Apr 122013

So today, Evan and Rachel both had to work. The plan was that I’d be at the beach because the weather was supposed to clear up and be beautiful.

Evan and I got an early start, and we went over to Casa for breakfast. I got me a killer plate of french toast, eggs, and bacon. We chatted for a while before Evan had to get moving. He dropped me at Climax Coffee, which is right across from the beach. I grabbed myself some blackberry juice there and sat in the corner, drawing and sipping my juice. It was still raining.

I watched the military wives with their children flow and ebb. At one point it got busy enough that I settled my tab and picked a seat out of the way so my table would be free. I don’t like to be in the way. I made a list of things to do when I get home. It was still raining.

About noon the rain had subsided enough and I had finished the drawing I was working on. I ventured out the door and down to Araha beach. There was still a little drizzle falling, so I set up camp on a stool at a covered table. I set my things down, pulled my ukulele out of the case, and played songs for myself while watching a wake boarder jump around. After a while, the rain stopped. I decided to take the opportunity to walk the sea wall and see if there was anything going on. Along one part of the wall, there was a series of intricate graffiti pieces. I walked along the rocks and snapped a few pictures of my favorites. It’s really a style I’d love to learn how to do. After walking the length of the available seawall, I settled back into place at Araha and played some more ukulele. About this time, Evan called. He was going to pick me up and we were heading to Maeda Point for some snorkeling.

This was my first time snorkeling. You know, aside from being a 5 year old with a snorkel in the bathtub. We arrived, parked, and I began donning the rental gear Evan brought for me. This was also my first wetsuit experience. Once I was properly insulated, we headed down the narrow steps to the water. The last few steps were carved out of the coral-rock that we were descending. Pretty cool. Once we were in the waist-deep water at the edge, we slipped on our flippers and Evan gave me a brief primer so, you know, I don’t drown myself. After that, we shot away into the calm, blue waters. It was still overcast, so we didn’t have a lot of light filtering down. We probably could have seen much further if it was. It was still gorgeous. There were fish everywhere, eyeing us in hopes that we had brought food for them. Apparently, that’s their association with people here, as there’s no fishing of any sort in the area. They’d swim up and circle us, follow us as we swam. We saw all sorts of reef dwellers and corals. After rounding the area, my lungs had about had it. The lack of exercise, tight wetsuit, and breathing through a tube were all conspiring against me. We headed back in, de-suited, and headed back to base.

We got some quick showers, and Evan grilled some hot dogs for dinner. We didn’t linger too long before heading over to the Big Dip/Blue Seal ice cream shop. We met Evan’s former coworker Brad there. We were supposed to have one or two more, but they were unable to join. The shop offers what they refer to as the mountain- a 32 scoop sundae featuring every flavor on the menu. Unfortunately, with just the four of us, we weren’t going to eat that. We settled for the little mountain- Probably about half the scoops, and each scoop was about half the size of a normal one. Still plenty to get a taste of their offerings. We shared the micro-beast, and I got to try some other japanese flavors, including the purple sweet potato and brown sugar. The whole thing was mighty tasty.

Afterwards, we headed out to the big ferris wheel in the shopping center across the way. We got our tickets and enjoyed the 15 minute ride around the wheel. I snagged a few shots from the top, but the reflections of the neon and dirty, scratched windows made it a bit hard. Still, I could see the lights of the city for a few miles, and it was a lovely night.

Once we were done on the wheel, we dropped in the arcade by the exit and played a round of air hockey. Evan and Rachel vs. Brad and myself. Evan and Rachel won. But It was a close match! After a lovely evening, we headed out and parted ways. I had to get home to blog and pack my things.

I’m headed home tomorrow. Another long flight is ahead of me, but it’s with ANA, so it should be a pleasant journey. Be home soon!

Apr 112013

I slept in this morning. Not a ton, but I definitely felt good when I woke up.

We were a little slow getting moving, mostly because of me, but once we did, we headed up to the Tee House on base to get some breakfast. It’s a little cafe nestled in beside the golf course and it overlooks the flight line. Rachel and I grabbed some hot dogs and mac’n'cheese, and we sat on the patio, where we were able to watch jets running drills and coming in on the runway. Pretty awesome for this civilian boy.

