Work in Progress

“In the best travel, disconnection is a necessity. Concentrate on where you are; do no back-home business; take no assignments; remain incommunicado; be scarce. It is a good thing that people don’t know where you are or how to find you. Keep in mind the country you are in. That’s the theory.”
–Paul Theroux

I'm just a girl who loves the world, finds beauty in the unknown, and can't keep her feet on the ground. I like finding unique (and cheap) ways of making my way around the globe. Interacting with people while living, learning, and loving the culture I'm surrounded by.

This is my attempt to keep my friends and family updated, to keep track of my experiences, and to serve as an inspirational resource for all those travel addicts like me out there.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Koyasan

When deciding what do to with my time in Japan I came across the notion of a temple stay while thumbing through my LonelyPlanet guide. As soon as I began reading about Koyasan it was clear making the trek down was going to be completely worthwhile, even just for one night.  I did a bit of research and out of numerous temples to choose from I was able to narrow it down to five. I sent a request email to the Shukubo organization with the names of the temples I requested and left it up to them. A few were booked up by groups of people, one happened to be a high school retreat of some sort. Jealous. It all worked out perfectly though... I booked a garden view room at Fukuchi-in, what turned out to be the most beautiful and relaxing experience of my trip. 

My room - between the lanterns on the second floor
A few days of traveling and exploring had me ready to take it down a notch. After a few hours on a train through lush mountains, a cable car up to the top of Koya Mountain, and a bus into the town - I had finally arrived. Once I checked in a woman walked me around the grounds giving me information about my stay. My dinner will be served at 6:45, temple gates close at 8, prayer in the morning starts promptly at 6, etc. My main concern at this point was getting myself to the natural spring onsen before dinner. Ever since my first jimjilbang experience, I've been dreaming of spas. One of the reasons I was so excited about staying at this temple was for that reason. I threw on my yukata and headed to the spa. After washing I decided I would first take advantage of the few hours the sauna was going to be open. The spa is open all night, whereas the sauna closed at 8. Sigh. I ended up using the facilities on three different occasions despite the fact I was only there for about 17 total hours. They had a beautiful outside rock onsen that I basked in. It was so peaceful, and there were only ever a few people here and there sharing the naked experience with me. It wasn't the least bit awkward seeing them at prayer in the morning ;-)

I made it back to my room in time for my dinner to be served. I have dedicated a whole post to the food I ate throughout my time in Japan, it only seemed fair. If you want to read about it, click here.


After my meal I went back to the onsen and was in and out of the spa and sauna as long as I could handle. My belly was full, I was relaxed, my mind was happy. I spent my evening drinking tea while writing in my journal and listening to the croaking of the frogs in the garden below. There was a little ledge on my window, which I am sure wasn't for sitting, but I climbed out on it anyways because I wanted to look at the stars. It was important. The sky was so clear, and the stars seemed to sparkle they were shining so bright.  I spent a lot of time here, taking everything in. The experiences I've had in Japan, the changes in my life, my new home, and all the things I left (and didn't leave) behind back in Vegas. It was a grounding experience. I realized how, in the grand scheme of things, being happy is one of the simplest things you can be. 



The next morning, I woke up extra early to fit in a little spa time before the morning prayer. I was still able to arrive a bit early. People were already kneeling in front of a large shrine. The monks spoke Japanese only, so I am not entirely sure what they were explaining at the beginning. I wish, so much, that cameras would have been allowed - although I completely understand why they aren't. The monks sat in the corners of a square enclosement in front of us where the massive shrine was. Aizen-myo-oh is a Buddha for fortune and virtue. They started singing the most beautiful mantras. Their voices vibrated throughout my entire body. The monks recited the fundamental sutra, called “Rishu-kyo”, and performed the chanting of Shingon Buddhism called “Sho-myo” which celebrates the grace of Buddha.

