I’ve mentioned before that there is a sort of rivalry between the Kanto region (where Tokyo is) and the Kansai region (where Kyoto and Osaka are). For no real reason, I think, which is usually the case in rivalries (see: Northern & Southern California; Montagues & Capulets). Both places have a lot to offer.
So for Spring Break this year, I managed to travel around both regions in a matter of 5 days. Because Japan is just that small.
Ghibli Art Museum
One of the things on my Bucket List for Japan was to go to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. I grew up on Ghibli movies (Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service were some of my favorite movies), and it would be a mortal sin to not go.
Tickets for the Ghibli Museum are 1000 yen, which is surprisingly cheap. But there’s a catch: The museum is so popular that you have to buy your tickets a month in advance. Check the date for when tickets go on sale for the month you want to visit. I used Lawson to buy the tickets, and it was very easy. You can check out the Ghibli Museum ticket-buying guide here!
We lined up at our ticket time and they led us into a small movie theater, where we watched an exclusive short film. It was adorable.
It was, of course, all in Japanese, but it was simple Japanese and even if I didn’t understand, the story was easy to follow.
After the movie, we were free to wander around the museum, which had displays showing how the films are animated (classically, because Miyazaki).
They also had some sets showing how the artists worked on the films—their paintings, their tools, their work spaces, the process from turning paintings into animated films, art books. Art books. Art books.
There was also a Cat Bus, but only children were allowed to play on it. :( Bummer.
Pictures were not permitted inside the museum, but outside we took a picture with the giant!
I hadn’t been yet, and it seemed to be one of the glaring absences in my list of places I’ve visited in Japan, so after the Ghibli Museum, my friend and I headed over to Yokohama. Yokohama is a city in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, and it may or may not be the largest city in Japan (first most populous municipality, second most populous city; don’t ask me what the difference is). It’s a neat city, and there is a lot to do, but with our limited time, my friend and I stuck with two destinations: the Ramen Museum and China Town.
The Ramen Museum is a fair walk from any station, so be prepared for that. I thought it sounded a little hokey, too, and it was, but it was also really fun. The best part was making your own ramen.
That’s right: After learning about the history of instant ramen (actually really fascinating), you get to make your own cup of instant ramen, including decorating the cup and choosing ingredients.
When you arrive at the museum and buy your ticket, you also have the option of getting a reservation for making a customized ramen cup. Tell the person at the ticket counter that you want to do it, and they’ll give you a ticket with a time stamp on it. It’s an extra 300 yen, but it’s worth it.
Line up and follow directions to wash your hands and pick up a Styrofoam cup. When you get seated at a table (with strangers), you can use the provided markers to draw all over your cup however you want. I’m a gigantic dork and drew this:
Then, when you’re done decorating your cup, you take it to another line where you will choose ingredients for the “cooks” to add to your instant ramen cup. Then they will seal it for you and you can take it home and enjoy at your leisure.
With our custom instant ramen cups in hand, we walked around the area to check out the harbor and watch the sun set, and then we headed to China Town, only a few train stations away.
Unfortunately, they were doing construction on the gates the day that we went. Man, just like the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima…
Instead of choosing a single restaurant, we did the street food thing. My friend bought a lot of panda merchandise, but there was nothing I had in mind to buy, so I just enjoyed the food.
I grew up in a city with a large Japanese-American population. That is easily the reason I became interested in Japan. Many of my friends were Japanese (or least part Japanese), and I got hooked on Japanese animation early, in the form of Pokemon, Digimon, Sailor Moon, and Ghibli movies.
I’m pretty much the only one in my family with any interest in Japan, though. My mom and my aunt are visiting in May, but only because it’s convenient that I’m here. I’ve never heard my brother or sister express any interest in anything Japan-related, besides maybe in our childhood when my sister and I watched cartoons together.
So I was surprised to discover that my grandmother and grandfather actually have friends in Japan.
And they never even told me!
