Category : Travel

Todaiji Temple – Nara, Japan

December 7, 2012

The city of Nara Japan is known for two things: Deer and the Big Buddha at Todaiji Temple.

Which is why their mascot looks like this:

nara mascot Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

Nara’s mascot – Buddha with deer antlers

My last big sightseeing trip in Japan was to the Todaiji Temple in Nara. Maiko and I took a train from Osaka to Kintetsu.  We missed the train going to Nara, so we had to wait twenty minutes for the next one to arrive.

It was cold outside, so to keep myself warm, I bought a hot bottle of milk tea from the vending machine (That’s right, there are hot drinks in Japanese vending machines).

vending machine1 Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

Vending machine

Well, that’s my excuse anyway. The truth is, I’d have gotten something from the vending machine regardless of the weather. Japan has vending machines on almost every block—and I love that they offer hot drinks during winter.

The train finally arrived. An hour later, we made our way from the Nara station and out into the city proper.

The first thing I said as I stepped out from the station was, “Oh my God! It’s freezing!”

It was so cold I couldn’t feel my face. I couldn’t take a proper breath. I felt like I was breathing in ice instead air. In fact, it was so cold Maiko and I couldn’t even speak as we made our way down the street.

A few minutes of walking warmed me up a bit, and I was able to utter my second sentence for the day: “Look! ADeer!”

deer Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

Oh deer!

Deer clopped casually down the street, sometimes sniffing out people who passed them by, but otherwise going about their business.

deer1 Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

More deer

I found a few signs along the street warning tourists about the deer. I thought the signs were funny—and also very effective in making me paranoid about being headbutted by a deer.

warning signs Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

warning signs

We passed some vendors on the way to the temple. Most of them sold crackers for 150 Yen—but these weren’t for human consumption. The shika senbai or crackers were for the deer. Tourists could buy a bundle and feed the many deer who were milling about.

cracker vendors Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

Deer crackers vendor

One vendor we came across sold steamed sweet potato, and Maiko bought one for us to share. Eating the hot root was one way for us to warm ourselves, since we were still pretty much freezing despite the lack of snow.

sweet potato vendor Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

Buying some steamed sweet potato

Half an hour later, we reached the temple. We paid the 500 Yen entrance fee and made our way toward the temple gates.

The Nandaimon Gate has two fierce looking statues on either side, representing the Nio Guardian Kings. Along with the wooden gate, the statues are designated as a national treasure.

nandaimon gate Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

Nandaimon Gate

A Little Bit of History:

Todaiji Temple or the Great Eastern Temple was built at the height of Buddhism in 743. Todaiji was constructed as the head temple for the religion. It’s influence on government affairs became so strong that the capital was actually moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 so the government could establish its independence from Todaiji.

Todaiji is a composed of many different buildings, but it is most known for its main hall. At a height of 157 feet (or 48 meters), the Daibutsu-den (Big Buddha Hall) is the world’s largest wooden building. What’s more impressive is that the current structure of the Daibutsu-den is only two-thirds of the original main hall’s size.

todaiji temple Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

Todaiji’s Daibutsu-den

The Daibutsu-den houses Todaiji’s most important relic—the 15 meter tall bronze statue of Vairocana Buddha (Daibutsu). Two Bodhisattvas (wisdom beings) flank the big Buddha on either side.

big buddha Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

The Big Buddha

The main hall houses other Buddhist statues, as well as a model replica of different versions of the temple as it was built and rebuilt throughout the centuries.

temple replica Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

Model buildings -replicas of the various stages of Todaiji’s construction

On one side of the hall was a steep & narrow stairway which the monks used in ancient times to climb up to the rafters. The stairs are no longer in use, of course, and instead serve as a reminder of how the monks used to live in the old days.

steep stairs Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

Steep and narrow steps to nowhere

One attraction which seemed to draw a lot of locals was a pillar with a hole at its base. The hole is the same size as the Buddha’s nostril, and it is said that all who can squeeze through the opening would be granted enlightenment in their next life.

pillar Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

Tourist squeezing through the hole 

A big stall selling souvenirs like magnets, charms, and other little trinkets was located at the back of the main hall. We made our way toward it to buy some souvenirs before heading back toward the main hall’s entrance.

souvenir shops Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

Souvenir shop inside the main hall

On the way out, we saw another stall where monks sold actual charms, blessed and prayed over by the monks of Todaiji temple. There were charms for wealth, happiness, success, fertility, and even one specifically for students taking exams. (I bought a charm for success, because hey, you can never get enough good luck.)

charms monks Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

Monks selling a variety of good luck charms

Eager to get back to the warmth of the house, and away from the bitter cold of Nara city, Maiko and I quickly made our way down the temple steps. We stopped only long enough to take a picture of this beautiful red arch before walking back toward the train station.

pagoda arch Todaiji Temple   Nara, Japan

 

And that’s the end of my Japan adventures. Osaka, Kyoto and Nara were all beautiful cities in their own right, and despite the freezing weather, I enjoyed my stay in Japan.

I’m already missing the vending machines and the automatic toilets with a seat warmer, bidet, and all sorts of buttons for one’s convenience.

One day I hope to return, maybe in the spring, so I can enjoy the cherry blossoms and a milder climate.

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Tea Ceremony – Osaka, Japan

One of the highlights of my trip to Japan was being able to experience a formal tea ceremony. This—thanks to Maiko’s mom, and her friend Morinaga-san.

Morinaga –san invited us to her beautiful home, which happens to have a traditional tea room. Not all Japanese houses are blessed with a tea room and Morinaga-san said she felt lucky to have found this house years ago.

The first thing we saw was a wonderful Japanese garden in the front yard. Morinaga-san had decorated and designed the space herself.

japanese garden1 Tea Ceremony   Osaka, Japan

 Japanese garden

After admiring the garden, we entered the front doors and walked into a foyer unlike any I had ever seen before. As is the Japanese way, we removed our shoes by the entrance and wore the slippers Morinaga-san had prepared for us.

entrance to the house1 Tea Ceremony   Osaka, Japan

 Traditional Japanese Foyer

After giving us a tour of the house, Morinaga-san led us to the tea room.

tea room1 Tea Ceremony   Osaka, Japan

Japanese tea room

Maiko translated as Morinaga-san introduced the various equipment used in traditional tea ceremonies.

tea stand1 Tea Ceremony   Osaka, Japan

Sitting above the custom tea stand is the natsume, which contains the macha or green tea to be used in the ceremony. Morinaga-san said that in the days of the samurai, no swords were allowed in the tea room, but the threat of shoguns or daimyos being assassinated via poisoning was still there. To make sure the tea wasn’t poisoned, the natsume was made with a lacquer that would change color if the tea was poisoned.

Other equipment include:

fukusa -orange cloth used to clean the tea devices

chasen – tea whisk, carved from a single piece of bamboo

chasaku – tea scoop, also carved from a single piece of bamboo

The red pot in the bottom of the stand contained water for refilling the kettle, should the guests wish for more tea.

There is a ceremony to each aspect of tea-serving and Morinaga-san said she studied the art on and off for about 8 years, before finally getting to the level she is at now.

Morinaga-san explained that there is a certain way of sitting  during a tea ceremony. The host has to sit at a specific angle from the corner of the hot kettle area.

morinaga san1 Tea Ceremony   Osaka, Japan

 Morinaga-san preparing the tools for the tea ceremony

Morinaga-san placed plates of sweets before us and encouraged us to eat them before she served the tea. The sweets will coat our mouths with sugar, so as to dampen the bitterness of the ceremonial green tea.

The sweets served are often designed based on the season, so Morinaga-san served us sweets shaped in traditional fall/winter items–such as the orange maple-leaf and the white daikon.

