September 12, 2016

Family trip to Kobe

Friday, 2016-09-09: Arrival in Japan

Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle

On September 9th, my father, sister, and her two children arrived in Tokyo for a two week visit. It is rare for family to come all the way to Tokyo, but my dad is going to the International Semiconductor Laser Conference and it is held in Kobe, Japan. Alana and her kids were able to come with him, so we're having a kind of family reunion in Japan!

Since dad is going to Kobe, the whole family will come with him for the first few days. They arrived on Friday night, and L. graciously went to pick them up in our mini van. By the time they arrived back at our place, I had picked up Alan and finished with the day care parent-teacher conference. We all sat down at about 18:30 and I re-heated some Costco pizza. I had also ordered two rental futons, and we were able to lay out half of the living room as a large sleeping area. Our visitors fell asleep almost immediately, which was great, because the following day would be a big travel day.

Saturday, 2016-09-10: From Tokyo to Kobe

We planned to take the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kobe. Alana and Dad both bought JR Rail Passes for a week, and our kids (Alan 4, Aurelia 2, and Scout 5) are young enough to not need a seat; they can ride on an adult's lap. There was a 9:10 train that we could ride. We did have one complication: the plan was to stop in Nagoya for lunch to meet family friends. I had arranged all of that, and purchased non-reserved tickets for my wife and I, so all we had to do was get to Shinagawa station sufficiently early to exchange our JR rail passes and catch the train.

There is a bus stop right near our house that takes us to Shinagawa station, so we caught that at about 8:10, and got to Shinagawa station at about 8:25 or so. Unfortunately, the JR Rail Pass voucher exchange doesn't open until 9am at Shinagawa station! So after all our planning to get there early, we did a lot of waiting. Also, I didn't remember, but the JR Rail Pass only allows you access to the Hikari and Kodama trains, not the fastest (and most frequent!) Nozomi trains. The Hikari train that would get us to Nagoya in time for our lunch was sold out of reserved seats, so we just had to take our luck on non-reserved seating.

We were able to make it to the platform in time for the 9:11 Hikari train, so that was fine. But the train was at capacity, and the seven of us had to stand! And it was literally standing room only! The kids were able to find a little cubby hole in between two sets of seats, so that was great, but the rest of us stood. Luckily, about and hour and a bit after departure at Shizuoka station many people got off, and we secured seats. The Shinkansen is a really great travel experience. I highly recommend it.

We arrived at Nagoya in time for lunch, and had a very nice lunch with the Maeda family, Mr., Ms., and their daughter Ryoko were able to make it. After a relaxed lunch, we caught another Shinkansen on to Kobe, where there was a complimentary shuttle bus to our hotel, the Kobe Meriken Park Oriental Hotel. Interestingly, my dad came to this hotel in 1983 for the same conference with mom just when the hotel had first opened - they were still apparently finishing a few things up at the time! Thirty years later it is still a nice hotel.

We were all pretty tired, so we took a walk to the nearby mall and got dinner there. The complex there has a ferris wheel, and from the hotel you get a very nice view of it. The ferris wheel has a neat lighting system which they use to put on little shows every once in a while.

I also snuck out after Alan fell asleep and got a drink with my Twin Sister at the View Bar which has, as expected, a nice view. (Keep going down to see more text. And pictures.)


Sunday, 2016-09-11: Himeji Castle

Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Trip to Kobe and Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle shrine
Himeji Castle Plaza
Himeji Castle
Sleepy cousin
Hello Kitty Inari-zushi
Steak House / Meriken Park Oriental Hotel
Meriken Park Oriental Hotel Steak House
300 grams of Kobe Beef
Some vegetables and salt for the beef
Flame cooked Kobe Beef
Flame cooked Kobe Beef
Delicious Kobe Beef

On Sunday, we took an organized trip to Himeji Castle. It is about an hour away from Kobe by bus. We stopped first for lunch at a hotel, and did the standard Japanese buffet lunch thing. They had an ice cream machine, and real ice cream too, so everyone left happy.

