Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I hope you don't mind J-pop.

So, I am a failure and managed to forget my camera on the day that I visited the Toyota Automobile Museum (even though it seems like the least cool of the three Toyota museums, it was still pretty interesting), the oldest Koshoji temple in Aichi prefecture, and one of the most important shrines in all of Japan where there were men in traditional dress performing ooharae, where there is a sword that has been designated a National Treasure, and where there are 174 Japanese 'Important Cultural Properties. Oops. Instead, here are some music videos from the favorite bands of kids at Chukyo High School. Enjoy.

Artist: Ayumi Hamasaki
Song: 'Glitter' (2007, English lyrics here)

Artist: Exile (6 members)
Song: 24karats Stay Gold (2010) Sorry, no English lyrics cause this song was released last week.

Artist: Spitz (4 members)
Song: Wakaba (2008, English lyrics here)

Artist: ARASHI (5 members)
Song: Love S Sweet (2007, Hana Yori Dango opening credits, English here)
Sorry about the Spanish, but t was hard to find a video that was the actual band and not someone without a life.

And last but not least
Artist: Justin Bieber
Song: Baby (2010)
I also just realized that Drake/Jimmy from 'Degrassi' is in this music video.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Inuyama Castle

Of the once 40,000 castles thought to have been built in Japan throughout history, there are about 50 that remain today, including castle ruins. Only twelve of these castles were not burned in and rebuilt after World War II (sorry Japan, for destroying your history). Four of those castles have been given the title of National Treasures since 1951 based on their "especially high historical or artistic value." Himeji Castle in Hyogo prefecture is the most visited castle in Japan and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other National Treasures are Matsumoto Castle in Nagano prefecture, Hikone Castle in Shiga prefecture, and Inuyama Castle in Aichi prefecture.

If Nagoya castle was pretty, I don't even know what adjective to use in describing Inuyama Castle.

It was a little walk from the subway station, but it was along a river and we could see the castle up on a hill and it was beautiful. All you can see in this picture is the main tenshu and the watchtower on top of it. The castle was built in 1440, making it the oldest castle in Japan, but it has undergone many renovations and changes, and the construction wasn't complete until 1620.

We got to the castle hot and sweaty after our walk up there, only to find that there was more to go. A huge rock saying 'Inuyama Castle' is very misleading when you haven't actually reached the castle yet.
Since all of the Japanese kids are taking finals for the next to weeks, it's just the foreigners who get to have fun. From left to right it's Mary and Adena, both YFU students in Nagoya this summer. The Japanese characters from left to right are 'inu' (dog), 'yama' (mountain), and 'jo' (castle). The kanji above The castle are the kanji for national treasure.
The next leg of our journey was not as long, and it was much more scenic. We were surrounded by trees, we could see and hear the river flowing past, and we passed this really cool Shinto shrine on our way up. In the building of the castle Harigane Shrine actually had to be moved, but I don't think it has anything to do with this shrine.
And since all of the Japanese castles kept getting burned, the city of Inuyama decided to put up signs that prohibit lighting fires when visiting Inuyama Castle.
The final and most treacherous leg of our journey. Japanese people in the 1500s and 1600s must have had amazing legs.
After conquering the hill we finally found some English guidebooks and entered the main castle courtyard. From the road we had only been able to see the top of the castle and, even though it wasn't a very big castle, it was really impressive.
The part on top of the castle is the watchtower. In fact, the architecture of the watchtower was such an old style that it lead historians to believe for many years that the Inuyama Castle donjon, or tenshu, was the oldest in Japan. Later, it was discovered that Maruoka Castle was built in 1576, whereas construction on the Inuyama donjon wasn't started until 1601 and was completed in 1620. On the bottom right you can also see one of the towers, which was completed in 1537.

A little description they had by the tiny model of the Inuyama Castle donjon.

There were probably close to a hundred of these little pieces of wood, each with different Japanese characters on them and I could not even come close to deciphering what they were. I asked my host sister, who had to ask someone else, and we finally found an answer. On each piece of wood was the name of a daimyo (the equivalent of a feudal lord in Japan) and a number. The number was the height of the area of the castle that each lord was commissioned to build, and the higher the number the more important the lord.

