Month: April 2014

Kyoto Aquarium

Kyoto Aquarium

With a rainy day, I decided to visit the Kyoto Aquarium. It didn’t have very good reviews, but I found it to be a good option outside of the temples and shrines. First stop was the frog and small fish exhibit. Neat, but nothing too exciting. This […]

Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama

Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama

On the western side of Kyoto is the Arashiyama district – famous for its many temples and hilly scenery. One of it’s most famous sites is a bamboo forest. Like many popular attractions, it all depends on when you visit. My first visit was on a sunny […]

Iwatayama Monkey Park

Iwatayama Monkey Park

Sunday morning I took short trips to Fushimi Inari Shrine and the bamboo forest in Arashiyama. I mainly went to scout for taking pictures later in the week so I’ll make separate posts for them later.

The rest of the day was dedicated to visiting Iwatayama Monkey Park. I was really excited about it because unlike the monkey park I visited back in February, this park lets you feed them!

At the base of the trail
At the base of the trail

The hike was short but pretty strenuous with a lot of stairs. And of course multiple warning signs.

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About 200 feet from the top, I came across the first monkeys I saw. They hardly pay any attention unless you have food. Still, you can’t help but to keep your distance.

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When you get to the top there’s a small building and an open area overlooking the city of Kyoto.

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Now for the fun part. The caged building only exists so the monkeys don’t hurt people when they fight over the food. It was a bit odd seeing people on the inside of the cage and wild monkeys on the outside.

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There were three options for food: apples, bananas, and peanuts. This park, like many of Japan’s attractions, was really cheap. Entrance was the equivalent of $5.50 and the bags of food were $1 each. I would have easily paid $50 to do it.

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Once you enter the room, you can take your pick of which monkey to feed. As you place the food in your hand, they will reach through the fence and grab it from your hand.

I went with the peanuts:

If a monkey finds out you don’t have any food, they’ll move to someone else pretty quickly or stick their hand through asking for some.

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Proof that I was actually there

I was asked by someone how their hands felt and they were pretty rough. Some monkeys would grab the food and others would take it slowly. They were fascinating to see up close, especially their hands and fingerprints.

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So I have to admit that I was a jerk. One of the things I did was place the peanuts on the ledge at different distances. A monkey would grab the closest one first but would eventually get to one he couldn’t reach. So then he’d move his arm through a different opening and try to reach it, but wouldn’t be able to and would get really mad.

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Something worth pointing out is the monkeys can get violent towards each other. At Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano I remember seeing traces of blood on the snow. This park was no exception as some monkeys had scars on their face.

The monkeys were very expressive and seemed pretty happy. There aren’t any fences defining the park so they are free to come and go as they please.

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Every once in a while they would screech and let the other monkeys know who was in charge.

He wasn't very happy. Started screaching before running off.

Japanese macaques normally give birth in the spring and this one looked to be quite young – still waiting for a lot of hair to grow in. Adult males live up to 30 years.

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I finally spent some time wandering the surrounding trails and spotted some in the trees as well.

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Checking for bugs
Checking for bugs

It was a great experience and absolutely worth the hike to the top. Something like this probably wouldn’t exist in the United States so it was nice to take advantage of while I’m here.

Kyoto Tower and the Golden Pavilion

Kyoto Tower and the Golden Pavilion

Saturday started my golden week holiday. I left my apartment early at 6:30 am then transferred in Tokyo for the Shinkansen and finally arrived in Kyoto at 11:15 am. The train ticket cost $135. First stop was lunch. I got sushi and went with two rolls which had […]

Packing and the diminishing returns of traveling

Packing and the diminishing returns of traveling

On Saturday, I start a 10 day trip to Kyoto and Hiroshima. Different from most trips I take, I’ll only be spending the night in two different locations – 6 nights in Kyoto (probably too many) and 3 nights in Hiroshima. But beyond a few […]

Basics of the Japanese language

Basics of the Japanese language

Let me preface this by saying I have barely scratched the surface on learning Japanese and while I can’t guarantee that everything below is 100% correct, it is to the best of my knowledge.

