Thursday, October 7, 2010

When It Rains, It Pours...Then The Sun Comes Out!

Sorry this is viciously late.  Life has suddenly gotten quite busy.

Oh man, I had an entry all cued up that I started two weeks ago about the world hating me.  It detailed the tribulations I've been having with EVERY ELECTRONIC DEVICE I OWN.  My camera went first (though I still don't know.  Then my Kindle started weirding out about shutting off, around the same time my iPod began to dislike being turned on.  The last straw was my laptop.  The Thursday before last I brought it into work to edit some pictures.  After school I went out to dinner with Yeon Ah and her husband.  I was super nervous about how this would go, but it turned out okay.  Whenever we struggled for conversation we just talked about weddings, haha.  Yeon Ah and I had to wait for him to get off work, so we killed some time in a Gangnam Starbucks before heading over to California Pizza Kitchen (or CPK in Korea) for dinner.  Now those of you who know me REALLY well might know that in my entire life I've only ever eaten at CPK once- at Annapolis Mall.  Why only once?  Probably because I got terrible food poisoning from it and refused to ever go again.  But, hey, this is Korea, right?  Why not.  We ended up getting some pasta, a salad, and a California BLT pizza, which had huge avacados on top as well as a full salad.  Bizarro, but it tasted fine.  While we were talking after dinner I started scratching what I thought was a bug bite on my wrist.  After a few minutes of scratching, I looked down to find that in fact it was not a bug bite, but a hive, one of a group that was slowly working its way up my hands and arms.  By the time I got home I had hives all over my hands, arms, and neck.  Soooo who the hell knows that I was allergic to in that pizza, especially since multiple allergy tests and years of experience only inform me that I am allergic to dust and Mint Skittles.  Thankfully the hives chilled when I took my nightly power antihistamine.  When I got home, my computer also wouldn't turn on.  

I kept getting various black screens asking me run disk checks, and eventually, the blue screen of death.  If I was able to actually make it to the desktop (rare) everything would freeze as soon as I clicked something.  Obnoxious.  Friday I had my co-teachers call Sony and they determined that they had "One English speaker, but he not" which I figured did not bode well.  Thankfully my principal allowed me to leave after I was done teaching, about 2 hours before normal, so I could go over to Apgujeong to the Sony Store.  After 3 hours of waiting in coffee (and delicious pretzel) shops, they determined that my hard drive was "broken."  How is it possible that in the last five years I have gotten three different laptops, made by three different companies, and fried the hard drives on all of them?  A special skill I guess...but this one was only ONE YEAR OLD!  Ugh.

The weekend before Chuseok was pretty blah because I didn't have an internet connection.  I spent a lot of time in Coffine Gurunaru, a new coffee shop near us that offers not only free internet but free desktop computers on which to access it.  Being at my apartment was pretty painful though.  Thankfully this summer I brought back my portable DVD player to Korea this summer, so I was able to watch Arrested Development and True Blood DVDs.  I actually watched all the commentary on both seasons of True Blood....yeah...bored.   Sunday was lovely, though, because a big group of us went out to dinner at Ashely's (an "American" buffet in TechnoMart) to meet Erich's mom and grandmother who were in Korea visiting him.  They were great (and totally gave insight into how Erich became Erich, haha) and the food and wine were delish as usual, so all was well with the world.

The crew with Erich's mom and grandma on the roof of TechnoMart with Olympic Bridge in the background.

Monday I came to work, hungrily consumed the internet, and taught like normal.  That afternoon I checked my bank balance and realized that they had not yet deposited my paycheck.  (Backstory: We are supposed to get paid on the 24th of each month.  If the 24th falls on a weekend or holiday, we are paid the last school day before.  Last week was Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving.  Tuesday-Thursday were national holidays, and Friday was a school holiday because, really, who would want to come to work just Monday and Friday...that is absurd.  Before booking my Japan trip I specifically had Yeon Ah call down to the school accountant and ask when I would be paid.  They assured me that since we were out for Chuseok on Friday, September 24, I would be paid on Monday, September 20.  Now back to the events unfolding on Monday, September 20.)  I asked Yeon Ah to call down to the school accountant and ask if 1. I could start getting pay slips, as I've never gotten them here; and 2. If I would be getting the extra 2.0 million won I was owed for my flight reimbursement. She called, things were going along swimmingly, and then she says "Oh, you're not getting paid today."

Hold the phone...what?

