Monday, August 31, 2009


Yesterday, we took a little day trip with our friends Thi and TK. Destination? Iwakuni's famous bridge...

Kintaikyo Bridge

...and the best chicken-on-a-stick I've ever had (teriyaki flavor). Sanzoku restaurant was a giant, sprawling place with several different eating areas, gurgling streams, a little waterfall, and the biggest onigiri I've ever encountered (although it was a bit too salty for my tastes)!

Dinner on tatami, with our legs crossed, at a very low table

The giant Onigiri had 3 different fillings - umeboshi, seaweed and salmon

Giant scarecrow at the entrance

Monday, August 24, 2009

more weekend pics!

The waterfall next to the (outdoor) somen noodle place

Brian's view of the somen noodle eating event

A large hawk sitting on top of a sunset-viewing structure on Tsunoshima (Tsuno island)

Land of the rising sun moment! (actually setting sun here)

"Joyfull Restaurant" menu cover


(pictures from my phone)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

somen nagashi!

Flowing noodles! They flow with water down a spout, traditionally a split bamboo stalk, and you catch them with your chopsticks, dip them in wasabi dashi stock and eat them! It's a super yummy and fun lunch, but a bit hurried! Gotta catch 'em all!

(Mia, from my phone)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Kyoto & Nara: Final days

In Kyoto, we stayed at Bon guesthouse hostel our last few nights. Great family-run hostel: real friendly, helpful, multi-lingual & clean... with showers, internet, bike rental, maps, kitchen facilities and washing machine.

Guesthouse Bon (Hostel)

Our first stop was Kinkaku-ji (the golden pavilion). Very impressive and certainly worth the ¥500 entry fee, but it was drizzling rain at the time so the pictures didn't turn out so great.

Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion)

We then took a bus (Kyoto is a bus city) to Nijo-jo castle but decided not to go in because it was getting late and we wanted to get to Nara for their Bon festival events. Plus we were hungry and saw a sign for "Welcome Asia" a Thai/Indonesian restaurant that satisfied our desire for non-Japanese food.

"Welcome Asia" restaurant menu cover

Sated and happy, we headed to Kyoto Station (itself a cool site) to catch an express train to Nara.

An hour's ride later, we were walking down the streets of Nara, stopping briefly at the gojunoto (5-story pagoda), then proceeding to get in line at Todai-ji, the huge wooden temple with the Daibutsu (giant Buddha). While waiting in line, my cell phone died, so I wasn't able to snap any more phone pics from Nara.

Gojunoto at Kofuku-ji

We wandered through the rest of the park, seeing loads of stone lanterns at Kasuga Taisha shrine but missing the Mantoro (lantern festival) by one day and missing the giant burning Dai symbol on the mountain by 30 minutes.

We managed to get a train back to Kyoto just in time to hop on one of the last buses back to our hostel area (whew!).


This morning the ladies were tired so I took a 10-min. walk to the nearest grocery store to buy some eggs, fruit, yogurt & granola for breakfast while they slept in.

Sick of walking, we decided that today would be our biking day, so we rented some bikes and biked around Kyoto for the day, roughly following the so-called "path of philosophy" seeing a bunch of shrines and temples along the way. (but only from the outside because we didn't want to pay ¥500/$5 each time!).


resting our feet in the river with the fishes!

shrine monkey statue

Antique Kimono Shop and Café... what a combination!

one of the many temples/shrines we passed

Heian-jingu shrine complex entrance torii

Tomorrow is our last day... hope we see a geisha!

(sent from my docomo phone)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Osaka Koya-san Kyoto: Days 5-7

Two nights ago we arrived in Osaka. We had some trouble figuring out the JR (Japan Railways) trains, but eventually arrived at the best hostel of our trip so far... Osaka-shiritsu Nagai Youth Hostel. Cheap, clean, friendly, and they had much-needed laundry facilities and a great subway map (and an 11pm curfew)! We didn't mind the curfew so much since we were so exhausted... we grabbed a quick bite at the nearest soba noodle restaurant, did our laundry, and hit the sack.

Late-night soba restaurant.

Then, early yesterday morning, we hopped on the very easy, very punctual, very clean subway to go to Osaka Aquarium shortly after they opened (to avoid long lines). We were rewarded for buying our aquarium/subway 1-day pass with a very short wait, but crowds of families with kids made the first few exhibits more trouble than they were worth. However, the massive 8-story main tank with two whale sharks, plus the giant crabs, glowing jellyfish, and non-stinging ray petting area exhibits certainly made the trek worthwhile.

Giant ray: Osaka aquarium main tank.

Since we spent most of the day at the aquarium we immediately set out for Koya-san, where we observed the night time Bon festival in Oku-no-in cemetary and spent the night at Daimyoin (a temple lodging run by super-friendly Buddhist monks) complete with vegetarian meals and morning prayer meditation.

Buddha grave marker: Oku-no-in in the morning.

Finally, this morning we returned to Osaka via bus, cable car & train... stopped off in the Dotombori neighborhood for "okonomiyaki" at Chibo restaurant before continuing on to Osaka-jo castle.

Osaka-jo (jo = castle).

We then proceeded to get back on the train to take a special limited express train (shinkaisoku - only ¥540!) bound for Kyoto. Arriving less than an hour later, we quickly checked into our hostel and then went straight out for tempura and gyoza in the Gion area. No geisha or maiko tonight, maybe tomorrow after we return from our Nara day trip!

