Monday, August 3rd
So, after 2 museums and two temples and a lot of walking and sweating on Sunday, I just relaxed at home on Monday and read. I’d include a picture of the place and the book, but the book was the beginning of the book I included last review (Old Man’s War), and the place was my room at the Airbnb, which was nice enough, but nothing to write home about. Well, I guess I am writing home about it. So, let no one say I don’t go above and beyond.
In truth, I was glad not to be going anywhere because I woke up with my nose a bit stuffy and my throat a bit soar from drainage. I soon concluded that it was the pillow, the same problem I’d had at Kenta’s place — I think I’m mildly allergic to something in memory foam. At Kenta’s, I wrapped the pillow in an extra towel and that was enough to pretty much eliminate the problem. At Liam’s, I mentioned the allergy to him and he came up with a couple of small couch pillows for me, and one of those was sufficient and solved the problem. So I sat, read Twitter, read book, etc., and that was the day.
Tuesday, August 4th
This was the day of my first tour, which was to start at 2:00pm. The meeting point was right next to the Kyoto rail station, and there’s a big tower mall that’s part of that complex, and I had a pamphlet from one of Sunday’s museums about an exhibit of supernatural art at another museum in the tower. So, I took the bus there at about 9:00, figuring to see the museum, look at the mall, have lunch there, and meet the tour at 1:45.
This is probably a good time to mention the mobile game Ingress, because not only was I playing it on the bus, a salary man in front of me was also playing it (but on the other team). And while I’m at it, I should mention Fallout, because Fallout and Ingress have been rather consuming these last few months, and they have Relevance.
Fallout first. A very few of you will know what this is, but I think you all know that I, and several of my friends and most of my family, play or have played Skyrim and/or its MMO variant The Elder Scrolls Online. Well, the company that created those, Bethesda, also makes a line of similar games set on a post-apocalyptic variant Earth, called Fallout. I’ve never played them, but I’ve watched them being played on Youtube and have grown rather fond of them. The setting is very clever: it’s basically, what if Disney’s vision of the future, as you would have seen it portrayed in cartoon newsreels, had faced nuclear armageddon in 2077 — about 200 years after the holocaust, your character steps out of on of the protected survival-shelter underground cities (for reasons that vary from one iteration of the game to the next) and has to survive, or complete a big quest, or do whatever in this new world filled with wastelands, ruined cities, dangerous mutants, and equally dangerous humans. I’ve not had the time nor really the inclination to play this series, but Fallout 4 was announced in June and, considering how good the writing in Skyrim and ESO is, I’ve decided to play it. It comes out on November 10th, a week before I return to the US. (Which will give me something to play on the long plane ride home.)
This is Relevant first because I expect to be doing rather a lot of that over the winter, so you may expect to see it mentioned again here. For good or ill, if you’re following what I’m doing in my travels, gaming is a pretty major part — even if I don’t mention it much from post to post. I mean, really, what would I be saying? “September 9th: Leveled my Bosmer Amras to Vet 5! Woo-hoo!” No. But it’s also relevant because a couple of weeks after that, Bethesda announced an iPhone/iPad game called Fallout Shelter — a Sim City style game where you manage and develop one of the iconic fallout shelter Vault communities — and I downloaded it and played it for many, many hours over several weeks until that terrible Mt Fuji tour when it suddenly stopped working. (It’s a known bug. There are ways to fix it, but they involve losing all of my progress, and there’s no guarantee it wouldn’t happen again. This made me sad 🙁 but was probably just as well. I was playing it a lot.)
After Fallout Shelter crashed, I turned to a Google Labs game called Ingress, which I’d downloaded to my iPhone last November but had never really played. Ingress is an online geolocation game — you go to significant places in the real world (based on the Google Maps database of such things), which in the game are shown as energy portals. You “hack” the portals to extract useful components and energy, and try to take them over for your team, and then link groups of 3 portals together to take over the included territories. There are two global teams — the Enlightened, who hope to use the portals’ energy to advance human evolution, and the Resistance, who fear the portals’ effects and want to control and contain them. There’s a whole fictional backstory behind all this, and the process of playing can get rather complex, but I heard about this last fall and thought it sounded perfect for what I’d be doing. You’re basically using the game as a reason to go all over the local area, see the landmarks (where the portals are based), and even meet other people on your team to perform joint operations (sometimes in groups of hundreds or thousands). There’s a bit about that in this Lifehacker article about the game, which mentions that there are over 7 million players around the world.