Yeah, apparently the accountant "misspoke." And we get paid on the 24th if it is a school holiday, just not if its a national holiday.  Now in order to understand exactly HOW big a problem this is, you have to realize that the next morning I was leaving for five days in hideously expensive Japan, a fact I had not shared with my school.  I had roughly $100 in my American account (after just paying a round of bills, including credit cards I used when home) and $40 in my Korean account.  THIS WAS EXACTLY WHY I HAD ASKED WHEN I WAS GETTING PAID.  I was (understandably, in my opinion) LIVID.  Like so angry I was shaking.  Ugh, it makes me mad to even think about it now, even after it has been resolved.

Basically I am pretty sure I scared the shit out of my co-teachers.  "Is something wrong?" asks Yeon Ah.  "To be honest, I am so angry, I don't even want to TALK.  I am SO angry," was my response.  This prompted a series of messages via CoolMessanger, our office version of AIM...

Yeon Ah: I want to offer any words of consolation , but I don't know what should I say.
Come on. Is there anything I can help you?

Me: No, there really isn't anything you can say.  I am just very angry because I would not have booked my trip if I knew I was not getting paid.  That is why I specificially had you ask before I booked my trip.

Yeon Ah: I know. It's a pity. It's terribly bad situation for you. don't cry. It make me angly too that there is no way and the manager just made misunderstanding. Your sorrowful look makes me sad. 

Ga Young (who I was supposed to have dinner with that night): I'm so sorry that you have a big problem....I'm sorry...I don't know what to say to console you , but I can imagine you are really depressed..
If you need any help, please, do not hesitate to ask me and I don't want to make you feel sorry if you delay our appointment, I want to meet you when you are feeling good, just tell me frankly ^^ 

Me: I appreciate your sympathy.  The whole situation just sucks.  I am just very frustrated, because I never would have booked my trip if they told me I was getting paid on Friday instead of Monday. I think we should probably postpone our dinner.  I don't think I would be very good company, and I need to go meet my friend who is going on my trip with me to figure out what we are going to do about money.  Maybe sometime the week after Chuseok?

Ga Young: I really wish your feeling gets better..

Clearly, they were both very sweet, and I know it wasn't their fault, but when Yeon Ah said "your sorrowful look makes me sad" I had to sit on my hands to keep from typing "GOOD.  I hope you feel my sorrow, and convey to the administration exactly how SORROWFUL I am."

Thankfully I have awesomely supportive friends here who offered to float me some cash (all their schools paid them!) and I ended up not needing to borrow from them because my wonderful parents were able to deposit some cash into my account at home that I could withdrawal with my debit card.  They saved me, so thanks again Mom and Dad. I would have been seriously screwed in Japan without your help.  As further evidence that the world was revolting against me, I had to go to SIX separate ATMs to find a working one that would accept my international card.  In the rain.  It was terrible.  My exact words to my mom, through tears while sitting at a public computer in a coffee shop...low moment, were "I don't want to live in Korea anymore, I don't want to go to Japan, I just want to come home."  I went home, packed, and had an angry sleep.

Tuesday morning I woke up and headed out early to try and use the internet at a coffee shop before meeting Jamie and Shannon to take the airport bus at 9:00am.  After a rough start, I was able to connect and confirm with my parents that the money had made it into my account, so I was able to breathe a little easier.  Already a lot of stuff was closed because of Chuseok, but I wasn't there long before Jamie and Shannon arrived and we boarded the bus that whisked us through non-existent traffic to the airport.  When talking about our Chuseok plans we figured out that they were going to China the same days we were going to Japan, with our flight schedules only about an hour different, so we decided to shuttle out together. It was seriously the fastest ride I've ever had between Gildong and Incheon, and I've done it...way too much. Seven times?  Eesh.  We checked in at our respective counters and went through security.  One of the bizarre and awesome things the Incheon Airport offers is a cultural experience for foreigners coming through the airport.  We were able to either make these rubbing things, or paint a fan.  They chose to make the relief rubbings, while I sat down to let my OCD go wild painting within the lines of a fan.  (Which actually came in handy in sweaty Japan.) Soon it was time to say goodbye to Jamie and Shannon and hello to Diana at our gate!