 

sweets1 Tea Ceremony   Osaka, Japan

sweets to go with the tea

Morinaga-san began by first cleaning the natsume (tea container), chasaku (tea spoon) and tea bowls with the fukusa or orange cloth. She  warmed up the tea bowl with water from the kettle and placed a few scoops of green tea before adding hot water.

tea pot1 Tea Ceremony   Osaka, Japan

She then used the chasen (tea whisk) to mix the green tea and hot water.  She explains that the front of the tea bowl should always be facing the guest.

cups1 Tea Ceremony   Osaka, Japan

 decorative tea bowls

The guests are expected to make comments about the bowls, or compliment their designs as way to start conversations.

The best bowls are often reserved for the guest of honor. I was very touched and deeply honored that Morinaga-san used the best bowl for me.

In the olden days, Morinaga-san said that people often spewed haikus or tanka (short poems) while being served the tea.

The Tokonoma is also another source of conversation. The Tokonoma is an alcove where a scroll containing calligraphy or a piece of art is displayed, along with some flower arrangements and decor on the bottom.

Usually, guests will ask the host about the theme she chose for the alcove’s decoration.

with morinaga san1 Tea Ceremony   Osaka, Japan

Maiko and I posing with Morinaga-san in front of the Tokonoma

As the hostess, Morinaga-san wasn’t allowed to partake of the tea and the sweets, as her main job was to entertain her guests.

Morinaga-san asked all us if they wanted another cup –naturally I said yes. The tea wasn’t as bitter as I expected, and was in fact very flavorful.

After my second cup of tea, we finally stretched our legs (tired from sitting Japanese style) and took pictures.

Morinaga-san even let me wear her special tea ceremony vest so I could pose with it. She explained that in place of the kimono, she had to wear the tea vest, which was built with different pockets to place the cloth and sweets paper in.

wearing tea ceremony vest1 Tea Ceremony   Osaka, Japan

 Wearing the ceremonial tea vest

I’ll always be grateful to Maiko, her mom and Morinaga-san for giving me such a wonderful cultural experience.

It was a very beautiful ceremony and I feel very blessed to have been a part of it.

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Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

One of the reasons I love to travel is that new sights and experiences always spark the imagination and widen the mind. So this month I’m going to catch you all up on my trip to Japan last December. I hope my adventures there inspire you to write new stories or give you ideas for your own vacation.

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December 5, 2012 – Ginkaku-ji (Silver Temple), Kyoto

Giovano’s Italian restaurant, which we had dinner in the previous night was transformed into a bright breakfast bar. The long queue was worth braving, as we were rewarded with a buffet, consisting of both traditional Japanese and Western breakfast foods.

After stuffing ourselves silly, we finished packing and bade goodbye to the timeshare hotel.

Our first stop for the day was Ginkaku-ji, also known as the Silver Pavilion.

entrance map  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

 

A Little History:

Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built Ginkaku-ji in 1482 as a retirement villa. He modeled it after the famous Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion).  In 1485, Yoshimasa became a Zen Buddhist monk, adopting the name Jisho-ji. Thus, after Yoshimasa’s death in 1490, the villa was converted into a Zen temple.

The Silver pavilion, also known as the Kannonden (Kannon Hall), was the first thing I saw as I entered the grounds. Although the interior of the building wasn’t open to the public, I discovered that within the temple was a statue of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon. (hence the name)

silver temple up close  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

The Kannonden (Kannon Hall) or Silver Pavilion

Maiko’s dad, being the wonderful host that he was, purchased an audio guide so I could learn all about the pavilion and its various buildings.

by the waterfall  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

 

The red audio guide slung around my neck

We walked along the path leading from the pavilion, passing several beautiful landmarks. The first was in front of the pavilion– a beautifully maintained dry sand garden, which locals call the “Sea of Silver Sand.”

 

silver pavilion  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

 The dry sand garden in front of the pavilion

The next two landmarks were the main hall (Hondo) and the Togudo hall. Both, like the pavilion are closed to the public. But thanks to my audio guide, I learned that the Togudo study room, containing 4.5 tatami mats, is considered to be the oldest example  of the Shoin architecture. Most contemporary tatami rooms  built today are based on the Shoin architectural style.

togudo  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

 

The Togudo, with a beautiful pond beside it.

The (extremely) cold weather didn’t stop us from enjoying Ginkakuji’s beautiful moss garden. Ponds surrounded by beautiful trees and plants, and little streams with small islands and bridges were scattered throughout the garden.

pond1  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

 

Moss garden pond

Despite it being winter,  we were still able to enjoy the beautiful fall colors of the trees around the area.

fall colors  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

Fall colors on the leaves of the Japanese Maple tree

pathways with leaves  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

Stone path strewn with orange leaves

The path around the garden led us up beautiful stone steps to a hill where we saw breathtaking views of the temple and the surrounding city.

view from the top  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

view from the hill

After taking in the beautiful aerial view, we made our way down the path to the other side. We bumped into two girls dressed in traditional kimono (which they rented).  They were nice enough to take a picture with us.

with kimono girls  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

 

Japanese girls wearing traditional kimono

Thanks to my trusty audio guide, I learned the reason for the Silver Pavilion’s name.  The temple was never covered in silver, instead, it used to be covered in black lacquer which looked silver in the moonlight.

To round off our tour of Ginkakuji, we bought souvenirs. Then, we headed to our next stop.

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple), Kyoto

entrance1  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

By the entrance to the temple

A Little History

The golden temple, formally known as Rokuon-ji, was the retirement villa of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, Yoshimasa’s  (who built the silver temple) grandfather.  After Yohismitsu’s death, the villa was turned into a Zen temple for the Rinzai sect.

Unlike the silver temple, the golden temple is exactly what it says it is. The first two floors are completely covered in gold leaf

golden temple1  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

The usual crowd of tourists and school kids on field trips was present at Kinkaku-ji. We had to wait for a few minutes before we could even take a proper picture in front of the temple.

golden temple between  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

We followed the route around the pond so we could view the temple up close. We even got to see this rare, and rather amusing sight of a raven resting on the temple’s golden bird.

bird on bird1  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

We passed by the hojo, the head priest’s former living quarters. The building is known for its fusuma, or painted sliding doors.

hojo  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

the hojo

Aside from gardens surrounding the temple, there really wasn’t much else to see.

garden1  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

So we headed toward the exit, where we passed by a small tea garden and some souvenir shops. We also passed by another small temple which housed a statue of Fudo, protector of Buddhism and one of the Five Wisdom Kings.

fudo hall  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden Temples

Fudo Hall

Tired of bumping into people and wanting to get away from the bitter cold, we piled into the car and began our hour long trip back to Osaka.

Dinner was at Maiko’s Dad’s favorite Udon restaurant. We ended the day’s adventure the way we began it–by sharing a wonderful meal.

udon  Kyoto, Japan: Silver and Golden TemplesUdon dinner

 ** This Friday: Japanese Tea Ceremony

 

References:

Ginkaku-ji (Silver Temple)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginkaku-ji

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3907.html

http://www.yamasa.org/japan/english/destinations/kyoto/ginkakuji.html

 

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Temple)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinkaku-ji

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3908.html

http://www.sacred-destinations.com/japan/kyoto-kinkakuji

http://www.dottedroute.com/2010/02/kyoto-japan-and-the-golden-temple/

 

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Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

December 4 – 5, 2012

Maiko and her parents were topnotch hosts during my stay in Japan. They fed me delicious Japanese food and took me to famous temples in the area.

Before heading out to Kyoto, my wonderful hosts took me to a  Japanese restaurant called Kizashi, known only to locals. I’m always amazed by the variety of dishes in Japanese cooking. We were served several courses of beautifully plated, delicious meals.

kizashi lunch Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

One of the lunch courses at Kizashi

Our stomachs fully satisfied, we headed for the first temple on our list: Kiyomizudera.

