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Archive for November, 2008

Today was a very busy day.

We started off with breakfast at the McDonald’s just up the street from the hotel. I know, I know, what in the world are we doing going to McDonald’s in Japan? Because it was 9am by the time we got out of the hotel room and we didn’t feel like searching out somewhere else to have breakfast. Plus, for the same reason the first few beverages I’ve had here were Pepsi: Japan has different varieties of things found in North America. To wit, I had a breakfast sandwich that I hadn’t seen before: double sausage patty, egg, cheese, bacon, and ketchup. Mmmmm.

The Trains

The first order of business was to head to Tokyo Station to exchange our JR Rail Pass vouchers for the real deal. We strolled up a neat hill to head to the upper entrance of Ueno Station (the only one where my brother could get both into the station and onto the platforms). We sat there staring at the system map for a while trying to figure out which ticket to purchase. We knew where we wanted to go (Tokyo Station) but the entire map was in Japanese. My brother had an English version of the system map on his iPod touch, but it was back at the room because we had initially figured on heading back after breakfast before going to Tokyo. Though my brother was nearly certain which station was the right one on the map, he wasn’t 100% sure. A lady noticed us staring at the board and came over to ask if we needed help. After a brief exchange, we knew which station was ours and went to get our tickets.

The fare system in Japan (at least for the JR lines) is calculated based on how far you travel on a given excursion. In our case, Ueno Station to Tokyo Station is fairly short, so the cost was only ¥150 each.

After just a single day experiencing JR’s train system, I can say that North America is so very badly behind the times. The interval between trains is as brief as two minutes, so if you miss one it’s not that big a deal. Each train is between 10 and 15 cars (depending on the line) and can thusly hold a significant number of people, even when they’re not crammed full. They’re all electric, and their non-light rail design means high speeds. Each car has eight sets of doors (four on each side) and you can travel freely between the cars.

At the stations themselves, each train comes charging in and stops in the same spot each time. The platforms have markings showing where the doors of each car will be and people line up waiting to get on in an orderly fashion. If only people in Edmonton acted like this at LRT stations instead of clumping around the entrances. During rush hour, you can see nice, neat lines at each “door stop” along the platform. Very cool. Each train has a conductor at the rear who steps off in each station and presses an On button on a pole nearby which starts, depending on the station, either a little musical chime or something that sounds like a ringing cell phone. This is the indication that the train is loading and will be leaving soon. When it’s time to go, he presses the Off button and gets back on the train. Overhead, there are video monitors showing live closed-circuit feeds of the train so he can ensure that all the doors are clear, at which point he signals to the driver and the train continues on its way.

And for finding your way in the stations, the signage is fantastic. Overhead signs clearly point you in the right direction, whether you’re heading for a platform or an exit. Some stations even have the supports for the elevators colour-coded to the platforms they take you to. For example, if you wanted to go to Lines 1 and 2 at Tokyo Station, you’d take the blue and green elevator.

Kudos to you, JR, for building a wonderful rail transportation system!

JR Rail Pass

Tokyo Station is big, really big. It’s a large hub with dozens of lines passing through. It’s also where we picked up our Rail Pass.

The JR Rail Pass is provided to non-citizens of Japan and can only be purchased outside the country via a voucher that you then redeem for the pass itself once in Japan. There are various options to choose from, but since this is a 3 week trip, we went for the 21-day ¥57,700 option (current exchange makes that $704.78 CAD). What it gives us is unlimited travel on all lines of the JR Group: Ordinary Cars on Shinkansen (bullet trains), limited express, express, and local trains. It’s even good on a bunch of bus lines as well as the ferry from Miyajima and Miyajimaguchi, which we’ll be taking later on in the trip.

Considering that some of the trains rides we’re taking on some day trips are over ¥10,000 each way, the pass easily pays for itself. And all we do at the stations is head to the “disabled gate” at the access terminals (which we would’ve had to use anyway), flash the pass, and walk on in.

Ameya Yokocho

Once we got back to Ueno, we decided to hit up Ameya Yokocho which starts just outside the station. It’s a narrow labyrinth of streets that run parallel (as well as under) the JR lines and is home to, well, just about anything. Here you can shop for fish, electronics, clothes, shoes, and much, much more.

