seeing the emperor

Up until a week ago, I worked in a beautiful right by the Imperial Palace and I had a lovely view of the palace grounds. I have wandered over that direction more than a few times during a lunch break, but you can only access so much of the area for 363 days out of the year. However, on two days each year, the palace grounds open and it is possible to visit the interior AND actually get a glimpse of the Emperor himself, along with the rest of the Imperial Family: the 2nd of January (New Year) and the 23rd of December (the Emperor’s birthday).

line to see the emperor

Yes, those are all people to the left of the mote.

Not sure whether I would be here for either in future years and having been in Hong Kong on the Emperor’s birthday, I decided I would visit the grounds on the 2nd of January this year. I actually went into work that day (normally a holiday) and was astounded by the number people lined up to go into the grounds.

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Appearances happen four times throughout the morning (from 9-2) and, like any good, Japanese event, people wait patiently in line and then move right along when the time comes. My friends, CoyLou and Ian,  met me by my office and we headed over around 11 am. And in true Japanese form, we were ushered right along, no time to waste.

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It really was to amazing to see all of these people gathered to see the Emperor (who was behind a wall of bullet proof glass). It was fun to be a part of this and to see all of the flags waving (which they handed out as we went in) and to be waving a flag myself.

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And then, it was over. A little anti-climatic perhaps, but still worth going.

mochitsuki

The second Monday in January was a holiday in Japan. My friends, who know lots about Japan since they’ve been there longer than I have, invited me to go to a mochitsuki with them at a temple near their apartment (and my new apartment!). As a lover of mochi and Japanese traditions, I was super excited about this. So, even though I woke up to horrible weather (including snow!), I was still excited to venture out.

There are several temples where we could have gone to see this tradition, but because this one was so small, we were the only gaijin there. And as we were it, everyone was super excited to have us be a part of things. It was amazing. We got to pound the rice. We got to roll mochi balls. We got to take a tour of the temple and were taught a traditional prayer. It was incredible.
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Holiday in Japan = Sake!

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playing tour guide in tokyo

Just a few quick highlights of the part of the trip when my cousin was in Tokyo because I am trying desperately to get caught up.

Christmas, as I mentioned, was a Karaoke Christmas. Before that, we also joined my friends for a lovely dinner at an American military place (I cannot remember the name of it for the life of me). It was amazing. And included Diet Coke.
And then, the day after Christmas, we went and saw Les Miserables. Or in Japanese (spelled American style), Ray Meezahrahburu. I’m not going to give you my review of the movie other than to say I enjoyed it thoroughly for what it was, a cinematic interpretation of an operetta written for the stage. What I do want to share is our funny experience trying to get to the movie.
We had been at my friend’s house which is exactly in the wrong place to get to the movie theater in a hurry. Too close to take the train, but a far enough walk that we weren’t going to make it. So, we hopped in a cab. Cabs, as you may or may not know, are not really my thing in Japan. I’m getting better, but it’s still hard.
So, I told the cab driver (really, I should say taxi driver because there’s nothing “cab driver” like about these drivers) we wanted to go to Roppongi Hills Cinema. Well, really I said “Roppongi Hiruzu Cinema”. The taxi drive repeated Roppongi Hiruzu, but didn’t understand the “cinema”. I knew it was the same word in Japanese, but I doubted myself when he couldn’t understand me. And repeated myself multiple times thinking that the next time he’d magically understand what I was saying even though I was saying it exactly the same way as the previous time.
And then I paused and thought, “How would this be written in Japanese?” and it clicked. So I then said “Roppongi Hiruzu Sheenayma” and the driver, in excitement, says, “Oh, sheenayma!” and all was well in the universe. Have I mentioned lately how much I love Japan. It’s not the easiest place to live for a white girl who doesn’t speak the language, but it sure is a fun adventure.

On Thursday we went to Meiji Shrine. I’ve posted a lot about this place before, so I didn’t take a lot of photos, but it was nice to visit. We barely made it in time, but it was enough for Tanya to see it. And then we headed down to Shibuya (crazy intersection place). Along the way, we passed this shoe store and Tanya suggest we go inside. Big mistake.

While it was Tanya’s idea to go in, I’m the one that was trying on shoes. I couldn’t help myself. I figured I wouldn’t be able to fit in shoes in Japan as the Japanese are just smaller than Americans in general. But, lo and behold, my feet that happen to be just a little on the small side given my height can fit into the largest Japanese shoe size (at least that can easily be found in a store. And so I walked away with these beauties.

