Japan Trip – April 17 – April 25, 2004
We had a pretty relaxed morning at home, since our flight did not leave until 2pm. We arrived at the airport 2 hours in advance of our departure – so we had a long wait. Chris and I picked up a few more magazines and we bought some lunch while we waited for our flight.
We spent the next 10 hours on our Boeing 747, Chris mostly listening to music, and I worked on the huge stack of magazines I had brought. I never cracked open my laptop once. Deb watched the movies on board and did some puzzles.
Chris had been getting sick leading up to our trip (just as he did last year before he visited Japan with his school). We picked up some antibiotics for him before we left just in case his viral infection turned into a bacterial one. He had been feeling pretty chipper by the day before our trip, but now on the plane he was starting to feel really crappy and nauseous. He got some sleep on the plane, but still was not feeling very good.
We touched down at Tokyo's Narita airport at 4pm local time; racing the sun westward, it had only beaten us to Tokyo by two hours! Our plan was to stay up as late as we could even though it felt like midnight to us with the 8 hour time change.
We cleared immigration and customs quickly, having all our bags as carry on. We had read that a taxi to downtown Tokyo would run us about $300. So we found the hotel-shuttle buses (about $30/each). Unfortunately, the bus that would take us closest to our hotel was not leaving for an hour. We rented a cell phone in the terminal (expensive with a $3/day flat rental and a 3 cent/second(!) use charge) so we could more easily stay in touch with Chris’s exchange student friends in Kobe and possible arrange a visit to see them.
The bus ride was hell. We were given poor information about which hotel to get off at – the last one on the route. It takes about 2 hours in traffic just to get to the Akasaka district where we were staying. And then we meandered around to the various major hotels until getting to the last stop – The Grand Hyatt. We could have gotten off at the first stop (the ANA) and been just as close for the final taxi ride to our smaller hotel.
Our taxi driver had never heard of our hotel, The Mansions at Azabu Towers – really an apartment building that rents out apartments by the week. Even with an address, he had a really hard time finding it; we had to stop twice to ask for directions of the on-street policemen. Apparently, addresses in Tokyo don’t help you narrow down a building location much more than get you to the right neighborhood. After that, you have to have a detailed map or be familiar with the area. The taxi ride was cheap - $7, although it seems like he turned off the meter when he realized he didn’t know where to go.
They speak excellent English at The Mansions (which is adjacent to the Tokyo American Club – there seem to be many gaijin – foreigners - in this area), and we were soon checked into our 2-bedroom apartment on the 10th floor. We have a lovely view to the west, dominated by the large office tower building at the Roppongi Hills shopping center. To the east, out of our bedroom window, we can see the Tokyo Tower (really beautiful at night).
The front desk clerks had given us a map of the local area (featuring two metro stations and local shops and grocery). By now, it’s about 7:30, and we head out to stock up on a few grocery items. Walking around Tokyo at night feels VERY safe. There seem to be police standing around every block or two where we are. And there are quite a few people walking around at night.
Our first shopping experience in Japan is really fun; it’s especially interesting to look at the really unusual products at a grocery store – some with hilarious “Engrish” on the packaging.
After getting back to the apartment, we do our best to stay up to get in synch with local time. We watch some Japanese TV, and finally get to bed around 10pm local time (4AM in Seattle).
Today is our first full day in Tokyo. Chris wakes up complaining of a sore throat and his glands are swollen, so we start him on the antibiotics. We decide to go out and do some shopping today; I really enjoyed the Akihabara district (“Electronic City”) the last time I was here, so we head out of our hotel to walk to the Kamiya-cho station on the Hibiya subway line. There are a lot of American brand business on the major streets; we pass a Denny’s and a Tully’s. We stop in a really pleasant, modern-style café for some breakfast sandwiches, hot chocolate and a mocha.
We buy our subway tickets from the vending machines in the station, and we’re on our way to Akihabara. Once there, we get out of the station at the wrong exit – it’s the furthest one from Electric City and at first we start heading in the wrong direction. We got turned around, and soon we were walking in the middle of a warren of small electronics shops; most of whom seem to be selling a large variety (but largely identical selection) of electronics merchandise. We see lots of cell phones, mini-disc (MD) players, digital cameras, camcorders, DVD players, and high-definition TV’s. We found a really interesting toy store packed with 7 floors of video games, Manga comic books, transformer-like toys, model trains, etc.