Many, many years ago, my grandparents lived in Torrance, where I grew up and where my dad grew up. They made the acquaintance of a Japanese couple who were renting a house in my grandparents’ neighborhood. The husband was a commercial sailor whose company would make him a captain if he learned to speak English and worked in Long Beach for a few years. His sons went to school in the United States until about high school, and then the whole family moved back to Japan.
And apparently they all stayed in contact with my grandparents all this time.
My grandmother likes to write letters, and we exchange letters back and forth periodically. But all this time I had no idea that she was also corresponding with some old Japanese friends, even at the same time I was in Japan.
She got us in contact with each other—I think she gave me their contact information first and I wrote a letter to them—and after a while, one of the sons, Ryusuke, invited me to visit him and his wife, Mariko, in Matsusaka, a city in Mie Prefecture.
So I spent three days with some old family friends I had never met before.
I was a little nervous—because meeting new people is always scary—but I was really excited to meet the people my grandparents know. How cool is that?!
I have done so much traveling in my time in Japan, so getting there wasn’t really a concern. I just bought a shinkansen ticket and rode on over to the other side of the island. No big deal.
They picked me up at the train station in Matsusaka and we had dinner at their very nice and stylish Japanese-style house. It was only built a few years ago, so it still smelled of cedar. They were incredibly kind people and fun. We talked a lot that first night, a little nervously. Ryusuke speaks English very well, having been educated in California for much of his life, but Mariko doesn’t speak any English at all—which was just a great opportunity for me to practice my Japanese. We communicated very well, I think, which was a relief.
They showed me around Mie Prefecture, and then some of Kyoto and Nara, too. Despite being from the area, they hadn’t been to a few places that I wanted to check out, so all of us were able to see new things. Like…
Nara: Todai Temple
Nara is famous for the deer that just wander around the park. You can buy deer senbei (rice crackers) to feed them, and they will walk right up to you and let you touch them. After going to UC Santa Cruz for four years, where deer roam all over the campus, it is both familiar and entirely strange. Familiar, because deer are a completely normal sight, and strange, because you aren’t really supposed to feed wild animals. And they are so unafraid of humans that they just walk up to them. That’s unnatural. In Santa Cruz, you’re more likely to be mauled by a deer than approached by one.
Seriously, Nara: WTF?
Anyway, it was fun to see deer wandering around, looking as much like tourists as the actual tourists, but I decided to skip that crazy mess and skip straight to the temple at the end of the road.
The temple is the largest wooden structure in the world, and the one standing now is actually smaller than its original form (which burned down at some point in history).
The Buddha statue inside is bronze, and on a particular day of the year, they open the windows of the wooden building housing the daibutsu so that you can see its face from outside.
We ate soba nearby and then paid a visit to one of the local gardens. Ryusuke and Mariko both work as gardeners and landscapers, and I think they were hesitant to request a stop in the garden, but I love gardens. They took some pictures and said they want to try a few things from the garden at their house, and then Ryusuke found a tree that he wanted to take with him, because it was the perfect tree for one of his projects. Haha!
Kyoto: Fushimi Inari Shrine
Mariko grew up in Kyoto, but she had never been to Fushimi Inari Shrine, and they were both surprised at how crowded it was.
Way back in 2012 during my first trip to Kyoto, this shrine was what I was most looking forward to. I had seen pictures, and the sheer amount of torii was amazing to me (and, I think, to other visitors to Japan). And, as it turned out, it was the one place to which we did not go.
Now, though, I had a chance to see it.
Inari is a patron god of business and agriculture, so all the torii (a Shinto gate) are donated by businesses as thanks or prayers for good fortune.
The shrine is on a mountain, and you can walk up the mountain in the tunnels of torii. At one point on your walk up the mountain, the road splits into two rows of torii. A woman guiding a group of English speakers in front of us explained that one side led to heaven, and the other to hell. “But that’s the problem,” she said, “I don’t know which one.”
As we walked back down the mountain, I searched for Chiba Prefecture and took a picture with every Chiba torii I saw.
