Sunday, November 15, 2009

Still here!

I’m not done with the Japan trip quite yet, I’m just trying to get my bearings now that we’re back on this side of the world.

We left Tokyo on Tuesday, November 10 at 5:30 p.m. and arrived in Vancouver on Tuesday, November 10 at 9:30 a.m. Argh – I’m just not going to think too much about that date line thing.

Thursday morning we were on an 8:00 a.m. flight out of Victoria and we’re now in Winnipeg. So, sleep comes when it does, which is usually not when the world around us is in sleep mode – we’re falling asleep all day, wide awake at night. I’m sure we’ll just get sorted in time to go back to Victoria on Wednesday.

We find things here in Winnipeg in good shape. Wilf’s mom is settled into her new home and is happy to have a room of her own.

I’ll be back soon with more pictures and stories of our adventures. I’ve really appreciated hearing from you all about these postings. I sort of feel like I’m talking to myself – it’s good to know you are out there!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Badger hunting in Tokyo

When we first arrived in Japan we stayed in Asakusa, the district that contains the great Sensoji Temple. While wandering around the grounds we came across a small shrine called Chingo-do, which is dedicated to the Tanuki, also known as the raccoon dog or badger. Here’s a rascally looking three some:


As well as being the deity for protection against fire and theft, Sir Raccoon Dog is also a symbol of flourishing business. Bars and noodle shops, in particular, usually have a statue of a tanuki out front. We figure its a sort of ‘good time  here’ symbol.



Wilf decided that he needed a tanuki for a souvenir. The area around the temple in Asakusa is thick with souvenir shops so we returned there today. I managed to find the Japanese name for the critter – trying to explain to someone who doesn’t speak English that I wanted a small statue of a badger just seemed like a recipe for failure.

Good luck cats, Hello Kitty in all incarnations, owls – no problem. Tanuki – not so easy. Asakusa is also the part of town where the restaurant supply stores are – the guidebooks send tourists there to see where all the fake food on display in front of Japanese restaurants comes from. Figuring that restaurants have to get their tanuki from somewhere we set off. Finding one with just the right facial expression was a challenge – goofy, but not too comic like. With teeth…… There were some big ones that were great and would have made a great water feature in the garden. But how to get it home? Eventually we found a little one that is actually a sake container – Sir Raccoon Dog’s hat comes off for use as a sake cup. I’ll have to show you a picture later, as he’s currently packed up for transport.

After achieving success in the badger department we decided to walk down to the river. And lo and behold – a big water taxi to take us to places unknown. We hopped on and away we went. It is easy to forget that Tokyo is on the ocean, has a big port and also has a whole river network running through it. We passed under 14 bridges, and saw many more on side channels. That explains why so many subway stations end with ‘bashi, which means bridge.

While waiting for the water taxi I bought another charm from a vending machine. This caused much excitement amongst the groups of ladies standing behind me, especially when I couldn’t get the plastic bubble it came in open. They couldn’t stand it, took it away and passed it around until they got it. I was balancing camera, purse, knapsack, packages, and when I was fumbling getting the charm onto my camera I thought the mama-san’s were going to take that over too! They were a hoot!


Once back to shore we made our way to Shibuya. If you’ve seen the movie ‘Lost in Translation’ you’ve seen this intersection. It is a scramble – the cars go in one direction, then the other. Then the cars wait and people cross however they need to . It is a sea of humanity surrounded by oceans of neon – all set to the latest J-pop blasting from the speakers!


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tonight – a quickie….

Tired tonight after roaming the city all day. The plan today was to visit the Harajuku district. On Sundays this is were the kids go in their crazy clothes – the more outlandish, the better. We arrived via JR train a bit on the early side and wandered through some of the lanes. Definitely where the young ‘uns shop. We made a loop back up to where the action was to be. From a distance we could hear a hectoring female voice over a loudspeaker. This is surprisingly common, in a country that so values discretion and politeness. Trucks drive by advertising via loudspeakers, vendors on the street are using loudspeakers to entice shoppers. Since we can’t understand what they’re on about its just a lot of noise.

