Please scroll down to the bottom to see slideshows of the photos we took~!


Day 2: Tokyo Imperial Palace (皇居)

The bus from Osaka emerged from the night into a concrete jungle of tall buildings, all shades of gray to match the gray skies overhead. Large droplets of slush rained down upon scenes from Shinjuku, a district in the western part of Greater Tokyo, that passed by outside of our fogged-up windows. Lara and Sam were still asleep when the bus driver announced we would be arriving at our stop, Tokyo Station, in thirty minutes. My eyes were dry and my brain felt like water sloshing sleepily inside my head but I felt surprisingly alert, pulling back the curtains and excitedly nudging my companions to look outside. By this time, we were passing what looked like a large moat and a garden enclosed by a stone wall beyond. The droplets of slush had now become small snowflakes that traced the footsteps of the wind and I realized that the garden beyond must be the Tokyo Imperial Palace, our first destination for the day.

The bus stopped briefly at Tokyo Station and I had little time between gathering my luggage and being left on the sidewalk of a random street in Tokyo to process what had just happened. We still had time before our tour of the Imperial Palace, so we took a quick look at the station and other adjoining underground malls. With fourteen subway, train, and high-speed rail lines, it was immediately obvious that this was a major transportation hub in the Tokyo area. Tokyo Station is normally a very beautiful looking building, a splash of color and traditional Western architecture amidst the surrounding sea of gray. However, during our stay, it was under renovation and guarded by white metal fencing and black netting.

Tokyo Station, Marunouchi side before renovation. (Image via Wikipedia).

Nevertheless, we were able to spend quite some time seeing only a fraction of what the station had to offer and, after grabbing some breakfast at one of Japan's many incredible convenience stores, we headed out into the cold once more to meet with our tour guides.

Normally, I am opposed to guided tours because I prefer to enjoy the scenery and/or exhibits at my own pace. In the case of touring the Tokyo Imperial Palace, however, the Imperial Family still lives there, so regular people cannot enter the inner grounds without pre-arranging a guided tour (or unless during special occasions, such as the Emperor's birthday). We made it to the gate just in time and, after checking in with the guards, were led beyond a large iron and wooden gate to a building with a waiting room full of about fifty tourists. After a ten minute video detailing the palace's history and introducing the notable buildings, we were all herded toward the heart of the royal residence.

An aerial view of the Palace grounds in the thick of the city,
surrounded on most sides by a moat. 1979. (Image via Wikipedia).

 The Palace grounds are full of impressive rock walls made up of large, dark stones, each piece carved from a mountain by hand and carried over to the palace site during its original construction. Within these towering walls, there is a Japanese-style castle with white facades and dark roofs, the corners turning up to the heavens. Despite the crowd of people that accompanied us, the palace seemed quite serene in the morning air. It is located right in the thick of the modern and busy Chiyoda district, yet somehow maintains a regal and ancient atmosphere. All, that is, except for the very modern residence halls, designed with a blend of traditional and contemporary Japanese architecture.

Stone walls, rounded bushes, and Fujimi Yagura (Mt. Fuji-View Keep),
within the inner grounds.

Chowaden Reception Hall, the largest structure of the palace. Part of the Kyuden complex. On special occasion, the Emperor will address the public waiting in Kyuden Plaza from the balcony of this building.

View of Chiyoda District, Tokyo from Nijubashi.

Side view of another Fujimi Yagura.

 The oxidization on a copper lamp stained the sidewalk a brilliant turquoise.
Hasuikebori lotus moat, just a marsh in the wintertime,
separating the outer wall from the inner wall.

The palace even had its own gas station.

After an hour had passed, the tour was over and we were all escorted back to the main gate. The three of us decided to continue onto the adjacent East Gardens (東御苑) and the Museum of the Imperial Collections (三の丸尚蔵館), areas of the Imperial Palace that are accessible to the public. By this time, the sun had emerged from the clouds and, although it was winter and many of the grounds' flowers had yet to bloom, the gardens still held an element of simple beauty. There were rather vast stretches of yellow grass fields, dark green pine trees, and the occasional splash of pale pink plum blossom. 

One section of the gardens held a collection of small ponds and a small waterfall, guarded by venerable, brightly-colored carp. It was easy to see the reflection of traditional Japanese aesthetic in every detail of the garden's design. Before leaving the palace grounds, we climbed to the top of a rampart and looked out over the moat to the tall buildings and crowded streets beyond the palace grounds. It was a little hard to believe that all that green space and tranquility was just a stone's throw away from the busy metropolis.

Plum trees blossoming over a sea of golden yellow grass.

Suwanochaya, an old teahouse in the gardens surrounded by carefully raked pebbles. Ninomaru Garden.

A garden path leading to the pond area. Ninomaru Garden.

Ninomaru Garden.

Ninomaru Garden.

A very large carp, one of the keepers of Ninomaru Garden.

