Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Friday, October 21, 2011

Best Day Ever

I wake up at 4 am and for a while I lie in bed imagining that I write about all that I hate about Japan. I cannot really find much, we've been here for a few days, still trying to adjust to the jet lag.

We arrived well, the 14 hours plane ride wasn't bad at all. The plane was to continue it's flight to Taipei, we were just a handful of people to disembark in Osaka. Siberia was awesome, I remember flying over Greenland in '96, it looked so gorgeous. Then flying over it a dozen more times, nothing but clouds. Seeing the ground, the immense expanse of snow and ice, magnificent. Very likely we'll never see it like that again. At immigration they were waiting for us, each one with it's own agent. The airport is fantastic, but we really didn't have time to explore it. The first challenge, finding an ATM that works with American cards. Then getting the train pass, finding the train, finding our host. The Kansai rail pass is a one time only choice for visitors to Japan, we chose to get it for two days in order to save one hundred dollars, and this means that on our second day, jet lag or not, we take a day trip to Himeji Castle.  It was a great introduction, the best and greatest castle in Japan, a nice garden that we visited right after that, free bikes in the city of Himeji, first experience trying to get food, first restaurant - just for the five of us and the cook.

Himeji Castle

Koko-en Garden with Himeji Castle
On the second day we start by trying to lay down a plan. It turns out that nobody knows much about Kyoto, the children have no idea why we are here and we have no plans for the next few days. Usually Mom takes care of this, sometimes I prepare something about our destination. I did prepare almost everything about our round the world trip, but not much about the individual destinations. Putting the house on hold - and taking care of about a million other things before we left - didn't leave much time for learning about Kyoto. Part of the reason for choosing Kyoto first has to do with choosing Japan first, the most expensive destination, very limited time, moving fast from one thing to another. Every day counts, we can rest in places were we can live with $50 per day, not with $400. So it's our first day in Kyoto, second day of Japan, and no idea of what to do. The books we got actually made things more complicated. There are 17 World Heritage sites in this city alone. There are two in Romania. There are several thousands shrines and temples and many other things to do. Without plan and with the impression that we actually have some extra time to spend and we deserve a free day, we start walking down the street, changing our destination every few minutes. We ended up in the garden of the imperial palace, after a couple of hours of wandering. We had a picnic on a bench, we visited some exhibition, a section with a little lake, we eventually get to the palace to find out that the next tour is tomorrow at 10 am. Two tours per day, we were there, but we missed it. After a somewhat disappointing day, it becomes clear that my family would rather have me do the planning, learning about what we have to see and organizing it by days, maybe even hours.

As I was saying, I am lying in bed at 4 am, I had too much sleep to have any chance of falling back to sleep, earlier Ileana was on the stairs, waiting to get to the bathroom because she was “a little sick.” I had to work so much to get here, they could have prepared something about Kyoto. I cannot use a computer, because my family is on them all the time, my wife suddenly rediscovered her love for photography and she wants to learn Aperture, a special program on handling the files and processing photos digitally. I cannot take pictures, I cannot use the computer.  There is too little time to answer all the messages that we got from our friends, keep the Facebook page updated, finish the financial aspects of our previous existence, cleaning up the backup hard drive and moving all our computer life on the road. I hate that I have to write, I don't know how to write, I cannot take this imaginary reader off my mind, what would she think of what I say. I carry out a conversation with her in my head, but this doesn't help. It doesn't help. Maybe I should just blog like everybody else. Travel is great and all these places are fantastic and food is awesome and people are amazing. On top of this, we are in Japan, they use different words for numbers depending on the type of object they are counting, they use three different alphabets, we have no idea of what we eat, everything is upside down, everything is horrible. Even at 4 am trying to identify all the negatives, there is too much excitement and I run out of subjects to complain about. Last night, I started to learn about Kyoto, I actually knew enough that I only need to put things in order and find some organization. I will throw out the stupid book about walks in Kyoto (cannot really, it's on the Kindle, just delete), when I have time I will write a one star review on Amazon. Back to Lonely Planet and Insight Guides, back to the App store, buy an application about Kyoto that I install on the children's iTouches, a piece of paper to divide the six days we have left here. At 7 am everybody is up and ready to start the new day. We leave at 8.30 am, a little late, but it's OK. We have a plan. Ten hours later, after visiting a quarter of Kyoto, I truly think this was the best day ever. Ever.

