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Top 3 Views of Japan (Reflections) February 28, 2012

Posted by Dru in Chugoku, Japan, Kansai, Tohoku, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Top 3 Views of Japan (Reflections)” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-LM

For those who have read my blog since the beginning, or ventured to older posts, you will know that I have visited the Top 3 Views of Japan.  This is not an easy adventure and Japan has a top 3 list for many things.  I have recently written about the Top 3 Chinatowns in Japan and feel that there has been enough time to justify a second reflection of my trips to each of the places on the Top 3 Views list.  The list in alphabetical order is Amanohashidate, Matsushima, and Miyajima.  They all have their own importance and all were chosen by the Japanese scholar, Hayashi Gaho.  The fact that he was the one who chose each of the three has a particular importance that is easily lost to foreigners, including myself, who don’t understand Japanese or to those who have not read the references to these three places.

Amanohashidate is located in Kyoto, but do not expect to be able to easily visit Amanohashidate when you are in Kyoto.  It is a long train ride that goes from Kyoto to the Sea of Japan.  Kyoto city is located in the southern area of Kyoto and Amanohashidate is located to the north.  The trip out to Amanohashidate can be very worthwhile and I remember arriving to a very small town with almost nothing to do.  There were very few restaurants and most of the shops cater to tourists.  It is a very beautiful tourist trap but still definitely worth a visit.  Amanohashidate is nothing more than a long sand bar that separates Miyazu Bay into two parts.  It has also grown over the centuries.  It was once a long bar of sand that has now grown and become populated with many pine trees.  The most famous thing to do is to head up one of the mountains flanking Amanohashidate, bend over and look at Amanohashidate through your legs.  When viewed this way, Amanohashidate is said to appear to be a stairway into heaven.  This view has inspired many writers and artists.  There are so many poems written about Amanohashidate that you can see many of the poems written on plaques all along the sand bar itself.  It is a nice place and my only regret is that I didn’t fully understand the meanings of the poems themselves.  Hopefully the next time I visit I can appreciate the area a lot more.

Matsushima is a small bay that is located near Sendai.  It is a small town that is very similar to the other Top 3 Views in Japan.  The one thing I noticed more was that the entire town, at the bottom of the bay, was heavily promoting the fact that they are part of the Top 3 Views in Japan.  When I visited Amanohashidate and Miyajima, there was little in the way of informing visitors that they were in one of the Top 3 Views of Japan.  Matsushima was a bit different in this way.  I can imagine why as the famous way to see the views are by boat.  There are several tours that head out into the bay so you can see the various islands that make up Matsushima.  Matsushima gains its status as a great view by the hundreds of islands that dot the bay.  They look like some god dropped these large rocks into the bay and then planted some pine trees on top of them.  The islands are also known for their shape.  The islands shoot straight up and the waves eat away at the rock face causing spherical voids.  It is amazing how nature naturally created these voids.  Something that was even more amazing is how Matsushima is naturally protected.  After the major tsunami in 2011, Matsushima was left relatively unharmed.  Some areas had problems but for the most part, everything was safe.  The way the islands were set in the bay created a natural wave break that protected the village.  Matsushima was very quick to declare that they were open for business after the tsunami, but I fear that they are not attracting the number of visitors they would like as most people still don’t know that the bay is safe.  It may take more time to recover from this problem but I’m sure they will.  Unfortunately, I still feel the same about the area as when I first visited Matsushima.  I doubt I would ever recommend it to anyone unless they are living in Japan or they have visited Japan many times as it was a large disappointment for me.

The last place, and in my opinion the best, is Miyajima.  I have been there twice and it is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.  The island is a good day trip from Hiroshima and very popular.  It is very much a victim of its own success.  Even on a weekday the island can be overrun with tourists.  It is a very beautiful place that has been written about often.  Most of Miyajima is off limits to all people as it is mostly parkland with very few trails.  The most famous sight is Itsukushima Jinja.  It is the focal point of the entire island and the most visited location.  Walking from the port to the shrine is a very enjoyable experience with many deer lining the path.  The shops cater to tourists as always but they promote a lot of local items such as Hiroshima oysters and Miyajima wood products such as chopsticks and rice spatulas.  One area only a few people visit is the top of the mountain.  It is popular when the cable car is running, but unfortunately it wasn’t running the second time I visited.  The top of the mountain is a very cool and fun place to hang out as it reminded me of various fight scenes between Captain Kirk and various aliens on the original Star Trek series.  I would love to visit the island again to see the peak as I fell in love with Miyajima.  If I had a chance to go again, and I didn’t have to pay, of course I would go however after visiting the island twice, it is no longer on my list of things to do again for the time being.

