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JuergenS


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Trips:

Two month of Japan

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Safely back home [recap]

Linz, Austria


Hi there, this is the final post of this blog!

Two weeks ago our travel through Japan ended and we returned to our "normal" lives. Since then I moved and started university, organized all those souvenirs and had a fun get-together with friends.

This definitely was a journey I won't forget, so much happened, we visited so many places and I can't even describe the feeling of standing on top of Fuji-san during sunrise.
We looked all over Tokyo from the Tokyo Tower, got surrounded by deer in Nara, tasted the sheer diversity of Japanese cuisine and watched a hanabi taikai in Gunma, nearly got "templed-out" in Kyoto, I rubbed shoulders with thousands of fans at Comiket and experienced the remains of the horror of Hiroshima and the zeal of the locals there.
Too many impressions to summarize properly, so I decided to let pictures tell the story instead.I created a photo-book out of the thousands of photographs I took and ordered it to be printed and sent to me. It didn't arrive yet, but I won't keep you waiting till then, here is a digitizes version. Enjoy.

It was a really fun time, lots of excitement and interesting experiences every day and culinary delights where ever you go. Of course, humans tend to remember only the nice times, and there definitely where unpleasant and frustrating situations, but I feel it all helped me grow a bit, especially language-wise.
Also, I enjoyed my first holiday with Marion, fond memories there!

Its a little sad that it's over already, there definitely are some things I wanted to do but wasn't able to, visit Koya-san and Hokkaido for example, but all in all it was fulfilling and worthwhile time.

That's it, thanks for staying tuned for so long, you can change the channel now.

JuergenS

permalink written by  JuergenS on September 6, 2010 from Linz, Austria
from the travel blog: Two month of Japan
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The end of a journey

Narita, Japan


We are preparing to leave Japan now, packing our stuff, calculating customs, deciding what to take and what has to stay behind for other stuff to fit in the trunk, and saying our goodbyes to this country.
Tomorrow we will travel to Narita, where we will spend a night in a hotel before boarding the plane back to Austria on Sunday.

There were times of confusion and slight panic, troubles and worries, but those all seem insignificant now. After all, the good times, the fun, the interesting discoveries and great food will be what we take with us, as well as some life experience and the feeling of having grown a little.

My Japanese got better during these two month, I met lots of people, traveled to lots of places (approx. 7000+km of train travel), got lost sometimes and bought lots of stuff.
For me, traveling (as opposed to holiday) is a thing to do alone, as you can only get a real glimpse of the culture and character of the place you visit by personally confronting it, by doing as the locals do and making mistakes. A second person of your home always is way too big a temptation to speak your own language instead of struggling with the local one, for instance.

To my mind, two month were a good duration for this travel and I wouldn't miss a second of it, but for now it's enough. I probably would need some kind of employment or study to keep me busy. Not for the lack of things to see, mind you, but for the making of a real life, not just a holiday, in Japan.

I will do a proper recap post sometime after reaching home, might take some days though.

So long and stay tuned,
JuergenS

permalink written by  JuergenS on September 4, 2010 from Narita, Japan
from the travel blog: Two month of Japan
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Cultural: Public Transit

Kyoto, Japan


Public transit is the obvious way to go for any tourist and the system of Japan is really good. In fact, if a train is late even by a few seconds the conductor is expected to hand in an written apology. Quite different from the trains at home.

The train everyone talks about is of course the Shinkansen, the bullet train. This one comes in different varieties and speeds and is the fastest earthbound way to get from one city to another.

Of course there are "normal" trains as well, also Limited Express trains, Express trains, overnight trains, ... You name it, they got it.

Finding your platform and train should not pose that much of a problem, even without Japanese, as long as you stay in the major cities, where the announcements are made in English as well as Japanese. If in doubt: Ask someone, you should be able to find some English speaking staff.
Might be problematic in more rural areas.

Especially made for foreign tourists visiting Japan under the status of "Temporary visitor", the Japan Rail P (JRP) ass is ideal of those hopping from place to place. If enables you to use all JR-lines and all Shinkansen trains except the Nozomi just by showing it. One has to buy it before coming to Japan via a travel agency.