Ueno Park

Next up was the large Ueno Park. Tall, lush trees abound here, but unfortunately they hadn’t all started turning their fall colours yet. Our last night in Japan will be spent back in Ueno, so hopefully by then there will be more to see in the foliage than mostly green with a few hints of colour.

There are all manner of things to see and do at Ueno Park. There’s a zoo with an amusement park for the kids, and major attractions such as the Tokyo National Museum, the Orient Museum, the National Science Museum, the Shitamachi Museum, the National Museum for Western Art, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Fine Art Gallery.

The park spans two primary “levels” with most of the large buildings in the upper section and about 1.5 storeys below lies things such as Shinobazu Pond which extends next to and beyond our hotel (we’re right across the street from lower area of the park).

Large trees line the pathways all over the park. There are many statues, too, and I think I found one of Emperor Hirohito.

Lunch

We had a late lunch which was a simple stop off at a nearby convenience store to grab some Pepsi White (Pepsi & Yogurt), some “pizza” chips, and a noodle bowl.

Yokohama

We jumped on the subway for a ¥180 ride to Yokohama. On leaving the station I picked up some grape Calpis which was really good and some Hi-Chew to snack on as we walked around.

The big draw for us in Yokohama is the 70 storey Landmark Tower, the tallest building in Japan, and home to a 5-star hotel we were thinking of staying in on our final night in Japan. The hotel runs through the upper floors of the building, so the view would be amazing.

In the mall attached to the building, there were Christmas displays all over and carols playing over the sound system. They start almost as early here as they do back home, and there’s Christmas stuff to be seen in most of the major centers.

Near the Landmark Tower there is a big ferris wheel and other attractions, including a full-size sailing ship harboured inland. Also nearby – in fact, just at the base of the tower – there is an old dry dock that’s been converted into a nice alcove of sorts. It’s awash up with accent lighting and the stairs that take you down to the bottom of it have their fronts covered in LEDs displaying an animation loop. The old access ways out of the bottom of the dry dock have been turned into entrances into the mall (there are stores all along the “outside” of the dry dock) and some of the upper access ways are now office windows.

Baricang

On the way back to the JR Sakuragicho Station to head back to Ueno, we came across a live performance being put on by a band named Baricang. It was a really good show and at one point, their portable generator (which they were using to power a surprising amount of stage gear) ran out of gas. While the guitarist ran to their van to get some more gas for the generator, the rest of the members handed out stickers to the crowd that had gathered to enjoy the show.

We got in line to buy their CD and when we got to the front of the line, they had just sold their last one. Quick thinking prevailed as they grabbed the demo CD they were playing after the show and offered it to us at half price! So now my brother has a Baricang CD, signed by all the band members.

Heading Back

The trains were fairly busy at this time of night, but hours worked in Japan are very different so you get office workers heading home at all hours of the afternoon and evening.

Back in Ueno the elevator that we take to get down to the street after heading down the hill beside the station was closed (shuts down at 10:00pm each night) so we had to head back up the hill and go through Ueno Park to get back to the hotel.

We got back to the hotel around 11:30pm, where I transferred and reviewed the rest of the day’s pictures. I started writing this post and gave up due to being tired and jotted down the rest of the content as point form notes to be fleshed out later.

… a short while later …

Well, here I am on Day 7 sitting in the Shinkansen on a two hour ride to our next stop, Nagoya, and am finally getting to work on finishing this post. When I had a spare minute here and there, I’d work on it a bit, but never had the time to really sit down and type.

Since that night, I’ve been jotting down notes on my iPod touch as each day progresses and transcribing them into MarsEdit when I can, hopefully getting to writing up the full posts at some point. The way it looks, though, is that many of my posts will be delayed until after the trip is over as I just don’t have the time to write them up each day (let alone select, tag, and explain the photos that I want to upload). I could just write less, but these blog posts are acting as more than just info for friends and family, but also as a journal of the adventure.