For those deciding what to see, my own personal opinion is that Miyajima is the best followed by Amanohashidate and Matsushima.  All of them are nice and definitely beautiful.  Miyajima has become more and more overrun with tourists but it is still a special place.  Amanohashidate has grown on me over time and I remember the remoteness of the location meant that I had the place nearly to myself.  Matsushima was the dark spot but I hope it is mainly due to my experience.  In several years, I might want to re-visit Matsushima and see what it is like.  Perhaps my opinion will change and I would enjoy it a lot more.

The Top 3 Views of Japan series continues with Miyajima (Top 3 Views of Japan), Amanohashidate (Top 3 Views of Japan), Matsushima (Top 3 Views of Japan), and Miyajima Redux.

Original Posts:

Amanohashidate:  http://wp.me/piUxk-i2
Matsushima:  http://wp.me/piUxk-1I
Miyajima (Part I):  http://wp.me/siUxk-miyajima
Miyajima (Part II):  http://wp.me/piUxk-tA

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(Top 3) Chinatown’s In Japan February 21, 2012

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kansai, Kanto, Kyushu, Tokyo, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “(Top 3) Chinatown’s In Japan” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-LA

There are 3 major Chinatown districts in Japan.  They are located in Yokohama, Kobe, and Nagasaki.  I have had the pleasure to visit each one and all of them are different.  To me Chinatown is a tourist destination that isn’t really an actual Chinese area.  When people say you must go to Chinatown, I feel like I am about to head to a tourist trap with various vendors hawking their wares.  Japan, unfortunately, continues this stereotypical trend.  Being of Chinese descent and having visited China I feel that Chinatown is not a great representation of Chinese people or China in general.  While the surrounding areas may be more representative, I feel as if I entered an amusement park where stereotypical Chinese culture is on display.

The biggest Chinatown in Japan is in Yokohama.  Located at the end of the Minato-mirai Line, which happens to be connected to the Tokyu Toyoko Line, is the Chinatown where most people will visit when they come to Japan.  It also happens to be the most crowded and touristy of the three Chinatowns.  I found that the area is almost completely filled with Japanese people and various restaurants selling different types of buns.  I never had a great time visiting Chinatown in Yokohama and rarely recommend it to tourists.  Japanese people tend to love it there and think that the food is all authentic Chinese food.  Unfortunately most of it is Japanese variations of traditional Chinese dishes.  It can be hard to get excited when the Chinese chefs adapt their dishes to Japanese tastes, but that is how they make their money.  I may also be slightly biased due to the fact that I found a small worm/maggot in a buffet lunch and all they did was use the tongs to throw it in the garbage.  Not the most hygienic method of fixing the problem if you ask me.  If you enjoy large crowds and Japanese style Chinese food, Yokohama’s Chinatown is a nice place to visit.

As you can tell, bigger does not equal better.  Kobe has the second largest Chinatown in Japan.  It is actually called Nankinmachi (after Nanjing) rather than Chukagai (Chinese Street).  It is one of the best Chinatowns in Japan, in my opinion.  It is lined with various food stalls and a few touristy souvenir shops as well as the stereotypical Chinese style architecture of Asian styled red roofs.  Once you get past the touristy look of this Chinatown, you can get a lot of good food and a large variety of it too.  Kobe’s Chinatown is also less crowded than Yokohama which makes it a lot easier to move around.  Sometimes trying to get around in Yokohama can be a challenge as there are people spread across the entire street making it nearly impossible to move faster than a snail.  In Kobe, this is not a problem at all.  The only problem with the Kobe Chinatown is the fact that it is very touristy.  It is hard to escape the fact that they do cater to tourists but thankfully I also saw many Chinese tourists when I visited so it couldn’t be that bad.  I’m sure they are curious as to how Japan views Chinese culture just as Japanese people are curious to try sushi in other countries.

The last Chinatown, and smallest is Nagasaki.  It spans just a few blocks and it is lined with various large and small shops.  Like the other Chinatown’s, it is dominated with restaurants but the unique feature of this Chinatown is the number of other types of shops such as fireworks and medicine shops.  You can easily notice a huge difference in atmosphere in Nagasaki.  I felt relatively safe in Yokohama and Kobe however in Nagasaki I felt it was a little dangerous, comparatively.  It could also be the fact that I walked in the area around midnight.  In Nagasaki, it is common to see Chinese people as in Kobe but you can also eat the famous Nagasaki Champon, Sara Udon, and Kakuni Manju.  These are all delicious, yet Japanese variations of originally Chinese dishes.  I do enjoy them the most as they are fairly close to Chinese tastes.  Due to the size of Nagasaki’s Chinatown, it is difficult to elaborate a lot on the different things in Chinatown as there really isn’t a lot.