I started to try to learn it in December, but was getting nowhere because I was basically pulling it up at home and trying to use it, and you really have to be out and about to use it properly. Even the tutorials require walking around quite a bit. But every so often I’d come back to it, and Kyoto was where I started to play it in earnest. I’d be walking places, or riding the bus, and I’d pass these portals controlled by one team or the other, and try “hacking” them as I passed to extract energy or weapons or shields to use for portal takeovers or defense, and I really didn’t understand much of what I was doing but I was at least doing it. And I was able to complete the tutorials and figure it out more, and when I was on that bus ride on Tuesday I saw a guy in front of me playing it too (but for the other team), which was fun. (I didn’t reveal myself because, duh, the enemy!)
By the time I got back to Sapporo, I was playing much more aggressively, and often walking for hours to hit many different portals and try to improve my team’s control of the area. (I’m in the Enlightened group, in case anyone wondered. Obv.) It was great exercise, but also a weird conflict of purposes. In theory, you’re getting out and about and seeing things around you. In practice, it’s very easy to be out and about barely looking at anything except your phone screen, watching the game’s overlay on the real world, so I’ve been wrestling a bit with that dichotomy. But, honestly, just the incentive to be out more probably wins over everything else for me; what I do while I’m out is secondary.
So I played a *lot* of Ingress on the Kyoto buses.
(FYI, it was just announced that for 2016 Nintendo is joining with the Ingress team to make a Pokemon variation of it, where you travel to collect Pokemon and battle with them. Look, here’s my vein, just jack your sweet, sweet heroin right into it, thank you very much.)
So, by 10-ish I’d made it to the Kyoto Station and started wandering. This building is amazing, by the way.
I eventually made my way into the mall tower, the 11 story tower on the north side of the building, occupied by a major department store chain called Isetan, and the museum was a few rooms on the 7th floor. As usual, no pictures allowed, but it was all paintings and woodblock prints of classic Japanese monsters and horror stories, as shown on the front and back of the brochure:
The museum wasn’t large, but the art was great and it was air conditioned, so yay. I spent maybe an hour there, wandered the mall a bit more, and then headed to one of the food floors. There were a bunch of restaurants there, including a pricey Italian place; I picked a sushi place that had a bunch of old people sitting in a line at the door to get in. This nailed two of the generally good pieces of advice for dining: (1) eat where the locals eat, and (2) old people like bargains. So I got in line, and was soon seated at the sushi counter, where I pointed on the menu to a nice sake and a sushi platter that I’d seen on the placard at the front door. One of 4 sushi chefs, a guy who looked a bit like a Japanese Lurch, made mine for me and score 1 for the old people, because It. Was. Amazing. Quite possibly the best sushi I’ve ever had, though the excellent Kono sake may have influenced my reaction a little bit.
From there I made my way, fairly steadily, to the rendezvous point for the walking tour of Kyoto. The tour guide was a lady in her 30s named Tomo, and there were about 7 tourists, a group made more entertaining by a delightful midwestern mother, Michelle, and her 11 year old, very shy and awkward daughter, Lily, whom I managed to draw out a bit by asking if she liked anime. This was not a rocket science deduction: when you see a tween/teen Western girl in Japan, anime and manga are usually involved. She warmed up immediately and stopped looking mostly at her shoes, and it was nice to see her more engaged and comfortable in the group. It was also nice being able to escape being “an Old” by actually knowing the subject and being able to engage her intelligently, and the 3 of us had some very entertaining conversation during the tour which lasted about 4 hours.
I’ll repeat the Kyoto map from the last blog post, for reference:
[FYI, when you relink the same picture, WordPress includes its caption also, so some of this foreshadowing has now become backshadowing. Oh well, such is the way of things.]
[[FYAI, as I write this, my host Kenta has the news on and they’re showing the current volcanic eruption of Mt Aso down on the southern main island of Kyushu. In case you hear about it, I’m nowhere near; it would be like living in Toronto when something dangerous happens in Georgia. But, from Toronto, it looks super cool! However, the news is also showing that a typhoon much closer to here caused rather a bit of flooding, which I was quite unaware of. It’s just been some nice rain where I am.]]
