Saturday, May 2, 2009

Panama Canal

The info below is copied from an SAS memo. If you're interested in seeing us go through check it out!


Panama Canal:

Our tentative schedule is as follows:

            0910-1000  Transit Miraflores Locks

            1050-1130  Transit Pedro Miguel Locks

            1245  Pass by Gamboa

            1445-1705  Transit Gatun Locks


When we go through the Panama Canal there will be a webcam at the Gatun Locks and the Miraflores Locks from the Panama Canal website:    This way your friends and families at home can watch the ship sail through! The Canal Website has a new High Resolution Webcam at the Miraflores locks for a very clear image of the ship! More information and links to the webcams are located on the Panama Canal folder on the public drive.



Hawaii Day 1

        After nine straight days on the ship I was delighted to get to Hawaii. TheVoice (aka Luke on the intercom) played “Coming to America” at 6:30am to wake us all up for customs. We had to go upstairs to the faculty lounge to hold up our passports for customs. Luke specified that ‘proper clothing’ must be worn. After that, I returned to the room to pack up a day bag for the beach and call everyone! That was one of the best parts! Rather than sit around and wait for them to call our sea we got to sit around and call family and friends since it counts as the USA! I swear I went through half of my phonebook.
        Somehow we (Britt, Perri, Becca, Jenna and I) managed to get off the boat by 9. Our destination was The Outrigger on Waikiki Beach (Perri, Becca and Jenna rented a hotel room). Since there were five us (split the ride 5 ways) and the beach was close we decided to hop in a cab to get there. It had been a while since I had taken a real cab so it was actually quite nice to go directly to our destination with no stops and in comfort.
        The hotel was in the perfect location, with the beach on one side and the main drag on the other. The room wasn’t ready for check-in so we (they were nice enough to let us drop our bags too) dropped our bags with the concierge and took a quick spin around the main drag. They had a lot of tourist shops as well as beach shops as well as the usual ‘name brands’. We stopped in at LeSportSac which had the cutest fanny packs in Hawaii exclusive prints. There was also a little enclave along the block called ‘International Market Place:Hawaii’. It had a ton of little vendors selling tropical jewelry, shells and knickknacks. You could bargain, but it wasn’t more than them knocking off a few dollars-no skill needed. After purchasing a small turtle necklace (the other girls bought a bunch of other stuff) we were on our way.
        Happy with our purchases we headed to the beach! We spent the morning laying out and taking in the sights and sounds of Waikiki. The beach itself is not very wide, unlike Miami Beach, but is absolutely beautiful with Diamond Head (an inactive volcano) picturesquely featured at the end. The surfers were everywhere and we were itching to give it a try. I walked up and down the beach trying to find the perfect afternoon lesson and the perfect price. I finally found a hut offering 1 hour lessons for 30$ each. Becca and Jenna and I booked a 1:30 appointment while Brittany decided to just rent a surf board. Feeling like we had all our ducks in a row, we headed to (believe it or not) The Cheesecake Factory for lunch. It’s always nice to have some sort of reminder of home and we all enjoyed the Americana for a little while (I actually had a Kaluha Pork pizza since that is what Hawaii is known for-it was very yummy and full of a BBQy flavor). Afterwards we headed back to the hotel to drop our belongings in the hotel room (it was very nice) and then went to our lessons. Our instructor was a Hawaiian man in his late 20s with a long ponytail. He was very helpful and I managed to even stand up on the board! It took me quite a few tries but it was a lot of fun! Granted he did push us into the waves (so we didn’t have to paddle as hard). After a little while, Brittany paddled over from ‘The Big Surf’ to play with us. We had bought an underwater camera and got busy taking pictures of each other. Somehow our one hour lesson turned into two (although he didn’t charge us more), but we weren’t complaining (who could really when the weather was sunny and the view of Diamond Head was beautiful).
        After our lesson was over we headed into the hotel to shower and change. Brittany and I headed out to the main drag because after much deliberation I ended up buying the LeSportSac fanny pack (Britt bought a couple different ones, Becca bought one, etc), which came in really good use as opposed to my usual money belt. The rest of them caught up with us and we all hailed a taxi to Diamond Head, our main go of which was to hike it at sunset. The bad news was once we got there they told us it was closed (it was 5pm and I guess they don’t like people hiking at dark). We ended up hopping out of the taxi anyway, there was a lovely overlook of the other side of the island which we took even more pictures with. The city was sprawling with the ocean’s waves meeting the shoreline at just the right distance, while the volcanoes peaked in the background.
        We decided to just walk back rather than pay for yet another taxi cab. It was quite a scenic (and long walk) through the streets of inland Honolulu. The houses were very modern and another reminder that we were in the states. We got back to the main drag around sunset and sat on the beach taking it all in. It was pretty beautiful but it had nothing on the ones we have on the ship. Afterwards we walked around the main drag some more and had sushi for dinner (there’s a large Japanese presence in Hawaii). It was really yummy and I even got wakame salad (I had searched all over japan for it!). We continued walking around the shops before heading back to the ship for a good night sleep.

