a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Friday, June 22, 2012

Japan Part 2: Kyoto

From Fukuoka we took the bullet train to Kyoto. I love riding on trains. They are so much more comfortable than airplanes.
We picked up treats in the train station for the ride. Stephen got a rice treat that he said his mom used to make when he was a kid.
I bought a decadent crepe. :) Such cute packaging.
The train didn't go so fast that I couldn't take a few pictures as we traveled. We made several brief (they aren't kidding about "brief") stops between the cities of Fukuoka and Kyoto including Hiroshima.
The gracious behavior we noticed in Fukuoka was on display on the train. When the ticket collector entered our car for the first time he removed his hat, bowed, and greeted us all before he began stamping tickets. And then for each person he had a bow and a smile and pleasant words of greeting and thanks. All the way up the car he did this. When he came back through the car just as he was about to exit he turned around and bowed.
There was also a woman who went through the train offering snacks and beverages. She also bowed just as she exited each car. Stephen read about the different bows that the Japanese use. The lower the bow the more important the gesture, carrying more respect. In Cambodia bowing is also a common practice but it is also accompanied by a hand gesture like is often used when praying. At first I kept doing the Cambodian style of bow, but really the Japanese style is much easier, especially if your hands are full. :)
On our next to last stop I couldn't resist taking a picture of these high heels. Craziness I say!
We took the hotel shuttle from the train station and then we got our first glimpse of the city of Kyoto.
Then from our hotel we had this view of the city with mountains in the background.
Behind our hotel we took a hike on a bird watching trail.
For dinner that night we just decided to take a walk and see what we happened to find. Not far from the hotel we saw a sign that said Cordon Bleu. It was set back from the road and we weren't sure if it was even open but we went in anyway. No one else was in the restaurant but the woman who greeted us showed us their dinner set menu choices: only two, basically the same except one had more courses. We decided to be adventurous and it turned out we got to experience fine Japanese cuisine, a six course meal plus dessert and coffee.
The first course was gone before I thought to take a photo. :)
Second course. Look at that presentation!
Third course. A kind of potato soup. Yum.
Fourth course. So many flavors!
Fifth course. A marinated sweet tomato.
Sixth and main course. Delicious. I kept saying that with every course.
And finally dessert and coffee. What an experience!
The following day we spent the day walking around Kyoto and into gardens and temples. Throughout the city we would see women dressed in traditional kimonos like this beautiful one this woman is wearing.
Or like this woman with face painting also.
And this darling little girl with her mom. :) We saw her at Kiyomizu-dera temple, one of the two Unesco World Heritage Sites we visited that day.
Here Stephen is doing a ceremonial hand washing before entering the temple. We walked our legs off in Kyoto but it was great!
As we were walking around Kyoto we noticed that just ordinary homes had beautifully detailed roof design.
And some had interesting Asian creatures too.
Kyoto Station was cool just like the one in Fukuoka with shops and restaurants. We went to the station for a late lunch one day and then found this wonderful dessert shop called Berry Cafe. We each bought a slice and they were as delicious as they were beautiful.
Inside the box was an ice pack to keep this delicate dessert perfect until you were ready to eat it. Brilliant!
We spent five days in Kyoto and explored in a different direction and into different temples and gardens every day.
To enter this garden we had to remove our shoes, a common Asian practice. There was a boardwalk throughout. These raked gravel gardens are amazingly neat. Stephen loves these.
This giant gravel garden was at the entrance of the second Unesco World Heritage Site we visited in Kyoto: Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion). 
The quintessential Japanese garden, part of the Ginkakuji Temple. So beautiful! 
As we were walking into the garden a young boy ran up to Stephen and explained that he was a junior high student studying English and would Stephen mind if he asked him a few questions. We saw groups of students on field trips all over Kyoto. They all wore uniforms like the students in the above photo. Then as we were leaving the garden another student with a different group ask me if I would answer some questions for them. About six of them took turns reading questions from their notebook. Their last question was could they take a photo with me. :) 
In all the touristy places we saw ice cream and other treats made with green tea and sesame. I had to try an ice cream cone for myself. Pretty yummy. 
Twice we stopped at this Bubble Tea shop in a huge shopping area of Kyoto. We ordered hot ones. I'd never had hot bubble tea before, only cold bubble tea in Seattle. Those are black tapioca balls in the bottom of the cups. The girls who worked in the shop were really sweet.
We saved the most strenuous hike for our last full day in Kyoto. Fushimi-Inari Taisha, the gates of prosperity shrine. There are thousands of these red torri (gates) throughout the shrine area.
Huge torii.
 Medium torii.
And small torii. Some of the ones in the right hand side of this photo were only a foot tall. 
It was an awesome hike! The next day we took our second bullet train ride to Tokyo. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Japan Part 1: Fukuoka

