Published: February 19th 2009April 3rd 2008
Sunday, March 9th - wake up early, ready to begin the great Japanese adventure - it had been storming all day the day before, but things looked fine that morning... checked the Air Canada site a couple of hours in advance, flight is a go... hop in the shower, hop back out, flight to Toronto is now delayed by 15 minutes... no big deal, I have plenty of time to connect... have some breakfast, check flight again... now it's cancelled... Houston, we have a problem!!! call the airport, they aren't helpful... spend an hour on hold with Aeroplan, never get to talk to someone, give up... head to airport to see what I can do from there... changes of catching afternoon flight to Tokyo - 0 ... so switch flights to Toronto to the next day and leave from another city... warn my sister not to go to Tokyo, head to SJ... visit the fam, crash at the hotel, and wait for the postponed adventure to start...
Monday - 4:30 am - en route to the SJ airport for my 6:00am flight to Toronto... flight is a go - woohoo... almost forgot my gear at the hotel - that would
not have been good ... crisis averted... 7:00 ish Toronto time, I'm in Toronto... flight to Tokyo, not until 3:30... could be worse... my section of the terminal has Starbucks and I have books... so I park it with coffee and read... stretch every hour and walk around, have some lunch, and finally board the plane... the flight from Toronto to Narita is 13 hours... I'm exhausted from lack of sleep over the last few days, but sleep is not in the cards... I switch seats once we get up and going so I'm not sandwiched to the window beside two other people to a sweet seat the front of one of the sections - yay, room for leg stretching!! watch juno and august rush, even though I've already seen them, then Death at a Funeral (stupid), and then 1/2 of Dan in Real Life... finally almost able to sleep when the stewardess taps me to see if I want some soup... yea, whatever (you definitely don't starve on international flights - there was three meals each way)... but the soup was cup a noodle - GROSS!!
Tuesday - fast forward 12 hours - arrive in Narita at 5:30
at night on Tuesday (I left 6am Monday morning) - customs is a breeze, luggage made the trip, Mel is waiting at arrivals... catch the train to Tokyo (Narita airport is actually about an hour from Tokyo)... haven't slept in days, welcome to Tokyo Station - too tired to care... there are like 12 million people or something in Tokyo and we find someone Mel knows at the train station as we're waiting... catch the shink (bullet train - these are crazy comforatable by the way) to Niigata - that's another 2 hours... we get to Niigata, and head to the parking lot where Mel's car is... parking meter machine won't take any of the money either of us have... Mel runs over to Northern Lights to break some money, I guard the car that is blocking the way out of the parking lot, and hope no one needs out, armed with the Japanese phrase "excuse me" and nothing else (well, except my charm :) ... Mel about faceplants on the way to change the money and sprains an ankle... trip is off to a roaring start... finally make it to Mel's in Niitsu around 11:30, and at this point
I'm so tired I am awake again... chat for a bit, check in with Canada, and crash... Mel's place is pretty big for Japan, and I have a comfy futon thinger to call my very own... she claims to have a view of beautiful snowy mountains, but I think she's on coke since I didn't see them even once
Wednesday... the real day 1 - I think today we were supposed to go to Nagano, but I'm wrecked... up around 6am because it's insanely bright out which means "be awake" - Mel shows me some of the sights in Niigata City instead (population about 550,000)... see one of the schools where she works, Japanese grocery store (side note: melons are incredibly expensive in Japan - we saw a $20 honeydew melon and some $5 apples, but they can get such interesting produce), dollar store (holy frig - they're huge, but I guess they are much closer to China :), big ass mall (mmm starbucks), movie rental place, gas station (you can't even imagine ... they guide you in to the spot, stop you exactly where they want you parked, give you a cloth to wipe down your dashboard while
they hand wash all of the outside windows, fill the car etc - then they guide you out on to the road, stopping trafffic for you as needed, and bow about 100 times - crazy!!) - restaurant called gusto for lunch, tasty (with western food for Mel) - back to Mel's for a bit... Northern Lights (canadian bar in Niigata City run by fellow canuck Dustin and his Japanese girlfriend Nuriko - and trusty bar dog Lefty) - meet some of Mel's friends, get a tasty welcome strawberry pizza, try some Japanese beer (Sapporro)... in bed early... still wrecked (sense a trend?)
