Tuesday, December 21, 2010
We got into Honolulu and the very first thing everyone did was turn on their cell phones. We were all able to use our phones for the first time in 4 months, and I went up to the top deck and called Kaleigh for an hour and we caught up on everything. It was the only place on the ship with service, so it was packed with people trying to use their phones!
My friends and I got off the ship by 10 am, and headed towards Waikiki beach with our overnight bags. Corey works at the Hyatt in Columbus, so he was able to arrange 2 rooms at the Hyatt on the beach at $130/night each. We had 14 people staying between the two rooms, which made the price about $20 each TO STAY AT THE HYATT ON WAIKIKI. Ridiculous.
We went to the hotel to set down our bags, and back out to the beach to lay out. Check in wasn't until 3, so we found a hotel pool bar on the beach and had a couple beers, enjoyed the sun and each others' company. I took a nap, and when I woke up my friend Andy had come by with this enormous standing board and paddle he'd rented. We took it out and did a tandem ride, and both of us stood up and caught a wave together! It took a few tries, but was very fun. It was amazing to look around and see Diamondhead Mountain as part of the scenery. So weird to think about the last time I was in the ocean looking around me and taking in the view like that was in Cadiz, Spain.. with views of cathedrals in the distance.
I went up to the hotel room to nap for a bit, and everyone came up to wake me and get ready for dinner right after the sun had set. The other half of our group found their way to the hotel after skydiving (they're CRAZY), and we all went out to Buffalo Wild Wings for dinner. I'd been craving wings for at least 2 months like nothing I've ever craved in my life, and convinced everyone it was the best choice. So we showed up, I drank lots of pints, had lots of fried pickle slices and 15 wings (at least). Can you say "America" with me?
So we met some Navy guys at the bar, and Ross, Heidi and I ended up going out with them since they knew some local areas and we were some of the only 21+ crowd. This is the first port where drinking age was an issue, which kind of put a damper on things. Regardless, we ended up at this little divey bar, and then at an Irish Pub, and then to a club called McGillicuddy's across the street. Heidi went in the men's bathroom by accident, so she got kicked out and we headed home at about 4 am. What a night though! So much fun. The following day we lazed around the hotel. Slept in until checkout, except for the few who went to check out the Pearl Harbor memorial where the U.S.S. Arizona sank and serves as a burial ground for the men who went down with the ship. I saw it with my family years ago, so it seemed unnecessary. We went down to the beach, grabbed some Subway for lunch and laid out. Heidi made me into a mermaid until I started to burn, and we headed back to the ship around 3.
The night was spent on the ship in transit. I was exhausted and slept a lot that night. We woke up on a new island - the big island - in Hilo. Hilo has no regular bus system; if you see the bus coming, you wave and they pull over. Everything works on island time. I stayed in Hilo with friends because it was $100 to get to Kona, which is the other side of the island.. although that's where most of the action is. I stuck with Megan, Heidi and Shannon. The 3 of us went into the downtown area and paid a van $2/person, rented snorkel gear for $7/person and went to the black sand beach (Richardson's). There were sea turtles lazing around, drooling on rocks and baking in the sun. It was hot out, and the water felt great. It's amazing how graceful sea turtles can be in the water, and how chunky and clumsy the look on land. All of the rock was lava rock, and per usual, SAS had taken over the beach entirely.
After playing in the water and cutting ourselves up on the rocks a bit, we went back to the ship to get ready for dinner. The 4 of us went to a nearby mall to see Harry Potter 7 (so good) and get fish tacos from Maui Tacos. They were SO good going down, but led to the following 24 hours of food poisoning. My friend Will convinced me to get back out of bed at midnight because it was our very last night in port with SAS, and I knew I'd regret it otherwise. So we went to get pancakes at Ken's Pancake House, and met a bunch of SAS kids at a bar across the street from the ship. It was fun and I'm glad I went, though I felt pretty awful the whole time and the whole following day.
I left the ship the next day for a total of 30 minutes to return my snorkel gear. But, that was Hawai'i. My first time there without structure and/or family all the time, and it was a blast. Finals were the following 4 days at sea, so the next week was rough - but living in paradise with my friends for one last time was a treat.