Back to the bridge by train station – no crazy clothes. But hundreds of people streaming out of the train station with banners. At this point it was just on to 11:00 a.m. We followed down the street for a bit – the hectoring voice was coming from a van by the side of the road with a group of what could only be local politicians bowing and smiling while this woman went on and on and on. On one side of the road is a huge park that people are heading towards in large groups. On the other side of the road is a huge arena, where there appears to be a rhythmic gymnastics competition going on, given the number of very young  girls in sparkly eye makeup and carrying fancy hoops.

I managed to find a young policeman who could manage enough English to confirm that there was a political demonstration about to happen in the park. We decided to walk back down through the shopping area and let things settle for a bit.

The fancy shopping area was packed with people out for a day of strolling and shopping. Once clear of the Harajuko street area proper we were into designer land – huge Ralph Lauren stand alone store, Louis Vuitton store, Harry Winston, you name it. Back in Harajuko we got a local snack – crepes, rolled up in a cone like an ice cream cone, filled with yummy stuff.

By now it was about 1:15, and only a few people on the bridge looking kind of purple and gothy. And then there was this guy:


Dude – aren’t you a little old for this?

We found a cafe near the entrance to the Meji park shrine. Lots of parents bringing their kids to the shrine for blessings as part of the 7-5-3 festival. Lots of tourists. And then, about 1:15, the singing started. And the chanting. The folks we saw at 11:00 heading for their demonstration were now, at 1:15 returning up the street. For 45 minutes they kept coming and coming. Chanting, singing. A sea of people. Carrying lots of signs and banners. Lots of police keeping an eye on things.


Passing the train station – at first I thought they might be heading from rally to the train to go home, but no – they just kept on going….


Like I’ve said – it is a real nuisance, being illiterate.

We scooted over to Roppongi to see the Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midcity  developments – they’re like cities within the city. Amazing architecture:



and these two cuties and their Dad – playing in one of the sculptures.


We have covered a ton of ground, and are thoroughly the city. So much to see – we never know what we’re going to find when we come up from the subway- will we step into the 21st century, or go back in time down some tiny little alley of little bars and eateries?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Going to Shinjuku Station

According to Wikipedia Shinjuku Station in West Tokyo is the busiest train station in the world. I have no reason to doubt that. Apparently on about 3.5 million people per day pass through the station complex.

3.5 million. Per day.

We decided to pay our respects on a weekend, hoping to find the crowds somewhat diminished. This seems like a good time to talk about the amazing Tokyo transit system. Here’s a map:


I don’t know if that will be readable – here’s the link to the system’s website: Tokyo transit. There are some 35 lines that serve the greater Tokyo system. They loop and criss-cross back and forth. Within the city there are often many ways to get to a location. We really don’t know the where’s and why’s of one route over another, so we just pick what looks to us to be straightforward. We have rechargeable cards that allow us to access all the lines – and since there are two subway companies and one train company that simplifies things. We pass the card over the turnstile on the way in and again on the way out and it figures out what we owe. That part is simple.

A trip or two ago to Seattle Wilf found a little Tokyo subway book at Elliot Bay bookstore  and it has been our lifesaver. It gives details of each line, how the lines connect and information about the major stations. For instance – there are 60 access points to the Shinjuku station complex. It matters that you get the right one – get it wrong and you can be blocks and blocks from where you want to be in a chaotic street scene with no street signs.

The good news is that there is a rationalized signage/numbering system. Each line has a letter associated with it – and a colour. Each station has a number. The signage looks like this:


We are at Station E 07.  E is the Oedo line, the big loop around the city. Station E07 is Kasuga. Next stop is E06 – Lidabashi. In theory you could find your way by just knowing that you needed to get from station E07 to E25.There is a subway station entrance directly across from our hotel. It is for another line, but by walking underground for some time we wind up at good old E07 – we seem to use the Oedo line a lot. Usually we find our way in and out without trouble, but one night after we has passed out of the turnstiles of one line we must have zigged when we should have zagged, ‘cause when we got to our friend exit number 8 we were behind a different set of turnstiles, and our card was not happy – no ingress, so how could it calculate egress? Fortunately the two guys in booth were used to dealing with confused tourists and sorted out our cards and let us out.