Thursday - Nagano - here we come!! so it's supposed to be about 3 hours from Mel's place, and I'm quite sure she did it in 2 ... the speed limit on expressways in Japan seems to be 80km/h - messed up!!! BUT, there's no police anywhere, so people who feel like driving much faster, just do... on the other side of the road... so I left all the driving to Mel since we wouldn't be driving all that much... navigating in Japan can be tricky - they aren't big fans of road names (and don't really
use them), and only some of the main signs are in English... oh well, adds to the adventure... so we finally find the monkey park, and trek about 45 minutes through the woods on a snowy path (which someone has mucked up with a dirtbike or something) to the monkeys... Mel is a brave little soldier with her bloody stumps, and it's well worth it... admission to tourist attractions in Japan (when there even is an admission fee) is crazy cheap... we spend a couple of hours with the monkeys, which are excellent photographic subjects, and begin the trek back... I doze off part way back (Japan is 12 hours ahead of Fredericton, so I'm not adjusted yet at this point), but Mel makes record time - highlights of the drive: beautiful snowy mountains, one of Japan's many random ferris wheels, robot traffic director things, and countless bizarro cars... we stay at Mel's that night, as I'm just finally getting over the worst of the jet lag... watch some comedy specials and pass out cold... note: Haagan Daaz ice cream in Japan rocks because they have weirdo flavors :)
Friday - we were supposed to go to Sado Island
today, but we changed out minds and just did more stuff around Niigata... checked out the park by Big Swan (where the Niigata soccer team plays), a Chinese water garden, a water fowl park (ducks), the flower festival at Furasato-mura (very cool, since I love taking pictures of flowers... right on ikebana displays as well), drove along the coast for a while... supper at Northern Lights again, and not too much else to round out Friday
Saturday - the big day for Niigata... Sake no-jin in the afternoon - huge annual Niigata City Sake Festival - they are known for sake, rice, tulips and sasadango (some concoction or another wrapped in bamboo leaf)... the first thing I learn this day is that I don't like sake... though I did try several varieties, hot and cold, to give it a fair chance... we get there around 3:00 and people are already trashed... it's only been going a couple of hours.. we stay until 5:30 or so ... tons of interesting displays, meet many peoples Mel knows... and then off to the middle of nowhere for the musical - Alice in Japan... this is a bunch of people (mostly foreigners) getting
together every year to raise money to build schools in Papua New Guinea... a small group of them go over with donations and help in the actual building... Mel went last year, but didn't go this year... it's a fairly expensive trip, but for a good cause... some of the money raised went towards earthquake funds in Niigata City as well this year... musical was pretty funny... they took Alice in Wonderland and added some Japanese twists (Momotaro - a Japanese folklore here - momo means peach and Taro is a good name for a boy :) - and Batman... after the musical, off to Northern Lights for Dustin's 3rd year anniversary.... placed was ridiculously packed (bars in Japan generally aren't very big)... and they can smoke most everywhere in Japan (ANNOYING!!) ... meet more peoples, have some beer... then off to Shame - another bar popular with the foreigner crowd... it's after 4 when we finally get home... Highlights: philosophizing with Russell, discussing pizza code with Christina, chatting with the Pauls (one from Ontario, one from Mass), and crazy Aki and his cadillac
Sunday - check out the Niigata Botanical Gardens in the morning... nice place... and then
off to Niigata airport for our flight to Osaka... took Mel several repacks of her suitcase to get it close to the weight limit for ANA flights, and then it turns out they didn't even care hehehe - nice view of snowy mountains from the plane, the stewardess gives us funny ANA plane postcards... possibly because we were foreigners (the only ones on the plane, which was not uncommon, and likely annoying for them having to read the English version of announcements), crazy amounts of leg room - Greg would have loved it... take the bus from Osaka airport to Osaka station, and the subway from there (super helpful subway person walked us like 10 miles through the station to get us to the right part, though we could have figured it out from the subway map and signs :) - and we're at our hotel late afternoon... toyoko inn (we stayed at the same chain in four cities)... in every city, they gave us handy dandy bags o bathroom stuff, and free gifts (things like socks, notepads, pens etc)... dump our junk and head off to Osaka Castle ... love it...it was probably one of my favorites... huge moat,
