|Here is my journal from my trip to japan, from 6/28/07 through 7/10/07. this was all originally in email format, and i have combined them all in chronological order on this page. i've also added some photos with captions (hover over photos) to go along with this journal. as usual, i've left all the original typos. if you want to see more photos from this trip, please click here
|1st email from tokyo - 6/30/07
so it's around 10:30 a.m. now, and i've just had my very first meal in japan. i'm feeling pretty good now, but even about 2 hours ago, i was on the verge of a complete breakdown.
so our flight was pretty good. singapore air gave us lots of decent food to eat, and we got to choose from 80 on-demand movies. i ended up watching music & lyrics, the holiday, and breach. before anyone gives me shit for the first 2 movie choices, you have to understand that the audio was bad, and the screen tended to be too dark. basically, i had to choose brightly lit movies with very simple dialogue. hence, romantic comedies. i tried watching children of men initially, but it was way too dark and i was missing too much dialogue. since i actually really wanted to see this, i decided i wanted to see it under better circumstances. breach was also dark, but quite engrossing, and unfortunately, i missed the last 5 minutes because we started landing. i'll have to rent it sometime or watch the end on the flight back to LA.
so we landed in tokyo on time at 6 pm, got through customs with no problems, and got our baggage pretty fast. i even got to try out my first japanese toilet and had trouble figuring out how to flush the thing. it was one of those one-person pod/room things where you push a button on the outside and the door slides open and you just walk in. we even managed to get our JR passes transferred and operational. but that's where things started to go wrong...
i read in many guidebooks that narita airport has international atms. so, believing this, i tried several out, only to get denied each time. then, i finally found a citibank atm, which the books all said definitely accepted international bank cards. again, i got denied. by this time, it was just turning 7 pm, so in desperation i decided to give up on the atm thing and change the $60 i had on me to yen, just so i'd have some money. i walk up to nearest currency exchange, and because it literally just turned 7, they told me they were closed and turned me away. so about now i'm freaking out because i have no cash in a cash-dominated society. but since we at least had the JR pass, we could get to our hotel, so we decided to just do that.
fortunately, we had very little trouble with this next step. the rain had stopped by then, and the NEX train was very comfy and took only about 55 minutes to tokyo station. from there, we found our transfer to the yamanote line towards ueno with no problem. the subway train we then took was quite clean and nice. they announced all the stops in english as well as in japanese so it was very easy. we got off at our stop, and 10 minutes later found our hotel. it was very humid and hot, but i'm happy to report there were no mosquitoes at all!
so even though we found the hotel alright and everything, i was still very upset about the cash situation (or lack thereof). after dropping off our bags, in our incredibly tiny room, we walked to the nearest post office. i had also read that post offices had international atm machines. well, our cards still wouldn't work. i was at that point pretty much in a panic. as soon as we got back to the hotel, i sent emails to citibank, to get a PIN to get a cash advance, and my bank, to figure out why the hell my atm card wasn't working.
after all this, i tried to go to bed. needless to say, i had horrible dreams and was freezing cuz nick decided to leave the A/C running all night. i also had to drink some tap water since we didn't have any because of the airline regulations. i'm happy to report the water here tastes fine.
so about our room. wow, it's tiny, but clean of course. there's hardly any room at all to even walk around. it's got 2 twin beds, with like 1.5 feet between them, and about 1.5 feet on either side of them to the wall. the bathroom is a masterpiece in economy of space. the sink faucet is actually the same faucet that controls the water in the shower, so you cannot use the sink while someone else is showering. it's seriously like being in an airplane lavatory.
anyways, around 6 am this morning, we both were awake so i decided to shower and check my email. the water stayed a constant tempurature, which was a major plus. then i went downstairs to check my email. citibank had gotten back to me basically saying they would not release a PIN over email or even through their website messaging center because it was not secure. they would only mail my PIN to me. they then went on to say how convenient having a PIN could be. i guess they missed the part in my email about how i was in tokyo and desperately needed cash. i even called citibank collect and was told the same exact thing. the guy said i could get money from any citibank location anywhere in the world. but then i explained that it was saturday morning, and they were closed all weekend, and all he could say was sorry. fuck citibank.
so then i decided i needed to call my bank. now the problem with my bank is that it's got limited hours. i knew that i basically had till 9 am tokyo time to call them before they closed for the weekend. so i went to the front desk and begged them to let my buy a phone card with a credit card or cash. they refused both things. i explained that i had no yen at all. they told me there was a currency exchange office that opened at 10 am. i explained i had to make this phone call by 9 am. still nothing. i finally begged the guy at the front to basically give me a 2-hour loan. i gave him $40 as collateral, and he gave me a 3000 yen phone card. i promised at 10 am i'd go exchange what cash i had left and reimburse him. now it annoys me how completely useless the front desk has been. like every step along the way has been like pulling teeth. they're nice but totally worthless.
anyways, i call the bank, and it turns out VISA froze my card cuz it got declined at too many atms at the airport. apparently even the citibank atm declined it. let's say it again, fuck citibank! anyways, so i got all this sorted out by around 8:30 am. the post office, with the international atms, opens at 9, so we decide to head down there and try to find a restaurant on the way that takes credit card. after walking i don't know how many blocks, we discover that tokyo is like the most credit-card-unfriendly city ever! i'm getting more and more anxious cuz i'm starting to worry we'll literally starve to death here if we don't get any cash. i hadn't eaten since the airplane, and i don't handle hunger well. the one japanese phrase i have learned so far (as a joke, mind you)--i'm starving--is becoming less and less of a joke to me. damn, i might really mean it soon!
so after finding no restaurants or stores willing to take my credit card, we went to the post office and waited for it to open. these japanese people are punctual! at exactly 9 am, all the doors opened. i got to the atm and was so damn nervous by then. if this didn't work, we'd have no cash all weekend. this meant like searching for hours for food and not being able to enter anything that required payment, like the zoo, which i really wanted to do. anyways, so i put my card in and waited. the machine starts processing, and i realize it's taking longer than usual. finally it spits out a crisp clean 10,000 yen bill. i was so fuckin' happy it was like i had won the lottery! i don't remember the last time i was sooo goddamn happy. i think cuz i realized food was now possible... life was now possible...
so i went back to the hotel, paid the guy back for the phone card, and we immediately set out in search of food. after walking around for a bit, we settled on this place called sukiya. they specialized in eel i think, and we got these rice bowls with eel and beef. it was excellent. i didn't realize how hungry i was cuz man we scarfed our food down fast! then nick got a fanta from a street vending machine since the restaurant only served tea. now all morning and last night, while walking around trying to get cash, i was looking longingly at these vending machines. i so desperately wanted something to drink. so finally being able to buy a soda was really damn satisfying.
anyways, now we're back at our hotel, and nick's trying to plan for today. it's still early so we can definitely do some stuff. i'm confident now that the rest of this trip will be a piece of cake. it just annoys me that for all my anal planning, this stupid shit happened to us. but i really don't know how i could have foreseen this. i've used the same damn atm card in spain and mexico and never once had an issue. i swear the japanese just don't want tourists at all.
tokyo (ueno) 6/30/07 continued
it's about 10 minutes to 9 pm right now, and i'm trying desperately to stay awake a little while longer. it is way too early to go to bed. so, i am going to recap my day, from where i left off earlier this morning.
but first, i must mention that i think i'm developing card-rejection anxiety. our hotel room key is one of those cards you slide into a reader and then a green or red light comes on, letting you know if you may enter or if you:ve been DENIED, respectively. well, our card has always been spotty. but i think the atm card denials have permanently scarred me. now whenever our hotel key doesn't work, i can feel my life shortening by a few minutes or something. like my heart sinks when i see the red light. it would be an understatement to say that i stress easily, but fortunately my body somehow manages to handle it. it really is a minor miracle i haven't had a heart attack yet. anyways, back to my update.
so after our breakfast, we decided to do the zoo after all. we walked to ueno park, which apparently has like the largest population of homeless people in all of japan. i didn't actually see many myself, but i guess we weren't in the right areas. i have seen a few on the streets near my hotel though. during our confused running around early this morning, we ended up walking back and forth many times and i started noticing that we'd see the same people over and over again. that's about when i finally figured out that they were homeless and that's why they'd stay in the same spot for so long. yes, i'm kinda dense sometimes.
anyways, the point is that the zoo, along with several museums, is located within ueno park, which is quite picturesque. it's totally surrounded by the city, but inside there are nice tree-lined lanes and stuff like that. however, all that plantlife also means bugs and especially mosquitoes. i learned that the hard way, as my ankles totally got eaten up. but at least the rest of me was safely away from any shubbery. there was also this really awesome lake in the middle with huge lotus plants growing in it. but then there were these like man-made islands in the middle where there these huge birds would perch on dead-looking trees. it probably wasn't intentional, but they kinda looked like islands of death or something, surrounded by beautiful picturesque lotus leaves and blossoms, and all surrounded by crazy tall skyscrapers. quite the view.
so the zoo is quite large, composed of 2 sections. we saw tons of animals including a really cool red panda, prairie dogs, meerkats, pacing polar bears, and jerboas. the red panda was super active and very agile. he had this huge round head with all his features like smushed together in the center. he had many fans. we also saw this pair of polar bears that just kept pacing back in forth, like robots. i found that to be a bit disturbing cuz i couldn't help but think they were going a bit crazy, if they weren't already there. the jerboa i have to mention as they're closely related to the kangaroo rat, and for anyone who:s ever been to the zoo with nick knows, they're like his favorite animals. it took quite a bit to drag him away from that guy.
also, this zoo had a back section, that tourists could actually get to, where they fed the animals. this way, even if the animals had to be taken away for feeding, you could still watch them. i saw the fattest hippo eating, and some creative tongue work from a very voracious giraffe. he even tried to sneak his neck around into his neighbor's feeding area so he could steal some food. naughty giraffe.
so after like 4 hours of walking around the zoo, and purchasing many drinks from vending machines (just cuz i could), we decided to head back. we hadn't eaten since our breakfast this morning, so we bought some of these cream puff things from the train station as we passed through. they were pretty good and filling. we got back to our hotel around 5ish, and nick wanted to go up to our room and relax. i knew this wouldn't be good.
he had mentioned earlier wanting to go to this tonkatsu place. however, he forgot to bring the guide book with us to the zoo, so we had to go back to the hotel first. but i know that once nick decides to "relax," it may take some time and effort to get him up again. this proved to be true as we ended up not leaving for dinner to 7 pm.
