Summer Winter Vacation VI
by Jeffrey Scott Duly, Age 42
I had wanted to go to Japan for a little while, but a couple of things had always stopped me. Firstly, that's a loooooong flight. The time it takes to fly there coupled with crossing the International Date Line equates to losing two days just to get there. Secondly, the flights tend to be a bit pricey. I checked flights in the off-season and noticed that a trip in late February was a couple hundred dollars less than one a few days later in March. So with a flight within an acceptable price range I decided to deal with the long flight and make the trip. As always, pictures can be found here. Below is my little travelogue where you will find more information, including hyperlinks, about places and things seen and done.
Prologue: Talk about a bad way to start a vacation. After a snow storm moved into Chicago, I was wondering if my flight to O'Hare was going to be cancelled, which would pretty much put the kibosh on my trip. But after a delay of only about a half hour, we took off out of Nashville Tuesday morning bound for the Windy (and snowy) City. I thought that would be the hard part. Once I got to Chicago, if the flight to Japan was delayed a bit because of weather at least it would take off. I had already contacted the hotel a couple of days before and let them know I might be a little later than expected. What I did not anticipate was that the flight would be cancelled. Yep, the plane was in the hanger with an engine under repair. The really annoying part was that the cancellation was not announced. It was simply displayed on the monitors at the gate. I wasn't exactly staring at the monitors, so by the time I found out there was already a long queue at the gate desk. While waiting in the line, I noticed that there was a later flight to Tokyo leaving from a gate right next door. I chanced it and got out of my line and into the shorter one for the other flight hoping I could make arrangements to that one. Sure enough I was able to. So now I'm in good shape, right? Well yes, except that the second flight was delayed because the plane was coming in from somewhere else and was delayed inbound. We eventually left three hours later than I was originally supposed to leave.
There were three movies on the way over that I watched (Dan in Real Life, Martian Child and Lars and the Real Girl). We landed at Narita Airport a little after 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, about two hours later than we should have. We must have made up some time in the air. Amazing how they can do that. I knew that the Japan Rail Travel Service Center in Terminal 1 closed at 7:00, so after getting though immigration pretty quickly I hustled downstairs and got there with about five to ten minutes to spare. I used a package deal to book a seat on the Narita Express into town and get a Suica card for the Tokyo subway system. After an hour train ride to the Tokyo station, a short walk to the Otemachi station to catch the subway to the Suitengūmae station and another walk of a few blocks, I arrived at the Hotel Kitcho at around 8:45 p.m. Then it was a quick unpacking job and straight to bed.
Mokuyōbi, Ni-gatsu 28 (Tokyo): I didn't get much sleep on the flight (no surprise) and about six hours the previous night, so I was up early. This was a trend the whole trip. I got some breakfast at the 7-Eleven. A slice of pound cake and a carton of banana milk. On this first day I wanted to visit a couple of museums and take a walking tour I found in my Lonely Planet Tokyo Guide. My plans got a bit rerouted by unforeseen circumstances as you will find out. Since the museums wouldn't be open until later in the morning, I first went to the Imperial Gardens, getting there at around 8:00 a.m. However, I could not get in until they opened the gates at 9:00. Only the East Gardens is open to the public. The western part of the grounds where the Imperial Palace is located is off-limits. After wandering around there for a while I headed over to the NHK Broadcast Museum, which is atop a decent sized hill. I think the building in which it is located was once the network's broadcast facilities, although I may be wrong on that. They are in a bigger building now. Even though I was not familiar with the programming history of the NHK network, the museum is interesting. Then it was back on the subway to see the Tokyo Tower. It is the tallest man-made structure in Japan and was designed to resemble the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I didn't go up because it cost money to do so and I knew there was an observation deck in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings that was free.
The following is where the day went a little haywire. I was going to take a walking tour in the Asakusa area. It started at the Senso-ji temple. After taking a few photos I was going to head off in the direction indicated in my guidebook. It was while I was at the temple my camera broke. Some of it still worked. I could still access the flash card and review the pictures I had already taken. I did not lose them. But I could no longer take pictures. My camera had lost it little digital mind. All that appeared on the screen was wavy purple lines. I couldn't very well spend the rest of my trip without a camera, so I had to find some place I could buy a new one. I didn't notice anything in the area, so I checked the guidebook and read that a big shopping area of town was Ginza. I took the subway over there and hunted. I stumbled upon an electronics superstore called Bic Camera and bought a new Canon SureShot A720 IS and a new memory card for a little over ¥30,000. The whole diversion wasted about two hours of the day, but at least I ensured that I would be able to snap shots for the rest of my trip.
