We woke up on our last day in Japan, ate breakfast and packed our bags. We popped them into the luggage lock up, and headed out for our last shopping exursion in Tennoji. The area around the station in Tennoji has been redeveloped in the last few years, and there’s still another stage to be completed next year. Several shopping malls adjoin, so it creates a large area to shop and eat. Cathryn and I said goodbye to the kids for a few hours, and headed to Starbucks for a coffee and to decide our game plan for the afternoon’s trip to the airport. After that, I headed to one of my favourite department stores, Loft, to stock up on stationery and travel goods for the flight home. Cathryn and I met up again and headed for our last proper meal in Japan! I had an ebi fry, with prawns that were literally 20cm long! They were amazing! Cathryn had a Japanese curry that she said was great, albeit a bit spicy.
We met back up with the kids, who were buzzing about their last minute purchases. Manga, watches, anime figurines, clothes and shoes were all snapped up, and when we got back to the hostel and grabbed our bags, watching them try to fit it all into their luggage (in terms of space and weight!) was the best part!
Then started the ten minute trek to the train station, all loaded up with luggage. We had a parent come to collect one of our students (as they’re staying in Japan with family for a little longer), and then we were on the train and heading to Kansai. We headed in to the airport, checked our luggage, and spent the last of our yen. Before we knew it, it was time to board. We spent almost an hour on the plane before we took off, though, because two passengers had to be offloaded as they didn’t turn up, and then finally we were off. Thankfully, I slept for about 6 hours of the 8.5 hour flight.
We disembarked, and a few of the kids were genuinely sad about the trip ending. After collecting our bags and going through immigration and customs, we exited the secure section of the airport to see plenty of family and friends waiting. And so our amazing adventure was over! I said in January when Clinton and I were on the tarmac at Narita in Japan, waiting to come home, that I hoped to come back to Japan soon. I’m glad the powers that be sought fit to make it happen sooner rather than later!
Today was our last full day in Japan! We had a fairly late start so the kids could all rearrange their bags, ready for the plane and so they knew how much room they had for shopping! We headed out at about 11am and, as Cathryn had some money to change, she stayed at Tennoji station and we kept going. Unfortunately, I led us to the wrong train (should have been platform 8 but we took platform 7), and we had to backtrack along the same line. Thirty minutes later, we were exactly where we started! Then, when we thought the train was continuing, it stopped - it was terminating. So we all had to get out and get on the next train that came through. We caught that one successfully, and at the next change we had to go from the JR line to the subway, which required me to buy a ticket from them. I spent five minutes purchasing tickets at the machine (you can only get three at a time), went up to the gate, and we were stopped in our tracks. The station attendant told me I’d purchased JR tickets (we already had passes to cover that) and needed to purchase new tickets for the subway. Gaaaaaaah! Frustrated, I went up to the ticket machine and purchased our 18 tickets. Finally, we caught the train, got off and walked the last 3 minutes to the Osaka aquarium.
Because of all the faffing about, the kids were all hungry by now, so I let them have an hour in the Tempozan Marketplace to eat. Before the hour was up, Cathryn was back with us, and we headed to the aquarium. We headed in, and let the kids wander about themselves. I’d been here before, and it was just as enjoyable this time as last. In particular, we saw the penguins being fed, and the whale sharks in the big central tank being hand-fed by a scuba diver! It was amazing to see. We met the kids outside, and gave them another half an hour in the marketplace - it was intended for them to have a chance to go on the wheel, but they all went shopping and to the game centre instead.
We caught our train to central Osaka, and emerged to the sea of lights and sound that are the large arcade malls. We wandered towards Dotonbori, seeing plenty of familiar sights (the giant crab, the kaitenzushi place Clinton and I ate in), before taking the kids to the Ebisu-bashi bridge to see the Glico man light up, and the rest of the amazing lights and sounds of the area. We let them go for an hour to have dinner, and Cathryn and I went back to a gyoza restaurant, where we were able to get 6 pieces of gyoza for 100 yen! We had a couple of plates each, as they were so delicious, and at 1600 yen total (800 yen each, or about $8), it was definitely the cheapest meal we both had all trip!
We had intended on going out to karaoke with the kids again tonight, so tried to organise it before we met up with the kids. I left Cathryn to do the booking while I went back to meet with them at our designated time and place. One asked if we really needed to do karaoke, or if we could do some more shopping. After a quick poll, it was clear that shopping was the preferred activity, so I called Cathryn and told her to abort mission karaoke. She came to meet us, and we gave them another hour to shop. Cathryn and I wandered around the arcades, and ended up at a game centre to take some purikura (pictures). It’s a bit sad, but I even knew the purikura machine that I wanted! After taking some funny photos and decorating them, we headed to a taiko drum machine game, which is a little like guitar hero with a giant drum. Having played before, I won by a considerable margin, but Cathryn did well too. Unfortunately, winning comes at a cost, and I got a blood blister on one of my palms from taiko drumming my little heart out.
We caught up with the kids then, and headed back to the hotel to get organised for bed. I decided to beeline for the shower early, and grabbed myself a cubicle (it was communal showers, and there were only three cubicles for everyone). Before I’d finished, there were quite a few Japanese girls that came in and started to bathe themselves in the open area before hopping in the onsen tub (as you do in public baths). However, when I got out, there were several of our girls who looked quite traumatised about what was happening. A similar situation happened with the boys, and luckily everyone was able to have a laugh about it and appreciate how much we like what we do at home!
We took an early train from Kyoto to Universal Studios in Osaka. It was a little bit tense, because there were several train changes and we all had heavy backpacks with us. Just like at Disneyland, there was an issue for us at the gate, because we had changed our original date (even though we had prepaid and they don’t cap entry numbers). It took Cathryn almost half an hour to sort out, and the rest of us waited at the giant revolving Universal Studios globe, people watching. Adults and kids alike dress up to go to theme parks over here, and one highlight was a group of 6 or 7 guys wearing Spiderman masks, asking us to take their picture.
