Thoughts of a Canadian Exchange Student

Japan: Osaka (大阪)

Glico man

The Glico man of Dōtonbori Street

Osaka was visited on: June 30, 2008

Osaka is a large and dense city. Even though I use the words large and dense, somehow they still feel like an understatement. Upon arriving in Osaka from Kyoto, it felt somewhat like I was relieving the day I arrived in Taipei from Vancouver – a little bit confused and completely overwhelmed (in a good way) by something so different. Suffice to say, Osaka and Taipei are both large and dense cities. (Both cities have a similar population of about 2.6 million people.)

Hep Five Ferris Wheel

Hep Five Ferris Wheel (Gigantic thing inside a mall.)

Although we only spent a day in Osaka, and spent it mostly shopping in malls and stores ^^, (did you know that we discovered the fabulous Book-Off store in Osaka only to find that there’s one downtown in Vancouver?), we had some baked octopus balls takoyaki and a very good time. Even though I’ve had takoyaki many times I still don’t quite like it. I’d rather eat octopus by itself.

Oh! Osaka’s transportation system is definitely very unique! It’s partially oval. I could not believe my eyes at the number of different routes and connections that were available. Since we only had a day to check out Osaka, we mostly stuck to the tried and true method of getting around: walking. If we had more time, it’d have been fun to try and figure out how the whole system worked.

Osaka at night

Osaka at night.

At night, like Taipei, Osaka is alive with people. Kyoto, like Vancouver, seems to shut down earlier. We wandered around Dōtonbori Street (道頓堀) admiring the neon-lit signs that lit up, moved and came to life. And down the centre of the street were all these parked and unlocked bicycles. Coming from Taipei, you have no idea how tempting it was to take one of those un-rusted, in-full-working-condition-with-the-brakes-not-shot bikes XD. As we had to catch a train back to Kyoto, we didn’t stay too long at night.

After another day and a bit in Kyoto visiting temples like the Chion Temple and the Yasaka Shrine, we headed back to Taipei. And that was the end of our Japan trip!

F4 in Osaka

In Osaka Station: F4 and Taiwan welcome you!

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Japan: Himeji Castle (姬路城)

Posted in Culture, Japan, Observations, Outdoors, Sightseeing, Thoughts, Transportation, Weather by J on December 31, 2008

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle, The White Heron Castle, Himeji-jō (姬路城) was explored: June 29, 2008

The WHITE HERON CASTLE!!

Oddly enough, I’ve learned more about Japan than China through school, and there was always this picture of a white, gorgeous castle. And on a gorgeous sunny, blue sky day, I finally got to visit it in reality!!

The Himeji Castle, or the White Heron Castle, is located in the city of Himeji, a few hours from Kyoto. After getting off the train from Kyoto to Himeji, we walked towards the castle. It seems that the whole city leads towards the castle. After all, it was built around it.

In use from 1333-1868, Himeji Castle is an old place. 1868 was the beginning of the Meiji Era and signalled a new way of living for the Japanese. Large social and political changes were happening throughout Japan during this time. I’m so glad that starting in 1956, the castle was restored piece by piece so that future generations could appreciate the castle.

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle

Upon approaching the castle, like walking towards the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, it’s actually much larger than it looks. It also takes longer to walk there than you’d think, too. It’s virtually a maze and a great defence tactic. When you finally arrive at the gates and continue walking uphill closer and closer towards the actual castle, it’s just splendid. I was thinking of all the battles and skirmishes that occurred. The little holes / windows are perfect for firing arrows or guns at intruders with little repercussion to the defender.

Although I’ve never been to Europe, Himeji Castle reminded me of all the things that I’ve read about European castles. Everything in the castle, from its structure and design to its layout had a specific defensive or offensive purpose, in addition to providing shelter for its inhabitants. For example, the walls are flushed flat so that attackers can’t scale them. Even though artillery didn’t take in Japan, I still don’t know why they really didn’t use it more. Artillery forced European castles to change from the difficult to scale ones to ones set deep into the ground and built according to geometric properties so that artillery couldn’t easily take down a castle.

