Thursday, 2 June 2016

Graduation Celebration in Japan: Days 13 and 14

Day Thirteen

Although this was technically the day that we would be spending travelling back to Tokyo, our flight was booked so late (9pm) that we basically had another full day in Sapporo. Unfortunately, this day wasn't quite as well planned out as the previous one, so we mostly spend it just wandering. Really though, we could tell that we were getting to that part of the trip where we were burning out a bit, so that fit in pretty well with what we wanted to do. We spent a fair amount of time sitting in parks or in buildings, just because we were tired and couldn't think of anything better to do. One early morning highlight though was breakfast: we ate dango that we had picked up from the store the previous night. If you don't know why I'm so excited to eat dango, you've clearly never watched Clannad, but if you've seen it, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. Dango are great, by the way. Very tasty.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Graduation Celebration in Japan: Days 11 and 12

Day Eleven

We didn't do very much today, so let's spend some time talking about Japanese restaurants and why they're better than the ones in North America. The first thing that stands out is the hand towel they give you. Pretty much everywhere gives you something to clean your hands with, either an actual towel or just a wet wipe. Pretty nice when your hands are dirty from walking all day. The next cool thing is how a bunch of them put a button on your table that will call a waiter over whenever you want. This is particularly nice when ordering, because you don't feel preasured to decide what to get quickly before the staff come back. Plus, if you need something during the meal, you can just buzz them over and get it. So much easier than trying to catch their attention. But the best part of Japanese restaurants is probably the fact that they don't tip. This actually allows for several cool things, such as the fact that they often bring you the bill when they bring your food, which really expidites the process. It'd really be nice if more Western restaurants implemented these things.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Graduation Celebration in Japan: Days 9 and 10

Day Nine

I don't think that I've yet mentioned how difficult it is to find a restaurant that's open for breakfast in Japan. I mean, they definitely exist, but they're shockingly rare. There are even coffee shops with "breakfast menus" that don't open until 11am. At this point, we've started to realise that it's sometimes better to just buy stuff from a convenience store instead of going to a sit-down place, which is actually a much better option then it sounds. In Japan, not only are there convenience stores on every other street corner, but they sell so much stuff; it's a bit ridiculous. Not only do they sell pre-packaged real meals and other stuff you may expect, but they even let you pay your bills and for your flights there and stuff. Crazy. Also crazy (and wonderful) is the number of vending machines you find everywhere. This has been a bit of an aside, but I really will miss having convenience stores and vending machines in large quantities like this when I go back to the US.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Graduation Celebration in Japan: Days 5, 6, 7, and 8

Day Five

And thus begins the first new-city-every-day section of the trip. This was also the first day that we decided to activate our Japan Rail Passes. So, here's the thing. Foreigners can buy these passes that allow them unlimited travel on (basically) any rail line operated by JR, the nation-wide rail service that used to be owned by the government. The pass doesn't work on local subways owned by other companies, but for travel between cities there's no doubt that this is the best option. It was ~$260 for 7 days of unlimited travel, compared to ~$400 for the Shinkansen (bullet train) tickets alone. That's pretty solid.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Graduation Celebration in Japan: Days 3 and 4

Day Three

The reason we keep waking up so early is the sunrise is so early here. Like, 4:30am early. What is that madness? Who designed this system? I do not approve. Anyhow, this resulted in me waking up by 6:30am again, which I think will be a pretty common theme during this trip.

Our plan for the day was to go and do the touristy things in the city of Tokyo, so we naturally started out by going to the heart of the city: Tokyo station. Apparently it's a popular tourist spot, as far as getting pictures of the building, and the architecture was pretty nice I suppose. It's also where we got breakfast, at one of the only shops that was open. Apparently not many places are open around 9am there. I had curry and rice, because I could, and it was pretty great; Japanese curry seems to be sweeter and far less spicy than Indian curry (at least for breakfast).

After breakfast we headed off to Nihonbashi, the ancient mercantile center of the city. The bridge there is famous for being where the major roads met, and it has some nice statues on it now. It was also featured prominently in the movie The Wings of the Kirin, a 2011 adaption of a Keigo Higashino novel (like the J-Drama Galileo). Good movie. It's also right next to the Ningyocho district of town, where the 2010 J-Drama series Shinzanmono was set (the movie is a sequel). We wandered around the area, looking at some of the local shrines, and slowly made our way to the Imperial Palace. On the way, we stumbled across the Currency Museum and its free admission, so popped in there. Japan apparently went on and off the gold standard multiple times, with the Yen being worth less gold each time they returned. Originally 1 Yen was worth 1.5 grams of gold!

