Monday, August 23, 2010

Japan Day 10 Mt fuji

Day 10, August 20, 2010

Our penultimate day! Having sort of burnt ourselves out on the city of Tokyo, we had arranged yesterday to go on a day trip out of the city to the famous Mt. Fuji! Mt. Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan, weighing in at about 12,500 feet. It holds significant cultural value to many Japanese as it is the residence of one of the major Shinto gods (a goddess, actually). We woke up at about 6:30 and made our way down to the southern part of the city to meet up with the tour group and they picked us up there. Our tour guide was really interesting – very serious about her job, yet quite funny. She talked a lot about Japan and its culture on the way there and back, which was actually really nice to learn about about.

Fuji is about 120 KM outside of Tokyo, so we had a little over 2 hours of a drive. Unfortunately when we got there, the mountain was just covered in cloud, so our view was limited to a few hundred feet! We weren’t too disappointed though, as the air quality was superb and it was actually nice and chilly there, an excellent break from the heat of Tokyo (and the heat of Seoul). There were a great many hikers who were starting off their journey up the mountain from our stopping point (we stopped at station 5, about 2000 meters up; the top is station 10, and it takes from 4-6 hours to get there by foot – cars cannot go past station 5).

Luckily our tour was by no means finished! We drove for about an hour to the beautiful mountain town of Hakone where we first had lunch and then took a gondola up towards the top of a beautiful mountain. There we found a bunch of hot springs – REALLY hot springs, one of the only examples of volcanism in Japan (although there are 3000 hot springs, perhaps this is the most visible on the surface?). It looks (and smells) a lot like portions of Yellowstone park, for anyone who has been there. In some areas the scent of sulfer is extremely strong. We walked up towards a little hut at the top of the trail and purchased “black eggs”. These are eggs that have been hard boiled in the hot springs, which turns them black. Legend has it that eating one will make you live seven years longer, two will make you live fourteen years longer, and three will make it so you’ll never see a doctor again. We bought a five pack and tasted one while still near the mountain (they were SO HOT); tasted pretty good actually!

From the volcanic, we took a “pirate” ship (a ferry) across the lake in the middle of the town. It was GORGEOUS, set right in the middle of the mountains. It is fed by a spring, which makes it so it does not freeze during the winter, which is pretty interesting. It turned out to be a really lovely tour and we’re glad we took it.

We arrived back in Tokyo around 8:45 and found a really funky Japanese-Korean food place (although it didn’t seem very Korean). A lot of different kebab dishes and our waiter spoke English and had some good suggestions for us. A fantastic last dinner in a fanstastic food country

We leave tomorrow early afternoon, so we are hoping to get one more sight seeing objective accomplished in the morning.

Japan Day 9

Day 9, August 19, 2010

Getting close to the end of our travels here in Japan! Today was our last day to hang out and explore Tokyo, as tomorrow we are taking a day trip to Mt. Fuji. We took our time at the hotel planning our day, and eventually decided on hanging out in the fashion district, another place renowned for its busyness and general chaotic feel. We started off by checking out Shibuya crossing, which you may have seen in popular depictions of Tokyo as it is considered to be the busiest pedestrian intersections in Tokyo. It seemed like a smaller version of Times Square in Manhatten. Near the crossing was a little subway museum, housed in an old subway car. It had some neat before and now pictures of the area, but the funniest part about the museum (to me) was the people who were sitting on the subway car – it looked like they were really riding a subway! Chillin' out, reading the paper, ignoring the people around them. It was a terrible place to rest, too, being a metal car with no AC. Anyways, we visited some shops in the area and then made our way towards the fashionable area, Harajuku.

On our way over to Harajuku, we happened upon an old city park covered with graffiti; upon closer inspection, however, we realized it was a demonstration zone and much of the graffiti and trash were art pieces protesting the development of “Nike Park”, a project that would evict all of the homeless folks living in the area and charge people to enter. Several artists take residence in the park to help prevent the development. We found a little “freestore” in the area and also talked with a filmmaker who is squatting there.