The flight from Seoul to Osaka is only about an hour and a half long.  I was asleep before we took off, haha.  I woke up in time to eat some delicious rice cracker mix and enjoy a refreshing and uplifting Coca Cola. (That is their slogan in Japan.)  When we landed we took some time to by Kansai Thru Passes at the airport counter.  Basically these handy  (and REALLY reasonably priced for Japan) passes allow you unlimited travel on non-JR trains, subways, and buses.  They worked really well.  We were going to be there for 5 days, so we ended up buying both a 2-day and a 3-day pass.  We grabbed a table at the airport and did a little planning (and taking of relevant brochures) before heading out on the train.  Armed with a train map, subway map, and the hostel address, we were on our way.  Our first train ride from KIX to downtown Osaka's Namba station was probably about an hour long.  Then we switched to the subway and took it one stop to Nippombashi, where our hotel was located.  Japan/Korea Comparison 1: I immediately recognized that while Japan has a crap ton more international visitors, they have (in my opinion and experience) significantly less English/Romanization on their signs.  After being in Korea where not only is the local written language incredibly easy to learn, but EVERYTHING is Romanized, this was challenging and frustrating for me.  Our English directions to a hostel would say something like "Exit through Sakurabashi Gate," yet all of the exit signs were just in squiggles of Japanese, so we had no idea which one was which.  Rawr.

Quick airport planning sesh.

Anyway, we walk out of the exit at Nippombashi Station and eyeball a map...let's go...straight?  After walking for like 10 minutes (and slogging my heavy duffel bag in sweaty heat and humidity) we stop to look at another map.  Two lovely women stopped to ask if we needed help, and pointed us back the way we had come.  Japan/Korea Comparison 2: While (as I understand it) less people in Japan speak English, the ones who do are much less shy about it and will offer to help you.  In Korea, where basically everyone knows at least basic English, they are all too shy to use it and will walk on by if you are struggling.  We were helped by a few different lovely people on our quest to find Yamatoya Honten, where we were staying.  Roughly 20 sweaty minutes (and an adorable family who walked blocks out of their way to guide us) later we finally found the hotel.  Japan: 1, Meaghan and Diana: 0.

We found this "hostel" on, which is CRAZY if it thinks this is a hostel.  Also, they are crazy if they think these "single" rooms are made to accommodate only one person.  Seriously, I do not exaggerate when I say that my room would easily be described as a 4-5 person room were it in Korea.  It was huge and spacious!  And lovely.  It was pretty awesome, though, because while it was a traditional Japanese style room with no bed (didn't know that when we booked it) there were enough pads and down comforters to make a FANTASTIC sleeping nest.  They made my bed before I got there by putting down one mat, one pillow, and a comforter on top.  By the second night I had found the magical combination: 4 mattress pads, two folded down comforters, another comforter folded as a pillow, me, comforter on top.  I princess and the pead that room.  And it was great.  Also great?  Sleeping with an air conditioner I am not paying for on 18*C!  Love it. After settling into the hotel, Diana and I headed out to the Osaka Aquarium, which is apparently one of the largest in the world.  While overall size seemed fairly comparable to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the TANKS in it, were definitely bigger.  They have two whale sharks! Those things are large.  The guide book said that the aquarium's last visitors were allowed in at 7:00pm (it closes at 8:00pm), but even with running up the steps at the end, we didn't arrive until 7:10pm. The girl at the desk said we were too late until I gave her sad foreigner eyes and explained (with my sorrowful face?) that it was our only night in Osaka (not really a lie).  She talked to her supervisor and they let us in!  They discounted our tickets because we didn't have time to go to the top 2 floors (sad, they a rain forest with capybaras!) and then they spirited us up to the eighth floor to begin our descent.  The tanks are gigantic and are often viewable from multiple floors, so that was cool.  We probably wouldn't have wanted much more time anyway, but it would have been nice to see the top two floors and not have a woman on a megaphone yelling in Japanese, encouraging us to move the whole time.  

My room in the "hostel."

The view from my window.

Osaka Aquarium


Whaleshark! Hammerhead! Stingray!

I love me some jellyfish.

The finless porpoise wanted to be my friend.

After we closed down the aquarium and gift shop, we headed over to the giant ferris wheel that was also on the riverfront.  Fun fact: the color of the lights on the ferris wheel are coordinated based on the weather forecast for the next day.  Green means cloudy, blue means rainy, and red means sunny.  Fun!  Diana and I got our own capsule, so that was nice, and we got some pretty views of the city.  After the ferris wheel we were on a quest for food.  Japan/Korea Comparison 3: Everything closes SO DAMN EARLY in Osaka.  All the stores were closed at 8:00pm and it was hard to find a restaurant.  Man that would drive me crazy in Seoul!  I know three 24-hour restaurants within one stop from me, as well as a 24-hour grocery/clothing/everything you could possibly need store!  We found a little restaurant and I had a delish beef noodle dish.  Then we headed back to our hotel (stopping for McDonald's ice cream cones on the way), did a minute amount of planning, and hit the sheets.

 Ferris wheel.

Osaka by night.

