Senkou Solutions

Dave's thoughts, travels, and a place to vent.

Arrival in Tokyo

Today was not exactly a resounding success. Japan seems a little more foreign in person, than it does in the Japanese television programs I’ve seen (which has been basically my only “exposure” to Japan to date.

Getting to Narita airport from Vancouver was a piece of cake (aside from around 15 hours of flying time, and 7 hours of layovers in Seoul and Seattle). On the other hand, getting OUT of Narita was hell. I’ll have to elaborate here. My original game-plan was to take my credit cards (VISA and Mastercard), and use Japanese bank machines to get cash-advances to pay my way across the country. A fine theory, except that when I arrived in Narita, I found (or rather, did not find) something interesting, namely that the vast majority of Japanese bank machines don’t take North American bank cards. Of course, in a flash of pure foresight, I had neglected to withdraw any money in Canada or the U.S., so my total “cash on hand” was around $12 Canadian.

After around an hour of hunting around Narita Airport (with growing anxiety), I finally located an ATM in terminal 1 that took Mastercard. Luckily I had received my Mastercard two weeks before my trip. If I didn’t have that, I probably would’ve been stuck in Narita for some time.

At any rate, I grabbed the Narita Express (an expensive, but fast and convenient train) to Shinjuku. I was pretty tired at this point (around 30 hours without sleep), so I just wanted to get to the Yoyogi Youth Hostel and relax. My first dose of culture shock was Shinjuku Station.

Inside Shinjuku Station

Without experiencing it in person (and I did take some pictures so others can get some idea of what I’m talking about), it’s almost impossible to comprehend the complexity of Shinjuku Station. Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, is probably Japan’s busiest train station. Over 2 million people pass through the station’s gates every day. The station itself contains numerous rail lines (around 17), and is roughly 7 levels high, and covers the area of around 4 square city blocks.

Naturally, I had arrived around 3pm, which is just when the afternoon rush is getting underway. I really didn’t have a clue how to operate the ticket machines, much less find out where I wanted to go. Eventually I managed to find a suitable exit, and found a table listing train destinations and prices just outside one of the station’s entrances. Of course all of the destinations were labeled in Kanji. At this point, I suppose I could’ve just stopped someone, and asked for directions, however I like solving problems on my own, so I matched my map of Tokyo (English), against a small pocket-map of the rail lines which Nami had given me when I bought her dinner before leaving on my trip. I found the location I wanted to go to on the English map, found a place that looked “pretty similar” on Nami’s kanji map, and went there.

Eventually got to the Youth Hostel (5 minutes by train from Shinjuku, and another 10 minutes of walking). Very nice! Yoyogi Hostel rates at the top of my “Hostel Review List” . After being awake for around 36 hours, I basically just jumped onto the bed and collapsed. Suppose I should’ve grabbed a shower, but I was just too wiped out.

Tokyo

Things seemed to be looking up. I gave VISA a call, and they informed me that there ARE bank machines in Japan which take VISA cards. Not a lot of them, but they can direct me to one if I call them.

Grabbed a train to Akihabara at around 8 a.m. in the morning, and started to explore. Nothing in Japan opens until at least 10am, so my exploring at this point was basically limited to investigating vending machines to get something to drink. Seeing as how Anna Exter seemed to enjoy it so much, I gave Pocari Sweat a try. Didn’t care for it, it tasted kind of nasty (in my opinion). At around 9:45, people started opening up their shops, and I began to get a feel for Akihabara. The “feel” I got was basically “love at first sight” (I have “OH-WOW!” written in my diary). Thousands of shops, all carrying every conceivable type of electronic gizmo, gadget, computer program, device, book, CD, etc. Smaller alleys containing electronic booths, crammed with every model of microchip, resistor, capacitor, fan, transformer, wire, etc., that you could ever want. You could construct just about anything with the parts and tools you can find in these places. For example, one shop was dealing only in cables; every size, colour and gauge of cable you could ever want. One shop over, another guy was selling nothing but power transformers – thousands of them!

I had my first good look at minidisc player/recorders here. Nifty little gadgets around the size of a Walkman, which record on special 2.5″ CDs. As soon as I saw them, I knew that I had to have one. I also went looking for cameras, and was rather shocked at the prices. If anything, Japan is no-longer the “camera bargain-hunter’s paradise” (at least, not with the Japanese economy in the present state). I saw fully automatic cameras (of the point-and-shoot variety) selling for well over $300). If anything, cameras (particularly used cameras) are cheaper in Canada!

Trouble struck again. After leaving Akihabara, I went back to Shinjuku Station, and attempted to make reservations for the Shinkansen. The ticket agent (an older man) didn’t look terribly pleased to be dealing with a foreigner, and appeared to be doing his best to be unhelpful. After trying for around 10 minutes, I just smiled and gave up. I figured I could take care of it later without too many problems.

