Friday, July 18, 2008

Japan Trip July 2008

Dated links go to my public Picasa albums

Dates: June 26-July 10 2008
Party: Vu, Chad , Ricky, Dan T, Daniel L, Kim L (and on some days Kim S)
Memorable pics: Best of Japan
Memorable quote:
Dan T: "I know this trip is only 1 day in, but I have to admit this has been my best trip ever”
Ricky: “that’s because you are a loser.”

Note: Both statements are true
Memorable moment: Ricky washed his JR pass in the laundry
Memorable place: Lawson Market (convenient store)
Memorable shirt quote: "Silence, but deadly!" I wonder if the owner just simply thought to himself, "man, look at me, I am so Ninja"

Itinerary - (Our Photo Map)

Thursday, June 26
Travel: Flight: Tucson --> Phoenix --> San Francisco --> Tokyo
Travel Day Flight from US to Japan

Friday, June 27
Travel: Flight: Tokyo; Narita Express Train; Shinkansen: Tokyo --> Shiroishi
Lodging: Pacific Hotel in Shiroishi
It was only 10 minutes into Japan and Daniel was already spitting game. He sat next to a women (looked like a little girl, but she was almost 30) who went to school in the states, and gave us a lot of pointers. It was a bit overwhelming walking into the Tokyo train station but we had made reservations with our Japan Rail (JR) pass to Shiroishi which made it a lot simpler. It took 2 hours to arrive to Shiroishi by Shinkansen (super express bullet train) where we met Kim L’s friend, Kim S, who has been living in Japan for 2 years.

It was only 10 minutes into Japan and Daniel was already spitting game

We walked through neighborhood streets to arrive to Pacific Hotel in Shiroishi, where the men stayed the night while Kim L stayed with Kim S. We all then ate dinner at a local noodle restaurant where we ended up celebrating Ricky’s birthday. We started singing happy birthday and a table of drunk Japanese men sang along cheerfully with us. A few of us started drinking beer and Sake, I just remember Chad’s statement, “the night is young, we can sleep on the airplane ride home.” I just didn’t drink much as I knew the aggressive plan we had in front of us. We learned from Kim S the most important phrase in Japanese which was “sumi masen”, or excuse me. These were the only words that mattered to me the whole trip.

Saturday, June 28
Travel: Train: Shiroishi --> Matsushima --> Sendai --> Shiroishi; Car: Taiko drumming; Foot: Everywhere
Lodging: Pacific Hotel in Shiroishi
The men woke up nice and early, some a lot earlier. Chad locked himself out of the hotel room and decided to wake Ricky up to go view sunrise. Chad decided to wait for Kim S to arrive so that she could talk to the receptionist. We were all like, just go talk to them and communicate with gestures, but Chad refused as he was uncomfortable in this country on his first day. We were waiting for the girls for a while, and I kept insisting to Chad that he go and get his room unlocked so that we could just leave once the Kim’s arrive. After half an hour I was like, fine I’ll go with you and do it, but he still refused. I was like fine, I’ll go do it, and I went in, made some gestures, and they figured it out. The receptionist was really helpful. However once I was able to communicate to them, it was Ricky that came inside the hotel while Chad was still waiting outside. We got Chad’s key out of his room, yet while Ricky and I returned to the lobby, Chad was still waiting outside the hotel. Chad pretty much insisted that we were so screwed the rest of the trip and we need Kim S to be with us. Good thing some of us did enough research and are confident and competent enough to get around. Anyways, while waiting for the Kim’s we walked into a local shop where we met a really nice owner who spoke a little English. He explained to us the importance of the town of Shiroishi, which meant white stone I believe. It was on the same longitude as the North and South Korean border, and some important industries including white paper. He was so nice (as is all Japanese service) so we took a picture with him. Then the Kim’s arrive, and we took a local train to Matsushima. We took a cruise out to sail by some of the islands, and had a chance to feed sea gulls. That was fun to just feed the birds as you can just toss a cracker and they would catch it out of mid air. Once the cruise was over, we visited a local shrine and had some lunch in the area. We then walked over a long bridge to a nearby island. Legend has it that couples crossing the bridge would end up separated. We spent the afternoon hiking the island and enjoying time on the beaches there. We headed back to Sendai on the way home and experienced conveyor belt sushi. We arrived back to Shiroishi where we got to go out and experience some Taiko drumming, and do some Taiko drumming on our own. Again, the people were very nice and the sensei, who was 70, had so much energy. We got back at night and hung out at Kim S place, where a few of us drank more Sake. We then walked out to buy some fireworks and set it off in the park. It was about 2 am and on the walk back home, the tone of the trip was already set. Dan T made the statement, “I know this trip is only 1 day in, but I have to admit this has been my best trip ever”, and Ricky immediately responded, “that’s because you are a loser.” This was going to be a fun trip indeed.

