Great fun, and a great research conference. We took lots of pictures, a few of which I'll present here. These are things that struck my fancy, not necessarily "representative." They are more or less in chronological order.
(Disclaimer for all you photography afficionados: We made no attempt to optimize exposure etc., especially on those taken using my cell phone. Sorry, just didn't have the patience, especially in the hot sun. But I think you'll enjoy the pictures.)
We landed in Tokyo, then spent the first day just exploring in Tokyo, e.g. learning the train system. We spent the next 4 days in Kyoto, actually using Kyoto as our base. So, of the 4 days, we had 2 in Kyoto, 1 in Nara and 1 in Osaka.
Foreigners can buy a (presumably subsidized) rail pass, and we sure got our money's worth! We rode the bullet train a number of times, and numerous local trains.
It CAN be complicated. For example, look at this map of the subway system in central Tokyo. Yikes! We had been warned that even the locals get confused. But everywhere people were extremely helpful; their English was usually limited, but they could give us the information we needed.
Kyoto is considered a center of Japan's cultural heritage, Nara even more so. Osaka is a big city with a culinary reputation.
We avoided tours, and mainly wandered around on our own. However, the first day in Kyoto, we did take a half-day tour to two temples, Kinkaku-Ji and Kiyomiza Dera. The first has a gold facade and is very famous. Here's a map of the grounds:
And a picture.
As usual, money can bring one good luck. :-)
Kiyomiza Dera ("clear water temple") is at a higher elevation, and we could look down and see Kyoto (a major, developed city, in spite of its cultural significance).The temple has supposedly restorative waters, which people lined up for.
It was quite hot throughout our trip, warmer than usual for mid-September, and our time at the second temple was especially uncomfortable. But still, it was a fun tour. The tour guide spoke only Japanese by the way, so it was odd for us when the other participants were laughing at the guide's jokes. (The tourbus passed by a geisha, and the guide told a long story, of which I could only make out "geisha-san" and "mako-san," the latter being a trainee.) There were English and Chinese tapes one could listen to, but they came on only sporadically. Anyway, it was definitely enjoyable. Maybe a bit less enjoyable for the tour guide, whose job required her to smile at all times, tough to do for several hours straight. :-)
Due to the weather extremes, underground malls are apparently big in Japan, e.g. in or near train stations. One day in Kyoto we went to a mall by the train station, as we had heard there were great ramen restaurants there. In fact, there is an entire floor devoted to them.
Well, the lobby of the mall is somewhat outdoors, kind of a breezeway, and I thought I heard faint music. In fact, I thought I heard Hawaiian music. But I dismissed the thought, and we went to eat. (Verdict: Not as good as the ramen place in the Tokyo Station mall, whose name in Chinese characters translates to "seven colors," i.e. many colors.) After lunch, we wandered around a department store in the mall, and I noticed that there was a door leading to the outside. This was something like floor 9 or 10.
Well, lo and behold, there was a multifloor amphitheater out there, and at the bottom there was a stage with people competing in a hula dance contest! So I really had heard Hawaiian music after all.
By the way, at the ramen restaurants, you order by machine. Put in your money, specify the toppings you want, and give the host the ticket that is printed out.
We missed the imperial palace in Kyoto, as it was Sunday. But on the way back, we saw this temple whose "mascot" was the pig, oddly enough.
Our favorite part of the trip was our day in Nara, an ancient city near Kyoto. Things were slower-paced there, the people were more down-to-earth, and the ancient cultural spots were interesting. We had a great lunch there.
For 500 yen, you can buy an all-day bus pass in Nara. We chose to hop on the one that circles the city. (We did the same for trains in Osaka and Tokyo.) This was to get an idea of the lay of the land, which we did twice before doing anything else. (We liked it so much the first time, we went around again, about 20 minutes per loop.) Then we walked up and down a street of restaurants and shops, five or six blocks, interesting in its own right.
