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Archive for January, 2009

Dateline: November 18, 2008

The Green Bus

The Green BusToday we rode on the Fukuoka City Loop Bus (“Green Bus for Sightseeing”) around town while hirosan was at work. True to its name, the driver shut the bus off whenever we stopped at red lights. We’d learn from hirosan a little later that this is what most buses in Fukuoka do.

The bus itself looks similar to other city buses from the outside, but on the inside it’s a very different story. The seats are curved wooden benches with green fabric covers (well, this one had them, anyway; another bus we took didn’t), and the whole interior has an “airy” feel to it.

During our first round on the Green Bus, we were the only people on board.

Canal City

After cruising along the route for about five minutes, we got off at the first stop: Canal City, a large complex — 2.5 million ft.2, 2/3 the size of West Edmonton Mall — in the heart of Hakata.Disney-eqsue

It can be best described as a large shopping complex split into two major halves with a canal and outdoor promenade running between them.

Right inside the doors we were met with by a white and metallic pink robot trundling down the ramp towards us. It’s an autonomous information robot that wanders the mall (when we came back on a later date, we found it off in another section) with a touch screen on its chest to provide visitors with directions. Unfortunately it was heading back to its charging station, complete with backup warning beeps, so we couldn’t play around.

On the first floor of one of the sections we found a bunch of different branded merchandise stores. There was a Pokémon store, a Sanrio store (makers of Hello Kitty), and even a candy-esque store that had Giant Pocky!Stage "Chandelier" There was a store full of Christmas decorations and other homey-feeling items that, to my surprise, had licensed stuff from the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer TV special.

In the center area about the canal, we found a bunch of Christmas decorations set up in the water. There’s also a large area called the Urban Theater, which is about seven storeys high. While there wasn’t anything happening during this visit, during the evenings there would be a regular water show similar to what you get at the Bellagio in Vegas. In fact, they were testing the system just before we ventured back to the Green Bus.

Back On the (High) Road

Since we just missed the next Green Bus outside Canal City, we decided to use the time to walk to Stop 3 to get the next one. There are three buses that run the loop and they come by each stop every 30 minutes during the week and every 20 minutes on weekends.

As we walked through the streets, we came upon a small temple and stopped in to have a look.

The bus ventured through more of the city and we skipped the next few stops on the way to Fukuoka Tower. The route took us over a section of toll freeway which culminated in a big section of double-decker bridge over the bay. Just on the other side of the bridge, we went past the Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome, which is where the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks play.

Fukuoka Tower

We disembarked at Stop 6: Fukuoka Tower. Before heading to the top of the tower to see the sights, we went into on eof the adjacent buildings in the complex and stumbled upon Robosquare. It’s sort of a cross between a mini robot museum and a showcase. There was a little display set up near the middle of Robosquare where we got to play with an AIBO ERS-7 for a while. Tissues, anyone?

Fukuoka TowerThe area around the tower looks like a manufactured business complex so while it gives the impression of being too spaced apart, it’s still a nice place.

On the way to the elevators, we caught a glimpse of a failed suicide attempt by a blue-clad Santa. The observation deck in the tower is 123 meters high and provided a fantastic 360˚ view of the city and the bay. I even managed to get a shot with the Pokémon jet in it. Plus being up so high gave me a great opportunity to play with the 75-300mm lens I borrowed from a co-worker for the trip. I even managed to find two more ferris wheels to add to the ever-growing list.

In a moment of better timing this go ’round, we got back to the bus stop right as it pulled up.

Small Detour

Next up we got off the bus to head to an outdoor covered shopping street. At one of the stores I found out scarves are called mufflers in Japan, even though most everything else in the cold weather apparel category is named the same. And, as usual, we spotted some interestingly-named businesses. While the sun was poking out through the clouds periodically, there was a very cold wind all day so we headed back to the bus to continue on the tour of the city.