Cute little shops line the streets leading up to the temple proper.

 

street shops Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

Shops lining streets leading up to the temple

Kiyomizudera is located east of Kyoto. It was built in 780 on the site of the Otowa Waterfall, which is why its name means Pure Water Temple.

me at kiyomizudera Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

The temple belongs to the Kita Hoso Sect, and was founded by the Great priest Enchin. Within the temple, are enshrined the images of Kannon, Buddhist God of Mercy and Bosatsu (Bodhi-Sattva).

gods Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

The temple itself was packed with throngs of people—most of whom were school children who were out on a field trip. Maiko said that no matter the season, Kiyomizudera is always crowded, as it is one of Japan’s most popular temples.

crowded temple Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

While Maiko’s parents headed off to explore the shops nearest the temple, Maiko and I paid the 300 Y ($3) entrance fee. We made our way past the 3 Tier Pagoda toward the main temple.

3 tier pagoda Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

3 Tier pagoda

While the temple has become a tourist attraction, it still is a place of worship. There’s a wall near the main temple where people place small wooden plaques (ema) containing their prayers or wishes. In the olden days, people used to donate horses or other animals to the shrines for good favor. Over time, this evolved into a wooden plaque with pictures of animals.

ema Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

Ema, prayers and wishes left at the shrine 

The temple’s most amazing feature is its veranda, which juts out from the main hall. The veranda is supported by 13 meter high wooden columns, and from it, visitors have a nice view of the numerous cherry and maple trees below and city of Kyoto in the distance.

columns Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

Columns supporting the veranda

 A popular expression in Japan “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu”, is the Japanese equivalent of the English expression “to take the plunge”.  In the Edo period, a tradition held that if one jumped off from the 13 meter high stage at Kiyomizu and survived, one would have his wish granted. Apparently 234 jumps were recorded during that period, and 85.4% of the jumpers survived. Of course, nowadays, the practice has been banned.

views from the veranda Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

View from the veranda

After admiring the view from the veranda, we made our way to the structure housing the Otowa Waterfall below.

otowa waterfall from the top Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

Otowa waterfall viewed from the top

We passed a small plaza containing shops selling various good luck charms, talismans and souvenirs, then went down a flight of steps shaded by a canopy of beautiful maple trees.

shops selling charms Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

Shops selling charms, souvenirs and talismans

steps leading to the waterfall Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

Steps leading down to the waterfall

At the bottom of the steps was the Otowa waterfall, whose waters are divided into three separate streams. One stream is said to grant longevity, the other stream, success at school and the final stream, a good love life. Many visitors used bamboo cups with long handles to drink the water from these streams.

otowa waterfall Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

Otowa waterfall’s 3 streams

After we watched a gaggle of high school kids debate on what stream they should drink from (apparently drinking from all three streams is considered greedy).

We stopped to admire a beautiful pond whose waters were filled with fallen maple leaves.

pond Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

After taking pictures at a monument dedicated to Zen Master Keizan, Great Patriarch of the Soto School, Maiko and I met up with her parents at one of the sweet shops. We sampled some free green tea and various Kyoto sweets before heading out to the hotel where we would be staying for the night.

sweet shop Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

XIV is an elegant timeshare hotel, which we were lucky enough to stay in thanks to Maiko’s parents whose friends are members.  The rooms were beautifully designed and spacious, and had both western beds and a Japanese room which could be a dining room in the daytime, and a futon-filled bedroom at night.

timeshare hotel Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

By far the most “interesting” experience I had that day was trying out the Japanese Spa.  And by spa, I mean public baths. I had quite a shock entering the spa. I saw women of all shapes and sizes walking around nude in the facilities. But as they say, when in Rome do as the Romans do—or in my case—when in a Japanese bath, do as the Japanese women do.

Once I got over my shyness and natural embarrassment at having to expose myself to strangers, I managed to slip into my birthday suit. Everybody went about their business, enjoying the hot pools and steam rooms without giving even me a second (or first) glance. I eased up after that, and focused on enjoying the warm bath, which was especially nice in the freezing weather.

Thoroughly relaxed (and a little more comfortable in my own skin), I dressed and followed my companions out the spa and towards the final event for the day: Dinner.

The hotel had several restaurants to choose from. Maiko’s folks picked Giovano’s, an Italian restaurant. The restaurant’s wide windows afforded us a view of the beautifully lit courtyard.

giovanis dinner Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

But the views were soon forgotten when the first of the five courses in our dinner set arrived. Each of the dishes were a delicious blend of both Italian recipes and Japanese ingredients.

We each picked a different dessert and had fun sampling bites from each other’s plates. And to wash down an amazing meal, we were given a choice of green tea or coffee.

dinner modified Japan: Kiyomizudera Temple

5 Course Dinner at Giovano’s

It was an awesome day, to say the least and I was extremely grateful to my gracious hosts for allowing me such a wonderful experience.

References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiyomizu-dera

http://www.kyoto.travel/2009/11/kiyomizu-dera-temple.html

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3901.html

http://www.frommers.com/destinations/kyoto/A23800.html

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Japan: Osaka Castle

One of the reasons I love to travel is that new sights and experiences always spark the imagination and widen the mind. So this month I’m going to catch you all up on my trip to Japan last December. I hope my adventures there inspire you to write new stories or give you ideas for your own vacation.

**********************************************************************************************

December 3, 2012 – Osaka Castle, Osaka

The day after I landed in Japan, Maiko took me to Osaka Castle. The train ride from Hirakata City lasted about 20 minutes, and from the Osakajo Koen Station, the castle was another 15 minutes walk.

A massive stone wall and a great moat surrounding the 15 acre castle grounds was the first thing I saw.

stone building Japan: Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle’s Main Tower peeking over the stone walls

There were other structures within the castle grounds, but we only had time to visit the central castle building.

 

A little History:

The Osaka castle is a major landmark in Osaka, and a symbol of power of Japan’s most influential rulers. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was born a peasant, but rose up in ranks by serving Oda Nobunaga, a feudal lord who initiated the unification of Japan under the shogunate.

Hideyoshi’s sharp mind, combined with his ambition and determination made him a valuable asset to Nobunaga. After Nobunaga’s assassination,  Hideyoshi took it upon himself to avenge his master, thus expanding his own power and influence within the region.

Hideyoshi built Osaka Castle in 1583, establishing it as his stronghold in his work to unify Japan.

 

osaka castle main tower Japan: Osaka Castle

 Osaka Castle’s Main Tower

The present day structure is a third reincarnation of the original castle, however.  After Hideyoshi died, his chief retainer Ieyasu Tokugawa established the shogunate (government) in Edo (now known as Tokyo). In the 1615 Summer War of Osaka, Tokugawa launched another attack on the castle, once and for all destroying the Toyotomi family’s legacy.

Tokugawa later on rebuilt the castle and his family kept it under their control until the shogunate lost its the Meiji New Government army laid siege to the castle in 1868.  Then shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa escaped, but the castle caught fire and almost all the buildings were burnt to ash.

In 1931, the government with the help of funds raised by citizens, took on the reconstruction of Osaka Castle’s Main Tower.

central castle building1 Japan: Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle’s Main Tower behind me

The castle’s main tower is home to the museum, which contains 8 floors of historical artifacts and exhibits. The entrance fee of 600Yen (roughly about $6 ), was definitely worth paying as I got to learn a whole lot of interesting things.

steps leading up to the castle main tower Japan: Osaka Castle

Steps leading up to the main tower

Upon entering the main tower, we were encouraged to take the elevator up to the 8th floor to start our tour from there.

My acrophobia didn’t stop me from enjoying the awesome panoramic view of Osaka City. It helped that a wire fence surrounded the entire 8th floor balcony.

view of osaka city from 8th floor Japan: Osaka Castle

View of Osaka City from the 8th Floor

Around the 7th Floor, we followed tiny dioramas which explained the Life of Hideyoshi Toyotomi.

