Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Japan Day 10

This is the day we left Japan.  Since our flight was in the evening, Ann Marie and I went to Asakusa before we had to check out of the hotel.  We visited the outdoor market stalls right near the train station.  This was interesting to check out, but once again, I was disappointed to see the same stuff here that I'd seen everywhere else.  This market was a massive tourist trap.
On the whole, I loved our Japan trip.  We got to experience so many amazing things.  I felt like I was finally getting the hang of Tokyo just as we had to leave.  I guess I'll have to save that knowledge for next time. The people were mostly very friendly and helpful to tourists.
I really enjoyed the Japanese language.  Even though I only knew a few phrases, I got around with no problems, and speaking the language was a lot of fun.
Since the exchange rate was so crappy, it was easy to spend money very quickly if you weren't careful.
My biggest regret is that we didn't get to see Mount Fuji.  Ann Marie was particularly disappointed by this.  Unfortunately, the weather just wasn't clear enough for a Fuji trip.  It was also really expensive to visit Fuji and quite a time commitment, so to go through all the trouble of getting there just to not see the mountain and get rained on all day would have sucked.
If I had to do it again, I'd probably take more day trips, and spend a little less time in Tokyo.  I loved Tokyo, but Kyoto was just so beautiful that it's hard to top.

Japan Day 9

Ann Marie and I went on another trip, just the 2 of us.  First we stopped at a sword museum/store.  We saw some blades that were 700 years old and looked like they were made yesterday.
After that, we took a train to Kamakura which is about an hour south of Tokyo.  Kamakura was like a miniature version of Kyoto, although our first stop was anything but miniature.  The Daibutsu is a gigantic Buddha statue the appears to dwarf the surrounding trees. The sight of it is so awesome that it's impossible to describe.  Religion seems to be a big part of Japanese life.  Every Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple we visited had plenty of people around praying and making offerings.  Their religion is closely tied into nature so every place of worship is a breathtaking sight.
Along the main roads we saw a few gift shops.  I was most disappointed by the gift shops in Japan.  Every gift shop has the same exact stuff for more or less the same price.  The chopsticks set you bought outside a shrine in Kyoto was identical to the one on the 5th floor of a Tokyo electronics complex.
Next we visited the Hase Kannon Shrine.  This was small, but great.  There we thousands of tiny statues (of Kannon I'm guessing) placed precisely around the area.  In fact, we were there while a maintenance staff was carefully cleaning and placing the statues.  No matter where I went in Japan, I almost always saw someone cleaning.  It explains why the country is so clean.  The people are on top of it.
Since the shrine was high up, we got a really nice view of the falcons flying closely above.  They were huge and beautiful birds.
The shrine also had it's own cave.  It was my first time ever in a cave.  It was cool.  I felt like Indiana Jones.  The cave had more statues placed all over on the inside.
We made our way back to Tokyo and had another dinner at Fukisushi.  Once again, it was awesome.  I learned that the chef was a guitar player so we talked shop for a bit.  I also learned that Sushi is finger food, and is actually meant to be eaten with fingers instead of chopsticks.
After dinner we met up with the Samurai class translator, Kimi and her friend, Yumi, and we all went to a live show in Shimbuya.  Our sword instructors were joined by dancers and musicians on stage.  It was a nice fusion of traditional Asian music and modern music.  It was sort of like performance art, but not exactly.  The theme of the show was marionette puppets, and it followed a fairly traditional Japanese story line.  Narrating the story was a girl playing piano and singing.  Once again, I was absolutely floored by the Japanese musicianship.  This girl was a fantastic piano player, and had an amazing voice.  She didn't make a single mistake during 2 hours of straight playing and singing...oh yeah, I forgot to mention...she also did fight choreography and was awesome at that too. The show had everything you could possibly want.  It was truly a multimedia experience.