I was beginning to get a feeling for why Nami doesn’t really want to have to return to Tokyo. It’s really not a very nice city as far as appearances go, is packed with people rushing around, and is very noisy (all of which probably explain why it always gets blown up in anime programs. Heck, after three days in Tokyo, I wanted to blow it up).

At this point, I was really beginning to question if this (Tokyo) was what I was expecting of Japan. The cold weather (3 or 4 degrees Celsius), and overcast gray skies certainly played a part in it – it was all a little depressing. I’ve never really liked crowds that much, and Tokyo certainly qualifies as one of the most crowded places in the world. I was writing my thoughts here while sitting on a park bench in Yoyogi Park , watching ducks swim by, and joggers and kids pass by on the path.

When I returned to the hostel, I found another Canadian named Paul, who was on vacation from his job in Quebec. We went out to grab a bite to eat, then went to see the Shinjuku night-life. The hostel had a 10 p.m. curfew, so we had to make it fast. Paul knew what he wanted to see, and immediately started asking shopkeepers where to go to see “the girls”. We had some rather amused reactions, but were eventually pointed in the right direction, and we wandered off that way for a while. The cover charges for some of the club Paul was inquiring about were over 5,000 yen (around $70 cdn), so that ended our clubbing ideas really quick. We just wandered around for a while, noting the rather odd architecture of the “soaplando” in the area, briefly looking at some of the pictures of what rooms had to offer and noting the clientele wandering in and out of these gaudy buildings. A number of the young couples didn’t look at all happy when they left the establishments… (Hmm?).

We got back to the hostel shortly before they closed for the night, and sat around drinking pop, eating chips, and watching TV, until a grouchy security guard kicked us out of the lounge (some things are the same around the world, and the attitude of security guards seems to be one of them).

Toyko

A rough start today. I got up at 8:55am, 5 minutes before the 9am mandatory check-out. Just had time to throw on some clothes and rush out the door before they locked everything up. Since the Japanese Sword Museum was pretty close to the hostel (10 minutes away), I decided to start off my day there. Absolutely beautiful swords. I can see why some of them are considered national treasures! As a testimony to the craftsmen who made these swords, some of them were over 600 years old, and they were all perfectly polished, and razor sharp. After the sword museum, I headed for the Ueno Zoo (which was suggested the night before by Paul). The Zoo was really very good. I would venture that it’s the best zoo I’ve ever been in. There were thousands of pigeons in the park outside the zoo. Bought some peanuts to feed them, and they swarmed me. It was pretty neat (pigeons landing on your hands and shoulders to eat peanuts. A good example of the lack of crime in Japan was demonstrated in the Zoo, as families would leave expensive cameras and video gear unattended on the tables as they went for lunch, etc. Even in Vancouver, it would be gone in seconds if left unattended.

Went to Ginza in the early afternoon, and was just leaving the train station when I saw a Plus-System ATM. Used this opportunity to grab more cash . Went to Sony’s H.Q., and played with all of the different devices Sony makes (all are encased in clear plastic, so that you can see the inner workings). I really wanted a Mini-Disc player after that… Back to Shinjuku to buy a cheap camera ($50), and grab some supplies (instant noodles, juice, etc.) for dinner.

After dinner, I was just relaxing and reading some of my pamphlets, when I noticed the following line in one of JR Rail’s pamphlets “Reservations are necessary at the following times … March 21st to April 5th”. It appears that I had unknowingly booked my trip directly over spring break, and all of the school kids were traveling around. Instant panic set in, and I grabbed my coat, and headed back to Shinjuku station, and found a different travel service window to make Shinkansen reservations (I was planning on going to Hiroshima the next day – one of the longer, and busier routes on the Shinkansen). No problem with the ticket agent this time. The entire process took 2 minutes, and I had my reservation ticket. Back at the hostel, I checked to see if I could stay there on the way out of Japan (April 7th-9th). Unfortunately, the Yoyogi hostel is really popular (with good reason), and was booked solid until the 11th of April, so I had to make other plans later.

Part of the reason why Japan seems so expensive is that spending a 500 yen coin (worth around $6.50) doesn’t “feel” like spending $6.50 in Canada. The coin is the size of a $1 coin, so it “feels” like only spending a dollar or so. This was true at the beginning of my trip, however nearing the end, I was getting a feel for the real “worth” of yen.

Also tried Pachinko today. Pachinko, while very interesting, and rather addictive (those little balls are pretty cool), is possibly the most efficient way of separating a foreigner from his/her cash as quickly as possible. I lost $13 in around 5 minutes. Lesson learned (or was it…?)

Enroute to Hiroshima

A damp start to the day. Rain was drizzling down, and I hadn’t brought an umbrella. A miserable way to start my trip to Hiroshima. I phoned mom in the morning (just to let her know that I was still alive and kicking).

