Journey to Japan- Day 6 Part 1

Had an early breakfast after a perfect night’s sleep and got ready to head to the Meiji-Jingu Shrine. We walked past the Yoyogi National Stadium to get there and were finally met by a towering gate of wood- not orange like the other shrines.

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Yoyogi National Stadium

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Torii leading to the shrine

That made the temple, or Shinto shrine rather, more at home with the surrounding forest. And like most of the other places we’d been, I couldn’t tell what I enjoyed more- the walk to the temple or the temple itself. The thick canopy of trees above us was alive with the sound of cicadas and it was only later that I found out that the forest was actually man-made- each tree having been donated.

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Thick canopy of trees

On the way to the shrine, there are stacks of barrels of sake on the right and kegs of wine on the left – all donations to the shrine. The colourful barrels of sake make for a great picture and so you’ll find most tourists milling in the area. That’s where I spotted a Korean couple arguing about how to have their picture taken best. I missed my parents a lot at that point.

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Donations of sake by local breweries

We kept walking, past the poetry of the Emperor and Empress to whom this shrine has been dedicated before entering the last last torii to the shrine. The Emperor and Empress, we were told, were expected then, and even today, to give their orders in the form of poetry – something amazing yet slightly impractical. I wonder if practicality is a stifled form of art. It was at the last torii that I met the Korean couple again who asked me to take their picture at the entrance to the shrine ^^

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Poetry in the middle of the forest

The shrine itself is a beautiful wooden structure – beautiful in its simplicity, magnificent in its size and flanked by perfectly symmetrical trees. The temple, like most other structures in Japan was burnt down in WWII and the buildings were rebuilt in 1958. While it’s okay to take pictures of the structure itself, picture taking is not allowed inside the shrine where people pray. It helps people remember the real purpose of the building- not a tourist attraction, but a place of worship. In the courtyard, there are two places where prayers can be written. I found it very interesting that people need to pay to be able to write their prayers, whether on wooden tablets or on paper, the cheaper alternative. What was even more interesting is the idea that prayers are prioritized according to a person’s financial status and contribution. I think there’s more man than god in that tradition.

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Meiji-Jingu Shrine

We left the shrine and walked down to Takeshita Street (Takeshita Dori)- the birthplace of pop culture. It seems like such a contradiction that two places that are such polar opposites would be situated so close to each other. The street is impossible to miss – a shock of colours and a mass of people.

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Takeshita Dori

Right at the entrance to the street there are some shops in front of which there is an overhead water spray – something I made full use of to cool me down before heading on down the street. We had been warned that we would be bound to come across some class of, as my sensei succinctly put it, “weirdos”, but luckily enough we found none, only throngs of teenagers having a good time. There are all sorts of shops you can find here, from a huge Daiso to a three storey shop dedicated entirely to cosplay outifts for dogs and of course stores for the rebellious goth-wannabe where labels on stands ask you politely to F off (I’m not sure how that helps with sales 😛 ) If you’re looking for something very Japanese here, then you’re out of luck. This place is filled with lots of merchandise with NY labels and graffiti screaming “God Bless America”. If things like this aren’t really your style, I’d still recommend taking a walk down the street just to experience the dramatic cultural shift between the crowd you’d find at the temple and the youth of today. There are also plenty of places to grab a bite from, ranging from crepes to ice-cream to candy to all things yummy. I couldn’t sample anything as usual so after a fun walk in the killer heat, I stopped at Starbucks at the end of the street to soak in some much needed air conditioning.

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Lots of graffiti to enjoy

The next stop was… a Shabu Shabu lunch. I actually really like the idea of being able to cook your own meat at the table (it saves you from the hassle of struggling to define well-done, a little more than well-done and burnt to a crisp) so this is something I was really looking forward to. The restaurant was down a, for lack of better word, shady alley quite close to the famous Shibuya crossing, also known as the Shibuya Scramble. When we got seated, all the tables were already prepared with their own little stoves with pots of boiling broth. We then got a plate of vegetables, another plate filled with thin strips of beef and some seasoning like chilies and garlic. Not being very fussy, we threw everything in, except the meat, which is supposed to be put in individually, cooked as much as you like then eaten by dipping into another bowl of sauce.