Tuesday morning we left the hotel around 9:00am and stopped at a bakery to have breakfast before hopping on the Keihan Railway and taking the roughly hour long ride out to Nara.  The thing I was most excited to do in Nara was go to Nara Koen (Japanese lesson: "koen" means "park") and feed the deer. According to reliable sourcesthe legendary history of Kasuga Shrine says that "a mythological god Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital of Heijō-kyō. Since then the deer have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country."  This was also mentioned by a tour guide we had.  There are roughly 1000 deer living in Nara, who love to eat these little biscuits you buy from vendors called "shika sembei" or deer biscuits.  Clever naming.  Anyway, Nara Koen had been suggested by my friend Megan from SAS who lived in Japan while working for JET.  After looking at her hilarious pictures and videos, I knew I had to feed me some deer.  We arrived in Nara and headed straight for the park.  On our way to the big Buddha hall, we stopped to buy some shika sembei and feed the deer.  Most were gentle, some were pushy, others were downright ornery.  We later learned that it was mating season, which may have had some effect on their attitude.  The males especially were very pushy.  About 8 deer clustered around me and my biscuits, and if you turned to feed one you and another pulling on your shirt with their teeth.  Deal with that one and another starts boring its head into you. It was pretty funny. 

 Baby Bambiesque deer.

 Old man deer.

Standard deer horns.

 SUPER psyched to feed some deer.

 Close up on deer fur.

 Call me the deer whisperer.

Pushing away an ornery deer.

For real, they will mess you up.

After giving the deer all we could, we were off to Todai-ji (Japanese lesson: the ending "-ji" apparently means "temple") where they have a huge Buddha sculpture.  It weighs 500 tons and is 49.1 feet tall.  Quite large.  In general it was just a pretty temple area.  Japan/Korea Comparison 4: Holymotherofgod, Japan is so expensive.  It sneaks up on you, especially when you're used to Korean currency.  Here 10,000won ~ $8.00, so a 500won coin is about $0.40.  In Japan, 10,000yen ~ $120.00, so a 500yen coin is about $6.00.  And they look VERY similar.  (Sidenote, apparently they actually had to change the Japanese 500yen coin recently because people were coming from Korea and using their 500won coins in vending machines instead of 500yen... significant savings!)  Most historic sites were 500yen to get into...which is a lot!  In Korea the palaces and stuff are usually about 3,000won ($2.40) max.  Oh well.

 Going into Todaiji.

 Diana and I outside the Big Buddha Hall.

Big Buddha

After Todai-ji, we walked back down to the area of Nara near the train station and found a sushi restaurant.  And not just any sushi restaurant.  A conveyor belt sushi restaurant.  And not just a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.  The "longest conveyor belt 26m in the world."  Longest 26m in the world?  Intriguing.  Anyway, the sushi was good (though, to be fair, I have extremely limited experience as I have eaten sushi a grand total of TWICE in my life).  The taste was good, but the idea and the texture are hard for me to overcome.  Upon finishing lunch we hopped back on the train and went two stops away to Heijo Palace.  While in the airport we had picked up a free brochure about events happening in Nara to commemorate the 1300th (WHAAAAT?!) anniversary of Nara being the capital of Japan.  As far as I can tell, the capital was basically wherever to the emperor wanted to live, so I guess Nara looked like a pretty sweet place 1300 years ago.  Heijo Palace was offering a free English tour at 2:00pm, so we wanted to make it in time for that.  We arrived at the train station and hopped on the free shuttle over to the palace.  At this point I was DRIPPING sweat in my short sleeved sweater (poor choice) so I ended up opting just to wear my tank top...which was great except for the sunburn!  

Really? The longest 26m in the world?

Conveyor to the left.

Conveyor to the right.

Conveyor Belt Sushi from Meaghan Shanahan on Vimeo.

When we got dropped off at the palace we made our way over to the Guide Tent (after getting some delicious ice cream) and met Junko, an absolutely lovely woman who ended up staying with us for 2 hours and giving us a private tour.  She lived in California for a few years when her husband was transferred there and her English was great.  She was so nice and full of information- we definitely got a lot more out of the tour with her there than we would have otherwise.  After the capital was moved to Kyoto, this palace basically just went to ruin.  It was only relatively recently that it was excavated.  Before the excavation major train lines were run right through the center of the park, so you still have to wait for trains to pass before making your way from the front gate to the palace itself.  So strange.

Gate to Nara Heijo.

The former imperial palace.

Diana and I are masters of traditional clothing.

I wish traditional Asian clothing was made for girls with boobs.

