So then I fell into the river...

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

I fell into a river today. 

Not some small river at a temple, I fell into the largest river in central Kyoto. 

And in doing so, I learned that iPhones don’t swim (I’ll be getting a new one of those, I guess) and your passport will, for a period of time.  Also that water is cold.

Look, I’ll be the first to admit this blog has been a little boring this time around.  To be honest, not a lot of wacky, zany stuff happened.  A and I had a great time, ate amazing and fun food, and saw some of the most beautiful sights in the world.  This has been the best vacation ever. 

However, back to me falling into the river. 

So here’s the dilemma:  I had to return my bicycle by 3 pm.  And A's.  Only A had sworn off of riding a bicycle in Japan on account of 3 accidents in a one –hour period.  Therefore, I had to ride that back yesterday in the night.  When I arrived at the store, expecting to be able to just leave it there, I found them locked up with no parking anywhere.  Aware, as you are, that you should not just park anywhere (even though everyone does) I set out to find a bicycle parking lot. Finding a bicycle parking garage, I took my ticket and returned home.

Today, I rode my own bike to the shop.  I had only 20 minutes, which look like plenty of time.  That is, until I saw an unusual sight – a bicyle submerged in the river, and two sad looking little girls staring at it with their mother. 

I stopped, of course (shut up, Bryan, I know), and inquired as to the problem, as if it wasn’t obvious.  The little girls had accidently let their bike fall into the river when they parked it on the sidewalk. 

So I looked at the bike, looked at my umbrella, belt, and duct tape I keep in my bag, and thought “this will be easy.”  I rigged up a bike-fishing pole and caught the bike on the fourth try, pulling it up from the water. 

Only the cord broke and I was left with my belt in my hands, with the bike and umbrella still in the water – so close.  Probably just 10 feet away.  I could reach it, I thought.  The slope into the water didn’t look that bad, and I could climb back up on the rock face. 

Halfway down, I learned that wasn’t such a good idea, as I slid feet first into the water.  Once in the water, I began to quickly ascertain that I was in trouble.  There was no way back up onto the sidewalk, no stairs within a mile sight in either direction, and only the people at the sidewalk to not help me.  Not good.  I also remembered that I still had my iPhone, which I realized immediately was dead. 

Suddenly two cyclists stopped – and believe it or not, one of them had a cord long enough to reach me.  He threw it down and in about 15 seconds I remembered my “Project Adventure” training from High School on how to scale a sheer wall with a tension rope.  Carrying me (and the bike) up the wall made all those long boring days worth it immediately. 

Once at the top, I immediately fell into Japanese-mode, doing what any good Japanese person would do – bow repeatedly and deeply and humbly ask their forgiveness for my terrible error and foolishness.  They, in turn, expressed great regret at my soaking wet, dirty, and passport/iPhone/all my possessions soaking wet state.  No, it was my fault, I insisted.  And then quickly left.

Because, as you may remember, the bike was due back, now in 10 minutes. 

So, back to my house, quick change, and then back on the road.

Only I had forgotten one thing – in my soaking-wet wallet was the card to get the OTHER bicycle out of the garage.  CRAP.  I carefully removed it, still wet, and placed it carefully in my bike-basket to dry as I rode.  

OK, I KNOW that was a stupid idea.  Of course the card flew out in the first 5 minutes.  Thus, I spent the next 10 minutes frantically retracing my steps looking for a tiny piece of paper  in the middle of a three-lane road on a bicycle.  NOT EASY.  But I found it

Back on my way, I made it to the store, returned the first bike, returned the second bike (after a quick and VERY rough translation of the garage instructions, unaided now by my handy kanji translation software located on the dead iPhone), and headed straight back to meet Annie. 

So here I sit, in an internet café in Kyoto, Japan, having just taken a shower in their somewhat luxurious shower/tanning booth suite, watching my coat dry and letting their massage chair ease my troubles. I got lots of cool stuff here and ate great food, but I think in the end this trip was more amazing for A, since she has never been here before.  I know you all were hoping for more zany adventures and silly observations, but truthfully Kyoto isn’t that kind of city, or at least it wasn’t for us this time around. 

I am planning to try to write some follow-up blogs when I get back about some of the sights and go into some more detail about some cool things I saw.  The truth is that I have been too exhausted at the end of each day to write anything, but also too absorbed with planning the next day. 

And then I fell into the river and everything went crazy.  A and I ate burgers made of rice-cake buns with carrots and korean Kalbee and I bought a bunch of Jpop CDs.  And now I we have to find some way to dry my clothes to pack and leave tomorrow.  