Not only are my own trips/vacations expensive for me, but when others are on vacation with me, they’re expensive for me, too. But totally worth it!

Later that night we were wandering around Roppongi and walked by this pet store, which had a number of little monkeys for sale. Let’s just say I was tempted…if it hadn’t have been for the price tag.

And the requisite trip to Tokyo Tower. We got there at the perfect time. The end of daylight, so Tanya was able to see the city during the day, during sunset, and all lit up. To top it off, it was an amazingly clear day so we were also able to see Mt. Fuji.

And then, after getting home, we decided to make a little visit to Don Quijote, this amazing super store just around the corner from me. This is it’s own experience for so many reasons (not the least of which is the food they cell). In fact, I think it could be considered a crash course in Tokyo culture. I’ve been there many times (they have everything–think Japanese Kmart) and I’m pretty used to the weirdness that is Tokyo, but this one caught even me off guard. And I could not stop laughing. I mean, it was just amazing.

The following day (I think) we headed out to Shinjuku to meet my friends for dinner at my new favorite restaurant in all of Tokyo, this little gyoza place that is amazing and so cheap. All they do is gyoza (aka pot-stickers or dumplings). Tanya wasn’t super happy about the smoking in the restaurant that was happening. Coming from California where you can’t smoke anywhere (and where, apparently, there are PSAs encouraging you to tell smokers that they are giving you cancer) it was a bit of an adjustment for her. I don’t like it, but clearly I’ve gotten used to it.

After dinner we wandered around Shinjuku and did some shopping. We found ourselves in what we thought was a regular department store, but come to find out it was the regular department store’s “special styles” store. To say it was interesting would be a total understatement. Unfortunately, I got busted for taking this photo, so I didn’t get any other ones. But, I think this one is pretty awesome.

The departments in this store? You can check them out here. Worth the visit.

And then, as we continued walking, we saw these. I’ve seen pictures of them before, but it was my first time seeing them life. Tokyo is a weird place. Basically, you can rent these and sit in the chair (see the chair?) and then…I don’t know what. And I haven’t researched it further because I’m not sure I want to know what.

On Friday, we headed out to Yokohama (a little farther actually) to visit our grandparents’ home when they lived here in the ’70s. It was pretty awesome to see it. It was clearly abandoned, so we did a little exploring. Apparently, it has changed quite a bit, according to my aunt, but it was still cool to see their house.

And because we were already out that way, we took the opportunity to visit Chinatown in Yokohama. One of the biggest in the world and definitely the cleanest.

There were a number of very cool temples there. And tons of food, but neither of us was hungry and we had dinner plans.

On Saturday, we headed out to Asakusa to go to the Edo museum. Which turned out to be closed. New Year’s is a serious thing around these parts and things close down for the entire week. But it wasn’t a total loss. We got to see the temple (which I had yet to visit) and experience Tokyo at it’s holiday finest (i.e. crowds of people everywhere.

We also wandered through part of Ueno Park–another first for me–and saw this woman feeding the birds. We might have both started singing tuppence a bag.

And Saturday night we went to a fancy dinner for Tanya’s 25th birthday and it was so good and so fun (minus the taxi experience getting there…I’ve never had a Tokyo taxi driver flat out refuse me service, but that’s what happened. But I was stubborn and won and so we got the angriest ride I’ve ever had in my life. If there had been any other option.

Sunday was T’s last day in Tokyo (and it was only part of a day). We went to the Sony Center (which was pretty cool) and then wandered around Matsuya for a bit. I had no idea there was a food hall in the basement. Kind of a painful discovery.

We got Tanya a piece of cake, since she hadn’t had actual cake on her birthday, and she shoved it in her face before we had to Tokyo Station to get her on the Narita Express to the airport.

The End
 
Coming up…a job offer, apartment hunting, and a mochitsuki.

maples and roses

No time to write a real post, but I just have to share these amazing photos from my adventures out and about in Tokyo a few weeks ago. Yes, a few weeks. I’m so behind!

I had heard about and seen photos of the fall colors in Japan, but I hadn’t had time to get out and see them for myself and I was worried I was going to miss them. So the Saturday after Thanksgiving (which was an absolutely gorgeous day) I decided it was time to be a tourist again in my own city.

I consulted the Top 10 Tokyo book I borrowed from my friend, CoyLou, and set off to see what I could see in Bunkyo-ku, one of the wards north of me where there are a couple of big parks.

**Note: these photos are not in order because my computer is having issues and I don’t have the patience to reorder them. Also, I haven’t edited any of them…partly because I want to share them untouched, but mostly because I have no desire to spend more time on my computer than I necessary.**

My first stop was Rikugi-en. It did not disappoint!

