All posts by Sean

Day 21: Sayounara, Kyoto

We took our last trip into Kyoto today to look for some souvenirs we had not picked up in our earlier trips. There were no temples steps, but plenty of walking around. The weather was a little warm,  however it was still a nice day for shopping.

We stopped in more shops than I care to count. I did notice today while shopping for a small sculpture that by far the most numerous figure I have seen in Japan is the beckoning cat (or maneki neko in Japanese). Almost every store, restaurant, and bar has one. A few stores specialize in these figures, and walking into one is a overload of cuteness. I think we got away with only one the other day, but I wasn’t looking the whole time.

Robyn picked up a good number of items today. She racked up a few fans, incense burners, incense, and another Evangelion model. We also took care of the rest of our souvenir shopping; I’ll skip those details.

While shopping we saw a chankonabe restaurant and it’s one of the “must try” foods in Japan. Robyn suggested stopping the shopping marathon to eat there, and I did not debate. The waitress setup our meal, which was a large pot on a burner filled with a miso soup base. She masterfully added pork, chicken, vegetables, mushrooms, and tofu. It was piled so high I thought it was going to fall off the pot. Eventually it cooked down and she told us it was ready to eat.

As usual in Japan, the service was wonderful. Not only did the waitress completely prepare our meal, but she made sure it was artfully arranged as well. Then, she seemingly would not allow us to serve ourselves. No sooner had I picked up the tongs for a second helping did she magically reappear and take the tongs from me. She also came back just as I was finishing my second bowl, and took the bowl to serve the third and final round. And if at any time we needed her for a drink refill or anything else, all we had to do was touch a button on the table.

Chanko is a very tasty and healthy dish. I would like to try and make it when we get back home. Despite our best efforts we were not able to finish the meal, and left the restaurant eager to walk off the huge lunch. I know the meal was good, because I was not even hungry when we got dinner (we ate a little anyways because of our schedule).

So, at a slower pace, we continued our day. Shopping in Kyoto differs from Osaka – there are way more tourist traps, traditional clothing, plastic sword stands, kid’s ninja outfits, oriental fans, printed t-shits with “I love Japan”,  etc… Osaka is mostly clothes, gadgets, or other  goods related to city life. Robyn led us to a shopping district off the tour-guided path, and we found some neat stores with traditional craft goods.

At what would be our last stop at Kyoto Station for a very long time, Robyn said her goodbyes to Mister Doughnut by buying a few more doughnuts. She also wished the escalators well and waved to the cool architectural details as she passed them. There were just so many things to see in Kyoto that we did not get to experience them all, but I do think we visited the “best of” Kyoto.

On the train we only had one doughnut, to save room for our last visit to Okonomi Yukari, the restaurant our host works at. We got another cheese okonomiyaki, which was a struggle to finish. Since it was the last one I might get in a very long time I made room.

Tomorrow will be our last full day to do anything thats not packing up or flying home. We plan to take it easy in Osaka and get some reflexology messages.

PS- there are a few new Engrish photos from our shopping trip today

Day 20: On a Stick

In Japan they put ice cream in buns and hot dogs on sticks. Then again any food could be found on a stick here. Our lunch and dinner were both on sticks. Meat on sticks, like God intended. I don’t really miss the buns either, is that wrong? I’ll get to todays food later…

Today we visited “Hobby Complex 4”, a convention for various figure hobby enthusiasts. Inside we were greeted by easily recognizable stench of 2 day old Otaku and plastic. Our noses are well trained after years of convention going ourselves.

We did see a lot of cool toys, models, and figurines. There were many figurines of women in lewd poses. It seems thats all the rage with the crowd, as men of all ages would line up with expensive looking camera equipment to photograph the dolls. The longest lines were for dolls with huge breasts or other parts hanging out.

While walking the floor we ran into one of the guys from the store yesterday, manning an American-ish toy booth that was selling GI-Joe, Transformers, and Star Wars toys. At the booths on either side of him, Robyn found a ‘perfect grade’ Evangelion model and I picked up a VF-17 toy. Both were really good bargains and the total for today was very reasonable.