Sunday, June 29
Travel: Shinkansen: Shiroishi --> Tokyo --> Kyoto; Taxi: Sushi; Foot: Everywhere
Lodging: K's House Kyoto
We spent the day visiting the local castle in Shiroishi and had some Sesame soft serve ice cream. This sparked ice cream fever, as we looked for ice cream every day on the trip. We then went out to make hotel reservations, where Kim S had helped us communicate to the travel agency at the giant super market. Dan L bought a pack of dried squid and had some trouble opening up. The bag completely exploded and squid got everywhere. Pieces that were salvageable went into his bag which made it smell for a few days. Nevertheless, the squid was delicious. We then went to another place for sashimi and they had some specialty tuna pieces that were amazing. The rain had picked up and we were starting to get fearful as we knew we headed to Japan during rainy season. The rain came down hard as we walked back to the hotel. Ricky was getting soaked, and was forced to buy an umbrella at a local shop. This was the beginning of Ricky’s unfortune, as he had to carry this big bulky umbrella everywhere for the rest of trip. It was never used again as he had it and carried it around. He would often forget it at restaurants and would have to run back and get it. The umbrella even dropped on a Japanese lady on a train. Eventually Ricky forgot his umbrella at one restaurant much later in the trip, and he decided to just leave it. It rained really hard the next day, and he was forced to buy a new umbrella. It stopped 1 hour later and was not needed again. The rain had spoiled our plans of visiting a crater and an onsen (hot spring) Anyways it was time to move on, and we made our 5 hour trip to Kyoto. Chad was assured we were screwed as we were on our own without Kim S.

Monday, June 30
Travel: Shinkansen: Kyoto --> Hiroshima; Miyajimaguchi; Ferry: Miyajima; Cable Car: Mt. Misen; Foot: Everywhere
Lodging: Hotel Makato Miyajima
After a pit stop at K’s house in Kyoto, we got on a train early morning to head over to Miyajima. We took the JR shinkansen to Hiroshima and took the JR ferry to Miyajima. We spent the early morning visiting the Itsukishima shrine with the famous floating torii during the day which was at low tide. This allowed us to walk under the gate. We checked our belongings into our ryokan, or traditional style hotel, named Hotel Makato. On our way there, we found a 70-80 year old lady walking on the small streets all by herself. She starting speaking Japanese to us and all I heard was “Makato”, and we just said “hai, we want to go to Makato.” With no fear of 6 strangers, she walked us a few blocks down to the hotel. How nice and generous of her. We were greeted at the hotel by a receptionist who had no English speaking ability, but he was so nice, and we eventually figured it out. We checked our bags, and then spent the afternoon hiking our way up to Mt Misen. We had to take the cable car as we were time limited. We made it to the summit of Mt. Misen, and the view was absolutely gorgeous. At sunset, we took a cruise to the floating torii gate where we were able to float through the gate. The sail operator was really nice and helpful. We were chauffeured back to Hotel Makato. by the hotel receptionist. We were then served a traditional style Japanese cuisine by our personal service “maid.” Once done with dinner, we had found our floor beds in our room was already made for us. We strolled at night back to the shrine to view the lighted splendor. We ended the night taking a traditional public bath which was really refreshing.

