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Emails from Japan

[Back in the summer of 2015, my brother and I visited Japan. While there, I sent our parents (almost) daily emails to keep them up-to-date on our travels. Now, I would like to share those messages and experiences. Please note that these correspondences may not reflect the culture and history of the country with 100% accuracy (despite my best efforts to the contrary); they represent a tourist’s point-of-view, and have been edited only to correct spelling/grammatical errors and to remove certain names.]

July 11, 2015


[We] just got in from a long day out. Saw some amazing sights. Started off with the view from the observatory of the Tokyo Metropolitan Building—saw the whole city sprawled out below us. Afterwards, we explored a nearby park, where we ran into a tiny flea market and visited a small temple shrine.

Later on, while bumming around the Shibuya district, we found an even more impressive shrine, the Meiji Jingu shrine. The temple gates and grounds were massive (and probably unchanged since the 1800s). After that, we moved on to a nearby museum, which displayed a few of Emperor Meiji’s actual possessions.

We gradually made our way back towards where we started, by which time it was close to dinner. We ate at a small family-operated place that specialized in beef. It was a very intimate experience, with the owners (an old man and, I assume, his wife) preparing each course on the grill at the bar.

We’ll be turning in shortly, but we wanted to check in. Love and miss you. We’ll try and keep in touch!

July 12, 2015

Hello again!

Had another fun day, but intentionally took it a little easier since our sleep schedules are a bit out of whack. First up, we went to Akihabara, a big shopping district. It’s sort of a tech/pop culture center. We poked around the shops and did some people watching, then had lunch at the Gundam Cafe (themed around the giant robot anime—Akiba’s that kind of place, and has many such themed restaurants).

After that, we headed for the Ginza district. After wandering down some very old school markets—open-air storefronts straight out of the Edo/samurai era, and plenty of locals in traditional garb—we came upon Sensoji Temple, the oldest temple in Japan. We met a very nice group of students who were eager to practice their English, and they explained a bit about the deities and spirits enshrined there and the significance of different symbols and carvings.

And also, while we were in Akiba, we were interviewed by some pop idols for TV/YouTube. It was very awkward, but hopefully they got something they could use.

Hope you’re doing well.

July 13, 2015

Another small day, though not by design this time. We went to Ueno Park, one of Japan’s most popular parks, but a lot of the attractions we wanted to see (a few museums, a zoo, etc.) were closed for the day for some reason.

There was still plenty to see just wandering around, though: a gravestone dedicated to warriors who fought against imperial rule in the mid 1800s; a small flame kept burning from fires collected from the rubble of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the face of a large Buddha statue, the rest of which was melted down for arms during WWII (the face only survives because it was dislodged from the body during an earlier earthquake); and plenty of beautiful architecture.

Once we figured out everything was closed, it was too late to shift gears, so we headed back to Akiba and wandered around to kill time. After a light dinner, we headed back in.

We’ll hit Ueno again later in the week when things are in operation. Hopefully.

July 14, 2015


Got in late last night, so I’ll type this up real quick before we head out again.

Yesterday, we took a couple of trains out to Odaiba. [My brother] gave me the history lesson on the way over: originally a series of manmade islands constructed for the defense of the mainland, they were merged into a single landmass with the aim of being a sort of monument to the future of Japan (kind of the Worlds Fair/City of Tomorrow deal). Somewhere along the line, it ended up home to a ridiculous number of malls and shopping centers.

It was past lunchtime by the time we arrived, so we went to an interesting spot dressed up to look like a traditional festival market, where there were a number of stalls all serving ramen from various regions of Japan.

Afterwards, we went to Decks, an amusement center: Madame Tussaud’s, LegoLand, and similar attractions all packed into one building. [My brother] wanted to show me Sega Joypolis, an arcade/indoor amusement park (complete with roller coaster) that’s a lot like the NJ Boardwalk the more I think about it. We messed around with some of the VR machines and moved on pretty quickly.

From there, we hit up the Tokyo Giant Sky Wheel, a 150m tall Ferris wheel that offers an amazing view. Would have been much nicer if the wind hadn’t been so noisy, but still a good time.

It was near dark when we got off, so we wandered around Venus Fort, another nearby mall (named, I assume, for the Roman inspired design), looking for dinner. We settled on an inexpensive merry-go-round sushi place.

Then we hopped on the train and headed back in.