There was a room with all of the castles in Japan. This one is for Katie.

As we went up, the view from the windows got better and better. The view from the window that was meant for dropping stones on invaders was especially great because it was a huge window. The when we got to the top floor here the watchtower was, there was an entire balcony that you could walk around on, regardless of how short the railing was or how slippery the wood under our feet was from 400 years of use. The top of the watchtower is about 62 feet, so the balcony was probably 50 feet above the ground, maybe a little less. When you add that 50 feet to the height of the hill the castle was built on, the watchtower is very tall and the surrounding area is a very flat plain and the Kiso River. So, you can imagine the view. Inuyama City, and maybe Mt. Hongu somewhere in the background.
This is the Kiso River, and I think this is Kakamigahara City and that there is a Mt. Atago in the background. I could be wrong though.
Fun fact of the day: Every house in Japan that has this Japanese style roof has a design on the ends of the roof, and each design is different. Nagoya Castle had sakura blossoms on the tiles, Inuyama Castles has clovers (or at least that's what they look like), and I'll have to check the designs on the roof of my house. I'll report back soon though.
I don't know if it was worse coming down or going up, but the stairs in the castle were the steepest stairs I've ever seen. It was more like climbing a ladder than walking up stairs. This picture doesn't really do the stairs justice. TO put things in perspective though, one step went over halfway up my calf, and Mary's about to be perilously close to smacking her head on the beam above the stairs here. I was more than perilously close, and it hurt.
Once we got down from the castle it was already lunch time, since everyone had worked up an appetite climbing up and down stairs and mountains. We were visiting on a Monday morning so everything in Inuyama was sleepy and a little depressing, but we found a noodle shop to eat in.
There's my host sister going inside through the noren, the hanging banners used to tell if a shop is open or not.
There were a lot of us, so we got the long table that was about a foot and a half off of the ground, and it did not have any place to put your feet under the table. There was also no air conditioning, which isn't uncommon in Japan, so in addition to our legs being in pain and falling asleep, we were dripping with sweat. Sometimes a fan is just not enough.
I ordered tsukimi udon, which literally means moon-viewing udon. I knew it had egg in it, the big, round yolk is where the name moon-viewing comes from. I had forgotten that the egg was raw. Usually tsukimi udon is served hot and the egg slowly cooks, but since everything else was hot, I ordered cold soup. So, I ate raw egg yesterday and I won't forget tsukimi udon is in the future (even though raw egg doesn't taste like much).
After lunch we went to Little World, a sort of wooded park area where there are houses and foods from all around the world; Okinawa, Tanzania, Italy, the Great, Plains, Nepal, and about 16 other countries. My camera died in the first country, so no pictures. We stopped by a gelato place in Italy and I had 'kashisu' gelato (everyone else got mango), but no one could tell me what kashisu was, only that it was sour. When I got home and used Google translator, I found out that kashisu is black currant, and that black currant gelato is very good.
While we were waiting for a bus, everyone went into a department store in seek of air conditioning and an ATM. In the department store I came across this banner: So far this is the closest I've gotten to Matsujun, Feruza. I'm still on the lookout though, so don't be disappointed yet.
After Little World we napped on the bus back to Inuyama Station, took a train to Sakae, the downtown district of Nagoya, and wet to a really cool okonomiyaki restaurant. The restaurant had a place to put your feet, thank god. I also tried my first Japanese doughnut yesterday (green tea and azuki bean) and I'm addicted. I ate two more this morning. There will be an entire post about how wonderful Japanese doughnuts are a little ways down the road.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Tokyo Disneyland Part II: Disney Sea (Where Adventure and Imagination Set Sail)

Despite the name, there isn't much sea in Disney Sea. It's more of a controlled maze of waterways that is right next to the sea. In fact, there's a wall so high that you can only see the Pacific Ocean if you ride the fake 1920s-style Electric Railway from the American Waterfront (1920s NY) to Port Discovery. Besides being a little disappointed by the name, Disney Sea was a lot of fun. My host mom, my host sister and I woke up leisurely in our hot and rather small yukatas, brushed our teeth and hair with hotel materials, and had a nice breakfast in the hotel before boarding a bus for Disney Sea.

