Summer Winter Vacation XII
Smiling Happy Fun Trip
by Jeffrey Scott Duly, Age 50
So my sister, Karen, wanted to go to Japan. Hey, I'm always game for a trip and I wanted to go back to the Land of the Rising Sun, so I started to look for decent fares. There weren't any as good as when I went on 2008, but found some that were acceptable. Pictures can be found here, but below is bound to be all sorts of interesting information, including hyperlinks (mostly Japan Guide), that I don't have in the photos.
Prologue: The security lines at BNA were longer than I expected, but we gave ourselves enough time that it wasn't a problem. The only problem, if I will call it that, was the fact that I was made to check my bag at the gate all the way through to Tokyo. They said that due to limited overhead space, any carry-on luggage with wheels needed to be checked, not just gate checked for some reason, but all the way. It wasn't a big deal since Karen had a checked bag and I didn't have anything in there that I would need, but it was the first time I had checked luggage on over a decade. On top of that we took off more than thirty minutes late, but it was a short flight from Atlanta to Nashville so we didn't have too big a problem. On the flight from Atlanta to Tokyo my first meal was miso yaki beef with steamed rice and vegetables, shrimp cocktail (which I gave to Karen), garden salad, a roll and a brownie. It was okay. Just airline food. The second meal was a turkey and cheese sandwich, an apple and a Milano cookie. Then for the third and final meal I chose the French onion quiche with spaghetti squash casserole and chicken apple sausage. The best part of that meal was the sausage. I watched three movies, Tomorrowland, Inside Out and The Intern.
We landed in at Narita Airport without incident. It was raining though. After getting our luggage and getting through immigration, we were met by our host for the week, Lisa, and her little girl Isabelle. We got our Japan Rail passes validated and then we drove to the Stewarts' apartment for a little visit with the family before crashing for the night. My sister and I displaced Isabelle and her brother, William, for a week. They would be bunking in their parent's room while we were there. Nice kids.
Nichiyōbi, Ni-gatsu 21 (Tokyo): Strangely enough, I went into this trip with very little planning. I knew we would be taking a train trip on Wednesday and Thursday, getting out of the Tokyo area, but in terms of doing things in Tokyo, except for a day at Tokyo Disney Resort it was sort of loose. So after a little breakfast we caught the train into Tokyo. Because we would be taking a trip on Japan Rail and the fact that the Shin-Urayasu station near the apartment was on the JR East Keiyo and Musashino Lines, I had purchased JR Rail passes which only visitors can buy. Once we activated them when we got to the airport, all we had to do was enter and exit each station at the window on the side instead of through the turnstiles showing the rail person the pass. Really easy. Definitely worth the price if you use it. Upon arrival at Tokyo Station we went to the JR East ticket office to book reservations for our mid-week trip to Kyoto and Hiroshima. Reservations were not necessarily needed as there are cars that are open, but it didn't cost anything to do it and that way we didn't need to worry about crowds of other passengers and finding seats. We also purchased Suica cards at the office for our fares on the Tokyo Metro.
After that business was done with we left the station and walked toward the Imperial Gardens. It was a place I had visited on my last trip but I figured Karen might like to see it. Only the East Garden is open to the public and I thought we were going in the entrance I left from last time but I was wrong. We went in another area that led to nowhere in particular than another exit. So we walked a couple of miles on a path that goes around the park to get to the East Garden entrance that I knew. There were a lot of runners on the path that morning. Maybe they were preparing for the Tokyo Marathon on the following Sunday. There was nothing particularly different in the Imperial Gardens than my previous visit but it is a nice place to see.
