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Archive for December, 2008

Dateline: November 14, 2008

Shinkansen

Today was transfer day. We would be leaving Ueno (actually, Tokyo Station) on the Shinkansen bound for Nagoya, the next hotel stop during the trip. The ticket for today’s train ride was acquired back during Day 5’s adventures. The train was set to leave Tokyo at 10:03am and arrive in Nagoya at 12:10pm. Our first bullet train ride.

Enjoying the RideIn order to catch that train, we had to take the JR Local Lines to Tokyo Station during morning rush hour, complete with the attendants on the platform with white gloves ready to shove people in. It was busy, but not busy enough to need them. After waiting through a few trains to get one with enough free space, we managed to get on with my brother, his suitcase, and my backpack, but it was a very tight fit. I was twisted around sideways so I could hold on to a handrail while leaning over the big rolling suitcase, and my bag was hovering over my brother so it wasn’t pressing into other passengers. Thankfully Ueno to Tokyo Station is a pretty fast trip!

After arriving at Tokyo Station, we headed for the closest Shinkansen gate. We were told there was no elevator behind those gates and that we had to head to a different gate on the other side of the concourse. After moving over there, they said to go to the central gate which was around another corner. Good thing I made sure we got there early. At the central gate, an attendant led us through to the correct waiting area for our train and said he’d come back to get us at 9:50 (gotta love the personal attention people in wheelchairs get on the trains here).

After killing a little time, the attendant came back and led us up to the correct spot on the platform. We got onto the car and there’s a special mini-cabin for people who are nursing, not feeling well, and a few other things I can’t recall. In some cases — such as ours — that cabin can be reserved, which is why our ticket was for row 14 even though there’s only 13 rows of seats in each car. There was a double seat for me (facing backwards on this trip) and room for all our stuff. Not much room left over, but it was still comfortable. We got a good view of Tokyo Tower shortly after leaving the station, too.

As I mentioned back in Day 3’s post, this was when I had finished writing that post and decided to give up on writing the posts during the trip. Instead, I would just take notes on my iPod and write them up once I got home (like I’m doing right now).

Among the other amenities on the train, the cars with washrooms have Western toilets, Japanese toilets, and a separate urinal “cabin” marked Gentlemen. I’ll just say this: using a urinal in a train travelling at 200km/h+ can be … interesting.

Scenery

Mt. FujiWe had great views of Mt. Fuji as we travelled along. The line wrapped itself around the mountain so when we weren’t in tunnels or behind hills, we got to see many aspects of it including the hiking trails that go up to the summit through the snow.

After we left Mt. Fuji behind, the surroundings morphed into rural countryside with heavily-treed hills popping up periodically. We passed peach orchards, greenhouses, farmland, tea fields, and Sony & Panasonic factories.

Nagoya

We arrived in Nagoya and made our way to the hotel which was just up the street a few blocks from the station. However, check-in wasn’t for another two and a half hours, so we checked our bags at the desk and went off in search of lunch!

Lunch!We chose the Gohan Dining Bar in the Nagoya Lucent tower which was about half a block from the hotel. Wonderful Japanese atmosphere, accented oddly by the playing of uncensored Eminem and other R&B songs, though it was mixed in with things like Fallen by Sarah McLachlan, Over My Head by Sum 41, and Irresistable by Jessica Simpson (hadn’t heard that one in a while). I had beef and mushrooms on rice and a big bowl of ramen (pictured at right), which was fishier than I liked due to the seaweed in it, but was still very good.

And the Lucent building itself is really nice. No bright yellow tiles for them. Later on in the evening, we stopped by and checked out the now-lit art installation at the front, replete with glowing LED light poles.

Meitetsu Inn

Nagoya BedsNow that lunch was done and we could get into our room, we headed back to the hotel which looked like it was at most five years old. This one had breakfast included, the first, and only, to do so on the entire trip.

The toilet in the room had what I initially thought was a “lady friendly” water spout turned on by a pressure switch under the seat. I based that assumption on many products I’ve heard of in Japan for public washrooms that would play a running water sound when women were making use of the facilities. After reading the instructions, my brother discovered that it was just the toilet flushing the cold water out of the bidet nozzle so it could be replenished with warmer water.

The room had a “key”-based power setup which would only have the power to the room turned on when the fob attached to the key was inserted into the receptacle. For times when I was heading out of the room for a bit and my brother was staying in, I found it can be fooled by any object stuck in there, so I used one of the free toothbrushes typically included in Japanese hotel rooms.