We start with the Higashi Hongan-Ji, followed by Nishi Hongan-Ji, two magnificent temples of competing branches of buddhism. At Nishi, we have a special introduction from one of the priests. This is a special year for them, 750 years since the death of their founder. He explained and we understood a bit. Then, as we are getting hungry we make it to the Kōbō-San Market, once a month on the 21st. We love the market, we eat a lot of different things.
I find out that the first thing that I had in Japan was takoyaki, no wonder that I didn't like it. Now that I see what is made of (some fried dough shell with a piece of raw octopus and some sort of coleslaw), I decide that I have no excuse not to like it. We keep trying various other things, working our way between the stands, a line of monks passes by going to the service, we follow them and end up in the cemetery, people are praying to statues of turtles, amazing. In the back there is a five stories pagoda, the tallest in Japan. We pay the entrance fee but the pagoda is closed - we can visit the next two buildings, all part of the Tō-ji temple. It is now 2 pm, maybe we should go home, the kids are ready. Ileana inquires about visiting the Fushimi-Inari temple, she read about it and I couldn't fit it in the program that I made so far. We check the map, figure out a bus to take, bribe the children with some icecream. We end up on some back roads, another huge temple. “this is it?”, “no, it cannot be this one”. It turns out that we are in the yard of Tōfuku-ji temple.

Tōfuku-ji temple
We don't pay admission but we are able to wander for a bit on the premises, another set of magnificent constructions. We finally make it to Fushimi-Inari-Taisha. We are exhausted but this thing is unbelievable. We get a second wind, start going in the orange tunnels, up the mountain, it never ends. Interspersed here and there, little shrines, old graves, constructions, foxes, lions and other animals guarding one thousand year old graves up and up and up the mountain. Supposedly the whole circuit is four kilometers, we choose a shorter path but the maps are just sketches in Japanese, we go and go, soaking wet, the kids start running up the mountain, they jump and laugh and enjoy it, even if occasionally they complain about this father who could only find a path up not down the mountain.

We decide at station three that we had enough, we are now almost on top of the mountain, Inari-san. The whole of Kyoto lies at our feet. Breathtaking. Coming down, we find an alternate path, we then realize that we followed all along the path that we chose in the first place, but a kilometer, especially up the mountain, is pretty long. All this trip among these old graves and shrines, a totally different world, grey and orange all over and on the last meters, a lot of cats on the graves or in the middle of the road. The last few steps we pass a little pond; people are feeding turtles and the huge carp jumps over to steal their food. After a couple of hours here, I realize that this is the best day ever.

We take the bus toward home, get booted off at the Kyoto station, we are too exhausted to walk the next mile home so we vote, four to one, to find some ramen here. We get to the tenth floor and find a place to eat, pick something based on prices and pictures and have a great dinner. The waiter told us what we had, we cannot really understand and we forget a minute later. But you know what, this food is great. Another couple of hours later I fall asleep while playing chess with my son.They had to make the bed under me, I couldn't really help, I was so asleep.

Next day, Saturday, long ago planned, they have two festivals, Jidai Matsuri in the morning and Kurama Fire Festival later at night. It rains, I wake up at 3.30 am. No way to get back to sleep. I clean up emails and financial documents, slowly finishing things up, it will be so good when I will be able to put all this to sleep for a year or so.

I learned to use Twitter today. I had this account for a couple of years, I even posted 56 tweets so far, but this morning I decided to search for “Jidai Matsuri” and found out in a moment that it was rescheduled for tomorrow. Wow, twitter can actually help!

When Ileana woke up, we made an alternate plan, we visited Kiyomizu-dera, another unique, fantastic temple, another World Heritage site. We spend more time slowly walking on some streets in Southern Higashiyama. We eat at a restaurant that has English menus, we finally know what we have. We have dessert handed to us by tens of salesmen who invite us to check their products. We decide to return home. The weather is very hot and humid after the rain from this morning, but the sky is still very dark.

I want to go tonight to the fire festival - the trip might be two hours by bus and train, my daughter Ileana and my son want to come. It's optional, Mom would probably decide to come at the last moment. I am still working on convincing Maria. We are at home at 3 pm and shortly after the rain starts. This is no joke, we cannot be outside in this weather, we'll just stay home. The festival continues even in the rain, but it will have to be without us. We talk, we stay at home. We love our little house. Ileana and the children sleep upstairs, I sleep downstairs, there is not enough room for choices. It would probably fit in our kitchen, but it's great and Maria wants to have a house just like this when she grows up.

At every step I marvel at something. Every person, every cloth, every house, car, road is so different. I love their temples, even if I don't understand much. Cabs have lace on their chairs! The traffic signals beep incessantly, but they stop when we get used to it and come to expect it. The public toilet beeps to say hello. I love the stupid fashion of these teenagers, they make it look so natural, if they find it beautiful then so do I. By my taste, women dress awfully, but after two days I start to like it. They would be fired or taken to the asylum in USA, but they actually seem to feel comfortable and pretty.

Of everything here, I cannot have enough, I would want to take a picture every second, but I don't have the camera and Ileana is much more selective. I don't want to ask for the camera, after all, I have two others in my pocket and last night I discovered that we have 15 cameras with us. But pictures wouldn't help. I just cannot have enough. I love everything about Japan, I already know it will not be enough. It cannot be enough. I love Japan.

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