Ok, everyone has heard it before: “The Shinkansen is really fast”. Well, it’s true! The journey from Tokyo to Hiroshima took around 4 hours (around 750km as I recall). I clocked the train a few times with my watch, and the average cruising speed seemed to be around 230km/hour. The weather seemed to be improving as we headed west, getting out the continual overcast skies of Tokyo, and into fluffy, scattered clouds. Relaxed on the train and drank cold green-tea (rather tasty!). Riding the Shinkansen feels more like flying, than taking the train. This feeling is heightened somewhat by the vendors who walk up and down the aisles, selling food, snacks, beer, etc. Being a foreigner, I found the vending girl’s polite bow as they entered/exited the train cars to be really cute! I’m sure the Japanese take no notice of it, expecting it as simple politeness, but coming from a country such as Canada, where customer service is usually “poor at best”, this extra level of politeness was very nice to see.

Arrived in Hiroshima, and made a beeline for the hostel (it was still rather cool outside). The guidebook said “look for the Daiei department store”. I was still not “thinking in Japanese”, so I wandered around for 15 minutes until I decided to try reading some of the stores’ katakana signs. Found store, found bus-stop, went to hostel. The hostel was not quite as nice as Yoyogi, but still quite comfortable.

Sidenote: At this point in my diary, I have the following, written in Japanese “Nihon ni takusan kawaii onna no hito desu yo! Arigatoo Nami-sensei”. Which, when translated, is basically “There are lots of cute girls in Japan. Thanks Nami!”

This note was probably inspired after I used my Japanese to chat with some rather pretty Japanese girls in the hostel that evening.

Hiroshima

Met a girl named Carie this morning. Carie is from Texas, and is currently studying in Japan for a year or so. She was on vacation from her studies, and seeing as how we were both traveling by ourselves, we hooked up after breakfast and went to see the Peace Park and Atom Bomb Museum, then to Miyajima island.

Carie, afer the Miyajima Deer ate our map

Carie struck me as a rather classic “rocker gal”. Some interesting stories about the party-crowd in Texas, and a interesting view of growing up in the states. I really quite liked Carie. Very straightforward, outspoken, and sharp. Anyway, we headed to the Atom Bomb dome first-off. It’s quite a somber structure – my first reaction was “I can’t believe I’m really here”. It’s really hard to imagine what happened at this same sight some 50 years ago. The bomb exploded at 500 meters almost directly above the remains of the bomb dome. I was actually quite surprised that at anything 500m from an atomic bomb detonation could’ve survived at all.

Atomic Bomb Dome

Following touring past the dome, we walked past the children’s memorial. This was created for all of the children who died in the bomb’s blast (the center of the bomb’s explosion was less than 800m from a school). There was a particularly touching story about a young girl who developed radiation sickness after the bombing, and believed that if she was able to fold 1,000 paper cranes, she would survive. While in the hospital, she folded over 1,100 cranes, however died shortly after from the radiation sickness. To this day, children and adults from throughout Japan, and from around the world send beautiful displays composed of folded paper cranes, which are placed near the monument. When I visited, there were hundreds of thousands of cranes around the memorial. A very emotional display. Some of the girl’s original cranes are on display in the bomb museum. The cranes were all folded from the wrappings of bandages and medical supplies – the only materials available to her in the hospital, after the bombing.

After leaving the children’s memorial, we headed for the main museum. I can’t really describe too much about the museum. You really have to (and should) see it for yourself. There are some intensely moving displays and exhibits within. Any descriptions, or pictures would not do justice to the exhibit, nor would they convey the emotions you experience looking at this first-hand. I would definitely not recommend ending a tour of Hiroshima with the Bomb Museum. Rather, start the day here, and after touring through, walk across to the second museum building, where there are a number of lounges where you can sit and discuss what you’ve seen. It’s almost necessary, as a way of “recovering” from what you see in the museum. Carie and myself went there afterwards, and I’m very happy we did. It let us explore some theories we had of why things turned out as they did in the war, and compare U.S. and Canadian perspectives.

MIyajima Deer

On a lighter note, we ended the day, by leaving for the temple-island of Miyajima. Located approximately 5 km south of Hiroshima (across the bay), it is necessary to take a ferry to the island (I paid for the ferry, and found out later that it was covered by my JR Rail pass (argh)). As soon as you leave the ferry, you are immediately surrounded by the island’s deer population. All of whom are trying to beg morsels of food from you (or, in Carie’s case, eat your tour-map of the island). We toured around on Miyajima only for a little over an hour, as it was getting cold, dark, and windy. I resisted the temptation to load up on souvenirs, and decided to stick to a set of postcards, and take a few pictures on the beach.

Hiroshima

Started out with a trip to the shopping center today. Carie had to head off in the morning, so I was flying solo again. As with the rest of Japan, nothing in Hiroshima opens until 10am, so I just went back to the peace-park again and relaxed for a while. It’s strange. I felt that I was more strongly “moved” by the peace park displays than some of the Japanese people visiting the site. I was trying to be respectful of what happened in the park, and what it stood for, however Japanese kids were running all over the place yelling and playing, and being videotaped by their parents. It just didn’t seem to be quite the right attitude for the park.