Random Observances

As I’m currently writing this on Day 7 of the trip, I’ve had some time to take in the culture here. There are some things that have struck me as interesting.

Tokyo is a very clean area (Tokyo isn’t actually a city but a prefecture made up of 23 districts). It’s incredibly hard to find garbage cans when you’re walking around, even in large parks and malls, and yet there’s very little litter … anywhere! Plus, since Japan as a country is so physically small, they burn a lot of their garbage. As such, there are two primary garbage cans: one for plastics, and one for combustibles. In some cases I’ve seen five cans clustered together: combustibles, incombustibles, empty cans, empty bottles, and empty pet bottles.

There is a downright ingenious system of navigation aids in Tokyo, and they can be found almost everywhere from streets and stations to walkways and alleys. They’re guides for those with vision impairments that use canes to navigate their surroundings. They walk alongside these yellow tiles sliding their cane into them as they go. When the feedback changes (parallel bars to dots, for example) they know it’s time to turn a certain direction. Double blocks of dotted tiles mean stairs ahead. We managed to see someone making use of these tiles inside the station, and it was pretty remarkable to see. She just walked along at normal speed the entire time, turning when she needed to. When you look around a place like Tokyo Station, it makes perfect sense why a system like this was devised; huge open spaces with large support columns would make it very difficult for the visually impaired to find their way without such a system.

Finally, and this is something that didn’t occur to me until a few days into the trip, but the people here are very trim! There are heavier people here, but they’re few and far between. You look around and all you see is people in fairly good shape. Goes to show you what diet and lifestyle can do for a people (I’m looking at you, USA, where I saw significant numbers of overweight people on recent trips to Orlando and San Francisco. Polar opposite here in Japan.

As for now, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the last half hour of the Shinkansen ride and post this once I get to the hotel in Nagoya. Already got some great shots of Mt. Fuji from the window, but that’s a story for the Day 7 post (if I ever get to it!).

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It has arrived: today is the day we set foot in Japan!

Kris and I stopped off at the IHOP attached to our hotel in Vancouver for some breakfast before catching a cab to the airport for our flight. The line for Air Canada International Departures was fairly long, but moved quicker than I expected. After wading our way through security, we wandered off to find our gate.

Boarding

The way things are supposed to go is that during the call for those who require additional assistance for boarding the plane, we get to tag along because Kris needs to transfer into the aisle wheelchair and make his way to the seats. On the Edmonton to Vancouver flight, that’s exactly what happened and it was a nice smooth process. This time, however, not so much.

Even though we had already spoken to the boarding agents and they had everything prepped for us, when the initial call went out it was for those who needed additional assistance and first/executive class passengers. This meant that instead of having the plane to ourselves (which means no obstructions by other passengers), a bunch of people had already boarded the plane ahead of us. Compound that with the airport staffers who’s job it is to do “assisted loads” (it’s actually the people who work down on the tarmac; don’t ask me why) not getting to the gate until almost 10 minutes later, plus the fact our seats were in row 60 of 63, and it was going to be a fun endeavour.

Once everything was in place, we trudged our way through almost the entire length of the plane, other passengers strewn about in our way as we went, and made it to our seats.

In Flight

The seat backs had both a USB port and a 110V power outlet so our iPod touches and laptops could be plugged in and fully-charged throughout the voyage. And when you’re about to embark on a 10 hour flight, it’s good to have your entertainment machines operational.

For the most part, though, I watched selections from the in-flight system. Hancock, Get Smart, and a few shows from the Discovery Channel. We also pulled out Kris’ MacBook Pro and watched Live Free or Die Hard on the “big screen”.

And the meals were pretty tasty. We got two meal services: the first, about an hour into the flight, I had sukiyaki beef with rice (other option was chicken); and the second, about 7 hours into the flight, was roast beef (other option was salmon). And they came with the cutest little single-serving soy sauce “dispensers”. They were baby fish filled with soy sauce, and you unscrewed a little cap on the front to squeeze it out.