We found this amazing Hawaiian burger place (there seems to be a fascination here with Hawaii) called Teddy’s burgers. The guy working the register was perhaps the most interesting and nice service worker I’ve ever encountered in a restaurant. We forgot to take pictures of our burgers, but my 9 oz classic burger was a formidable serving and it was deliciously simple. After lunch, we finally came upon Harajuku. Shannon likened the general area to Newbury street in Boston, which is a pretty fair depiction.

We also passed by an Airstream trailer a little later in our travels that was surrounded by tables and serving as a tiny little bar! We had a drink and people watched (which is fun in a crazy fashion area!). There are many (overpriced) vintage shops in the area, and they had some pretty funky stuff, much from the US. Apparently boy scout uniforms are a popular item, and I enjoyed looking at all the different district patches (one of which I have!).

We finished up the outing with a walk through a ridiculously crowded shopping road that was blocked off from cars. It was a little much and we made our way out of there pretty quickly. We found our subway, headed back to the Sakura to pick up our luggage, and then made our way to our final accommodations in Japan: the capsule hotel.

Capsule hotels are pretty cheap, and apparently are often also associated with Onsen (spelling), Japanese bath (sort of like a smaller scale Jimjabong, Korean sauna). There was of course a vending machine once we got in there to get a ticket for our rooms, we were taken to the different male and female areas of the hotel (the capsules only sleep one, and the men’s side is sort of connected to the bath area. The capsules themselves are pretty interesting, it feels like your in a spaceship complete with command console for the clock, TV, radio, and light. You also get a key for a locker (in a different area) and a robe to wear over to the bathhouse area. The bathhouse area is public as are all the showers, which is a little annoying to have to go all the over to that part just to take a shower, but the hot bath is nice and I’m pretty sure it comes from a natural hot spring (there are over 3000 in Japan). Shannon’s bath area is actually not connected to her sleeping area and she has to leave the building to get there. Literally. There was a arrow that said "ladies showers" and some slippers to put on. So i put them on and follow the arrow TO THE STREET! i get out there and sort tiptoe to the nearest open door. (thank god i had opted to wear clothes and NOT the bathrobe) I peek my head in the door, it does indeed look like a Onsen. I sidle up to the counter and give the woman a slightly confused look. She points at my hotel bracelet and gives me a thumbs up. Oh man. it was so strange. AND, the womens showers didn't open until 11am. ugh. anyway, back to the story.

We got settled at the hotel and took a little time to enjoy the baths before heading out on our dinner adventure. We’d heard about a fantastic sushi restaurant a couple stops away, but since the station nearest us didn’t go there directly, we decided to try and walk there by going one stop up and exploring the area along the way. We really lucked out with our plan, as the station at which we arrived happened to be right next to the Tokyo Sky tree. The Tokyo Sky tree is a communications tower/ observation deck/ tourist attraction that will almost double the height of the Tokyo Tower, which I believe is currently the tallest structure in the city. The bulk of the work is done, and I think the habitable part (the building area anyways) is finished, but the antenna at the top is not yet finished. I actually have no idea, but it looks pretty far into the project from what we saw and we were literally right next to the base of it.

Eventually we found our way to the area where we wanted to be, Asakusa. We ordered up a storm, and we were not disappointed. It was probably the best sushi I’ve ever had, and our favorite was the fatty tuna and the seared tuna. The seared tuna tasted like a delicious mini-steak, and the fatty tuna was just so rich I wouldn’t have been able to tell you it was tuna had I not known what it was. Oh, and did I mention Japanese beer is awesome? Well it is. Especially with Japanese sushi. We haven’t delved into any sake offerings, which, I know, is disappointing you all, but they are listed like wines, in Japanese, and we have no idea where to start. Our opportunity to try some out probably lay back in Kyoto when we were hanging out with Miho, but that’s OK. We did try socho, which is a different type of Japanese liquor (and it wasn’t that great). And by not that great he means terrible. Worse than Soju. We got one cup and everyone at the table shared it (there were 6 of us).

Anyways, we were so happy with our sushi choice and thank the Lonely Planet guidebook for being so spot on.

