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August 26, 2008

Japan 2008 - Tokyo - Day 8-10

This will be the wrap up for the trip. We had two days in Tokyo, not including the travel day to come home. It’s been a hot time in Japan, but it was very fun. Sorry, there's no pictures for this update as we weren't really anywhere scenic.

We stayed at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel. A nice hotel, with a few quirks. All the directions say that it's right across the street from Shinagawa station. So, after exiting the station, we were looking across the street at the Takanawa West department store, another small hotel, and several other businesses, and we could see the Prince Hotel rising up behind all of it with no obvious (at least to us) entrance to the Hotel.

Well, there was a major street just to the right as we came out of the station, so we thought "Maybe the entrance is just up the street a bit." So off we trundled with the luggage and everything in tow to find the entrance. Along the way we passed an Outback Steakhouse, and several other US style restaurants. Guess we're really in Tokyo!

A little ways up the side street (uphill btw), we spot what looks like yet another side street going towards the hotel. So we trundle off that way (uphill again), and eventually find ourselves outside the "Epson Aqua Stadium" looking at a couple of lines of people who were apparently waiting to get in to see a movie or something. I should explain something here, the Shinagawa Prince Hotel has a stadium, a movie theater, a bowling alley, and the ubiquitous restaurants and such inside. It's really quite the self-contained little metropolis.

Knowing that the Aqua Stadium was attached to the hotel, we made our way inside, and started trying to navigate the signs to get to the front desk to check in. After a few escalators and elevators, we eventually found our way to the front desk, all hot and sweaty. While we were checking in, the bellhop (or at least one of the front desk people) came over with a luggage cart, helped us load it, and said that we didn't need to bring it down to the front after we were done, just leave it outside the room and they'll get it later. Now this struck me as a little odd, since at most hotels I've gone to (including the Rihga Royal in Kyoto) either the bellhop carts or carries all of your stuff up for you, or they just don't do anything. This was the first time where we were handed a cart and more or less told (very politely of course) "take it up yourself." Nothing terrible, just seemed a bit odd for such a fancy hotel. Another oddity, though I'm getting ahead of myself, is that the internet access while supposedly ¥1050 for 24 hours, resets itself at noon each day. So, if you buy it at say 10:00am, you're paying ¥1050 for 2 hours...

So after getting upstairs, and offloading the cart (which didn't fit through the door very well). It was off to dinner. As we were leaving we discovered much to our chagrin that the Takanawa West was the entrance to the hotel! Passing through little mall there, there were several resturants there, italian, a McDonalds, a yakiniku restaurant. Lots of choices! A little odd to me because I was more interested in finding more Japanese food, not eating western, but, being as it's Tokyo, I imagine they're trying to grab the home-sick people, as well as offering some "foreign" cuisine to the natives.

However, we went to the Ramen museum in Shin-Yokohama. We managed to plow through 3 mini-bowls trying the various flavors available. The vote was split between the three of us as to which was the best. Kaelyn liked the Tokyo ramen with the fish-based soup. That was a good one, with a nice subtle, yet rich flavor. The noodles were superb there, having a nice firm texture. Dale went for what we call the “spicy-fireball bowl of doom” from another restaurant that puts a small scoop of spicy miso on top of the ramen. The soup itself there was delicious, but the spicy miso was a bit much for me and Kaelyn. I liked it, but it was not necessarily my top favorite. We also tried another shop whose owner is reputed to be fanatical in his use of only the top available ingredients from all over Japan. The soup base there was made of a combination of pork and chicken, and was absolutely delicious. It had many layers of flavor behind each sip of the soup and bite of the noodles. In the end, we all agreed that they were all the best ramen we’d ever had anywhere.

The next day was a lot of last minute shopping for various omiyage for our friends and family back home. We went to Shibuya to see the 109 (spoken as "Ten-Nine") Store there. It’s supposed to be the top fashion store for teens and young adults in Japan. Being as Dale and I are bit over that age, and I was never much for fashion, we left Kaelyn to do some shopping there while we simply wandered around the Shibuya district a little bit. Shibuya has a lot of different shops and Dogenzaka Avenue is famous for the shopping.

Another subway ride and we were off to the Pokemon Center in Hamamatsu-cho. It’s an entire store devoted to all things Pokemon, which is still quite the craze out here, though not as much as before. Even Kaelyn was a bit over the average age there, but, they had some shopping to do there. Rather than stand about like a bull in a chicken-coop, I waited outside while they did their shopping amongst the hordes of small children and their parents. It was still interesting to see the sheer number of kids and parents going to this store. Walking through the train station, you'd see these small groups of children, all with a Pikachu hat on headed to the store.