Some Updates

Swine Flu:
I’ve been getting a lot of emails about this. When we went to Guatemala there were no reported cases and to the best of my knowledge there still aren’t. The big joke around here (its not funny) is that if someone ends up with Swine Flu on the ship that we are going to be quarantined outside of Ft. Lauderdale for weeks with a gigantic battleship to make sure no one jumps ship. I am REALLY glad that this just became a big deal because it could have really impeded on our travels (such as SARS did).

Leaving the Ship:

I’m really sad to be leaving this voyage and community but I am definitely ready to see my friends and family. I just took my last final so school is over (I think I’m getting 3 As and B+), which is fine by me. Right now we can see Central America in the distance, the little outlines of their coasts. It’s nice to have birds flying outside of the window too. It’s odd to have flies on the ship though (since we’re close to land now we have them). I’m going to miss the little things on this ship such as the noon update or even the structure of the nights activities (pre-port, etc). I can’t believe we’ll all be saying goodbye in just three days but I really feel like this is the start of a brand new chapter in my life and I can’t wait.

Happy Sailing,

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Days 4-5 Japan

Day 4-Tokyo, Japan
I awoke early in my small capsule, quickly showered and woke up Brittany. After getting organized we decided to head to Roppongi Hills, a sprawling metropolitan complex of Japanese economic hegemony. Brittany’s feet were bothering her (we weren’t having good feet luck in Japan) and she chalked it up to her shoes. She was desperate to get some relief so we headed to Birkenstock, which was closed (we were there too early), so we decided to head to the top of the building for the Tokyo City View. It turned out that it was a two-for-one ticket which included the Mori Art Museum AND a car show (I took pictures for you dad).

The Art Museum was really cool, very modern. The main attraction was this triangular form of rings with light bulbs on it, it was supposed to be confusing, yet reflexive. Also included in the ticket was a headset which guided us through the museum and told us little factoids. Some of the exhibits were really odd, such as one which consisted of a wood table in the middle of a dark room which you were supposed to touch which made it make noises and quote movies-very weird.

My favorite piece was done by a man who was trying to express what happened to his world when his family’s farm was taken back by the government to be turned into something industrial. It was spread across an entire room with names of the farm, his family, trees and other organic matters.

From the museum we headed upstairs to the car show. It was really cool because not only could you view the Japanese Bentley or a MiTo, but you could also look out the large window on the 52nd floor out towards Tokyo, a great outlook.

After taking quite a few pictures we took the elevator (and deposited our belongings in a locker so they wouldn’t get blown away) up to the official Tokyo View. The window was blowing and the view was fantastic as we looked over all of Tokyo and took more pictures (of course!).

Brittany’s feet were really killing her so we decided to go back to Birkenstock and try to find her a good comfy pair of shoes. We were successful, so we went down to the food court to get a nosh. I found take-out tempura (sticking with authentic food, all the business people were ordering it), while Brittany grabbed a bagel(with too little cream cheese).

