Avoiding crowds during Golden Week

I’m going to put the TL;DR right here at the top of this article: you can’t really. Just grit your teeth and bear it as best you can.

Okay, back to actually talking about this.

Golden Week is a series of holidays in Japan and other Asian countries that fall very closely together, so often the government just writes off an entire week in spring as one big holiday and calls it a day. Generally this falls around the end of April/start of May, perfect weather for sightseeing.

And you and everybody else in Japan knows this.

Prices for transportation go up, shops put everything on sale, and everybody buckles down for the first big wave of sightseers for the year, especially in Kansai.

So! If you’re in a place that’s popular for tourism this Golden Week, here are some tips to help you survive it.

  1. Get out of town. Whether you’re staying with a friend in the countryside, visiting another country entirely, or just heading out on a day trip, this can make the difference in your sanity. If you live in a big city like Osaka, heading off to a small suburban area for the day or looking up smaller, not-as-famous temples and shrines to visit would be a good choice.
  2. Avoid all brand-name shops and cafes. You know the ones I’m talking about; the ones that you’ll see in every country, that often provide free wi-fi to those in need. While they are lovely and helpful to the weary traveler, that is exactly why you should avoid them or, at best, order anything you want to go. Finding seats in these places will be next to impossible unless you’ve already followed the advice of step number 1. Take Golden Week as your chance to branch out and find cafes and restaurants that you don’t normally check out. You might find somewhere new to become a regular at!
  3. Hide. While not recommended overly (see my point about the weather being awesome) this can really help you deal with the crazy crowds in town. Stay inside for a day; order delivery food, invite someone over, watch a movie, nap, whatever.
  4. Practice your murder face. This is also good for everyday use. In my experience, while people in Osaka and Kobe know how to walk, people in Kyoto do not. They never walk, they meander. Usually they pick up speed just enough to get in front of you, then spread out and refuse to let you pass while they walk as slowly as possible. Grr. Anyway, latent “sidewalk rage” aside, learn how to square your shoulders, duck your head, and scowl as if you’ve been denied coffee. While it might not affect the meanderers in front of you, it will make a difference in the ones coming from the other direction and they will get out of your way. Unless they are sightseers doing the same thing. Then, y’know.
  5. Get out early. If you have to go out, get out first thing in the morning. Yes, sleeping in is lovely, but if you want to get to wherever you’re going before everybody else does, enduring an early day can make the difference between enjoying your destination and wanting to kick other people in the shins.
  6. Try to get in the spirit of things. It’s a holiday; we’re all out to enjoy the weather, we’re all out to see things we don’t normally get to. Crowds will happen. Go to your brand name store, buy an overpriced snack or drink, meander along the streets with your earbuds in, and give the harried clerks at the stores a little patience.

My plans to handle this Golden Week are a mix of the above; I’m going out of town for a couple of daytrips, I’m hiding for one or two days, and I’m told my murder face is on point.

Good luck to everyone else in surviving (and hopefully enjoying) your Golden Week holiday!

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Kyoto Botanical Garden

A few days ago I had a moment reminiscent of a previous blog post. It was a beautiful day outside; birds were singing, flowers were blooming, and I thought to myself, “On days like these, you should really get your butt outside and enjoy it. Before Kyoto becomes a horrible humid nightmare.”

Not having any better ideas, I chose to revisit a place I’ve been only once before: the Kyoto Prefectural Botanial Gardens.

 

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A shot of the conservatory in the center of the park.

The Gardens are actually very close to the Kamo River, up by Kitayama Station on the Kyoto Karasuma Line. When you exit the station, head for Exit 3. When you reach the top of the stairs you’ll see signs pointing you directly to the entrance. The fee for a one-time entry is all of 200 yen, so it’s a great place to spend a couple hours for those on a budget. It’s also huge. Square meters don’t mean a lot to me but for those of you who find those measurements important, it’s around 4700 square meters in size. You can easily find a quiet corner during the daytime to chill.

 

 

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There you go, tulip lovers, enjoy.

There are lots of different themes in the garden, depending on what you’re looking for. When I went there the tulips were in bloom, almost obnoxiously so, to the point where I felt obligated to take a picture or two of them.

 

The tulips are by the European style garden, which is lovely for people who like mathematical order in their flora. For me, I tend to aim more for trees and general greenery than specific flowers, so I found the quieter corners with the local species of plants much more appealing, see below.

