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Archive for June, 2005

Hakodate–Our first night in Hakodate, Jason and I discovered that there was a movie theater only a few blocks from where we were planning to drop anchor and immediately decided to see Batman Begins.  The final showing had already started, though, so we had to settle for seeing it the next night.  So yesterday, before setting out to explore the city or do anything else, we plunked down the 1300 yen for the late showing; later that night, we arrived 20 minutes early and were the first ones in the theater.


It was an excellent movie to begin with, but it was made all the sweeter by the fact that for the past few weeks, we’d been watching nothing but Japanese television: game shows, the occasional samurai drama, and anime of varying quality.


If you like anime, you might be inclined to believe that Japanese television is a paradise.  It’s not.  Japanese television really sucks.  My opinion on this matter could, in part, be due to the fact that I don’t know Japanese that well, but somehow I doubt it.


Maybe I’m just watching at the wrong time, and if I stayed up all night I would catch all of the best programs.  Of course, if I stayed up all night, anything would probably look good to me, so I suppose that’s a moot point.


We had been hurting for quality entertainment for some time, in any case.  On top of that, we hadn’t seen anything in English since Fujiyoshida, when we were fortunate enough to catch The Miracle Worker (also an excellent film) on TV; since then the closest we had come was watching Psycho–the crappy 1998 remake, no less–dubbed into Japanese.


So, yeah.  Lesson #127 learned in Japan: see Batman Begins, ’cause it’s freakin’ sweet.


The web cafe I’m at is playing “99 Problems” on it’s stereo system.  That means it’s time to go eat lunch.  Peace.

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Hakodate–I just noticed that more than two weeks have passed since I wrote my last update.  Apologies for the recent dearth of entries; most of the places I’ve stayed since Fujiyoshida haven’t had readily available internet, either in the hostels themselves or in the towns surrounding them.


That’s not to say that Jason and I haven’t visited any big cities since we left the Fuji area.  Tokyo is the biggest city of them all, of course, and even Akita in Tohoku is pretty sizeable.  We only spent two nights in Tokyo, though, leaving just enough time to see what we wanted to see (or a bit less, in my case–I’m planning on returning there at some point in the near future); and, since we weren’t able to book more than one night at the Akita Youth Pal hostel, that city ended up serving as little more than a rest stop between train rides.


We’re staying a good four nights in Hakodate, though, thus giving me not only the time to find an internet cafe but the assurance that I can spend several hours there without missing out on the city itself.  I am, after all, in Japan; I’d rather see the sights where I’m staying than spend my time surfing the net.


Of course, if there isn’t much in the way of sights to see in a given town, staying shut up in a room isn’t so bad.  We’ve resigned ourselves to that not-so-unhappy fate on several occasions throughout this trip.  More on that later.


I promised at the end of my last entry that I’d share the story of how Jason and I wound up in Fujiyoshida.  The series of events that brought us there led us to decide to send our camping gear back to the states and spend the rest of our trip traveling by train instead of on foot; in case you couldn’t tell, I’ve written only of staying at youth hostels since I started this weblog.  We can laugh at our mistakes now, but at the time it wasn’t terribly funny.  Well, at least not until about four in the morning that fateful night.  But everything’s funny at four in the morning.


Our adventure began when we set out from the Osaka area for Kofu, a city several miles north of the Mt. Fuji area.  It was a long train ride, made longer by our decision to take the cheapest route.  (Local trains, which stop at every possible station, are cheaper than express trains; they are also less likely to travel straight to your destination, making transferring a necessity.)  We had originally told the proprietor of the Kofu youth hostel that we were going to arrive in Kofu at 3 PM.  I had to call him three times after first making reservations: once to tell him that it would actually be 6 PM, once to tell him that it was looking more like 7 PM, and once at 8 PM to let him know that we’d arrived.  Fortunately for us, he was, as it turned out, an extraordinarily kind and patient man; he had wanted to know a ballpark time of arrival so that he could pick us up and take us back to the hostel.  We were the first foreigners who had stayed there since he’d taken over, and his staff was quite willing to work around us.