Posing with Junko, our AWESOME guide.

After the palace we got the bus back to the train station by Nara Park.  We ate dinner at some Chinese fusion restaurant (tasty crispy noodles) and then did a fair amount of shopping to kill some time.  Just before 7:00pm we headed out to find the Sarusawa Lake, where we found out they were holding a small commemorative festival called the Uneme Matsuri Festival to coincide with the full moon.  The legend is that there was a concubine of the emporer who, for one reason or another, thought she had fallen out of favor with the king.  She threw herself into Sarusawa Lake and drowned herself.  A shrine was built in her honor, facing the lake, but the legend says that it was too painful for the shrine to look at the lake where she had drowned every day, so one night it turned itself around.  Interesting.  Anyway, this festival happens once a year and we happened to be in Nara on the correct night.  When we got up to the lake it was PACKED!  People everywhere, most places 4-5 people deep.  The whole edge of the lake was decorated with these beautiful Japanese lanterns that I took...way too many pictures of.  After finding a place where we had a slightly better view, we stood around on aching legs waiting forever for everything to start.  Basically they launch a girl who has been chosen as Miss Uneme out in a boat and she goes around the lake, with an entourage that fills up the rest of her boat and one other.  They play traditional music (way too loud) over the loudspeakers, including some especially shrill flute pieces.  In was interesting, but not overwhelmingly wonderful. When we were done with the ceremony we boarded our train back to Osaka, stopped off at the 7-11 and headed to bed.

 The lanterns were SO so beautiful.

 Lots of people packed in for the show.

 All lit up.

I took way too many pictures of these.

Uneme Matsuri Festival from Meaghan Shanahan on Vimeo.

Thursday around 4:30am I was woken up by a HUGE clap of thunder.  It sounded like someone had fired a gun in my room.  For the next few hours we were battered around by some bad storms, that seemed to move pretty quickly but were just replaced by new storms.  Diana and I ran down to get breakfast and on the way back we stopped in at 7-11 again and bought some better (and see-through!) umbrellas.  We said our goodbyes to Yamatoya Honten and headed out to catch a train to Kyoto.  As we rode along the storms cleared out a little, and both days in Kyoto were overcast but significantly cooler.  When we arrived in Kyoto we followed the directions we had to Gion Shinmonso the ryokan where we were booked for the night.  Once again we got lost while schlepping increasingly heavy bags (look, I did a lot of souvenir shopping, okay?) and had to ask for directions.  Japan: 2, Meaghan and Diana: 0. We finally found it, dropped off our bags, and had the lovely kimono-clad women at the front desk help us figure out the best game plan to see everything we wanted to in Kyoto.

We headed to the bus station (stopping to get some tasty pasta for lunch) and took a bus about 40 minutes away to Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion.  This was originally built as a retirement villa for a statesman, but has since been converted into a Buddhist shrine.  I wish we could have been there on a brighter day, but even with the heavy cloud cover the gold leaf was really beautiful.  Definitely an extravagant retirement home.  We battled (not an exaggeration) throngs of tourists to get good pictures, but I do have to admit that it was worth it.  I am also impressed by the fact that the park seems PERFECTLY built for never getting annoying strangers in the background of your pictures.  So...good job 14th century architects! After taking (an absurd number of) pictures, we enjoyed some ice cream and headed back to the bus.  And what a convoluted ride we had.

Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion.

Cheese!  I love how deserted it looks even though there were a million people!

First, it took forever for the correct bus to come to the Kinkakuji stop.  Then, when we finally got on it, it only took us halfway to the temple where we were headed.  Then we waited another 20 minutes or so for a bus to come, and it ended up not even stopping where our map clearly indicated it would be stopping.  It dropped us off in...basically the middle of nowhere.  Pretty middle of nowhere, but middle of nowhere indeed.  We finally caught a municipal bus (instead of a city bus?) that dropped us off at Daikaku-ji Temple, where we had learned they were doing a special show/ceremony in celebration of the new moon.  We were two of only four foreigners I saw there all night, so that was pretty sweet.  There was a lake with two beautiful boats that went out on it, with stunningly painted dragon and phoenix mastheads.  As we walked into the temple complex we scoped out some seats they had set up and relaxed for a bit before the concert started.  There was a nice performance of traditional Japanese music on Japanese harps that we listened to for about 45 minutes as we watched the clouds roll above us.  I am not exaggerating when I say it was some of the fastest and coolest cloud movement I've ever seen.  It was just some nice, quiet, relaxing time.  Fairly soon after we arrived it was time to head back to the hotel because we had dinner scheduled as part of our ryokan package.  Right before we left we found out that there was a whole other very pretty section in the temple complex that we would have explored more had we known about it.  Oh well.  We took the bus home (And we only got a liiiiittle lost, but recovered after receiving directions from a friendly man. What the hell, Japan, why do you have stops all over the place with the SAME NAME?  Rawr.) and finished checking into the ryokan.

