13 August 2004

Sayonara Japan.

The fifth day, Justin and I took a train to Nara, Japan's first capital and one of the cultural centers of the country. We visited the 3- and 5-storied pagodas, which were beautiful Shinto shrines, and the famous deer park, where semi-tame deer will eat straight from your hand. We fed them the "deer cookies" sold by the vendors around the park, and discovered that they enjoy Rice Krispies, which we'd brought from the ship as a snack. They were pretty feisty little guys- chasing us around after we ran out of food, poking us with their antlers. They were cute though, and let us pet them and take pictures (as long as we kept feeding them, of course). It was a lot of fun!

We had dinner at another noodle shop, which was equally delicious and cheap compared to the one in Kobe. Nara was an interesting change from the big cities we've seen so far. It is much smaller, and more laidback and easygoing than Kobe, Hiroshima, and Osaka. The people were exceptionally friendly here, as well. During dinner, Justin wanted curry with soba noodles instead of udon, which wasn't on the menu, but the chef was nice enough to make it for him. Later, we were waiting in the pouring rain under an overhang for the light to change so we could cross the street, and a random Japanese man on a bike stopped to give us an umbrella! When we returned to Kobe, we stopped at McDonalds for 100 Yen (~$1) milkshakes for dessert before going back to the ship- one of the few things cheaper in Japan than back home!

On our last day in Japan (and on dry land for almost 2 weeks), I went to Himeiji castle, on the advice of our Modern China professor. The castle is beautiful, considered one of the best relics from feudal Japan. It looks nothing like a western castle- more like a shrine or temple with the pagoda-like roof and other details. Himeiji castle is especially interesting to see because many of the artifacts found there have been preserved inside in different exhibits on each of the six floors, instead of being moved to museums. There were scrolls of paintings and calligraphy, weapons, samurai armor, and other leftovers from the last days of feudal Japan. On the top floor is a Shinto shrine, and a beautiful view of the city of Himeiji. On our way out, we visited a building on the castle grounds where the samurai's ritual suicide used to be performed.

Back in the city, while looking for a place to eat lunch, we again ran into the food anthropologist and his family, and they directed us to a noodle shop where a noodle master (a new career aspiration for me, perhaps?) makes homemade udon noodles right there in the shop. They were the best noodles in Asia, and trust me, I tried plenty! We watched the master make noodles for a while before walking back to the train station. We stopped at Baskin Robbins for ice cream before going back to Kobe, where we went to an area in the big department store near the port, which we dubbed "Pastry Heaven." It was filled with shop after shop selling beautiful homemade pastries, cakes, candy, breads, and other gourmet foods. And the best part of all- samples!

We walked all around the area, trying candies, breads, and some other delicious things we couldn't name. I tried some fresh made vegetable pot stickers, which were some of the best I'd ever eaten. We even had to break the Japanese tradition of not eating and walking at the same time, since we were in a rush to get back to the ship in time for dinner, and wanted to finish the pot stickers while they were hot! On the pier, we kissed Asia (and dry land!) good-bye before getting on the ship for our two weeklong trip home. I’ve had an absolutely amazing, and unforgettable time over here, and I can't wait to come back here one day, and see even more!

Updates from the ship: I emerged victorious from the Scrabble tournament, taking down Neil, the 84-year-old passenger (oldest on the ship) for the victory! My team came in second overall, but the prize was first off the ship in Seattle, which was a disappointment to most, since those with an early flight are also getting off first. Oh well- we had fun! Tonight is Crew Appreciation Talent Night, which should be entertaining- the dining staff is always singing and dancing during meals! On the 12th was our Charity Auction, which, as the accountant, I put a lot of time into. We raised over $10,000 for charities in the countries we've visited, and the memorial fund in memory of Janet, the girl who passed away in Beijing! Tomorrow’s our Ambassador's Ball, our big formal dinner/dance event, which should be fun. Lots of events to keep us amused on the long trip home, and break up the monotony of nine consecutive days of class, coupled with a lost hour each day as we adjust to the time changes. I’m still digesting this entire experience – I can’t believe I just visited six countries (eight counting the US and Hong Kong) in two months! All I know is I want to keep traveling as long as I can!

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