Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Getting Out of Town - Kansai Weekend

I've fallen behind on writing about my travels but it's going to take a while to work through all my China pictures, so that post will have to wait.

A couple weeks back, I got sent to a meeting in Osaka, which is about 2.5 hrs from Tokyo on the bullet train. It wasn't a terribly important meeting but someone from Tokyo had to attend and nobody else wanted to go. Thus goes life at the bottom of the food chain. The one saving grace was that the meeting was scheduled for 4pm on a Friday. Given that I wouldn't be able to get back to Tokyo until 9 or 10pm, I was well within my rights not to return to the office afterwards. With the company picking up the tab for my train ride, it was the perfect chance to spend the weekend wandering around Osaka and Kyoto.

Saturday was spent in Osaka. Though generally considered Japan's second largest city, I think it's absolutely fair to say it is a very distand second. It's a bit rough around the edges compared to Tokyo and being there feels a little like time travelling back 5-10 years. But it's not without it's charms: the food there is awesome and cheap. Osaka is well known for "kuidaore", which literally means to eat until you drop. It's an activity sort of like bar hopping but focused on food, going from restaurant to restaurant, eating a bit here or there. The city is also famous for a number of foods perfectly geared for such adventures: takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and kushiage. None of it is very healthy food but I've somehow managed to drop about 5 kg in the last few months, so I had some leeway to work with.

And so I ate.
A lot.
And it was glorious.
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Sunday morning, I packed my bags and made the quick trip over to Kyoto. Kyoto can be a tricky in that it is a big tourist destination for both foreigners and the Japanese. It's temples are gorgeous but nothing ruins the experience like being overrun by hordes of tourists. Case in point: Kiyomizudera is a really cool temple but is also so popular that it's often too coated in visitors to really appreciate. I imagine it would be great really early on a weekday morning. As it was, I arrived in Kyoto around 10am on the weekend and there were already long snaking lines for the buses to the temple.

Fortunately for me, my favorite spot in Kyoto is a bit out of the way and much less popular with tourists. Nanzenji is tucked away near the North-East corner of the city and is a bit inconvenient to get to compared to some of the other temples. While there are always a small number of people there, you will never have to fight your way through crowds. There is nothing quite like wandering around a quite temple on a cool clear morning to make your soul feel at rest. There is an aqueduct near the back that you can get up and several places to wander off the path in the forest up into the mountains.But for me, the best part of Nanzenji is the giant gate, one of the three great temple gates in Kyoto. The current gate was built in the 1600s and you can go up on it for 500 yen, which seems like a lot considering that there's not much to do, but I think it's absolutely worth it. You are required to leave your shoes at the entrance, leaving you to walk around in your socks. The wood has all been worn smooth and you can't help but wonder how many have touched it over the years to make it that way. The gate is huge and you can see out over Kyoto to the West. I bet it would be fantastic at sunset. It's quiet and calming. It might be one of my favorite places in all of Japan.
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I spent the rest of the day wandering around Kyoto, stopping by Chion-in and the Nishiki food market. I think my favorite thing about Kyoto is that the city is so unashamedly Japanese. Tokyo is big and modern, all nice and shiny and full of neon lights, but Kyoto reminds you of where this country comes from. Walking around, it reminded me of just how different Japan is from the US and made me realize that there is a lot I will miss about this place.

I took a good number of pictures over the weekend which I've uploaded on flickr. I'll try to add little descriptions to them over the next few days to give them some context.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

[ 12 / 52 ]

Week Twelve : It Really is a Great Wall
Week 12
Far and away the highlight of my recent trip to Beijing was the Great Wall of China.

It. Is. Freaking. Awesome.

Pictures really don't do it justice (not that that stopped me from trying) and it's difficult to find the words to describe it. The Great Wall is absolutely one of the wonders of the world and there is no substitute for being there yourself. Seeing the way it endlessly winds up and down the mountains is absolutely mind blowing. If it had been built yesterday we would still be declaring it a monumental achievement and a testimony to the awesomeness of mankind, so that fact that it is hundreds of years old only makes it that much more impressive.