 Where the bus dropped us off.  Uhhh, this doesn't LOOK like a temple...

Front of the dragon boat.

Front of the phoenix boat.
Boat out on the water of the lake.
Comfy benches all set up for the show.

One of the performers.

Audience members in kimonos.

Cloud cover starting to blow off.

Beautiful clouds.

Our room was very spacious and quite nice.  The bathroom had an exceptionally fun sink, and everything was hidden behind the tatami walls, so it looked very austere and clean.  Diana changed into a yukata (she's so Japanese) to fully prepare herself for dinner. My friend Megan Knox from SAS (how is it possible we were bumming around China together nearly SIX years ago?!) spent time living in Japan working for the JET Programme and she was the one who strongly encouraged Diana and I to splurge and go to a ryokan in Kyoto.  She said that part of what made it awesome was the kaiseki dinner, which is basically a traditional Japanese dinner that is served in many small courses.  Thank god Korea has already opened my mind to eating things that I previously would have called "bat shit crazy" and steered away from.  Seriously, if Japan had been my first port on SAS and I had been given various dishes of raw fish, followed by fermented vegetables soaked in vinegar and miso soup (which I still find sketchy with the whole separating ingredients thing, but I eat it) I don't think I could have done it.  But after Korea annihilated my comfortable bubble of food intolerance, and killed at least 75% of my tastebuds, I was all for it.  There was a lot of food presented in a very beautiful way, so I was happy with it.  They also gave us some amazing aged sake.  THAT could kick soju's ass any day, sorry Korea.

DOs and DON'Ts of ryokans...this book was hilarious.

Nobody likes to get sprayed with a stranger's bath water!

Squat Toilets: 101

Our room at Gion Shinmonso.

 First course: seasonal treats.  Nope, can't identify most of it.  Yup, ate all of it.

 Sashimi with flower petals.

Sake cheers.  So good.

 Seaweed and/or pond scum soup.

 Check out those chopstick skills...they distract from the sunburn.

 Broiled fish.

Cute little hot pot that cooked soup at our table.

Bubbling away...mushrooms, green things, tofu and...some sort of meatballs?

Setting up the next course.

 Miso soup.

Some sort of fermented/vinegared vegetables.

 Rice on the left, fishy soup on the right.

Dessert plate.

After dinner our helper made up our beds for us.  She started with two futon mattresses and a down comforter on top, and after she left Diana and I promptly tore the beds apart and added about 5 more futon mattresses and a handful of down comforters as buffers.  We straight Princess-and-the-Pea'd that shit, haha.  The biggest problem that I had was that they only gave us these terrible, little, hard pillows, which ended up throwing off my whole body alignment (I sleep with four pillows on my bed at home and stack them at least two deep...) so I woke up all sore and out of it.  Oh well, small prices to pay as a traveler.

 Our beds: Japan version.

Our beds: Western version.

Why, what amenities! This room comes stocked with a Diana!

The next morning we were also scheduled to eat a breakfast that came with our ryokan.  Let me just say that a Japanese breakfast is just about the least breakfasty breakfast I've ever breakfasted upon.  For real.  After we had sat down, started our fish grilling and tucked into our various soups and seafoods, a family walked in and was seated at the table next to us.  All three of them, father, mother and little boy who was probably about seven years old, looked like they had barely been able to scrape themselves out of bed to make the last breakfast serving.  They walked up to the table and the boy looked at the spread and with a cry of anguish, moaned "I'm DYING."  Diana and I laughed for approximately 15 minutes.  The rest of the meal the family spoke in a yet-to-be-identified language, but the fact that the boy chose to say those words (which expressed pretty much my sentiments when it came to our Japanese breakfast) in English was too funny.

The "breakfast" spread.

 Inside the box.  Yikes.  Ocotpus, tofu, baby shrimps, fish AND a barely cooked egg?  AMAZING!

 Oh, you know, grilling up some fish for breakfast.  The yooj.

 This egg custard was the consistency of flan, which is enough to make me shudder by itself.

The breakfast dining room.