Found an arcade with the Virtua-Cop 2 videogame, and played through to the end. Quite an improvement over the first offering, now with a “choose your own route” available in certain areas, and lots of stuff to shoot and interact with. Great fun! Grabbed lunch at McDonalds (it does taste the same all over the world!), and headed for the DAIMAI department store.

Now THIS is a department store. I loved it. It was kind of like a vertical version of Akihabara. With a “Radio Shack” style lower level with tools, scanners, amateur radio gear, up to TVs, VCRs, and satellite gear in the top levels. Also went to Tokyo Hands, which is a great “crafts/furnishings” store. Reminds me somewhat of IKEA, but with additional floors devoted to art/craft supplies. It would probably do rather well if a branch was opened in Vancouver (hot business opportunity?). While I was on the floor with artistic supplies, I saw a stand selling “self-teaching” videotapes for painting. All I could see was this guy’s hand drawing this scenic mountain view. Suddenly he decided to put a “Big Tree” in the front of the painting. I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was the “Channel 9, Big Tree in the front of every painting” painting guy. I loved it! Here I was, over 10,000km away from home, and here’s this same painting guy (dubbed in Japanese) teaching a painting course…

Getting cold, and starting to rain, so I headed back to the hostel. I think my trip was about a month too early. Japan is still pretty cold. Maybe it’s was just this year? I’m planning on going again next year, and I think I’ll wait until it’s a little warmer!

Kyoto

Took the Shinkansen from Hiroshima to Kyoto. A very nice trip. I really like the convenience of the bullet-trains, you can get nearly anywhere in the country in half a day. Of course, the convenience for me was that it was free with my rail pass. If you pay for tickets, it’s a little more painful (usually $80-180 for a ticket).

When I got to the Utano Youth Hostel, my initial impression of the hostel was a little poor. Compared to Hiroshima and Yoyogi, Utano looked small, and a little run-down. After booking in, however, I found the rooms to be very comfortable. The baths at Utano are better than Hiroshima…

Took off to grab some noodles for dinner, then ended up chatting with a whole bunch of Japanese junior-highschool girls who were in Kyoto for an english speech project. We all sat around playing games and chatting for a while. Most of the girls were quite shy, however they tried their best, and that’s what counts! We played the card game “UNO” (where the rules change every game!), which actually turned out to be quite entertaining.

When I returned to my room, I found that all of my roommates were also young Japanese guys. In spite of the language barrier, it was guy talk, typical the world over (in other words, focused mainly on girls). They also christened me with my Kanji name (chinese characters). On a brief sidenote, one of the guys was so excited to be talking to a foreigner that he did the “spontaneous nosebleed” thing – I had thought it was just a roumer contrived from the Anime World – perhaps not.

Kyoto

Nijo Castle

Time really seems to fly when you’re having fun, and since time was just flying, I guess that meant I was having fun! The plan for today was to visit the Nishi Honganji temple, and Nijo-jo Castle. My first stop was the travel information center, who pointed me in the direction of a PLUS-ATM from which I could grab some cash. It is said that you walk a little taller with money in your pocket, and I must agree. I visited both of the sights on my list, and they were both very nice. I especially enjoyed Nijojo Castle, as everyone was permitted to walk through the hallways of the palace, rather than having to stay outside. Headed back to Utano for dinner, where I met a nice, young English couple who were on vacation, and sat around and swapped stories for some time (chatted about various problems with the Royal Family in England, tabloid magazines, etc.).

After dinner, I hung around to watch TV. Enjoyed a really interesting program called “Narohodoo – The World” (translates to “Really – The World). The theme of the show is to send Japanese reporters (usually cute women) out to the far edges of the world (deep jungles, etc.), and have a camera-crew record their experiences. A good mix of humor, and touching people-stories. I would really like to see more of this program.

Kyoto

View from Kyoto Tower

Started off today by heading to the Imperial Palace Housing Office to get the permission slip to visit the imperial household. A longish trek that took around 2 hours to complete. Afterwards, I headed once again for the travel information center, who helped me make a reservation at a “Welcome Inn” for my last two nights in Tokyo before my flight. I needed a base of operations to do my sightseeing (shopping) from, and this seemed to fit the bill. Only around 5,100 yen/night (reasonable).

Went to Kyoto Tower, and paid entirely too much to ride to the top and have a look around. I really wasn’t terribly impressed with Kyoto Tower, it felt kind of like a cheap tourist attraction (which it was). Since the tower was only a few minutes walk from the Higashi Honganji temple, I headed over. Pretty similar to the Nishi Honganji temple, except that it’s located on the east side of the city. (nishi and higashi mean “west” and “east” incidentally).

Back to the Imperial Palace for the tour, which was quite short, and a bit of a letdown. Couldn’t enter any of the palace buildings, just walk around in the (very nice) garden outside. I really expected more for all of the trouble you had to go to (passports, rubber-stamping, forms, signatures and such), in order to get a pass to get in.