One thing the gardens have going for them, beyond being cheap for the everyday visitor, is that they are free for senior citizens to enter. So when you’re walking around you’ll inevitably run into some retired folks who are happy to spend their days taking photos, painting, or just spending their time around all the greenery.

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Lookit that “deer trail”, it almost looks real.

Now, you might have noticed that conservatory in the first picture; unfortunately that does cost extra to enter, but it’s only another 200 yen. 400 yen for an afternoon somewhere quiet and pretty is not that bad, considering this is Kyoto we’re talking about.

One thing I’ll mention to be careful of: if you sunburn easily, bring a hat and sunscreen! While there are shady spots in the gardens most of it is out in full sunlight, including the benches you can rest on.

That’s all I really have to say on the gardens; the pictures I think speak for themselves. If you’re in Kyoto, go check the place out yourself and enjoy! If you finish up there and you still want to enjoy nature, you can easily pop out to the Kamo river or consider heading toward Mt. Hiei, which is not as far away as you might think.

Catch you all next time!

 

 

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This will be beautiful in the fall!

 

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My kind of place; reminds me somewhat of hiking trails.

Allergies Abroad

I am the sort of person who will not go to a foreign country unless I have, at the very least, a few key phrases scribbled down (in the local writing system if possible). Things like “Hello”, “thank you”, “where’s the bathroom”, and “I can’t eat ____”.

While most people recognize the value of saying thank you the world over, other phrases, like that last one, are also important. Whether you don’t like mustard, are lactose intolerant, or deathly allergic to seafood, it’s good to know even one version of the phrase to make it easier on yourself.

For those of us whose first language is English, we are in a unique situation where we can go almost anywhere and can expect someone in the area will be able to speak a bit of our language. However, I operate under the belief that we shouldn’t have that expectation, that when you visit a foreign country it’s good to try to reach out to the locals in their own tongue. I’ve found that even saying a simple, “Annyeonghaseyo” in Seoul or “Danke” in Berlin does wonders for encouraging people to help you.

To that end, in Japan here’s what you can say if you’re allergic to something:

” ______ ga arerugi.” (_____がアレルギー。)

Now, for the blank part, you have a choice. You can look up the food product in question and say it, for example, “Sakana ga arerugi” (I’m allergic to fish). Or, you can find a picture of whatever it is and show it to your waiter or chef and say, “Kore ga arerugi” (I’m allergic to this).

What if it’s not a proper allergy, but an intolerance? Or if you just don’t want to eat something that day?

” ____ nashi de kudasai.” (___なしでください。)

This basically translates to “Without ___, please.” Again, like the allergy sentence, fill in the blank with the name of the product in question, or show a picture/bit text and say “Kore”.

What if you want to ensure you’re getting vegetarian- or vegan-friendly food?

“Bejitarian/Beegan desu.” (ベジタリアンです。/ビーがんです。)

What if you want to say you don’t like something?

Well, that’s going into language-teaching territory, so I’ll leave that up to you to discuss with someone else.

The point being, putting a little effort into your communication with locals will not only ensure they feel more comfortable helping you out, you will be helping yourself out all the more when you do so. Even if you can’t speak a single word further, the recipient of your efforts will generally put even more work into helping you.

Is this post preachy? Maybe. But would you rather get your food order done quickly, or be That Person in line who spends five minutes waving your arms ineffectually at an increasingly panicked cashier who starts shouting in confusion until you order or go away?

Ringsmithing in Kyoto

imageWhen you move to a foreign country it can be exciting to peruse the multitudes of new things you can try out. Restaurants with foods you’ve never tried! Dressing in the local culture’s clothing! Visiting temples, shrines, trying adventure sports, the list goes on.

But give it two or three years, and you’ll start struggling to find something New and Exciting to do. Looking at nearby hiking courses make you go “meh”, the thought of arranging a train ticket makes you wave your hand dismissively, and anything more ambitious can make you want to crawl right back into bed and forget you even have a holiday coming up.

This is the difficulty I face, despite living in a culturally rich area with loads to do, so imagine my delight when I found an article about a cafe in Kyoto where you could learn how to make rings!

Art Smith Kyoto is a little cafe about a five minute walk away from Demachiyanagi Station on the Keihan Line. You go down some steps into what feels more like a jewelry shop at first, as there are plenty of wares on display from pins to earrings and whatever else jewelry-wearing folk like to buy. There’s a single counter with no more than five or six swivel seats–that’s the “cafe” section of the place. And behind that counter is where the magic happens.

