Archive for July, 2014
On the morning of July 4, my family and I checked out of our hotel in Kyoto and boarded the Shinkansen for Mishima. The Penpal (who as you all remember is also my girlfriend), and her family wanted to show us around their hometown of Numazu in Shizuoka prefecture.
On the train, I told my family that The Penpal’s parents were traditional Japanese parents and couldn’t speak any English. It was going to be their first time spending the day with foreigners. My family is usually very polite and friendly, so I wasn’t terribly worried. However, my parents are huggers. I reminded them that Japanese people aren’t big on physical contact, so they might bow or shake hands as a greeting, but hugs were right out.
The Penpal and her parents were waiting for us at Mishima station. She introduced my family to her parents, who proceeded to give the Penpal’s family big Canadian hugs. Urgh.
The Penpal’s father drove a small Nissan, which was not big enough for the 7 of us. We divided up our group – the men went in the Nissan, and the women all piled into The Penpal’s tiny Honda. The idea was that we would have one translator in each car. We took off towards our first destination – Izu Mito Sea Paradise.
The ride to Sea Paradise took about twice as long as it should have due to Sunday traffic. I have never understood why every Japanese person with a car decides to go for a family drive on Sundays. The narrow streets end up looking very much like parking lots. During the long ride I did my best to translate between my father and The Penpal’s father. I did remarkably well considering my limited vocabulary.
When we got to Sea Paraside, The Penpal’s father opened his trunk and pulled out a couple of cans of cold Yebisu beer for my father and I. My dad was confused, so I explained that drinking in public was allowed in Japan. He still seemed a bit hesitant, and waited for us to get a seat at the dolphin show before drinking his beer.
My father and The Penpal’s father were both wearing a nearly identical hat and pants (slacks for you British people who are now giggling). During the dolphin show, the Sea Paradise staff brought out a large trained walrus. As the giant walrus got close to the water, the staff announced in Japanese that the first few rows would likely get wet. My father and The Penpal’s father, with no communication between them, both stood up at the same time and stepped over their seats to the next row, both stepping with the same leg first. It was like watching a bizarre mirror image.
After Sea Paradise, we all loaded back into the cars and drove to Uobun, a Numazu tempura restaurant that has been in business for 100 years. The restaurant was exactly the kind of place that foreigners would avoid; there were no models of food outside, no English signs anywhere, and the menu was all written in Japanese on the wall behind the chef. The Penpal’s father ordered tendon (天丼) for all of us. Don’t be confused by the spelling – in this case tendon is “tempura donburi”, not tissue that connects muscle to bone. We all got a big bowl of fish, shrimp and squid fried in delicious tempura batter served over rice. Lunch was fantastic, and before we knew what was happening, The Penpal’s father had snuck away to the cash register and paid for everything.
We thanked him for lunch and then piled into the cars again. Our next stop was The Penpal’s house. This was my first time to ever visit her house. We all sat into the living room and The Penpal did her best to translate conversation over tea. The parents swapped stories about when we were kids, and then The Penpal showed off her piano skills for my family.
We spent a few hours at the house and then decided to go out for dinner. By this point in the day, the Penpal’s mother was a big fan of my sister because she was “kawaii”. They sat across from each other at the table, and The Penpal’s mom started trying to teach my sister some Japanese by pointing out items on the table and getting my sister to repeat their names. Hey, whatever gets my girlfriend’s family to like my family is a good thing.
While we were eating, I leaned in and quietly told my father that he should pay for dinner. The Penpal’s family had driven us around all day and treated us to lunch and I wanted to even the ledger a little. Like most Japanese restaurants, the bill is left at the table when the food arrives. I created a distraction and sent my father running for the register with the bill. There was the usual polite protest, but I insisted that it was the least we could do. It’s much easier to be generous with other people’s money 🙂
Outside the restaurant my sister asked me to teacher her some Japanese to thank The Penpal’s family for showing us around all day. I was about to teach her how to say “domo arigato gozaimasu” (a polite thank you), but instead I got her to practice “watashi wa okii neko desu” (I am a big cat). My sister has an amazing ear for language, and was able to pick up the phrase and correct pronunciation immediately.