The castle itself was great. The grounds of the castle is quite large, and we had a long walk to get there from the parking lot, but it was a very pretty walk. The castle itself has six levels, and very steep stairs up each level. The interior itself doesn't have much in the way of exhibits or history to see, but it is all very old. The wood is worn completely smooth. Alan really enjoyed having us pull him along the floor, skiing style. There is a nice model of the grounds on the first floor, and a few other things scattered around, but as you ascend the floors get smaller and smaller. I'm actually really curious about how the castle was itself used on a day to day basis back three hundred years ago. Did the Shogun live at the top? It is fairly difficult to access!

The crowd was pretty heavily, and we actually got split up into a few groups as we went. Lisa, Alan, and I arrived at the top and there is a small temple there. We made a small donation and then headed down. Going down takes a while too - the stairs are no less steep.

On the bus ride home, Alan fell asleep on his cousin's shoulder. Lisa and I went to the Sogo department store and got some Onigiri for dinner. Not the super cute Hello Kitty inari-zushi! Alana and dad at the stuff we got them, and then Lisa, Alan, and I decided to try the super fancy restaurant at the top of the hotel that specializes in Steak. In particular, Kobe Beef. The three of us went up, and had a very nice dinner on the Teppan-yaki grill with a personal chef. The dinner was cooked in front of us, and our Chef was very nice. He was kind to Alan, and made a special large fire presentation for him. The vegetables were great, and the beef was delicious. It was very tender, and just melted in my mouth. It was great with the salts, and there were also some sauces (Ponzu, Soy Sauce, and Wasabi) if you preferred those. The view from the restaurant was very nice, with a nice view of the bay and boats. After cooking the meat, the chef cooked up some delicious garlic rice. I was super stuffed from the earlier lunch buffet, but I finished all the meat. And a good portion of the garlic rice, but not all of it. I was sad to leave it, but thought that was the smarter choice for the evening.


February 10, 2016

2016-02-06 Trip to Sapporo.

Kiraito Ramen at Kiraito Modeled after the ruins of St. Paul at Macau Sapporo Shinkansen Sapporo Snow Festival Sapporo Snow Festival Art igloos Sapporo Snow Festival Shinkansen Sapporo Snow Festival Attack of the Titans Sapporo Snow Festival Ski Slope

A long time ago, back in October of 2015, I heard that a new Shinkansen was being built that would connect Tokyo to Sapporo. Good news! Actually, reading the information in Wikipedia (hopefully that stays about the same as when I read it) what is opening in March this year is the Shinkansen up to Shin-Hakodate, and the extension all the way to Sapporo isn’t supposed to be complete until 2030!

At any rate, that also means though that a luxury train that goes from Ueno to Sapporo overnight called the Cassiopeia, would be discontinued. That is too bad. Two or three years back another overnight train (I believe from Kyoto to Tokyo, and then maybe on to Saporro) was discontinued. When I saw that on TV I thought it would be super cool to take the family on a trip on a train like that. So once I heard that the Cassiopeia would be discontinued, I really wanted to get a reservation on the train for the family.

So I looked into it. Turns out a lot of people had the same idea as I did. So JR instituted a lottery system for reservations. I looked at the schedule, and thought about what would be fun to do. Since I also have always wanted to go to the Snow Festival in Sapporo I arranged for a two day (or three depending on how you looked at it) three night stay (including the train, if we got that) in Sapporo. I figured it would be easier to get train tickets on the way back to Tokyo instead of on the way there, so I decided to fly there, and take the train back. JR takes reservations a month before the actual date, so I had to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Until I heard back in January at some time that we didn’t get the reservation on the Cassiopia train. Well, we did still have the airline reservation and the hotel reservation, and the JR travel agent could help me set up a train trip back to Tokyo, so I arranged for that. I was a bit rushed on the phone, and later realized that I should have done something a bit different - instead of flying there on Saturday morning, then taking the train back to Tokyo on Monday as I would have with the Cassiopia schedule, I should have taken a train to Hakodate and stayed overnight there before completing the train journey back to Tokyo. As it is now, we will have three trains: Sapporo to Hakodate, Hakodate to Shin Aomori, and Shin Aomori to Tokyo, taking a total of about 10 hours! Still, Alan likes trains, and so do I, so I think we’ll still have a great time.