I read in my guidebook that the Edo-Tokyo Museum was open until 8:00 p.m. on Thursdays, so I left that one as the last thing to do for the day. When I got there at 5:00 the woman told me they were closing at 5:30. Either the museum has changed their times or the guidebook was wrong. So I decided to do that museum first thing Saturday. Now I needed to find some place to eat dinner. This was always going to be the biggest problem for me. I have eaten meals in other countries before, but lots of times there have been English menus. That was not going to be the case on this trip. I knew of a chain called MOS Burger and I came across one on my hunt for dinner. I had a MOS Burger, fries and a cup of coffee. I didn't really intend to have the coffee, but I kind of just pointed at something in the beverage section of the menu and that's what it was. After dinner I was off to a couple parts of town where I knew there would be a lot of lights, Shibuya and Shinjuku. Then it was back to the hotel and into bed.
Kin'yōbi, Ni-gatsu 29 (Tokyo Disneyland): Breakfast this morning was a flaky apple danish pastry and another carton of banana milk. Being a Disney park aficionado, I could not take a trip to Tokyo and not go to Tokyo Disneyland. There are actually two parks at the Tokyo Disney Resort, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. Since they do not have a one-day park hopper like they have in Disneyland Paris, I had to buy separate tickets to go to both parks. My impression of the Disneyland park was that it was nothing particularly special. There didn't seem to be any magic about it for me. The park is almost 25 years old and just about everything there is just like their counterparts in either Anaheim or Lake Buena Vista. That's not to say that it wasn't a good visit. It was interesting to hear the Haunted Mansion's ghost host and Henry in the Country Bear Jamboree speaking Japanese. And the old Mickey Mouse Review that was closed in Walt Disney World in 1979 was shipped in whole to Tokyo where it has been since Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983. Tokyo DisneySea is a newer park, opening in 2001, and is therefore a little more special. While it also has some of the same attractions as its sister parks (Tower of Terror, Indiana Jones), the park is very well themed. For lunch I had a tasty chicken salad crepe in Adventureland and dinner was a fried codfish sandwich in the American Waterfront in DisneySea. The Disneyland park was open from 9:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m., but I didn't stay that late. I left to catch the train back to the hotel at around 8:00. I had pretty much done everything I wanted, so to stay there any longer would have simply just made me more tired.
Doyōbi, San-gatsu 1 (Tokyo): Since I was up early again Saturday morning, I did my laundry. I had forgotten to get some laundry soap the day before. I kind of stuck a bar of soap in the machine for a bit, but I ended up washing my clothes mostly in just water. After I was done with the washing, I got out to the Edo-Tokyo Museum. I know you are wondering what was for breakfast. I had some little berry creme-filled éclairs with, yep, you guessed it, banana milk. (It was really good.) I got there a little early, so I wandered around the neighborhood a bit before it opened. After the museum, I was going to go the the Sumo Museum next door. The only problem there was that it was closed for a week. Oh well.
At 1:35 p.m. at the National Stadium was the Xerox Super Cup. It is a soccer match held the week prior to the opening of the season between the previous season's J.League champion and Emperor's Cup champions. Since the Kashima Antlers won the double in 2007, they played the Super Cup against the Emperor's Cup runners-up, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, who were relegated to the second division for 2008. I got a seat in the Antlers end and after I bought a scarf I found a seat and waited for the match. And what a match it was! It was the strangest soccer game I've seen in my 30+ years of watching the game. There were two ejections in a scoreless first half. Then Kashima scored two quick goals to open the second half to take a 2-0 lead. Hiroshima was awarded a penalty which they converted. The referee made them retake it as the Kashima goalkeeper came off his line early, but they scored the second time as well. After a late equalizer by Sanfrecce, the match went to penalties. That's where the fun really started. Both sides scored their first try. Hiroshima missed their second after Kashima converted theirs, but the officials once again awarded a retake because the keeper came off his line again. They made good on their second chance and tied it up 2-2. Kashima badly missed their next two penalties and Hiroshima made one of their next two, so it was 3-2 going into the fifth and final stanza. Kashima scored their fifth chance and had to make a save in the bottom of the fifth to force further kicks. The keeper made the needed save, but (yep, you guessed it) the keeper came out early yet again. Hiroshima converted the retake to win the cup. About a couple dozen or so Antlers supporters stormed over the barricades and toward the pitch after the match, but thanks to security there was no real trouble.
