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The Shanghai Diaries – Japanese Edition, Part 3: Kyoto, Osaka, and Home

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We were at about the halfway point on our journey, and so far it had been everything I had hoped for and more. We had seen the craziness of Tokyo, the serene horror of Hiroshima, and the quaint beauty of Miyajima. Next up was Kyoto and what we hoped would be a glimpse into the ancient past. All the guides say if you can only go to one place, Kyoto is the place to go. Everyone we talked to said they loved Kyoto the best.

Everyone can go suck a lemon.

There is a great deal of history in Kyoto. If we had had a guide to the city, or had I read a book about its history beforehand, then I might be singing a different tune. As it is, I found the whole of the city slightly interesting in parts, but mostly b-o-r-i-n-g.

Our two days could be summed up like this. Temple. Shrine. Temple. Temple. Shrine.

“Wasn't this the temple in that scene from Lost in Translation?”

Shrine. Shrine. Temple. Temple.

There are something like 8 billion temples and shrines in Kyoto, all of them registered historical landmarks. It was a bit like going to Alabama and trying to visit all of the Christian churches.

I'm being flippant here. There were a great many parts that were quite beautiful. The history is enormous and the culture fascinating. In the spring, I suspect it is all breathtaking. In the middle of winter, it was a little subdued. Trying to take it all in was too overwhelming. Each temple and shrine was interesting in its own way, but after the first half dozen or so, they all sort of blended and I was ready to go lay down and nap.

From Kyoto we headed over to Osaka. None of us were particularly interested in this city, but we needed to go as it might have been our escape route. Having still not received confirmation about our lost ticket status, we had no idea if we would be able to fly out of Japan and make it home. Our backup plan was to go by boat, and that boat left port from Osaka.

Thus, even though the tour guides all were a little 'blah' about that city, we went anyway. The night we arrived we received confirmation via e-mail that my wife and I could indeed get a lost ticket and fly out of Tokyo in a few days.

Cue “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Turns out the guides got this wrong, too, as Osaka was great fun. Maybe it was having the great weight of our how-to-return-home lifted off our shoulders that made it fun, but we had a blast no matter. The city isn't that impressive upon first glance. There aren't big temples or castles or glittering lights about every corner, but digging a little deeper we were quite surprised at its quirky grandeur.

There is an “American” shopping district, which is not so much American as it is glam, glitzy, and Hollywood. We found a great little thrift shop there with all sorts of American styled clothes, and a large variety of trashy trinkets with American pop-culture icons emblazoned on them.

There were also two of the coolest little record shops I've seen in a great long while. The first was an underground place with piles of obscure punk and garage rock bands from all over the world. They had loads of vinyl and CDs from the coolest looking bands I have (mostly) never heard of.

The other place had even more music, and they branched out into more pop/rock territories with a massive collection of b-sides, rarities and bootlegged concerts. The prices were insanely cheap as well. We're talking two or three bucks a CD.

I started piling the music out of the bins before I realized those were not prices for sale, but to rent. It seems they had a Netflix-style operation going where you could rent music for a week and then mail the albums back with a pre-stamped envelope. It was very hard not to “rent” everything I could get my hands on and then slip conveniently and forget to mail them back before we returned to Shanghai, but my morals got the best of me and I left empty handed.

Stinking morals; always getting in my way of good music.

From Osaka we trained to Nara, an old city that was also the capital of Japan at one time. We visited more temples there, but having rested from them in Osaka, I was once again fascinated by them.

Like Miyajima, there were tame deer roaming through parts of the city. There were many schoolchildren feeding the deer only to realize that once one deer sees food, the whole lot of them sense it and quickly surround the food bearer. In the park side, two bucks began fighting over something. I, like many others, rushed in to take photographs. The battle raged for a few minutes until the two bucks separated a bit.

Still filled with anger, one buck made a mighty sneer at my brother-in-law and then proceeded to headbutt an older lady who had bent down to tie her shoes. He got her right in the back with a thunderous bang. The women fell and the crowd gasped. To both my brother-in-law's and my own credit, we both rushed in and stood between the deer and the woman. It was then I realized the buck's head was about the same height of my midsection. I cringed at the thought of losing my reproductive powers by a deer in the middle of Japan.

Luckily, no more bucking occurred and we all got the crap out of there.

Nearby was the largest wooden structure in Japan (another temple like structure), which was awesome, but lost a little bit of its lure with me still being hyped up from the attack of the deer.

It was then towards Tokyo that we once again headed. On our way we hoped to make a pit stop to see Mt. Fuji in the distance, but it had begun to snow again and those plans were abandoned.

We saw a bit more of the city this time, including some crazy cheap electronic markets, the atrociously ugly Tokyo Tower, a gaggle of Cosplay kids dressed like sleazy nurses, Goth rockers, and a variety of other anime characters.

Japan was amazing, but we were all quite ready for home and its comforts. Due to some communication errors (and a national holiday), we were unable to pick up our new tickets until the day we were to leave. We awoke quite early and headed to one side of Tokyo to pick up the tickets so we would have time to make it to the other side of the city and the airport. We made it to the ticket office just as it opened, only to find out they had sent a messenger to take the tickets to the airport.

A couple of hours later we were in the airport standing in line behind a group of sumo wrestlers. It was quite a hoot to watch all of the various people walk in through the door to be surprised and excited over the sumos. I would have expected the wrestlers to be old hat to most of the Japanese, but even they went crazy for them.

Eventually we made it to the front counter and asked for our tickets. We paid our money and then were surprised to see only one ticket for my wife, but none for me. We asked about this and were assured they would find mine. A few calls later and we were told there was no ticket, nor any record that I had applied for a lost ticket. They apologized, but told me I would have to buy a new ticket to the tune of $900.

For the record, that's more than we paid for two tickets in the first place. They did upgrade us to Business class, but I took note that I was still sitting next to the wife, which, of course, means I paid for my seat twice.

I paid my way, and took it from behind like a good little boy. I'd like to say we got to China and the airline treated me right with some sort of refund, but three weeks later, about a dozen phone calls, and two more trips to the agency has only gained me more anger and confusion.

Japan was absolutely wonderful, and though it is now tainted with that ticket fiasco, I'd still highly recommend it to all travelers.

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About Mat Brewster

  • Kaonashi

    I’m sorry that you weren’t wowed by Kyoto. I lived in Japan for a year and a half and I visited Kyoto twice during my stay – once in winter, and again in spring. I enjoyed it both times. Frankly, I think that Tokyo is meh. It’s like any other large, loud city in the world, but just more crowded.

    I suppose I had a similar feeling in Rome. After seeing the first 10 churches, they all start to look alike.

    I do recommend that on your next journey to do some research in the area. Had I not read the fantastic “The Longest Day” prior to visiting Normandy, I don’t think I would have appreciated my tour of the various beaches as much.

  • Kyoto wasn’t as bad as I may have made it sound. It was interesting, but there are so many temples to see it was way overwhelming. If we ever go back I will do some reading on it as I am sure it would have made the trip better.

    Tokyo was alright. I enjoyed the electronic shops and what-not, but you’re right it is just a big freaking city.

    I liked Rome a good deal, but I don’t ever plan to go back.

    Due to some miscalculations in timing we never made it to the Normandy beaches, but I do hope to see them some day.