The Twinkie Times

The life and times of a Chinese American. Born a Jersey boy, lived the expat life, attended boarding school (Lawrenceville), converted to a frat boy (Sigma Pi), got an MBA (Columbia), returned to China, and back to the East Coast now trying to carve out an identity and life as an Asian American dad (gulp) in the midst of a "tertial life crisis" ©

Sunday, September 26, 2004

FLASHBACK: The Adventures of H&H Vol. II

The following week was business as usual.  Since Hoa was only in town
through the weekend, we decided to take two days off for a long weekend
and explore Japan outside of Tokyo.  We had both bought the JR Rail Pass
which allowed us to take any train/subway/bullet train and gave us the
freedom to travel around wherever we wanted.  Of course, being two good
ol' American boys who were Asian, getting around and communicating could
prove to be very challenging so we convinced one of our co-workers Sally
to come along for what promised to be quite an adventure.  Sally could
speak passable broken Japanese and could also read the kanji characters
so for the next four days, our lives were pretty much in the hands of
Sally.  The original plan was to spend  2 days in Kyoto and one and a
half days in Osaka and then come back for a final day of sightseeing in
Tokyo.

Right off the bat, our trip started off with a flurry of excitement.
Thursday morning, we arrive in the Tokyo station at our gate for the
bullet train.  The train is scheduled to depart at 9:52 am and Hoa and I
were there at 9:30.  We were both chipper and excited to take the bullet
train.  9:40 . . . 9:45 . . . 9:47 rolls around and we begin to get a
little worried.  We fully expected Sally to be late (being a girl and
all) but now we were faced with a dilemma.  Our train had already pulled
up and we knew once the clock said 9:52, it would pull away.  We stood
in the doorway of our car debating what to do.  On the one hand, we
could wait and take the next train, but there was also a chance that
Sally would get on the train from a different car and then walk to our
seats.  We decide to get on the train and then use the phone on-board to
try to call her cell phone.  9:50 and we had just put away our luggage
when we hear a high-pitched shriek from the platform and see a flash of
red whiz by the window.  Sally was running wildly down the platform looking for
our car.  We flag her down and she made it onto the train with a minute
to spare.  Right on schedule, 60 seconds later, the doors closed, the
conductor welcomed us onto the Kyoto bullet train and we were on our way.

After a very comfortable train ride, we arrived in Kyoto, the old
capital of Japan.  We had booked a Ryokan (Japanese style inn) over the
internet close to the train station.  We found our hotel and dropped our
bags off since we could not check in for another few hours and headed
off to do some sightseeing.  In Kyoto, there was a choice between seeing
temples, shrines, or temples.  So we chose one temple and one shrine.
The most famous temple there was the Golden Pavilion but that was a 45
minute bus ride away and apparently it was closed for renovations so you
could only see it from afar.  We opted for one of the oldest temples in
Japan built into the mountains (10 minute bus ride away).

So we get off the bus and follow the throng of other tourists to a
shopping street going up into the mountains.  We arrive at the temple
and it is quite a sight.  Bright orange pagodas and temples offering
great panoramic views of Kyoto.  As we wound our way deeper into the
temple, we soon found ourselves literally in the mountains.  There were
trails leading deep into the wooded side of the mountain and other
hidden pagodas that we could see peeking out of the treeline.  Rather
than spend the whole day meandering through that Japanese jungle, we
decided to head back to try and see some more sights.  We arrive back at
the bus stop and decide to go find some geishas (professional female
entertainers who perform traditional Japanese arts such as playing instruments,
singing, dancing, but also conversation and other social skills) so Hoa could take pictures.
We had asked the front desk of our hotel and they said there was a street in Kyoto where all the maikos (geishas-in-training) congregated.

