Our Japan Trip

July 2, 2008

Japan Trip Wrap: Back on Home Soil

Filed under: Japan Trip — Andy Mayer @ 5:44 pm

I’m writing now from the President’s Club in Newark Airport’s A Terminal. Our flight from Newark to St. Louis doesn’t leave until 7:35pm EDT tonight, so we still have about another hour here. Per my note last night, body time is 7:26 am on Thursday. It’s been 14.5 hours since we left the hotel at Tokyo Disney Resort and 19.5 hours since I woke up. I can definitely feel it.

The Mayer family was clearly ready to come home by the time we boarded the flight this morning. We definitely need our own beds and, to be honest, some alone time, after being together all this time. I suspect we’ll divide up to various corners of the house tomorrow to get some sanity back. It may sound odd to some of you, but I’d ask you to consider when the last time was that you spent 13 days straight with all members of your family.

I do not want to spend any time philosophizing about Japan or its people or its culture. That’s for the professionals to do. I highly recommend it as a place to visit, for those of you that like international travel and exploring different cultures. The cultural aspects really enthuse me. I did a lot of people-watching over the past two weeks.

Here are a few observations or other things that will stick with me:

  • The ubiquitous drink vending machines. They are everywhere. Prices vary from 150 yen down to 100 yen for the same drink, depending on where the machine is. The price most often seen was 120 yen. We were never without a cold drink for long.
  • The ready-made latte drinks. Both in machines and convenience stores, these pre-mixed iced lattes came in many shapes and sizes. Anytime you want an iced coffee or iced tea, you could easily get it through the same vending machines that dispensed Coke or Fanta. The only options were latte with sugar or black with nothing.
  • Recycling. Japan appears to recycle everything. All (and I mean all) public trash cans have separate slots for plastic, aluminum, and paper. I grabbed the photo from the Internet to show what the trash cans look like.
  • That much said – public trash cans are at a premium. Apparently, it’s paranoia over terrorism. We have trash cans all over the place in the US, yet we had to carry trash with us for a while in Japan.
  • Power toilet seats. I didn’t get up the nerve to “wash and dry” myself. I don’t know if I ever will.
  • Public parking lots that enforce payment. Here’s how this works. You pull into a space and, as you do, a metal barrier raises up either under or behind your car to prevent you from leaving. Only when you deposit the appropriate amount into a nearby machine will the barrier go down. Apparently, the construction costs are quite high, but the lots do run themselves without attendants. The photo at right shows a lot with the barriers that come up under your car.
  • Line management at Disney. The attendants there ask you how many people are in your “party” before your board a ride. If your number doesn’t equal how many people fit in each car, they make sure you understand you’ll have to split up. They hold up the whole line for this. They also hold up entire lines to measure the kids for height-restricted rides. As long as they are measuring one kid, no one else can enter the ride.
  • Plastic food. I wrote about this on Monday. Plastic food is everywhere. At the end of our trip, I was relying on it to determine in which restaurants to eat.
  • Taxi cab protocol. A passenger never opens a taxi door in Japan. The drivers have switches that open and close all doors. Most of them wear gloves, and they are forbidden from turning down fares.
  • The prices. Japan is a very expensive place. Perhaps this is obvious, but it was driven home just last night, when we took the kids to the indoor pool at the Hilton for a late swim. There, the indoor pool is part of the fitness club, which costs $26 per day to use. That $26 more than it costs at most US hotels.
  • The bike riding. Bikes are the standard mode of personal transportation. It’s not unusual to see a woman in business attire, with high heels, riding a bike. The best is when you see a rider with a kid in back and a kid in front holding an umbrella.
  • The hand dryers in the rest rooms. These are the best I’ve ever seen. You stick your hands into a slot and they are buffeted with very high powered air. It’s the first time hand dryers have worked for me. See example at right.

Lastly, there is the nasal intonation made by every person that you meet in a retail store or restaurant or other public area. It’s very hard for me to describe. Imagine if every store clerk, every maitre d’, every kiosk attendant all spoke in the same intonation and pitch. Choose a southern twang and imagine if everyone spoke in that same twang. Towards the end, it got very irritating.

It’s now time to turn back to work. A lot of exciting things happened at ESI while I was away, most notably winning TPharm and the creation of a central, industry-wide e-prescribing hub.


July 1, 2008

Tokyo Disney Sea

Filed under: Japan Trip — Andy Mayer @ 8:05 am

We spent most of today in Tokyo Disney Sea. The fact that I started to write this post before 9:00pm local time indicates that the day was a bit shorter than yesterday.

