Summer in Japan (Tentaibutsurigaku): A Whirlwind Tour of Kyoto (with random otaku moments) [Part 1]

After finishing up our day in Nara, we grabbed our bags and hopped on the train up to Kyoto for the evening, where we’d be spending the next couple days. They turned out to be probably the most exhausting days of my life, as we literally woke up at around 8 and ran around all day until about midnight. Then woke up early the next day to rinse and repeat. And when I say ran, I mean literally ran – I lost count of how many trains we just barely managed to catch while sprinting to the train station. I was lucky I managed to get my “traveler’s legs” quickly, since by the end of the first day my legs and feet were legitimately in pain and it hurt to walk. It was a whole different experience from the (relatively) relaxing day in Nara, and so jam-packed I actually have to divide my time in Kyoto into two posts just to make their lengths manageable .

Day 0

After arriving in Kyoto and checking in at our hotel, we immediately headed off to go grab some dinner. Nearby, I was greeted by this sight, which I think perfectly sums up the modern-day spirit of Kyoto.

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I absolutely loved the juxtoposition of the traditional with the modern, and indeed much of my experiences over the next couple days would really mirror that theme.

I also got quite a shock when I saw the poster for the anime movie being played in a cinema nearby. I mean, I’d always realized that they play in cinemas and had seen posters and trailers and stuff online, but encountering it in person was still a little bit surprising.
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I was quite intrigued as to what the movie could be, since the artwork looked like shoujo yet there was a Rubik’s Cube in the cover art. Which means it has to be good. After some digging, I figured out the movie was actually just Hal. MAL’s movie synopsis is particularly great:

The happy life of Kurumi and Hal suddenly ended by a plane accident. In order to recover her willpower to live, the android Q01 was provided as “robot Hal”. During her life with the robot Hal, Kurumi gradually opens her mind to the android but…

MAL’s manga synopsis is even better:

What if your lover died, you lost your will to live, and a robot was sent to you that looked like your lost lover?

Woah – so deep! Obviously I was spot on with my judgement that this movie was going to be good.

But that was not all of the surprises I was to experience that night. Because right after that we encountered a particularly great pachinko place.

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I’m still curious how you can play Gundam-themed pachinko.

Of course it gets better. After this, we ended up coming across one of those anime-style arcades. Like the ones with all the UFO capture games and stuff. I decided to get a peek in, because hey they had a bunch of anime prizes so why not, and I instantly got mobbed by the attendant. I was initially surprised that he had approached me so quickly and so enthusiastically – did I just look like that much of a sucker?

It turns out actually, yes, I did. I’d forgotten I was wearing one of my favorite anime shirts that day (full art of Kuroyukihime, in case you were curious), and if that doesn’t scream “otaku tourist”, then I’m not sure what else would (although if you have any better ideas let me know). So then he calls over the assistant and they both barrage me with questions about what Accel World characters I like and if I had watched SAO and if I watched a lot of anime and what I was watching at the moment and who my favorite character was and on and on, all while interjecting/yelling “AKUSERU WAARUDO” and “KUROYUKIHIME”. And then they started putting all these prizes in a basket and were telling me I could win if I just managed to beat one of these games and that I’d get a free play and then they showed me how easy it is and started going to get more prizes for the basket while onlookers on the street were getting curious and you get the point. It was completely ridiculous, although completely awesome! Plus the prizes were actually really cool,

Like this figure! Which I ended up buying separately anyways.

Like this figure! Which I ended up buying separately anyways. YOU CAN STEP ON ME ANYTIME KUROYUKIHIME.

Luckily (or maybe unluckily), there were a couple of factors preventing me from playing UFO catcher all night: 1) there was other people with me that wouldn’t have been happy if I’d instantly abandoned everything I was doing to attempt to win these prizes, and 2) we were really really hungry and wanted to eat some food. So, my heart breaking, I refused the best I could and headed off to dinner.