Since we were planning on doing a lot of hiking and camping in the coming days, we payed extra for both breakfast and dinner at the hostel.  Consequently, there was a massive dinner waiting for us when we finally pulled in at around 9 PM; this was fortunate, as we hadn’t really eaten all day.  We slept well, ate a big breakfast, and departed, our gracious host once again offering his services by driving us back to Kofu station (but not before taking us to the site of a famous waterfall on the same mountain where the hostel was located).  We had told him of our planned mode of travel from Kofu to the Fuji Five Lakes area, and I think he dropped us off at the train station in the hopes that we would change our minds.  From there we set off for our next destination.


Oh, that’s right–I don’t believe I mentioned our planned route.  If you have a moment, pull up a detailed map of Kanto on your computer.  Kofu is located in the southwestern edge of Kanto; south of it is Mt. Fuji.  Now, if your map has roads on it as well, you should be able to see a road that passes through Kofu and winds its way through the national park area before arriving somewhere in the vicinity of Japan’s highest mountain.


Our brilliant plan was to walk from Kofu along that road until we arrived at Fuji Five Lakes, camping along the way.  It looked totally feasible, at least on the map.


Boy, was that a mistake.


We struck out on what we thought was the main road.  Our compasses indicated that we were walking in the right direction, and the mountains loomed in the distance.  It was rough going; our packs were heavy, and we were walking on a concrete sidewalk in the heat of the day.  On top of that, although Kofu is very close to some places of natural beauty, the city itself is ugly as sin.  Still, it wasn’t all bad; Jason and I found a gravel path to walk along for part of the way and managed to distract ourselves with a fairly lengthy argument concerning, appropriately enough, the place of pain in humanity’s creative processes.


After a couple of hours it was clear that we’d left the city proper and were headed into more rural territory.  The road we were walking on narrowed considerably; rice fields, rather than buildings, lined its edges.  It also became evident that our road wasn’t the main road through the mountains, although we didn’t really think about that at the time.  It forked several times, and we were forced to choose the direction that, off in the distance, looked to be in keeping with the direction we wanted to travel.  Still, our spirits were high: we were out of the city at last and headed for the great unknown.


It was around 7 PM that we reached a point on our path where the road split off in three different directions, all of which appeared to lead into private property.  Obviously, we had taken a wrong turn somewhere along the line or perhaps hadn’t ever been on the correct road at all.  The latter seemed the more likely scenario; as we’d been traveling all day, this unfortunately meant that we’d gone a considerable distance in the wrong direction.  We were stuck in the middle of nowhere with little clear idea of our exact location, and it was getting dark.  A choice was before us: we could find someplace to camp in the surrounding area, or we could return to Kofu that night.


I must admit that I was mostly at fault for what happened next.  I pushed for us to make the trek back to Kofu that night; the idea of camping illegally in a residential area didn’t exactly appeal to me, and even the most out-of-the-way places we found to camp seemed just a bit to close to civilization.  What was at the heart of it, though, I think, was that the enormity of what we had decided to do on this trip–walking from town to town and sleeping wherever we could find shelter–had never really hit me until that moment.  Faced with having to decide between sleeping in a park and walking back to the city, I thought the latter to be the lesser of two evils.


Unable to make a fire where we were at yet also out of range of any restaurants or convenience stores, we ate what we later agreed was the worst dinner either of us had ever had: raw potatoes, peanut butter, and a can of mikan.  We packed up our stuff and headed back the way we came.


The inevitable came, I believe, about 45 minutes after we had started walking again.  We came to a fork in the road and couldn’t quite remember which way we’d gone.  Both Jason and I had the feeling that turning right would keep us on roads we had already traveled; the nearest road sign, however, indicated that staying straight would take us directly to Kofu.  We stayed straight and quickly realized that this was not the road we had taken originally; nevertheless, we stayed on it, figuring that it was simply a more direct road to our destination.  Along the way I stopped a pedestrian and asked him if we were on the road to Kofu, and he answered in the affirmative; it appeared, then, that we were going in the right direction.


