Up the creek without a passport

Well this past week has been pretty much been the worst and the best time of my life. More than anything, the events of these most recent days have given me a true appreciation of the meaning of friendship and also the kindness of strangers.

My return trip home from Tokyo was scheduled for August 1st, so I made it my goal to spend every minute enjoying my last weekend in Tokyo. Not only have I been taking in many new sights, but I’ve also made some new friends in theses last few days. Although it’s a little sad to think I only have such a short time time get to know these people, we have certainly had a blast together.

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It’s also interesting to think about how and when people come into our lives. Particularly one of my new friends Nate, (different than the other Nat) has lived in the same dormitory complex as me this entire time, and we know many of the same people. I was studying in the lobby one night when he came down with another friend and we all ended up hanging out. They invited me to go to the beach with them on Saturday and I eagerly agreed.

In the days between then, I spent almost every evening hanging out with Nate and his friend Carson who had come to visit him for a two week vacation. We had lots of fun taking Carson around the city, going to see the new Godzilla movie in Shinjuku, and making friends at some of the izikayas in Golden Gai.

Saturday we met up and all headed out to the beach, which was close to Zushi, but a little farther and less heard-of. I was thrilled to arrive and be greeted by white sand and blue water.

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We spent the day relaxing in the sun,

enjoying the sight of Mt. Fuji in the distance (although it’s hard to see in the photo)

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and ended up staying until dark to enjoy the sunset

All in all it felt like the perfect way to spend one of my last days in Japan. Little did I know, I was about to get an entire week more than I had bargained for…

Monday came bright and early. I had my room all packed and cleaned, and I was ready to say goodbye to the place that had been my home for the past 5 months. Nate, Carson and I all left the dormitory together and headed over to the Shinjuku Ward Office to un-enroll from our Japan national health insurance before leaving the country, (Nate and Carson were staying in Japan for another week, but decided to join me so they wouldn’t have to make a second trip). When we arrived at the Ward Office, I pulled out my case that I used to hold all my important documents… But it took me several minutes to realize that my passport was not there…

In reality, it was not anywhere in my possession, yet that realization took much longer. In the middle of the large government building, I began frantically searching through my luggage in increasingly desperate hopes that the precious document would appear. After about half an hour, I basically shut down. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move, my hands were shaking too much for me to even zip my suitcase back up. All I kept thinking was “No… This isn’t happening… This isn’t possible…”

Looking back on the situation, I am overcome with gratitude for Nate and Carson who helped me through those first horrible hours, and the nightmarish week that followed. Almost instantly, they guys realized that I had gone into shock, and took control of the situation on my behalf. They started researching the procedure for lost passports, looking up contacts and phone numbers for me to call, and simultaneously dealing with all the heath insurance paperwork we had originally come to deal with.

I honestly don’t think it would be an understatement to say that the days that followed were some of the worst of my life. In short, I missed my flight that day and had to apply for an emergency passport at the Canadian Embassy in order to return home (exactly one week later than planned). Once again, I am indebted to Nate and Carson who stayed with me through it all as I underwent the process of filing a police report, obtaining my emergency travel documents, rescheduling my flight (which I ended up having to pay for in full), and finding reasonably-priced hotel rooms to accommodate us all the while.

Moreover, I am grateful to the two of them for helping me enjoy my last (unexpected) week in Tokyo. Despite all the stressful and frustrating circumstances I found myself in during those days, the boys made sure that every evening (and basically every opportunity I had away from the Embassy) we went out and had a bit of fun to mitigate my distress.

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A large portion of this involved going out for food, since (1) I was so stressed I would often forget to eat during the day; and (2) Nate is a professional cook, so he loved teaching Carson and I about the Japanese cuisine he had discovered during his stay.

Probably one of my favourite meals was Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) – which literally translates to “whatever you like, fried” – but is essentially a Japanese savoury pancake. The process basically involved choosing from a selection of ingredients…

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… and watching while the waiter/chef prepared it on a grill that was built right into our table…

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… from which we then served ourselves.

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We much of the rest of our free time was divided between visiting Tokyo’s many arcades, sightseeing, and enjoying some specialty beers.

(I really do want to clarify that this was only once the Embassy had closed each day, and I had done everything else in my power to ensure my return to Canada).

Five long days after losing my original passport, I got an email from the Canadian Embassy informing me that my emergency passport application had been approved, and it was ready to be picked up. My return flight had been rescheduled for Monday, August 8, giving me the rest of the weekend to enjoy and celebrate.

Saturday morning we packed up all our luggage and made yet another move over to a new hotel in Ota “city” (a ward inside Tokyo). Upon arrival, we were greeted by the familiar (to me, anyways) sounds of a shrine festival taking place, and I knew we had picked a good day.

I should note however, that it was also the hottest day on record for that year, and since we were in the process of moving to a new hotel, we were already sweaty and tired and therefore not exactly in to mood to be walking around in the sun.

But as it turns out, there were actually two summer festivals taking place in the area, so we decided to explore the shadier areas while killing time before check-in.