After lunch we took another timely metro to Asakusa. Asakusa is well known for it’s Nakamise Shopping Arcade and it’s Buddhist Temple Sensoji, which is Tokyo’s largest Buddhist temple.

Upon walking up to arcade itself you pass by the Kaminarimon or the Thunder gate which is a huge gate with a large lantern with the guardian gods, Raijin and Rujin. We walked around the shopping arcade for a little while, Brittany bought some pottery for her family while I watched the locals buy discount makeup and other goods. The arcade was pretty busy and the Japanese can be a little pushy in lines (if there is a space in the queue then its up for the taking), but all in all it was pretty orderly. The color scheme is bright reds and yellows, working together to lead one to the main attraction amongst the cherry blossoms (although not as prevalent as in Kyoto, Tokyo did have quite a few), the Sensoji.

The next thing we pass by is the Kannondo. There were quite a few individuals surrounding the small circular well, each holding incense while wafting the smoke towards themselves. Before entering the temple we wash our hands in another dragon (in metal) fountain with little cups to cleanse ourselves.

We look ahead and see hundreds of white lanturns, neatly hung in orderly rows leading us to the main gate. The gate is a two-tiered pagoda which we slip through in order to get a glimpse of the main alter which is totally plated in gold. It is actually behind glass which skews the view a little bit but it is still a beautiful array of alter and flower, mixing and mingling in order to showcase Buddhist beauty.

As we look up to the ceiling we see a beautiful painting of a G-d with a red skirt, twirling different pieces of cloth. As we walk out of the main gate we see a 5-tiered red and black pagoda, Gojunoto, which is sad to house some of the ashes of Buddha. Surrounded by blossoms it is a truly a magical place.

Continuing through the garden we see more beautiful carved stones (my favorite!) as well as black stone statues of Buddhas and small prayer and donation pagodas (they look like mini-pagodas with green roofs and wood structures on top of stones). It was just so beautiful.

After reflecting in the garden we decide to head back out to the shopping arcade (its getting late) and make our final purchases. I really wanted a little container for powdered green tea (and green tea), because let’s face it, I love green tea. But, I wanted it for a really good price so we had to walk all around to find one that was more geared towards wholesale. After walking through at least 10 pottery shops, we find the perfect shop in a small ally. I purchase a small, white, condiment container with small cherry blossoms painted on it. It is beautiful. Afterwards, we managed to track down a  grocery store to buy some powdered green tea.

Exhausted, we hop on the metro to head back to the capsule hotel to drop our belongings and recharge before heading back out.

The capsule hotel is alive with travelers (including some SASers), we utilize the computers and research what to do for dinner and the late afternoon. Next, we hop on the metro and head to Ginza, famous for it’s shopping malls. Sitting on the subway at rush-hour was quite a site as the young student next to me kept falling asleep and the businessman to my right was furiously texting.

Ginza looked like any other section of any other city and we quickly bored of the shopping centers (it was all VERY upscale). We decided to head into one of the centers to grab a quick snack (I got a hand sushi roll) as we were getting hungry but didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg. Brittany’s foot was also starting to hurt again at this point.

We hopped back on the metro (we had unlimited passes and wanted to see as much as we could) towards Shinkjuku, famous for it’s electronics, music and department stores. We walked along the very busy streets before deciding (Brittany was having trouble walking at this point) to stop for some dinner. We ate at a Japanese version of an IHOP (part fast food but with service). We each got some very yummy shrimp tempura with rice and miso soup. After dinner Brittany decided that she wanted to return to Roppongi to try to return the Birkenstocks. So, once more, we got on the metro and headed to Roppongi. Although she wasn’t able to return them, she did get the arches hammered down which helped. Afterwards she got some Ice Cream and we started discussing if it was possible to wake up to go the Tsukiji Fish Market at four in the morning. After deciding to do it, we headed back to the Capsule Inn to go to sleep. Sleep came easy as I was exhausted and before I knew it, it was morning…