When another hour had gone by and we still weren’t in Kofu, though, we started to wonder.  Directionally, we were going the right way, or so we thought, but the city lights still looked awfully far away.


Finally, I stopped another pedestrian and asked her how close we were to Kofu.  This was how we learned that Kofu was 29 kilometers in a different direction.


Walking back to Kofu that night was the wrong decision.  I’m man enough to admit that much.  In any case, we were fortunate in that the woman we stopped was kind enough to direct us to the nearest train station, which we found after some trouble.


Most train stops in Japan, no matter how small the town, have an information booth, and map of the line, and a ticket dispensing machine so that you can purchase your ticket before departing.  This town didn’t even have that.  The trains on that part of the line therefore worked the opposite way: you take a ticket upon entering the train and pay after reaching your destination.  The train station was thus little more than a waiting room on a platform next to the train tracks.  It had a windows and a sliding door and some benches, and that was it.


And that’s where we spent the night.  I’ve never seen so many spiders in my life.


The next morning we took the 6 AM train back to Kofu and decided to find a place to recover.  We made reservations over at the hostel in Fujiyoshida, which seemed like a worthy candidate, ate some breakfast, and took the train south along the route we were originally planning to walk.  It was a long walk from the train station to the hostel, and it was extremely difficult to find, being conveniently located in an alleyway; fortunately, a kind stranger (there seem to be a lot of these in Japan) helped us out, and we made it there ok.  We slept well that night.


I’ve been in this internet cafe for too long.  It’s time to get out and explore the city.  You’ll hear more about my adventures later.

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Fujiyoshida–A few days ago, I was reading the English-language newspaper The Daily Yomiuri when I happened upon an article containing a striking figure: according to the most recent census figures, 20% of Japan’s population is elderly.  Now, this certainly wasn’t the first time that I’d heard reports of the country’s low birthrate and gradually shrinking population–it’s been an issue tossed around by statisticians, commentators, and even manga artists (i.e. Roujin-Z) for quite some time–but it still came as something of a surprise to me.  After all, I’d just spent the last few days in Nara and Kyoto, sites where one can hardly turn in any direction without seeing a mass of schoolchildren in matching uniforms being led by their sensei towards the closest temple complex.  Their presence in both cities was so pervasive that the thought actually crossed my mind a few times: “Population crisis?  What population crisis?  These people are doing just fine.”


A number of adventures and mishaps later, Jason and I arrived in Fujiyoshida, a small town located, as its name suggests, not far from Mt. Fuji.  It’s a pretty little town with green hills all around it and a spectacular view of Mt. Fuji.  It is also, so far as I can tell, in the early stages of becoming a ghost town.  At first glance, it seems a town like any other, but it doesn’t take long to notice that the street signs are faded and rusting, that many of the shops stay closed all day and all night, that most of the pedestrians are elderly.  Jason noted this while we were walking and said something to the effect that “you can really see Japan’s aging population here.”  And, sadly, it’s true.  The population is shrinking and at the same time consolidating itself into the metropolitan areas.


Hopefully this will change, but at the present time it doesn’t seem likely.  2007 is actually looked on by the number-crunchers as a sort of doomsday year in this regard: a huge number of baby boomers, specifically those born between 1947 and 1949, will be retiring–not good for the economy.  We’ll see what happens in the coming years, I suppose.


Well, I’m out of time, again.  Next chance I get, I’ll tell you all about how Jason and I tried to walk from Kofu to the Fuji Five Lakes area and got horribly lost.  Fun times.


Oh, and at least one person has e-mailed me requesting that I enable comments.  I’ll try that for this post and see what happens.  Peace.

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Fujiyoshida–There isn’t too much to do in this town, so here I am, back at the internet cafe, with a greater amount of time to spare.  I’ll try to relate what’s happened since Jason and I arrived in Nara as best I can.