After wandering around some of the local shrines, we took a break in a nearby park. However we were soon told to move by an elderly Japanese man dressed in a yakata (浴衣) – a traditional summer kimono. We proceeded to watch as he directed two other men, also dressed in kimonos, while they set up several inflatable kiddy pools and filled them with water.

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Before we knew it we were surrounded by hordes of young children who squealed eagerly as huge garbage bags of goldfish were dumped into the pools.

Adults attempted to maintain some semblance organization while handing out plastic baggies with which the children were meant to catch the fish.

We stayed and watched the rather bizarre festivities – thoroughly entertained – for almost 2 hours. We mostly kept to the sidelines, although there was no avoiding the periodic showers that kept the older kids entertained and us nice and cool.

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Eventually, the fish had almost all been safely relocated to plastic bags (with surprisingly few casualties) and adults began handing out snacks and organizing other games to occupy the children. We were quite obviously the only foreigners there, but nobody seemed to mind our presence.

In fact, at one point towards the end of the festival, an elderly Japanese man approached us and offered us a large plastic bag filled with tomatoes. We were confused at first, but it became clear that he wanted to be bale to give us something to eat (and perhaps also get rid of the excess fruit).

Personally, I was delighted by the surprisingly kind gesture. We all enjoyed snacking on the juicy tomatoes while letting our clothes dry and watching children and parents run around the courtyard.

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The rest of the evening we spent relaxing in the hotel and wandering around, exploring the area. The next day was my last day in Tokyo (although, believe me my fingers were permanently crossed until my plane touched down in Halifax). They boys and I decided that it would be fun to spend the day at a beach, so we got up early and headed to meet one of Nate’s friends at Kamakura beach.

We arrived at the train station, and walked through town until arriving at the crowded beach.

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Like many of my other beach experiences, I spent quite a bit of my time on the lookout for security guards who were trying to enforce the no-tattoo policy.

Although the beach itself was not that notably different from either Enoshima or Zushi beach, the one significant feature was the large waves. We all had quite a bit of fun body surfing on the waves, or simply allowing them to crash over us as we tried and failed to jump over the swells.

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After spending several hours alternating between lying on the beach and cooling off in the water, we decided to go over to see the Daibutsu (most typically known in English as the Kamakura Buddha or “Giant Bronze Buddha”).

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I still find it quit ironic that this was one of the things I visited on my last day in Japan, since it is something I had previously (and consciously) avoided during my entire trip. Mostly this was because I was under the belief that the Daibutsu was mostly just an overrated and over-touristed landmark, which I basically felt I could live without seeing.

However, because we were with Carson (who was very much dedicated to doing/visiting as many tourist-oriented activities locations as possible in his 2 weeks in Japan) we decided it was worth the trip.

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Despite the fact that it was exactly as crowded and under-whelming as I had suspected all along, it was fun embracing our “inner-tourists” and taking advantage of the cliché photo-ops.

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On our way home from Kamakura we decided to stop in Yokohama for dinner since we had a train transfer there anyways. Since I was the only one who was familiar (and I mean that in the mildest/casual sense), I was able to convince the guys to pay the ¥800 each to ride the freewheel located in the middle of the city.

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I don’t exactly blame them for their hesitancy, since it’s mostly an attraction for tourists and/or couples. However, they quickly changed their tone once we (raised) above the building skyline, and were provided with one of the most spectacular sunset views I personally had seen in my entire time in Tokyo.

We were even lucky enough to be out on a clear enough night to get some great photos of Mt. Fuji, backlit in the darkening sky.

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It’s hard to deny that the whole thing was really quite romantic, but by that I mean romantic in the most traditional “Romantic” sense (aka. 17th century Romatic, Wordworthian kind of romantic). And in that most poetic sense, it was truly one of the best images to have as parting memory of Japan.

So the next day, the boys took me over to the train station – even helped me buy my express ticket to the airport – and stayed right up until my train pulled out of the station – waving goodbye to me as I left Tokyo once and for all.

Getting through the airport was surprisingly easy – obviously Japan was happy to see my on my way back home to Canada – and the rest of my trip went off without a hitch.

As I sit here in my parent’s living room,  my dog cuddled next to me, it’s hard to place myself in a sense of reality.

My last week in Tokyo has been a bitter-sweet in the  truest sense of the word. With all of the mayhem, the rest of the trip feels like quite a blur that will take some time to reflect on once I’ve been settled.  But now that I am beginning to settle back at home, the memories of Tokyo begin to feel more and more immaterial.

Nonetheless, there’s a true sense of happiness and serenity in being home, surrounded by people who know me. There’s a sort of comfortable stability in things staying the same, and I like knowing that I have that. But it can be hard to come back feeling totally different, looking at the world in a different light, and realizing that nobody else really understands. It’s this whole other side of culture shock that people never really talk about.

I know I’ll still have my many friends I’ve made in Tokyo – who are now scattered around the globe – to talk to and reminisce about things only we’ve shared. But it also helps to think about the people I’ll want to talk to now that I’m home – the ones I know will listen with genuine interest, and make me feel a little less alienated. More than anything it feels good to be back with my family, who have loved and supported me from the very beginning, and continued to do so from the other side of the world.