Tokyo Disney Sea is part Animal Kingdom, part Disney’s Hollywood Studios and, oddly, part Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. It is divided into 7 “ports:”

  • Mediterranean Harbor – This is the first area you encounter coming in. There are no real rides here, but a lot of shopping and food. It is very reminiscent of Universal’s Portofino Resort in Florida. The globe in the photo is just inside the ticket gate, but just outside the front of Mediterranean Harbor.
  • Mysterious Island – Home to two large rides: Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It is all inside a volcano, which erupted around 7:00pm with fire and smoke. The photo below shows the volcano just beyond Mermaid Lagoon.
  • Mermaid Lagoon – Home to rides for kids, including an underground area called Triton’s Kingdom. Got the Little Mermaid references yet?
  • Arabian Coast – Sinbad, Aladdin, Genie, Jasmine. It has a two-story carousel and a Sinbad ride that is very much like It’s a Small World.
  • Lost River Delta – Home to two large rides as well: Indiana Jones Adventure and Raging Spirits. The first is very much like the Dinosaur ride at Animal Kingdom, same technology with a different story. Raging Spirits is a roller coaster with a 360 degree loop.
  • Port Discovery – Storm Rider is the primary ride here, sort of a larger version of Star Tours or Body Wars. Same idea, bigger room. The story is that you are on a plane flying into the “storm of the century” to diffuse it. As you can imagine, things don’t go smoothly.
  • American Waterfront – Streets of old New York, just like you’d find in Hollywood Studios. Also, it’s also home to Tower of Terror.

Starting with Mediterranean Harbor front-and-center (which has its own Epcot-like fireworks that we didn’t stay for) you make your way from port to port with changing landscapes and viewpoints.

Knowing that Tuesdays are light days in the US parks, we weren’t expecting big crowds, but the lack of crowds at all was a bit surprising. Fast Passes were turned off for most lines. We waited more than 15 minutes only once – for Storm Rider – primarily because the ride broke down in the middle. Everything else was 15 minutes or less. We walked right on Tower of Terror. Try to do that midday at Hollywood Studios.

I think my wife and kids liked the park, but I’m really not too positive. There isn’t a ride at Tokyo Disney Sea that is comparable to Splash Mountain or Space Mountain. Journey to the Center of the Earth has one surprise thrill, but after your first time, you know it’s there. Raging Spirits really wasn’t that exciting. Joey and I noticed it slowed down repeatedly rather than keeping its speed. It doesn’t hold a candle to the Rock N Roller Coaster in Hollywood Studios. Indiana Jones was predictable, given the similarity to Dinosaur. Even Tower of Terror was toned down. It didn’t seem to drop as far as in Florida and went up and down only three times. I can honestly say that there wasn’t one ride that I desperately wanted to go on a second time.

That much said — the scenery was spectacular. Disney gets everything right, including fake barnacles on pier posts. The park really is on the water, so you see cruise ships, oil tankers, and other boats in the background. Note the photo with Terror of Tower in the background. That’s looks like a real port. We had no issues getting around. Food was everywhere, at regular Disney prices of course. I think we spent $40 on lunch and another $40 on dinner. We did see sea salt, caramel and strawberry popcorn today. All were quite good.

I’ll also throw into a few photos here of the Disney Monorail. Despite requiring payment to ride, it is really done quite well, with stops at both parks, the hotel row, and the Japan Rail Station that connects Disney with the rest of the country. Disney really makes it very easy. As you can see, both the windows and the handles are shaped like Mickey.


Tomorrow we’ll do some Disney shopping in the morning, before heading to the airport just after 1:00pm local Tokyo time. Our flight leaves Narita at 4:35pm, and we arrive in Newark at 4:30pm local time to change planes. We make it to St. Louis at 9:47pm. To put that all in St .Louis time:

  • Wednesday breakfast at 7:00pm Tuesday.
  • Leave for the airport just after 11:00pm Tuesday.
  • Depart from Tokyo at 2:35am Wednesday.
  • Land in Newark at 3:30pm Wednesday.
  • Land in St. Louis at 9:47pm Wednesday.

So – when you are struggling with your “long day” on Tuesday or Wednesday, think of me and smile. Think of the e-mail, voice mail, and meetings waiting for me, and smile again.

June 30, 2008

Tokyo Disneyland

Filed under: Japan Trip — Andy Mayer @ 10:04 am

It’s 11:18pm here outside of Tokyo, and I’m just settling in to post for the day. It’s been a long one. We were up at 6:00am, out the door of my sister’s apartment at 7:45am, at the Hilton Tokyo Bay by 8:45 and in Tokyo Disneyland just after 9:00am. We finally got back to the hotel at 10:20pm and into the room about 25 minutes after that. Phew!