Day 5- Tokyo to Yokohama

I was in disbelief when my alarm buzzed at 4:30 am. The idea of waking up that earl and the actual occurrence of such an event are two totally different things. But, alas I was waking up early to see the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, so really I had nothing to complain about. I woke Brittany up (she was not particularly happy about it) and we got ready, then headed down to the metro to grab the first train of the morning to Tsukiji (the 5:12am). The station is roughly a kilometer from the market and we were a little disoriented, but we were able to follow a German family all the way there.

The market is alive and very real. People are conducting high stakes auctions (tuna is expensive!). As we walked into the open air building, I was reminded of Rona. The industrial fork lift thingies (I don’t know what they’re actually called) were whizzing past us(you had to be really careful) carrying everything from squid to enormous tunas. The smell was quite overwhelming, but I managed to get used to it. It was amazing to see all the different kinds of fish in little stands, the shopkeepers proudly slicing and dicing. I tried to not get grossed out as we traversed the aisles. We slowly (it was sensory overload) made out way to the back of the market where the tuna auctions were.

The auctions were held in what looked like huge storage units (with garage doors). We peaked under one and saw rows upon rows of frozen tuna, larger than a person! The back tail (or fin?) was cut off and a little hanging piece of meat was exposed to allow bidders to feel the meat (grosssss). I ducked under to snap a few shots before getting in trouble and being shooed to the ‘official tourist line’. After waiting for 10 or so minutes (while watching the whizzing carts full of fish almost collide with each other and tourists) we walked into one of the units, down a small aisle, and got a better view of the auctions. It is truly amazing that so much goes into buying sushi (lol). The chaos began to subside around six and we made our way back out of the market, viewing for the final time curled octopus legs, thousands of tiny shrimp and fish that I have never seen in my life. Let’s just say the fish market in Seattle has nothing on Tsukiji.

After we washed the smell off our clothes we took a short nap at the Capsule Inn before heading back out to explore Ahkihabara (where our hotel was located). We had decided to leave this adventure for last because we weren’t going to buy a all-you-can-ride pass for the metro and we could easily leave our stuff at the capsule.

Ahkihabara is also known as the Electric Town, Chou St. being the main drag. We arrived a little early (around 9:45) as the huge mega-shops were opening. The whole street looked like one big Brandsmart USA and each shop seemed to resemble the discount electronic store. The stores housed everything technical or manga (the Asian comic book style) you could ever imagine. Although their technology is ahead of ours, the prices were pretty similar. As Brittany browsed the multi-story electronic stores looking for ‘junk drives’ and a camera for her dad, I looked at the DSLRs. They still had D40s on the shelf! They are definitely more into DSLRs than we are in the United States (for instance a D700 or something that would be marketed at professionals in the United States is marketed for consumers!). They had lens upon lens and more camera bag choices than I have ever seen in my life. However, I was a good girl and managed to restrain myself!

As many of you know, I am kind of obsessed with Copic Markers (used for anime, or in my case, rubber stamping!), so when I heard we were staying in the anime district I had hoped that we would run into them. Since we had a little extra time before lunch (the McDonalds 390 Yen lunch special that served us well in Japan wherein you get a cheeseburger, fries and a large soda for the equivalent of 4 USD (any other Japanese lunch sets you back roughly 10 USD or much more), Brittany used her limited Japanese to ask some clerks about them. After asking 10 or so people, we managed to locate a store that sold them!

Nothing is cheap in Japan, but the Copic markers were only 399 Yen (4 USD) as opposed to 6 or 7 USD in the states. I was good again and ended up just buying two (E04 and B000) plus the starter airbrush set (I had extra yen). I was happier than a kid in a candy store and even took a video of the shop for my stamping blog!

After stopping for our fast food lunch (yucky, but cheap!) we headed back to the capsule to grab our bags then to the metro to say goodbye to Tokyo and head to Yokohama to meet the ship.