Chinatown in Japan is something that a resident should see once in their stay in Japan.  However for the average tourist, I doubt a trip to Chinatown would be very high on their list of things to see or do.  I find it to be overly touristy and focused on Japanese people.  As with many other Chinatown’s in various other countries, I rarely visit them.  I prefer to go to the real thing.  I have already visited Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Beijing.  I doubt I could find anything that is specifically Chinese in any Chinatown in the world, even in my hometown Vancouver.  The food is good, for the most part, but dealing with the crowds and tourist activities is not as enjoyable for me.  I would much rather go to a normal Chinese restaurant in another area than head to Chinatown.  In fact, for people looking for a more authentic Chinese food, Ikebukuro is reputed as a secret Chinatown.  Many Chinese people take up residence near Ikebukuro leading to many Chinese restaurants being located there.  It is also somewhat contentious as the Chinatown merchants in Yokohama have complained openly about the idea of starting a Chinese Business Association in Ikebukuro as they feel it will create a rival Chinatown to their destination.  I doubt things will really change in the near future but who knows about the long term.

Tokyo – Ikebukuro February 14, 2012

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Tokyo.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Tokyo – Ikebukuro” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-H1

Ikebukuro is a somewhat forgotten city in Tokyo.  It is located on the north western edge of the Yamanote Line and isn’t as conveniently located as Shinjuku or as famous as Shibuya.  It is often known more as a transfer town where many people stop, do a bit of shopping, then continue home.  Ikebukuro is a major hub for people heading north-west towards western Tokyo and western Saitama.  Rail lines to the west spread out in similar fashion to Shinjuku and Shinagawa however they move more northerly.  While the town may be a transfer town, there are many things to see and do and a reputation that can make it feel like a younger sibling to Shinjuku.

There are many ways to arrive at Ikebukuro.  The most common way is to use the Yamanote Line, but there are countless other lines as well.  Ikebukuro can be split into 4 major areas.  The western side of the station is a quaint little town that is full of life and spirit.  Just outside the west exit is a public art space inside a park.  There are several sculptures in an open square along with the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space.  This is a large concert hall that has various concerts and performances all year.  It is also home to the largest pipe organ in Tokyo with free lunch hour shows.  Unfortunately, when I visited recently, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space was closed for renovations.  I’m sure it will reopen soon enough.  The west side is quieter than the east and not as built up.  There are various smaller shops and more tranquil parks in the area.  There are several ethnic restaurants that are there to please all tastes.  It is also home to a small outdoor goods section with a few shops specializing in hiking and camping gear.

To the north of the station is a small area that is akin to Kabukicho in Shinjuku.  It is definitely not as well known and in some ways a bit more dangerous.  Like Kabukicho, this district is home to many clubs, bars, and adult themed shops.  It is also home to various restaurants where you can get good cheap food.  Somehow bars and the seedy underground business go hand in hand.  I would guess that drinking and risky business really complement each other.  During the day, this area is probably not as interesting to most people; however it can give a glimpse into what happens in the area and the type of people who frequent it.  There is also a small bridge that crosses over the train tracks which provides a great view of Ikebukuro Station and how busy the station gets as the trains constantly enter and exit the station.  While Shinjuku and Tokyo have more trains running through the station, Ikebukuro has more chaos as tracks crisscross each other creating a spaghetti-like mess below the bridge.

The east side of the station is where most of the action is.  The area immediately to the east and up to Sunshine City is a very busy urban centre.  When visiting this area, you will feel that it is busier and more chaotic than Shinjuku.  This is due to the nature of the area.  There are relatively few tunnels connecting each area and the shops are all crammed together.  The main roads and crossings are always crowded and it can be difficult to stop and smell the roses.  People will push to get to their destination and people will also push to get you into their shops.  It can take several days to explore this entire region.  The usual electronic shops are rampant near the station with various fashion boutiques along the main street to Sunshine City.  Just before Sunshine City is Otome Road.  This is a small 2 block section full of anime and manga shops.  It can give Akihabara a run for its money but unfortunately due to the size of the area, it still pales in comparison.  The shops are relatively large compared to the small shops in Akihabara which make it much easier to find things.  The shops are also well concentrated in the 2 block section with almost nothing else beyond those blocks.