Once we were inside we went straight for the Spiderman 4D simulator ride. After a 45 min wait (which was not too bad compared to Disneyland!), we were all on the ride inside two cars. It was pretty scary! Spidey’s nemeses were all trying to get us! There was one with water, and water drops fell on us; one zapped the car’s electricity and we were shaken about; and Doc Ock knocked us into the air and Spiderman tried to catch us, but the spiderweb snapped and we went plummeting to the ground. There was an explosion near us which was really hot, too. In all, there was lots of screaming, and most of it was from me! The pictures were hilarious, and we bought one of each car and decided we’d come back later for them. We sent the kids off to explore.
Cathryn’s friend Yumi, her daughter Mika and husband Katsuma came in for the day, too. After meeting up with them, we headed for the Jurassic Park ride. Cathryn was not being very forthcoming with information about this one, so I knew it must be scary. Cathryn, Katsuma and I hopped on to a big boat and started off with a pleasant jungle cruise, before the dinosaurs ‘escaped’ and we were in danger. We ended up going in to a warehouse, and you could see the silhouettes of the dinosaurs fighting, before old mate T-Rex started growling and gnashing his teeth. Once he was done, we were sent plummeting down a huge waterfall! It was pretty fun, and the photo was a classic!
Next up we headed for lunch at Snoopy’s Backlot Diner, and I got myself a spaghetti in a souvenir lunchbox, which was of Snoopy’s head! We wandered through the kids area, and went for a post-lunch carousel ride, which was very cute. After that, we headed to the Waterworld arena for the eponymous stunt show. We sat in one of the splash zones, but we missed most of the water. There were lots of explosions, a plane that crashed into the water, and lots of shooting. There were also real props from the movie on display.
Next we headed to another infamous film’s ride - Jaws. We boarded the front row of the boat with our ‘driver’ at the helm, and it wasn’t long before the silly shark was jumping out of the water at us. Cathryn was on the side that was pretty much attacked by the shark, and almost jumped on my lap when he did!
We split off into two groups next - Cathryn and a few others heading to the rollercoaster, and I went to the Back to the Future simulator with J, one of the students. She’d already been on it, so she knew what she was getting herself in for. Once we got in, we were put into the famous DeLorean, which Biff had stuffed around with, and were sent off into time. It wasn’t as fancy as Spiderman, but the big video screen ‘zoomed’ us around. It was pretty shaky, and J laughed almost the whole time - at my screaming!
Next we met up at the Fantasy coaster, which I didn’t go on, and then we headed for some parlour games (which, of course, none of us won). We wandered down towards dinner at Mel’s Diner, which were burgers and chips, before the zombie show started. Being close to Halloween, the park changed the normally tame parade into a zombie ‘parade’. At 6pm, the zombies were released and wandered the park, trying to grab people. It sounds lame, but it was actually really scary, especially with it being dark, and mist seeping up from grates, and the park lights flickering, and the speakers playing scary music. There were some who’d rattle chains, others with limbs they were munching on, and still others with chainsaws (they were particularly unpleasant!). We discovered that they wouldn’t come into shops, so they were safe zones. Some of the rides had been ‘zombified’, too, in that they had changed from their relatively harmless day fun into nighttime scariness. We were going to go to Jaws after collecting our Spiderman pictures from earlier in the day. We literally had to walk around the whole park to get there, and there were some very, very tense moments! We got split up several times, as we’d just run when a zombie came our way, and several times a couple of us would duck into a shop to avoid the craziness. I honestly felt like I was having heart palpitations! By the time we got around to Jaws, it was almost time to meet some of the kids back at our meeting spot at the front of the park, so a few of us had to go all the way back there, having quite a few close encounters. Some of the students thought it would be funny to walk up and scare us, but it certainly wasn’t!
We let the kids go for another hour before we would have to leave. We decided to head into the safety of the Shrek 4D film, which was lots of fun. When we got out, we saw the zombies break into the Thriller dance a few times, too, which was quite fun, but they’d run at you hard at the end of the dance, so after the first time I learned to be very close to a shop entrance during the dance!
Finally, we left the park and headed to our new home, the Nagai Youth Hostel.
We were up quickly and organising our suitcases to be packed, as this morning they were going to be sent ahead to Osaka. Because I finished relatively early, I had some time to hit up Yodobashi, the department store just behind our hotel, and get some trainers. I found an awesome pair of Adidas ones, in fluoro orange, for 5990 yen ($60).
I went back to the hotel and met the kids and then we headed up Kyoto Tower at 10.30am. Unfortunately it had been drizzling, and as a result it was a fairly grey view from the top of the tower. They had really great binoculars, though, and so we could see really well into the distance and the mountains surrounding Kyoto.
Once we descended, we crossed the road and caught a bus to Nijo-jo, Kyoto’s castle. We walked through the hallways to see the beautiful painted panels of the rooms. Even though there were ‘no photography’ signs around, I decided to take a sneaky picture, and as a result, I scored myself an ‘escort’ through the building (as in, a person who didn’t confront me about what I’d done, but followed my every move). The artwork was very pretty, and it was great to see the hidden panels (for the shogun’s guards to hide in) and nightingale floorboards that squeak when even the smallest amount of pressure is put on them (to avoid ninja attacks). Paranoid much? We also wandered through the extensive gardens. It would be amazing to see Nijo-jo during blossom season, as there were many plants starting to change colours and prepare for blooming.
After we exited the castle, it was time for lunch. I offered to take some of us to a ramen place that Clinton and I had been to and loved in December, but it was jam packed. Quite a few of the group kept on walking, but four students stayed and we each had an amazingly tasty gyoza set (featuring ramen, rice, and gyoza) - for 900y ($9)!
Once we were done eating, we caught the bus to Kinkakuji, the golden palace. Clinton and I didn’t get a chance to get here in December, so I was glad to see it. In the soft afternoon sunlight, it was glinting beautifully! We walked through the hilly garden, before waiting at the end. Three kids dawdled and Cathryn went back to look for them, but as luck would have it, they came back not long after Cathryn left and so we had to wait for Cathryn to run backwards through the whole complex looking for them.