We headed off in search of this famous street not really knowing where it was or what it was called. Unfortunately, the kanji character for geisha seemed to translate loosely into 'prostitute' in Chinese (even though the geisha's profession is non-sexual) so anytime Sally tried to ask someone for directions, she would blush and get too embarrassed to continue. So we wandered around for about an hour finally stumbling upon yet another shrine. This one seemed different with a huge torii (or gate) at the entrance. Once entering, this shrine also lead into the mountains ultimately ending at the peak of the mountain. Leading up the mountain was at least a thousand of these 'gates' covering your path all the way up the mountain. Since Hoa and Sally had been making fun of me and calling me grandpa for not being able to walk uphill for 20 minutes without taking a break, I gallantly started up the mountain determined to see what hidden treasures awaited up top. The trek was not too bad since the torii's shaded us from the beating sun and every 'gate' had different intricate designs and kanji characters on them. The path was actually not very straight-forward and we eventually came to a fork in the path and we chose the wrong one. As we were walking, we noticed that the path started to have a gradual decline. At first we thought maybe we had to go down a little before going up the mountain but the descent continued and we soon resigned to the fact that we were headed back down the mountain.

After we finally got back to street-level, we set off on our original quest for Hoa to see some geishas or maikos. Being two bull-headed Americans (not to mention guys), Hoa and I just marched on not really knowing where we were going. Meanwhile poor Sally was busy trying to translate the Japanese map and triangulate our position so that we could actually walk in the right direction. Miraculously, one left and then another right later, she had successfully navigated us to the right street. The good news was that we had finally found the street after hours of looking, the bad news was that there was not a single geisha or maiko to be seen. We would find out much later that the maikos only really come out at night and that we would not see any in the afternoon.

We returned to our ryokan a little dejected but our spirits were soon lifted when we were shown to our room. It was straight out of Karate Kid II with the sliding paper screen doors and tatami (matted) floors. It had the traditional Japanese feel and a woman made us tea while we gathered around the table on the floor. One of the things that everyone had said we needed to try in Japan was the onsen or traditional bath. Typically these are outdoors and in natural hot springs but many hotels would build indoor ones as part of their facilities. After tea, all 3 of us grabbed the yukatas (robes) and headed to the bath. Luckily it was a random weekday and no one else was in the bath because we soon realized that we were supposed to bathe in this very open room. The first step was to take a stool and use a shower-head to wash/soap/shampoo yourself before getting into the bath. Hoa and I strategically chose two shower-heads which were separated by a big column and then quickly slipped into the bath. Sitting in opposite corners with eyes fixed on the ceiling, we sat in the scalding hot water. The heat was pretty brutal so I soon got out to try on our snappy yukatas.

Sporting our yukatas and looking like something out of 'The Last Samurai', we triumphantly returned to our room refreshed. Once Sally returned, the Japanese woman began bringing in our traditional Japanese dinner which consisted of about 15 different little dishes and a big bottle of Asahi beer. It was a very good dinner but was probably the strangest meal I've ever had. There were bright pink, yellow, green, and blue things on our lap table, not to mention some species of animal that I could not identify. However, with the trusty beer, we all finished up dinner and decided not to waste the night and headed out to see more of Kyoto.

The one sight we did not yet get a chance to see was the Imperial Palace so we thought that might be quite extraordinary at night if it was lit up. We hopped on the sightseeing bus and got off at the palace. At first we had some trouble finding the entrance since the huge complex was surrounded by 8 foot walls of concrete. Eventually, we entered the garden in front of the palace but were disappointed to see that the palace itself was closed. Not wanting to miss an opportunity for a picture, Sally suggested to Hoa that he could climb up the gate a little to snap some pictures through one of the openings at the top. Hoa enthusiastically obliged and approached the gate with camera in hand. As he grabbed one of the posts on the gate, he must have tripped some wire because immediately an alarm went off throughout the palace and some message in Japanese began blaring over the loudspeaker system (similar to the alarms from my apartment). We briskly walked away from the gate trying not to look too conspicuous but as I turned around I saw a pair of headlights heading towards us from the other side of the palace wall. The car flashed its lights at us and then turned on its siren. Not certain what we should do, we just headed towards the exit of the garden as the flashing red light got closer and closer behind us. The imperial guards didn't actually say anything to us so I'm not sure if they saw what happened but they drove alongside us stupid 'gaijin' tourists to the exit and then circled back.

We found out later that the Imperial Palace is actually never open so even during the day you cannot see anything and can only walk around the gardens outside of the palace. Since we were all a bit shaken up at our narrow brush with the law, we headed back to the hotel to get some rest. When we got back to our room, they had made the beds for us, futons laid out on the tatami mats on the floor. They were actually extremely comfortable with thick fluffy down comforters and we all passed out after a long day filled with excitement.

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