On the 5th floor, we discovered a large folding screen which showed famous scenes from the Summer War in Osaka, along with miniature wax figures replicating the intense battle between Sanada and Matsudaira during the same period.

wax figures summer war of osaka Japan: Osaka Castle

Wax figures depicting a battle during the Summer War of Osaka

Artifacts and records of the Sengoku era, or the age of provincial wars, were on display in the 4th and 3rd Floors.   I particularly loved seeing the battle gear worn by Japanese warriors in that period, along with the weapons they used. We also saw a full scale replica of Toyotomi’s famous Golden Tea Room, and models of the Osaka Castle during the Toyotomi Period and the Tokugawa Period

copy of folding screen Japan: Osaka Castle

Folding screen with scenes from the Summer War of Osaka

A full scale replica of the golden dolphin shaped fish (Shachi) and crouching tigers (fusetora) was on display at the center of the 2nd Floor.  For 300Y ($3), you could don one of the period costumes and have your picture taken with the golden statues.

 

pictures by the golden statues Japan: Osaka Castle

Tourists posing with costumes beside the Shachi and the Fusetora

We ignored the photo op, and like the nerds we were, Maiko and I opted instead to check out more facts and figures about Osaka Castle.

facts and figures about osaka castle Japan: Osaka Castle

We finally found ourselves back at the first floor. I spent some time perusing the various items at the Museum shop, and even bought some souvenirs to bring back home.

The food stalls and small shops around the castle grounds were already closing by the time we got out of the museum at 5:30pm. Maiko and I contented ourselves by exploring a little bit of the area before the skies completely darkened.

maiko and i in front of castle building Japan: Osaka Castle

Although it was winter, a lot of the trees around the castle still hadn’t shed their fall colors. The beautiful red leaves of the Momiji or Japanese Maple trees added a splash of color to the grey skies.

beautiful red trees surrounded the castle Japan: Osaka Castle

Momiji/Japanese Maple trees around the castle grounds

I’m always fascinated by phone booths — thanks to Doctor Who, I’m always hoping that I might one day step into a time travel machine disguised as a phone booth.

japanese phone booth Japan: Osaka Castle

We didn’t have time to explore the other buildings around the main tower, but I was quite happy with what I’d seen. As we stepped outside the main gates of the Osaka Castle grounds, Maiko pointed  in the distance to a building with a round saucer on its roof. She said this building was one of the big NHK TV stations in Japan.

NHK building osaka Japan: Osaka Castle

NHK TV Station building outside the castle

All the walking we did today made us hungry so we made our way back to the train station, where we discussed all the wonderful sights we’d seen over a plate of Takoyaki balls (Octopus dipped in batter).

 

* Special Thanks to Maiko for taking me around, and for taking the pictures

**Next Friday: Japan: Kyoto Day 1 – Kiyamizudera Temple

References:

http://www.osakacastle.net/english/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osaka_Castle

http://www.osakacastle.net/castle_en/mainmenu.htm

 

 

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November 19, 2011, Saturday

Saturday was all about our friends Cesar & Jessica—and rightly so since we had flown in to New Orleans specifically to attend their wedding and join in celebrating their matrimony.

wedding entourage New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketWedding entourage, photo by Julie Nguyen

The wedding was held at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church on Canal Street. You can see more pictures of the church here.

St Anthony of Padua Church New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketSt. Anthony de Padua Church, photo from Neworleanschurches.com

The elegant atmosphere of the church only added to the beauty of wedding. The most beautiful part of the wedding, however, was finally seeing our two friends exchange vows at the altar.

wedding New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French Market

Cesar and Jessica exchanging wedding rings, photo by Maiko Morotani

Cesar made a handsome groom and Jessica a beautiful bride! After years of being together, it was about time those two sealed the deal with rings, and a kiss. We were all so extremely happy for them.

cesar and jessica New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketMr. and Mrs. Fajardo!

Their reception was held at the Southern Oaks Plantation about half an hour away from the main city proper. It had a beautiful fountain right in front of the main house.

plantation New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketSouthern Oaks Plantation

A band played lively songs as guests piled inside. They increased their volume when the bride and groom arrived in their limo. Yummy New Orleans food was overflowing at Cesar and Jessica’s wedding. The reception didn’t include a traditional sit down dinner, (though there was a permanent table at the corner of the main ballroom where guests could get desserts, or a warm slice of roast beef and sweet potato salad) instead,   servers roved the room offering various appetizers and finger foods to guests.  I thought it was a clever way of serving guests. Most of us were bursting by the time the fourth server approached us. At one point, we went outside to the pool area to hide from the servers who kept on offering us food.

A traditional Filipino wedding always involves dancing so right after the new bride and groom had their first dance together, and their first dance with their parents, everybody started grooving to the music.

The wedding cake was gorgeous too. I hear it was yummy, but I didn’t get to try it. I was already so full from all the food and I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to fit in my clothes the next day. icon smile New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French Market

wedding cake New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French Marketwedding cake

The wedding reception ended at around 6pm, and the hired bus brought us back to our hotel. We rested for a little bit, freshened up and headed out for a late dinner at 9pm with some friends. They had heard us raving about Drago’s so they decided to try it too. So Maiko, Lena and I went back for our second serving of Charbroiled oysters!

charbroiled oysters New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketDrago’s charbroiled oysters again!

After dinner, Maiko, Lena and I separated from the rest of the group and headed for Frenchman Street, which we heard was where we could find various jazz clubs.  All the free entrance clubs were packed, however, and we didn’t want to pay a cover charge, so we ended up listening outside the bar. I thought this was better anyway because inside was just too crazy with drunk people, and cigarette smoke.

We also listened for a while to this strange but entertaining band playing on the street corner. Sweet Street Symphony dressed in various ragtag outfits and played a combination of jazz and folk music.

ragtag band New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketSweet Street Symphony, photo by Maiko Morotani

We didn’t stay too long on Frenchman Street however, as the smoke and the drunk people were getting on our nerves. :S


November 20, 2011, Sunday

Our flight out was at 3pm, so we had a bit of time to explore more of New Orleans.

We got up at 8am, and took the tram to the French Market.

tram New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketNew Orleans tram, photo by Maiko Morotani

french market New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketFrench Market

The French Market was a great place to shop for souvenirs–and xmas presents. I wish we had come here on our first day so I could’ve done my souvenir shopping here instead of a the French Quarter. There were more interesting things for sale here–and at cheaper prices. And the vendors here accept credit cards as well as cash!

inside french market New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketWares being sold at the French Market

Maiko and Lena even bought some beautiful artwork from one of the vendors here.

artist selling work New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketMaiko and Lena purchasing some artwork

We explored the market, and its surrounding shops. I went into The Little Toy Shop on Decatur Street and bought myself a knight on a horse–a little figurine to inspire my story-writing process.

toy store New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketAt the Little Toy Shop on Decatur Street, photo by Maiko Morotani

Decatur Street was a fun place to explore.

french market street New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketDecatur Street

But soon our stomachs were rumbling and we knew it was time to head down to St. Louis Street. On our way there, we passed by Cafe du Monde, and Jackson Square–where the artists sold their colorful artwork,. even on a Sunday.

colorful artwork New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketArtwork for sale along Jackson Square

We had made reservations at Chef Emeril’s NOLA restaurant. But we got there a few minutes too early and the restaurant doors were still closed. So we went next door to the New Orleans School of Cooking and bought some pralines.

new orleans cooking school New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketNew Orleans School of Cooking, photo by Maiko Morotani

When NOLA finally opened, we went inside and quickly got seated.

at NOLA New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketMaiko, Lena and I at NOLA Restaurant, photo by Maiko Morotani

Since it was our last day in New Orleans, we decided to splurge on lunch and order whatever we wanted.

lunch at NOLA New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketLunch at NOLA

The food there was absolutely amazing and we gobbled everything up with no regrets.