With everything we wanted to see out of the way we left the convention and picked up some hot dogs on a stick from a street vendor outside. The mustard here is really spicy, but it looks so innocent in the standard condiment packaging.  Both the hot dogs were topped with mustard. I was surprised with how spicy it was but Robyn seemed to expect the spiciness.

Later in the day we visited a yakitori restaurant, not a little hole in the wall like before, but a nice place that looked clean. We ordered all sorts of meats on a stick. Chicken, beef, and pork were available at our whim. We also tried out some grilled peppers, which turned out to be really flavorful and not spicy at all. Robyn even liked them so much we split a 2nd order!

After dinner we headed back to the arcades. The first arcade we visited had a virtual reality Gundam game. Let me set the stage – this game is a first person shooter, and you play as a pilot in a giant robot battle. The arcade machines are pods you walk into and sit down in, with a wrap around screen. Inside the pod are two joysticks, two foot pedals, a seat, and headphones with microphone attached. The arcades that have this game usually have 4-6 networked pods.

I’ve watched Gundam plenty so I thought it should be easy enough. A nice worker helped me get started by creating a “pilot card” to keep track of my stats, which is not much use to me because we leave Osaka soon. But anyways… I got to play the game. The seat did not slide back enough for me, so I had to jam up my knees close together to fit in-between the joysticks. I was pretty annoyed by the time everyone picked a Gundam unit and weapons so that the game could start.

I managed to figure out how to move around in a few seconds. The controls were over-simplified in my opinion, with no way to look up or down. The computer would lock-on for you when you lined up an enemy in the targeting circle. I took second place in the first game and placed first the second game. I don’t think they can handle American FPS strafe skill. Overall, despite my complaints, the game was very fun and I wish it was available in America.

Next up it was time to finish off the remainder of tokens we had stockpiled from winning at “Monopoly: The Medal”. Time flew by, as did another pair of crepes, and soon it was closing time. So, we blew the remainder of our tokens on some Mario and ‘Lupin the 3rd’ games. It was a satisfying final visit to Joypolis, as we made it to the “big game” three times and were actually getting a bit bored with Monopoly by the end of the night. So, we are able to happily leave Monopoly behind.

I have a few insignificant things left in the bucket list for Japan. Karaoke was one of these things, and I got Robyn to agree to go tonight. We found a “Big Echo” karaoke joint that was open to 6am, which is impressive as most things in this city seem to shut down pretty early. We were given a tiny room that had a couch, video monitor, and sound system. At first we could not work the song remote – small language barrier there. An attendant showed us how to search for songs in English and we were off.

I picked up the microphone and Robyn picked some songs from Rock Band to start with. She sang along, mainly I think so she could drown out my howling with her own voice. I think she had a good time in spite of her dislike of karaoke. In what seemed like no time we were already having to buy another hour (and another round of beer for me). In our second hour we also figured out how to search for bands with “The” in the title, which helps a lot in finding “The Beatles” songs. Apparently Japanese search engines think a little differently, as there was a “The” button.

That about sums up our day, and now it’s really late and we are trying to wind down. It seems every night there are various sirens wailing outside, with a person on a loudspeaker yelling something… probably asking people to move over. Maybe I can go to sleep before the next emergency vehicle drives by.

 

Day 19: Another rainy day in Osaka

Robyn and I woke up this morning to the sound of rain, so we knew immediately that we would end up shopping again. I checked my email – and Chris sent me this cool photochop of Robyn & me… except that instead of me it’s Darth Vader shooting lightning. It made my day.

So we got the umbrellas and headed back to Den Den Town, where our first stop was the really good curry restaurant we found on our first trip there. Robyn got the typical katsu (fried pork cutlet) curry with rice, and I tried curry rice topped with cheese. It was not as good as we remembered, but it’s still the best curry in Osaka so far.

After lunch we walked down to the hero figure shop to try and find a Megatron gun figure to attach to the Starscream we purchased earlier. Turns out they did not have it. The clerk called over two guys… we could tell they were geeks of equivalent status, one had a UN SPACY shirt on, the other was wearing shorts and had a 10 day beard. I made sure to give props to his shirt.