Before leaving and thinking of places to see that I had not before I found out about Ahikabara. It is kind of a hub of Japanese pop culture, particularly video games, consumer electronics, anime and cosplay. There is a large street that was blocked off to traffic making a big pedestrian street. We didn't do too much there other than walk up and down the street looking at all of the stuff. It is mostly a shopping area with some restaurants and arcades. One of the odd little things there is something called a maid cafe. Maid cafes are restaurants where the staff are young women in maid outfits. Not Hazel maid outfits (there's a dated reference) but those with short skirts and frills and such. The servers are very attentive and you can play games and have pictures taken with them. As much as I might have liked to go to one (Cute Japanese women in little maid outfits. What's not to like?), we didn't. Besides, I think they cater more to Japanese people anyway and I don't know how much English they would know.
After Ahikabara we went back to the apartment in Urayasu for dinner with Lisa, Robert and the kids. We went to a restaurant near the station. They served Japanese food, or as they would call it over there, food. It must be hard to be an observant Jew over in Japan because a lot of their food is pork and shellfish based. Of course I don't think there are a lot of Jews over there anyway. Instead of pork I was able to get chicken, along with soup, rice and tea. But chopsticks were used. I'm no expert with them but I also don't have a problem using them.
Getsuyōbi, Ni-gatsu 22 (Tokyo Disney Resort): Since one of the things I knew we would do was Tokyo Disney Resort, the only thing to determine was which day. I figured Monday would be a good day to do it, even though as it turns out there would be some rain moving in later in the day. Also, according to a crowd calendar on an app I downloaded it would be kind of a busy crowd day at both parks. But we went on Monday anyway. It wasn't bad. The biggest crowd impact was in the E-ticket attractions. Those queues were particularly long. The rest wasn't too bad. We got there at park opening and went to Tokyo Disneyland first. Went to Big Thunder Mountain first for FastPasses (the old kind with paper tickets) and then did some other attractions. Believe it or not we got on Peter Pan's Flight with little wait. That's tough at Walt Disney World. Haunted Mansion wasn't too long at that hour either. We had some delicious waffles. Mine was one with strawberry and cream cheese sauce. Mmmm. After riding Big Thunder, we left the park and went to Tokyo DisneySea in late morning.
Really both parks should be done for a full day each, but since we weren't in Japan that long we did more of a hit and run half day at each. Lines were already getting long. We needed a FastPass for something, so we picked Tower of Terror which didn't have a return time until around 4:45. After that we went to Journey to the Center of the Earth, an attraction I remember really liking last time around. The posted time was 100 minutes but we were through it 2/3 the time. Lunch followed at Miguel's El Dorado Cantina, a fried chicken taco, fries and mango soda. A boat ride to Mediterranean Harbor, a very Italian-themed area, let to some tiramisu for dessert. We did a few other attractions before our FastPass return at the Tower of Terror. The ride is pretty much the same as its American counterparts, but the preshow is different and Japanese. The vanishing idol effect still amazes me. After that we took the monorail back to the Disneyland park to finish the day, doing Country Bear Jamboree, the Tiki Room, It's a Small World, Roger Rabbit's Toontown Spin and Space Mountain. Again, more time would have allowed doing more things but being Disney park veterans most of the things we didn't get to we have experienced at other parks.
Kayōbi, Ni-gatsu 23 (Tokyo): If you remember my last trip (and why would you not?), it was on my trip to Asakusa that my camera went crazy and died. So hopefully my current camera would do better. Lisa joined us on the trip. We did the Nakamise shopping street, Senso-ji Temple and the surrounding area. Lisa has us try some of the foods sold at a couple of stands in Nakamise-dori. They were sticky, gooey rice-based things that sometimes had bean paste in them. They were okay. Not sure I would get them all the time. After seeing the sights surrounding the temple (and thank Buddha my camera survived) we took a train back to the Tokyo Station to meet Robert for lunch at a ramen place he wanted to try called T's Tan Tan. No pork worries here as it was a vegetarian joint. I had some ramen with tofu that tasted like meat. Again, chopsticks were used for the tofu and noodles. They aren't too hard to use with long noodles. Just get some trapped between the sticks, bring them to your mouth and suck them up.