July 15, 2015

Another long day. Started off by visiting the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. Plenty of beautiful architecture, including impressive mason work on the reconstructed walls and three of the original guardhouses manned by the highest ranking samurai, as well as groves established by various emperors to preserve different breeds of flowers, trees, and bamboo.

Near the entrance was a museum, which displays a rotating selection of the imperial family’s possessions. Currently, it’s exhibiting a small collection of illustrated scrolls, most of them depicting myths from various periods. Several of them felt like variations on The Odyssey (a group of warriors use their wits to slay cannibalistic monsters; a hero is killed, travels to Hell, is sent back to earth in a different form, is reunited with his wife, regains his true appearance, punishes his enemies, and ultimately ascends to godhood), catching my interest.

After we’d thoroughly explored the grounds, we moved on to Yasukuni Shrine, a temple dedicated to those slain in war from the Meiji period onward. The locals seemed to be in the midst of festival: hundreds of lanterns were hung up, forming towering walls that stretched along the path between the temple gates; small parades performed for enthusiastic crowds, and stands were erected to serve shaved ice and other treats. People of all ages mingled about, some dressed in traditional garb, others in school uniforms and business attire.

We hopped on the train, grabbed some dinner on the way to home base, and here we are. We may try Ueno Park again tomorrow. Hopefully stuff will be open.

July 16, 2015

Hello again!

As planned, we returned to Ueno to make up for a few days ago. Weather was kind of nasty, so we didn’t get to the zoo, but we got a full day out of the Tokyo National Museum. My personal favorite section was the one for “Modern Art” (meaning post-Meiji period works), which illustrated the tension between Japan’s desire to hold on to its traditions (silk and ink paintings, and especially “decorative art” for ceramics and folding screens, which wasn’t held in high regard outside the East) while also adopting more Western styles (oil paintings, naturalistic sculptures in bronze rather than wood). Two of my favorite pieces were a vivid ink painting depicting Japan’s version of Heaven and Hell, complete with the minor deities Enma (who judges the dead) and Jizo (who rescues the souls of the damned) and a striking wood sculpture of an old monkey recovering from a battle with an eagle, attributed to an artist credited with merging Eastern and Western styles.

There were other interesting exhibits, too, including: a small collection of Christian paraphernalia (rosary beads, medallions and statuettes of the Madonna) from the period when the religion was outlawed in Japan (several of the medallions were meant to be trampled by suspects to demonstrate that they were not believers); a display of Noh theater masks for various female roles (I’ve always been fond of the Hannya, the woman transformed into a demon by jealousy); a large display of swords by various famed smiths, including an alleged son of the famous Masamune (I was more interested in the decorative grips and guards, which could depict anything from lions to butterflies to full on battle scenes); and many suits of armor (one of the more interesting ones, meant to resemble a temple guardian, was noted for being oddly anatomically realistic).

We explored until closing time, grabbed a quick bite, and headed back in.

We’ll probably take it easy tomorrow, since we might be making an excursion into Kyoto over the weekend (it’s an expensive trip, so we’re not sure yet).

July 19, 2015

Yo! We’re in Kyoto!

Wasn’t much to report yesterday, unless you’re interested in hearing about the dessert pizzas at Shaky’s all-you-can-eat buffet.

The bullet train ride was pretty cool—more like an airplane than a train. Wish I could have enjoyed the view a bit more, but we didn’t have the best seats.

Once we arrived, we visited a few shrines, including a pair of sister shrines built when a schism formed in a particular Buddhist sect. Beautiful architecture, and overall less showy than the temples we saw in Tokyo—rather than painting it the usual vibrant red, they left the wood in its natural state.

Now, since pretty much everything is closing for the day, we’re just chilling, watching some sumo wrestling and gearing up for dinner. We have bigger plans for tomorrow.

July 20, 2015

What’s up?

First up today was Mt. Inari, a short train ride from where we’re staying. The temple there is advertised as the #1 tourist destination (per TripAdvisor), and it’s not hard to see why: the temple there (Shinto, as opposed to the Buddhist sites we’ve been visiting) is absolutely immense. After exploring the main temple for a while, admiring the guardian statues (mostly foxes), we stopped for a bit of green tea. I explored the tranquil garden behind the teashop, so peaceful and set aside that I couldn’t even hear the noise of the tourists or prayer bells. After that, we began the trek up the mountain. A series of closely packed archways (painted the traditional bright red) formed a sort of tunnel along the twisting trail, and we stopped often to take in the view and study the smaller shrines—there must have been hundreds of spots to stop and worship.