A mythological Kirin, though with wings (which is apparently unusual).
The Imperial Palace gardens were closed (as we knew beforehand), so we went off to the district that was the number one place I wanted to visit: Akihabara. If you've heard of it, you know why. If you haven't, it's basically the geek mecca of Japan. Video games, anime, electronics; they have it all, and they love to show that off. Signs and posters for that stuff are everywhere. Our first stop was, believe it or not, an owl cafe. As in, a place where you can drink drinks while letting an owl perch on you, and you pet it. I had heard of cat cafes before, but the owl cafe thing was new to me. Definitely a unique experience. Afterwards, we went for lunch to the other type of cafe Akihabara is known for: the maid cafe. Thankfully(?) it was probably the most chill maid cafe ever created; the staff were in maid outfits, but they didn't call customers "master" or wear cat ears or anything incredibly awkward like that. It was basically just a normal cafe, but with an odd staff uniform. There were no pictures allowed inside either (which is probably a good thing). I got a rice omelet, and no, they didn't write anything on it. Like I said, super chill for a maid cafe.

Look at that little guy! His name is Cookie.
After the cafes came the shopping, which was the main reason I was hyped to go, of course. And yes, I did find the one thing I was looking for (and a few things I wasn't expecting, but couldn't turn down). I could spend the whole trip just browsing the stores there though, so we left as soon as I got what I wanted lest we waste too much time. There was apparently a cathedral of the Japanese Orthodox Church nearby, so we stopped in there just to see it and get a brief sit in. There was lots of standing and walking, let me tell you.

My haul: Miki is best idol, She and Her Cat, and of course the great Yang Wen-Li.
Using the opportunity to have a little meeting, we planned out the rest of our day and headed to Odaiba, the artificial island in Tokyo Bay, to see the Rainbow Bridge and other attractions. Like the 1:1 scale Gundum they have. And the replica Statue of Liberty. While waiting for sunset for the lights on the Rainbow Bridge to turn on, we chilled in the nearby mall, where we also ate dinner, and I got to eat a Japanese style crepe, where they fold it into an ice cream cone shape and fill it with whip cream. So good.

It's a Gundam!
The rainbow bridge failed to light up after dark, so we just gave up and headed to Tokyo Tower instead. It's sort of like the Eiffel Tower, but it's red and white. And in Tokyo. The observatories offered a pretty nice view of the city, and they even had a glass floor section of the 150m level. Not super large, but big enough to make me extremely nervous. It probably wouldn't have been so bad if the lights hadn't been shining right into my eyes from below, making it hard to focus. There's an extra fee to go to the 250m observatory, which we paid. It wasn't particularly impressive, though I don't really regret going up. The view was nearly identical to the lower one though. Maybe when the sun is out on a clear day it's better, but at night there was no real reason to bother.

Tokyo Tower, from the very base. A nice effect.
By the time we got back to our lodgings, 16 hours had passed from when we had headed out that morning. Also, some 30,000 steps had been walked, covering some 20.5km. I'm not sure I've ever walked that much in my entire life in a single day, and certainly not in the past several years. By the time this trip is done, I'll have met my quota for the next decade, because the next day was a massive count too.

Day Four

We decided the night before that we would head out of the city and go hiking on Mt. Mitake this day. We woke up (early, of course), got ready, and headed out, grabbing breakfast at a cafe on the way to the station. The train ride out there was about an hour and a half, and there was another half hour of travel by bus and funicular up to the start of the trails on the mountain, so it was already lunch time by the time we arrived. We grabbed packed lunches from the 7-Eleven (a much more reasonable thing to do in Japan, trust me; I had chicken cutlet and curry). The hiking was... intense, to say the least. Not all the time, but we pretty quickly went off the easier path and down the steep path that's terrifying to walk on because the slope is steep and there is no safety support, and it's all dirt and rock (some of which is loose)... Really it's standard for mountain hiking, but it still scares me to be on. We went down and up and down and up and down and up... several hundred stories by the end of it all. But the views pretty much made it worth it all. The waterfall nestled in the rocks was particularly nice, though we found out later on (as we climbed back up again) that farther up the stream a (presumably) Shinto ceremony was going on, with nearly naked people standing underneath another waterfall that fed into the one we first were at. It looked... unpleasant. That water was cold.

