Published: May 13th 2012April 26th 2012
I have to admit that one main reason I decided to go to Japan this time is the ohh so tempting straight flight from Boston to Tokyo that JAL is initiating with their brand new 787 Dreamliner planes from Boeing. In all my travels I dread layovers specially long haul flights and this will be a chance for me to be on a brand new spanking jet!
Check in was a bit slow at terminal E at Logan, the check in staff always apologising ,it's the maiden voyage we are still working out the kinks, while waiting my turn I heard some commotion behind us and it was the flight stewardesses having photos taken with the Minutemen dudes all costumed up and ready for the media, I did not realize how big this event was! At the counter they happily checked me in through to Osaka , from Tokyo I will use my Yokoso fare to connect to Itami(Osaka).
As I walked past the security checks I was given a free gift bag from the duty free shops, with a discount card to use for purchase at duty free so I avail of it and bought some real nice
quality Bourbon for my host in Kyoto,while browsing around one of the staff approached me and asked me how to say hello in Japanese, I said I guess kunichiwa? How about this, and that.. I stopped him, dude I ain't Japanese I haven't a clue! He seemed surprised but at least he left me be. Boy this early I am already mistaken for Japanese, reminds me of my time in Central Asia and Middle East when all the kids yelling kunichiwas to me as I walk around, to them any Asian person is Japanese perhaps..
There was a big speech at the gate and media is abuzz, I guess all the top execs at JAL is here, free snack and all, all the ceremonies I can take, it really seems it's such a big event for JAL, after the bout with bankruptcy and all I wish them the best this time. half an hour before the flight departs the show is over and it was announced boarding will commence soon, that's when trouble began. One announcement after the other telling us half hour more, and more and more, the passengers started moaning and groaning, delayed an hour we finally
boarded, turns out they are doing some maintenance check on the plane, which made me wonder why they did not do while all the glittery inauguration ceremony was going on!
Finally boarded,oh they again gave us some more free gift as we go on the plane, the rain started pounding the plane outside while inside is all brand spanking new plane, 2-4-2 was the seat arrangement, soon as I sat down I concluded that the seats are a bit cramped not like the 747s,but there is more head space, the ceiling is high and the window's tint can be adjusted with a push of a button turning to a dark hue of blue all the way to the dark end. The lavatories are neat and a bit more space, so overall not bad. 12 something hours to Asia, the flight pattern shows us flying over the Arctic Canada all the way to northern Asia. Soon as we are airborne I turned on the entertainment system which was so so, movies are limited I was a bit disappointed, the A380 has better selection(Emirates, Cathay Pacific). I decided to just booze it up and fall asleep.
my CS host's place
sleeping area, 3 of us fit there
a long story short we arrived at Narita an hour late and I was a bit worried as my connecting leaves in an hour , then as we were waiting to alight one passenger behind us was making his way to the front announcing his connecting is in half an hour, goodluck to you sir! we all sympathized. Immigration counter queue was long(damn it!) and I have to go back the end of the line as I did not have the entry form, I guess I was passed out when they handed it out on the plane. Almost half an hour till the connecting leaves I was next in line, but the officer was taking so much time with this Chinese woman in front of me, asking more proof perhaps, she flips through her purse, he pulls out a manual for her to read, crap I am dead meat, I will miss my flight period! Do a secondary just like they do in America!( I silently cuss under my breath) finally my turn and all he asks is how long I will be in Japan, stamped me in and done in 3 minutes.
Grabbed my backpack from the carousel
my host Toshi, making okonomiyaki
and ran my way out of customs, Went up another floor to the domestic flights, as I do that I bumped into one of the stewardess from our flight, she asked if I need help, yes I yelled, where do I dump my baggage? Pointed straight, that way!! I ran and of course I queued up the wrong line, me and this dude from my flight, a soldier is trying to check in for Okinawa, we both ran to the right counter(Economy) and made it with just maybe 25 minutes left! Stressed out and panting I welcomed myself to Japan..