now nick is also a major pain in the butt when it comes to picking places to eat. like earlier today, he said i could pick a place for breakfast. but of course everytime i picked something, he didn't like it. in the end we had to settle on something HE wanted. fortunately it turned out to be good. so for dinner, he once again said i could pick. he said he definitely wanted japanese but that was the only restriction. so i managed to find like 5 different places, but each time there was something wrong. suddenly his "anything japanese" turned into "something with a bowl of rice" and "no sushi" was a given. eventually we found this little place with no customers, which was worrying, and we ordered by pointing at the fake plastic food in their window. he got katsu with egg and rice and i got this steaming bowl of udon noodles with tempura shrimp, some veggies, egg, and these things that tasted like fish balls. it all turned out to be quite good and super cheap. don't worry, we've been taking pictures of all the food we:ve had so far, so if my descriptions suck, you'll get to see everything soon enough ;)
anyways, so now we're back, and we're going to have the front desk call and make my bus reservations for mt fuji tomorrow morning. i really hope they prove me wrong and actually become useFUL for once. if they blow it and make me miss my climb, i will kill someone. they need to understand that.
i think tomorrow we're gonna check out akihabara, asakusa, and maybe the imperial palace. i think we're being a bit ambitious, and we'll have to see how our feet and energy hold out. my feet are killing me right now. i don't think it's my shoes though, cuz i doubt any shoes could keep my feet from hurting after so many hours of walking today. but i'm having a good time. i've had 2 good meals now and gotten to see tons of animals. in my book, that's an excellent day ;)
tokyo (ueno) 6/30/07 recap
ha, when you guys signed up for these email updates, you probably didn't realize you'd be getting emails up the butt ;)
so it's 6 am and nick's still sleeping, and i was wide awake remembering all the stuff i forgot to mention, so i decided to send another email.
first about the hotel. they have 4 computers in the lobby for use, so you can blame them for the constant emailing. also, i already mentioned how tiny the room is, but i've since found that i'm having way more trouble navigating it than i should. i mean, i am like half the size of nick, yet i'm constantly running into things. it's pretty retarded. i've found that i seem to have just enough coordination to prevent myself from ever actually falling on my face, but damn do i get close to it on a regular basis.
also, about the weather. we were very lucky with the weather yesterday. so far, the rainy season has amounted to a few minutes of very light sprinkling. we never had to get the umbrella out once. also, i mentioned it was most cloudy but the sun did come out occasionally, and when it did, it was definitely very strong. i just wore sunscreen on my face yesterday, and i don't believe i got darker anywhere. i was actually hoping to darken my pasty-ass white legs, but no such luck. nick had actually insisted that we cut his hair super short right before leaving, and he didn't wear his hat yesterday. hence, he's now got a scalp burn. see, i'm not the only one with dense moments.
also, about the mosquito bites. i think they're gone! i've noticed in the past that if i don't touch them at all, they kinda magically go away. when i first get bitten, i get a really burning, stinging sensation and the spot swells up really big and turns red and white, alternating. if i even touch the area during this stage, the damn bite will be with me for weeks. but yesterday, i was good and didn't touch them at all. instead, i kept stomping around really hard on the concrete, which i'm sure looked really stupid. but i think i'm already a walking faux pas so most people probably just ignored me. the shock from the ground to the area kinda made the stinging less annoying. however, in hindsight, all that stomping is probably why my feet were hurting so much yesterday. but at least i'm now mosquito-bite free ;)
lastly, i feel i need to give props to a few animals stars that i forgot about yesterday. this jetlag is making me very forgetful. but after a fitful and pretty sleepness night, many memories have come back to me. there were way too many animals to talk about them all, but here are 2 i think need mentioning.
first up, the sea lions. when we got to the polar bear exhibit yesterday, we could tell the sea lions were nearby. we could hear this very rhythmic barking sound that just kept going and going and going. anyways, when we rounded the corner, it became very clear what was going on. first let me describe the exhibit. basically there was this large pool of water in the front area with a big flat slab of rock in the middle, for the sea lions to sunbathe on. on this slab there laid a mother and baby and a third sea lion, all sleeping. now there was a fourth large submerged male who had wedged his butt/tail fins right up against the edge of the slab of rock. conveniently, he had placed his ass right where the sleeping mother's head was laying. basically, every few seconds, the male would lift up his tail fins and slap the mother in the face, then follow that up by lifting his head out of the water and barking. this poor mother kept trying to move her head or scoot her body away from the edge, but everytime she'd basically settle down he'd slap her in the face again! at the same time, sometimes the male would submerge too quickly before he was done barking so he'd end up gargling and kinda choking. this went on ad nauseam. we don't even know how long this lasted cuz we finally had to leave to see other stuff. that guy really wanted to get some attention, and the mother clearly just didn't give a shit. it was retarded.
second up, the porcupines. their exhibit was actually composed of two small penned areas, with walls only like 3 feet high. the two areas were connected by a log that was about 6 feet high. however, the way it was structured, if the porcupine fell off the log while trying to cross, he would fall either to his freedom or death. this concerned me a bit cuz i definitely wouldn't want to run into a loose porcupine in the zoo. the exhibit was also small enough you could literally touch the animals. but however soft and cute they looked, i'm not so dumb as to actually try. anyways, it was feeding time, so this one guy decided to cross into the pen with the food. now, i will grant that the log was slightly angled downwards, but it was pretty minor. this guy, rather than walking across, did this really slow absurb backwards butt scoot across. i guess he was afraid to fall too. so after crossing the log backwards, he then climbed down to the ground backwards as well. i was seriously starting to wonder if he could move forwards at all. anyways, he finally got to the elevated enclosure where the other porcupine was feeding. there was a small power struggle cuz the first guy didn't want to share the food or move over to make room. in the end, the new guy won the battle and sat his butt down in front of the food. now, he knew how to make himself comfortable. he rested his right arm on this little log projection thing, and with perfect sitting posture, would use his left arm to reach down into the food bowl and grab a handful. he then would shove all the food into his mouth, making a huge mess in the process. i had no idea that, first, they could sit so upright, and second, that they had such hand/arm dexterity. i always figured they'd eat like squirrels or something, where they bring both their hands up to the mouths, kinda hunched over. the other guy kinda did that, but not my backwards-climbing friend. no, he had grace. anyways, we left him to his eating and, when we checked back up with him after 15 minutes, he was still in the same posture eating.
okay, i think i've remembered everything i wanted to say yesterday, so i'm gonna shower and start my day now.
shinjuku, shibuya, yoyogi, ueno - 7/1/07
so today didn't go at all as planned, but we still accomplished quite a bit.
after my email this morning, we got ready and went out for breakfast. we set out at around 9 am and unfortunately found that nothing was open yet. so, we stopped by this temple near our hotel and poked around. they had a cemetery attached which looked pretty neat. it consisted of rows of tightly packed in marble/stone mini tower/head stones with carvings and incense burners. i guess they stored the cremation urns inside. anyways, at first glance i thought it was really pretty, with relatively uniform polished marble headstones in a perfect grid. however, after actually stepping in, i realized that they had plots for sale next to some of the existing ones, and they actually had price tags and dimensions posted! somehow i thought that cheapened to whole cemetery to actually have posted prices. would it be so horrible if people had to enquire over prices? it would make the cemetery seem more venerable and sacred anyways.
along the way, we also saw some real japanese homes. they were like tiny apartments buildings and many had businesses operating out of them as well. nick would've smacked the top of his head on every one of those doorways. i thought our hotel room was extraordinarily small, but i think it's the standard out here. it's weird, but if they were anywhere else, i would've assumed they were like shanty town shacks full of impoverished people. instead, i think they were typical homes in the area. i also noticed how prevalent sliding doors are in general. like almost all the small homes and all shops, even really small old ones, had them. the building could be super old and raggedy, but they'd have nice modern sliding doors installed. some of the doors opened automatically by sensor, and many others would open if you just tapped on it near where the handle would've been. i guess they're good for keeping the A/C in and also take up less space. people would probably get knocked out all the time from swinging doors otherwise. picturing that is actually making me crack up. i'm evil, i know.
after our little stroll, it was finally after 9:30, so we decided to try mos burger, which is a japanese burger chain. i say "japanese" cuz some of their burgers certainly weren't american. for example, i ordered a fried shrimp burger with tartar sauce and shredded cabbage, and nick got the "mos burger" which had a regular meat patty with a slice of tomato, diced onions and this sloppy-joe like meat sauce. in hindsight, the sauce tasted a lot like the tokyo curry at hurry curry on sawtelle. we also got this chalupa/tostada thing that was on a bread/tortilla that tasted kinda like indian naan bread and had like black beans, lettuce, tomato, chip bits, and cheese sauce. i also ordered this special drink they had which tasted like sweet yogurt or milk. it was all really good. go mos burger!
unfortunately, after we got back from breakfast, nick started having stomach problems which ended up seriously delaying the beginning of our day. since i had some time on my hands, i decided to go to the front desk and see if they would book my mt fuji bus tickets. see, the night before, the guy at the desk was actually helpful and printed out the bus schedules for me. but since it was nighttime, he couldn't call and reserve them for me. he said to bring the printouts up in the morning and someone else could call for us. well, believing him, i decided to go down there with my printouts. there were 2 new, less helpful, people there. they both told me to call myself first, and if i had problems they would help. there's a phone for local calls in the front lobby. i ask the guy how much money i should put in the phone. he tells me 20 yen. i do it. then i try to call. i tell the person on the other line i need to reserve a bus to mt fuji. she says something i don't understand, and then the phone starts beeping a lot, and then silence. the bitch hung up on me! or, stupid front desk man didn't tell me to put enough money in. so that was just a waste of money and time. i tell them this isn't working. so then they give me their handset and tell me to try again, and they will bill me for the call later. i try explaining again how this still won't work as i don't speak japanese. finally i just ask them where i can buy these in person so i can get this damn thing taken care of. at this point, i have decided once and for all that the front desk is completely useless.
so i'm all annoyed and go tell nick we have to go to shinjuku station to buy our tickets in person. he doesn't want to do this, so he decides to try to ask them to call for us himself. they try to get him to call himself too, but finally he somehow manages to convince them to do it. i guess they like him better than me. still, considering their track record, i insisted we still do it ourselves, even though we now have reservations.
while waiting for nick to feel well enough to go out, i noticed another thing about our hotel: it's like completely silent. either no one else in this hotel speaks in their rooms, or we have incredibly thick walls. it's like being in a 10 x 14 foot cement cell. not that i'm really complaining.
now i have to rave about how awesome the subway system is here, or at least the JR lines. it took only like 10 minutes to get from ueno, in the northeast corner of the city, to shinjuku, in the west. the trains come like every 2 minutes or something, and they're always on time and clean. and the whole system is really easy to navigate and figure out. it's now my favorite subway system (out of london, mexico, and NYC).
