Friday, December 28, 2012

Vacations need rest days. They help with the jet lag, especially, and give the body much-needed rest, especially if you've been doing a lot of walking, with a constant supply of steps. Seriously, Japan is rumored to be one of the most modern nations in the world; yet escalators are in shockingly short supply. I expect it out where my in-laws live; it is relatively rural. Tokyo is a large city constantly molting it's old skin for something new. Escalators. That's my advice to the powers that be in Tokyo.
Our plan was very simple. Get up, eat breakfast, meet an old friend, then head to Himeji.
And that's what we did.
There is a new (I suppose...) breakfast chain called Nakatamago, which I guess is supposed to imply the center of an egg; that's not the word for egg yolk. There isn't a dictionary entry for “nakatamago.” And I'm spending way too much time on the name of the place. Let's get down to the food. It was very simple, and very cheap. For a few bucks we got an egg sunny-side-up, a bowl of rice, and a bowl of miso soup, with tea. Was it a delicacy? Nope. But there's really only so much you can do with a sunny-side-up egg, and they did enough.
All of us were really tired, so we sat around the hotel until it was time to leave and go find our friend at Tokyo Station.
If you've read previous posts, you know about taking the wrong turn out of the Mitsukoshi department store that led to a long out-of-the-way jaunt through Tokyo. As we walked to the station, we turned right out of hotel, then right on the large main street that I knew went to the station. Ten minutes later we walked past Mitsukoshi. We were right at our hotel. Nice job navigating by me.
As noted in the post about day 2, the shops at Tokyo Station are all inside the station. That's not 100% accurate. There are things to do in the surrounding buildings, and I'm certain we could have found more had we explored. It's hard to overstate how tired we all were, and it showed in our general grumpiness.
First order of business was to find a locker that would hold our luggage. We managed to get two of our three carry-on sized suitcases in, along with our backpacks. Hanako's we towed around.
Seeing old friends is one of the great rewards of travel. I've been blessed in that I have acquaintances in many countries. Connecting with fellow travelers is a joy. I recall when I first came to Japan twenty years ago. I chose to live in the Osaka region because, in Tokyo, many of the foreigners at that time were unwilling to sit and talk to strangers. But when I went to Osaka, I was sitting in a park just … looking, when a group of Americans came over, welcomed me to the city, and sat and talked. Maybe I was just lucky, but it made a strong impression on me. Not that Tokyoites are unfriendly; far from it. In general, kindness is everywhere in Japan. Dave Barry told a story of a businessman who looked like he wanted to commit suicide because he couldn't help the bungling foreigner find his way. That still holds true.
Masako lived in Nashville and was one of our first friends there. She is one of those truly wonderful people, easy to laugh, and with a laugh that makes you want to hear it over and over. Like my wife, actually. The two of them together are immeasurably happy, it seems, constantly laughing and enjoying the simple existence we all share. We went to a tonkatsu restaurant named Tonkatsu Tazumura. It bothers my wife that my son eats so much tonkatsu. It is a breaded and deep fried pork loin, and he and I share a love of it. If you're a American southerner in Japan and need something “familiar” to eat, then eat tonkatsu. What's more down-home than deep fried pork?
Food eaten, we walked to the Imperial palace again, seeing a park we missed the day before. It is all large water features, and Masako's son is a bit overwhelmed, and I make a wager with myself how long it will be before he is soaked. It was a near thing, once or twice. But he made it out unscathed (or un-wet, I suppose).
Back at the station. Goodbyes said, we rush to our train. We'll take the Nozomi Shinkansen to Himeji. That's the fastest train in Japan. It is an experience. Advice: if you take the train between Tokyo and Nagoya/Kyoto/anyplace-west, ask to get a seat on the side that will have the best views of Mt. Fuji. We didn't, and had to crane our necks around other people to see it. Mt. Fuji is on the bucket list. Someday I'll go up it. For now, I'll have to be satisfied just looking at it outside the train window.
None of us slept on the train, but it wasn't for lack of trying. There should have been wi-fi, but we couldn't connect, which is another of those first-world problems we experienced often.
Home. Himeji is that to me: home. One of three that I claim. It fits the definition: home is where the heart is, right? Why I love it there is hard to explain. Perhaps it is because I grew up in Himeji. Not in the “growing older” sense, but in that I matured. In Korea I was beaten down a bit, and in Himeji I discovered who I was. And even if I lost track of that path in later years, when I return to Himeji, I find it again.
Inlaws' apartment, happiness, good conversation, then, exhausted, a hot bath and bed. Sleeping on a futon is difficult if you've not done it in awhile, and I feel I'll need a trip to a chiropractor before the trip is over. But that's okay. An easy price to pay.

