Sunday, June 3, 2012

Friday, April 20 - Tokyo

We planned on getting an early start to the day because we wanted to see the Tsukiji fish market. Apparently it is best to go there early. Now, it is important to note that this market is not like Pike Place. Pike Place is essentially a farmers' market, Tsukiji is a wholesalers market. What this means is it is many times larger than Pike Place and filled with worker darting around on electric carts. You have to watch where you're going. Liz got pretty nervous at times about crossing streets because of all the traffic. We saw all sorts of sea creatures for sale, even some that resembled geoduck (not sure if they were or not...for geoduck they were kind of small).

They're like blossoms! Octo-blossoms!

It's a bit crazier than pike place.

Northwesterners reunion

Our next stop was Mitaka, home of the studio Ghibli museum. We rode a JR train to get there, including a transfer at the mighty Shinjuku station, which is the world's busiest train station. Mitaka is nice and quiet. We walked to the museum, where the ticket sales office was staffed by a totoro. The best word to describe the museum is magical. There are all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies. You do not follow any kind of set path, and there are no guided tours. My favorite room was one that showed all kindfs of animations in action, including the center piece which spun a display around to a strobe light. The light made the figurines appear to be alive, and jumping rope, flying, or doing whatever it is they do in the movie. Naturally, it was from My Neighbor Totoro. There was a cat-bus for kids to play in (I was more than a little jealous that I couldn't play on it myself), and a robot from Castle in the Sky on the roof for photo opportunities. The inside features all kinds of stairways and bridges leading to various places, and you just have to follow them to find out where they go. I bought a mini-puzzle and frame at the gift shop.

The entry

In a perfect world, you would pay in acorns

Unfortunately you can't take photos inside

Castle in the Sky!

Before we left, we had lunch at a pub-style restaurant in Mitaka. Mine was some sort of noodle soup with tempura veggies on top. Liz had a soup with some sort of egg topping to it. We returned to our hotel and took an extended break at this point.

In the evening, we rode the Hibiya subway line from our hotel to the LDS temple. We got there early enough to look around and eat at the cafeteria. The temple itself is similar in appearance to the Seattle temple, but smaller. The grounds are also tiny. There is not as much room here for a large temple ground, but they did well with the space they had. There was even a Shinto-style stone lantern near the entry. Now, the Japanese love their vending machines, and even the temple had them. They were used to get tickets for food and temple clothes. We had curry rice for dinner and got some ice cream for dessert. I also had a root beer, because why not?

Tokyo Temple

As you can see, the grounds are quite small

The ordinance room and celestial room are strikingly similar to those of the Seattle temple. Even though we were in the English session, most of the temple patrons were Japanese. Liz and I were the witness couple as well. After the session, we returned to our hotel and promptly went to bed.

Kirin and a rice ball. What could be sexier?

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Thursday, April 19 - Osaka/Tokyo-Odaiba

The building in the back is the Fuji TV building. Pretty cool.
Today was full of disappointments and surprises. First thing, we took the bullet train back to Tokyo, which was pretty uneventful. Our hotel staff was very kind and allowed us to go ahead and make use of our room when we got in around noon.

Then we headed out to Odaiba, a man-made island with lots of business areas, malls, and quirks. You have to take the monorail to get there, which was a pretty ride since the monorail has very large windows and pretty much did a 270 around the water area before going over the Rainbow Bridge.

I don't remember what this building is, but I do remember that this picture is for Dale.
We began our adventure at the Panasonic Building. They had all sorts of hands-on displays featuring their latest projects and developments. On the second floor, there were even more hands-on displays, this time explaining principles of science. It was pretty cool. That area, as well as the adjoining Nintendo area, were overrun by a group of students on a field trip.

The photo-op in the Panasonic Building

Then we walked around the business parks, ran into a crazy wedding village, and made it across "The Great Bridge of Dream." Along the way, Mark picked up a can of Orange Fanta, hoping it would be of the European style. He was disappointed to find that it tasted pretty American.
I would love to work in the middle section of this building.

Then we headed to Toyota MegaWeb. The first building had current Toyota car models on display, where we had learned that you could test drive a car for 300 yen. Upon arrival we were disappointed to find that an international drivers license was required. There was also a showroom displaying cool inventions and upcoming technology. Unfortunately it was closed and we have no idea why. However, their historic building was pretty cool. It showcased all sorts of old car models, and not just Toyotas. We enjoyed this area, even though we don't know much about cars.

