Friday, October 31, 2008


I decided to spend my day in Tokyo seeing the local sights around my hotel. I hadn't researched Tokyo thoroughly enough before arrival (and spent most of my time on the plane ride on the way over goofing off instead of reading up) so I really had no idea what I was going to do once I got there. No worries, I like an adventure. So rather than board the subway completely blind and without a plan, I stuck close by and followed the advice of the local tourist office.

I spent several hours touring the Sensouji Temple and grounds. Its Japan's oldest Buddhist temple for ordinary people. It's focus is on the goddess of Kannon, or "Asakusa non Kannon-Sama." There's an open-air market inside and several smaller shrines scattered throughout the grounds, including a 5 story Pagoda. To get to the temple, you have to walk through a row of shops selling kitchy little souvenirs but you're rewarded with this amazingly large lantern with the Kanji symbol for "Thunder" written on it, which is the symbol for Tokyo.

Before heading to the main temple, I found a few Buddhas tucked around the grounds in various places. The photo one is my favorite. The figure on the left is said to bring mercy to worshipers, while the one on the right brings wisdom. I don't know the symbolism of the second photo, as practically everything on the grounds is written in Kanji with no English translations.

Before heading inside the main temple, I sat outside watching worshipers for awhile. The rituals I observed were interesting and I was doing my best to figure out what was going on, as I had no one to explain things to me (I've filled in some of the blanks by talking to Wes). There were walls of tiny little drawers on both sides of the temple entrance where people would shake this little metal box to try to get a little stick with some Kanji written on the tip. Then they'd replace the stick in the box and find the corresponding drawer with the same Kanji symbol they'd drawn. They'd read their fortune and if it was excellent, they'd either tie it to a tree or to a rack with rows of long pegs. If your fortune was less than excellent, then you're supposed to return to the Temple the following year and try your luck again with a new fortune. Before entering the temple, people who would burn incense and cleanse themselves in the smoke or would wash their hands and mouths at a fountain with several small cups on long wooden poles.

The worshipers had several techniques when it came to washing up. None would ever touch the cup to their lips. The ones who drank would hold the cup above their mouths and dribble water from above. They'd swish it around and spit it out on the ground. Others would only wash their hands. They'd pour water over their hands (always over the ground and never back into the fountain) and scrub. Others got fancy with this technique and would hold the cup perpendicular and let the water run out of the cup, down the stick and onto their hands. Some would wash their hands and their mouths.

Once inside the temple, worshipers would say a prayer, throw in some money as an offering and move back to allow others to do the same. The main hall was rebuilt several times over the years as it was destroyed by fire and war. The most recent hall was built in 1958.

After leaving the temple, I headed West to find the Kappabashi Kitchenware Town, where there are several blocks of wholesalers hocking equipment, utensils, dishes, chairs, etc. that are used in both restaurant and home kitchens all over town. My favorite thing to see was the wax replicas they have of food. Most restaurants across town use these wax food replicas in their window displays instead of having a menu outside. There were lots of really comical options, and those things are freaking expensive!

They take their knives seriously:

Examples of grilled items. Notice all the pots and grills wrapped in plastic.

I love this sushi display:

There were lots of things that I wanted to take home with me. I would have happily walked away with a tea set and a bowl set if Japan had been my last stop on the trip instead of my first. But I restrained myself and only walked away with a bamboo roller to add to my sushi set. It fits in my purse, so I feel like that is something that I could haul around for the next 5 months. Wes has offered to ship anything home for me that I find here in Japan. He could be setting himself up for a world of hurt by making that offer. We'll see how the next few days go!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Language Barrier

I had a good flight into Japan yesterday and was lucky that the flight wasn't overbooked. I ended up with an entire row to myself, which was perfect for a 13 hour flight. I had a personal TV and a video game console to keep me entertained and, as a result, didn't get much sleep. I'm not really sure that sleep could have ever really been an option though. As we moved west, we chased the sun and it never got dark during the whole flight. It was an odd experience and a first for me. My body was telling me it was 1am, yet out the window it was mid afternoon. I landed and moved like a zombie through immigration and customs, which went quickly and smoothly.