Japan day 7

Day 7, August 17, 2010

We started off the day at Sanjusangendo, having been told it is one of the best things to see in Kyoto. It is famous for the 1000 arms of the Buddha, so going in I was expecting literally a thousand arms. We had also been told that there are 1000 faces, and that people try and find a face that looks like their own amongst them all. So, I expected a Buddha image with a 1000 faces on it. What we found though was simply REMARKABLE. We entered this temple, and we couldn’t really get a scope of it from the outside (I wasn’t even sure it was where we were supposed to be as it was labeled “Worship”). We take off our shoes and go in, and we are greeted by literally 1000 almost life-size, 900 year-old, hand-carved statues. There were 500 on either side of a 3.3 meter tall hand carved Buddha statue. Each of the 1001 Buddhas have 42 hands, each holding a tiny symbol. They are all slightly different, but at first I thought they were all bronze casted statues, it was really hard to imagine 1000 nearly identical statues being hand carved. The scope was simply amazing, and the fact that they survived for so long is, as I said before, remarkable. There were no pictures allowed, but perhaps I’ll find some on the internet elsewhere.

Unfortunately there was very little air circulation within the temple, so it was sweltering hot (I think today was the hottest day yet of the trip and its been pretty hot). We decided to take it easy and made our way to the Kyoto station to purchase our return bullet train tickets to Tokyo. Our plan for tomorrow? Get back to Tokyo and head to Tokyo Disneyland! We’re very excited, they have an adult oriented park called Tokyo Disney Sea. We’ll see how it is!

Anyways, after getting our tickets we headed over to the Kyoto Manga Museum, which is part massive Japanese comic book library, part elementary school museum (its in a 100+ year Japanese elementary school), part art exhibit, and some typical museum fare thrown in. It was pretty neat; I particularly enjoyed the exhibit that explained manga and its history, I hadn’t realized it had been so important to Japanese culture and for so long (it has been enjoyed by youth and adults for over a century in Japan).

We then made our way back to Miho’s house for dinner, where her dad prepared a kind of “Japanese pizza”. Its sort of like Korean “pajeon”, a fried batter dish filled with vegetables and seafood. This dish also was mixed with soba noodles and a couple strips of bacon for good measure. Top it off with a hearty/sweet/spicy sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed powder, and fish flakes and your good to go! It was really good!

It was sort of an easy day (hey, it was hot!), but a really nice finish to our time in Kyoto. We’ve had a real blast hanging out with Miho and we’re just super lucky it worked out (one that she happens to live here, two that she took such good care of us, and three that the festival happened to be happening while we were here). We could easily stay a few more days and still have many a thing to do, but alas, our hotel is already booked back in Tokyo and Miho is actually leaving for Zambia in a few days. Well, good night and see you back in Tokyo!

Japan Day 8 Disney

Day 8, August 18, 2010

After waking up early and saying our goodbyes to Miho and her dad, we hopped on a city bus and made our way to the Shinkansen (Bullet train). The ride was only about 2 hours or so, and we were in Tokyo station at about noon. From there we hopped on a different rail service to Disneyland!

There are two Disney parks in Tokyo, adjacent and connected to each other by a monorail. There is Tokyo Disneyland, which is almost exactly like Disneyland in LA (which Jamie actually has not visited), and then Disneyland Sea which we were told catered more to adults. It was still for children in many ways and of course there were many of them, but we could drink beer or wine within the park at certain places. Also the quality of the shows /events was really top notch and a couple of them also may have been aimed at adults.

The park is divided into different “Coasts”, like American coast (they have a Cape Cod!), Meditteraenean coast, Arabian coast (Alladin themed), and under the sea indoor area (never made it that far, a captain Nemo area with 20,000 leagues under the sea/journey to the center of the Earth, and a futureland type area. We only really managed to get on 4 ride type attractions (and Journey to the Center of the Earth took us 90 minutes…), but we saw a few excellent shows, one taking place in a sweet theatre with a moving stage (It was a Big Band/swing revue, very excellent). (we went to this one only because jamie loves gambling and it's a lottery to get a ticket)

The evening ended with a neat fireworks/animatronic/light/water show in the central water area of the park. It was pretty neat! (it was about the love affair or water and fire. the water was this massive fountain shaped like a girl with pigtails and the fire was this massive dragon the breathed fire. wow. not only love between fire and water-at least they are both element- but love between people and dragons. Oh disney)

While I don’t remember it being as exciting as Disneyworld was in my youth. Obviously we are much older now and we kind of just went to the park on a whim (vs. driving 20 hours to get there…), so the anticipation level was 0. But I also remember Disney world having lots of little gags here and there around the park, sort of in-park street performers. We saw one really funny custodian going around, but that was it.