We tried to tell them what we were looking for and eventually we got the point across that it was a small gun that attached to another figure. As soon as they understood what we wanted they confirmed the store did not have any. The guy with shorts also told me that Kawamori only owned had about 10% influence on the Starscream figure and from the sound of it he might have just owned the rights.

On our way out, we were looking in a display case, and behold – there it was, a tiny Megatron being held by Starscream. Conveniently the other uber geeks were standing there talking  and we showed them the tiny Megatron. We never got around to asking a clerk if we could purchase it from the display case because the guys told us about a toy convention at Osaka harbor called Hobby Complex. We found out where it’s held and got directions on how to get there, as it sounds like something Robyn and I are interested in going to.

We also stopped by the hobby shop with all the Mr. Products Robyn likes. While we were there Robyn told me to get a couple of models for her to practice on. I found a transforming VF-1 model, and a 1984 Toyota Celica Supra XX. It did not have the fender flares but it’s close enough. The shop did not have a 1989 Nissan 240SX, but it did have plenty of Silvia models of the same year. Of course the headlights are all wrong so no luck there. They are both cars Robyn don’t want in the driveway, so at least I can have them as a model. Robyn gathered a large collection of other modeling goodies she claims are just not as good from America. I owe her for the toys & models so no complaints there.

In the rain, and slowed down by bags, we decided against the subway or bus and opted for a cab to our next location – a luggage store. We have run out of room in our current bags from all our shopping, so we picked up an extra checked and carry on bag. The bigger bag is already packed and full.

And speaking of packing bags, it’s only 3 days till we head out to Kansai airport for the trip home. It’s really gone by so fast. It’s been so fun, and I have seen so many new things. Robyn has enjoyed having a loved one to share the experience with. We both are dreading the flight home. At least this time we will get a taxi to take us to the airport train stop so we don’t have to lug a huge load of luggage up and down so many flights of steps in the subway. We also won’t pack our carry on luggage as if we will never get off the plane.

Robyn found this clip of Japanese commuters getting shoved into a subway car in Tokyo. Tokyo is way more crowded than Osaka, so that does not happen here. I’m kinda glad we did not go there, I would have gotten pissed off if someone did this to me.

 

 

Day 17: Hiroshima

There were plenty of sad sights today. It started with viewing the preserved Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall. This is now known as the A-Bomb dome and is the most widely known image from Hiroshima. It’s probably very close to how it remained after the blast, but support structures have been added to preserve the ruins.

Around the Peace Park are many memorials to children, workers, districts, and other factions that were destroyed in the blast.  During our walk around the park we came across a large group of school children singing a very touching song at one of the memorials. I was nearly moved to tears several times at the park while looking at the various memorials. (I think I’ve seen “Barefoot Gen” too many times) It’s really hard to describe how it felt to be at a place where people for miles around were instantly vaporized in the blast. Sobering is probably the best I can do for now. I’ve said “just nuke ‘em” as a kid many times and now I know that’s such a ignorant statement.   Below is a clip from Barefoot Gen:

 

It’s a good anime to watch, as it’s based on manga written by a survivor. You should be able to find all of it subtitled on YouTube, if not, I have the DVD if you want to watch it… so let me know when we get back.

We then made our way over to the museum, it has a very good account of the history of Hiroshima before, during, and after August 6th, 1945.  It also includes the build up to why Hiroshima was picked for the first atomic bomb target, relics from the debris, and many accounts of the deaths following the blast. One of the saddest relics was a 3 year old child’s tricycle that was burned by the flash, and the child died that night. The father buried the tricycle with the child but later donated it to the museum. I wish we had the time to visit Nagasaki also, because there are few mentions about the 2nd atomic bomb attack at Hiroshima’s monuments.

Time soon neared for our Mazda tour so we rushed over by taxi in order to make our appointment for the English tour. This has been the only guided tour of anything we have seen in Japan so far, and I was kinda annoyed that we could not just wander around and take pictures at our leisure.

