And Merry Christmas! This post comes to you almost 2 weeks late, and it’s a combination of being lazy and lack of motivation. When one’s heat isn’t working, and temperatures in the apartment are below freezing, it’s understandable that snuggling under the covers is the only way to survive. Blogging, in such a case, is knocked down to #2 on the list of priorities. 🙂
Our heat was fixed Christmas night, and voila! Here I am! Now, let’s travel back in time a bit and I’ll tell you all about Japan.
Glenn and I left Seoul in the early afternoon and landed in Osaka around 4pm. I’ve always dreamed of going to Japan – ever since I studied Japanese ages ago in middle school – and upon arrival in Osaka, it didn’t feel like we had even left Korea. Japan has always been this mysterious land worlds away from my own, so how could we possibly be in Japan when the flight was under 2 hours? It was a strange feeling.
After getting through customs and figuring out how to use the subway system, we headed into Osaka City. We had to carry our bags around (we both had just a backpack) because we had decided that instead of booking hotels, which are notoriously expensive in Japan, we would just find a love motel after dinners since they are both plentiful and cheap. By the time we got to the city center, we were rather hungry and found a local Japanese restaurant to try. Instead of a waiter taking our order, we had a touch-screen computer at our table and, it being entirely in Japanese, we miraculously succeeded in ordering dinner. (I discovered at that point, and continued to discover throughout our trip, that I remembered much more Japanese than I thought I would. I recognized enough characters of the various alphabets to figure out what buttons to press, and would instantly remember some words when I heard them spoken. That was one of the coolest parts of the trip for me!)
After dinner, we walked around Dotonbori Canal – a popular area in Osaka full of restaurants and shops that didn’t seem to ever close, and probably didn’t. We spent some time tracking down the love motels and went into a couple of them, only to discover that check-in wasn’t until 10pm. By the time we came back and checked in, we were exhausted. I had also been drugged up on Dramamine all day from the flight, and apparently fell onto the bed and instantly fell asleep, without saying a word to Glenn. I didn’t even remember doing that.
The next day, we checked out a part of the city called Umeda, which is famous for its Sky Tower building (see pictures). There was a German Christmas festival going on right outside of it, which was not exactly the Japanese experience we were hoping for, but was fun nonetheless. We then went up the Sky Tower and got a great view of the city at the top. When we came down, we went back to the station and explored it a bit. Umeda, apparently, has the largest underground station in all of Japan. Umeda Station itself is probably equal to a small city in both size and population (in terms of people working and visiting there at any time of the day or night). It’s full of shops and restaurants, and while aesthetically pleasing, just isn’t very interesting for Glenn and I, who prefer more historical and cultural sites. That is why we left Umeda and made our way to Osaka Castle.
Osaka Castle is self-explanatory: it’s a castle. However, the castle we saw (and that you’ll see in my pictures) isn’t exactly like the original, for it’s burned down and been rebuilt twice. The grounds were vast and we only saw about half of it because it was so immense. What I liked most about it was the moat surrounding the castle grounds, and the lighting on the structures provided by the setting sun. It’s a really beautiful place.
That night, we went back to Dotonbori and grabbed a different love motel for the night. We decided that we would stay at a different love motel each night.
We got up and took the 40-minute train to Kyoto the next morning. While Osaka is modern and flashy, Kyoto has been much more historically preserved, apparent in its architecture and atmosphere of the city. The downtown looks like any other city: modern and full of shops, restaurants, and office buildings; but outside the city center are the traditional Japanese homes, narrow roads, and even rickshaws. Kyoto is known for its myriad temples and shrines, and that’s exactly what we spent the entire day exploring. We did a lot of walking, and luckily found a locker to keep our bags in for the day. We visited 3 different temple/shrine complexes and explored dozens of back roads. Kyoto is also famous for Gion, its Geisha district, and sure enough, we saw several Geishas/Maikos (Geishas-in-training) scurrying from point A to point B once dusk arrived. It was fun seeing so many people wearing traditional Japanese clothing and living in traditional Japanese homes.
Well, it had to happen: we ran into friends from EV on the main street in downtown Kyoto that night. Our friends Kerry, Ilse, and Jan, who we work with, were in Japan at the same time. We just had no idea we would be in Kyoto the same day, let alone in the exact same spot on the exact same street at the exact same time of night!