Since the match had gone to penalties, I was worried that I would not make it in time to see the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame before it closed. My guidebook said that in March it was open until 6:00 p.m., but since it was wrong about the Edo-Tokyo Museum and it was the first of March, I wasn't too sure about it. But it was correct, so I had plenty of time there. It is a lot smaller than the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but it was interesting nonetheless. I didn't really know anyone enshrined in the hall except for Sadaharu Oh, but that was okay. I hoped to get a Yomiuri Giants cap from the HOF store, but they didn't have any. There was a Foot Locker there that had the caps, but they were way overpriced. I don't remember exactly what they were asking, but it was well over ¥7000. That would have been a $70+ baseball cap. Damn! I wanted one, but not that much. Maybe I'll be able to find one online somewhere for less.
Nichiyōbi, San-gatsu 2 (Hakone): The day just didn't start out right. I didn't care for the little pancake sandwich thing I had for breakfast, but at least the banana milk was up to par as always. I forgot to bring my mp3 player or buy a newspaper for the long two hour train ride down to Hakone. So by the time I got there I was already a little bugged. Then it was on another train up a mountain. The car was full of Southeast Asian tourists and it was kind of warm and crowded. This did nothing to improve my mood. And I noticed that the weather was turning cloudy. After reaching Gora (where there really isn't much near the station), the next mode of transportation to ride was an incline railway to take us farther up to a ropeway at Sounzan. All of these tickets were paid for when I bought a Hakone Free Pass from Odakyu Electric Railway at the Shinjuku station in Tokyo. The ropeway took us down from the mountain, over some volcanic crater, down to Lake Ashi. It was a Sunday and there were a fair amount of other tourists around, some Japanese families with little kids. It wasn't turning out to be the relaxing day out of the city I was hoping it would be. So far all I was doing was moving from one point to another with not much to see or do. I took a boat across the lake to Hakonemachi where the Hakone Checkpoint Museum was. At least this would be something I could do. The big bummer of the day was that the overcast sky almost completely (and actually did completely at times) obscure Mount Fuji. That was kind of the whole reason for going down there. I was not happy about that.
Anyway, despite the disappointment, or perhaps because of it, I experienced a very nice thing that afternoon. After I had a cup of tea and a couple of shortbread biscuits in the observation building on the grounds of the detached palace park, I went out onto the second floor balcony and stared at where Mount Fuji should have been. One of the tea ladies came out to me and started speaking to me in English, asking me a few questions. I think this was just to keep me there while her co-worker went and got something. She came out and they gave me a print of a photo of Mount Fuji taken from that same spot a few weeks earlier. It was a crystal clear sky and Mount Fuji was there in all its majestic splendor. I was very touched by this little gift. I think they figured that I had come a long way (which I had) and was disappointed in not being able to see the mountain (which I was), so they wanted to give me something to take home with me. I left and after I was near where I needed to catch a bus to go back to the train station, I regretted not taking a picture of the two sweet ladies. I got on the bus and I noticed it was not going in the direction I thought it should be. I got off at a stop near where the boat landed and then it came to me. I'm back near the observation building and I can go back in and get a photo of the tea ladies. I ran up the hill because I knew it would be closing soon and they seemed surprised that I would ask for their picture. They graciously, if embarrassingly obliged, and then I was off again to catch the bus. I went back to the station nearer the boat dock, but I found out the bus I needed that was covered by the Hakone Free Pass didn't stop there and that I needed to go back where I was when I caught the first bus. I heard one of the bus guys mention something about 5:00 and I thought perhaps he was telling some other people when the last bus leaves. I didn't want to miss it, so I jogged most of the way back north to the other bus stop. When I got on this bus, I realized the bus I was on earlier was indeed the right bus because this one was going the same "wrong direction". Well, at least making that mistake the first time allowed me to see the tea ladies and to thank then again for the picture.
I gave my seat on the crowded bus to a young lady who seem surprised by the act. I'm not sure if they don't do that over there, but she took the seat. A few minutes later I was starting to regret my manners. All the walking and running, coupled with the fact that I hadn't really eaten much that day was starting to catch up with me. Standing in that bus I was starting to feel ill and rather faint. It became clear that if I didn't sit down soon, I would end up lying on the floor of the bus after passing out. Fortunately I noticed an open seat behind me and I quickly sat down and recovered. After a two hour trip back into Tokyo, I needed food. I didn't really want to have to deal with trying to find some place, so I just went to McDonalds and brought food back to my room.
