Wednesday, January 31, 2007

STA Travel, in review

It is hard for me to review STA as it is the only travel agency we have used for this whole trip, and I is difficult for me to find good things to say about them. While they claim to be an international company, this is only partially true. There are STA's all over the world, but the offices do not cross international borders, so STA Japan has little to do with STA USA other than sharing a name and catering to students. This creates problems when you're trying to check flight prices and make bookings, as the STA Japan will have very different results from the STA USA for the same search. Also, if you have credit from, say refunding a ticket, at a STA USA, you can not use said credit for purchases made through STA Australia. Speaking of refunds, they really fall short here. As part of their insurance policy you can refund tickets for a $100 fee and they will either credit your account or write you a check. When we refunded our Thailand ticket we opted for checks (since we were leaving the states and couldn't use our USA credit in Australia.) They say it takes 4 weeks to process, numerous emails and 12 weeks later there was still nothing. Now, when we first bought our tickets in providence they gave us an 800 number, an international number, and said if we were in trouble we could call them collect anytime. That, we discovered, was a flat out lie. You can't call them collect at all and you can expect to be on hold for 30 minutes if you make a pay call. This can be quite costly when you're overseas, so we had to have some one in the states make calls for us to finally get out checks. For the most part the staff we have talked to in person try to be as helpful as they can, however, I can not recommend the STA LA branch at all. The woman there was rude, unhelpful, and refused to sell us a ticket to Japan, so we had to go to STA UCLA where they would sell us the same ticket. I still don't really understand what happened. A problem we've recently encountered is changing the dates of our flights. As a rule, STA will change dates given at least two weeks before scheduled flight for $25.00 plus and difference in airfare. Fine. We've recently tried to bump up our return tickets and they told us continental has their own flight change fee in Rupees, which makes the total cost of changing the tickets more expensive than living in India for the ten days we were trying to miss. It is upsetting they never mentioned the airline's fees from the beginning and makes me wonder why go through the travel agency at all when it may be less expensive to speak directly with the airline? The one useful thing we've gotten out of STA so far has been the international student discount card, and while it is not accepted everywhere that offers student discounts, it has more than paid for itself on savings in transportation alone, not to mention admission fees. However, I think you can these cards at many travel agencies, and not just STAs.

I hope this information is helpful to anyone who may be trying to plan a trip of their own for the first time. Like I said, I don't have anything to compare STA with, but I would not recomend them, and do not plan to go through them again in the future.

Monday, January 29, 2007


Four months. We went to a festival at Tenukidaniyama Fudo-in today. They call it a temple, but the architecture was much more like a Shinto shrine. The festival had a contradictory theme: drink blessed sake to heal your body. I whole-heartedly took part, Alison was more reserved. The sake was poured out of green bamboo shoots at the end of a long line of believers that wrapped around the temple's main hall. Plums of incense flowed from inside, accompanied by the thumping of an upright drum and some feverous chanting. I was completely absorbed in the sounds.

From the end of the line it looked like people had brought small jars and bottles form home to have filled with sake. The only bottle I had on me was my one liter Nalgene, it would have to do. Closer to the pouring table I noticed a pillar hung with hundreds of small wooden plaques bearing a rough painting of the human figure with parts in need of fixing circled in black by the devote. Again, I had no such plaque, but thought of my ears that are crusting up once again in the cold.

At the table now I realized most people were just getting a shot of sake from small white ceramic dishes provided by the temple. But I had my water bottle in hand and a monk with a fresh shoot of sake was motioning me forward. I held out my Nalgene and he started to pour. I figured he would give me about the same as they were giving out in the dishes, but he just kept pouring. My bottle was nearly half full and I was shaking my head in an attempt to get him to stop, but he was to focused on the pour! Finally with a wave of my hand he stopped, I bowed, and backed away.

The sake was warm and delicious, and the temple grounds were beautiful. I only had a few sips as I did not want to risk the steep stairs on the way down, but am enjoying what remains presently.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Noh Theater

Today we went to a Noh play. At first it was odd, then boring, and then it evolved into one of, if not the, strangest things I have every seen in my life. The show started at 11:00AM and ended at 5:00PM. It was divided into three main sets with a twenty minute introduction, two groups of soloists, two intermissions, and a short comic relief skit in the middle to break it up.