[[[BTW (aka, Digression Part 3), I meant to mention this last post, but you may or may have noticed the little swastikas adorning that map of Kyoto. These indicate Buddhist temples and are not, as you might have supposed, shrines to the former Axis Powers alliance. The swastika long predates Hitler and the Nazi party, and in various forms has been used as a symbol in cultures around the globe for millennia; anyone familiar with world history and mythology will be familiar with this, and the Wikipedia article on the symbol has a nice overview for those who aren’t. Occasionally in the West, we get some upset by people who don’t know its broader use, usually over an Asian-contextual use of the symbol; one of my favorite musical groups, Kula Shaker, that produces a lot of Hindu-influenced music, got into some trouble in England over their album cover that featured the swastika in the Hindu-based artwork. I confess that this has become a bit of a pet peeve of mine, connected rather strongly to my annoyance at the general human trait to merge concepts together into undifferentiated outrage and offense, independent of their actual context and meaning. Yes, there’s one association in modern times with a terrible group of terrible people who did really terrible things. If you let that forever corrupt a long-standing symbol of spirituality, you’re granting Hitler an enduring power long after his defeat. Don’t do that. Mock him. Make stupid cartoons about him. If you want to fight what he stood for, denature his horrors until he’s just an object of pity and contempt, or even sympathy, and don’t let him have one sliver of influence over anything beyond his immediate sphere. But above all, see things exactly as they are, rather than through the lens of suggestion and association. Not you guys, gentle readers, you’re a sensible lot and know this already. All those other people, the ones who won’t be reading this anyway, and wouldn’t listen to it if they did. Sigh. ]]]
So, back to Kyoto. Kyoto Station is in the lower middle of that map above. We first took the train a little ways to Tofukuji Temple, just to the southeast of Kyoto Station — honestly, I’m not sure why we took the train here, it’s only about a dozen blocks. We walked around that and heard a bit of the history, and got to see the outdoor toilets that, alas, are no longer used. Here are a couple of the less outhousey pictures:
From Tofukuji, we walked down through back streets to the Fushimi-Inari Shrine. I’m a little unclear why we walked this, since, if I look at the map, it’s just 2 subway stops to the south. But we passed some little Buddhist street shrines along the way, and maybe that was local color that we were meant to appreciate. And did. While we sweated.
The Fushimi-Inari Shrine is another famous site, a Shinto shrine complex dedicated to the god/dess (portrayed both ways, or androgynous) of agriculture Inari, whose servants are foxes.
The Fujimi-Inari Shrine is known for its 1000s — that’s right, thousands — of Torii gates, many forming a sort of tunnel up the mountain path.
We did not hike to the top, sadly. One year I shall come back and see the whole thing; it seemed very green, and maybe would be an exception to my general indifference to Shinto shrines.
We hiked up to a shrine area midway up, where people had been writing their wishes on little fox-faced-shaped wooden plaques and hanging them up where, presumably, someone or something would grant them. Although they seemed to be taking a bit of liberty with the whole “wish granting” concept, and were spending most of their efforts illustrating them with faces and favorite anime characters.
From there, we walked back down, boarded a nearby subway to go 5 stops north to the Gion District, and walked about that neighborhood for a bit. The Gion District is one of the more famous geisha districts of Japan, and has been a setting for books/movies like Memoirs of a Geisha and similar things.
Most of what I have in Gion is pictures of old houses, and they’re not terribly impressive on their own. I liked this one, though, of a canal that we crossed:
We walked through the district a bit, and Tomo told us a bit about it and about the geisha and their training and whatnot, and how the establishment that they’re associated with are really for locals and generally by membership only. Most of it was stuff that I knew, but some wasn’t. I gather that the Gion District really comes alive at night, but I have long ago resigned myself to being excluded from that world, which does not favor participation by morning people such as myself.
By which I mean to say that the tour ended at around 5:30, and I took a bus home, ate a salad (with real salad dressing!), watched YouTube, and went to bed. It’s a rich life.
Wednesday, August 5th
Day off. Puttered. Read. I’d been noticing that the A/C was kind of weird; I don’t know what the issue was, but the air felt strange and my lungs a little heavy and I wasn’t a huge fan of breathing it all day. This was true through most of my stay there. So I turned it off and opened a window whenever I could, until it got too hot, then I turned it on again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Thursday, August 6th
This was my day for the sake brewery tour. In mid-morning, I took the bus into downtown, and then the subway to where the agency’s office was, and appeared to confuse the people there by arriving and needing to be, well, toured. But the tour guide soon arrived, an older woman whose name I was never clear on though she was quite personable and knowledgeable. (She was also claimed to be impressed with my own sake knowledge, which was flattering of course but not terribly accurate. I only appeared knowledgeable in comparison to the tourists she was used to. I am well aware of being only an egg in these matters.) We took a cab to the Matsui Shuzo Brewery, which I believe had larger facilities someplace else but kept small brewery facilities in their old offices.