so we get to shinjuku and find the bus terminal ticket booth. fortunately, the guy spoke some english. we went over the schedule and discovered the front desk actually hadn't fucked up after all. still, to be safe, we went ahead and bought our own tickets right then and there. i am absolutely not going to miss this climb.
then we decided to find the park hyatt since we were already in the area. this is where the new york grill is located, which was featured in "lost in translation." nick had read about it in several guide books and really wanted to go for a special treat. now this is where our day goes horribly awry. the sun didn't come out all day. now when there are almost no street signs and no sun, it becomes very difficult to figure out which way you're facing. so whereas we wanted to head west and then north, i directed us east and south. so instead of getting to west shinjuku where we wanted, we ended up in shibuya/yoyogi. and this was quite the long excursion too. by the time we realized our mistake, our feet were killing us. this wasn't helped by the fact that nick neglected to break in his shoes beforehand. he was getting sores all over the place, and fortunately i had brought bandaids and medical tape with us (cuz i'm getting pretty good at predicting nick problems at this point), so we were stopping constantly to retape up his foot.
we then tried entering this nice upscale mall to find him some socks. we couldn't find anything but instead checked out the basement food area. man, this is a food wonderland. there were so many things, and everything looked great. since i was tired, grumpy, and hungry by then, i decided i had to buy something. i ended up buying some donut twists cuz i figured they'd be easy to eat on the go. i was hoping to find more japanese-style treats, but i had missed the area and only found them after i'd already purchased my donuts. still, they were actually quite good and definitely had a japanese twist, so i didn't feel too guilty about it.
after this mini break, we decided we were going to find this damn hotel if i killed us. so after some more walking around, we found the building fairly easily. but actually finding the hotel lobby, and then navigating the various stairways and elevators proved to be another challenge. anyways, to end any already crappy adventure, when we were finally making reservations, they informed us they had a dress code and men had to wear pants. well, considering it's hot as hell out here and humid, we didn't pack any of course. so this totally depressed nick, but honestly i was kinda over it. i'm generally not a fan of places with dress codes. i think it's all very pretentious. money is money, regardless of how i look.
so after this, we decided to check out the meiji shrine also nearby. this place was really nice. it's inside yoyogi park which is all tree lined and green. they did cover the dirt with small pebbles though which i didn't like. my feet were already hurting so much by then, and the uneven terrain didn't feel so hot. we did get to see a traditional wedding though, with old school clothing and stuff. i actually found out cuz some random japanese guy nudged me and said something in japanese. after i told him i didn't understand japanese, he told me in english "wedding." then he kept pushing me closer and closer to photograph it. i guess since i was carrying a fairly large camera he figured i'd care. i did think it was cool so i'm glad he decided to point it out to me.
i've decided the japanese don't like loitering anywhere. since we were pretty worn out, we were constantly looking for benches and places to sit. there weren't any. in the end, we sat on a lot of stairs and probably annoyed the crap out of people. at one point some maintenance guy was sweeping the stairs above us and a metal beebee ball bearing hit nick in the ear. accident? not so sure myself. some guy at the meiji shrine even told us to get up when we sat down for a second. i guess no loitering means less crime, and it definitely does seem to be working. walking around in the morning, i noticed all sorts of packages left out in front of businesses, and nothing was getting stolen. amazing.
so after the meiji shrine, we checked out harajuju and saw some cos play people. it's just weird. that's all i can really say.
man, but on the way back to the subway station, we spotted an oshman's sporting goods store. seriously, does anyone else remember these in LA? there used to be one in the westside pavilion even. they used to be huge. well, i guess they still are here in tokyo. it was great cuz we were able to finally get nick some decent affordable socks. still, it just tripped me out to find one. what a blast from the past.
since by now it was getting late, we decided to try to find that tonkatsu place we were going to try yesterday. we ended up not finding the exact one, but another one in the same area of ueno. i ordered a fried shrimp dish and nick got the pork cutlet. they came with miso soup with tiny mushrooms, rice, and shredded cabbage. they had the sauce in a bowl on the table, and you just spooned out however much you wanted onto your meat, rice, and cabbage. at first, i was surprised at how much more tart it was from what i'd had in america, but after a few bites it was damn addicting! i have to say, i'm really happy with our choice of restaurants so far. we're 4 for 4 right now and that ain't bad!
anyways, the area where the restaurant was was really cool. everything was so lit up it reminded me of vegas. there was a mall and tons of shops and restaurants everywhere. it was still part of ueno, but on the "other side of the tracks" from where we've been staying. it seems all the action is west of the JR station, and the east, where we're staying, is super sleepy. i'm just glad we saw more of the exciting parts of ueno before leaving. i was thinking it was just a slow boring neighborhood.
man, it's only 8:30 pm and i'm so ready to go to bed now. gotta stay up a few more hours. we're gonna meet up with nick's family tomorrow so i better rest up. otherwise, i just might implode.
nick's family reunion - 7/2/07
so today was the big family reunion for nick's family. this would be the first get-together between the japanese and american sides in over 25 years. but first, i wanted to mention a few things.
first off, tonight is our last night at this particular hotel, and i'm looking forward to some new beds. these beds are like sleeping on hardwood. my right hip, left shoulder, and tailbone are all super sore and out of whack from sleeping in various positions. my tailbone is totally spasming and i feel like i'm about to throw my back/tailbone out every time i bend over to pick something up. i figure any bed would be an improvement.
also, our hotel toilet has this two-way flusher. one side is marked with the character for "big" and the other "small." i was really proud of myself cuz i actually knew the characters from when i was a kid. they're 2 of like a handful of characters i still remember from my childhood. anyways, you flush one way for big shits i guess, and the other for pee. pretty funny. nick's supposed to be in our room taking photos right now. instead, i'm sure he's studying kanji. i don't think i've mentioned it yet, but nick's been obsessed with taking photos of kanji he doesn't know from signs all over town. considering he's still pretty new to japanese, this means he stops every minute or so. then at night, he gets out his huge-ass kanji dictionary and looks the stuff up. he insisted on bringing this dictionary along, but it's like 5 inches thick! he can be such a dork sometimes, although he clearly doesn't think so. his current belief is that "japan would be a lot cooler if it weren't for all the dorky white guys."
so today we had made plans to meet at his parents' hotel in ryogoku, east of where we were staying. it's the place to go for sumo apparently. anyways, so first we decided to go eat at mos burger again, and i wanted to take photos at the shrine with the gravestones, which was nearby. at mos burger, we decided to splurge and each got 2 burgers (they're tiny i promise). i got the spicy mos cheeseburger which had jalapenos on it and the shrimp burger from last time. nick got this filet-o-fish-like thing and the shrimp burger as well. i also found out they call the yogurt drink they have lassi, like the indian drink. it tastes nothing like a lassi to me, but i still like it.
after this, it was already like 10:30 am so we decided to head to akihabara and walk around a bit before meeting his parents. we walked into a few duty-free shops and a pachinko parlor. everything was very bright, but all the stores seemed to basically carry the same electronics. i checked the camera equipment, and they definitely cost about the same if not more than back at home.
so after walking around for a little while, we decided to head to ryogoku and see if we could call up to his parents' room. we found their hotel real easily as it was basically right outside the station. we were an hour early so we went up and hung out. their room was definitely larger and they had a normal-sized bathroom. we also met up with nick's brother, aunt, uncle, cousin, and grandfather who's a massive flirt (and nick's namesake).
so then at 1 pm, we met up with nick's mom's cousin (the only english-speaker) and aunt in the hotel lobby. they showed us around ginza and showed us the movie theatre where nick's grandmother had worked and where his grandfather had first asked her out. i should probably mention that nick's grandmother was japanese. we then walked around ginza and went into a huge department store. after this, i think some people in our party were tired, so we decided to go back to the hotel to rest. weaklings. these people got tired after walking like only 2 hours. ha!
anyways, we hung out at the hotel for another hour before meeting back up with the aunt and cousin. we then went to nick's grandmother's shrine where she used to play all the time as a child. it was in kameida. it was really pretty actually and we took tons of photos. after that, we met the whole family for dinner at a KARAOKE BAR! i just about flipped when i realized we were having this get-together at a karaoke place. still, i was glad to have a chance to experience this popular past-time, even if i wasn't going to participate at all. there were 11 people from the japanese side in total, and only one of them spoke any english at all. basically, we had one translator going back and forth. anyways, a lot of people sang, including nick and his brother performing a horrible rendition of queen's "another ones bites the dust." it was godawful but pretty amusing. dinner was pretty good but not enough. it was like basically endless appetizers, most of which never quite made it to our end of the table. i also managed to completely ignore his brother, which was great. after the singing and eating was over, we did the gift exchange. i'm not sure how well our ucla keychains went over, as i'm not sure if people even knew what they were. i was trying to get nick to tell them that we both went there. anyways, i thought they'd make cool gifts, especially since i think the japanese like ucla.
after all this, we went back to his parents' hotel again and hung out a bit. we just got back, and it's now 10 pm, which is probably the latest i've stayed up so far. and i still have to pack up for osaka tomorrow. man i'm tired. i'm just glad i survived this huge family reunion intact. it's nice doing sightseeing with old people. they get tired easily, and so my feet don't hurt nearly as much today as all the other days when we were on our own.
i'm sure i'm forgetting stuff, but i am just too tired now. i'll hopefully be able to update more at our next hotel in osaka. we'll have to see if they have available computers for use. but if you don't hear from me, you can still be confident i'm stuffing myself silly with food. the osakans apparently have a saying that goes something like "eat till you drop." when in rome...
osaka - 7/3/07
okay, so i was mistaken. it is possible to find a harder bed.
so it's about 9 pm and we just got into our hotel rooms for the first time. we got into osaka at around 12:35 pm today but have spent all day wandering around. our new hotel is definitely nicer than the last one (despite the even harder sleeping surface). this is more of a business hotel for japanese businessmen, whereas the prior hotel was more like a hostel for tourists. this place has a nice fancy-looking lobby with nicer vending machines, and most importantly, nicer washer/dryer facilities, which i plan to use tomorrow night. they also play this really silly music which makes me think i should be riding "it's a small world." and they have free chilled filtered water.
so before i move into today's activities, i forgot to mention that we actually did get some real rain in tokyo finally yesterday. this meant we got to break out our super awesome 3-piece rain suits! not only does it come with a jip-up jacket with pockets, it also comes with a detachable hood and elastic-waist pants! now why on earth they needed the hood to be "detached" is beyond me. like what's the point of a rain coat/poncho if it doesn't have a hood to cover your head? the jacket alone is not exactly a fashion statement i want to make. the whole thing is made of opaque colorless plastic, so you can see what we're wearing underneath, which i really think adds to their appeal. anyways, both of us actually did go around in public with these things on, but be assured we did not wear the pants. my dignity is still somewhat intact. nick however managed to expose the vent holes on the back of the jacket and ended up soaked anyways. and when we finally fixed that issue, he ended up sweating so badly cuz the vents didn't really work. but at least his head was dry.