A year ago I knew nothing about the Japanese language. I couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese and the only words I knew were hello and thank you. Since then I’ve gotten considerably better and while I’m nowhere near fluent, I have learned a ton in the past nine months.

Learning the intricacies takes years of studying, but one can pick up the fundamentals pretty quickly.

Basically, Japanese has three alphabet systems.

  1. Hiragana – used for native Japanese words. 46 characters. Example: さ ひ に
  2. Katakana – similar to hiragana, but only used for foreign words like computer, email, code deploy, martini, etc. katakana is more angular than Hiragana, and each character has a matching hiragana. 46 characters. Example: サ マ ア
  3. Kanji – Based on Chinese characters. Each one is complex and represents a word rather than a sound like hiragana or katakana. Over 50,000 exist but only 3,000 are used commonly. Example:  腺 漢 字

The first step to learning Japanese is learning hiragana and katakana, known together as kana. Much like learning the ABCs, each character corresponds to sounds in the Japanese language. You combine different kana to pronounce Japanese words. See the hiragana then katakana chart below:

Hiragana table
Hiragana
Katakana
Katakana

If you wanted to write something in Japanese using hiragana, you would simply spell it out. Take ‘sushi’ for example. You select SU (す) and SHI (し), combine them to form すし.  Or つなみ = TSU-NA-MI or tsunami.

The next step is memorizing kanji – a tedious process that is simplified by some characters looking similar to what they represent.

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I’ve memorized about fifty or so, but haven’t gone much further. It’s difficult because you have to memorize the character, the pronunciation, and the corresponding English word. If you want to be able to write them, you need to memorize the stroke order too. And in many cases each kanji has multiple pronunciations. As I said, it’s a difficult language to learn.

Grammar is also confusing. Verbs don’t distinguish between future and present tense, there are no plural forms of nouns, and the sentence structure can be confusing.

For example rather than saying ‘I went to the movie with my friend’ you would say ‘Friend with movie went (I)’. Direct objects (friend) tend to go first and verbs are at the end with the subject not always being explicit. It’s hard to get used to.

One of the most difficult things to understand is counting nouns. You don’t say a number followed a noun, like “three people” or “two beer bottles”. Instead you need to use a counting modifier based on what you want to count, like people or two cylindrical objects. You count thin flat objects differently than counting people which is different from counting months which is different from counting animals, etc.

Confusing? Yeah…this does a good job of explaining it: http://www.tofugu.com/guides/count-anything-japanese/


Unfortunately, the usefulness of studying Japanese is pretty limited outside of Japan. Outside of a sushi restaurant or translating Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, I’d have no idea where to even encounter Japanese on a regular basis outside of work. Right you are Ken.

So I don’t plan on continuing studying when I get back to the US. The cost-benefit just isn’t there. For those interested in Japanese, I’d suggest learning a small amount as 20 hours of studying can help tremendously. But outside of that, unless you encounter Japanese on a daily basis it’s probably not worth it.

Canon service center in Ginza

Canon service center in Ginza

I noticed my camera sensor had some dust on it so I went into Tokyo to get my camera cleaned on Saturday. I have a 10 day trip coming up on the 26th, so I figured now would be a good time. I visited Canon’s flagship […]

What’s next after Japan?

What’s next after Japan?

I’m not even back to Greenville yet and I’m already starting to think about my possible next trip. These are the places I have in mind. I currently get two weeks of vacation through work. We have the option of rolling over a week into next […]

Hitachi Seaside Park

Hitachi Seaside Park

This park has been made famous outside of Japan mainly due to internet articles like the poorly-worded 22 Unbelievable Places that are Hard to Believe Really Exist and 21 Breathtaking Places You Won’t Believe Exist (clearly the second author didn’t agree with the first list).

