throughout various regions of Japan. This was also the first time I read about some of the darker descriptions of the creature, including their drowning of both people and livestock, as well as the raping of women. The kappa I had encountered in anime were always so helpful and easygoing, so needless to say, I was shocked at the tales of their mischief.
We didn’t do an actual brewery tour, but did walk around the grounds and glance into the sake shop. You can ask them to send you a personalized sake barrel, which they will prepare shortly before the requested date with fresh sake. I picked up some sake gummy candy for my coworkers.
This paved path runs along a few rivers near where we were staying, and I hear that it is simply breathtaking in the spring as the entire trail is surrounded by sakura. Even in the humid summer, I enjoyed the shade the trees provided and hunted for cicada and snakes. I was only able to find a few cats and a kamikiri mushi, a.k.a. a paper-cutting bug.
One of the more unique experiences I had while in Kyoto was when we went to the Ginza district for maiko pictures (that’s me pictured above). The four of us, me, my mother, Megumi, and her mother, went in an hour early to have our makeup and hair prepared before dressing up in the restricting kimono. The white goo they put on your face is extremely thick and I thought I was staring at a ghost every time I opened my eyes to glance in the mirror. The wig is already prepared beforehand, and they fit it on your head and comb any wisps of hair or bangs into it with black wax to make it look more natural. You can choose your own kimono, and I ended up going with a glittery but muted purple. While Meg and her mother have certainly taken many kimono photographs before, this was their first chance to where the maiko makeup and hair, so it was a lot of fun posing with the props for the photographer. After the professional photos, they gave us some free time to walk around the property to take our own photographs, which I thought was pretty awesome of them.
Another excellent service provided with the clothing and pictures was the wash room. They had an entire wall of sinks, each one outfitted with shampoo, conditioner, face wash, face moisturizer, tissues, and fluffy towels. I left feeling refreshed with my hair back to its naturally wavy state.
Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
This was the site that my father had anticipated the most! It’s a good thing that we were inside with the air conditioning, because it was brutally hot out that day. This was also my first large aquarium—I had been a few times to the small one in Seward, Alaska, but it is significantly smaller in scale than Kaiyukan. The major disappointment, however, was that the whale sharks were out for medical checkup, so I was unable to see the mascot of the aquarium. I still bought a plush pillow of him, though! Some of my favorite exhibits included the river otters, harbor seals, spotted seals, sea rays, and the sloth. I also grabbed a nano lego set of Jinbezame for KWoo. We were lucky to go on the week day that we did, since the crowds were really not that bad, and there was plenty of sitting at the many rest spots provided.
If you plan on coming here, you should definitely pick up the special train pass that not only gives you a entry into the aquarium, but also gives you unlimited train rides for that day, as well as discounts at several other nearby tourist attractions. Plus, you can keep it as a souvenir!
After Kaiyukan, Megumi and split off to visit the Tennouji Zoo. Unfortunately, it was already 4PM by the time we arrived, and several of the animals were already out of viewing in preparation for the 5PM close time. We managed the best we could and visited my favorite red pandas. With the lack of people at the late hour, the many empty cages, the strangely sad music playing over the speakers, and pressing heat, I felt a distinct depression when viewing the polar bear and elephants. The polar bear’s conditions outraged me since those I have seen in Alaska were always in their home environment of snow, water, and ample space. I found the zoo’s cage much too dirty for the polar bear, and the tub of water that should have been filled with cold, cold water but was instead empty horrified me. The sun was brutally hot that day, and the bear kept pacing back and forth panting and glancing up at the entrance to his pen as if waiting for the closing time. Later when we visited the elephants who had retreated to their indoor eating area, Megumi told me of the movie all students are made to watch regarding World War II and the many zoo animals that had to be killed to lessen the strain on supplies that the populace needed. Most of them animals were quietly poisoned, but the elephants were too intelligent to ingest poisoned food and instead had to be shot. They show this movie to students to teach them the horrors of war. This was easily the most depressing zoo visit I had ever experienced.