So, knowing the scale of Shinjuku station we did our homework. Worked our where the store we wanted should be, what exit would be required and this morning we set out. By paying close attention we wound up exactly where we wanted to be. And at 9:30 on a Saturday morning it was pretty quiet. In fact when we found the yarn store we wanted it wasn’t open yet. Off to Starbuck’s we went – it was up on the second floor of one of the shopping complexes attached to the station. At 10:00 we looked out and saw this:


This is the manager and employees of an eyeglass store. The manager has made a speech and they all bowed to each other. Now they are bowing to the street. They then turned in unison and:


bowed in one direction, then turned and bowed the other way. People are whizzing by, totally indifferent. More talking by the boss, another round or two of bowing and then everyone set off into the store at a run. One guy came out with a broom and pail and swept not the sidewalk but the street in front of the store. Others brought out display racks, signs, a red carpet. Quite a production……

The level of service everywhere is amazing. Huge number of staff in the huge department stores. Often there is a young woman running the elevator in the department store. In full, fashionable uniform. And seeming so totally delighted to see everyone, to explain what was on each floor, to make sure that no one gets caught in the door. Customers are greeted with huge enthusiasm upon entering an establishment and sent off with much thanks upon departure.

I’ve added a new phrase to my limited repertoire. Gochisosama deshita, which means (literally) ‘Thanks to you it was delicious’. This is said to the cook/wait staff/anyone involved at the end of a meal. I find it a real tongue twister to say but I think I’ve finally got it. I sure get a reaction when I try it out. Mostly surprise, but lot’s of ‘Very Good!’ and the occasional clapping of hands. I definitely breaks their reserve!

By time we finished our day around Shinjuku station it was falling dark and the lights were coming up. The streets were crowded, the noise was great – this was what I was expecting from Tokyo!


Friday, November 6, 2009

Even McDonald’s isn’t immune…

Not quite right signage picture for today:


Although, actually, cuppuccinno isn’t a bad name for a coffee!

Oh – and on Monday all the Starbuck’s switched to Christmas mode – decorations, music, Christmas treats, you name it. Whew – not a minute too soon!

A fishy tale. Or, a tale of two cities.

Way back, when my family was living in Toronto we went on a vacation to Connecticut. While we were there we went to the far end of Long Island sound, where the lobster boats come in. One evening we were there when one of the boats arrived. It was full of lobsters, while was interesting and entertaining. But the big buzz on the dock was the fact that they had caught a big tuna. They had called ahead with the details, and the Japanese fish agents were there to meet them. The huge fish was deemed worthy, which meant big bonuses for everyone involved. And the fish was going by 747 from New York to Tokyo to the big fish market. I’ve always remembered that night and that great big fish.

This morning we got up at 4:00 to make our pilgrimage to the Tsukji fish market. We greeted the security guy as he opened the door to the subway at 5:00 a,m and waited with other early birds for the first train at 5:20. By 5:45 we were at the correct station. Even down in the subway we could smell fish and a group of tourists all streamed toward the market.

The market day begins at about 3:00 a.m. when the seafood and fish arrive from all over the world. Sometime after 5:00 the auction begins. Tourists have very restricted access to the auction itself, and it is difficult to get to the market early enough – night bus or taxi would do it, or a private tour. Anyhoo, by the time we arrived at 5:50 the auction was complete and the wholesalers were preparing their product. Most impressive and most important was the work on the fresh high quality tuna. These are enormous critters and it takes men with big knives to cut them up. See?



These knives are about 4.5 feet long.  There are also saw like knives to get the party started:


These fish are treated very carefully. As the big pieces are cut off they are carefully transferred to big boards, then moved on to the guys who cut them up into saleable chunks:


The price on this chunk is 7,000 yen per kilo – about $83.00/kilo.

They were still removing the frozen tunas from the auction area when we passed by – a little less gentle with these guys:


They get the band saw treatment. And there is every kind of fish or sea creature that you ever dreamt of on offer:




The market is a hive of activity. Anyone with business there is wearing rubber boots. Everyone else is stepping carefully! These guys are roaring through all over the place:


and since we are in their workplace they have the right of way. There are also guys with long wheel barrow type carts working their way through. And white Styrofoam containers everywhere. You can see in the above pictures that they are stacked on the floor full of product and up above in a storage area. Outside there is a huge fenced area with a front end loader smashing up all of the extras. The building is a big crescent shape and it has aisles and rows. After awhile the sea of critters in bins kind of organizes itself – each wholesaler has his own area, usually his own specialty, i.e. tuna, eels,shell fish,octopus, etc. Toward the back of the stacks of boxes there is a tiny little office with mama-san, who runs the phone and the cash register.

