Travels in Japan: Tokyo 東京 (October 4, and 14-15 2017)

Takeshita Street in Harajuku district, Tokyo

Takeshita Street in Harajuku district, Tokyo

October 4, 2017 Harajuku and Shinjuku

Youthful energy in Harajuku district, Tokyo

Youthful energy in Harajuku district, Tokyo

Vibrant, youthful, and trendy are some of the words that describe the Harajuku district of Tokyo. We spent some time wandering and taking photos of Takeshita Street before our 4PM reservation at the Owl Village and Cafe. The street was packed with young people, who were enjoying themselves after school or work. The street was crammed with shops and little cafes, selling crepes and other sweet treats.

As it neared 4PM, we headed to the Owl Village and Cafe, located in a nondescript apartment looking building. We had to take an elevator up to the fourth floor, where we were welcomed into the cafe. The cafe has a tatami mat area and a mini bar, where you are allowed to enjoy your soft drink that comes with your reservation (in 2017, it was about 1500 yen per person for 1 hour). The courteous staff member checked us in and then gave an orientation of the rules and expectations of the cafe, such as how to pet the owls and how to take a photo without scaring them.

After we finished our soft drinks, cleaned our hands with hand sanitizer, and slipped on the slippers we were provided, we were allowed in the special room where the owls were resting. One of the participants had paid an additional fee to feed the owls and fed the owl a delicious treat (as shown below).

A happy participant feeds a barn owl

A happy participant feeds a barn owl

Continue reading

Travels in Japan: Kyoto 京都 (October 1, 2017)

Kyoto Tower at night

Kyoto Tower at night

Attraction List

  • Kyoto Tower
  • Kyoto Railway Museum
  • Kinkakuji
  • Nijo-jo
  • Gion-Shion

About 15-20 minutes westward of Osaka, if one takes the shinkansen, is the classical city, Kyoto. Popularized by the stories of geisha and samurai, this city served as the capital of Japan from 794 (Nara period) to 1868 (beginning of Meiji period). Many temples and shrines still stand today and are important relics of Japan’s history.

We spent a day in Kyoto, so we had to pick and choose where we wanted to visit. Upon arriving at Kyoto Station, one can see the modern Kyoto Tower in the distance, rising at 131 meters tall. On a clear day, one can see Osaka from the observation platform in the distance.

Kyoto Railway Museum

Kyoto Railway Museum

From Kyoto Station, we walked west about 20 minutes to the Kyoto Railway Museum, a must-see for any train enthusiast. Opened in April 2016 by JR West, the museum is considered one of Japan’s best railway museums.

The museum showcases various types of trains from the steam locomotives to the electric trains to the shinkansen (bullet trains). One can follow the walkways underneath some of the trains to see the internal structure of the trains. There are also exhibits of the railway uniforms and tools as well as interactive exhibits, in which one can pretend to be a train conductor or try the train simulator. In addition to the museum, there is a roundhouse with turntables from 1914 that houses some steam locomotives.

After spending a couple of hours here, we exited the museum to grab lunch at a nearby café.

Once we had our fill, we took a taxi to Kinkakuji, as the subway system in Kyoto was not very convenient. Continue reading

Travels in Japan: Osaka 大阪, Kansai (September 30 to October 4, 2017)

Courtesy of T.Kambayashi (Wikimedia Commons). See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Osaka_City_Map.png

Courtesy of T.Kambayashi (Wikimedia Commons). See the original page.

After a brief stay in Tokyo, we took the Shinkansen bullet train to Osaka (大阪) located in the Kansai region of Japan; the journey took about 3 hours westward. We had the First Class Japan Rail tickets but had forgotten to reserve our seats in the First Class section of the train. We were lucky that one of the train conductors allowed us to sit in the reserved First Class section, as there were not many people and we were carrying a lot of luggage. The seats were quite comfortable, clean, and spacious. An attendant provided us with some refreshments, snacks, and a wet towellette. The time passed quickly as we made our way to Shin-Osaka station– one of the central Japan Rail (JR) stations.

With luggage in hand, we transferred to the local train line to the newer Bay Area, facing Osaka Bay. The overall train ride took about 45 minutes from the main city center. The hotel we stayed at was Hotel La Raison (now called Quintessa Hotel Osaka Bay as of 2019), a fairly new luxurious, Western-style hotel located in Cosmo Square (train station). The room was quite spacious and comfortable.

The Bay Area of Osaka has many nearby attractions, including Universal Studios Japan, Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, and Cosmo Tower. We were lucky that Hotel La Raison offered a complimentary shuttle service to these attractions (except for Cosmo Tower, which is within walking distance) and to the JR Osaka Station. See the main website for the shuttle bus schedule.

Tip: If you have the Pasmo card, you can use it to travel on the local train or bus transportation system in Osaka. Just remember to add more money to the card as needed.

Shitennoji Temple (Tennoji district)

Shitennoji Temple (Tennoji district)

September 30, 2017

Attraction List:

  • Shitennoji Temple (Tennoji district)
  •  Shinsekai (Tennoji district)
    • Tsuenkaku
  • Nipponbashi district
  • Namba district
    • Dotonbori 

Once we settled down and relaxed for awhile in the hotel, we headed out to the Tennoji district, the older part of Osaka. We first visited the Shitennoji Temple (photo above), one of the oldest Zen Buddhist temples in Japan from 593. Although the buildings were renovated, they still have its spiritual charm. Just beware of the mosquitoes that surround the pond near the side of the temple. Continue reading

Travels in Japan: Tokyo 東京 (September 29, 2017)

I visited Japan with my family for about 7 days (September 29 to October 4, 2017 and October 14-15, 2017). Exploration of the following cities: Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Himeji were self-planned and organized based on district (since the cities were too large to explore on our own).