Another redo from my last trip was the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The Stewarts joined us for a while there but had to leave a little earlier than we did because the kids would be coming home from school. After the museum and before going back to the apartment for dinner we did one thing I was unhappy I missed last time. We visited the Sumo Museum that is located next to the Edo-Tokyo Museum. It is located in a building where they have proper sumo tournaments. I thought there was going to be more than there actually was. It's just one room with a few things in it. So as it turns out I didn't miss much on the first trip. The Stewarts made dinner that night. They made okonomiyaki, which is a kind of pancake dish with lots of stuff on it. They did the Hiroshima style of okonomiyaki, which has cabbage, meat, noodles, egg and sauces. It was quite good, even if cutting through it with chopsticks was a little challenging.
Suiyōbi, Ni-gatsu 24 (Kyoto): Time for the trip out of Tokyo. I took a couple of short day trips to Hakone and Kamakura last time around, but this time we'd be going much farther away. We got to the Tokyo Station in plenty of time for a bite of something for breakfast before catching the shinkansen train to Kyoto. The shinkansen are bullet trains that run on lines throughout Japan. The train left promptly at 8:03 and arrived at Kyoto Station at 10:47. Kyoto was the capital of the Japan and seat of the emperor for over a thousand years before it was moved to Tokyo in 1868. While much of the city is modern like Tokyo, there are lots of temples and shrines in the area to see. So we did. I booked a room at the Ryokan Shimizu and we got there before check-in, but they took our bags so we could go explore.
I kind of had a plan for the day. We would walk east to see the Kiyomizu-dera temple. Along the way we stopped to see another temple, Nishi Honganji. It was rather close to the ryokan. Then we continued on through the city to see a place called Otanihonbyo Mausoleum. Then up a hill to the Kiyomizu-dera, a fairly large area with lots of different brightly-colored buildings. The odd thing is that when we were up there we didn't even see the big temple itself. But when you've seen one temple, you've kind of seen them all. We walked through some old streets with shops and other temples toward a subway station to catch a train across town to see the Nijo Castle. Don't picture a European kind of castle. It's definitely Asian, with lots of wood and bamboo floors and such. After a visit to the castle and surrounding gardens, it was time for dinner. We didn't have our interpreter, so proper Japanese food was not as preferable as something we could work out on our own. There was a MOS Burger near the Nijo Station, so we ate there. I had a nice teriyaki double burger that did the trick. Since it was getting quite cold and Karen was tiring, we decided to get back to the ryokan at around 5:00 or so and call it a day. The ryokan is a more traditional Japanese accommodation, with futon mats of the floor and different rooms with sliding doors. It was comfortable, despite the fact that we had the heat on pretty high and it was dry.
Mokuyōbi, Ni-gatsu 25 (Hiroshima): One place I really wanted to get to was Hiroshima, but a trip there just for that would have been really long, so joining it with a visit to Kyoto made more sense. We had a 8:00 reservation on the shinkansen and we got to Hiroshima at 9:58. Since we were carrying our backpacks, we rented a locker at the station so we wouldn't have to schlep them around. Then we walked toward the bomb site. Along the way we visited the Hiroshima Castle. Well I should say it was the rebuilt castle. The original was destroy by the you-know-what. Then we walked to the A-Bomb Dome, a building that was almost right below the blast and remained relatively intact. They left it as is as a memorial. There is a park nearby called the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park where there are lots of things called Peace something. We went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum where they had artifacts from the bombing. It was easily the second-most depressing museum I've ever been to after the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
One kind of interesting thing to see was the actual hypocenter where the bomb went off. The bomb exploded around 600 meters above ground, which is why the A-Bomb Dome building was not destroyed because it was below the blast which moved outward. There's a marker along a small street that indicates the actual site. Look up into the sky and you can see where it happened back on August 6, 1945. After seeing the Peace Memorial Park we walked back to the train station to catch the train back to Tokyo. Actually it was two trains. There are three Japan Rail companies, JR East, JR Central and JR West. It think some of the areas overlap a bit, but we had to take one train from Hiroshima to Osaka on a JR West train and then catch another JR Central train from Osaka to Tokyo. When we got back to Tokyo we took a short trip to the Shinjuku area to see the lights at night before getting back to the apartment.