Through the miracles of technology, my parents have been able to share with me my laughter and amazement and pains, but there are just some things that cannot be replaced though images and screens.

These days are sacred…

Oh how the time flies! One week left and so very much to squeeze into those remaining days, which seem to slip by before I can even blink. Exams and final essays have been taking up much of my time over the past while, but now those have all been dealt with and I’m entirely motivated to take in as much of Tokyo as I can before next Monday!

Although perhaps there’s a little bit of catching up to do before that. One of the biggest and most recent developments that has happened is getting myself a tattoo (sorry mom).

Even before arriving here, I was fascinated by the tattoo culture here in Japan, and how it is both highly respected as an art form by one part of society, and sternly frowned upon by another.

For those of you who don’t know, the reason for the dislike stems from the fact that tattoos here are most famously associated with the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia), and therefore considered relatively offensive. In fact, the implication extends so far as to prevent any people with tattoos to enter certain public areas such as onsen (Japanese bath houses), swimming pools, private gyms, most public beaches, and even some clubs and bars.

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In terms of the lattermost category, this does make a certain amount of sense since many clubs in Tokyo used to be used as fronts for drug deals and other organized crime. Similarly, the ban on tattoos at public beaches can be traced back to several years ago when two Yakuza members were stabbed at Zushi beach during a party.

In general it seems that the anxiety comes from a desire to avoid making other people uncomfortable by general association. However, as a foreigner, I personally find this an entirely frustrating situation, since it should be quite obvious to most people that a small, white girl who can barely speak the local language would be associated with the Japanese mafia.

Yet unfortunately I have still been met with resistance while here, even due to my two small tattoos that I arrived with. Nonetheless, I decided that I wanted to look into some of the artists here in the city and maybe start brainstorming a design. I found inspiration in a trapditional Japanese phrase I learned about near the beginning of my trip: mono no aware which basically translates into “the pathos of things.”

I have written rather extensively about this phrase in my earlier blog post, however the general sentiment is a sadness in the fact that all things must pass but are all the more beautiful because of that. The longer I lived here in Japan, the more I began to fully appreciate the significance of this phrase and the idea that nothing is permanent and therefore every fleeting moment should be savoured. The most common symbol for mono no aware is the sakura (cherry blossoms) which bloom for a mere three weeks of the year. So I settled on   cherry blossom imagery as the basis for the design.

(And yes, I am aware that it is rather ironic to get a permanent tattoo to symbolize the idea of impermanence, however I want it to be a guiding idea that I carry with me for the rest of my life).

Anyways, to make a long story short, I got in touch with one of the larger tattoo studios in Tokyo, who happened to have some English-speaking staff. I was able to spend some time emailing back and forth with one artist and come to an agreement about design and size, and make an appointment for the beginning of July. On the day, I arrived at the studio and spent some time talking in person with Hakura, the woman who had created the design, since she would be doing the actual tattoo.

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I would also like to point out how unassuming the studio is (The two red circles in the top windows and the small sign by the door are the only indicator of the parlour’s existence), no doubt due to the societal prejudice.

 

She was happy to quickly make some adjustments and make sure I was happy with the look and placement. The tattoo itself took about an hour and a half, and was honestly not as painful as I had expected. I am absolutely thrilled with the way it turned out, and I have nothing but praise for the extremely talented Hakura and all the other staff at Studio Muscat.

Other than getting the tattoo, the next few weeks of July went by relatively quietly as the end of the school semester meant that homework became more of a priority. However, I was able to enjoy the summer weather on occasion, and even took a trip with my friend Nat to Zushi beach (yes, the one where the Yakuza members were stabbed) for an afternoon of sun and sand. Despite the fact that the beach was extremely crowded and the water not so clean, it was still wonderful to be by the ocean and actually get to swim.

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At one point, a beach security guard did ask me to cover my tattoo, however, as long as I kept a towel over it while on the beach, that seemed to be enough for them. In fact, I don’t actually think that they even cared that much, but merely felt obligated to follow the rules.

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The beach was actually quite close to Kamakura, Enoshima, and Yokohama – places I have visited previously, and written about.

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I also took some time amidst my days of studying to do some solitary exploring, which mostly consisted of visiting a lot of shrines and temples. The peaceful environment that surrounds such sacred places will never cease to fill me with a sense of contentment and serenity.

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My adventures also involved a visit to Ueno Park – the last of several times there. Although I’ve visited Ueno three times while in Tokyo, each time has proven entirely different and equally as interesting.

(This is the exact same street on each different visit)

On this occasion, there was a summer festival being held there involving many street performers, music concerts, and vendors.

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At one point I found myself sitting in the front row of a taiko drum performance which I had stumbled upon quite unknowingly.

However, perhaps my favourite part of the whole visit was the large pond area that was now covered with pink lotus blossoms.

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Similarly, these blossoms have been part of the park’s transformation that I have been able to witness over the months of my stay. I first visited in May when it was surrounded by cherry blossoms,

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then in June when the lotus plants were just starting to grow,

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and now again in July:

 

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Many of these adventures and sights have made me think quite a bit about my time here, and the sacredness of such experiences. As my time dwindles, my remaining days slip by faster and faster. Yet I cannot help but feel a sense of calm contentment filling me up with every new sight and sound.