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Shabu Shabu anyone?

The Shabu Shabu was a stunning success, all plates were completely wiped clean and in the words of one of our friends this was the first day he had eaten like a human. Bellies full, we were taken then to perhaps the most special part of the trip – The Tea Ceremony at Urasenke.

Stay Tuned for Day 6 Part 2

Journey to Japan- Day 5 Part 2

And so we left on a Gundam-high to look for.. you guessed it… the Gundam cafe which is actually really close to Yodobashi. There’s no way you’ll miss it because there is a Gundam right outside the cafe, not life-size, but big enough to catch your eye.

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Gundam Cafe

The cafe is rather cozy, filled with all things Gundam. The best part of our trip to the cafe – drinks named after Gundam 00 characters on the menu (I was torn, as usual, between ordering the Allelujah Haptism and the Lockon Stratos) and… we got to try strawberry shortcake with its very own edible Gundam sketch. The cafe even has a small souvenir store next to it from where you can buy…models (yes, again!), T-shirts, notebooks and a whole bunch of other Gundam paraphernalia.

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Gundam Strawberry Cheescake – because that’s how bring peace about

We left the cafe and continued to stroll on the same street which turned out to be Chabara, where we found a long line of food carts.

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Chabara

When I say food carts, I mean cute little modern red and white versions of food carts selling all kinds of food. Not sure if anything would be halal, we decided to skip food sampling and instead went looking for Mandarake– an anime/manga store, building rather, filled with anime, manga, figures, collectibles and what not. Manadarake too is not far from Yodobashi and the black building is pretty easy to pick out.

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Because buildings should be colourful

We made our way to the manga floor, only to be told that there were only about 4 manga in English on the entire floor. We headed next to the figures/collectibles floor which if you’re a collector is like a mini haven.

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Anyone up for translating… everything in this store…pretty please ^^

When we finally got back to our rendezvous location (Yodobashi, under the big yellow fish), not everyone had arrived since they got caught in the long line at the tax-free counter at Yodobashi. With everyone’s shopping finally tax-free, we headed to dinner at Al Muna where we had felafel and kebabs and seekhs of chicken. Feeling full, we were surprised to learn that there was yet another dish being dispatched to our table. We didn’t even hesitate when we asked the waiter to give our plate to another table where it was more likely to be polished off. Dinner was followed, of course, by tea and off we went to the hotel.

Our exploring for the day, though, didn’t stop at the hotel. We had slept in last night and decided that despite how tired we were, we were well-rested enough to cross the street to go to Bic Camera, which was thankfully open till 10pm. Now I had assumed, and incorrectly yet again, that Bic Camera was purely an electronics store (clearly I learned nothing from my morning experience at Yodobashi). Bic Camera is like a scaled down and more organized version of Yodobashi – all 8 floors of it which meant it was easier to navigate and less overwhelming than Yodobashi had been. Of course, it also meant more models and particularly metal models (like the Metallic Earth models that I collect).

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Today we fight…the urge to buy everything

My self-control for the day had already been exhausted and I ended up treating myself to metal models of some of the monuments we had visited and some Nano paper models. I was sorely tempted to pick up some Nanoblock too but resisted the urge, especially after my crazy debit card kept giving an error at the cashier     -___-.

We decided to call it a day pretty much at store closing time and headed back to the hotel to get ready for another long day – especially to get those white socks ready for the tea ceremony. ^^

Stay Tuned for Day 6 Part 1

Journey to Japan- Day 5 Part 1

And so began the Tokyo leg of our trip with breakfast… and shopping. Our first stop was the Isetan Department Store. After seeing the posh stores in the main business district near our restaurant deserted last night at dinner time, I was not sure how much rush to expect but it was pretty much as busy as any mall in Dubai, despite it being a weekday morning. The store is filled with all things branded, but since I’m not really a shopping person, I decided to find myself something that screamed Japan and nothing says Japan quite like ceramics. I headed off to the ceramics section where one of the stores actually had a ceramic painter who was painting right in front of us.