Getsuyōbi, San-gatsu 3 (Kamakura): I was smarter this time around. I remembered my mp3 player and newspaper for the ride down to Kamakura. Oh wait, I forgot to mention breakfast. I had a chocolate powder coated tube-shaped pastry with chocolate creme inside. Do I really need to mention the banana milk? I bought a Kamakura Enoshima Free Kippu pass from JR East and hopped the southbound train. Kamakura is a temple town, so the whole goal of this trip was to see temples and shrines. Since I like to visit churches on trips, this was a logical extension of that. I had planned ahead of some of the ones I wanted to be sure to see, but I forgot to bring that with me on the trip. It turned out okay, because the little guide I printed had some of the more important ones listed anyway. And as I discovered, when you've seen one temple or shrine, you've pretty much seen them all. The first temple, Engaku-ji, was very near the Kita-Kamakura train station. Then it was on to Kenchō-ji and the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine before trying to find lunch. I figured it was about time I had some Japanese food, so I wandered around the food section of the Tokyu store next to the Kamakura train station. I eventually decided on some meats on a stick. It seemed fairly Japanese. Then I walked to the Daibutsu, the statue of the Great Buddha.
I had pretty much seen enough of the temples and shrines, so I went to the Hase train station and caught the train down to Fujisawa and Enoshima Island. On the island were more shrines and the caves on the far side. Unfortunately the island is full of hills, so there was a lot of late afternoon climbing up and down stairs. But that was okay. It had been a good day of wandering around the town and visiting Buddhist and Shinto places of worship at a leisurely pace. It looked like rain was about to move in around 5:00 in the afternoon, so I went directly to the train station so I could get back to the city. I walked around the neighborhood looking for something for dinner. Italian seemed good, so I ate at the Saizeriya Restaruant. I had a focaccia with cheese and a minced meat cutlet.
Kayōbi, San-gatsu 4 (Tokyo): I knew I was going to have some time to kill before I wanted to check out and head to the airport, so I went out and wandered around the neighborhood a little. I decided to change things up a little, so instead of going to 7-Eleven for something to eat for breakfast I went to the AM/PM Market. I got a cherry pastry and banana milk. (For the record, it was a different brand of banana milk.) I decided to go down to the Tokyo Stock Exchange. They allow visitors and it's free, so why not? After wandering around in there for a while, I headed back to the hotel to check out and leave for Narita. I decided the night before that it would probably be a little easier to take the bus back instead of the Narita Express train I took coming in. The Tokyo City Air Terminal is just a few blocks away from the hotel, so it was much easier to get to, and in the middle of the day there shouldn't be much traffic getting there. So I bought a ticket and rode the Friendly Airport Limousine to the airport. I don't know why they call it that. They are actually busses. Anyway, I got to the airport at around 11:40, approximately four and a half hours before my flight was scheduled to leave. Better early than late I suppose. The flight left on time, a first for this trip, and twelve hours later we touched down at Dulles. The movies I watched on the way back were Enchanted, which I had already seen, and Juno, a movie I really wanted to see. Of course one I got to Dulles I had trouble again as the flight to Nashville was delayed an hour because they had to find a captain for the flight.
Epilogue: Overall it was a good trip. English was not as common as I would have thought. I'm sure people know it but don't use it unless they have to. I didn't really venture into Japanese cuisine. There are two reasons for that. Firstly, it would have been difficult in most cases to order food. Some places have menus out front with pictures, but I didn't see anything inside that I could use to point to when ordering. Also, in looking at some of the pictures it didn't seem appetizing. Bowls of noodles and some sort of brown meat, often times fatty, didn't look appealing. So my experience with Japanese foods, with the exception of a lunch of meats on a stick, was pretty much limited to snack items and beverages.
Let me tell you one other thing. Anyone expecting the streets to be filled with hot Japanese babes in little sailor-looking schoolgirl outfits will be sorely disappointed. If a man wants to be cured of yellow fever, go to Japan. They are not a particularly good-looking bunch of people. (My apologies to any Japanese people reading this.) Maybe the people of Japanese decent we have here in America are the best of the bunch, because I've seen plenty of cute Asian women here. They sure aren't over there.
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