Kinkakuji Temple

Feeling a little “shafted”, I headed for the “Kinkakuji Temple”, which was a building owned by a Samurai, who had covered the building in gold-leaf. I quite enjoyed this temple, very tranquil, and pretty. I picked up a souvenir here for Erin (some nice incense), and a Japanese brush set for me to use for practicing writing in the Japanese languages.

On the way back to the hostel, I had a little bit of bus confusion (actually, my plan was sound), however an overly helpful gas station attendant pointed me entirely in the wrong direction, resulted in two things when I took his advice:

  • I didn’t find the bus I wanted.
  • I did find a store which had the entire set of City Hunter Manga (comics) in stock. For 7,700 yen, I purchased the whole set. This works out to around $110. The normal cost in Canada would be over $300.

Since buying this manga set was one of my “vacation goals”, I have to assume that some sort of fate moved this gas attendant to point me in the wrong direction. I couldn’t have been happier.

I figured that the easiest way to handle the (quite heavy) comics was to throw them in a box, and ship them to my pal Mujib back home. I didn’t have a box though, and because my train was leaving quite early the next day, I had to scramble a bit to get organized.

Gifu

Today was pretty rough. Started off by rising early and catching a bus to the train station, locating a nearby post office, and shipping my pack of goodies back to Mujib (who I had called beforehand to ensure it was OK). Total shipping cost was around 5,000 yen!

Gifu was my choice for my next stop, as Nagoya (my original destination) was booked solid. No idea why it’s so busy – according to my guidebook, there’s nothing really all that spectacular there. I took the bullet train from Kyoto to Nagoya, then a normal train to Gifu (35 minutes). I arrived in GIFU around 11am, and browsed around until 3pm looking at sights. I didn’t figure that finding the hostel would be difficult (hah!).

Around 3pm, I decided to go to the hostel, and tried to take the advice of the guidebook, “Take the Streetcar for 10 minutes”. Naturally the streetcars weren’t running when I needed them, so I resorted to “old reliable”, the same trick I used in Hiroshima when I didn’t feel like taking streetcars – in other words, following the streetcar tracks on foot. I followed the tracks for 5km or so (with my 50lb backpack) , without finding the correct turn to head for the hostel. I then decided to try guidebook suggestion #2 “You can also take the ropeway from Gifu Park”. I headed for the park (at least another 15km of walking!), and was about to buy a ticket when I found out that you could no longer get to the hostel from the top of the ropeway.

I suppose I should explain here, Gifu Youth Hostel is located on the top of a mountain. You get a rather nice view of the city, but it’s not easy to get to!

I eventually found the necessary path (another 2km of walking, and a bus), and hiked up the “treacherous, steep, slippery”, and generally grueling mountain path. I was drenched in sweat when I arrived at the hostel 20 minutes later. Grabbed dinner, and attempted to make reservations at Awara-Onsen (Awara Hot-springs). I figured that I had definitely earned myself a good soak in the hot-springs, and my first choice (Kanazawa) was booked solid. I didn’t understand the response that the Awara hostel gave me (an old lady who talked fast was on the other end of the line), and my phone-card ran out before I could get more information (and I didn’t have any cash on me for the phone). I decided that I’d just “wing it”, and hope the hostel had some space free when I got there. Supper was quite nice, however all things considered, I still preferred Hiroshima or Kyoto.

Gifu

Got up for a rather strange (authentic?) Japanese breakfast. The coffee and eggs were normal, however they also had a massive bowl of rice, pickles, tuna salad, and something which resembled (and tasted like) sautéed squid. I ate it, and didn’t ask too many questions (in Japan, the rule is “just eat it”. Don’t ask questions. It will always taste good, and believe me, sometimes you don’t want to know what’s in a dish).

After breakfast, I asked for directions to the Daibutsu, the largest paper-mache Buddha statue in the world. The guy at the desk had to make a few phone calls, but eventually tracked it down for me. As luck would have it, there were two very nice girls heading off at the same time, and they kindly invited me to join them. We chatted for a bit (them in English, and me in Japanese), about Vancouver, movie stars, etc. Normal “girl-stuff” I suppose. They were both very nice, and I really enjoyed talking to them.

It took around 45 minutes to get down from the hostel (by a different, and less dangerous route). They escorted me to the daibutsu, then headed off home . I took a couple of pictures, then headed for GIFU Castle (which was at the top of the ropeway I mentioned yesterday). Went up and looked around for a bit, and really enjoyed the display of ancient armour, weapons, etc. that was presented. Some of it looked like they should’ve taken a little more care of the exhibits though.

After the castle, I found the oddest little zoo on the way down. A squirrel zoo! I paid 300 yen, and was admitted (with a leather glove), upon which the zookeeper would place some food. The squirrels would immediately race up your body, and devour the food. Very cute, however I couldn’t help but get the idea that the squirrels might be slightly underfed to make them more “receptive” to tourists with food in their hands.