Anyways, we had a buffet dinner in the park (delicious) and made our way back to our original hotel, the Sakura Jimbocho, which is just a really nice place with great staff. A very fun and tiring day!

Japan Day 6 Kyoto

Day 6, August 16

Today we woke up a bit later due to the previous night’s exploits. We eventually made it out of the house and decided to check out the closest things to Miho’s house. The first stop was this café at top of a little mountain that you have to hike up to get to it. (and by hike we mean, stairs and an incline) Totally worth the "hike", the buildings all along the way and the paths were just beautiful, and the view from the café was just amazing. After coffee we went to a free art museum down the hill that is run through Miho’s church (her religion is called Reimei). Very nice, very old stuff. They had a tea room that had a circular window that perfectlly framed the mountain that was going to have the fires on it. So you could perfectly see the character and it was set up so you couldn't see any of the city. It was beautiful.

Later we made our way to my favorite site so far, the Ginkaju-ji temple, a UNESCO world heritage site. While a little small compared to some of the other things we’ve seen so far, the grounds are IMMACULATELY maintained (this despite the throngs of visitors, it is one of the most visited temples in Japan), including some amazing sand works and zen designs that are probably redone every day. The garden was just incredible.

After the temple we strolled a little bit down the way and decided to check out another garden, the one that belonged to a famous Japanese artist by the name of Hakusasanso Hashimoto. Another beautiful site, it was worth the 6 dollar entry fee to just escape the madness of the previous attraction in terms of number of people.

At the end of the day we finally played a little pachinko. It’s like a cross between a slot machine and a pinball machine. We lost and very quickly!

At around 7PM we met back up with Miho and finally met her father (he had been on a trip to a nearby mountain to do some nature photography). A very nice man! He was very appreciative that we had taken in Miho when she was travelling in America and didn’t have a place to stay. Anyways, after our meeting, we walked a few minutes to Miho’s family church where they were having a small party. And by family church, I really mean family church, she had a whole bunch of family there, and we got to meet a whole lot of friends too. It was really nice and we had some food and chatted for a bit. The reason for the party was part of the Obon festival , which actually isn’t observed by her church (her religion is relatively new and I’m not sure how big it is), but they still gathered to view the main attraction. What is the main attraction you ask? Well, some background. Many Japanese Buddhists believe that in mid-august spirits from the spirit realm can return to Earth for a few days and chill out with their family and friends. So families and temples light special fires so that the spirits can find their way. At the end of the festival, Kyoto lights these huge symbols on the sides of nearby mountains so that the spirits can find their way back to the spirit-realm. Its like a, “It was nice, but see you next year” type of thing.

It was really neat and we managed to take a few photos; you can see the fires, but not really the mountain that its on. After that we joined some of the congregation at a nearby park to light off some sparklers which was fun. A really neat experience!

Japan Day 5 Kyoto!

Day 5, August 15th

OK, I’m writing this a day after the fact so perhaps my details won’t be that great, but I’ll give it a shot. I also want to get to today’s events too so I’ll be briefer than I have been. So Day 5 was a temple day and we really packed in a number of great ones in a short period of time. Kyoto is just unbelievably packed with shrines, temples, monuments, gardens – it’s kind of unbelievable that there can be so many in such a small geographic area!

The day started off with a quick tour of Miho’s neighborhood, and she pointed out 3 things to do just around her street, one of them being a UNESCO world heritage sight. We then hopped a train and went to Miho’s work area, which also happens to be near 2 other UNESCO world heritage sights (she works at one of the shops in the neighborhood, typical touristy fair stuff, although in Japanese fashion I’d say even the touristy vendors are pretty swanky). The first temple we visited was called Kiyo-mizu and apparently Miho had never actually visited, so she came with us right before she had to be at work. We went up to the first building and paid 100 yen to enter, thinking we would just walk inside. But instead, we followed stairs down into a basement and quickly realized that it was a 100 percent pitch black maze that you had to hang onto a railing the whole time in order to get through. This is funny because we were watching a TV show the night before about haunted houses in Japan. Anyways, a few minutes in we come across a brightly illumintated prayer wheel that we spun and made a wish on. OH! And we happen to be in Kyoto during an important festival (Obon) during which all prayers and wishes are worth 1000X! This day only, get your prayers here, HUUGE SALE, all wishes MUST GO! Sorry, that’s kind of how I interpreted it when she told us that!