Tokyo Disneyland looks and feels a lot like Walt Disney World, although a few things seem out of place or are different:

  • Main Street is called “World Bazaar” and has a roof, kind of like Fremont Street in Las Vegas without the light show.
  • Frontierland is called “Westernland,” and a new area called “Critter Country” exists. Thunder Mountain Railroad (which seemed a bit longer and twistier) is in Westernland, but Splash Mountain is in Critter Country.
  • Haunted Mansion is in Fantasyland.
  • Star Tours, from Disney Studios, is in Tomorrowland.
  • As you can imagine, there is no Hall of Presidents or anything from colonial America.
  • The railroad just goes around Westernland, not the whole park.
  • You have to pay to ride the Monorail between the parks and the hotels. It’s about $11 for a three-day unlimited pass.

On the plus side, I found the park tickets to be relatively inexpensive. Beth and I paid $100 for two days, one at each park. Joey was $88 and Jessie was $69. A two-day ticket in Florida is $148 for anyone over 10, and $124 for anyone 3 to 9. That means we would have paid $592 for two days in Florida, and instead we paid $257 here in Japan.

Food was probably about the same cost. Lunch was $40, but burgers, fries and drinks for dinner was $28. I think the difference with dinner was that we got “sets” – their term for combination meals. I took a photo of the lunch menu for two reasons. First, I hope the Japanese writing will prove that I’m actually here. Second, I’ve been dying to tell you about how every restaurant in Japan displays its food using plastic replicas. Someone is making a fortune off plastic food in this country. Everything you can make out in the box is plastic.

To continue with the food — A small popcorn was $3. A large souvenir tub of popcorn was $11, with each refill at $5. You could choose from the following popcorn types: saled, honey, chocolate, cream soda and curry. We didn’t find cheese. I did think the souvenir photo from Splash Mountain was inexpensive at $12.50. I can’t recall the exact amount in Florida, but that just seems inexpensive. (I’ll bring the photo to the office, if anyone cares to see.)

The most popular ride – Pooh’s Hunny Hunt. It wasn’t even close. Beth went over to get a Fast Pass at about 9:30am and the line to get the Fast Pass was 15 minutes long, and the earliest pass then was 6:00pm. We went back at around 8:00pm and the wait was still 45 minutes! Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters, Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain were also very popular. However, we walked right on Star Tours and had no trouble with Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean. Space Mountain was closed, so I can’t report there.

Our day started in Fantasyland, which is the preferred path for us Disney Veterans. We went on Alice’s Tea Party and It’s a Small World to get going. We got Fast Passes for Haunted Mansion, and, to kill time, went on Peter Pan and Dumbo. Joey and I skipped Dumbo for popcorn. After Haunted Mansion, we got Fast Passes for Buzz (for 6:00pm), and headed to Toon Town. We went on Gadget’s Go Coaster (Goofy’s Barnstormer in Florida) and then had lunch. After lunch, we went to Tomorrowland on the Grand Circuit Raceway, which unlike Florida, had no wait. As you may be able to make out in the photo, the cars had this neat feature that disengaged the gas pedal, if you came too close to the car in front.

From the raceway, we went to Star Tours and walked right on. Next, we went to Pirates of the Caribbean and got Fast Passes for Thunder Mountain Railroad. After Pirates, we dallied a bit before the afternoon parade.

Are you tired yet?

After the parade, we got Fast Passes (for 9:25pm!) on Splash Mountain and went on Jungle Cruise, but the kids were running out of gas. We rested for 20 minutes or so, until our 5:00pm Fast Passes on Thunder Mountain Railroad. From there, we went through Fantasyland to Buzz, stopping at Pinnochio and the Carousel for quick rides. From Buzz, we had dinner and stopped to watch the Electric Lights parade. (Between dinner and the parade, some went back to It’s a Small World and others went to Snow White. I sat.) From the parade, we went back on Thunder Mountain Railroad and then on Splash Mountain twice.

That’s it. Out of the park – monorail – hotel – and soon bed.

Tomorrow, we start all over again at Disney Sea. We’re meeting for breakfast at 9:00am, and the park opens at 10:00am. It will, unfortunately, be our last full day in Japan on this trip.

June 29, 2008

More Kyoto and Back to Tokyo for One Night

Filed under: Japan Trip — Andy Mayer @ 8:06 am

The rain came back today, in full force. As a result of the weather and some general tiredness, today was a slow day. We spent the morning in Kyoto, caught a 3:29pm train back to Tokyo, and are now safely here – packing for our two days at Disney.

My day actually began in the rain, when I attempted to run out and find some breakfast for Beth and me at a local bakery. If found the “local” bakery about six blocks away in a subway underground. By the time I made the 20 minute round trip, the combination of pouring rain and high humidity left me hot and tired, when the day hadn’t really begun. On the plus side, it did give me reason to explain “humiture” to my kids.

Once back at the ryokan, we left the bags in the front lobby and set out for more adventures. This time, we decided to walk, rather than trying to get nine people and a stroller on and off buses. This made for a nice stroll, albeit in and out of rain. After about 20 minutes, we arrived at Heian Jingu Shrine. Here we saw two large gates and a very large ceremonial courtyard, which you can see in the photos. Compared to some of the other temples, this one isn’t nearly as old, but is very serene and elegant.