Tuesday, July 1
Travel: Ferry and Train: Hiroshima; Street Car: Hiroshima; Shinkansen: Hiroshima --> Himeji --> Kyoto; Foot: Everywhere
Lodging: K's House Kyoto
After a traditional breakfast, we returned to Hiroshima to visit the Peace Memorial park and the A-bomb dome. It was such a moving experience and you can just feel the pain of war and how horrific the experience was to civilization and mankind. I always read about the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, but to be there and to see the dome and the museum was just incredible. We ended up stopping by a McDonalds for lunch, where a majority of us had decided we want to taste Japanese McDonalds, which is much different than American McDonalds. We had much protest from Ricky and he claims he got sick 30 minutes after. We truly think it was the traditional food. Anyways, the McD served teriyaki burgers, shrimp burgers, and the mega mac, which is a double big mac. After lunch we headed to Himeji, to visit the famed Himeji castle, which is one of the highest, if not the highest castle in Japan. We then returned to Kyoto for the night and enjoyed some arcade action. Some Japanese folks were just amazing at games.

I successfully hit 4 parked bikes and ran over a caution orange cone

Wednesday, July 2
Travel: Bike: Kyoto; Foot: Everywhere
Lodging: K's House Kyoto

K’s house in Kyoto was a very clean hostel. You could not where shoes inside. The experience was great and it gave us a very positive outlook on hostels. Besides, it was only about 33 dollars a night per person. Ricky and Chad got the experience of sharing a 6 bed dorm room, and from that, they got the idea that we could tour Kyoto on bikes. So we rented bikes and toured the city. Daniel L took the lead and did the navigation through the city, which was relief as I successfully hit 4 parked bikes and ran over a caution orange cone (it’s been a while since I rode a bike). Nevertheless we got in about 20 miles in pretty good time. We were able to eat in the middle of town, in a non tourist place, since Ricky wanted something that was “authentic” to Japanese culture. We arrived at a cafĂ© that offered curry, and Ricky insisted that this was not “Japanese curry”, but Indian curry. I was like, look around, there is only Japanese people here, this is what people here eat, what makes it “unauthentic”. He ended up getting a spaghetti dish, although the curry was quite good. Anyways, we got to visit Nijo castle which has neat art on the walls and the neatest floors which squeaks like birds each time you walk on it. There was no way a ninja could sneak around there unnoticed. We then made our way to kinakuji temple and the Golden pavilion, where the building was completely covered in gold. We then made our way towards Kiyomizu dera, where we ran into a huge mass of people on Shijo dori. We took a few extra minutes going on back streets and alleys to get to our next destination. The Kiyomizu dera temple was like it was built into the mountains and offered beautiful view of Kyoto. I can't believe it was not on our priority list to see this place. It makes me wonder how many other treasures the city had to offer which we missed to see. After the temple we went to Gion district, where you can see lots of women in Kimono. Ricky was adamant about getting “authentic traditional” food, so we indeed got just that. Ricky got a dish with fish heads, pickled stuffed and whole fishes. The look on his face when the heads came out was priceless. I don’t think he was expecting it, looked disgusted, and didn’t end up eating it. The rest of our dishes were really good.

I can't believe it was not on our priority list to see this place. It makes me wonder how many other treasures the city had to offer which we missed to see.

