Sunday, October 31, 2010

Week 44

I now believe that the origin of Japan's "four distinct seasons" lies somewhere in the fact that temperatures go from mid-summer to mid-autumn overnight (a 10C drop in both daytime highs and lows.) I still had my windows open last week, but I'm thinking of turning on my heater this week.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Week 43

I was going to rail on KFC here for putting the Santa costume on Colonel Sanders a full two months before Christmas until I remembered that KFC makes a huge chunk of it's yearly income selling "Christmas Chicken". Now, Don Quixote and Loft putting out Christmas decorations next to the Halloween costumes? Unforgivable.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Week 42

I'm okay with the fact that Halloween is just as big a marketing tool here as it is back home. I just wish they wouldn't start putting the Christmas stuff out at the same time...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Week 41

A happy and healthy "Heath and Sports Day" to all my readers. I shall be celebrating by riding my bike down to the bowling alley and throwing a few frames. What will you do to promote health and... sports?

*"Health and Sports Day" is part on the "Happy Monday" initiative with the (failed) aim to give Japanese office workers more time off during the calender year.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Million Meters.

Monday September 20th. Respect for the aged day.

I awoke to my alarm at seven, in the first of what was to become a series of early mornings for me. Showered and shaved I did a bit of last minute packing before double checking to make sure I had unplugged all me electronics. I put on my backpack (filled with two days clothing and my camera equipment) and headed out the door.

I arrived at the Toyota rent-a-car place down the block at eight and saw Matt (a co-worker and the alternate driver on the trip) waiting out front. We headed into the small busy office and waited for a few other customers to be processed before sitting at the counter. Our first snag came when I realized I needed my passport with me for my international license to work. I left me bag with Matt in the office and literally ran back to my apartment to retrieve the necessary documents. In the five minutes I was gone Alex (another co-worker and the navigator on the trip) arrived. After five or ten minutes of nodding and agreeing not to get the car towed or totaled we were shown our very own shinny Corolla. After a quick refresher of where the wipers, turn signal, and gas pedal were we were on the road.

Our Rented Toyota Corolla.

By the time we arrived at the first on-ramp to the Osaka loop-way I was back in the groove of driving and we had a pretty good system of navigating down. After forking over Y700 to get on we were soon zipping along the roof-tops of Osaka on our way north to the Meishin cross-country expressway.

Getting onto the Meishin we took a ticket from an automatic teller and joined the light, post-rush hour traffic headed towards Kyoto. During our first leg we passed from Osaka to Kyoto to Shiga to Mie to Aiichi and finally into Shizuoka prefecture. We had great driving weather with light, high clouds and no wind (evidently a danger in some parts.) We stopped somewhere past Nagano, switched drivers, and Matt took us into Shizuoka.

Our second, and perhaps biggest, snag came when exiting the expressway in Shizuoka. We pulled up to the manned toll booth (most are automatic, using the ETC card system) and handed the toll-lady our ticket. We were quite confused when she announced that our toll was over Y7,500. There's been a big media campaign here to promote that all expressway tolls, no matter how far you go, are only Y1,000 on weekends and holidays. After noting that today was certainly a holiday, the kind toll-lady told us that only only if we had an ETC card were we eligible for the cheap tolls. Having no real recourse, we paid the exaggerated fee, asked for directions to where we were headed in Shizuoka, and went on our way.

We arrived at Higashi-Shizuoka station at about 1:30 and made a beeline for the 1/1 scale Gundam exhibit. Although I had already seen this statue a year earlier on my last trip to Tokyo I still took a lot of pictures. Facilitating my photography this time were better weather and less of a crowd than the last time. We got our picture taken on a raised platform in front of the statue by some exhibit staff before waiting in a line to be able to walk under it and touch its feet. While waiting in line, the statue did it's 2:00 "show" where music plays, it lights up, shoots out fake smoke, and swivels it's head around. After some more picture talking we had lunch at a nice ramen shop nearby.

The 1/1 scale Gundam Model in Shizuoka.

Matt, Alex, and I get out picture taken in front of the 1/1 scale Gundam.

After lunch we headed over to the local Toyota renal shop to esquire about getting ETC card. Unfortunately you need a certain type of Japanese credit card to use the ETC system effectively making it off-limits to most foreigners. Slightly defeated but more excited about getting to Tokyo we got back of the expressway.

Shortly after leaving Shizuoka we entered both Kanagawa prefecture and heavy traffic. It turns out a bus broke down in one of the mountain passes and blocked a lane of traffic. Once past the obstruction, traffic was better until we got into the greater Yokohama area when we hit rush hour.