Once we were all reunited, we caught another bus to Ryoanji zen temple. The pleasant five minute walk up a small hill was already zen inducing! We took off our shoes, walked through the wooden building and sat down on the viewing platform. In front of us were 15 stones of various shapes and sizes, and carefully raked white gravel stones. It’s designed so that you can’t see all of the stones at once, although I could see thirteen from my spot. The idea is to contemplate what these rocks and their formation mean, which made me a little un-zen, because I wanted to know why they were put in those positions! Despite this curiosity, I came away feeling very zen. We walked around to the pond at the front of the temple, before heading down the bus stop. We went to the same stop as the one we had arrived on an hour earlier, and sat to wait. I asked Cathryn if this was the right stop…wouldn’t it be going away from the station in this direction? She said that she’d caught it back from there before. Misako, Cathryn’s friend, took off running up the road, and disappeared from sight. All of a sudden, a bus appeared from around the corner on the opposite side of the road, saying ‘JR BUS, KYOTO STN’ (ie. where we wanted to go). Cathryn and I looked at each other. There wasn’t much traffic besides the bus. Could we run after it and make it? I nodded. “Come on, kids, let’s run!” We sped off down the road. Misako had gone to check the timetable, and was on her way back to get us when the bus arrived, so she held it for us. It was a fun little run (my new trainers helped!) and we all collapsed on to our bus seats.
Once we got back to Kyoto station, we decided to let the kids (and us!) have some free time! Cathryn, Misako and I hit up the Yodobashi again. Misako left us just before dinner, which was shabu shabu! It was really tasty, but we couldn’t finish our second plate! It was a little expensive, at 60,000 yen for both of us, but it was a great meal.
We headed back to the hotel to meet up with the kids, before getting organised for bed. Tomorrow we’re heading to Universal Studios in Osaka, so it will be a big day!
Today was a very early morning. We were up at 6.15am, down to breakfast at 6.30am, and met the kids in the lobby at 7am to leave for our 7.20am shinkansen to Hiroshima. We had to power walk to get to the platform in time, but we made it! It was a 2.5 hour trip to Hiroshima, and many of the students slept most of the way.
We were greeted by a sunny morning in Hiroshima, and we took the electric tram straight to the Atomic Bomb Dome. Having been here on a chilly Christmas Day last year, it was a very different morning, and Cathryn and I took turns playing tour guide. World War II is one of the most interesting times of modern history to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed Clinton and my trip here in December (come to think of it, ‘enjoy’ probably isn’t the right word for seeing something so horrible). After seeing the A-Bomb Dome, we headed across the Aioi Bridge, the target of the bomb, and to the Peace Bell and the mound where many unidentifiable remains where interred. We paused at the Children’s Memorial to Sadako, to place our cranes in the glass display cases, and have a minute silence with some Japanese school students. We warned the students about the graphic nature of what they were about to see, before heading into the Peace Memorial Museum. It is still chilling to read the testimonies of victims and see their pictures staring back at us and their watches stopped at 8.15am, even though I’ve been here before. We did a little quiz with the students when we met up with them at the end, and I was surprised that they had really been taking in everything during their trip through the museum (the only one they couldn’t answer was how the bomb worked, although they could tell me it was nuclear fission using uranium or plutonium, which I was impressed with).
Once we were finished, we walked to the main shopping arcade in Hiroshima, Hondori Street, and set the kids free for lunch and some shopping. We went to Saizeriya, and Italian chain restaurant, and when Cathryn was getting a Mister Donuts donut and I was waiting outside, I spotted a massage parlour. This was a major find for me, because Cathryn and I had been talking about getting a massage for about a week! They did 15 minutes for 1050 yen ($10 dollars), and we jumped at the chance! Cathryn got her shoulder and neck kinks massaged out, and I had my calves and feet done. While both legs were very tight and painful to start with, they relaxed and by the time I walked out it felt like I had pillows attached to my feet!
We went back to the bridge and caught a ferry from the middle of town to Miyajima Island. Despite it being a bit bumpy, some of the students managed to get a bit of shut eye on the way! We disembarked and walked along the front of the shore, encountering our second lot of deer in as many days. Several hundred high school students were also doing the same thing, and they had many professional pictures taken so it must have been a special event. We eventually made it to the floating torii gate, which was not floating at that point. We sent the kids out to take pictures underneath it if they wanted, and come back so we could go through Itsukushima shrine, located just on the shoreline (water goes underneath it when the tide comes in). There was a very traditional wedding finishing as we went through, and it was lovely to see. After we finished seeing the shrine, we asked the kids if they wanted to go up the ropeway (which Clinton and I did in December), but it was a little too expensive, so we gave them another hour to hit the shopping strip and meet us back at the ferry terminal.
A ferry and a local train later, we arrived back in Hiroshima, and ate dinner at the station. Cathryn and I went to a restaurant specialising in aji (mackrel), but ate chicken and egg rice, which was very tasty. Unfortunately, you could smoke in this restaurant, so we stayed for as short a period of time as we could, and we were the only two women (apart from the waitresses) for almost the whole time we were there! Again, we saw Brendan and Kirra in the station with their students in tow, and said that we’d see them in Osaka in a couple of days. We caught our shinkansen home, and rather than sleeping, it turned out to be a trip full of very hearty laughs. We returned ‘home’, and bundled ourselves off to bed after a very big day!
Today was a big day! We had a little sleep in and got organised to leave by 9.30am. Being right across Kyoto station made it very convenient. We got a train to Inari station, and after a short history lesson courtesy of Lonely Planet, we let the kids loose. We saw Brendan, our friend from Helensvale SHS, who regaled us with a few funny stories of lost children and lost luggage, and we made plans to see him for dinner.
It was a gorgeous sunny day, and there was a lovely contrast between the red of the torii gates and the clear blue of the sky. We had a wander around for an hour and took lots of photos, before meeting up at the front torii gate and catching a train to Nara.
We got off the train and ate at some restaurants just outside of the station. Cathryn and I ate at a nice restaurant with a delicious set menu of katsu for me and udon for her.
Then it was time to regroup and walk towards Todaji. We passed quite a few shops, but there were many that were closed. I didn’t know Japan did siesta! Before long, we were at the start of the deer park. We saw a couple of deer sitting down on some shady grass just outside the park, and all of the others were a bit scared. I decided that I would go up and give him a gentle pat. All the students held their breath in anticipation, cameras at the ready. Unfortunately for them, there were no animal attacks they could film, as the deer seemed to enjoy his little pat, although he was panting because it was so hot. As we got closer and closer to Todaji, there were more and more deer, largely because you could buy biscuits to feed them. We kept walking in and finally arrived just outside the enormous wooden gate.