And one last thing - even though it was America, it felt so weird! To hold dollars in my hand from the ATM, to see cars on the right side of the road... and I've never noticed it before because I'm usually in resort areas, but Hawai'i is SO influenced by Japanese culture. It's amazing.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
I woke up early and got some things done that Id left for when I had internet. I also got to talk to Tyler, Nick and Jackie while they were out at the Burgundy Room, and Nick sang the Good Morning song that the ATO guys sing at Cumberland over the phone and it made me so happy to have a piece of home with me. (Thanks Nick!) We left the hostel by 10 am, agreeing that we would not eat McDonalds or ramen for the entire day because at this point its pretty much all wed eaten other than Kobe Beef and sushi one time.
Our first stop was at Shibuya Station on the Metro (because wed missed the Harajuku stop by accident), so we got out and walked around. The Shibuya crossing is right outside the station. Its been said that there are 1,000 people crossing the street at any given time because it is such a busy spot in the heart of downtown Tokyo. It felt a lot like Time Square, with skyscrapers surrounding the vast intersection, huge flashing billboards and all different sorts of music and sounds everywhere. It's kind of hard to explain, but so much of Japanese culture is really goofy - and that was clear in the advertisements seen here. There were also a TON of cars. There was a Starbucks right there, so I got a Gingerbread Latté and we went up to the second floor to watch the chaos below. I took videos and pictures because it was so crazy like a swarm of ants taking over the street in a very controlled, timed way.
Then we went to the Harajuku district. The whole area is known for its insane and forward fashion sense, and I saw outfit combos that I would never dare to come up with on my own but looked great since everyone was dressed like that. Patterned socks with heels, legwarmers, neon colors, etc. It was what I imagined the 80s would have looked like if they had modern technology. One chick was wearing a neon green wig that went down to her butt, and had crazy white and pink striped thigh-highs on. Apparently though, the time to go is on Sunday afternoons when the teenagers of Japanese pop culture emerge in full force and come out in costume. We were there on a Tuesday, so it was a little anti-climactic. We did go into a sock store that was so funny. There was a pair of socks that said How are you? with a smiley face on the toes. I wish Id bought them! Oh well, next time
We walked around and turned to head up the shopping strip there that is considered the Champs-Elysée of Tokyo. At the top we found the entrance to the Meiji Jingu Shrine, so we figured wed pop in for a bit. There was a huge torii a the entrance and a long gravel path to walk down that was shaded by trees. The shrine itself was free, and there were offerings left all along the entrance because it is a Shinto temple and it was a national holiday. There were also a few weddings that we saw there with brides in beautiful white gowns or kimonos. There were also little girls dressed in elaborate kimonos with little geisha socks and shoes on they were adorable. Their parents strangely were dressed much more casually. The shrine was built for Emperor Meiji, who is considered to be a deified king (made into a God). I thought that concept was pretty neat. A lot of the temple we visited had wooden pillars with clothesline-like strings stretch between them. These were for prayers to be written on fabric or paper and tied around them. It reminded me of the ideas of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem - leaving a written prayer behind in the temple. My other favorite part about the Meiji Shrine was that there was water running where you were to use a bamboo ladle to scoop up water and cleanse your mouth and hands before entering the temple because those are the most easily polluted parts of your body, according to Shintoism. Of course we followed suit and did this before we entered. :)
From here we went back to the hostel so I could grab my bag. We stopped at McDonalds because it was on the way of course. Oh well. Our train got us to a subway station where we then needed another ride to get close to port. Finally we took a taxi to the port gate, and I saw my ship glowing in the dark up ahead.
Allie and I parted ways and I was very sad, but so happy I got to see her. It was like having a piece of home and comfort in my travels, and I missed her a whole lot. I didnt even get dock time even though I got on the ship 10 minutes late because they had a lot of peoples bags to go through as we came back from our treks over land. It was also neat to hear about all the different stories people had from their 5 days since Id not traveled with anyone from the ship and we got to share experiences - very cool.
All in all, Japan is somewhere I would want to go one day when I can afford a hotel and not have to live out of a backpack. The big cities are crowded and hard to navigate because of the lack of English, so this is a country I would probably try to learn the language for (at least a little). Japan is full of immature culture in a very professional world and has been described on the ship as a culture of opposites. The subways are full of men in suits texting on cell-phones that have little cartoon characters and stuffed animals hanging from them. They eat rice in most meals, yet obesity in Japan is nearly unheard of. 98.5% of Japans population is people of Japanese descent; they definitely have their own culture, fashion, food, religions and habits that they are very rightfully proud of. It was a wake-up call to see how hard it can be to be a foreigner in a place you dont know, and a great ending to such a wonderful, international voyage.