Another subway ride and we’re at Akihabara, the electronics mecca of Japan. Just about anything electronic or electronic related can be purchased here, even down to cables, relays, and switches of various kinds. After patrolling around here for some other items, it was back to the hotel to offload the junk and look up the location of one final item that the kids had to pick up.

Now, I’m by no means hip on the latest trends, but this thing was…odd…it apparently comes from a Japanese anime program about a seal that dresses up as other animals to learn about them. Kinda nifty, definitely geared towards the kids, and typically anime-cute. Only problem was we had seen neither hide nor hair of the critter in any of the shops we’d gone to so far, anywhere in Japan. So while at the hotel we hooked up to the internet again (another ¥1050) and eventually figured out what store would have it and what district of Tokyo it was in. Another few minutes were spent figuring out which subways we needed to use to get there, then it was off to see if we could find the store.

Now, for those of you who have never seen or experienced the Tokyo subway system, let me tell you, it is quite the phenomenal place. I figure you could probably spend several days just exploring it, and it wouldn’t surprise me if you couldn’t somehow figure out how to live down there exclusively.

Turns out the place is located near the Tokyo Dome stadium. In typical Japanese fashion, the stadium is not only a stadium, but the surrounding area is dedicated to several shopping malls, restaurants, and other services for convenience sake. It also means that the area is very busy with a lot of people heading to the Dome for some event, others meeting friends, etc. So after all of this, the kids bought their seals and were happy, and it was back to the hotel to try to cram everything into the suitcases for the trip home.

Overall the trip has been quite the adventure. The only major disappointment was being unable to get to the Studio Ghibli Museum (we were unable to obtain tickets). If you can come to Japan, you should. Even as many times as I’ve been, I always enjoy being over here. I recommend you avoid coming in the summertime if possible due to the expense and the heat, but, whenever you can make it I’m sure you’ll have a good time.

August 20, 2008

Japan 2008 - Miyajima - Day 7

So, I’ve often tried to explain what it is to drive around in Japan. Since I don’t have an international license, and the fact that the public transit system in Japan is so good, I don’t drive, so I can only make my observations as an interested passenger in various public/private vehicles. Setting aside the somewhat amazingly complicated intersections that can sometimes exceed 4 directions of traffic (and not always at 90 degrees), driving around Japan can be somewhat alarming.

Driving down some residential streets:

Japanese drivers are typically very courteous drivers. Some will shut off their headlights when waiting at intersections to keep from blinding drivers on the other side. Merges are typically handled without much fuss, and pedestrians and bicycles always have the right of way with vehicles stopping at crosswalks to let people through.

Everyone stops at railroad crossings before actually crossing, and moving down some of the narrow side streets becomes an intricate dance of cars trying to get past the really narrow spots on roads that would make US drivers wonder if it was even a real street much less one for two way traffic.

Now, mix in motorcyclists/scooter riders who more or less slide through wherever they can, and you have quite the mix of traffic that still somehow keeps on moving. Of course they’re not perfect, and accidents do happen, but it’s certainly a different experience than in the US.

This was the trip to Miyajima. Miyajima is a small island near Hiroshima. It’s most famous feature is the Itskushima shrine with the giant red Torii gate. When the tide is in the shrine appears to float on the water. The gate itself is not actually anchored into the seabed, but rather stands on it’s own on the floor.

On this day the ropeway cable cars to the top of the mountain were out of order, and as it’s a 90+ minute strenuous hike to the top of the mountain and the temp was about 35C, we decided that we would skip that. We did however make it to the Dai-shoin temple.

This temple is primarily dedicated to the Shingon sect of Buddhism, however, it also services most of other major sects, so is a popular stop for Buddhists. On the grounds of the temple is the Hentojyoku shrine. I’ve written about this place previously, and it has not lost any of it’s magic for me.

Walking in from the outside, you can see various images of Buddha, and a lot of prayer wheels/beads. It’s believed that praying here is the equivalent of praying at each of the 1000 other shrines available, so it’s sort of your one-stop-shopping if you can’t make it to the other 999 shrines. However, for me the feeling of walking into this dark room, that is barely lit by the candlelight equivalents along the ceiling is always somewhat breathtaking. It’s very hard to get a picture of the place given the lighting conditions, but I tried to get a few. I used an old trick of propping the camera on an available flat surface to hold it still long enough for the long shutter speeds required. I didn’t see any signs preventing the use of flash, but, to me it would seem very disruptive to use a flash even though I was the only one present.