Tenjin Core

Underground MallStop 12 is the central shopping district in Fukuoka. We spent most of the time in the Tenjin Core building and also in “the most beautiful underground mall in Japan”, Tenjin Chikagi. It definitely had a neat atmosphere, but some of the others we’d been in were “nicer” (marble, wide open space, etc.). It felt like being in a gothic dungeon with its dark brick and arched ceilings, which was pretty cool. The street entrances made it feel like you were about to descend into an old pub. The building itself was the basement floor of a long shopping center with a slight bend in the middle. Each half of was incredibly long, to the point you could barely see the end of the hallway.

Shrine

The last stop of the day led us to a largeish shrine complex. Shortly after crossing through the torii, a kindly little old lady came up to us and practically dragged my brother through the complex.Cleansing Water The only English she knew was “please”, which she said earnestly while gesturing to follow her; it was tremendously cute.

While my brother was being whisked away, I slowly wandered through the complex taking a bunch of pictures. Compared to most, if not all, of the shrines we’d been to thus far, this one had a significantly higher tree density. I really liked the amount of trees here because you couldn’t really tell you were still in the middle of a modern city. This shrine was also the first of a few places I found “tree grass“.

Back to the Hotel

The cold wind was still blowing on us and the fact the sun was about to set didn’t help matters. We hopped onto the second-last bus back to the depot. The poor guy kept mis-aligning the back door so he couldn’t get the ramp out. Well, he could, but the ramp was aimed right at a wall! After a few tries he got it right and my brother could get off the bus without having to hop off the side of the ramp which was reasonably steep and had raised edges (to prevent accidental sideways exiting).

We’d be going to bed early tonight as we had a 6:29 am train to catch tomorrow at the start of the rail rage with hirosan. He stopped by the room on his way to visit his uncle to do some last-minute planning and then it was into the sack for us.

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Dateline: November 17, 2008

Teddy BearTravel day! Checkout was at 10 am but our train didn’t leave until 1:11 pm (we sure planned that one well!) so we had some to kill. We wandered down to Nagoya Station and found a place in the shade on the second floor balcony of the JR Towers where some of the light show stuff happens. Later on we moved inside to the Shinkansen waiting area.

While up on the platform waiting for our train, we chatted with a lady from Sweden who was with a big group of folks. She had been working with assistive devices for 35 years so she and my brother had a discussion for a bit about things ranging from all the wheelchairs Sweden exports to what it’s like getting around in Japan.

The Ride to Hakata

Traveling from Nagoya to Hakata takes you a good half-way across the country, and involves crossing between the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. The trip took us past the Solar Ark again, and my brother got video and a good picture (the fact I was facing backwards led to me not getting anything as by the time we realized it was there, I didn’t have time to get my camera out of my pocket). The video capture came from pointing the high-def camera out the window and letting it record for a while in order to get some “traveling footage”.

We also went past a few Shinkansen yards with many trains lined up side by side, like so.

Series 700 Shinkansen at Shin-KobeRail Star Series 700This leg of our train travels marked the first time we had to transfer trains with all the luggage, which we did at Shin-Kobe. The small image on the left is the train from the first half of the trip, a Hikari Super Express. The small image on the right is what we transfered onto, a Rail Star Hikari Super Express. They’re the same train — a 700 Series Shinkansen — but they have different paint jobs are are owned by separate branches of Japan Railways; the former is from JR Central while the latter is from JR West, thus making Shin-Kobe a figurative handover point. We weren’t able to get the private cabin in the second train when we booked the tickets, but this had some benefits. For one, we got beverage service for the first time on a Shinkansen, which is similar to what you get on airplanes.

Shin-Kobe TunnelShin-Kobe Tunnel
The neat thing about Shin-Kobe is it’s a station between two tunnels and at the base of a hill full of trees. There’s also a gondola going up the side of that hill, though we aren’t sure where it goes.

We sat in two of the single seats in the rear of the car which were surrounded by luggage due to the abundance of open space back there.

There were lots of tree-covered hills along the route which are incredibly densely-packed. We went through numerous tunnels, as well, including one that took us between the two islands. Nestled in between the lush greenery were towns on the ocean and the occasional massive refinery installations.

Hakata

Outer Lobby, Nishitetsu Inn HakataHakata is a ward of Fukuoka, home of hirosan. As part of the trip planning, hirosan had offered to book our hotels during the stay in Hakata because he knows the area well. He got us a room in the Nishitetsu Inn which is right beside Hakata Station (bonus!). This place was gorgeous. The surprising thing was that while this was by far the fanciest hotel we would stay at while in Japan, it was the second cheapest!