After breakfast, we hopped in the car and headed out to Kurashiki Dam. This wasn’t exactly planned, but Rachel has never been there and I had mentioned it because it was on a lot of the signs around town. Turns out, there’s a pretty gorgeous park around the dam. The dam itself wasn’t a terribly impressive structure, being essentially a pile of dirt and stone, but it did its job. The park had lots of walking trails around the lake, and some nice views. I also caught some glimpses of planes out of the bases in the area.

Once we left the dam, we headed to the southern tip of the island to Okinawa Senseki Quasi-National Park, and the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum. This was where we spent most of the day. The park envelops a significant portion of battlefield from the Okinawan events of the Pacific War. The museum provided a pretty thorough education on the events in both Japanese and English. This is probably the most culturally important thing I’ve done this trip, and I’m certainly glad Rachel had decided to bring me here. The museum covered the events of the Pacific War, and in particular, the Battle of Okinawa. It detailed in facts, pictures, and written first-hand accounts the atrocities of war that had happened on Okinawa and the surrounding islands. I learned about the heavy bombings of the ‘Typhoon of Steel’ and saw some rather grim photos and stories that definitely put some pain in my heart. Between the invading US forces, and a Japanese military who basically used the people and the resources without concern for the well-being there-of, this poor island was decimated. The period of American occupation and finally the return of the island to Japan was also covered. It’s certainly no wonder that there is still a movement for the US to remove its military presence from the island. I can’t help but be a little bewildered by how kind the people of Okinawa still are, even to Americans. I’m certainly going to miss them once I head back home.

After the museum, we walked the grounds for a bit. There were many, many memorials and shrines in the park. We followed one path which led down to caves that were used as military camps, and eventually it took us down to a secluded rocky beach. There were huge coral-rock formations to both sides, and the ground was littered with miscellaneous trash that had likely washed up on shore. We explored the tidal pools for a bit, snapped some pictures, and headed back up through the jungle path. It was starting to get late, and we still had a long drive to get back to Kadena.

Once we got back, we met up with Evan and grabbed dinner at Arashi. The restaurant has a machine at the front, similar to a vending machine, you insert your cash and make food selections. It spits out little tickets which, once you’ve got your table, you hand to the wait staff. They then use that to fill your order. Takes the need for a cash register out of the equation. After we sat down, we were shortly joined by Evan and Rachel’s friend Matt. I got some amazing fried rice, which comes out layered in a still sizzling skillet, leaving the diner to stir it up and have it about as hot and fresh as you’re ever going to get it. It was joined by a plate of gyoza, which I think I’m now addicted to, and a pepsi- glass bottle, which seems to be much easier to come by in Japan.

After dinner, we stopped off to do a little shopping, and finally headed back home. Tomorrow will be my last full day here and, unfortunately, Evan and Rachel will both be working. The plan is to drop me at the beach. It’s supposed to be a pleasant day. Here’s hoping things go well!

Apr 102013

Today was a tiny bit less touristy, but still pretty touristy.

The morning started rather mundane. Rachel had some errands to run, so I was twiddling my thumbs. Things started properly with a tour around the non-sensetive areas of Kadena Air Base. I got to see the housing and schools, and the various stores on base. We drove by the flight line and I caught a glimpse or two of the planes and jets that were currently out there. There was also a pretty large lot of other military vehicles. This was all pretty cool for someone like me who doesn’t live around these sorts of things.

We met Evan and Reis for lunch at Bambohe, an all-you-can-eat (in 90 minutes) buffet with a twist. After paying a flat rate and getting a table we set out among the selection of food. There were a handful of prepared foods, but the focus was the bar of raw vegetables and meats. I took a small selection of beef and vegetables and headed to the table. The tables in the restaurant have a small grill in the center, over which you cook your meats (and veggies) to your desired degree. It’s definitely fun and it’s a shame it’d probably never work in the USA. I filled up pretty thoroughly, including grilling some pineapple, because why not. I washed it down with more melon soda, and finished up with some soft serve. Fat and happy, we headed out. It was just Rachel and myself today, and the plan was to check out some of the closer sights, since the weather was a little less than pleasant.

We stopped by Sunset Beach, not too far from base. I’ll be spending more time here on Friday. It’s lovely, but with the overcast weather, it wasn’t that much to see. There’s also a large shopping center, American Village, across from it. We wandered there for a bit, and it was loud and a little overwhelming.