speaking of rain gear, the department stores in tokyo had the coolest contraption for wet umbrellas. you stick your closed umbrella into the hole at the top of this machine and then you yank it out sideways and voila! your umbrella is now wrapped in a plastic bag so it won't leak inside the store. i tell you, these japanese people are ingenius! and yet, they still prefer to air dry their laundry. go figure. also odd is that such a heavily populated city prefers umbrellas over ponchos. umbrellas take up a lot of room and people are constantly tangling up their umbrellas. you'd think ponchos would make more sense, but we were like the only people wearing them. like we don't stick out enough as it is.
anyways, now on to today's activities. we got a late start and didn't check out till 9 am this morning. then, on the way to the train station, we decided to stop by sukiya and get the eel and bbq beef rice bowl again. it was still great the second time around.
we boarded a 9:36 am bullet train (shinkansen) to osaka. these trains really do move man! and they were quite nice. they had nice seats that reclined with tons of leg room. we were able to fit all our luggage in front of us. we didn't get a window, but the sides of the trains have huge windows so we could still see outside with no problem. we got to see some larger homes as we got further outside of town. we also saw the most massive apartment/condo complexes. vegas casino hotels have got nothing on these babies. they seriously looked just like hotels. and they all had balconies where they'd hang their laundry out to dry. the japanese make smart toilets that lift up the covers and flush on their own, but they don't seem to believe in dryers. in many ways, their culture seems to be full of contradictions, some very old traditions mixed with modern technology. anyways, the bullet train ride was pretty cool and we got to see some farmland and lush mountainous areas as well.
so we arrived into osaka and went straight to our hotel. we got to ride in the subway for the first time. up to this point, we've been riding the JR line, which is really a railway but also part of the subway system in tokyo. the subway here in osaka isn't quite as nice, but it's just as punctual. they also don't have as many signs posted in english so it was a bit more difficult to navigate. i kept having to compare my english subway map to the signs at the stations. we checked into our hotel at around 2 pm, but we weren't allowed in our rooms till 4 pm. apparently, they are very strict about this. so, we had no choice but to go out. we had previously decided that we'd mostly just wander around and eat, but we had to see osaka castle. now, in tokyo the problem was that it was always overcast and threatening to rain. but from the time we arrived in osaka, it was super hot and sunny. it was really draining walking around carrying all our luggage in search of our hotel. i now wish it was overcast again.
osaka castle is in a huge park and business area with some modern stuff like a baseball field and some government buildings. we climbed up to the top, and it really is pretty impressive. it has like 2 moats or something like that and huge rocks used like bricks for its defensive walls. and i mean HUGE rocks. we're talking 100s of tons. they don't know how the hell they transported these things, but they sure do look neat. walking the grounds is free, but you have to pay 600 yen to get inside. nick wanted to do this, but unfortunately we didn't realize it is basically a museum. we thought we'd see the interior of the castle, but it was actually pretty boring. but at least we got to go to the very top and get an excellent view of the city. and it was heavily air conditioned ;)
after this, it was like 5ish, and i was starving. we hadn't eaten since breakfast. we decided to head to minami/namba as it was recommended as the most exciting nightlife area of osaka. we had recently watched an anthony bourdain episode about osaka, and we wanted to try some of the regional specialties. as luck would have it, we ended up turning down the exact street where a lot of his show was taped. we recognized a lot of the weird buildings and signs. and when i say weird, i'm talking like huge octopuses and crabs attached to buildings. this place is like new york city on crack. in fact, most of tokyo was as well. these popular areas are so well lit you can't even tell it's nighttime. in that way, it totally reminded me of vegas.
so, we decided to try as many things as we could. first off, we found a place that specialized in octopus balls. they're made of some batter with onions and ginger and bits of octopus grilled/fried into balls. we tried to get some without ginger, but the batter was already pre-mixed with the stuff. we got some to share, and they really were quite good. if only we could've gotten them without the ginger. next up, we decided we had to try "japanese pizzas" which are more like pancakes. again, they use a batter with onions and ginger, but you can put anything you want on these things. we ordered a regular one from a street vendor and shared that. it was also really good and reminded me of chinese dumplings. nick got a fanta melon cream soda, which actually tasted a lot better than it sounds, and i got a milk tea from a vending machine. after that, i was determined to find more japanese pizzas but with bacon. we saw on the bourdain show that you could get this, and since nick loves bacon, we thought it would be fun. i also wanted to try some with yakisoba (fried noodles) mixed in. unfortunately, the only places we could find with the bacon were sit-down places where you actually cook it yourself. we went into one where we had to take off our shoes and sit on the floor, like japanese style. considering that we've been sleeping on rock-hard beds, this wasn't ideal, but i was willing to put up with it. but then we had to cook. and then everyone around us starting to light up cigarettes. at this point, we decided we didn't have the time, energy, or lung power for this, so we bailed. we walked around some more, but finally gave up our search and settled on ice cream. we got ice cream from this maybe turkish guy? he had this really long spoon-like tool that he would dip into the ice cream and stir and pull with. i get the feeling the ice cream was in super deep basins or something cuz he'd dip that tool way down in there. the ice cream consistency was definitely different in that he could stretch it out really long and it didn't break. he even let me take a picture of him doing it, so hopefully it comes out. i got turkish tea flavor and nick got vanilla. they were both really good. after this, we decided we'd been on our feet way too long and it was time to go home. we didn't get to "eat till we dropped" literally, but i'm happy we got to try the 2 main osakan specialties. and there's always tomorrow and the morning after as well ;)
off to sleep on my wooden plank now. i wonder what new part of my body will start hurting tomorrow...
kyoto - 7/4/07
hey, so we discovered our new hotel has free tv. i now know that the weird japanese shit they play on spiketv isn't actually weird shit but just japanese shit. like last night, they showed some guy using a slip-n-slide to become a human bowling ball. he wore a helmet and would slide head first into like 100 bowling pins. seriously retarded.
and i was mistaken again. the new bed seemed harder, but i actually slept better last night than previously at the other hotel. i think it's more uniformly firm with a thin layer of padding on top.
also i had forgotten but our new hotel chain serves free traditional japanese breakfast. this morning, i came down to check my email and saw they had a whole spread. they had 3 different kinds of rice balls with various seasonings, miso soup, some pickled veggies, and coffee or tea. it was all really good. when i read about it online, i assumed it was flavorless plain rice balls, but they were so good even nick went back for seconds!
so on to today. we had decided to do kyoto today but had no clue what to do in particular. we found there was a JR subway train that went directly from osaka to kyoto, which was very convenient. however, we accidentally got on the local line instead of the rapid, which took forever. but this particular driver totally made it worth it. we were at the very front of the train, and his compartment was separated from the passenger cars by clear plastic so we could see his every move. we noticed that he kept pointing at something. at first we figured he was actually talking to someone on the radio or something like that. then i thought maybe he was dancing up there. then, we finally figured out that he was pointing every time he saw a traffic signal! every so often, along the tracks, there would be these traffic signals i guess to tell the driver if they need to slow down for a stop. well, every time a new signal came into view, he'd point at it. and not just any point. it was an over-the-head flip-of-the-wrist point with flare and style. he kept up this little "game" the entire way. watching him do this kept me entertained to no end. also, at every stop, he'd open up his side window completely and stand up and stick his entire upper body outside. then when the train doors closed again, he'd sit and close the window 3/4 of the way up again. he did this like clockwork. i guess it was no coincidence i majored in anthro in college. watching some guy's weird habits totally fascinates me. and finally figuring out his pattern was even more exciting.
after we arrived in kyoto, i had to go to the bathroom and got to use my first squat toilet since i was china like 14 years ago. that was a trip. i'm happy to report that i didn't fall in or have any other mishaps.
since we had no idea what to do, we decided to go to nijo castle cuz it sounded cool and i really like castles. we totally walked all the way around the thing before we found the entrance. and that was quite a walk as it really is quite large. also, we finally got a real taste of the rainy season. it was pouring down rain on and off all day in kyoto, and we only brought one umbrella to share, which made sightseeing pretty unpleasant. but we did finally get into the castle and got to walk around the grounds which were really pretty. lots of trees and greenery and some ponds and stuff too. we also got to go inside and see some of the original mural artwork which was pretty neat. we also noticed a lot more tourists (aka white people) in kyoto than in either osaka or the areas of tokyo we'd visited so far. i also got a lot more double-takes from the japanese in kyoto than anywhere else so far. i guess i looked like an odd asian to them or something. or i had a booger hanging out of my nose.
so after the castle i was totally starving, so we decided to head to downtown kyoto. the lonely planet guide had recommended this ramen place named santoka. and amazingly, we actually found the place! nick and i have pretty much given up trying to actually find anything. wandering randonly is now our preferred mode of exploration. anyways, i totally had the best ramen ever. i had their specialty ramen with miso sauce and pork cheeks. i know that sounds weird, but it was super tender and tasty. totally worth our little detour. they had little chopped bits of peanut and sesame seeds in the broth which was a really cool touch. never had anything like that before.
since downtown was near gion, the geisha neighborhood, we thought we'd walk down and hopefully see some geishas. navigating kyoto turned out to be quite difficult, and we ended up going east rather than south. but along the way, we did find this super tiny cute shrine. i have no clue what it was called, but it was nice to be able to walk around with no one else around at all.
another thing we'd noticed was that the maps in japan tend to have north at any random direction. like in american, north is always up on a map. but we finally figured out what was going on. on the tourist maps posted around town, they would try to put north where it would be in relation to where you were standing and facing, so giving you i guess an easier map to read. well either way, it didn't work so well for us today. so since it was pouring down rain and we'd totally walked in the wrong direction, we gave up on the geisha idea and figured they wouldn't be out in this weather anyways. instead, we decided on nearby nanzenji temple, which lonely planet said was the "most pleasant temple in all of kyoto." so we decided to see the most pleasant temple in the most unpleasant possible weather. it was pouring down super hard at that point. we even ducked into a mcdonald's at some point to get away from the rain and to use their restroom. nick got an apple pie which he said was good but different. the filling wasn't as sweet but the crust was almost kinda salty.
so we braved the rain and found this temple. it turned out you had to pay to get in so we decided to just walk around cuz i really wasn't dying to see another temple. but i'm glad we got to wander around a bit looking for stuff cuz we got to see a lot of little neighborhoods and homes.