I had help from folks at the airport figuring out where the ATM was and how to use the public transportation system into Tokyo. I ended up taking the slowest and cheapest train available, which took 85 minutes to get from the airport to the final stop at Uneo. It only cost me about $10, which was great! I had to change trains and transfer to the subway system once I got to Uneo and had help from the subway manager to do so. The process of buying the correct tickets to clear the turnstile was always convoluted, as it was always in Japanese. Nothing here is in English, which makes things quite an adventure!

Anyway, I managed to get to my hotel with the help of the next subway manager and two Japanese businessmen (one of which walked me to my hotel because I couldn't read the signs). I handed the guy at the front desk my reservation information and he repeated back "Capsule Hotel", which meant exactly nothing to me since my reservation clearly said Hotel New Gyominso. Apparently I was in the right building, just the wrong desk. He lead me to the back of the hotel and down a set of stairs and up another set. At the other front desk (which I would have NEVER found alone) I handed my reservation information over again and received a key and a set of linens and had to put my shoes in a locker and trade them for house slippers. I was then directed to the 8th floor and this is what I found:

That's right, man! You stay out! The sign puzzled me at first. I thought the Japanese were just very proper about restricting men to their own floor and women to theirs, like in a hostel. But I had booked a single room. Or so I thought. Then I walked in and found this:

Apparently "Capsule Hotel" is exactly what it's described as! Little rooms stacked on top of each other. There are 24 capsules in my hall. Here's my room:

Its got a little TV mounted in the ceiling and a clock/radio combo, light fixture and vent mounted on one side of the wall and a small mirror mounted on the opposite side of the wall. The space measures about 4 x 4 x 7 and embodies everything I thought Japan would be. I sat there inside my capsule last night just laughing at myself for thinking that I booked a private room! What private room in Tokyo is only going to cost $30 a night? Ha! There were only about 8 of us on the hall last night and we all share 4 sinks, 1 wash bin, 3 toilets and 3 what I'm assuming are Japanese urinals for women? I'm still puzzled on this one:

The showers are located on the 9th floor and are decidedly not Western. I should have taken a picture when I scoped them out last night but I was too tired and not thinking clearly. They're only open from 3pm - 9am so I'll get a picture tonight and post it soon. I had my first experience with public bathing this morning, which was interesting. I'll write more about that when I have photos to accompany my story. In the meantime, I leave you with a night view from the top floor of my hotel.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I'm Leaving On A Jet Plane!

All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go...

Well, not yet.  Not exactly.  I'm wrapping up my final night in DC by finishing up a few things on the computer that I (surprise!) procrastinated on.  I attempted to see The Physics of Meaning play in Shirlington tonight but it fell through when they changed venues and times without a heads up.  Bummer.  But the upside is that I got to catch up with a friend from my old advertising job over an early dinner beforehand and I caught a ride to my old neighborhood and walked around the Clarendon/Courthouse area of Arlington for a little while this evening.  It seemed fitting to conclude my trip to DC by ending it in my old stomping grounds.

I leave first thing in the morning from Stephen's place in Capitol Hill and am using public transportation to make the long haul out to Dulles.  Stephen was nice enough to come pick me up from BWI when I flew in and I'd be putting him out more than a little (he'd be fighting rush hour commuters back into the city) if he were to take me to the airport this time around.  Its all good though.  Done it tons of times before.  Not looking forward to the early start but I'm sure it'll make falling asleep on the 13 hour plane ride to Tokyo MUCH easier.  That and all the free booze they dish out on international flights....

So I conclude with a farewell to all!  I'll do my very best to update posts and photos as frequently as possible.  There will no doubt be lots to share!  Cheers!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

I'm On The Move!