Now, I was under the impression that Noh theater excluded speaking of any kind and involved dramatic, albeit slow, acting. The show we saw was just the opposite. The acting was quite minimal, though still slow, and consisted mostly of entering the stage, exiting the stage, sitting, standing, turning, opening a fan, and closing a fan. The dialog, or singing I should say, was very low and deep, and performed by the masked Noh players, their unmasked compatriots, and a seated choir. All were men. Of course, we couldn't understand a word of it, which made it rather difficult to get through at times (remember we were there for six hours.)

The costumes were fabulous! The choir, musicians, and stage hands wore formal black kimonos with their family seals marked five times in white on the front, back and sleeves. With this, they wore simple grey hued Japanese pants. The Noh compatriots (for lack of a better word) had brightly colored brocade kimonos emblazoned with gold patterns, and very stiff, large, cream colored, triangular pants. Neat. The masked Noh players had masks, obviously, bearing a tortured expression, and a wig. Their kimonos were generally more subdued in color, but with complex asymmetrical designs. Rather than pants, most wore a closer fitting skirt. Each had a hand prop as well, usually some kind of stick, be it cane, rake, broom, or branch. The amount of fabric used in each costume was astounding. Each main set had 2-3 compatriots and 1-2 masked players.

And I haven't got to the strange part yet: the percussion group. There were two main drummers for each set, sometimes joined by a third. The first played his drum with one hand while holding in his lap with the other; it made a short loud "pop" noise. The second also played his drum with one hand, but held it against his shoulder. It made a slightly longer and lower "bop" noise. The occasional third played his drum on the floor with two short thick wooden sticks., making a low "bom" tone. Now, the precursor to any striking of the drums was a series of yells. These yells, from what I could tell, meant nothing in Japanese, and were more like a "la la la" in Western music. But it was nothing like "la la la." I can not even try to replicate the sounds they made. The third drummer would make a high "Yaaah - ha"call, raising his stick high in the air before letting out a "bom" on the drum. The second did a "Yoh - ho, ho" deal before striking. And the first, my favorite, made sounds that I imagine a dying fox would make, lain out in the snow. A sort of wavering low "Yoh" followed by a much higher, broken "Oo-oh-o," intentionally cracking his voice, and with a dramatic sideways arm gesture "popping" his drum. (For two hours without losing his voice!) The rhythm of this was something of a space-time anomaly, possibly related to syncopation, but with random stops and breaks leaving you expecting a third beat when none was given. It was all quite amazing, and I can see how one could go mad by seeing too many of these performances.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Our Green Diet in Review

For the past week or two we've stopped our green diet and have been eating Japanese food we cook and a lot of cheap junk food. We still drink our wheat grass twice a day to maintain some alkalines in our bodies, though. I amazed to say there is a noticeable difference. It was hard to tell if we had more energy, better sleep, etc. when we started the diet because we had been eating pretty well at Wild Mountains anyway, and certainly no junk food. But now, with significantly less green vegis it is all coming back to us. We're more tired in the mornings, run out of energy in the evenings, are breaking out, and I'm having trouble sleeping. Could it be something else I'm not thinking of? Sure, but our diet seems to be the biggest thing to change in the past two weeks. Back to eating one dollar Fuji apples...

We went to another market the other day at a shrine; it was a lot of fun. It was about half the size of the first market we went to and much less crowded, which was nice, and many of the vendors appeared at both. The shrine was interesting too, there were so many of these little stone shinto kami houses! This one happened to be behind a flowering tree that smelled like sugar! We got to the market rather late, around four, and I decided to get some jeweled rice balls steamed in lotus leaves. They were Y100 each, but since it was late, or maybe because we're foreign, she gave us each two, so nice.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The days are flying by

So . . . the days are flying by. We haven't posted anything since Saturday and that was 4 days ago! Apologized to our faithful blog readers. When I look at the blog I feel so tired. I am not sure whether it's because:
a) to post a good post on the blog takes at least an hour
b) Recounting all that has happened seems exhausting
c) or trying to word it so that everyone stays interested also seems difficult.

or maybe all of the above.


