Thursday, October 19, 2006

Snakes on a Lake!

I told you I was going to do nothing for many days. But did you listen? No, you just kept hitting refresh.

Day 4: Wandered, ate, drank, snacked, lolled, rolled, lolled and rolled. Our first attempt at having dinner that night was at a Japanese restaurant so untouristed that they in fact would not serve us. (They sat us, but they would not serve us.) When we noticed that Japanese people who had arrived long after us had been presented with their hot towels (which you always get within about two minutes of your arrival at any restaurant), we hightailed it out of there. We ended up at an Indian joint, where the food was served over Japanese rice dyed yellow with saffron. They weren't fooling anybody.

Day 5: I biked up to the Imperial Palace Park, which I remembered as a big load of nothing, therefore perfect for cycling. I had failed to remember that the nothing is covered in gravel, making cycling somewhat less than smooth.

JiJi stares angrily at the gravel.

We had dinner at Asian Libra, a fusion place that looks out on the Kamogawa, and followed that with dessert at the tea salon Lipton. At that point, my digital camera stopped working. The next day I figured out how to trick it into taking pictures, but as a result there are no photos of the outrageous dessert we ate at Lipton.

Day 6: I accompanied D to work in Kusatsu, on the other side of Lake Biwa. I borrowed a bike from her work and went biking along the lake. Finally. The lake tried to have the last word, throwing up a snake in my path, but I am not that easily deterred (although I respectfully let it cross before continuing on my way).

JiJi II contemplates Lake Biwa, as Polky the Chinese Bag greedily awaits lunch.

I went to 7-11 to pick up lunch with one of D's environmentally sound colleagues. That's how I found out how infinitely inferior 7-11's chicken nuggets are to Fresco's.

Clockwise from bottom left: Rice thingy, "Salad"-flavored Pretz ("Salad" tastes like a salty cracker, "Roast" tastes like a petit beurre, "Cheesecake" tastes like heaven), one of the many delightful variations of ice coffee available in a juice box or can, a boiled egg (why can't I buy boiled eggs at grocery stores in the US?), poor excuses for chicken nuggets. In the end, I had to ditch the rice thingy. Even I have my limits.

In the afternoon, D and I went the other way along the lake (we covered the dang thing from all angles), she on roller-blades, I on my trusty borrowed bike.

Days 7 through 10: Wake up before the crack of dawn. Eat enough breakfast for six. Loll about. Bike to train station for no apparent reason, then bike up and down the Kamogawa. Get lunch from Fresco.

Clockwise from top left: mighty chicken nuggets, inarizushi (my favorite), Boss ice coffee in a can (also favorite but not as much), assorted sushi (center ones are of questionable origin).

Eat lunch along the river while reading juicily scandalous True Story (thanks, Y!). Walk around downtown, browse shops, buy nothing. Think about doing something cultural. Think again. Go home, watch Scrubs Season 5. Watch half of Kill Bill Vol. II (aka Kill Bill 3/4), hate it. Wait for D to come home. Watch rest of Kill Bill Vol. II. Have dinner with D. Discuss poorness of Kill Bill Vol. II vs. Vol. I. Discuss brilliance of Scrubs Season 5. Sleep. Rinse. Repeat.

Clockwise from bottom left: much-loved sesame green beans, sushi and rolls (nothing like the rolls you get in the US), two types of rice with assorted stuff in them, including a most excellent bean (fava?).

Day 9: This day was partially spent organizing D's tatami room in anticipation of her iftar the next day. If only I had contrived to throw the words petit beurre into the previous sentence, we might really have had something. In any case, I made her throw lots of stuff away. Throwing things away is one of my all-time favorite pastimes, second only to drinking the blood of innocents, so I spent quite an enjoyable afternoon.

Day 10: D and I had goodbye doughnuts at Cafe du Monde in Kyoto Station, and then off I went, back to my semi-organized homeland.

Kyoto Station, seen from a doughnut.


As I stood in line for the security check at Chicago's Ohare airport, a man with a deep and menacing voice repeatedly announced over the loudspeaker: "The terror alert has been raised to ORANGE. Repeat. ORANGE. You are about to die. Vote Jeb in 2008! Yee-haw!" Or something like that. I felt the pain of a light, ghostly kick to the shins. I'm pretty sure it was Orwell. Bad Orwell! I'm going to sic the Dog Whisperer on him.