The Penpal’s family dropped us off at Mishima station. Everyone started saying their goodbyes when my sister walked up to The Penpal’s parents and used her new sentence “I am a big cat”. She smiled and bowed while saying it. They looked confused. Worried that she had pronounced it badly, she tried again, speaking slowly and clearly. The Penpal, looking confused, explained “Lisa-chan – you just said that you are a big cat”. At this point I cracked up laughing while my sister started yelling at me. Being a big brother is awesome.
I am very happy that my family and The Penpal’s family got along. Most tourists only get to see famous places in Japan, but thanks to The Penpal’s family, we got to drive around, visit a Japanese house, and eat fantastic food at places that tourists would usually avoid. For the wonderful day we spent together, I would like to say 私は、世界最大の猫です。 I assume it means thank you.
After a long day of sightseeing in Kyoto, my family and I were back near our hotel and hungry. By this point in the trip, my mom and sister wanted a break from Japanese food. They saw a McDonalds in Kyoto station and were determined to get some familiar food. My dad reminded them that they could eat McDonalds in Canada, but they didn’t care. To compromise, my father and I dropped off my mother and sister at the golden arches and then set out to find some Japanese food.
There are way too many restaurants in and around Kyoto station. After looking around for a while, we settled on a small small kaiten zushi restaurant. Kaiten zushi (the s in sushi becomes a “z” after kaiten) restaurants have a conveyor belt that moves plates of sushi through the restaurant. Smaller restaurants will have the chefs in the middle with sushi moving around them. Larger restaurants will have huge conveyors that wind their way through the restaurant.
Our restaurant was relatively small, so we sat at the counter. We ordered beer, and were amused to find that our glasses were filled by an automatic beer pouring machine. The machine tilted the glass at an angle, and the spout moved along the inside of the glass to reduce the head. Near the top, the machine returned the glass to an upright position and added a tiny bit of foam to the top. The machine created a perfect pour every time, and was a lot of fun to watch.
We had a few sips from our perfectly poured beers and then turned our attention to the conveyor belt and the tiny plates of sushi going by. Like other kaiten zushi restaurants, the plates were colour coded by price. My dad seemed confused, so I told him to just grab anything that looked good as it was going by. The problem was that he wasn’t very familiar with sushi, and didn’t know what was good. I selected a few pieces of the least threatening sushi as they passed our section of the counter. After a enjoying the first few pieces, he started to make his own selections, trying some familiar fish and some more adventurous choices. Several plates and another beer later, we were both pleasantly stuffed.
After dinner we took a walk around the station building and surrounding area. Unlike major train stations in Tokyo, there wasn’t a lot going on around Kyoto station. We passed a number of small izakayas, and thanks to the window models I was able to instruct my dad on the difference between jocky (a regular size glass of beer), daijocky (a big glass of beer), and the rare but impressive super jocky (a really big glass of beer).
Near the station we walked by a pachinko parlour. Like many foreigners, my dad was confused by the concept. I explained that gambling for money was illegal, but you could win a small prize and then sell it for cash at the nearby prize exchange. He sounded skeptical until we walked by the prize exchange window.
When we had our fill of exploring, we returned to the hotel to find my mother and sister were happy with their McDonalds dinner, and that they had also done some minor exploring in the stores around the station. I am sure they had fun, but I really enjoyed the beer and sushi with my dad. When I was growing up, my dad was always interested in taking me to new places and teaching me new things. It was great to get the opportunity to return the favour.
Other than the amazing sightseeing, my personal highlight from my day exploring Kyoto with my family occurred as we were ready to leave Kinkakuji. It involves a conversation between an American soldier and my sister.
There are about 50,000 American military personnel stationed in Japan. This is due to a treaty signed with Japan at the end of World War 2. The United States has pledged to defend Japan in cooperation with the Japanese Self Defense Force. Due to the large numbers of servicemen, it’s not uncommon to encounter them especially in popular tourist areas.