By the time we made it halfway up, we were drenched in sweat and starving, so we made our way back down and browsed the various food stalls. We decided to sample some traditional festival treats: pork kebabs and shaved ice (we both went with lemon flavored).

From there we hopped back on a train and made our way to Nijo Castle, the shogun’s home when he would visit Kyoto. The grounds weren’t as immense as the Imperial Palace’s, but we actually got to tour the interior. Rooms included waiting chambers for guests and their servants, the meeting room where the shogun would address the various daimyos, private meeting areas for the shogun’s personal advisors, and the shogun’s living quarters and bedroom (including an adjoining room for his wife and her maidservants). Unfortunately, some areas were in the middle of restoration, and all of the original wall and ceiling murals had been removed for display in a nearby museum.

Also on the grounds were a guardhouse, exactly as it appeared in the 1600s (a rarity, as most have burned down or otherwise been destroyed by natural causes), and a small cluster of trees that descended directly from plants that survived the Hiroshima bombing.

July 21, 2015

Today, we headed to Sanjusagen-do Temple, famous for enshrining 1001 statues of Kannon, the thousand-armed, eleven-headed god of mercy (one large, central seated statue, surrounded by 1000 smaller standing depictions), as well as carvings of 28 guardian deities, including Fujin and Raijin, the gods of wind and thunder. There was also a very small museum behind the massive shrine hallway, discussing the temple’s historical significance. For example, the emperor during the Heian period (about the 1100s-1200s, a time that saw one of the largest clan wars in Japanese history) eventually retired and became the presiding monk. Apparently, he wasn’t without his earthly pleasures: he was such a great fan of a particular style of folk music that he’d invite any practitioner, from beggar to court official, to perform for him, and sometimes sang himself until his throat bled. When the tradition began to die off, he compiled his favorite songs into a multi-volume collection to pass on to later generations. I was also interested in the Toshiya, an archery competition held at the temple in which representatives from various prefectures would continuously fire on a target across the courtyard for 24 hours to prove their strength and devotion; a few of the original bows, score books, and signal fans were on display. And, to my surprise, a plaque announced that the temple was the site of one of the famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi’s numerous battles against members of the Yoshioka fencing school, his best known rivals after Sasaki Kojiro, the last man he ever dueled to the death.

Next, we wandered to Higashiyama, a more historic area of Kyoto. It’s very traditional, with old wood shop fronts (some purported to remain exactly as they stood in the 1600s) that climb up a steep cobblestone incline.

In our travels, we stumbled across two more temples. The first, Yasaka, was another Shinto shrine (with foundations allegedly dating back to the 600s), this time dedicated to, among others, Susanoo, a wind god, if I remember my mythology correctly.

The second was far more impressive. Kiyumizu-dera is nestled in the side of a mountain—not quite as high as the one we visited yesterday, thankfully—with a path that loops around so you can see both where you’re going and look back on where you’ve already been. The main shrine offers a gorgeous view of the pavilions scattered below, as well as the streets we’d traversed along the way, and the city and mountains beyond. We continued along a snaking dirt path through the mountain, which eventually forked off into a nature trail. We followed it for a while, spotting a few modest graveyards, until eventually the only sign of human interference were steps of tightly packed earth and cut branches. It seemed to continue deep into the mountains, so we returned to the main trail. 

On our way back down, we spotted smaller shrines to minor deities (the god of love/matchmaking, the god of good business), and eventually made our way back to home base.

It’s back to Tokyo tomorrow.

July 23, 2015

Finally made it to the Ueno zoo today. Got some great photos of their two pandas, and had fun watching the gorillas, monkeys, sea lions, and creepy nocturnal stuff, too. Overall, it’s much easier to actually see the animals active than most places I’ve been to in the States.

There was also a preserved teahouse off to the side on the zoo grounds; apparently, it’s where Shogun Tokugawa would rest while visiting the nearby shrines. Don’t know how such a historically important site got swallowed up by zoo property, but it was cool to see.

Gonna take it easy tomorrow—a little laundry, a lot of packing, and one last trip to [my brother’s] favorite dumpy sushi place before we head back to the U.S.

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