Monday, August 31, 2009


 Nikko 117

As you know, I’ve been back in Japan for a little over a week now. Since I’ve been back, I’ve managed to get to Tokyo to hang out with Taryn & Lindsey, visit some museums, do some shopping, clean my apartment (?!), fully recover from my jet-lag, and hang out with some new and familiar faces here in Ashikaga. On a whim, I decided to visit Nikko. It’s not a far trip at all from Ashikaga. It is possible to get to Nikko very quickly from where I live, but since I enjoy riding on trains, and had the entire day free, I decided to take the local trains, which take about an hour and a half and cost a mere 1110 yen. In Japanese, Nikko means “sunshine.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t a sunny day when I went, but I still had an awesome time!

When I arrived in Nikko and started orienting myself to the map, my sense of direction absolutely failed me. I felt hopelessly lost for some reason. I think it may have been jet-lag related, but maybe I’m just plain no good at reading maps. Instead of making the trek up to the entrance of the world heritage site myself, I decided to take the bus from the station.

The bus drops you off in front of a bronze dragon fountain and a statue of a wondering monk. Behind this, there is a parking lot, and in this parking lot is a small red building that sells entry tickets to all of the important shrines & temples in the world heritage site. You can purchase this strip of tickets (which are good for two days) for 1000 yen at this little booth. Unless you are only there to see the Toshogu shrine, and want to skip all of the seemingly extraneous temples and shrines, then by all means, go for that admission. However, I found that it was significantly cheaper to purchase this strip of tickets than to pay entry fees for each individual site. With the little book of tickets, you’ll get to visit the Three Buddha Hall in Rinnoji temple, the main grounds of the Toshogu shrine, the Honjido, Futarasan shrine, and the Taiyuin. Despite this, there is a separate entry fee to see the 眠り猫 (sleeping cat) and the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Whoever wrote the piece on Nikko in my Lonely Planet Guide wasn’t too keen on this, but I enjoyed the trek up the big stone steps to see Ieyasu’s grave. I liked the sleeping cat, too. So ha.

Nikko 037

The architecture at the Toshogu shrine is super unique. You will not see anything this heavily embellished in the Chinese style anywhere else in Japan. Supposedly they hired thousands of artisans to decorate the buildings, and presently they’ve hired a small team of restorative artists to bring the shrine back to its original splendor. They’ve done a really good job restoring both Ieyasu’s shrine and his brother’s shrine. While I was there, the Toshogu shrine was under some pretty heavy restoration work. The whole outer corridor was covered in scaffolding, but they had clear panels of plastic hanging up so you could see the restoration in progress, which I thought was pretty cool.

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Speaking of artisans. Apparently the guy they had to carve the elephants on the storehouse (and you can tell it’s a storehouse because of the tightly woven beams on the bottom half of the structure. That is a typical storehouse construction. Storehouses were pretty plain buildings save for this unique architecture, so it’s pretty cool to see this heavily decorated example.. I digress) had never seen an elephant in his life before.. so one elephant… kind of looks like an elephant, and the other one looks like he got a friend to help him out or maybe he went to a library or something.

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Another cool building that you should NOT miss is the sacred stable. Besides the famous carving of the life cycle of the monkey (with the ultra-famous hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys) there is a horse inside of the stable!! A honest to goodness horse!! Horses have always been a symbol of wealth, so as a tradition, wealthy families would give horses to shrines as offerings. In order to keep this tradition, the Toshogu shrine keeps a horse in the sacred stable. They even post his daily schedule (walks, feeding time, when he’s absent, etc.). In keeping with the extravagance of the rest of the shrine, the horse in the stable is always a white one. I personally felt kind of bad for him in that wee little stable, but they do let him out for exercise, and I’m sure they feed him well, he is the sacred horse, after all. I’m not entirely sure when the custom of actually keeping horses at shrines ended, but instead of giving actual horses, wealthy families would have paintings of horses (or other animals, people or events) commissioned and would give them to the shrines as a symbol of their patronage. These paintings are called emma-do and you can see some really nice examples of them at the Futarasan shrine. The ones at the Futarasan shrine are gilt with images of deer and horses and are super pretty. At present, shrines in Japan just don’t keep horses on premises, mostly because of ... money, space, cleanliness, and laws concerning horse ownership.