They were boarding when I arrived at my gate, and what do you know despite all the aggravation,we spent an hour in the tarmac waiting to fly, Narita is super congested, as usual....I passed out so did not matter, arriving at Itami(Osaka), Took money out from ATM then I pulled out the instructions I printed on how to get to Kyoto, 1st buy your bus ticket at the automated ticketing machine, darn signs are all in Japanese! I yelled out Kyoto, pointing to the machine, one dude realized I am foreigner and took his time and helped me out,
their living room/dining area
this one, put your money in, Kyoto! pointing to the bus that is just arriving, I thanked him profusely, turns out he is going there too with his buddies. I sat down and I heard them at the back chuckling, gaijin they announced, yup they are talking about me.
Bus trip took about an hour, and luck would have it at the Kyoto station they left us off on the wrong stop! I mistimed it I should have been on the following bus after this from Itami where it stops right near the Kyoto tower! As before I seek out help from sympathetic local, I followed one guy that got off from the bus and told him I need to get to the tower, poor fellow he must not be from here but with his iphone he googled it and told me to follow him and led me all the way to the tower, how hospitable are these people?!
Meeting point at Starbucks below the Kyoto tower at 9pm, that is my arrangement with my couchsurfing host Toshi. I was half hour early, ordered tea and sat looking out for Mr. Toshi, I pulled out my netbook, no
wifi, darn!but what do you know , 10 minutes later I saw him pacing outside with the orange rain jacket he said he would wear, he saw me and he flashed this big wide smile and entered the coffee house, gave me a big hug and then told me he is very hungry, what do you want to eat for dinner? Japanese! I blurted out, any kind! We then took the train to the Nijo stop from Kyoto station, the area where he lives.
Toshi took me to this eatery where the dish goes around in a carousel and you pick what you want and in the end they count the plates you took. He made tea and told me how it works, him showing me by trying to grab a plate, but he could not open the dome covering to grab the dish, which to me was quite funny, it got comical as he frustrates himself trying to open the contraption to no avail, plate after plate whizz by and his attempt was futile, him muttering in Japanese and in deep thought trying to solve the puzzle that befall him. Apologizing he announced they changed it!
yeah right Toshi they did! all the while bursting in fits of laughter.
We finally got through dinner,just pressing the button a certain way will release the plate, we figured that out, eventually. Once done you feed the plates down this shoot on the table and a recepit is printed out and then you take it to the counter to pay. We walked about 15 minutes to his humble place, it is now about 11pm, the streets are all quiet, one thing I noticed is how clean they are, hardly any rubbish, down an alleyway we finally arrived, he shares his flat with a good friend, Taisuke, I call him Tai for short, they have a small place no bigger than my own room and toilet combined,a sink here, kitchen there, small cubicle bathroom there, somehow as compact as it is it worked.
Toshi lays out the futon and sheets in the living room/dining room area, this is where we sleep he announced, and where do I sleep? with us! you sleep in the middle! Which was not a problem with me, in all my years of backpacking I've encountered all sorts of sleeping arrangements, and this actually
seems more luxurious than others. I am severely jetlagged, and I keep tossing and turning, well much as I could on a tight space, I turn left or right and I am face to face with either one of them, which made me chuckle, I have to try the capsule hotels later on this trip..
Morning came and I walked to the train station with Toshi, we meet up again tonight at 8pm at the Nijo station, he goes to work and I head for Arashiyama. At the Kyoto station I headed to the JR ticket office to claim my JR pass then off to family mart to buy one of those Bento lunch thingos, they are quite good and will form my regular food staple for the rest of my stay in Japan, I like the concept, a main dish then lots of side dishes, a little bit of this and that, makes for an enjoyable meal.
Went up to one of the staff at the entrance gate to the trains and asked how I get to my destination, they told me to take a ticket at the vending machine and told me the price, which you
need to know when you claim and pay for your ticket stub.
Off I go, it was still early when I got there, I walked around and found the famous bamboo forest, nice place to walk around, some temples here and there, I did not go in on any of these, I feel still templed out after years of going seeing mosques, churches, temples, looking from the outside is good enough for me plus there is entrance fee on almost every temple! made my way near the river front sat for lunch under a cherry blossom tree, the pink kind apparently there are different varieties. There are these guys hauling tourists around in a carriage for a price, man you should see their legs, you must be really well built to carry that much weight I guess, I reckon horses are a no no as they crap everywhere and they don't want Kyoto smelling like horse shit all over!