An interesting thing about the hotel is the main lobby is on the second floor. This is because the first floor is a large public bath. Because the escalators from the main entrance to the lobby are single-person width, we were at first concerned my brother wouldn’t be able to get in! That is, until we noticed the wheelchair access door off to the side. Public BathsThe sign beside the door, a frosted glass sliding door, instructed us to hit the buzzer which would alert staff at the front desk who would open the door only after checking us out on the closed-circuit cameras mounted on either side of the door. We had to do this each time on the way out too.

There were more chip-and-PIN credit card terminals at the hotel, like at Gohan Dining in Nagoya. It’s a good thing I received my replacement credit card with chip-and-PIN less than a week before the trip. Nishitetsu uses the card key to turn on the power in the room, though the hotel in Nagoya only used the long plastic fob which, if you remember, I managed to simulate with a toothbrush.

Reunion

We met up with hirosan in the lobby that evening, and one of the first things I said to him was “We’re finally here to visit you!”. We’d hung out with him on multiple occasions during his trips to Canada, and we even had him over for Easter Dinner at our parents’ back in March. After comparing gadgets, we were off!

Rail Rage PlansDinner was had at MOS Burger while we planned for the next few days’ activities. There would be a “rail rage” on Thursday; Nagasaki on Friday. I tried a spicy burger topped with chili and a strip-beef burger with a “bun” made of rice.

We then went to book the tickets for the upcoming rail rage. hirosan handed over the planning sheet, seen in the photo on the right, which was way easier than trying to explain it all. We received some raised eyebrows from the ticketing staff, but I guess that’s to be expected as we were picking up 16 tickets, after all. We also got day pass tickets for the Green Bus which is what we’d spend our time doing tomorrow while hirosan was at work.

Having had our fill of MOS burger goodness and acquiring all necessary tickets, the three of us headed up to the hotel room to finish planning stuff for the rail rage and dole out the tickets accordingly. We gave Ryo his presents: some candies and syrup from Summerland Sweets which I picked up this past summer.

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Dateline: November 16, 2008

Today we’d be doing a day trip to Kyoto. But, before we left Nagoya, we stopped off at the Station Master’s office to grab our written instructions for our tickets to Hakata that we’d requested the night before. As you may recall, we had a similar issue getting today’s Kyoto tickets and since we’d requested the Hakata ones later in the evening, we had to come back the next morning to get the final confirmation. Since we had a train to catch, we kept the instructions with us and planned to get the actual tickets once we returned from Kyoto.

The forecast for today said rain so I figured it would be prudent to pick up an umbrella. Last night I bought a compact umbrella that fit in the upper pocket of my camera bag so I didn’t have to haul it around in my hand the whole time.

Kyoto Station Atrium

Kyoto Station

On the ride to Kyoto, I noticed an interesting visual effect. Some of the trains go fast enough that when passing another going in the opposite direction, you can still clearly see through it to the landscape on the other side. If you’re busy staring at something out the window, your line-of-sight doesn’t get blocked.

Kyoto Station is a big building sandwiched between two 11-storey department stores. It hosts 34 platforms (numbered 0 through 33) as it is one of the main terminals in this part of Japan. As we wandered outside into the rain (good thing I bought that umbrella!) we noticed an informational sign with Astroboy on top. Upon closer inspection, we found there was a small “museum” focused on Tezuka Osamu! I loved Astroboy when I was a kid, and it wasn’t until several years after getting hooked on the series that I learned what anime was, and that the show was my introduction to it.

Osamu Tezuka Character StatuesTezuka Osamu is the guy behind Astroboy, Black Jack, and Jungle Emperor (known in North America as Kimba the White Lion), among others. Off at one end of the large station building you’ll find Tezuka Osamu World. He also holds the distinction as the man who started the “large eyes” trend in Japanese manga and anime. There was a large schematic poster of Astroyboy in the gift shop which I wanted to pick up, but I couldn’t figure out at the time a good way to get it back home without destroying it.

