Nerd Tour Japan 2014: Days Seven and Eight

by Zac Bertschy & Hope Chapman,

And so, here we are with the final update. On our second day in Osaka, we were hustled over to Kyoto, land of tradition and shrines and shrines and tradition. I'd never been, wasn't sure what I was going to see (aside from, you know, shrines, tradition, traditional shrines and tradition being practiced at shrines) but it was miserably cold and pouring-ass rain outside all day so I was pretty certain I was in for some misery.

I should clarify - I hate being outside in the rain, and on both days where they had a ton of outdoor activities planned for us during this tour, it rained like crazy. I was not a happy camper, but I persevered. Our first stop was here, the Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is a place people go to pray for economic success and also see a whole lot of fox imagery.

HOPE: Why? Why must it rain on all our outdoor days in Japan? If I didn't know any better, I'd think the Japanese gods didn't like us or something! (Hm. Maybe they didn't.) Despite the crummy weather, this was my favorite of the various shrines we visited. The fact that it's based around foxes who bring good fortune in the harvest had a lot to do with it, I think. The legend of the kitsune originated here, and this shinto shrine is decked out with beautiful orange pillars and gates and a dozen proud fox statues, along with the big loud shrine bells to be rung post offering, so it may be more familiar to anime fans than the Meiji Jingu shrine. It was constructed into the side of a mountain and was very beautiful and fun to explore, even in the rain.

HOPE: The invaluable squash-fox, here to fulfill all your squash dreams.

HOPE: The big Inari shrine gates you see in anime tend to be more red in color, but the real deals are sort of a bright construction-work orange. They're very pretty, though!

HOPE: The fox statues are seen in pairs of two everywhere and besides the vegetables seen at the entrance, generally carry one of three things. There's a jewel as seen here, sometimes a key, and we'll see the third thing later.

The ancient ways dictate that the gods will be pleased with advertising for anime related to the shrine posted at the front gates. There was Inari Kon-Kon merchandise in all the shops, too. In order to please the gods, of course.

Is the chicken wire there to keep us out or to keep him in?

HOPE: This fox is carrying the third item: a sutra scroll. It must be important to him, because he's giving me the stink-eye.

HOPE: One thing we discovered when visiting the shrines in Kyoto was their transparency as tourist locales and places of business as much as places of worship and cultural history. There were cafes square in the middle of the courtyard, and a dozen souvenir shops lined up along the edges of the grounds. They sell tons of lucky cats (symbols of financial fortune,) and fox statues in the gift shops, and there were as many local visitors perusing the shops as western foreigners. Clearly, the connection the "religious opulence" places like this have to a healthy influx of revenue is allowed to be more visible in Japan than America, where the very idea that the mega-churches rely on tons of money to function is considered this unspoken transgression, or a sign of corruption. Selling souvenirs or snacks inside the building on a regular basis would usually be considered blasphemous in Christian circles. Not so with Shintoism, and as we saw later, Buddhism in Japan. It's fascinating to me, and I'm sure someone more knowledgeable than me could bang out a great thesis paper about it or something. Anyway. I really liked the laid-back transparency of the Inari shrine and its engaging blend of commerce and culture. I'm glad they have the resources to keep this place looking so beautiful.

HOPE: There's those bells! I'm not Shinto, so I didn't feel right about making an offering or ringing them but I wanted to ring them really badly. I just watched other people ring them instead. Such satisfying clangs!

Sorry, I just don't have much to say about this - enjoy the natural beauty and all the safety orange.

HOPE: This horse is the messenger of the shrine's deity. As his job is very important, he receives offerings of things horses enjoy, like carrots!

Maybe next time I'll bring a bale of hay and a jar of peanut butter.

The shrine's most famous feature is the massive torii tunnel, a long winding path dominated by hundreds of torii gates donated by corporations in the hope that it brings them good financial fortune. The downside to that is that it's so well-sponsored and flush with cash that doesn't really feel authentic - it's really well-maintained with thick lacquer paint on everything. Kinda feels like a set. That's how it felt to me, anyway; obviously Hope saw it differently.

HOPE: The soggiest prayers...

HOPE: Similar and yet very different to the Inari shrine was this enormous Buddhist temple, the Kiyomizu-dera. I was confused at first by the giant lion-dog statues, which I usually associate with Shintoism, but apparently this is a Buddhist shrine, and a massively famous one at that. Even in the rain, this place was swamped with locals packing the wide paths tight with jostling umbrellas.

Here's where you go down into the darkness and clutch some beads and find true love or something like that. You had to take your shoes off so I didn't go in, because it's pouring-ass rain.