Roof of the Hirokawa Gate with the Imperial Seal of Japan, "a sixteen-petal chrysanthemum with sixteen tips of another row of petals showing behind the first row". (Quote via Wikipedia).

We exited the grounds from Hirokawa Gate to the north and, having only eaten some small snacks from a convenience store for breakfast, made a beeline to a restaurant just across the street featuring a macrobiotic, vegan perspective on Japanese food. The portion was small and expensive but that seems to be the story with most dining in Tokyo, especially true for vegetarian food. Nevertheless, the bowl of soup, cup of noodles, mound of rice, and tempeh slices were perfectly filling.

The outer moat of the Imperial Palace grounds.

From this point, we were originally planning on checking into our hotel and then making our way to Akihabara (秋葉原), the electronics district of Tokyo. However, after the rough night on the bus, we decided a nap was in order. We zombie-walked to the subway station and, after a surprisingly simple introduction to Tokyo's intimidating subway system, soon arrived at our place of stay for the next five nights. The late afternoon sun painted the neighborhood in warm hues of orange and red; it was nice to stay in a place tucked away from all the rush of the main metropolis. While still a far-cry from the tranquility of the countryside, it was still nice to see people carrying out the tasks of their daily lives: mothers walking and laughing with their small children, mechanics toiling over a broken-down car, and older people strolling home with a bag of groceries. I enjoyed the slice of life feel to the area, albeit limited from our tourist perspective.

After checking in, we further decided that it would be best to visit Akihabara the next day instead and, settling in to our home in Tokyo, we quickly fell asleep and remained that way until the following dawn promised another day of beautiful sunshine and adventure.


Day 1: Taipei to Osaka

How long is thirteen days?

Scenes from the outskirts of Taipei City flew by outside the windows of a taxi carrying Sam, Lara, and myself to a plane bound for Osaka, Japan. With nothing left to wring my nervous hands around, I began to let my mind wander from the flurry of a billion thoughts and worries. I spotted a woman driving a car in the lane next to us, counting money with both hands while steering with her elbows. Her passenger's feet were propped up on the dash in a way that made me double-take, thinking it was actually the driver that had her feet propped up, excruciatingly far away from the pedals. The ridiculousness of the scene surprisingly calmed my pre-travel nerves, just enough to free up some mindspace for the one question that had arrested me since day one of planning: How long is thirteen days?

On paper, thirteen days doesn't seem like much. It seems to be insufficient, to be unexciting: nine days of class, three days of sleeping in, one day of doing absolutely nothing beyond feeding my internet addiction. Thirteen days is just an odd number of days, each one of which something extraordinary could happen but often does not. It is an illusion, a lie; a superficial way to quantify my life into what can be accomplished and what cannot. How long is thirteen days?

We got through check-in and airport security with just ten minutes to spare before boarding and, after cramming some last minute dumplings and shaved ice into our faces, we subsequently crammed ourselves into our narrow seats on the airplane. I soon found myself staring out of the window at the familiar fog-covered hills of Northern Taiwan below and let my mind drift away into the surrounding sea of clouds.

I hear many stories of people who get into different aspects of Japanese culture for this or that reason; stories of people who eventually make it to Japan and find that everything they imagined Japan to be―an anime fairytale, a samurai classic―is everything that Japan is not. Perhaps it's not quite so black and white, as I have come to find, for there seems to be a little bit of reality in every work of fiction. Nevertheless, I had prepared myself for disappointments to the point where I felt I had eradicated all expectations―all of them except for a silly list of life goals I had made when I was twelve. I chanced upon this potential source for a good laugh while cleaning through some old files and discovered that a good portion of the goals had to do with destinations in Japan, places that we would soon be setting foot in. As the plane descended through the clouds and I got my first glimpse of the Japanese shoreline, I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed that I was in the middle of a moment in my life I never thought would come to pass.

Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Japan.

The plane landed and the three of us took off to try and beat the crowds at immigrations, stealing glances at the clean and modern Kansai International Airport interior when we could. We successfully made our way down to the train platforms to wait for our ride into downtown Osaka, grabbing some snacks at a small stand in the middle of the platform. It was here that I was reminded of an important lesson: you can spend your whole life learning about a culture from the outside but you are sure to miss the neverending details that make up daily life. After I chose a lemon drink and a cream-filled melon pan, I placed them in the only place that wasn't covered with merchandise, a small blue tray in front of the clerk, and watched the glowing numbers on the display for the amount. She smiled at me with a knowing expression as I handed her my money directly and took my purchases back. I watched Sam pay for his things after me and got hit in the face with a huge bomb of embarrassment as he placed money in the blue tray, not his purchases. We all laughed at the ordeal and I was happy to learn a little detail about Japan I wouldn't have thought to look up before going. Money doesn't seem to pass hands in Japan―even if there is no tray to put it in, it seems to be more acceptable to place it on the counter, rather than hand it over directly. I discovered this in a grocery store where I frantically searched the counter with my eyes but could not find any tray; the clerk was visibly awkward as a handed her my money. It's little things like this that people won't tell you about their trips to Japan or, perhaps, won't even realize at all by themselves. Stop, watch, and listen―getting to know the cultural context is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding activities of traveling.