From there, we walked about five minutes back to the Kyoto Handicraft Center, which is best described as seven floors of tourist diversion on a rainy day. We started on the 7th floor, where the kids made some crafts themselves. Joey made two Japanese woodblock prints. Woodblock printing is a craft in which a series of carved woodblocks are used to make prints that are overlaid on top of each other with different colors. Jessie set about painting a ceramic bell. My niece and nephew each made a spinning top out of paper strips. The 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th floors are packed with different vendors each hawking their wares to tourists. There was some tourist schlock, but some was actually quite nice and very expensive. Beth really liked some vases, but they were $600 each. We ended up buying Joey a Japanese puzzle box, and Beth bought a woodblock print, a small ceramic plate, and a large scarf that she plans to frame and hang.

When we were shopped out, we opted to take the place up on the free shuttle to any hotel in the city (that shows you how touristy it is). Because the 1:00pm shuttle was full, they actually paid for two taxis to take us back to our hotel. Once there, we walked back to the subway underground for lunch, and we promptly split up. Joey and I went for soba. My brother-in-law and nephew went for curry. And all the ladies went to a fried pork/chicken/shrimp place. Once done with lunch, we doubled back to get our luggage, headed to the train station, and got on that 3:29pm train.

Tokyo was no better weather-wise. We waited a good 20 minutes for the bus (under an overhand, fortunately), before making it back to my sister’s apartment. We’re now packing up to leave in the morning for Disney. Since we’ll be leaving for home on Wednesday directly from Disney, we’re packing everything up. The weather forecast actually looks very good.

Kyoto (written on June 28)

Filed under: Japan Trip — Andy Mayer @ 7:16 am

Today was your basic sight seeing day in Kyoto. I neglected to mention in my post yesterday that there is a strong police presence in the city right now due to a meeting of the G8 foreign ministers. There are streets blocked and police in riot gear standing guard in various areas. It’s a bit spooky.

Last night’s sleep in the ryokan was a bit fitful. After one day in a bed in the past eight, I’m ready for my memory foam mattress topper back in Chesterfield. Tokyo Disneyland looms on the horizon, where we’ll be in a hotel with real mattresses/beds. Yahoo!

I began the day with a trip to the traditional Japanese bath in the ryokan’s basement. In a traditional Japanese bath, one washes themselves first and then sits in a Japanese bath. Sounds simple, right? Well, first, when you leave the changing you room, you walk into the bath with your wash cloth. That’s it. Then, the washing is done sitting on an upside down basin, looking into a mirror with a bunch of other people doing the same thing near you. Then the bath itself is so hot that when you move it hurts. I don’t know if it was the hottest spa I’ve been in, but it was close. Since the hotel is small and has a low occupancy rate, I was by myself, but you can imagine if it’s crowded. Oh – I forgot to mention that men and women are separate.

Breakfast was a traditional Japanese breakfast, which mean sitting on the floor with a low table and no Frosted Flakes. In addition to green tea, we had rice and seaweed, some cold scrambled egg (picture it in a rainbow mold), miso soup, poached salmon, salad with ham and a bunch of other things that neither I, Joey nor my nephew Aki can remember. Sorry.

Then we headed out for the day. We made two stops: Kiyomizu and Kinkaku. Both are old temples that are set on spectacular grounds. As this is a Saturday, both areas were crowded with locals and tourists.

Kiyomizu is at the top of a very long and steep hill – and I mean a long and very steep hill. It was as if someone, back in the day, said “Let’s build a gorgeous temple at the top of a mountain so that only those people who are really serious about religion will make it up here.” Or – as Beth put it, maybe it was built in a valley and an earthquake made it a mountain. Perhaps.

On the way up to the temple, you run a gamut of souvenir stores and restaurants. Just like Miyajima yesterday. Odd how that happens. We saw one store that offered a bunch of spiderman materials, but the owner refused to let me take a picture inside the store. I’m still not sure why.

Kiyomizu itself is fantastic. It overlooks all Kyoto and is a tremendous architectural feat, built on these large wooden timber stilts. Once you get to the temple itself, you still have a long walk ahead of you to get through the buildings and the grounds. There are several shrines at which you can pray or make an offering of incense. There is also a natural spring from which you can drink and make a wish. I understand why my sister says it’s her favorite temple in all of Japan.

Kinkaku is called The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It’s not as scenic as Kiyomizu in terms of view, but the landscaping is extremely beautiful. The temple sits in the middle of a lake and is indeed very gold. The grounds are well kept, and there are several areas where you can contribute funds to the temple and make a wish. We let the kids use coins up to 10 yen (about 10 cents), but wouldn’t go higher, so eventually we ran out of coins.

