Friday, July 17, 2009

Me and you +14

Happy 14th Monthaversary!

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 11 in Kobe

On the train again...Just can't wait to get on the train again...

On May 12, we set out from Hiroshima, heading East to Kobe. Coming into the Shin-Kobe shinkansen station, we then had to subway to the main Kobe Sannomiya station. The hotel (another of the Toyoko-Inn business hotel chain, where we also stayed in Kyoto) was very close to Sannomiya, and in quite a bustling area.

I had picked two specific things to do while we were in Kobe: to see Himeji-Jo, one of the twelve surviving feudal-era castles in the country; and to see the Akaishi-Kaikijo Ohashi, the "Pearl" suspension bridge. We were staying in Kobe for 2 nights, so I planned to spend the better part of one day at Himeji-Jo and figured we would do the bridge at leisure on another day, then spend the rest of our time exploring the city. When we asked the tourist info center about the bridge, they were like, oh, you came all the way for the bridge? To see it? As if we were kind of crazy. When we later recounted our trip to Mina, she said the same thing! It's the longest suspension bridge in the world! (If you haven't figured it out from these posts, I am a big fan of bridges. I've loved walking on the Pont Neuf in Paris, the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Millenium Bridge in London, and even driving beside that pretty one alongside the 134/2 freeway exchange just outside of Pasadena!)

So after leaving our bags at the hotel, we decided to head out to Himeji-jo. Depending on the type of train you choose, it is 25-40 minutes away from Kobe. We happened to get on a train that stopped at the bridge on its way to Himeji, so we made a quick decision to stop off and just go see it before continuing to the castle. Unfortunately the bridge info center was closed, so we just spent some time walking around the base of it. It is really breathtaking, especially on that day when it was quite foggy. It reminded me of the Golden Gate bridge, but much bigger and gleaming white. It spans the inland sea to reach Awaji-shima, the island that was at the epicenter of the 1995 earthquake that pretty much leveled Kobe. Luckily, the bridge survived unscathed, other than growing 1 meter in length! Technology is amazing.

So yes, we spent maybe half an hour at the bridge - it certainly didn't need a day :) Back on the train, we headed on to Himeji-Jo, and we started thinking about what we would do with our sudden windfall of time tomorrow, since we had freed up a whole day. The idea of taking a day trip to Osaka took hold, and I got excited because we had previously decided to skip it, thinking we wouldn't have enough time.

Anyway, arriving at Himeji station, we nibbled on some takoyaki and sushi on the way to the castle. The castle was breathtaking before we even got that close to it, as it rises quite tall from a hill. It is white and grey, imposing and elegant at the same time. It's a bit of a climb to the ticket gate, which I thought just heightened the anticipation. Our Eyewitness guidebook devoted a whole 2-page spread to the castle and grounds, which combined with some pretty decent English signage made for a satisfying self-guided tour. There were interesting bits like little windows for spotting enemies or pouring hot oil out of (to fend off said enemies). The castle never actually saw real battle or bombs, so it was in pretty good shape. We were allowed to climb all the way to the top of the main tower (6 floors), and the staircases were so tall and shallow. I'm sure people weren't that tall back then, so running around it must have been quite a challenge. We were on our way out when the security guard directed us away from the usual exit and said "Special Event." Excitedly, we followed and wondered if we were going to get to see a secret room (which were heretofore off limits) or a samurai demonstration. But nope, we just got to go through the smaller tower next to the main tower.

Himeji-jo, or the "White Heron"

Out the window of the smaller tower during the "special event"

We'd become used to taking our shoes off and carrying them around in provided plastic bags, but at the castle, they hired an army of people to clean and fold the bags.

Close to the castle are a few museums that are also architectural sights, so we went to check them out. Of note was the Museum of Literature (not that close to the castle - quite a hike in the heat!), designed by Ando Takao. Lots of angles and glass, circles and walkways and a concrete waterfall.
The beautiful Museum of Literature

View of Himeji-jo from the Museum of Literature, and pretty wildflowers!

After that, we decided to hightail it back to Kobe to try to make it up the Ropeway (cable car), which closes at 5pm. It was about 3:30, so we really had to pound the pavement. I lamented that we didn't take advantage of the apparently free bicycles that you can borrow from the Himeji tourist info center, when Brian somewhat tersely reminded me that he had suggested it and I had said no. Oops!

Back at Sannomiya station, we made it to the ropeway station in plenty of time. We got in our little pod and had a nice long ride up to the top, which really nice views of Kobe, the bay, and Rokku island. At the top is a cute herb garden that you can explore as you descend to the halfway station, but we just hung out at the top enjoying the cool breeze for a while, then took the ropeway back down.

View from the ropeway capsule.

We headed back to the hotel to regroup and figure out where to have dinner. We had heard about Kushiya, a restaurant close to the hotel that is - get this - all-you-can-eat-do-it-yourself fried food. Oh my. We were only slightly intimidated, but figured it had to be done. When we arrived at the address listed in the book, we couldn't find any signage. We went into the building that it was supposed to be in and got out on a random floor, hoping for the best. It was not Kushiya, but some other restaurant. I asked the server/host where Kushiya was (in my best Japanese) and after a few confused minutes, he got into the elevator with us. He actually got out on the street and led us about half a block away. He pointed up at another building and we saw that he had brought us to Kushiya! It was so nice of him, especially since it was his competition, we were astonished.