giant walls, nice views... stayed until near dark, grabbed some supper at a convenience store on the way back to the hotel (they are huge on packaged meals there - obento - and you can get them everywhere) - played some cards, off to bed
Monday - back to Osaka Castle in the morning, and down to the Plum Grove behind it since the plum trees were starting to blossom - super nice... back to hotel, and then head to our sumo match... interesting sport I guess, but I pretty much just found the whole thing funny.... big fat dudes in diapers slapping each other... the ceremony involved in the whole thing is interesting to watch... it takes longer to prepare for each match then to have the match, and the constant ring sweeping gets old quickly... there were sumos walking on the streets when we were heading there, which was pretty interesting... grabbed some lunch at T's restaurant and headed in... in Japan, you can bring just about anything you want into places with you.... beer, food, whatever... they don't really care... inside the actual tournament, the only thing they actually went around selling was ice cream, but
you could get stuff from the stands outside of the arena... sumo tournaments last 15 days, and every sumo competes every day of the tournament... then the person with the most wins at the end wins the tournament... the new/lesser/sucky sumo matches are early in the day, and the good matches go from like 4-6... we had some OBNOXIOUS foreigners sitting right in front of us, pretending they could read the program (Japanese is written horizontally and is read left to right - they were reading it straight across like we would, which was my biggest clue), and talking about other foreigners constantly.... AHEM... white people who think they are japanese are about the most annoying thing in world... you will never be accepted, you may be tolerated, get over it... after sumo, we tracked down Murphy's Irish Pub, since it was St. Patrick's Day after all... had some tasty supper and a few drinks and hoofed it back to the hotel (Note: Apparently the badass sumo Asashoryu won the tournament in Osaka (won the Emperor's Cup) - he's the first Mongolian sumo to reach yokozuna level, which is the highest rank)
Tuesday - early morning start, head to
Osaka Station and catch the shink for Kyoto... we get to the hotel in Kyoto way too early to check in, so we leave our junk, do our best to find an english map, and relax in the warm sun outside of Starbucks for a bit... and then we walk for about 7 hours.... I thought poor Mel would die.. she was getting pretty cranky with Japan and its lack of signs for major tourist attractions by the end... highlights - Imperial Palace Gardens, Kinkakuji Temple (the golden pavillion, which was really nice)... we cab it to the next one, Ginkakuji Temple (it was supposed to be the silver match to the golden pavillion, but it never got finished) - which was under construction while we were there... had some tasty sakura (cherry blossom) and mango ice cream, and then off to another shrine - Heain Jingu - it's big and orange LOL... back to hotel, find some food, and then off to Maruyama Park... we lucked out with this one... lots of lanterns all lit up, which is something I really wanted to see, really cool ikebana displays, etc etc... I didn't bring my gear out for this one,
and my small camera's battery died... so I am waiting for Mel to send me the pics I took on her camera
Wednesday - another early start... off to Kyoto station and catch to the shink to Himeji to see Himeji Castle... in the POURING RAIN... I left my gear in the locker and did this one with a small camera... this castle was really interesting, and it's one of the few that remain in Japan that were not destroyed by war and then rebuilt - the castle sits on top of Himeyama Hill... because it was pouring, we went through probably quicker than we normally would have, but it was still pretty impressive... back to the station to catch the shink to Hiroshima after that... still raining when we got there, but we wandered around by our hotel for the night... went to a restaurant for yakiniku (all you can eat meat that you grill yourself) - really neat experience, but for what you pay, it's challenging to eat that much meat... you can add a few more hundred yen in most places and make it all you can drink as well... we got there a few minutes
before the restaurant actually opened, and they opened early to accomodate us... that wouldn't happen here :) The Japanese eat late - at like 7 or 8 I think.