Stopped at the JR Rail station, and made reservations for my trip to Awara (no problem), and looked for a place to have lunch. I decided to go to the “Lotteria”, a McDonalds-style fast food place. After I had eaten lunch, I looked at the other patrons, and to my surprise, saw the two girls I had met that morning. Definitely very strange. They gave me an odd look when I said “Hi!”. I figured that they probably thought I was following them or something…

I was in a rush to get back, and was feeling unusually vigorous, so I braved the “Treacherous Mountain Path”, and arrived at the hostel, slightly faster than before (no heavy backpack), but still out of breath, and pretty sweaty. Showers certainly feel good after a day of vigorous mountain climbing! I got nailed for a 200 yen “heating charge” that night, which was odd, as I didn’t get one the night before (in spite of the fact that there was heat the night before as well).. I felt a little ripped-off.

Awara Onsen

Got up early in the morning, and as I was packing, I was invited by one of the assistants at the hostel to eat the breakfast I had neither requested, nor paid for. Oh well, free meal (it was a little cold though – probably because I didn’t know about it and got there late). Calling this day “wet” would be a vast understatement. It was not “wet”, it was “soaking”. Of course, the Gifu hostel was in the middle of a cloud at the time…

It took me around a half-hour to walk the 2.5km road back to Gifu, where I could catch the bus to the train station. By this time, I was totally soaked. I opened my backpack at the train station, and everything was soaked (all of my clothes, books, maps, etc.). I was quite worried at this point that the Awara Youth Hostel would be booked solid (I hadn’t bothered to try making reservations after my first attempt). I figured that, at the worst, I’d just be forced to book into a nice hotel (oh, horrors [grin]). It was nice to be out of Gifu though. It’s a little like Prince George, B.C., (which is my hometown). Friends (and parents) of mine will immediately understand the reason I wasn’t too fond of Gifu. It was a little small for my liking, and there wasn’t much to see or do really… I would’ve liked to see the cormorant fishing, but that wasn’t for another month or two.

It took around 2 hours to get to Awara Onsen, and another hour or so to track down the hostel (I didn’t have a map, so I had to go and ask people for directions. No problem!). Upon arriving, I found the hostel more or less empty. Eventually, an older lady showed up, and checked me in, showed me my room, and vanished. I fired up the kerosene heater, dug everything that was still soggy out of my backpack, and sat in front of the heater and read some new manga I had picked up in Gifu two days earlier while my belongings dried out. It was really very comfortable, with the tatami mats, futons, heater, etc., it really “felt” Japanese!

Two Japanese university graduate-students arrived later that night (they were heading to Kanazawa for a conference of some sort), so we all sat around chatting, watching TV (True Lies in Japanese), etc. A very good day (aside from the weather!).

Awara Onsen

Got up around 9:30, and headed off in search of the onsen (hot spring). Grabbed a trolley/train from nearby to “Awara yu no machi”, and with a little discussion, got instructions on getting to the onsen nearby. I definitely got some strange looks when I entered the onsen (I guess that not that many foreigners go to Awara?), but the onsen itself was thoroughly enjoyable. Very hot, lots of steam, great decor inside, and a cool breeze, waterfalls, etc. outside. I stayed for probably around two and a half hours. All of the soaking must have softened my brain, as I decided to give pachinko another shot (perhaps I was just unlucky the first time?). Nope, lost another $13 in around 3 minutes. I had learned my lesson about pachinko, so I headed over to a local café and grabbed some ramen for lunch.

For dinner, I remembered that Nami had suggested I try “sushi on the move”, or sushi which is on a continuous moving “track” in front of you, where you simply pick off sushi that looks appetizing and eat it. Well, I took her advice, and wandered into the “Atomboy” restaurant (OK, it was a little tacky, but I loved it!). I could’ve found a nicer place had I tried, however, two things were appealing. First off, I loved the motif. Atomboy, as you may know, is known as Astroboy in North America. Oddly enough, I grew up with that show (it was on, every morning before school – I’ve seen just about every episode), so I had to go in. Secondly, it was pretty cheap. I headed back to the hostel after dinner, and gave Kevin a call to arrange to stay with him for a day in Togi. Had the entire room to myself tonight, so I just watched TV, drank pop, ate chips, and generally had a great time.

Kanazawa / Togi

Pretty cold this morning. The heater ran out of kerosene just before the room warmed up, and I couldn’t locate any more. It was a little uncomfortable. I had to wait 2 hours for a bus to the train station, but finally got there and made Japan Rail’s reservation agents’ lives really complex by requesting a whole lot of train reservations. I currently had around 40,000 yen to my name, so I figured I was in pretty good shape (I was hoping to make it back to Yokohama without having to take any more money out).