OK, so after the dungeon (okokok, the “dungeon” was supposed to symbolize the womb of the Buddha and it was pitch black to help us get rid of all of our attachments before we made our wish), we moved on to the temple (extremely ancient and beautiful, check out the pictures, followed by a near by shrine called the Jinsho love shrine-Home of the Love Stone! This place was a trip, kind of like an ancient Buddhist theme park. It was all about charms and finding love and there were lots of little shrines. There are two rocks in the middle, and if you close your eyes and make it safely to the opposite stone, you’ll find your true love. I missed big time, but then again I’m all set in that department

We then mozied onto a walking tour provided by the lovely folks at Lonely Planet, enjoying the wonderful architecture of the stores and tea shops. Really, really, really beautiful buildings in this city, it’s a little overwhelming. We made our way to a giant Buddha statue and memorial for all the soldiers of WWII followed by a nice little park where we saw some cats chilling out (we missed cats, they get no respect in Korea, they’re pop icons here). We finished our temples for the day at Yasaka shrine, which I think is close in color to Harley Davidson orange, very cool.

After that, we found our way to the main river, which we later found out used to be lined with the severed heads of folks who weren’t so popular with the crowd who likes to sever people’s heads. Miho told us that people automatically sit along the river at the same intervals apart from one another as the severed heads used to be. Sure enough folks were almost perfectly spaced apart.

From there we met up with Miho and her friend, Now (not sure the spelling, but that’s about right on the pronunciation). He is a little older than Miho and makes custom painted t-shirts (beautiful by the way). He is a lot of fun and knows Miho through a band they used to be in together! We ended up at an Okinawa style restaurant (delicious!) and drank many a beer. We were soon joined by two more friends and continued consuming a delicious Japanese brew called Yebisu. We had a fantastic time with this little group and Miho is really good at translating! I had expected Japanese folks to be more conservative, but these guys were a rockin’ good party group and we just had an absolute blast. We did a second round after that and took a taxi home to finish up the evenin’. One of the friends, named Kazoo-uh (spelling I have noooo idea), was a real hoot and started off by teaching me a completely made up custom called “Spinning kompai”, where you spin your cup when you do the customary “Kompai” (cheers). Anyways, really fun group, really great night!

Japan Day four

Day 4 (August 14, 2010)

Having only a half day left to hang out with Dave in Tokyo, we got going fairly early and were out of our hotel by 9:30 (early!). After another little run-in with subway confusion, we eventually found Dave at the subway stop at our first activity for the day, a visit to the Mori Modern Art Museum. The exhibit included three installations by three artists around the theme of nature and how Japanese interact with their natural surroundings. The exhibit had English audio guides available so we enjoyed listening to the descriptions of each exhibit (you know modern art, it often requires a little explanation). I was very impressed with this exhibit, though. Shannon and Dave took some pictures (which I don’t think we were supposed to be doing, no one told anyone to stop taking them) so you’ll have to take a look, the most jarring one being the bleeding mountain. Another hit was the 4 walled clear plastic piece, filled with hundreds of pounds of feathers with a fan that turns on every minute or so to simulate snow. Very neat! The museum was located on the 50th or so floor of a skyscraper, so admission came with free access to the observation areas, so we got a daytime look at the Tokyo skyline. It’s very beautiful!

After the art museum we rushed over to our second museum of the day, the beer museum! This was perhaps the smallest museum I’ve ever seen, and the exhibit took us all of 15 minutes to walk through. Its for the Yebisu brand of beer, one of the first in Japan and its now owned by the Sapporo company. We sampled a beer afterwards (NOT free *sadface*). Nearby was a second beer restaurant so we sampled a couple more offerings and enjoyed some nice german style sausage (also popular in Korea).

