Thursday, December 24, 2009

Japan '08: Loot

Kara no Kyoukai Special Edition DVDs.

My Japan trip wasn't all poking around old temples and hanging out in Maid Cafes with NTV film crews; there was also spending large amounts of money at dubious otaku shops in Akihabara. The photos below document a good chunk of what I hauled back to The States, though quite a few souvenirs were given away as presents before I thought to photograph them. Some other stuff not shown here just wasn't immediately available for photography (like back issues of Megami Magazine that got filed away somewhere).

Miscellaneous knickknacks, including omamori (charms) from Washinomiya Shrine, ofuda (the paper ward), and a fake charm from Furude Jinja, the fictional shrine in Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.

More DVDs: Da Capo II, Kore ga Watashi no Goshujin-sama, Lucky Star OVA (Gamers Special Edition), Gedo Senki - Tales from Earthsea, Higurashi Kai. It was something of a struggle to find all of Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight, but eventually I tracked it down, though I payed full price for most of the volumes.

Loads of used PS2 soft: some Simple 2000 series odds 'n' ends, an igo game that mostly kicks my ass, Shikigami no Shiro, Ku-on, a Gundam Vs. series entry, the Lucky Star adventure game and the all-ages version of Demon Bane. I'll have to find my Dreamcast some day and play Kanon.

Suzumiya Haruhi green tea (cleverly--I thought--punctured on the bottom for drinking while still in Japan. I would have bought a case of these, but Kotobukiya was down to the last couple of cans and nobody else was offering it.), a 20th Century Boys t-shirt, and a beer bottle from the Ghibli Museum.

I don't buy figures (well, hardly ever), but Konata and the Hiiragi twins in Petit Nendoroid form called to me.

I also have very little interest in doujinshi, though somehow I did wind up with a Higurashi and a Kara no Kyoukai book, strategically obscured by Koisuru Camera, a photography + moe book from artist Siro.

Teacup set from a ceramics shop with Kiyomizu-style wares, with instant sweetened green tea with gold leaf flakes from Kinkaku-ji.

In total, the Japan trip cost around $4,000, with about half going to lodging and transportation to and from Connecticut and within Nihon. Food was in the neighborhood of $500, including a few meals at fancy restaurants. The remaining $1,500 or so was spending money, for the goods, movie and museum tickets, and other miscellaneous expenses. That is not the sort of outlay I could make on a regular basis, but it wasn't too bad for a two week trip to an expensive country on the other side of the world filled with shops hawking pricey gewgaws that I needed to purchase.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Japan '08: Kyoto II

Canal next to Tetsugaku no Michi, the Path of Philosophy.

At this point in our Japan adventure, my group left western and central Kyoto and headed towards the Higashiyama (Eastern Mountain) district, by way of Tetsugaku no Michi (the Path of Philosophy) and city bus. Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion, is located at one terminus of Tetsugaku no Michi. Ginkaku-ji was established in 1482 as a retirement home for Yoshimasa Ashikaga, and became a center for Higashiyama culture, which was the forerunner to modern Japanese civilization.

The approach to Ginkakuji; persimmon tree with fruit at right.

We had some fried fish cake type thingies from a stand along the street leading up to Ginkaku-ji. That was a pretty decent lunch, but again, I regret not getting to a real restaurant for some more serious Kyoto food.

Looking west towards Kyoto over Ginkaku-ji. Kannonden at left, and roof of Tougudou at lower right.

The Silver Pavilion itself, technically called Kannonden but normally referred to as Ginkaku-ji, was under renovation when I was there, and covered up with scaffolding. It's not actually covered in precious metal, unlike Kinkaku-ji, and "silver" seems to refer to the white sand sculptures on the grounds.

Gardens at Ginkaku-ji.

The gardens at Ginkaku-ji were probably the most beautiful that I have seen in Japan; the trees, rocks, streams and ponds form an understated work of art around the temple buildings.