That evening, we were treated to dinner at a revolving sushi-bar. Now these are nothing new, but, the place we went to was enormous. The bar was designed with two large islands, each easily 40m in length. With seating on both sides of the island, and the ends expanded, I estimate that the revolving track was over 200m in length! The selection of sushi was quite amazing, with the chefs available for anything you didn’t see or didn’t want to wait for. Some of the more unusual pieces I saw was a prosciutto sushi, and what we called the “bacon” sushi. Yes, I said “bacon.” Now it’s not the smoked, salty stuff we have in the US. In fact I believed they called it “buta kal-bi” meaning “pork kal-bi” or “pork Korean barbecue style.” But it looked like a slice of pale bacon. Now, before you go “blegh!” I have to tell you, it was pretty tasty. It wasn’t salty or nasty, it was rather like eating a lightly seasoned piece of meat with some rice (which is pretty much what it was). But the main attraction was really the bar itself. Not only was the bar huge, but the variety of stuff on the track was phenomenal. All different kinds of sushi, tempura, chicken kara-age (deep fried chicken nuggets), desserts and even fruit went around on the bar.

The prices are all indicated by the type/color of plate it’s on. It was quite the amazing selection. We all ate far more than we should have as exhibited by the many tall piles of different colored plates on our table, but not only was it delicious, just watching the bar go around and waiting to see what new thing might come around was really fun.

August 13, 2008

Japan 2008 - Iwakuni - Day 6

Iwakuni was the destination of the day. Iwakuni is about 1 hour outside of Hiroshima via local train. Home to MCAS Iwakuni, it also is the home of a unique ribbon bridge called Kintai-Kyo. 5 sections long (to represent the 5 main islands in Japan) it is a beautiful bridge that spans approx 193 meters across the river. However, due to the design of the bridge, if you walk across it, you actually end up walking about 210 meters. It’s considered one of the 3 most beautiful bridges in Japan, and is the only 5 span bridge of its type in the world. Interestingly enough, though the bridge was designed in 1673, it conforms to modern engineering and design principles. There was a bit of misinformation about the bridge being built without nails, but nails and such were used in its construction.

A view of the construction under one of the spans:

Walking across the bridge.

A statue in the park after you cross the bridge. Unfortunately I forget who the statue is for, though I would guess it is for Kikkawa Tsuneie, who is famous in the area. The story goes that when Toyotomi Hideyoshi was conquering the area for Oda Nobunaga, he had this area surrounded and had cut off all the supplies to the area. With his people suffering, Tsuneie surrendered to Hideyoshi, and in exchange for his life he asked that Hideyoshi spare his people. Tsuneie then performed the ritual seppuku or hara-kiri. The statue was raised in honor of his sacrifice many years later.

Some fountains in the park behind the bridge. It was very hot, so some of the local kids were running through the fountains cooling off. I should have joined them!

Since it’s summer time here, there are cicadas all over Japan singing their song. It’s a unique sound, from a fairly unique bug. This one was captured by a small child who was off playing in the fountains in the park near the bridge. Unfortunately for this one, shortly after I took these pictures, a local cat wandered by and had it for lunch.

One of the food specialties for Hiroshima is a unique dish called “Okonomiyaki.” It’s really hard to describe. It is composed of several layers starting with a very thin crepe-like base, piled high with cabbage, bean sprouts, bacon, and other toppings, then grilled down and covered with seasonings, an egg and a special sauce. It sounds weird, but it’s tastes absolutely wonderful. Available with several kinds of add-ins ranging from shrimp to squid, noodles or even mochi (Japanese pounded rice cakes). This is something I’m going to have to try to reverse-engineer the recipe for. We went to an okonomiyaki restaurant where you could watch yours being made right in front of you on a big flat grill (like they use at Benihana-type teppan-yaki restaurants). I watched carefully as the chef prepared mine, and several others, but there were some of the ingredients I’ll have to guess at. Often there was a sprinkle of this, or a shake of that added, or a splash of something, but I have no idea what the actual ingredients were. Things like the crepe base, and the sauce are actually available stateside now, but there’s still quite a bit of experimentation to do to get the seasoning right. I suspect I won’t have a lack of volunteers to try my creations though.

August 07, 2008

Site moving

Looks like my gracious host (and no, I'm not being sarcastic, he's hosting my site for free and has been maintaining everything in the background...I owe him at least a 6pack of or two of his choice...:) ) is moving sites around again, so the blog may be unavailable for a bit while the move is done and DNS re-propagates. Just a warning for everyone.

