Monthly Archives: September 2011

Congrats! You are homeless!

It’s not every day you get an email with that subject line… and feel great happiness. That was the case this morning. As we slept, the final closing documents were signed on the sale of our house. The final item on our “To Do Before We Leave” list has been belatedly checked off.

I guess our home is now wherever we are. At the moment, that’s a berth on the ScubaPro II, a 22-meter yacht floating in the Great Barrier Reef. Not a bad upgrade from South 7th Street.

Thanks to everyone- including my parents, POA Don, lawyer Nancy, our neighbors and Realtors- who helped make the sale happen half a world away!

Random Travel Tips and Observations About Japan

Our favorite travel resources include Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor and CouchSurfing. 

Bring lots of patience. The Japanese people have tons of it. They are not complainers and simply smile back to those who are complaining to them. You won’t usually get your way on the little things, so back down. 

Do not bring a roll of  toilet paper. It bulks up your bag and most bathrooms have TP. Just put a little bit in your purse for the times when you hit a bathroom without TP. Note: most bathrooms have no soap for hand washing or towels/dryers.

In most areas, general pedestrian and bicycle traffic will not speak or warn you of their coming. They’ll just push you aside or whip past you on their bike….on the tiny sidewalk. There is little “excuse me”, “passing on your right” or bell ringing.  Look before you step out of line or you may get a bumping. 

Have plenty of Yen in your pocket. Many places do not take credit cards, including most grocery stores. For two people, budget style,  plan on $10 for breakfast, $25 for lunch and $45 for dinner. You can eat more cheaply if you cook for yourself or eat some cup  ’o ramen once in awhile. 

If you plan to visit many cities, you may want to invest in a JR Rail Pass. Do some research on hyperdia.com to get an idea of fares. You may be better off paying for individual fares if you do not train extensively. Reserved seats will cost you more. For instance, we paid $1172.00 for a 14 day pass and only trained $946 worth.

Japan is a fairly expensive destination. Excluding flight, our costs averaged $225/day. We did no major tours, nor did we rent a car or have any fancy meals. Spain averaged $214/day w/car and Peru was $114/day w/great tours.

Garbage cans are a rare find while walking about. The best locations are inside women’s bathroom stalls or the platforms of train stations. 

There are drink vending machine everywhere, even in the countryside, so you will never be thirsty.

It is common for rice and noodles to be served at the same meal. You may also have some potatos or yams with those meals. White bread is the norm, as is white rice and white noodles, except soba, which is buckwheat. Wheat bread is nearly impossible to find. Watch out, carb haters.

Japanese couples get married any day of the week. Western style weddings are very popular and many hotels specialize in hosting weddings. Very few have religious ceremonies or get married in churches.

Most Japanese are not religious, yet throw a rock and you are mostly likely to hit a shrine or a temple. Shrines have tori gates and are Shinto. Temples have structures like gates or not and are Buddist. Many Japanese visit these places to “pray”, really give offerings and ask for their wishes to be granted. 

Slippers. Many places in Japan require you to take off your shoes;  hostels, restaurants, bars, homes. If you have any foot issues, get squeamish wearing slippers that many people have worn before you or you are a male with a shoe size over 8, bring your own slippers. 

Japanese people love to throw the peace sign up with every photo that is taken of them. Even those standing in solemn Hiroshima Peace Park; even the bride having her photo taken with grandma. I asked a local why and even they didn’t know. Give it a whirl…..Peace!

Staying with a Japanese family: An Introduction to CouchSurfing

Our major goal on this trip is to meet other people and learn about their cultures and what makes them unique. We are members of the perfect organization to help us connect to locals, www.couchsurfing.org. This online group is 3 million people around the world who are willing to exchange information, meet you for coffee or even welcome you into their homes for a time. All in the spirit of goodwill and for the love of adventure and new people.

