I came back about two weeks ago after spending a week and half in Japan with my family. One of my sisters lives in Chiba, and she got married on the 4th! It was a beautiful ceremony.
We spent a week before the wedding touring around some of Japan's most famous sights. Because there were 22 of us (a lot of the bride and grooms friends came from the US for the wedding, too!) we rented a charter bus to take us around for the week before the wedding. My sister and her fiancée planned the trip to a tee, so the whole thing went incredibly smoothly. And even though I'd been to visit my sister in Japan for Christmas 2012, it seemed like most of what we saw was completely new.
All in all, it was an awesome trip that we all had a blast on. So thanks to my sister and her new husband, and I wish them the best on their new life together! And in honor of the excellent trip they organized, here are my top five memories from the whole thing.
1. Fuji Sengen Shrine.
A 600-year-old Shinto shrine a short drive away from Fuji-san itself. Of all the temples and shrines we visited on the trip, this was definitely my favorite. It's not crowded like the Meiji temple (located in the heart of Tokyo) or Toshogu (a world heritage site), so I could enjoy the tranquility of the space more. And is it tranquil! To get to it, you pass under the first Shinto gateway and onto a long, unpaved footpath through a forest of Japanese cedars, flanked by mossy stone lanterns. The walk there seems to quiet the mind and prepare the spirit for the shrine itself. At the end of the footpath, a bridge takes you gently over a brook that flows so smoothly that it whispers rather than babbles. It is the perfect transition into the shrine complex itself, which seems so much at ease and in rapport with the forest and the stream that it would be hard to imagine one without the other. By the time you reach it, you're now attuned to the spirituality and majesty designed into the shrine. I'd say it is hard to visit the shrine and not feel spiritually cleansed afterwards. Traditional Japanese architecture and landscaping was truly genius in this respect.
2. Traditional Japanese inn and hot springs on the Angry Ogre River
About halfway through the trip we stayed for a night at an inn on the Kinugawa, or Angry Ogre, river. The place was both a traditional Japanese inn and a hot springs bath. It was an incredibly pleasant experience because, besides being relaxing, the whole thing was very immersive. The rooms don't have any Western-style furniture. Instead, guests sit on the floor on low tables and sleep on futons. They brought us Japanese-style robes to wear while we were at the inn . My sister told me what they were called, but I forgot to write down the names. Anyway, once we got checked in, we headed down to the hot springs baths. This being a Japanese hot springs, that meant segregated baths for men and women, as they can only be used while naked. Once you get used to it, it's pretty awesome- especially the views over the Angry Ogre river. When we arrived, it had just started to sprinkle, so we chose the outdoor bath over the indoor one. The softly cascading rain made a comfortable contrast to the hot springs.
After drying off and changing back into our robes, it was time for dinner, again in a very traditionally Japanese fashion. That meant again sitting on the floor as they brought out tray after tray of food: all kinds of raw fish, fermented vegetables, soups, and rice. Many in the group were turned off by how "weird" (to us) most of the food was, but this was easily my favorite meal because of the whole experience that went into it. All said, I could have easily spent a week at that place!
3. Singing karaoke in Chiba
This was the closest thing the groom got to a bachelor's party. Basically, all the guys went one night to sing Karaoke at an all-you-can-drink karaoke place. Unlike in the US, in Japan you rent a private room by the hour or half-hour for your party and they bring whatever snacks and drinks you order directly to you. And since it was all-you-can-drink, we kept the drinks coming. I lost count of how many rounds we ordered, but even without them we would have had a great time. The groom's friends visiting from the US, five guys in all, were old friends and had no problem letting go and just having a good time- one of the good things about having a private room! That set the mood for the whole night, and soon we were all dancing, crooning out lyrics, and laughing hysterically.
Afterwards we went back to the hotel around midnight, but somehow me and one of my brother-in-laws wound up at a late night Ramen restaurant just around the corner, where we had a surprisingly deep conversation about the meaning of life. I say that given how much we drank, to anyone who understood English at the restaurant we must have been pretty funny. He and I laughed about it the next morning (me with a horrendous hangover). But you know what? Our Ramen Shop Philosophizing was a great way to end the night.
4. Nikko Edo Wonderland park
Nikko Edo is a theme park made to look like a 17th century Japanese village. Though the park was aimed at kids, we still had a good time here! We went the day after the Inn & Hot Springs, and the weather was perfect: sunny, warm and breezy.
I liked it because of how interactive it was. We learned the basics of katana fighting, archery, shuriken-throwing, and even dueled with "samurai" in the streets. A couple of the girls in our party dressed up in Kimonos, and a few of us guys went on a ninja-training obstacle course that we failed miserably at.
It was also fun for me because I was finishing up Shogun, the book by James Clavell set in early 17th Century Japan. So I could actually walk through a "17th Century village"- in theme park form, granted, but fun and enjoyable nonetheless.
Since I mentioned Shogun- I started reading on the airplane to Japan and I'd say it made the whole trip more enjoyable. Besides being an excellent book in its own right, it also gave a lot of insight into the history of Japan and where modern Japanese culture evolved from. Highly recommended read, especially if you're planning on visiting Japan!