Next we headed to Red Bridge Road, and parked a little beyond the Yomitan red bridge. There’s a walking path beneath it, and we took a stroll down it. There was a small river to one side, and a beautiful plant-covered cliff face on the other. It would have been awesome to climb around, but the risk off poisonous critters or habu snake encounters was enough to prevent any attempts to do so. About halfway down the line, we came to a bend. There were three small black dogs on the path. They didn’t make a sound, but ran off towards the water and behind a rocky outcropping. When we came around to their side, there wasn’t a sign of them. Not so much as a claw on stone could be heard. There appeared to be a cave in the rock, so they could have hidden there, but you never know. We finished up our walk a little further down the road, and then headed back to the car.

From there we headed towards the Katsuren Castle ruins, but it was closed by the time we got there.  Not to be deterred, we headed down the road further, south then east. We headed out via some pretty significant bridges to nearby islands. We drove through Henza island, Miyagi island, and finally ended up at Ikei island. We passed some cool tunnels (of sorts) which appeared to be rock-slide preventative measures and/or designed to keep cars from plummeting into the water. Not sure which. There were some gorgeous vistas as we passed through the countryside, and once we got to Ikei, there was a small beach. It was closed, likely because the weather wasn’t much good for it. But we were able to take a couple photos and peek around. It was a gorgeous area, and I’m sure it’d be even more so if the weather was nicer.

Afterwards, it was starting to get dark so we started heading back in. We briefly got turned around, and learned that they grow tobacco on the island. It was like we were back in Virginia for half a second. We saw the farmers coming in for the night, and a few in a shed of a building with a fire, probably having a beer and sharing the goings-on of their days. We finally got back to base, and we had some home-cooked stromboli for dinner, deliciously prepared by Evan and Rachel.

Tomorrow, we’re doing some more sight seeing on the southern end of the island.

Apr 092013

Today was day one of touring Okinawa with Evan and Rachel as my guides.

We started off the day with breakfast in. Pancakes, eggs, and some good ol’ crispy bacon. A pleasing change, to be sure. Afterwards, we headed out and got an extended pass so I can continue to be on base, then we hit the road. Along the way we passed

Our first stop for the day was the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, which is nestled in a larger park complex. Most of the tanks in the beginning of the aquarium were the usual fare- colorful fish and corals endemic to the area. Some of the notable critters: a coconut crab, garden eels, a rather active spotted moray eel, a pair of mantis shrimp, and some moon jellyfish. Next up was the main tank, 7,500 cubic meters referred to as the Kuroshio Sea. This beautiful open ocean tank holds some huge fish, including tuna and sharks. There were also some manta rays in the tank, which are amazingly huge. Especially when you’re used to the little ones that can be found in touch-tanks back in the States. Then there were the ones I really wanted to see- whale sharks. There were three of the huge fish swimming in the tank, and the only thing that’d be better would be to get up close and personal with them. Unfortunately, I’ll have to settle for viewing them through the aquariums 27 x 74 foot viewing window, which is a gorgeous view and totally acceptable. We headed down to the cafe and grabbed a table by the tank so we could watch and relax. I snagged an iced chai. From there, we went through the deep sea tanks, where they had some pretty cool critters. The most exciting for me to see was the Japanese spider crab, largest of the crabs. From there, we left through the gift shop (of course) and headed out to the outdoor tanks. They had a few manatee which were gifted to the park by Mexico, various sea turtles, and a series of dolphin tanks, with a handful of different species. We stuck around for a dolphin show, which did not disappoint. Some flying sea mammals, and what probably would have been an informative speech had I understood a word of it. After the show, we headed out. More to see!

Our next stop was the Nakijin Castle ruins. The huge stone walls are about the only thing left of the castle, and very little restoration has been done to the area. That said, they were still mightily impressive. We walked along the paths through the castle grounds, and there were some maintained gardens that were quite lovely. The most striking thing, however, came at the top of the hill, where there were gorgeous views of the surrounding area. A beautiful gorge was on one side, and you could look down the valley and see the sea down the way. You can definitely see why they had built where they did.