Tuesday, May 31st: The beds at Naraken-Seishonen-Kaikan Youth Hostel aren’t very comfortable, and the windows are large, so consequently we woke up bright and early (and largely unrefreshed) at around 6:15 AM.  Fortunately, this left us with a great deal of time in which to see Nara before nighttime, at which time most temples and museums are closed.


Our first stop was Kofukuji Temple, on the grounds of which are a spectacular five-storied pagoda and a museum with a number of interesting artifacts.  Kofukuji was my up-close-and-personal encounter on this trip with premodern Japanese art and architecture, and I wasn’t disapppointed.  I’d have to say that the highlight of this particular temple was a set of statues housed at the museum depicting famous priests: they were so lifelike, I was almost convinced that I might see one of them blink if I were to watch long enough.  (This, by the way, is a quality I’ve found in many Japanese statues.  Apparently, after the Heian period, the trend in statue-making emphasized realism; as a result, care was given to make the statues as lifelike as possible.  Crystals were even used for the eyes to lend them a more realistic shine.)


Kofukuji paled in comparison, though, to the next temple we visited.  Todaiji houses the Daibutsu, a gigantic wooden Buddha statue 15 meters in height.  I’d seen pictures of it before leaving for Japan, but nothing could have prepared me for a face-to-face encounter.  It really is as big as it sounds and a wonder to behold.  The structure housing it is also the largest wooden structure in Japan (and, if I’m not mistaken, in the world as well).  The entrance to Todaiji is flanked by statues of guardian deities, Indian devas co-opted by Buddhism fairly early on as protectors of the Buddha.  Frankly, the entire place is incredible, but the Daibutsu really stands out as its chief attraction.


After leaving the temple, we wandered around Nara for awhile, ate lunch at a small restaurant (I had oyako donburi, and it was fabulous–much better than anything you can get in the States), and wandered some more.  At some point Jason got tired and decided to go home; I decided to stay in the city and check it out for myself.  After losing myself in the city’s network of tiny side streets and dead-ends (Japan has a lot of these), I managed to find the Nara Prefectural Museum, where I killed time for awhile before hitting the streets once again.  Eventually, I made my way back to the Youth Hostel and rested there for awhile before heading off with Jason on a new adventure: we were schedule to meet my friend’s dad in downtown Nara for dinner that night.


This particular friend of mine currently lives in the States; he’s originally from Nara, though, and his family still lives there.  When he found out that we would be passing through, he contacted his dad and arranged for him to meet us in front of the Kintetsu Nara train station, at which time we would find a place to eat.  Now, my friend’s dad doesn’t speak English, so I was, to be honest, a bit nervous about eating dinner with him.  My Japanese was less than steller when I had just completed three semesters of it last December; with several months in between my and daily use of the language, I wasn’t too confident about my ability to ask for the location of a bathroom, much less carry on a conversation.


We met our dinner companion at the designated time and location; for obvious reasons, he had no trouble picking Jason and I out from the crowd.  He brought with him my friend’s brother, who also didn’t speak English; we said our introductions and established where we were going to have dinner: a shabu-shabu restaurant a few minutes away by car.  Shabu-shabu, if you’ve never had it, is a lot like hotpot: the waiter or waitress will boil a plate of water on a burner in the center of the table and furnish the guests with as many plates of thinly-sliced raw meat and uncooked vegetables as they want to throw into it.


Well, Jason and I weren’t too good on the particulars of how long to cook each item, so our host took it upon himself to furnish our bowls with food whenever something became ready; the four of us must have cleared about five huge plates of meat that night.  Needless to say, Jason and I were both stuffed.  In the meantime, we managed to make rudimentary conversation with my friend’s dad.  I got the feeling that he’d had some experience talking to people who didn’t know very much Japanese; he spoke to us very slowly and clearly and seemed comfortable talking about just about anything that we could talk about.  In any case, it was one of the best meals I’ve had in awhile, and we had a great time.