I purchased a hilarious-looking Japanese Playstation2 game called Gunslinger Girl. It features a cute Japanese school girl – who’s main desire in life seems to be to roam the streets of Tokyo with a variety of automatic weapons and grenades shooting people or blowing them up. I already have a Japanese Playstation at home (with region-coded games, a US player probably won’t accept this game) – so Chris promises to help me get though it.
After a couple of hours, we get pretty tired, and head back to the hotel for a rest. No one is very hungry yet – so we just snack on some of the food we purchased the night before. Chris made some calls to “Daigo” and we end up moving our planned trip to Kobe to Thur-Sat (instead of Wed-Fri). Chris wants to go “clubbing” – but we’re not really sure where to go to do that. He also decides that perhaps he's not feeling up to staying up late. I find an interesting movie playing at the Roppongi Hills center using the Internet connection in our room. So we head out for another walk (it’s not much further to walk there than it would be to get to the nearest metro station).
Roppongi Hills is an incredible complex of shops and restaurants; more in line with the style of an American shopping center than you’d expect to see in Japan. But the architecture and outdoor fountain are really more beautiful than anything you’d expect to see in the US. We buy our tickets to Appleseed – an animated movie (with English subtitles) by the creator of A Ghost in the Shell. Tickets are $12! We have time for dinner so we pick a Chinese restaurant across from the theater.
We ask for “non-smoking”, so we get seated in a small little room at the back of the restaurant; we should probably just take a smoking seat in the future – it felt like we were kind of hidden there. We ended up ordering a selection of dim sum (mostly pork dishes for some reason).
At the theater, we still had room for some snacks so Deb got an ice cream and I ordered a popcorn and soda. The food seems cheap in comparison to the ticket price (unlike the US where they gouge you on movie snack prices). The movie was visually the most incredible animation I’ve ever seen. And the theater we viewed it in (with reserved seating!) was state-of-the-art and pristine. There were probably about 30 people in the theater with us – all Japanese. The story got a little hokey and philosophical; I wonder if it will get a theatrical release in the US; it may not be “commercial”, though it’s really stunning to see it. I’ll definitely pick up the DVD when it comes out in the US.
We’re all tired after the show – so we forego any “clubbing” and walk back to the room. It’s pretty warm here, so it’s comfortable walking at night with just a light jacket on. We watch some TV (an episode of ER) and get to bed around 11:00.
Chris took a turn for the worse; he’s running a fever and doesn’t feel like going out at all. So Deb and I decide to go out on our own to the Tokyo National Museum. We take the Hibiya subway line to Ueno station at the SE corner of Ueno Park. Before walking to the museum, we stop of at Ameyoko, an incredible open air market. We walk though the alleyways filled with food and clothing vendors. The sun is finally coming out – and it’s getting pretty hot. We peel off our jackets, and I bought some sun glasses. We also find a really spiffy red shirt with a black collar for Chris.
Leaving, Ameyoko, we enter Ueno park. Our plan is to walk around the pond, go through the park and go to the museum located at the north end of the park. We somehow end up on the west side of the park and got lost in the surrounding neighborhoods. Despite the heat, it was a nice stroll and we eventually made our way back around to the museum.
The Tokyo National Museum is very much in the traditional style (i.e., it's pretty old). They have some interesting artifacts, but I wouldn’t call it very exciting. We stop at the museum shop to pick up some gifts and have lunch at the garden café at the museum. It’s probably a good thing that Chris stayed home; feeling as he does, he’d have been really challenged by the long walk and nonplused at the museum.
We decide to call it a day and check in on Chris. We get home at 2:30 to find him sleeping again and with a high fever. After a couple hours rest, Deb and I go out to have dinner at a neighborhood restaurant (French café), and then do some grocery shopping to stock up our own kitchen again.
We call it an early night – I think we’re in bed by 9 as we just can’t stay awake.
