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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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!).

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!