The area in front of the shrine was filled to the brim with a wide variety of people. There were people that seemed completely comfortable in the environment they were in, and then there was a family of Germans who were in awe of what was taking place in front of them. Some people, including myself, were lined in a kneeling position at the front of the space while others were seated behind us. 
At one point, a woman at the end of my line got to her feet, walked to the front of the shrine and knelt down again. She pinched a bit of dust out of a bowl while closing her eyes in a meditative prayer and held her pinched thumbs to her head. She then sprinkled the dust over an area in front of her and bowed. Once she sat down, the person immediately to the left of her got up and repeated the process. This continued to happen, down the line. I knew a point would come when I was "next" in line. Now, I know I had no obligation to do this if I wasn't comfortable - but I was. I felt calm and intrigued and there was no way I was going to let the slightest bit of anxiety stop me from participating in the ceremony. The moment I stood up to approach the shrine, the monks took a break from their chanting and started rhythmically beating a golden gong, which made the experience even more remarkable. 
Photo of Aizen-myo-oh, courtesy of the Fukuchi-in website

The ritual lasted an hour or so, and afterwards the monks walked us around the room, pointing things out and explaining them. I wish, more than anything, I had the super human power of communicating with everyone and everything. I wanted, so desperately, to know what was going on. 

One of the monks was substantially larger than the other. The smaller (and younger) one seemed to be the guy in charge. I really liked him. There was just something about him. Later that day I went back to the temple to retrieve my backpack after walking around all day and I lounged a bit near the garden.  I was writing in my journal when one of the staff members walked by. I looked up from my writing and we caught eyes. He gave me the most heartwarming smile/nod. Then I started writing about how much I liked him in my journal. He wasn't wearing the robes her worse during the ceremony in the morning. He wore plain, black clothes - but you could still sense his importance. Moments later, I was waiting at the bus stop and when I looked up - there he was, walking on the other side of the road. We caught eyes, he gave me a head nod - and turned the corner. I couldn't begin to justify or explain why I am writing so much about my few measly encounters with this little guy. Just seems like it makes sense to have it written down.





My next day I spent wandering the adorable little town of Koya. I walked in and out of almost every little shop along the main street, checking out the knick-knacks and finding the most adorable post cards to decorate my home with. I walked along until I found the cemetery I was so desperately looking forward to visit. You can read about it here. I spent a lot of time there and by the time I was done, I was absolutely spent. I moseyed around for a while, waiting for my bus to come. I grabbed a hearty lunch consisting of fried pork, curry, and rice before I headed over to Danjogaran, a complex designed to replicate a mandala with nearly 20 structures. I checked out a few of the buildings, but mostly watched people as they sketched the Konpon Daito, pictures to the left.  I loved my quick, little escape from the busy streets of the Osaka Prefecture. I would absolutely go back, hopefully next time I will have more time to relax and reflect. All in all, this was my favorite experience in Japan. 

Japan in Motion

Now that I have finally finished my extensive blog series on my Japanese adventure, I would like to conclude with a little video compilation I put together. Enjoy :)


Food in Japan


 

My first meal in Japan undoubtedly HAD to be Ramen. I did a bit of research before I arrived about places to eat in the Dotonbori. I read about Kinryu repeatedly and hoped it would be as easy to find as every article made it seem. It was. Moments after I arrived on the famous street I saw a massive dragon protruding from a store front. BINGO. Without hesitation I put my coins in a nifty ramen ordering machine and took my ticket to the lovely fellow who was about to serve me up a bowl of deliciousness. One of the highlights of Kinryu, for me at least, include the kimchi and garlic you can douse your noodles with. I loaded up before taking a seat and indulging myself. Only took about 7 minutes for me to eat the whole bowl and every bite seemed to be better than the last. 


Even though I had just eaten loads of noddles, when I passed by a Takoyaki stand it was really hard for me to say no. It was my first night in Japan, so what the hell. There was a really funny guy taking orders at the front of the stand. His English was pretty good and he made ordering fried octopus balls for my first time a blast. He tried to convince me to order 20, which I probably could have handled... but I decided 6 was plenty. They were chewing and warm and delicious, although not something I could see myself craving or eating on a daily basis. A passed a woman asking someone for directions to the nearest subway station and when her attempt was unsuccessful, I pointed her in the right direction. She was a Moroccan living in Paris who was here for a convention. I shared my Octoballs with her. 