As a result, the picture most people have seen is this one:

Source: Nipomen2 on Flickr
Source: Nipomen2 on Flickr

While it’s definitely beautiful, that view only exists in Autumn. In reality, Hitachi Seaside Park has rotating seasonal flowers so no matter what time of year you go, there’s something on display. When I went it was tulip and nemophila season.


Wanting to make up for my late start yesterday, I tried to arrive when the park opened. Being 3 hours away, this was difficult but definitely possible.

I woke up at 5:15 am (right around sunrise) and took the train from Fussa station at 6:11 am. I ended up making all of my transfers, including the 2 and 3 minute ones. Trains in Japan really do run like clockwork. I managed to catch up on some sleep on the last train.

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Empty at 6 am on a Sunday
Quick breakfast from a cconvenience store
Quick breakfast from a convenience store

I arrived just a little bit after the park opened at 9:30 am. The admission was just 410 yen which is one of the great things about Japan. If there is an entrance fee somewhere, it’s almost always less than $10.

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Entrance to the park

My first stop was to see the tulips. Warning, lots of pictures ahead.

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After getting my share of tulips, I went off to explore the rest of the park.

Like the park I visited near my apartment, this park also has nice bike paths.

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The other flower that blooms around mid-April is the Nemophila.

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At Hitachi Seaside Park, they cover an entire side of a hill.

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At the top of the hill, you can overlook the northern Pacific.

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If I squint maybe I can see California?

After walking around for a bit, I grabbed some lunch, saw the tulips again, then headed out. I had another long train ride in front of me and I saw all of what I wanted to see. It was an expensive day, but it definitely met expectations.

North Carolina Waterfalls

North Carolina Waterfalls

One of my favorite ways to spend an overcast day is by photographing waterfalls in North Carolina. Here’s some of my better shots.

Grocery stores in Japan

Grocery stores in Japan

Exploring a Japanese grocery store can be an interesting experience. They take some getting used to but in reality they’re not all that different from ones in the United States. Layout and hours The layout is what I’m used to: produce, milk, and fish/meat on […]

Hanami and Mt. Takao

Hanami and Mt. Takao

In the last week of cherry blossoms in Tokyo, my coworkers invited me to a hanami gathering. A very kind gesture on their part.

So after work on Friday, we met at the local Seiyu (Japanese Wal-mart) and picked up some beer, snacks, and bento – the Japanese version of takeout.

The spread
The spread
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Bento: Fried chicken cutlet and pork on the right.

We met near the river I biked along the previous Saturday and had a picnic under the cherry blossoms and moon.

Sadly no peace sign from me
Sadly no peace sign from me

It’s one of those travel experiences, like taking a gondola in Venice, that I would love to do but wouldn’t do alone. It was very thoughtful of them and it will be one of the more memorable experiences from Japan.


Mt. Takao

I had the wrong impression for Mt. Takao. I was expecting a quiet hike in the woods. What I found instead was quite different.

Due to hanami the night before, I decided to sleep in rather than wake up at 5:45 am to catch one of the early trains. I woke up at 8:30 am and grabbed a train an hour later.

Arriving at the train station at the base of the mountain, it was pretty clear that this was not going to be a relaxing walk in the woods. The station itself was pretty crowded and being in a small town there isn’t much to do besides visit Mt. Takao, so everyone was going the same place I was. People arrived in waves with each new train arrival from Tokyo.

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It was definitely my mistake as the day I visited was probably one of the busiest of the whole year. The cherry blossoms in central Tokyo have all but finished, so those interested in still seeing the blossoms move west to higher elevations. Being less than 50 minutes outside of the city center it’s easily accessible too.

I sat on a bench eating my breakfast and wondering if I would regret this decision when some people sitting next to me asked to take a picture with me. It was the first time in Japan that someone asked to take my picture because I’m a westerner, a request that was made when I visited China in 2011 as well.