HOPE: Maybe it was a special day or something, because there were hundreds of people in yukatas. Or maybe someone was getting married or...? I have no idea, but the place was packed and there was stuff being sold everywhere. You even paid a fee to get into the largest and most scenic temple building. To be completely honest, I was sort of put off by it. I guess the balance between tourism and reverence tipped just a bit too far into pretense for me, and that combined with the weather and the crowds left my spirits a little dampened. It was still a very impressive establishment, and I'm glad I saw it, along with all the cool, pretty yukatas the many women were wearing, but this temple may have been a little much for me.

Lots and lots and lots of weddings are held here. Lots.

Inside the temple. You have to pay $3 to get inside and then there are a lot of offering boxes and places you can buy charms and favors. A lot of money changes hands here.

I wasn't sure what to make of this.

They weren't kidding about the views.

HOPE: This tree needed to encourage all the other cherry blossom trees to flower before we had to leave. It was a late-ish spring, so most of the buds on other trees are still sleeping. We saw a few more pretty trees here and there, though!

Apparently I didn't take any photos of it but Kiyomizu temple is surrounded by a massive tourist shopping district jam-packed with people and absolutely terrible  "souvenirs". The place is overrun with plastic ninja weapons, One Piece junk, corny postcard sets that look like they were printed in the 80s, "replica samurai swords", basically the sort of stuff you'd expect to find at a mega-cheesy Japan-themed gas station. It was all really off-putting; made the place feel like a big tourist trap. The rain and cold didn't help, but my experience here wasn't really a positive one.

Later in the day the rain finally let up and we saw the Golden Pavillion at Kinkakuji, which is a Buddhist shrine now but once was basically a monument to the opulence of the ruling class. Well, OK, maybe it's both now. There's an entire tea house built off to the side of the lake where the whole purpose of it is that it catches the light off the house particularly well when the sun is setting. This is what people did with their time before television, build giant golden houses and then smaller structures where they could view their giant golden houses. Sure is pretty though!

HOPE: The Golden Pavilion was a quieter venue than the previous two we'd visited, probably because of its great cultural relevance. This is a reconstruction of the original building, which was burned down, but that's a very long story. It's definitely very shiny and the gardens surrounding it were the prettiest we saw in Kyoto.

Postcard worthy if I do say so myself.

There's a short little walk through a nature trail with views of stuff like this.

Our final stop was a special evening event at Nijo Castle where they light up the palace grounds so you can see the cherry blossoms and buy rice wine. Thankfully it wasn't raining anymore, but this was something like hour 13 of trudging around in the wet cold and I was really ready to go collapse. It's a good thing the views inside were so nice.

HOPE: The place was all lit up with candlelight displays that stood out sharply against the overcast sky. For most of the gorgeous walk through the grounds, I have to admit I was pretending to be a princess surveying her palace. I couldn't help myself. The place is just so immaculate and breathtaking. I enjoyed exploring this place as much as the Inari shrine, as different as the two were.

This is the palace itself. You can go inside during the day, I think, and see where people who once had a lot of power used to sit around.

They had these light-up displays around the grounds, sort of a local art thing.


Hey, it's a moat! Look at that. A real moat. No crocodiles that I could see, but it's a moat, for sure.

Here's the gift shop, which I know you were dying to see. It looked like it'd been here for a very long time.


Welp, it's our last day of scheduled activities (the Friday we left was a free day) and the last stop I thought anyone reading this would care about was the Tezuka Museum, dedicated to a man I'm fairly sure most of the tour group wasn't familiar with or at the very least hadn't seen any of his work.

On the way there you pass by the mega-famous Takarazuka Theater, where women play all the roles in outrageously melodramatic stage productions covered in glitter and sparkles. It's their 100th anniversary, which is a big deal as it's being heavily advertised all over Takarazuka, and they're even restaging their famous production of The Rose of Versailles.

HOPE: I can't deny I really wanted to go, but it would have been crazy expensive, hard to plan, and with the language barrier, well...I'll just look some stuff up on youtube. I've always found the Takarazuka tradition incredibly inspiring and charming. I do love me some camp.

HOPE: Black Jack is my favorite of Tezuka's creations. I looked forward to seeking out all the Black Jack materials the museum had preserved as tiles like these pointed the way.

It's a short walk down the "Flower Road" to the Tezuka Museum, where these special tiles...

complement these bronze statues of famous Takarazuka productions.

There she is.

Roses would bloom here if the weather weren't so shitty.

And here we are at the museum. That observatory-looking thing at the top is "Symbol Monument: Our Planet of Glass". Kinda makes the building look like a kids' science museum but whatever.

Hey, it's the Phoenix! Good thing I didn't spend my entire life trying to obtain it only to be spurned and punished for my single-minded devotion!

HOPE: The Phoenix is not only Tezuka's most ambitious creation and unfinished magnum opus, it's also one of the greatest cognitive disconnects between character appearance and personality I've ever seen.