I think this was a truck that Rachael once dreamed of owning

Mark pretending like he thinks cars are cool.
Then we went into Leisureland, an insanely large arcade area, similar to Dave & Busters without the food. But much bigger. They had a ninja/illusion area which we really wanted to try out, but no one was around it and the only instructions were in Japanese. Bummer. Following that we walked through a bunch of huge malls. Three, I believe. There were lots of weird areas in these malls. One mall had a takoyaki museum, with takoyaki toys, a brief history, and about six takoyaki restaurants. Mark and I gave it a try, and it was pretty delicious! (Takoyaki are balls of octopus and other goodness that are breaded and fried in special pans.)
Yeah, this was part of a mall.

It's takoyaki time!

Another mall had Hello Kitty World in it. There was so much pink in that store and there were many large Hello Kitty displays you could take pictures with. One display was wedding-esque and blew out bubbles periodically. Mark and I spent a good chunk of time in this store since there were lovely pink sofas to rest on, so it was a good and much-needed break for our feet!
Being happy at the Happy Tree!

If Mark had written this post, he would have put a caption here that would make you roll your eyes.
Our final mall had an area that we had been looking forward to all day: a ramen food court. There were about ten different ramen restaurants, featuring ramen from different regions of the world. Mark's ramen had corn, bean sprouts, a slice of pork, and a large pat of butter on top, making the broth extremely rich. Mine featured thinly sliced beef and onions, and the broth was much spicier than I expected. They were both delicious and left us stuffed.

Following dinner, we walked along the waterfront, got some pics with their wannabe Statue of Liberty, and headed toward the boat station where we were planning to take a boat cruise back to the main island. Unfortunately, the ticket office was closed and we were bummed. Instead we took the monorail/subway back to our tiny hotel room. It was around 7 when we got back. We considered going out again but decided against it and got some ice cream at the Family Mart next door instead. And we were content being lame.
Wrong country?
View of Tokyo from Odaiba

Monday, May 21, 2012

Wednesday April 18 - Osaka

We packed up and bid farewell to Kyoto today. The city treated us very well so we were a little sad to go, but we were also excited for today. We bought another convenience-store breakfast and then went to Kyoto station, and boarded the next Shinkansen to Osaka. It was not a long trip - Kyoto and Osaka are neighboring towns.

The Shinkansen

Our first order of business upon arriving was to drop off our bags in our hotel. That accomplished, we next decided to go to the Osaka aquarium, purportedly one of the world's finest. It was very impressive. It had some animals I'd never before seen, such as a giant salamander, and lots of furry animals that made Liz say "aww!" like river otters, penguins and seals (including a baby seal).
Outside the aquarium

Sardines, outside of their natural environment of a small tin

Baby seal, nursing

Pardon me sir, could I trouble you for a herring burger?

The centerpiece was a tank containign a whale shark, lots of smaller sharks, and a huge manta ray. One funny thing I noticed was a fish piggy-backing the manta ray. I couldn't tell if the ray was trying to get rid of it - if it was, it wasn't working.

Manta Ray

Whale Shark

And I was like, whoah!


After that, we dropped by an antique book store near our hotel to look for some artwork. We found two things that we liked and bought them. Our hotel is near lots of shopping, including an underground mall. The Japanese apparently love underground malls, the two we've seen so far have both been at subway stations. Not a bad idea for location.

Fancy manhole cover

After taking a break in our room, we traveled to Koshien Stadium to watch a baseball game. Koshien is one of Japan's most historic stadiums, and is the site of the national high school baseball championships, one of Japan's biggest sporting events. This game was between the Hanshin Tigers and the visiting Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