After breakfast Diana took advantage of her last Asian bathtub, we stowed our stuff in the ryokan lobby, and we headed off for another day of sight seeing.  First we went to Toji Temple.  Begun in the 700s (!!!), this temple was last rebuilt after a fire more than once since then.  The five tiered pagoda soars an impressive 54.8 meters high (179.8 ft), making it the tallest wooden tower in Japan.  Once again we fought throngs of tourists, but once again we prevailed. We are nothing if not fighters.

Posing under a tori gate with the temple in the background.

Vanna White-ing Toji Temple.

After Toji we boarded the bus and headed back towards our ryokan to find some food and visit Kiyomizu-dera.  I had been told by more than one person that Kiyomizu-dera was their favorite part of Japan, so I was excited to go there.  After stopping at a post office to pick up stamps for Laura's dad and mail some postcards, we headed up the steep hill to the temple. (Fun fact: On the way a man accidentally opened a door very hard, directly into my right arm.  It gave me a nice shiner, but I was willing to let it slide because he was VERY apologetic...and in English! When does that happen?!)  On the way we passed a lot of fun looking stores, but were women on a mission to eat lunch and visit this temple before it closed (and everything closes SO EARLY in Japan!).  Eventually we ended up in this strange cafe where we ordered what amounted to grilled ham and cheese sandwiches.  You can't win them all, I guess.  Then it was trekking the rest of the way up to the temple. The views of Kyoto were definitely worth it for me. The city is spread out beneath the mountain on which the temple was built, with big verandas overlooking the valley.  I just learned that Kiyomizu-dera was one of the twenty-one finalists for the New 7 Wonders of the World, but didn't make the cut (fyi, the ones that did were India's Taj Mahal, Mexico's Chichen Itza, Brazil's Christ the Redeemer statue, Italy's Colosseum, China's Great Wall, Peru's Machu Picchu, and Jordan's Petra), so that is a pretty fun fact.  After we had our fill of the views (and the hideously obnoxious Italian tour group that flocked to see them) we headed back down the mountain for some shopping.  I bought...a lot.  BUT, that basically means that most of my Christmas shopping for family is already DONE, so huzzah.

Entrance to Kiyomizu-dera.  There were a few people there.

The road we came from.

Old and new.

Apparently these three waterfalls convey wisdom, health, and longevity to those who drink from them.  But you can't drink from all three lest you be cursed for being greedy.

Strike a pose.

By the time we got back to Gion I was exhausted, but we ate some fantastic tempura and trooped around a while more doing some shopping before dashing back to the ryokan to pick up our bags and head to the train station.  Tired, cranky, sweaty, and sore, I arrived at the train station only to find the very expensive 3-day Kansai Thru Pass I had purchased (and only used for 1.5 days) had fallen out of my pocket and was gone.  And then I was done.  It took everything in me not to just curl up in a fetal position, but Diana powered me through and we made it back to Osaka.  Our last night in Japan we had decided to just stay at a utilitarian hostel, and ended up at J-Hoppers Osaka Central Hostel.  It was fine for one night, but with many floors of steep stairs and walls that were about as thick as cardboard (if I'm being generous), I am glad we opted to stay at nicer places the rest of our trip.  One major problem for us was that the hostel HUGELY catered to people with Japan Rail (JR) passes, which is not the type of pass we had.  They were located close to a JR station, and all of their directions and everything were totally JR-centric.  It was annoying.  I mean, I understand that if you're travelling all over Japan, the JR pass makes more sense, but for people just staying in the Kansai region, the Kansai Thru Pass was fabulous, and much cheaper than the JR passes would have been.  The hostel was also kind of a headache to navigate to from the station where we were dropped off, though we did get to walk through the streets around it and found out that they were having some sort of fortune telling festival.  All along the streets were (mostly) women with little tables set up doing palm reading, tarot cards, star charts, etc.  It was pretty sweet, and I definitely would have explored more if any of them gave any indication of speaking English. (Believe me, I already went through the foreign language fortune telling thing in Brazil when we went to get our shells read...and though a great memory, it was also horribly confusing!) After grabbing some brochures, we made our final plans for the next day and fell into a (very comfortable) sleep.

Mmmm, tempura.

Random alleyway in Kyoto.

Posing with a lantern at a restaurant near our hostel.

Japan has the coolest themed manhole covers in their cities.

