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Japan “Part One”

June 29, 2009
Himeji_Castle_Large

Himeji or "White Heron" Castle

My fiancee and I had to nail down the plans for visiting Japan fairly quickly once we got word that her parents really wanted us to come out, so after scrambling to get the best deal on airline tickets I had only a couple of months preparation before we left, and a whole lot of nerves to overcome knowing that I’d be meeting them for the first time, and that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with them nearly as well as I would like. Well, I managed to get over that, and after getting everything together and managing our way through DFW’s baggage claim, before we knew it we were lifting off for Tokyo early Wednesday, June 10th.

After a 13 hr. flight (of which I slept no more than 30 min. each way) we were both fairly tired, but there was so much to see that any fatigue kind of took a backseat to the adventure of everything and I forgot about it until much later that night when the 36 hours without sleep finally set in (and I promptly passed out on my futon following a hot Japanese bath). But my first impressions upon arriving in the city via a 1 hr. bus ride was that Tokyo is actually much bigger than I imagined it would be. Granted, I thought it would be big, but when we first entered the city it was hard for me to wrap my head around just how big it was, being immediately impressed with just how many buildings/skyscrapers there were on all sides, all around me, particularly as we moved toward the interior where it seemed they were countless. If it wasn’t a huge office building, then it was a large residential apartment complex, a “love hotel” or a 6-floor mall. The buildings weren’t all large, of course, but they were everywhere and for a boy homegrown in Texas, and much more comfortable in the “country side”  it was a sight to behold. And it would only become that much more impressive when later in the week we visited Tokyo Tower in Shiba Park, Minato, where some 150 feet up I was able to see just how expansive it really is. I still have to go through the pictures but I’ll be posting up several so that you can see some of what I’m trying to describe.

Anyhow, we took it easy for the first couple of days and just eased into life in Japan. My fiancee obviously grew up there and she was right at home again in more ways than one. Walking everywhere, for example, is fairly foreign to me as to get anywhere in Texas you pretty much have to hop in the car given the distance between everything but in Tokyo they use their feet as the primary means of transport to get to where they need to go, or to make it to the nearest train station which takes them the rest of the way. The entire trip we walked, and we walked, and we walked, and I while I’m glad we were both in shape enough to manage, I was amazed at how well Tokyo natives thrive doing this. Her parents, for example, are pushing 60 years of age and they literally walked circles around us and never seemed tired, or whispered a word about being winded. We weren’t quite as adept, but it was almost always fun.  Walking everywhere had the added advantage of letting me see things up close though. Everywhere I looked there was something interesting to see, be it the countless local restaurants, shops, billboards, or people stealing glances at the tall, foreign, white guy that no doubt looked a little out of place. Those first few days we wondered around Tokyo just checking out the stations, malls (the $1 store was a highlight funny enough) and trying a lot of the interesting foods.  While I’d be lying if I didn’t say I immediately missed my favorite things to eat back home, I really enjoyed a lot of what Japan had to offer in terms of its food. I had some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted there (you can find a bakery every other block it seems) and I couldn’t get enough of their apple juice, which is 100% apple, and better than anything I’ve ever had here in the states. I must have drunk a couple of gallons of the stuff while I was there. Places to eat are abundant and they were all pretty reasonably priced, though an adjustment to the size of the dishes is required. The only negative I think I found the whole trip was that so much of their foods are rich in soy, and I’ve never been particularly keen on the flavor, particularly in large amounts. But I always had something great to eat around me and had fun sampling everything that was put in front of me (where I was thankfully able to manuever my way around chopsticks enough that I didn’t look like an idiot).