First Temple

Wandering off from the station, we made our way to Higashi Honganji, a very large temple complex. The Goei-do (Founder’s Hall) is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world and was currently undergoing a massive restoration, accentuated by the large exo-skeleton building surrounding the hall.Front Steps The prayer room of the smaller hall (which due to the restoration project is currently the “main” hall) was beautifully ornate and the entire inside was lined with tatami.

Between the two halls there were artifacts from the history of the buildings. One was the sled that was used to move the massive trees down from the mountains to be used in the construction of the temple’s main pillars. Another was the 69 meter-long rope made of hair donated by followers of the temple. Hair was used because it was significantly stronger than the regular rope available at the time.

Within the Goei-do, restoration work was proceeding. Even with all the construction materials laying out, the interior was impressive.

Having spent a fair bit of time in and around the two main halls of Higashi Honganji, we decided to take leave from its encircling walls and search out what else there was to see.

In the courtyard of the complex, there was a flock of pigeons frequently surrounding visitors, and at least once, taking flight above the temples.

Back at the Station

Big StaircaseOne thing I wanted to make sure we saw while here in Kyoto — even though we were planning to be back several more times throughout the trip — was the big staircase at the station. It covers the gap between the two department stores and runs from the fourth to the eleventh floor, from which there’s a separate small staircase to the rooftop garden on the twelfth floor. The view from the top is pretty nice, especially at night!

Before heading out from the station again, we decided to check out the department store to scrounge for souvenirs. In the Isetan building we had some fun with the elevators while trying to head up to the tenth floor, where a bunch of the restaurants are, for lunch. To get to the big staircase, you have to go up to the fourth floor in the Isetan building, which is where we were.High Up Kyoto Station In order to get up or down from the fourth floor in a wheelchair, you have to also take the elevators; this is assisted by the fact there are seven elevators in the store. Good stuff. The problem is that this is a very popular department store. We must have waited for at least 20 minutes for an elevator that wasn’t packed to the teeth with people, going up or down! It seemed for a time like we were trapped on the fourth floor. It was about this point that I was getting rather irked at the people for being so lazy and not taking the stairs.1

Finally, an elevator heading down had enough room that my brother could squeeze in. I told him to just stay on and ride it back up to the eleventh floor (which was my mistake, I meant the tenth) and I’d meet him up there. Into the stairwell I went and waited on the tenth floor outside the elevators. Several minutes passed with no sign of my brother. Thinking he may have taken what I said literally, I hopped up to the eleventh floor; nothing. I spent the next five minutes bounding back and forth between the floors searching for my brother.Skyway I figured by this point I may as well go back down and look for him, even though I was hesitant to do so because if we started playing floor tag, it might be a while before we found each other again (what if we both stay put and wait for the other, what if we keep passing each other, etc.). I jumped on an elevator on the eleventh floor (and since this is at the one end of the floor list, it was easy to get on) and went down to the first where I found my brother. Turns out staying on the elevator/getting back on it was easier said than done — he was right at the doors, after all, and had to get out to let all the others exit. People; can’t live with ’em, can’t kill ’em.

Second Temple

Main BuildingsWith that mess behind us, we decided to forgo lunch and venture out from the station again. Next up was Nishi Hongwanji temple, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The wall surrounding this temple was much more than just a simple wall (as at Higashi Honganji) and had a dry moat separating it from the sidewalk. As Nishi Hongwanji is the mother temple for the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha sect of Bhuddism, there is a large administration building on the grounds, styled to match the original buildings.

Like so many of the places we’d been to on the trip, this complex was under construction and restoration as well, resulting in a large section remaining inaccessible to us. At least the sun was starting to peek out between the clouds while we were here.

Kyoto Tower

Now that the sun had gone down, we decided it was time to head up to the top of Kyoto Tower which is just across the street from the station.Kyoto Tower at Night On the way there, I spotted some garbage cans on the street! The first ones I’d seen since we set foot on Japanese soil. We’d learn several days later the reasons behind why this was such a rare occurrence.