Ginkaku-ji moss display.

The moss gardens at Ginkaku-ji are especially fine, and there is funny little display of the local species in one corner of the grounds, divided up into special mosses that are carefully encouraged, and ordinary mosses that form the background or are weeded out as needed. There were several gardeners actively tending the moss, wearing slippers. We had to call one of these guys for help when my friend Ray managed to drop his camera memory card off the path and down a steep slope.

Outen-mon, the Heian Shrine main gate.

A bit south and west of Ginkaku-ji, more out in the city, is Heian-jingu, one of the largest Shinto shrines in Kyoto. It is actually a scale replica constructed in 1894 of Chodo-in, a building that existed in the Heian Era in Kyoto, about 1200 years ago.

Naka Shin'en (Middle Garden), behind the main Heian-jingu shrine buildings.

For a small fee, you can tour the gardens that surround the main shrine plaza and buildings. The gardens are in the Meiji Era style of the late nineteenth century. Heian Shrine is right in the middle of a busy part of Kyoto, but the gardens seemed isolated and peaceful.

Heian-jingu gardens at sunset, Taihei-kaku bridge at right.

My camera batteries gave out right after getting the above photo, looking west over the Heian-jingu gardens towards the shrine buildings.

Kiyomizu Temple entryway, early morning.

For the final day in Kyoto, the only activity was to see Kiyomizu-dera, which was just up the street from our ryokan. Kiyomizu is a Buddhist temple founded in 780 CE around a spring on the site (the name means "clear water"). Many of the current buildings date to 1633. We got any early start, though we weren't exactly waiting at the gates when the monks opened up at 6:00 AM.

Kiyomizu Dera.

It is probably a good idea to get to Kiyomizu early in the day, in order to get relatively uncluttered photos of Japan's most famous view.

Iron sandals and staves on the Kiyomizu deck.

There is a display of training equipment for the monks at Kiyomizu Temple, with iron sandals and two staves which visitors can attempt to lift. I couldn't budge the larger staff; did the monks really walk around with that?

Otowa no Taki, the waterfalls from the Kiyomizu spring.

I braved the line at the Kiyomizu spring to sample the water, which is supposed to have beneficial effects, depending upon which stream you drink from. You take a cup with a long handle from a UV sterilizer in order to retrieve some water; I'm not sure if I got the health, longevity or wisdom water. Maybe there's a spring that grants the strength to lift a staff that contains more metal than a Ford Explorer.

Tea house on the Kiyomizu grounds.

We stopped for refreshments at a tea house at Kiyomizu. I had zenzai, which is a sweet soup involving red beans and a chunk of mochi (rice cake); it's a cool-weather food.

Jishu-jinja gate.

Jishu-jinja is a Shinto shrine located within the Kiyomizu Buddhist temple complex; there wasn't any obvious way to even reach it without walking through Kiyomizu.

"Love fortune-telling stone" in Jishu-jinja.

The main attraction at Jishu Shrine is a pair of stones set into the pavement, a fair distance apart. These are labeled koi uranai no ishi (love fortune-telling stones); if you can walk from one to the other with your eyes closed, your romantic hopes will become reality, apparently. That sounds like an anime plot device, and the love stones have indeed turned up in a few shows.

Pagoda on hill south of Kiyomizu-dera.

After a short walk to the ridge to the south you can visit a small pagoda, which is prominently visible in the view from the Kiyomizu deck.

Ferns on the Higashiyama forest floor.

It was nice to get out into the woods for a little while, though the old cedars had been thinned out quite a bit to make way for new plantings of cherry trees, since the last time I was at Kiyomizu, back in the '90s. There were lots of interesting ferns in the forest understory, including the ones here, probably a Gleichenia at upper left and maybe (?) Asplenium at center.

Kyoto Station bentou box.