It’s another sunny and warm day in Tokyo. Chris definitely has tonsillitis now – but he’s been taking the antibiotics we brought from home. He’s feeling better except for a really sore throat. He wanted to go clothes shopping at Shibuya, so that’s what we do today. We arrive and Shibuya station without knowing which way to go, so we just start wandering around. There are a lot of shops and big shopping centers here, but Chris is looking for something smaller and more eclectic. We eventually do find some little stores that he likes and he finds a few shirts and and pair of pants to buy.
Ready for a break at noon and we stop in a small café with an all Japanese menu. Our waitress read the lunch specials for us, so we have not problem ordering – and we get some shakes to go with our lunch.
Chris is looking for a rest, so we head back to the room after lunch. After a break, Deb and I go to Tokyo station to buy our bullet-train (Shinkansen) tickets to Kobe for tomorrow. The tickets we buy are kind of confusing. There is NO English writing on them; hopefully we got what we wanted – and we can get some help in presenting the correct ticket at the right time. We’re also not 100% sure where to go to get our train. We were told track 17 – but we saw no signs leading there in the station [later we found that one ticket is for the fare for the train itself, and another is for our reserved seat on the train, which lists the train, car, and seat numbers on it].
We exit the station to take a quick look at the Emperor’s Palace – it’s closed by now, but we can see the fountains across the street and the outer walls and moat. The restaurant there has a curved roof much like our house; on my last trip to Tokyo I brought back a picture as we were considering the design around that time. Walking back, we’re fooled into entering the Otemachi station which has an entrance near the Palace. But, the red-line (Marunouchi) entrance is actually much further than the Tokyo station entrance; we have to walk about a mile underground to reach it!
One more snafu on the way home, we transfer to the Hibiya line going the wrong way. I think we were confused by the station numbering being reversed for N-bound vs. S-bound trains. When we get out at the next stop, we have to exit and pay another fare to get back on going the opposite way.
We pick up some sandwiches and pastries from a French-style bakery (amazingly up-scale for a store located in a subway station). We stay in for the evening and go to bed early; it’s really hard to get into the habit of staying up later than 8 or 9, and I can’t seem to sleep in later than 5:30.
Time to leave our apartment in Tokyo and head to Kobe. Daigo will be meeting us at our hotel in Kobe this afternoon. We arrived early at Tokyo station, but we can't exchange our tickets for the earlier Shinkansen as it's already booked up. Chris and Deb found a little shop on the train platform where Chris can buy a "sick" mask; you see these occasionally in the streets - it looks like people have stepped right out of an operating room, but it's actually considered polite to wear one when you are in public and sick. Just one of the Japanese customs that seems more civilized than we are in the west. Just to be different, Chris draws a happy face on his.
The Shinkansen runs on a very tight schedule. We didn't know how early to arrive before departure; turns out 15 minutes would be plenty. Just five minutes before our train arrives, an army of little pink women arrive, stationing themselves in front of the entrance to each car of the train. When it arrives and the passengers debark, they whisk in to clean out the trash, replace the headrests, and sanitize the arm rests. In just a few minutes, the train is sparkling and ready for west-bound passengers.
I think the Shinkansen first started running in the 1960's. It was the fastest train in the world (now surpassed by French trains, and possibly others). But it still feels really fast. It can be hard to focus on the passing scenery it whizzes by so quickly. Another thing that makes the Shinkansen so fast are the very brief and punctual stops it makes. We had 3 stops on the way to Kobe, but if you blink, you'd miss them. You had better be ready with your bags to get off well before the train stops in the station, because some of the stops are barely longer than 60 seconds before we're off and moving again.
The Shinkansen stops in Shin-Kobe station, a couple of miles from the waterfront where the Okura Hotel is located. We transfer to the subway and have a walk of a few blocks. We have a few hours to relax in our hotel. When we check the cell phone, we realize that it's still set to a silent ring; Daigo had tried calling us 9 times! Fortunately, he'd only just reached the hotel lobby a few minutes before we realize it, and we invite him up to the room.
After hanging out for a while, we decide to eat in the hotel restaurant where they cook your food right at your table. Our meal features famous Kobe beef and it's really excellent. By the end of the evening, Chris says he's feeling better and Daigo invites him over to spend the night with him. The two boys head out to catch the train and bus to Daigo's house.
