Kyoto, Tokyo, Narita, Los Angeles, Denver, Kansas City

Well, as quite a few of you already know, I may have told a little fib.

Instead of what I said down there, what actually happened is that a few weeks ago Courtney let me know that Sonja had hurt her leg while playing. She took her to the vet and the vet said that most likely she had a ruptured CCL in her knee and would require massively expensive surgery to regain use of her rear left leg.

After that was all confirmed, I decided I had best come home. The surgery was supposedly around $3,000 and that would eat up the last of my travel funds. I still needed a plane ticket home and I needed to not be broke when I landed. So, a few days before I left Tokyo I bought a plane ticket home and decided to continue down to Kyoto for a few days and then head home.

The rest is basically as written down there except that on Tuesday, instead of staying in Kyoto I took the shinkansen back up to Tokyo, took the Narita Express to the airport, sat and waited for a long time and then flew to LA. There I had another large layover, flew to Denver, found out my flight to KC was canceled, laid around for 5 or 6 more hours and then finally flew home.

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I worked on getting life started back up. Turn on phone, get car, find clothes, that sort of thing. Courtney had planned dinner with Adam and Jo for Friday night (without them knowing I was to be here) and that is where the Big News thing came in.

See, when I first posted that I had Big News my intention was to tell you all I was coming home. Then Courtney told me she had already planned dinner with Adam and Jo and that it would be fun to surprise people. So I had to come up with a different story about the Big News 🙂

Friday night was fun. Courtney met Adam and Jo, Clint and Colleen at Old Chicago at 7:00pm and then I drove over separate at 7:30pm. I parked at Walmart and snuck into Old Chicago and made it all the way up to their table before anyone recognized me. I hopped into a seat and said “Hi!” and it was awesome. Nobody even said anything for a solid 10 seconds and then everyone was just totally shocked. It was great.

Saturday Courtney asked Lake to stop by to pick up a present I had sent to him and I got to surprise him too. We all went out and had some yummy lunch at BDs and caught up a bit.

And here I am! The big adventure is over and I am settling back into normal life. All told, I was gone for about 1.5 months and only made it to three countries and two continents. Much shorter than I had planned but I had a wonderful time and learned a ton. I am not sure if I’ll go back to Australia but I definitely want to go back and spend a lot more time in Japan.

I learned that I suck at living on a budget, but I got better by the end. I learned that my dream of “dropping out” isn’t going to happen if I leave dogs, friends and a girlfriend behind. Not to mention hundreds of dollars in monthly bills.

I learned how to enjoy being hungry, and how to not overeat, which is serving me well now that I am back. I learned that I need a lot less stuff to get by, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to have a bunch of stuff. I’m not saying that money buys happiness but I will readily admit I missed my toys.

Most importantly, I think, I learned that traveling the way I did is not a vacation. It looks and smells like it, but the novelty of not working quickly wears off and so does going “sightseeing” every day. I think that in the future I will enjoy traveling more in shorter bursts with a healthy dose of normal life inbetween to remind me why I went away in the first place.

So that’s that! I am back!

Kyoto, Continued

Okay, when I last posted I was talking about Shin taking us out and showing us around Kyoto. A good time was had by all. Now I have to re-write all the post that I lost! Hooray for crappy Internet connections!

Just to add to that last post a little bit. One of the cool things that happened that night was that as we were leaving the restaurant Shin asked one of the workers where a good place to spot geisha would be. The guy told us it was probably too late in the evening for it, and plus it was raining, but he gave us some directions and a few umbrellas to boot! This was our introduction to the communal umbrella system. There is a really cheap, clear plastic umbrella that every store sells for ¥500 and there are just tons of them all over the city. Most shops and buildings have a little umbrella stand at the front, so it’s pretty common just to leave one when you don’t need it any more and take one when you do. Pretty handy.

Anyway, Andy and I had talked about wanting to see one of the shrines featured in Lonely Planet so we were up fairly early the next morning to do some sightseeing. Ben and Shin were checking out that morning so we all said goodbye and it was off to the station.

The Kyoto station is really spectacular. It’s a huge monster of steel and glass with a really interesting roof that lies open to the air at some points. We wandered around the station for a while taking it in and rode the giant escalator up to the 11th floor where there is a skywalk across the top of the station. After browsing around that for a while (in the rain) we found a train that would take us to the shrine and off we went.

The shrine, who’s name I do not remember, is dedicated to sake and rice which I am sure is a vast oversimplification of it but there you have it. It’s laid out on a huge many acre area of hilly land and has tons of torii all around the grounds, along with a section that is just wall to wall torii forming almost a tunnel. They are all painted bright orange and have black kanji letters marked in them. We were there on a rainy, dreary day and the effect was awesome. It was incredibly beautiful.

Normally, when you enter a shrine or temple you perform this little ritual before you go in which I believe is intended to purify you. We decided to try it out, much to the amusement of the Japanese people around us. There were instructions posted but it took a nice Japanese woman’s help for us to realize they were posted backwards (to us). In front of many temples and shrines you will find a little trough of water and little cups on long handles. You are supposed to take a cup of water, pour some into your right hand, then your left, then drink a little (or possibly just swish and spit, not sure) and then let the rest run out of the cup down the handle. The first time we tried it Andy did it backwards and I just completely made up my own ritual.

Now that I write that down… the events of that evening make a lot more sense. More on that later.