After using up my strip of tickets, I was getting kind of hungry, so I stopped at this little set of buildings that was off to the right of the plaza that five-storied-pagoda is in. There’s a couple of little places to get noodles or ice cream or snack type items, but the place to go is the Kanaya hotel. They have these homemade curry pies that are absolutely incredible. Outside they are this amazing flaky, buttery, puff pastry, and then inside is hot beef curry. You can get one for 300 yen. So amazing. I could have eaten a million of them.

Nikko 115Nikko 124

Then, while I was walking along Rt. 119 back to the Tobu-Nikko station, I stopped at a little Ochaya (tea shop) to have some  matcha (green tea) and yakidango (grilled rice paste balls… believe me they taste much better than they sound). The woman who ran the place was absolutely adorable. She asked me if I really liked matcha (which OF course I do) and she also told me she makes her yakidango with black miso paste. So cute. I wish I could have taken a photo with her, but there were other people there and I just didn’t want to be that tourist, you know? It was a really good end to my day in Nikko.

The setting of these shrines is absolutely gorgeous; on mountains, surrounded by gigantic cedars that are hundreds of years old. Nikko is a gorgeous place, and I plan to go back soon, and I think you should go there, too!

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More photos are on the Facebook!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Spectacular Views

grand canyon in the airplane 009 grand canyon in the airplane 011  grand canyon in the airplane 006
My flight to Tokyo was routed directly over that northern part of Arizona and that southern part of Nevada. Got to see Lake Mead, the Grand Canyon and the surrounding desert from above. Gorgeous.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

the fine art of traveling ( in coach).

Since I started making the trip to Japan a somewhat usual thing, my dad and I have become quite skilled at hunting for low fares online. It really is a mixed bag, though. I won’t recommend any singular site, since it constantly changes. I have had luck with,, and I know they aren’t the big guys like expedia or travelocity, but the price of airfare is contingent on many, many different factors other than what website you’re buying your tickets from. Heck, one time I even bought my tickets directly from Delta and it was the cheapest out of every site I’d been to. You really really have to do your homework.

I’ve decided that it’s time that I share these things with you guys, so you too can learn to travel like a pro! I guess I’ll include some general travel tips in here, too. I’ve gotten really good at packing (although not on this particular flight. I wanted to bring back some shampoo that I can’t buy in Japan so I had to check my bag. remember: no liquids above 3 oz.! I also packed an extra set of sheets and some new jeans – talk about bulky.)

When you travel (especially internationally) Its important to keep in mind these things:

★ How far in advance you book your ticket. If it’s too far ahead or too soon, you may end up paying more. Sometimes you can get deals by booking at the last minute because the flight isn’t full and the airline wants as many people on a flight as they can fit. It’s cost-effective. The more people they can shove into their flying cigar cans = less flights = less gas money. Basically all of the airlines in the U.S. are bankrupt or close to it, which is why they’ve resorted to treating people like… well.. cargo. Remember, you can’t always be guaranteed deals at the last minute, so if you can, always ALWAYS ALWAYS book ahead of time.

★ Buy round-trip tickets. It’s always cheaper to get round-trip tickets. I cannot stress this enough, people. I could get a one-way ticket to Japan for $1800 and stay indefinitely, but since I know when I can take my vacation days, and my family does SO enjoy it when I come home, I book my return flight super far ahead in advance for only $1300. I guess if you don’t want to go back home go ahead and get your one way ticket – we don’t want to see you again anyway. (I kid, I kid.) If you don’t know when you’ll be coming back, just take a good guess and you can always call your airline and have it changed (well.. for a fee, of course.)

★ What day & time you book your flight for. If you can help it, don’t book your flight on a weekend, a Friday or a Monday. Especially between 8 and 11. Go for the middle of the week at a weird time, like… 7:20 AM on a Tuesday morning. Yeah I know it’s early, but it will save you the hassle of trying to make your way through snaking security lines, and the nameless rabble of human cargo wandering throughout the terminals. Also, airport bathrooms are super clean at 6:00 in the morning. Even at JFK!