 

Beach bums

One of the things I’ve really learned being here is the importance of taking advantage of every opportunity that presents itself. Since arriving in Japan, I’ve made it my goal to seek out as many events and places to visit as I can with what little time I have. However, I’ve discovered it’s equally important to be open to spur-of-the-moment decisions, which quite often result in some of the best experiences and memories.

Just such an occurrence happened to arise this past Monday, when I discovered my only class of the day was canceled. Knowing that the weather was supposed to be quite nice, I woke up that morning with the plan in mind to head to Enoshima – a beach island off the coast of Japan (about an hour away from Tokyo) that I had been meaning to visit for quite some time.

After sending a quick message to my friend Nat (who also accompanied me on my previous trip to Mt. Takao), we met up and headed out – bathing suits and cameras in hand – for a day of adventures.

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We arrived at Enoshima station – the last stop on the line – and quickly found the bridge that connects the island to the mainland of Japan.

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Almost immediately we came across the first of many monuments dedicated to the island’s creation myth which involves a famous dragon.

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Basically, the story is best explained by this plaque we came across while touring the island.

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However, if that’s difficult to read, or if you simply want the abridged version, the story goes like this: Once upon a time there was a five-headed dragon who terrorized the area of Kamakura and its surrounding inhabitants. Eventually a sea goddess named Benten rose from the depths of the ocean, bring Enoshima with her. Upon seeing the goddess, the dragon fell in love with her, and sought her hand in marriage. However, the goddess refused to marry the dragon until he agreed to forgo his evil tendencies.

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For this reason, almost everywhere we went around the island there were references to the mythical characters.

Furthermore, because of the myth, Enoshim is known as a rather romantic location, and many couples visit the island for the sole purpose of invoking the love myth as a source of luck and prosperity in their relationships.

However, it actually would have been quite possible to tour the entire island without ever realizing that there was any sort of amorous overtones associated with the area. Indeed, it didn’t seem to be very prevalent except in certain designated areas, such as a gate where couples sign their names and/or romantic messages on padlocks and then leave them chained there as a symbol of their “ever-lasting” love.

Anyways, despite the island’s small size, there was plenty to see, starting with the Enoshima Shrine complex, which we arrived at almost as soon as we crossed the bridge.

 

Leading up to the shrine gates were many stalls and vendors selling seashells, straw hats, and an assortment of other cliché beach-themed souvenirs.

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Basically Enoshima is covered by one or two main paths which loop around the entire island. So although this made it easy for us to tour almost the entire island with relative ease, it also meant that the touristy stalls followed us along our entire trek.

Nonetheless, there were several interesting variations, such as some unique food vendors, like this one selling cucumbers on sticks.

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I was even able to get my fortune told by a machine…

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And we had the opportunity to have our feet nibbled by fish at a foot spa, though we decided against it.

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The island itself is shaped like a small mountain, which meant that we climbed up and then down as we made our way across the route, taking in the various views of the surrounding ocean scenes.

(The top right picture is the view from the look-off at the top where we had our lunch)

One of the most surprising things was the many hawks that inhabited the island – just about as common, (and as comfortable around people) as seagulls are back in the Maritimes. They definitely enjoyed showing off anyways, and we certainly appreciated watching.

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Even more reminiscent of my Nova Scotian upbringing was the rocky outcropping that covered the far side of Enoshima island. In particular I was struck by how similar the area was to Peggy’s Cove – minus the iconic lighthouse, of course.

 

Nat and I had some fun exploring the many tidal pool that were filled with crabs, fish and other marine life.

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The main trail only did not actually extend to the rocks, but rather, lead along the high cliff walls. At one point, the path came to the entrance of a cave where you could pay a small admission fee in order to explore the inside.

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Although the caves themselves are actually very ancient formations, they have been redeveloped by the city as a tourism spot, and therefore has sadly lost a lot of its original authenticity.

Lights, framed photographs, information panels, and plastic models decorated much the inner space. Meanwhile, the walls of the caves were lined with many stone buddha statues displayed behind plexiglass. All of this combined to make the whole area feel more like a museum than anything else.

One pretty cool aspect was that they gave us individual candles to carry around with us as we explored. They didn’t exactly provide a huge source of light, but I definitely considered it a nice touch to add to the atmosphere.

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And despite how manufactured the whole cave felt, the natural formations remain in tact. Although the extremely low ceilings made it a little uncomfortable for some (poor Nat who’s 6’5″ was basically bent in half the whole time!), I enjoyed the fact that  there was still some aspect that had not undergone human reconstruction.

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After touring the caves, we had basically reached the end of the path, and since it was late afternoon anyways, we decided to head back to the beach and cool off in the water.

 

 

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Unfortunately, Japanese beaches are notorious for being polluted and also quite crowded in the Summer. I guess we were lucky that it wasn’t quite summer yet, so at least we had the beach basically to ourselves. And all the garbage that went with it…

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I guess more than anything I feel blessed to have grown up in an area of the world that has a surplus of beautiful, clean and secluded beaches.