Mostly purified we wandered around the shrine for a few hours (it was huge) and made our way around the grounds. It’s hard for me to describe the place, since I have no idea what most of it means so to me it’s just a pretty place. I’ll just have to let the pictures speak for me.

After having a quick lunch at my favorite beef and rice bowl place we headed back to the hostel for a rest and to meet some more new roomies. By the time we had decided to go get some dinner and a few beers, Bob, a soldier in the American Army on his third(!) tour of Iraq had showed up and we invited him out with us.

This is where it all went wrong.

We took the train downtown, and then walked for about 15 minutes in the wrong direction before taking a bus to the right place, which was the center of downtown. Downtown Kyoto looks like a smaller version of Tokyo which is just a bigger version of every other city in the world, so I won’t waste much time describing it.

After shooting down about 200 restaurants because the food looked too scary or other reasons we finally stopped at one that looked okay and Bob suggested we check it out. It turned out to be a great little place will a long bar with a grill built in where they cook your chow in front of you. A few big beers and a fried noodle, chicken and shrimp in me we were ready to find some more bars!

Our first stop was Bar Afrika which had a very vaguely African theme where we sampled some beer, and then on to the Pig and Whistle which is an English pub we had read about in the Lonely Planet. At the Pig and Whistle I shared my love of Jeager with Bob and Andy, and Bob shared his love of tequila with us. We all also, as you may expect, had more beer.

When we had first walked into the Pig and Whistle two Aussie girls freaked out because apparently Bob looked exactly like some tennis player. After an hour or so they invited us to join them and their two friends, which were an English guy and a Japanese guy and we all had some more drinks together. Eventually the girls wanted to go dance, as they often do, so the Japanese guy led us to some club that I could never in my life find again and may not even actually exist.

The cover charge for the club was an absurd ¥3000 but it came with one free drink. So really the cover charge was about ¥2500, or $25. Crazy. Anyway, we went in and kept partying for several more hours. Somewhere in there Andy decided to buy us all a shot and he chose sake for it. Unfortunately the sake shots were more like glasses of sake but being drunk, drunk, drunk we did em as shots anyway. I like to believe this is the reason for the next bit.

When we stumbled out of the club it was around 3am and the buses and trains had long ago stopped running. We found a taxi and drunkenly tried to explain where we were staying but the best we could get across was “Kyoto Station” which is about a 5 minute walk from home, so off we went. Somewhere along the way we lost Bob. No one remembers how this happened. I thought he took the cab with us and he seems to think so too but Andy has no recollection. In any case, he wasn’t with us when I started throwing up in an alley.

Damn sake. So I threw up for a while, and Andy was a champ and stood guard in the alley… and took pictures. After suffering for a while I decided I could walk, made it about 50 meters and laid down next to a subway entrance to do it all over again.

Finally we were ready to try to find home. I can’t remember very well if this part came before or after the throwing up, but I’ll document it anyway. We had no idea where we were when the cab dropped us off, so we found another cab to try to take us home. We had a map of the surrounding around with our hostel marked on it but the cab driver didn’t have a clue. We tried for several minutes to convince him to take us to Kyoto station and after quite a bit of pointing and babbling he finally convinced us we were right in front of it. Who knew!

Somehow we stumbled home and I remembered no more.

Morning came and we had planned to go to Nara, a town close to Kyoto, to see some temples there. It had come highly recommended from Anne so we got up right before the hostel kicked us out and headed down that way. Bob had other plans for the day so it was just me and Andy. It goes without saying that neither of us were feeling our best.

After a brief lunch and a long train ride we lurched into Nara and quickly found out about the deer. The town is basically overrun with deer who were once considered sacred, then considered a national treasure and now, I can only imagine, are considered a giant nuisance. The deer are completely used to people and just walk right up to you to nudge you with their antlers demanding some chow. Luckily there are street vendors everywhere selling little packets of deer biscuits for ¥150 and woe be unto you when you buy a packet. The deer know the sound that the exchange of ¥150 makes and you quickly find yourself surrounded.

I had always considered deer to be cute and cuddly, but as we quickly found out, those antlers can do some damage if aimed correctly. Andy was limping for a while.

In Nara, aside from the deer we also saw a temple with giant, giant bronze Buddha and a shrine, or temple area with hundreds and hundreds of stone lanterns. I am not sure when, or if, they even light them all but I can imagine that if they do the place at night must be incredible. As before, I’ll let the pictures talk about the temples.

One highlight in Nara was in the giant Buddha temple. Behind the Buddha there is a large support column with a small hole cut into the bottom of it. It is said that if you can fit through the hole you will surely reach enlightenment. When we were there dozens of school kids were squeezing through just fine but no adults. Andy decided to give it a try and all the Japanese people thought it was the best thing they had ever seen. He made it through with little trouble and one Japanese girl asked if she could pose with him for a picture. He was an instant superstar!

We left Nara pretty early cause we were both feeling like complete shit. We went back to the hostel for a nap, eventually went out for a giant pasta dinner and then I came back and slept straight through till the next day.

Monday morning it was up bright and early again, this time to head west of Kyoto to find a bamboo forest. I’ve always loved bamboo ever since I discovered a huge bamboo forest right in the middle of New Jersey behind my friend Keith’s house. We did eventually find it, but first we found a monkey park!

The monkey park was actually a monkey mountain and we paid ¥500 to climb it. Before heading up we were told not to feed the monkeys outside (we weren’t sure why “outside” till later), not to stare at the monkeys and not to show them any food.