Some trains, especially the Shinkansen and Limited Express ones are divided into reserved and non-reserved seats by a ratio of roughly 2:1. If you have a JRP you can easily get a reserved ticket and board the train, knowing exactly where your seat is.

By the way, the tracks got markings or displays on them, showing you which car will stop where, meaning where you should position yourself to avoid having to search for your seat.

The upper class cars are called "Green cars" in Japan and cannot be used without additional charges by a JRP-holder. Cannot say much about those, didn't use them.

When arriving at it's final destination, the train is cleaned and the doors are barricaded. Just wait till they are done.

In the early hours of the morning, cities like Tokyo offer special "Women only" cars on their trains. Those are limited to the rush-hour when lots of school girls etc. take the train to their destination, the cars can be used by anyone the rest of the day.

One thing I discovered quite recently are the double-decker trains, but you can imagine those.

Also, with the movie in the cinemas and the games coming up, there are trains specially decorated with Pokémon. Didn't notice any difference aside from their outer appearance, the kids love them though.

==============

Subway and Metro: Not much to say about them, subways are pretty much the same all around the world I guess. Tokyo got a massive system of those and a JR-operated loop line as well.
The cars often feature multiple displays for travel info, CMs and announcing the next stop and can really really stuffed during rush hour.

==============

If in Tokyo the main means of transport is the metro system, it's the city buses in Kyoto.


The tourist information center offers free bus navis, no matter how far you travel inside the city it's a flat rate (220yen) and all the sights can be easily reached by bus, yep, it's pretty nice.
As for the system, you enter the bus by the rear door and leave by the front door. When leaving you put the money in a machine next to driver and get off, that's it.

At the boarding areas one can see weird lines on the floor, these are guides for where to stand in line, and it works! No pushing, no cutting in line, everyone enters calmly and without making a fuss. Of course this is not entirely true, but it's still way better than the mess we get sometimes at home.

If you exit the city itself, e.g. by traveling to Arashiyama, you will have to take a ticket out of a machine right when entering the bus. This will have a printed number on it and at the front of the bus a display will mach our number to the prize if you get off at the next stop. Press the button to show the driver you want to get off, get your money ready and drop both your ticket and the exact amount into the slot next to the driver.

As with any form of public transportation (except taxis), you are expected to offer your seat to persons needing it more than you do, especially the elderly, weak, expectant mothers, persons with small children etc.

There are other systems for riding a bus as well, as I learned when I tried the buses in Tama Plaza. Here it's pretty much the opposite from Kyoto: While also a flat rate, you enter by the front door, pay when right then and exit using the middle/rear-door. Caused some confusion when I came from Kyoto.

Highway buses, operated by various companies including JR are a slower, but more scenic way of traveling from place to place and for non-JRP-holders often cheaper. Took one to Mt. Fuji.

==============

Taking a taxi is generally more expensive than public transit for lone travelers, but cannot always be avoided. Also, they are convenient! Note that you never touch a door in Japanese taxis, the driver opens and closes them from the diving seat via a button.

==============

As good as the public transit in Japan may be, problems still occur. I told you about this already, but I got stuck for an hour once due to some problem/accident.

So long and stay tuned,
JuergenS

permalink written by  JuergenS on September 3, 2010 from Kyoto, Japan
from the travel blog: Two month of Japan
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Cultural&Culinary: Food on the go, shopping and restaurants

Kyoto, Japan


This time I will give you an extended description of food on the go, meaning while traveling from place to place, where to get it and what else you can do to fill an empty stomach.

First up: The classic, ekiben. Eki meaning station and the ben-part coming from bento (=lunch box), they are boxed lunches especially for the hungry traveler. Different locations feature different contents and meals, often with local specialties and fresh veggies. Sushi is also a regular sight here, as these lunches are freshly made and only sold on the day they are "assembled" anyway --> no fear of getting bad fish.