However it was a nice change to be dipping my toes in the Pacific rather than the bone-chilling Atlantic. I hadn’t been swimming once since arriving in Japan so I was not about to be discouraged by a few plastic bags and cigarette butts in the water. Nat and I both spent quite a while just savouring the sensation of floating in the water and playing in the waves like kids.

Unfortunately there was no shower or rinsing station for us to wash off all the salt and sand, so the train ride home was a little bit grimy. But honestly, that in itself was kind of a nice sensation after having gone so long away from the water.  And despite the crowds and the tourist-oriented feel of the island, it was certainly a day well spent!

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Work hard; play hard

So another week has come and gone, and the days are passing by faster and faster! It might have something to do with the fact that I just recently started working not one, but two part-time jobs here in Tokyo. I admit that originally I had been quite set against the idea of getting any sort of part-time job, let alone two. But I eventually had to face the fact that Japan is a bit beyond my economic lifestyle as an unemployed student, especially one trying to sustain a vegetarian diet.

Anyways, needless to say I’ve been quite busy, although it’s actually been kind of nice working (and having some extra spending money)!

One of the jobs is as a teacher’s assistant, helping kids learn English. The other job is at an international bar in Roppongi – a spot known for being more of a tourist/party destination within Tokyo. So understandably, the place I found is an international bar (although they like to advertise themselves, somewhat misleadingly,  as “Australian-themed”) with a mainly english-speaking staff. Unfortunately this job does interfere quite a bit with my weekends, but I think I’ll still manage to fit in a few excursions every few days.

So, this being said, I realized that I had to take full advantage of my remaining days of freedom before work and school began to take precedence.

The rest of the week passed by without much incident, however, in light of my dwindling days of freedom, I started this weekend off a little early. Prompted by an invitation from a friends here, I decided to skip my single Friday class in order to take advantage of the beautiful weather and go climb a nearby mountain.

Mount Takao is a spot just under an hour away from Tokyo, and is a very popular destination for locals and tourists alike. My friend Nate had been there once already, so we were able to get there without too much trouble. As there are 6 different routes up the mountain, we decided that we would both prefer to take “the one less traveled” (sorry, I had to), and it resulted in a lovely secluded hike.

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The trail we took is known to be one of the more difficult routes (although, since the mountain itself only has about a 600 meter elevation, that’s not saying much), and passes by a shrine on the way up.

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Apparently, this specific shrine is well-known as a location where believers come to meditate under the waterfall. This Shinto practice of ritual purification is known as Takigyo (滝行) or waterfall Misogi (禊), and is common at most large waterfalls around Japan.

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Unfortunately, during our visit we did not get to see any such activity taking place, although it was nice being able to explore the peaceful shrine.

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As we made our way up, the path started becoming a little more… Interesting…

And prompted by “educational” signs along the way, we kept our eyes peeled for the variety of wildlife that supposedly abounded…

And even though we were promised crabs and flying squirrels, the most exotic thing we found were dragonflies and pigeons.

Despite this small disappointment, we certainly found what we were looking for once we reached the top, and were treated by an almost 360º view of the surrounding area.

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Knowing that any sort of food or drink would be ridiculously over-priced at the top of the mountain, Nate and I had preemptively bought beer from the convenience store at the town at the base of the mountain so that we could celebrate our accomplishment.

We found a perfect little spot to sit, where we could  take in the view and enjoy our surroundings without being bothered by the other tourists.

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On the way down, we decided to take the path most travelled, which lead through a large temple complex.

Although it seemed like the temple itself  was closed for some reason, there was still plenty to look at and enjoy.

By the time we arrived home, it was almost dark, and we were both tired but happy with the day’s adventure. However, my weekend was nowhere near to being over!

Saturday was my first time working as the teacher’s assistant. I had responded to an advertisement on Craigslist, and arranged to meet the woman who ran the lessons at the train station. I’ll admit I was a little wary at first, travelling on my own to meet a stranger on the far side of Tokyo, but my worries were quickly assuaged. The woman was lovely, working with the children was a truly a wonderful experience! I got to have a lot of fun teaching and playing games with a variety of kids, and even learned a thing to two from them!

I won’t gush too much, but needless to say I will definitely be continuing with that job until I leave, although it’s only about once every two weeks.

Then on Sunday I decided to dedicate myself to visiting a variety of shrine festivals that, for some reason, were all taking place on the same weekend.

I started out by going to Tsukiji – the place with the famous fish market that I had first visited way back in April.

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I was on the lookout for a “lion dance” parade supposedly travelling around the area surrounding the Namiyoke Inari Shrine (conveniently located right next to the fish market complex.

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I quickly reached the shrine, only taking a minor detour to stop and browse at some pottery stalls… The shrine itself was small, but nonetheless quite pleasant. Apparently it is the unofficial guardian shrine for the marketplace and the vendors, and its name literally means “protection from waves” (Tsukiji is located right on the waterfront of Tokyo).

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On the side, there was a large lion head figure, which gave me a sign that I was definitely on the right track to finding the parade.

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In fact, just as I was leaving the shrine, I heard the telltale sound of mikoshi parade chanting. Following my ears, and the crowds of people, I quickly came across the large lion head, and its many eager convoy members.