Eventually we exited the freeway, paying an additional Y3500 in tolls as we did. We covered the last few kilometers to Shin-Yokohama on surface streets, stopping at the first gas station we saw to fill up the tank. My brilliant scheme to park outside of the center of Tokyo hiccuped when we couldn't find an empty, manned, overnight parking deck. After 20 or 30 minutes of circling we finally decided on a surface lot near the train station.

Road weary and starved, we locked up the car and headed into the first McD's we saw. Energized by American junk food we hopped on the first train into town.

Luckily my favorite capsule hotel was right where I left it in Shibuya. We each put our Y4,000 in the lobby ticket machine and got our locker keys. After a long soak in the hot-tub like communal bath we all went up to our capsules to crash out for the night.

Capsule Hotel Century (formerly Capsule Land) in Shibuya.

The 109 building in Shibuya.

Tuesday September 21st.

After a good, deep, nights sleep we got up and moving around 9:30 the next day. Our first stop: Krispy Kreme. After a wholly unhealthy but delectable breakfast we hopped on the train to Akihabara. After a few hours of walking around browsing the shops and generally being very nerdy we stopped at a Japanese lunch shop which served huge, cheap, delicious lunch sets. While our food settled we walked around a bit more. By some extreme force of will I managed to buy but one video game the whole day. Mid-afternoon we stopped into the "Gundam Cafe", a new cafe based on the same animated series that spawned the giant robot we saw in Shizuoka. Secretly, this cafe was the second of two reasons for me to plan this trip in the first-place (the other being the giant robot itself.)

Align LeftThe main drag through Akihabara.

Sign out front of the Gundam Cafe.

Me in front of the Gundam Cafe.

Feeling satisfied that we'd thoroughly explored Akihabara we trained it over to Yoyogi park (where the Meiji-jingu, one of Japan's most important shrines, is.) We ended up walking through the park to Harajuku, one of Japan's fashion hubs. From Harajuku we kept on walking through Omotesando, one of Tokyo's many high-rent districts, and over to Roppongi. It wasn't the longest walk ever, but it did remind me how hilly Tokyo is compared to Osaka.

Docomo Tower as seen from Yoyogi park.

A family walks down a wide path through Yoyogi park.

Takeshita shopping street in Harajuku.

The H&M store in Harajuku looking like some evil mater-mind's secret fortress.

Giant ball of Scotch products in the 3M shop in Omotesando.

Diamond-shaped glass facade of the Prada store in Omotesando.

In Roppongi, while trying to get to the Roppongi Hills building, we were helped by a very nice local gaijin who also happened to recommend a Chinese restaurant in the area. After attempting to take pictures of Tokyo Tower at night from the bottom of the Roppongi Hills building. (We were too cheap to go to the top and the light was too polluted at the bottom) we decided to try out this Chinese place for dinner.

Roppongi Hills (in neighboring Roppongi) as seen from Omotesando.

Tokyo Tower as seen from Roppongi Hills.

When the nice direction-giving gaijin said "You'll put it in your blog!" we all though that he was just trying to impress us with how good the food was. And, though the food was very nice (seasoned a bit with starvation from walking all over creation) it turns out the decor was the unique bit about this place. To keep this PG-13 for our greater viewing audience let's just say the walls were adorned with various plaster casts of human anatomy. In various alcoves, 'vulgar' statuary. In the center, above a dim-sum style rotating table, was a giant temple-style bell. The ringer for said bell, was a wooden shaft (I leave what little's left up to imagination.)

Exhausted from what turned out to be a long day on our feet we returned to Century Capsule and again put our money into the machine. However, before we could push the button to get our tickets we were stopped by the hotel staff and kindly informed that if we bought a 3 pack of tickets we could save Y1,000 each, though we would have to use the regular capsules (we used the deluxe ones the night before.) Happy to save money we went this route. After a long soak in the 'hot-tub' we enjoyed some vending-machine beers before calling it an early night.

Wednesday September 22nd.

We literally awoke at the crack of dawn on the third day. After quickly packing our things we stopped in the 7-11 across the street before heading down to the station. On the way we played "just woke up or still awake?" Trying to guess which category the few drowsy people on the street were.

Shibuya crossing (one of the busiest crossings in the world) empty at 5:30am.

Having read up a bit about our destination we knew that the earlier you get to the Tsukiji fish market, the better. When we arrived at about 6:30 all the tours for the day had been booked up and so we took it upon ourselves to walk around. The outer market where vegetables are auctioned and the famous sushi restaurants are was easy and safe enough to navigate but when we ventured into the central market it was a whole different story. We didn't actually get into the market part of the central market until later in the day. Just walking around the outer ring took all of one's concentration to get run over by a cart or hit with a giant tuna.