Another residence in the castle grounds

Inside another residence on the castle grounds. It’s actually much darker inside the Himeji Castle.

Inside the castle, the stairs are very, very steep so that attackers would have a hard time getting up to the top of the 7th floor. As the castle was mostly made out of wood, it had a very nice traditional feel, and a much cosier one than I would imagine an European stone castle to have. Also, as we had to take our shoes off to enter the castle, that probably gave it more of a cosy feel, too. But, why make a whole castle out of wood? I’m completely baffled by this because a single fire arrow could bring down the castle. I guess the angle an archer would have to shoot at at the castle would make it difficult. Also, I guess it’d be more difficult to bring down the castle by a fire arrow because the Japanese bows were weaker as they didn’t have composite bows.

The castle would have been a delight for children to run around in because of all the little hiding spots just in case the castle was attacked. Speaking of children, what struck me was that everything in the castle was really short. Is there some truth to why the Chinese rudely referred to the Japanese as the dwarf people (倭) since way back when in history? (Yes.)

View from the top

The view of Himeji city from the top of the White Heron Castle.

When you make it to the very top, besides a terrific breeze, you get a fantastic view of the whole city. You feel as if you “own” the city. When I was at the top, I felt as if it couldn’t be true that I was really in the White Heron Castle. I could go on and on about the castle, but all what I want to convey can be basically summed up in a sentence: Visiting the Himeji Castle was an unbelievable experience.

Hope you get to go one day!

Japan: Kyoto (京都)

Gion

Gion

Kyoto, Japan was visited: June 27 – July 2

Since Taiwan is so much closer to Japan than Canada, it made perfect sense to hop over there for a short vacation.

The Places We Visited:

On the recommendation of a friend, we stayed in a guest house called Uno House. It has a nice location in the northeast of Kyoto and the price was very agreeable. We stayed in a private room. I guess my favourite part about the guest house was that it was like a sort of maze inside and that it seemed quite traditional. We even slept on the floor on futons. Although I didn’t know any Japanese (but thank goodness I could read some Chinese, so helpful when taking busses), we managed to get around fine.

For me, Kyoto was all about the castle, the temples, the shrines, the spiritual symbols (and some shopping, too!). Thanks to the gracious help of my friends, I got to see some of the best parts of Kyoto within a short amount of time.

Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji

The places that we went to were:

For a map to see where all the places are: http://kyoto.asanoxn.com/info/kyotomap.htm

Ryōan-ji

Ryōan-ji

Funny thing, it was raining most of the time we visited these sites… I swear the rain clouds followed me from Vancouver to Taipei to Kyoto XD. I really liked visiting all these places, and the most funny thing was that since they’re all major tourist sites as well as places of quiet contemplation (supposedly), the contrast between the noise of the tourists and the quiet of the sites was, well, funny. ^^ Outside of our first day in Kyoto, the weather for the rest of our trip was very good, very sunny, and very hot.

Torii at Heian jingu

Torii gate for Heian jingū

Of all the sites that we went to, I liked the Nijō- (seriously, a castle in the middle of the city?? Cool!) and Kinkaku-ji the best (Gold. Building.). Nijō-jō had nightingale floors for protection against night attackers. When an invader walked on these floors, due to their special construction, they’d squeak. No matter how lightly I tried to step, I could only make the floor squeak when I walked on the floorboards. Very cool and ingenious. The site of the Kyoto Imperial Palace is actually much larger than it seems because the boulevard leading up to the palace is massive. The vastness of the boulevard neutralizes the largeness of the palace. Ryōan-ji was very nice, but I don’t think I’m meant for Zen Buddhism. I didn’t draw out much meaning from sitting at the rock garden. Ginkaku-ji was under renovation when we went, so there was much to see. Oh, Heian jingū was pretty cool. The torii gate was so big! I was pleased to find that the shrine was orange. I thought that they were supposed to be brown for some reason.