After making it to the ship (the trains were easy!) we dropped our belongings, changed our shoes and headed out to explore Yokohama for  two hours.

Yokohama, like most of Japan, is very modern and sort of reminded me of the Boston Harbor area. We walked down to the stadium, passing quite a few purple and yellow tulips on our way. From there we headed to China Town where we sipped some green tea and saw most of the items we had bought in China for triple the price. I enjoyed seeing the city, but it was basically like any other smaller city so I was glad that we had stayed in Tokyo.

I really enjoyed Japan. After seeing poverty around the world it was nice to see a country and a people who were thriving. Many comforts that we enjoy they have even improved (case in point: Toliets, there’s sing to you (the flushing noise), heat your bottom, have built in bidets and I’m just talking about the ones in McDonalds, some even blow dry you). Its amazing to me that a country that was once a great military power managed to harness that energy and turn their economy into a real prize. Successfully, they managed to avoid a lot of military spending and in turn put that federal money towards good use. I think the world could learn a lot from Japan.

Happy Sailing!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Day 3- Kyoto to Tokyo, Japan

Day 3- Kyoto to Tokyo, Japan

As usual we woke up early, this time to go to Tokyo. I was quite excited to use the Shinkansen to get there. The Shinkansen is the Japanese bullet train which reaches speeds of up to 190 miles per hour. We took the Nozomi train on the Tokaido track from Kyoto to Tokyo, direct. The train itself had a futuristic outside (very slanted and white) but the inside was just a more luxurious train. We sat next to a Japanese businessman who told us what towns we were passing and when to look for certain highlights. It was pretty amazing to literally see buildings flash before my eyes. The true highlight was towards the end of the ride (at 12:12, exactly, they were able to tell us ahead of time and were perfectly correct) when we got to see Mt. Fuji. It was a spectacular sight with its white snowy volcano top overshadowing the towns below!

The ride only took a little over two hours and we were hungry by the time we arrived. But, we decided to head to our CAPSULE hotel!!! After a little navigating we made it to the Capsule Inn Akihabara which is in the ‘Electric District’ (its where all the electronic stores are). The lobby was on the first of ten floors. We gave the man our registration and in return he gave us the key to our main lockers as well as the key to the shoe lockers. He told us we could drop our belongings but that we had to be out of there quickly as they were only ‘open’ from 5pm to 10am. We quickly ran upstairs (the 8th floor, which is all women) and dropped off our bags. We also snuck in to check out our capsules. Each one was roughly the length of a twin bed with the width of a full (the entire bottom was mattress). There was enough room to sit up. A TV was mounted to the ceiling of the capsule (although the channels were all in Japanese). Next to the head of the bed was a small ledge to put contacts, etc on, below which was a built in alarm/clock/radio. We also each got a small pillow which was full of pellet like beads (comfortable, but odd).

After putting our shoes back on and exchanging our locker keys for slips of paper with our room number (and paying, it was 4,000 yen or 40 USD) we headed for the Metro Station. We purchased our tickets (the machines worked in English too!) and headed to the platform. Japanese trains are SO timely, it was amazing! We almost never had to wait more than 3 minutes for a train, it was awesome.

We decided to go the Harajuku district which is known for its funky and hip fashion. We were sooo hungry that we decided to get lunch right away. I spotted a lunch special at a pizza place and for 10 USD we each got iced coffee, Caesar salad and pepperoni pizza. It was really yummy!

After our late lunch we headed across the street to Top Shop and some other small (expensive!) boutiques. Neither of us were having much success shopping, but we did see A LOT of Harajuku teens with their crazy spiky hair and extravagant style (boys in heels, but not in a transsexual way, just in an extreme way, its hard to explain). A few were nice enough to let me snap some pictures. After wandering through the busy streets we found an off-street which had a ton of cute, funky and cheap boutiques. Somehow I managed to find the perfect dress for Passover at over 50% off (it was like 3,000 Yen/ 30USD) and it fit perfectly. Brittany found some dresses and shoes and we were on our way!