So on Saturday morning, we got up at about 6am, and started to get ready to go. We had a 9:30am flight from Haneda airport to Shin-Chitose airport. There is a bus that goes from basically right in front of our house to Haneda airport (the Keikyuu Limosine) so we caught that at 7:39am, and got to the airport at about 8:00am. We exchanged our vouchers for the flight, and hung out at Haneda airport for about 40 minutes before boarding. The flight to Shin-Chitose took all of an hour and a half (compare this to the ten hours or so it will take for us to return on five different trains!) and from Shin-Chitose we could take an express airport train to Sapporo that takes about 39 minutes. Normally we could, but there were so many people with the same idea that we had that the first train departing was already full, and reserved seats for the next one were sold out. We lined up and waited the 15 minutes it took for the next train to come, and somehow managed to real seats for all three of us.

Of course, Alan left his bag back at the airport. I knew we should have made him take his backpack instead. (We called the airport later and they were kind enough to mail it back to our house, so we should see it again at some point.)

We got in to Sapporo and checked in to the hotel - it was only a few minutes walk from the station. A very cold walk. We then went out in search of lunch. Alan wanted to try some Ramen, and Lisa had some recommendations from friends who had lived in Sapporo. We went to a place called “Kiraito” ramen, in a neat shopping arcade two stops away from Sapporo station. It was really good! It was a small Ramen place that had only four things on the menu: Miso Ramen, Salt Ramen, Soy Sauce Ramen, and rice. The rice is just normal white rice, so it probably shouldn’t even count as a menu item. It was really good Ramen though. I’m not a professional ramen eater, so I couldn’t give you a review of the place, but it was good. I’m sure people more familiar with Ramen would be able to tell you the difference between a typical Ramen you would get in Tokyo compared to this, but I certainly can’t. I’m not even sure if that was typical Sapporo ramen, or what that would be.

After lunch, we headed over to Oodori park, where the Snow Festival is held. They have a lot of stands selling things, and every block or so there is a big snow sculpture. There were lots of people. You can only walk in one direction, so be careful about that. If you see a thousand people walking in the opposite direction that you are going, you should cut through the park and go to the other side. We got our picture taken at the big Church modeled after some church in Macao, and saw a few more sculptures. I wanted to check out the Shinkansen sculpture, and that was pretty cool. We were getting really cold though, so we walked back to the hotel, and picked up some pocket hand-warmers and foot warmers for the second try in the afternoon. On the way back we cut through a park that had a whole bunch of igloos with art installations inside. It was really neat! They were also passing out hot conbuchya (conbu tea - basically salty seaweed tea, not my thing) and hot Calpis (hot water mixed with Calpis - surprisingly good!)

After a bit of break, we headed back out. It was dark out now, and a bit colder, but with a whole bunch of hand and foot warmers and a back warmer strapped on, it wasn’t as bad as the first time out. Since it was dark now, many of the larger sculptures were using projection-mapped projectors to add color and animation to the sculpture. The one for the Shinkansen was really cool! There were lots of people though, and I was getting mad at people who would push by my while I’m holding up Alan so he could see.

We planned for dinner at a fresh fish Izakaya, and headed out that way. One the way we stopped at the exhibit near the start of the park sponsored by the White Lovers confectionary group. It was a huge ramp and they have a snowboard exhibition. A whole bunch of snowboarders were doing tricks off the jumps and stuff there. What was really amazing is that the first kid down was 10 years old, and he did a back flip in the air. A ten year old kid. That is just crazy. Apparently, kids can start (and often do!) snowboard or skiing lessons here from age 4. Wow.

We were getting pretty cold again, but instead of walking to the restaurant above ground, we decided to pop down into the Sapporo underground. The underground is really amazing, about the length of two train stops, from Sapporo station to Oodori station. It goes all over the place. We were able to walk about 95% of the way from the park to the restaurant.

Dinner was at a small Izakaya with a real local vibe. I wish people hadn’t been smoking there though. That is unfortunately a common complaint in Japan though. I discovered a new Japanese food that is totally disgusting and that I will avoid in the future. イカワタのルイベ. It is basically taking the guts of a squid, and freezing it, and then slicing it thin. Maybe they do some other things. It is disgusting. The rest of the food was good though, very nice Sashimi, and some good fried chicken and fish. I ate too much, truth be told. We took the underground back to the hotel and rolled into bed.