Japan is one of the tougher countries to find a couch to “surf”. It really goes against their culture to invite a stranger into their home, even if they are part of a community and have lots of good references. So we struggled for a bit to find someone to willing to host us. The few adventurous Japanese CouchSurfers out there are slammed with requests from travelers like us. So we were extremely fortunate when we were invited into the home of Megumi and her family.

A mean game of Pit

Living about a 30 minute train ride from the historic city of Nara, it was a perfect location to visit both the smaller cities and countryside of Japan. Their home is similar to Milwaukee living, with three-bedroom homes built right next to each other, with little or no yard. Parks and shopping areas are within walking distance.

Karen’ fav site in Nara, the giant Buddha
Their Home

Megumi’s family is typical Japanese, with a full-time working Dad, a part-time working mom (to pay for health insurance) and two, elementary school aged kids. Two cars in the garage, plenty of shoes in the entry way and lots of toys and playthings. They are also very atypical Japanese, in that the mom and two kids speak English extremely well and want to learn more. They are working on creating a life that has a balance of Japanese and western culture. Many moms are curiuos about Megumi’s approach and ask her lots of questions.

We enjoyed our time with the family immensely. We shared fantastic meals together….everyone cooks! We played cards games, charades and Angry Birds on the computer. Much fun was had during the how to tie a necktie lesson. Koji, the dad, had to step in, as Ken’s twice a year tie wearing experience was not sufficient. We even got outside, learned to J-Board and watched the kids ride their unicycles. Tzubasa, the 8- year old boy, showed off his soccer skills. He prefers this sport over Japan’s favorite, baseball.. Nazuna, the 10 year-old girl, had a homework assignment to track the full moon. Ken dashed over to the 100 Yen Store with the kids to buy binoculars. Nazuna and Karen went to the second story porch every hour to track the changes of the moon.

Fried Chinese Noodles w/Pancake
Perfect ties!

Outside fun!

Megumi showed off her tour guiding skills by driving us around the countryside, showing us some historic tombs, rocks and other lovely sites. She even shared her favorite local snack, Takoyaki, which are savory dough balls with octopus pieces. This version was put into a snack shell with sauce and crisped rice. With all that we learned from her,  I encouraged her to start her own tour business!

Enjoying Takoyaki

While most CouchSurfing experiences are good, this one was exceptional. We hope to stay in touch with the family for a long time. Perhaps help them with their goal of learning more American English as well. English books are hard to find in Japan, so I hope to find the first two Harry Potter books in Australia and ship them. Do you have any recommendations for books that are good for a ten-year old to read? Are you interested in sending some books to Japan for Nazuna? Drop us an email and let’s talk.

Rethinking Hiroshima

For many people (myself included), Hiroshima is synonymous with an event that took only a fraction of a second: the detonation of the first atomic bomb used in warfare, on August 6, 1945.

I was eager to see the Hiroshima of today, the one that rarely thinks of August 1945 because it’s too busy getting on with 2011. Walking out of the train station, I immediately noticed the bicycles- they were everywhere. People ride on the sidewalks, which prevents accidents involving cars but encourages close calls with pedestrians. Combine the bikes with the trams (some quite old-fashioned, some new and sleek) and the boxy architecture (presumably because the whole city was rebuilt in the 1950s), and I got the vibe of walking through an Eastern European street during the Cold War… except for the McDonald’s restaurants and the Toshiba billboards.

A river runs through the city, which makes for nice views walking around at night.

Hiroshima tram

 

Neon street

 

River view

Mazda is the biggest game in town, having been headquartered here since 1920. We took the factory tour and Zoom-Zoomed all around the complex, learning that the company has its own hospital, owns its own bridge, and generates 70% of the electricity it uses. Checking out early Mazdas, Karen found the one she wants to drive through New Zealand: the Bongo.