By 6:45 the merchants begin to arrive to buy their fish and seafood. We moved out to the outer market, which is a warren of streets around the main building. The restaurants begin opening at 7:00 and many had big lines already. There are also kitchen supply shops, vegetable shops, snack stands, you name it. We decided that the fitting end to our market adventure would be, of course, a fish breakfast, so we joined the crowd at a sushi restaurant. We ordered the tuna sampler – three grades of tuna sushi, one piece of ‘broiled’ fatty tuna and a tuna/pickle California roll. It was yummy .  The broiled tuna actually just had a pass of a blow torch over it! Not often we can claim our breakfast was cooked with a blow torch!

By8:30 am we were standing on the street, fed and vastly entertained.  I got to see the other end of the journey that tuna made all those many years ago, And that was only the first of the adventures for the day.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rick Deckard ate here…

Any Blade Runner fans out there? In the movie Harrison Ford, as Rick Deckard, goes out for a noodle dinner in a crazy street scene. And we found it! In 1982 Ridley Scott had a vision of what the world would look like in 2019. Here in 2009 the area south of Ueno Station (pronounced Ooo-way-no) fits the bill. The area is called Ameyoko-cho. Under the JR train line is a warren of shops selling practically everything. Once upon a time this was a tough part of town – less tough now but crazy busy.


You can see the windows of the train that is passing up top and then the shops tucked underneath. And restaurants – all kinds of tiny little places.The trains roar over head, the crowds surge back and forth, people are calling you into their establishments.

We stopped for a beer and some skewers at a yakitori joint – the kind of place where the table is a stack of empty beer crates with a piece of wood on top and patrons perch on little wee stools.


Can you see himself in there raising his glass? The red lantern is a signal for this sort of cheap and cheerful pub like affair.


This was still fairly early in the evening – the salarymen were just starting to arrive to start their eating and drinking. Around 7;00 p.m I was taking a picture when I heard a voice behind me suggest ‘Why don’t you join us?’ and there was a group of 8 men in business suits, table covered in little dishes, waving a big bottle of sake at me. Oh – I don’t think so! They had very bright shiny sake eyes, I must say. Should they stay too long at their sake they only had to stumble down the street to the local capsule hotel:


That’s about $40.00, up on the fourth floor, above a Pachinko palace. The subway system stops for the night at 1:00 a.m., and given the size of the city it can take an hour or more on the train, so – capsule hotel it is.

And just because I can’t resist them – here’s a sign from the front of another Pachinko parlour:


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

An indelicate subject

We went to Nikko today, up to the mountains to see the shrine and temple complex. We took a lot of pictures – that will have to be another post. Instead, today I want to tell you about bathrooms. Or, to be more specific, Japanese toilets. Wow – such in infinite variety! And I’m not even talking about Japanese style toilets – I’ve manage to avoid those altogether.

The Japanese love of gadgetry has been applied to toilets, producing appliances that need instruction manuals. Heated seats with temperature controls are pretty much standard everywhere. Dual flush mechanisms are fairly common, too, although they don’t use simple symbols. And since we can’t read the Japanese characters we have a 50/50 chance of getting either half or full flush…. Its the options for – shall we say – undercarriage rinsing that can be surprising. Some have simple controls attached to the side of the toilet seat itself – simple pictures. And then you get something like this:


complete with time….. Or this one:


That’s the men’s room. Ladies’ room at the same facility was so confusing that someone had put a little paper sign ‘flush’ to give us a clue.

And I’m not even talking about the startling sound effects. Apparently Japanese women are quite modest about having anyone hear what they might be up to, so they flush the toilet immediately upon entering the cubicle, then get on with their business, then flush again. Big waste of water. One solution is to have either music play, or the sound of water. Which can be a surprise if you don’t expect it.

Oh – and this was a whole new one at one hotel:


I’ll have to say, though, that the facilities are spotlessly clean. Often, in the West, if you want to come up with a synonym for disgusting ‘as bad as a train station toilet’ will suffice. Or even worse  - ‘a subway toilet’. Not so, here. Absolute palaces. Public restrooms on the street – no problem. Quite a change from some places we’ve been to.