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Not to mention the traditional display of man-butt that accompanies such events…

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Since I was not on any real schedule, I decided to spend some time simply following the parade as weaved in and out of the small streets, collecting onlookers as it went. Eventually I decided I was ready to move on to my next destination: Hie Shrine which was holding the “Sanno Matsuri” – one of the three biggest shrine festivals in Tokyo.

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Unfortunately, I think I missed the day that the festivities had supposedly been at their peak, (including a large parade and lots of vendors), but I nonetheless received a special commemorative goshuin (shrine stamp) specifically given during the festival. Typically it is common curtesy to say a prayer at the main shrine building before receiving a goshuin, however it was clear that it would be quite the wait, so I opted to forgo the prayer just the one time.

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Apparently Hie Shrine is the resting place of the guardian deity of Tokyo, which explains the unusually extensive lineups.

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It seemed that the visitors filling the main courtyard were mostly only interested in paying their respects, and purchasing spiritual/commemorative keepsakes. This meant that I got to experience the best of both worlds when it comes to shrine festivals. On one hand, the main grounds were filled with a collection of people, making it a wonderful place for people-watching.

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(how adorable is this little guy??)

And on the other hand, the rest of the shrine grounds were almost completely empty, giving me plenty of peaceful photo opportunities.

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After this, I decided to make my way home and grab some dinner. However, my plans for the day were not yet over. I had one more shrine festival in mind to attend, which I knew had a famous annual parade held during the evening when the Torigoe jinga shrine is illuminated by lanterns.

Apparently this festival is especially well-known for having the heaviest mikoshi (weighing four tonnes) in Tokyo, which typically results in fights bearing out over who gets to carry it through the streets of Kuramae.

Although I was unfortunately too late to see the actual parade (missed it by only about 15 minutes), there were lots of pictures advertising the event.

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However, I did get to catch the closing ceremony, which was crowded and difficult to hear, but nonetheless presented some pretty good photo opportunities…

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Luckily, I had brought my friend Nate along who is 6’4″, so he was able to see above most of the other onlookers, and get some good photos on my behalf. IMG_6610

Finally, we headed back towards home, stopping in Shinjuku for some food and drinks at an izakaya in Shinjuku.

We stayed out until it was time to catch the last train home, and I went to bed still smiling from the day’s adventures.

 

 

Down town, all around

So, another week come an gone, and I definitely have some photos and memories to show for it! The festivities, as they were, started off last weekend. I got together with a group of friends on Saturday night for a karaoke party.

We had a blast (although it’s hard not to at Japanese karaoke)! And I think all our voices were a little sore the next day!

Despite the relatively late night, I was up and running the next day, headed for Shibuya to investigate an event called the “3rd Annual Shibuya Renaissance”. Not really knowing what to expect, I was amused to arrive at a blocked-off street with stages on either end.

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Basically, the way it worked was there would be some sort of performance going on at one of the stages, while on the other end of the street, something else was being prepared. So about every half an hour or so, the entire crowd of onlookers would move from one end of the street to the other; the people at the back, rushing for a position at the front of the next performance.

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I arrived just in time to catch the end of an ensemble of traditional taiko drummers accompanying a group of tap dancers.

The theme of traditional merged with contemporary art forms seemed to continue throughout the day’s events. I throughly enjoyed watching a group of jazz singers perform songs by The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, and such, while a large group of percussionists got the crowd stomping and clapping.

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Next I got to enjoy a front-row view of a traditional Japanese dance and music style known as “Gagaku”.

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The finale of the whole event took up the entire street. Onlookers were told to stand behind a rope, blocking off the middle section for a variety of costumed dancers.

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As the music started, each group of dancers was given a turn to show off their unique styles and costumes.

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Eventually, all the groups came together for one large and impressive collaboration.

 

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Then, quite suddenly, all the barricades were removed, and onlookers were dragged into the crowd of dancers to join in the fun.

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I happily allowed myself to be swept up in the commotion, and ended up being pulled up on stage for a media coverage photo shoot.

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I left the event with my ears ringing and a smile on my face that lasted the rest of the day.

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Although this was definitely the highlight of my week – and even of the highlights of my whole trip so far – the adventures didn’t stop there. The rest of my week was certainly much more mellow, but I made the effort to go visit several new areas.

Most notable was a day trip I took to the Bunkyo district to visit some temples and shrines. To be honest, I didn’t have too much of a plan except for the names of several shrines that I knew were in the area. When I arrived, I was surprised and happy to discover that the streets were practically lined with temple after temple. Most of them were quite small, and I’m guessing privately owned, however there were some more notable ones which I was happy to come across.

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I especially enjoyed exploring the grounds of this rather spacious temple – which apparently is called Kichijōji.

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Although the actual temple itself was rather unspectacular, there were several statues such as this lovely bronze Buddha.

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As well as this lovely little guy.

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My curiosity was especially piqued by this small figure who clearly has some association with books and possibly travel. After a bit of research online, I discovered that he was named Ninomiya Sontoku, a philosopher and economist from the Edo period. Apparently he is actually buried in the Kichijōji temple graveyard, but since then, I’ve seen several other statues of him around the city.