Thursday - Hiroshima Castle and grounds were interesting... the castle isn't very big and it's a museum now, and I find myself generally disinterested in museums, especially when the information is in a language I don't read... wandering on, we get to the Peace Memorial Park... this is a big and interesting place... you'll note I'm not sentimental about giant fuck-ups in global history, so there won't be any of that here... the A-Bomb Dome is really something to see though... apparently it was quite a controversy about what to do with it, and they decided to keep it as a monument and there's a whole park around it now... (good ole UNESCO)... we pretty much went through the whole thing, and the amounts of paper swans sent to the monuments in this park from people around the world are impressive in themselves... from the park, we took a boat out to Miyajima (shrine island)... this place was really great... it's known mostly for the giant "floating" torii gate that
is the entrance to the Itsukushima shrine which also looks to float... providing you get there when the tide is in, which we didn't...it's also known for the wild deer that roam around that city and which like to eat paper... it cracked me up watching deer sneak up to people and steal maps from their pockets and purses and stuff... there are big signs all over warning that your ferry tickets etc. won't be reprinted if the deer eat them, and a sign that cracked me up telling you to "watch out for your babies"... the island is also known for maple cakes (the machines that make them are neat) - called momij cakes, and for having a giant rice paddle... a highlight of the island for me, besides the deer, was Senjo-kaku, which is a giant hall with tons of art work on the ceiling...built in the 1580's, and never really finished... boat back to the peace park, finished looking around the park, and then to a spanish restaurant for dinner (needed a break from rice :)
Friday - early morning bus from Hiroshima station to the airport to catch our plane to Okinawa - that flight
was jam packed!! double-decker plane even.... monorail to hotel... leave junk, pick up rental car, and off to explore the grounds of Shuri Castle... really nice... dragons everywhere, which was kind of neat - there's a like a dragon/lion creature all over Okinawa (they say it's a cross between a lion and dog) - they are known as shisa and are generally found in pairs - it's a tradional Ryukyuan decoration and a ward for evil protection... there was some traditional Japanese dancing on display at the castle, which was really interesting to watch... we ate supper in this giant manmade tree building - Mel had a little language problem with the waiter and ended up paying 1600 yen (about $16 CDN) for a ceasar salad hehehe... my fishy stuff was good - wandered around "International Street" for a while, but it hurt our brains... it supposed to be a huge tourist attraction, but it's essentially store after store of tourist junk, lots of bright lights and loud music, and strange characters on the sidewalk (like Ronald McDonald, Hello Kitty, Betty Boop, and anime characters) - nice warm tropical like weather was nice though :)
Saturday - hop in
the rental car and off to Nago - checked out Churumi aquarium, which wasn't as neat as I hopped it would be, BIOS (pretty much an orchid farm, which was great), a brief stop at the Pineapple park, got Mel some A&W which she was pretty much desperate for, found the Yomitan Pottery Village after much looking, and drove by several US military bases of one sort or another (and American Village - I think there's a WalMart or something there) - ate supper at some boat themed restaurant, tried Okinawan beer (Orion - it's wicked) and called it a day
Sunday - ferry to Zamami Island - pouring rain again... wandered around some, found a a place to eat (taco rice is not delicious), hung out in the ferry terminal, went back to Naha... this was supposed to be whale watching and bumming it on the beach, but nature didn't cooperate - had supper at some exotic asian cuisine place - food was great, decor was crazy tacky - excellent pina coladas and I had some mango coconut pain thing which was great - Mel loved it :)
Monday - morning flight to Tokyo - got to
our hotel around noon... Asia Center of Japan in Akasaka... nice place, nicest of all the ones we stayed at... still raining... ate, checked in, and headed out... waiting for the rain to bugger off, went to Roppongi Hills to see a movie... talk about a swank movie theatre... they had WATER FEATURES.... it's about 20 bucks to see a movie, but the food is cheap, and you can get beer... seats are assigned... Hard Rock Toyko for supper... yay, no rice... and then Paddy Foley's for drinks - pretty much we ignored Japan today lol