Speaking of hearts, we had some chicken heart for dinner. Along with a myriad of other strange types of meat.IMG_1022 IMG_1023

Following our meal, we decided to head out to an arcade, where we played some taiko drumming (being a drummer, I kind of owned, which was great) plus this ridiculous version of air hockey where they literally just dispense dozens of pucks onto the table for a minute or two and whoever scores the most pucks wins. Plus a decent smattering of normal acade games. We also got to see some hardcore arcade gamers really dominate DDR, as well as several couples playing a dancing game involving the Kinect. They were way too good to be beginners. Which made me wonder – if they practice, how do they do it, and would taking your girlfriend out to an arcade qualify as a date? Food for thought…

There also was this.IMG_1028

Evangelion everywhere man.

And I really mean it – when we got back to our room, we decided to watch some TV before heading to bed because late night Japanese game shows are the best thing ever. And what do we see when we’re flipping through channels?
IMG_1032Yep. A show where a girl cosplaying as Asuka travels the world and…does things? We weren’t exactly sure what, but we all were very bemused as we attempted to make sense of what was going on. Neither the other student nor my adviser had seen or heard of the show (people who haven’t heard of Evangelion – WHAT BLASPHEMY IS THIS?!?!?1?!1?!?!111) , so I got to be in the great position of trying to explain all the references in the TV show to the original anime and all about Evangelion in general. I actually did manage to get the other student to watch the show (he just finished up yesterday and really enjoyed it), which is his first real anime since middle school, so…success?

Day 1

We got up early the next day in order to get on a bus to Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), the #1 tourist destination in Kyoto. Once we arrived, I could see why – it’s a temple coated in gold, and so it looks pretty damn awesome. It’s as simple as that.

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I also gotta say – one advantage to being decently tall in the US means in Japan you tower over most of the population. Which means when you take pictures you can get your camera above the sea of tourists (and there were a lot of them, even this early) and try and capture a nice pristine image. I actually think I like looking back on these pictures and reminiscing about the places themselves over trying to remember my experiences the day of, since the latter mostly involved a lot of noisy tourists.

At the end of the directed tour pathway, we decided to stop for some food. Luckily, there was a ramen vending machine. With chopsticks, of course.
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Although I was up for the idea, my adviser wanted us to hurry along because we had more to see and so little time! He did let us stop for some kakigouri (sort of like shaved ice) though, since that was a “more unique” Japanese experience. IMG_1047

So after we finished up at Kinkaku-ji we headed over to Ryouan-ji, home of the Zen rock garden and sort of the “headquarters” of Zen Buddhism in Japan. Turns out the entire complex is beautiful though.IMG_1053

And of course, the main attraction.IMG_1057

The entire garden was incredibly soothing, and I really made sure we took our time here. There definitely is something to these places in the way that they make you feel slightly off-kilter (in a good way), and I think I definitely would’ve enjoyed spending a day or so reading a book and musing about life there. The whole temple gave off that type of vibe.

Of course, one of the great ironies of all these temples is that because they’re so tourist-y, they pretty much lose most of their original purpose as places of peace and tranquility, where you were supposed to get away from all the hustle and bustle of civilization to meditate on “life”. And now, while they still are practicing, the atmosphere is pretty much gone. I have to give the priests major props for being able to cope with all of it.

Inside one of the inner rooms (which was off limits), there was also a great painting of some people playing Go. Which of course made me regret not watching Hikaru no Go when I had the chance back in high school. >.<
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I also didn’t realize that, besides the famous rock garden, the temple also had a moss garden. As in they carefully prune a bunch of moss and trees to give off a certain aesthetic, like the rock garden.
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I still find it kind of hard to believe that most of this garden is delicately trimmed to look exactly this way. But one never doubts the skills of the Zen masters, right?

Following Ryouan-ji, we headed off to Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion). As we didn’t have time to eat a proper meal, we only were able to grab something quick on the way. Luckily, it just so happened there was a takoyaki stand nearby, and so I got to have my first real taste of authentic fried octopus balls! With mayo, of course.
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Now Ginkaku-ji is designed very differently than Kinkaku-ji. One good comparison I’ve heard is that if the latter is like a Vegas-style temple, designed to be absolutely eye-catching and awe-inspiring, than the former is more like an Zen-style temple, contemplative and humble.