Day two - Tokyo

Jet lag sucks.
I woke up at 2:00. My wife woke up sometime after that. My son woke up at around 3:30. I went back to sleep at around that same time, and he went back to sleep at around 5:30. Somewhere in there I'm certain that my wife, too, went back to sleep. When I say that I was awake, that isn't entirely true. Part of me was awake, and part of me was asleep, or at least wanted to be asleep very badly.
At eight we were all sufficiently awake to begin our day.
Our hotel (Sumisho) is near Ningyocho station, part of the Nihonbashi area, just north-east of Tokyo station. We walked the five minutes or so to the station without seeing anything we wanted to eat. Which is strange, considering the number of places that served breakfast between the hotel and the station. Given too many choices, it is often hard to choose.
We went to Asakusa, an area in north-east Tokyo. The plan was to go to the large temple there, and visit the shops there before walking to the Tokyo Sky Tree. First we ate at Clover Cafe near the station, a small coffee shop that had some of the best croissants I've had outside of France, with some very good coffee. Joe even drank some; he's started drinking a little coffee here and there. It was a quiet place, the sort of establishment that you hope has success, not simply because of the quality of the product, but due to some feeling that you have that they deserve it.
After eating we headed to the temple. We arrived a little before 9:00 and very few of the shops were open. So we went to Sensoji.
In America, there is strong sense of belonging to the Christian faith. Church membership is declining, but “religiosity” is, supposedly, going strong. I mention this because, for all that there is a strong “faith” element in the society, it is still a very private affair.
When I'm in Japan I'm reminded of this. It is, I think, one reason why I like going to Japanese temples and shrines. It gives me perspective on what faith means. It isn't about the big things, like going to church every Sunday and then not keeping that feeling the following six days.
Sensoji is a tourist attraction. But that is a relatively new thing. For most of it's 1400 years of existence it was only a place of worship. Tourists visited, but they were pilgrims coming for religious reasons. Only when the rest of the world began flocking to Japan did Tokyo's oldest temple become a singular destination.
In spite of the presence of almost as many foreigners as Japanese, most of the Japanese who go to the temple still take time to pray. They leave a wish or memorial of some kind. When I see that, I wonder how many Americans go to church but don't do the same? How many cannot without someone to lead them in the prayer?
From Sensoji we walked to the Sky Tree.
Think of a giant needle pointing into the sky. It does look something like a tree, and it is a marvel of engineering on many fronts. But it costs a small fortune to go up to the observation decks. We opted to not go up. Besides, some things in life are better looked at, rather than looked from. There was a strong wind, and because of that they were exercising extreme caution, resulting in long lines, so it was just as well. Instead, we walked around, looked at the Japanese culture exhibition, and headed back to Asakusa to eat.
Ramen is generally looked on as a convenience food in the US. Japanese, too, have plenty of cup noodles and other instant varieties. Ramen is to Japan what hamburger is to America, meaning it is okay as a fast food, but is also served as a meal in more upscale restaurants.
There are many choices in Japan for good ramen. My wife had pre-selected several places near the shrine, and at random we chose XXXXX.
It was very small, seating maybe thirty people max on two floors. We ordered as we walked in, waited a few minutes for a table to open up, then climbed the very steep and narrow steps to the second floor. All three of us got the same thing: basic ramen with sliced pork, with a side order of fried dumplings to share.
Movies have been made about the fine art of making ramen, as well as how to eat it. Like other noodles, the trick is to cook it in just such a way that it is firm, but not chewy or stiff, while also being careful to not over cook it so that it becomes mushy. Then there's the broth, which has to complement the noodles, and the pork cannot make the broth too greasy. Each shop will have their own way of “dressing” the ramen, with, if you're lucky, local wild vegetables.
The afternoon was a whirlwind. Train to Tokyo Tower, where we promptly turned left out of the train station instead of right. Lucky we didn't walk too far before realizing our mistake (corrected by asking a nice lady working a small shop). Tokyo Tower costs about a third to enter as Sky Tree, and we went up to the main observation deck. To go to the highest point would have cost us the same amount again. Since it was cloudy in the direction of Mt. Fuji, we didn't see the need; we could see from one edge of Tokyo to the other as it was. Hanako had seen some television dramas where Tokyo Tower is nicely placed in the background, so we scoped out where that might be and walked around trying to find a good vantage point from which to take the perfect picture. That term is completely relative.
Roppongi Hills was a bit of a disappointment, but we hadn't really planned on going there, so we probably didn't see all that we should have. One big plus is that we found a Phiten store. Phiten make these products that my son really likes. Baseball players wear them, and he's a baseball player; so naturally he feels that he must wear one as well. None of us realized how many different products the company makes, nor did we understand that there are evidently health benefits to the products. He spent some of his travel money on a bracelet that I admit is pretty dang cool looking, but I don't dare buy one because that would immediately take it down several cool points.
Roppongi to Hibiya by train, with a walk to see the Imperial palace, which was really just a cool wall with old guard towers. Then to Tokyo Station, which has been renovated. All of the good shops are behind the gates, which means if you don't have a ticket, you can't go inside. We took our requisite number of tickets and walked back towards our hotel, stopping at the large Mitsukoshi department store along the way. Mitsukoshi is a high-end store, very expensive. Think four-hundred dollar wallets. I'll say this: the people that worked there were all very pretty, which I'm sure is (sadly) by design. Unable to afford anything there, we headed back to the hotel, taking another wrong turn and walking well out of our way.
Dinner was take out. Joe and I had fried chicken bentos, Hanako had sushi. At the hotel we slept quickly, all of us again taking turns waking up in the middle of the night.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Japan Day One