Some of my observations:
  • The Tigers have a supporters culture that more resembles soccer than baseball. We were sitting in the outfield, and nearly everyone around us joined in on the singing and cheering. There were several men who would lead the cheers, occasionally bringing out mops - yes, mops - to aid in their directing. Each hitter had his own song, which everybody knew the words for.
  • Most concessions were sold by young girls wearing pink Asahi or red Kirin outfits, which are two brands of beer in Japan. Those actually selling beer would wear pony kegs on their backs, which had taps to dispense the beer. They all had high-pitched voices and would say "biiru doku desu-ka!" or something along those lines. Liz found their squeaky voices annoying.
  • Other concessions were sold in the concourses. No garlic fries, but they did sell chicken yakitori skewers, which were tasty. I was also proud of myself for figuring out which line I needed to be in to order, when some actual Japanese people couldn't.
  • The 7th inning stretch is something else. Everyone blows up balloons and sings a song which is not "Take me out to the ballgame." At the end of the song, the balloons are released, and fly all around the stadium. It's a sight to behold.
  • Some kids were carrying bowls of soup that had pieces of seaweed with players names a numbers stamped into them.
The entrance



*dramatic music*

The Japanese have it right. The Wave has no place in baseball.


Pony keg girl

It was a fun game, but alas, the Tigers lost 2-3. We rode the Hanshin line back to Osaka and then took the subway back to our hotel. I think this was the first night we were up past 10:00, a new record for us.

How do we solve a probrem rike Maria?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tuesday, April 17th - Kyoto/Arashiyama

Today, we checked out the Zen cafe (attached to our hostel) for breakfast wince they advertised a buffet with scrambled eggs, sausages, and more. After eating there, we decided to stick with convenience store breakfasts in the future. The scrambled eggs looked legit, but they tasted as though they had been boiled instead of pan-cooked. The "sausages" were actually mini hot dogs.

Afterwards we took the train to Arashiyama, about a 15 minute train ride from Kyoto Station. This was a spot highly recommended by my friend Cat. And we were not disappointed. We started out strolling through the gardens of the Tenryu-Ji temple. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We spent a good amount of time in these gardens. It was peaceful and quiet there, unlike the atmosphere that we have found at other tourist sites. Of course there were lots of blossoms and there was also a beautiful pond filled with large and colorful fish.

Mark was really excited to ring the bell. There was no line!

Pond at Tenryu-Ji

Big Fish

Lots of blossoms on the ground

Towards the end of the gardens, the scenery started to change as we approached the famous bamboo forest. Not only is this forest famous, but it is also featured on the front of Mercer's 2011 National Benchmarking survey which we provide to most of our clients. I made that connection about a week before we left on our trip.

I really like Arashiyama. It had more of a small-town feel to it than Kyoto or Nara did. After the bamboo forest, we went somewhere less-known where few tourists dare to go: the monkey park. Now why would tourists overlook such an appealing-sounding attraction? Well, it requires a 20 minute hike up a mountain. Mark and I managed the hike without a problem, and we were even greeted by two monkeys before we reached the top. You couldn't touch the monkeys, except in the special feeding building where you buy food and feed it to them through caged windows so that you are protected. We had a lot of fun with this, especially me. I made friends with one monkey that would imitate me and would open his mouth really wide whenever I did. He was really cute. He also got most of the food (peanuts and apples) from me. The baby monkeys were also adorable. I said "Aww" so many times while we were there. By far, this was my favorite part of the trip so far.



Aww! Baby monkey

My favorite monkey. That's him imitating me. Doesn't he have character?

Making faces at my favorite monkey

Family picture overlooking Arashiyama

After the monkey park we went back to more of the town center for lunch. We had fish on skewers: octopus, crab, cheese on a white fish, and soybean-coated fish. They were pretty good. We also decided to try out some bizarre soft-serve flavors for dessert. I had cherry blossom (which actually tasted pretty good) and Mark had black sesame seed. I thought it was pretty disgusting since I don't really like black sesame seeds but Mark thought is was pretty tasty. I just think he liked the idea of eating weird black ice cream.

We contemplated visiting other parts of town after lunch but decided against it since we had been wearing ourselves out the past few days. Instead, we headed back to the hostel and relaxed in the late afternoon.

For dinner, we had tempura (battered and fried fish and veggies) at a really good restaurant in Kyoto Station. Mark ordered the Ladies' Special which consisted of a miso-flavored flan, shrimp, lotus root, tofu, and sweet potato tempura, among other things. My tempura contained bamboo, some greens, shrimp, other fish, and a big long piece of eel which was pretty fabulous. We are slowly checking off all the food from our list of foods to try in Japan. We were pretty satisfied with the tempura.

Again, we were pretty pooped and went back to the hostel and chilled/read before going to sleep.