Before we started our trip, we used Japan Guide and Japan Experience to plan out the attractions and order the Japan Rail Pass— a must-need for transportation in Japan. Also, it is recommended that you purchase a Pasmo Card, an IC card, for paying public train transportation fares. The IC card can be recharged at any subway or public train station in Japan. For navigation and convenience, I highly recommend the Pocket Wi-Fi so that you can have access to Google Maps to get to your destination.

Note: The hotels that are mentioned in this Japan travel log series are Western-style hotels with four twin beds.

View of the Tokyo Skytree from the hotel window

View of the Tokyo Skytree from the hotel window

September 29, 2017 Tokyo Skytree (Oshiage), Asakusa and Ueno

Attraction List:

  • Tokyo Skytree (Oshiage district)
  • Sensoji Temple (Asakusa district)
  • Ueno Station
    • Ueno Hard Rock Cafe
Tokyo Skytree at night

Tokyo Skytree at night

We took an overnight flight on September 28th to Hong Kong and then connected to a flight to Tokyo (東京). We arrived in the afternoon on September 29th at Tokyo Haneda airport. At the airport, we immediately went to pick up the Japan Rail passes and the pocket wi-fi that we rented. Afterwards we purchased the Pasmo card and loaded each card with 2,000 yen.

Tip: Make sure you have enough currency on hand to load the IC card. I guarantee that you will have to recharge the card often. Public transportation is a must when you travel Japan.

We took the train to our hotel, Tobu Hotel Levant Tokyo, in the Sumida district of Tokyo and dropped off our luggage before exploring the area. It was about 4PM when we set out to look at our surroundings to get orientated. The Sumida district is regarded as a peaceful district with traditional bath houses, small shops, and high-rise apartments hide under the presence of the Tokyo Skytree. The Tokyo Skytree is the tallest tower in Tokyo, rising to 634 meters, and often hosts special events as noted on the official website. Continue reading

A Study of Cats at a Cat Café

Lounging with a cat at the Dancing Cat in San Jose, CA

Lounging with a cat at the Dancing Cat in San Jose, CA

Imagine yourself lounging in an easy chair, trying to relax from a busy day. A curious feline jumps down onto the couch next to you and pads his way toward you purring. Stirring with curiosity, you reach out tentatively. The cat sniffs at your hand and licks it. A smile beams on your face and gently you stroke his head behind the ears. The cat purrs appreciatively and lays down enjoying the tactile sensation. An hour goes by swiftly but all worries slip away with the company of a feline.

~

An agile cat at the Dancing Cat in San Jose, CA

An agile cat at the Dancing Cat in San Jose, CA

Cat cafés are not new. With the perfect ambiance and environment, one could pay for an hour to play, observe, or enjoy a beverage in the company of cats. The first cat café, Cat Flower Garden (貓花園), originated from Taipei, Taiwan in 1998 (see the Taipei Cat Café blog for reviews). This first introduction to Japanese tourists became the fuel that started the trend in Japan. Continue reading

ARTS: Cupertino Cherry Blossom Festival (Japanese)

Hosted on April 25-26, 2015 in Cupertino, CA

Origami Dragon

Origami Dragon

The 32nd annual Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival was hosted this past weekend to celebrate the long-standing friendship with Cupertino’s sister city, Toyokawa, Japan and the Japanese culture. The festival had many cultural displays of the fine, classical arts and live entertainment in the outdoor amphitheater.

Of the cultural displays, visitors have ample opportunity to peruse the many outstanding collections of embroidery, origami, calligraphy, bonsai, ikebana, and kimekomi dolls.

Origami (the art of paper folding) dates from the Edo period (1603–1868). It was used for both ceremonial and recreational purposes. In 1797, the first book of written instructions for origami was called Sembazuru Orikata (or “thousand crane folding) by Akisato Rito. The book was an inspiration for Sadako Sasaki from the 1950s who folded 1,000 cranes for world peace.

Bonsai

Bonsai

Bonsai (the art of minature trees and plants) originated from China but is a major aspect of Japanese culture.

Ikebana- Art of flower arrangement

Ikebana- Art of flower arrangement

The art of ikebana (flower arrangement) has over 500 years of history behind it. Similar to much of Japanese culture, ikebana emphasizes nature and the ability to express beauty and human emotion in a single piece. Often times, it is “like a poem or painting made of flowers” (Ikenobo Ikebana Society).

Kimekomi dolls - This example is from the Tale of Genji

Kimekomi dolls – This example is from the Tale of Genji

The kimekomi doll-making technique was created during the Genbun period (1736-1741) in Kyoto at the Kami-Kamo Shrine by Tadashige Takahash. He carved the figures from willow wood and clothed the dolls with leftover fabric from the robes of the Shinto priests. His technique would be passed onto the future generations and further perfected by Mataro Kanabayashi I, whose technique is used today (Mataro doll craft). Continue reading