By the time we got through Kinkaku it was close to 3:00 and was raining. We stopped in small restaurant from some soba and udon (types of noodle soups), before heading back to the hotel. After another trip to the Japanese bath, it was dinner time.

My sister, brother-in-law and I wore our Yukata robes. Yes – not all Japanese robes are kimonos. We again sat on the ground with a low table. If my memory serves me right, dinner included: shark fin soup with a big chunk of tofu, eel on a bed of pickled eggplant, shrimp and eggplant tempura, sashimi (tuna, sea urchin wrapped in yellow tail, octopus), some fried whitefish, assorted pickled vegetables, shrimp cooked on a bed of pickled vegetables, miso soup, rice, fruit for dessert (honeydew, grapes, watermelon), and some sort of green jellied stuff that I couldn’t get up the courage to eat. Beth and I also added some Asahi to get everything down. I have to say it was extremely tasty and very filling. I’d do it again, if it wasn’t just ridiculously expensive.

One more night here in Kyoto and touring tomorrow before we head back on the Shinkansen to Tokyo. Monday morning, we’re up early and off to Tokyo Disneyland before coming back to the US.

A Day to Remember (written on June 27)

Filed under: Japan Trip — Andy Mayer @ 7:15 am

We spent the day today in Hiroshima, and now I write to you from the lobby of our hotel in Kyoto, after about a two hour train ride back in the direction of Tokyo. My sister has booked us a Hotel Nishimaya, which is a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn. We’ve got a family room, if you are looking at the site.

As noted yesterday, we spent today on a tour in Hiroshima. I will come clean and admit that I finally made a pit stop at a Starbucks. I’m normally a grande or venti-a-day guy, but I hadn’t had a Starbucks in over a week. The stuff hit me like an 18-wheeler, but, once it got into my system, it was the fix I needed. I’m never going a week without Starbucks again. (They should pay me for this.)

Our first stop for the day was at Miyajima. Miyajima is an island shrine, accessible only by boat from Hiroshima. The legend has it that sometime in the 12th century, I think, the grandmother of a young emperor, in an attempt to save him from a coup, grabbed him and fled underwater to an “underwater kingdom.” Not finding the kingdom, she and the emperor drowned. Her body washed up on the beach where the shrine now is, but the emperor’s body was never found. The island, in reality, is part shrine and part tourist mecca. After we saw the shrine and took the requisite pictures, we were given an hour free time to find lunch and peruse a two-block row of souvenir shops. I will admit that we had a fabulous lunch of fried and grilled oysters, but it was still clearly a tourist haven. Perhaps the neatest (or oddest) thing on the island is the free roaming deer. They are everywhere and will walk right up to you and sniff your pockets for food. They warned us that the deer would eat anything that is dropped, and they were right. I saw two island maps being chewed on by two deer.

The remainder of the day was spent at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum. I’m really not sure how to put those few hours into words. When you are on site of one of only two atomic bomb explosions and see the devastation for yourself, it’s mind numbing. No pictures from there out of respect for the victims.

I have been to two concentration camps in Poland: Auschwitz and Birkenau. I have also been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. twice. I have said repeatedly that each time in the museum, the way it is laid out, impacted me more than the camps themselves. If you have been to the Holocaust Museum in DC, you know that you are emotionally and mentally drained after leaving. My feeling then is the only feeling to which I can compare my feelings today.

Like the Holocaust Museum, the Peace Memorial Museum pulls no punches. It shows Hiroshima before the blast and after. It shows graphic pictures of the devastation to property and the devastation to people, with no punches pulled. There is picture after picture of full-body burns, missing eyes, glass shards embedded in walls, furniture, and people. There is case after case of remnants from 11, 12 and 13-year old students that died: their lunchboxes, clothes, bicycles, notebooks, etc. They show you shadows made by people who were instantly vaporized. They explain the impact of radiation graphically, including pictures that belong in medical textbooks. They also explain the history of nuclear weapons from earliest creation through the Cold War and present day. They point out that, despite treaties, there are still many, many nuclear weapons in existence – most way more powerful than the bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I would challenge anyone to walk through the museum and not come away thinking we need to get rid of all nuclear weapons.

As if the museum wasn’t impactful enough, the walk we took through the park to get to the museum was as well. We started near the bomb’s epicenter at the remnants of a building now called the “Atomic Dome,” which was one of the few buildings to survive the blast. We walked past a children’s monument, where millions of origami cranes are in cases as testament to the sacrifices made by children, both during the blast and years later due to cancer and other diseases. There is an eternal flame that will stay lit until all nuclear weapons are abolished, and a memorial that encases the names of all those that perished.