The daibutsu was looking very serene, despite having a different coloured head to his body, as he has had his head replaced a couple of times. Several of the kids told me that I should pose with a statue of a war god, and being susceptible to peer pressure, I did quite the pose (unfortunately there is photographic evidence of this). Around the back of the daibutsu there is a hole in the bottom of one of the pillars which is the same size as the nostril of the daibutsu, and you are meant to be enlightened if you can fit through it. Of course, it’s a pretty tight squeeze for Westerners, so a few of us had to be pulled through, and it was quite funny to watch. After this, we sat outside for a while to relax, as it was a fairly hot day. We shopped as we meandered back down the street leading to the daibutsu, with several of us being molested by deer on the way, before finally catching a bus back to the train station. We got off a stop too early, though, so we had to walk a block before we could catch the next train, and we only just made it!
Cathryn and I let the kids loose for some shopping and dinner once we arrived back in Kyoto, and after some coffee and cake, and a shower to freshen up, we headed out to meet Brendan and Kirra, two of Cathryn’s former colleagues from Helensvale, for dinner at the station. Okonomiyaki butatama (pork) was on the menu for dinner, and it was a great meal.
Cathryn’s friend Yumi came out to meet up with us, with her mother and daughter, and walked back to the hotel with us. After checking in with the kids and reminding them about their very early wake up in the morning, we sent everyone (including ourselves!) off to bed.
Today I Woke up at 5.30am because it was time to leave our host families! The Hori family all got up to farewell me, and after some hearty hugs and promises of seeing each other again soon, I waved goodbye to Atsushi, Chihiro and Yuriko. Yoko drove Hinako and I to Ofuna station, and then it was time to say goodbye to Yoko. She had been so welcoming and accommodating for me during my stay, and I was sad to be leaving her. Hina and I caught a train and then a subway train to Shin-Yokohama station, where our shinkansen (bullet train) would be leaving from. I was the last to arrive! Slowly, we took our last pictures, had our last hugs and said our teary goodbyes, and the Japanese students stood on the other side of the gate waving until we turned the corner. Many promises of return visits or trips to Australia were made, so I’m sure that there will be many enduring friendships from this exchange.
We boarded our shinkansen for the two and a half hour trip from Shin-Yokohama to Kyoto station. Because it was so early, Yoko made me a ‘brunch’ of onigiri (rice balls), edamame beans and obento treats. She had also put a little note in it, saying that I should come back soon. I almost cried! It was very sweet.
We arrived to a sunny, steamy Kyoto day. We dropped our suitcases at our hotel under the Kyoto tower (right across the road from the station), and let the kids go for lunch at Kyoto station. Cathryn recommended the okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) at a particular restaurant and, seeing as okonomiyaki are one of my favourite Japanese foods, I was in. I had the butatama (pork) one, and it was absolutely fantastic!
Once we were done eating, we walked out the front of the station to the bus terminus, and caught a bus to Kiyomizudera, one of the most picturesque temples in Kyoto (quite a feat, seeing as there are about 700 of them!). We hiked up the hill (with lots of complaining from the kids!), to be greeted by the beautiful view over Kyoto. Next we headed down to Otawa-no-taki, where you drink the water coming from a 1km deep well. It is said to bring you intelligence and luck for exams, so there are always many students here. In fact, Kiyomizu means clear water in Japanese! The water was beautiful and cool, and tasted really nice. After that, we walked back towards Chawan-zaka (or Teapot Lane), to souvenir shop and pick up a ramune (lemonade) and vanilla soft serve.
Next, we walked down the hill and took a bus a couple of stops down the road to Gion. We had ten minutes to check out Yasaka Jinja with the kids, before we walked to our Maiko experience. A maiko is a junior geisha (or geiko in the Kyoto area). We were shepherded into a now familiar feeling tatami room, before the maiko made her entrance, followed by her making some green tea for us to eat with some sweets. Next she did a beautiful traditional dance, before fielding questions from us. The okiya mother explained her answers in English.games. Next, we were taught a little drinking game (sans alcohol) that a maiko will play with her clients, involving grabbing a cup from a table. We all had a turn, and it was lots of fun! It was now time to leave the teahouse, and the maiko stood out the front, waving until we couldn’t see her anymore.
It was now dark, so we took a little walk through Gion, trying to see some geisha on their way to an appointment. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any, so we returned via train to Kyoto. Our train was delayed by twenty minutes - the first time I’ve ever seen a train delayed in Japan!
We got back to our hotel at 7.30pm, and wolfed down some Maccas for dinner so we could get to Karaoke at Big Echo just down the street. It was lots of fun, and I felt right at home with some Rick Astley, Nirvana and Spice Girls. The highlight, though, would have to be our last song, cranking the Destiny’s Child classic “Say My Name” with the girls.
While Karaoke was fun, the kids were very tired (some had been up since 4am!), so we bundled them back to the hotel to get some much needed shut eye and a mini-sleep in (ie 9.30am departure). Off to Fushimi Inari and Nara tomorrow!
Today was our last full day at our host families, so we Woke up, got ready, and Yoko drove us to school. After meeting up with Cathryn, we grabbed the kids and headed to our sushi making class. We had to make it in two groups, and members of the PTA (like the P&C in Australia) were teaching us. It was lots of fun! It wasn’t as difficult as when I’d tried to make sushi at home (which ended disastrously), but I’ve learned that the key is to squeeze the sushi often when you’re rolling it! I’ll have to try it again when I get home, now!
Once we’d finished our sushi class, we practiced our speeches and songs for our farewell party. We were sounding good! Before too long, though, it was time to head in to our sayonara party! Everyone was already in the room when we got in, and the party started. The school orchestra kicked it off, and they sounded amazing! Then it was time for the formal speeches from the principal, the head of the PTA, and the head of the Alumni Association, who all spoke about our exchange building a bridge between Japan and Australia. We toasted our exchange with Calpis (a milky drink), and then started our lunch! We ate our sushi, plus Japanese navy curry and rice, which was all delicious! During lunch there were photos of our time in Yokosuka that were projected up on the big screen for all to see, which was lovely.