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Ceramics Painter

I was tempted to buy something in the traditional white and blue but nothing really caught my eye so I wandered around aimlessly until our sensei suggested visiting the Okinawa exhibition on the 5th floor. To the Japanese themselves, Okinawa is rather foreign, with its own unique flavour owing to the fact that they were very late in being colonized. This means that not only are their handicrafts rather unique, but also their language has its own unique style. I found the Okinawa exhibition absolutely fascinating – a riot of colours, not the traditional image of Japan at all. Their ceramics were also very different and that’s where I finally settled on a handmade plate.

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I can’t quite explain the feeling I get when I look at it…like this feeling of being underwater…

There was lots of coral jewellery which I absolutely loved. There were also traditional musical instruments from Okinawa, mainly the sanshin, and lots of snakeskin products, from purses to packs of just snakeskin and there was even a huge snakeskin on display which you could touch… I did…then ran away to the first floor to look for a fan. I’m pretty picky when it comes to buying things for other people so suffice it to say I couldn’t find what I was looking for and instead spent my time more wisely in the basement… in the basement filled with food. By food I mean all sorts of cute bento boxes, heaps and heaps of colourful salads and of course… Japanese sweets ❤ If all that food had been halal, you’d probably have had to drag me out of there by force.

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Sorry I don’t have more pictures. I was paralyzed by the sight of so much colourful food.

By mid-day, we were ready to head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office to get some views of the city. It’s open on weekdays from 10am to 3pm and entrance is free. I wasn’t too eager to go at first, but the thought of a possible glimpse of Mt. Fuji versus shopping convinced me otherwise. It was only after I got there that I learned that the heavy city smog and normally dense cloud cover meant spotting Mt. Fuji is more of a rarity than I had expected. Nonetheless, being 202m up in the air meant views were good and made for a great panorama of the sprawling city. They ran out of brochures in English, so I got myself a brochure in Korean so I could figure out what the main landmarks were ^^

Back downstairs, we headed to the tourist information centre where we picked up some brochures on where we were set to go next. If you’re not keen on reading about the places, they have great visuals highlighting what each area is famous for ^^.

Lunch was a Turkish affair at Bosphorus Hasan which was followed by perhaps the highlight of everyone’s day (or trip)… the famous Akihabara.

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Heading to lunch behind…way behind… our guide

Our first stop was Yodobashi, which I had expected would be an electronics haven. I was very much mistaken… Yodobashi is not only an electronics haven but also, and perhaps more importantly for me, a model haven.

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Yodobashi – Hobby Heaven #1

The 7th and 8th floors are filled with all kinds of models- cars, trains, Gundams, puzzles… you name it- they have it. It was completely overwhelming- the sheer scale of it and the number of models. I was sorely tempted to put the entire floor in my basket, but decided to exercise self-constraint or risk going bankrupt on my first night in Tokyo. As such I treated myself to a puzzle which I had spent months searching for back home and my brother found himself a Gundam model… not a Gundam model but THE Gundam model, I should say since it’s the model from our favourite Gundam show.

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Sakura Puzzle ❤

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Okay so Setsuna’s Gundam is pretty epic… but I kinda love Allelujah’s more

And so we left on a Gundam-high to look for.. you guessed it… the Gundam cafe which is actually really close to Yodobashi.

Stay Tuned for Day 5 Part 2

Journey to Japan- Day 3 Part 2

We returned to the bus famished and ready for our next Japanese lunch at Matsumotoya, situated right next to the Horyu-Ji Temple. We were served soup and rice along with the cutest little bento box packed with all sorts of goodies. I was actually able to recognize some of my favourites from yesterday’s lunch such as the battered chillies, sweet pumpkin and seaweed in soy sauce.

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Bento Box!

Not being too adventurous though, I ate all my favourites from my box as well as my brother’s and let him eat everything else. The restaurant also doubles as a souvenir shop so we got to roam around and fill up on all things kawaii before heading to the Horyu-Ji Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the entrance there was another water fountain, and we assumed that this too was for drinking water, but it turned that you’re supposed to rinse your mouth and just spit out the water…again to bring some sort of luck.

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Don’t drink… spit

One of the most amazing things about the temple, architecturally speaking, is the use of architectural features imported from other countries through China such as the tapered columns commonly used in Greece.