Sagano Romantic Train
Hiromi, Megumi, Mom, Dad, and I jumped into the car and headed off to Arashiyama to ride the train up the mountain and ride the riverboat back down. It surprised me watching Megumi drive how she was able to navigate through the narrow streets, despite being unfamiliar with the area. The scenic rail we took, the Sagano Romantic Train, had an open car available called, “The Rich,” where we could openly view the surrounding environment. To be honest, the train was a bit disappointing since there were many tunnels on the way up and most of the trees on the canyon river side blocked picture taking. Regardless, the breeze felt great in the mid-day heat, and we were able to snack on some foods purchased earlier at our leisure.
Hozu-gawa River Boat Ride
After the train reached the top, we switched over to the Hozu-gawa River Boat Ride, which was estimated to last about an hour and forty minutes. Even though it’s considered rainy season right now, the boat did not have an overhead canopy. That was great for pictures, but not so great for direct sunlight! I welcomed the rapid sections because they always brought a relieving breeze. Along the way, the three river guides explained the surrounding environment, such as the destruction wrecked by the tsunami just last year. I enjoyed the scenery and the large rocks with signs naming them by their shape, like the Lion rock and the Snoopy rock.
One of the most enjoyable experiences in Japan was visiting Nara Park, where Sika deer abound and are mostly friendly to passerby. You can purchase special crackers for a little over 100 yen from vendors on site, and once you have a packet in your hand, hordes of deer will swarm you. You need to move fast to keep them at bay; if you are too slow to feed or stay in one spot too long, they will either softly nip your clothing or bags, butt you with their heads, or even jump up at you. It’s a little scary when so many of them come at you. I broke up each of the huge crackers into halves and walked quickly around in circles to prevent them surrounding me.
Narumachi and Sarusawa no Ike
Once you’ve had your fill of the deer and Toudaiji, you can either walk or grab a quick cab to nearby Narumachi, a small neighborhood full of shops and restaurants. We only passed through a couple of streets, smelling freshly roasted tea and glancing at some clothes shops, before we stumbled across Sarusawa no Ike, a popular rest spot and pond. From the pond, you can see some of the buildings of Kofukuji just over the hill.
While in Uji, I stopped by the Kyoto Animation Studio and Shop. This building actually has many other businesses, with the studio only taking up the top three floors, and the shop filling a tiny room on a lower floor. If you get lost trying to find it, simply pop your head into one of the many shops that line the road and ask for directions; they can all easily direct you to the right place. One you get there, take your time looking at all the knick knacks and goods they have on display. If you purchase anything, the woman checking you out might even ask you where you’re from, like she did with me! Her English was very good, and I’m glad I didn’t have to answer any awkward questions about how and where I watch their shows. I picked up a set of Nichijou parapara playing cards and a canister with a K-ON! girl on each of the coasters inside.
Food! Glorious food!
While I have listed many of the restaurants that I ate at while in Kyoto, I did not record every single bakery I ate at due to the sheer number that they have. I have never before seen so many pastry and dessert shops in such close proximity to one another, and all of really good quality. Step it up, America!
One of the first restaurants we ate at was Torisei Hoten, a popular little yakitori restaurant near the Kappa Museum and Sake Brewery. We popped in for a short bit and sampled their all-chicken menu, as well as enjoyed their local legendary spring water, which definitely tasted refreshing (it might have also been the heat that made it so).
After our maiko pictures, but before heading over to Kiyomizu-dera, we stopped for lunch at Ukiya. I of course tried the handmade soba, their most popular dish. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat, and often served cold to combat the hot summers. I can’t even count the times I repeated eating both soba and soumen while there to try and cool myself down.
After finishing my meal, I was then treated to sobayu. Sobayu is made when the cooking liquid used for the noodles is poured into the leftover soba dipping sauce, then drunk. It’s a warm and comforting drink that can be adjusted to your preferences. If you like salt, then pour less of the liquid into your sauce—I poured a generous amount to dilute the sharp saltiness.