We decided to walk up the streets (its on a hill) towards Meiji Jingu. It is a Shinto shrine, which is Japan’s ancient religion, void of a founder, holy book or conversion. However, they value nature and virtue. The closest things they have to G-ds are Kami which are divine spirits. One such Kami was the Emperor Meiji who passed in 1912. In commemoration of his life individuals from all over Japan sent trees (100,000 total) which worked to create the forest which we visited. It is considered Tokyo’s grandest shrine.

After walking (for quite a while!) through the forest we passed through a large torii gate (this one was brown and gold) that denoted that we had made it to the actual shrine. The roofs were green and sloping, overshadowing the brown temples that they covered. Once more we cleaned our hands and faces in the fountain, found a little bit of Zen and then walked back to the main street again.

We passed a plethora of fashionable youths before deciding (as the sun finally set) to get some food. We found a conveyor belt sushi restaurant and sat down for dinner. This one was bar style (like ruben’s in Miami) and we sat next to a kid and his father (we think it was his father, we’re not sure). I enjoyed some more roe and tempura while drinking hot green tea (it comes in powder form there, which you mix with the hot water). The kid was pretty funny as he grabbed almost everything that passed by him.  I was much more frugal and ended up with only three small plates worth. It’s amazing how many plates some people had accumulated (10 or more!).

We were pretty tired by the time we left the restaurant and were eager to try out our capsules. The inn was very much alive when we got back. They had the internet on (it was free) and we got to check our email and facebook. We also researched what to do the next day. The shower was divided into individual stalls by curtains, but was very clean. They also had free tap water (it’s the little things in life). I watched YouTube on my Ipod (free wireless) before falling fast asleep (it was noisy at times as there are about 30 capsules on each floor and the door to the balcony was open to let cool air in), but I am a sound sleeper so it was fine.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Kyoto, Japan

Day 2- Kyoto, Japan

We awoke super early as we wanted to rent bicycles from a nearby hostel and we had heard that they sold out most mornings. Becca and Perri explored during the day by bus. I was a little rusty on the bicycle, mostly do to the fact that it was not a multi-speed bike like I am used to, rather it was a simple one with a basket on the front. Brittany was a bit of a speed demon, while I was more careful of my movements close to cars and individuals. After some practice I became steadier and the bell came in handy for warning pedestrians that we were coming.

Our day’s goal was to get to the Philosopher’s Walk, which is a 2km long path with hundreds of cherry blossoms, by two o’clock to meet Perri and Becca. It was clear across town and we weren’t sure if we would make it, but we wanted to give it a go.

I was the navigator, making sure we were always going the right direction and with Brittany’s help I am proud to say we never got lost! Our first detour was to a small temple and it’s surrounding gardens along Gojo-dori street. We got there before it opened so we were only able to explore the outside. The cherry blossoms were exquisites and paired with the morning sun and beautiful stone carvings we were in Zen once more.

Our next pit stop (after some hard core biking) was to the Kiyomizu-dera temple. It was gorgeous! Since it was overlooking (we biked a hill/mountain to get to it, it was windy and narrow, it’s a small miracle that we made it) much of Kyoto the views were amazing, it was probably my favorite temple in Japan. The entrance to many of these temples have sacred water which you take from a dragon spout or the like and wipe on your hands and face. Of course, we delved right in asking the locals how to properly proceed. The temple itself is Buddhist and belonged to the Kita Hoso sect which was founded by Enchin in 778 CE and it is made to enshrine the G-d of Mercy (Kannon). The current structures were rebuilt during the 1600s and are a Romon or two storied gate, a Sanjunoto or three storied pagoda and a Shoro or belfy.