From there, we headed out to Nago Pineapple Park. The attraction fits ‘tourist trap’ to a T, and features an automated cart ride through a garden of pineapples and tropical plants. The tour was conducted in understandable but slightly broken English, which was charming. I think the most informative it got was letting us know that the term pineapple came from ‘pine’ because they resemble pinecones, and ‘apple’ because of the sweet taste. After the tour, we passed through a gift shop and were able to get a taste of fresh pineapple from the park. Next we stopped at the small restaurant, which had stopped serving lunch, but we were able to order a gorgeously prepared pineapple ice cream sundae. I assure you it tasted as good as it looked! From there, we walked through a seashell museum, which had some really cool shells. There was also a collection of crab shells, which was pretty awesome to see. Beyond that, there was the pineapple winery, where we were able to taste the wines and juices, and further along, baked goods and sweets, all for sale of course.

After we finished up at the park, we headed back towards base. We made a quick stop at the hardware store so Evan could pick up a couple things, then we stopped for dinner at a sushi-go-round. It was certainly a novel experience. Free green tea to drink, the process of grabbing plates of whatever looks good was fun. I mostly played it safe on my sushi choices. I can’t say I’m terribly adventurous. I decided I had to at least step away from my safe zone and grabbed what was a slice of tentacle. I’m not sure if it was squid or octopus. It didn’t taste much of anything, but it was terribly chewy. I can’t say it was something I’d go after again. I was particularly impressed with the check-out process. They scan the color-coded plates with a scanner, double check that it counted them all, and it totals the cost automatically. They then scan it to an electronic card, which is placed on the counter at the register and provides your bill to the computer there. Fancy and efficient!

After dinner, we headed back to base. Tomorrow, I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. I’m sure I’ll find out, though!

 Posted by at 10:57 am on April 9, 2013
Apr 082013

So today was reserved for our travels between the mainland and Okinawa.

We headed out to snag a quick breakfast. There was a lovely bakery down the street from the hotel that we had passed several times. We made it a point to stop there today. I snagged myself a killer ham, spinach, and cheese flaky roll thingy, and a cream-filled doughnut that was way scrumptious. Sipped on an unimpressive but still tasty cafe mocha. We headed back to the hotel to grab our things and check out.

We hopped a train and rode out to Narita airport. It took a couple hours with one transfer, but we arrived on time at the airport and progressed through check-in and security. We wandered the shopping and restaurants in the airport, finally stopping and grabbing a snack. I found a strawberry cake and grabbed some melon soda. I’m going to have to get my fill of that stuff before I head home. Else I need to figure out how to get it in the ‘States. We headed down to the gate and caught our plane without incident. The bus between the terminal and the plane was totally named Airport Limousine. I didn’t feel quite as luxurious as the name implied.

We flew out, and I settled into playing some Monster Rancher on my gameboy. Coming in to the airport, there wasn’t much to see out the window. Apparently, I was on the wrong side of the plane. Peeking out the other side, I could catch glimpses of the island. We left the airport behind and were met by Reis in Evan’s minivan. We headed out to grab some dinner at the Garlic House. Essentially, if it can be cooked in and/or with garlic, this place had it on the menu. We had some pasta in a garlic sauce, garlic pizza, spinach and bacon cooked in garlic butter. We also snagged some spicy chicken and some huge gyoza.

After dinner, we headed to the base where we had to get me a visitors pass so I could come through security. We dropped by the store to get some food for breakfast, then headed to Rachel and Evan’s place. We were greeted by an enthusiastic puppy dog, and a cat who was as happy as a cat ever is to see people.

Tomorrow I get my first taste of Okinawa!

Apr 072013

Today was our last day on the mainland. It was also the windiest day I’ve experienced in a long while.

We started out at the Excelsior cafe again this morning. I opted for a hot ham and cheese wrap thingy that tasted remarkably like a hot pocket. To drink, an almond caramel latte. After finishing up there, we headed out to catch a train over to the Kanayama shrine.