My mom, my host sister and me in front of Disney Sea. And don't you dare laugh at me for my peace sign, it's what the Japanese do.

Again, the first thing that happened when we got there was a show, since Disney Sea doesn't have parades. We got some gelato, and then went to sit in the sea of umbrellas (because it was sunny, not rainy) on Disney Sea maps so that we didn't get dirty. That's also what the Japanese do.
This show was Fairies Primavera, a special Spring Carnival show (even though it is summer) in the Mediterranean Harbor. It featured Tinkerbell, her fairy friends, and Terence, her man-fairy friend. Disney prefers the term 'sparrow-man' though, so as not to call him a fairy. To give you an idea of what Terence is like, Jesse McCartney was the voice actor for Terence in the films.

The fairies came out in their boat first waving handkerchiefs, and since the Japanese always carry handkerchiefs to elegantly dab their sweat, everyone waved back.

A really cute cat and a slightly creepier cat, both dancing.

And then this boat came up and let out the women in the petal dresses

and Mickey and Minnie!

This show actually reminded me of Grease. It was fun.

And there were also these crazy tall green things.
As all of the boats left everyone waved their handkerchiefs again in the routine that we were taught before the show. I wish I had gotten a video.

After that we got our fast passes for the Indiana "Indy" Jones ride and the Tower of Terror and took a little Sinbad adventure (a really cute ride), it was lunch time. My host mom and sister were determined to let me eat Mexican food, so we went to Miguel's El Dorado Cantina in the Lost River Delta. As cynical as I am concerning Disney's adherence to reality, they did a pretty good job with the Mexican restaurant. If everything weren't made of plaster or whatever it is they use to make theme park scenery, I might have actually believed I was somewhere near Mexico. The atmosphere was ruined by all of the Japanese I heard. It was also ruined it when there was an 'l' sound in their pronunciation of 'paella.'
After our 'Mexican' meal, we went off in the Lost River Delta where I think the humidity was pretty accurate to reality in search of the Indy (as the Japanese say) Jones ride.
It was a fun ride. I wouldn't call it a roller coaster, but the effects and the ride were entertaining. At one point you think you're about to get run over by a huge stone, but suddenly the floor falls away in front of you and the tracks go beneath the Temple of Doom boulder. At this point, there's flash of light and your expression is forever recorded in the form of a digital photo. If you're my host sister, that's great! Since she works there, she knows where all of the cameras are and poses for everyone of them. But sitting next to her in all of the photos there was this redhead making weird faces. How unfortunate.

But the terrible image left in my head after seeing the photo monitor was erased by the noon-ish show Mystica. And this T-shirt I saw in front of me while waiting for the show to start: They can't have nay idea what their shirts say! But the still wear them! Let this be a warning; the next time you buy a shirt that has something written in a foreign language, think twice before you buy it It might say something like
"It is the moment of Jockstrap
time you courage is Public
In the shape of love
everyone becomes mama."
That doesn't even make sense!!

But back to Mythica. It started with one boat in the center with water jets shooting everywhere, and then out came more boats in the shape of all different animals. This one is an eagle and everyone is flying kites around on it, there was a turtle, a dragon, a frog, and one more that I can't remember.

Then, after a twenty or thirty foot column rose out of the boat in the center and Mickey Mouse starting walking around on a platform at the top, all sorts of creatures came out of the boats. There were people dressed as lizards, phoenixes, weird fish things, and really intricate birds. After THAT Minnie Mouse came out of the boat nearest to us and guys on jet skis that were made to look like dragons started flying five kites from each jet ski.

Just when I thought the show was winding down, out comes a unicorn
a dragon with a glowy zappy orb that looked like one of those static electricity balls where the electricity is attracted to your fingers
a serpent with a giant fountain on it
and a phoenix shooting fire everywhere.