August 06, 2008

Japan 2008 - Hiroshima - Day 5

Hiroshima was on tap for today. We arrived from Kyoto via Shinkansen (Bullet train). Our first stop was the Peace Memorial. As many times as I’ve been, there’s always something very moving about it. As they periodically update their displays, there were some new exhibits for me to see as well. Suffice it to say that if you manage to get to Japan anywhere near Hiroshima, this is a place you should make time to see.

On a lighter note we also went to see a Japanese Baseball game. On the schedule was the Hiroshima Carp versus the Tokyo Giants. The Carp are unfortunately a perennial also-ran in the Japan Leagues. They are a small market team that has a rabid following, but only rarely manage to make it the whole way.

If you’re a baseball fan, Japanese baseball is an amazing experience. Obviously the core rules of the game itself are basically the same as the US, but the crowd experience is unbelievable. Now, I’m not a rabid fan. I enjoy watching the game, and I always root for my home team (Padres) despite their ups and (mainly) downs, and I do track their progress throughout the year. I may go to the park a few times a year, I’ve been to their playoff games, and I wish I could have gone to their World Series trips, but, I’ve never experienced anything like this.

First off is the instruments: In a couple of spots along the bleachers, there are trumpeters. Throughout the game, they break out and fire up the crowd (as if they needed it). To aid them, are drummers, pounding out the beat on some large drums and tone sticks, and some flag wavers, and some of them use police whistles.

Next up is the megaphones: You can actually purchase what amount to plastic megaphones in different sizes to suit your volume needs. Then, there’s the bang sticks: Those plastic tubes that you bang together to make more noise than you could with your hands. Then add in the partisan and very knowledgeable crowd, and you have quite the raucous cacophony.

Then there’s this gentleman: Periodically he would don this head and lead the section in some cheers.

Should the Carp get a hit, he would leap up on a box and synchronize the crowd cheers again.

Should the Carp score (unfortunately all too infrequently this game) again he would leap up on the box and lead the crowd in cheers.

The noise factor is pretty amazing. Granted the playoffs I went to have to be the loudest thing I’ve ever been to, but synchronizing the entire crowd is pretty amazing. Only rarely in the States have I heard the crowds get synchronized in their cheers the way the Japanese crowd did repeatedly all throughout the game. In Japan, the entire crowd will start chanting the name of the batter or pitcher, in synchrony, at key at-bats, or pitches during the game. “The wave” has got nothing on this.

Some of the other highlights were: beer service at your seat, including the roving draft lady with the pony keg on her back, who would refill your beer for you at your seat, being able to have a bowl of noodles at your seat, and the people who would come by to take your trash away for you. We were at Hiroshima Municipal Stadium, which I understand will be torn down at the end of this year and replaced with a new stadium to be built near the train station. It was an older stadium, and was fairly small in terms of available seating, perhaps feeling a bit like a minor league stadium stateside.

Long about the 6th inning, we were handed some balloons. Now, these balloons were interesting, the opening had a small ring on it, designed to whistle when air passed through it. What happened was at the top of the 6th inning, a song was played to which a few in the crowd sang along to, then at the end of the song, they released their balloons, which proceeded to float up in the air like humongous, slow, bottle rockets, whistling along. Those were apparently from the few brave Giant’s fans in attendance.

About the 7th inning, the Carp fans got their turn. So all throughout the inning, you heard the “wheee, wheee, wheee” as the balloons were blown up, with the occasional “pop” of the failed or overinflated balloons. But by the end of the 7th inning, there was a veritable sea of these balloons all waiting for launch.

(Now, those of you laughing or giggling maniacally at the phallic nature of the balloons, please try to calm down and catch your breath at some point…) So, at the end of the song, everyone releases the balloons, and there’s this amazing sea of pink balloons shooting up into the air whistling up into the night. Needless to say there were far more balloons released for the Carp than for the Giants.

Unfortunately, the Carp would not win on the night, despite their best efforts. The Giants started strong with 3 runs in the first inning, and held on with a few more solo home runs throughout the game, more than enough to hold off the Carp who managed to shoot themselves in the foot a few times in the game. Hrm…kind of felt like the Padres of late…no wonder I felt at home watching the game.

All in all, it was quite an amazing experience. While the spectacle on the field was more or less the same, complete with a mascot that looked an awful lot like the Philly Phanatic, and the usual weirdness that accompanies most mascots, the game in the stands was far different, and it was a very enjoyable difference.

August 03, 2008

Japan 2008 - Updates

Well, I'm actually back from Japan now. I didn't have decent access to a connection the last part of the trip, as well as being very busy towards the end of the trip, so I didn't have a chance to do any updates. However, I did manage to write up a few things even without a connection, so what I will do is over the next couple of weeks or so as I catch my breath and get over my jet lag, I'll finish up the rest of the trip.