The light in the park was absolutely perfect. And I had lots of fun playing with it.

Possibly my favorite photo from the entire day. 

When I took this, I thought it looked like I was standing on some fake fall set of a T.V. show, but it wasn’t. Just this beautiful, mossy knoll, covered in leaves, with a ray of sunlight shining down.

Koi. Huge koi. My older brother would have been very jealous.

Playing with shadows.

Playing with sunlight.

Following Rikugi-en, I headed down the street to Kyu-Furukawa Gardens. I had read about the beautiful rose gardens and grounds of this western-style mansion, but assumed I would not be seeing roses so late in November. I was happy to discover I was mistaken. The rose garden was incredible.

I share this picture not because of the fall foliage or the grounds, but the Bo Peep.  A common sight in various parts of  Tokyo, but kind of random here. 

A beautiful stone staircase in a hidden part of the grounds. The sunlight peeking through was stunning.

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Rio Samba Rose

As I was getting ready to leave the park (again, photos not in order), I happened upon this little concert that was just starting. The kokyū musician was playing Disney songs with recorded, orchestral accompaniment. I can’t lie. It was pretty magical.

The audience collected on the lawn and this was our view. I would have loved to have performed on a stage like this back in my singing days. Talk about a great backdrop. 

Blue Light Rose…maybe my favorite.

So basically, autumn in Tokyo was even more vibrant and breathtaking than I’d heard, seen, or even imagined. I don’t think that there’s a tree out there that can hold a candle to a Japanese maple (or 紅葉 / もみじ / momiji in Japanese) in the fall and they are everywhere here. And then you add roses, and well, it’s pretty much perfect.

That said, I do hope that I get to stick around here through the spring because I’m sure that the photos don’t do that justice either.

kyoto – day two (east and west)

I don’t know if there’s anything better than the quiet of the early morning, seeing a city come to life in the glow of the sun as it starts coming over the mountains. I was so happy I headed out early on my second day in Kyoto so I could do just that.

I had a very “American” breakfast (ketchup?) at a lovely outdoor cafe where I was able to watch the city as it woke up. And the toast was delicious. I hadn’t realized how much I had been missing bread until it was put in front of me all toasty warm and covered in butter.

After breakfast, I wandered through the rest of the streets on the east side of the city–the ones I hadn’t been able to get to the night before–on my way to Kiyomizu-dera. There were also a number of other neat things I got to see along the way.

The driver thought he could make this corner. He was wrong.

Not sure what this is, but it was pretty, so I took a photo.

Also not sure what temple this is. But it was also pretty.

Singing (chanting?) monks were walking down this little street about 50 feet apart. There were about five of them. I couldn’t have planned it better.

Loved these stairs up the hill…and all the shops along the side. 
Just a little garden I popped into.

The entrance to Kiyozumi-dera.

The view from the temple.

It was a busy day here. Can’t imagine how crazy it will be in another month.

From across the valley.

I stopped to take a little break at this lovely park.

After the rest of my adventures on the east side, I headed back to the hotel to grab my bag and go to the train station to store it in a locker before heading to the west side. Very convenient, those lockers at the train stations. And, unlike airports, train stations are typically very central, so it didn’t take too much extra time.

At this point, I had spent more time wandering (and shopping) than I’d intended, so I knew I wasn’t going to get to everything I’d had planned. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to Kinkaku-ji (the Temple of the Golden Pavilion). I’d seen post card pictures of it around town and it just looked like a little much. But it is one that all the tour books and anyone I spoke to said I needed to see, so I went. Totally worth it. The post cards do not do it justice.

After that, I wandered down to the Zen temple Ryoan-ji, which is famous for its gardens. Along the way, I finally figured out what smelled so good as I had been wandering through the city: these little blossoms. There’s nothing like a happy scent to add to a perfect atmosphere.

The gardens were every bit as amazing as the books promised. Seriously stunning.

Japanese Maples are probably my most favorite tree. We had them in our backyard growing up, so they remind me of that. And they are just gorgeous. I’d never seen such big ones, though, as the ones in Kyoto.

And with that, I was out of time. Not knowing how long I’d have to wait for the bus and judging by how long it had taken to get to this part of town from the station, I decided better safe than sorry. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss my train.

There was so much I didn’t see that I still want to see. And the city just has this amazing vibe. I loved it (in case it wasn’t obvious). So, I will definitely be back. Plus, it was pretty cool to ride the bullet train down there.