Mazda guide

 

Karen goes Bongo

 

Ken and John, post okonomiyaki

We also met our new mate, John from Melbourne. We’ll be there in a month, and over lunch he drew us an elaborate map labeled with points of interest. We hope to see him Down Under, but first, we were destined to bump into him a few more times in Japan (are we following him, or is he following us?).

One of the most famous sites in Japan lies on an island just outside Hiroshima: Miyajima, home of the floating shrine. At high tide, it appears that the O-torii Gate and the buildings of the shrine are floating in the bay. We arrived as the tide was going out and were treated to the last moments of that illusion.

O-torii Gate on the water

 

Gate reflected

 

Itsukushuima Shrine

How picturesque is this place? A bride and groom were having their wedding photos taken at the shrine, and hiking through the hills revealed another visual marvel around each corner.

Wedding couple

 

High view

 

5-story pavilion

Daisho-In Temple was particularly impressive, with its colorful entrance. The garden is lined with 500 figures of disciples of Shaka Nyorai (Buddha), each with a unique facial expression. Spinning the Mani Wheel invites blessings.

Daisho-In Temple

 

Disciples

 

More disciples

 

The 501st disciple?

 

The Mori Wheel

That’s the new Hiroshima, but of course the awful events of 1945 are not forgotten here. Karen and I spent an afternoon exploring Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which commemorates those events exceptionally well. There are places here to learn the history, ponder what it must have been like, and remember the dead.

The A-Bomb Dome is one focal point. Formerly the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, this building was one of the few to remain standing after the blast. Against some opposition, city leaders decided to preserve the building just as it was, and I’m glad they did. I can hear the voices calling for removing this scar from the landscape, but seeing an actual destroyed building makes the blast real in a way that photos cannot.

A-Bomb Dome

 

A-Bomb Dome detail

 

Dome then and now

At the other end of the park, across a beautiful green space, is the Peace Memorial Museum. Inside, powerful displays tell a balanced version of history, warts and all, for the Japanese (for example, how moving military units and supplies to a city known for its schools made it a good target for the bombing) and the U.S. (American censorship prevented the health effects of radiation from being fully known for years). There are interesting models of the city before and after the blast, with a red ball representing the point overhead where the bomb was triggered. Later, we walked over to the hypocenter, now marked by a plaque. It’s odd to think that you’re standing on the very spot where a wave of death was unleashed on thousands of civilians. An estimated 70,000 people were killed immediately, with perhaps 140,000 dead by the end of the year.

Hiroshima before

 

Hiroshima before

 

Hypocenter model

 

Hypocenter plaque

 

Hypocenter text

Every time the U.S. conducts a nuclear weapons-related test, the mayor of Hiroshima writes a letter to the President encouraging the pursuit of worldwide nuclear disarmament. It seems a fitting way to give a voice to those who died in Hiroshima on that long-ago day or in the torturous days that followed.

Peace Park

 

Peace Park memorials

 

Area for quiet reflection

The park is laid out so that the museum, memorials and A-Bomb Dome line up with an elegant symmetry. A bit overwhelmed by the history all around me yet just beyond reach, I stepped out of the museum. Blinking in the sunlight, I appreciated seeing people biking across the bridge, walking with friends, and playing guitar beside the river.

Watch stopped at the moment of detonation

 

The bridge

We humans have an impressive ability to recover from tragic events. Hopefully we can learn from this one and create a more peaceful world.

Scenes from Fuji-Q

A couple favorite pix from our adventures at Fuji-Q:

The park’s mascots are generic Power Ranger-ripoffs. I joined the yellow one in fighting crime, but we should have been fighting long lines instead.

Generic Ranger to the rescue

All is well at the top of Fujiyama. This is what we came here for!

Whee!!!!

Fuji-Q Highland Amusement Park

Watch the video (by Ken)! Read the review (by Karen)!


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Oh, there were some amusements all right! And some things that left us unamused. Warning: this review comes from a Western standard of amusement park enjoyment. We have been to our share and then some of US theme parks. Japan is, well, different.