Inside the restaurant, we were seated at a table with two little wells of hot oil in the table. Our server was really sweet, and tried hard to explain the process to us in limited English. She showed us where the fresh food was, all skewered up, and then showed us how we were supposed to batter it up and fry it. They had all sorts of meats (chicken, pork, shrimp, whole smelts, beef, etc.) and veggies (asparagus, mushrooms, eggplant, broccoli) and even sweets (balls of dough, and even tayaki red bean fish cakes!) There was a small salad bar, an udon noodle bar, and several sauces for dipping. Delicious! You have 90 minutes to eat your fill (we didn't take it all) and get out. Our server (who said her name was "Husky" or something like that) was really sweet and checked to make sure we were doing ok.

Skewers, glorious skewers of food ready for the fryer!

All of the steps are captured in this photo: battering, breading, frying, and resting...

Aftermath (you were supposed to put all of your used skewers in a cup)... no, we didn't count them up. I think that would have been embarassing.

After that we walked around a bit and checked out Kobe at night. Much of it was rebuilt after the earthquake, so a lot of the buildings are quite modern.

The bright lights at night in Kobe.

A cool manhole cover near our hotel.

Then it was back to the hotel to figure out what we were going to do the next day on our unplanned daytrip to Osaka!

A Fortnight in Japan - Day 10 on Miyajima (from Hiroshima)

On Day 11 (May 11th), we took an early train and ferry out to the island of Miyajima (another name for Itsukushima). The ferry takes a nice, circuitous route from the mainland to the island, so you have a lot of time to check out this sight:

The huge "floating O-torii"; its position in the sea marks the entire island as a Shinto holy place.

The O-torii dates from 1875, and is 16m tall. Not surprisingly, it is one of Japan's most famous sights. It is part of the Itsukushima shrine, which you come to soon after landing on the island. Because of its position right on the shore, the shrine itself is kind of built on 'stilts' so that it can stand the changes in tide. When we arrived in the morning, there was water throughout, but by the time we left in the mid-afternoon the water had receded and you could walk on the ground between walkways. you can actually walk out to the big torii at low tide, though we thought it was cooler when the tide was high and the bright orange paint was reflected in the water below. We considered coming back at night (but didn't end up doing so).

Itsukushima shrine, from the ferry

One of the walkways at Itsukushima shrine. I'm loving all the orange in this country!

Around the shrine, we were on the lookout for momji-manju, maple cakes that are basically the same as the tayaki fish cakes we had in Tokyo (pastry cake around red bean or other filling). The maple leaf shape is unique to the area, and we saw many stores with automated machines for making them that clanked and hissed and spit out perfectly formed little cakes.

Reminiscent of a krispy kreme, no?

After Itsukushima-jinja, we headed inland and upward to the main temple complex, Daisho-in. This temple was really interesting, the most accessible of all the ones that we visited over the whole trip, I think. First of all there was a really detailed English pamphlet (not the norm), but also pretty much all of the buildings were open and free, so you could enter and explore at your leisure. Miyajima is revered as a holy place, so holy that no one is allowed to be born there or to die there (I'm not sure how the logistics of that actually work). Some of the buildings housed what we thought of as 'shortcuts' to enlightenment - one contains representations of all 88 temples that make up an 88-temple, 1200km pilgrimage around Shikoku island - if you walk through this building, they say it is like you have done the whole thing (sweet!) Also, if you turn each of the metal cylinders that line the steps up to another building, it is like you have read the scrolls (Sutra buddhist text) contained inside each one - if only journal articles worked that way!

In one of the buildings, there was this amazing sand drawing (called a mandala) that took two Tibetan monks two weeks to create. They displayed photos showing the monks working on it - what intense concentration! They basically used scoopulas to pour the sand onto a platform in a really intricate design. Some of the lines of sand were a few millimeters wide - what happened when they made a mistake?

The mandala, made entirely of poured colored sand. Beautiful and intricate!

The grounds of the Daisho-in were scattered with tons of little statues. Some of them were really cute, and people would leave coins or small trinkets on them as offerings to the deities they represented.

The cute little statues say: Speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil

After Daisho-in, we basically snacked our way back to the ferry terminal. We sampled some grilled oysters (yum!), strawberry shaved ice (pretty cool, as rather than pouring syrup on plain shaved ice, they shaved the ice off of a large block of strawberries frozen in ice), an oyster croquette, and these:

Yes, we got our momji! We sampled some of the plain ones, but were very excited to try this stroke of genius: deep fried red bean and cheese momji!

A few more photos from the island:

An adorable firetruck

Pretty red and green maple trees

Leaving the holy island, we ferried, trained, and bused out to Iwakuni, for the sole purpose of visiting the Kintai-kyo, or "Ribbon Sash Bridge." Originally made entirely without nails, this is a really picturesque bridge that has 5 arches.

The Kintai-kyo - just like in the paintings!

Our reflection in a park on the other side of the Kintai-kyo

After that, we bused and trained back to Hiroshima and ate dinner at the station again. When I went to sleep that night, I was excited that we would be moving on to Kobe in the morning, but sad when I realized that that meant that we had reached our western-most destination, and we were turning around to start the return leg of our trip.