I've officially begun my trip!  I'm currently in DC spending a long weekend with friends and I plan to catch what was supposed to be the last show on the Physics of Meaning tour in Arlington this Sunday (although it seems that they'll be playing in Greensboro shortly).

Getting to this point was every bit as stressful as I thought it would be.  I quit my job last Wednesday to allow myself enough time to get things done before I left a week later.  I had my 10 year high school reunion all weekend, which went much better than I could have imagined (much to my relief).  After the  festivities wrapped, I visited my sister in Memphis for three nights (a must, as she is leaving for a 10 month study abroad to Uruguay before I return from my trip and unless I fly down to visit, I won't see her until next Christmas).  The timing of everything only left me with a 3 days to wrap up everything on my To-Do list, which was quite an undertaking.

I'm an incredible procrastinator and, though I've known for more than a month what I'm supposed to be achieving in order to leave for half the year with a clear conscious, I've managed to put off most of the big things til the end.  Which is why I spent the better part of Thursday working on updating my iTunes playlist.  UGH.  I ran out of time to get things squared away the way I wanted (as in, I have more music than is formatted for my 8G iPhone and now the other applications don't work right), but I have tons of new music to listen to while I travel so I won't get bored with my old stuff.  I really have no idea what's on there, I just pulled stuff after sampling a few songs from each artist and figured I'd get acquainted with it later--for better or worse.  Not like I won't have time!

And then there's the packing.  Oh the packing!  My room has been Ground Zero for weeks and I thought I'd be able to give it a proper cleaning (so I'd actually be organized enough to locate things upon my return), but no such luck.  Most of the stuff landed in a heap in my closet.  I'm only taking a medium-sized backpack and a tiny courier bag (as a checked bag which will contain things I won't mind if the airlines lose, i.e. toiletries and books).  Which means that everything else I own is split between my parents house in TN and my storage unit in CO.  My mom has threatened to redo my room (or even sell the house) while I'm away.  I'm skeptical, but if she chooses to follow through on that threat all I can say is GOOD LUCK TO YOU!  I don't even want to touch all that crap when I get back and I'll HAVE to, she'd be doing it because she WANTED to, and that's a concept I just can't understand.

I'm not accustomed to traveling super light (I love to car camp because I can bring luxury items like coolers full of fresh veggies and meats for dinner, beer and I don't have to compress my sleeping bag and all my clothes and even though I sold most of my stuff after leaving DC two years ago, I still have an amazing amount of crap).  I'm really proud that everything I'm taking for a 5.5 month trip fits (mostly) inside a 3000 cubic inch pack.  Most people I've run this list by who have done anything with me in terms of camping or moving are floored by this!  David still thinks I overpacked, but everything he owns will fit into his car, so consider the source.  Here's what's coming with me:

- 1 pair of jeans
- 1 pair softshell pants
- 1 pair insulating fleece pants
- 1 pair hardshell gortex pants
- 2 pairs of shorts
- 1 skirt
- 2 long sleeved shirts
- 1 short sleeved shirt
- 1 tank top
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sundress
- 2 pairs of shoes (1 pair tennis shoes, 1 pair flip flops)
- 4 pairs each of socks and underwear
- 2 bras
- 1 down coat
- 1 hardshell waterproof jacket
- a lightweight sleeping bag (40 degree rating)
- toiletries
- a handful of books on Asia, Australia and New Zealand
- gadgets (iPod, camera, chargers, etc)
- 6 months worth of vitamins & supplements (David laughs at this, but its my thing!  Yay health!)

Looks like a lot in list form, but I can assure you it fits on my back!  Getting things pared down to what I could fit in a backpack seemed at first to be much more daunting than it actually turned out to be.  David points out that we're going to be in the countries that manufacture most of the consumable goods for the world, so its not like I won't be able to buy things when I need them.  Plus, who wants to carry all that shit around?!?