I really wish I could remember the name of this place so you could hunt it down yourself should you ever visit the area, but it’s hidden among a bunch of other shops along the alley leading down from Kiyomizu-dera, just before the random Ghibli shop I also found. They have separated smoking and non-smoking areas, so whatever your habit, you can enjoy these treats! After seeing the many creations of parfaits in anime, I absolutely wanted to splurge on the green tea parfait (mine’s on the left). Meg’s mom also wanted a full size to herself, while Meg opted for the smaller dish.
Let me just say this officially right now: Japan makes the best parfaits. The. Best. What makes theirs so superior is both variety and balance. The parfaits that I’ve had in America were very simple and usually of the breakfast kind with yogurt, granola, and maybe some fruit. There are also dessert versions with ice cream or jello and cream with fruit–usually overly sweet and way too much to finish. But the Japanese parfait understands balance, and doesn’t overload your palate with sweet, sweet, and more sweet. There are also many more ingredients in the glass, like ice cream, cream, jello, mochi, granola, and various fruits. It makes the journey more interesting and the finish obtainable. I was only able to taste one partfait while in Japan, but I’m already a fan and will definitely try to go again some day.
While in Osaka, we stopped for lunch in the mall right next to the aquarium. They have a neat ground floor designed to look like an older Japan with windy “roads” between all the various stalls and restaurants. We opted for Hokkyokusei, which is a popular omurice chain restaurant that Megumi once worked for several years ago. My parents and I were the only foreigners there, but Meg took charge of ordering like the former-waitress she was :p I ended up getting the mushroom omurice set which came with tempura shrimp and a fruit jelly dessert. Tasting the real deal made me feel pretty good about the recipe I had tried some time back and had even blogged about. If you’ve never had omurice, it’s essentially rice with tomato-based sauce/ketchup and other veggies as an omelette. It’s a filling and savory meal!
For my birthday lunch, we had turntable sushi at Chojirou. I’ve been to restaurants like that before, but the one this day was my first sushi in Japan, and the quality difference was unmistakable. Some sushi was ordered to the table, like a beautiful platter of sashimi, and a whole, freshly butchered horse mackerel, but a lot of it I grabbed from the belt. My favorites included the unagi, anago, and ikura egg. The horse mackerel was actually still quivering when it came to the table, and I was unable to eat it for a bit until it stopped moving since I had horrible images of someone butchering me then eating my intestines while I was still able to watch. *shudder* Once we did finish the mackerel, the waiter took it away to deep fry the bones, which was then returned to us as a crunchy treat.
Another perk I enjoyed was the self-serve hot tea at each table. At the end of the table was a faucet with boiling hot water, as well as a box with three drawers of different teas and tongs to grab your selection. Since I was the birthday girl, they sat me closest to the belt so I could grab whatever, but that also meant I had to serve up sushi and tea for everyone else!
As much as people told me about the awesome ordering machines at many restaurants in Japan, this was actually my only chance to experience it. I had been craving gyuudon, so we stopped by Nakau for a quick lunch. As soon as you enter the door, you stop by a large machine with a screen and several buttons. The names, descriptions, and prices are very clear, and once you make your selection and drop in your coins, a ticket pops out at the bottom. I copied Meg’s mom and walked up to the counter where they had started putting out trays and placed my ticket on one of them and stood to wait. As soon as I saw them place my beef bowl on the tray, I grabbed it and took a seat–fast and convenient! The dish is simple, but extremely satisfying and filling, so I can see why Chie of Persona 4 loves them so much❤
Our last restaurant meal was another favor to me, ramen! After seeing Byoudoin, we chose a highly rated local ramen shop in the area. The place was TINY, with only three medium tables (really a bunch of little tables shoved together) and the bar in front of the kitchen. Nothing was printed in English, and only two people manned the kitchen–the boss lady and her ramen chef🙂 Unfortunately for my parents who hate smoke, this joint did allow smoking, so we gobbled down our ramen amid picturesque smoke and the sounds of many sniffles caused by spicy noodles and broth. We ordered quite a bit this day: various sizes of ramen (jumbo, regular, or small), fried chicken, and a couple of servings of gyoza. I still want to try an outdoor ramen booth some day, but this hole-in-the-wall was still exciting to experience. I can’t say, however, that the quality was all that superior to ramen I’ve had here in the Seattle area, since we do have some choice few restaurants that I go to regularly.