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January 30, 2016

2016 January trip to Nagano

HiSE 1000 On the way to Yudanaka A small shrine in Yudanaka Rising moon in Yudanaka shopping street Breakfast Breakfast
2016-01-22 Today I took half a day off to pick up Alan early from Daycare so we could meet up with Eric and Claire at Tokyo station. The plan was to go to Nagano, and more specifically Yudanaka. We are staying at the Yamazakiya Ryokan, which is near the Shibu Onsen area. In fact, the right across from the Ryokan there is an onsen run by the town that is free to enter.

To get there we had an adventure! We took the Shinkansen from Tokyo station to Nagano, and from there we took the Yukemuri express train on the Nagano Dentetsu to Yudanaka station. The Yukemuri train is very interesting - I thought that I had seen a train similar to it before. After some investigation, it turns out that the Yukemuri train is actually the old Romance Car 1000 HiSE trains from the Odakyu line. They apparently sent these older trains to the Nagano Dentetsu railway back in the early 90s. Nice to see them still getting some use! This particular train, the HiSE 1000, was built in 1986 and stayed in service until about 2012. The Japanese wikipedia entry on them is unsurprisingly much more detailed than the English one. I really like that these older trains (but not as old as I thought! I was guessing late 70s!) are still being used on a smaller rail line.

From Yudanaka station it was a quick 5 minute ride to the Yamazakiya Ryokan. The owner Akira is really nice, and came to meet us in his van. It is a nice two story Ryokan, pretty small with the family that runs it living in it. They have two (or three?) cute kids that are running around and look like they would like to play with Alan.

Across the street is an onsen. They warned us that it was pretty hot, 42 or 43 degrees C. That is what we keep our bath set to at home, so I figured it would be fine, but wow, either their thermometer is broken or ours is. That onsen was HOT. After a dip in the Onsen we went out to dinner. Just up the road was a Ramen place, run by an older woman. We were the only customers and she seemed a bit worried at first, but once we spoke some Japanese she was a bit relieved, and we got some ramen, fried rice, and gyoza. Pretty nice! We had a nice dinner, and chatted with the owner for a bit. She was very friendly and happy to talk. As we left she gave Alan two little cookies and a huge Fuji apple. We got back to the Ryokan a bit late, near 9pm. Alan really wanted to eat the apple, so he went at that for about 30 or 40 minutes, and at that point I forced him into the bath. The Ryokan has onsen too, and the temperature there was much more reasonable. It was great actually. Alan enjoyed it a bunch too. We got back to the room and did the standard bed routine, but when I turned on the TV “Kiki’s Delivery Service” was just starting and Alan was super interested in it. We watched for just a little bit before bedding down at 10pm.

Alan slept soundly until I woke him at 7:15am. We agreed at breakfast at that time because the plan for Saturday was to go to a nearby Ski park and play in the snow. We had a nice breakfast at 7:30am consisting of standard Ryokan fare: some fish, rice, a nice soup, maybe some pickled vegetables, a nice mountain yam, a small vegetable salad, and some tea. It was nice quite nice. The grilled fish was Salmon I think, and also great.
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November 16, 2014

A trip to Nikko with the family

Toshogu temple
Toushougu Shrine
Toshogu temple
Dad, Dave, Lisa, and Alan at Nikko Toushougu Shrine
Sleeping cat at Toshogu temple
The carved sleeping cat up there is famous for some reason.
Toshogu temple
Alan was enjoying himself, even if I did have to carry him a bit.
Toshogu temple
We saw some of the beautiful fall colors as well.
Toshogu temple
Alan also ran around a lot on his own.
Evans family at Kegon falls
The four of us at Kegon falls
PB091847
It is a bit messy, but we enjoyed the stay at a traditional Onsen. I do find sleeping on the tatami mat with the thin futon a bit tough, but for one night, no problem!
My dad came to Japan on his way to China for a three day layover. He's headed to China to give a talk at a conference (and based on my recent experience I had some advice for him!) We thought it might be fun to go on a trip, so we did an overnight trip up to Nikko. We piled all four of us into our tiny Mini Cooper (reinforcing the idea that we will need a bigger car if we want to do things like this more often with more people) and took off. Nikko was a nice two and half hour drive from Tokyo.