The tour started off with a bus drive through the Mazda campus. I’ve never been to a factory complex before but the Mazda complex was really huge and they have their own private sea port next to the car storage facility, which is basically a huge parking deck that can hold 11,000 vehicles. They also had their own power plant, producing 60% of the energy used, and their own two-year college for training workers.

Inside the museum, we were given a tour that included a brief history lesson of the corporation, historic Mazda models, examples of the rotary engine’s evolution, and a lesson on the development of a car from design to completion using the RX-8 as the subject. There were great also examples of Mazda’s JDM cars and we got a lot of good car pics. Understandably, they did not allow pictures inside the factory. The tour in general is like a live showing of “How It’s Made”.

The cars helped lightened my mood but I’m still sad from the Peace Park. It’s time to go get some dinner.

Day 16: Himeji Castle

Today we visited Himeji castle on the way to Hiroshima. This is probably the best example of a Japanese castle from the 1600’s. I recognized it from many of the samurai movies I’ve seen over the years, but seeing it in person was really impressive. You can see it from the train, and it just keeps getting bigger the closer you get. I felt lazy after yesterday’s hike and we rode a taxi up the street to the castle.

There is a long winding climb just to get to the castle’s base level, at which point you purchase your tickets. After you enter the castle gates you are directed towards the west bailey, where you tour a long building that was constructed with a princess’ dowry. This building was used to house women, and the princess herself lived their with her husband while other parts of the castle were being renovated.

We then made our way to the main castle tower, looking up we could see little faces in the windows looking down at us. Robyn confirmed my suspicion that the castle did not have the luxury of elevators.

Inside the castle there were many little signs to explain what everything was, and it’s nice to have something to read while Robyn takes pictures. Of course there were many different signs, but the same sign was posted for many of “Stone Throwing Holes”  (and there were very many places for stone throwing).

Eventually Robyn’s camera battery died so we only have a few pictures from inside of the main castle. The castle did spark my imagination of what it must have been like to live there when it was a military stronghold full of weapons, warriors, servants, and masters from 14th – 19th century. Himeji castle is in a tie with Todaiji for the coolest thing I’ve seen in Japan so far.

I also have to mention how much we have grown to like Osaka. Anywhere you look there is a restaurant, bar, street vendor, or vending machine. On the walk back to the Himeji train station we really had to look for a place to eat. It’s just not something we have had to do the entire trip. We did eventually find a small place, I picked up some pork cutlet and Robyn got curry. Can’t go wrong with the classics.

Waiting for our train to Hiroshima I took a few pictures of the different bullet trains. Some of them zoomed by, and if you are not watching for the train to pass it can be a bit surprising as it whooshes past. It’s easy to see why they get the name “bullet trains”.

The bullet trains are actually named “Shinkansen”, and they are top of the line public transportation. Inside it was roomier and better appointed than our plane flight. We even got ice cream from the car attendant. We had planned on a long ride, but we did not even have time to take a nap… which is a great way to pass time on the rail.

I’m not really excited to visit Hiroshima Peace Park, but I still have always wanted to go there. Mainly because I know I’ll feel guilty as an American – that our country was the first to start nuclear warfare. Robyn also has told me about the sad stories they have in the museum. But these memorials need to be seen, and impact of the event understood. Later in the day we will go to the Mazda museum to lighten the mood a little.

We finished the night with dinner at a real Japanese steakhouse on the 21st floor of our hotel. I could have bought another valkyrie with how much we paid for dinner. It was a really classy little place so I did not bust out the camera and do the usual tourist moves. Japanese steak houses in America will never be the same. There was no show, no flash, no clanging knifes. Just the best seafood, steak, fried rice, vegetables, and service.

 

Day 14: Geeking out in Osaka

We were up pretty late last night, and this morning the combination of drawn shades and cloudy weather kept the sun from waking us up. So we rolled out of bed around noon. Since we got up so late there was no point in going out to any temples or castles, so we headed into Den-Den Town instead for some more shopping.