Ise: Ise Jingu
When I first contacted my grandparents’ friends, they recommended that I visit Ise Shrine, which had been rebuilt about two years ago. They rebuild it every twenty years, so I saw a relatively new building.
Ise Shrine is a pretty sacred place, so you’re not allowed to take pictures past a certain point.
We walked up the steps to the… er… praying place. Ryusuke and Mariko handed me a coin and we walked up to make wishes/say prayers.
I just had a conversation with a friend of mine about this sort of thing a few weeks ago. As an atheist, it is incredibly weird and uncomfortable to participate in religious activities of any sort. It feels disrespectful somehow, probably because it’s like lying. Like miming. Like mocking, almost. I can certainly respect people that have religious beliefs and I have been to a lot of shrines because I like learning about the history of them (and they’re usually in really beautiful areas), but participating makes me feel very uncomfortable.
When I was in middle school, I went to a weekend church camp in the mountains with my friend. I really only went for the social aspect and the mountains and because my friend told me it would be fun. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.)
One day, during a prayer time, we all had to sit in a circle and say prayers for the person on our right, or someone in their family. The person next to me had a sick grandfather, and I had never even thought a prayer before, much less said one out loud for the benefit of some poor kid with a sick relative who is hoping that prayers will somehow help. It was terribly awkward, and I asked if we could skip me, because I was uncomfortable, but they actually made me do it. It was awful. I felt awful. I was lying to this girl.
Luckily, I have never had to do that again.
The same thing goes with other religions. People go to shrines and temples all the time and ring the bells and do the coin-toss-bow-prayer thing, and I never feel right doing it.
I felt the same way at Ise with my new friends, but I didn’t want to disappoint them, so I walked up there with them and threw the coin in. I guess as a donation to the shrine, no matter what. I can’t pray—I just can’t, I don’t believe in that, I just don’t believe just wishing for things will make them happen, it feels foolish and false—so I just made some personal promises. Things I can actually control, instead of “Uhhhh world peace plz kthnx.”
I guess we all have to make up our own rituals for coping with the world.
Lobster Ice Cream
We walked back down from the shrine and browsed the shops. I bought some akafuku (a red bean and rice cake sweet) for my teachers and some sake for my vice principal, and then I found this.
What. What. Why.
A little while ago, I tried shirasu ice cream. That was damn gross, but I figured lobster couldn’t be worse, because I actually can eat lobster by itself without gagging, so I thought it would be worth a shot. To temper the inevitable fish flavor, I got the mix of cherry and lobster.
It was… fine. Would try again.
I like trying weird ice cream flavors though.
Matsusaka: Takoyaki Party & Matsusaka Castle & Kaiten Yakiniku
My last day was Sunday, and it was rainy, so we didn’t go far. We explored the Matsusaka Castle ruins and then went out for yakiniku. Matsusaka beef is famous, so I definitely wanted to try it while I was there, and my friend had told me about a kaiten-yakiniku place—that is, a conveyor-belt yakiniku restaurant.
It was very busy, so we couldn’t sit at the actual kaiten part, but the beef was delicious anyway.
After spending two days with Ryusuke and Mariko, we got pretty comfortable with each other. By the end of my stay, I felt like we were old friends. I met Ryusuke’s parents too, who met my grandparents back in Torrance, and his father was so happy that I followed his recommendation to Ise Shrine.
God, they are such lovely people. All of them.
On my last night, Ryusuke, Mariko, and I had a takoyaki party at their house. I had never made takoyaki before, but apparently it’s a Japanese family tradition. It was a little difficult—spinning the takoyaki balls around with a tiny stick to cook all the sides is tricky—but we had a lot of fun.
After dinner, Ryusuke showed me some of his drawings. He is a landscaper, so he had a lot of garden sketches and paintings—and some ninja cartoons. He showed me a few ninja comics he had drawn, and then he asked me if I drew anything.
And from there, a doodle fest was inevitable. We all grabbed pads of paper and doodled for hours that night. I think that, especially, I will never forget, because it was such an easy, intimate moment. Just a couple of friends, casually drawing Batman together.