For those who want something touristy, Amlux is a Toyota showcase that is akin to Megaweb in Odaiba.  It is very similar with the one exception that you can’t easily test drive the cars.  It costs more money and requires early reservations to test drive cars in Amlux.  They have similar models on display and rather than a wide open space, all the cars are crammed into a typical office building.  They still have the same amusement style rides for kids of all ages, such as driving simulators, and a few race cars on display.  Megaweb is by far the better of the two but Amlux is still a great place to visit.  Connected to Amlux, and just across the street of Otome Road is Sunshine City.  This is one of the most famous building complexes in Ikebukuro.  It is home of the 60 story Sunshine Tower with an observation deck with spectacular 360 degree views.  Note that when I say spectacular, it’s mostly a view of Tokyo so don’t expect to see many mountains nearby or a lot of nature.  Expect to see a sprawling urban landscape.  The Sunshine City complex itself has lots to offer.  There is a basic shopping mall on the main floors as well as Namja Town, and Aquarium, and Planetarium at one end of the complex.  Namja Town is a theme park run by Sega Sammy.  It is geared towards children but they also have a few things for adults and couples.  Namja Town is well known as a place to enjoy gyoza.  Gyoza is pan fried dumplings and Namja Town boasts that they have the largest variety of gyoza for sale.  It can take a few days to try all of the gyoza available but it can be done.  Do note that there is an admission fee to enter Namja Town on top of the cost to purchase gyoza and play various games.  The aquarium and planetarium used to be very basic and standard fares.  They are undergoing renovations and will reopen this year.  The aquarium was nothing to celebrate before the renovations.  It was a small place that took only 20 minutes to walk through.  It was a very disappointing experience.  Unfortunately I can’t comment on how things will be after the renovations.

Ikebukuro is a great place to visit, but to be honest, not an essential place to visit when visiting Tokyo.  If there is something specific you’d like to see, you should visit Ikebukuro.  However, there are other areas with more options.  Shinjuku has the Tokyo Metropolitan Towers which has a free observation deck.  Roppongi also has a similar observation deck for a fee.  Odaiba has Megaweb along with other interesting things.  Rather than going to Otome Road, you can visit Akihabara to see manga, anime, and electronics, or better yet, go to Nakano and see manga and anime.  If you happen to be staying in Ikebukuro, it is a good place to stay and explore.  If you are staying elsewhere, you probably won’t need to visit the area unless you have visited every other area ofTokyo.

Ikebukuro Information:

Ikebukuro (Japan Guide):  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3038.html

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

Temples & Shrines (How to) February 7, 2012

Posted by Dru in Japan, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Temples & Shrines (How to)” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-IE

Visiting a temple or a shrine in Japan is a very common thing.  It is very cheap as they usually don’t charge you any money to visit.  The biggest challenge comes in what to do when you do visit a shrine, and learning the differences.  The first thing to learn is the differences between a temple and a shrine.  The basic difference is the religion.  A temple is generally associated with Buddhism and a shrine is associated with Shintoism.  Shinto is a Japanese religion that worships various deities and people.  Buddhism and Shintoism had been intertwined since Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the late 600s.  In the 1800s, during the Meiji Restoration period, the two religions were split and Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were no longer allowed to function as one unit.  This split can easily be seen in various locations around Japan where you will see a major Buddhist temple and a small Shinto shrine next to it.  The opposite also occurs.  This makes it very difficult to differentiate between the two and even scholars can have a difficult time if all the information was removed.  The easiest way, aside from reading the name, is to look inside the main hall.  If you see a Buddhist statue, you are in a temple.  If you see an elaborate room with gold leaf or other things scattered about, you are probably in a shrine.  This is not to say all temples and shrines are like this, but it is an easy way to guess which one is which if you don’t know the name or kanji to differentiate the two.

Before entering a temple or shrine, you are greeted by a large font of water and ladles.  This is the purification, or washing, font.  It is a simple task where you must wash yourself to become pure.  It is akin to dipping your fingers in the holy water and making a sign of the cross as you enter a Christian church.  The process is a little different.  The strict rules state that you grab a ladle by your right hand, fill it with water and proceed to rinse your left hand followed by the right.  Be sure to pour the water into the trough and not back into the font.  I’m sure I must have done this by mistake the first time.  Put a little water into your left hand and slurp it up.  You don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to, and you can spit it out into the trough next to the font.  Afterwards, rinse your left hand again and place the ladle in its original location.  It is a very simple process that takes seconds to do but can mystify people who have never seen it or prepared for it before.  I remember my first time doing this and I had no clue as to what to do.  Even Japanese people don’t know the “proper” way to do it.  The best thing to do is just rinse your hands and finish up.  I don’t recommend drinking the water, although it is usually safe to do so.  I do put the water in my mouth but I never drink it.  There is also no obligation to doing this every time.  Think of it as if you enter a church.  If there is holy water, you don’t have to dip your fingers in it, but to be respectful to the religion, you should.