There were a small group of American soldiers in civilian clothes doing some sightseeing. While we were taking a short break before returning to the hotel, one of the soldiers started chatting up my sister. She seemed to enjoy the attention of the nice looking young man.
At some point my dad walked over, which forced my sister to awkwardly introduce him. The young man shook my dad’s hand politely. Then my sister mentioned that my dad was a retired Captain in the Canadian Forces. Instantly the young American snapped to attention, standing straight and tall. My dad tried to engage him in some small talk, and the soldier started responding with “yes sir” and “no sir”. He seemed to be intimidated by my very non threatening father. My sister was not amused at all.
Shortly after the soldier excused himself to rejoin his friends. My sister was annoyed, my dad didn’t understand why, and I stood off to the side laughing. Good times!
(2014 Update) My dad could have been a Major, but turned down a promotion so we didn’t have to move while I was in the middle of high school and my sister was in the middle of junior high school. If the young American soldier reacted so strongly to a Captain, I would have loved to see his reaction to a Major!
My family and I spent the day exploring parts of Kyoto, which was the capital of Japan until 1868. Kyoto is home to some of the oldest and most famous historical buildings in Japan, making it a very popular destination for tourists. All of the main tourist areas offer service and signs in multiple languages. Getting around is easy, with a small subway system and very well labelled buses. Tourist maps are available showing the location of all of the major tourist sites.
On our day in Kyoto, we went to three places: Nijo Castle, Daitokuji and Kinkakuji.
Nijo Castle in central Kyoto was our first destination. I love castles, so I made it a point to get Nijo on our itinerary for the day. Nijo is not the typical giant stone building that looks out over the land. It is a series of one story structures connected together, surrounded by beautiful grounds and a moat. My favourite feature of the castle was the nightingale floors – floors designed to squeak at the slightest touch. These floors were installed as a security feature so you could hear people coming.
From Nijo Castle, we went to north Kyoto to see Daitokuji – a large temple complex with several sub temples. I can’t remember the names of the places we went within the Daitokuji complex, but we did see a traditional zen garden with combed rocks. It was very relaxing.
Our main event of the day was Kinkakuji, the golden pavilion. Kinkakuji is by far the most popular tourist spot in Kyoto for foreign visitors. It is a Buddhist temple on a lake covered in gold leaf. The golden shine is striking, and easily visible from a distance. The original temple was founded in 1397, after being converted from a wealthy businessman’s villa. It was destroyed in the mid 1400s during the Onin war and rebuilt. In 1950, the temple was burned to the ground by a mentally ill monk. The current structure dates from 1955.
While foreign visitors love Kinkakuji, most Japanese people prefer the similarly named Ginkakuji, the silver pavilion. The name is deceptive – the original plan was to cover the structure with silver foil similar to the gold foil covering on Kinkakuji, but the covering was never finished. The difference in preference between the two temples illustrates the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi”, which is a concept nearly impossible to translate fully into English. The best explanation of wabi-sabi that I ever heard was from The Penpal: a new stone carving is beautiful, but Japanese people think it’s more beautiful if it has been exposed to the elements for years and has some cracks.
It’s interesting to me that a country that strives for perfection in nearly everything also values the beauty in imperfections. I have learned a lot about Japan and it’s culture, but I don’t think I can ever truly understand everything. I can appreciate a peaceful rock garden however; they are the best.
My family and I started July 2 in Kawasaki, then traveled to Hiroshima and visited the Peace Memorial Park. The third and final stage of our long day of travel was returning to Kyoto and checking into a hotel.
From Hiroshima we took the shinkansen to Kyoto station. Yesterday I made an online reservation at the Dai-Ni Tower Hotel in Kyoto, which was described as “just in front of JR Kyoto station”. The only problem was that Kyoto station is HUGE. The station itself is Japan’s second largest station building. In addition to having train service on JR, private train companies, and Kyoto subway, the station also features a shopping mall, movie theatre, and government services. If you need to do anything other than sightseeing in Kyoto, chances are good that you can find it at Kyoto station.