Tower Lights

Lit PathOnce it got dark, we headed back down to JR Nagoya Station to check out Tower Lights, the annual Christmas light show they put on. The centerpiece is a 5 storey animated light board which isn’t just a big screen; it’s a huge mass of prewired LED strips that are computer controlled to make the whole thing animate. It was very impressive. The approximately three minute animation loop was captured on the high-def video camera but hasn’t yet been uploaded anywhere. There were also lots of teddy bears all over the place.Christmas Tree

In the towers of the station there are a few observation decks up on the 12th and 15th floors once you make your way past the various Christmas decorations. In the tower we went through, there were 12 elevators at one bank once you got to the second floor, many of which were express elevators to the top. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything to see up on the 51st floor; just a restaurant and a day spa.

As neat as the whole thing was, the music loop that played with the animation soon became really irritating for the same reason as the iPod commercial in Vegas did: constant, undying repetition.

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Dateline: November 13, 2008

Lower Ueno Park

The sun came out today for pretty much the first time thus far, which was a pleasant change. Since we hadn’t done so yet, and it’s literally right across the street from the hotel, we decided to check out the lower section of Ueno Park.Ueno Park, Lower Section The first thing you notice as you approach this part of the park are the thousands of lotus plants in Shinobazu Pond (pictured at left); they mostly seemed to be in that pre-winter phase of “half-dead”. At a more central location by the pond, there was a small watery alcove where a bunch of ducks were hanging out.

Continuing along further down the road that bisects the park we made our way past the Ueno Zoo and managed to catch a peek at the monorail that transports people in (though the only picture I got of the monorail itself has it almost completely obscured by trees, so I settled for the track). As the road continues, you leave the park and enter into some quiet residential streets where we spent some time just wandering around. It was here that I finally came across some street address signs. From what I’ve heard, (some/many?) addresses in Japan are based on when a building was constructed, not its relative position on a given road, thus why it can be so hard to find things sometimes. Either way, we cut back through the rear section of Ueno Park — where we also hadn’t been yet — down to the station to head off to another new part of Tokyo.

Ikebukuro

We jumped on the Keihin-Tohoku line to make a stop at Ikebukuro. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a way out of the underground station so we had to skip it and continue on down the line.

Shinjuku

The station complex in Shinjuku is rather large with several attached shopping centers.Clock Tower Like many of the places we’d been to so far, the area outside the station was under construction; this would turn out to be a running theme for the duration of the trip.

Nearby to the station is the large Takashimaya Times Square department store, so in we went. This is a very nice building and we found ourselves up on the 11th floor in search of ice cream. One of the bonuses about checking this building out was the rooftop garden they have on the 12th floor. This offered us nearly-360˚ views of Shinjuku and we could clearly see Tokyo Tower as well as a nice vantage point to check out the Empire State Building-eqsue clock tower.

Roppongi

It was getting later in the day, so we grabbed some dinner and stopped by the hotel to unload most of our stuff before heading off to Roppongi on the Hibiya Subway to meet up with my brother’s flickr friend, Altus. Roppongi HillsHome to Roppongi Hills, this area is full of nightclubs and Westerners, both visitors and residents. Before heading to Japan, my brother coordinated with Altus for a meet up and since today was a Thursday, the plan was to meet up at his usual weekly watering hole, Agave.

The place was just dripping with atmosphere, but the first order of business was to get my brother inside. You see, Agave is in the basement of a building, down a set of stairs with not one, but two corners. Altus and I teamed up to slowly roll him down the stairs, which is a common method of moving him down when there’s enough stairs to make flat out picking him up in his chair a bit too ungainly. One claim to fame of Agave is that it hosts over 400 kinds of tequila. Not having a clue what would be good, Altus ordered up a margarita (known colloquially there as “a frozen”) for me made with Harradura Silver tequila. It was the smoothest tequila I’ve ever had, and I ended up having two. To make sure hydration was kept up, we also downed a large glass bottle of water from Italy.

Altus works for Merrill Lynch and most of the people that hang out during this regular Thursday outing also work in the industry, so the discussion tended to center around that. It was very interesting to hear from people “on the front lines” what the world economic situation was doing to their industry, especially since just prior to the start of our trip, Japan announced it was officially in a recession. There were rampant layoffs and cutting of dead weight, but luckily for Altus he was having a very good year.

Tokyo Metro Roppongi StationThe method used for bringing my brother into the bar doesn’t work well for going up stairs, so I just carried him up the stairs myself while Altus followed with the chair. I don’t like using this method for going down stairs because if I trip, he’d end up at the bottom, whereas going up I’d just drop him onto the stairs in front of me (still bad, but way better than the former). As we parted ways, Altus invited us back for a repeat performance at the end of our trip as we’d be spending our final night back in Ueno. On the way to the Tokyo Metro station, we passed the fanciest (and biggest) Banana Republic I’ve ever seen.