After our midday drinks and snacks, we had to say goodbye to Dave in order to catch our train out to Kyoto. We made it over to Tokyo station with little problem and proceeded to board one of the fastest trains in the world, the Shinkasken, AKA the bullet train. It took us from Tokyo to Kyoto in a little over 2 hours, very impressive.

At Kyoto station we found Miho, a woman that we’ve hosted back in the states on a few different occasions. She is super nice and friendly and has given us a splendid room in her lovely house to stay in for a few days. She is also taking us around and coming up with a lot of different things for us to do (which is great, we came with literally a blank agenda). This week is a special holiday in traditional Japanese culture- the O-bon Festival. Families remember their ancestors and it is said that in these few days their spirits can come back into this world. One of the neat things they do on the last day to say goodbye is to create a sort of light house effect for the spirits, by making many large controlled fires on the side of a mountain in the shape of a symbol. We’re really looking forward to seeing that tomorrow.

Anyways, Miho made us dinner and it was delicious – raw fish, rice, meat dumplings and regular dumplings (sort of like fried mandoo from Korea). We chatted and watched “National Treasure” which happened to be on TV. We’re really glad to be here!’

That being said we have a long day tomorrow so its off to bed again! Day 4? ANOTHER SUCCESS!

Japan Day Three, more Awesomeness in Tokyo

Day 3 (August 13)

OK, had a bit too much whiskey the night before so we were a bit sluggish and vampirish when it came to the sunshine, but we managed to get up and out the of the hotel by about 11 after enjoying the hotel’s breakfast (well, its just toast and coffee). Our first destination was to a water taxi stand in Asakusa area (North and east). We had our first view of the soon-to-be tallest structure in Japan, the Tokyo Sky Tree. It will almost double the current tallest, the Tokyo Tower – I believe it will be over 600 meters tall. The picture is pretty neat, as the cranes sitting atop it give you a sense of the scale of the project.

The water taxi was an OK ride, I can’t honestly say the canals we took were breathtaking, although the bridges offered some variety in their color and structure. Once we hit the financial/ government area though, the scenery changed a lot for the better! The cityscape changed from the Seoul-like ubiquitous 15-20 story apartment buildings to a gorgeous variety of skyscrapers mixed with carefully tended greenspaces. The green space we jumped off at was a wonderful garden called Hama rykou (spelling?)(south and east), which used to be a falconry/ falconry hunting ground for royalty several hundred years ago. Very, very beautiful, well kept, and not very busy. An interesting part of it was an explanation of how they would hunt for wild ducks, using domesticated ducks as “lures” and then unleashing their deadly falcons upon them! Viscous, I know, using birds against their own cousins…but come on, it would be a pretty neat way to hunt. Imagine if bird warfare were used to settle disputes instead of guns today!

After the gardens, we hopped on another subway and traveled over to the “Electric Town, ” Akihabara (slightly north and eastern). OK, so up to this point, Tokyo has been really really chill, well kept, and all-in all, not that busy. Nothing like Seoul, where there are a million people, every where, all the time. But you are now saying to yourself, “But Jamie, I thought it was totally different. I thought Japan is absolutely CRAZY!!”. Well, you are RIGHT! This area is what sort of defines the image that I had of Japan before coming, bright lights, people in ridiculous costumes, anime characters just draping buildings, throngs of people, crazy sex shops, cracked out arcades. Oh man, it was kind of awesome. We only could handle an hour or so of the madness, but we got our fill!

After crazy electric town, we headed back to our first hotel, as we had only booked two nights. We moved out to the Ikebura area (North and west), and Dave moved to a place in the government area (West and central). Well, we had our first travel woes of the trip, as the map we had for the hotel (on the back of a business card) led us very astray! After a 45 minute parlay into an area that looked mysteriously like Newton, MA, we eventually had some help from a nice police officer and a sushi delivery person who directed us in the right direction. We’ll stay just tonight and head out to Kyoto in the morning!

After a little break, we headed out once more to one of the government buildings in the middle of the city (very close to Dave’s new hotel), which happens to be a skyscraper! They offer a free observation deck from the 52nd floor which was quite beautiful, and the rain held off for us to get a clear view.