Me: “But then why is it called the ‘Silver Pavilion’ if it’s meant to be humble?”

Good question, me. It’s because it wasn’t really supposed to be super humble – they wanted to cover the whole thing in silver as a nice touch. Best part of this is that the shogun(s) at the time ran out of money, and so they had to leave it as is. Good times, good times…

One cool thing about Ginkaku-ji is that they have a bunch of sand sculptures in the same style of Ryouan-ji’s rock garden. Here’s a great example of one of them.IMG_1072

Imagine if a little kid decided to try kicking over that. He’d totally get get what was coming to him.

As for the actual buildings, they (of course) weren’t so impressive.IMG_1082

The complex was beautiful though, and had a fantastic view.IMG_1084

On the way out, we also saw what is one of the cleverest names I have ever encountered. BEHOLD!IMG_1087

I swear to god whoever named that deserves some sort of medal. Hell, I’d make it for him if I ever got a chance to meet him!

After leaving Ginkaku-ji, we quickly headed over to Chion-in, where they kept this huge bell that they ring on new years. Supposedly there’s a whole ceremony involving a dozen monks or something who have to work together just to get the wooden ringer high enough so that it’ll make contact with the bell. Just to put its size in proportion.

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And that was it, since we had to move on to better things!

By this point, my legs were starting to hurt and it began to hurt to walk. Plus at this point I was getting a little fed up with our breakneck pace for seeing these sights. Not enough to say split up from my adviser and fellow student (besides, if you’re working with them all summer you don’t want to schism too early), but enough to get irritated. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the sights we went to – because I did, and in retrospect when looking at the pictures I have a lot to reminisce about – but when I travel I tend to take things much more slowly. I want to be relaxed the entire trip and really take in the sights that I end up going to see. If I decide I want to spend a couple hours at a cafe or a book store chatting or browsing the shops, that’s fine. If I spend time watching TV instead, no problem. To me it’s a traveling is a cultural experience, and if you simply go at your own pace and try and take that in, then you’ll be fine.

However, not everyone works that way, and my adviser was very clearly in the category of “we’re going to get as much sights out of this trip as we can”. Which is understandable as well – if you’re in another place as a visitor, you have a limited opportunity to see as much of the historical and cultural sites as you can. You can experience the culture and lifestyle if you ever decide to live there – what’s important is making the most of the here and now.

I guess if I wanted to make an anime comparison, I could use Kino’s Journey as a great example. Kino is permanently a traveler, so how does she choose to spend her time in each country she visits? Rather than trying to take in as much of the country as possible, Kino tries to take in the essence of that country. But in doing so she loses out on experiencing the country on that surface level. They’re two different goals, and while many people might prefer the former when they travel, I very much prefer the latter.

What do you guys think? How do you like to travel in general? And have you been somewhere where the type of traveler you were made a huge difference on your experience?

Anyways, back to Kyoto. After Chion-in, we headed off to Koyimizu-dera to see yet another Buddhist temple build on a hillside.

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It was by far the tourist-y place of the bunch we visited, actually. While Kinkaku-ji is the #1 tourist destination, I have to say Kiyomizu-dere takes the cake for being #1 tourist center.IMG_1101

The view out from the temple was great though.IMG_1104

As was the love stone.IMG_1105

The myth of the stone is kind of funny actually. You’re supposed to touch one end blindfolded (or with your eyes closed) and then wander over and touch the tip of the other companion stone. If you succeed, you’re guaranteed a happy, loving relationship or the man of your dreams or something like that. Good stuff.

There was also a cool pagoda. Because you can’t go wrong with pagodas!IMG_1109

On the way out from Kiyomizu-dera, I ran into something interesting.IMG_1110

While I’m not a huge fan of One Piece (mostly because I only watched the first 50 episodes, which I’ve heard is not a fair representation of the show), I have to admit the outfits were pretty cool.

After Kiyomizu-dera, we headed up to Fushimi Inari-taisha, another temple. But! This one was different in that it was actually a huge shinto temple, complete with all the cool shinto things I’d seen in anime.

Like the temple designs.