On my birthday, Megumi and I headed over to Kuzuha Mall for some girl shopping. We were a bit pressed for time, but I think I still had a nice haul of clothing, the majority of which came from Uniqlo–cheap but durable. I also picked up one very nice blouse on my parent’s dollar with the money they gave to Megumi for me to make my choice. We then ran over to the bakery area of the mall and picked six different smaller desserts instead of one big birthday cake. I like the idea of being able to taste as many different flavors as possible, plus the small cakes are all so beautifully handcrafted.
I really liked how close this mall was to the house we stayed at–basically a ten-minute drive. Kuzuha Mall is also a major train station, so it’s a convenient place to shop for clothes, groceries, or anything else to or from home.
This gigantic mall is in walking distance from the Osaka Zoo and is near a couple of other major shopping malls. We stopped here only briefly and I didn’t get to browse nearly as much I would have liked.
Uji Aeon Mall / Kyoto Aeon Mall
More shopping! Aeon Mall has multiple locations, of which we visited two. The first trip to Uji was during a girl outing where we just felt the need to get out of the house, while the second time at Kyoto was for my mother’s burning desire to hunt down black pearls. I did pick up some adorable matching underclothes, however, as they have much more variety in Japan than I have ever seen in America. Another interesting practice of clothing stores in Japan is that some of the higher end ones require you to cover your face with a bag while slipping clothes over your head to prevent any makeup from smearing onto the material. And all of them require you to remove your shoes before entering the changing room–something I think should be required in American stores.
I can’t even remember which excursion this took place in, but I believe it was shortly after visiting the Kappa Sake Brewery. Fushimi Syotemegi is a shopping alley that is open to the environment, though much of the main section does have cover overhead.These are convenient places to visit when passing through an area since they often have a little bit of everything: small family-owned grocery stores, gift shops, restaurants, and more. Think of Tamako Market, but without the taking bird.
I did not intend to hunt down any Ghibli stores or goods while I was in Japan, but did stumble across this one after visiting Kiyomizu-dera. The discovery was a bit…Totoro-esque! While walking down the main road from the temple glancing at the surrounding shops selling souvenirs and plenty of snacks and treats, I noticed a big Totoro cut-out pointing happily into a well-lit alley. I trusted him and explored down the side alley, encountering more and more Ghibli signs, before coming to a dead-end with the Ghibli store at the back (I also passed the parfait restaurant heading in). There was a nice selection from almost all of the films, though there was a lack of Nausicaa goods. I spent quite a bit of time in there, debating whether or not to buy a hanging summer bell, but ended up only getting a Kiki washroom headband–think of a large cloth headband with a bow at the top designed to hold your hair back while washing your face.
The primary reason for our visit was my exchange sister’s wedding, which took place the weekend after our arrival in Kyoto. The event was largely Westernized, though during the reception, she did change into traditional Japanese clothing. The wedding was set at the Georgian Terrace in Osaka, a beautiful venue that encompassed the changing rooms, locker rooms, ceremony, the waiting period, and the reception. Since my family was staying with the bride’s parents, we ended up being there very early. Along with Meg’s mom, we had our hair done, then sat in the waiting room until the ceremony. While waiting, there were plenty of refreshments, as well as a unique time capsule that the couple wanted everyone to contribute to. There were several notepads and pens to choose from, and all you had to do was write a letter to them which would be sealed into the box then read ten years after the wedding. I immediately knew this was Megumi’s idea, since she has always been sentimental about letters and notes, and she has done these time capsules with friends in the past before–even going so far as to take pictures of the burial site and marking her calendar for the opening date. Waiting was a bit awkward for a while since almost everyone else was Japanese and spoke very little English, and they stared at us quite a bit. Thankfully, there were a few people invited who were exchange student friends of Meg’s who were directed to our table and spoke very good English. They were also seated with us at the “International” table of the reception.