So we have spent to past 4 days busy and not so busy. On Sunday we hiked up Mt. Nyoigatake to the Daimonji and ate a Japanese breakfast with the COSMOS cultural volunteer class. It was great! The Japanese breakfast consisted of rice balls full of fish wrapped with sea weed and miso soup. We prefer American breakfast! It was beautiful and great views.

picture of me climbing up the mountain

This is a picture of Matthew eating Japanese breakfast. So we know he eats some meat, but in general he doesn't like to test the waters when it come to eating seafood type things. So I think he found himself eating a ball of rice full of headless, pink, squishy baby fish. Um, I don't think he was happy.

picture of the Japanese Character in the hill. It is made of a line of these fire pits so that when they are all lit from far away it looks like the character. There is a place that everyone gathers on Aug 18th ( I think) to watch all of the characters lit on six different hills.

picture of the view

We rode our bikes back and then took the subway to the to-ji market. This was at the Toji- temple. It was crazy! So many people. So much stuff. I bought a couple of Japanese lacquer bowls that were really cheap! There was so much stuff. I got overwhelmed and left. But it was amazing. All the people, food, and stuff.

picture of the busy market- right when we walked in the gate. Crazy right!

Monday we took it easy. Stayed in most of the day. I made pancakes! I think I went running for an hour. A great accomplishment. My heart is going to be in such great shape. I'm not sure what I'm going to do in India- I don't think I'll be able to casually run on the streets and in the neighborhoods. I spent time working on my resume and chatting on line.

Tuesday we went to two Japanese classes. I think Matthew got his package from him mom. Thanks Bonnie-san (a.k.a. Momma-B) you must be reading our minds!

Which brings us to today: Wednesday. Today we went to made pancakes again full of granola and a little chocolate! That was also my lunch ( if you can't tell we kinda miss American food) we then went to our Japanese classes and studied.

I think that is about it. Oh i lost one glove! where did it go? How did it get away? oh well. I will have to get another one.

Well, thats all for now.

That wasn't even a great post but it took over and hour. I thought computer where supposed to make things fast?

Saturday, January 20, 2007


More praise for the Kyoto International Community Center! I made it to all three courses today, and it was fantastic!

First at 10:00 in the morning was the Shogi club. Shogi is a traditional Japanese board game that is very similar to our chess. The board has an extra column and row (9x9) and most of the pieces are the same with a few exceptions. You can read the complete rules here. The two biggest differences I noticed were the ability to promote all pieces when they move into the enemy's territory (back three rows) and to "drop" pieces you have captured from your opponent back into play as part of your team anywhere on the board! It adds a whole new dimension to chess, having to think about what's on the board, what your opponent has off the board and what you have off the board. It was so much fun. The Sensei even served out coffee and biscuits while we played and gave me this board and pieces to take home and practice!

Next up was Origami. So what if I did origami as kid? We first made pigs, or boars, since it's now the year of the pig. Then we made "demons" (the rose pink guy) for Setsuban on February Third. You're supposed to throw dried beans at the demons to ward of evil, since most demons are allergic to beans...
Next up was the hardest one, that little green pinwheely type thing. It called for a very tiny piece of paper to begin with and it's folded so many times, but it's also the coolest one. If you put it on a smooth surface and blow on it from above, it spins like a top! A Wind Top! I love it. Time for a tea and cookie break. Lastly we made the also cool star baskets. Origami can be so pretty, and even almost functional sometimes. I'd love to find a way to use lacquer or resin to preserve it.

The day ended with Calligraphy. I did much better this week, partially due to choosing an easier Kanji than the 京都 (Kyoto) I did last time. The one I did today means "era," I forget how to say it in Japanese. It was a bit easier, and since I was there on time I got more practice in. The instructors are very helpful even though they don't speak much English. The one on the left is the better of the two. More snacks and social time! I talked with some students from Germany, Sweden, and Canada. It was good to meet some new people, particularly English speaking ones.

And now for some more Textures of Kyoto, or Gion specifically:

A couple days ago we went grocery shopping, and since the seafood is so affordable here we I had to try some salmon. Alison did a great job cooking it up with grilled asparagus and soba noodles. I made a little tofu with miso glaze in case I didn't like the fish, but I have to say it was delicious.

The Sea Dragon and Koi are tattoos I recently had done on my fore arms. Hope you like them.
Just kidding, images courtesy of Needle Addicted.

P.S. With our highspeed internet connection and computer you can now click on the photos we put on the blog to see them full size.

Jo gi n gu 2

So Today I felt like I was being kind of lazy. I didn't go to the cultural classes this morning. I just wanted to continue sleeping. SO I did. Matthew was out the do and I was under blankets dreaming of resumes, residences and Japanese talk. I spent all day on the computer, catching up with my sister, studying Japanese flash cards with this new program that I down loaded and that's about it. I never realized how long it took to remember vocabulary. But It takes a while. I even got dressed to catch the calligraphy class. I was looking in the mirror and I thought. I don't really want to go. I had this mental battle.