Random Snack Note

Yet another late-night convenience store trip netted me a tasty find. I’ve known for a while that you can find some really interesting Pringles flavours around the world, and Japan is no exception. True to my expectations, I picked up a tin of Honey Roast Chicken Pringles, and they were excellent. They were next to the Consomme tins, which is surprisingly common flavour as I discovered.

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Dateline: November 12, 2008

Now I eat humble pie…

Heavy DoorsLeaving the hotel in the morning we couldn’t help but notice all the police officers working the intersections directing traffic. What made it odd was they were doing so even though all the signals were still working; in other words, they were directing traffic and pedestrians with the traffic signals. Strange indeed.

Since we had a full slate for the day, we got breakfast at Andersen again and went out the side door which is closer to the elevator and hill we need to take to get to the accessible entrance. As soon as we stepped foot out the door, the small one-way side street in front of us filled with a flock of police motorcycles, followed by a few police cars, a convoy of shiny black vehicles, a big police van, and a few more police cars. Clearly someone important was making their way through Ueno in this motorcade, but there were no obvious indications as to who that was.

After the motorcade had passed and the police officer that stopped us after exiting the station allowed us to continue, we crossed the street and went the 20 meters to the hill’s elevator only to find it, and the stairs beside it, still cordoned off by the police. Well … now what? They were directing us to the elevator right beside Bamboo Garden which we had surmised from looking at it on the station platform that it took you right up to Ueno Park. Good stuff, we could grab that and walk through the park for a litle ways to get to the station entrance.

Inside the elevator, a lady with what seemed like a New York Jewish accent mentioned the convoy was the King and Queen of Spain who were in town for some sightseeing. Actually, she said “the same reason as you” when I asked if she knew what they were doing in Tokyo; as far as I was aware, we weren’t there for any diplomatic meetings, so it must have been sightseeing. Or something.

Update Turns out, at least one of the things they were there for was to see some robotics demonstrations at Tsukuba University.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what’s up with the section title, just watch this. I had that stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

Group Hug!While waiting for the elevator, we met Nicolette from Georgia. The three of us strolled through the park talking about touristy stuff and we helped her with some directions to the various buildings in Ueno Park. Which happens to also be where we found a quiet corner to munch on our breakfast (good thing we got it to go, otherwise we would’ve missed royalty). As we ate, we were passed by what must have been a dozen, if not more, groups of school kids coming to the park from Ueno Station.

Update: I completely forgot to mention that part of what we talked about with Nicolette was the level of accessibility in Japan. She was serving in Iraq where she was injured by an explosion in 2003, after which she spent three years in a wheelchair. You can read more in an article about an outing of the Wounded Warriors Project.

Adventures in Tokyo (Station)

Before heading off to Kamakura, today’s sightseeing spot, we went to Tokyo Station to reserve our Shinkansen tickets for Friday. We went back to where we got the Rail Passes earlier in the week and got directed over to the Station Master’s Office as all the non-smoking seats were sold out and we needed a bit of a special handwritten ticket process to accommodate the wheelchair as a result. In the Station Master’s Office, we sat on some old furniture located in an adjacent waiting room. In a somewhat shocking moment, the Station Master pronounced our last name correctly on the first try; that hardly ever happens, but almost everyone that spoke it during the trip got it right.

A quick 10-15 minutes later and we had our ticket(s), so it was time to grab a train to Kamakura.

Kamakura

Cool TreeWe bought day pass for the Enoden which is a cool little line that runs through town with stations near a bunch of the interesting things to see. Just like earlier this morning in Ueno, there were tons of school kids all over the place which made the small stations fairly crowded.

We passed a temple and garden on the way to Daibutsu. This is one of a number of Giant Bhudda in Japan, standing 13.35 meters tall. Luckily, since the weather wasn’t the greatest, there weren’t too many people at the site so it didn’t feel crowded. During our time admiring the scale of the statue, a worker came out and replaced the incense that sat just in front. I’ve still yet to figure out what the deal is with the windows at the back, though.

Daibutsu in Profile

Enoden

We got back on the Enoden and continued down to the end of the line. Along the way, the scenery changed from that of a small mountain town to more of a “big-city” atmosphere. By the time we hit Fujisawa station (which is where we grabbed a train back to Ueno), we were in the midst of tallish office towers and big department stores. The train also ran along the ocean for a little while and at one point the train went down the middle of a narrow street, almost clipping a delivery truck that tried to squeeze its way through.