This leads to a situation that Wilf has run across. In the train station there are the pink ladies. Usually older ladies, in pink uniforms. When the big trains pull in a team of pink ladies will descend upon each car and in a flurry of sweeping, tidying, washing and polishing will whip that train car into perfection in a matter of minutes. In the Kyoto station one morning  Wilf was gone for a long time. When he appeared he said that he was rather taken aback because one of the pink ladies was in the men’s room cleaning the sinks – didn’t seem to concerned that he was there. And yesterday when we arrived at the Tokyo station he came back from a visit. The men’s was very busy but at the urinal next to him was a pink lady, cleaning away. Two more were standing back by the wall having a grand old chat, seemingly oblivious to the activity around them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

On being illiterate

Its a humbling thing, going from being an avid fan of all things written to not being able to read at all. It isn’t like in Europe, where I might or might not have spoken the language. Usually I could start to recognize patterns, so even if didn’t speak German I would see the letters strasse and see that it meant street and know that the next time I saw strasse we were talking about a street again. Even Czech, which made no sense to me, had some words that I came to recognize.

Japan – not so much. Heck, not at all. Surrounded by symbols, but they are meaningless to us. Some of our guidebooks give us the names of places in English, then the characters so we can recognize them. But we are usually confronted with such a blizzard of symbols that we can’t pick out anything.

Yesterday we went to the town of Furukawa, in the Hida district. We’re getting off the beaten path, for Western travelers, at least. They’re set up for a huge number of Japanese visitors. We were whiling away time in the train station, confirming to ourselves that we were headed in the right direction. We compared our guide book with the train station signage and managed to match up the symbols for the name of the town. Of course, once we knew those two symbols we saw them everywhere. We even figured out that that the symbols following probably meant ‘station’. Later that day we were at the Furukawa station, waiting for the return train in the cold and rain. We were staring at the hotel across the way when Wilf said ‘Hey – that sign says Hida-Furukawa.’ And sure enough – we both remembered and recognized the symbols. We were as pleased with ourselves as if we’d discovered fire. Now, if we could just remember something useful.

When we got to our hotel here in Tokyo we noticed that the remote for the tv had a button for TV guide. Hey, we thought, maybe it’ll help us figure out what’s going on:


Yeah, again with the not so much!

Of course, English is not always supremely helpful here, either. When we got to Furukawa yesterday they were very pleased to present us with a copy of the English version of their tourist map. At the top it says:

A town where Japanese spirit live unchanged since olden times.

Hida Furukawa stroll map

From long ago, people full of human touch and cityscape where master technique lives are also expressed ‘Come to Furukawa if you get bored with the free world’ Touch the feeling of Furukawa where you can just relief and feel nostalgic.

Pretty hard to argue with that, eh?

Light picture day today as we spent most of it on the train. We took a smaller local train from Takayama to Nagoya, then switched to the Shinkasen for the ride to Tokyo. And that thing flies! Being a clear day look who put in an appearance:



Tomorrow we’re off to see the over the top extravagance of Nikko

Monday, November 2, 2009

It’s a charming country

Not too surprisingly, everyone here seems to have a cell phone. Unlike in North America or Europe, where phones tend to be Blackberry/IPhone size, or tiny tiny, the phones here a sort of midsize – maybe 2” by 4”. Most flip open, some have a top layer that slides up. The thing is that the screen area is large – certainly much larger than my little Koodo phone. 

People refer to their phones constantly – pulling them in and out of pockets, wearing them on straps around their necks. On the train one day last week one young women spent the entire 3 hour train ride looking at the screen of her phone. The big difference – you rarely hear them ring and people don’t talk on their phones that often. But the thumbs are flying as lots of texting and web surfing goes on.

I’m always a little surprised when an incredibly elegant, expensively dressed woman pulls out her phone and it has all this stuff hanging off of it. Charms and do dads. I started watching and its everyone one – men, women , children, everyone. And not just a charm or two. Whole small stuffed animals (which look really ratty after being pulled in and out of pockets or bags). Purses and backpacks, too.  Hmm, thought I.