Alison1 : You should go! You need to take advantage of what they offer here in Japan. Get help from people instead of calligraphy books. Go and experience everything!

Alison 2: But I don't really feel like it. I'm enjoying myself and I'm learning vocab- which I desperately need to spend the time to do. I should feel like I'm being lazy or not taking advantage. Why so I feel these expectations. I feel like someone it telling me that I'm wasting my time.

Alison 1: Yeah someone is telling you that- IT'S ME!

Alison 2: Well, shut up then cause I'm enjoying my self and experience Japan in my own way at my own pace. SO HA!

OK. That was the argument in my head. I know I'm sounding crazy. But I was completely ready to go and I took off my jacket and started studying. I did get out side. I went for another Jog. And this time I brought my camera.

Leaving the apartment you are almost immediately in front of a play ground. Today for the first time I saw some children playing in the play ground!!

My jogging takes me down a couple of streets and I find my self on the street with the canal. The simple beauty of this place really get to me, so I took a lot of photos but will show only a few.

I saw this guy up in a tree pruning the leaves. I am continuously suprised by the culture here. People are always taking so much care to do the little things. - or the things that the average person might over look. I keep thing that the yards looked so well groomed, but never stop to think that they had a man climb up there and trim the leaves. While running I also saw people sweeping up dirt and little bits of trash. The take great pride in the appearance of their place.

So that was My run today. And Yes I am being safe- thank you for being concerned. I really enjoyed the people watching that occurred. And on the block back to the apartment I saw this little girl riding around on her unicycle. So funny looking- arms flailing around trying to keep her balance.

Friday, January 19, 2007

jo gi n gu

Regular exercise has always seemed like such a chore. I have had to push myself and convince myself that it is good for me. During our time in Australia I often felt restless and wanting some regularity from week to week. I tried to get into a rhythm of going for a jog. At no point was this extremely successful. I would going for a run everyday for a week and then not at all for three weeks. It was like a physical and emotional roller coaster. When you start the routine you feel great and more motivated then your motivation is taken for granted and over looked (by yourself) so you slow the routine down then the motivation nose dives! You are back where you started but you feel even worse because you know how good you felt. Once your tired of wallowing in you own misery you get fed up with yourself and start the cycle all over again.

Well, at least this is how I feel at times. When we were in Brisbane I felt refreshed and was regularly running. Once coming to Japan I got discouraged because of the cold and the uneasiness of knowing where what is acceptable. Starting the beginning of this week I pushed myself to bare the cold. It's actually not that bad!!! I just came back from a run that made be feel great. Even better than if it was warm out. I think I am really enjoying it rather than counting the minutes until I can stop. Maybe it is the fact that I never really get over heated (because its cold out), or maybe it's that I am visually exploring me surrounding, or maybe it is because I can people watch will speeding by. I'm not exactly sure.

One of the this that I like most is the fact that I am able to really get to know the neighbor hood that we are staying. There are a few schools for children, At least two college type schools. Around multiple corners are hidden play grounds, although I have only seen one really being enjoyed by many kids. The houses are so different and seem very fitting. While running today I found a beautiful canal that had a street on either side. The vibrant greenery caught my eye. I can only imagine what this place looks like in the spring. So many trees and plant and moss. The houses that lines the streets were a combination of old and new Japanese architecture. The older ones seem extremely space conscious and packed with usefulness in every corner. The new architecture seemed very clean and more spacious. The usefulness must have been hidden from the public's eye.

Well, these are my descriptions of a very significant jog through Japan. Next time I will bring my camera to take lots of photos.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


So what could possibly be more fun than riding bikes on busy kyoto sidewalks with out a helmet? How about doing that at night in the rain! I plowed over a restaurant sign to avoid hitting a lady and fishtailed out on a storm drain. Exhilarating!

Textures of Kyoto:

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Ink Painting

On Saturday we took an sumi ink painting course, it was so much fun! You start with Bamboo, as it is relatively easy, then I painted a fish, and Alison a Buddha. I liked painting more than calligraphy, Alison prefers calligraphy. When it came time to sign my paintings I said my name was Matthew, or マシュー (Mashu), but you can't sign your name in Katakana (used for Western words) you have to sign in Kanji (Chinese words). In Kanji, many characters can make the same sounds so you generally try to pair two together that have a good meaning. I don't know any Kanji so the two Senseis and and an older Japanese student huddled together and came up with Mashu in Kanji meaning "Real Excellence," a little egotistical for my preference, but I couldn't say no! (They really liked my paintings.)