There is an expression in Japanese that you say at the end of the day or at the end of a visit - Otsukaresamadeshita - literally, "thank you I am very tired."  

Well, Otsukaresamadeshita, Kyoto.

Yes, fine, we went to McDonalds.

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

I don’t think I’ll be taking Annie to Tokyo.

 Not that it was part of the plan for this trip, anyway, but one swipe at Osaka left her mumbling and shell shocked. And hungry again, for some reason, but a quick walk to Pontocho solved that.Although I will tell you that the sign “we have english menu” is not as helpful as it sounds, when the staff do not themselves speak English.

We had made a trip to the National Bunraku Theater in Osaka, which is the premier venue in Japan to see Bunraku and Kabuki theater.For those of you who haven’t wasted hours of your life mired in the minutae of a tiny island country that, other than having made your Camry, is of little interest to you, Bunraku is traditional Japanese puppet theater.And before you laugh and say “puppets? like muppets?”(actually, I first saw Bunraku ON the muppet show when I was a kid and thought it was pretty damn cool) don’t start laughing yet – some of the performers, who are completely visible to the audience while they operated the puppets in teams of 3 per puppet, have been deemed “living national treasures” by the Japanese government.I know, but please hold your laughter until the end.In order to ascend the ranks of Bunraku puppetry, one must spend about 10 years operating the legs (which is a pain in the ass, I think, because female puppets don’t actually have legs), then 10 years operating the left arm, and then you get to run the right arm and head.

Now, go ahead and laugh if you wish.

But it is an intense experience, partially because an old Japanese man is reading the story from a raised dais like a Cantor reads the Torah.Some of these men, apparently also deemed Living National Treasures, are amazing.Accompanied by a man playing a Shamisen, sort of a 3 stringed guitar, this guy tells the story in traditional Japanese, which apparently is so difficult to understand that the Japaneseneed subtitles, or supertitles, as it was there.

Anyway, that play, which ran 4 hours, was all fox-demons and kimono and seppuku and Noh music, interrupted only by a snack time (well placed for A) in which the entire audience appeared to be aware that they could bring their own food and immediately poured out into the lobby to eat their food quietly and quickly.

As soon as it was over, we headed out to Osaka proper.And straight into Las Vegas crossed with 5th Avenue on Thanksgiving weekend.It was a national holiday, which meant no school and thousands of kids and adults jammed into the streets.Music videos blaring in the streets from giant billboards visible from Space – where you can see their reflection on the moon if you look carefully, I think.After an hour of this spectacle/eye torture, Annie had had enough – “find me a Starbucks” she declared.So I left her at the international point of refuge to explore on my own.I don’t think she was a fan.

After a couple hours of crazieness for me and cafe time for A, it was back to Kyoto for a quiet dinner in Pontocho of daikon oden, octopus tempura, and various pickled vegetables.

But yesterday was the reason we came to Kyoto.After a rather difficult trip to rent bicycles, which included A losing her ticket while mid-journey (I have now can mark off “being scolded and admonished in Japanese by a public official” off in my “to do in Japan” lit), and a stern admonition from the bike rental place (“Park only in designated areas.Do not do what Japanese people do.They do not care about their bicycles.They are cheap.”) it was off to Chishaku-In, a temple and garden complex in Southern Higashiyama.

Other than a rather violent fall into the street straight in front of a City Bus, Annie did well riding for the first time since childhood.And it was worth the peril.

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Chishaku-In is a temple of the Chizan School of Shingon Buddhism. Built in 1585, the original garden has been attributed to the tea master Sen no Rikyu.  If I didn't think I needed to get Annie something to eat, I'd still be there now.  But once again, other than being amazingly beautiful, it raised lots of questions.  

For one thing, we were reminded once again of the idiocy of Japanese tourism.Here was one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, and other than a single tour group, and a couple of errant travelers, the place was completely empty.We thought perhaps it was because it was a weekday, but that myth was dispelled at Kiyomizu Dera, which was packed like a Taylor Swift

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concert (like the pop culture reference? I know, most of you don’t know who that is, and anyone who reads this in the future won’t either).

Ok, the view is cool and it’s a cool building, but the walk isn’t that far from one to the other.

It was going to take a lot to clear the disappointment of Kiyomizu Dera from A's mind, so a quick jaunt to the Tanai Meguri (womb walk) was in order.Truthfully, I had no idea what it was, and every guide I read refused to say.All they said was, you have to go.So 100 yen later I was walking down a deep staircase into a cavern devoid of light or any guide whatsoever.I’m as horrified by subway gropers as anyone, and I am troubled that Japan has to have a dedicated women’s only subway car, and that there are men who patrol the subways with uniforms and armbands as part of an anti-groping campaign, but a few minutes into having no idea where I was going and wondering if I would eventually just be eaten by a minotaur, I reached out and put my hand on the shoulder of the woman in front of me.Sorry lady, I want to be polite, and all, but I don’t want to die.