Not the biggest waterfall, but very pretty (and calming) in person.
The top of the mountain also has a large shrine that we visited. It was partly under construction, but there were sections that were still regular looking. The whole thing was pretty large and impressive. When we were finished with our hiking at the end of the day, we headed back down; rather than take the funicular again, we decided to walk down the mountain to the bus, which ended up being almost as tiring as the hiking. The road was long and steep and had an impressive number of switchbacks, but we made it down eventually. We caught the train back just on time (the next one would have been in an hour), and finally got to sit again for another hour and a half. The step total for today: over 20,000 across 16km (not counting vertical distance travelled).

A very small part of the shrine. Not even the ornate part.
If this trip has shown me anything thus far, it's reminded me of what I realised when in London: I love public transit that works. Everywhere I've lived so far hasn't had any really useful public transit system, due to being too small or just not caring enough because they're in North America and everyone expects to drive themselves everywhere all the time. But the transit in Tokyo and London is so comprehensive and so easy that it's not difficult to live without a car there. There are trains that will take you an hour and a half out to a little podunk station in a tiny town, and the one way trip cost under $10! Someday, I'd love to live in a city like those two, if only for the transit.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Graduation Celebration in Japan: Days 1 and 2

Day Zero / One

I wasn't sure whether to call this days 1 and 2 or just day 1, because in some ways it felt like 2 short days, and in others it was like 1 really long day. Eventually I just settled on calling it 2 days of time, but only 1 day of trip.

A 2:30am start to any day is the height of stupidity, especially if you're accustomed to staying awake beyond then on a fairly regular basis. I would not recommend it under any circumstances if it can be avoided. Nevertheless, that's exactly what I ended up doing. Stupid 6:15am flight. Even worse is the fact that it was delayed until 7:30am, so it turned out that I didn't need to wake up that early after all! Not that they knew ahead of time, or even at the time of the flight. They delayed it once, then undelayed it, and then redelayed it! Apparently they thought they'd have to wait on a plane to get in, but then decided to use one that had been waiting there overnight, but didn't tell the crew, so saved no time in the long run. Kind of frustrating. Thankfully my layover was long enough that I was in no danger of missing fly connection, but it was still a pain.

I was flying United, so naturally that meant problems all the way. Not only was that first flight delayed, but the entertainment system for the LAX->NRT leg was broken, so half the time I couldn't watch any movies without them being rendered unwatchable by the constant freezing and skipping ahead. I did get about 2 hours of smooth video across the whole 11 hour flight, but most of that was spent rewatching parts that I had missed due to the skipping before. I realise it's kind of unreasonable to blame United for a computer error like that, and they are giving some compensation (in the form of a voucher for money off another flight), but that's just the sort of thing that I expect to happen when flying United.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Graduation Celebration in Japan: Intro

Man, it's been a long time since I've posted anything here. October, huh? And that was about something that I did the previous December. Wow. But as long as that's been, it's been even longer since I got to travel anywhere exciting. It'll be three years this June since I went to Russia, and I really haven't been anywhere since then. I mean, I've gone and graduated twice since then (most recently this past Thursday)! I'd say it's about time for another trip.

And so, we end up here: a Japan trip. Now, I've technically been to Japan before, but a) that was a long time ago (Christmas 2000), b) we really didn't go anywhere outside the airport except for our hotel, and c) goodness knows I'm a lot more interested in Japan now than I was then. So, when I heard that a group of my friends was going at around the same time as my graduation, I leapt at the chance.

The schedule is kind of frenetic in terms of traveling, since we wanted to visit a whole bunch of locations across the entire country. We're going to start out in Tokyo for a few days, before moving west and south, hitting up the big/important cities (i.e. Kyoto, Okasa, Hiroshima...). We'll go hiking on the island of Yakushima (part of the inspiration for Princess Mononoke, apparently), before booking it north all the way up to Sapporo to see the lilacs, and then return to Tokyo to head home. The whole thing will take 14 days (not as long as Kenya, but longer than England).

All that travel has kind of forced me to pack lighter than I ever have for a trip this long. I'm going to try to live out of just one carry-on sized backpack, which will definitely be an experience. Being an international flight, I've got 2 free checked bags, but I'm not going to get to use them! Kind of frustrating after paying for a bag so many times on domestic flights. Obviously, this also means that this isn't going to be a big shopping trip, but if I can at least get a copy of She and Her Cat -Everything Flows- (releasing at the same time that we arrive), I'll be content.

I leave tomorrow. Morning. Stupid early. It's gonna be great. I'm going to try to update this blog along the way whenever I can, as with previous trips, so that interested people can follow along. I honestly have no idea what the internet situation will be like though, or how much time I'll have to prepare a post, so we'll just do what we can I suppose.

And on that note: let's get this adventure started!