The Master Brewer happened to be there, and gave us the 5 minute tour, spoke fairly good English, and gave me the compliment of being impressed by the detail of my background knowledge and questions. (The same rebuttal from above still applies, of course.) The relatively small space had a variety of shiny steel equipment for doing the various things that are done to make sake, like this:
Sake rice is typically ground down to strip away the outer layers (containing proteins and other undesirable components) to leave only the carbohydrate-rich core that is what you want. The more of those outer layers are milled the better the sake generally is (there are other considerations, but that’s a big one). They had a couple of bowls out of pre-milled and post-milled rice, and it’s an impressive difference:
After this little tour, the guide and I went out to a front room and sat at a little table and a young lady came and presented sake from roughly 8 different bottles in tiny cups for me to taste and discuss while she described them. It would have been nice if anyone else was drinking with me, but, hell, why should this be any different than 90% of my sake drinking? Anyway, the sake was, not surprisingly, very good. This brewery apparently supplies many of the better known shrines and temples, and hence would be considered to have status. I bought a couple of bottles to take with me, including a nice namazake (unpasteurized) that I was obliged to drink quickly over the next few days. (My life is so hard.) The other bottle I took back with me to Hokkaido.
After the tour, I caught the subway to my next stop, the International Manga Museum, which has a huge selection of manga, many of them the translated versions into various languages (English, Korean, German, etc), and they encourage sitting and reading. I had lunch at their cafe, and then wandered for a few hours. They had a current exhibit of war-related manga from WWII and onward, not so much celebrating war (e.g., not like a GI Joe comic) but most of it various kinds of commentary on various wars and how people were affected by them during and after. That was pretty interesting. As was all of it really:
I left the museum a little after 5:00, walked to a nearby bus stop on the line that I needed, and went home — more salad!
Friday and Saturday, August 7th and 8th
Why am I combining these days, you ask? Because they were both tour based: a 1/2-day visit to the nearby city of Nara the first day, and a full day tour of various places around Kyoto on the second. And honestly, when you’re getting on and off tour buses, on blistering hot and humid days, doing fairly quick passes through tourist-centric shrines and temples, with a bunch of other tourists, with roughly similar tour guides (both women in their 40s with very good English, entertaining personalities, and lots of details at their fingertips), it all blends together unless something unusual happens. And nothing did. I enjoyed them in a modest sort of way, and in no way regret doing them, but… there’s not really a lot to talk about here. I mean, heck, the tour pages that I included links to have the itineraries and tons of uploaded pictures that are (as usual) as good as anything that I took. So, I’m going to shorthand these, and just mention the places we went to (which can be Googled for details and pictures if you want to explore them further), and include any pictures of mine that I think stand out a bit:
Nara tour: Afternoon bus tour leaving at 2pm from a hotel next to Kyoto Station, and going to Todaiji Temple, Deer Park, and Kasuga Shrine, returning at around 7pm.
This temple has been damaged by fire twice, and rebuilt smaller each time.
Kyoto Tour: Full day bus tour leaving at 9am from a hotel next to Kyoto Station, and going to Nijo Castle, Kinkakuji Temple, Kiyomizu Temple, Heian Shrine, Sanju-Sangendo Hall, ending near Gion District.
(This place had some some gardens too, and I’ll direct you to Google for those, since the grass and moss when I was there was suffering somewhat from the heat. Still pretty, but you can do better.)
After this temple, the tour bus was going to go back to the hotel we’d left from, near the Kyoto Station, the opposite direction from where I wanted to go, and I’d then have to take a city bus back the other way. So, when we went back to the bus, I told the guide I’d take off on my own from there and thanked her. I walked about 20 minutes down into the Gion District, and caught the same bus home that I’d caught a couple of days before. On the way, I passed a European guy with the perfect shirt, which I looked up online later.
Monday, August 9th
I took this day light, but I wanted to do something on my last day here. During yesterday’s tour, we’d passed the Kyoto National Museum, and it looked interesting, so I caught a bus down to it. Again, there’s not much to show you here, because I couldn’t take pictures. And one of their 2 main buildings was closed for renovation, which sucked. But the other one was full of old Japanese artifacts, statues, pottery, weapons, illustrated books, scrolls, folding screens, and the like. And I ate lunch in a really nice museum restaurant, with linen napkins and everything! Sweet!
From there, I went home, had a relaxing evening and turned in early, because my train ride back to Sapporo left at 6:30am, and I had to catch one of the few buses running early enough to get me there on time, which started its day a couple of blocks from the Airbnb at about 5am.