We were turned on to this park when we saw reviews of the brand new coaster that opened in July of this year. Takabisha is now the world record holder for steepest coaster. This had to be a part of our Mt. Fuji area itinerary. How could we not try a world record jeto coaster?

You could day-trip this park from Tokyo, taking an early bus directly to the park. We were staying in nearby Kawaguchiko and took the Retro Bus to the park station. Getting in was a breeze, after paying the $56.50/person admission. (That was with a coupon!!) You can pay a lower fee, about $13 and then pay only for the rides you go on. All the big coasters are $13 each, so unless you only want to do 1-2 rides, you are best getting the all park “free” pass.

The park opened at 9am, and we arrived at 11am, thinking we had plenty of time to enjoy the rides before the 8pm closing time. TIP: get there right when it opens and run for your favorite ride.

The Japanese appear to be a hugely patient group of people, waiting to enjoy their roller coaster rides. I am used to waiting up to an hour for a really good roller coaster. How about 2 hours, 15 minutes?! Our first ride was Takabisha. Knowing it was a new coaster, we expected a wait. Over two hours, well, this must be a great ride, we thought. One reason the wait is so long is that the ride runs only two 8-person cars at a time. It was finally our turn. Quick start, through a dark tunnel, twist, turn, climb up (yes, mid-ride) then the steepest drop, more turns, twists and it ends. While Ken enjoyed the ride, I (Karen) was completely underwhelmed. It was very cool going up at a 90 degree angle, yet the steepest drop was pretty tame.

Having one ride under our belt, we ate some quick lunch and then headed to a kiddie-style coaster to allow our stomachs to settle. The Great Fluffy Sky Adventure was a painful 30+ minute wait. We watched the slow line get slower as one worker left his post, leaving one girl to handle the tickets, pointing people towards the lockers and getting them into the fluffy cars. At this point I am beginning to see the great inefficiencies in how the Japanese approach amusement park management. One the upside, one person can leave the line to get food and drink or use the bathroom, as long as you have a group holding your spot. That was helpful.

We thought about going on the water ride and then were very confused when we saw the locals putting on head to toe rain jackets before boarding the boat. It’s really a water ride people!

Instead we rode Fujiyama, a world record coaster that was named the tallest in 1997. It was a perfect, classic steel coaster. Tall, fast and fun. And an almost 2-hour wait to get on the ride.

Time was running short, so we dashed over to the other world record coaster, the 4-dimensional Eejanaika, which roughly translates as, “Isn’t good” or “What the hell”, depending on who you ask. It was definitely in the what the hell department! Having never been on a coaster that can turn and spin you in 4 different ways, it was quite shocking. Totally worth doing, yet having to wait two hours and watching a video of Power Ranger rip-offs doing lame things, was super exhausting.

Having an hour left in the park, we opted for the tame ferris wheel. My neck was a wreck from that last ride, so slow movement was in order. It was a fantastic view of the park and of the dark Mt. Fuji. Folks we’re still climbing the mountain, so you could see the path, by the lights from the the houses.

The day had come to an end. Was is worth it? Sure… most coasters are. Just be sure to bring a huge amount of patience and be ready to lock your bags and shoes in lockers for most of the rides.

Or better yet, go to the park that is still our favorite: Cedar Point in Ohio. Lots of fun rides… and you’ll actually get to go on them, as we proved in this video. Until a world record holding ride in some far-flung location changes our mind, Cedar Point remains on top!

Arigato, Fuji-san

Our legendary “mountain karma” came through once again. Yesterday, Mt. Fuji (the tallest peak in Japan and a sacred site to many) was socked in, with cloudy skies and rain. Today, blue poured into the sky and the clouds parted. We found a spectacular spot to hang out, eat blueberry ice cream, and enjoy the view.

After a week of both of us fighting colds, a sunny, laid-back day like this was just what the doctor ordered.