Chion Temple

At Chion Temple

The day that we went to Chion Temple, we had the opportunity to see practising monks. When we were walking around the temple grounds, after the many stairs to get up into the temple grounds, we heard the chanting of monks, and on a whim, we joined a line and went inside a building to take our turn in turning something around (like turning a totem pole or something). That was interesting. The main hall was the best, though. It was very dark and shady inside, a welcome respite from the heat, and you couldn’t wear your shoes inside. The prayer area was very large and solemn. It was difficult to see the relics that you’d pray to. It was just massive inside that one building. Oh, and at Yasaka Shrine, we had a glimpse of practicing shrine maidens, miko!


Gion back alley

A Gion back alley

After wandering around for a bit, we ended up in Gion without knowing it. I thought I was just in some very old section of Kyoto. Despite not knowing that I was actually in Gion (I got tired of looking at the map), I was very impressed by the whole area. It felt like what Japan had been before skyscrapers and all the industrialization the world experienced. Oh, this fall I watched a 1936 film called Sisters of the Gion (祇園の姉妹) (good film), and I realised how important the district was to the geisha culture. Although we didn’t see any geisha in the area, when we were walking by the establishments, one of the doors was open and I took a quick glance inside. It looked like the traditional houses in Japanese movies. I wonder how the whole area prevents fire hazards… For that matter, I wonder how the place we stayed in, Uno House, prevented fire hazards…

Food:

The first night in Kyoto, we ended up eating at a yakitori place. It was probably a pub or late night sort of place – like a more upscale version of an university pub. We figured out that yakitori was basically chicken grilled on a skewer. Haha! The whole menu was basically chicken. We had the chicken knees with sake.


Sushi

Sushi!

We also had sushi while we were in Kyoto. The restaurant’s waitresses were dressed in traditional Japanese clothing – something that the Vancouver restaurants don’t do. Although, I think we may have offended them when we asked for wasabi. Are we not supposed to eat it with sushi? Anyways, it was very good. Kyoto’s and Vancouver’s sushi are both very good. But, Kyoto’s sushi is miles better than Taipei’s. Sushi Express? Nooo~ Sadly, we didn’t get around to eating any eel while we were in Japan.


Colonel in Kyoto

The Colonel in Kyoto

Some Thoughts:

Kyoto is a quiet, beautiful and clean place. It’s vastly different from the hustle and bustle of Taipei, even though we stayed over the weekend. Kyoto felt very subdued and relaxed. From what I saw, the clothing that the people wore in Kyoto was much more subdued in colour and style than the clothing in Taipei. The clothing in Taipei pops loud, bright and vibrant colours. There’s also no scooters zipping in and out of traffic or night markets.


Downtown Kyoto at night

Downtown Kyoto at night

As Kyoto as a city is really old, maybe that’s also why it was more relaxed. Kyoto was the capital city of Japan from 794-1868 and Taipei became the capital of Taiwan in 1895. Or even more likely, what the cities supposedly represent probably had/have a larger impact. Kyoto’s old name was Heian-kyō (平安京), meaning the capital of peace and tranquility. Although today, Kyoto is no longer the (symbolic) political centre of Japan, its value as a cultural capital seems to have carried on up to the present day. On the other hand, Taipei is the economical and political centre of Taiwan. People gravitate towards Taipei for its opportunities and this makes the city a locus of change, transformation and energy. Anyways, irregardless of the actual economic and political situations in Kyoto and Taipei, Kyoto seems like the happy, stately elderly people that you see advertised in marketing campaigns and Taipei seems like a young adult brimming with endless possibilities for the future.


A Kyoto back alley

A Kyoto back alley

Kyoto also reminded me an awful lot of Vancouver. Actually, it felt so Vancouver-like with its integration of nature and urban structure. Vancouver’s nature spots, for example, Stanley Park, despite looking wildly grown is actually carefully shaped by human hands to keep that wild-untouched-by-human-hands look. Kyoto has a more domesticated, sculpted-looking kind of nature. As both cities integrate nature and urbaness seamlessly, despite the difference in their respective ages (Vancouver was established as a city in 1886), they’re just so similar. It’s such a surreal experience to be able to slip into a park in these cities and the whole urban feel melts away into the background. I’d like to go back when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. It’d be fantastic! (As long as it doesn’t rain. XD)