We peeked in at the Spice and Tea Exchange Shop right across NOLA, before we headed back to the hotel to collect our bags.

spices and herbs shop New Orleans, Louisiana Part 2 – A Wedding, Jazz at Frenchman Street, and the French MarketThe Spice and Tea Exchange Shop

New Orleans was a fun city to visit and explore and I hope I get to visit again one day.





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*Please join my Year of the Golden Dragon book giveaway. It’s a great book and I’m willing to ship it anywhere in the world!*

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Last November, my two best buds and I flew from L.A. to LA to attend a friend’s wedding.

Yup, that’s Los Angeles to Louisiana.

New Orleans, to be exact.

It’s a fascinating city, to say the least. The city has an eclectic mix of modern sights and old world charm. NOLA’s French, African, & Caribbean influence is apparent in its food, music, culture—and souvenirs.

November 18, 2011, Friday

Thanks to Lena, we all got to hang out at the Delta Sky Lounge before our flight. We had our fill of unending snacks, and drinks. I can understand how businessmen and women who have to fly regularly become Sky Lounge members. The lounge was a wonderful experience, and a great place to relax and wait for our flight.

sky lounge snacks New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!Delta Sky Lounge snacks

We took the redeye flight Thursday night so we could have the whole Friday to explore a little bit of New Orleans.

The first order of the day was to try out New Orleans’ famous beignets. Beignets are fried donut holes sprinkled with powdered sugar.  We went to the famous Cafe du Monde. It took us several minutes to find a seat as the place was crowded.

cafe du monde New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!Cafe du Monde

The customer service there wasn’t so great. There were a lot of servers just sitting around taking breaks instead of clearing out much needed tables–but the beignets were good, at least.

After a late breakfast of beignets and hot chocolate, we took a walk around the French Quarter.

french quarter plaza New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!Jackson Square, and the St. Louis Cathedral in the distance

We stopped for a few minutes to watch a street performer near Jackson Square.  He was pretty entertaining–very funny and skilled at riding a tall monocycle and juggling knives!

street performer New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!Street performer juggling knives

We made our way to the St. Louis Cathedral shortly afterward.  The St. Louis Cathedral is New Orleans’ most notable landmark, and has the honor of being the oldest cathedral in the whole United States.

st louis cathedral New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!Inside the St. Louis Cathedral

The St. Louis Cathedral was just as beautiful inside, as it was outside.  Being Roman Catholic myself, I made sure I said a little prayer before we left to explore the rest of the French Quarter.

Jackson Square was alive with music and people when we visited that day. Street psychics had set up tables and chairs right in front of the cathedral, offering to read passing people’s fortunes.

street psychics New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!

Street psychics

We saw street musicians and performers at almost every corner we passed.

white lady New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!The white lady haunting the streets of New Orleans

street musicians New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!Street musicians

We even bumped into the old devil himself. He welcomed us to New Orleans and even posed for a picture. Of course, we had to give him a small donation for his time, but the picture was worth it.

devil New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!A devil walking the streets of New Orleans

Pirates Alley is a small alley beside the Cathedral where one can find small shops to visit. Of course, I didn’t go there for the shopping. I went there to find Faulkner House. Nobel Laureate William Faulkner rented rooms on the ground floor of the building in 1925. It’s the exact same space that houses the bookstore today.

faulkner house New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!Faulkner House, Pirates’ Alley

Bourbon Street is one of the most popular and historic streets in New Orleans.  People who’ve experienced Bourbon Street at night swear that its 10x crazier than Sin City Las Vegas. Strippers, hookers, booze and bras are a common sight at night, and the streets smell like beer even in the daytime. We decided to take a walk through it, while it was still relatively safe.

bourbon street New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!Posing by a sign on Bourbon Street

I’m so glad we did, because we came upon Cafe Beignet.  Cafe Beignet is known for its beignets, of course.

statues at cafe beignet New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!Statues in front of Cafe Beignet

They were even featured on Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate Show. We sat down there to have a late lunch and to enjoy a little jazz music. The singer Elaina and her band were very good and we couldn’t help but bob our head to their music.

jazz singer elaina New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!

Jazz singer Elaina and her band

At Cafe Beignet, we had our 2nd beignet for the day. Surprisingly, iIt was much better than Cafe du Monde.

We continued our tour of the French Quarter after lunch. We entered an interesting shop which sold all kinds of masks, and bought some masks which were on sale.

shop of masks New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!Shop selling masks of all kinds

In every new city I visit, I always make it a point to visit a local bookstore to buy a book as a souvenir. I especially love bookstores that sell a lot of old leather bound volumes. Crescent City Books on Chartres Street, was one such bookstore. I bought a special edition of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight there. (Of course, two days later, I found out that she had passed away.)

book store New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!Crescent City Bookstore and its resident cat

We headed back to our hotel to take a nap before continuing our tour of the city. (That’s what we get for taking a red eye flight!)

As soon as we woke and freshened up, we headed for Drago’s Seafood Restaurant.  We ordered stuffed lobster, veal cutlets and charbroiled oysters to share.

I have to say, I became an instant fan of their charbroiled oysters!

Drago famous oysters New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!Drago’s famous charbroiled oysters

After a very filling (and very yummy) dinner, we headed toward the Ritz Carlton Hotel on Canal Street. Maiko is a big jazz fan and she wanted to take us to the Davenport Lounge so we could listen to some good jazz.

The lounge was filled with people listening to Jeremy Davenport and his band. Some people were actually dancing up front to the music.

jazz at the Davenport Lounge New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!Jeremy Davenport and his band

At the lounge, we gave in to temptation and had our 3rd beignet for the day. We were so full, but we were very glad to have ordered them. They came with three dipping sauces (chocolate, caramel and vanilla cream) and were just the best beignets we had had that day.

beignet at the davenport modified New Orleans, Louisiana Part 1   French Quarter Adventures & 3 Beignets in One Day!Best Beignets ever at the Davenport Lounge

We headed back to the hotel around 11pm to get some much needed rest. We needed to get ready for our friends’ wedding the next day, and for more adventures in New Orleans.

******

Tune in again on Friday for Day 2-3 of our New Orleans trip


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L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo

The new YA Urban Fantasy Novel I’m writing is set in Los Angeles, so I’ve been taking my friends along for a tour of L.A.

In case you missed our last two adventures, here they are:

LA Tour Day 1:  Flower Market, Jewelry District, Chinatown

LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park/ Fashion District

Now on to LA Tour Day 3!

November 26, 2011, Saturday

Union Station

Our first stop for the day was Union Station. Union station opened in 1939, and  was the last of the Great Railway Stations built in the US.