After Kiyomizu, we gathered up our stuff at the Ryokan, and headed to Kyoto Station to catch the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) back to Tokyo. I grabbed a tasty Kyoto-style autumn box lunch on the way to the train. Some of the assorted Tokyo sightseeing that I wrote about in earlier installments actually happened after the return from Kyoto, but there was only one full day left in the trip by this point, and it felt like my time in Japan was rapidly vanishing.

Shinkansen arriving at Kyoto Station.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Autumn 2009 Anime: Moe Edition

Mikoto "Railgun" Misaka does not play well with others.

October 10 is (International?) Moe Day, a perfect excuse to get back to writing about the 2D world. This year’s autumn season offers a healthy selection of new, more or less moe shows. I haven’t checked out a couple of obvious bishoujo (pretty girl) offerings that are sequels to titles where I never followed the originals (Asura Cryin’ 2, the new Queen’s Blade), and I haven’t quite felt inspired to check out Sora no Otoshimono, descriptions of which sound… unhealthy. Here are three moe series that I do intend to follow.

Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu: Purezza
(The Secret of Haruka Nogizaka: Purity)
Genres: School Comedy, Otaku
Rank: B+

The original Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu anime was one of the pleasant surprises of 2008, and Purezza is looking to be at least a little above average for this sort of thing. In the sequel, average guy Yuuto Ayase and perfect honor student Haruka Nogizaka continue to s-l-o-w-l-y develop a romantic relationship while trying to hide the fact that Haruka is a secret anime otaku. Yes, that’s an improbable premise on several counts, but last year's version of Nogizaka Haruka had a certain sweet restraint that won me over.

One of the appealing aspects of the 2008 incarnation of Nogizaka Haruka was the show’s high technical standards. These seem to have slipped with Purezza, though the show itself still looks decent, and the opening is outstandingly well animated. The action exhibits signs of trending towards the unpleasantly frantic, unfortunately. The character designs remain lovely and distinctive, sort of midway between mainstream moe and the decadent excesses of 1980s shoujo manga.

Seitokai no Ichizon
(At the Discretion of the Student Council)
Genres: School Comedy, Slice of Life, Otaku
Rank: B-

Kurimu Sakurano is president of the student council at prestigious Hekiyou Academy, and has surrounded herself with officers of outstanding talent and beauty… with the exception of her vice president, the creepy and unnecessarily straightforward ero-game otaku Ken Sugisaki, who announces that he worked to get top grades and the vice presidency for the sole purpose of forcing his company upon the cute girls of the student council. Seitokai no Ichizon follows Ken’s delusional attempts to make the student council into his harem, and the student council’s attempts to ignore, or at least refrain from strangling, Ken.

Setokai no Ichizon seems like it will be saddled with unrealistic cookie-cutter character development (Ken, self-centered jerk with a concealed heart of gold, is a particularly egregious offender), and the production values of the show look cheap. High-moe character designs and a constant stream of anime in-jokes are enough to keep me watching for the time being, but Setokai no Ichizon has essentially zero chance of dethroning Lucky Star as the reigning king of all slacker otaku anime.

Toaru Kagaku no Railgun
(A Certain Railgun of Science)
Genres: Science Fiction, Supernatural Fighting
Rank: A

Toaru Kagaku no Railgun is a side story spinoff of Toaru Majutsu no Index (A Certain Magical Index), which received an excellent anime adaptation last fall. Railgun focuses on a group of second stringers from Index—some of whom didn’t actually appear in the anime except in the OP—centered around Mikoto Misaka, one of the most powerful Level 5 ESPers in Academy City.

As with Index, Railgun mixes shounen-fighting action with bishoujo characters, in a parallel world overflowing with clever sci-fi and supernatural elements. Character designs from the manga are from the clean, simple, relatively naturalistic strain of moe, and the anime has done a beautiful job of transferring them. The animation in Railgun looks downright slick, even better than the already quality work done on Index. I’m really looking forward to seeing what director Tatsuyuki Nagai, of Toradora! fame, does with this material. Toaru Kagaku no Railgun is looking like one of the best of 2009, though it will have a difficult time measuring up to the finale of Kara no Kyoukai and two juggernauts from Kyoto Animation.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Japan '08: Kyoto I

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. Mac OS X includes a nearly identical shot as a desktop image.