After trekking around Nara for what felt like forever, I had worked up a real hunger. Nothing sounded better than a piping hot bowl of Udon noddles, tempura shrimp, and fried rice. I have always loved these thick and tasty noodles - to actually eat them in Japan was a treat. They were remarkable. The tempura soaking in the light soy-saucy broth was the icing on top of the noodles for me :) It was difficult to pick up the massive shrimp that was floating around in my bowl. I got creative and made it work. Bringing my mouth to the bowl and the bowl to my mouth did the trick. One thing I love about Japanese culture is the fact that slurping and general noise making is acceptable because it's a sign you are enjoying your meal. Every soul in that restaurant would have taken a look at me and thought, "Damn, she's one happy and hungry little lady."



SUSHI. On a conveyer belt. In Japan. My only regret is not eating until I explode, which would have been quite easy considering how cheap it was- especially in comparison to sushi back home. I found Musashi on a blog online and pinned it on my maps. Best choice ever. There were loads of people there - always a good sign. I waited for a spot for one to open up and when the time finally arrived I smiled the entire way to my chair. I was seated next to an elderly Japanese man taking his time eating, his plates piled high. They had a spout for hat water in between each seat and green tea at your disposal. A lovely girl was busy prepping sushi in front of me as I stared at the belt in front of both of us, weighing out my options. There were so many things that I have never seen in my entire sushi eating experience back in the states, and there have been many. It's safe to say that the OG sushi creators have the right idea when it comes to this stuff. None of those fancy shmancy rolls so dressed up the tastes are unrecognizable. Simple and classic and damn delicious.


During my temple stay in Koyasan, which you can read about here, I was provided with two meals. I was so surprised by the amount of food that he brought. Tray after tray, and just when I thought he was done he came back with more. All I knew prior to my arrival was that a staff of resident monks would be preparing my completely vegetarian meals. I was expecting a plain and simple meal. Wrong. They did things with tofu that I couldn't even imagine. My taste buds were bursting at every bite. If I had these guys cooking for me on the daily,  adopting a vegetarian lifestyle would be a breeze. The kind man who delivered my food took the time to explain a few things to me. He was so sweet and explained some of the food and what to do when I was finished. His instructions included visiting the spa after my meal so they could prepare my Japanese style sleeping accommodation.  Psssh, okay. Easy peasy. Also, with both meals he served me, he made it a point to say - "eat ALL of the food, and then...". They take that stuff seriously in Japan, especially Buddhist monks. Don't waste food and be thankful for the opportunity to eat. 

Challenge excepted.
Breakfast, seriously?

I wasn't able to eat all the rice during either dinner or breakfast. I was disappointed in myself, to say the least. But, I devoured every last bit off of every little dish and every bowl of soup and every grain of whatever it was that I was shoveling into my mouth. I started by trying a little of everything bit by bit, and then mixing things with other things trying different combinations. I was in awe the whole time. By far, one of the most fun meals I've ever eaten. Breakfast was fun because I was provided with little dried seaweed wraps to put the food in. There was tofu soup and pickled things and tea and rice, always rice.
I was feeling pretty lethargic my last night and decided to take it easy, which apparently for me means eating two dinners. I wandered around Namba Parks, a massive shopping mall with little gardens and parks and resting areas scattered around. There was a whole floor full of restaurants and things for me to indulge in. I had the most difficult time choosing, I made two complete loops of the place before settling on a place simply because the word "cheese" was in the name. They didn't have an English menu, so I used my eyes to make a decision. Talk about a challenge. Everything looked so good, and so full of cheese.  What I ended up with was a massive bowl of rice, covered with cheese and ham and egg. My eyes didn't let me down. I scarfed this down while nonchalantly observing the diners around me. People watching, one of my favorite hobbies.