We awoke early to head out and get our day started. The hostel sold bus passes, so we grabbed one of those and were on our way. We planned to go to three temples in a row, and then head back towards Gion. Our first stop was Kinkoku-ji. Ji means temple. Kinkoku-ji is a temple that is completely made of gold, and appears to be floating on water. I will post photos but they dont do it justice. This thing GLOWS. It was beautiful, the water was perfect and still so the temple was reflected beautifully. The entire complex was filled with trees in the midst of changing colors, and I was so excited not to have missed out on all aspects of fall. When we passed through one of the Kami gates to enter the property, leaves were falling and sunlight was coming through them in steams. It was stunning.
Allie and I saw people in line to ring a gong, so we jumped on the opportunity and did the same. It was so fun :) We kept walking down the path, paid for our tickets and entered the crowded viewing area of the temple. It was hard to get close to because its surrounded by water, and there were all sorts of people crowding around for photos. So many peace signs in Japan, it means prosperity and happiness, which is why they always hold them up in photos. I think it still looks funny. :)
We took a lot of photos and walked around the temple. There were wishing wells of sorts, but they took the form of rock shrines or small huts where you threw coins on the roof instead. There were also a lot of little good luck charms for sale, which I thought was neat. We walked past a tea ceremony room with matted floors on the way out. The entire place was filled with all-natural stone and bamboo, even the gates were made of bamboo and natural string rather than metal poles nailed together. It felt so much more earthly than visiting something like a cathedral in Europe. There were all-natural irrigation systems set up with bamboo, and ladles made from bamboo at the entrance to rinse your mouth and hands before entering the temple.
We left, shopped a bit and waited for a bus for a couple hours. Once we realized that it was Sunday and that our bus was not coming, we chose a new route to a new destination. We went down to the Fushimi Inari Shrine in the southern part of the city, and it was dark by the time we got there. Luckily, the shrine is open 24 hours so we were still able to check it out. We met a woman name Angelina from Russia, and the three of us walked around the spooky shrine together. The gates are called torii. At the bottom of the hill, there was a large one to pass through to enter the shrine. Each gate is a representation of the entrance to the home of Kami, which are Gods. At this shrine, there are paths lined with over 4,500 torii creating a little over 3 miles of gates and paths. The paths split to allow shorter or longer prayer times. It was so spooky in the dark, and I feel like we missed a lot of detail but because the shrine was nearly vacant and so quiet, I also feel like we were lucky to experience its natural state without being surrounded by other tourists. The moonlight streamed in between the torii sometimes, creating intricately woven patterns of shadows on the floor. It took about 45 minutes to get through, but was completely worth it. On our way out, we passed two Japanese visitors. We walked by something and they stopped us, when we went back they explained that there was a rock on a podium and that we should try to lift the rock. If the rock seemed heavy to you, then your wish would not come true. If the rock was light and easy to lift, your wish would be granted. I couldnt lift it at all, unfortunately but Allie was able to! So maybe her wish came true.
We left Fushimi Inari and parted ways with Angelina to head back to Gion and grab dinner. After searching for somewhere to eat on the floor (unsuccessfully), we found a tiny little place that served spaghetti and club sandwiches sold. We entered to realize it was just me, Allie and the man at the bar who prepared our food. It was so delicious. After that we went back to the hostel and called it an early night.
In the morning we woke up and packed our bags to head out. We went to the Nishiki Market, which was a little ways from the hostel. It is essentially an open market organized along a semi-sheltered street, but is famous for all of its great food. Allie got a beautiful painting of cranes, and I got a cool little pair of Vans-like shoes that have a Japanese print on them. We both picked up little knick knacks and tried all sorts of weird food. I had a DELICIOUS chicken wing (Ive been craving them for so long, it was amazing). Then I had an octopus-on-a-stick. It was covered in a sweet teriyaki sauce and had a quail egg stuffed into its head! (weird.) I ate it anyway, tugging on its tentacles with my teeth. I was scared but it turned out to taste great and chewy. Then Allie and I walked by a lady selling the most tiny fish Ive ever seen. We took a little handful to taste, and Allie said afterwards that she felt like she had fish eyeballs stuck in her teeth. We passed neat fruits and pickled vegetables. Every stand had a taste option with tiny tongs resting on a little bowl full of whatever it was they were trying to sell. I thought that was neat because you could taste different things for free! Allie go this really delicious fried potato thing, and I got a piece of fried onion and beef on a stick. (So healthy, right?) Te market was one of my favorite parts of Kyoto. I loved it.