Random Facts & Figures:

What I bought in Japan:
Two boxes of cereal, a gummy pizza for my brother, a small chair for Y's lazy cell phone, a bag that A will hate, and a trench coat. Oh and magnificent cheesecake-flavored pretzels. The trench coat is from a clothing store called Clef de Sol. When I got my credit card receipt, I had some trouble finding the trench. Finally, I found it. Under Kuredosoru.

Impact of Japan on my life now:
1. Renewed interest in bike-riding. Acted upon: No.
2. Obsession with Asian pears. Acted upon: Yes. 1 Asian pear purchased for $1.65. They are nearly as expensive in Japan.
3. Renewed interest in breakfast. Acted upon: Yes, but only as long as both the jet-lag and the two boxes of cereal brought from Japan lasted.
4. Newfound interest in premade ice coffee. Acted upon: Yes, courtesy of my local Chinese grocery store, at which "Salad"- and "Roast"-, but sadly not "Cheesecake"-, flavored Pretz were also found.

Until next time, keep the home fires (and the chicken nuggets) burning.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Toto, We're Not in Kyoto Anymore

Day 3: On Sunday we headed over to D's friends' apartment to steal their cats and feed their magazines. Or the other way around. Although I did want to steal their cats.

Presenting the linebacker and fullback of my Feline Fantasy Football League.

Duties accomplished, we set off for Osaka. First stop: glass box of horror! We went 140 meters up to the 35th floor of the Floating Garden Observatory in a clear glass elevator. It was a little bit terrifying. If by a little bit I mean very, which I do.

After the elevator, the escalator: up one more floor we go.

Being on the 35th floor was a bit less terrifying because there is a closed-off platform surrounding it, making it impossible to jump off or be pushed off (sideways glance at D).

Of course I spotted Loft from up there.

Osaka is a much bigger city than Kyoto (3 million inhabitants versus 1.5 million for Kyoto), and the people are both friendlier and more rebellious than Kyotoans. For example, they will cross the street when it says 'Don't Walk.'

Near Osaka Station.

We had some eel for lunch, and then walked along Midosuji, a boulevard that goes across the city.

We stumbled across the love hotel district. Make of these what you will:

We stopped in the stores, admired the malls, and finally made it to our destination: the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium. Yes, that's right, we went to Osaka to ice skate. Wouldn't you?

This picture is horrible, but it's hard to take photographs while wearing ice skates. Plus, the skaters kept moving.

The last time I went ice skating was in Andorra, which was about a decade ago. Which was also the last time I went sledding. And the last time I went skiing. And the last time I got my head run over by a Spanish skier. Which was the last time I went to Andorra. What I'm trying to say is that I was terrible at it, but it was still fun. An elderly gentleman had been trying (successfully, I think) to skate with D, and then trying (unsuccessfully) to lure me away from the wall that I was gripping. Later, when I sat on a bench by the rink he came over and started talking to me. He also gave me two sticks of gum (one for D).

The conversation was marked by near total incomprehension on my part and much smiling and nodding on both our parts. It started out okay. He said he was 75 years old, and I said I was 28. Then he told me, "Kireina desu." Kireina sounded terribly familiar, but I couldn't quite remember what it meant so I decided that it meant "young" and jokingly responded, "You're young." It was at that point that I realized:

a. Best not to joke in a language in which you have a 15-word vocabulary, 10 of which are numbers.
b. "Kireina desu" means "You're pretty."

For this I received two more sticks of gum. Our chat continued and only got more confusing. At one point, he said "10" and having no idea what he was talking about, I threw out a number: "14," I said, as if we were playing some sort of card-free, verbal game of War (I win!). D joined us and he told us he had been a ski jumper (he said "ski" and then mimicked jumping).

We also met a young guy who spoke English extremely well. He told us he had learned it at J House (J for Jesus, he explained). He invited us to a skating party, but we had to decline. As he was leaving, the 75-year-old gent had the J-House guy translate all that he had been saying to us and apparently we hadn't missed anything because J-House guy just told us: "He's 75 years old and he was a ski jumper."