Back at Kyoto station It's only past noon so I decided to head to Higashiyama to check out the area, took the bus, I was told last stop! Falling in and out of sleep, I reckon we arrived when
everybody got off, I followed the crowd, it is a busy area, I found directions to some temple which everyone seems to want to go, I contemplated whether it was worth it, oh what the heck get in! Ginkaku- ji is the name of the sight, with gardens, raked sand, and old temples and houses and tons of middle schoolers on a trip, such is my luck! I have to duck group photo sessions amidst the screaming and schreeching which teenagers do, I made my way out as quickly as I got in, then headed to a more peaceful place, the Tetsugaku-no-Michi(Path of Philosophy), nice creek runs through it and some cherry blossoms still in show, huge carp fishes in the water, a nice 30 minute walk and I got to the end and backtracked to get back to my bus stop, well that was my day!
Back at Kyoto station I browsed around the Isetan(?)mall and checked out the freaky food they sell, squids and octopus, among other things,yummy!I have an hour before I meet up with Toshi so tired and exhausted I sat down on one of the benches and fell asleep in full view of shoppers,
wiping my drool I got up and headed to Nijo station, precisely at 815pm I met Toshi, he was on the same train as me I was sat and he was behind me standing in the aisle, why did you not come up to me I asked? Coz you were sleeping, he says with a big grin.
Tonight he offered to cook okonomiyaki so we bought his ingredients, whipped up a storm in the small kitchen, and we feasted on his delicious creation. Then around 10pm he decided we will visit the Funaoka sento nearby, 15 minute walk, so I can experience my first sento in Japan. This dude relies on his iphone heavily to get around, out with a google map we go through "short cut" alleyways and very quiet streets, I complained it's taking forever to get there, does he actualy know where it is? he gave me that mischievous look and said I know how to get there because I have the map, what if I run and leave you here in the dust, how do you get back home? I answered back, I will take his iphone from him or jump on his back! he
grinned, meanwhile I tried to keep pace with him in case he does run away from me!
The Funaoka sento is a family run place, only locals were there, we took shoes off and put in a locker, of course I misplaced my key right off the batt, it was in my back pocket, Toshi though chuckling, giving me the "don't embarass me here" look!Surrendered it to the check in guy, we bought small towels, I brought soap. We walked in on the men's section, everything off , I mean you gotta be butt naked, and lock your belongings in the locker. I sheepishly follow Toshi to the bathing/cleaning area and he told me do as I do. Rinsing, soaping ourselves while seated down on a stool to avoid spraying the other patrons , we can now use the many baths inside, differing temperatures from 40 c to 43 c, there is even an electric bath! and a cold bath and steam and sauna, and garden bath outside too! cool place! Soon as I immersed myself on this 40 c pool all my tiredness from that day left me, I just want to fall asleep at that instant! But
wait there's more to check out, I went in the sauna room and lo and behold, the guys there are watching baseball! yup there is tv in the sauna!! these guys are genius, now why don't we have them in my local gym sauna back home??
After checking out all amenities they have we got ready to leave, in the changing room while all the men were in various stages of undress, this old woman probably the matriarch, came in with a clothes hamper and started tidying up! No qualms no hesitations,just going about her business, some young dudes trying to discreetly cover their jewels, please, this woman have probably seen it all! this reminds me of this excellent banya we went to in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, same thing in the men's locker, women attendants clean the place, taking towels away, tidying up while the Russian and Kyrgyz men lounge around in their birthday suit, some sleeping on benches with nay a towel to cover their family jewels!!Do that in America and let's see what happens..
Back at Toshi's we caught up with Tai and together we had a few rounds of the fine bourbon whiskey I
gave them, mixed with ginger ale, very good! Same sleeping arrangements, this time I managed to get off the middle position and camped on the corner. Needless to say it was some fine sleep aided by the whiskey. Toshi is off today and he is taking me around Kyoto! First we have to do his laundry then breakfast, donburi, oh so great! He ordered something where you crack open an egg in the bowl with rice, mix it and then eat it. raw?? I balked, yes it's the Japanese way he says without blinking an eye. hmmm...
Off to town first to the Nishiki market where you see all the weird stuff that comes from the sea this was my favorite, and free tasting of pickled veggies!! to die for, I was in pickle heaven! we had squid balls too, ok balls filled with squid parts..it was nasty hot and Toshi showed me how to properly eat, you put the intensely hot balls in your mouth(sounds kinky but it's not!) and occasionally blow as you roll it around your tongue trying to cool it, then take a bite and start all over again, seeing him grimacing,I decided to pick
it apart then eat it!
