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.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Monday April 16 - Kyoto / Nara

Our day started with a hunt for a convenience store breakfast. I got an apple and melon-pan, which was good, but I really wanted to get a fresh-baked one. Liz got some sort of spongecake cupcake and mandarin oranges in jelly, and we shared a strawberry milk. We took the instructions a guy from church had written yesterday to a Lawson worker in an attempt to get Hanshin Tigers tickets. He started working the ticket machine, but told us it was sold out. I was extremely disappointed for a few minutes, but then thought, I'll bet it's not really sold out. I got some help from the hostel clerk and indeed, it wasn't sold out. I just had to go to a Circle K to get my tickets printed.
Kyoto Station

That accomplished, it was now time for today's main event, Nara. We went to the station first looked for a Circle K. After making a lap around the station (it's big), we determined we couldn't find it. We hopped on a JR track to wait for our train.

Now, we had seen lots of vending machines and noticed one that had a can with a picture of corn on it. Our curiosity piqued, we bought a can. To our surprise the can was hot. It turned out to be hot creamed corn in a can. How novel!

After a 45 minute train ride we arrived at Nara. It's a bigger city than I expected. We started walking east to Nara Park, where most of the sights are. We knew we were close when we started seeing deer. Nara is famous for them.
First deer sighting
What a couple of buttheads.

Our first stop was the five-story pagoda. We then walked through a torii and took a meandering route through a pond area. We found a beautiful pond with a gazebo, surrounded by blossoming cherry trees. There were two couples there taking wedding photos, one in traditional Japanese clothing the other more western (who were actually taking their own pictures).
Count 'em, five.

The pond



Slightly less newlyweds

We walked further east and found a lady selling roasted sweet potatoes by the path. We decided, why not? So we bought and ate one. It was delicious.
I heartily endorse this product or event

We next headed north through probably the busiest corridor of the park. We decided to feed the remaining scraps of sweet potato to the deer. They completely mobbed me, and one of them stole and ate a piece of paper in my back pocket. I hope it wasn't important.

We paid entry for the temple of Todai-ji, and it was worth it. It's a huge wooden temple, purportedly the largest wooden building in the world. I don't think photos will properly capture the scale of it. The buddha inside is also huge and impressive. I was amused by one of the wooden pillars inside, which had a hole just large enough to fit through. Of course I squeezed through.

This was probably the most impressive temple we saw in our trip


It probably would've been easier to just walk around

I wonder if anybody's been stuck in this...

Next up came our quest for lunch. We couldn't find anything we liked in the tourist area, so we went back downtown and settled on some bento. Honestly they weren't great, but they were good enough. We saw a Circle K and got our baseball tickets inside, mission accomplished!

We meandered through a residential part of Nara and found another interesting vending machine item: canned flan. We tried it and while it wasn't the greatest flan ever it was still good. Oh, the things you find in vending machines here.
It's flantastic!

We knew it would kill us but we decided to go back into the park to see the Kasuga shinto temple. The temple itself was cool, but what I really liked were the huge number of stone lanterns lining the path.

Now, we had been carrying a garbage bag with our trash from lunch this whole time. Why, you ask? Well, there are very few public trash cans in Nara. Recycling bins you can find, but there was not a single trash can from Nara park all the way to the train station. It felt great to finally be rid of it on the train platform.

Upon arriving at our hostel, we crashed for a little while. We later left the room to go back to the Kyoto station area. We went to the 100 yen store. Turns out it's the same store from Westlake Center, Daiso. Nothing really tickled our fancy so we crossed the river to a restaurant called Manzo. We both had some form of udon noodles, and they were delicious.

We stumbled back to our hostel and ended our day. I managed to stay awake until 9:00 PM, and then I was out.

Two of the finest things in life!