Kin'yōbi, Ni-gatsu 26 (Kawagoe and Tokyo): I know I said I didn't to much planning, but that is really for Tokyo. I was looking for a half-day trip to see some traditional Japanese things and Kawagoe seemed to fit the bill. It is northeast of Tokyo and has some old warehouse buildings in the old style of architecture. There are a few ways to get there but since we had our JR passes we got there by JR. The downside was that it took longer to get there. The weather was beautiful and the old buildings were interesting to see. I would just say that it might not be worth the long trip. Maybe one of the faster ways to get there would be better.
Lisa had to be in Tokyo for an Apple Store appointment, so we planned to meet her afterward to get something to eat. She also mentioned a place in Harajuku called the Oriental Bazaar to look for souvenirs. After souvenir shopping we got a real traditional Japanese meal, pizza. Before you go on about it, when I got home and started looking on the web for information on what we did and saw I found out that the place we went to was one of the restaurants owned (I guess) by a celebrity chef called Salvatore Cuomo. He is half-Italian and half-Japanese. So there, I'm calling it (half) Japanese.
Doyōbi, Ni-gatsu 27 (Urayasu): The flight back to the States didn't leave until late afternoon, so like my last trip there was time to kill on the last day. I didn't want to bother going into the city for anything so we stayed our in Urayasu. We went to a store at the Disneyland Resort that was just near the Maihama Station because we wanted to pick up a couple of things for the kids as thanks for letting us squat in their rooms for a week and for last-minute things we wanted. Then while Karen stuck around the apartment with the Stewarts I took a walk down along the river to see the bay. Since it was such a beautiful and a little warmer day, there were quite a few others out to enjoy it. But soon enough we had to be at the Shin-Urayasu Station to get to Tokyo Station and catch the Narita Express back to the airport. The Narita Express was also covered by out JR passes.
As I recall the flight out of Tokyo left on time. On the flight back I watched Minions and Straight Out of Compton. The first meal was lemon butter chicken with penne and broccoli, roast beef and corn medley, salad and a roll. Then there was a snack that I don't remember and then finally breakfast of a danish, fruit and yogurt. Trans-Pacific flights are odd in that heading west you skip a whole day and on the way back you land on the same day at a time before you even left. Unfortunately the cheapest and best flight option was a three-leg return trip, so we went from Narita to LAX, then LAX to Salt Lake City, and lastly Salt Lake City to Nashville. Nothing much to report about the last to flights. We got in at around 9:00 p.m., which in Tokyo time would have been 12:00 noon the next day. For our body clocks it was a long day.
Epilogue: I really went on this trip to let my sister go to Japan for the first time. Even though she knew someone over there I'm not sure she would have gone on her own. And I got to see parts of Japan outside of the Tokyo area for the first time. I cannot thank the Stewarts enough for their hospitality. They have been over there for a good while and I know they like visits from people back home even though very few people can do it. Lisa was a good friend of Karen's from FSU and while I wasn't I knew who she was from Chiefs. She and her husband are Presbyterian missionaries over there and do Christiany kinds of things I suppose trying to grow the religion over there.
I am glad I got to try more Japanese foods this time around thanks to Lisa and Robert. It is difficult when travelling on my own to do. It's not as hard in Europe but Asia presents a challenge. Also, if you do go over and you plan to take any trip outside of Tokyo, definitely get the JR pass. I don't know exactly how much it saved us, but I think just the cost of the shinkansen and Narita Express fares would have been more than the cost of the pass. That's about all I have to say. I'm sure there are other things (and probably some of the same things) I wrote to accompany the photos, so go ahead and look at them.
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