Then our Japanese buddies performed a play called Peach Boy in English, and it was very funny! Then, it was time for us to sing “Sakura”, our song in Japanese, and we also sang Australian Anthem. Lastly, we said our farewell speeches in Japanese (except mine). Plenty of girls said would cry, so I went first…winning! The first female student to do their speech started crying, and set everyone off! There were plenty of tears from the Japanese girls, and plenty of the host mums, too. We were given presents by our host students, with a lunchbox wrap, and a cute little drawstring bag. We took a picture all together, with our time host students and families, and the dignitaries, and then it was time to go! There were lots of last minute photos taken with the Japanese students, even me!
On the way home, Hina and I stopped at a famous viewpoint for Enoshima Island for sunset. On a clear day, you can see Mt Fuji in the background. Today it was a bit too cloudy, so we couldn’t really see it. It was really beautiful, and I got some great pictures.
Hina and I took a tram along the seaside, and then Yoko collected us and we drove home. We had Pizza Hut for dinner! Along with the usual types unusual types like Hawaiian, there was four cheeses (featuring mini camembert), eggplant, sausage, and squid. As always, we had a side salad with our pizza.
Today was Chihiro’s 12th birthday, so we had a beautiful cake, and one of his presents was a big bag of sweets, so we tucked into those, too. Full of sugar, we started practicing how to say ‘stew’ and ‘squirrel’, which are quite hard for Japanese people because they have two consonants together. We added ‘world heritage site’, ‘PS vita’ and ‘environmental’. It made for a very funny night, and Chihiro, who had been fairly timid up until then, really came alive!
It was getting late, so it was time to head off to bed, because tomorrow I’m getting up at 5.30am to get to the shinkansen (bullet train) to head to Kyoto.
Today I was able to Sleep in! I got up at 5 to 9, had breakfast and got organised, then Yoko and I and drove to Yuriko’s school for a school festival, which I discovered is an opportunity for students to show off their best work and their club activities. There were lots of students there, who all seemed proud to be showing off their work, which isn’t always the case in Australia. Yoko and I had a green tea and sweets, and the tea was so bitter that I couldn’t finish it!
Next we came home to drop off the car, and walked to the bus stop to take a bus to Kotokuin Daibutsu. The bus wound around the Kamakura hillside, with some beautiful views of the area. Yoko told me that every year Japanese people are asked which town or city they’d like to live in, and Kamakura is always inside the top 10.
We made it to Kotokuin Daibutsu. Being such a gorgeous, clear day, the street outside it was packed. Once we made our way in, Yoko taught me how to cleanse myself at the entrance with the water scoop. You grab a scoop and fill it with water, before pouring some on your left hand, then your right, making a cup with your left hand and pouring some into it and washing your lips, and lastly your left hand again. I’ve seen many people do it, and now I know how myself.
We walked right up to the Daibutsu (giant buddah), who has been around since 1252, and all of a sudden I heard a “Mrs Moller!”. Busted! H, one of our students, was there with her host family, so we had a chat and took some pictures. The daibutsu looked absolutely amazing against the clear blue sky. We were also able to go inside the buddha, Beautiful pictures. It was fairly cramped and hot - the bronze of the statue was very warm!
Next, we walked 10 mins down the road to Hasedera temple, which was founded in 736 when some sacred wood washed up on the shore nearby. There were beautiful Japanese gardens with bamboo and flowing water. One of my favourites at this temple was Jizo-do, who is a smiling buddha. You can’t help but feel happy when you see his little face! We climbed upwards to the main temple area, and there was a great view of the whole bay. Yoko and I ate lunch at Kaikooan dining room, which again had amazing views. After lunch we saw Kannon-do hall, which contained a large gold kannon statue with eleven faces, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion, as well as Kaikoku-do hall, containing a laughing, lucky buddha statue, and you had to touch the part of the statue that corresponded with what you wanted luck in (for me, I touched his feet and legs, seeing as mine haven’t been very happy lately!). Lastly, we went to Benten-kutsu cave, which was very reminiscent of the Cu Chi tunnels of Vietnam, albeit with a bit more space. We had to double over to walk through the dark tunnels. There were lots of deities in the candlelight.
As we exited Hasedera, we were very fortunate to get a taxi, which took us to Hokokuji temple. This was listed as number two on Tripadvisor for the whole of the Kamakura area, so I had some high expectation. Hokokuji exceeded them all! It was a mixture of the best things I love about Japanese temples - there was spongey, manicured moss that looked soft enough to sleep on, immaculately raked white stones, stepping stones, and a bamboo forest to rival Kyoto’s Arashiyama (which is currently pretty broken). I couldn’t stop ooohing and aaahing every direction my head turned. Half of the temple is free to see, and the other half (including the bamboo forest), you needed to pay for. Yoko also got us tickets for a green tea set, which was 500 yen (about $5), and we sat in front of the swaying bamboo and a trickling waterfall. I was instantly very, very zen, and it is absolutely one of the best temples I’ve ever seen, in Japan or anywhere else in Asia.
Tearing ourselves away from our serenity, we caught a packed bus back to central Kamakura, and made an unscheduled stop at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine, Kamakura’s most important shrine, constructed in 1191. As we were walking in, we were fortunate to see a bridal party coming out of the shrine, which was absolutely beautiful! As we walked further in, we heard some drums and gonging, as we witnessed the start of another wedding! It was very good timing. We climbed the stairs to the top and collected a fortune each - this time, I got a good one! We Walked back down and crossed into the Komachi-dori shopping street. I picked up some chopsticks with the Daibutsu on it, and got them engraved in with my name in kanji, and Clinton’s in hiragana.