I think a Japanese person might have just chosen death. I suppose you learn a lot about yourself in these situations.

Anyway, I’m going to respect the tradition and not say what was down there.It really was odd, that’s all I’ll say, and I can’t give you the explanation because it was in Japanese spoken too fast and too complicated to understand.

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At this point, we retrieved our bicycles from the designated parking lot (where only bicycles from our rental place were parked – I smell kickbacks….) and we were off to Kodai-Ji.

One more fall from her bicycle and A and I made it just as night fell.In her defense, by the way, Japanese streets are not exactly made for biking.Or driving.Or really both plus pedestrians.

One new phenomenon in Southern Higashiyama is that a few temples have decided to open at night and illuminate the paths in the fall for visitors.Here, for the first time, we and the tourists all agreed that we had found something amazing.

Chion-In had the same opportunity, and we visited there as well.Here, I figured, at least the Japanese wouldn’t do something insane.As the rain began to pour and everyone magically pulled out umbrellas that we had never seen them carrying before, now for the second day in a row, I could hear the sound of a piano playing, almost as if it was coming from the main temple.That was impossible, of course, since these were sacred spaces where you couldn’t take pictures or approach the altar or, presumably, set up your huge loudspeakers and your Casio 3000 electric piano and put on a concert in the middle of the night.

At least one of those statements is incorrect, to my surprise.Anyway, it really was raining pretty hard, so it was a fine opportunity to sit and not get rained on.  Even after, however, it was worth continuing on despite the rain, if only thanks to Jean's amazingly rain-resistant wool cap (thanks Jean!) and the overpowering beauty of our surroundings.  

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Chion-In had the same opportunity, and we visited there as well.Here, I figured, at least the Japanese wouldn’t do something insane.As the rain began to pour and everyone magically pulled out umbrellas that we had never seen them carrying before, now for the second day in a row, I could hear the sound of a piano playing, almost as if it was coming from the main temple.That was impossible, of course, since these were sacred spaces where you couldn’t take pictures or approach the altar or, presumably, set up your huge loudspeakers and your Casio 3000 electric piano and put on a concert in the middle of the night.

At least one of those statements is incorrect, to my surprise.Anyway, it really was raining pretty hard, so it was a fine opportunity to sit and not get rained on.

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At the end of the night, which included a visit to a traditional Japanese tea house in an amazing garden at Chion-In, testing my ability to be obsequiously polite in Japanese (ever use the phrase “Please forgive me for leaving before you” in Japanese?I had not), ), we decided to push the bicycles home, after A discovered she could crash her bicycle without even riding it.

And really, wet, tired, and in pain from walking continuously since 9 am, up dozens of long flights of stone steps on this and that mountain, standing in some of the most beautiful gardens in the world, drinking fine tea and eating perfectly prepared bento lunches, we can be forgiven for our visit to McDonalds and a couple of quarter pounders and fries.

Eaten by a Bear

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Any trip overseas comes with challenges.The internet connection is spotty, the brands are all different at the convenience store, our phones don’t work at all, despite AT&T’s hollow promises and pathetic tech support (“having trouble? Call us!” Thanks idiots), the house you rented doesn’t have central heat or hot water except from the shower head…

Kyoto is an ancient city, and for whatever reason the Japanese haven’t adopted central heating much around here.And this house is no exception.There is one heater, in the bedroom, labled entirely in Japanese (well, I guess our air conditioner at home is entirely in English, so I can’t complain), and god damn it I was cold yesterday.Paper sliding doors are beautiful, but not made for insulation.Apparently the do burst into flames fairly quickly, though, or so I’ve read since this city has been burned to the ground more than a few times in the last 1000 years.

Yesterday was our jaunt down the path of philosophy (Tetsugaku no michi), a rather storied and now constantly traveled tourist destination.

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As we walked this idyllic and storied path, the same thought kept crossing my mind – “how long before Annie stabs me in the face with a sharp object repeatedly and then dissappears into the crowd?" She’s starving and hasn’t eaten since breakfast, which, if you know Annie, is akin to bear-baiting a rabid, starved zombie polar bear with the a sharp stick while wearing Calvin Kline’s “scent of salmon.”