The day was made even more meaningful by our guide. Her husband, who is 80-years-old, was ill and home during the blast. He was 17 at the time and, had he not been ill, would most likely have perished. Her father-in-law hasn’t been seen since the blast – no body, no nothing. Her brother-in-law lived a short time after the blast. He was 13. At the time of the blast, she lived on an island 10km south of Hiroshima and wasn’t impacted.

My apologies for going on so long. I wanted to get this out before too long, so that I could express to you the reaction that I had. I’m not sure what my 10-year old thinks. I know my almost 13-year-old didn’t know much about the arms race and did learn quite a bit. But, since he’s almost 13, he can’t admit that to his dad.

Tomorrow, we’re touring temples in Kyoto. Have a good weekend.

On To Hiroshima (written on June 26)

Filed under: Japan Trip — Andy Mayer @ 7:13 am

I am writing tonight from my hotel room in Hiroshima. They have high speed Internet here, but “high speed” is probably not an accurate description. It’s not 2400 baud, but it’s not DSL either.

After my post last night, Beth and I went out with my sister and brother-in-law for a couple of hours, leaving the kids in the apartment. Before anyone calls child welfare services, I would point out that my sister’s kids were all sound asleep, and Joey (12) and Jessie (10) are more than capable of minding the store.

Our first stop was a pachinko and slot parlor. This is the closest thing to a casino in Japan. If you haven’t played pachinko, I’m not sure how to describe it. You shoot tiny balls up into a grid. As they fall, you hope they fall into a specific hole which activates a slot machine in the center. Theoretically, the slot machine hits some combination, and more balls fall out the bottom. Then you redeem the balls for money. I say “theoretically,” because we never did see it happen. We got the balls in the right hole several times, but the slots never paid off.

From there we walked a bit and ended up at a Korean Barbeque. Here, you order meat and/or vegetables and cook them on a grill in the center of the table. A few plates of meet and two draft Kirins, and I was good for the night.

Today, we caught the bullet train from Tokyo at 12:10pm. We purchased a 7-day Japan Rail pass, which, although cheaper than individual tickets, does not allow us to travel of the fastest “Nozomi” trains. Instead, we traveled on the “Hikari” trains. The difference was one transfer and about 40 minutes. The train left Tokyo on-time at 12:10 and, after a change in Osaka, we arrived in Hiroshima at 4:56.

We covered a distance of 423 miles in four hours and 46 minutes. St. Louis to Chicago is 260 miles or so. I checked Amtrak. Time from St. Louis to Chicago via train is a minimum of five hours and 20 minutes – and that’s with a 4:35am departure from St. Louis. So, we covered 163 more miles in 34 less minutes! That is the benefit of a bullet train.

The train was comfortable, but somewhat plain. The countryside seemed similar after a while, but houses did move farther apart as we got into the country. The train system was very easy to navigate. Signs and announcements were in English. The car number was posted on the platform, so that you could line up right where your car was going to be. We had assigned seats and had no trouble finding them.

Our hotel in Hiroshima is right at the train station, which we did for a quick exit tomorrow. It’s called the Hotel Granvia, and, although on the edge of the city, has a nice view of the downtown from our room on the 14th floor. We had dinner at a Benihana-like place where we got to cook our own food and took a quick walk towards the center of town before heading back here. Beth and I have been sleeping on very thin mats on the floor at my sister’s, so, as you can imagine, we are excited about having a real bed. The hotel also has a heated seat on the toilet. (What do you write after that?)

Tomorrow, we have a tour that will take us to Miyajima, which is an island shrine, and then to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. I anticipate the latter to be as impactful as the Holocaust Museum in D.C. (which hit me harder than the actual camps I visited in Poland).

Finding Godzilla and Some General Observations (written on June 25)

Filed under: Japan Trip — Andy Mayer @ 7:12 am

No rain today – again. Cloudy, overcast, humid – but no rain.

We took the train mid-morning to an area called Ryoguku that is known for two things – Sumo Wrestling and the Edo-Tokyo Museum. We were there for the latter, although we did see a few sumo strolling about the area. The museum is just over 10-years old and tells a very compelling story about the history of Edo/Tokyo from the mid-10th century or so through the present. In case you are wondering, Edo officially changed its name to Tokyo late in the 19th century right at the time when it returned to imperialism with the advent of the Meiji era.

The most remarkable thing about the exhibit is the repeated disasters that have befallen the city. As Wikipedia notes, every 25 to 50 years from 1600 to 1945, the city was hit by earthquakes, fires, tsunamis or some other disaster. The exhibit featured the Great Fire of Meiriki in 1657 that killed 100,000 people, the Kanto earthquake in 1923, and the air raids during World War II. The museum also had a few hands-on exhibits, including a rickshaw that we could sit on.

After the museum, we returned to the Toys R Us store in Odaiba to purchase a Tamagatchi that Jessie had found earlier in the week. At the time, we assumed we would see it in other locations, but we never did. The Tamagatchi was marked at 3,400 yen, but when scanned came up at 1,000 yen. Lucky me.