Our last planned activity was to attend the Kanamara Matsuri. In English, that’s the Festival of the Steel Phallus. A wondrous celebration of the male organ, it’s also a major tourist attraction. The number of foreigners matched, if not outweighed the presence of locals at the shrine. The place was packed, wall to wall. It was an ordeal even to move from stall to stall. There were stands selling all kinds of trinkets and foods, all of which fit the theme of the festival. Of particular note were the novelty noses, wood carvings, and the wide variety of penis shaped lollipops. We wandered about, ever so slowly, checking out the giant penis statues on portable shrines. There was also a performer with a monkey. Might have been a macaque, but I couldn’t say for sure. The poor thing did not look like he wanted to perform, but eventually went through his routine. There was also a band of percussionists, accompanied by a flute. At noon, the parade began. Participants marched the portable shrines out of Kanayama and down the street, followed by a huge crowd of other people. I lost Evan and Rachel for a moment so I chose a corner and relaxed. I enjoyed a bit of people-watching, including an officer losing his hat in the wind. Once everything cooled off a bit, they gave me a ring on the phone they lent me, and we met up again.

We walked back toward the hotel rather than taking the train. We got a different view, and avoided the crowds. We ended up stopping in a Mos Burger for lunch, and I got to taste my first melon soda. I was NOT disappointed! I chose a fied fish and shrimp sandwich, which was mighty tasty and puts any american chain fillet o’ fish to shame.

We decided to head back into Tokyo, in an attempt to check out the Ghibli museum- a suggestion from Cori. Unfortunately, we found ourselves unable to enter. They had sold out for the day. Not to be discouraged, we walked through the gorgeous Inokashira park. I wandered off a bit while the others rested, and then caught up via phone again. It was really quite a beautiful park, albiet a little muddy from rain earlier in the week.

After weaving through the park, we headed to a big commercial strip to find dinner. We settled on The Hub. A chain of British-style Pubs. I snagged some acai/pineapple juice and the fish and chips. The food was pretty tasty, and seemed surprisingly authentic, right down to an imported malt vinegar. The decor, I believe, nailed the feeling, though the pop music from the speakers and WWE on the television seemed to miss the mark.

After dinner we hopped back on the train to head home. It was a rather long ride, but I managed to pass the time with my sketchbook. It’s surprisingly easy to draw on a moving train. I’m a little red from the sun, and definitely tired, but it’s been a wonderful day.

Tomorrow, we’ll be flying to Okinawa, where I’ll be staying with Rachel and Evan and exploring the island they call home.

Apr 062013

Today’s adventure brought us to Kamakura.

We started off the day with breakfast at the Excelsior Cafe, which is right next to the hotel. A ham and potato salad sandwich and a maple latte was a pretty good way to start my morning. With only one thing planned for the day, we took it easy getting out. Our only time constraint was what we had told our friends would be our meeting time. We hopped a train and made our way out.

We hit the Kamakura station a little early, and found a relatively easy spot to meet everybody. There was a nice little area with a small clock tower that we chose as a meeting point.

While we were waiting, I decided to commune with nature. I pulled out a bag of rice crackers I had from the plane ride over and fed a couple crumbs to the pigeons. Since they were already as bold as city pigeons tend to be, I figured I’d one-up. I crushed a couple crackers in my hand, and whoed them to the bird. She took a couple bits from me, and I brought my hand up higher. Bit by bit until she couldn’t reach them from the ground. Sure enough, she hopped up, and I made a new friend. She sat on my hand and ate the remaining crumbs while a handful of people walked by and marveled at the pigeon whisperer.

Tyler, one of Evan’s old schoolmates was in the area and came up to meet us. Once he showed, we stopped in a Baskin Robbins, where Rachel sated her sweet tooth. She was kind enough to share, and it was quite tasty. Soon enough it was time for Cori, my own friend who is currently teaching English in Nagoya, to meet us and we made our way back to the circle.

Once we were all together, we set out towards Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū. We took a local train, which was adorably painted and had children’s artwork on display inside. Once we disembarked, it was a short walk through the usual shops and restaurants to get to the temple. About this time, the rain started falling. It’s a Shinto shrine. Admittedly, I’m a little burned out on shrines and temples. They’re always beautiful, and terribly pleasing to be around, but they have all started to blend together. To the rescue, we witnessed the procession of a wedding taking place at the front of the temple. It was a beautiful ceremony, but we didn’t stick around too long. It seemed awkward to turn something so personal into a tourist attraction.