About half way up we spotted our first monkeys. There were three running along a path a ways away from us and then a keeper came around the corner and tossed an orange to them. Pretty cool.

The place is basically a giant open air monkey zoo. As best as I can tell the monkeys are not kept in by any kind of fence or anything. There are supposed to be about 150 of them on the grounds. As we got further up the mountain we started to see a lot more monkeys. When we spotted the first one close up, who was just sitting in a tree a few meters away we accidentally forgot the rules and stared at him. Big mistake. DO NOT STARE AT THE MONKEYS. The little bastard came straight for us, leaping from tree to tree and scaring me (us, I think) half to death. I am not too proud to say we screeched and ran like little girls.

When we finally got to the top we found a little building with chicken wire walls that monkeys were climbing all over. A keeper let us into the building and then we figured out the not feeding them outside bit. There were bags of food for sale that you could feed the monkeys from inside the building. It became clear really fast why you wanted a fence between you and the monkeys if you had food. The little guys, I think, would tear you to pieces.

Feeding the monkeys was pretty darn cool. I had never been that close to monkeys before and to see just how human they look and move is really amazing. You would put a piece of food in your hand and hold it out and the monkey would reach in through the fence and snatch it out. I managed to get one of them to take a piece with his foot which was really sweet.

I haven’t figured out how to rotate a video yet, so sorry for the one below.

fter monkey park we wandered around a bit to more temples. Let me tell you, it’s easy to get temple overload in Kyoto. We eventually did find a bamboo grove and Andy wanted to get a video of himself doing some (fake) martial arts so we snuck off into a corner and did that. The video was pretty funny, I’ll try to see if I can get it from him.

After a quick lunch and a beer we headed back to town pretty worn out. It was really hot that day.

We took a break for a while and then headed back out to find some, you guessed it, beers! We headed back downtown and eventually found a yakitori which is now my favorite kind of bar in the world. In a lot of Japanese bars you generally eat snacks, along with drinking yourself stupid. Each bar has it’s own specialty for the snacks. A yakitori specializes in skewers of chicken parts, grilled or fried and sometimes a few other kinds of stuff on sticks. Since it’s Japan you can get basically any part of the chicken you like. I stuck to the thigh and breast meat while Andy sampled stuff like chicken gizzard and pork belly.

We eventually ended up at another yakitori closer to home and finished up the night by entertaining the locals with our crazy English words and our pictures from the day.

And that was about it for the adventures of Andy and Jason. On Tuesday morning Andy was off to Osaka and I decided to stay in Kyoto a few more days to catch some of the sights in town. Everything I had done so far was out of town and Kyoto had plenty of stuff to see itself, so that was my plan for the rest of the week.

Now it’s Thursday night and I’m worn out from sightseeing around Kyoto. I’m still having a good time here, but I don’t have any fun roommates so I’m on my own again. I’ll post about the last few days tomorrow, cause I think I have typed enough for one day 🙂

But first! Before everyone suddenly flies to Japan and lynches me for keeping them in suspense… the big news!

Unfortunately, it’s not really THAT big of news. It only seems so big because I disappeared for a few days. I didn’t mean to build up so much suspense!

Anyway, the big news is that I’ve decided to cut the trip a little bit short. Money is going faster than I had expected. A lot faster, actually. So I am going to spend another few weeks in Japan visiting Hiroshima, at least, and then maybe Tokyo again for a while and then I am going to go to Hong Kong and see if I can get a visa to spend at least a few weeks in China. I am really enjoying my trip, but with the money issues and the fact that I really do miss home quite a bit I think I’ll be happy to come back.

So that’s it for now! The big news is out! Talk to you again soon!

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sq_4Py6IyhA[/youtube]

Kyoto!

Man, that’s what it’s all about! I did a TON of stuff in the past several days. I was busy from waking up till passing out (most nights) and I still haven’t even pulled pictures off my camera.

So! Friday I packed up and left my lovely private room in Tokyo and headed down to Tokyo station for my bullet train (shinkansen) ride to Kyoto. The train was very nice, and very fast 🙂 Sadly, it didn’t tell me how fast it was going like the high speed trains in France and Germany did, but I know it was way faster than both of them. If I had to guess I’d say we were doing at least 150+ in sections of the ride. Maybe you can guess from the video I’ll post in a bit.

I arrived in Kyoto around 2pm and wandered out to try to find my hostel. I had some trouble with the map I had drawn and a lot of the streets being named only in Japanese, so it took me about an hour in the extremely hot sun but I found it eventually. My first impressions of Kyoto were that it was exactly what I was looking for. Much more calm than Tokyo, and very pretty.

My hostel wouldn’t let me check in till 4:30pm so I dropped my luggage there and went out to try to find some food. I ended up a bowl of food place (I don’t know what else to call it) and had a bowl of rice and beef, like I had had in Tokyo. Very good. After wandering for a bit more I headed back to my hostel where I was able to check in and finally chill out for a bit. It had been a long day already.

I was in a dorm with 6 beds. When I arrived, one was taken, I took one and the rest were empty. They filled up pretty quick. By around 6pm all but one were full and I had met all my new roomies. The first was Andy, a really nice English guy. Then Anne the Aussie came back. She was the one with the bed already taken. Soon after we were joined by another English guy named Ben and a Japanese world traveler type named Shin. Everyone was really cool.