I got to Kanazawa OK, and took Nami and Satako’s advice and did a bit of sightseeing before my bus left for Togi. Didn’t have too much time, so I headed for the Kenrokuen gardens. Quite beautiful. I have some pictures of the gardens, which looked quite nice. A few cherry blossoms out at the time (which was strange, because it was so cold). Headed back to the station, and took the bus to Togi (around an hour and a half). Kevin picked me up, and gave me the driving tour of Togi, including one very nice point near the ocean, a large cliff, which he said was the site of many famous suicides (artists and such – typical). We headed back to town, and grabbed dinner, then went to Kevin’s Drum-teacher’shouse to visit a real Japanese family for a bit (this was Kevin’s idea, one which I really enjoyed). I chatted with Kevin’s sensei for a while (with Kevin’s help – his Japanese is better than mine), while the sensei’s kids (a young boy and girl), ran around being hyperactive brats. It was pretty cute though. I’ve never seen a tantrum like the little girl put up when she was put in bed and told to go to sleep.

Togi / Nagasaki

This was mostly a day of travel. Woke up at 6:10am, and since Kevin doesn’t leave his heater on, the room was easily cold enough to see my breath. This is one Japanese custom I can do without. Call me “conventional”, but I happen to like a warm house.

I grabbed a bus from Togi, back to Kanazawa at 6:50am, then waited an hour for my train to Osaka. During this time, I called my mom to put in a status update, then gave Nami a call (I was really feeling guilty about not sending a postcard like I promised to – My reasoning was that I would probably get back before the postcard did). I suppose I should’ve asked Nami if it was OK to call her sister when I hit Yokohama, however I figured that if Yumi-san was anything like her younger sister, she would enjoy a call from one of her sister’s students. During the train trip to Osaka, I met some rather cute highschool girls, on their way to a friend’s place in Osaka. I chatted with one of the girls (Yuki Mikado), for the entire trip. Yuki said that she was going to a private school to become a hospital nurse. At one point, she mentioned that she was single – a shame that I didn’t live in Japan – she was 18, and didn’t seem to care at all that I was a few years older than her. We parted ways in Shin-Osaka, and I grabbed the Shinkansen to Hakata, then from Hakata, a normal train to Nagasaki.

At this point, I made the only true “mistake” on my part, and I can only attribute it to not paying attention. I got off one stop early on the train. No big deal, I just waited for the next train, and 5 minutes later, was in Nagasaki. Quickly went to the hostel, checked in, showered, then spent around a half-hour playing with the remote-control for the heater/air-conditioner before going to sleep. There were a lot of Germans in Nagasaki for some reason. A few guys in my room were German (they were very nice, and loved to chat about travel adventures!).

Nagasaki

Oh, how time flies. It felt like I’d only been in Japan for a week or so. I headed off for the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Park around 9:30am, then went to the museum. I didn’t find it as “moving” as Hiroshima’s exhibit. There were more “artifacts” here, but not as many displays relating to the people affected. There were some very interesting video presentations at the end (the first had approximately 40 different bomb-survivors telling their stories), and the second was an excellent video presentation about the evolution of the Atomic Bomb, and A-bomb testing. Went to the Glover Gardens (which is the location where the play “Madam Butterfly” is based on). Toured around the various buildings in the gardens, and watched the numerous (and large) carp in the ponds (note: These carp follow people! I’m not making this up! If you walk around the side of the pond, the carp follow you under the water!). Had McDonald’s for lunch today – it’s cheap, tastes the same as North America, and is reasonably easy to find in Japan.

Nagasaki / Yokohama

Ate a regular breakfast today (toast with jam, coffee, etc.). Watching Japanese TV in the morning can be a “heavy” for breakfast entertainment. The news program on TV was showing a report on wife-abuse, with some rather realistic video clips – not exactly the kind of “early morning fluff” you see here. Got to Nagasaki station at 9:15 (Train leaves at 10am for Hakata). Updated my list of “things to buy” (souvenirs):

  • Macross Plus Movie
  • City Hunter OAV – Secret Service
  • MiniDisc Player/recorder
  • Cassette Tape Deck
  • MD Media (10 Discs)

After around 8 hours of train travel (2 hours to Hakata, then 6 hours to Yokohama), I arrived, and booked into the Yokohama hostel. I’m really watching my money carefully now, I have around 22,000 yen left, but why take chances? While I was waiting for the Shinkansen, I noticed a young girl selling bento to travelers. She looked rather cold (it was cool, and a strong wind was blowing past the station), so I waited until just before my train left, and ran down and bought her some hot tea from one of the vending machines. She looked a little puzzled when I handed it to her, but she accepted it. Perhaps this sort of generosity just isn’t that common in Japan? I was also getting another “long stare” from another girl on the Shinkansen (I’ve heard that Japanese women like foreigners – this seems to be at least partly true).

At Kyoto, two very drunk old businessmen got on the train, and sat right behind me. I listened to their conversation (it was hard not to), and got a grin as one guy started explaining to the other that the young man that his daughter was dating was a complete idiot. Funny, this guy reminded me exactly of a character from Maison Ikkoku. No problem finding the hostel, or checking in.