From there we walked around some more until we got to the Geisha hang out area of Gion, we stalked the area for awhile hoping to catch a glimpse of the famed geisha to no avail, we came back 3 times at different hours, nothing! I saw some women walking around in kimonos, geisha! I pointed excitedly, Toshi just rolls his eyes, no they're not, geishas wear white make up and made up hair! We eventually gave up and walked around some more to places I cannot even bother to remember the names of districts. Lunch was at this small cool restaurant serving noodles and tempura, delicious! Later I have to use the bathroom so up I came to this very nice and clean toilet on the 2nd floor, holy cow, heated seats! and push button console, wow how extravagant! I started to play with the buttons like a little kid, all in Japanese and not paying attention to the pictures, I did not realize this particular seat has different bidet settings, and needless to say at some point I tried to wash something that I do not have!! and I don't know how
to stop it, sat there for a good 5 minutes waiting for the spray to end!! I figured it out in time before Toshi gets worried what's taking me so long, he nearly fell on his seat laughing his hearts out while I describe what happened to me in the toilet.
In the late evening we came to Arashiyama area to do a small hike up the hill to see the city of Kyoto lit up into the night, the hike was a good half hour, a bit steep, Toshi proudly says it's not popular with tourists, it's his secret area, where he will bring future coushsurfers. Indeed the view was nice but we have to wait almost 2 hours to get dark to see the lights on, then have to scramble down in the dark and only his cell phone to light up the now slippy path! have I known I could have brought my head torch with me.
Kenji my good friend, whom I met couple years before while hiking in Borneo happens to be in Kyoto as well doing some work and wishes to meet up so we, after another session at the Funaoka sento/onsen
tried to catch the train to town. At the sento I nearly walked in to the wrong room, oops! Toshi yelling to me keep left! why?? how was I supposed to know they change sides everyday, now the men's section is to the left, I must recognize the character or the blue flag hanging, duh! Had a quick dinner and beers with him as we need to make the last train back, here in Japan train stops by midnight! We almost did not meet him, our arrangement was to meet at the entrance of the subway station, we probably passed him as I did not recognize him and so did he of me, he looks trimmer and smarter looking, well last I saw him we were all scruffy and dirty trying to climb that damn Pinnacles at Mulu national park.
The next day it was rainy and decided to do a day trip to Osaka taking the JR Kyoto line, it was about an hour trip, and once on the train I tried to strike up a conversation with this guy sat next to me, wanting to re assure myself, I blurted this train is to Osaka
right? he speaks to me in Japanese, I asked again, answers in Japanese again, I stared at him and gave up, I guess he's not having it today, if I can't speak his tongue too bad, he ain't accomodating me, fair enough, I just made sure I don't fall asleep and miss my stop which happens to be the last one anyway. Chaos greeted me at the station, OMG this is way busier than Kyoto, I have to calm down and get my bearings with the help of a map and a kind lady at the information desk which hardly could speak a word of English but is quite cute so I flirted a little bit. I had a walk around the Osaka station area, oh what huge buildings, people streaming down every directions, I just enjoyed people watching and checking out what they have in restaurants.
This was my last night with the boys and Toshi took me to his favorite ramen place and once again tried to teach me how to eat it the right way, well the Japanese way. It was raining and a perfect time for a soup and noodles, apparently this place is very
popular, but space is tight, I have to fit my daypack in front of my stool as we sit in the counter, noticing my struggle, Toshi took upon himself to put away my pack, he grabbed it and lay it on the bench next to the door, 5 feet away from us, seeing my worried look, he assures me don't worry this is Japan no one will steal your pack. I stood up and picked it up right away, I believe you I said but all that is important to me is in that bag, I lose it then I am screwed!
So 2 bowls came with the order, one containing the broth and the other the ramen noodles, you're supposed to take your noodles then dip it, or let it swim a bit in the broth then you slurp it out straight to your mouth, I nearly gagged the 1st time I tried it and my face was smeared with broth from all the slurping, you will make a sound as you try to cool the noodles the same time you slurp it down, after a few tries I gave up and did it the old fashion way,
my way. All this was amusing to my host and he said to me, don't worry my 1st surfer failed the slurping test as well.
There are more photos below