We picked up a few collectible cans for Wendell, Isanov’s SV-51 Valkyrie from Macross Zero, another valkyrie stand, SDF-1 model, VF-21 model, VF-1 (strike) Valkyrie, and a really cool looking Starscream designed by Shoji Kawamori! Few of you reading this will comprehend what a joy this is.

For Robyn we picked up lots of goodies she can’t find in America. Mainly Mr – whatever series of modeling accessories. She got a Mr. Dry Booth, Mr. Super Booth, Mr. Supreme clip, and some Mr. other tools for making models. We now have enough stuff that we have started to ship boxes back home.

We had dinner at a nice curry restaurant. The waitress explained they had ‘not hot’ and hot curry. Robyn and I decided it’s more like hot and really hot. It was hot enough we split ice cream afterwards. Of course we would of ended up getting crepes anyways because after dinner we visited Joyopolis again. There was no messing around this time and we went straight to the token Monopoly slot machine, where both Robyn and I made it to the endgame twice.

The endgame is after you have put hotels on all the properties. This giant wheel above the machine spins and you play for the jackpot. I got close, but Robyn won the jackpot and her machine spewed out tokens for at least two minutes. We kept playing and Robyn even glitched her machine out!

In all it was a good break from the long train rides and walking around. I’m still looking forward to seeing more of ancient Japan in the few days we have left.

 

Day 12: Horyuji by day, Umeda by night

We started off the day… well the afternoon by heading out to Nara to visit Horyuji temple. Horyuji is pretty special because it houses some of the world’s oldest surviving wooden structures. It’s a piece of Japan from the 7th century (and 8th, and 9th, and so on). Our ticket seemed quite expensive at 1000 yen (roughly ten dollars). Turns out the ticket actually covered entrance to three temples at the Horyuji grounds.

Japanese temples have fire issues. Over the centuries most of them burned down and were rebuilt, Hyoruji is no exception. There are still parts of the temple complex that date back to the Asuka Period (6th to early 8th centuries), but other parts of it have been rebuilt through the centuries. The rebuilt sections are still pretty old, with the exception of one hall that burned in the 40’s… it was rebuilt as a museum rather than a tempe hall.

Not a lot to report about these temples and relics, other than they were really old. It’s also the only temple complex we have been to so far that Robyn had never been to before. So she was excited to see all the new (old) buildings and relics. I’m teetering on the edge of temple overdose, but I’m also into history so it’s cool to learn about Japanese history. Most of the temples we have visited are places that mix tourism and active worship. Overall there is a balance struck because typically no pictures are allowed at the spots where people do the majority of praying.

We ended up with a good balance between old and new today. After getting back to Osaka we walked over to Umeda district and found a hole-in-the-wall yakitori place. Yakitori is basically grilled meat on a stick, and it’s not the same as our previous dinners of fried meat on a stick. Not really good for taking pictures because they bring it out to you 2 sticks at a time and they did not last very long off the grill.

After dinner Robyn wanted to hit a *real* pachinko parlor. So we found one that was not scummy looking and headed in. It was probably the most annoying assault of sound I have heard since I was on the flight deck of the USS Eisenhower during flight operations. Ok, so it was the most annoying sound since hearing jet aircraft try to land on a carrier deck. An attendant helped Robyn to a machine, showed her where to feed it a 1000 yen bill, and then pointed out where to aim the balls. I stood back and watched as several more workers came over and tried to show her how to tweak the knob to get the balls to land in the right spot. I don’t think we heard anything they said. Less than a minute later she used up all her balls and we got out of there very quickly.

We ended up going back to a Sega arcade called “Joyopolis” in the Hep Five building. We had been there a few nights ago and they have a nifty fingerprint reader that keeps track of how many tokens you have leftover. We picked up our tokens and went about playing games in the quieter, ear friendly game hall. Our favorite game there is “Monopoly”, but it’s really just one of those games where you aim coins on a rail then try to push other coins off the ledge. We had a really good time, ending the night with arcade slots, video games, and ice creme crepes.