Trips can be divided into those you have to take, those you want to take, and those that share qualities of both. For example, a child is made to go to Disney; most likely they also want to go. I have retained that child-like perspective on taking a trip. Even the most routine journeys – to my parents' house, or even to work – are in their own ways exciting.
Our trip to Japan starts well before the departure. A year spent deciding if we can go, and when. Juggling ideas back and forth. Asking the hard questions about whether or not we can afford it, and if our employers will let us off for two weeks. Then, decision made, begins the arduous process of buying the tickets. Arduous, because we cannot afford to waste any money, and so we have to find the most economical dates and routes. In August we bought our tickets for a December trip. The price was right, the routing good. As an added bonus, we would be on JAL, Japan Airlines, an airline I'd heard about in terms people reserve for fine cars or wines or Apple products.
Then came the changes.
In September I received an email that JAL required us to change our flight from Knoxville to Chicago (Knoxville, because that's where my family lives; we can visit with them, and they will take care of the dog, saving kennel money, and also take us to the airport, saving parking). I called Expedia – the online travel agent we used to make our reservations – and they took care of things. We'd actually be on an earlier flight out of Knoxville, which worked out great. I was dreading a short connection in Chicago, in winter.
October brings with it another email. American Airlines was the carrier taking us to Chicago, and they canceled the flight from Knoxville. Completely. No alternatives. So Expedia told me they would have to refund the reservation and I would have to make it again. I told them they were incorrect, because the fares had gone up almost $600 per person. So they had to fix it. We went round and round. The airline – JAL – told me I would have to fly to Chicago the day before, on December 23, then fly out of Chicago on December 24 to Japan. I complained, waited on hold, and really had a miserable couple of days. Yes, days. It took two days to get this resolved, and the resolution came only after I put a lengthy comment on Expedia's Facebook page complaining. I don't know for a fact that post had anything to do with it, but it is an interesting coincidence.
They put me on a United Airline flight from Knoxville to Chicago, and we'd have an hour and a half.
It would have been better to stay in Chicago December 23rd. But I was tired, and I didn't think it through.
December 24th, Christmas Eve. There was nobody in the airport in Knoxville. I don't know if I've ever seen an airport so empty. Even in Brainerd, Minnesota, which was the smallest, emptiest airport I've ever seen.
“I'm not able to ticket your flight from Chicago to Japan,” the UAL rep told us. I asked what did that mean. Turns out my insistence on flying out that morning was a bit of a problem. United isn't connected with JAL, so they couldn't ticket us.
The flight to Chicago was not even half full. I was very nervous. My legs shook like a teenager heading out on a first date. I was worried.
Chicago. We all but run from terminal F to terminal K. It isn't close, and evidently O'Hare – despite being a very large, famous airport – has evidently never heard of “moving sidewalks.” Our gate was at the far end of the K concourse. Of course. I had to pee. My son had to pee. My wife had to pee. But the tickets were first. I didn't know if they would have them. Nobody could tell me – not Expedia or United – that we were, in fact, checked in for the flight.
We were.
Tickets in hand, we found the nearest bathroom.
There isn't much to say about the long flight to Japan. Service was excellent, the seats as comfortable as they can be, with little pockets on the back of the seat in front of us to hold headphones or water. The kid behind us didn't understand how to use his internal volume control. I slept little.