Tuesday - finally we get decent weather for something Mel wants to do and we head a couple of hours out of Tokyo to Kamogawa Sea World... spent most of the day there and we didn't do much of anything Tuesday night... watched game 1 from the hotel and wondered why the fuck they didn't show the extra innings - stupid Japan!! checked the net in the lobby for the score
Wednesday - the BIG DAY!!! spent the day at Ueno Park - sakura was out (cherry blossoms) and we went to the zoo... excellent people watching, but the zoo itself was
rather uninteresting... but they did have an antisocial panda or two... headed to the Tokyo dome to be there in time for batting practice, and our cab was hit by a truck just outside the dome (we also had a near accident in Hiroshima and another in Tokyo) - the truck just kept on going and the cab driver seemed only slightly annoyed (or while we were still in the car he was)... we had WICKED seats at the game, and there were Sox fans everywhere... they opened the game with a display of Samurai swordsmenship, kendo, and japanese calligraphy... Kara and Mike from Mass were beside us and they were super fun... Mike drove into a sea of Japanese men and came out with a ball that Youk fouled... pretty awesome... we lost the game, but the experience was AMAZING... girls wandered around selling beer (with kegs on their backs), whiskey, ice cream, tea and coffee, cigarettes - pretty funny... the Japanese were pretty tame about the whole event, but the foreigners, and there were a lot of them, made enough noise to make up for it... the VP of Red Sox Nation came around chatting and gave us
stacks of Japanese Red Sox Nation stickers, and this cute kid brought us bracelets... Matt and Pete were hilarious with their Sox germ masks (Matt was espn photo #5 after the first game) ... Mike had a cool big sign that the baseball police wouldn't let him hold up - it was too big and would disturb the other people... but he snuck it on here and there anyways... we were on the big screen too!! ... there was a slew of A's fan behind us dressed like santa, a bunny, and dog, and I don't remember what else... went to a pub called the Hub afterwards... it was taken over by a bunch of ball fans... met some more interesting people, had some beer, and back to the hotel
Thursday - tour of Mt. Fuji and Hakone day - again the bad weather strikes... it's so cloudy once we're to station 2 of Mt. Fuji that you couldn't see the mountain - but I was still on it LOL... next to a boat tour of Lake Ashi (which is inside the crater of a volcano) - still too cloudy to see Mt. Fuji, then to the Hakone ropeway...
still too cloudy, and then off to see some volcanic activity ... sun starts to peak through and you can see a bit of the bottom of the mountain... our guide, Itumi, was a nut bar... she kept repeating the same shit over and over, and she would spend huge amounts of time talking with her eyes shut (I think it was because she was trying to think of the right English words, but who knows)... we did stop at Starbucks to and from though, which is a bonus... when we got back to Tokyo, we went down to Shibuya to walk around for a bit... saw the intersection where over a million people cross daily... that's a bit messed up... and then we went for drinks with Erin and Etienne at Cafe 246... mmmmmm cassis and orange!!!
Friday - final day of the adventure... we head off to see Yoyogi park, Meiji Shrine, and Harajuku before calling it a trip... Yoyogi park is nice... and fairly quiet, or at least it was when we got there...by this time, I had pretty much lost interest in shrines because I think they are tourist traps more than anything else (pay
for your fortune, pay to dedicate a prayer, pay for charms, throw random money at whatever) - the highlight was the prayer a little kid left about wanting the Sox to win :) ... Harajuku is interesting, though we were there on a Friday morning and not Sunday when all the real snazzy dressers come out... Harajuku is known internationally for its "fashion", and I use the term loosely :) ... we walked through Omotesando as well - tons of high end shopping like Louis Vuitton and Channel and stuff I have no interest in regardless of its price... back to the hotel, then to Tokyo station, then to the airport, and the journey home, which was thankfully completely uneventful begins... It's about midnight Friday in Fredericton when I get home.