As for her parents, I really enjoyed their company. Her Mom is a sweetheart, and I really got along with her Dad who came into town from Osaka a few days after we arrived. Whew! We’re both history buffs, and enjoy a good book, museum, historical spot, or sitting back to watch the Discovery channel so we seemed to hit it off pretty well. He was gracious enough to take us to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, for example, only moments after he arrived from his trip home. We enjoyed the museum for a solid 2-3 hours, and then had the good fortune of stumbling upon Tezuka Osamu’s 80th Birthday Celebration (1928-1989) going on in another part of the building. I don’t know if there are an awful lot of manga/anime fans reading but it’s likely you’d recognize Tezuka Osamu (coined the “god of anime” and “father of manga”) as the creator of Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, Princess Knight, Black Jack and so many others. It was interesting to watch as so many Japanese fans, of all ages, in huge crowds gathered to see a glimpse of his b&w comic pages in a manner we would imitate at a Jack Kirby exhibit. My fiancee’s father was like a kid again as we walked through the winding halls and you couldn’t help but stand back in awe at Tezuka’s timeless art form, and all he was able to accomplish, despite his relatively early death. I’ve been a fan for years, but I walked out with an even greater appreciation for the man, and spent more than a few dollars adding some of the rarer Tezuka works unavailable in the U.S. to my current Tezuka collection.

In the days that followed we stayed in Tokyo and visited Ginza (an expensive shopping region where I bought…very little), the palace of the royal family, numerous Buddhist temples, huge marketplaces and all kinds of local sights. A few days later we hopped a train to check out areas central to the famous Genpei Wars (a chapter in Japanese history I initially gained interest in after reading a Usagi Yojimbo story entitled “Grasscutter” by Stan Sakai story a couple of years back appropriately enough), before heading to the extremely impressive Hejimi or “White Heron” castle in Himeji, the Hyōgo Prefecture that blew me away (if I did have to duck an awful lot to avoid hitting my head). The next day, or thereabouts, we headed to Kyoto where we visited the Kiyomizu-dera temple, which dates back to 798, and sipped water from the Otowa-no-taki waterfall, which I was informed by my family to be with great enthusiasm ‘would bless me with longevity…until I died.’ Ha! We toured gardens, more temples, examples of ancient and modern architecture and even a quick cruise trip on the coast as we traveled around Japan the last week (thanks to the graciousness of her parents), and of course I was able to sample more great food all along the way. We had authentic ramen of course, as well as these great beef dishes were you cooked your own meat and vegetables on the grill, tasty noodle dishes, and all kinds of sweets, like the sweet bean paste rolls that the Japanese are so fond of (took some getting used to, for me, but they really were good). Some of the best ice cream I’ve had this side of Blue Bell in a long time as well.

Totoro_3We had to leave her Dad near Osaka before we returned to Tokyo via bullet train (awesome!) but he gave me an awful lot to remember as we toured those several days and it was a blast getting to know him. We spent the last couple of days just exploring Tokyo and taking it easy. I picked up a ton of books, and a few games that are difficult to find back home, as well as a bunch of souvenirs for my family back home. Even got a few “toys” that reminded me of my youth, like an Ultraman figure and a few other things. The highlight of what I brought home was likely a ceramic planter featuring Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoro and friends that apparently both my fiancee and I couldn’t live without (okay, okay…that I couldn’t live without).  We had fun trying to figure out how to get the stuff back to the house on the crowded trains (I now know how sardines feel!)  and while it’s difficult to really include everything in a single post, we really did an awful lot thanks to her parents and it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken.  If you’ve had any experience with Japan or have any questions feel free to drop me a line and I’d be glad to go into detail on more of this stuff. We spent our last evening having dinner with a friend of ours from a university here in Texas that recently moved back and sad to see the trip come to an end, we packed our bags — our much heavier bags, for home — though I have to admit that Japan feels a lot more a part of me then I would have imagined and I’m glad to have my own connection to it.

I was sad to end the vacation, but I was glad to be coming home as well knowing that we’ll be going back in another 7-9 months, or so, for the wedding in Japan. It was a fantastic trip and while I know I wasn’t able to do the trip justice, I hope you enjoyed following that for a few minutes.  Thanks also, to those that dropped a line to wish me a good time and a great trip.  It really was.

Stay tuned for pictures!

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