Japan Day 8

We had a feeling that we missed stuff in Akihabara, so we went back.  Unfortunately, we didn't miss anything, and just found more of the same stuff.
Then we went off to what was possibly the highlight of our trip.  I signed us up for a class with Tetsuro Shimaguchi.  He was a fight choreographer for Kill Bill.  He also played the character Miki, who was one of the crazy 88 gang.  We didn't know what to expect from this class.  We were assuming it was going to be a watered down activity made easy for tourists.  Luckily, we were the only ones in the class. Mr. Shimaguchi's translator, Kimi, asked us if we had any Martial Arts training.  We told him we all studied Kung Fu.  He was very pleased with this, because this meant he was going to be able to cover more ground in the allotted period of time.  The stances were all similar to Kung Fu so we picked them up quickly.  Once he saw this, he started throwing more stuff at us.  He was a great teacher, and a charismatic entertainer.  It was challenging, but we were having a great time.  He definitely kicked our asses a bit. This class was a mixture of real Katana technique and movie fighting.  This was like a Tiger's Fang training seminar.  In the middle of the class the translator suddenly stopped.  She said, "excuse me, Mr. Shimaguchi has never taught this before in this class, so I'm trying to think of the translation for what he is saying."  We felt really honored that he was going out of his way to throw in extra stuff to the class just for us.
Next, he and his assistant did a short performance for us.  The most impressive thing is that they were able to quickly rattle off a few moves verbally before hand and then execute them with no problem.  Their performance was INSANE!  I had to keep telling myself, "this is real.  There are no camera tricks, edits, or tape speed changes.  These guys are this good."
After the performance he taught us choreography for our own fight scenes.  He all took turns fighting with his assistant.  The choreography was amazing.  We used everything he taught us during the class.  I've done fight choreography before.  The biggest difference here is that my partner was skilled stunt guy, and a master swordsman.  He led the fight like it was a dance.  His sword guided my sword.  He made all of us look good.  He was amazing.
At that point, we were all comfortable enough with Mr. Shimaguchi to show him some clips of Tiger's Fang.  I think he genuinely liked it, and was laughing at our gags.  He posed for pictures with us and invited us to a live performance he was doing the next evening.  When we walked out of that room, we were all on on cloud 9.
Our next stop was Mandrake (man-der-ah-kay) in Shibuya.  It's probably the largest Manga store in Tokyo.  I didn't buy anything, because it was all in Japanese. I did get to hear some awesome Metal band on the radio in the store.  I asked one of the clerks who they were and he gave me a small scrap of paper that said, "Abingdon, JAP."  When I get home, I'll have to make sense of this message and get this band's music.
We grabbed lunch at a tiny family run restaurant.  The food was good, but really greasy.  After all the walking, we were just happy to be sitting down.
For dinner, we wanted to go to Fukizushi again, but it was closed on Sundays.  Ann Marie and I went out to have a really nice dinner for two in Roppongi at a place called Wan. It was on the 6th floor of a TGI Fridays building.  The place was fusion restaurant.  It was a combination of Japanese, Chinese, and Italian.  There were private booths closed of by Shoji screens and you sat on the floor on Tatami mats while you ate.  The food was awesome, the service was great, and it was cheap.  I can't give this place a high enough recommendation if you're planning on visiting Tokyo.
After dinner we met up with Steve and went to Kento's.  This is a club that plays rock n roll music from about 1956 to 1964.  The house band and the audience are dressed in 50's garb.  This band was also slammin'!  These guys were playing and singing the shit out of these songs and the audience was doing choreographed dance moves in unison. It was a total trip!  Ann Marie and I joined the fun and started dancing.  The regulars looked at us, started giggling, and then started mimicking our dance moves.  It was so much fun.  The band went into Johnny B. Goode, and I was singing along, every word at the top of my lungs.  The band leader, gestured for me to come to the foot of the stage.  I went there, and he turned his mike around and let me sing a chorus.  Luckily for me, it was in a good key, so I sang it pretty darn good if I don't say so myself.
I filled out a request form wih a few songs and wrote my name down as Richie from New York.  During the next set, the band leader pointed at me and said "Hey Richie...New York!"  Then he spoke in Japanese and the audience started laughing.  After that, he played "Great Balls of Fire" which was on my request sheet.  They ended the night with one of my favorite songs ever, "Long Tall Sally."
The perfect ending to an awesome day.