We got off the train with our bags, and then tried to find an area map. The station was so huge that the map was not helpful at all. I decided it was time to test out my Japanese ability and ask for directions. I found a nearby station information booth, approached it and asked the friendly attendant how to find the Dai-Ni Tower hotel.
Asking “where is blabla” is one of the first things people learn in a new language. In Japanese, it is very simple: “blabla wa doko desu ka?”, where blabla is the person, place, or thing you wish to know the location of. The difficult part is understanding the answer.
The helpful attendant looked relieved that I could speak some Japanese, and then proceeded to give me 5 minutes of detailed instructions at high speed. I got him to repeat the instructions, and tried to follow along with language and hand gestures. The directions were as follows:
- Walk to the end of the station
- Turn left
- Walk half way through a bunch of restaurants and stores
- Turn left
- Walk half way down another long hallway
- Go down some stairs
- Walk underground for a while, taking a slight right
- Go up some stairs
- There’s the hotel
We did pretty well following the instructions until the last part. We left the underground area at the wrong exit, and ended up at the back of Kyoto station with no Dai-Ni Tower hotel in sight. After unsuccessfully trying to find an area map, I got my family to wait nearby with the luggage while I tried to find someone else to get directions from. After a search, I ended up learning that the hotel was very close to where my family was sitting.
I returned to find my sister in a hilarious conversation with some drunk businessmen. They were trying (very poorly) to flirt with her in English by talking about how her gaijin nose was so nice and their Japanese noses were very flat. She declined an offer to go for a drink, and we were on our way.
At the hotel we learned that the online reservation didn’t work, but the hotel quickly found us rooms at the online rate using excellent English. We got our room keys and rode a tiny elevator up to our rooms.
I can’t speak for people from other parts of the world, but North Americans are always shocked by the size of Japanese hotel rooms. My parents had their own room, and my sister and I shared a room. If we could have knocked out the wall between the two rooms it would have been about the size of a typical Canadian hotel room. It was small, but at least we found the f**king hotel.
(2014 Update) Despite our difficulty in finding it, I would recommend the Dai-Ni Tower Hotel. It is located close to the station, is clean, quiet, and reasonably priced. Look it up on your favourite map website first, or make good use of any mobile device with GPS. Also, travel light: the only thing less fun than being lost is being lost while transporting large bags. Travel light!
After spending the morning traveling from Kawasaki to Hiroshima at high speed, my family and I were looking for some food. It’s always a safe bet to find inexpensive and quick food at major train stations. We quickly found a small restaurant with a display of plastic food outside that looked good. When we went inside, the menus were all text with no pictures. Most of the characters were beyond my Japanese ability. The nice waitress, likely familiar with foreign tourists, took us outside the restaurant to look at the food models so we could order.
When it was my turn to order, I told the waitress in Japanese that I would like the una-don, which is grilled eel on rice. Not sure if I knew what I was ordering, the waitress responded with “unagi wa… eigo de… this is eel”. I responded in Japanese telling her that I loved eel. When our food arrived, my rice had a huge piece of eel on top. I love Japanese service!
We finished our lunch and took a bus from the station to the Peace Museum park, the location of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. One of the first things that visitors see when they get off the bus is the A-bomb dome (genbaku dome). The dome is the remainder of a building located almost directly underneath the detonation site of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Many people are not aware that the bomb actually detonated in the air over the city in order to cause more damage. The dome is the first sign that you are about to embark on an important, but not very fun learning experience.
Around the park you can find various monuments and statues dedicated to victims of the Hiroshima bombing. There are monuments for students, citizens, and even foreign labourers that died during or after the bombing. Since it was incredibly hot during the day, we didn’t spend a lot of time outside with the monuments, but instead headed for the Peace Museum.
The Peace Museum is one of the most interesting and depressing places I have ever been to. The museum starts with information about Hiroshima before the bombing, including maps, pictures and other displays. After setting the stage, you move onto information about the bombing itself, and it’s effect on the city and citizens.