Tuesday, August 10th
I made the bus, I made the train, and then I had a long day of train ride. Very long. The transitions were mostly easy, especially since I just was doing them in reverse from my trip down 3 weeks before. But the day got even longer when the next to the last train stopped about 25 minutes before the station I was transferring at, and then sat on the tracks for 2 hours. I have no idea why: they made announcements, but only in Japanese. My friend Holly speculated (responding to one of my tweets on the subject) that it could have been someone killing themselves by jumping onto the tracks, which does occasionally happen and is one of the few reasons that the trains here don’t run on time. I had a book (The Chronicles of Prydain; I’ll discuss it later, there were several volumes, I didn’t finish it until later, and this is blog post already long enough without adding a book review), but it was still a painful wait, especially since I’d now missed my connecting train.
Eventually, we started up again, and moved surprisingly slowly after that. We arrived at the station not long before another train to Sapporo was scheduled to depart, and I managed to coax instructions from the station people that I should just head to that next train. An attendant at the train looked at my ticket, and then she directed me into the first class car (which I was supposed to be on with the original train), and to a window seat in the first row, which I took.
Despite the 2 hour delay, I was pleased just to even be able to get on a train, even more so to be in the car I’d paid the extra money for. This happiness lasted 2 0r 3 stops, until someone else got on the train who was apparently meant to be in the seat I’d been directed to. I didn’t mind moving, but the guy meant to be in that seat and the attendant who’d directed me to it were now hovering over me — and I do mean hovering — while I collected my stuff. I’ve seen this a couple of times with the Japanese — when they want something, they don’t necessarily just indicate it and stand back. They come in close, and bend over like they’re trying to help me with their close physical presense, and it’s weirdly claustrophobic and passive-aggressively demanding. So, I collected my stuff, and moved to the aisle seat. I noted to the attendant (with gestures) that the second row was free, but she insisted I should take the seat next to the guy who now had my old one. And his vibe was really irritated. I don’t know how the attendant had explained things to him — did she even know about my train’s delay, and did she tell him she’d sent me to that seat herself? — but I was getting a strong personal offense vibe off him, and was sending him a “Dude, chill out” vibe in response. Combined with a “Dude, I cannot possibly care about your pointless sense of offense” vibe. It was a little uncomfortable.
A couple of stops later, the lady in the 3rd row-1 seat, a single seat on the other side of the aisle, got off the train, and then the same attendant was directing me to move yet again to take that seat. On the one hand, cool. Now, offended guy and I weren’t sharing a space. On the other hand, great, now I’m packing everything up and moving again. Ok. Whatever.
After that, the train ride went well, and I arrived in Sapporo to take a local train to Kazunari’s place, which I had left 3 weeks earlier. It was warm and humid (even in northern Sapporo, though still 10-15° cooler than Kyoto), and I got there around 9:30pm instead of 7-ish, retrieved the rest of my gear from where I’d stashed it, prepped for bed, and was just settling down around 10:30pm when I heard non-Japanese voices near the house. I got up, peeked out the window, and saw people with luggage on the street looking lost. I grabbed my pants, went downstairs, put on shoes, went out, and ask them is there were looking for Kazunari’s place. The 2 German women and the American guy (semester abroad college students in their early 20s), said yes and asked if I was Kazunari…. Very amusing. I said no, I was just another guest, and I showed them the house and what I deduced was their room, got them oriented, had a little minimal conversaation, and then, finally, went to bed.
Wednesday, September 16th
So there, finally, is the end of my Tour de Fail. So much went wrong, and while I cannot do other than regret the pain of doing it in the very hottest possible season, still, there really was no not doing it. I had to visit Tokyo and Kyoto while I was in Japan, even if they weren’t at their best and even if I could only comfort myself with my intention to return in a more pleasant season. And I did have to leave the country at the 7 week mark, for insurance purposes, so the Taipei part was necessary — and enjoyable despite the heat.
Now, over 5 weeks after my return to Sapporo, I’m about to leave again. I’ve been staying at Kenta’s again (the first Airbnb place I stayed at) for the last 18 days. I leave for Chiang Mai on tomorrow afternoon, arrive (via Korea) at 10:50pm local time, and start my 2 month return visit to that city. The weather here in Sapporo has felt like a perfect autumn for the last month. I *love* autumn the most of all the seasons; it’s insanely beautiful here and I hate like hell to leave.
Once I arrive in Chiang Mai, I’ll post a Sapporo wrap-up, and include some of the stuff I never got around to writing about, including the ecological disaster that Kazunari’s house was, more German Beer Gardens, and My Fight With Wild Animals. But, other than that wrap-up, I am calling myself officially Caught Up! Yaaaaaaaay, me!
And, in 2 more months: the exotic land of The United States of America! I hear they’re fucking nuts there. Currently browsing Amazon to see what gun I should buy when I arrive. Wish me luck!