There were also fireworks periodically, but I didn't catch any on film or in a photo. This show was definitely the best.

After escaping the room with all of the photos in it, I let slip that Ariel was my favorite Disney princess as a child. Since it was still not our Fast Pass time at the Tower of Terror, we went to Ariel's Mermaid Lagoon and it was surreal. From the outside, it's intriguing. There are swirls and corals and fish all covered with mosaic glass so it shines in the sunlight. When you enter, it looks like a room filled with blue light and a fountain with a bronze Triton figurine in it. Then, you see past the figurine over the balcony. Lights of all different colors glowing and fading, the sound of splashing water and kids shrieking with delight. Then, you realize you can actually go down there and it all gets about ten times better.

You could even ride in these bouncing jellyfish!

I told my host sister that I didn't have meet Ariel because I'd already met her when I was little, so instead she took me to a show. It was a weird hybrid between English songs and Japanese dialogue, but it was a good show. It wasn't very long, but the squeezed everything in without i seeming forced. The characters sang 'Part of Your World,' 'Under the Sea,' (of course) and 'Poor Unfortunate Souls.' The only creature who touched the ground was Sebastian; all of the others were in harnesses or were mechanized or both. Ursula was a hug puppet that came out of the wall and had strobe lights in it to make her seem especially evil when she was doing her witchcraft. But in the end, Ariel realized she had friends under the sea and she didn't want to have legs or be part of their world.
After the show was over my host sister and I hurried over to the Tower of Terror while my host mom found a cafe to sit in. We got through the line quickly and I chatted with two girls in front of us after one of them stared at me and then told the other one to look. Very subtle. Then they were both standing sideways and throwing glances at the ginger, so I decided to catch one of their glances, let them say 'hello' awkwardly, and then let them flip out like everyone does when they realize I speak Japanese. It never gets old.
Once again, my host sister made a cute face right before we fell from the top of the ride and I looked like I was about to puke up my tacos from lunch. The ride ended up not even being that scary. We barely had time to scream while we were falling.
After that I got some caramel popcorn because I couldn't find any of the curry popcorn I wanted to try and we went to find my host mom.
From there we went to eat at a traditional Kyoto restaurant in 'Ikspiari,'* a shopping center in the Disney complex. I ate potato soup that looked like snot, soba, and tofu ice cream. I was sitting like I had been told to sit, with your legs beneath you and your feet, in pain, under you butt. About halfway through the meal, and after each of my legs had fallen asleep at least once, my host sister and my mom noticed that I was fidgeting around a lot. They then enlightened me to the fact that there was a giant well beneath the table that you could put your feet in just so that you didn't have to sit like had been sitting.

After I regained feeling in my feet, my host mom and I got on the Shinkansen, sped back to Nagoya, and promptly fell asleep as soon as we got home. Two days well spent.

*Ikspiari is pronounced like the 'experi' in experience. It's spelled like that because of the way the Japanese katakana alphabet works.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Toyko Disney Part I: Disneyland

\Usually when I think about travel I get stressed out and wait for my dad to get bossy and put everyone else in a bad mood too. But then again, I usually don't travel by bullet train. My host mom and I left the house at 7:45 and were on a train to Nagoya Station one car ride and one subway wicket later. There is no security to go through, no boarding group hassle, no fighting over who sits where or who has to drive, and the seats are amazingly roomy.
The Shinkansen (bullet train) travels at an average speed of 186 miles per hour (300 km/h), and it was built in 1964. You may wonder why after 40 years we don't have something like this in the United States, and I wonder that too. To give you an idea of how fast 186 miles per hours is, I took a little video on the train.

The scenery was pretty crazy too. It would move seamlessly from rice paddies to city and back in about thirty seconds. You can also see Mount Fuji on days when it isn't cloudy.
Approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes after leaving Nagoya Station, my host mom and I arrived 225 miles away at Tokyo Station. My host sister was waiting for us at the Tokyo Disney subway station with fancy Fast Pass tickets that she got because she's an employee*, where we were greeted by "Be Our Guest." I could tell it was going to be fun.