Japan Day 7

Ever watch Ninja Warrior on the G4 channel?  It's actually a Japanese show called Sazuke.  There's an obstacle course requiring various feats of strength and dexterity.  Contestants have to run through obstacles, balance over pits of water, and lift their enitre body weight on their fingers...crazy stuff like that.  Today we went to an indoor amusement park in Odaiba.  Odaiba is the city in the Tokyo bay so we got to take a monorail there.  The place was called "Muscle Park."  In one corner of the place was an area dedicated to Sasuke.  Unfortunately for me, they had 4 obstacles relying heavily on forearms and upper body strength. Although I was hoping to try some of the balance or speed obstacles, I still tried anyway.
Ann Marie went first, and she was awesome.  She nailed the airbike.  She had to hang off these handles that were actually pedals attached to a bicycle mechanism that was on a rope track.  Pedaling with you hands makes to bike move across the rope. She did this with no problem.
Next the cliff hanger.  There's a narrow ledge with room enough for only your finger tips and your supposed to carry your body weight across this ledge.  This was really hard, and Ann Marie didn't get far on this.
Then there was the Salmon Ladder which was like a pull-up bar from hell.  You have to do a pull up and sort of bounce the bar up a ladder without putting your legs down.  This was also really hard, and Ann Marie couldn't make it past the first step.
Finally there was the Ring Rail.  You hang on to these metal rings and slide them across rings with various steps up and down.  Ann Marie did pretty good on this too.
Steve was up next.  He almost made it through Airbike before falling at the very end, then had the same luck as Ann Marie and the next 3 obstacles.
Next was my turn.  I lifted my feet up and started pedaling the airbike.  I thought "hey this isn't so bad, I can do this!"  Then I got a shooting pain in my back and fell off.  I sucked total ass on the next 2 and managed to get to the first incline on the rings before falling to my foamy doom.  Even though, I gave a less than stellar performance, I still had a great time trying.
After that we went to SEGA Joypolis which is a collection of crappy games, long lines, and high prices.  I would not recommend this place to anyone, even though there seemed to be plenty of kids there.
Ann Marie broke off to do some shopping in the Odaiba mall, and Scro went to do his own thing, so Steve and I walked down to the Toyota Megaweb which was nothing more than a Toyota showroom with a few simulators.  In other words...crap fest.
After a quick stop at the hotel we went to Shibuya.  Shibuya at night looks like Times Square.  There are giant video billboards, and bright lights filled up by a sea of people.  There are arcades, gift shops, clothing stores, malls, restaurants, and more.  The place was on fire, even though it was raining out.
After the stroll through Shibuya we went to Shinjuku.  Shinjuku is also a crazy place.  It's similar to Shibuya until you enter the devil horned gates of Kabukicho which is Tokyo's largest red light district.  This was a pretty seedy place.  There were guys everywhere pedaling sex. Kabukicho was safe enough to walk through, but I doubt it stays safe once you follow one of these guys indoors.  Since Ann Marie was with us, everyone left us alone.  The buildings had large posters on them with pictures of young, attractive Japanese girls.  We quickly learned that only Japanese men were allowed to go into these places.  I guess it's hard to complain about discrimination if you're patronizing an illegal Yakuza run business in a foreign country.  There were other massage parlors and such that seemed to be foreigner friendly.  We also got to walk through the area of short stay Love Hotels.  These aren't brothels, just gaudy hotels with hourly rates for people who want to get it on with some privacy... or for drunk dudes who missed the last train.
After Shinjuku we searched for Karaoke.  One of the travel books recommended a place called Smash Hits.  It was in the middle of nowhere, and the place was dead.  We headed to Roppongi to try the next place on the list called Big Echo.  In Tokyo it seems that Karaoke with private rooms are more popular than in places with stages, so we went into Big Echo and got our own room.  This was good cheap fun. The food and drinks were good, and they had nearly every song we were looking for.
After singing our butts off, we called it a night.