Once we were done at the temple, we headed back through the shops. We stopped into Hirano, which was barely noticeable but for Cori pointing it out. The sign dated the shop from 1969, and boasted to be Japan’s smallest ramen joint, and the second best ramen in Japan- declaring they don’t know where the best one is. We filed inside and sat at the counter. Our group of 5 took all but 2 seats in the place. Cori was kind enough to alleviate my confusion and order for me, and we all filled up on some truly wonderful, big bowls of ramen. If you’re in Kamakura, and you can find  it, this is the place to eat!

After lunch, I stepped into a Studio Ghibli shop for a couple souvenirs that suited my taste (and the taste of some people back home!). From there, we were on to our last stop for the day.

Kotoku-in temple- Home to a 700 something year old bronze Buddha statue. Umbrellas out, we arrived at the temple. We poked around the architecture, but the Great Buddha was our obvious focus. The statue was quite impressive in scale and construction. For a small fee we were allowed inside, where you could see how the separate pieces were molded and joined together. Very cool indeed! After some photo opportunities and a little poking around, we headed back towards the train.

We all said our goodbyes and parted ways. Back to three, Rachel, Evan, and I headed back to the hotel to collect ourselves. About an hour later, we headed out in search of dinner. We stopped in a shop that was both cheap and delicious looking. Likely a chain, it seemed almost fast-food like in appearance. For the price, the food was both plentiful and delicious. I had a plate of chicken, cabbage, and miscellaneous vegetables in a sweet and spicy sauce. Rachel was also kind enough to share the gyoza she ordered. Afterwards, we faced the rain one last time and headed back to the hotel.

Hopefully, it’ll taper off in time for the festival tomorrow.

Apr 052013

Today was scheduled to be a little more relaxed.

Evan and I started off by scouting for something I could use to sling my uke over my back. We’re headed to Kamakura tomorrow and once we’re done at Kotokuin Temple, there will likely be some hiking or a visit to the beaches, where I hear there’s a good view of Mt. Fuji. I’d love to find a spot to sit, chat, eat, and play for a while, but I didn’t bring my gig bag and the hard case is a bit much to carry around all day. I’m currently crafting a strap out of plastic twine we found in a convenience store, but it may be a lost cause. Besides, I’d still need a way to protect it from the elements.

I digress…

We returned to the hotel and had breakfast at the little sandwich shop again. A cheeseburger, fries, and a strawberry shake are a great way to start the day. I highly suggest it. Especially if your next stop is similar to ours. We checked out of the hotel, had them hold our bags, and headed out to one last stop before we moved on to Kawasaki.

We dropped into the Yebisu beer museum. Yebisu is one of the oldest brands of beer in Japan, and their methods are German in origin. There was a brief gallery showing their bottles throughout the company’s lifetime, as well as marketing material and photos from the past. They provided a brief history of the brand, ending at the ‘tasting salon’, where we grabbed a beer each to sample and share. It was a good time, but unremarkable if you’re not a brand enthusiast. We headed from there back to the hotel to grab our things.

We hopped a cab from there and headed to the train station. We hopped a rather comfortable express train and headed to Kawasaki. A short walk from the station and we hit our hotel. We’re staying at the Sunroute Kawasaki. It’s a reasonably sized room, and the bathroom is actually the biggest from any of the Japanese hotels we’ve stayed in.

After getting settled in, Evan and I set out to explore within a block or so of our hotel. Rachel stayed behind to rest her tired feet. It turns out we’re right next door to a sprawling commercial zone with La Citadella at it’s heart. Evan and I have jokingly deemed this the Short Pump of Japan. It’s almost scary how many shops and restaurants are crammed into this space, and honestly I think it puts Short Pump to shame in scale.

We eventually headed back to Rachel, and then the three of us headed out for dinner. We found a Thai restaurant in a 7 floor mall, and dropped in. I was terribly excited to find a mango lassi on the drink menu, and picked a platter of fried fish in a spicy sauce for dinner. After we finished up, we dropped in to a shoe shop where Rachel picked up some insole padding for her shoes. We wandered around the shops a little longer, and found a crepe cart aptly named “She loves Crepes.” Rachel concurred, and we picked up dessert. There was a handful of flavors to choose from, and I went with caramel banana. Some serious craftsmanship went into the presentation, and the flavor matched that care. Satisfied, we made our way back to the Sunroute. We had a brief pit stop in a 7-11 since my wallet was getting thin.