The prayer is where things get more complicated and diverse.  In a temple, you generally only have a prayer offering box.  When you go to a shrine, things can change a little.  Shrines tend to have a type of noise maker over the offering box.  It is typically either a gong or a rattle of some sort.  The gong and rattle are located near the roof and a large rope is connected to it.  When praying, the first step is to throw your money into the box.  To be lucky, you should use a coin that has a hole in it.  In Japan, 5 and 50 yen coins are lucky.  500 yen is good too, but I feel it isn’t as lucky as there is no hole in the actual coin.  Once the money is in the box, you can shake the rope and make some noise.  If there is no rope, you can skip this step.  Take a step back if necessary and bow 2 times, followed by clapping 2 times.  After the second clap, keep your hands together and make a prayer or wish.  Bow one more time and you are finished.  Most Japanese people aren’t religious, rather they are more superstitious than anything else.  They tend to pray for luck and money but most people don’t actually believe in the religion they are praying to.  It’s similar to having a lucky doll when writing a test.

Japanese people can act very superstitious about religion.  You can purchase a variety of lucky amulets from temples and shrines that will protect you on a journey, bring you good health, or help you with a test.  While some temples will offer lucky amulets, the amulets are almost always exclusive to shrines.  Most of these amulets are good for one year, after which they need to be “recharged”.  Many people will purchase one each year and return it to the shrine they purchased it from.  If you want to recharge it, you must go to the original shrine you bought it from, which can make things a little difficult if you are just visiting Japan or you purchase it from a small shrine in a remote location.  Some people do return to the original temple but the majority don’t.  If you don’t want the amulet anymore, especially if the power has run out, you can return it to any shrine, especially during the new year’s festivities.  They usually have large boxes where you can toss your lucky amulets in for recycling or ritual burning.  Be sure that you don’t open the amulets or the power can either run out or turn to bad luck.  I have heard stories, first hand, of people having their amulets opened as they travel through airport security.  Think of asking a Hindu to take off their turban.  Opening a lucky amulet, in a religious sense, is similar to taking off a turban or even a hijab.

Both temples and shrines have “omikuji” or fortunes.  These are pieces of paper that tell you if you have good or bad luck, and to what degree.  There are roughly 9 levels.  There are 3 each for good luck, bad luck, and mixed luck.  The most interesting way to get your luck is a sort of lottery system.  There is a large container that is either cylindrical or hexagonal in shape.  You shake this and try to get a stick through a small hole at the top.  Once you get a stick, it will have a number on it.  That number will tell you which fortune you can receive.  Sometimes they have a letter instead.  Put the stick back into the container and pick up your fortune from the corresponding drawer.  Unfortunately, most fortunes are in Japanese only, but a few places such as Sensoji in Asakusa have Englilsh fortunes.  The other way to get a fortune is to dig around a box.  Some shrines have boxes where you can dig through many fortunes and hope you get a good one.  You can also get them from vending machines, but there isn’t much fun in that.  Once you get your fortune, you have to tie it somewhere in the temple or shrine.  There are usually racks where you can do this or a tree where many others have done the same.  You can easily find the location by looking around the temple or shrine.  For those who have the best luck possible, you actually put it in your wallet and keep it for a year.  The reasoning for leaving the fortune at the shrine is to prevent the bad luck from following you home, although with any good luck, I don’t see the point in leaving it there.

Leaving the shrine is much easier.  Look at the exit and walk that way.  There are actually a lot of things you can do at the temples and shrines that most people don’t know about.  Most temples and shrines offer personalized writing and stamps.  It is relatively unknown but you can buy a special stamp book from any temple or shrine and pay a small fee for one of the priests to write the name of the shrine and put the official stamp inside the book.  This book is a record of your pilgrimage to visit various temples and shrines around Japan.  It makes a great souvenir as well, even if you can’t read it properly.  Making notes of this is good enough.  You can also buy are prayer beads or rosaries.  These are available at Buddhist temples only.  Unfortunately I am not familiar with how they work, but they are a nice accessory.  As I said, there are many other things you can do, and even I am constantly discovering new things about temples and shrines.  For a typical tourist, the information here is more than enough to keep you satisfied.  For a resident, just enjoy the adventure.

Shrine and Temple Information:

General Information:  http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/pilgrimages-pilgrims-japan.html
Another account into Stamp Books:  http://japanlifeandreligion.com/2010/04/12/tales-of-a-buddhist-pilgrim-me/

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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