Anyways, after that I made my way along some back streets, exploring some of the smaller, less visited shrines. Soon I came across a shrine with the word “Fuji” written in English.

 

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At first I was a little as a little confused as to why the shrine would have been given such an iconic name, however as I approached, it quickly became clear:

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I later discovered it is actually called “Komagome Fuji Jinja,” and is one of the many “Fuji shrines” established to allow people to pay their respects to Fuji San without having to make the long and difficult trip.

Nonetheless, the steep staircase still proved to be a bit more challenging than expected – I swear, the stairs are much steeper than the photo does them credit!

However, when I reached the top, I found myself almost instantly feeling isolated from the rest of the world.

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Although I absolutely love Tokyo and the big city lifestyle, one of the few things I do find myself missing is the solitude that small-town Canada provides. Maybe for the first time since arriving in Japan, I was able to enjoy a wonderful sense of seclusion on top of this private little mountain.

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However, as I suspected, the moment didn’t last very long. Within about 15 minutes, someone else had come to visit the shrine.

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So I made my way back home towards home, feeling refreshed from the day’s wanderings, and the seclusion that the area provided.

Solo adventures

So last week was midterm week at school, which meant that I have been fairly preoccupied this last little while with school work. Nonetheless, I managed to get in a few adventures over the past few weeks, so now I have a bit of catching up to do wringing them all down.

About a week ago I woke up to an email from one of my professors saying that class for that day had been canceled. So I took it as a sign and began planning a day trip. My first destination was the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, to see a Pixar exhibition that was on display there. As with most of the bigger exhibitions here, photos are prohibited, but it was a really fantastic show, featuring everyone from preliminary sketches of Toy Story (Pixar’s first feature film), to a screening of new short films that had yet to be released to the public.

Afterwards, I set out to find a shrine that I knew was somewhere nearby. It was quite a lovely little shrine, with some wonderful bronze statues around it, and small paths leading though a garden-like area.

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On my way back towards the train station, I found myself walking down a street which lead towards a Buddhist temple. So I went in to take a looks around and see what was going on.

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Apparently it is a temple that is quite well known in Tokyo, and holds many large events and ceremonies. And I’m not exactly sure what this building next door is supposed to be, but it’s pretty darn cool to look at.

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Since I seemed to be on a bit of a roll with the Shrine/Temple sightseeing, and since my train home happened to pass by Ueno I decided to take advantage of the opportunity. Although I’ve been to Ueno Park several times already, it seems like every time I visit it’s a new experience. I arrived at the entrance that opens onto the large lake area, and was amazed to find that was was typically a body of water was now completely covered by a layer of bright green lily pads.

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I also realized that this means pretty soon there will be water lilies blooming all across this vast expanse of green, creating an even more remarkable sight. So I guess I’ll be returning again soon.

Also, I’m not sure if it’s because I was visiting during a weekday, or because I just happened to come during an off-season, but the area was surprisingly void of the collection of stalls and vendors that I was expecting from my previous visits.

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I’d just like to take a moment to compare to my first visit…

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Needless to say, the lack of stalls and people revealed an array of statues and small shrines.

I had already visited two of the major temples that were on the park grounds, but I hadn’t been collecting go-shuin (shrine stamps offered at almost every shrine and temple in Japan) at the time, so I decided to re-visit both in order to add to my book.

I also knew about a shrine located in the park which I had never been to before so I made a point of visiting both of those before leaving.

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First off, yes that is an amusement bark in the background, which created an odd juxtaposition with the peaceful shrine entrance.

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This shrine is particularly well-known for its large, gold-covered gates.

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Unfortunately, the inner area of the shrine was under construction so I was unable to see much of the grandeur that was supposedly held inside.

On my way out of the shrine, I noticed quite a large set-up, so I went over to take a look.

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It turned out to be some sort of azalea bonsai contest, where each plant received a ranking, and some had prize ribbons next to them.

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Directly behind thisI was thrilled to find about 20 stalls, all filled with pottery and ceramics.

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Many seemed to be original works, sold for rather high prices, most likely made by the vendors themselves. While I enjoyed looking around, many of the pieces were a little out of my price-range, even despite several of the vendors who attempted to haggle with me when I looked interested.

However, there was one stall that had large signs offering discounts and deals.

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Upon inspection, it seemed like many of the pieces were quite generic and mass-produced, however it was hard for me to pass up such good deals. I ended up purchasing this great bowl for only ¥400 (although I could have had 3 for ¥1000).

I celebrated by making hummus when I got home to go in my bowl, which came with a convenient plastic lid, which I just find so hilariously typical of modern Japan.

Anyways, on my way out of the park, I noticed a path of tori gates leading down a set of stairs. At first I though this was connected to one of the other temples I had previously visited, however upon further inspection I discovered a rather secluded temple/shrine complex.

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By this point, I had collected 6 shrine stamps, and was feeling happily tired and satisfied with the day’s adventures. I headed home and spent the rest of the evening working on some homework and relaxing.

This was not the end of my adventures however, as the weekend was fast-approaching and had lots in store. Saturday I headed over to a local shrine in Shinjuku which was hosting an annual shrine festival.