Japan Day 6

Ann Marie and I decided to break off from the group today.  We got lucky with the weather today. It was sunny, and not too cold.  In fact, I wore a T-shirt all day without getting chilly.  We went to the very famous Meiji Shrine near Shibuya.  It was massive and amazing.  The woods leading up to the shrine consisted of thousands of trees donated from around the world. The shrine itself was very impressive and apparently a popular wedding spot since we saw 3 different wedding parties.
Next we went to Takeshita street in Harajuku.  This is the place to be if you're a teenager.  They were out in full force in some of the craziest outfits you've ever seen.  Takeshita street is lined with clothing shops.  I wanted to buy something, but a Japanese size large is about an American size small.  Even though I didn't buy anything, I did have a nice time walking through this area.  I also noticed that Michael Jackson was everywhere.  Every store had MJ t-shirts, videos, posters, and music playing.  It looks like Japan took his passing pretty hard.
After Harajuku, we made a quick stop in the Shibuya music store district where a played a bunch of sweet Ernie Ball guitars.
Later, we met up with Scro and Steve and went to the most famous concert arena in Japan...BUDOKAN.  You may know Budokan from the various live albums recorded there from Cheap Trick and Deep Purple.  Here's a little trivia: The Beatles were the first band to play at Budokan.
Budokan is a massive building.  It has a great look to it.  It's not just some huge rectangular space in which to cram a bunch of people.  It definitely looks Japanese, and has a great design.  When we arrived at Budokan, there were thousands of young kids everywhere. A Japanese boy band was playing there.  However, that was not our destination.  Budokan literally translates to Martial Arts Hall.  While the teenyboppers were rocking out to their J-Pop in the main arena, all the way in the back and down a few flights of stairs there were 2 modest sized rooms separated by a hallway in between them, where a group of badasses were beating the living shit out of each other.
I went up to one of the security guards who was busy herding kids into the right entrances and said, "Sumimasen, Kendo wa doko des ka?"  He looked at me like I was from Mars.  I repeated the phrase, except this time making a sword motion, and he said, "Ah! Kendooooooo."  Apparently, Kendo has a long "o" (ō) at the end, and I've been pronouncing it wrong for a long time.  He looked around to see if any of his co-workers were near, but there was no help in sight.  In true Japanese fashion, he went out of his way to help us.  He abandoned his post, and walked us through the crowds all the way to a rear entrance.  We thanked him profusely, and went up to the security guard guarding the rear entrance.  This time I said, "Sumimasen,  Kendō wa des ka?"  He said something I couldn't understand, and then motioned for us to go into the rear entrance.  There was another guard inside.  I forgot how to say "I would like to watch Kendo," so instead I said "Kendō, kudasai."  (Kendo please) and made the I'd like to watch gesture.  He also went out of his way, walked us to the place and showed us where to sit. 
From where we sat, we were able to see both Kendo and Judo practice.  Kendo was in front of us, Judo behind us.  At first the Kendo students were doing response drills with bokken (heavy wooden swords.) They would do the moves without actually hitting each other.  They took a short break in which one of the students went up to Steve and let him hold his sword.  (damn, 2 for 2!) After a little while, they all put on the armor and picked up Shinai (lighter bamboo swords) and started hitting each other with full contact and full force.  It was amazing to see this kind of intensity. The guys and ladies were screaming at each other like they wanted blood.  I liked to think that they were all stuck in cubicles all day, and by night these guys put on armor, pretend the opponent is their boss and wail on 'em.
After class was over we headed to Roppongi which was probably my favorite area in Tokyo.  This had the food and the music.  What I wasn't expecting was the high pressure street team.  There were a group of guys (mostly non-Japanese) saying tittybar to everyone who walked by.  Some of the guys wouldn't take no for an answer.  Scro adopted a policy of yelling "NO!" every time someone came near us.  That seemed to work for the most part.
My travel book recommended a sushi place called Fukizushi, so we stopped in for a quick bite.  This sushi redeemed our previous negative sushi experience.  It was incredible.  This place was all about the freshness of the ingredients.  They didn't have rolls with 3 different kinds of fish, avocado, mayo etc...  These guys gave you fish, and rice.  They put the soy sauce and the wasabi on for you.  These guys weren't fucking around, everything I had there was amazing.  The chefs were also extremely friendly, and conversed with us in english throughout the entire meal.  It was a little pricey, but I guess you get what you pay for when it comes to raw fish.
Next, we walked down the street to Tokyo's own cavern club!  The Beatest, the Japanese Beatles were playing and they were incredible.  There were 4 of them up there with right instruments, dressed in grey Beatles suits.  These guys were amazing.  Sure, the thick Japanese accents were funny on Beatles lyrics, but they were so good, that I honestly stopped noticing that they were singing Godda Geddu Inta My Rife, and Gorden Srumbas.  They didn't make a single mistake.  They were scary good and did stuff from every album.  On each table in the club were request sheets with the enitre catalog printed on them, suggesting that they literally knew every Beatles song.  Seeing as how good they were,  I wouldn't doubt it.  They even did an extended jam in While my Guitar Gently Weeps.  The George guy played a really tasty Clapton-esque solo that fit perfectly.  All of us had a great time at the Cavern Club.