We had a little trouble finding any love motels, so we grabbed a “real” hotel for the night. It was expensive, small, and didn’t come with all the free stuff that love motels come with (shampoos, tooth brushes, combs, etc.). Not that those things are all that important; it’s just that we paid a lot less and got a lot more from the love motels.
We slept in and found a nice spot for breakfast. We couldn’t dawdle for too long, though, because we had to get back to Osaka to catch our flight down to Fukuoka. We would be spending the next 3 days in Fukuoka. We arrived in the evening and were picked up by Mari, the wife of a former student of mine who I taught in DC. His name is Kenji, and he was one of the most fun students I had. I became good friends with his family, and Mari, who was pregnant at the time, had a baby girl in February 2010 and they named her Rachel, after me. The last time I saw Rachel, she was a week old. Now she is almost 4 years old!
Mari picked us up, and then we swung by the school and picked up Taichi (their son, who is 6) and Rachel (whose Japanese name is Yukari). Lastly, we picked up Kenji from the hospital where he works (he’s a pediatric dentist) and we all went out for dinner at a traditional Japanese restaurant. The food! The variety of dishes and flavors put Korean food to shame. They were some of the tastiest dishes I’ve ever had! It was so much fun to spend time with the family, and for them to meet Glenn, and to share all of that delicious food. At the end of the night, they brought us to a hotel that they had reserved for us since their home is too small. It was a great night!
Kenji took the day off and took us first to Nagasaki, the site of the bombing during WWII. This, I have to say, was one of my favorite things because it was such a profound experience for me. We went to the peace park that was built over Ground Zero, where they’ve placed a wall from a nearby church that was the only thing standing after the bombing. Today’s Nagasaki City was built over the ruins from the bombing, and to get to the actual Ground Zero, we had to go down a couple flights of stairs to an area that has been preserved, behind glass, to show everyone what it actually looked like and to remind us all the importance of peace. The museum was incredibly interesting, and so heart-wrenching, yet hopeful, at the same time. It was very well done. That is one experience I will never foret in my lifetime.
After Nagasaki (we had also briefly walked through Glover Gardens, an estate owned by a Brit), we went to a famous hot spring that is completely natural. Fukuoka is known for its hot springs, and this one is, apparently, the most famous of them.
When we got back to Kurume (the area where Kenji lives), we picked up Mari and the kids and went out to dinner again. More delicious food of the Japanese tradition, and it was just as good as the previous night’s dinner. We had another lovely evening with their family.
Mari took us to Daizafu Temple, a famous temple complex in Fukuoka, and showed us around a bit. She had to take the kids back home after a while, so Glenn and I stayed on our own and explored. After we had seen everything there, we took the subway to another part of Fukuoka called Hakata, which is less residential and more of the business district. One might think that a city is a city and that they’re all the same, but Osaka, Kyoto, and Fukuoka could not have been more different from one another. The one thing they all have in common is that they are so CLEAN! Literally everywhere we went in Japan was clean and beautiful. The Japanese really know how to make everything they build aesthetically-pleasing; even the little towns we passed through on our way from Kurume to Nagasaki were simply beautiful. Hakata is no exception.
We had the fortune to meet up with another former student of mine, Makoto, for dinner that night. He’s a renowned surgeon in Japan and works long hours, yet somehow made the time to visit with us and we were very grateful. We had more Japanese food (including some of the best chicken I’ve ever tasted) and an overall fun night of conversation and laughter. He showed us a great night and it was sad having to say goodbye to everyone in the same day, but I am very thankful that I had the opportunity to rekindle those friendships and to see little Rachel again. What an amazing experience!
Back to Osaka for our last full day in Japan. We took it easy and revisited Dotonbori, and enjoyed picking out a few souvenirs for people. We stayed at another love motel that night, and decided that the one we stayed at during our first night was definitely the best.
We got up, got breakfast, and headed to the airport. We were back in Seoul by the afternoon and spent the rest of the evening in Itaewon (and had Ethiopian food, of course).
Sunday was a free day for us, and then it was back to work on Monday. It was a truly epic vacation and I really hope to go back to see more of Japan before we leave Asia!
And that brings us back to EV. Our winter VIP starts next week, and Glenn and I were put back on weekends, so our days off are – once again – Wednesday and Thursday. Fortunately, though, that means we had Christmas day off! And next Thursday I’m going to get my eyes lasered. 20/20 vision, here I come!
Please take some time to view my pictures from Japan; I think you will really enjoy them.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
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