It appears that my time is up, and I’ve gotten through one day.  I’m going to start skipping days and moving to highlights when next I have access to a computer.  Cheerio.

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Fujiyoshida–I’m at an internet cafe right now, and I apparently only have about five minutes left to type.  I can’t really say that much in such a limited amount of time, so I won’t try.  Let’s just say that Jason and I have had quite a few adventures since my last update, much less since the last events I chronicled.  The next update is going to be a long one.

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Kyoto–First of all, I wanted to mention that I’ve decided to change the name of my site to Thulcandra.  It would be pretentious of me to make the claim that I could live up to the standards of the name I originally picked.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, read Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis.  Otherwise, I’m not going to tell you.


This is the second post I’ve typed in as many days.  I probably won’t be writing entries this frequently on a regular basis, especially after Jason and I leave the heavily populated areas and start our journey through northern Japan in a couple of weeks; special circumstances, though, have prompted me to write something short.


When I first arrived here, one of my hosts–I can’t recall who, exactly–was telling me about a type of establishment found in many cities called a manga-kissa.  Kissa is the Japanese word for cafe; manga, of course, are Japanese comic books.  In a nutshell, they are places in which one can order cheap food and read manga.


I may have just stumbled into one of these.  While wandering through central Kyoto, I saw a sign outside of a building advertising manga and internet and decided to check it out.  Sure enough, the place about fits the description I was given, with the addition of internet access.


Of course, I didn’t really have any idea how things worked in these types of places, so I just sort of walked in and started wandering around.  A few moments later, as I was taking a look at the rows and rows of manga lining bookshelves throughout the store, one of the proprietors came up to me and led me over to the front desk.  In rudimentary Japanese, I apologized for my rudeness, asked how much the rate was per minute, and indicated that it was my first time in such an establishment.  After filling out a form and showing him my passport, I managed to snag a computer, where I now sit, typing away.


Of course, I don’t have to be typing this here; I could have left and chosen not to pay the 250 or however much this is going to end up costing me.  Still, this is a different place than you would find in the states; the atmosphere alone makes it worth it to me.


Man, there are a lot of comic books here.

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Kyoto–I was planning to write another update before leaving
Osaka.  Honestly, I was.  Typing entries takes me a long
time, though, and I really haven’t had more than a few minutes here and
there on the computer during the past few days.  The upshot of
this, of course, is that I now have a lot to talk about. 
Hopefully no one else in the youth hostel will need to use the internet
anytime soon.

The last time I had a chance to really sit down and think about what I
wanted to say, I was still tired from the long plane flight over; most
of my thoughts thus centered around the experience of travel and its
consequences.  I also hadn’t done very much since arriving in
Japan.  Sanda is a nice town, but there isn’t much in the way of
historicity or entertainment there, unless your tastes extend either
category to include the local Daiei mall.

Since then, I’ve been several other places, most of them relatively
interesting.  I’ll try to give a pretty straightforward,
blow-by-blow account of what happened each day.  That said, you’ll
have to forgive me if I occasionally become pedantic.  Jason and I
have visited several temples, and Japanese religion is an interest of
mine.  Just skip down a few lines if I start to ramble.  With
that caveat, here’s the gist of what we’ve been up to.

Thursday, May 26th: Yeah, that’s right, we left on Wednesday, but
the time difference and the long plane flight means that it was
Thursday when our plane touched down at Kansai International
Airport.  Cramped and exhausted, Jason and I somehow managed to
survive passport processing and customs, after which time we found
ourselves near the entrance to the airport.  Our contact in Sanda
had told us to call him when we arrived at Kansai and then take a
limosine bus (rimujin basu) to Itami Airport, where he could more
easily pick us up.  No problem, right?  My dad rented a
Japanese cell phone for me before we left, so we had our means of
calling secured.