The biggest downside of the trip is that we're covering 2 extreme seasons (going from late fall in Asia to summer and fall Down Under), which requires more of a range of layers and more to prep for than a shorter trip and therefore more stuff.  So I'll get bored with everything I'm bringing.  So what?  I'll end up shipping stuff home or donating/throwing things away as I go and determined my packing list so that I could do just that.  I'm just hoping I'll actually use everything I pack so I'm not hauling  it around for nothing.  I have my doubts, but this is a learning experience and I'm all about it!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Vietnamese Visa - Its A Cinch!

Okay, so I don't know why those awful travel sites make it so difficult to understand the visa application process but it turned out to be a snap!  Certified mail got the package there in two business days and it was turned around in a day and a half, despite the Vietnamese national holiday that closed the Embassy that Monday.  They got the package on a Tuesday morning and had it back in the mail by Wednesday afternoon.  I got it that Friday.  It was amazingly easy--5 business days!  Anyone attempting to get a Vietnamese visa should definitely do it on their own rather than paying for a 3rd party to do it for them.  Not only will you save the money but there's really no headache involved.  You don't need a sponsor or anything like that in the country for your application.  They'll approve it without that section filled out as long as you're a tourist.  There's really nothing complicated about the process and its easy to do on your own.  Save the money and skip the 3rd party vendors who are just out there to muddle the process and make a buck.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

They Make Things So Difficult!

The application for a Vietnamese visa seemed so straightforward at first. It was one of the three countries on our trip that require a visa at all and one of the two that require you to have it prior to entering the country (China being the other). There are as many companies dedicated to muddling this process and making it more confusing than it has to be and who try to trick you into paying between $50 - $150 for their services in addition to the price of the visa. Turns out, after emailing the Vietnamese Embassy directly, that civilians are capable of applying for their own visas rather than going through a 3rd party broker. It ultimately saves a minimum of $15 a person for express service, not to mention the fees (and it would have been more like $50 each if we had gotten a jump on things sooner and could afford for the Embassy to take up to 10 business days to process our request). But alas, I never do anything until the last minute and I had to pay the $20 extra for express 2-3 business day service. Not a big deal in the scheme of things.

I say that lightly now, but the biggest downside I can see about doing this myself is that the Embassy won't take express carriers like FedEx or UPS, they only deal with USPS. So that tacks on an additional two days in transit, which is VERY VALUABLE TIME. Especially when I've left myself only two days room for error. Attempting to go about getting my visa solo is a bit intimidating due to the hype that travel agencies spew (i.e. listing the documents you need to submit and claiming that they'll be there to take care of "any other paperwork that needs to be submitted on your behalf in case there are any issues"). Of course they say these things to drum up business but it works. Who knows what types of delays I could have at the Embassy without having someone watching over the process. Updates to come....

Monday, October 13, 2008

Chinese Visa - Acquired!

I've been a little behind in posting any updates for a while, mostly because I wanted to wait until I had secured my Chinese visa before commenting on the process. I've heard millions of horror stories about how difficult getting through all the bureaucratic red tape can be and I was determined not to believe any of it and forge on unhindered.

According to the Chinese Embassy, they will only take visa applications in person or through a 3rd party broker. Its an effective way to subsidize other vendors or completely screw with the schedules of the lucky people who live in the few cities across the country that host a Chinese Embassy, as they require your presence for hours and days at a time. After shopping around to find the cheapest option (after all, they all promise roughly the same service), I went with CSCA Visa Mail Service. I sent the documents in on September 27th and they handled the whole process within 5 business days (all in all it was a 10-day process) and cost $323.97 for two visas and FedEx shipping. Not too shabby. They were good at keeping me updated about when they received my application, when it was being processed, and when it was being shipped back to me. Plus, now I have a full page visa glued into my passport ready for me when I fly into Beijing on November 6th.

Currently my passport is sitting in the mail waiting to be delivered to the Vietnamese Embassy. I'll have loads to write about that once I get confirmation of the process. I'm having a bit of anxiety about the whole thing since I leave home on October 24th and if I don't have my passport back in the mail by the 23rd its going to be awfully difficult to leave the country. More to come....