BakPak Kyoto

Mia chows on some fantastic fresh-made tempura

(sent from my docomo phone)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tokyo Day 3 & 4

Yesterday, we slept in a bit to recharge our batteries (in both senses) then grabbed a wonderful Japanese brunch at the famous Ueno Yabu Soba (since 1892!). Continued on foot to Ueno Koen (park), with its beautiful and vast lotus pond (Shinobazu-ike) and Benten-do temple right in the center of the pond. By this time, we felt much more masterful of the Tokyo subway system (map below) and had smartly bought the most useful one day pass (TOEIC & Tokyo Metro for ¥1000).

Tokyo subway map, plus my stamp print from the Tokyo Nat'l Museum

From the park, we walked to Tokyo National Museum where we made our own postcard-size Japanese stamp prints of the famous big wave art print (see bottom of Tokyo subway map photo, above). Favorite exhibit: samurai swords

Yellow Watermelon!

Later on we went back to Shinjuku to get dinner and wander through the classic Tokyo-at-night scene. At one point, we even found ourselves in the middle of Kabukicho, Tokyo's most notorious red-light district.

Tokyo: Shinjuku area

We indulged in the general sensory overload for quite some time, but we were all happy to head back to our hotel for a bath and more sleep after yet another long day of walking all over Tokyo.

Today we took it easy and visited the Metropolitan Government Offices for a free visit to their observation deck.

Followed that up with a surprisingly "oishi" (tasty) brunch at "Jonathan's coffee & restaurant"... hooray for pancakes and beef stew omelette-rice with the ¥300 all-you-can-drink juice/coffee/tea bar!

now it's time for me to take a nap on the shinkansen (high-speed train)

Next stop: Osaka

(sent from my docomo phone)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Day 2: Rainy & Fishy

We had an early start today... woke up at 4am to go to Tsukiji fish market to see the tuna auction and for the crazy experience (made even more crazy by the everlasting torrential downpour courtesy of the nearby Typhoon)

Tuna Market

Killing, butchering the fish

Nom Nom!

...had a fantastic sushi breakfast at the market with Amy and Gareth, a really cool Brit that we met at our hotel. Tried whale... interesting.

Directing the crazy traffic at the fish market.

Meiji Jingu in Shibuya in the rain

After, the rain stopped and we walked around Shibuya and Shinjuku areas for most of the day. My cell phone died otherwise I'd have posted more photos...when we get back we'll post pics from our real cameras.

(sent from my docomo phone)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Tokyo: Day 1

Visited the Imperial Palace Gardens right away (after a slight detour in the wrong direction).

Mia grabbed a much-needed bite of udon with shrimp tempura after a long time walking.

Rode the very clean, very smooth, very precise, very quiet, relatively cheap (on time and stops at a precise spot so that the doors of the train line up with marks on the platform) subway at rush hour... but its Sunday so its not so bad. Variable pricing based on how many stops you travel.

Staying at a capsule hotel tonight because the hostel we reserved messed up and didn't have a suitable room for us. (It's a long story.) My "room" is the bottom right in the picture.

Odds and ends:
- experienced a mild earthquake while bathing at the hotel... alone, on the top floor (9), with a bunch of windows, public bath-style!!!
- checked out the sights in Asakusa (a Tokyo neighborhood) :)
- forgot where our locker was in Tokyo station... spent some time retracing our steps.

had a good day

(sent from my docomo phone)

...and we're off

Today we take a series of high-speed trains to get to Tokyo (roughly 7 hours total travel time).

The second photo is a shot of a very localized rain squall I drove through on my way to class (taken after I got there, since you're not allowed to use your cellphone while driving...)

In fact, you`re not allowed to drive while tired or after even one alcoholic drink as well, but Yamaguchi makes this relatively painless by having many places to pull over on the road, plus cell phones have a "drive mode" button which notifies callers that you are temporarily unavailable.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

swimming caps required

Swimming pool at Yamaguchi Refresh Park during a 10-minute break. No sunbathing chairs, no diving boards, everyone wears swim caps, nearly all Japanese people sit in the shade. They were mostly parents with young children. In the background you can see the main building and tennis courts. (Picture taken with my cell phone, sorry about the poor quality)

Mia and Amy (Mia's friend from America) after our swim. Amy's visiting us for two weeks!

We decided to go for a swim before classes today, our last day of classes before summer break! Tonight we go to Karaoke!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Fruit fetishes

"Peach Pineapple" about $19

Watermelon (from Hokkaido)... about $31

Mango... about $52 (that's not a typo...)

Grapes... about $52

Melon... about $84

As you can see here, there exists a bizarre expensive fruit culture in Japan. These ones here are meant to be gifts, and can be purchased (in cash, of course, this is Japan) from our local Izutsuya departments store, which has more expensive things than most stores. The bigger, fancier, weird-shaped the fruit, the more ridiculous the price. Apparently, some fruits can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars.

(pictures posted from my Japanese cell phone)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Colors!

A bee posing as a butterfly in Akiyoshidai, Japan

Recent international potluck. Clockwise from bottom: multi-grain bread, Ethiopian cabbage, Pakistani rice, mini-quiche, fried salmon with Israeli salad.

My favorite cat ever, Mac, attended the potluck, but didn't exactly participate. A couple months ago he could fit in your hand, couldn't see, and was saved from certain death-by-abandonment by the Sondas. Now he can be found attacking string, ties, the air, your foot, etc. This picture is super uncharacteristic of him.