Or so we thought.  Unfortunately, it seems that no one had the
foresight to charge the thing before we left for Japan, so we attempted
to turn it on only to discover that its batteries were completely,
utterly, give-you-the-finger drained.  Wonderful.

Fortunately, pay phones are still a frequent sight in Japan, even
though seemingly everyone owns a cell phone.  We popped a 100¥
into the nearest one and were soon on our way out the door to catch the
next bus.

Here we encountered a bit of trouble.  We checked our luggage with
the bus attendants, only to discover upon boarding that we needed to
have bought a ticket at a machine beforehand; no class pass or six
quarters slammed into a coin slot here.  Thinking that we were
holding up the bus, we frantically ran over to the machine and bought
our tickets.  Of course, as it turned out, they weren’t leaving
right away, and we sat on the bus for another ten minutes feeling like
idiots.

Amazingly, our contact found us easily at Itami; we had walked over the
a part of the airport where a lot of cars were passing by, hoping that
two tall white guys wouldn’t be too difficult to pick out.  He
took us back to his house, where we were fed dinner and given the
opportunity to meet some of his family’s friends and neighbors: it was
his birthday on Saturday, and they had come over to surprise him with
gifts and cake.  They left relatively early, though, and at around
10:30 Jason and I conked out.  Sleep is a glorious thing after a
long bout of traveling.

Friday, May 27th: Not much happened during the sunlit hours on the day
after our arrival.  Our hosts, who just so happen to be some of
the kindest people I’ve ever met, made breakfast for us and then gave
us the rest of the day to explore the town.  We wandered around
Sanda and managed to somehow get ourselves lost (a portent, in
retrospect).  We bought Japanese drinks from a vending machine and
checked out the rice fields sitting on the outskirts of town, an
unusual contrast to the high rise-laden cityscapes we had ridden
through on our way to Sanda.

No, Friday’s highlight came at nighttime, when our host and a friend of
his, another missionary, took us to an onsen, a Japanese hot
springs.  For those of you who decide one day to visit Japan, you
must go to an onsen at least once: it’s a wonderfully relaxing
experience and not to be missed.

The routine is (or at least was at this particular hot springs) as
follows: after walking in–making sure, of course, to take off your
shoes at the genkan and place them in a nearby locker–you purchase a
ticket for the baths.  Fares run a range between different
institutions, or so I’m told; here, we had to pay only 650¥ (about $6)
which I’m told is actually pretty expensive compared to other onsen,
especially those in northern Japan.  You take the ticket and the
key to the locker in which you placed your shoes to the attendant at
the front desk.  He or she will take both and give you another key
in exchange, which you take with you to the changing room.  There,
you strip down and place your clothes in one of the lockers
there.  Hopefully you’ve brought a small towl with you to take
into the baths; if not, you can usually purchase one for about
100¥.  You walk outside into the (now uncomfortably cool) air and
dump a couple of buckets’ worth of water onto yourself.  At this
point, you’re ready for the bath.

The baths are wonderful.  The water flows from a natural hot
spring in the area–it isn’t pumped in–and many patrons will seek out
different hot springs for the different (supposedly curative) elements
contained therein.  In addition to the outdoor baths, this
particular onsen also had a dry sauna in which the temperature was 95
degrees celcius.  Yes, you read correctly, celcius.  Is it
hot?  Oh, yes.  And the way that you follow up a few
scorching minutes in the sauna is by jumping into a room-temperature
bath right outside, which feels like ice water at that point.

Once you’re done, you wash yourself with soap and water in a
showering section of the onsen (as if you weren’t already clean enough)
and change back into your clothes in the locker room.  I mention
this step because something occasionally happens there that is slightly
disconcerting to Americans already relatively uncomfortable with their
bodies: you’ll be standing there, opening your locker, when the
middle-aged cleaning lady will walk into the locker room and start
cleaning.  So I guess the theme for our trip that day was, “Japan:
Where being naked is a-ok.”