Then we went to a Buddhist temple. And at most temples there are booths/kiosks that sell charms. Charms for good luck, good health, safe driving, good grades. Most of these are little coloured silk bags with a cord. They are worn close to the body and are not to be opened, or they do not work. The good grades charms are little backpacks, like the ones school kids wear.  So, it would appear that there is a tradition of having charms, and cell phones are one of the places they wind up.

I don’t have my cell phone with me, so I’ve got one for my camera:

IMG_0792 A stamp of Kyoto and a little maple leaf - ‘cause one must be au courant with the seasons…..

Clearly I need a tricky little strap for my camera.

The Japanese esthetic is interesting. On the one hand there is the elegant and refined style, perfected over hundreds of years of applied effort. And then there’s Hello Kitty. Cute to the point that your teeth hurt.

We ate lunch today at a restaurant in Furukawa. Being way up in the mountains this is cow country, so we had Hida beef with curry sauce. The placemat was beautiful – an elegant sketch of maple leaves and a mountain. And the chopsticks holder was a ceramic Pokeman character. Go figure.

The beef with curry sauce was delicious, as were all the components of the meal – this was a sort of first course –colours and decorations to match the season. Its a croquette of mashed potatoes and vegetables – very good!


While we were in Furukawa the weather took a turn for the worse. It began to rain. And then it got serious and really began to rain. And the wind came up. The train station is a pretty minimal operation and today it won the ‘Coldest place I’ve ever been’ prize. In fact we resorted to a can of hot coffee from the vending machine. And then the train didn’t come and we were beginning to wonder how we would get out of there. But another train came and all was well. We got back to the hotel, added sweaters and gloves and carried on. Now we’re tucked up in our room with the heat on and drinking tea. Tomorrow we head for Tokyo – back to the crowds!

And a room with a real bed, tables and chairs:


Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sunday in the park with….

Takayama is not unusual in that it has big festivals, or even that it has them twice a year. But they are known for the parade floats at their festivals. The festivals date way way back – one in the spring before the crops are planted, one in the fall after the harvest. 350,000 people come to see the events, which is more than the population of the city. They have a museum where some of the floats are on display, so we went for a look see. And we were amazed!

There are 23 floats – some for spring, some for fall. They are over 300 years old, they are huge and I would say that they are priceless, but they are in fact valued in the millions of dollars, each one. They are all considered to be national treasures.

At any given time there are three floats in the museum, along with an immense portable shrine.


The floats have wheels, and are pulled by ropes through the streets. There is a night procession through the old town with the floats decked with lanterns. The upper level of each float can be lowered down into the red curtained area.


The painting, carving and gilding on each structure is astonishing.When they are not in the museum the floats live in shed like barns in the old part of town – here’s a link to a picture: Float Barn – we saw them as we walked through town. And more pictures here: Takayama festival

The shrine, below, weighs several tons (the bottom part is cast iron). It is no longer carried through town – they need 80 people of the same height to carry it (two teams of 40, 10 men to a pole) and can’t raise such a group any more. Each float has its club that wheels it through town and is associated with it.


We came out of the museum in front of the main shrine for the city – just in time for a wedding party to be passing by!



There were also flocks of children in traditional dress. In November there is the 7-5-3 festival for children. Three and five year old boys and three and seven year old girls are brought to the shrine for blessings of those auspicious ages. They are dressed in formal traditional wear. Their parents and grandparents may or may not be in traditional wear. It is an occasion of much picture taking. The festival date is November 15, but lots of people were getting a head start today:



this little lady was all about posing for pictures – her brother, not so much!

And then, just as we were about head out – another wedding party:



In this procession there was the attendant, the father of the bride in western style formal wear, the bride in her mother in full Japanese regalia (note the mother’s very formal black kimono with family crests) followed by members of the bride’s party in a mix of Japanese and western formal wear. They were greeted by the entrance to the office by the groom’s party:


In the first wedding party the bride and groom walked together, followed by relatives and greeted a group by the door. We never did figure out all the details – was this the wedding ceremony? Why not in the main shrine  - was there a service? why were the wedding parties and the children and their families all going in the same door, but only the kids and families coming back out? Were the wedding people going out another entrance (there was one) or was there another room for a reception in there? They came by hired bus, which was still in the parking lot. So many questions…..

Fortunately all this happened before the big rain came!