lastly, we went to fumishi inari shrine which nick had seen photos of and totally had to see. the guide books all said to go around dusk, but with the overcast weather today, it didn't really matter. if you guys haven't seen a shinto shrine, i guess they always have this huge wooden archway type thing to symbolize what it is. it's not so much an arch as a squarish rectangular shape, but they can form basically a walkway. actually, they kinda look like the shape of the stonehenge stones, with two vertical pieces and one horizontal laying on top. anyways, at this shrine, they essentially made tunnels by spacing these things like a foot apart from each other. so you start walking through them and it's the coolest visual effect. plus, they're all painted super bright orangey-red. it's also very eery in that you are walking in what is a clearly manmade archway, but that's all that is manmade around you. you look out and all you see is forest and, in our case, pouring rain. we also saw lots of bugs, frogs, and mosquitoes, and i have 4 new bites to prove it. i swear i just need to be in the vicinity of some shrubbery to get bitten. also, my mosquito bites from the zoo came back. they were just dormant for about 30 hours or so and came back with a vengeance. i also got some more from the meiji shrine. if i'm within like 100 feet, they'll find me :(
now, the guide books really should've mentioned something about being prepared for a long-ass hike, cuz what we thought would take like 30 minutes tops turned into a 1.5 hour hike up and down stairs. when you enter these "tunnels," you can't tell how far they go. so nick and i just kept climbing up and up and up till we thought we'd finally reached a clearing. there was a different way down, so i thought we should try that. also, maps along the way showed it formed a loop at the top and came back down that way. now, the maps weren't at all clear and we couldn't read the japanese, so i really shouldn't have tried to make sense of it. before we knew it, we were walking down unpaved dirt paths with like a stream running past in nothing but forest. since it was nearing 6 pm and we didn't have a flashlight, we decided to retrace all our steps and go back the way we came. nick said the guide books suggested you never do this alone, and i can see why. it was nerve-wracking enough with nick by my side. you're completely alone out there and i think it would be very possible to get lost in the wooded areas. it was late and no one else was really around anymore. we pretty much abandoned the umbrella at that point and started hurrying back in the pouring rain. we were both completely soaked through by the time we got back to the entrance. and of course, it had stopped raining by then as well. fortunately for nick, he's been wearing a lot of workout gear that dries super fast. me, i was wearing cotton everything, and my ass was still wet after we got back to our hotel in osaka, over an hour later. all along our hike, i'm thinking this was probably not the best idea the day before i'm planning a 7-9 hour hike to mt fuji. because it was so slippery on the way down, my legs got super fatigued from tensing and trying not to slip and fall. however, i would totally recommend seeing this place cuz it's by the far the coolest thing i've seen in japan, but try doing it earlier in the day and when it's not pouring rain.
we were smart on the way back and took a rapid train from kyoto to osaka, cutting our traveling time down by half. by the time we got back into osaka, we were so tired that we decided to just pick up some food to eat in our hotel room. at the subway station we got some japanese baked goods from a bakery including a blueberry filled muffin-type thing, something like an apple turnover, and this other stuffed thing i still have no clue about. it had sweet cheese on top, but the filling is still a complete mystery. the texture was like raw sugar, but it didn't taste like it. still, it was good so i finished it. we also got these mini sandwiches of pork, ham and cheese, and egg salad. lastly, we stopped by this belgium waffle place and got blueberry waffle desserts, cuz all the baked goods didn't count ;)
so now i'm in the lobby waiting for my laundry to finish. i've taken a shower and feel much better now. i plan on taking many many pills tonight and tomorrow to combat my achiness. my feet are absolutely killing me! but the hike must go on!
i probably won't be able to send anything out tomorrow night, but hopefully my next report will be about my successful hike up mt fuji :)
mt fuji - 7/5-7/6
so mt fuji totally kicked my ass, but i did make it to the damn summit! more on that later. first, an update from where i last left off.
so yesterday was our last day in osaka. we had wanted to see 2 areas of town: namba and umeda. namba we already saw, which is known for having a great nightlife and food. umeda is more of a daytime place with tons of department stores and shops and restaurants. since we needed to pick up lunch before leaving osaka, we decided to go to umeda.
the department stores are often connected to the subway stations, so it's very convenient to find lots of restaurants and stores right when you arrive at your destination. we ended up putzing around a few of the department stores and checking out various restaurants. nick also went in search of a dictionary at this bookstore named book studio. this reminds me: there's actually a bookstore chain out here called "book-off!" we found this funny. it could become the next coolest thing to tell someone to go "book off!"
nick had been wanting to try japanese curry, so we ended up settling on curry station indo club. seriously, that was the name of the place. anyways, it was our first experience with the vending machine ordering style. you walk in, and there's a vending machine with pictures of the various dishes beside them with the price. you put money in the machine and press on the items you want. these little tickets come out, which look a lot like subway tickets, and you take these to the front counter where they then make your food. so i got this basic ground pork (?) curry with rice, and nick got pork cutlet curry. both were pretty decent, and nick's was quite different from any japanese curry we'd previously had. it was really buttery and sweet in taste.
after that, we decided it was time to take the shinkansen back to tokyo, since we had planned to meet up with some friends for dinner before leaving for fuji. we left osaka at around 1:30 pm and arrived at our new hotel at 5 pm. we weren't checking in till the following day, but they at least let us leave our luggage for free. on the 3-hour train ride from osaka to tokyo, we actually got a great view of mt fuji from the windows. it was perfectly clear and you could even see the snowy peak. that totally pumped us up.
so we met up with our friends sharon and garrett and decided to go to the nearby department stores to pick up food for our hike and then get dinner. the basements of these department stores have the greatest food areas. you can buys tons of different packaged meals and fresh produce and groceries as well. this isn't a good place to go if you're hungry cuz everything smells and looks great. we ended up picking up some shrimp shumai, pork and mushroom shumai, and fried dumplings. we figured that would provide enough carbs and protein and be easy to eat with our hands.
after that, we wandered around forever trying to find a restaurant to grab a quick meal. our bus to fuji left at 7:50 pm, but we wanted to start heading down to the station by 7 so we'd have time to find the right terminal. we ended up at this cafe parisienne. nick ordered a beef curry dish (he was really into curry yesterday), and i got basically pasta with tomato meat sauce. both were actually really good. it sucked though cuz sharon and garrett weren't eating, and the restaurant kicked them out because they didn't order! it was pretty lame.
after they took off, we scarfed down our food and then headed to the station. earlier, garrett had mentioned that this place called mister donut was supposed to be good, and we had walked by it a few times. so, on the way to the station, nick insisted on getting some. i got a honey churro and nick got a regular honey-glazed donut. they both definitely tasted different from american ones, but were still good.
so we had like 40 minutes to find our bus. and it turned out we needed every minute of it. it took us running all over the station to even find the bus terminal. then, from there, we had to find the right bus. turns out only regular city buses park in the terminal. the other long-distance buses are distributed in the streets all over the place. basically we started running from bus to bus, showing them our tickets, before someone pointed us in the right direction. the japanese are super punctual, so we knew we absolutely had to get to the right bus by 7:50 or we would be shit out of luck. that was the last bus leaving for fuji that night. fortunately, we found the bus with exactly 4 minutes to spare. man, it was stressful though. the ride was supposed to take about 2.5 hours, but only took 2 in the end. the driver kept stopping at these middle-of-nowhere bus stops, and of course no one ever got on. the bus was mostly tourists after all.
so we arrived at the 5th stage of fuji, which is a popular starting out point for hikers, at just before 10 pm. the elevation here is out 2400 meters above sea level. the summit is at 3776 meters. so the bus driver basically dropped us all off in this really dark parking area with only 1 store open. we get out and he says bye and good luck. that's it. so we all walk into the one open store, and i buy my wooden walking stick which comes with a red ribbon and bells tied to it. they're supposed to stamp your stick at every stage as you go up. we also stocked up on some caffeinated sodas for nick. i also decided to pay the 100 yen to use their bathroom. they had western-style toilets, the ones you sit on. but these toilets were burning hot! it was the weirdest thing. i was practically burning my ass just trying to use it.
anyways, so a lot of people from the bus had already started up so we decided to set out at around 10 pm. so i had read that usually the mountain trails were packed with people and that you'd hardly even need a flashlight since everyone around you would already have them. okay, something wasn't right i guess cuz we were practically alone up there. we eventually met up with this german guy named martin and did basically the entire hike with him. initially we thought we'd picked a great night for this hike. we had an excellent view of the lit-up town below almost the whole night. and the moon was also clear. this is, however, before we realized the top of the mountain was basically covered by a donut of fog.
the hike starts at 5th stage, then you go on to 6th, then 7th, and finally 8th which lasts till you get to the summit. the hike from stage 5 and 6 was estimated to take 45 minutes, and we took only 15 so we were feeling pretty good about our progress. now let me tell you this isn't nearly as easy a hike as the guide books make it out to be. it had lots of gravelly loose rock areas that were really slippery. there were also areas where you had to climb over big rocks and stuff. i was really glad i had brought gloves to protect my hands. i found the stick didn't help me much initially so i just dragged the stupid thing behind me while nick carried our 1 flashlight. eventually i found the stick was very useful in helping maintain my balance when it was windy and slippery.
we also discovered that most of the stations at each stage weren't fully operational either. and most of the hikers seemed like hiking enthusiasts rather than your average tourist. i was practically the only one on the mountain with the stamped tourist walking stick. the climbing season usually runs from july through august, so i'm thinking it was dead cuz it was so early in the season. it sucked though cuz almost all the stations weren't stamping the sticks on the way up, and some were just completely closed with no notice.
even from 5th stage it was very cold. immediately after getting off the bus, we had to put on our windbreakers. i was wearing cargo shorts (to better carry rocks i was going to steal from the mountain) with long thick tube socks (which i was planning to toss when it heated up), a long-sleeve under armour shirt (cuz it was supposed to be very hot on the way down), and a scarf with my jacket. nick, on the other hand, decided to wear workout shorts and t-shirt and tiny no-show socks, along with his windbreaker. needless to say, this turned out to be a really bad idea. as we moved higher and higher up, it got colder and windier. there were also large patches of snow, some right by the trail, which was not a good sign either. some of the stations were open and had heated rest areas, but they were charging a shitload to use these areas. either you had to pay like 7000 yen (about $65) to rest, or you could get 10 minutes for each order of food you bought. our german friend put it nicely: "the japanese aren't so nice up here." it was practically cruelty cuz they could see everyone was freezing out there.