We'd actually tried to go to the wall a couple days earlier but failed thanks to some spotty directions from a guidebook (read: the bus station it told us to go to doesn't exist). Wanting to avoid a possible tourist rush on Saturday, we decided to wait an extra day and try again (with new directions) on Sunday. The temperature proceeded to drop dramatically and we thought we had missed our best chance. Instead, Saturday night brought a light snowfall and Sunday greeted us with a rare sunny day, offering up pleasant weather and gorgeous views of the wall.

There are several points you can climb the wall near Beijing. We opted for Mutianyu, which is supposed to be much less touristy and restored than the more popular Badaling location. Next time, I'd like to try making the 10km hike from Simatai to Jinshanling, which is supposed to be much less restored and really incredible.

Most people recommended I visit Shanghai instead of Beijing, especially for this time of year. Really the only reason that I stuck with Beijing was that I wanted to climb the Great Wall before moving back to the US. And you know what: once I was up on the wall looking out over the surrounding mountains I knew I had made the right choice.

Camera Info: Canon 7D | 19mm | f/ 8.0 | ISO 160 | 1/320 s

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

[ 11 / 52 ]

Week Eleven : On The Road Again
Week 11
A few years back, I was looking for a duffel bag that was just large enough for trips over Japan's many long weekends. My sister responded by giving me this gorgeous brown leather one as a Christmas present.

Since then, it has accompanied me on not only short trips within Japan, but also on longer adventures to places like Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam as well as a couple of trips back home. Right now it's loaded up for a five day journey to Beijing, which I head out for tomorrow evening.

The bag has taken it's share of beatings over the years (airport luggage handlers aren't always kind), but that just gives it more character. It's a tough little S.O.B. and I look forward to haven't it around for years to come

Camera Info: Canon 7D | 35mm | f/ 5.0 | ISO 1250 | 1/13 s

Sunday, March 11, 2012

[ 10 / 52 ]

Week Ten : Once Upon A Time, Today
Week 10
I spent this past weekend in the Kansai area, a day each in Osaka and Kyoto. It surprised me how much I enjoyed being in Kyoto and I found myself thinking how it would have been a great place to spend a year studying abroad.

A group of girls sitting by the river and laughing loudly reminded of my own brief study abroad in Japan, where we occasionally had parties on a river bank not unlike this one. It made me smile and I wanted to take some kind of picture of the scene.

This shot isn't even really what I had in mind at the time, but I quite like it. Something about it feels like it could just as well have been taken 20 or 30 years ago, rather than this afternoon. It's not very similar to my normal style and I thought about adjusting it in Lightroom, but I think it really is best just the way it is.
Camera Info: Canon 7D | 35mm | f/ 8.0 | ISO 200 | 1/320 s

Sunday, March 4, 2012

[ 9 / 52 ]

Week Nine : Test Your Might
Week 9
I found a great yakitori place tucked away in an alley off a side street by the tracks just beyond Yurakucho Station. Great atmosphere, great food, and cheap. It doesn't get much better than grilled meat on a stick and a cold beer.

The house special is tsukune, or meatballs. There's the regular version and the geki-kara (super spicy) version and, like all yakitori, you get your choice of salt or sauce on top. It was freakin cold outside, so I thought I'd take on the geki-kara version to warm myself back up. In Japan, "spicy" food tends to be pretty mild, so I wasn't overly concerned. I usually prefer salt for my yakitori, but asked the waitress for her recommendation. She said salt just made it spicier. Feeling up for a challenge, I went ahead and ordered it with salt. The wicked grin that lit up her face should have been sufficient warning.

The tsukune come three to a skewer and don't look all that dangerous on first glance. You are being deceived: these are nothing short of little fireballs. Bite into one and, in the half second before your mouth bursts into a mini inferno, you'll see that the meat is a bold red color on the inside. They taste delicious and are super juicy, but your mouth will feel like a war zone. I fought my way through the first two and decided to take a picture to commemorate the battle before waging war on the last one.

After that, the cold outside didn't feel so bad at all.

Camera Info: Canon 7D | 35mm | f/ 2.5 | ISO 1600 | 1/30 s