We then headed back towards the Ginza and, for the first time all week, separated. My wife and kids went off to find a Japanese department store to wander through. They ended up at Matzusakaya. I went off in search of Godzilla.

Eric Lowing threw down the gauntlet overnight, sticking a comment on my last post about a Godzilla statue in the Ginza. Wanting to prove my “Amazing Race” worth, I set off in search. I did use Google a bit, and I had Eric’s vague directions, but most of the guidance on the Internet was similarly vague. Only one posting showed the general area on a map, and that was good enough. It is a very unassuming statue that isn’t on any map or in any guidebook. It took a little wandering and some repeated stopping to look at my map – but I found it. Eric – this photo as right is for you.

Eventually, I’ll post a blog with some general observations, but here are a few to build on my bullet points several posts back:

  • There are beverage machines everywhere. You can buy some soda, a lot of water and green team, some vitamin drinks, and a jillion types of coffee (mostly lattes) in a can or bottle. I’ve never seen that type of coffee in the US.
  • All toilets, public and private, have the ability to spray water to clean you and then air to dry you. Honestly, I can’t get up the nerve to try. My sister, who lived her for 7 years earlier in her life, has never tried it either. My brother-in-law, who is Japanese, uses it every time.
  • I’m almost used to the driving on the left. It is so hard to learn to look right when getting ready to cross the street. By the time I routinely look right, I’ll be on my way home.
  • There are very few trash cans around. We’ve walked blocks with trash in our hand unable to put it anywhere. My sister says it’s security to prevent bombs. However, when you do find a trash can, there are separate slots for plastic, aluminum, and everything else. The whole country recycles.
  • The mobile phones in Japan are much larger than ours. However, they do so much more. People are regularly watching television programs, listening to music and playing games. On the subway and train, my guess is the 50% have earphones in.
  • Commercial establishments occupy all floors in a building. It’s not unusual to see signs (I’ll have photos later) for restaurants or stores located on each floor of a six-story building. Very few have street fronts. I think it’s hard to know whether a restaurant is good or bad without being able to at least see the atmosphere.

So, tomorrow (Thursday) we get on a bullet train for a day in Hiroshima, followed by two in Kyoto, before returning on Sunday to Tokyo. I don’t know yet whether I’ll be able to post from either city. I think, for simplicity and lighter load, I’m going to leave my laptop in Tokyo. I will post if I can. There is a business center in our hotel in Hiroshima, so that may afford me an opportunity to post, albeit without pictures. In Kyoto, where we are staying in a ryokan – and sleeping as a family on tatami mats – it is less likely.

Blue Sky Over Tokyo (written June 24)

Filed under: Japan Trip — Andy Mayer @ 7:11 am

Someone listened to my pleas. There was not a single drop of rain today, and the sun shined brightly. Once, we actually crossed to the opposite side of a street to get into the shade!!

Today, my sister returned to work. Two of her kids were in school, and my brother-in-law watched their youngest for the day. So, the four members of the Mayer family were on our own in Tokyo. I’m happy to report that we’ve made it back safe-and-sound, albeit completely exhausted.

(The day started with a lovely 7:00am conference call with EDS. But, when you take a call from a 10th floor balcony overlooking Tokyo, life isn’t really that bad.)

Our first stop this morning was at Hinode Pier, where we caught a river cruise for a 40-minute trip up the Sumida River to Asakusa, which is the primary area of Tokyo that remains from when it was called Edo. We boarded the boat with about 5 minutes to spare and enjoyed the calm trip up the river. In about 40 minutes, we passed under about 10 bridges. It was very touristy, but worth the relaxation and the sights. We did see an odd-looking building with a Viking horn on top, as shown at the link from “river cruise” above.

Asakusa was tourist heaven. My sister had said we couldn’t come to Tokyo and not go there. From what I saw, it was a row of vendors selling the same souvenir schlock that led to an old temple. (This doesn’t bode well for my trip to Kyoto in a few days, where all I will see is temples!) It did, however, have a nice looking pagoda (see photo), which counts for something.

We walked from Asakusa, by way of lunch at McDonald’s, all the way down Asakusa Dori to Ueno Park. Look on a map if you get a chance, and you’ll understand why my two kids were whining the entire time. My wife and I were enjoying the sights and sounds, but the walk was long. It stretched a two-stop subway ride. Along the way we passed Kappabashi Dori, also known as kitchen town. There is store after store here selling plates, utensils, kitchen items, etc. Ueno Park is like Forest Park in St. Louis or Central Park in Manhattan. It is an oasis within Tokyo, complete with Zoo, Art Museum, Science Museum and many lengths of walking paths. The water pictured on most maps is covered by water lilies and bamboo – see the photo and you’ll get the idea.