Next, Yoko and I caught the train to Kinugasa station, the one that I get off at for school, because it was karaoke time! Hinako was already there with three of her friends, two boys and a girl, because she had a band called Breeze Hainy and they had been rehearsing during the day and headed in to karaoke at 4pm to wait for us. When Yoko and I got there at 6pm, they’d already been going for 2hrs! They sang a couple of songs, before it was my turn. I was handed a big thick book, with a comparatively small section of English songs, many that were more that 4 or 5 years old. I decided to stick to what I knew, and picked Hanson’s “Where’s the Love” to start with - I could sing that in my sleep! With every song, I got more and more nervous. Finally, it was time, and the mike was placed in my hand. Once I got started, Hina’s friends were clapping in time, and smiling and bopping around. They even joined in with my hand movements! I got a big clap when I was finished, and was pretty chuffed with my effort. Hina and her friends sang One Direction’s “Live While We’re Young”, and I bopped around with the kids. Then it was my turn again. I kept it old school and picked the Lenny Kravitz classic “Are You Gonna Go My Way”, complete with air guitar, whiich the others joined in on! Hina decided to sing ‘Beauty and the Beast’ from Aladdin, and asked me to join in. I wanted a newer song, so I picked One Direction’s “Best Song Ever”, and while Hina and her friends had never heard it, they really got into it. For our last song, I duetted with one of the boys on an encore of “Live While We’re Young”. It was great fun, with lots of J-pop, cheesy videos and hearty laughs.
I said a big arigato to Hina’s friends for being so kind, and then Yoko, Hina and I caught the train back to Ofuna station, to meet up with Atsushi and Chihiro for dinner at an izakaya. I was very surprised to hear that it was both of the kid’s first time eating at an izakaya! Normally it is a place reserved for adults, as the legal drinking age is 20 in Japan. An izakaya is a little like tapas, in that you order small plates for the table and share them. I was able to eat some of my favourites Japanese food, like okonomiyaki (savoury pancake) and gyoza, as well as trying some new foods, like some special types of yakitori. I had such a great time! After dinner, we all took the monorail home before heading off to bed after a long and very enjoyable day!
Today was another early start (sensing a pattern here?), and we did the same trip to school as yesterday, only today it was a gorgeous, fresh, clear autumn day and we had a beautiful view of Fuji-san from the monorail.
A few of our kids were coming in at the same time, and they were all very bubbly and excited to share their experiences before being whisked away by their buddies to their first 4 lessons. During the first two periods, Cathryn and I were able to catch up on some of the paperwork that had been piling up over the last few very busy days. We then went and visited our students in their classes in lesson three.
Iwamoto-san, the English teacher, took us out to lunch at a local restaurant he has been frequenting since he was a student at Yokosuka! We all had the katsudon…it was so good!
After we walked back to school we were split into our groups from yesterday, and headed into English classes. The first lesson was pretty awkward, as I was put with a group where the Japanese students were meant to ask questions, but they were very hesitant. Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher, and they didn’t want to make a mistake? The second lesson, though, was fantastic! We had guided questions, where I asked one from the list, and then they had to ask one that they made up. It was very fun, the students were keen to have a go, and their answers were really interesting. For the third rotation, I observed rather than participated, and took photos and video.
Then it was time to go back to our meeting room, where we spoke with our students for 20m before letting them loose for the weekend! On Sunday we have a sayonara (farewell) party, so we had to make sure our entertainment was good!
Hina came to collect me at the conclusion of our meeting, and we Walked to a good candy shop in Yokosuka. I had my first nikuman (steamed pork bun) from the convenience store at the train station, which the kids have been raving about. We took the train to Ofuna, where we normally change to the monorail, but tonight we took a detour to a games centre.
Japanese teens love to take pictures in photobooths, and so Hina took me to one! We had a great time taking the pics and decorating them. While we were there, we played the ‘UFO dream catcher’, which is one of those toy games with a giant claw to pick up the toys and drop them down the chute. I saw a Toy Story one full of aliens, and I couldn’t resist. We had a go each, and couldn’t get the alien. Then, one of the game attendants on the ground floor came over, opened the window and moved the alien close to the edge for me! Yay! On my second try, the alien dropped, farewelled his friend, and went on to a better place! We also played a drumming game with taiko drums, kind of like Guitar Hero…I beat Hina the second time we played!
We also stopped in the depachika at the station, and bought some taiyaki, which are like waffles shaped like a sea bream (the fish), and filled with cream. They turned out to be super oishii when we ate them for dessert! Before that, for dinner we had an Okinawan special - Okinawa tacos! Instead of corn chips, the mince and salad is on a bed of rice! It was really tasty.
After dinner, Hina produced a little card with my name on it in Chinese characters, and told me that they had chosen one of them because it is the same sound as in the Hori family’s surname. I felt so honoured! I’m really enjoying my time here in Kamakura with them, and our weekend together is sure to be lots of fun!
I had a Very early wake up today at 6am…ugh! After breakfast, we headed to the monorail for a 10 min ride to Ofuna station, which intersects with the JR railway line. On the monorail, we had views of Mt Fuji, albeit not a great one, as it was a cloudy and showery day. We changed to the JR line and after a 30 min ride and a 15 min walk, Hinako and I finally arrived at school at 8am.
Once we got there, we had to change in to school slippers, which are really comfy, and head into the admin block to meet up with our very excited students! The room full of our students was buzzing with raucous laughter and discussions about their first night at home, the food they ate for dinner, what their families are like, and what sort of transport they had taken to get to school. Thankfully, all of it was very positive and they had all been made to feel very welcome.
The next thing to make us feel Welcome was the welcoming ceremony that Yokosuka High had been preparing for a year! We had to Walk through a guard of honour consisting of students wearing traditional Japanese festival clothing and holding a variety of momiji (autumn plants). We had a speech by the principal (in English!) and also by S (who spoke in Japanese and got a rapturous applause when she was done!). They performed a traditional Edo welcoming dance, which was quite unintentionally funny (video will come later!) because their leader was yelling in quite an odd voice and doing a snake impersonation with his hands, before cutting loose with lots of arm twirling. After we walked out, our kids were about to burst, because they were holding in their reactions during the dance!
We had an orientation lesson, where we watched a video on a year in the life of the school, including their sports festivals (carnivals) and cultural festivals. After that, we sent the kids off to their first two periods of classes with their buddies. Cathryn and I spent that time walking around the halls, taking pictures of our kids in class and unintentionally disturbing lots of classes, as the kids all wanted to pose with a peace sign and say ‘hello!’ to us.
We were told that we were eating our lunch with the principal in his office. Yoko prepared me an obento set, which was delicious, and the principal got out some Godiva chocolates (very expensive, very delicious!) for us.