★ The number of connecting flights and the times between them. Sometimes airfares are cheaper if you agree to get tossed around for a bit. For example: You can take a flight from New York to Minneapolis, then to Portland and THEN to Tokyo. If you are into doing this, remember that some airports are MASSIVE and you need time to navigate from gate to gate. If you are making a connecting flight in any major hub (Chicago-O’Hare, Atlanta, DFW, JFK, LAX…. etc.) make sure you have at LEAST two hours between connecting flights. The flight I just made would be a perfect example of what not to do: I booked a flight to Tokyo with a one hour layover in Dallas-Ft. Worth. We arrived at ten till 9 and we didn’t make it off of the plane until 9:30. THEN I had to make my way around to the opposite end of DFW on the little train to the right terminal. I ended up having to run to my gate. If I had gotten lost (thank goodness I didn’t) I’d have totally missed my flight. By the time I found my seat and called my dad to let him know I’d made it to the gate, we were already starting to taxi the runway.

★ You don’t really need to take all of that crap on the plane. I mean you really don’t. You can barely get at it if you fly in coach – what, with all of that spacious one foot of leg room and a seat mate who is four times your size. Take a good book (or magazine) your iPod and ONLY absolute necessities (like prescriptions, eyeglasses, tampons, cell phone, whatevs.) You can always buy stuff whenever you get to where you’re going. I don’t think you’ll need to re-apply your lipgloss 50x on your 15 hour flight, chiquita, sorry, but you’ll be just as grody and disgusting as the rest of us once that recycled air gets into your pores. If you ABSOLUTELY must have it, put it in your checked bag, like if you want to follow my bad example of stuffing your favorite shampoo into your already overstuffed luggage. Just wait to buy it there. That way you can lighten your load, and not worry about liquids while you go through the TSA lines or anything potentially leaking all over your checked bag.

★ I guess as far as airline food goes, American Airlines had the best. We had pizza (which was actually really really good) and Thai Chicken & rice with ginger carrots. United would come in second – they gave us instant ramen for the “light snack” on my first trip to Japan. I forget what we had, but I definitely didn’t find it disagreeable. Northwest’s food was comparable to United’s and.. well.. Delta’s food was just.. unappetizing at best. Just take some breakfast bars or something on the plane. Since it’s such a long flight, it’s hard to not eat anything.. but some of that airline food man… it’s gross, but you HAVE to eat something on that 12 hour flight.

★ Bring a scarf, sweater or hooded sweatshirt to wear on the plane. It gets super cold when you're 36000 feet above the Bering Sea. Also, wear something comfortable. I mean, you don’t have to look like a total piece of trash (I.e. your dirty old UGGs and sweats that are cut up beyond recognition. We aren’t going to go cheat on our Soc001 test at PSU, ladies. This is international travel. Who knows who you’ll meet? You need to look comfortably gorgeous.). I wore a dress made of cotton jersey, black leggings and a cardigan sweater. I brought along my fringed square scarf for extra warmth and black flats because they are easy to slip on and off at security checkpoints. I guess the other thing not to wear (besides your gross boots and massacred sweatpants) would be any super conspicuous jewelry or accessories. There’s a pretty good chance if you go around flashing your Fendi luggage and aren’t super reverent over it it’ll get stolen. Especially at a place like JFK… wretched hive of scum and villainy.

★ So far, I’ve flown on United, Northwest, Delta and American Airlines to Japan. I’ve joined all the frequent flier programs and somehow I still don’t have enough miles to do anything worthwhile. I guess I just haven’t flown around the world enough times to be deserving of redeeming award travel yet. I guess it’s a good idea to join, though. It makes check-in easy and also if you need to change your reservations and you booked through a third party (like… expedia or orbitz) it makes things slightly easier. You can also sign up for up-to-date flight notifications, that can be sent right to your phone, just in case they decide to change the time of departure or just completely cancel on you. Remember – these companies are all basically bankrupt and they will do ANYTHING to save a dollar. Even straight up lie to you and say the weather is bad in order to cancel a not-full flight to Pittsburgh so they can throw you on standby in the morning *cough*Delta*cough*. Also, if you do end up missing a flight or need to like.. re-book or whatever, think about making fights with more than one connection. It’s an easy way to rack up your miles and re-enact the John Candy classic: “Trains, Planes, and Automobiles.”