Japan Day 5

After being wiped out from the previous night's train debacle, we decided to leave Kyoto at a leisurely pace.  We reached Tokyo station in the afternoon.  Our hotel was fantastic, in a central location, directly across from a train station.
It was getting dark by the time we went out.  We went to Akihabara, the electronics district. It should really be called the electronics/porn/anime district.  It was overwhelming. Bright lights everywhere you turn, cramped stores packed with every action figure imaginable, j-pop, and American top 40 blasting on the radios, and sales people yelling in the most nasal tone you've ever heard come from a human.
A big striking difference between Kyoto and Tokyo is the people.  The Kyoto people dress conservatively and speak in quiet tones.  Tokyo people (13 to 25 year olds in particular) dress wildly and shout everything.  The current style for women in Tokyo is knee high boots, black sheer tights, shorts or a skirt that barely covers the business.  I couldn't really tell what shirts they had on because they were all wearing short jackets.  The hair is light red, long, curly and teased.  They had a lot of makeup on, making some look like porcelain dolls, and others look like hookers.
Another huge trend I saw was this little bo peep thing.  I saw hundreds of girls dressed like these little bo peep.  They were dressed like dolls head to toe.
The guys wear their hair like Japanese comic book (manga) characters, and they dress really well.  I also saw my fair share of guys dressed like 50s greasers.
Manga is everywhere and everyone reads it.  I saw everyone from kids to adults reading the comics on trains with intense focus.  On the trains people either read manga, or text on their cell phones.  Their phones are a little longer than ours and everyone has ornaments hanging off their phones from little strings.  No one takes calls on the trains.  It's understood that talking on your cell phone on the train is rude.
Everything here is clean and effective.  I think things just make sense and work well, although there is one thing that as an American, I just don't get.  About 1 in every 5 people wears a face mask.  It seems prudent to want to prevent the spread of germs, but when people sneeze or cough here, they don't cover their mouths.  As an American that can be very off putting.
Anyway, back to the trip.
After a while, you need a break from looking at PS3 games and power rangers, so we went into a shop that had 4 floors of porn and sex stuff.  They literally has every part of the body in latex form for sale.  I bought a boob shaped stress ball to commemorate the experience.
We took a break for some food at a small dumpling shop.  The food was good and cheap, which was welcome change after paying through nose for every meal.
Next we walked into a 5 floor SEGA arcade.  They had rows of linked fighting games.  I played some Virtua Fighter which was fun.  The games are linked to the other games in the arcade, and the Internet, which makes for an interesting competitive experience.  They're also into unconventional controllers here.  Gigantic joysticks, motion simulators, wands etc...   If a game has a weird control scheme, they'll play it, no matter how crappy the game is.
Ann Marie and I also tried one of the many photo booths.  You match the pose on the screen and the computer identifies your faces and then applies cosmetic alterations.  The computer smoothed out our skin, made our lips brighter and gave us big black anime eyes.  The creepy thing is that it looked real, not like amateur photo shop, but it looked like we actually had big eyes and were wearing makeup.  I was tempted to take a promo photo in there and save it for the day when I decide to make a glam album.
Another thing worth mentioning is the Japanese love of heat.  Every building, and train in Japan has the heat cranked way up.  Add that to the temperamental weather we had, and it gets frustrating to find the right balance of layers.  I noticed a lot of Japanese people wearing heavy winter coats on the train when it was like a sauna in there.
After Akihabara we went to a Sushi restaurant by the hotel and it was pretty terrible.  The fish wasn't fresh and the sushi was prepared sloppily.  This made me worry, that perhaps Japanese sushi wasn't better than American sushi.
The food in general is not exactly what I expected.  Sure, there are sushi shops and noodle shops, but almost everything else I saw on the street was fried fish guts.  In fact, I've seen the word "guts" on many Japanese menus.  Remember that scene in temple of doom where they're eating at the banquet at pancot palace?  When Americans see that scene, we go eeewww.  When Japanese see that scene they go MMMMmmmmm.
We were pretty exhausted, so we turned in sort of early.

