Archive for July, 2014

July 1, 2004 – Hungry translator

Directory at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Directory at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Today we went to Shinjuku for sightseeing and to activate my family’s JR rail passes.

The JR Rail pass is a must purchase for visitors to Japan that will be doing a lot of traveling. Passes are available in 7, 14, and 21 day versions. They allow free transportation on all JR trains, all local JR busses, the Narita Express, and all except the fastest shinkansen. You need to purchase the pass before you travel to Japan, and then activate it when you arrive. The time period starts as soon as you activate the pass. Unfortunately the JR Rail Pass is not available for foreign residents of Japan, only visitors.

The closest place to Noborito to activate the JR rail pass was in Shinjuku. We boarded the Odakyu line and took the 20 minute ride into Shinjuku station. The plan was to quickly activate the passes, get lunch, and then explore Shinjuku for the afternoon.

It took us a while to actually find the travel office where we could activate the rail passes, and when we arrived we found a huge line of people ahead of us. By this point I was already hungry and looking forward to lunch. After waiting for about half an hour, we were at the front of the line. I asked my parents if they could take care of the passes themselves while I got something to eat. They were worried about doing something wrong or needing to speak Japanese, so I had to stay.

By the time the rail passes had been exchanged, I was ravenous. The staff at the travel office spoke English very well, which was good because I am pretty useless when hungry, and the Japanese language part of my brain had shut down. I declined their offer of help to book a hotel in Kyoto so we could leave sooner. Just before 2:00pm my family walked out of the travel office with active rail passes and one grumpy translator. Eventually we found a nearby Becker’s Burgers in the underground mall and I proceeded to stuff myself.

Now that I was fed and feeling like a human again, we left the sprawling Shinjuku station and started to explore the area. I walked my family down the main streets, near all of the restaurants, stores and pachinko parlours. I took them through the NS building and showed them the world’s largest water clock, which was the first landmark that I had seen when I arrived in Japan in September. In addition, we went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

The government building, also known as Tokyo City Hall, has two large towers on each side of a central structure. Each tower has a free observation level on the 45th floor that provide breathtaking views of the Greater Tokyo Area. On a day with no clouds and minimal smog you can see Mt. Fuji. We had no such luck.

After completely overwhelming my family with tall building after tall building, we returned to Noborito to get packed for our 3 day excursion to Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Numazu. We all tried to watch a DVD in my room, but everyone was still jetlagged from the travel and we all had an early night.

(2014 Update) The JR travel offices that can be found in major train stations and airports are fantastic. They are happy to help you make your travel and hotel plans, and they can provide maps and recommendations for places to see. The best part is that they can do all of these things in English. Just make sure you get some lunch first – the lines can be long!

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June 30, 2004 – Yokohama

A view of Yokohama from Landmark Tower

A view of Yokohama from Landmark Tower

Today I took my family to Yokohama. We took the Nanbu line from Noborito to Kawasaki, Tokaido Line from Kawasaki to Yokohama, and then switched to the still shiny new Minatomirai line to finish our trip to Minato Mirai station.

I had been to Yokohama several times before, but this was the first time I had ever gone inside Landmark Tower, Japan’s tallest building. There is an observation level on the 69th floor that is accessable by one of the world’s fastest elevators. The observation level offers amazing views of Yokohama, Kawasaki, Tokyo and on a clear day, Mt. Fuji. The ocean is on one side, and there is continuous city in every other direction as far as you can see. My family was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the neverending city.

From Landmark Tower we wandered around the Minato Mirai area. My mom bought a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt, and I made sure to show off the dog walking video game at the nearby game center.

After exploring Minato Mirai, we took the train to Yokohama Chinatown. We spent a long time walking around the streets and enjoying the buildings. My mom and sister requested that we stop in a large tea shop. There were different kinds of tea from around the world from floor to ceiling. While my sister tried to communicate with the store owner, the owner’s young daughter (maybe 5 years old) came up to my mom and started talking to her in Chinese. My mom responded in English, so the conversation really didn’t go anywhere. My mom ended up giving the young girl a Canadian flag pin, which got a nice smile and some thanks from the owner.

My family enjoyed their day in Yokohama. Even though I did a very similar visit with my friends a month ago, I still had fun. Yokohama is a great place to visit.

(2014 Update) In 2014 the Abenobashi Terminal Building opened in Osaka, which is about 4 meters taller than Landmark Tower. Landmark Tower is now number two in Japan.

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June 29, 2004 – Ueno Park, Homelessness, and Museums

My sister feeding pigeons in Ueno Park

My sister feeding pigeons in Ueno Park

Today I took my visiting family out to Ueno Park. We got moving after breakfast and took the Odakyu line from Noborito to Shinjuku, then the Yamanote line to Ueno station. My family was impressed that all of the trains arrived exactly when they were supposed to. Mass transit in Canada is nowhere near as punctual.

We explored Ueno Park, enjoying the trees, duck pond, and the people. In one of the large open areas there was an older man feeding pigeons. Pigeons are a very common sight in parks and temples in Japan. The man was standing in the middle of hundreds of pigeons, distributing bread crumbs. My sister walked into the middle of the pigeons for a picture. The man approached her and offered her some bread crumbs. The pigeons were so used to being fed that they literally ate right out of my sister’s hand!