Tomorrow, we’re headed to Kamakura. Only time will tell whether the uke will join us.

Apr 042013

Today was our time to explore Tokyo.

We popped into the hotel sandwich shop for breakfast. One good ole Sausage egg and cheese on an English muffin later, and we headed out the door. We headed to the subway, where we bought all-day passes to the trains. It proved much more economical, as we were hopping from place to place and train to train.

Our first stop was the Tsukiji Fish Market. We were a little late in the morning to see any auction action, but the commercial stalls were still packed with locals and tourists. We walked among the stalls selling fresh seafood and miscellaneous retail goods for a little while. It really had the same vibe one might get from a farmer’s market. Good people making a living off simple goods. Notable for me was watching an older gentleman sharpening a hand crafted knife on a stone at the front of the stall. Knives seem to be a popular non-fish commodity there, as there were several stalls selling every blade you’d need to turn a fish into dinner.

We stopped by a stall in the market for a snack. I had what will likely be the freshest sashimi I’ll ever experience. Some tuna, salmon, and amberjack served up fresh with pickled ginger and wasabi over rice made for an exotic meal to this american tongue. It was quite tasty, though.

From there, we made our way to the Tokyo Skytree. It’s the tallest structure in Japan, and the second tallest in the world. It was quite a sight to see. Our goal was to go up in it to get a good view of the city from some 350 meters up. After a confusing tour of the first shopping mall-like 5 floors, we found an information desk that pointed us in the right direction. Eventually, we found ourselves with vouchers that provided us the opportunity to come back in a few hours to stand in line for a chance to buy tickets. We weren’t even guaranteed a shot at it. We all agreed that if we happened to be available at the time we’d try, but it was otherwise not terribly important.

We made our way from the Skytree, and headed to Senso-ji Temple. Another site full of tourists, we made our way through the maze of people to catch views of the temple buildings. This is definitely home to the biggest paper lantern I’ve seen thus far on the trip. We shot some photos of the gates and the pagoda, a few with the Skytree still visible in the background. Then we ducked down a less crowded street and headed onward.

Our next stop was to be Kitanomaru Park, to see the cherry blossoms there. We took a beautiful stroll amongst the cherry blossoms and gorgeous trees. There were some form of crow hopping about the branches of the pines, and a lovely lake at the center of the park. After walking the grounds, we made our way to rent a boat to paddle out into a moat-like section of water. With Rachel navigating and Evan doing all the work, I was free to relax, take some pictures, and casually spy on some beautiful young women whose boating expertise had them floating in circles. After a few near misses with boats as we pulled back towards shore, our 30 minutes were up and we were on our way. Before getting out of the park, we found a soft-serve truck. Led by Rachels sweet tooth, we dropped a few yen and I had another culinary curiosity- green tea ice cream. I must say, I found it surprisingly tasty. I’ll admit, though, that my taste buds wished it had been a little sweeter.

We hopped a train and headed toward a shrine on a different side of town. Unfortunately, this is the one time today we got turned around. The flip side is that we ended up in the high-fashion shopping district, Harajuku. We were surrounded by marvelous architecture holding brand names the likes of Prada and Cartier, as well as some local fashionistas showing their colors. After our brief stroll through, we got back on track.

Meiji Jingu is a shrine tucked away in a hand planted forest. Outside of some grand torii and a couple unique architectural elements, it was much like the other shrines we’ve seen on this trip. We took a break and sat on the benches inside the walls of the shrine, but soon we were on our way out.

We dropped into the nearby Double Tall Cafe for a light dinner. I decided to try out a BLT, since that’s a back-home favorite. Japanese bacon compares to American bacon in about the same manner that Canadian Bacon does. It’s a shame, but it’s still delicious. The most notable feature of the sandwich was the inclusion of what tasted like thousand island dressing rather than the mayonnaise i’ve usually used back home. I think it’ll be something to try again when I can get some crunchy, smoked pig in my sandwich. We followed with coffee and dessert, which was a vanilla espresso, expertly decorated, and a rare cherry cheesecake, the color of the cherry blossoms, and which had a light taste of fruit. It was served with what we’re assuming were little mochi balls.