Of course there are bakeries and other shops around as well, what's for dinner is up to your imagination.

The most basic of all Japanese foods designed to be eaten while traveling or as a quick snack is the onigiri, rice balls a in triangular shape. You can chose from a whole palette of fillings, from salmon to plum to just plain rice and weather they are wrapped in nori or not.

As you can see, these have instructions on how to unpack them, and those are needed, as an extra layer of foil prevents the nori from soaking up and becoming soft. Removing this is easy once you know how to do it, but w/o the instructions may take some time.

Oshizushi are sold only in certain parts of Japan and are basically an ancestor of the modern sushi. In the past, fish was preserved using sour rice and packed in leaves, which over time developed into the sushi as we know it. Oshizushi consist of a layer of pressed fish over rice and packed in leaves, making them comfortable to carry around.

Wherever you are, you won't starve in Japan, even if you dismiss all those restaurants around (~ 1 per 80 Japanese) and go for snacks like bread or some dumplings.

===========

Even though the bentos and snacks fill you up good, sometimes you just want to go out and grab lunch or dinner at a restaurant, so let's talk about those.
I am just talking about Japanese food here, of course there are Italian, French, Chinese, ... restaurants around, but you know those, no?

The most common form of restaurant is probably the shokudo, recognizable by it's large window with food displayed in it. If you choose something you see there, you can count on the food you get to closely resemble the one outside:

"But how", you might ask, "are they able to put food in their windows, and not just pictures? Won't it go bad?". The answer is simple: Fake food. You probably won't believe it when you see them the first time, but everything displayed is fake, made from plastic, incredibly detailed and pretty close to art sometimes. These replicas seriously look delicious!

If you are near the Kappabashi-dori in Asakusa you can shop for a bowl of fake-Ramen or some fake sushi, but be warned: The prices are steep.

Aside from the shokudo, which offer a wide range of foods to choose from, specialized restaurants can also be found, be it the common ramen-eateries or the high-class sushi restaurant.

Another type: Izakaya are bar/pub eateries and can be found all over Japan. Here businessman get some beer and chicken skewers before returning home.

===========

The shopping itself (if you don't feel like traveling around or eating out) is pretty much the same as everywhere else, with the exception of the abundance of Convenience Stores, called conbini.
Pretty much every neighborhood has at least one of them nearby and there are many different chains.


These shops are open 24/7/365 and provide the basic stuff for living: food (see below), hygiene products, sweets, newspapers, ... as well as ATMs and copiers.

The food you can buy here is pretty similar to the ekiben fare, with the addition of warm food. Its common to get your bento warmed up right before you pay (not for sushi, obviously), getting you a hot meal at any time of the day/night. Conbini bentos tend to be a bit cheaper than ekiben, by the way, but you don't get the regional variety.

Of course there are drug stores as well, basically the conbini-lineup with a much bigger variety and depth.


B1-level of Department Stores are a good place to shop as well, as there are always food shops and eateries around there (for more sophisticated dining head for their restaurant floor). The melons that everyone talks about are there as well: Different shapes and extravagant prices.

So that's about it for preventing starvation, and seeing as my travel is coming to and soon, this will be one of my last posts.

So long and stay tuned,
JuergenS

permalink written by  JuergenS on September 3, 2010 from Kyoto, Japan
from the travel blog: Two month of Japan
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The pain known as large baggage (or: Back to Kyoto)

Kyoto, Japan


We finally arrived at Kyoto, after dragging our baggage through multiple train stations and on a bus. Luckily the owner of our guest House in Tama Plaza gave us a lift to the station there, one problem less to solve. The staff from Fuji is a really nice souvenir, but a pain to transport.
Anyway, we made it and are now in Kyoto. We will probably do not that much you don't already know about, so I will post some culinary/cultural rants and possibly a picture dump.

Another topic that came to relevance is the monetary worth of my souvenirs, especially my cooking knifes, as customs are a hassle. Will probably exceed the 430€ you can bring with you without customs duty. By a lot.
At least the space-problem inside my trunk is pretty much gone, as I sorted everything I won't take back with me anyway out and packed it the way I will travel from here to Narita.