We left there and took the bus to check out the Toji Shrine, which has 5 layers and is completely made of wood. Much of Japanese architecture is based on Chinese architecture it is rarely original. This shrine was no different. The structure was completely made of wood with not one nail used to put it together. Buildings like this are constructed like Lincoln-logs, with divits in the ends that fit into one another and allow flexibility for the building to move with a natural disaster rather than fall from one. Another important thing about these 5 layer pagodas is that each layer represents a force of nature. The Japanese (and sometimes Chinese, too) incorporate metal as a natural force, which is unusual, along with water, wind, fire and earth. A pagoda is technically not a temple, but rather a building to house Buddha relics, meaning that its not really a place that you enter just something to admire from the outside.
I heard on the ship that Japanese people live in a trusting community, so there are umbrellas outside of every establishment and when it starts to rain, you can grab one and use it for a little while until it stops raining, at which point you return it. This must have been wayyy wrong because Allie and I grabbed some umbrellas outside of KFC, and after we took a few strides got tracked down, reprimanded and were left umbrella-less in the rain. I feel like they really do have a system we just didnt know what it was. Anyway we got to Toji Pagoda and it was really neat. Quite overcast, but the colors of the leaves were vibrant nonetheless. We walked around the complex and into one of the Kondos (main prayer temples) to see some Buddhist alters. Then we walked right up to the pagoda to see it up close; it was so tall!
Running out of time, we left for the train station to go to Himeji. Himeji is a castle complex that was built during the time of Shogun rule and was a big deal for samurai (I think) to have come from there. We got on the train but didnt get there until 4:45. We were then told at the train station in Himeji that the castle closed at 5, so there was really not point in going as it was already dark out. We got back on the train to head to Kyoto. Once there, we found our way to Kiyomizu-dera. It was not far from where we had stayed, and SO crowded especially for a Monday night. Kiyomizu-dera is a UNESCO world heritage site. There used to be a myth that your dreams would come true if you could survive the 13-meter jump from the temples platform. Out of the 230-something people who jumped, about 85% survived. The entire temple is built with only wood and no nails or metal at all, which is extremely impressive as it has been standing for over 1,200 years and is still in good enough shape to support all of the tourists walking through everyday.
Allie and I grabbed umbrellas on the trek up this enormous hill. It was crowded with bustling tourists (mostly Japanese) and shops started to pop up along the side of the street to accommodate visitors with food and souvenirs. We got tickets at the top of the hill and walked through the entrance. It was dark out, but some of the buildings were well lit and we could find our way around easily. We kept losing each other because both of us were stopping to take photos of the beautiful views of the city from the temples stage. All of Kyoto was lit up, and there was a beam of light coming from behind the temple that met one on the other side of the city in the sky, which I thought was neat. The trees were lit up too because of the changing of the leaves its a big deal in Kyoto.
The main Buddha shrine featured a westernized Buddha who was really big and fat, but a lot of people were still stopping to pray in front of him and dropping coins into the donation boxes. I bought some luck trinkets and we headed out. Once back at the train station, we found our train to Tokyo and hopped on. It was another Shinkansen (bullet train) and only took a little over 2 hours to get there (wow!). We arrived in Tokyo and had no idea where our hostel was. All public transportation shuts down at midnight there, so we had to hurry because it was 11:30. We were looking lost and confused, and a really nice man who spoke pretty good English asked if we were lost or if he could help. He was with a woman (whose outfit I LOVED) and they decided to take us under their wing. They pulled out an iPhone and typed in the address of our hostel, took the subways with us to get there and walked us down the rainy streets of the Tokyo suburb at midnight just to help us out. So unbelievably hospitable and friendly.. I wish people were more like this in the states.