We arrived in Kyoto from Nara in the early evening, and after hunting around for a place to eat for a fair amount of time, settled on a Chinese restaurant near Kyoto Tower, across the street from the station. It was OK-ish: one of my few regrets from the trip was that we never got to sample much in the way of genuine Kansai cuisine, which seems to be generally regarded as superior to the vittles available in the Tokyo area. After supper, we got a cab to our ryokan in the Higashiyama (Eastern Mountains) part of town.

Kyoto Tower from Kyoto Station.

The next morning, we took a cab back to the center of the city, and dropped in at the tourist office in Kyoto Station. The available guided tours looked a bit rushed and limited, so we opted for all-day bus passes, a bargain at 500 yen. Actually, just hailing cabs would have been a convenient and reasonably cost-effective way to get around Kyoto too, split three ways. It was easy enough to navigate using buses and the bilingual map from the tourist office, though. There are even three lines that specialize in covering the major sightseeing areas, called Raku Buses.

On the bus in Kyoto.

Kara-mon gate at Nijo Castle.

Our first major stop was Nijou-jou (Nijou Castle), which was constructed over the period of 1601 to 1626 by the early Tokugawa Shoguns. It's in the center of town, north of Kyoto Station. One can tour the outer palace, Ninomaru (visible behind me in the photo above), and contemplate its ancient wall paintings, but photography was prohibited indoors. Ninomaru Palace has uguisu-bari, or nightingale floors, which are designed to squeak when trod upon, as a security measure.

Chrysanthemum exhibit at Nijou Castle.

Cycas revoluta (Sago Palm) in the Nijou Castle gardens.

The Ninomaru Palace gardens are nice, with impressive ponds and rock features. It's warm enough in Kyoto for Sago Palms to survive outdoors.

Inner walls of Nijou Castle.

Nijou Castle has a second ring of moats and walls inside of it, surrounding a smaller complex of buildings, Honmaru Palace. You can't tour inside of Honmaru.

Nijou's Honmaru Palace, from the top of the inner walls.

The Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum) were just starting to change color, in mid-October, but it had been an unusually warm autumn. A few seeds managed to find their way into my luggage somehow, and I have some nice little Nijou-jou maple seedlings coming along now, back in the US.

Road to Kinkaku-ji

After refreshing ourselves with Fanta melon soda from one of those old vending machines that mix soda water and syrup in a paper cup, it was back to the bus stop to catch a ride to the northwestern corner of the city, and Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. The Buddhist temple complex and the pavilion are officially called Rokuon-ji, but everyone seems to refer to the place as Kinkaku-ji. The original version of the temple dates to 1397, but it has been rebuilt after fires several times, most recently in 1950. The gardens surrounding Kinkaku-ji have remained more or less intact over the centuries.

Gardens outside of the Kinkaku-ji abbot's chamber.

The landscapes around temples and shrines look naturalistic, but they require heroic efforts to maintain. There were gardeners working everywhere at the places I visited in Kyoto. Note the guy pruning the pine in the photo above.

Kinkaku-ji, from across Kyouko-chi pond.

Kinkaku-ji is pretty much the most photogenic object ever created by human hands, and the crowds jockeying for position at good vantage points were overwhelming. It took a fair amount of patience and effort to get photographs like these, without dozens of people in them, though the gardens are arranged to mostly conceal visitors on the other side of the pavilion.

Next time, I'll write about some of the sights in eastern Kyoto.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Japan '08: Nara

Street near Nara Park.