So it really was a wonderful trip.. I'd like to go back sometime and spend time in the really rural sections (which seem to be few and far between) and gett to see Hokkaido... the country is CROWDED!!! it's fascinating and completely messed up all at the same time... riding the subways in Tokyo, you wonder why the whole lot of japanese salary workers just don't kill themseves
(though apparently Japan does have a high suicide rate)... there is no joy on the subway from people going to work...its like the dementors from Harry Potter...
Meeting Japanese people who have been outside of Japan is a treat... because they've seen enough to know there's not two countries in the world - Japan and everyone else... the customer service is AMAZING there, and everything is spotless (I've seen them mop sidewalks, clean all the dead leaves out of parks, and go around in public places with garbage bags.... but at the same time, you walk around holding on to trash for hours because there are no frigging trash cans)... public washrooms are bizarre... you can either pee in a urinal like hole in the floor, or you sit on a toilet with a heated seat, your choice of music, and a bidet... there's no gray in Japanese fashion... you're either ultra hip (read: bizarre) or you blend into the background... jean shorts with panty hose are cool ARG!!!! and all the 80's clothes are thriving happily in Japan... it's fine for japanese woman to wear shorts and shirts so short that they leave nothing to the imagination, but
you'll rarely see their arms or necks... younger japanese men and teens style each piece of their hair individually, and it must take them hours... and they all look like anime characters...
texting is the japanese national passtime... they don't even put their phones away... they carry them in their hands at all times... if women aren't texting, they are fixing their makeup... if men aren't texting, they are sleeping... and they hang little dangly things all over their phones (which you can of course buy at all tourist attractions) - men and women... public transportation is amazingly efficient, so they have that right, and everything leaves on time... the country is big on ice cream, and I can totally get behind that (cassis and orange ice cream rocks)... everything is advertised using cartoons, even serious stuff... it's cool to use random english words and phrases in advertising and when naming buildings... (I recall seeing the with building, the friend building, and the great building) but it's not cool to speak English... if the Japanese can't do something perfectly, they don't bother... and speaking English falls in there... they are taught English, but it's more like teaching them lines,
so as long as you answer something they say with the line they expect, you're good to go... otherwise, not so much... little kids are braver and like to say Hello (or harro) - their language doesn't have L's (they replace with R's) or V's (they replace with B's) ... but they are big on pictures everywhere, and they use the same numbers as us, so eating and paying for stuff was easy enough... they dress their pets - which is messed up in every country
the most annoying japanese word is "kawaii" which means cute... and must be said at a high-pitched squeel... everything is cute in Japan... and it's annoying as fuck... the second most annoying is "gaijin", which means foreigner... but it's only really annoying with used by other foreigners who somehow think they are japanese... which is incredibly annoying... you live in a country that will never ever accept you as one of theirs... no matter how good your japanese is and how much you try to act like them... get over it - maintain your own cultural identity or something... there doesn't seem to be any crime in Japan, but since they have yakuza,
I'm sure it does... but you don't see it... I watched a bunch of people walk by money on the floor somewhere... they all saw it, but none of them would pick it up... I certainly wasn't going to be the foreigner that steals LOL, but I laughed while I watched... eventually one man said to another that he had dropped some money... he didn't and knew it, but the other man gave him the ok to pick it up pretty much
the stress on kids is mental... school is 10 months a year, but clubs don't stop so you really have to go all year... even weekends... they have to pass entrance exams to get into special high schools and junior high schools... and school isn't free...and they all wear uniforms (sailor moon wasn't stretching it, but they're all navy blue from what I've seen)... university is incredibly hard to get into and expensive (private universities are about 20000 USD a year)... people don't watch their kids - they just run around terrorizing the universe and no one seems to care... at Sea World, I watched one lay down on the ground and start to pitch a fit and her father just kept right on going...
so obviously, these are just my views on this, that and everything else...and I've likely forgotten boatloads of interesting tidbits (interesting to me anyways) but that's my trip - which rocked!!! thanks for all the hard work in planning this Mel!