Still some days left, we will try to make them count!

So long and stay tuned,
JuergenS

permalink written by  JuergenS on September 1, 2010 from Kyoto, Japan
from the travel blog: Two month of Japan
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Hijacking a Blog 1 [Marion]

Tokyo, Japan


So, yes that's me, the girlfriend we're talking about.
I'm Marion, and I made my _first_ flight and long-distance flight from Austria to Narita.
Don't expect any high written art of traveling from me, either in words or photos.


I guess my parents were more excited than I appeared to be, so I had a ride with Jürgen's sister.
My flight was ok. The landings are cruel anyway, so I just had to arrange with the small space around me. I am used to this somehow- thanks to Austrian public transport- but this was really small!
Had a chitchat with my neighbor, and then fought myself to sleep- or something like this was my plan. Of course it had to be other way: Couldn't sleep and when I was on the brink to dreamland the flight attendants offered ramen.

So what, I came to Narita quite dead, had to do the formals and find my baggage, and meet Jürgen- somewhere out of this bolted airport area.
Even deader than in Narita I made it to Shibuya- visited Hachiko - and lastly to Tama Plaza.

The next day was a faked Monday to me, because it was already Tuesday, and the day we hopped through Tokyo. (see Jürgen's entries.)

Tsukiji Fish market

The wasabi under this fresh sushi had quite the spirit- had a free nose afterward.

Hopping through Tokyo without seeing Tokyo Tower is like you have never been there. Of course we got to the first platform and enjoyed the view over the melting cities.

In one souvenir shop I found this Golden Maneki Neko Hello Kitty.
During the time I realized that there is nothing without H.Kitty. From toothbrush to boxer shorts, special HK and figures to whole co-products (like Kuromi, Star Twins)- if you look for it, you find it.

Had a hard time finding a way to Hie-jinja, because there was some meeting at the parliament (of course on that day) and the streets were barricaded.

Right after coming home the woes began...
Due to this over-air-coning, my way of saying that the air-conditions are used not cool but to freeze, I caught a sore throat. For recovering we made a lazy day in Tama Plaza, me sleeping the whole day and Jürgen enjoying his book.

On Thursday, which was to me Wednesday, we headed out for the Royal East Garden, commonly known as Royal Palace.


After surviving lunch hour which is just as busy as the morning public transport peaks, we made a stop at Akiba (where Jürgen bought the exact figure I had problems with to get for his birthday last year -_-") and then we were on our way for the Ghibli Museum.

Sure there is lot to see, but photographing is not allowed, so we have to keep those images in our memories.
I was quite impressed by the sketches and the coloring Miyazaki provided for his Museum.
Cat bus was attractive, but I was too old... fifteen years at least.
Miyazaki truely deserves the title of "anime no kami", due to his incredible creations and stories. Nonetheless, to my mind, he didn't revolt the scene as much as Tezuka did, creating something totally new (only the technique).

Anyways, I strolled alone to Ikebukuro and Akihabara on Friday.
I missed the glittering and blinking Sunshine 60' and had a hard time finding the so called Otome Road. In the shops I really felt misplaced: though I "like" BL/Yaoi I faced two difficulties: 1) In a series it's ok, but as doujin I can't get into it easily (or something like that I thought) and 2) IT'S IN JAPANESE! With problems deciphering Kana, it will take me years till I get the context (and the magical triangle of semantics&co), where I will have visited Japan even twice.
Left my money on my beloved Copics *^* After recovering from a price shock in Japan I handle my money more freely than ever, including buying Copic Sets and numerous souvenirs.

On Saturday we made our way to the Gunma Prefecture, for a Ryokan class experience.

On the same day fireworks were held, to me it was better than Silvester, because my toes didn't freeze to death, and it was fun watching Japanese doing a traditional dance in great number.
The next day, we returned home, for the last points: Meiji-jingu and Yoyogi Park Cosplayers. My luck brought me the Super Yosakoi 2010, a summer festival with groups performing dances on the stage. Was impressive, too, but no Cosplayers in the narrow sense.