If you've ever seen Phoenix or read it, this bird is kind of an asshole.

They have these Chinese Theater-style fake handprints of Tezuka's characters out front. Kinda cute, I guess.

Hey, it's Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast, if he were a Universal Monster.

HOPE: Kimba is my second favorite of Tezuka's creations. There are many statuettes like this throughout the museum, and they all have little signs saying "do not touch," but you can tell by the many scuffs all over Kimba that not everybody listens to those signs...

The first floor is mostly a chronological history of Tezuka's life and work, displayed in these rotating Astro Boy capsule things.

Lots of little statues of Tezuka at various points in his life. Sadly they didn't just outright make a Tezuka action figure. I'd likely have bought one.

Man, Astro Boy didn't age well. Get that suit tailored, you look terrible.


HOPE: Most of these were interactive games for children, and there were a lot of children in the museum. The place had a great balance of big in-depth text and materials displays for adult Tezuka fans and colorful interactive places like this for kids.

The basement floor is this big mock-up Astro Boy lab with a "how to animate" interactive display in it. It was entirely in Japanese so I didn't mess with it, but it looked fairly elaborate.

This big life-size cartoon version of Tezuka himself watches over the how-to-animate display with the disappointed look of a father who you were never quite good enough for.

From the little-seen "Erotic Adventures of Astro Boy", 1989

The action in this pose confuses me.

Naturally, there's a big store on the third floor next to the special exhibition.

Given the sheer amount of Tezuka merchandise, the store is actually a little understated. It's mostly Astro Boy and Black Jack stuff, with a few super-pricey things here and there and complete sets of manga for sale.

These 'life-size' statues were everywhere but the Pinoko one had my flesh crawling.

Last but not least, there's a Kimba-themed cafe nobody seemed to be partaking in.  Like everything else in the museum, the theming is nice, if a little static and plasticky.

Alright, so before we wrap up, I'll share what happened to us at this particular Pokemon Center that was in the same building as our hotel. Hope and I headed back after the Tezuka museum to get some work done, and decided to stop by and see what they had here (Hope is a big fan - I'm a casual observer). The place was overrun with screaming little kids (Spring Break was happening while we were in Japan so kids were generally everywhere) while incredibly loud Pokémon music played. Hope browsed for a while and found something she wanted - a little vinyl figure of an Eevee, which it turned out you couldn't buy - it was part of a raffle where you paid $5 to pick out a ticket, and the letter on the ticket determined which prize you won.

So I fish out 500 yen and hand it to the lady. Hope pulls out a ticket and rips it open, and the lady is all "OHHHHH!" and rings an oversize bell she has, and then pulls down


They weren't even selling Pikachus this big in the store itself

We were already shopping for a duffel bag that we could cram all the crap we already bought that wouldn't fit into our luggage. I was pretty sure I'd have to buy a child's airfare home just to get this stupid Pikachu back to Southern California. Luckily he counted as a personal item and now he haunts our apartment.

Anyway, that's about it. A little bit about the tour itself: big thanks to PacSet Tours for sponsoring our trip over there. From my perspective as someone who's been to Tokyo a few times, I think the tour they've put together is great for people who have never been, but unnecessary if you know your way around these places. I didn't know jack about Osaka or Kyoto so having a guide was invaluable, but being led around Tokyo I was grateful I could break off anytime I wanted. If you simply know your away around the Yamanote line, you'll feel like maybe the guided experience is unnecessary. The group we were with was large but not unmanageable and generally they were all great folks who were really excited to be there.

One keep in mind if you're considering this particular tour: (which has a few permutations - there's an 'Animated Summer' tour, but bear in mind I'm not sure if the pacing or the destinations are the same) they really do run you into the ground. Very few of the tour days had less than 12 hours or so of activities built in; you will finish each day (if you're like me) absolutely exhausted, so if you're looking for a relaxing vacation, this isn't for you. It's designed for people who want to fill every second of every day with things to see and not waste a moment while they're in Japan resting or relaxing, which is totally fine if you've never been before, but if you're an old man like me for whom maybe 8 hours of anime shopping is enough, you may find yourself worn out.

But it's perfect for someone who has a ton of energy, hasn't ever been to Japan before and wants every second to count. We'd come back from 13 hours of trudging around and some of these guys would run off to the arcade because it was still open for another hour.  It's carefully designed to match the needs of that particular person, and it succeeds in that regard. Me, I wanted more downtime. But I'm old and I've seen my share of crane games.

So that's it. Be sure to check out our podcast about the tour which will be up this week, which will feature Hope's overall take on the tour (we ran out of time and just wanted to get these photos up for you). Farewell Japan! I'm sure in another 5 years I'll miss you, but right now I'm way too stoked to have some decent mexican food. Until next time!

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