At the park to day I was fortunate to see a Japanese Dragon! Now, you may look at the photo and think, "that's just a flock of black and white birds," but I am sure it was the glittering scales of a dragon... Even though it was cold, it was nice to walk around in the quiet and have a little think outdoors.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Alison san to Matthew san wa desu.

Another day in the productive lives of Alison san and Matthew san. . .

Well . . . Today opens with Alison san and Matthew san waking up around 7:30 to try and make it in and out of the single shower of the house with enough time to get out of the door by 9:30. Success! They are practically skipping to the Subways station excited about their Japanese classes. But Wait! The two adventurous youngsters need to get a day pass of the subway and the ticket machine is all in Japanese. Since they were on their way to the Japanese class for beginners, you could imagine they had some difficulty. Despite their best efforts they retrieve money, not tickets from the machine. Almost losing hope they turn to their trusty pocket phrase book and the ticket counter. Thank goodness Most people in Kyoto know more English than the two know Japanese! With tickets in their hand and saving more money than they thought, they are off to conquer the world, or at lease a couple sentences in Japanese.

After Learning how to say "I want this please", "How much is the udon and Beer" and "Here is 28,000 yen". They feel brilliant and are ready for another challenge. - Taking the subway then the train to the Fushimiinaritaisha Shrine. This actually proves to be simpler than they thought.

The next stage in their day opens with Alison san and Matthew san standing at the entrance of the shrine looking up at a huge red Torii with an angry looking fox on either side. Once they entered they saw that the shrine was beautiful and large. Both Matthew san and Alison san were impressed and amazed. They took a look walk under the Toriis. There where hundreds maybe even thousands! As they walked they felt a vague memory. Wait. . . Wait oh yes they realize what it is. The Gates by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The inspiration for The Gates now seems clear to these two, however, the impression that the Gates leave in your mind didn't seem to compare to what they experience this day.

As they wondered around the Toriis seemed endless. They eventually arrived at their destinations- the Archory Ceremony. This Ceremonry was particulary interesting because of all the formalities. -The multiple bows, the shooting of the bows in 4 different directions and also up and down. After the final shots, three women preformed thier tasks which were to serve sake and rice to all of the Archors and ceremonial helpers.

After leaving the ceremony, Alison san decided to be a little more adventurous and try the what the food vendor was selling. This was a pretty big mistake and the details will be spared from this story.

You would think this day was packed and the two youngsters must be tired and ready to head back home. Oh no. they are not done yet. There is still one more 50 yen Japanese Class offered at 7:30 pm. They hop back on the train and subway to learn more. During the time they waited for the class to start they sat in the International Community center's Library and studied more Japanese, looked over Japanes cook books for ideas and began reading more about India, their next stop on this world travel.

The two finished their class and made it back home by 9:30 pm and are preparing for another day at the communtiy center- takign part in culture activies such as ink painting, tea ceremonies, or maybe playing some Go ( a board game)

Thank you for taking the time to tune in. Please come again to see what these crazy kids are up to!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Path of Philosophy

Today I biked down to the Path of Philosophy, a nice little walking path along a brook in North East Kyoto. Great for easy strolling and as an escape from the busy city streets. The path runs at the foot of the mountains so there are lots of trees and temples tucked back in the hills. What I'm trying to say is I liked it a lot and took a lot of photos.

The star attraction in this area is the Silver Pavilion World Heritage site Zen Temple.

It has great rock gardens, and even a rock mountain/cone. So Zen.

There was a walk way the curled up the mountain through the temples moss gardens. They had displays of over 64 different kinds off moss, these are the "VIP" mosses, I guess different mosses have different meanings and significance.

I just really liked this building.

This is a small Shinto Kami shrine. I'd love to build one of these when I get back.

Another local Shinto Shrine on the Path of Philosophy. The local ones are nice because there are no tourists and you can really poke around the buildings without feeling awkward. This place had a lot of animal shrines, here's the mouse protector shrine. I just love the statues on the sides, it's not everyday someone carves a stone statue of a mouse with an acorn.

And just for kicks, here's a shot of the urban farms I mentioned.

And the largest Shinto Gate ever. Notice the bus. In the museum district.

In other news, Apple released their iPhone Yesterday. Looks pretty hot, not shipping until June, though.