Wedged in between two skyscrapers was the entrance to Hanazono Jinja.

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Indeed, the entrance is so unassuming, I walking right past it the first time.

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Although it was a fairly typical as far as shrine “matsuri” go, I will never cease to be entertained, both by the amusing variety of stalls and vendors…

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(Including one stall where you could attempt to catch your own pet miniature turtle!!)

… and by the ceremony itself.

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Then on Sunday I got to enjoy the sunshine while volunteering with the BLENDER organization which was hosing another picnic in Yoyogi Park.

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As seems to be the trend, I ended up making some friends and exploring the local area until late into the evening. As per usual, I saw some strange sights (including a men’s razor advertisement in the form of a fountain) and even found this awesome Moomin postcard!

It’s been back to normal since then, although with several more adventures. There’s another post to come, and this time it will be soon, I promise. Until then, I’ll be collecting stories, memories, and possibly a new friend or two.

Getting my greens in

Another week come and gone, and this one saw a bounty of lush, green scenery as I made several expeditions to an array of temples, shrines, and gardens around the area.

Last Wednesday I did not have class until 2:30pm, so I decided to head of to Chiyoda area, and spend my morning exploring the Imperial Palace gardens while taking advantage of the sunny weather.

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Although I have already been to this area on several other occasions, I had yet to get the full experience of the Imperial grounds.

The area was lush and green, although for the most part, the long concrete pathways made the heat a little much at times. I felt especially bad for the many gardeners who were hard at work in the hot sun.

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Since I was in the area, I decided to go check out Yasukuni Shrine, which is know for being one of the most controversial shrines in all of Japan.

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The shrine itself was extremely beautiful, however it draws its contention from the fact that it is dedicated to all the Japanese soldiers who lost their lives while fighting for Japan. Specifically, it lists among these people several known war criminals, which some people find offensive.

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However, coming from an outside perspective, I thought that the shrine casts a very interesting light on the Japanese view of war and Soldiers. From what I could tell, the shrine placed more emphasis on respecting the suffering of the soldiers, nurses, and civilians who lost their lives during times of turmoil. In fact, it did not dwell on, or in any way seem to glorify, war crimes.

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That evening I went grocery shopping and found a (relatively) large bag of mixed greens on sale. I took this as a sign from the vegetable gods and decided to buy enough ingredients to make myself a mega-salad – something I had been craving since my arrival here. With avocado, tofu, tomato, bell peppers, onion and a little bit of mozzarella; it certainly did not disappoint!

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Salads are basically my staple back home, but here it can be pretty pricey making one that lives up to my typical standards. But I allowed myself this one luxury on such a hot day.

Speaking of luxury, this Saturday I decided to finally indulge my craving to get away from the crowds and noise of the big city. So around lunchtime, my friend and I hopped on a train and made the 2-hour trip to a town called Kamakura, which is known for it’s abundance of temples and shrines.

According to wikipedia, it was “the political center of medieval Japan” but is now mostly known as a resort town, sought for both its beaches and religious sites.

Upon arriving, we were required to make a choice: we could either go visit the giant bronze Buddha statue for which Kamakura is most famous, or we could spend our time seeing more of the minor temples. We opted for the latter, with the rationale being we can always come back another time and see the Buddha on its own.

We set out, and quickly found ourselves walking along a crowded market street, decorated with a bizarre assortment of statues, signs and advertisements.

 

 

It was easy enough to just follow the stream of people, who were all clearly headed in the same direction as us. We soon came across the telltale red tori gate, signifying a shinto shrine. In this case, we had arrived at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū, apparently the biggest and most important shrine in Kamakura.

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The shrine did indeed have a fairly large layout, and it took us some time to fully explore the area and the many small nooks and crannies that were hidden away.

And maybe this is a little creepy of me, but I have this weird fondness of taking photos of other tourists who are taking selfies.

I don’t know why, I just find it hilarious. But anyways, moving on…

Leaving the shrine, we headed uphill towards an area on the map which seemed to have a large temple complex. As we walked we were able to appreciate the old-fashioned buildings and the lush greenery which surrounded us on all sides.

(Not to mention this super cool tunnel/skylight that covered part of the road)

On the way, we came across a small staircase which seemed to lead to some sort of sacred area.

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It turned out to be a small Buddhist temple, dedicated to this awesome guy:

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Unfortunately, photos were prohibited inside the temple itself, so you’ll just have to take my word that he was even cooler as a statue.

After that little detour, we found the temple area we had originally set out for, which really was quite expansive.

There were so many cool little areas, and it seemed to stretch on and on, transitioning from one temple into the next…

Finally we were  forced to tear ourselves away from the many tantalizing pathways,  as we realized the sun was going down and we should probably start heading back home.

On the way back, I couldn’t help but stop to purchase a “simple and classy” grapefruit drink. It was pretty cool, and I got to watch as the vendor took a fresh grapefruit and drilled a hole into it, turning the insides to pulp and juice.

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Simple? Yes. Delicious? Absolutely! Classy?… Well, not so much.

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After the long train ride home, we arrived back tired, our feet sore, but wholeheartedly content from a wonderful day.