At 1.10pm we started our last three lessons of the day, which were a sample of traditional Japanese cultural activities. We were split into three groups, and headed off to our first lesson, which for my group was the tea ceremony. I had done a very Westernised tea ceremony in Nozawa Onsen when I was here in January, but this one was far more formal. We had to sit seiza style (kneeling), which was pretty painful on my sore knee and very swollen ankle. I asked one of the host girls serving us if I was allowed to sit on my hip, and she said I could. The kids put me first in line, so of course I looked like the loser who didn’t know what to do! Two of our girls had a go at mixing the tea, as well.
Next up was flower arranging. I was a bit dubious - it sounded like a bit of a nanna hobby! - but it was quite fun and entertaining. There are lots of types of ikebana, but we were doing ‘free style’ ikebana. I got into it straight away, and I got lots of “Sugoi sensei’ (great, teacher!) by the instructors, and I had to inspect other students work.
Lastly, we went to calligraphy (shodo) with ink that’s like painting with a brush. I haven’t concentrated so hard in ages! I did quite a few practices, and got a few hanamaru (flower drawings that symbolise a tick) for my hard work. There was also a bit of advice being given on my mistakes, in particular that my characters were too far apart. Given that I don’t know how to write kanji characters, I thought I did a pretty good job, though!
After coming back to our meeting room, it was time to leave for the day. All students have club activities after school (which are extra curricular activities). They have a advising teacher, but the activities are student organised. Hinako plays drums, and they basically jammed for an hour. I recognised the familiar riff from “Smoke on the Water” amongst their repertoire.
At 5pm it was finally time to go home! We Walked, railed and monorailed again, and thankfully Yoko collected us from the monorail station. Chihiro (little brother) is in training for a sports festival (carnival) and is on relay team (as 1 of only 6 student from his year group). He was that tired that he had already had a shower and put himself to bed when we got home at 6pm!
Dinner, again, was oishii (delicious)…smoked salmon on a bed of onion and enoki mushrooms, with rice, miso soup, pumpkin, tofu with ginger and soy sauce, and a side salad. It was very filling! Yoko got out some natto for me to try, which is fermented soy beans. You eat it with rice, and it’s very sticky and smells like sweaty socks. I tried it, and it’s pretty safe to say my facial expression was comical - Atsushi, my host dad, cracked up laughing at me. Yoko also brought out her homemade umeboshi (sour plums), but I was too full! The family all went upstairs to their bedrooms fairly early, and let me head to be a little early.
Today we were leaving our first home in Japan, the Tokyo Prince Hotel, and heading to our second - our homestay families! We let the kids have a little sleep in for the first time since we left, so were aiming to leave at 9am, however the fact that it was raining certainly put a dampener on things (boom-tish! Pun intended). Rather than walking with our bags in the rain, we decided to wait for the shuttle bus from the hotel to the train station. The kids were fairly amazed that there were fold down aisle seats on the shuttle bus! They’re constantly amusing me with their wonderment!
We jumped into two crammed trains on our way to Harajuku, with suitcases, battling the rain. We put plastic bags on our suitcases in an overpass at one of the stations, and one of the station attendants quickly told us to move on. Fortunately for us, the good ol’ Golden Arches let us keep all 19 of our suitcases there, and Cathryn stayed with them while I took the kids down Takeshita Dori, the main street of Harajuku, and let them walk back themselves. They were all quite excited by the shopping, but we only had about an hour as the rain had delayed us quite a bit. For keeping our bags, we decided to have lunch at Maccas, and my Big Mac tasted just like at home.
We had to take another two trains (taking 70m), and this proved pretty dangerous. A couple of the kids scored bruises from their cases, J fell down the stairs with his suitcase, and we had to change train lines a couple of times. After 15 minute walk with our cases, we finally arrived at our destination, Yokosuka High School.
We were shepherded into a large meeting room to see our host students and a parent waiting for us. We handed them our fluffy koalas, caramellos and flags, and the kids, who had been looking deflated after the travel and humidity, suddenly pepped up. Before we knew it, it was time to go! Cathryn and I had to have a meeting with the principal first as a formality, just to discuss plans for the next few days. Yoko, my host mum, and Hinako, my host sister, were so lovely and friendly. We chatted for a lot of the two hour car trip home to Kamakura (the traffic was horrible!). I also saw Kamakura beach, with tons of people surfing and paddle boarding. We dropped in to a depachika (department store) on the way home to get some food for dinner (they have food in the basement). The tonkatsu (crumbed pork) was amazing! Before we headed for bed, I gave my family their presents. Gift giving is a big part of Japanese culture, and I had presents for each of them. Tim Tams and Vegemite for the family, lip butter, a bandana, a calendar, two CDs of classic Australian music, a GC Suns cap and a Titans sweater. Chihiro, my 12 year old host brother, tried on the sweater, and it was waaaay to big for him! He did a dance around the kitchen table in the hat and the sweater, which made us all giggle before we had to get to bed. They prepared my futon on the tatami mats in my room, and we all turned in.
Another big day tomorrow - our first day at school!
Today was an early start, as voted by the kids. We left the hotel at 8am and walked to our local station, Hamamatsucho. After being on the train for the better part of an hour, we finally arrived at Tokyo Disneyland. Quite a walk later, we found ourselves at the ticket gate, and Cathryn went up to hand in our voucher. Ten, twenty and thirty minutes later, we were still waiting, and to their credit, the kids were sitting down and waiting patiently. Cathryn called me up to tell me that aparently we were meant to have tickets, as they had been issued to us here in Japan and sent to the hotel and that we couldn’t get in without them. After several frantic calls, we found out that the hotel had them, but didn’t tell us, despite us seeing the front desk twice a day to drop off and pick up our keys! A few more phone calls, a form filled in, and a passport ID viewed, we finally were told that we could enter. Huzzah!
Once we got in, we let the kids loose on a whole day of free time. We set a couple of meeting times and points just to check in, but this was a kid free (for us) and teacher free (for them) day! Cathryn and I were going to be Disney buddies, and set out for her favourite ride, Pooh’s Hunny Hunt. Even though it was relatively early, there was already an hour wait in a queue, but it wasn’t too bad because we were in a great position to see the Halloween parade.