Andy and I had been chatting for a while and had planned to go get a beer once we were settled in. We asked Shin and Ben along and off we all went! We went to the Gion area and Shin showed us the ropes. He was a great guide and really helped a ton. He showed us how to order in an actual sit down restaurant, found us a good place to eat and drink and then wrapped it all up by ordering weird things for us all to try! Hell of a guy!

Damnit. I just lost like 10 pages of this post somehow. I’ll have to finish later. For now, check out the pictures on Flickr. I uploaded all the pictures I’ve taken so far but I don’t have time at the moment to lay everything out. Talk to you soon!

My Big Day

Well, today was to be my last day in Tokyo before I head off to Kyoto so I decided to catch up on some stuff I had missed.

I started off by heading back to the Imperial Palace to get into the Eastern Gardens before they closed. That turned out to be really nice. I wandered the gardens for about 2 hours and had a really nice time. The weather was gorgeous today, the gardens were quiet and beautiful and it was all really nice.

I took some pictures of flowers, which I try to avoid usually, because they were so pretty. I’ve never seen such “gentle” hues of color in flowers. The blues and purples were so delicate that it looked like the color would fall away if you touched them. Like it was powder, or chalk. Really pretty.

On the way back after that, on a whim, I decided to stop off in Akihabara again (the electronics mecca) and wander a bit there. It was a totally different story this time. I really got into the place and wandered into the little alleys and tunnels where all the good stuff is. It’s unbelievable. I found one hallway that was just individual stalls with electronics components like capacitors, resistors, LEDs and so on. It was like a dream come true. They had everything I normally have to order off the Internet and it was all cheap. I also found whole stores dedicated to soldering irons, cooling fans, tiny button cams, circuit breakers, compact flourescents and everything else a geek could want. So awesome. I even found a stall selling nothing but vacuum tubes, and I took a picture for Jono 🙂

I stopped in Akihabara for two reasons. One was as described and the second was to try my luck again at having a decent meal before leaving the city. This time I did good! I found a little restaurant that had a tiny bit of English on the outside menu so I decided to give it a go. It was the kind of place where there is a vending machine at the front where you order your food, pay and get a ticket and then go in and sit down.

I still had no idea what I was doing but I was determined to figure it out so I walked up to the machine and paid for a “Bowl of beef and rice” which sounded right up my alley. It spit out a ticket which I took and then I wandered over to the seating area. I sat down and a waiter type of guy came over to me. I handed him my ticket, hoping that was the right thing to do and he took it, gave me a glass of water and ran off.

Eventually he brought me my bowl of beef and rice and it was great! The beef was super fatty, and kind of a weird color looking more like bacon but it was really tasty and the rice was great too. I also got a bowl of some kind of soup that was really yummy. The guy brought me a little teeny cup with a spoon, which I have no idea what I was supposed to do with. Maybe it was for the soup but he didn’t bring anyone else one so I am guessing he thought I didn’t want to drink from the bowl or something. Who knows. He spoke NO english. I tried 🙂

So, yes, it took me almost exactly one week to get up the nerve to try to eat in a restaurant here but there it is. I had a really yummy meal for just ¥380 and now I feel much more confident about the next time.

So that’s about it for Tokyo. Tomorrow I check out of here and take the bullet train to Kyoto. I don’t know what to expect more than a smaller city and a less busy experience but I am very excited about it. I will be staying in a hostel dorm there, so I’ll get some more chances to actually interact instead of hiding in my private room. I’m really looking forward to it!

And some final thoughts:

Japanese people will go to incredible length to not sit next to me on the subway. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been sitting alone on an entire bench and people will just keep squeezing into the one across from me until people are actually piled on top one another while there is four feet of empty space on either side of me. I’ve seen people get in the train, see me, see all the other seats taken except the ones next to me and decide to stand. One guy actually stepped back off the train, pulled out a sword and committed ritual suicide right there on the platform.

I have no idea what the deal is. I don’t stink, I’m not dressed raggedly or anything. The only thing I can think of is that they don’t want to sit next to the gaijin. It’s weird.

Also, I have noticed people do not talk to each other unless they know each other. Even for the niceties, which is what stuck out to me. If someone is in someone else’s way they will just wait and wait and wait, or try to slide past without touching instead of just saying “Excuse me” (sumimasen)

Each time I have said “sumimasen” to someone to get their attention so I could pass they nearly jumped out of their skin. The subway trains are almost always dead silent. Everyone stares at their feet or their phone. It’s considered impolite to look someone in the eyes. It’s considered a challenge. It’s also impolite to turn your back to someone on the subway, so if there are no seats available you should stand facing directly at someone who is sitting as to not appear rude.

One thing that really surprised me is that there seems to be a billion ways to insult someone, or appear uncouth but farting is not one of them. Putting you chopsticks in the rice in a certain way is bad manners, and standing the wrong way on the subway, and blowing your nose and not bowing properly are all bad manners but ripping a 20 second long ass blaster in the middle of a crowded market is no big deal. I had heard this was true, but didn’t believe it till I heard it in person. Sheesh.

That’s it for now! I am off to shower, do laundry and pack for tomorrow. Today was great, and I had such a nice time it really helped with my confidence and excitement about being here. I’m looking forward to spending time in Kyoto!

Shaketh

As if my dreams, or as you less experienced dreamers would call them; soul crushing nightmares, weren’t bad enough… now there’s earthquakes in them too.