We said goodbye to Dave after he gave us a quick tour of his new digs (very nice find Dave, very nice indeed!), and we headed back to our area. Being a little hungry from our activities, we found a cute little Hong Kong restaurant (they had cheap drinks…), but what a find it turned out to be! Some of the best fried rice I’ve ever had, a delicious sweet and sour fried cucumber dish, and a super black-pepper chicken dish. Unbelievable. Food for day 3? 100% success (I’m discounting breakfast, it doesn’t really count).

So here we are, a little after midnight. We’re doing laundry right now (yeah yeah, I know its only day 3, but its just so hot and humid that we’ve been changing during the days so we already have a full load). Our new hotel (which is the same company as our first one, by the way, but we got a really rotten deal on a price this night because we hadn’t booked in advance), has a nice little outdoor eating/drinking area. Very relaxed.

Overall impression so far of Tokyo? It’s just all around great. Language barrier really hasn’t been so much of a problem (hell, we’re kind of used to it), and while the transportation system had us initially flabbergasted, it is a model of efficiency and it’s just super easy to get to all of these places. The food as I mentioned has been great, and all the Japanese people we’ve encountered have just been super nice. The city is super clean (well every part we’ve seen) and just all around nice to walk around in. I’m just really happy with it. We’re also really excited to stay in Kyoto with our Japanese friend and her family for the next few days, we’re heading out on the bullet train tomorrow afternoon. Until then, good night!

Japan Day Two More Tokyo Fun

Day 2 (August 12)

We had decided the previous night to wake up around 8:30 and we almost did it! We woke Dave up (we only have 1 alarm between the three of us), showered up and enjoyed the 315 yen breakfast (it was really just toast and coffee – maybe we’ll just hit up the Family Mart down the road tomorrow morning instead). We chatted with the guys who run the place and they gave us some suggestions of things to do, very nice of them.

Well we started off at the subway, which are pretty similar to those of Seoul in terms of the stations, but maybe they are a little older. The system seems really confusing at first as there are separate companies that run the different lines, although they often share the same station-or stations with the same name but DIFFERENT exit numbers. We ended up just buying a day pass that works for about 60% of all the lines in the city. The man at the info booth was extremely nice and helpful and took us into the operation center to call a translation service to help us figure out our best option. Once we sort of figured out (kind of )how the system works, the trains seem to be a model of efficiency. They come every couple of minutes and the stops are really well labeled within the city.

Anyways, our first stop was the Imperial palace, which is a really beautifully maintained park type place (People aren't allowed to visit the actual Palace) lots of open space , trees, and beautiful stone walls. And! it is surrounded by a moat! We had a good hour and a half walk in the area and we took many pictures. The structures are relatively simple but seem to be very finely crafted, and I especially loved the gates at the entrance. The beams are MASSIVE and each made from a solid piece of wood (and a fragrant variety at that).

We walked across the street afterwards and found a little fountain area with some neat fountain structures, or rather they would have been neat had they been fountaining. It was to windy. If was like standing in a horizontal waterfall before they turned the last one off.

We then went for our first Japanese meal. Since we weren’t really in the mood to hunt down a side-street treasure, we just opted for the first thing we found which happened to be an upscale department store/mall building with a floor filled with nice restaurants. Luckily one of the cheapest ones really piqued our fancy. I particularly loved the pork ribs dish, it fell right off the bone. The bitter cucumber tasted about as good as it sounds though, so unless you have a thing for bitterness (or maybe even resentment, perhaps) I’d stay away from dishes focusing on that. Shannon and Dave had some sort of papaya and chicken dish that was also delightful. Really looking forward to eating here for the next week!

After lunch we found Tokyo station (its under construction so it really held no splendor at all) and bought our tickets in advance for the bullet train to Kyoto, we’ll be heading over there on Saturday. We then took a quick trip to an area called Ginza which has the Sony building. We were a little skeptical at first, as we really aren’t too much in the way of gadget heads, (that's a lie, Jamie LOVES gadgets) but we were all really happy we made the trip! The building houses the Sony showrooms which span a good number of mini floors each showcasing new and upcoming products. You may have heard of recent advances in 3D technology and it appears that Sony is pushing for it big time. They had a whole bunch of neat little 3D TV set-ups that you could play with. Another really neat gadget was a mike for a video camera that zooms in on sound while you zoom in with your lense. A SOUND zoom. Wow. Very neat.