Chris called in the morning, sounding pathetic. He took another turn for the worse after arriving at Daigo's house. He started having tremors and found that his temperature reached over 104° when he measured it in the morning. We had him come home as soon as he could so he could rest all day in the hotel room. Daigo came back with him and offered to escort us on some shopping in Kobe. Kobe has a couple of very long covered pedestrian alleys filled with stores. We bought a few souvenirs, and Daigo went off to replace his cell phone. He agreed to meet us at the hotel that afternoon; we would be traveling back to his home for dinner that night, assuming Chris is feeling up to it.
Chris had gotten in the tub which cooled him off, and he was feeling better, though still a bit weak. That afternoon we all took the subway to the suburban stop where Daigo's mother, Aiko, picked us up in her car. When we arrived, we took a tour of their home (4 bedroom, 2 floors) which I found to be much more spacious than I was expecting for a Japanese home. After chatting for a while, Aiko began preparing dinner. She prepared a wonderful assortment of 6 or 7 different dishes for us to try. The highlight for us was Tako-yaki. She brought out an appliance, much like a waffle maker, with a dozen hemispherical compartments. Into this, she poured a flour batter and sprinkled various seasonings on top. After setting, she poked small pieces of octopus into each cooking ball of dough. When each ball was cooked on one side, we used wooden skewers to rotate each ball in it's compartment to cook the other half. They were fun to make, and very tasty (see picture taken with Daigo's cell phone at left).
Daigo's sister was not home in time to visit with us. She is in high school now, but spends her evenings at a "cram school'; it's apparently quite common for students to supplement their education by attending evening study courses to help them score highly on their advancement exams. Daigo's father, is a middle school teacher, but he was not home from work until about 9:30 (part of his delay may have been shopping for some presents for us! Thankfully, we were also prepared with gifts from Seattle for them).
After some more chatting and taking some pictures, Aiko drove us back to the train station, and we headed back to the hotel. I'd say this evening was the highlight of our trip to Japan; I feel it was a special honor to be invited into our private Japanese home for dinner. We're hoping we can return the favor and have Daigo visit us this summer or next.
We took the opportunity to sleep in and give Chris some additional rest. We decided to walk from our hotel to the Shinkansen station, as it's only a few additional blocks (rather than take the 1-stop subway ride). On the way, we pass a surfboard shop, and Chris and I go in and have a nice talk with the owner (apparently the best surfing is on the W coast - though the most crowded are the beaches SE of Tokyo).
We arrive at the Shinkansen 1 hour early, but this time there is plenty of room on on earlier train so I'm able to transfer our tickets. Back in Tokyo a few hours later, we walk home and leave Chris in the room to rest again. Deb and I catch some dinner in another neighborhood restaurant.
We wake to a beautifully clear day in Tokyo. When I look out our west facing window, I believe I can see Mt. Fuji in the distance. We walk to the neighborhood Denny's for breakfast. Checking out of our hotel, we catch a cab to the ANA hotel to get the bus shuttle. We're again early for our bus, but there's room for us on the earlier one, so we take it. We've got lots of time at the airport and so we return our rented cell phone (which turned out to cost over $100 - we should definitely try to rent one in the US before coming on our next trip), and get some lunch in an airport cafe.
The best plan for the flight home is to go immediately to sleep. The flight is about 8 hours, and arrives in Seattle early in the morning. Chris, who's already wiped out, does just that. Deb and I have a harder time. I spent much of the flight working on a Flash program to teach the Katakana alphabet. Deb reads. We get a little rest on the plane, but the flight crew (AA) insists on turning on all the cabin lights at 5:00AM Seattle time for breakfast service (I could do with another hour of sleep in lieu of breakfast).
In all, it was a great trip despite Chris's illness. It was much easier to get to and around Japan than we anticipated. While we didn't really push ourselves to see as many sights as possible, I really enjoyed the pace of this trip. We just pretended to be "living in Japan". It was fun just to experience the shopping and restaurants in our neighborhood, walking around, riding the subway, etc. We're looking forward to more trips to see more of Japan in the future, and Chris is going to try to spend a semester of school in Japan if we can arrange it!