Thanks Japan.

As rwg confirmed in a comment a few posts back I have indeed experienced two earthquakes since I got here. That was new for me. I know all you California people handle this every 30 seconds or so but man… that’s some crazy shit. Buildings are NOT supposed to move around like that.

So anyway, Tuesday I decided to head down to the Ueno area and spend some time exploring the market area and Ueno-Koen, the park. I am not sure what Ueno means so I have decided to go with “infinite mangy cat” because the park was full of those. Mangy cats, I mean.

Everywhere I looked their was either a really beat up cat resting in the sun, or the biggest damn ravens, or possibly crows, in the world. They were terrifying. The birds, I mean. The cats were just lazy. The birds though had beaks on them that looked like even if I thought I saw a lot of cats, I didn’t see as many cats as there used to be cause they have been eaten. Whole.

So, Ueno park was okay but kinda old and run down. There were some pretty spots but a lot of smelly spots. Ueno park is home to Tokyo’s largest homeless population. They set up blue tents made of tarps and just move in and I guess the police don’t hassle them very much. Rumor has it that you can actually receive mail in the park if you’ve lived there long enough. I’d love to see that address. “16 Screaming Naked Guy Path, Ueno-Koen, Ueno, Tokyo, Japan”

The only big highlight in Ueno park was when I was sitting on a bench watching some turtles playing in the water and a guy came up to me speaking decent English. He told me was a performance artist and would I mind if he practiced his art for me. My initial instinct was to run away but I hadn’t really talked to another human being in like 5 days so I figured it was worth a try.

He explained that he was a practitioner of (something) which had had studied at a temple in (somewhere) and that if I would let him he would be able to increase the energies in my hands. At one point he said “without touching” but I wanted to be sure I heard him correctly and asked him to repeat it.

So he had me make a fist and hold it out and then he concentrated very hard and waved his hands around it, kind of like you might if you were a wizard and you had a ball of energy between your hands and you were coercing it grow larger. At least, that’s what it looked like to me. I play too many video games though.

After 20 seconds or so I could feel my hand throbbing a bit in time with the movements of his hands and I told him so. At this he got really excited, thanked me extensively and ran off.

That was about the extent of the excitement in the park. After that I wandered over the market area to try to convince myself to try Japanese food again, and failed. I had KFC instead.

On Wednesday I laid around quite a bit but eventually decided to head back to Ueno market area and conquer my food fears. I STILL had not had a Japanese meal in a Japanese restaurant and it was beginning to embarrass me. So I went down and wandered around the market for a few hours (it’s a big market!), bought a cool chain for my wallet to replace the carabiners I was using and… And… AND… HAD McDonalds!

I know! It’s pitiful! The food just scares the hell out of me! I can’t identify half the shit I see and I certainly can’t read it and I am just afraid I am going to end up with a bowl of chicken anus noodles with battered eel sperm. Go ahead and laugh, but I guarantee someone is selling that exact meal. And it’s probably a delicacy.

So I walked the walk of shame back to my hotel and watched Scrubs all night.

So that was Tuesday and Wednesday. Lame, I admit, but there you have it. I can’t be a superstar every day you know.

Oh, I also bought a ticket to Kyoto for Friday afternoon on the bullet train somewhere in there!

Would You Like A Raw Egg On That?

No. No I would not. I would not like a raw egg dumped on top of my noodles, chicken, soup, rice, spaghetti, burger, fries, eggs or anything else. What is it with the raw eggs?!

I think half the reason I am slowly starving to death is that every time I see something that looks like it might be good to eat I notice there is a raw egg dumped on top of it and I don’t know how to say “Please don’t dump a raw egg on it.” in Japanese.

Anyway, yesterday I decided to head down to Yoyogi-Koen (Park) to see the freak show. Yoyogi-Koen is where Tokyo kids go on the weekend to be as weird as American kids are every day in school, and in church.
In just one (admittedly large) park I saw a band called Zephyr (King of J-Rock!), a beat box / rap guy, several emo bands, a bunch of guys dressed up like The Fonz doing some kind of weird 50s type synchronized line dance thing and combing their huge, greasy hair, a HUGE group of kids doing a synchronized dance, another HUGE group of kids in a giant circle all with the same camera just kind of standing there (I’m talking 100+ kids), a little play using green sheets for (I think) water where the two main actors alternately laughed and cried at the top of their lungs, goths, vamps, furrys, cos-play kids, The Statue of Liberty, hundreds of tiny dogs, the Free Hugs people, and lots and lots of vendors selling fried balls of mushed up octopus.

It was pretty sweet.

Before getting to Yoyogi-Koen I stopped off at Ginza which is the ultra chic shopping area. All the big names were represented, including McDonalds, where I had lunch 🙂

Ginza was no different than any other big city main strip except it was perhaps more quiet and polite, and the street musicians were better.

So then it was Yoyogi-Koen, as described above and in the videos below, and then I stopped off in Akihabara on the way home. Akihabara is the electronics district (it’s nickname is Electric City) and it’s awesome. There are skyscrapers that are nothing but floors and floors of electronics stores and it’s all pretty cheap. I didn’t notice any absurdly cheap prices compared to home, but I will guess that it was all as cheap as I’ve ever seen, at least.