Disney Land was the first stop on our list. We arrived just in time for the morning Easter Wonderland parade (Easter in June?).

First came roller skating rabbits:

I just missed catching their cute little trick on video.

After the rabbits there were various Disney characters;

Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the Cheshire Cat;

These cute bunnies;

Pooh and crew;

Stitch, pink Stitch, and Lilo;

This guy;

Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Mike, and Sully;

and various other characters that I didn't feel needed to be mentioned. Mainly Goofy, Pluto, Mickey, Minnie, and Chip and Dale. No important characters.

After the parade it started pouring rain so we rushed to get Fast Passes for Space Mountain and then watched a nearby show while we waited for our Fast Pass time to be up. The show was called 'One Man's Dream,' and while I didn't catch any of the Japanese they were singing, Disney says "this live stage show recreates the memorable moments of the Disney animated films and cartoons. Opening with the jump from black and white to color, the show also features such scenes as Peter Pan soaring above the stage and the circus from A Bug’s Life." Regardless of whether or not you understand the plot, it's visually appealing as well.
When the show finished it was time for Space Mountain and I had no idea what to expect. I was thinking there would be Disney characters and black lights (which Disney LOVES, and also which make my plastic nose stud retainer glow) but I was very wrong. The ride is pitch black, and then neon lights that looks like lightning shoot past you and up to where the first ascent ends. When you reach the top of the hill, you can't see anything except for projected stars everywhere. You can't see the track, the person next to you, or even your hands in front of you. It was awesome.
Of the three 'jet coasters,' Space Mountain was by far the best. If Space Mountain as a jet coaster, as the Japanese call it, then Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain were more like glider coasters. Splash Mountain would have been better had I not built it up in my mind as the scariest ride EVER after my traumatic childhood experience with it.
After riding several roller coasters, shooting aliens with Buzz Lightyear, hunting for honey with Winnie the Pooh (fun ride), canoeing, taking a jungle tour and a Western tour within about twenty feet of each other, and eating two meals that left me full and happy, the fun wasn't over. Tokyo Disney Land has a night parade where the floats are lit up with hundreds, if not thousands, of Christmas lights. This was possibly my favorite parade.
The Cheshire Cat again

A crazy caterpillar (and the guy who kept getting in the way of my pictures)

Some swirly snails

Snow White ( didn't get very good pictures of the dwarfs)

Peter Pan and Wendy

Pete and his dragon

Pooh and crew again with some bumblebees following Pooh's honey

Buzz Lightyear, on his own this time (followed by Woody and the girl cowboy, but my pictures suck)

Nemo! (followed by Crush and his pals)

Lumiere and Mrs. Potts (followed by Belle and the Beast, but their float wasn't very impressive)

Mike, Sully and of course Boo

Cinderella and her prince, but their floats didn't photograph well

I'm worried some kid may have a seizure

Lilo and Stitch's float

And finally, no Disney parade is complete without a little commercialism.

After the parade Kanako (my host sister) and I rode Space Mountain one more time since there was barely any line at all and sadly, it wasn't as fun the second time as it was the first time. After that, I was too tired to remember much. We got on a bus and went to the hotel.

A quick word about hotels in Japan. In hotels, they always have toothbrushes and shampoo and all of those things that seem to be just for show but that no one seems to use. In Japan, they use them. My host mom told me before I left that I didn't need to bring a brush, a toothbrush, toothpaste, face wash, or a towel because they would all be at the hotel. Not only that, but they had yukatas (hot and not well-fitted yukatas) at the hotel as pajamas. While I went along with everything my host mom and sister told me to, I will be bringing my own toiletries next time a visit a hotel, no matter the country. If I'm staying in a hotel, I at least want to have my own soap and toothbrush to make me feel a little more at home.

Stayed tuned for Part II: Disney Sea

*My host sister doesn't dress up like a princess, she manages a restaurant at Tokyo Disneyland. It's more respectable, but it's less fun.