Saturday morning we were up early once again to head off to see our final two destinations in Osaka before we caught a train around 12:30pm.  Instead of walking way the hell out of our way to go to a train station where we could use our Kansai Thru Passes, we decided to just go ahead and get JR tickets.  Turns out I didn't need that Kansai Thru Pass I lost anyway.  We hustled over Osaka Castle first.  Construction on the castle was started in 1583, and it was last restored in 1997 after multiple fires (again started by lightning...common theme in Japan) and damage sustained during bombing raids of Osaka in WWII.  It is, quite simply, stunning.  Something about the color palate (black, white, teal and gold), the soaring heights, and my beloved Asian architecture all coming together make it one of the more beautiful palaces I've ever seen.  It is set up on this huge concrete hill, overlooking the city.  When you get inside you are whisked up to the fifth floor by elevators, and then you walk up the last three flights of stairs to the observation area.  The rest of the floors are filled with artifacts and historical displays about the history of Japan and Osaka.  When I first walked in I was like "Hmm...this is not how I expected it to look."  Diana later brought up the fact that it probably looked so weird to us because we are used to seeing castles and historic homes filled with furniture, paintings, etc that are period accurate.  This was definitely a museum inside a castle, and they made no attempt to show what it looked like when it was in use.  That was interesting.

Osaka Castle.

It is pretty huge.  And just plain pretty.

One of my favorite pictures of the trip.  Note the sanitizing mist that made my hair crazy curly.

 View from the top.

 The golden fish are supposed to help prevent fires.  Hasn't worked so well in the past...

These kids were playing inside and cracked me up.

After the castle we bustled over to the Umeda Sky Building.  After an ever-so-small hiccup in getting there, we made it into the tower and took the elevators up to the Floating Garden (holla at Amazing Race Season 12!).  The building is architecturally very cool; there are two 40-story buildings connected at the top by an observatory and escalators. The views were breathtaking.  It just so happened that we chose to go to the Umeda Sky Building on a stunning day with bright blue skies and puffy clouds, and man am I glad we did.  Lovely.  We took a little break inside and had some snacks and drinks overlooking the city before taking the train back to our hostel, picking up our bags, and heading to the airport.

The all too familiar sight of a train platform.

Umeda Sky Building from Meaghan Shanahan on Vimeo.

Top of the Umeda Sky Building.

View of Osaka (complete with their version of Love Locks).

 Yeah, basically Japan just hated my hair.

 The seats where we shared our last tranquil moments in Japan before rushing off to the airport.

Looking back up at the Floating Garden from the ground.

Once at the airport we checked in, got some more tasty tempura for dinner, and relaxed a bit before boarding our 3:50pm flight home.  It was a tiring, whirlwind trip, but we had an awesome time.  And now I can add Japan to the ever-growing list of countries I've visited.  Woo!

 It was an absolutely beautiful day for flying.

Goodbye Osaka!

Hello Seoul!

When the airport bus dropped me back off in Gildong I hit a cafe to use their internet and touch base with my family, and then went straight to bed!

If you haven't done it yet, please take a moment to vote for my blog, My Adventures Teaching English in South Korea, on GoOverseas' Top Blog in Korea contest.  All the support is MUCH appreciated!  To vote, click here.


  1. This is my first time visiting your blog, but I couldn't read past your enthusiasm for the whale shark display at Osaka Aquarium. I've heard of this aquarium specifically b/c of their audacity in displaying their captive, nearly-endangered whale sharks. I'm assuming you checked out the Wiki entry (you linked to it) for whale sharks. They are classified as one tick above endangered (threatened). They do particularly poorly in captivity. They are the largest fish in the world, yet, being krill-feeders, they pose no threat to humans. If you know these facts, how can you delight in seeing them in captivity? Granted, I don't know you at all (nor do I think I want to at this point). Sorry about the snap judgement, but from this post it seems that you're kinda ignorant about ecology, which is pretty abhorrent to me. If you knew about the whale sharks' situation, and don't care, I can understand that. However, if you were indeed in the dark about why it's a bad thing to see whale sharks in captivity, maybe check out "The Cove" and/or "Sharkwater", two (albeit fairly biased) documentaries about the plight of the oceans and ocean creatures. I dare you to not be sickened and disgusted by the extent of human-inflicted damage to marine environments. That is, if you even give a shit.

  2. Shannon, from everywhereMarch 29, 2011 at 10:37 AM

    Dear Jonathan,
    I’ve just recently started trolling the internet for blogs that casually (and carelessly) mention whalesharks. I, too, thought this article was hugely disrespectful to the harmless and
    misunderstood whale shark. I am so glad that you have set this “meaghan” straight. People like her should stop taking frivolous joy in the jailing of natures creatures. I am amazed how she thought such a comment hidden in pages of text would go unnoticed. Jonathan from Florida, I’m glad you’re out there patrolling the Internet for “seemingly” innocent comments and having the truth to label people for what they really are. Uneducated, insensitive, and careless.