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Horyu-Ji Temple

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Looking up

inside the temple complex is my favourite building – architecturally speaking again, the 5 storey pagoda. I find this building utterly mesmerizing and could spend a whole day,if not longer just looking at it. Sorry Karamon, this pagoda beats you in my book. ^^

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My favourite – the 5 storey pagoda

The pagoda houses the scene of the last moments of Buddha, depicting a lying Buddha, a doctor taking his pulse and his lamenting disciples. The scene was reminiscent of the statue of the lying Buddha we had seen in Sri Lanka. The temple also used to have murals. In 1949 however, some people were commissioned to reproduce the murals after a long day, one painter left his electric heater on and left the temple. This sadly started a fire, which burnt or damaged most of the historic murals. As we passed through, we entered a hall where we saw the place where debates were said to take place between students/scholars of the time and in that moment I felt like world had suddenly become so trivial, obsessed with fleeting trifles.

We then headed to the museum where we were able to see a number of historical artifacts, murals and statues. One of the interesting things was the mural at the entrance of the museum. The clothes that the Japanese wore back then, look nothing than what we consider Japanese traditional clothes, but looked rather Pakistani/Indian – down to the Khussa like shoes they were wearing. The only notable difference was their hairstyle- hair done in loops at the cheeks. Definitely not a lasting fashion trend. Another interesting thing was the large golden statue of Buddha, in which his face looks like it has different expressions, depending on the angle from which you look at it. I think I was a bit embarrassed to try scrutinizing the statue since there were people coming in to offer their prayers as well.

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Heading to the museum

Outside the museum, on the way to the exit is a souvenir shop/rest area with two very important things – air conditioning and vending machines with Calpis – the non-official official national drink of Japan-a great way to re-energize after a long walk. We were supposed to head back for dinner but decided we had enough time on our hands to go to Teramachi street a large outdoor, yet indoor-feeling, shopping area.

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Remembering our rendez-vous locations

There are all sorts of shops on this street selling fans, shoes, clothes, books, mangas, anime, cute socks, bags.. you name they have it. The also have a number of restaurants, a cinema, games areas and of course… pachinko. I would stay away from the pachinko though because there are much better ways to spend your time and your money here. We ended up shopping for Converse shoes here which turned out to be insanely cheaper than in Dubai (again, how is Japan expensive?!) so we ended up buying 3. My other purchase was a traditional wooden stamp. There was an entire store dedicated to stamps and because I don’t have any Kanji for my name, I just ended up buying a goldfish stamp because I felt I should take back a souvenir for them too! ^^

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Because that’s how much I ❤ my fish

We headed back to the rendezvous location with sensei one minute ahead of schedule, only to find no one there and no bus to boot. We wondered if we had come the right way and eventually ended up calling the tour guide who told us that they had tried to make it easier for us by parking right in front of the exit. -_- In our rush, we had walked right past the bus and to our rendezvous location. Note to self- Things change. Keep eyes open.

Dinner was at a Moroccan place called La Baraka and oddly enough I’d never tried Moroccan food before. This trip to Japan was becoming a trip of many firsts. The food was really good, but after we though we were done, we were told that there was another course yet to come… a much bigger course. While we couldn’t eat another bite, we did enjoy the amazing Sulaimani tea which reminded me of the tea back home at Chicken Tikka Inn. Matcha vs Sulaimani – Sulaimani wins 😛

We headed back to the hotel ready for a night of packing since we were going to head out to Tokyo on Day 4… on the Shinkansen. Another first ❤

Stay tuned for Day 4

Journey to Japan- Day 3 Part 1

Day 3. I woke up early again, but the exhaustion was creeping up so I woke up later than usual…at 7.30am. If you know my regular routine you will admit this is a stretch for me ^^ We were slated to cover three more temples during the day, and the day promised to be a hard hitting 35C with humidity reaching 80%. That didn’t do much to dissuade me since I was all set, a small electric fan in hand, hat on head and the promise of vending machines at every corner.

We started in Kyoto heading to the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. It was a considerable walk to get to the shrine, since buses aren’t allowed to park just anywhere. So we got off, crossed two railroad tracks (very exciting!) and walked past rows of shops before reaching the main gate.