5. The wedding itself!
I'm running out of sisters to watch get married off. Plus, there's something about seeing a sister (or any loved one, for that matter) walking down the aisle that just makes the tears flow.
It was a Western-style wedding, which apparently are very popular in Japan, held at a place called Camelot Hills in Omiya. The place tries to be a replica of an old manor-house, which a decently large chapel inside for the actual wedding ceremony. I'm not sure how faithful of a replica it is, but it was a beautiful venue.
The wedding process, based on what my sister described, is very straightforward in Japan: you pay a lot of money to a place like Camelot Hills, and they basically take care of everything for you. For example, Camelot Hills took care of the catering, DJ and MC, photography and videography, the minister, set-up and clean-up, and more. They helped my sister find translators to interpret during the reception and after-party (the ceremony itself was only in English). It was the job of one staff member to follow my sister around the whole night and constantly fix her makeup, redo her hair, and adjust her dress for photos. They had shuttle buses going to-and-from Omiya, right near our hotel, to make it easy to get there.
All in all, I was impressed with how smooth the venue made the whole thing- Except for having a shuttle bus drive off at the end of the night with all my things on board! But to their credit, the venue was great about arranging to have the bus drop them back off to me.
One last thing worth mentioning that was fantastic about my sister's wedding- the desert bar they had at the afterparty. Besides having a station where guests could make smores (the bride and groom met at a bonfire in Oklahoma), they had a mouthwatering array of sweets that made me feel like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory- on top of the wedding cake, by the way.
My favorite? A chocolate mousse topped with strawberry sauce, covered in gold flakes (yes, real gold) with a stick of chocolate stuck in the top. The thought that I was eating real gold made the dish taste even more decadent.
Thanks again to my sister and her new husband for the amazing time we all had!
Dillon Dakota Carroll
From my apartment, I descend onto the side street I live on. It is a dirt road, often filled with puddles from yesterday's rainstorm. The guard salutes me. So many guards, because there are so many people, and they need some way to earn their living. There are so many, there seem to be guards for the guards. But this one, unlike most, actually has a uniform. Crisp and blue, police-like. Always smiling and kind.
Five story buildings loom overhead, in various states of dilapidation. One can actually hear birds chirping, and with the soft wet dirt underneath, it all lends itself to a florestral sensation, despite the lack of greenery. But this street is deceiving in its peacefulness- it is a dead-end road, so only residents come down it, many of whom pass the day in the street, just sitting and watching, as birds on a telephone line.
100 yards to go, and I'm on the main street, one of the principle arteries connecting Gulshan, the embassies, and Banani. I wish I didn't have to use it. Because as soon as the road changes from dirt to pot-holed concrete, the obstacle course begins.
Hundreds of people- street urchins, businessmen, old beggars, students, shopkeepers, street vendors, guards, police- crowd the sidewalk, the sidewalk that ends and begins abruptly and that, if I'm not careful, could easily lead me to step (or fall) into the open stormwater channels that stink of rot and feces. Some walk, some stop, some haggle for a handout, some crouch down to relieve themselves in the stormwater drains, adding to the trash and muck already filling them. As I weave around the people, sometimes passing into the road, I duck to avoid the tangle of telecom cables that droop over the sides of the street. Hundreds of them, one for each person on the street, it seems. Swarms of rickshaw drivers and beggars buzz around, each hoping for a bit of money.
Trees sprout miraculously out of the sidewalk, the paving having been done meticulously around them, the bricks laid right up against the tree trunk. The trees here must feel strangled, but the green is welcome in a city of neutered colors: grays and browns and tans.
I walk past a tea walla. A small crowd is gathered around the rusty cart, drinking tea and smoking, as the walla deftly and expertly mixes his elixir of sugar, condensed milk, and tea, all for ten cents. Plastic bags packed with cheap pastries hang from the roof of the stall or sit in plastic bins on the counter space, and crushed cigarettes and plastic wrappers litter the ground around the tea walla like a Persian carpet, attesting to his success.
I cross a road, immersing myself in the impossibly loud traffic, each vehicle honking in unison, rickshaws adding to the cacophony with their bicycle bells, motorcycles growling past menacingly. The cars, jockeying for position, ignore my presence until the last millisecond. It is a harrowing game of chicken that often leaves me leaping out of the way of an impatient driver.
Safely crossed to the other side, I continue down the side of the street, which feels more alive than dead. Indeed, when entering Dhaka, one has the impression of entering the belly of the whale. Nowhere else will you find every square foot of the street so efficiently used, and not just to get around. There are all the street vendors: the tea wallas, of course, and food stalls (or even bowls of food set on a stool): puffed rice, boiled eggs, fujka, spicy diced vegetables with egg, pastries of all sorts, and even cooks making biryani rice in the street; there are the cigarette stalls and the stands where you can recharge your phone, there are shoe shiners and garment sellers, the ubiquitous beggars, the people-watchers, the smokers, the under-employed (those whose job consists of sitting around all day long), the drivers waiting for their employer, the rickshaw drivers on break, the snappily-dressed office workers returning from lunch. It is an electron cloud, cracking with energy and moving too quickly and chaotically to pinpoint with any accuracy.
Slightly out of breath with it all, I hurry to my destination, one more cell in the organism that is the street of Dhaka.
...sees much and knows much