After feeding the pigeons, we headed towards the Tokyo National Museum. Just before we got to the museum we saw something that I hadn’t seen before – a huge group of homeless people. A local mission was distributing sandwiches and was also providing free haircuts.

Japan overall is a wealthy and successful country, so many visitors to the country are surprised that there are any homeless people at all. Officially there are about 25,000 homeless people in Japan. You can easily find makeshift shelters built from cardboard boxes and tarps in Ueno Park, Yoyogi Park, and in various areas around Shinjuku. Most of the homeless people are older men.

We continued walking towards the Tokyo National Museum. I had been to the museum with my friends less than a month earlier, but it was still incredibly interesting. I could probably spend a few days in the museum and not get bored. We spent a few hours exploring the extensive Japanese collection, with much of our time devoted to the popular attractions – swords and armor. Like my friend previously, my family tried to take a lot of pictures, and most of them came out blurry.

When we finished with the museum, we started the journey back to Noborito. Since my dad does not like crowds, we got reserved seats on the limited express from Shinjuku to Noborito. This allowed us to have our own seats and avoid all of the usual pushing and shoving. The cost was about 600 yen each, but I think my dad would have paid more to avoid the packed commuter rush.

It was a good day out in Tokyo, and we are looking forward to exploring in Yokohama tomorrow.

(2014 Update) I think it’s interesting that we saw both pigeons and homeless people lined up in Ueno Park looking for some food. People were happy to see the pigeons, but many people were uncomfortable by the presence of the homeless people.

Sanyukai is one of Japan’s largest homeless charities. Check out their English website here. There are other organizations as well, and they are all doing very important work. If you aren’t in Japan, see what you can do in your own community. Shelters and food banks rely on their volunteers to survive. Your donation of time, money, or clothing can make a huge difference to someone who really needs it.

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Please excuse the delay

Unfortunately real life has interfered with my blogging time, so I am running a bit behind on new posts. The goal of this blog is to post entries exactly 10 years after they actually happened. If all goes well I should be caught up again in the next week or two. Stay tuned!

Drinking in Japan

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June 28, 2004 – Beer at the movies

One of the breakfast options at Jonathan's

One of the breakfast options at Jonathan’s

In the morning I gathered up my family and we went for breakfast at Jonathan’s, a family restaurant near Mukogaoka Station. Jonathan’s has a breakfast menu with some familiar foods that I thought wouldn’t scare my family. They were a little surprised that the standard eggs and meat breakfast came with salad instead of some kind of potatoes.

After breakfast we spent a few hours exploring the nearby Daiei store. Supermarkets in other countries are always interesting. Like my other visitors, my family commented on the huge fish section and small meat section, which is exactly the opposite of supermarkets in central Canada.

My family wanted to have a fairly uneventful first full day in Japan. After exploring the neighbourhood and stores around the Noborito area. we headed back to Hello House. My parents wanted to have a nap before our evening plans of dinner and a movie. My sister and I went to wake them up two hours later from a deep sleep. They woke up confused and disoriented, believing it to be morning instead of evening. First time jet lag is terrible!

After finally convincing my parents that it was still Monday afternoon, we all walked to Noborito station and took the Odakyu line to Shin-yurigaoka station. There is a large shopping area and movie theatre near the station, with lots of good restaurants. Our first stop was the movie theatre to get tickets for later. My parents and I got tickets for Harry Potter 3, while my sister got a ticket for The Day After Tomorrow (she had already seen Harry Potter). The family was pleasantly surprised to see that the theatre offered reserved seats, so we wouldn’t have to rush back and line up before the movie.

We wandered through the huge selection of restaurants in the department store’s upper floors. My mom and sister wanted noodles, but my dad wanted something with meat. Fortunately the restaurants had a ticket system, so he would not need to communicate with anyone.

Restaurants with a ticket system are common in Japan, usually in train stations or other areas with high customer volumes and limited menu options. You simply insert money into the ticket machine and then push the button corresponding to the food you want. The machine will return a ticket with your order. After you have your ticket, you can sit anywhere in the restaurant and present the ticket to the waiter that comes by. Within minutes you will have your food.

I helped my dad buy a ticket from the machine, and took my mom and sister to get some noodles. In Canada there is a perception that Japanese portion sizes are small. They were shocked when the waitress returned with bowls of soup large enough to bathe a baby in. (author’s note – do not bathe a baby in soup).

We met up after dinner and returned to the movie theatre. I translated the snack menu, which was easy because it was mostly in katakana. When I got to the drinks I noted that beer was available. My dad asked if I meant actual beer, the kind with alcohol. I told him yes, they sold cans of Asahi Super Dry. With a huge smile on his face my dad got me to order him a can of beer for the movie.

The movie, like the others in the Harry Potter series, was fantastic. I tried to read as many of the Japanese subtitles as I could while watching. My dad smiled the whole time while sipping on his can of beer. After the movie we returned to Hello House and called it a night.

It was a great first day in Japan for my family.




Explore neighbourhood

Beer at movies

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