We made our first stop at Nikko Toushougu Shrine, where we walked up many, many stairs (still, no comparison to the Great Wall of China!) to see the grave of Ieyasu Tokugawa. It was a very impressive temple complex. We walked all over the place, and went to a nice yudofu restaurant for a late lunch. It was all tofu, so dad was able to get along just fine. Actually, now I'm not so sure that what we saw was the grave of Ieyasu Tokugawa. Based on the wiki article, it sounds like there are many shines in which he is enshrined (hah!) So perhaps there is some amount of his ash there, since cremation is very common in Japan. Actually, based on what my father-in-law was saying, burial is now illegal, so cremation sounds like the only reasonable option to me.

After lunch, we piled back into the car and headed up to Kegon falls. It was an amazing waterfall! Lots of water falling from the crater lake of a volcano that formed about 1000 years back or so. I think. Lisa said that it was well known for suicides. I think there are many places in Japan that might be well known for suicides, like the train tracks.

We had reserved an overnight stay at a hot springs resort on the Chuzenji lake. On the drive up, we took a famous road called the Irohazaka road. After the drive and settling in at the hotel we took a dip in the super-sulfurous baths. They were a bit too hot for Alan, but it was quite nice, and dad seemed to enjoy it as well. Afterwards we had a nice dinner, provided in the package (all the Onsen are like this, and include breakfast as well.) The only problem was that it was in the traditional Japanese style, and involved a lot of sitting on the floor. That is a bit tough for dad and I, but we managed. They even provided an all-vegetarian option for him, which was really nice. We all bedded down in a large room in four futons, with a super satisfying sleep given all the walking that we did.

I chatted with the staff to make sure that we could have western seating for the breakfast, which we got. So the next morning was a nice breakfast (assuming, of course, that you don't mind fish and rice for breakfast) before a leisurely check-out. On the drive back to Tokyo we stopped for some gifts (you usually buy some kind of local food / snack for people at home and work when you go somewhere, so we had to load up on those.) The drive was also pretty nice, and we didn't hit much traffic (surprisingly!) The next day Dad flew out to China - but it was great while he was here. Alan is still talking about Grandpa Gary. We'll see everyone again in July 2015 when we go to America (and probably a big road trip there too!)

April 5, 2014

Family Trip to Ishigaki

Last weekend, the family went for a trip to Ishigaki, Okinawa. I had never been to Okinawa at all before, and was pretty excited for the trip. Our friend Mibe was getting married, so we flew out Saturday, the wedding was Sunday, and then we stayed through Wednesday.

Ishigaki is about as far South East from Tokyo that you can get and still be in Japan. It is super close to Taiwan. Maybe the embedded Google Map to the left shows that, but I was surprised at how far away it is - a three hour flight from Tokyo!

Alan was super excited to fly on the plane. He had a great time. The ANA flight attendant gave him a cute little airplane toy, which he played with the whole time we were there (and which now I can't find.) Unfortunately, we checked out stroller on as baggage, and it came out broken. Lisa talked with them, and they said they would fix it.

We rented a car and headed out to the hotel. I think you could drive around the entire island in about four hours, and mostly it takes that long because the majority of the island has a 40 km/hr speed limit. We were staying at a nice hotel where the wedding would take place, right on the ocean. They didn't really have a nice beach, but we could walk down to the water, going over a little seawall and down to some rocky shores.

We had some great food - Ishigaki is well known for Beef - and had a lot of Orion beer.

The wedding was outdoors, and beautiful. I'm sure if you know the couple you can find some pictures somewhere. Alan was a trooper and didn't make much of a fuss during the wedding, which was pretty quick as far as those things go. I got sunburned, since I of course forgot to put on sunscreen. As always.