Union station building M L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Union Station, photo by Maiko Morotani

It is located in the northeastern corner of downtown L.A., right across from the historic El Pueblo District. Union Station’s services include four Amtrak long distance trips from L.A. to Chicago, Seattle, Chicago via San Antonio and New Orleans, Metrolink services to various L.A. counties, Metrorail services to various points in downtown L.A. and several bus and coach services.

trains at the union station L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Union Station Trains

We parked at basement of the building right behind Union Station and made our way up some stairs to the East Portal. I was pleasantly surprised at how clean and beautiful Union Station was.  Lena, Maiko and I decided to check out some of the trains. We made our way up one of the long, narrow tunnels and took a few pictures of the trains parked there. There were no attendants to ask for tickets and people could easily go in and out of the tunnels to have a look at the trains.

tunnel L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Tunnel leading up to the train station, photo by Lena Chen

The station is very clean and very pleasant to look at. They offer places for passengers to buy food such as Wetzel’s, Subway, Starbucks and Famima. They also have their very own restaurant and bar called Traxx-which open at later hours. L.A. Union station L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo

Famima, a small family mart, and a couple of convenience shops are located within the lobby area, for passengers. The waiting area itself has a relaxed and easy going atmosphere. People can sit in one of the many leather seats provided for in the lobby.

union station waiting area0l L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Union Station waiting area

Right outside the Union Station building is a sundial dedicated in memory of Gilbert Arnoll, General Manager of the Union Station from 1924-1938.  Etched around the marble sundial are some words of inspiration: “Faith to believe, Vision to See and Courage to Do.”

sundial L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo

Sundial in front of Union Station

El Pueblo

After exploring the Union Station, we made our way across the street to the El Pueblo District. El Pueblo is the oldest district in L.A. and is actually where the city of Los Angeles was born 230 years ago. Spanish explorers discovered the area near the river in 1781.  Led by Governor De Neve, 44 pobladores first settled in the newly established pueblo, which they called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles.

hidden garden el pueblo1 L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Not so hidden garden in El Pueblo, right across the Union Station

Lucky for us, those 44 settlers decided that the area was worth living in. Without them, L.A. would never have been born. Even better, their future descendants decided that the name El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles was too long and shortened it to Los Angeles.

plaque commemorating 44 pobladores L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Plaque commemorating the 44 pobladores, who were L.A.’s first settlers

The El Pueblo plaza is a small, open space surrounded by tall trees. There are a few benches all over the plaza where one can sit and watch the many people coming and going in the area. At the center of the plaza is a gazebo  where performances and celebrations are often held in the pueblo. A statue of King Carlos III of Spain stands off to one corner, right beside the plaque commemorating the 44 pobladores.

el pueblo plaza m L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo

Gazebo in the middle of the El Pueblo central plaza, photo by Maiko Morotani

The first ever Fire station in Los Angeles can also  be found in the El Pueblo district–right across the plaza.

Firehouse no. 1 m L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Firehouse No. 1, photo by Maiko Morotani

Beside Firehouse No. 1, Strangely enough is the Chinese-American Museum. It is one of the few reminders that the Chinese immigrants had originally settled within the area, before they were relocated to their current home in  Chinatown.

Lena, Maiko and I also got to visit the oldest church in L.A. The La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles (The Church of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels), was founded in 1814, and finished and dedicated in 1822. Thankfully, this Catholic church also has a shorter version of its name.

Also known as La Placita, this little mission church is divided into small sections. Directly outside, on the side of the church is a small grotto, and a covered area where children  gather for their first communion or other sacraments.

la placita church L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo La Placita Church

But the most popular spot to visit in El Pueblo is Olvera Street. it is the oldest street in Los Angeles, and is named after Agustin Olvera, the first ever County Judge.

Olvera Street L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Olvera Street, El Pueblo

Olvera Street is a vibrant and colorful Mexican marketplace, with over 70 merchants selling their wares. Here one can buy anything from tiny Mexican flags to ponchos and luchador (mexican wrestler) masks.

masks sold on olvera street L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Olvera Street store selling masks

Also on Olvera Street, is the Avila Adobe–the oldest house in Los Angeles. It was built in 1818 by Francisco Avila, a rich cattle rancher. Today it has been preserved as an historic monument. Everyone is free to walk in (There are no entrance fees) and see how the house might have looked like  in the late 1840’s.

avila adobe inside m L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Avila Adobe kitchen

After being transported back in time via the Avila Adobe’s wonderfully preserved rooms, we explored the rest of Olvera Street, then headed to our next destination.

Little Tokyo

Lena found a good parking spot in the Weller Court building (It was about $3 for the whole day).  The first thing we saw when we emerged form the parking structure was a rocket dedicated to Japanese-American astronaut Ellison Onizuka.

rocket ellison onizuka L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Rocket dedicated to astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka

There were several shops along the Ellison S. Onizuka Street / Weller Court area. We ventured into one that sold various Japanese toys and bought shirts featuring our favorite cartoon character Totoro.

We then headed for Daikokuya, a Japanese restaurant known for their ramen. The wait was almost an hour long, as the restaurant was small and the line outside was long.

daikokuya little tokyo L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Daikokuya Ramen Restaurant, Little Tokyo

While we waited for a table to open, we walked a few shops down to Fugetso-Do, a family-owned confectionery store. The shop opened in 1903 and business is still going strong. They are known for their mochi (rice cake) and manju (Sweet-bean filled rice cake).

fugetso do jpg L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Fugetso-Do Confectionery shop

We bought some mochi for dessert, and headed back to Daikokuya. We finally got a seat a the counter and ordered their special ramen. The service was pretty fast and we were having lunch about 8 minutes after giving our orders.

special ramen L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Daikokuya lunch

After a filling lunch, we walked to the Japanese American Museum. We paid the $9 entrance fee and enjoyed the various exhibits they had on display. Photography wasn’t allowed in the museum, so we had to content ourselves with just absorbing as much of the artwork as we could.

japanese american museum L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Japanese American Museum, photo by Lena Chen

We particularly enjoyed learning about the history of Japanese Americans in the US. Many of the items from that era was on display. It made me kind of sad to learn of how the Japanese civilians were treated in the US during world war II. Some volunteers had stripped down one of the old bunkers used in a Japanese Concentration camp and re-built the frame right in museum’s  second floor lobby. I could only imagine the kind of life the Japanese must have lived in the concentration camps in those days.

Another exhibit which I really enjoyed was Patrick Nagami’s Desire for Magic Exhibition. I became an immediate fan after viewing his various photographs and artwork.

After a little tour of the museum, we walked across the street to the Japanese Village Plaza.  The Yagura Fire Tower marked the entrance the small shopping complex filled with stores selling every imaginable Japanese product.

yagura fire tower L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Yagura Fire Tower, Japanese Village Plaza, Little Tokyo

In the plaza we watched a curious street musician, who was featured in America’s Got Talent and the Jimmy Kimmel show. This Japanese one man band played several instruments all at once–including a harmonica, marracas, tambourine, drums, keyboard, guitar, and chimes–all while singing! We listened for awhile as the performer played various English and Japanese songs.

street musician L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo One man band

While window shopping, we got hungry and stopped for a snack at Cafe Dulce. Maiko bought some Vietnamese coffee (supplied surprisingly by Silver Lake’s Lamill Coffee House–which we had visited in one of our tours). I fell in love with the buttercream stick which we tried.  It was absolutely yummy.

Lena and I wanted some tea so we went back to the Japanese American Museum–where they had the El Chado Tea Room.  El Chado had hundreds of tea options and we had a hard time picking what to order.

The tea came in cute little teapots,  and we enjoyed a few sips, vowing to return to sample their high tea tray offerings.

tea at el chado tea room L.A. Tour Day 3: El Pueblo, Little Tokyo Tea at the El Chado Tea Room

We rested our feet for awhile, before we headed back to the car, and towards SAN DIEGO to attend a friend’s birthday dinner. Yes, that day was looong, but also fun. I was especially grateful to Lena, who (as defies Asian stereotype by being a great driver) drove us everywhere the whole day.

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LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion District

My YA novel’s  main center is in downtown L.A, so I wanted my main character Nalia to live somewhere nearby—but not so near as to be too accessible. After all, if I make it too easy for her to get to where she needs to go, there’ll be less drama.  (Yes, writers have to make lives harder for their characters for the sake of their readers.)

I found Silver Lake to be the perfect area for her to live in. It’s 15 mins by car,(which she doesn’t have, of course, so she has to take the bus) and it’s far enough away from downtown to have its own distinct “flavor”.

silverlakemap LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion District

East of Hollywood and Northwest of downtown, Silver Lake is a hilly suburban area where hippies and creative artist types gather. Which is perfect since my character happens to live with some Hollywood-creative type people.