★ Be nice to your flight attendants. Say “Please” and “Thank you.” They appreciate it!!

Finally, use your good common sense, be safe, stay hydrated, don’t overpack, if you can help it avoid JFK (have you noticed I don’t like that airport?) and O’Hare (not at peak travel times, anyway) at all costs, and most importantly, have fun. Traveling is fun! You’re up in the sky! How many times do you get to fly like a bird?! You get an awesome view, you get to sample the rare delicacies of airplane food, flip through the duty free catalogs, watch the in-flight movies and TV shows. kick back, take your shoes off, put that tray table down and recline your seat! It’s gonna be a good flight!

Monday, August 17, 2009

What's in my bag? Summer '09

While I was in Pittsburgh, I was lucky enough to do some shopping in the South Side Works! I got this awesome gray bag by Lux at Urban Outfitters. I've used it pretty much every day since I bought it. I decided... why not do another edition of "What's in the bag, Beaves?" to celebrate the glorious new grey bag!!

more poupee 022  more poupee 025
the contents!!

more poupee 023 clockwise from top:

Verizon phone (only for when I'm in the U.S.)
Anna Sui compact mirror
Moleskine & some pens
Lush - lip service
clear/black wayfarers from urban outfitters
Anna Sui tissue case
Sephora by O.P.I. nail color in 'Queen of Everything'
Clinique folding brush
Digital Camera
Coach checkbook wallet

How about you? What's in YOUR bag??

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Home again, home again

IMAG0255 If you haven't guessed by now, the reason I've been on hiatus is because I've been spending my summer break at home in Pittsburgh. It's nice to go home every once in a while. It helps me keep things in perspective. The story of where I come from and why I left isn't unlike that of many expats living in Japan, so I won't bore you with it. However, despite missing my friends and family terribly, there are many things I am reminded by every time I come back that make me extremely thankful to not be working or living at home anymore.
It's nice to not have people stare at you wherever you go. It's also nice to be able to drive. I didn't miss TV at all (except for Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and What Not To Wear). I did miss shopping. I ended up getting a new laptop, which I desperately needed. Picked up a few things here and there. It's so much cheaper to shop here than in Japan. I can also easily find shoes that fit my gargantuan size 9.5 feet, not to mention jeans to fit my behemoth ass and bras to fit my disgustingly large chest. (Um... did I mention that living in Japan has given me a small complex when it comes to clothing sizes? If I live there more than 5 years I'm sure I'll develop an eating disorder... but I digress...)
It's the little things you notice. The change from active lifestyle to a mostly sedentary one. The size of your food portions. The high fructose corn syrup in your Coca-cola. Seeing people of all races walk by each other on the street and not hearing them making comments of whether or not they're potentially infected with Swine flu. The constant barrage of political propaganda (wait... they have that in Japan too...) The massive cars and sport-utility vehicles. Freshly mowed lawns. McDonald's being... unappetizing at best. Sitting in chairs as opposed to on the floor. Leaving your shoes on in the house! Using as many paper napkins as you please. Not separating the trash!!
It certainly has been a good trip. I've felt more like a tourist in my own city than anything. I got to go to a Pirates game and to Kennywood (both with my awesome friend, Pat, who I've known for a million billion years). I've also gotten to eat at some of my favorite places in town (India Garden, Pho Kim, Lulu's noodles... and yes... Eat n' Park). Of course I've seen Jim Kim, Lauren, Breann, and Kika. I even got to have some awesome phone convos with Erica and Arelis... I wish I could have visited them while I was home. I've seen far too much of my family... and somehow it's all just never enough. I always find my way back to Pittsburgh. It's home.Kennywood 054 I'll be back in Japan soon enough, though. I'm glad I got to visit and see everyone here. I think I'm more than ready to make my return.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Spectacular Views


I'd venture to say that Pittsburgh has some of the best architecture I've ever seen in my life, the best fireworks shows ever, and a ballpark with a spectacular view, no matter where your seats are. Too bad the Pirates haven't had a winning season in 17 years. Oh well. Maybe next year.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Hey! I'm getting a new computer because the lappy is on its last... legs... or lap... or whatever. The new one is in the mail and should be here sometime this week! Sit tight! I'll be back!