Our train arrived soon after this brief exchange and, after a long train ride spanning dusk to night, accompanied by the scattered lights of Osakan suburbia, my first step into downtown Osaka was met with cold, rain, and, above all, utter excitement. We eventually made our way into an unimposing department store, hiding a five-story robotic wooden puppet inside that performed at certain times throughout the day. Too hungry to wait for the next show, we made our way up the escalators to try and locate an Indian vegetarian restaurant.

Sam standing in front of the gigantic wooden puppet.

I had always heard that Osakan people were especially friendly and open and our server was of no exception but, as I would imagine most places in the world to be, there will always be a fair share of kindness and cruelty. I wasn't going to let one person represent all of Osaka, let alone Japan, but her interest in our travels seemed sincere, the restaurant was beautiful, and the food was fantastic so my first impression of Osaka was extremely satisfying.

We explored a bit of the area around Osaka Station before feeling defeated by the cold, making an early start to the Umeda Sky Tower, where an overnight bus would come and whisk us away to Tokyo. The clock struck midnight and our bus arrived; we braved the cold one last time that night to walk across a dark parking lot and scrambled into the reclining seats and thin blankets. I was unbelievably exhausted at this point, yet still too excited to go to sleep. After the passengers were all loaded and the bus started up, I pulled back a corner of a curtain blocking light from the window next to me and stared out at an Osaka whose insomnia mirrored my own, entertaining me with flashing lights reflected in rivers and faceless people walking under streetlights. I was eventually lulled to a fitful sleep by raindrops dancing on the window pane, waking up to the sound of the driver announcing rest stops in a gentle voice throughout the night.  Although we had only spent a short amount of time in Osaka, I wasn't sad to leave it behind; our flight out of Japan would have us back in the bustling city in no time. Or perhaps I should say in much time.

In thirteen days.



ブログ開始~! Let's blogging~!

The story of our infatuation with Japan begins as most stories about infatuations with Japan do: Pokemon.

It was when we were in elementary school that the Pokemon craze first hit the United States -- hard. Almost every single kid on the playground had a stack of trading cards in their pockets and some of the luckier ones returned home to their two-tone Nintendo Gameboys and Pokemon video game cartridges. Lara and I were of no exception.

I remember tearing open packages of Pokemon cards in utter excitement, wondering what kind of rare cards would be inside and what kind of even rarer cards I could possibly trade them for. When you're nine years old and don't have any obligations beyond learning that the moon isn't actually made of cheese, Pokemon is your life.

However, as all good things eventually do, when we moved on to middle school, many of our peers' obsession with Pokemon came to an end. My story would naturally end here as well, if it hadn't been for the pack of Pokemon cards that changed my life. Now, I am quite aware that having a prepubescent epiphany over a pack of Pokemon cards is the most absurd thing. But I have a penchant for the absurd and when my father handed me the shiny package covered in foreign symbols, I was absolutely enthralled. The kana and kanji that swerved and curled about the cards leaped into my heart as I flipped through them; each character of the script was an indecipherable code, one that I just had to find out more about.

I was oblivious at the time but the package of Japanese language Pokemon cards that I held in my hands was the genesis of my thirst for cultural exploration, leading me down the somewhat ignoble path of anime- and manga-obsessed hikikomori and eventually to the doorstep of East Asian Studies. It is this very passion that has driven me to where I am today.

Where I am today, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter, a single link in the chain of events that kicked off with Pokemon and took an unsuspecting turn when I chose to study Mandarin Chinese in college -- not Japanese. Through the incredible people I met on this path, I eventually found the inspiration to study abroad in the beautiful country of Taiwan, where Lara and I have been living for the last six months.

Although we put Japanese on the back burner and immersed ourselves in Chinese, going to Japan and seeing all those things we had previously only seen through the eyes of others had always remained a shared life goal. Thus, Sam, Sara, and Lara, three intrepid explorers donned their Japanese interpretation, travel planning, and photographic skills, respectively, and set off on a glorious thirteen day journey in the Land of the Rising Sun.

This is the story of our adventures in Tokyo (東京), Hakone (箱根), Kyoto (京都), Nara (奈良), Ohara (大原), and Osaka (大阪), one part of our never-ending quest to discover the world.

Deer standing inside the gate of Kasuga-taisha inside of Nara Park, Japan.


We would like to dedicate this blog to Japan and all of its people affected by the the recent natural disasters and nuclear crisis. Our thoughts for safety and recovery are with you every moment. Please be strong!

If you'd like to help the relief efforts through donation, please make sure to research the organizations you are interested in donating to beforehand, so as to not waste your contributions.