The cherry blossoms were everywhere and we got to delight in their presense snapping pictures and looking at the city below. The structures all had black tile roofs which pulled upwards in the corners. The structures themselves were painted red and white. The temple sold trinkets promising love and other charms for luck, etc(which I found interesting, it was like a glorified cheap gift shop right in the middle of everything). There were different pagodas with places you could pray (ring the bell, etc), but Brittany and I had had enough prayer for the day so we decided to just walk down the hill and play with the cherry blossoms. The road back to our bicycles was paved with shops selling everything from expensive sake sets to tshirts. We stopped for crepes before departing.

It was another trek, this time up Higashioji-dori street to the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, but we were quite in the swing of things, having totally mastered biking amongst crowds. The entrance to the building was a huge red traditional Japanese gate or ‘Torii’. It was pretty spectacular. The museum had a special exhibition going on which was a photo gallery with Ads made by Japanese individuals. It was pretty cool to see all the different campaigns produced by Japan. Another hall had all pieces of modern art, I really liked one that was an interpretation of Matryoshkas from Russia. The upstairs portain of museum wanted like 1,000 yen for entrance (10$) so we decided to skip it and play once more in the gardens outside before departing. Our next stop was to the Kyoto Handicraft Center (I put Brittany in charge of this navigation). It was really touristy (it was basically a shopping mall) and since Japan was much more expensive than our past ports, I had already had my fill of less expensive Asian products. Brittany bought some thing for her dad and we were on our way.

Tired, but determined, we biked all the way up Higashioki-dori and over Marutamachi-dori to The Philosopher’s Walk. It is named after Kitaro Nishida who used to take the walk and preach philosophy to his students.  It was quite spectacular. There were more cherry blossoms than I had seen in our entire trip! They all lined a canal and made for some beautiful sights. There were quite a few vendors around as well. We couldn’t find Perri and Becca so we decided to just meet them at the hostel.

The bike ride back was also quite an event. Rather than wind through the busy streets oncemore, I thought it might be nice to bike along the Kamogawa Canal which splits Kyoto. Brittany agreed and after biking the cross street we made it to the canal. It was alive with locals picnicking and frolicking. Parts of the canal had larges stones which you could hop across, some where even carved into turtles! We jumped from rock to rock and then continued our long bike home, proud of ourselves for our journey!

We stopped for coffee in a vending machine before returning to our hostel. I don’t think I have mentioned these yet, but they are THE greatest! They have a ton of varieties of hot and cold coffee in cans in vending machines lining the streets for 120 yen ($1.20 USD). It is the simplest thing ever, but ever so yummy.

We napped for a little bit before Perri and Becca got home. We changed and quickly left for Kawaramachi Street. A shopping street, dotted with Karaoke joints and sushi restaurants was quite a haven for us after our exhausting day. Becca had heard about a conveyor belt sushi restaurant named Kappa Sushi which we all made a J-line for. The line was long but we waited it out and were rewarded with a really fun and interesting experience. All the rolls were 105 yen (1.05 USD) which was really awesome because it made us want to try every roll which rolled on by (they were on little plates on an electric conveyor belt). My favorite rolls were the Roe and Shrimp Tempura (two separate rolls), each plate had like 2-3 rolls which was great for sampling. The girls all competed for who could eat the most and I failed miserably, consuming only 5 plates worth (they were at 8-9). The other really cool thing was that there were little computers on each table from which you could special order rolls which would come on a fake shinkansen (bullet train). It was a really fun restaurant.

Becca had read about the Nijo Castle which is lit up at night. It was quite a long walk but eventually we made it. Brittany and I decided not to go in as it was a little pricey and we were tired. When Perri and Becca came back we were really tired but decided to walk back to Kawaramachi street to sing some karaoke. We rented a room for a half hour and the four of us belted out Madonna, Beauty and the Beast and Jessie’s Girl while drinking free Ginger Ale. We had a lot of a fun! Our voices and bodies were tired by the time we made it home (we had a little trouble figuring out the night bus) and to sleep.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Day 1 Kobe to Kyoto, Japan