Sunlight seeps down to the floor of the inner Tsukiji fish market just after dawn.

Rolling around towards eight in the morning we started to think about breakfast. The plan to eat fresh-from-the-sea sushi fell through when we realized that raw fish does not sound appetizing that early in the morning. I moved for McD's, as it was convenient, but retracted my vote when I learned they were out of hot-cakes. We finally settled on Denny's (some of you may recall my Denny's horror story some five years ago when I realized they server no "American" food after breakfast.) As it turns out Denny's in Japan makes a descent breakfast (though sadly lacking bacon.)

Sated from our notably fish-free breakfast we circled the market one more time, taking the opportunity to enter the central market's core this time (it opens to non-buyers after 9:00.) After seeing more fish innards than I really though possible we headed off to Shinjuku.

In Shiinjuku we went to the top of he Tokyo Government building. It's still the best free view of Tokyo, but unfortunately it was extremely hazy that day and it was hard to see out past Shinjuku proper.

Looking down on Shinjuku from the Tokyo Government Building.

From Shinjuku we took my old train line over to the neighborhood where I attended university. I was shocked when I saw that the old annex building where I took classes had been knocked down and replaced by a very nice new structure. Asking around inside we were pointed to the university headquarters down the street. From the foreign student department in the HQ building we found out that at least one of my old teachers was free and, after a quick phone call, eager to see me. It turns out the program I was in moved to another, newer building up the street from the old one.

We sat and chatted for a while with my old sensei who, to my delight, still remembered me (and the rest of the class I was there with too.) She had lots of news about the other students and staff that wee there at the same time I was. The hardest piece of news to take was that one of my favorite teachers (and, perhaps, the most interesting man I have met in my life) passed away a few years earlier. Fortunately everyone else seems to be happy and healthy. Also delightful about this meeting was that 99% of it took place in Japanese which I could understand and make myself understood! We bid find fare-wells and I promised to stay in touch in the future.

Our next stop was the Yasakuni shrine (because it's in the neighborhood.) The Yasakuni shrine controversial in that it's dedicated to Japan's war-dead. Many previous Prime Ministers have come under fire for visiting this shrine as it is perceived as honoring Japan's war-making past (in a country where mention the war is somewhat taboo.)

After a late lunch of pasta we took a short train ride over to the National Diet building. We had to walk around a bit to kill time waiting for the last tour of the day. Once we were let inside (through a back tour-entrance) I had to sign our group in by giving my name birthday and address. (I had to do this at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto too, some sort of security precaution, I guess.) We waited for a few minutes in a large, empty, hall with the rest of the people on the tour before being lead through a medal detector. Our tour was lead by a security guard who spoke zero English (we were warned about this on the way in) so I did my best to translate what I could for the other two guys. The interior of the Diet looks a lot like the American Capital building (and I assume the British Parliament building.) Notable features included; no air-conditioning, 3 statues on 4 pedestals (no country's government should be "done" or "finished"), and ceilings in the central foyer and Diet chambers made of Tiffany glass.

Me in front of the National Diet building.

Exhausted from getting up very early and walking around for two days straight we headed back to the hotel and took a few minutes to rest and relax. In the evening we headed over to Burger King (a very special treat) before walking around Shibuya at night, taking in the sights. Finally, we called it an early night yet again.

The center of the massive Taro Okamoto mural in Shibuya Station.

Thursday September 23rd. Autumn Equinox Day.

We rallied around nine in the morning, packed, and went across the street to a "family restaurant" called "Gasto". Fortunately, as with the previous morning, they served somewhat western looking breakfasts at Gasto too. Stomachs fueled, we headed back to Shin-Yokohama where we left the car. As we walked to Shibuya station in started to rain. By the time we were in Yokohama it was torrentially down-pouring. We had to dash across the parking lot to the car that was, thankfully, still there. We paid the auto-teller-gate Y9,000 for 3 days of parking and were on our way.

The first hour and a half, over surface streets and onto the expressway, it continued to pour rain on us. We stopped at a rest stop about 12:30 and changed drivers. Some time between then and 3:30 when we changed drivers again the rain let up and even let some beautiful rays of evening sunlight through.

We got back into Daikokucho about at 6:30 in the evening. After filling up the tank across the street we gave the car back to the nice people at Toyota. Outside the rental shop we said our goodbyes and went out separate ways.

Week 40

It must be after October 1st: despite daytime highs still being over 23c (70f) many businesses have turned on the heat for the winter. Now that it's comfortable outside you end up sweating when you go inside.