anyways, to make a long story shorter, our pace slowed significantly during the last leg of the hike. my calves were burning, the oxygen was thin, and we were just really fatigued. there were areas that were so gravelling and slippery that it felt like for every 1 step you took forwards, you were slipping backwards 2. very discouraging. it also got to the point where we couldn't stop and rest because we'd get too cold. remember, nick was doing this with bare legs. i'll be honest. there were points when i really just wanted to stop. the hike wasn't much fun, and i can say definitively that i will NEVER do it again.
anyways, after 5.5 hours of hiking, at around 3:30 am, we got to the summit, only to find out the summit station was CLOSED! sunrise is supposed to happen at 4:30 am, so there was a small group of people all huddled around the station building waiting for them to open. at this point, i would've paid a fair amount of money for the opportunity to wait for an hour, till the sun rose, indoors. so imagine everyone's disappointment when we realized we would have to wait a full hour at the freezing summit with no shelter at all. also, it had gotten very foggy at the higher elevations, and we could barely see a few yards in front of us. i had brought our ponchos in case of rain, and nick was wearing one to help insulate him from the cold, and i wrapped the other one around our legs as we huddled side by side against the station wall. even with the two of us pressed together as closely as we could, we were constantly shivering. it's seriously a miracle neither of us came down with pneumonia or something. even people with way more clothing and gear were freezing up there. man, when that wind decided to blow, it was going to blow right through anything you were wearing. it was seriously miserable. at this point i was feeling very guilty for practically forcing nick to do this climb with me.
so to add to our disappointment, rather than see the sun rise, all we saw was the dark fog/mist turn into a ligher and lighter grey till it became white. that was the spectacular "sunrise" we got to see. apparently the crater area was even foggier and windier so most of the hikers didn't even bother to go see it. after waiting a full hour for the sunrise, and realizing the summit station was never going to open, all i wanted was to go back down to warmer temperatures. i didn't even go see the crater, which is disappointing. my camera never even left my camera bag. i took no photos at all from the summit. all you could see was fog and i was shaking so badly i figured i'd probably drop the damn thing. the stupid summit station being closed also meant that i never got to mail any postcards from the top of mt fuji as i had promised several people, and that i never got my damn walking stick stamped either. so to all the people i promised postcards to, i did mail them, but from 5th stage after our hike instead of the summit. sorry, but there was really nothing i could do.
so after 5.5 hours of hiking and 1 hour of freezing our asses off, we started our 4.25-hour hike back down. considering we had no real rest time in between, our downhill trek was depressingly slow. our knees had taken about all they could, and it was excruciatingly painful getting down, even after downing several aleve and advil. originally, i figured we'd take 5 hours to get up, spend some time just wandering around and taking photos from the summit, and then spend another hour walking around the crater. then, by around 7 or 8 am, we'd be well rested enough for the downhill trek. clearly, things did not go as planned.
we also took a slight detour on the way down which was supposed to be easier, but i think it may have been harder on the knees. this trail kept zigzagging back and forth. so you'd think you were near the end, till you got to the "end" and realized it kept going, but had zigzagged in another direction. i did at least take out my camera a few times and took some photos from the trails. even when we got below the fog and felt the sun's heat, it was still cold because of the strong winds. these winds could seriously knock someone down. i also managed to get my stick stamped at the 3 different 8th stage stations. our detour unfortunately made me miss the 7th stage stations, and apparently the 6th stage station doesn't do stamps at all. and i never did get the damn summit stamp!
so finally we got back to the bus station area at around 9 am, and our bus didn't leave till 11. since we had nothing to do, we sat around and finished the rest of our food. we finally found an indoor area with tables and chairs and we sat down and got some drinks. our hiking companion, martin, had left us on the way down, i think cuz we were going so slowly. but we met up with him again and hung out a bit. we also talked to some americans who were planning to do the hike themselves that night. i can't say i gave them a convincing argument in favor of going. i had tons of volcanic ash and gravel in my hair, and i could barely walk from the pain in my knees and feet.
finally, we boarded our bus at 11 am, and ended up back at our hotel by 1:45 pm. we met up with our friends sharon, garrett, and don and had a late lunch together. we were still super dirty and tired, but we couldn't check in till 4 pm. we ended up going to mos burger, where i got the mos cheeseburger and lassi drink, and nick got a shrimp burger, fish burger, and coke. it was a hit with everyone. then, we decided to go to mister donut again since garrett wasn't able to go with us last night. we got some old-fashioned honey-glazed and almond caramel donuts. the old-fashioned one was the best. after that, we headed back to the hotel to check in. we had decided we'd nap from like 4 to 8 pm, and then we'd all meet up again for a late dinner.
i took the longest shower of my life i felt so grimey. i had to wash my hair like 3 times to get all the grit out. then i set about unpacking and cleaning our shoes. then, at around 5:30 pm, i finally started my nap.
at 7:30, we got back up to meet up for dinner. earlier in the day, we had walked by this tonkatsu place which had a cheese-stuffed fried meat thing. it looked disgusting to me, but nick was all psyched about it, so we had decided we'd try it for dinner. nick of course got the cheese-filled ground meat patty with fried batter, and i had a combo plate with fried shrimp, crab, and pork fillet tonkatsu. it was all really good. after that, we went to mister donut again! this time, both of us got the old-fashioned honey donut and i got an iced tea, which is probably the only thing keeping me going right now. this hotel doesn't have chairs in front of their lobby computers, so i'm actually standing right now, and it's almost midnight. i am sooo damn tired.
well, i'm sure i've forgotten to mention some stuff, but i've seriously got to go to bed. i'll update again if i remember anything later.
imperial palace, all-japan karate, asakusa, akasaka, shibuya, etc. - 7/6/07
so last night i went to sleep at around midnight, after not sleeping at all the night before, and work up at 8 am this morning. since that was a full 8 hours, i figured i should get up and attempt to get on a decent schedule, if only for a few more days before leaving.
today was the preliminary day of competition for the all-japan karate tournament. it's like the biggest shotokan tournament in japan and this was the 50th anniversary. we had planned to attend with sharon, garrett, don, and one of sharon's friends, dan, who lives and trains with the JKA in tokyo. however, nick and i had also wanted to see the imperial palace, so we figured we'd do that first thing in the morning, and then go to the tournament afterwards.
nick has gotten tired of the breakfast rice balls, so i ended up having breakfast in the lobby area myself. i was standing around with nowhere to sit for a while before some nice lady motioned that i could sit with her. she and her husband were about to leave anyways. unlike our previous hotel, which had bar seats, this hotel has 4-top tables. this doesn't work so well as most guests are by themselves and end up wasting 3 seats.
anyways, we finally headed out for the imperial palace at around 9:30 am. unfortunately, we could not for the life of us find the damn entrance to the eastern gardens, which is basically the only part of the palace that's open to the public. so we wasted about an hour wandering around trying to get in. when we finally found it, i didn't really think it was all that impressive. plus, i got bitten up again. but i did steal some rocks for my growing rock collection.
as an aside, i think i must've been high and hallucinating at the top of mt fuji when i picked out my rocks. at the time i thought they were cool. i even remember picking some rocks up, examining them, and deciding they didn't quite meet my standards. but looking now at what apparently did "meet my standards" i'm at a complete loss as to what the hell i was thinking. it must've been the oxygen deprivation. still, i'm so disappointed with myself. then again, i'd rather regret some questionable rock choices than do that climb all over again.
anyways, back to my narrative. so after we decided to leave the palace, we spent like another hour in the subway station trying to figure out how to get to the tournament location. i've decided the JR lines are definitely better than the subway and easier to navigate. we also hadn't eaten anything so we stopped at a doctor doutour in the station and got 2 hotdogs. they had dijon mustard on them, but i just wiped it off and didn't eat the part of the bread with it. i hate horseradish.
so, we finally showed up to the tournament just before 2 pm. our friends had saved us seats so that was very nice. we also got to meet sharon's friend, dan, who had competed earlier that day at the tournament. we sat around and watched and i took some photos till around 4 pm.
after that, we decided to go to asakusa to see the giant buddha at this one shrine and to see about some festival that occurs every 7/7. this year was supposed to be special since it would be 7/7/07. unfortunately, not much was happening, and the temple was even closed so we couldn't see the buddha.
after that, i mentioned that i wanted to buy some plastic food so we headed back to ueno, basically the exact area where our first hotel was! we'd just never gone far enough up this one street that sold them. anyways, the stuff's not cheap, but i had to buy some cuz they just crack me up. we also stopped at this ceramic/chinaware store and i got some really good deals on some stuff.
after this, we decided to grab dinner and went to akasaka, which is apparently known for having a lot of restaurants. we went to an izakaya-style restaurant, which is kinda like tapas, where you order many little dishes and share. we got all sorts of stuff i'm not even going to get into it. but the most interesting thing i had was horse sashimi (translation: raw horse meat). it was pretty good actually, but mostly i just couldn't turn down the opportunity to try something like that. i don't remember the name of the place, but i did steal 2 coasters ;)
after this, we headed to shibuya to just walk around and soak up the nightlife, and there was definitely plenty of it there. there were way too many girls walking around in slutty outfits with like 4-inch metal spike heels. i really don't understand how they can wear things like that. like all the girls here wear the metal heels, and i just can't see how they can handle the shock of the metal against the concrete all day. i wouldn't last 10 minutes.
shibuya also has like the largest 4-way crossing in the world. it's where traffic from all directions stops, and the entire middle intersection opens up for pedestrians. i think i saw on tv that about 1500 people cross on any one light change. anyways, so then nick and garrett decided to just stand at one end and stare at bad fashion and bad "engrish." this went on for like 30 minutes before i managed to convince nick it was late and we needed to get to bed.
all in all, a very eventful day. we went all over the place, to many places i hadn't had a chance to visit yet, and i took care of some souvenir shopping. plus, it was great to have a local show us around and give us some insight. tomorrow we're going to attend the finals of the all-japan tournament and see some war museum where they've essentially rewritten a lot of history (i.e. WWII was actually started by FDR in some conspiracy). should be interesting.
all-japan tournament & ebisu - 7/8/07
so today was the finals for the all-japan shotokan tournament, this time near the imperial palace at the budokan, which also serves as a concert hall (although it has horrible acoustics). sharon's friend dan had gotten us free tickets which was really cool. we wanted to get there at 9 am so we left the hotel at around 8:20 am. i now definitely hate the subway cuz it's so damn confusing. we walked around forever trying to find the right station to get on the right line. in the end, we just gave up and got on a line and transferred like 3 times to get where we wanted. we ended up getting there at 10 am. fortunately, don managed to find it with no problems and had saved us some seats.
now this was the 50th anniversary, so the japanese prime minister from back in reagan's era was there, as a special guest. it also meant a million speeches, none of which i could understand. also, they dimmed the lights and had some violinist play for like 30 minutes. man, i was totally falling asleep. the tournament was supposed to be over by like 4:15 pm but instead ran over till almost 7! i was so ready to leave after like noon.