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Typical breakfast in Japan. Rice.
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At a Chinese amusement park outside of Shanghai

After eating and playing celebrity, I decided to take the chair lift halfway up since I got a late start. Plus it seemed a good way to get away from the crowds. The ride was relaxing and actually ended up being my favorite part of the trip.

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Some gorgeous trees on the way up

At the top station, I started the rest of the 2 km stroll on foot. It wasn’t much of a trail as it was completely paved. Not exactly my idea of hiking, but I guess using a chair lift doesn’t count either.

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Along the way there were shrines, food stalls, and a monkey exhibit. I decided to pass on the monkeys, having gotten my fair share in Jigokudani Monkey Park in February.

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At the top, I found what seemed like half the population of Tokyo. The lookout area was pure sand and cement and any signs of grass were no doubt worn away years ago.

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That being said, it did provide a great view of Mt. Fuji that I’m sure is spectacular in the right conditions. The weather was a bit hazy when I visited, but I could still see Mt. Fuji so I’m counting that as a win.

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I spent about 30 minutes at the top then headed back down, just as the sand started to find its way deep inside my shoes. It was a short trip and I got back to my apartment 4.5 hours after I left. I’m glad I went but if I were to go back, I’d definitely go on a weekday as the weekends are just too crowded.

Upcoming travel in April

Upcoming travel in April

I plan on doing a ton of traveling during the month of April. Luckily for me, the weather looks good – at least for this weekend. In addition to my plan for Golden Week starting on April 26th, this is what I have planned: April […]

Cherry Blossoms

Cherry Blossoms

Cherry blossoms are a huge deal in Japan. There’s hundreds of thousands of cherry trees throughout the country and when they bloom, it’s a very special time of the year. Like the ones located in Washington DC, most of the trees are the non-fruit producing […]

Bathrooms, masks, and germ prevention in Japan

Bathrooms, masks, and germ prevention in Japan

One of the things that surprised me about Japan how they prevent germs.

Let’s start with public bathrooms. I’d say the 90% of public bathrooms (most common at train stations) don’t have paper towels, hot water, OR soap. I’ll go through these one at a time:

  • Paper towels or hand driers. Mostly to reduce waste and energy. Some people carry around a personal towel (tenugui) to dry their hands, but as evident from the water drops on the floor near the exits, it’s not very common. Annoying, but somewhat understandable.
  • Hot water. Heating hot water can be expensive and many people believe it’s not significantly more effective than using cold water. But that assumes you’re using soap which leads to number three…
  • No soap. Why Japan takes so many other preventative measures and doesn’t have soap available is hard for me to understand. I’m at a loss for words.
Typical Japanese train bathroom
Typical Japanese train station bathroom. Clean, but dirty at the same time. Source

Other germ prevention methods

During my second week at work everyone went around and suggested what they would do to prevent the flu from spreading. I naturally said getting a flu shot as that is the most common method in the United States.

The most common answer was wearing a mask which is very popular in Japan. Some people wear a mask every day whereas I’ve seen others never wear one.

This is for two main reasons: when you are sick and don’t want to pass it along to others and when many others are sick (like during flu season) and you don’t want to catch it. It’s actually pretty considerate and it makes sense – it’s just different. The masks are sold in convenience stores and some have decorative designs.

Surgical masks for sale. Source

Another coworker mentioned gargling to prevent the flu – something that took me awhile to understand what they meant. From what I’ve read, many students in elementary school are taught from a young age that gargling is part of the hand washing process.

At Daiichi Kindergarten in Kamaishi, children are gargling several times a day to prevent a virulent strain of influenza spreading across the nation. Source

It’s most common to use water, but many people mix iodine in a cup and gargle that. In fact, at work we have an iodine dispenser with paper cups.

Iodine solution used for gargling can be found in most pharmacy stores or online. Source

But whether using a mask or gargling, the juxtaposition with poor bathroom conditions is puzzling. If it was common one way or another at least it would make sense. Just one more cultural difference that takes some getting used to.