Up in the observation deck 100 meters over the streets below, we got a great nighttime panoramic view of Kyoto. I was a little surprised by how small the observation deck was, especially since at first glance from the street, it seemed pretty big. Though to be fair, the last observation deck I was at was the Stratosphere in Vegas, which is quite sizable. There were 30×120 power mounted binoculars all around the perimeter of the deck which I used to get some “spy shots” of the city.

From this vantage point, we could see down into the Higashi Honganji complex from earlier in the day, and spotted the light from Kiyomizudera. Plus you get a better sense for just how organized the taxi lines are at stations.

The Ride Home

Heading Back

Before departing on our homebound train, we stopped at Mister Donut in the station for a quick snack. I tried the Angel French (a chocolate dipped, twisted, torus-shaped eclair) and a Honey Churro (no sugar or cinnamon on it!).

We got to take a ride on a Series 300 Shinkansen back to Nagoya, where we went to the ticket office to pick up tomorrow’s tickets to Hakata. It will be our first inter-hotel trip that includes a transfer (at Shin-Kobe).


  1. For those that don’t know, my office at my job is on the tenth floor. I take the stairs both ways six times a day, so I didn’t feel like much of a hypocrite for thinking this.

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Dateline: November 15, 2008

Up in the morning to catch some breakfast, and this was the only hotel during the trip where breakfast was included. I even had some soup! The plan for today was to hang out with another of my brother’s flickr contacts, Tabito, and see some sights. By the end of today’s journey, we will have visited two of Japan’s national treasures.

Off to Inuyama

We grabbed a Mietetsu train bound for Inuyama, 25 kilometers to the north of Nagoya. Instead of getting off at Inuyama Station, we instead disembarked at Inuyamayuen Station, which was one station further down the line.Station Lanterns Unfortunately, we had some problems exiting the station as there was something wrong with the tickets we had (the ticket gates spat them back out saying they were invalid). Luckily, we had Tabito with us and he used a neat communicator near the ticket gates that you use to speak with the station master for just these types of situations. After seemingly getting nowhere, the station master came and argued with Tabito for a while, which was rather entertaining. There were phone calls back to Nagoya station and all sorts of fun as they each took turns speaking with whoever was on the other end of the line. Apparently the guy at the departure station caused the mixup by punching in the wrong things at the machine when we got our tickets. It turned out we paid too much … I think, though that wouldn’t explain why we couldn’t get out of the station. At least that’s what I’m led to believe as the station master gave us a little over ¥500 when all was said and done.

At Inuyamayuen station there were also some statues advertising Monkey Park, and is also where you catch the monorail to get there.

Uraku-en Garden & Jo-an Tea House

After everything got sorted out at the station, we went on our way and walked along the river en route to Inuyama Castle. However, before venturing there, Tabito took us on a small detour to check out Uraku-en Garden.Stone Pathway The landscaping and pathways that cut through it were beautiful, sometimes lined with bamboo and other times with large trees (picture taken by my brother; you can see me blending into the hedge in the bottom center).

Once you’ve made your way through the garden, beyond some small traditional buildings and water features, you come upon the Jo-an Tea House. Originally built in 1618, it is renowned as one of the three best tea houses in Japan and was designated a national treasure in 1936. The part of the house in specific that’s held in such high regard is the round window which is made of woven bamboo.

Traditional Sweets

On the way out of Uraku-en, but before we started up the hill to Inuyama Castle, we stopped at a small sweets shop for some Japanese treats.Japanese Sweets The inside of the shop felt very homey and it was nice to get in out of the rain for a bit (oh yes, it was raining on us once again). While good, the things we tried were surprisingly bland for the most part, but the red bean broth that one of the dishes came in was quite tasty. I wasn’t completely surprised by the “lack of sweet” in these sweets as I know they’re prepared differently from in North America; I’m just too used to refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup to appreciate real sweets I guess, which is a little amusing since the production process of HFCS was refined in Japan.