when the half-time stuff first started up, some of us went out to grab lunch to bring back to the people who were holding our seats. we ended up at freshness burger, where i ordered 2 double cheese/meat burgers and a fish sandwich for me and nick to share. they were damn good! they used real cheddar cheese rather than the american processed crap. after we finished eating, the damn half-time speeches lasted like another 30-45 minutes! also, it was creepy cuz there was this one girl competitor who looked a lot like me from where we were. she had short hair styled very similarily to how i used to do mine. weird.
anyway, so when it finally ended, we went to ebisu to grab dinner. this area i guess is also known for having good food. we went to another izakaya-style restaurant, where we had more horse sashimi. it was even better than the last place. we also ordered cheese croquets for nick, some fried chicken, daikon salad, tuna/avocado sashimi, and a sausage platter. all very good. after that, i stopped by a bakery and picked up some baked goods, which i then proceeded to eat while walking around. i'm such a pig.
we also stopped by the hoitsugan, nakayama's old dojo. it was empty but unlocked so we went in and checked it out.
and no night would be complete without a stop at mister donut. i don't even know what the hell nick ordered.
now we're back at the hotel, and we're gonna get up early for the fish market tomorrow. it'll be our last full day, which is kinda sad.
all-japan karate (cont'd)
by popular demand, more info on the actual tournament itself (for all the karate folks). i guess i got a bit carried away with the food. plus, the thing did drag on so long i wasn't really in the mood to write about it last night. for people not interested in karate, you can just ignore this email.
so about the fighters. the tournament is only open to japanese competitors, or foreigners who are training regularly with a japanese dojo. during the half-time show, the competitors lined up behind signs showing what prefecture they were from. there were only like 3 foreigners on the final day of competition. most of the tournament consists of the university division, with people representing their university karate team. however, there also was a small high school division, and an open division where any adults could compete. i guess this division isn't particularly large as the older folks have trouble keeping up with the fast kids. mostly, i was just thankful there was no kids division. also, apparently there is a whole separate tournament for seniors somewhere else.
about the foreigners. there was this one blonde girl who was super easy to spot, and her one teammate was this other white guy. i'm guessing they were eastern european and probably a couple since they happen to train at the same dojo. i never saw the guy, but the blonde chick was just alright i thought. the third white guy was this guy named richard from england. dan, who trains at the hombu dojo knew him. basically, this guy just teaches english in order to support his karate habit. he also has a really bad back and should have surgery, but has been putting it off so he could compete this year. he went up against last year's winner early on in the finals, and that match was very exciting. it was very clear they both respected each other and were very cautious. we rooted for the foreigner but in the end he lost. dan told us poor richard would be depressed about this for the next 4 months. i guess we all know a super obsessed fellow like richard. he sat with his head hung for a long time afterwards. pretty sad.
anyways, so most of the male competitors were definitely very fast and small. there were a few stocky fellows, but i think it was mostly the gi that made them look bigger. one interesting thing i noticed was the lack of kicks. all any of them did was counter punches. however, we did actually see a mid-level round-house and back kick score, which is very unusual. there was also a ton of hugging. like once they got too close to each other, they'd just start grabbing and try to throw. also, as i'd seen in videos, the men aren't required to wear mouthguards or gloves so it did start getting bloody. however there were these people wearing "lifeguard" vests that would clean up the blood and shove tissues up people's bloody noses. i guess this was just bad engrish for "first aid."
in the finals, this one guy actually pushed the other guy's face away after the fighting had been stopped and practically eye gauged the guy. then the next time he tried to knee him in the head after the ref had stepped in! it was getting kinda ugly and i was really hoping the refs would give him a foul or something because it was totally inappropriate. hell, i thought this was karate, not mma. so by then, we were all rooting for the put-upon guy. and man was he put upon. he got hit numerous times, with bare knuckes mind you, and in the end had a huge bandage wrapped all the way around his head to keep the blood from running into his eyes. plus, he wasn't as well known so he was the underdog. he was super fast though and definitely a good sport. he never lost his cool even when his competitor was being a straight up dick.
there were some fairly good female competitors too, but i have to admit i still prefer watching men any day. the one who looked like me, #101, was the kumite champ from last year. we had binoculars and she didn't really look like me at all. she was taller and thinner i think. and garrett thought she was hot so we kept rooting for her. anyways, she was tearing everyone a new asshole with so little effort. she was very accurate and would beat her opponents in like a few seconds. so it was very surprising when in the finals, her opponent got several questionable points. we were very sad she lost. but at least she can take solace in knowing she was the best looking female there ;)
about kata, we saw a ton of heian katas in the preliminaries. i'm not sure if they were required to do both high-level and beginner katas to qualify. we saw a ton of empi and bassai dai for the brown belt katas, but in the finals it was basically all unsu and jitte. but i guess it pays to be different. the winner of the kata was this guy who did sochin, nick's favorite kata. funny because, for 2 years in a row, the ozawa cup kata champ also did sochin. i've found this can be an amazing kata to watch when done well. we still thought the ozawa cup guy was better though.
there were also a ton of old jka guys around. i don't remember most of their names, but i know ogura (my favorite kata guy) and tanaka were there. also, mrs. nakayama was there wearing a kimono. i guess it was a who's who of the karate world, but i really can't keep all their names straight. oh yes, and mori and mikami were there too. but no okazaki as the iskf has split from the jka. all this splintering is just dumb.
so basically, this tournament consisted of really fast guys running around punching each other. i found the ozawa cup to be more entertaining to watch and photograph since they would try more fancy kicks. also, because they were mostly focused on kicking, there were times when the competitors would get way too close to each other and just stay there, i guess cuz they weren't even concerned about the fact their legs could reach each other. it was weird.
anyways, i hope this satisfies everyone's questions regarding the actual competition.
shopping - 7/9/07
so today was our last full day in tokyo, so we wanted to take care of some last-minute stuff like souvenir shopping. initially, we had planned to go to the fish market in the morning but we both slept in till 8 am. then, since we knew we weren't going to make it, we slept in even longer till about 9 am.
last night, when we got back to the hotel, we found out that nick's parents called while we were at the tournament. they were around shinjuku and thought maybe they could meet up. so, we called them up this morning, and they wanted us to stop by their hotel before noon, when they were leaving for the airport. so we were supposed to get to the hotel by 11 am, but nick got stomach problems and we ended up stuck at the hotel till almost 11. we got to his parent's hotel at around 11:45. we then walked around with them near their hotel in ryogoku (sumo neighborhood) till around 12:30 pm when they finally got a taxi to leave for the airport.
after that, we decided to go to ueno/asakusa, where all the plastic food is made. since last time we went to this area, nick got tired and stayed behind at the corner, i thought it'd be fun for him to see them. we ended up buying a huge shrimp tempura which you could use to beat someone over the head, a yakitori skewer, and an octopus ball with mayo on top. i also bought these cool metal spoons with like dimples all over them. i saw them at one of the restaurants we went to and loved them, so i searched all over the kitchenwares area for them. and they were cheap too.
after that, we tried to find nio figurines. for karate folks, the funakoshi karate kyohan book has a photo of one on the front cover. they look like these gnarly muscle-bound guys, which come in pairs, and they're like buddhist guardians. we had bought a set for a karate friend a while back, and it proved to be very difficult in america. in the end, don had a friend in japan who ordered them for us, direct from japan. it turns out they're not that much easier to buy in japan either. the only set i found was like $1000 each! so then i decided to look for the fushimi inari foxes. i may have forgotten to mention, but the kyoto shrine had these dogs all over the place, like around all the shrines. it turns out they were foxes, which were the guardians of the cereal god, which is what the inari shrine is for. but in my mind, it'll always just be the shrine to the dogs. anyways, so i wanted to buy some of these but couldn't find any nice ones of those either. it's so hard to find cool wooden figurines it seems.
at this point, nick was starving so we went to our trusty friend, mos burger. i got a hotdog with their meat sauce, which was very good, and a milk tea, and nick got a shrimp burger and "fresh burger," which was basically a normal cheeseburger, and coke.
so after that, we went to harajuku, where dan had recommended a place to buy antique kimonos. i had also read in our guide of 2 promising antiques/souvenir shops in the area. as usual, we got lost. and also as usual, we ended up going the exact opposite direction from what we wanted. we were supposed to head west from the station, but instead went east. this town is so hard to navigate, and the lack of sunlight once again became an issue since i had no shadows to give me an idea of what direction i was facing. anyways, we finally found the kimono shop which was very nice. but since there were 2 other places i wanted to hit, we only looked around briefly and then left. the first place, the basement of the hana nori building, housed several antiques dealers. however, it seemed they mostly specialized in jewelry, and i wasn't really interested. the second place was called the oriental bazaar, and we ended up buying a lot from this place. they also had antique silk kimonos, and i ended up getting 1 regular thicker kimono and 1 summer kimono. i liked them both so much i couldn't decide which to buy. plus, they were only like $25 each! i guess the japanese really don't like used clothing, but i don't mind, especially when brand new silk kimonos are like thousands of dollars. we also bought this silly sumo doll which is in mid-stomp posture. it was just too funny. the guy said they were made in a small town near nagoya. i hope all the stuff i've bought so far is actually made in japan. it would be lame if i get home and find out stuff's made in china or something. at one point, i almost bought these wooden bowls, cuz they were much cheaper than similar ones i'd seen elsewhere. good thing i decided to investigate cuz it turned out they were made in vietnam. wouldn't have made such a good japanese souvenir would it?
so after all this, we decided to head back to our hotel and rest a bit. it was already close to 7 pm by now. we dropped off our stuff, laid around for like 10 minutes, and decided to get food. i decided i wanted to do another izakaya on our own so we could order some new stuff. we got the horse sashimi again, cuz we both really like it; a yakitori sampler; a potato, shrimp, and egg salad; fried chicken; this cheese/hotdog concoction dish; and a daikon salad. the salad wasn't as good as the one we had the other night which had a sesame paste dressing. also, they gave us some free raw shrimp in wasabi and a separate egg sushi thing. it was all very good, but man food really isn't cheap here.
i thought i'd mention i think this trip is helping me slowly wean myself back on to horseradish. i used to like the stuff until one fateful dinner when i was 12 years old. before this, i remember i used to eat these popular chinese snacks, dried green peas with horseradish flavoring. however, when i was 12, we were visiting china and ate at this restaurant which served this dish with duck feet soaked in horseradish sauce. i made the mistake of putting a whole duck foot in my mouth, and unfortunately it was too rubbery to chew. i had the damn thing in my mouth for several minutes, trying to chew and swallow, before i admitted defeat and had to spit it out. i was trying to be polite. anyways, ever since then, i have a very adverse reaction to horseradish. like it's not so much about taste anymore. i actually kinda freak out. like i have to remind myself to remain calm while eating anything with it, so it's clearly psychological. well, since just about everything here has some wasabi in it, i think it's helping me slowly get used to it again. i hope it works cuz it's annoying having a panic attack every time i accidentally get some in my mouth.