After all that walking in the heat we settled on a restaurant right across from the train station, where we'd started. It was delicious and reasonable. (Food in Japan was not as expensive as we had expected.) I noticed a woman at the counter who kept looking at me, and she finally came to talk to us. She turned out to be the woman who we had talked to briefly at the train station. She's a volunteer who leads tours, with the fees going to the YWCA. She'd spent 3 years in New York, and had good English, a rarity during our trip. It was fun chatting with her. Unfortunately, I forgot to take her picture (and forgot to take pictures of the conference people in Tokyo, who were fun to talk to).
Many of the ancient cultural treasures of Nara are in the national park. This is the one you may have heard of, with hundreds of deer roaming around. Some of them are quite aggressive, and there are signs warning us innocent tourists to be careful with them.
One of the temples is the oldest nail-free building in the world, with a giant buddha inside.
There were lots of school kids visiting this temple, partly because of culture no doubt, but also because one can purchase good luck tags for passing the important exams.
Only 600 yen (about $8), not bad considering the gravity of the wish.
One girl, 13, kept following us and chatting us up in fairly good English. She insisted on having her picture taken with me, but when we offered to e-mail the picture to her, she didn't understand, and her teacher was calling her to join her group.
Here are some various sites in the park:
We enjoyed simply wandering through the streets of Nara:
Did you know that they celebrate Halloween in Japan? Well, I guess the retail industry finds it as lucrative there as in the U.S.
We'd been advised that Osaka was the city with the best food, so on our third day of being based in Kyoto, we took a day trip there. Upon arrival, we asked (a) Is there a train that circles the city? and (b) Where is the best food? The answer was yes to (a), and the answer to (b) was the "entertainment district."
Naively I expected the latter place to consist of kabuki theaters, concert halls and the like. Those may exist, but the most common types of business there, after restaurants, were pachinko parlors and karaoke bars. There was also an element of "red light district" there. Anyway, we had a nice lunch, and it was fun just finding the place.
Japan is reputed to be very safe, which is generally very true. But I had heard about problems with men surreptitiously groping women in superpacked trains, resulting in the authorities designating certain cars as female-only. Sure enough, we saw this at a station in Osaka.
The major train stations in Japan (and in China etc.) are like airports in the U.S., huge and complex. We really liked the one in Osaka, which had one floor arranged as an outdoor plaza. There was a nice breeze there, and one could sit and relax. It appeared to be popular with young couples.
This one was surprising, though:
We tried to go to Mt. Fuji--and failed. We took 3 trains to get to the base, only to find that after Aug. 31 there are no mid- to late-afternoon buses to the mountain itself (we had hoped to go to the Fifth Level). We arrived at about 2 p.m., too late. So, "I went to Mt. Fuji and all I got was this picture of a manhole cover." :-) Note the mountain and the train.
So, we decided to go to Kamakura instead (3 more trains). This is a seaside town with dozens of ancient...you guessed it, temples! And another giant buddha. And this one has windows in its back.
Kamakura is your typical seaside town, with a beach and shops. It apparently is also a popular place for the educated, professional class to live, as it was the only place where we found many people with good English. (Even in the conference, I found I could not communicate with most of the local grad students.) One sobering point, though, is that we saw signs warning people of tsunami danger.
Back in Tokyo, more eating. :-) Here's a sushi bar that is literally SRO--you stand and eat.
10-minute haircut, 1000 yen:
Our trip back home departed on a Saturday night, so we spent the day wandering in central Tokyo, including a bit of the huge imperial palace grounds. This was only two blocks from our hotel, which had been the site of my conference. (University on the 10th floor!) In addition to being the home of the emperor, it also is a nice public park. There are art museums, fountains and a building in which one can watch a video of the life of the emperor, with all the famous people he has met with. Unfortunately, we saw only a small part of the grounds.
One must be on one's best behavior on the grounds.
Then more delicious food, including Camenbert cheesecake, a new one for me.
Great trip! We're looking forward to going back.