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Dateline: November 11, 2008 1

The day started off with breakfast at an Andersen bakery over in Ueno Station. All sorts of interesting things to choose from so I went with a cheese bun thing (think of a large bun with the middle hollowed out and filled with big chunks of cheese), a full-size pig-in-a-blanket with a drizzle of cheese, a small thin-crust Hawaiian pizza, and a Hygge Fruits & Vegetable drink that tasted similar to Extra Spicy Clamato. With that out of the way, it was off to first destination of the day.

Akihabara

Also known as Akihabara Electric Town, it’s a place filled with the lights of multi-storey electronic stores everywhere you look and little shops crammed into the tightest of places. In many of the smaller shops and stands along the streets, you can find just about anything from tools to home security cameras to Christmas lights.

Multi-storey Electronics Stores

We headed into one such giant electronics store and I saw Japanese keyboards for the first time. If it’s an electronic gizmo of some sort, it’s probably for sale in one of these stores along with about a billion accessories for each. Too bad I didn’t have a spare ¥1,000,000 on me to pick up a new camera lens.

After ogling all manner of gear, we stopped off at the Tokyo Anime Center in the UDX Building. It contained significantly less stuff than I expected given its name, though there were some nice statues of various anime characters.

The rest of the time was spent just wandering around and checking out the plethora of stores, shops, and entertainment centers. We even found a rather large Dell sales center.

Back to Ueno

Multi-Level!Afterwards we jumped on the trains back to Ueno for a bit and beside the station we wandered onto a bridge that crosses over top of the tracks. From there we had a great view of a bunch of the lines heading into the terminal, and got a clear look at the double-decker setup of a lot of the lines. A good number of the larger train stations are multi-level (often with the Shinkansen on the uppermost level) but I had no idea that there could be raised sections this wide in the stations.

In the parking lot beside the bridge there were a few interesting things to see. The first was a missile/rocket of some sort, just sitting there next to the road. Another was the very much non-soccer mom styling on the minivans there. I saw one later in the trip with a nice body kit on it, and I bet many people here would love to be seen driving around in one like it.

We cut back through Ueno Park, got better views of the fountain.

Ginza

On the way there we had to quickly head outside of Tokyo Station to get to the correct elevator for the subway and in the process got to see the outside of the main station building. Unfortunately, like so many things other things on the trip, it too was under construction.

A quick ¥160 subway ride away and we were in Ginza. Being our first subway ride of the trip, we got our first experience of the “guided tour” out of the station thanks to the attendant waiting for us with a portable ramp; this happened every time we took the subway, and many of the times we took various JR trains. Very handy since, as I recall, it was a bit of a winding route to get from the platform to the street in Ginza. Also it was the first time being in Tokyo Station closer to rush hour; fun stuff!

Apple Store Ginza Being Ginza, we naturally saw areas packed with fancy stores such as Tiffany & Co., Harry Winston, Bulgari, and Louis Vutton, among others. We even walked past really nice Bentley Continental GT outside one of the stores.

While in Ginza, I hit up the Tokyu Hands looking for chiyogami in general and stuff like this in specific, but had no such luck. I was starting to get the feeling it would be a very difficult search.

I also found a little store on one side street that sold nothing but chopsticks. Some were really nice, but not quite what I was in the market for. Others were upwards of ¥40,000 for a single pair! Granted, the chopsticks like these were beautifully decorated, many with iridescent pieces embedded in the wood.

One of our final stops here was the Ginza Apple Store, a 5 storey building packed with Apple-y goodness. At the rear of the store were dual glass elevators that automatically roamed the floors looking for people to transport. Immediately after snapping that picture, I was told by one of the light blue shirts that pictures weren’t allowed in the store. It’s an interesting store layout. The first floor is full of a bunch of different products in a really general display/trial area (similar to what you see at the majority of the smaller Apple Stores, such as ours); the second floor is where the Genius Bar and Creatives lived; floor three was the theater used for presentations and other events (such as the live music held at many of the larger stores like Ginza); the fourth was where most of the accessories and software were at; and the top floor had private seminar rooms that could be booked for various things.

And since it was “that time of year”, more Christmas stuff was making its debut. Even the high-end office towers were getting in the game. We also found once we returned to Ueno for the evening, Bamboo Garden had been decked out while we were roaming other parts of Tokyo.

Tired

We decided to head to bed a little early to try to better acclimatize our sleep patterns. After all, it was only our second full day in Japan and that 16 hour time difference is not an easy thing to get used to.


  1. As mentioned in Day 3’s post, all subsequent posts from the trip were written after I returned home. Instead of posting them to the blog set to the dates they occurred, I’m just going to put a dateline at the top of each one.

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