Thursday, July 3

Travel: Train: Kyoto --> Osaka --> Kyoto; Osaka Subway; Foot: Everywhere
Lodging: K's House Kyoto
We had a slow start on this day as when we walked to the train station, Ricky had found out that he had forgotten his JR pass, and that it was in his pants which he washed the night before. He ran back to the hostel to pick up his pass. You could see Ricky from a good distance and on his way back, you can see the dejection on his face. His pass was all shredded up. We tried to talk to the JR ticket office and tried to explain what had happened. The receptionist started laughing. He really had no idea what to do, so he took it to his manager, and on the way, he just showed all the coworkers and everyone just laughed. It was so funny. The receptionist tried to tape the pieces back together. What service! However, the manager needed the receipt which was back at the hostel, so he had made another run back to the hostel. Eventually, we had to wait till the end of the day to get approval of a new pass. Poor Ricky, though he was a good sport about it. After all that, we wanted to take a step away from traditional Japan and visited Osaka. It was really humid, just like Florida, It was quite unbearable. The weather so far has treated us well, knowing that we were going into the rainy season, but Osaka was just too hot. Nevertheless we ventured up to the Umeda building and visited the floating garden observatory. The observatory was beautifully designed taking up other "sky" archtiectures from famous buildings and the city view was great. We then moved on to the Osaka aquarium, which was Japan’s largest aquarium. It doesn’t match the aquariums in Monterrey Bay or Atlanta, but it did have a decent exhibit with the Manta ray and whale sharks. I even fell asleep at one of the viewing rooms. After the aquarium (and our daily soft serve ice cream) we visited Dotonbori. We tried the takko yaki which is a fried dough ball with octopus inside. It was interesting and not something I liked. We also visited the famous crab restaurant there which was recommended by 2 books and the women sitting by Daniel on the airport train. We ended the night back at the JR ticket office where the JR ticket office was able to piece enough of the JR pass pieces together along with a receipt of payment.for Ricky. This saved him a few hundred dollars.

Friday, July 4
Travel: Train: Kyoto --> Inari --> Nara --> Kyoto; Shinkansen: Kyoto --> Tokyo; Nara City Bus; Foot: Everywhere
Lodging: Sakura Hostel in Asakusa
We began the day by heading out to Fushimi shrine. We walked up about half an hour and then saw the first map. We were only ¼ of the way up, and there was no time for us to get to the top. We then headed down to Nara. From there we took a bus to our destination. We witnessed the large Buddha statue in Todai-ji. The temple was just massive and the statues in it were amazing, especially the guardian statues at the entrance. Pictures do it such injustice. In the evening then made our way to Tokyo, last time we would be using the Shinkansen. We had a huge debate whether it was actually magnetically levitating (and it's not, though JR are is in prototyping it). I lost a 500 yen bet with Ricky. I bought him 100 yen ice cream so I still owe him 400 yen. We met up with Kim S and went out to Roppongi where we hit up a few clubs and drank on the streets. There were lots of interesting people walking around for sure. We almost got ran over in an underpass when trying to flag for a taxi too. This was where we saw the most trash around at any place. Everywhere else in Japan is really clean, and there are no garbage cans ever in sight. We ended getting back to the hostel the next morning from 5am-9am.
at least I had wide angle lens

Saturday, July 5
Travel: Train: Yamanote line; Tokyo Subway; Foot: Everywhere
Lodging: Sakura Hostel in Asakusa
Waking up at 2pm, we pretty much lost the day, so we let the Kim’s go shop, and the boys just go explore. We visited the Sensoji temples in Asakusa. I am glad we did most of the traditional sightseeing outside of Tokyo, as it is just a bit crowded and not as beautiful as the other locations. We visited Akihabara, the electric city, Harajuku, and Shibuya, where the busiest pedestrian crossing exists. In Akihabara, you can find maids on the street advertising. I wanted a picture but was denied. In Harajuku, you can see the crazy teen fashion.
Chad stated that the only thing he looked up was how to win at UFO catchers
At the end of the night, we can see Chad had won a prize at UFO catchers. At the beginning of the trip, we were discussing about how we researched a lot for this trip, and Chad stated that the only thing he looked up was how to win at UFO catchers. We thought he was just joking, but no, he was a man of his word, and there does exist games called UFO catchers.