One of the neat things about being on an intercontinental flight is there’s mood lighting on the plane. When it’s approximately time to sleep, most of the lights in the plane shut off and soft, blue-coloured light fills the cabin. In the interstitials, purple light bridges the gap towards more of a “daylight” soft yellow. I have pictures of much of the things I’m blogging about, but I don’t feel like spending the time uploading them to my flickr account because I don’t want to mess up the order of my photostream by cherry-picking some photos now and doing the rest once I get home. And just uploading everything I plan to when I get home is no good because I’m meticulous about descriptions and tagging, which takes up time I’d rather spend checking out Japan. Stay tuned shortly after the trip is completed and I’ll be uploading a whole whack of pictures and video.

Touchdown

Finally, at about 3:20pm local time, we landed at Narita International Airport. After a somewhat lengthy delay waiting for the aisle chair to be brought back to us (during which we had a nice chat with two of the flight attendants), we were finally off the plane. The gentleman that helped with the deplaning was amazingly friendly, offering to carry Kris’ backpack that normally rests on the back of his chair. So, with backpack on, he pushed Kris through the surprisingly long trek to head to Japan Customs & Immigration, and then the baggage claim.

Another nicety of flying with someone in a wheelchair: you get prime access to many of the services in airports. We were brought beyond the Customs lines for passengers (where there was a rather long line) and off to where the Crew enters the country (where there was no line!). After we handed in our embarkation forms and had our fingerprints and photos taken (standard practice for anyone entering Japan who is not a citizen) we were off to find the Keisei Skyliner which would take us right into the heart of Ueno and mere blocks from the hotel.

The Train

The aforementioned helpful gentleman took us to the ticket booth for the Skyliner and then to the correct check-in line where he was “replaced” by a very nice Skyliner lady who came with us down to the platform itself. When she saw that our tickets were for a car that didn’t have a wheelchair space on it, she ran all the way back to the ticketing booth and had them exchanged for ones that put us in the correct car. The people here really do go out of their way to be helpful!

It’s somewhat strange to ride a train at full-speed through a station without stopping, but it happens quite frequently on the many lines in Japan. The inter-car doors are powered and activated both by the train approaching one of the handful of stations it stopped at, but also by people placing their hand on the door. 50 minutes after we got on the train, we were on foot in Ueno on the way to the hotel in a light spitting of rain.

In Closing…

Right now, it is 9:45pm JST on Sunday, November 9 which is 5:45am MST, and I haven’t had any sleep yet after getting up at 8:00am MST on Saturday, November 8 in Vancouver. Nothing beats acclimatizing yourself to a dramatically different time zone! Which can only mean one thing: bed time!

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Japan Trip – Day 1: Vancouver

Today was the first leg of the trip ending with us in Vancouver for the night. Tomorrow we have a nearly 10 hour flight direct from Vancouver International to Narita International, which is just outside Tokyo. From there, it’s the Skyliner almost straight to our hotel in Ueno.

It was interesting to see the airplane wheelchair in action; so very little! I snapped a good picture with my brother’s camera of my him sitting in his chair beside the airplane one after getting out of it. The flight attendants on AC251 were quite friendly, so a big hat’s off to them.

After disembarking, an airport staffer that helped my brother off the plane was transporting one of the flight attendants to another part of the airport on a little courtesy cart … thing. As he approached us, my brother and I were jokingly saying to each other he should grab on and go for a ride. Sure enough, the gentleman told my brother to grab on to the back and he hauled him along! I snagged my brother’s camera, as it was handy, and took a video.

We were flying on an Embrauer 190 which has rear-seat touch screen entertainment systems. I started watching The Dark Knight but figured I’d save it until tomorrow if I wanted to watch it (since the flight from Edmonton to Vancouver is scarcely longer than an hour). Plus I’ve already seen it and have eight movies ripped onto my iPod touch so I’ll probably skip it all together. While smaller, the iPod touch’s screen looks way better than the one in the seat back.

Now that we were in Vancouver and picked up our checked bags, the first order of business was finding the Canadian Border Services office to register all our gear for temporary export. As I detailed in the previous post, we’re taking a lot of expensive electronics with us. If we didn’t get the proper temporary export form filled out, upon return to Canada we could be charged import duties and taxes because we had no (readily available) means of proving we didn’t buy all that stuff in Japan; doesn’t help that three of the items – my brother’s MacBook Pro, high-def camcorder, and Sony point-and-shoot – are brand new.