Home again, we packed our belongings and slept for the last time in Tama Plaza.

permalink written by  JuergenS on August 31, 2010 from Tokyo, Japan
from the travel blog: Two month of Japan
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Back to Tokyo and Kyoto-Preview

Tokyo, Japan



Having returned from Gunma, Marion wanted to see the Harajuku cosplayers and the Meiji-shrine, so that was our next destination.

Happened to be the time for the Super Yosakoi 2010, a festival sponsored by Volkswagen that features massive groups of dancers/performers with impressive music competing for the first place.

The synchronous movements were really impressive and I would have liked to see more of it. Marion was disappointed because there were no cosplayers today, though.

Here a video of a past performance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KFap64g4vs

At Yoyogi-park a group of other dancers assembled, living the American spirit or imitating Elvis, I am not sure what they did exactly. They had music running and Twisted and rocked to it. Many of them had tattoos, which is pretty uncommon in Japan, except for Yakuza.

My camera finally died for good then, pictures from here on were either taken by Marion or by me in the past.

You already know Meiji-shrine, so nothing to talk about here.

Went home, packed and prepared for the next five nights in Kyoto, the last ones of this journey.

So long and stay tuned,
JuergenS

permalink written by  JuergenS on August 29, 2010 from Tokyo, Japan
from the travel blog: Two month of Japan
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A ryokan experience

Sarugakyo, Japan


Today we traveled to Gunma, for we had a ryokan-reservation at Sarugakyo-Onsen for the night. The ryokan had Onsen-access and was convienently located for the fireworks competition/display ("hanabi taikai") held that night.

We arrived a tad late and called from a station on the way to not loose our room, but everything worked out fine. Taxi from the Jomo Kogen station cost us 5000yen, but was the best choice.
We were shown around the building and got some explanations, everything in Japanese, but we managed.
Our room was on the first floor, here some pictures:

We had reserved for dinner and breakfast, but did not know exactly what awaited us until we sat down at the dining hall. The food that already was on the table would have easily qualified as a dinner, but the courses just kept coming! Marion had to scoop along the way, and I struggled to finish. We counted 16 (yes sixteen) dishes, everything included, which were as follows:
- Sweet sake/appetizer
- Tsukemono (pickles)
- Seaweed salad + carrots
- White (rice/veggie) gruel
- Crab legs
- Misoyaki
- Wagyu over mushrooms, cooked on the table in a giant leaf on a hot plate
- Local specialty of rice: Cooked with mountain vegetables and herbs as well as mushrooms
- Sashimi
- Fish-on-a-stick ^^
- Peeled tomato (I don't like tomatoes, didn't eat)
- Konjaku + veggie salad
- Tempura
- Soup
- Tsukemono 2
- Fruits

Pictures:

As you noticed by now, my camera started to break down. After the thousands of pictures I took with it in the last weeks I probably should have anticipated it. Still a shame.

After dinner we forced ourselves up and went to the hanabi taikai, which was much like Silvester at home, only without the cold and on a professional scale. I especially like the picture I used as header.

Having returned to the ryokan we entered the onsen (hot springs ftw) and relaxed. Onsen dwelling is great, by the way. Unfortunately the rotemburo was going through maintenance at the time, so only indoor bathing, but still nice.
Originally we wanted to go to sleep early, happened to stumble over Harry Potter in Japanese though and watched the last bit. Pretty much the first time watching TV since leaving home.

Breakfast the next day continued the style of the dinner before, lots of dishes and every single one in a separate bowl, each different in form and color from the rest. Here is the list:
- Miso soup
- Rice
- Green tea
- Salmon fillet
- Sweetened egg
- Konjaku + veggies
- Smoked salmon over salad
- Tofu
- Salad with mountain veggies + herbs
- Seaweed salad + carrots
- Minced tuna + wasabi
- Tsukemono
- Sweet red beans
- Dish of flavorings (spring onion, wasabi, herbs)

Filled to the brim we got on the taxi to the station and made our way back to Tokyo for the last night there before going to Kyoto.