I won’t spend time describing all of the exhibits in the museum, because I don’t have the ability to do them justice. However, I will describe two things that stood out for me. The first is a section of doorway from a building in Hiroshima. There was a person standing there when the bomb detonated, and you can see the shadow permanently burned into the concrete.
The second thing that stood out for me was the silence. In the first section of the museum (pre bombing Hiroshima), guests are walking around and talking to each other. Once people enter the post bombing area, nobody talks anymore.
The last area of the museum has information about the current state of nuclear weapons in the world, and copies of letters from the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to countries who perform nuclear weapon tests.
The Peace Museum is probably one of the most important places a person can ever go to in their life. The museum doesn’t debate Japan’s role in World War 2 or America’s decision to use the atomic bomb, but it does present information about the real and lasting effect that the bombing had on the city of Hiroshima and the people who lived there.
The museum absolutely affected me to the core of my being, and I will never forget the experience.
(2014 update) I decided to include the story about lunch along with the story of my visit to the museum because the lunch story still makes me smile. After revisiting my memories of the museum, I needed a smile.
My parents, sister, and I got up nice and early, had a quick breakfast, and then set out for what would be our longest day of travel. Our goal was to go from Kawasaki to Hiroshima to see the Peace Memorial Museum, then back to Kyoto to set up a day of sightseeing.
My dad is not a fan of crowded trains, but due to the amount of distance we needed to cover we had to get on a busy rush hour train. It was my family’s first time to see the famous train pushers in action. My family stood by in wonder as they watched the uniformed rail staff pushing all of the arms and legs into the crowded train car. We were not looking forward to getting on one of the busy trains with our suitcases.
When we got on the train, I told my dad to stand by the door and look out the window. This way he could attempt to ignore the crushing crowds of people behind him. The technique worked, but he was still happy that it wasn’t a longer train ride.
We took Odakyu line from Noborito to Machida. At Machida we switched to Yokohama line bound for Shin-Yokohama. Yokohama station serves 11 different train lines, but not the shinkansen (bullet train). For that you need to leave from Shin-Yokohama station. Fun fact: when Shin-Yokohama station was built in 1964, it was in a rural area. It is now completely surrounded by city.
The Tokaido Shinkansen offers three different trains; the Kodama, the Hikari, and the Nozomi. The Kodama stops at every station along the way. It also features the most amount of unreserved seats. The Hikari stops at fewer stations and has fewer unreserved seats available. The Nozomi only stops at the biggest stations, and has very few unreserved seats. My family was using JR rail passes, which allow for free reserved seats on everything but the Nozomi. Since I live in Japan, I am ineligible for a JR rail pass. My parents generously treated me to all of my train fare.
Traveling on the shinkansen is one of the coolest things about Japan. The electric trains are quiet, comfortable, and blast through the countryside at over 250km/h (150mph). The seats have more than ample leg room, which is convenient if you are bringing luggage. All of the announcements are in Japanese and English, and there are vending machines, pay phones and washrooms available at the ends of the cars. Shinkansen is truly the best way to travel long distances in Japan.
On the way I showed my parents my cell phone. Phone technology in Japan is at least 6 months ahead of Canada. My mom was very impressed that she could use my phone to send an email to one of her friends.
We arrived in Hiroshima just before 1:30pm. In the five and a half hours since we left Noborito, we had traveled about 900km (560 miles). This is even more impressive when you consider our half our stop in Shin-Osaka to switch trains.
One of the best things about visiting a new place is that even the most mundane things like public transportation become an adventure. For my family and I, our train trip was the most fun we ever had traveling for 5 hours.
(2014 Update) My phone at the time was a flip phone with a camera that could take pictures 120 pixels x 120 pixels. I could send emails and browse a very limited Vodafone network. I could send texts or emails using the letters on my 0-9 keys. It was primitive by today’s standards, but better than most people’s phones in Canada at the time.