Day 1 Kobe to Kyoto, Japan

We woke up early only to find that customs was going very slowly. Customs is an interesting thing, especially internationally. In some countries the ship gets cleared in an hour once passports are stamped, but in Japan we were required to give them our fingerprints and go through a lengthy procedure with our baggage. Once the ship finally called our sea (we’re always last) we dashed into the Kobe terminal and bought train tickets to Kyoto. Finding the correct train is always stressful, but somehow I managed to pick the right one and Perri, Becca and Brittany hopped on. It took about an hour to get to Kyoto. The train was clean, but there weren’t enough seats so we (with some other SASers) took to the floor and a few stood. Eventually everyone was able to obtain a seat. As I looked out the window, I saw a very urban landscape. Japan is debatably the most industrialized country in the world and it showed. From the deep black roof tops with their corners pulled upwards it was clear that Japan successfully pulls from the old while turning to the new.

We finally arrived at Kyoto station and ran upstairs to grab tourist maps (in English) before heading to our Hostel. We stayed at Tour Club Kyoto, which was my first true hostel. It was clean but very different from anywhere we had stayed before. There were four beds in our room all on the floor with just a little room between it and the bathroom. I took the bed closest to the wall (away from the bathroom) and delighted in the free internet that I could receive from my ipod.

After we dropped our bags off we split up, Perri and Becca wanting to explore the local area (Brittany and I knew we were going to rent bikes the next day). Britt and I headed to the Gion District, which is where the Geishas are. We took the bus (we always use public transport) to the foot of the district.

The cherry blossoms were out and despite the fact that my foot was bothering me (I had twisted it earlier) we managed to make it to Kenninji Temple. The sweeping temple is one of Japan’s largest Zen temples. Brittany and I posed with the immense black and white temples and beautiful gardens. Most of the gardens had some sort of large stone with Japanese writing on it. They were striking, especially paired with pink cherry blossoms and green flora.

After arriving at some sort of zen we decided to tread on. The district was basically a street lined with restaurants and brown doors which led to Geisha’s quarters. There were a few Geishas outside with their ornate kimonos and flip-flops (with white socks, of course!). I snapped some pictures of them and we were on our way, content with our sightings.

Our next stop was to the Yasaka Shrine on the eastern end of Shijo-dori. The Gion Matsuri takes place in July at this shrine. It was quite large and had some sort of an event going on so there were stalls full of food from fried chicken (which Brittany purchased) to sodas and beers. Shinto Shrines seem to resemble carnivals to me in some way. There are different booths within which you donate money and then do some sort of a ritual and pray. We participating in one where you toss money into a basket and then pull a very long rope which makes a bell ring and then you say a little prayer. It was very cool to participate in yet another religion.

From there we headed to it’s gardens which were lined in blue tarp. I sat under a cherry blossom and listened to the Japanese students surrouding me. My foot was really hurting so Brittany walked around a little and tried to cheer me up. Soon Perri and Becca arrived from their travels and we all headed to a local Japanese restaurant. We sampled some hot green tea (loved it!) and dined on tempura and rice. The Japanese individuals around me utilized their chopsticks in such a graceful spooning/shoveling manner, whereas I seemed to be picking and pulling at my rice bowl. By the end of my meal (and three of Perri’s advils) my foot was feeling better!

Becca had read about a temple which is lit up at night so we decided to try to find it. After a while (it was getting cold quickly), we realized it must have just been the park behind Yasak Shrine (Maruyama Park). It was full of young Japanese college students partying it up under cherry blossom trees. There were vendors all over. The main attraction at the park is the weeping cherry tree (Shidarezakura), which is lit up beautifully at night. I managed to garter up the courage to ask (well sign and motion, lol) a Japanese man if I could use his tripod to take a picture at night! He kindly obliged. After my photoshoot, we walked around the trees and talked to some other tourists (from Holland!) and some Japanese students who spoke pretty good English. Brittany and I were quite tired by the time we said goodbye to catch the last bus back to the Hostel, while Becca and Perri stayed with our new friends.