Japan Day 4

Today was a total adventure day.  I think Ann Marie probably enjoyed this day the most.  First off, we had perfect weather.  It was sunny and not too cold. We travelled to Miyajima Island.  On the boat ride over to the island we were welcomed by a gigantic Torii gate that appeared to be floating on the water.  It was an incredible sight.  It is widely considered to be one of the 3 best sights in all of Japan.
The island itself was a lot of fun.  There were free roaming deer that were very friendly, just chilling out with all the people.  The streets were lined with gift shops and food stands.  I sampled a lot of great stuff.  The local favorite was a small maple leaf made of pancake batter filled with various creams.  You could get chocoloate, red bean, grean tea, custard, blueberry, strawberry, etc...  I call it the Japanese twinkie!  They also had these steamed beef buns that were out of this world.  We visited a shrine, a temple, and a pagoda.  All amazing sights.
Next we we headed to the island's largest feature, Mount Misen.  Along the base of the mountain, there were these small manicured paths and streams.  We could have spent all day just exploring that.  Scro headed off to Hiroshima while Ann Marie and I decided to take rope cars to the mountain top.  The ride was great because you got a birds-eye view of the mountain and you see for miles in every direction.  Once we reached the top there was a crazy hike to the very top of the mountain where there was a Buddhist temple and shrine with a flame that has been burning non stop for 1,200 years!
After that we headed to Hiroshima to join Scro.  We got to see the peace memorial park.  In the park is a building that has been preserved since the atomic bombing in 1945.  It's hard to describe, so I suggest you do a google image search if you want to have a better idea of what it looks like.
Hiroshima was jumping at night.  Everything was open and the town was out in full force.  Unfortunately, we had a train to catch so we didn't get to spend too much time there.  I did get to try the local food though.  In the train station was a place that served Okonomiyaki which is considered to be Japanese pizza, and you can only get it in Hiroshima.  Although it tastes nothing like pizza, it was delicious.  It has a thin batter crust with noodles, bacon, cabbage, bean sprouts, egg, green onions and BBQ sauce.  You can also add shrimp and other ingredients.
We also hit our first snag on the trip.  Our train had a problem and was stopped in the middle of the track for 3 hours.  Even though it was the end of the day, it did kill any night activities we had planned and is going to throw off our schedule for tomorrow. Hopefully, that will be the last glitch.
Tomorrow, we go to Tokyo!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Japan Day 3

We packed in a lot of stuff today since this was our last official Kyoto day.
We started off at the temple of the golden pavilion.  It was an amazing sight.  The temple was covered in gold leaf and surrounded by a pond with miniature islands in it.  It also had a nice walking trail complete with streams.
Next we travelled to the opposite end of Kyoto and visited the temple of the silver pavilion.  Although this wasn't silver, it was still very nice, and it was right near a mountain so we were able to get a spectacular view of Kyoto from up there.
From there we did a Frommer's walking tour which took us through the philosopher's stroll.  It's a narrow pathway the runs along side a canal.  There are a bunch of old style houses and shrines along the path.  There were long stretches where we didn't see any cars, and it was almost hard to tell what year we were in.
Next we went to Nanzenji temple which looked like the openning scene of Rashomon.  A lot of these older temples have such a huge epic feel, and they're so highly detailed that you can appreciate them from hundreds of feet away, or inches away.
After that we went back to Pontocho for some shopping and a small dinner which was made up of various chicken parts, and was a little weird for me.  To finish of the evening we took a walk through the Gion district where we saw Maiko (Geisha in training) running around.  We even got a peek at an actual Geisha entertaining a group of Japanese business men.  We saw a short presentation of traditional Japanese arts at a theater in Gion, then we got Tea ceremony lessons.  The Japanese green tea is intense.  The color is so vivid and it tastes great.
Tomorrow we'll be taking a side trip,  I don't have any details yet, but it should be interesting.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Japan Day 2

Today was action packed.  We started off at Toei Movie Studio Park.  It's a giant movie set where they film Samurai dramas for movies and TV.  We even go to see them shoot a popular Japanese Samurai series.  I couldn't resist it the urge, so I got a few Tiger's fang shots while we were there!  I would have spent the entire day there if I could, but there was so much other stuff to do.

Next we went to the Fushimi Inari Shrine.  This place seemed endless.  There are thousands of giant orange Tori gates everywhere.  The form these tunnels that wind up and down through a beautiful forest setting.  It was pretty awesome.

On the way back we hit up a gigantic video arcade at the Nijo station.  I watched Steve play BlazeBlue against a local, and he actually did pretty well.  They had tons of wacky games here with interesting control scheme.  They're way beyond the standard joystick.

We ate dinner at a Japanese steak house, then went to the Pontocho district which was insane.  I couldn't even tell you how large it was because we didn't reach the end.  There were main streets with shopping and karaoke.  Then there were these funky alleys with bars, restaurants and other slightly seedy establishments.  We ducked into the tiniest door into the tiniest alleyway.  The door was so small and covered in stickers that we weren't even sure if it was a bar.  We went in and joined 2 local women.  They were very cool.  They were teaching us Japanese.  The bartender was also really cool.  He asked us if we liked heavy metal and then put on this crazy hardcore Japanese stuff and everyone in this tiny bar was rocking out.  It was awesome.

more to come later,