Akihabara is also supposed to be the home of the geeks in Tokyo. There is a strong geek subculture here and that is where they all hang out. It’s even referred to as the “geek ghetto”. There are supposed to be a lot of cafes and such where girls dressed in maid outfits will greet you at the door by saying “Welcome home, master.” which I guess is pretty nice if you are still a virgin.

I didn’t see any of those places but I didn’t stay very long. I can only handle so many shopping districts per vacation and I am about burned out.

So that was yesterday. Today I lounged around quite a bit and then finally headed out to see the Imperial Palace. I’ve never seen Central Park in New York, but I would guess you get a similar feeling when you first see it. You have this giant city with skyscrapers as far as the eye can see and then a beautiful park right in the middle of it all.

Although I bet the Imperial Palace has more moats.

It’s really beautiful, and very serene. Unfortunately the palace proper is closed to the public all year except for two days but you can walk around the gardens and see the outlying areas. The only part that is open year round to the public is the East Gardens, but they close at 4pm and I got there too late. I will probably go back tomorrow to see it.

On the way home from the palace I stopped at Ueno, which is the closest large station to me. I had been wandering around starving for the past 4 hours or so and was hoping Ueno would have a restaurant with the proper mix of no-raw-eggyness and approachability. I was right! I found a nice little place called KFC and had a really good meal of chicken and fries with no raw eggs anywhere!

I feel really bad about the state of my diet here so far. The only stuff I have eaten is stuff I bought at the grocery store, or from bakeries or western fast food. My only excuse is fear. A lot of the food just looks scary as hell to me. I’m not really kidding very much about the raw eggs, and everything contains sea food, which I am not a huge fan of. I will not leave Japan without getting comfortable eating it’s food, but it might not happen in Tokyo 🙂 The only thing that makes me feel better about it is that I’ve had trouble going out to eat in every large metro I’ve been in. The crowds are unbelievable and I don’t want to hold things up and cause problems. I am hoping that when I get away from the city a bit I will find it easier to try to blend.

So that’s about it for the past few days. Tomorrow I am going to try to get up early(er) and see the east gardens of the palace, and if I get up super early, maybe the Tsukiji Fish Market, which is the largest fish market in the world. Each morning they auction off the freshest fish to be used for all the day’s sushi and it’s supposed to be incredible to see.

Tonight was supposed to be my last night in this hotel, but I booked another 3 nights. I was going to move downtown and into a more communal hostel to try to meet some people but the prices are stupid. I can stay here where my private room is awesome or I can move into an 8 bunk dorm and pay more for the privilege. Unless plans change I intend to head for Kyoto mid-week.

Tokyo

The past 48 hours have been some of the most confusing, stressful ones of my life. Let me tell you all about them!

Thursday morning I woke up early, said goodbye to Tom (my last remaining roommate) and headed off to the airport about 3 hours early. I like to be safe. Lucky, this time.

When I went to check in to my flight the woman says “Do you live in Tokyo?” No. “Are you stationed there or something?” and I’m like, “No, just going for holiday.” and then she said the words that would ruin my life for the next two hours.

“Do you have an onward ticket from Tokyo?”

I told her no, that I had planned to take the ferry from Japan to South Korea in a month or so, that I was backpacking round the world and did not have a set itinerary and that I had checked Japan’s immigration and customs website very carefully and that one was not required.

Unfortunately, she had a computer and a little book of laws that said one was required, so she took me out of line and directed me to the Qantas ticket booth to take it up with them.

I spent the next 2 hours explaining that same thing over and over to various people, then showing them the websites I checked. Finally they called Qantas in Narita (where the big airport is for Tokyo) and talked to someone they could barely understand there. That person called Japanese Immigration and got the scoop which was that I was correct. He called back, we wrote down names and numbers and such and I was eventually off.

The alternative would have been to buy a refundable ticket from Japan to elsewhere and then just get a refund for it once I arrived in Japan. Not a big deal, but it was nice to not have to do it.

So, the day started off rough. Once I made it up to the gate I had some lunch, and then spent all my remaining Aussie dollars on a Lonely Planet Japanese phrasebook and some supplies. I managed to spend basically every dollar and cent in my wallet so I didn’t have to use the exchange service and pay their fees! Hooray! Really bad move!

The flight was fine, and pleasant. Flying doesn’t bother me one bit at all any more. Even when we hit some pretty rough turbulence. I think I’ve finally gotten over that fear. We landed in Narita at around 6:45pm, on schedule and then the real fun started!

I picked up my backpack and headed for customs. The guy there stopped me, asked me how long I was going to be in Japan and then if I had any checked luggage. At this point I had my main backpack on my back and my small backpack (with all the electronics) on my front. I pointed at the one on my back and said “Just this. One.” and he asked me again. So we did that a few times and then he asked me how long I was going to be in Japan, looking at the bag on my back in disbelief. The impression was that if I was going to be staying for 1 month I was going to need a lot more luggage and what happened to it all? Just as I started to worry he handed back my passport and waved me through. I was a little surprised by the third degree. I figured customs people see filthy backpackers like myself by the hundred every day. Maybe it’s just standard procedure to grill us a bit.

So I finally made it to the arrivals lounge where I needed to figure out how to cross the 80km from Narita to my hotel in Tokyo, but first I needed to get some cash.
So far, everywhere I have gone (in Europe last year, and so far this year) I have always just got off the plane, hit the ATM and pulled out some local currency. It’s fast, and easy, and it saves on the exchange counter’s fees. You are at the whim of the current exchange rate, but that doesn’t bother me too much.