After the ice skating, we went a few floors up and I let D stare longingly at the basketball courts. Then we went to the pool. D swam laps like a normal person. I swam laps like myself, which is to say like an old Japanese woman: I went in the walking lane, and walked laps. Then we went in the jacuzzi, which was lovely. After all this athletic activity we were famished, so we went to a Hawaiian fast-food joint in the Namba mall.

Pumpkin soup and an avocado-bedecked burger.

Coming up: I do nothing for many days.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Missing: Lake. Surface Area: 670 km sq. Age: 4 million. Answers to the Name of Biwa

Day 2: Saturday morning we had a number of false starts. First, we left the house for Osaka because it looked like rain and therefore not a good day for biking along Lake Biwa. As we walked, the weather turned nice, so we returned home to change into lake-biking clothing. Back home, my eye started to itch, and when I went to look in the mirror I discovered to my horror that my right eyeball had grown a second, yellow eyeball. It was both disgusting and disturbing -- so much so that I did not even think to take a picture. D was very good about not looking alarmed, although she confessed later that she had never seen anything like it and that it was gross. We called D's mom (a doctor), who told us not to worry. So we believed her, and went off to Lake Biwa. For the first hour or so, every time I looked left or right, I could feel my extra eyeball sliding along the socket. Disconcerting. But eventually it went away and by the evening I had just the usual two eyeballs again.

Lake Biwa is enormous, and we had decided to go to the side of it (western?) that D had never been to. The plan was to rent bikes and ride along the lake. Oh, yes, that was the plan.

Sudoku 4 ever!

So absorbed were we in our respective sudoku puzzles that we missed our stop. You would think being one stop over from the main Lake Biwa stop would not be a big deal. You would be wrong. There was no one there. No one. We had about four false starts, wherein we walked toward one wheat field (no lake in sight), stopped, turned around, went back to the train station to look at the map posted there, went in the direction of another wheat field (still no lake), looked around, went back to the station again... According to the guidebook, if the mountains were behind us, the lake would be in front of us. Unfortunately, we seemed to be surrounded by mountains. We set off along the wheat fields again, walking towards where we thought the lake had to be. When we reached the road beyond which we believed the lake to be, we encountered a huge tiny problem. A ditch. (This was after we'd wandered through tall grasses all the while a little bit concerned that at any moment an army of farmers would come out and yell at us.) What's that you say, Lonely Planet? Off the beaten path? Kiss my teddy bear butt, LP. I'm fairly sure no one, foreign or local, has ever taken the path we took to get to Lake Biwa.

See any lakes?

What about now?

We threw ourselves over the ditch, only to encounter another ditch. But there was no turning back. Over the next ditch we went, onto someone's property. Across that as quickly as possible, and finally -- the road! And then we saw a boat!! It was parked, but we took comfort in the knowledge that most people don't park boats where there are no lakes.


I had never seen a lake with waves and surf before.

Dead fish washed ashore.

By the time we found the lake it was around 1pm, and we were starting to get hungry, but although we'd successfully located the lake, there wasn't much else there.
Nothing but wheat fields, a lake and a lone drink machine.

At one point, there was a sign with a Japanese character written on it and underneath it "0.2km." About 0.2km later there was another sign, pointing back the way we had come with the same character and "0.2km." I began to suspect that the sign meant "Sign, 0.2km." Very funny, Japan, very funny.

This was there.

And a pretty purple bulldozer.

And, of course, a pachinko parlor.
Finally, we found something to eat at Coffee View, whose proprietors were lovely, friendly people. I had a carbonara pizza.

The civilized end of Lake Biwa.

In the end, we didn't ride any bikes, but we did have a nice time walking along the lake. And we're not finished with Lake Biwa, or the bikes. Oh, no, we most certainly are not.

Upon returning to Kyoto Station, we stopped by the incredible food court beneath the station and picked up dinner.

On the left are delicious green beans sprinkled with sesame. The boxes contain eel (fish of the gods) over rice. In the back there is some tofu thing that D pronounced inedible. I didn't feel the need to find out for myself.

Coming up: Hotel Puppy and giant cats.