From there we headed back to the hotel to rest our tired legs. It seems that they’re getting more sore and sooner each day. Hopefully I can last until we hit Okinawa, where I’ll be a little more free to relax rather than cram in the sight-seeing. We hit the hot tub, where we shared a conversation with a retired couple who are spending their time travelling. After a quick shower, we headed to the hotel bar for garlic fries, onion straws, and some tasty drinks. I ordered myself a hot chocolate spiked with an orange liqueur. It did not disappoint, and it was a good way to end the evening.

We’ll be finishing up Tokyo tomorrow and heading out to Kawasaki and our next hotel.

Apr 032013

I’m appropriately enough listening to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” as I type.

We started a little earlier today in order to fit in the things we missed yesterday. We packed up and checked out, and with the hotel being kind enough to hold our bags, we departed. Breakfast was at a snazzy coffee shop not too far from the hotel: An iced mocha and a cold omelette sandwich. The mocha was awesome, the sandwich was adequate. We ducked into the subway information office to get bus passes for the day, and then set off to our first stop.

We started early at Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavillion. The grounds featured some carefully crafted sand works at the entrance. This was much like other sites we’ve visited. A beautiful garden, meticulously maintained. The buildings we’re just as impressive. It was a pleasant beginning to the day, and we were able to get a nice view of Kyoto from one of the higher points on the stroll.

From there, we set out along the Philosopher’s Walk. It’s a quiet pedestrian path along a small canal, lined with cherry trees. It was a beautiful walk, and I took the time to soak it in. The only downside is the inevitable commercialization of a tourist attraction. Still, most of it was only lined by quiet neighborhoods. We traveled about a mile to reach our next stop, Eikan-do.

Eikan-do is a Buddhist temple, and as I’ve seen time and time again on this trip, Buddhists know how to worship! Nestled into the hillside, and still quiet despite the tourists starting to wander in, the temple buildings were connected by covered bridges that snaked through the foliage. Once again we were surrounded by gardens, including a large pond that was home to a school of koi, and hosting a rowdy duck.

We received a pleasant surprise while we were there, in that the monks were going through their rituals while we were there. I sat for a while outside the Founder’s Hall and listened to the chanting. They then left towards Amida Hall, where we soon ended up, and were able to quietly enter and observe. It was a great experience, and fascinating to see how another religion communes. After finishing our tour of the temple and the grounds, we headed out to catch a bus back to the hotel to grab our things and head to the train station. On our way, we smelled a delicious something or another wafting on the breeze. We followed our noses to a small bakery tucked away just off the main road. With baked goods in hand, we headed onward. Next stop, Tokyo! But first, lunch!

We dropped into a sandwich shop at the station for lunch. I went with good ol’ teriyaki chicken, and a mango juice to drink. Bellies full, we took the Shinkansen to Tokyo. It’s both fast and direct, so we arrived in Tokyo with plenty of time to find our hotel and check in. We’re staying at The New Sanno Hotel, which is a military resort. With my guest pass tucked into my passport, we got to our room and got comfortable. The past two rooms I stayed in might add up to the floor space of the room we’re in. This is definitely an American style hotel. We were, unfortunately, not able to get a suite, so I’ve got the fold-out-couch. That aside, it’s a comfortable stay. We got some laundry going and checked out the hot tub to rest our tired legs. After that, we cooled off in the pool while discussing the next leg of our trip.

Dinner was up in the air, but after looking at a restaurant map from the hotel, we decided upon a Mexican restaurant that was down the street. Mexican food in Tokyo. Go figure, right? I was admittedly curious how it would stack up against what I was used to. The restaurant provided the same cultural clutter on the walls that we see back home, though posters and the like seemed the most prevalent. Unlike good ol’ Virginia, we  had to pay for chips and salsa. The basket of tortilla chips was considerably smaller than I’m used to, but the salsa was quite tasty. The menu was quite varied, and featured quite a few items that I haven’t seen anywhere else before. It also provided brief descriptions of where in Mexico the dish would likely be found. I ordered enchiladas with mole poblano sauce for dinner. I wanted something I could compare to what I’m used to. The chicken enchiladas themselves were nothing to write home about. The mole sauce, however, was quite flavorful, and exceeded my expectations. It seemed just the right blend of the chocolate and spices I’m used to, and as an added touch, it was sprinkled with sesame seeds.

Full up, we headed back to the hotel to rest up for our day on the town in Tokyo tomorrow.