Saturday, November 6, 2010

Last Days in Japan

One thing that I forgot to mention earlier was that we visited a bamboo forest in Kyoto. I had been looking forward to this the entire trip and it was probably my favorite thing about the city, and possibly about Japan.

It took us a while to find because we had to take a local train outside the city. We passed by mountains and lakes (and also our stop the first time), and it looked like Yosemite or Santa Cruz in parts. We finally arrived in a residential area with nice houses and a downtown. It all felt familiar. Eventually we took a little path and found the bamboo forest.

It was cooler in the forest and a nice relief from the heat. The path actually went on for longer than expected, and forked in places. We kept walking without really paying attention as to where we were going, and eventually we were the only ones there. We came across a lake and a small temple.

"Tomorrow we are going to Osaka and Himeji. The day after we leave for Fukuoka, and after that we head back to South Korea for a couple days. I must admit I will miss Japan. It has had quite the effect on me. I am impressed by their etiquette,  their loyalty to tradition, and the sheer amount of history and culture they've managed to hold on to. I won't miss how expensive everything is, however."

We had read about the largest surviving castle in Japan, Himeji Castle, and looked foward to seeing it for a long time. It was built in the 17th century and survived World War II as well as a number of typhoons and earthquakes. Before going there, however, we first went to Osaka, Japan's third largest city. We'd read about the Osaka aquarium, apparently one of the world's largest, and were looking forward to relaxing and seeing something familiar. Smaller than Tokyo and seemingly less chaotic, Osaka was nice. The aquarium was near the harbor and seemed very quaint. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to see anything else in the city. The aquarium had some cool animals, like huge otters from the Aleutian Islands, a couple of enormous whale sharks, giant crabs, and an assortment of jellyfish (my favorites). Despite being a Tuesday, the place was jam-packed, which made it difficult and sort of annoying to get through. We only spent about an hour there and were eager to get away from the crowds.

Next we headed to the storied Himeji Castle, about 45 minutes outside Osaka. On the way there, we passed Kobe (home of the famed beef) which looked a lot like San Francisco (hills-and-harbor). Himeji was a smallish town, and from the train we could already see the majestic white castle, but unfortunately they were doing some sort of renovations on it and it was covered in scaffolding.  We got there right before closing and didn't have much time to look around, but we both agreed it was nonetheless worth the trip.

The castle was built high atop a large rock fortress with arrow holes to aid with defense against invaders. The walls surrounding it were curved slightly to foil climbers. 

The view from the top was lovely and while we were not able to go inside the main castle because of renovations, we could go in the princess' chambers.

The unscale-able walls

Even the bathrooms looked castle-y.

Just a good life lesson.

From inside the princess' chambers.

Apparently they used these holes to pour boiling hot water on invaders climbing up the castle walls.

There were gardens all around the castle, and the whole grounds were so quiet that we both really enjoyed this place. We vowed to return when the renovations were done.

We had to go to Fukuoka the next day, which is farther south, so that we could take a ferry to head home to South Korea. Since our train left from Kyoto in the afternoon, we decided to spend our last morning there (nothing against Nara, but there wasn't much to see).

Since we had to check out of our hostel, but didn't really want to lug our bags around with us, we left them in coin lockers at Kyoto station. We then went back to Kiyumizudera to do some last minute souvenir shopping*.

On our way back to the station, we decided to take a bus since it would be easier and cheaper than walking and taking the subway (I know it's winter now and hard to imagine sweltering, exhausting heat, but it was real and had a serious effect on where/how we traveled). We had about an hour to get back to the train station and since it had taken maybe 15 minutes to get there, we figured we had plenty of time to get back and grab some lunch. We found a bus with "Kyoto Station" written on it and hopped aboard, but didn't realize the bus was taking the scenic route to the station. We finally arrived at the station with 20 minutes to spare, so I hopped into the nearby post office to send off some post cards and then we grabbed quick lunch from a convenience store. Next we had to retrieve our luggage from the coin lockers, but unfortunately we couldn't remember which lockers we had left them in. I guess we hadn't anticipated how many different sets of lockers there were in the station. With only about 10 minutes left before our train was supposed to leave and with no idea where our luggage was (or, at that moment, where the train platform was), we ran to the information desk. I guess this must happen a lot since they just pulled out a binder, asked us the locker number and told us where it was. We sprinted to the correct locker, grabbed our luggage and found the platform with a few minutes to spare. Covered in sweat and hearts a-pounding, we settled into our seats and ate our lunch.

For reference:

We met our couchsurfing host at Fukuoka Station who took us back to her place so we could drop off our stuff. She had a cute place on the 15th floor of a nice high-rise. She'd gone to Cal (Go bears!) and told us all about the JET program, which sounded like the antithesis of our language academy. She loved it and had been promoted after her first year. That evening she took us to a Japanese bar/restaurant where we had some drinks and snacks.

Early the following morning, we went to Hakata Port to ride the ferry. It was a hydrofoil, which means that instead of resting on the water, it sat atop stilts. That way, it didn't have to deal with much water resistance and could go from Fukuoka to Busan in about 3 hours.

Before we were allowed to get our tickets for the Beetle, our boat, we were hit two last hidden charges: a tax of 500 yen and a gas surcharge of 800 yen. It did seem quite fitting that Japan would bid us adieu in this way.

The boat ride was pretty smooth and featured a movie in Japanese with Korean subtitles, so I slept the entire way. Exhausted from 10 days in Japan and after a few bad nights of sleep, we decided to skip Busan and head straight to Seoul after arriving in South Korea.

*Including a samurai sword squeaky toy for my dog.

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