But starvation has it’s limits, and apparently those limits are defined at one border as: Okonomiyaki (Literally, as-you-like-it grill). It’s an omlette of sorts of meats and vegetables. And it was not on the menu, despite how many we past in a fit of hunger. After passing those up and regretting 30 minutes later, I was so desperate that we nearly considered eating at the Westin Hotel, which would have been so shameful I’d nary have reported it here.

Finally, however, we stumbled on a tiny Udon shop and almost fell into the place over ourselves.Finding a seat we were presented with the menu:

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OK, so this menu isn’t even phoenetic – you need to know the characters to order.Annie was starving and time was short.In comparison, my Japanese mid-term was the equivalent of the MPRE.And this was the Bar Exam – high pressure, and my future depended on it.

Customs

by Kensatsukan Gaijin
I think I got my first clue that I was doing something crazy again when I tried to fill out the Immigration Card prior to getting off the plane.

Here's my address in Japan:

Kyoto-Shi Higashiyama-Ku
Sanjo Dori Shirakawa Bashi
Higashi Hairu 2 Chome
Nishi-Machi 151-11

Here's how much space they give you to write your address in Japan: { --------- }.

I think the idea is that your address is supposed to be: Hilton Hotel, Tokyo, Japan.
Or Marine Corps Base Echo-Delta, Okinawa, or something like that.

I burned through 2 cards trying to write the whole thing on the card before giving up and writing it out in Japanese (which, believe it or not, takes up half the space).

Then I got to the customs form (which asks, by the way, if I am bringing any swords into Japan. Why would I bring one with me? It would be like bringing my gun from England in case they didn't have any in Texas.) The customs form had 1/3 the space. So I gave up and used the polite-est verb form I know to get one of the stewardesses to write it for me. Man she could write small...I did feel bad, asking her to take a break from her 13 hour non-stop patrol of everyone in our section to make sure everyone had something to drink the entire freakin' time.

I should point out that our flight, on ANA (Japanese Airline), had FREE BOOZE. No joke. Free wine, free beer. And before you get any ideas of what this flight quickly turned into, they couldn't GIVE the stuff away. Not because it wasn't good - Annie liked the wine, and asked for it with a $10 bill in her hand expecting to pay. The stewardess didn?t even look at the money. But I guess there just wasn't an inherent desire to get f**c$ed up anywhere on our docile passenger manifest. God help us if Southwest tries this on the Dulles-to-Columbia, South Carolina jaunt I suffered through last month. I don't think they have enough handcuffs at the airport...

But I was left to marvel at a smiling uniformed ANA stewardess walking through the cabin with free wine and beer and being ignored like she was handing out tickets to an "Ace of Base" acoustic-only comeback concert in Camden, NJ.

It's fun showing someone else the country that blew you away once before - here at Narita Airport (where I am writing this) Annie is just now seeing the zen garden in the middle of the passenger concourse at Narita Airport, the massage chairs with customer wake-up calls so you don't miss your flight, the changing rooms in the immaculate restrooms that each have a place to leave your shoes before you change...

Meantime I can finally enjoy my Kochakaden Royal Milk Tea again - it's as good as I remember it. I really hope this tiny map to the bus from Osaka to Kyoto is right, because I have another tiny map written in mostly Japanese to follow to get to our house. I tried to explain where we were staying to the people at immigration and after we both realized neither of us was going to understand where this place really is, they waved me on.

Ashita Kyoto ni Ikimasu Yo!

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Tomorrow at 11:20 am we take off from Dulles Airport on the way to Kyoto, my second and Annie's first trip to Japan. Last time I wrote this blog I started it Tarantino-style, mid-story, so I thought this time a traditional beginning would be a good start.

Here are my expectations about Kyoto:

1. It will be in Japan

2. I will not be at work

As long as those expectations are fulfilled, I will be happy.

For those of you playing the home game: We leave Friday, land Saturday, and will leave Kyoto the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for about a thousand years, blah blah blah [insert stolen wikipedia info here] [bluebook required citation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyoto ]

Here is the FAQ that this blog has lacked, resulting in a many many email complaints in my head just now.

Where are you staying?

We are renting a traditional machiya (like a townhouse) in Gion, the traditional geisha district in old Kyoto. VRBO link here:

http://www.vrbo.com/209514

Jay, does Annie speak Japanese?

No, you freakin' racist - she's Korean, not Japanese. Get it straight.

But I thought Japanese people and Korean people don't like each other!

Correct

Why are you going to Japan during Thanksgiving?

Public Sector Math: Thanksgiving week + 3 1/2 days leave = 10 days off.

And why Japan? Please see previous entries (e.g. Little girl buying cigarettes, free drink & movie dispensing net-cafes with massage chairs, catch and eat your own eel stands, etc.)

When is this pointless post going to end?