The ceremony itself was lovely, and I was surprised that the officiant turned out to be a former American citizen from Texas. He took turns speaking in both Japanese and English, and I felt extremely lucky to have been there and considered family. There was a hilarious moment at the end while they were exiting that they asked all the guests to toss flower petals over them–this was originally planned for outside, but because of the rain, they brought it inside. The “tossing” turned into throwing, with a good number of the flower petals landing on guests near the aisle instead of landing IN the aisle. Everyone was laughing at the silliness of the scene.
We were then ushered into the nearby reception hall, and our International table seated six, my parents, me, a Japanese woman who was an exchange student with Megumi in Mexico and still lives there now, and a Japanese woman who was an exchange student and married her Swedish husband, who was also in attendance. Our table was prepared with place cards with personal notes handwritten inside, as well as several sheets of paper in both Japanese and English translating the several speeches given during the reception. I could not believe the amount of time Megumi took to translate her speeches, as well as prepare our table so well for the maximum amount of comfort.
One of the most memorable moments of her reception was their entrance. When the lights dimmed, everyone was turned towards the double doors at the top of the stairs, expecting Megumi and Nariya to appear there. Instead, the entire back wall by the patio slid open and the couple drove up in a white convertible along the pathway, waving like royalty. I found out later this is a service offered by the Georgian Terrace, but I was still surprised and it took a while for the laughter to subside. The food that followed is the best that I’ve ever had a wedding, starting with a five-course European dinner then followed by a buffet with styles ranging from Japanese to European.
An interesting note about Japanese weddings is that they do not usually bring gifts to the occasion–they are usually shipped to the couple’s home. Instead, it is more common to give money. We did not know this, and brought our wrapped gifts to the location. The wedding event coordinators seemed confused, and took our gifts. We later faced the consequences of this, as they thought we wanted to present them specially at the reception to the bridge and groom–so we were called amidst spotlight to walk up to the front and hand them the gifts in front of everyone. This would normally have been mortifying (and trust me, if I could blush, I would have), but it turned out to serve right into Megumi’s plans, as she had wanted her and Nariya to individually make a special guest presentation and walk together out of the reception room. She presented us as her second family and held our hands as we exited.
I know that the moment that I find out that I’m getting married, her entire family will be invited and I will ask her to be up on that stage with me as a bridesmaid.
Random Other Notes
I’ve never been to a place that had so many public restrooms everywhere! There was never a mad scramble to find a toilet, as every tourist destination, train station, mall, and park had plenty of bathrooms. To top it off, they were CLEAN–at least if they were the Japanese bidets or Western-style toilets. I only had to use a traditional hole in the floor once, and that’s certainly not an experience I want to repeat (though the facility was cleaner than the one in the Philippines I used once). It’s a good thing there are so many bathrooms available, as the heat in the summer forces you to drink as much as you can to retain your fluids.
Aversion to sunlight
It’s no surprise to most people I think that Japanese girls want to have white skin. There are tons of cosmetics and skin creams geared towards whitening skin. To top it off, the women cover every bit of their skin with cloth to protect them from the UV rays. The more sunshine there is, the more they cover up–regardless of the heat and humidity. Here I was, dying in the environment in my t-shirt and shorts, while dainty girls next to me had on black tights, arm covers that looked like arm warmers, scarves, hats, and sun umbrellas. I tried to do it one day and bailed partway through the afternoon.
Who knew laundry day could be such an ordeal? And so frequent? At home, I do laundry maybe once every two weeks, using multiple loads and both a washer and dryer. It’s a thoughtless process that takes up the majority of one of my weekend days. In Japan, they pay attention to the weather report and do laundry when the chances of rain are low. Many homes only have a washer, and once they’re ready, they take them outside to hang dry on the poles, with underwear hung separately on the balcony on a round spool-looking thing with clips. Meg’s mom would ask us the night before to plop our clothes in the washer before the morning, then the following day would hang them up before we left for our day excursions. On my birthday, the cake festivities were interrupted by an unexpected rainfall; we all stopped eating to rush outside and bring in the clothes before they were soaked.
So there you have it: my entire trip boiled down to small paragraphs and snapshots from my cellphone. I really should purchase a nice camera. Or take more time straightening my shots :p