Even after asking for directions several times, we went on a wild goose chase trying to find the office. In the end, we went from the Domestic Arrivals all the way over to the basement of International Departures. On top of that, the office had a sign that mentioned only Agriculture, Immigration, and Customs – which of course I didn’t clue in are border services – so we disregarded it and kept going. Plus the frosted glass on the windows blocked any useful view of the inside, and it had that “closed for the day” lighting inside. Needless to say, we eventually found it and got the forms filled out.

Once we got to the hotel, we pulled out the laptops to load up the pictures and video taken that day. And have a quick video chat with our parents back in Edmonton! My brother set up his iMac so all they had to do was turn it on and open iChat.

But for now, it’s time to relax in preparation for a long day tomorrow.

Update: completely forgot to mention that while waiting for my brother to pick up his new chair from the FedEx hangar at Edmonton International (that’s a long story in and of itself), Jamie Salé stopped with her son beside where I was sitting. It was quite nice to see her free of harassing fans and able to just go about her business. I didn’t want to bother her either so I left her alone, simply smiling as she eventually walked past (she smiled back).

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Japan!

¥200,000
Since I was very young, I’ve had a keen interest in Japan. Not just a general interest, I’m intrigued by both the ancient history and culture of the country and its people, as well as the modern-day aspects. I wouldn’t consider myself an otaku, more a mild Japanophile.
Then, at the age of 10, I saw Mr. Baseball and made up my mind: some day, I was going to Japan.

My brother, Kris, is of a similar mind. Earlier this year we came to the conclusion that we now have the time and the means to go to Japan, so it’s about damn time we did! The flights were booked at the end of February, and planning began.

Since he could only get three weeks off from work, that’s how long the trip will be. Otherwise, we probably would’ve been there for anywhere from four to six weeks. One of the more interesting aspects of the trip is that my brother is a paraplegic (T6) and, accordingly, gets around in a wheelchair. So we’ll be checking out Japan with an eye towards places he can get to (which is quite a lot). This means, unfortunately, we won’t be staying in any ryokans and similar things1, but there’ll still be tons to see and do!

We’ll be covering a good chunk of Honshū as well as parts of Kyūshū, visiting Tokyo and many of its districts (Odaiba, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ginza, Harajuku, and others), Yokohama, Takayama, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Hakata, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Osaka, and lots more. As it just so happens, the parts of Mr. Baseball shot in Japan were in Nagoya, one of the places we’ll be spending three days! The vast majority of our travel will be by rail, and we have our 3-week JR Rail Pass vouchers in hand.

Aside from the sightseeing and culture immersion, my brother and I will be photographing as we go. We’re bringing four digital cameras (mine: Canon Digital Rebel and Sony DSC-W80; brother’s: Sony DSC-R1, Sony DSC-W300) and a brand-new high definition video camera, the Sony HDR-SR12.

On our travels across Japan, we’ll both be making blog posts (hopefully daily) on our activities and encounters. One of the bonuses is every hotel we’ve booked has free high-speed internet. Some pictures will be posted here in my blog entries, but the majority of mine will end up in my flickr stream once we return and I have a chance to sort through them.

The trip runs from November 7-29 and will be a trip of many “firsts” for me:

  • first time off the continent
  • first in-flight meal (not sure if I should be too excited about that)
  • first flight in a plane with two aisles (Boeing 777-300ER). Oooo, ahhh!
  • first time visiting a location where English is not the main language

They’ll be long flights, too. The Vancouver to Narita leg is 9 hours 50 minutes, with the return flight being 8 hours 30 minutes (travelling in the same direction as the jet stream sure seems to help a lot!).

Our yen has been purchased, the packing lists made, and our iPod touches loaded with ripped DVDs to entertain us during the flights. All that remains is for Friday to come so the journey can begin!


  1. There are wheelchair accessible ryokans, but they were rather expensive and typically nowhere near train stations.

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