Well, I strolled over to the nearest ATM and tried to find a way to make it speak English, but no go. So I found another one and that one was willing. So I put in my card, did the whole deal, asking for ¥50,000 (about $400 US) and it said “Card provider not available”. That was a little scary but I remembered something similar happening in Amsterdam because it didn’t like my PIN, so I tried again using a credit card advance. My ATM card is also a Visa. No go there either. I tried a few more times with no luck and started to worry a bit.

So I wandered down to the other 2 ATMs in the area and got the same thing at all of them. Starting to seriously panic, I went to the currency exchange and asked them if they could do a cash advance on my Visa and they said they only deal with cash and traveler’s cheques and pointed to the ATM. I explained that it wasn’t working for me, but that stuff wasn’t in their English repertoire and they just smiled and waved me off. Very nice, if slightly useless.

So at this point I figured I was 80kms away from my reserved place to stay, with no cash to check in even if I could get there (no credit cards accepted) and that I was basically screwed. I remembered I had a £5 note in my wallet from my trip to Europe last year, so I traded that in for a measly ¥1000 and sat down to think. Checking to see if there was any Internet access I found there was, and that it was ¥500 per day and payable by credit card! Hooray! I tried my regular card (that wouldn’t work anywhere else) and it worked fine. So now I knew my account hadn’t been cleaned out or anything like that.

By the way, if you think of Yen (¥) as pennies it makes the conversion easiest. ¥500 is about $5.

So, I got online, checked out my bank account and saw that it was doing just fine. Then I checked out the accounts of my three credit cards. I have three credit cards I’ve gotten over the years but they all have tiny, tiny limits and I don’t really use them. Mostly cause I used them all when I got them and they’ve all been basically maxed out since then. I saw that my months of paying a little more than the minimum had paid off and I had some money on all of them! About $650 altogether.
So I ran back to the ATM that seemed the nicest and tried a cash advance and it worked! I quickly pulled out all the ¥ I could on that card and moved to the next. After it was all said and done, I had about ¥75,000 in my pocket and I was feeling pretty good!

Around now a guy from Detroit wandered up to me and said “Do you speak English?”. I said “Sure do” and he said “Thank God!”. He had been in Australia and was flying home to Detroit. He had asked for the cheapest flight available and it turned out to be one that laid over for the night in Tokyo. They had given him a hotel and told him to call the hotel when he arrived but he couldn’t figure out the phones or anything and was freaking out. I managed to help him get ahold of his hotel (blind leading the blind) and so I was feeling pretty smug at this point. I was winning!

Over to the desk with the letters “JR” on it, which I knew was the train I wanted and ¥2000 later I had an express ticket to Nippori Station with a change ticket for Minami-Senju station which was the closest to my hotel and from which it was supposed to be a 10 minute walk. I had no idea where in Tokyo either of those things are (and still don’t, for the record).

The train ride was nice, and very fast. We blew through some of the stations at scary speed. I’m sure the two high speed trains I took in Europe were faster, but it’s been a year and my memory sucks. It was cooooooooooool. When that one unloaded I found my way to my changeover pretty easily and hopped aboard. It was only two stops up the line so it didn’t take very long. Unfortunately, when I was changing trains I had noticed it was completely pouring outside. Not good.

That train landed and I headed down to the exit and yep, it was pouring. I had a 10 minute walk with bad directions in a place I’ve never been where I couldn’t ask anyone for directions and with everything I owned on my back… and it was pouring.

I had noticed that everyone seemed to have the same two umbrellas and as I was exiting the station I started considering offering someone ¥1000 for one. Happily, when I got to the bottom I noticed a little tiny store that everyone was gathered around buying umbrellas! I picked one up, couldn’t find a price tag and headed to the front for my first Japanese shopping experience!

It went the same way as most of them have since then. I put my stuff on the counter, the clerk speaks in fast Japanese during the entire transaction while I stand there drooling and eventually a price appears on the cash register. I happily hand over grillions of Yen and clerk says a bunch more stuff in Japanese and I take my stuff and leave, mumbling “arigato” fearing that I might actually be heard and I run out of the store. I always hope they aren’t saying something like “The first time you open the umbrella it may explode.” or “Before you eat that sandwich, make sure you remove the protective weasel from inside the bread.”
In any case, it was a small victory. I pulled my backpack’s rain cover out, wrapped up the important one (where the laptop and iPods were), donned my standard issue umbrella and walked and walked and walked.

Finding the hotel wasn’t hard, and I barely got soaked at all. The guy the desk spoke pretty good English and he was really, really nice. I walked in past a bunch of people hanging out in the lobby and finally, finally had a place to put my shit down. I had reserved a single, private, 3 tatami mat room with a low table and futon on the floor for ¥3200/night and it was really nice. I had a bed, a table, a TV, a lamp, a fridge and my own air conditioner. Backpacker heaven!
There was just one more little problem before this day from hell could end. I hadn’t eaten anything since dinner on the plane which was about 6 hours ago and I was starving. I had seen a 7-11 about 3 blocks away while I was walking to the hotel but the idea of going back out into the rain wasn’t very appealing and plus, the hotel locked it’s door at midnight and it was already after 11. I appeased my complaining belly with a giant beer and a coke from the vending machine upstairs. Beer in vending machines. Genius!

This is becoming pretty long winded, isn’t it? I still have an entire day to cover!