The standouts from this trip include a Glass Boat ride, which Alan really loved. He loved all the boats really - including a ferry we took. On the glass boat ride Alan would point to a fish, and then pretend to eat it, along with the accompanying eating sound.

We had two really nice dinners, one early on at Hitoshi which specializes in Maguro. It was great. We also had a nice Yakiniku dinner, but I can't remember the name of the place.

Another memorable moment was when we took a ferry to Taketomi Island and went on an ox-cart ride. The island is tiny. It was lots of fun though.

We did safely make it back to Tokyo, exhausted. We survived a five day vacation with a two year old, and it was great! I would still like to check out Naha, Okinawa, and see how it compared to Hawaii. I don't know when we will get a chance to do that though.


November 15, 2012

2012 November Osaka and Kyoto family trip

This November, Lisa's father had a school reunion for the 50th anniversary of his school. Lisa's grandmother and father grew up in the Kyoto area, and have roots going back there very far back. Probably more than 500 years at least. Grandma also wanted to go back to hold a ceremony for Grandpa, who passed a few years back. So the whole family, Lisa, Alan, myself, Lisa's younger sister, her daughter, and her husband, Lisa's mom and dad, and Lisa's grandma all headed out to Kyoto on Friday morning, the 9th of November.

We got a Shinkansen at 8:00. The Shinkansen are a real treat to ride; since I've been living in Japan permanently I've only taken it once or twice in six years. They are fast, smooth, comfortable, and you don't have to go through any of the trouble that you do when you fly. No security. No X-ray scanning. No millimeter wave back-scattering devices. No pulling laptops out of bags. And the stations are right in the city center. We took a taxi from our house to Shinagawa station, it takes all of 15 minutes, and we board the train shortly after that. You can see on the left here a shot of Alan in front of the train. He's too young to really have an interest in trains yet, but I bet he will be one of those kids that like trains. I like trains anyway!

We arrived at Kyoto station at 10:30 and walked to our hotel, the New Miyako. That was only about a two or three minute walk (once you walk to the station exit, which can take a while since the station is pretty large.) Lisa's sister and her family were on a different train, they were coming from Shizuoka. After waiting a bit for Rie, Aki, and Yuzuna we went for lunch at a Chinese place in the hotel. Nice. We had some beer at lunch, and everyone got a kick of how Alan just passed out in front of one of the glasses. So don't take the picture the wrong way, you have to be at least 20 years old to drink alcohol in Japan.

We left our luggage at the hold and took two cabs to the shrine and they had a private ceremony for Lisa's grandpa. The temple was kensiin - I do not know the Japanese writing for that. It was a smaller place, not the kind that you see as a tourist. It had maybe four or five rooms, some in separate buildings with covered outdoor walkways between them. There were three monks, one older and two younger. I got the impression that they were family. They held a ceremony of about 40 minutes of chanting with some drums and other things to hit every once in a while. The Tanaka family seal was a few places there and in gold in the main chamber. I'll need to talk to Lisa's dad a bit more about it, but I don't know why the Tanaka family seal is displayed in the temple.

The cemetery is in a large nearby complex so we went to their graves - 7 for the Tanakas family. There are 500 years worth of Tanakas in there, according to Lisa's dad. Note that in Japan people are usually cremated, and the ashes are placed in family graves. We met with a caretaker who was talking about how they will need to repair some of the graves due to the tree roots nearby. I guess if you have a few hundred years to deal with, all sorts of things can happen. Mr. Tanaka is the 15th in the succession and likely will be the last buried in Kyoto. They also have a plot in Tokyo, near Ryokoku (the place where all the Sumo wrestling happens.)

On the way out of the cemetery, which was quite a ways up a the hill, and very large, we passed some interesting stuff. There was a temple at the top of the hill with trees whose leaves were starting to turn. Lisa took a great shot, which I've included. Also, Afro Buddha. Well, his actual name is 五劫思惟阿弥陀如来像, but I can't read that.

We went to the nearby Konkaikoumyouji temple (金戒光明寺 こんかいこうみょうじ.) They've got a website but it is only in Japanese. There is also an entry on Wikipedia but the English entry is almost bare compared to the Japanese entry. We toured around there for a bit, entering into the grounds and walking through the gardens. It was quite nice.