I made a reservation for myself and a few friends through Facebook. The owner was very accommodating in arranging our lesson. The first time you visit the cafe, you take a “trial lesson” that costs 1,000 yen per person and takes roughly an hour- the owner teaches you how to make very simple rings. After that, you can attempt your own projects, which will cost more along the lines of 3,000 yen per session.

Upon arrival, we dropped our bags and immediately got started.

Step 1: Measure the size of your ring using some basic math and cut the appropriate length from a long, thin piece of metal. Then set it on fire I mean, heat it up to make the silver more malleable.

imageEvery step was clearly explained along the way and we were able to watch each other make progress, so none of us struggled… too much, anyway.

Step 2: Start forming the metal into a ring shape. Start by folding it into a square to ensure the ends will meet up cleanly, then once you pass it under fire and bind the two ends together, start to shape it into something rounder.

I really struggled with this point; my friends had to help me match up the ends and the owner made noncommittal, “It’s difficult isn’t it?” comments, which means I was doing a horrible job.

imageStep 3: Make it thoroughly ring-shaped, beat it into submission with a hammer, then have the owner put an initial inside.

Okay, that’s a lot in one step, I agree. Once you have a somewhat round shape going on, you’re provided with a long, tapered metal pole to put the ring on. You are also provided a hammer, and instructed to gently tap the ring until it gets to the roundness and size you want. (Measurements are clearly marked on the poles.)

Once you have it at the right size, you can then choose a particular type of hammer to use in order to give the ring a simple pattern. There was a large, blunt hammer good for a smooth finish, and two smaller hammers that could offer “mirrorball”-like designs.

You then have the option of adding an initial inside the ring; it’s so tiny it’s debatable whether it’s worth getting, and choosing multiple letters can result in the final product looking chipped and not as clean. I chose to go with one letter, and while it’s visible I’m not sure if anyone would notice it unless I pointed it out.

 

imageFinally… Step 4: Give the ring to the  owner to put into a magical machine so it can be all polished and finalized.

At this point it’s out of your hands; the owner has a large machine on the counter that he feeds the rings into so they’re polished and ready to be worn. The process takes about ten minutes, during which point you can take advantage of the “cafe” part of this lesson. While drinks are not included in the price of the lesson, the prices are reasonable enough. While you’re waiting, there are also photo albums of previous projects done by both the owner and by other customers you can peruse.

At last, you are given your brand new ring to take home!

Pros of this lesson: the owner was very communicative over Facebook, friendly, and took the time to explain every step thoroughly to us. When someone was struggling he was more than willing to help.

Potential cons: The lesson was done only in Japanese, so speakers of other languages might want to bring a friend familiar with the lingo to make things go smoothly. Also, it’s near the covered arcade of Demachiyanagi, and it can sometimes be easy to get turned around if you’re not familiar with the area.

I’m very pleased with the results of this little adventure and recommend it to others who want to make something in Kyoto!

Obligatory Hanami Post

First of all, it’s no longer March- thank goodness! The worst of the goodbyes are over with and that means I get to relax and focus on happier things like the warmer weather.

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As someone who grew up near DC, I am very used to going to see cherry blossoms in spring. Living in Japan just makes it that much easier because they are everywhere. Go to a nearby school or a river and you’re bound to spot a few. Go hiking and you’ll be surrounded by them.

 

And people.

But hey, that’s the joy of doing anything in nice weather, especially in Japan.

Hanami ( 花見) is a practice in Japan where you go out, find some cherry blossoms, plunk yourself under them with some friends or family members, and enjoy yourselves. Many people bring drinks and food along–some even have little barbecues! In some places you have to be very early to get a spot, which is often claimed by a tarp or leisure mat of some sort.

Me, I don’t like fighting over spaces so I just find a place where there are a bunch of them and walk. Along the river is my favorite choice, but going into the mountains is a close favorite. If I’m pressed for time, I at least make sure to visit a shrine and walk around there for a bit.

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Whatever you do, watch out for large parties of Hanami goers. If you’re not on your guard you might be pulled onto a tarp and offered a drink by people you’ve never met before. Especially if you know ANY of the language! (Note: this is also true for summer barbecues and other get-togethers).

More importantly, whatever you do, be sure to take advantage of the season…

Not only for the view, but also for… THE SEASONAL EDIBLES!

More on that later.