We arrived at our hostel and settled in. Bathrooms were down the hall, and we were each in separate rooms that had floors lined with bamboo mats and bamboo-shades on the windows. Wed had to take off our shoes by the front entrance to put them in a cubby, which I liked. In each of our rooms, there was a small trash can, a small tv on an equally tiny stand, and two comforters folded up: one to lay on, and one to lay under. I laid all of my clothes out to dry as they had gotten wet in my bag from the rain, spent a little time on Skype before going to bed. Allie and I planned to go grab a beer after the extremely hectic day wed had running around Japan, but were too exhausted by the time wed settled to leave again. Finally in Tokyo I was so proud of us for finding our way there we made it!
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Monday, December 6, 2010
Allie and I woke up in the morning and left our hostel for the aquarium. There were statues outside of the aquarium that looked like some sort of fish with feet. They were so stange. We went inside every ticket stand is automated. Japanese people trust each other a lot and theres a big sense of security everywhere there. All tickets are acquired electronically because they trust that youll push the adult button and pay the adult admission. So different from America where people rip tickets to check your age.
Anyway we went in, took pictures next to an enormous shark head in formaldehyde, saw some funny lookin fish and shopped a little in the aquarium gift shop. We bought little squid keychain things that kiss magnetically and each of us took one from the pair. We walked out the back of the aquarium and there was a dolphin show going on, but we missed it. :( There were also all sorts of little carnival rides the whole aquarium turned into a water-creature themed park. It was awesome.
We left and jumped on the train to Kyoto. It was only a 20 minute ride on a Shinkansen, which is the speed/bullet train that Japan is so famous for. We got onto a bus at the train station and rode it for a bit until we got to Gion, the district where our hotel was. The bus was SOOO crowded, it was so hard to move especially with big, heavy packs on our backs. We jumped off the bus right in front of a little boutique that had geisha socks! They were socks that had a section for a big toe, and then a section for all the rest of the toes like mittens for your feet! Needless to say, we each bought some.
It was already twilight by the time we got to Kyoto, and we wandered for a bit until we found our hostel, A-yado Gion. Gion is the geisha district in Kyoto. There were some geishas walking around, although some women like to appear as geishas so theyll rent the clothing and walk around and pose for pictures in their free time. We took naps and woke back up to head out to an illuminated temple that we had passed on our way in. It was called Chionin-ji (ji means temple in Japanese), and it was beautiful. It was all lit up with colors of gold and red, and had the classic architecture of flipped rooves. It looked perfect with the moon hanging above it, too. There were a lot of people there, and there was a choir of women singing such random songs at the entrance in both English and Japanese. We walked up and around the property until we came to a large temple. The paths leading to the temple were lined with luminaria with Japanese lettering on them.
We had to remove our shoes, which makes me think it was a Buddhist temple, and went inside. The inside of the temple was lit with candle light and there was a light hum of one or two monks behind the altar praying. People would come inside, wet their fingers on the altar in the front, hold their fingers in front of their mouths for a moment, wipe them on something on the altar and then fold their hands in front of them in prayer. The whole back/seating half of the room was covered in bamboo-mat floors, and there was a short wooden gate separating the ritual/prayer places behind the altar, where a big statue sat surrounded by candles, various gongs and decorations. It was so peaceful and beautiful and one of my favorite parts of Kyoto.
We had planned to meet up with a bunch of my friends at our hostel at 7:30 pm. At 8:15 they showed up, and we were off. We went out to sushi for dinner, but it was SO expensive. $10 for 1 piece of a sea urchin roll. Wowza. Anyway after this, we wandered around for a while. All the streets are narrow, mostly one way, and the buildings lining them are built vertically, much like they were in Kobe. There were signed outside of each building stacked on top of each other in the same order of the properties inside that buildig. Anyway, after walking into about 20 different little bars or clubs and finding only private parties, we found 1 bar with karaoke. There were two men sitting at the bar singing, and we sat at the only table in there and ordered some sake. They brought us an English song-selector, so we started off with Yellow Submarine, Uptown Girls (Coreys pick, and yes he knew all the words without the teleprompter) and a few Queen tunes. Then we left and walked around until we found a British pub called the Pig and Whistle. I drank some Hoegaarden (sp?) and taught my friends how to play darts. It was so fun to have Allie there with me too and Im happy she got to meet everyone. :)
At the end of the night, Allie and I headed back to our hostel and my friends went back to theirs. We stumbled around the streets trying to find our way back to A-yado, but it took a long time even though we hadnt gone very far. It was still a great night and I loved every minute of it!