We then tried to check out the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art, but unfortunately it is changing exhibits as we speak. We also tried the science museum, but alas, they closed at 5! By now, of course, there's a downpour to go along with the wind.

After a quick dinner at a ramyeon place (think “ramen” noodles, but at a restaurant, served in a super thick broth with green onion and a slice of pork loin – its pretty good! Ramyeon is served often at restaurants in Korea too, but usually it is much spicier), we went to a little joint called the Cavern Club in the hip little neighborhood of Roppongi. The club has a resident Beatles cover band that plays 30 minutes on and then has 30 minutes off (but they only play Beatles in between sets). It was pretty awesome! The group didn’t dress up like the members to a T (although I suspect a couple of them were in character to some degree), each one did take particular member (i.e. that particular person would sing their personas songs (i.e. “Paul” sang “Lullaby”). The drinks at the place were pretty expensive so it seemed economical for us to just buy a bottle of whiskey, which none of us had ever done in a bar before (you can do this in Korea, but the cost is absurd). However, we were overcharged 40 dollars in the end, so who knows if there is some kind of membership fee for ordering a bottle or what – they did bring out this special bottle necklace with Dave’s name on it… Anyways, we drank quite a bit, stayed for 3 sets, and got a couple pictures with the band in the end, so it was well worth it! We managed to catch the 2nd to last subway train back to the hotel and made it back safe and sound!

A note: there are LOTS of photos, most of witch are of green things at the palace (jamie loves

green things.) However, if you stick it out to the end you will see the Beatles Cover band. And

some ridiculous pictures of shannon trying to touch the fish. If you want explanations, you can

visit flickr as each picture has and explanation.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Japan Day One

Before you start reading, i'd like to tell you that we are back in Korea. Jamie wrote these updates every night of our trip. Super dedicated! Anyway, I'm going to post one a day so that all of you avid readers won't get overwhelmed with 12 days all in one post. I'll try to post the pictures for each day with the post as well. Just comment if you want more detail or explanation and I'll try to answer promptly and quickly. (more quickly than normal)

Day 1 (August 11)

So here we are in Japan on the first day of our journey. Well, evening, as we left Seoul around 7:30PM and just arrived in Tokyo at about 9:45PM, a pretty quick and painless flight! We used a smaller airport (think Bradley International or TF Green for all of the folks out in the MA area), and came into a nice little (not so little) airport to the south of Tokyo called Haneda. Getting to our hostel/motel (Sakura hotel) wasn’t too difficult but a little bit nerve-wracking in the moment, as we found the train system is quite a bit more complex than the one in Seoul and there is not nearly as much English (at least on the lines on the outskirts of the city). Anyways, there was actually no problem whatsoever and we made it to our first stop in one piece no problem! Yay! And when we got to our guesthouse, who do we see right in front of the door but our friend Dave! What a small world! OK OK, it was not a coincidence at all, we planned to meet up with him the whole time! We’ll be spending about 3 days with him in Tokyo before we split off and go to Kyoto to stay with a friend and see what that area has to offer. The man who is running the guesthouse is super friendly and pointed out that the Japanese coinage, while almost identical to that of Korea, is about 11-12 X more valuable so don’t mix them up! They seem to use coins much more here instead of small bills – one of them is 500 yen which is more than 5 dollars and I think more than 6000 Korean won. The Japanese had to change their coinage, actually, because Koreans would come over here and use their 500 won coins instead of the 500 yen coins in the vending machines.

Which leads to interesting Japanese things of the day. OK not much to comment on yet as we’ve only been in the country for a couple hours, but one thing we’ve heard about and already noticed is the vending machine culture. There are over 5 million vending machines in Japan, which is about 1 vending machine for every 24-25 people. They bring in over 50 billion USD in revenue a year (or 5 trillion yen), and folks can find anything from soda to fresh vegetables to a wide variety adult oriented offerings ranging from strange to downright creepy.

Anyways, we’ll have much to comment on tomorrow and its approaching 1AM now so we will enjoy sleeping in our tiny cubicle (its like half a dorm room, but its cozy – I love the wallpaper, its textured!). I tried to take some pictures but its too small to take good photos in. Good night!