Okay, so that was day one. It was a little rough but I felt good about it. I had accomplished most of the basics (I still didn’t know where to eat), and I hadn’t gravely insulted anyone yet.

Friday morning I was up at 7:30am and I started studying. The first thing I needed to do was find out how to use the transit system. My Lonely Planet had pretty good guides and maps so I spent about 3 hours studying and taking notes and eventually felt like I knew what I was doing. The LP said you could take the city loop train for just the minimum ¥130 fee and see most of the major areas of Tokyo, so I had decided to try that. I didn’t really understand the low cost thing, but I figured it would work itself out.

I wandered downstairs and met a family from Ontario and chatted with them for a while. They told me I could get an English subway map at the station down the street and it also had a list of sights to see with the corresponding subway station. So that was my first goal. That went over pretty well, and I also secured a day pass on the subway from the machine and I was off!

I took the subway to Ueno station which was a more central station and headed for the JR Yamanote line, which circles the city and passed through the major districts. I found a ticket machine and started looking at ticket prices. I found out that you could pay ¥130 for a “platform ticket” just like LP said, and that was good enough to get you on the train. Once you got to your destination you would have to pay the balance for the distance you traveled. I didn’t realize until 30 minutes into the trip that if I went all the way back to the station I started in the gate keeper would just have to assume I had gone in and come back out without using the train. Around the city for ¥130! Hooray Lonely Planet!

So I looped the city and it was pretty cool, but hard to actually see anything. The crowds in Tokyo trains are legendary, and it’s partially true, but not completely. I have not experienced the pushing and shoving throng like I’ve heard about. It’s busy, but not any more than say Paris.

Back to the hotel for a little while to chill out and then I decided to go try to see my first “sight”. I picked Shinjuku, which Lonely Planet describes as the place to go if you’ve only got 1 day in Tokyo. It is the quintessential Tokyo experience you see in all the movies. Huge crowds, giant buildings covered with neon, people on the sidewalks with megaphones and everything else you can imagine. At one point I saw an arch over a street that was covered in flashing lights and stuff and decided to walk down there. I realized pretty quickly I had managed to find the red light district. I had a pretty good idea that’s where I was when I saw all the porn shops and massage parlors, but it was cemented when a guy chased me down, asked me if English was okay and then asked me if I wanted a “sex massage”. I passed.

I also ate in my first restaurant in Japan. I am careful not to say Japanese restaurant, because it definitely wasn’t. I wasn’t quite ready to delve into the Japanese food, mostly because it looks scary, so I wanted to start with something I knew. Like spaghetti. I did want to try ordering though and figure out how to take a seat and all that so it was a good experience. The spaghetti was awesome too 🙂

Most places to eat have this plastic food out front that looks just like what you’ll find on your plate. Obviously fancy places don’t do this, but I see it in front of more restaurants than not. A lot of times there will also be numbers or when you get inside you’ll find it all on a sheet and you can just point to order. There is no chance you’ll be able to order by speaking because all of the names of the food are in Kanji, and the person taking the order doesn’t speak English.

Altogether, there is a lot less English speaking than I was led to believe. I had the feeling coming in that most people would know some English, although they might be shy to use it. I have not found this to be true. Or at least, if it is, they are REALLY shy. I would say better than 90% of the people I have dealt with so far didn’t speak any English. I am trying to learn useful phrases in Japanese but it’s not easy at all. I have a hard time remembering a lot of the words that I read because I can’t associate it very well, or I use them so seldom that I forget it by the next time I need to use it.

Anyway, after I wandered around Shinjuku for a while I decided to hit the Tokyo Tower, which I had been told is great at night from the Ontario family I met downstairs. It’s basically a clone of the Eiffel Tower except it’s taller and stronger and lighter. The paperwork made it sound like they were very proud of it.

The Tower was pretty great, and I got to see just how huge this place is. It’s hard not to quote Douglas Adams here in his description of the size of the Universe. Suffice to say that seeing Tokyo from 250 meters gave me a sense of scale that I have nothing else to compare with. It is dense city as far as the eye can see and it doesn’t peter out like the downtowns of most cities. There are skyscrapers out there as far as you can see. It’s amazing.

I made it back to my hotel just a bit before the doors were to lock for the night and settled in for a little Battlestar Galactica. The wireless access at the hotel is awesome so I’ve taken advantage of it to download new episodes of some shows.

And that was Friday!

Now it’s Saturday. I’m being super lazy today. It’s already 3:25pm and all I’ve done so far is a little grocery shopping and lots of Internetting. I’m in no hurry, and it’s nice to lounge around and not be bothered after 2 weeks in the dorms in Cairns. Grocery shopping was hard. I am unable to read any of the packaging so I have to go by what is obvious. I bought 5 different kinds of noodle bowls and took a picture of them all so I can keep track of what I like and what is horrible 🙂 I also got some Pocky, which I remember Andrea talking about, and it’s really good. I got the strawberry kind.
So that’s it for now. I know it was a long one. I’m gonna chill out for a few more hours and then head down to Ginza for a few hours.

Oh, I’m almost positive I have thus far experienced two earthquakes. One yesterday around 8:30am and one today around 3:00pm.

Tokyo

I’m in Tokyo! I have been for about 24 hours and I’ve already done a bunch of great stuff but I am too tired to tell you about it! So, for now, look at a few pictures I snapped today around the city and come back tomorrow for the full scoop!