This spring has been a huge travel time for Stephen and me. Three big international trips over three months. By the end of  May, my passport was totally filled up and I had to get additional pages added! One of those trips was a 10-day tour of Japan. It was incredible! My favorite trip yet in my life and that's pretty remarkable given all the places I've been recently. But Japan is my dream country, as it turns out, so I'm devoting three separate blog posts to describe our time there; one for each of the cities we stayed in.
We flew into Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu. Fukuoka is where Stephen's mother was from so it seemed like a nice place to start our tour of Japan. Stephen had never been to Japan before this trip. And I had only landed in the Tokyo airport on my way to Thailand. Neither of us really knew what to expect. What we found was something unexpectedly delightful at every turn.
One of the first things we noticed, was that the streets of Fukuoka are astonishingly quiet. Cars idle quietly at stop lights, drivers don't honk their horns, even people walking on the sidewalks don't shout or talk loudly. When we took a walk to a shopping center, we noticed a traffic guard holding up a sign to direct traffic, no whistle blowing for him. In Phnom Penh, traffic guards seem to love their whistles as they blow them incessantly when school lets out at 11 and again at 4:30. What a difference then for us to experience Fukuoka city streets. It's the most restful peaceful feeling to be right in the middle of the city but have such little junk noise that if you closed your eyes you might imagine you were in the countryside.
There is a lot of beauty throughout all the cities of Japan; trees, bushes, flowers are everywhere. Even vertical gardens.
The shopping mall we visited had plants up and down the walls and pools in between the walkways.
Biking is quite common as a way of commuting; we saw people riding bikes and lots of bikes parked. But unlike in Amsterdam where the bikes were often parked sloppily, the bikes in Japan are parked neatly. And you can pay to park in reserved spaces similar to the way we pay to park cars in the US.
The Japanese know how to use space efficiently. Japan is roughly the size of Montana; both are approximately 147,000 sq miles. But Japan's population is a little over 126 million people and Montana's population is slightly less than 1 million people. With a high population density, the Japanese have had to be creative. :) Like a parking lane for bikes under the over pass and double decker car parking - sorry no picture. :(
Before our trip, my knowledge and impressions of Japan were limited to movies. But The Last Samurai is my favorite movie, and not because of Tom Cruise though I think he did a great job. No, I love the attention to detail and striving toward excellence in everything on the part of the Japanese people that was artfully portrayed in that film. We found this to be just as true in real life Japan as the fictionalized depiction in The Last Samurai. Care is given to every area of life that we noticed. Trees are pruned to be similar to the small bonsai only large.
Packaging for food is exquisite.

And speaking of food, it all was delicious! I didn't think about "Japanese cuisine" before we got there and based on the little Japanese food I've had in the US, I wasn't expecting to find much I liked. Boy was I mistaken! The food in Japan is fresh and of high quality. We only bought one thing that wasn't absolutely melt in your mouth wonderful, and the lady really tried to talk us out of it. On our first night in Fukuoka we found an amazing grocery store. People were giving out samples of everything. I even had a sample of raw spicy sausage. :) In the bread department they would announce when something just came out of the oven and was hot and fresh. The produce was of such vibrant colors that we couldn't resist buying some strawberries. Much to our surprise and delight they actually tasted as good as they looked.
This market, where we found just a dizzying array of wonderful produce, meat, breads and pastries, was in the subway station. The subways are happening places in Japan. Shopping and restaurants are on many levels. People can grab hot croissants on their way home from work as they get ready to leave the subway. Or a freshly made crepe filled with one of the 20 choices for breakfast in the morning on the way to work. It's great. I remember the subway stations and trains of London when I visited in 1994 as being dark, dirty, unpleasant places. Certainly no shopping or restaurants. There were vending machines with Cadbury chocolate in them. Japan even does vending machines well! On the second day in Fukuoka we were walking for a long time trying to find a restaurant that looked good and I was losing energy. Vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan so we just stopped at one and I bought a coffee drink. Much to my surprise the can was hot! And of course, yummy!
Shortly after this stop we did find a restaurant and though the owner spoke what he called "baby English" we were able to order two of his set meals of the day and found them to be, what else? delicious. Actually the cup of coffee he served us at the end of the meal (I think he included that to be welcoming and generous to foreign visitors) was really the most perfect cup of coffee I had in Japan. And if you've been reading this blog since the beginning, you know that I am quite particular about my coffee.:)
Of course Americans know the beauty and tranquility of Japanese gardens as there are gardens in many cities. Of the 100's maybe 1000's of gardens to see throughout Japan we managed to enjoy quite a few.

Stephen also found this beautiful park on a lake. People were feeding the giant fish. 
And paddling around in Swan boats. 
It was quiet and beautiful and public. A place in the city that everyone can enjoy. Stephen's pretty sure his mother must have walked there as it is the largest park in the city. 


Almost from the minute I got off the plane in Japan I tried to soak up every detail of everything about the country. And I noticed something curious to me pretty quickly: women in Japan wear incredibly high heel shoes! I started taking pictures to try to capture the most outrageous ones. The women in Cambodia wear heels every day too, but they don't have to walk much in them; they mostly get around on their motos. But in Japan, with the wonderful mass transit system, people walk everywhere. Maybe it's the ballet classes that Japanese girls attend when they are young?? Maybe it's just that walking is an integral part of daily life so they have strong feet and legs?? Maybe they are thin enough that it's not that big of a deal?? It's pretty rare to see an overweight person in Japan. Or maybe Japanese women just have a high tolerance for pain in the name of fashion. :)

I on the other hand bought a pair of sandals with a "reverse heel" to walk all over Japan in. And I was exceedingly happy with them. :) I won't be copying Japanese fashion in shoes any time soon I don't think. :) 
On our last night in Fukuoka we went to a famous Ramen noodle place. What a whole new concept on Ramen noodles for me! Absolutely delicious!
The restaurant had a wonderful high energy vibe. The servers seemed to really enjoy and take pride in their job. Our waitress gave us an English menu but didn't speak much English. Still she was able to be very clear in verifying that she had the order right. She asked us if we wanted a second bowl but when we didn't understand her Japanese or her gesture she just went and got the extra bowl for us. She also took my purse and put it in the basket under the chair specifically provided for that purpose. Awesome!
Fukuoka was the city we spent the least amount of time in of the three cities, but what a wonderful first exposure to the country. We had a fabulous time. And with short fairly inexpensive flights from Cambodia, we are already dreaming of when we can visit again. :)