Saturday, May the 28th: As practice for our planned trip to Osaka
on Sunday, Jason and I walked around the small town of Takarazuka, just
four stops up the JR line from Sanda.  Apparently this is the
birthplace of manga godfather Osamu Tezuka; it sports a museum
dedicated to his life and works, which was unfortunately closed by the
time Jason and I made it there.  Oh, well.  Takarazuka wasn’t
too fun; like most old Japanese towns, it was full of winding, narrow
streets that eventually turned into dead ends.  Except that,
unlike, say, Nara, it didn’t really have much to recommend itself.

We got lost in Takarazuka and ended up walking up a switchback-type
road on the side of a fairly sizeable hill without even knowing
it.  The road was so narrow that two cars couldn’t even drive past
each other at the same time: one one have to stop and let the other go
around to be safe.  That was interesting.  Especially because
there wasn’t a sidewalk there.  We were glad to get home to dinner
that night.

Sunday, May 29th: Church in the morning, and then Osaka.  We
didn’t really have much of a plan for Osaka, so the day was something
of a waste.  We arrived there too late to see the castle, and we
wandered around and, you guessed it, got lost instead of seeing some of
the other typical touriest attractions.

Fortunately, a neighbor of the missionaries had told us earlier that
she would be in Osaka that day and to call her around dinnertime. 
She took us out to an okonomiyake place, a new experience for both
Jason and myself.  Okonomiyake is like a sort of pancake, with
lots of vegetables and the meat of your choice cooked into it. 
Topped with a mixture of mayonnaise and some unidentified sauce, it
makes for a delicious meal; and, as a form of cuisine, it apparently
originated in Osaka, so it is apparently done best there.

On the train ride back we met some fellow gaijin from Idaho.  They
raced empty cans down the length of the train car while the train was
in motion, and we made them laugh by showing them the “smiling George
Washington” trick on a dollar bill.  (We were all very
tired.)  After returning home, we watched some CSI–our hosts are
addicts–and went to bed.

Monday, May30th: After breakfast we left the protective American bubble
of the missionaries’ home for the scary world of youth hostels, with
plans to return there for one night before moving on from Kansai to
Fuji National Park.  The process of getting to Nara was a long one
and took up most of the day.  After getting ourselves situated in
the dormatories, we wandered around the city for awhile and got some
dinner at a random restaurant–as it turned out, another okonomiyake
place.

Nara is a great little city.  It was the capital of Japan from 710
AD to 794 AD and its first permanent imperial seat; before this time
the capital moved to wherever the new emperor had already been
living.  Its a city of small alleys and innumerable shops; running
parallel to many of the major streets are crisscrossing networks of
alleyways with restaurants, pachinko parlors, and stores of all
kinds.  Additionally, the residents themselves give off a good
vibe.  Maybe it’s just that Osaka’s inhabitants live in a large
city are suffer from its attendant stresses, but when you look around
there, the people generally don’t look very friendly–or, for that
matter, very happy.  Nara is much more welcoming in this regard.

Still, everywhere you go in Japan, you find yourself being stared at as
a foreigner.  I suppose that I really shouldn’t be
surprised.  I was born and raised in L.A. and currently live in
the Bay Area, both poster children for diversity (if not necessarily
racial harmony); if I were surprised to see someone of a different
ethnic background every time they passed me on the street, there would
definitely be something wrong with me.  Here, though, more than
99% of the population is Japanese, or at least I’ve heard this to be
the case; white people are a rarity around the country, if to varying
degrees from place to place.  I’m sure we’ll feel a lot more eyes
upon us once we get out of the cities and into the countryside. 
That said, it isn’t necessarily a negative thing in every instance, or
even most instances.  Most of the time, it’s curiosity, plain and
simple.

Man, I’ve written a lot, and I haven’t even gotten to the good stuff:
the temples in Nara, our dinner with my conversation partner’s father
and brother (neither of whom spoke English), and Kiyomizu-dera in
Kyoto.  I’ll try to update later.  Right now, I’m hungry, and
my arms are tired.  Peace.

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