Inuyama Castle

Now that we had a little something in our stomachs, we started to venture up the hill to Inuyama Castle, the second national treasure on today’s itinerary.Inuyama Castle There was a bit of entertainment on the way up the hill to get at the castle itself. As you ascend through the trees, you start up a cobblestone path which was fine for the majority of the distance. However, once we were two thirds of the way up, the path changed from a reasonable representation of a slope into an uneven staircase sort of thing. As we stood there for a few moments trying to figure out what our next move would be — immediately to our right was a small temple we could kill some time in, at the very least — our (apparent) helplessness was noticed by a group of Chinese tourists at the stop of the stairs. A few bounced down and inquired, through the very effective pantomime that gets used to overcome language barriers, if he needed help getting the rest of the way up. When he indicated in the affirmative, several more came down and after a few quick pointers on where to take a hand-hold on his wheelchair, they practically lifted him up and ran him up the rest of the way to the castle, like a chariot crossed with a Roman litter.

ColoursTabito and myself ventured into the castle to check it out and take in the views from the top. Inside are very steep stairs that take you between the levels, so steep I was actually somewhat concerned coming down (though it probably didn’t help I was holding a video camera and a bag with my shoes in it at the time). The castle had a bunch of old items including sets of armour, writings, and other artifacts from the history of the castle. Once you climbed to the top, you could walk around almost the entire upper balcony except one section which was closed off, possibly due to deterioration. The view from up there was great, albeit a little cloudy.

Back on the ground there were some winter cherry blossoms to be seen! I didn’t even know there was such a thing.

City of Inuyama

Getting my brother down the path to the castle was far easier, which was nice. Next up was to just wander around through the streets of Inuyama.Inuyama Street We stopped at a museum for Japanese dolls and saw how the small tea-serving dolls worked and also the behind-the-scenes of the Japanese equivalent of marionettes which are impressive if for no other reason than all the strings are inside the dolls and are typically controlled from underneath the stage.

We also checked out another museum which had examples of the yoyama floats that go through the city each April during the Inuyama Festival. They’re often three storeys tall, and some, like one of the ones we saw, are covered in lanterns. While here, I spotted a grandfather clock that looked practically identical to the one my parents have, which was really odd to see.

As we continued our wandering, we stopped at a small stand and had goheimochi from a busy food vendor. I could have stood there all day eating the stuff, it was that good. Basically, it’s just rice balls fried with miso paste.

During a late lunch, Tabito gave us each a gift: our full names written in katakana, hiragana, and kanji. The literal translation of my first name is “Time Get Well”. Tabito also gave me the “brush pen” he used to write out the gifts which is essentially a felt pen with a tip that bends and flows like that of a paintbrush. The lunch was at a ramen and udon place in the Ito Yokado department store beside the station in Inuyama. Mine came with tonkotsu (pork) and egg on rice, which was yummy.

Back to Nagoya

We hoppped on a shiny new Mietetsu Series 2000 µSky Rapid Limited Express (as seen here when we first arrived in Inuyama) back to Nagoya cruising at up to 108 km/h. Even the sink looked fancy.

As we had Tabito with us (i.e. someone who spoke Japanese) we tried to book our Shinkansen to and from Kyoto for tomorrow’s day trip but ran into the same problems as the first time when we tried in Ueno. So, off to the station master’s office with a hand-written note from the ticket desk to have him figure it out. He said to come back in a few hours. Time-killing time!

12th Floor InteriorWe went back to the JR Towers and headed to the 15th floor to take some pictures and did some further wandering around in the Towers Lights displays below. Afterwards we headed back towards the hotel for dinner at Oyster’s “Fisherman’s Beer Cafe” which was also in the Lucent tower (where we had lunch the first day in Nagoya). The waitress had a neat digital pad for taking orders and prepping the bill. It looked like a big touch-screen cell phone with a flip open hinge and appeared to incorporate the same type of functionality as the registers at fast food places.

Nagoya Night ViewHaving adequately killed time, it was back to the JR Station with us to see if the Shinkansen tickets were sorted out at 9:30 pm. We got the proper information from the station master and went back to the ticket desk to get the actual tickets. Three station attendants were working out how to write up the ticket; one of the sheets they were referencing had a diagram of the special paper ticket they were filling out along with instructions for how to do so. By now we had come to realize these types of bookings must not be a common occurrence, and indeed, every time we booked Shinkansen tickets for the rest of the trip we went through a similar process with varying “wait times”. At 10:00 pm, we finally had our tickets!

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