From there (get out your maps again boys and girls), we took the Ginza Subway line to . . . the Ginza. This is an area very reminiscent of Manhattan with newer office buildings and top-of-the-line shopping. We came right up from the subway into the Sony Building, where they have four floors of exhibits of their latest technology. Joey and I agreed that there was nothing there that had a massive “wow” factor to it, but quite a few things that were very, very cool. One of them is a new MP3 player called “Rolly” which plays your tunes aloud, while dancing and moving around the house. With added software, you can actually program Rolly’s movements. After Sony, we headed towards Shinbashi and stopped at Hakuhinkan Toy Store, which was very similar to Kiddy Land that we saw yesterday, but is renowned as the best toy store in Tokyo. Four floors of toys and more toys, all segmented by type and age level on each floor – including the remote controlled robot soccer shown in the photo.

This evening, we went out for a traditional ramen soup dinner with my sister, brother-in-law and their family. It was very tasty and very quick. From there, we drove downtown and went up the Tokyo Tower. It gave us great views, but when you don’t really know the town, it is hard to know what you are seeing. The biggest challenge was holding the camera still for the “night” pictures, which opens the shutter wider and longer – but if you move the camera even a bit, everything comes out blurry. However, in the gift shop on the 2nd floor, I found some Spiderman souvenirs that specifically said “Spiderman Tokyo.” Way cool.

Tomorrow, chance of rain 40%. I’m not holding my breath for sun. Today was too good to be true.

Day Three – A Break in The Rain (written on June 23)

Filed under: Japan Trip — Andy Mayer @ 7:09 am

Despite forecasts, we only had a smidgen of rain today, and, in general, none that prevented any of the sightseeing we did. In fact, until we took a drive outside of Tokyo for dinner, we had only felt intermittent drops all day. I guess someone was listening to my complaints. The forecast for tomorrow shows an 80% chance of rain. So much for the break.

Fair warning – this is the longest post of my trip thus far. We did a lot of walking today.

We started our day walking to a subway stop to head into town. My sister lives in the Ota-ku Ward of Tokyo, which is in the Southwest portion of the city. The residential portion of Ota-ku is a combination of apartments and single family houses. The houses comes in all shapes and sizes, some of them shoehorned into the tiniest of lots and built straight up. I suspect many of them have less than the space my sister has in her apartment. She could tell something was a single-family house and not an apartment by the number of entrances. Many of these tiny places go for prices in excess of $1M. It’s San Francisco revisited.

Our first stop was the Meiji Shrine in the center of Tokyo. Emperor Meiji was the great-grandfather of current emperor Akhito and lived into the early 20th century. The Shrine was built not long after the Emperor and Empress Shoken died and was then rebuilt in 1958 after the original was demolished in World War II. We followed the Shinto custom of washing our hands and then praying. We also bought a few good luck charms.

From there we walked down through Harajuku, one of the trendier areas of Tokyo. We first headed down Takeshita Dori, which is a pedestrian alley on which are many stores selling eclectic clothing, some food stores (including a McDonald’s) and, from what they tell me, some gentlemen’s establishments. After stopping for some crepes on Takeshita Dori (see photo), we wandered down Ometesando. To me, this looks like the Rodeo Drive or 5th Avenue of Tokyo. Everything from Ralph Lauren to Louis Vitton to Jimmy Choo to Prada to Chanel had a store here. We spent a lot of time in a toy store called Kiddy Land. We saw very little that isn’t in the US, save what appears to be a Dance Dance Revolution knock-off for the week. Note the man dancing in the photo. Overall, given the English signage on all these stores, it is easy to forget where you are.

We emerged off Ometasando onto Aoyama Dori and made our way to Shibuya. Shibuya is the area most people think of when they think of Tokyo. If you’ve seen Lost in Translation, you’ve seen this area. At the heart of Shibuya, near the train station, is an area where at least five streets intersect and create a “scrambled intersection.” Periodically, all traffic is stopped and pedestrians flood the intersection going from corner to corner. Just outside the station is a dog statue that is a popular meeting spot. The dog is named Hachiko and legend says that from 1923 to 1935 he waited for his master there each day. After his master died, the statue was erected.

After a short rest at my sister’s, we drove south of Tokyo towards Kawasaki City for dinner at a chain restaurant called Kappa Sushi. No menus here. You either grab plates of sushi as they pass by your table on a conveyor belt or order via a touch screen to have your food delivered via an electric train. At the end of your meal, the waitress counts up plates to determine how much to charge you. My brother-in-law (the 3-hour marathoner) had 15 plates, but Joey held his own with 13. I guess conveyor-belt sushi is a big deal. It has its own Wikipedia entry.

Tomorrow, my sister heads back to work, and we’re on our own. I hope to be back here with another posting. That will mean we had a successful day and didn’t get lost.

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