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And the “guardian deity”. Or whatever you call it.IMG_1118

So Fushimi is a bit of a hike, since we (at this point I just say screw it and went along with the idea) wanted to climb all the way up to the top shrine. Although when I say climb I really mean climb a bunch of stairs.

Partway up we encountered a small alter/shrine and a traditional graveyard. It was the first time I’d seen one of these outside anime (probably because I hadn’t been looking).IMG_1123

Fushimi is also famous for its many tori, which visitors walk through on the any of the paths in the complex, including the ones up to the summit. We never managed to come up with/find a good number for how many tori we thought were in Fushimi, but we think there were at least around 10,000 of these or so over the entire complex.IMG_1126

We also encountered a wild cat! Or at least a domesticated one given quite a bit of freedom to roam around.IMG_1128

Finally, after much hardship, we finally reached the top. And of course took a picture to prove it.IMG_1130

There was a nice shrine up here, and to celebrate our ascent I decided to try ringing the bell attached to the roof (you know, that bell). Luckily it didn’t break, but let’s just say I wouldn’t ring that thing again – it wasn’t in good shape lol.IMG_1131

Again, I managed to grab some beautiful views of Kyoto from the “summit”.IMG_1132

All in all, the total hike probably took around 1.5-2 hours, and we got back around sunset.

After we got back to Tokyo, we ended up dropping by a Book-Off to look around. My adviser was hoping to pick up some manga to help him practice his Japanese, and the other student was looking into grabbing some Japanese Yu-Gi-Oh! cards to bring back as gifts for his brother.

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I didn’t really want anything, so I just headed over to the LN section again and tried to see what I could find. Quickly I struck gold.
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I actually like how in the picture I look like a voyeur peeping in on Subaru, who very clearly gives a look of slight anger/embarrassment at being discovered in such a position. Which is what anyone browsing the Mayo Chiki! LN will get when looking at the book. It’s a bit titillating (I mean, it’s one of the reasons I think ecchi works), and I thought it was a clever cover.

I also made some other great discoveries, such as this,

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arghhhhhhh if only I actually knew Japanese!

this,

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mai waifu

and this.

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So conflicted: Do I hate on it because Komari is Worst Girl, or feel good about it because FRIENDSHIP?

Afterwards, we headed out to dinner at this all-you-can-eat pizza place, which was incredibly mediocre. Which brings me to another digression: I don’t think I’ve come across a “bad” Japanese restaurant yet. As in, it’s not as if I haven’t disliked any of the food, but I just haven’t yet eaten at a place where I felt the quality of the food was not up to par, even if I didn’t like it taste-wise. In fact, I’ve only been impressed at almost every restaurant I’ve eaten at, from kaiten sushi to high-end tempura to “kuruma [car] ramen” (essentially a “get food quick and then go” place). Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but it seems the quality of the food here is just plain better than in the States.

Also, let me just add one other thing: the Japanese have by far the best service I’ve ever encountered. Period. The standards for how to treat the customer are just so much higher than anything I’ve been used to that even though I’ve been here for around a month and a half I’m still continually impressed.

Anyways, as I’m sure you could guess, this pizza place wasn’t Japanese (although that didn’t mean it wasn’t filling!), so my clearly correct and unbiased theory about Japanese restaurants still holds.

After dinner, we stopped by a hobby shop since my adviser wanted to look for some new games to pick up. I’m not too into that type of stuff (although I’m happy to play with a group of friends; my best strategy in Catan to this day is still attempting to monopolize all of the sheep), so I decided to look at some of the books they had around. And what is this I see? Is this D&D 4e translated into Japanese?!

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Suffice it to say, that probably would’ve made my night if it was the last thing I encountered that night. It brought back a lot of memories…of how much more fun it was playing v3.5 and Pathfinder over what my D&D group in high school termed as “WoW with table talk”. At this point though, I actually would be happy playing any tabletop RPG since I haven’t really found a good group to play with since high school. And you do miss that kind of thing after a while.

But I did say this “would’ve” made my night, right? That’s because walking back to our hotel, I saw this up:

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I’ve never wanted so badly to be a couch

And then I thought of Sasha x Potatornado and I was just done.

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