Narita Airport. In all of the times I have traveled to Japan, I have never spent more than an hour from wheels-down until leaving the airport. Usually less. It took us about forty minutes this time. It helped that we didn't have any luggage. With careful planning and packing, you can do a lot with a carry on and a backpack.
Day one's plan was pretty simple. Get to the hotel, check in, and then go see Ginza. Finding the hotel was an adventure; I couldn't get a wifi or GPS signal to pull up a map, so we went old school and just asked people.
The hotel's name is Sumisho. Later, we saw a massive sign in the subway station with directions. Yeah us.
We check in. I want to use my Japanese, but the desk clerk wants to use his English, and I figure there are millions of people with whom I can speak Japanese, but relatively few opportunities for him to use his English.
I think many people would complain about the room. It is tiny, with three single beds. But why do you really need more space? It is perfect for us, with a nice desk, good wifi, and a bathtub. It even has a toilet that washes your butt (or your “front” for those that have “fronts” that need washing). On the first floor is a common bath with showers and a hot tub. Though not billed as a ryokan, that's basically what it is.
Ginza is the upscale shopping and entertainment area. We went there to see the Christmas lights. Japan really goes overboard with the Christmas lights. Entire districts string up lights. When we went to the massive display in Kobe many years ago, it was so warm that people were taking off their coats. It has changed now because everyplace uses LED lights. The scale of Ginza's lights wasn't necessarily impressive. They had a lot of them up, but no more than I'd expect any popular outdoor shopping area to have. In no way is this a criticism; they were beautiful and pleasant, tasteful where perhaps other areas can be gaudy. We ate at a Chinese restaurant named Ni Hao then headed to “Ginza Hands,” a branch of a popular store called “Tokyo Hands.” It is a department store with a broad range of goods. Joe was exhausted, so we spent very little time there, instead heading back to the hotel where we slept.
A couple of observations. First, the trains were not crowded, for all that it was rush hour. If you've never been to a Japanese city at rush hour, you might say that I am crazy, that the trains were very, very crowded. And yes, there were a lot of people. But not as much as I expected. Second, there were a lot of people riding bikes. Not your mama-chari commute bikes, but road bikes and mountain bikes, with the riders decked out for riding rather than their pants leg simply tucked into their socks.
Day one ended with a long soak in the hotel's public bath. No sooner did my head hit the pillow than I was asleep.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Japan Travel Prelude

We are meant to travel.

From the dawn of all of us, there were two types of people: those that always wandered, seeking whatever it was that was just over that next hill, just across that water; and those that stayed behind and called the other folks fools. They'll fall off the earth. They'll get killed. They'll amount to nothing. All of which was often true.

And still we wandered.

I come from that line of humanity that sought the edge of things. My father was in the Navy. Before him, a race that many would call hillbillies, people that didn't know they were "unfortunate" or "poor" until somebody came in and labeled them such. Wander the hills, find a place to settle, a woman or man to settle with, raise some kids, who then went a little further into the hills. On and on. We found rivers, prairies, deserts, oceans, wars and peace. All this was made known to us for a simple reason.

We traveled.

This is the story of recent travel. Recent as of the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013. I'm not vain enough to hope that someday these stories will be old, though in this day and age "old" is not what it once was. But I hope that they will be enjoyed.