About midway through my group's time in Japan, we activated our Japan Rail Passes, used the passes to reserve tickets on the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto and back, and headed west to the Kansai region. The ryokan where we were staying in Tokyo kindly offered to store the bulk of our luggage, so we weren't dragging around 50 pound suitcases of loot from Akihabara. Our first activity was a day trip to Nara, which was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784. Nara wasn't torched in WWII, and you can't throw a rock there without hitting a national cultural treasure or UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Rice fields from the train between Kyoto and Nara.

We got to Kyoto Station about as early as could be expected, for a vacation, and then took the JR Nara Line to Nara Station. The scenery between the two cities is fairly bucolic, with groves of bamboo and rice fields in the middle of harvest. The yellow flowers at the edge of the field in the photo are some goldenrod or other (Solidago sp.), a beloved native wildflower here in New England, and invasive pest in the Far East, apparently. Consider it payback for Kudzu.

My friend Ray was feeling seriously under the weather when we arrived at Nara, but decided to keep going, and managed to soldier through. Many of the famous sights in the city are located in Nara Park, to the east of the station. Considering Ray's delicate condition, we decided to take a taxi to the far side of the park, then work our way down hill, back to the station.

Looking west over Nara from Nigatsu-dou.

Yours truly in front of Nigatsu-dou.

The taxi driver suggested that we start in the Nigatsu-dou ("Second Month Hall") area of the Toudai-ji ("Great Eastern Temple") Buddhist temple complex, and was even nice enough to show us around a little bit. Nigatsu-dou is high up on a hill, with a good view of the city from a balcony that you can walk around. There were student tour groups everywhere in Nara and Kyoto; I don't know if it's always like that or if they only come out at certain times of the year. Some of the kids had an assignment to approach a foreigner and find out about his or her stay in Japan, in English, so Sujith and I (not so much Ray) were waylaid several times a day and asked: "Where are you from?," "What is your favorite Japanese food?," and a couple of other simple questions.

Hand washing fountain to the side of Nigatsu-dou. It was shady and cool in this area, and there was a quiet room where you could take a break and have some tea.

Sangatsu-dou / Hokkei-dou.

Sangatsu-dou ("Third Month Hall," also known as Hokkei-dou) is just next door to Nigatsu-dou. It is the oldest structure in the Todai-ji complex, built around 740-747 CE. For a small fee (around $5), we entered the hall to see the collection of Buddhist statuary inside, much of which also dated to the 8th Century. No interior photography was allowed, I think primarily to protect the ancient paint on some of the statues from harsh light from flashes.

Stairs in Nara Park, between Sangatsu-dou and Toudai-ji Temple.

Shop selling shika senbei (deer crackers) in Nara Park.

Nara Park is crawling with deer, which are semi-tame (they're mostly blasé about people, but don't seem to appreciate close contact) after many centuries of protected status. The deer aren't confined in any way, and meander out into the city to some extent. There was one, which I really wish I had gotten a decent photo of, standing at a bus stop with a bunch of people like a commuter. Concession stands all over the park sell special deer crackers, and usually have a few hungry deer hanging around.

Toudai-ji Temple: Daibutsu-den ("Great Buddha Hall").

The present Todai-ji is gigantic, and supposedly the largest wooden building in the world, but it is still only a 2:3 scale reproduction of a larger edifice first completed in 752. The present incarnation of Toudai-ji dates from 1709. The chairs in front of the building were being set up for a concert; the Buddhist sect that built Toudai-ji is now extinct, and the complex is now to a certain extent given over to secular purposes.

Daibutsu, the Great Buddha (main body and options*).

Inside of the big hall is the 500 ton brass Daibutsu. It's hard to get a sense of the scale of the Daibutsu from photos: it's bigger than it looks.

After checking out Todai-ji, we wandered back out into the city, and took a bus back to the train station for the return trip to Kyoto and our ryokan. The Nara segment of my Japan adventure was definitely rushed, and I would like to return at some point to see more of the sights, particularly Kasuga Shrine and its associated gardens.

*Joke stolen from Lucky Star.