anyways, so after dinner, we got ice cream cones at haagen-daz. dan said they were good here. so i got raspberry & cream and custard cream, and nick got summer berries. they were all good.
and now i'm back at the hotel, and i need to pack to check out tomorrow. we're gonna try to do the fish market tomorrow morning, and maybe the sumida cruise. then, if we have time, i wanna look for my damn foxes again, and nick wants to get a dictionary.
next time i write, i'll be back in my apartment :)
last day in tokyo & conclusion to my trip - 7/10/07
so i am home now, and i apologize for taking so long to send this last email. we got home yesterday after 2 pm, and i've been too tired and incoherent to do much. but here's the conclusion to japan 2007.
so, on our last morning, we decided we had to get to the fish market. we got up at around 6:45 am, skipped the hotel breakfast (which i'd gotten pretty tired of anyways), and headed directly to the tsukiji central fish market. it took us quite a while to get there as it was across town, in the southeast, from where we were in the red light district of shinjuku. we finally arrived at around 9 am. the early-morning auctions that you see on shows and stuff start at around 5 am, but we found out that it is closed to the public. so, since nick didn't like the idea of getting up super early on the last day of our "vacation," we decided to just show up for breakfast. unfortunately, it seemed tokyo felt it had been too kind to us in the past few days in terms of weather, so of course it rained on our last day. still, most of the fish market is actually covered so that wasn't a problem. but walking around was also dangerous cuz there was lots of fish cutting going on, and you were very likely to get splashed with fish juice. i got to see huge frozen fish getting sliced with like an industrial-strength table saw. i also saw one guy who was cutting eels by slicing like halfway through their necks, but then that wasn't enough cuz he'd then slice through the poor guys' faces while they were still alive! it was too gross to watch.
now the place is super crowded and hectic. there are aisles and aisles of fish vendors, and every variety of seafood imaginable. add to this tons of people and these "mighty cars," which were basically pallet drivers, going every which way. i almost got hit by these cars on many occasions. they looked really fun though. many were brightly colored. the driver would stand on these wooden platforms that were about 6 feet long, and at the head would be a bright barrel-looking thing, which housed the engine, and the steering wheel would be attached at the top. those things really moved. and it's funny because i rarely saw anything actually being moved on these things. it's like the drivers just liked riding around and scarying the crap out of the tourists.
so after walking around the super stinky market, we decided it was time to eat! we found this little sushi place bordering the marketplace and figured this stuff had to be super fresh. i got this huge sushi sampler for like $10 and ate 15 pieces of sushi. man, the stuff was really good, nothing too fishy at all. i also had the awesomest piece of scallop. the thing was so huge it more than covered the rice underneath, so i didn't think it could be a scallop. the sucker must've been huge before they sliced it up. but it was the most tender tasty thing ever. i was pumped. there were also fish heads in the soup they gave us, but i just sipped the broth and tried to ignore what else was in the bowl. nick got this cooked eel bowl which he said was really good. we actually remembered to take photos this time (i've been really bad about that). it was a great breakfast :)
now nick had read somewhere that the sumida river cruise left from somewhere near the fish market, so we started heading towards the river, figuring we'd find the pier/dock easily. the sumida rivers runs through tokyo, along the eastern side, and it crosses under several scenic bridges. it supposedly gives you a nice view of a lot of the city. but apparently nick was wrong about the starting point cuz we never did find it. i've since found out where it starts, and it wasn't even close. oh well. it's like the only thing we had to skip on this trip, so overall i think we still did really well. i like to cram my vacations full of stuff. i'm not too into going to other countries to "relax," as i'm sure you can tell by now.
so after all this, we had to head back to the hotel to meet up with don for lunch. since we had all just eaten, most of us weren't too hungry, but poor don was starving. now, yesterday, when we were in ueno, i had wanted to find some inari foxes, but we had run out of time. so, i had this idea we could do it quickly after lunch. and since we needed to be in the ueno area, everyone agreed we should go get lunch in ueno, to be in the right area. unfortunately, this was quite the long ride so we didn't get back out there till practically 1 pm. originally, my plan was to leave shinjuku station for the airport by 3 pm. my flight was for 6:45 pm.
anyways, since everyone enjoyed the freshness burger we had at the tournament, and we knew of one in ueno, we decided on that. along the way, i showed them where our first hotel was and the 99 yen store nearby. there weren't any of these in either sharon or don's hotel neighborhoods so they found this place to be very exciting. they both got umbrellas for only 99 yen since it was definitely raining lightly by then. ever since nick and i got soaked at the fushimi inari shrine, getting a little wet is like no sweat. so, we finally got to freshness burger. i'd forgotten how far it was from the JR station. we had found it previously on our wanderings all over the neighborhood in search of a restaurant that would accept credit cards. funny how places seems so different later when you've gotten to get to know them better. nick and i each got the fish burger, and he got a blood orange soda that was really good. i'm really going to miss those fish burgers. like they're actually made of fish that flakes, not some white mystery meat.
after this, we went in search of foxes. i have quite the whirlwind shopping style when i have something in mind. i can walk in, look around, and be back out the other side before nick has even entered the store. he's learned to just stand outside and not even bother to follow me anymore. since we were super short on time, i was practically running from store to store. it was great though cuz everyone was helping me to find them. garrett was running into stores saying the japanese word for "fox" and most of them kept pointing us to a store further down the road. we found one store that had tons of foxes in the window but it was closed! fortunately we did finally come upon a store that had tons of different kinds, but no wood, which was what i had wanted. but beggars can't be choosers. i finally settled on these metal ones. they had other ones but they were like hundreds of dollars! so, now that i had my foxes, i was perfectly content and ready to go home.
we parted from don in akihabara, where he went to buy some haze filters for his new camera lenses, and sharon, garret, nick, and i continued to shinjuku. by the time we arrived, it was already past 3 pm, and we still had all our luggage at the hotel. but since i got my foxes, and i knew nick really wanted to buy a dictionary, we stopped at this huge like 9-story bookstore by the station. in the end, they didn't have a great dictionary selection, or at least anything we couldn't buy in the states, but they did have a cool guide to japanese food. if only we had this prior to the trip ;)
we practically ran back to the hotel in the rain, dodging umbrellas along the way, picked up our super heavy luggage, and ran back to the station, again dodging umbrellas. we got tickets to the narita express for 4:12 pm, which was a solid hour after i had planned. and to my dismay, it took longer than the 55 minutes i had remembered cuz we left from shinjuku station this time, and before we arrived in tokyo station, which is closer to narita. we didn't get to the airport till 5:30! fortunately it wasn't crowded at all, and we were on the airplane by 6:20 pm. they also made me check in my walking stick cuz it was "dangerous." haha, i can read the headlines now: "crazed woman beats passenger to death with a mt fuji souvenir walking stick with bells".
i had wanted to get the seats up front so we'd have more leg room, but i ended up with the row right behind the first one. still, these tv screens were much better than on the way there. but unfortunately it looks like they change their movie schedule every month, and since we arrived in june, the movies had changed. and of course, breach, which i missed the last 5 minutes of, was no longer an option. i'll never get to see how it ends now! and children of men and letters to iwo jima were both gone as well. so instead i watched the lookout and starter for 10, two indies i had read good reviews for. they fed us very well again, but i still couldn't sleep. i don't understand why airplane seats are shaped the way they are. no matter what i do, the back of my seat pushes my head forwards so, if i do fall asleep, i quickly wake up cuz my head falls forwards. totally sucked.
so we arrived at LAX early at around 12:30 pm, but another plane was in our spot so we taxi'ed around for another 30 minutes, during which i dosed off several times. i don't think i've ever been so tired and jetlagged. i think it's cuz we didn't allow any recovery time upon arrival in japan, then deprived ourselves of another night when we climbed mt fuji, and it was finally catching up to us.
when we finally got to the baggage claim area, there was this gigantic group of like band camp dorks or something sitting around the carousel. i was in a pretty crappy mood and i wanted to kill them all. a huge international flight was having their baggage returned on this carousel, and these retards were taking up like more than half of the access space to it. they were even sitting on the damn thing. when the carousel finally started moving, a bunch of them got all scared and shit. it was great.
so my stepmom picked us up from the airport and we were finally home by 2 pm. i spent several hours unpacking, sorting through mail, and checking bills. then i slept from 5 to 7 pm, did laundry, and got us some italian food for dinner. i realized that was the one type of food i really missed. they have italian food in tokyo, but i felt guilty ordering that stuff. but overall, i really didn't have any problems with the food in japan. i enjoyed pretty much everything i had eaten and could've stayed a lot longer. this was the first trip in a while where i wasn't really that eager to return home. i really enjoyed it. and if i ever do return, i'm totally going to stay at the toyoko inn hotel chain again. they were clean, spacious by japanese standards, provided shampoo, conditioner, and soap, and free breakfast. even though i got tired of rice balls and miso after a few days, it was great to know the option was there. they also had decent washing machines and lots of soda vending machines. that's one thing i'll really miss: the vending machines. they were on every street corner and there was such a great variety. after we brought our take-out dinner home last night, we realized we didn't have anything to drink in the fridge. if only we had vending machines here in LA...
the major impression this trip has left me with is that the japanese people are super punctual and rigid. i swear they are the closest to robots of any society i know of. they're almost utopian or dystopian, depending on how you see it. on the one hand, it's great they're always on time, dependable, and reliable. on the other hand, this rigidity seems to lack a human element, like compassion. it was great knowing that if you missed a subway train another one would quickly come. if you needed to get into the post office, you knew that as soon as it struck the opening time, the doors would automatically open. but on the other hand, i got stuck in my whole cash mess upon arriving because the currency exchange counter refused to serve me when i showed up at exactly 7 pm, their closing time. our hotel front desk also wouldn't sell me a phone card with either american cash or credit card, even after i explained i had no other way of getting cash at all. i had to literally beg the guy to give me a 2-hour loan with way more cash than the face value of the phone card as collateral. it's like they can't think outside the box. and that's not to say they're dumb or anything, but i think they're just so used to obeying rules/laws. i definitely saw a lack of individuality. it was all just very strange.
anyways, that pretty much concludes my trip. thanks to everyone who actually read this damn thing. i know i practically wrote a small novel ;)
till next time (hopefully peru)...
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