I had researched the area for my first draft—picking out my characters’ houses , where they like to hang out and so on. I wanted to see these buildings for myself so I dragged Lena and Maiko on another tour.

November 13, 2011 Sunday

9 – 10 AM Breakfast at Lamill Coffee House

lamill L LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictLamill Coffee House on Silver Lake Blvd, photo by Lena Chen

I was looking for potential hang out places for my characters when I found Lamill Coffee House on Silver Lake Blvd.  And boy, was I glad I did. The place is a hidden gem in the Silver Lake Area.

We went there for breakfast and ordered three different items which the three of us shared.

lamill breakfast m LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictLamill Breakfast, photo by Maiko Morotani


eggs benedict m LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictEggs Benedict, photo by Maiko Morotani

The best thing we ever tasted was the brioche donuts. The vanilla cream dip that came with it was so fresh we could see speckles of vanilla bean.

lamill brioche donuts LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictTea, Cafe Con Leche and Brioche Donuts with Vanilla Cream, photo by Maiko Morotani

There were all sorts of people having breakfast there that Sunday–from hippie artist types to botox-injected Hollywood types. Lamill’s decorations were certainly something to behold. I’d like to come back there at night just to see how the place could transform with all the lights.

chandelier LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictInside Lamill photo from Lamill’s website

Silver Lake Area

After a hearty breakfast, we drove around the Silver Lake Reservoir and then headed for Carnation Ave where my characters supposedly reside. I took pictures of houses my characters could  live in.

caras house LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion District

nalias house1 LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion District

red house LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion District

After walking around the area and looking at various houses, we drove to another one of my character’s potential hang out spots.

Echo Park Area

Stories Bookstore & Cafe is in the Echo Park area, which is right beside Silver Lake.  It’s a bookstore and cafe in one–and they sell both new and second hand books.

stories bookstore and cafe m LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictStories Books & Cafe on West Sunset Blvd.

We hung out there for awhile, browsing through books and other interesting items.

stories bookstore m LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictStories Bookstore

stories cafe LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictStories cafe

I found a good bargain on a set of 5 Spiderwick chronicles book. After about half an hour, we decided to head to our next stop. But before we stepped out, Maiko decided she wanted to try the little rocking chair by the shop’s display window.

stories rocking chair LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictMaiko enjoying the little rocking chair

Echo Park Lake was another place mentioned in my story so I wanted to check it out. This is was Echo Park Lake supposedly looked like:

LakeView LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictEcho Park Lake

Unfortunately, when we got there, the whole area was fenced in. Apparently they had started a two year park renewal program. They had drained the whole man-made lake so it was just a big muddy hole. I’m looking forward to seeing it once it’s finished.

As we were about to leave, I saw a homeless man pushing a cart right in front of a large complex of apartments.  I thought it was a good photograph, as it told a story.

homeless man in front of large homes LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion District

12 NN – 2 PM – Fashion District: Santee Alley

We were still full from our big breakfast, so we decided to postpone lunch and go straight to the Fashion District in downtown, which was supposed to be our last stop.

L.A’s Fashion District sprawls across 100 blocks. Wholesale shops of textiles, clothes and other accessories offer discount prices.

stores on maple LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictStores on Maple Street

Parking place attendants compete for business and direct cars to their various parking spaces. They stand in the street, waving orange flags and calling out how cheap their parking fee is.  We were careful about where we chose to park. Some spaces had big signs saying $3, but underneath in very small letters, they wrote that the $3 was for the first15 minutes only, and that the real day rate was $6 or more.

Luckily, we found a rooftop parking space which charged only $4 for the whole day.  Wonderful aromas wafted from Mexican food trucks parked along the road.

food truck LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictFood trucks along Maple Ave.

There was so much to take in on the streets alone–from colorful shop fronts to interesting items being sold.

stores LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictStorefront on Maple

We made our way to Santee Alley, one of the most popular shopping locations in the fashion district.  It’s an actual alley located between Santee Street and Maple Avenue and is known for its colorful bazaar like shops and its discounts.

On our way there, we passed by a shop selling all kinds of shoes and boots.

boots LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictA whole wall of boots and shoes

I wanted to take tons of pictures of Santee Alley, but the sights and sounds immediately drew me in and the chaos of crowds walking down the alley, coming and going into the various shops made good photography slightly impossible.  I did manage to take this picture of the alley:

santee alley LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictSantee Alley

The shops along Santee Alley sold all sorts of things — colorful underwear, perfume, shoes, toys, clothes, suits, bags and other accessories, are just a few of what you can find there.

underwear shop LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictUnderwear store along Santee Alley

caps LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion Districtcaps


boots sneakers LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictI don’t know if these are sneakers or boots-snoots? booteakers?


smurfs LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictMaiko found her favorite smurfs

The smells, sounds and general bustle of the alley made Maiko a little woozy, so we decided to leave the alley and turn onto the main streets, which was a bit less busy.

Our mouths dropped open when we saw some ginormous T-shirts being sold in one corner.

giant t shirts LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion Districtgiant tee-shirts

We saw pirated DVD’s laid out on the streets and vendors selling them for $5.  I felt bad for the birds and bunnies being sold on the street. They were exposed to all the noise and to the heat of the sun. I wanted to buy them all just to save them from the vendors.

birds and bunnies LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion Districtbirds and bunnies sold on the street

A couple of hours in the fashion district was enough to make us hungry. So we made our way back to the car and then headed for a late lunch at a 103 year old restaurant called Philippe’s.

philippes sign LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictPhilippe’s in downtown LA’s Chinatown

Philippe’s is the home of the original french-dipped sandwich. It was established in 1908 by Philippe Mathieu–who accidentally invented the french-dipped sandwich when he dropped a sliced french roll into a roasting pan still filled with hot juices from the oven. You can read more about Philippe’s history here.

maiko me in front of philippes LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictMaiko and I outside Philippe’s

I doubt if the decor has changed in Philippe’s since they moved to this location in the 50’s. They even had some old school phone booths lined up in the back of the restaurant.

old phone booths philippes LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion Districtold phone booths

There were long lines can at Philippe’s, but the wait for some good, cheap food wasn’t so bad. The fastfood style servers  lined up on the counter were fast and efficient.

philippes lines LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictLong lines at Philippe’s

The food was good too. We ordered pork and beef french dipped sandwiches, banana cream pie and coleslaw. They have their own special mustard which you can add to your sandwiches. Its taste reminded me a bit of wasabi–with that slight kick that goes all the way up your nose.

philippes food LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion DistrictFrench dipped sandwiches

The coleslaw was really, really good and the french dipped sandwich was certainly something. I love that their lemonades sell for 75c and their iced teas for 65c. Even better, regular coffee sells for the original 10cent price!

65 c iced tea LA Tour Day 2: Silver Lake/ Echo Park /Fashion District

Our tour was fun and informative as usual and I came home with tons of ideas for rewriting my 2nd draft.


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I had decided to set my YA Urban Fantasy novel Los Angeles. Not only is it a fascinating city filled with a variety of experiences, it also exudes diversity which always adds more flavor to any story.

It’s also where I live.

Even though I write mostly fantasy, I like to set my stories in real, actual places.

Research is a very important part of writing any story, and so for the sake of research, I decided to go on a tour of L.A. It’s a great way for me to take in the sights, sounds and smell of the city I’m setting my story in.

It’s also a great excuse to tour the city I’ve lived in for years, with my best-est friends. J

I decided to create itineraries for 4 different L.A. daytrips. Mostly we’ll go on Saturdays, although at least one tour is schedule for a Sunday.

Since my story is based in downtown L.A., most of my daytrips will be based around the area. I hope you don’t mind joining me as I discover my own city of L.A.