So long and stay tuned,
JuergenS

permalink written by  JuergenS on August 28, 2010 from Sarugakyo, Japan
from the travel blog: Two month of Japan
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Imperial Palace and Ghibli Museum

Tokyo, Japan


After a good rest and Marion having recovered enough from her sore throat/AC cold, we were of again, this time to see the Imperial Palace of Tokyo and the Ghibli Museum.

The Imperial Palace East Garden is the only part of the Imperial Palace open to the public and offers pleasant walks, a nice garden and massive walls build solely from fitted stone blocks.

Not much more to say about that, except that it was really hot.

After grabbing lunch and visiting Akiba we headed to Mitaka for the famous Ghibli Museum.
In order to visit there one has to make a reservation in advance, which is possible outside from Japan by using travel agencies, inside Japan, however, you are limited to buy tickets at LAWSON convenience stores. Those have terminals installed (called Loppy) that let you buy cinema tickets and make various other reservations, including entering the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. Actually getting them was not quite easy, as I did now how to get them (the LAWSON site has an English explanation), I was however unable to read the error messages displayed. After getting some staff member to read the kanji for me I finally got the tickets, 1000yen each. Had to improvise the time and date, as the originally planned ones where already sold out, but whatever.
After arriving there you get handed a ticket for the in-house cinema showing exclusive short films, the ticket itself being three frames of a film reel of a Ghibli movie. Picture taking is prohibited inside but allowed outside and on top of the rooftop garden.

The building is filled with exhibits showing the evolution and creation process of the movies, original sketches and drafts, lots of statues and interior deco that created the illusion of actually being inside the world of Ghibli.
Also a cat-bus for kids to play in/with and of course a souvenir shop.
We had reserved for the 16:00 admittance so it was late afternoon/early evening when we came back.

Visited Hachiko again, for Marion to see him properly.

We are going to do some shopping tomorrow and will spend the Saturday in a ryokan in Sarugakyo-Onsen, Gunma, where a fireworks festival is scheduled.

So long and stay tuned,
JuergenS

permalink written by  JuergenS on August 26, 2010 from Tokyo, Japan
from the travel blog: Two month of Japan
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Cultural: Bath houses and onsen

Tokyo, Japan



As Japanese houses are, mostly, pretty small and apartments or rooms for singles even more so (don't get me started on students..), many Japanese don't have their own bath (e.g. shared bathroom with a shower in a guest house or the like). To compensate for this, and provide a means of getting some relaxation in a tub filled with hot water, sentos (bath houses) can be found pretty much in every neighborhood. You pay your fee there and can stay as long as you like.
The procedure is as follows_

You start by taking off all your cloth in the locker area and enter the bathing area only with a small towel and your hygiene products. In there you usually find a wall lined with small plastic seats, mirrors and showers. Head for those. Here you get yourself clean, and I mean really clean. You can do more than just scrubbing yourself semi-raw by the way, I say guys shaving and brushing their teeth, so as long as you get clean, pretty much everything is fine. Use your small towel as a washcloth.

When all the bubbles were washed away, you are ready to enter the baths themselves. Depending on the size of the sento there may be different dimensions, temperatures, tub materials and water properties to choose from. Kusuri (herbal/medical) and electric (yes, with an electric current running through the water) baths may be available as well. You can start at one and try them all, as long as you don't pass out from the heat.
In cases where the water comes from a hot spring, its called an onsen. There are public ones to use just like your regular sento, others however are included in ryokans, traditional lodging houses.

The onsen I recently entered was part of the Turtle Inn and indoors. Outdoor baths (called rotenburo) made of stone or wood are the more popular alternative however, especially in winter. Those are nice, really.

While most bath are separated by gender, there are some onsen offering co-ed bathing. Whether you want that or not, your choice.

So long and stay tuned,
JuergenS

permalink written by  JuergenS on August 24, 2010 from Tokyo, Japan
from the travel blog: Two month of Japan
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