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My first train track crossing

The shrine is famous for its 1000 bright orange gates leading all the way up Mount Inari, and a main hall flanked by foxes. Each of the gates, as I later discovered, have been donated by people so each gate bears the name of the person or business who donated it. It takes a couple of hours to reach the top of the mountain where we were assured there were fabulous views of the city. Being pressed for time though, we enjoyed walking through two sets of gates and after a much needed refreshment break of water and Oronamin C, we headed back down to the shopping area.

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Starting our journey at Mount Inari

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More stunning architecture

There are all sorts of souvenirs you can there but the most popular by far are fox-themed souvenirs since that’s what makes this temple special, the fox being a messenger of the Inari god.

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Every fox has something different in its mouth. Guess what he has. ^^

As we headed back some people even tried Inari sushi- sushi for the masses ^^. Before we could reach the train crossing to go back, we were faced with a massive crowd of people waiting for the crossing to open- which it didn’t for quite some time. At first we thought there had been some sort of accident on the tracks, but luckily it was only a case of impatient people trying to cross quickly by pressing the emergency stop, which meant the rest of us had to wait till all crossings were checked and reopened. The wait was not as bad as the heat was and I realized the electric fan was nowhere near as effective as the regular hand fan. So not making this mistake again! To further complicate things, we realized that not all the group had managed to make it back to the bus and so had to stand outside in the heat, as this particular bus stop had a no engines running policy. I think we should been smart enough to walk to Lawson’s to stay cool, but we weren’t so we just waited till everyone showed up which they did eventually. At this point I realized that there are only 3 things you need to survive a Japanese summer – a hand fan, a bottle of water and a small hand towel. Voila- you have a make-shift cooling unit. ^^

Our next stop was Nara, about an hour or so away where we were going to visit the Todai-ji Temple situated in Nara Park also known as the deer park. I’d never seen deer up close before so I was really excited. The deer although wild, are used to being fed and petted by visitors. When feeding, we were warned though, not to spoil their habits by simply giving them food. Instead we were to make them work for their food by getting them to bow politely 3 times, which they surprisingly do if you just ask them to! We got to see the deer lazing around in the shade right at the entrance of the park all the way to the main gate of the temple. I realized that the deer are already pretty spoilt and would just walk up to you, nuzzle you looking up with their big watery eyes asking for a treat. Really, how can you say no?

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Deeeeeeeeeeeeeer! Yes, I was excited ^^

We managed to remind ourselves that the deer were not the highlight of the visit (or maybe they were ^^), but rather the temple, which is the biggest wooden structure in the world and one of the oldest. As we walked towards the temple we passed through the main gate, known as the Nandaimon Gate (narrowly avoiding stepping on a large stag with massive antlers) flanked on either side by massive statues of guardians which are, along with the temple, considered National Treasures.

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Looking up at the gate and narrowly avoiding stepping on a stag

At the first glimpse of the temple, I was simply in awe. The structure is not only massive, but beautiful with immaculately manicured gardens on either side as well. What’s even more amazing is that this structure is only two-third’s of the original size, having been rebuilt several times following fires and earthquakes.

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The largest wooden structure in the world

This temple houses the statue of Buddha, commissioned by the emperor in the mid-700s. The statue is about 15-20m in height, an imposing figure, which was built mostly by the Chinese, who had the skill, at the time, in metalwork to make such a big statue. The statue is so big that a small child can fit through its nostril, a feat we saw being attempted, successfully, by many small children squirming their way through a hole in a pillar the size of the nostril. I passed on attempting it, despite promises of good luck and such, for fear that I would get embarrassingly stuck inside.

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The imposing statue of Buddha

As we walked out the temple, we came across a number of small souvenir shops, but there was one souvenir that our sensei showed us that proved to be my favourite souvenir throughout my trip. It’s a small vending machine, with different coins that you can buy, each featuring some view of the temple or park. Not only can you buy the coin, but can have it engraved with your name or any other message that will fit, along with the date, for a bumper price of 30 yen. Oh, and you can fit it in a keychain too. After such an epic souvenir, I was beginning to think that whoever told us Japan was expensive was lying.

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Souvenir from Nara

We returned to the bus famished and ready for our next Japanese lunch at Matsumotoya, situated right next to the Horyu-Ji Temple.

Stay tuned for Day 3 Part 2