L.A. Tour Day 1: November 5, 2011, Saturday

9 AM – 1o AM: Los Angeles Flower District

Southern California Flower Market M L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownSouthern California Flower Market Building, photo by Maiko Morotani

The Southern California Flower Market and the Los Angeles Flower Market comprise most of L.A.’s Flower District. These are basically two large warehouses filled with individual stalls of wholesalers.

flower market stall L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, Chinatown

They sell everything any flower shop would need to run their business – vases, pots, ribbons, flower wrappers and of course, flowers.

flower vases L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, Chinatown

The Southern California Flower Market, which was also featured in the movie Valentine’s Day, is open from Monday to Saturday, from 6 am to about  4pm.

We had to pay a $1 entrance fee, since we weren’t members. If you’re looking for great flower bargains the L.A. Flower District is the place to be. Flowers sell for wholesale prices so you can buy a dozen roses for about $5.

chili L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownChili at the flower market

We also peeked into the second floor of the flower market, where they sell holiday decorations.

fall decors M L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownFall decorations sold at the Flower Market

My favorite part of the Flower District tour were seeing all the different kinds of flowers they sold. I was particularly amazed to see blue roses.

blue roses M L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownBlue roses photo by Maiko Morotani

I was even more amazed when I saw this beautiful blue orchid.  I might have to come back again one day just for these.

blue orchids L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownBlue orchids

10 – 11:30 AM  L.A. Jewelry District

Most of my story is set in the Jewelry District of downtown L.A, so we spent a lot of time taking pictures of the various buildings and stores around the area.

jewelry district m L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownJewelry District, photo by Maiko Morotani

We parked at a building right across from Pershing Square and visited to the A & A Jewelry Supplies Store.

A A Jewelry Supply store Lena L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownA & A Jewelry Supply Store in downtown L.A’s Jewelry District, photo by Lena Chen

One of my characters is a jeweler and I wanted to learn more about the supplies he might need, and what he might do. Jerry, who works at the A & A Jewelry Supply Store illuminated me on the important tools of a jeweler.He even gave me a copy of their catalog so I can look at pictures of the many tools they used.

with jerry maiko L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, Chinatown

With Jerry, A & A Jewelry Supply Store clerk,photo by Maiko Morotani

jewelry tools m L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownSome Jewelers tools, photo by Maiko Morotani

We walked through the St. Vincent Jewelry Center, where many small stalls of wholesale jewelers sold their wares.

st vincent jewelry center L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownMaiko and Lena at the St. Vincent’s Jewelry Center

In the building that housed the St. Vincent’s Jewelry Center, we found the hidden St. Vincent’s Court–a food court whose shop facades had interesting designs.

st vincents court L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownSt. Vincent’s (food) Court

I took a picture of the alley which figures greatly in my YA story.  I will definitely be able to describe my character’s experience with great care now that I’ve experienced the alley’s  smells and its varied offerings for myself.

alley L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownThe alley in my story — across the street from St. Vincent’s court

Halfway through our wanderings, we got hungry and decided to have a snack at Clifton’s Cafeteria.

cliftons cafeteria outside L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, Chinatown

Clifton’s Cafeteria was built in 1935 and is known for its strange forest oasis design. They’re under construction for 6 months, so we didn’t get to see the cafeteria itself.

cliftons cafeteria inside L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownClifton’s Cafeteria’s Forest Design

But we did get to sample the fruit tart and monkey bread from their bakeshop.

fruit tart and monkey bread at clifton L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, Chinatownposing with the fruit tart and monkey bread at Clifton’s

Our last stop in the Jewelry District was Pershing Square, a large park near the center of downtown L.A.

pershing square L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownPershing Square, Downtown L.A.

Here,  people can relax, sit in the many chairs, enjoy the various sculptures and artworks around and even take their dogs out for a walk (there’s a section for walking your pets within the park).

11:45 – 4 PM Chinatown

We were starving by the time we sat down for some dimsum at CBS Seafood Restaurant in downtown L.A’s Chinatown.

dimsum L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, Chinatowndimsum at CBS Seafood Restaurant, Chinatown

Servers pushing carts filled with different foods cruised down the restaurant aisles. We picked what looked good to eat and the server handed us the steaming dish and then stamped our check.  Maiko and Lena seemed to enjoy the chicken feet, though I didn’t try it myself. I enjoyed  the  buns and dumplings.

The 2011 Open Martial Arts Championship was held that day at the Alpine Recreation Center in Chinatown. We headed there to watch different martials arts and schools compete in empty hand forms and weapons forms  for a couple of hours.

martial arts championship1 L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, Chinatownmartial artists and family members watching the tournament

We had fun watching the different Kung Fu schools showed of their styles and forms. Taekwondo, and Tai Chi schools were also present. I was a little sad that my own Filipino martial arts weren’t represented. I think we would do well in the Weapons category. I l plan to tell my Master about this. Maybe next year we’ll join.

martial arts championship2 L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownA Kung Fu student showing off his staff skills

After watching kids and adults of all ages and levels show off their skills through various forms, we began our own self-guided tour of Downtown LA’s Chinatown.

We visited a Taoist Temple on Yale Street.

Taoist Temple L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownTaoist Temple on Yale Street

The temple welcomed visitors of all kinds and allowed picture-taking inside the temple itself. Maiko and I got to take some colorful pictures inside the temple while Lena took the time to pray.

inside temple L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownInside the Temple

The Taoists worship many gods and we saw figures of each of them in cubicles all over the altar’s wall.

gods maiko L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownTaoist gods, photo by Maiko Morotani

We walked down North Hill Street on a mission to find the F. See On Antique Store, which is owned by author Lisa See’s family, and which she featured in her book On Gold Mountain. The store’s proprietors were happy to have visitors and eagerly chatted with us.

F See On ANtique STore L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownLisa See’s family’s antique store

We passed by Foo Chow Restaurant, where they filmed Rush Hour featuring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker.

foo chow L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownFoo Chow Restaurant, Filming Location for Rush Hour

We went back down N. Hill Street to  Ten Ren Tea Time at the Far East Plaza. We ordered some boba tea and sat down to rest our feet a little. I ordered lychee oolong tea, which wasn’t as sweet as I expected it to be. Lena ordered some taro tea which proved to be a bad idea, as it gave her serious stomach issues minutes after.

I looked at the various teas the store was selling and chose to buy  some lychee rose and awakening teas.

ten ren tea shop L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownTen Ren Tea Shop teas

After our little break, we drove to the Central Plaza on North Broadway Street.

Chinatown gate L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownCentral Plaza Gate

I realized later on that we had already explored a little bit of the Central Plaza when he were looking for the antique store. The Central Plaza shops offer a variety of Asian items as well as novelty items.

Central Square L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownCentral Plaza

I had fun checking out the many display swords and knives they offered. Maiko had fun trying out the Chinese straw hat.

maikos hat L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownChinese straw hat

The very last stop of the day was at Pheonix Bakery, Chinatown’s largest and oldest  bakery. They opened in 1938 and became famous for their strawberry cream cake.

pheonix bakery L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownLena and I in front of Pheonix Bakery

The strawberry cream cake was sprinkled with almond flakes and was extremely delicious! We were too busy eating that we forgot to take a picture of the awesome cake, so I had to borrow this picture from yelp:

strawberry cream cake L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownStrawberry Cream Cake, photo by Kelly H. (Yelp)

By 5pm we headed home. We ended the day by having dinner with some friends at Cho Dang, a Korean Restaurant in our area.

Cho Dang dinner L.A. Tour Day 1: Flower Market, Jewelry District, ChinatownDinner with friends at Cho Dang

**Tune in next time for LA Tour Day 2**

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