Yokohama

The rudest awakening yet in Yokohama. The parento-san (manager) started playing a pop-music radio station over the PA system at 7am. I wandered around a bit after leaving the hostel, going past a huge hotel, with an equally huge ferris wheel (in the Guinness book of records) next to it, then wandered down to the park, then to China Town to look around, then to the main “shopping street”.

I found a dealer there, whom I eventually bought my MD recorder from. I called VISA to inquire where I could find an ATM, and got directed to another store near Yokohama Station. On the way to catch the train to THAT store, I found a PLUS system ATM on my own and grabbed 60,000 yen. I took the train back to Yokohama station, then looked around the shopping center. For lunch, I visited a store in the bottom of one of the Departos, and really burned the inside of my mouth on this deep-fried, battered chicken-pasta dish. I should’ve given it a few more minutes to cool down I guess. We just don’t get meals cooked like that in North America, so I was totally unprepared for how searingly hot it would be.

I decided to give Nami’s sister, Yuki-san, a call that evening, which was pretty cool. Yuki’s english isn’t nearly as good as Nami’s (but Yuki-san lives in Japan, and Nami lives in Vancouver, so I suppose that’s quite understandable!). Yuki (from what I could tell on the phone) seems a lot like Nami – in fact her voice pattern was so similar to Nami’s that it was really easy to make the family connection. She was very patient, as I struggled with my Japanese, trying to have a bit of a conversation. I couldn’t really figure out how to end off my call to Yuki gracefully, so I just had to use the “bye bye” technique. Not particularly elegant, but it worked. Yuki-san recognized my name when I mentioned it, so I assumed that Nami must’ve notified (warned her) that I might call.

Yokohama / Tokyo

Decided to grab the train to Tokyo (45 minutes and 350 yen), for an extra day of Tokyo sightseeing – namely the stuff I missed the first time I was in Tokyo when I was really panicked. First off, went on the NHK studio tour. I have to say that I was not very impressed by this. It is conducted exactly like a tour in an amusement park (which I suppose I should’ve expected). In essence, you are toured through a “mock” TV studio, with “actors”, who are “pretending” to be television personnel, doing something for real. Anything that’s really real is behind 2 feet of soundproof glass. I didn’t think very much of this tour, as you can probably gather. The 3-D TV was pretty nice, and the HDTV stuff looked great, but I don’t know if I’d recommend this tour to anyone else. I wanted something with a little more content in it, but perhaps that’s just because I’m in the business.

After the tour, I went to Shakey’s for lunch. I haven’t eaten Shakey’s pizza since I was around 12 years old, living in PG. The pizza was quite interesting – thin, with scanty toppings, but offered some interesting combinations (such as corn, tuna, etc.) Lots of pasta as well. For 600 yen, this all-you-can-eat combo was the best deal I found! After lunch I headed for Shibuya, then looked around all afternoon in Akihabara (planning my battle strategy for the next day).

Clear and Present Danger was on TV (in Japanese), but I was so tired from roaming around the city all day, that I decided to skip it, and went to sleep.

Yokohama / Tokyo

Another rude awakening in Yokohama with the P.A. system. This was only the half of it. I didn’t get much sleep the night before, as some guy in the room was snoring like a chainsaw all night. I tried stuffing tissue in my ears (didn’t work), clamping my head between two pillows (didn’t work), and eventually just pounded the concrete wall with my fist. Eventually he stopped – to be replaced by someone with a nasty cough. I was really ready to kill at this point. If I had’ve had a gun at the time, I’d probably be writing this letter from prison…

This is the one of the only drawbacks to hostelling. I had the same sort of thing happen in the Gifu hostel one night, and I had hoped that would’ve been the last time, however I was not quite so fortunate. Yokohama Youth Hostel takes the cake for being the loudest in the morning (and the night!)

Left the hostel at 9:30 to go and purchase my MiniDisc recorder. Of course, in Japan, most stores open at 10am, however the store you really want to go to will open at 11am, so I had to kill some time. Roamed around the city, and eventually went to a hotel, and used their long-distance card-phone to call Jamie and Christina (friends of mine who work at the same location I do), then to give Neall a call and see what was new in PG (and to confirm that the house hadn’t burnt down or something). I had to grab some more money for the MD recorder, so I went to the same cash machine, and found it out of order (great…), however the Mastercard machine nearby worked, and I grabbed some money there. All told, I was carrying around about 80,000 yen at the time (around $1,100 Cdn).

Bought the MD recorder, then jumped on the train for Akihabara, where I stored my backpack in a locker, then quickly went out and grabbed my Macross Plus, and City Hunter LDs. Found a nice Aiwa Walkman for 8,000 yen, so I bought it. On the way back to the station, I found a Captain Tylor LD for 1,400 yen, so I bought that as well. Laserdiscs are REALLY cheap here, and I could easily spent a few hundred dollars just on LDs quite easily. I checked into a real hotel tonight (the “Shin Nakano Lodge” – cheap, and clean). Got cleaned up, played with my new toys, and watched Robocop 3 on TV (it’s bad in any language).

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