After, I decided to do a bit more wandering around the Dotonbori. I weaved in and out of side streets before deciding to grab a drink. This one drink cast some sort of magic spell on my tummy, because all of a sudden I decided it was appropriate to eat again. This happened at approximately the same time I walked past a Kinryu Ramen store front. The dragon hanging over the top of such a magical place solidified my desires. I wanted more Ramen, and no one was going to stop me. Plus, I had not ate at this particular location yet. I was curious to see if it was any different. It wasn't. It was just as mouth-watering as the first time. This time, I was even joined by a happy little Osaka native (which you can read more about here). I am happy to say that my first and last meal (for now) in Japan was this delectable bowl of love and goodness.   



Sunday, September 14, 2014

Kyoto


Fushimi Inari was an obvious first stop considering the little amount of time I had to spend in this fantastic city. So much to do, there was no way I was going to be able to see as much of it as I wanted. This place, however, I was happy to spend hours carelessly wandering and taking detours to see every torri gate and every fox I could feast my eyes on.


I love being able to take my time somewhere. Traveling alone is nice for that reason. I don't ever feel like I am inconveniencing someone. I can take a 10 different pictures of the same thing until I get the right shot. I can buy a bag of Japanese cracker treats and snuggle into a corner of shrines and eat until my hearts content. When posed with the question of following the path or taking a bit of the detour, I usually choose the latter.


I managed to get away from the majority of the masses of tourists during my hike around the top of Mount Inari.  I cut away from the path here and there, seeing what trouble I could get into. Towards the point where I was about to make a full loop there was a sign advertising an alternative exit which lead to another temple. It was easy to decide which way to go. There wasn't a soul on this path. The only people I encountered were locals. A lovely little woman who I had a very limited conversation with about her cats and a man riding his motorbike. Other than that, it was me and the wild wilderness.  I found a beautiful shrine which spent a bit of time at.


The path led me to Tofukuji Temple. I wandered the grounds for a bit before deciding I was starving and heading to an area of town where I knew I could get delicious sushi and pop over to a market/shopping area I was itching to visit. One really wonderful thing about this trip was that I actually had money to do things like EAT. When I was in Europe last summer I was on a very, very limited budget so I wasn't able to indulge myself eating mass amounts of food and treats - like I did at conveyer belt sushi. It was packed to the brim and I had to wait a bit to get a seat, but it was well worth it. Somewhere on the internet told me this is the place to eat, and they were right. I could have easily sat in there for hours gorging myself with loads of different kinds of sushi. You can read more about it here.


After sushi I made my way around the numerous shopping areas that were near the restaurant, Teramachi, Shin Kyogoku and the Nishiki Market. I was searching for a silk kimono style robe, it was one of the only things I really wanted to take home with me. I was happy to find loads and it didn't take me long to decide on one. I was trying to kill time, waiting for my lovely couchsurfing host, Tara, to get off of work. After getting my fill of shopping I took a look at a map and found a park/temple up the road a ways. I spent an hour or so here drinking blood orange juice, people watching, and listening to a man play his guitar. I met up with Tara and after chatting and having a shower she took m down to the river to shoe me around and have a few drinks. There was a light up festival type thing going on, the river was lined with loads of lanterns and silly drunk Japanese youth who were climbing down into the water making fools of themselves. It was a blast to watch them get in trouble and then get right back in the water.


The next morning I headed to the Arashiyama area of Kyoto. I asked Tara what there was to do other that visit temples and she sent me here, I was so thankful. She said something about a bamboo forest... which I don't think I ever found - but I did find loads of other cool things. I had the most amazing experience walking around a park right on the river. It was sprinkling all morning and at one point it started absolutely pouring rain. I just so happened to be at the highest point of the park overlooking a view that was just unreal. After I got my fill of the park I decided I wanted to play with monkeys. There was an extensive hike up to one of the top of the mountains to reach the "Monkey Park" where there were monkeys of all shapes and sizes wandering freely. At one point I was caught in the path of a monkey brawl. One monkey was chasing another making this horrible screeching noise. Then, his monkey friends came and had his back. I was a bit scared, not gonna lie. They sounded like they were actually having a heated argument.





Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Okunoin Cemetery

Ask me what my favorite cemetery is (common question, right?) and I would have a massive internal debate trying to choose between Okunoin and Père Lachaise in Paris. I have a hard time choosing my favorite anything, to be honest. When it comes to places though... you might as well ask me what my favorite food is, or (gasp) my favorite Beatles tune. There is something unique and beautiful about every single place my little feet have had the opportunity to step into, choosing one just seems unnatural. So, that is why I favor "Top" lists. Opposed to settling for just one "favorite", I would much rather list 5 or 10 of my tops, in no relevant order.


This place easily makes the top 5 cut of my favorite graveyards. There were tombstones on tombstones adorned with bibs and beautiful Buddhas everywhere I looked. The vibes here, oh man. Let me tell you about the vibes. I felt like I was walking through a dream the entirety of my venture.  I wandered through thick, thousand year old cedar trees for hours.  At one point I came to a fork and followed a path to some temple or other (there were one-hundred twenty scattered throughout the mountain). It led me to a beautiful clearing bursting full of sunshine, which was a nice change of pace compared to the shade of the cedars.



Koyasan is the place of all places when it comes to the Shingon sect of Buddhism. It is the largest graveyard in all of Japan as well as the most sacred. There are over 200,000 graves here, the most important being that of Kōbō-Daishi. He was the man who founded the school of Shingon and the development of Koya. Instead of dying back in 835 he has been eternally meditating at his mausoleum in Okunoin. Meals are brought to him daily, a massive mound of rice and other veggies are displayed at the entrance to the temple, next to Mizumuke Jizo where people make offerings and toss water at the statues to pray or ask to be looked after. Before crossing the bridge, an elderly man was kind enough to try and explain that photography is forbidden. However, I ended up entering from the opposite side and by that time I had kinda forgot. I managed a snap of a monk welcoming people to the temple, most likely reminding them that they aren't allowed to take pictures. Whoops.
Mizumuke Jizo


Adjacent to the mausoleum is a room filled with hundreds of lanterns, all of which are eternally lit. Come to think of it, I probably wasn't allowed to take pictures there either. But, what's done is done and my intentions were in the right place. That counts for something, right? It was absolutely beautiful inside of the room. Lanterns lined the wall from top to bottom and spread across the ceiling, it was unreal.

The first hour or so that I wandered through the cemetery I only saw a handful of people. Most of them were caretakers diligently sweeping away fallen leaves from the graves and monks swiftly walking down the sacred path. At one point, however, I witnessed an elderly couple and what I assumed to be their granddaughter. They were building a fire which the little girl was fanning with the direction of her grandpa. To be quite honest, I have not the slightest idea exactly what they were doing. I do know, however, that they were quite happy to be doing it. The whole 5 minutes I creepily stood there and observed them, they were laughing and smiling while doing whatever work they were doing. These things seem uncharacteristic of a family spending their afternoon in a cemetery, you would think they would be mourning a death - which typically doesn't involve laughing. I loved witnessing this interaction, it was one of the reasons why I got such good vibes from this place.
Food offerings were scattered around the cemetery


































In conclusion, wear pants and long sleeves when you visit... especially if you have blood as tasty as mine. Apparently, mosquitoes think I am awesome. My blood must taste like fresh mango juice on a hot summers day. I was absolutely eaten alive. At one point I looked down and witnessed at least 5 of them downing my blood, no exaggeration. I swatted and kicked and ran a few feet, only to be followed by the little guys and drained of a bit more of my blood. It was hard for me to stop moving my legs, every time I did another one would latch itself on to me. By the end of my excursion I had over 40 bites. A trip to the pharmacy was in line. The communication problem was easily solved when I showed the man behind the counter my red, blotchy leg.