Sunday, July 6
Travel: Train: Yamanote line; Bus Tour: Hammatsucho --> Fuji 5th station --> Hakone --> Odawara; Ferry: Lake Ashi; Cable Car: Mt Komogatake; Shinkansen: Odawara --> Tokyo; Foot: Everywhere
Lodging: Sakura Hostel in Asakusa
This day was the first day we took an organized tour. Planning the trip months before, we decided to not do a full blown tour and do everything on our own with the exception of a trip to Mt. Fuji and Hakone park. The weather was very poor that day, with it being very cloudy. We already spent money on the tour and could not change days on it, so we were stuck with it. We took a bus ride to the 5th station of Mt Fuji. It was completely cloudy, and we only had about 5 seconds to see Mt Fuji. It was quite unimpressive and we were all very disappointed, especially with how well the trip was going, and how much we spent on the tour. We only got to spend 20 minutes at the 5th station so there was not much we could do. We then went to Hakone park, where we took a cruise over lake Ashi, where we docked at a cable car way. Going up the cable car, we could not even see as we were heading into a fog. At the top of Mt Komogatake though, we were able to see ourselves walking through the foggy hills. And then finally, the fog started to roll through, and we got the most prettiest view we can ever imagine. A sunset pink-lit sky, high clouds, fog, and Fuji in the back. It was such a surreal view. I forgot to get a panorama, and I wish I had an SLR, but at least I had wide angle lens. After a full day of disappointment, we reached the pinnacle of the tour and it was one to never forget. After the tour, we met up with Kim S again, and experienced the first mishap in service on the whole trip. It was a high end restaurant with too much "techmology", where the waitress had missed orders, missed dishes, and wrongly charged items. Nevertheless, this only opened up an opportunity for mayonnaise, potato, bacon topped pizza late night.
we got the most prettiest view we can ever imagine

Monday, July 7
Travel: Train: Yamanote line; Tokyo Subway; Foot: Everywhere
Lodging: Sakura Hostel in Asakusa
In the morning we made a trip to Tokyo tower and got a panorama of the whole city. It was a cloudy day, so we couldn't get the greatest view. Of course we could not see Mt Fuji. We then moved on to the underwhelming Sony building. The electronics there were nothing what we expecting, so we were disappointed there. It was just like a Bose store. We then visited Akihabara again and did some shopping, which is where Ricky had forgotten his umbrella. He carried it everyday since Shiroishi and it never rained, so he decided to just leave it. There were many occasions where he forgot the umbrella and had to go back and get it. His umbrella also dropped on a poor Japanese lady on a train.

Tuesday, July 8

Travel: Train: Yamanote Line, Tokyo --> Kamakura --> Tokyo; Kamakura street train; Tokyo Subway; Foot: Everywhere
Lodging: Sakura Hostel in Asakusa
Without Ricky’s umbrella it was pooring in the morning. He ended up getting an umbrella, and it stopped raining an hour later, and didn’t rain again the rest of the trip. We visited the Tsukiji fish market first. It was really busy there and I thought we were going to get run over by all the normal patrons. At noon we visited Kamakura and decided to do a walking tour. We visited Zeniarai Benten shrine. We then visited the outdoor Buddha at Kotokuin temple. The outdoor buddha used to be covered, but the building was destroyed in a tsunami. And finally we ended kamakura with visiting Hase Dera, a temple with a garden and view of the ocean. At night we visited the Tokyo metropolitan government center and got a night panoramic of the city.

Wednesday, July 9
Travel: Train: Yamanote line --> Disney --> Tokyo; Tokyo Subway; Foot: Everywhere
Lodging: Sakura Hostel in Asakusa
Being the last full day of the trip, everyone but Ricky decided to visit Tokyo Disney Sea. The park was really fun, and there were no lines for any rides. The theme park was based on “water based” themes. We did plenty of rides and attractions. We got to witness a “matsuri" Disney style, a Japanese festival, and that was a lot of fun to watch with all the people dancing and getting into it. The park had a magnificent night show over the center harbor. It was a perfect day weather wise, with no humidity and no rain. It was a good way to end the trip.
"I know this trip is only 1 day in, but I have to admit this has been my best trip ever” - Dan T

Thursday, July 10 - Final Thoughts
Travel: Flight: Tokyo --> San Francisco --> Philadelphia
On the final day, we spent the morning doing souvenir shopping in Asakusa. After that we made our farewell and flew back home. It was a great trip, and I am satisfied with what we were able to see and do. We never backed out of our commitment and plans. The public transportation system in Japan was just superb. It was able to get us anywhere in reasonable amounts of time. There is still a lot left to see, and I know one day I will end up going back.