Lining up for ages became a habit throughout the day, which really sucked. We were able to use a fastpass ticket to ‘queue’ up and come back later. We thought we used this for space mountain, but was actually for Star Tours, a Star Wars simulator that only opened in May. While we weren’t planning on going on this, we ended up seeing C-3P0, R2D2, Admiral “It’s a trap!” Ackbar, and plenty of jedis. My expectations were fairly low, so when it started it was unexpectedly violent yet fun, with lots of screaming to be had (and you know how loud I scream!).
Then it was time for lunch, and Cathryn and I had lunch in an art deco restaurant with my new plush friends, Woody and Buzz. I also happened to be wearing my Toy Story t-shirt, and many of the Disneyland staff commented on it.
After lunch we went to Pirates of the Carribean, which was fun (the Jack Sparrow robot was very realistic!), and it started drizzling on the way out. We ducked into the Swiss Family Treehouse just as it started to bucket down! We waited there for the fifteen or twenty minutes it took for the rain to stop, before heading back out again.
Next up we hit the Westernland shooting gallery. I was very disappointed with my first score of 1, but took out most improved by hitting 6 on my second attempt! Cathryn held steady with 6 both times.
Next it was time for the teacups. I think we were the silliest people out there, because they had to put on the breaks because we were spinning too fast! We took some time in Alice’s tea house, and planning the rest of our day. We walked around the castle as it was getting dark and tried to go on Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters and the Monsters Inc Ride and Go Seek, but each of them had an 80-100m wait! We decided to try one last ride, and went for the Snow White ride. Then, we walked back to front of park, meeting up with the kidlets for the evening light parade. While they looked tired, there were lots of fun stories and pictures they were sharing from their day. I can’t tell you how beautiful the lights were. Amazing would be an understatement! A sea of floats with Disney characters lit up before our very eyes, and from our viewpoint we had the castle in the background. We put it to the group, and they voted to leave before the fireworks display, but luckily we saw them from the train station platform.
Tomorrow we head to our host families!
Wow! What a packed day! We made a fairly early start by heading out to Zojo-ji temple. Clinton and I spent part of NYE last year here, so it brought back quite a few good memories. We gave a few little history lessons about the temple and its grounds, including the many rows of ‘abortion dolls’, commemorating children aborted before the pill was legalised in Japan. We then made our way to Tokyo Tower, the landmark many of us had seen out the window of our hotel rooms. When we got there, we were greeted by thousands of faces lined up. But for what? After Cathryn went to investigate, we found that they were lining up for a festival at the base of the tower. We were able to scoot past them and up into the Tokyo sky. Unfortunately it was a cloudy day and we couldn’t see Mt Fuji, but we saw many other landmarks on the skyline.
Next stop was Asakusa, and Senso-ji temple. First, we went on many of their first subway trips, which was exciting to say the least! After pausing at the Kaminarimon gates at the outside of the temple grounds. Lined with shops and crammed with people, Nakamise Dori,the pedestrian street between the gates and the temple, was like a people car-park, with progress being very slow along the 250m walk. Finally we got to the temple, and let the kids loose for the first time. There were a series of food stalls set up outside, so Cathryn and I shared some karaage chicken and yakisoba (stirfried noodles). We all met up again, and in an attempt to make sure we know where we’re all going when someone is leading, L decided to get a blow up Pikachu (the yellow Pokemon) for the leader to carry.
Then it was on to Akihabara, an electronics district. One student suggested we go to a maid cafe (where girls in a maid costume serve you). After that, we decided that it was about time that we set the kids loose for a few hours, with some strict meeting conditions. Cathryn and I decided to try a maid cafe, and after being sent up a tiny lift, we got out at the third floor to see quite a sight. A dimly lit room, largely full of leering males, beer in hand, being entertained by clapping, singing and dancing maids. We weren’t sure we wanted to go any further, but we took a seat. A hostess came over and told us that it was going to be $50 each, plus we would need to order food. Cathryn politely told the hostess that it was a little to expensive, and that ‘unfortunately’ we would have to leave. I took a sneaky photo on my phone on the way out :) Once we were in the lift, we breathed a large sigh of relief!
However, this was not to be our only run in with leering males. Students started coming back to meet us at our designated meeting spot. Unfortunately, against our advice, several girls had worn short shorts and singlet tops (clearly missed the ‘what to wear’ briefing!). As we were sitting down on the street, a random Japanese man walked past, only to skid to a stop. Standing only 2 or 3 metres from me, he started leering at some of the girls. After some pretty serious ‘stand down’ eye contact from me, the guy decided to move. Unfortunately for us, this move was only to stand up the other end of the group, away from me. Standing right beside me was a night in shining armour for the second time that day. I turned to L and asked him to go and stand between leering man and the rest of the group, and block him out. L took his mate T and they both discreetly moved to the other end, while Cathryn herded in the few girls who weren’t sitting with the main group. Leering man got the hint this time, and headed off. Our point had been very clearly made, though, and longer pants were definitely on the shopping list for many of the girls!
We decided that we needed a bit of a rest and recharge. Some Skyped home, some had a nanna nap, others ate and relaxed, but soon enough it was time to head out for the night. Shibuya was calling! On the way, the kids’ excitement was infectious and we were all in a great mood. We visited Hachiko’s statue, the dog who came to the station every day to look for his deceased owner, before walking Shibuya Crossing and then splitting up for dinner. I ended up with 8 kids and Cathryn with the other 9. At my izakaya, we ate steaming bowls of ramen, aburi chashu, gyoza and huge 50 yen tankards of ‘co-ra’ (Coke).
We, again, decided to split up after dinner, with Cathryn going shopping and me heading to the cat cafe Clinton and I didn’t get a chance to go to in January. Unfortunately, the shops were closing and we just missed the cat cafe, too. On some of our travels, we came across a large rat and his two (initially hidden) friends, and there was much screaming (by myself) when they decided to jump out in front of me. The kids were in raptures of laughter!
Finally, we caught the train home. I’ve made it my mission to take a picture of any sleeping students on transport, and the train trip home provided quite a few :)
Tokyo Disneyland tomorrow!!!