Dinner was from 5pm at Nijyou Fujita (二条ふじ田) a kaiseki (traditional long form multi-course) meal. I didn't find anything in English (there is a tabeblo link) but the place was very good. Unlike most kaiseki I've had, I didn't almost explode and feel sick from overeating this time. There were a bunch of dishes, some of which I took some quick notes on. しそうのこうせん hot shiso flavored water. The waitress made some jumping origami frogs for Yuzuna and Alan. The soup used water from a temple 60 meters away. The fish was Sawara さわら cooked by Yuuanyaki ゆうあんやき 幽庵焼き which is apparently like sukiyaki for fish with some sudachi and lemon. We had a very nice selection of Japanese sweets to choose from also.

After dinner we took cabs back to the hotel and checked in. We were staying in rooms 667 to 669. It was a close call - 666 was right next door!

Saturday.

An expensive buffet breakfast at the hotel and then a train to Osaka. We took the local so we could sit.

We made our way by subway to Namba where we hit up the main road and eventually arrived at Daruma, a kusiage place. The tomatoes were the best. The place was packed, with people shouting all the time. If you haven't had kushiage before, it is great. Basically, it is just fried stuff on a stick. There are big communal bowls of sauce, with instructions all over the place talking about how you can't double dip. No double dipping. There is also free lettuce. Or maybe it is cabbage. I don't know. That isn't really what I am focusing on. We had a bunch of thinks, like tomatoes, potatoes, fish - there was something on the menu called "kiss". I didn't know what that was, but was of course imagining the chef kissing the batch of frying oil and frying up that, lips in pain the whole time. Of course, it turns out it was just a type of small fish that you each whole, but whatever. I like my idea better. Another good one was fried pork cutlet. I don't know if they really take a regular pork cutlet, and then fry that, but that is what I like to think. These things are all quite small by the way. There were onions, eggplant, I had some cheese, and their fried ham was good. I'm sure I'm missing lots of good things, but anyway, if you go to Osaka, try their Kushiage. No double dipping though!

We wandered around a bit and went to Nanba bashi, where we got some pictures of the famous Glico sign. It's that guy holding his arms up. The whole time we were there people were taking their pictures in front of that thing. Then we headed for the taxi stand and Osaka castle.

The castle was really nice. They let us ride the elevator since we had kids in a stroller. We wandered around a bit and went up to the observation deck. They have an entire museum in there. The place was packed, and the castle is on a huge park ground. It is really worth going to see.

Dinner was at FuguYoshi, a fugu place. Sadly, I've had fugu a few times now, and despite the domain name of this website, I'm not really a fan. A meal entirely of fugu is … not particularly a great meal, but you should at least try it once.

First up was Fugu skin with ponzu and nikogori. Next up was fugu sashimi with ponzu.

We also ordered fugu-hire, which is hot sake with two fugu fins in it. As you open the cup (it comes covered with a wooden cap) you light a match to burn off the excess alcohol. Even after doing that the sake tastes quite strong, smells terrible, and frankly just isn't that good.

After that was fugu nabe. And then egg, rice, and water is added to that leftover broth and simmered. Top off your bowl with either salt or nori and onion. That is the bit at the end that fills you up.

Desert was a grape, persimmon slice, and small ball of matcha ice cream.

We walked to Osaka station and caught a train back to the hotel. Well, everyone else did. I had a bathroom emergency (I don't think the fugu agreed with me) and caught a later train. I did eventually make it back though, and thankfully the express train did have a bathroom on board.

Sunday.


I skipped breakfast since I didn't want to deal with fish. We rented a minibus for the day and headed out first for Kiyomizudera, which is one of my favorite temples. It has a great view of Kyoto from up on the mountain, and has a super famous balcony. It is an all wooden balcony constructed without any nails that is very high off the ground. It is really amazing. The temple is really great in fall when the trees start to turn red.

Then we took a ride to see a 750ton bell at Chion-in (知恩院神社 ちおんいん。) It isn't something that people go to all that often, but since we had a whole minivan the driver was taking us all over the place. The bell is really big. They ring it every new year, and usually it shows up on NHK TV.

After that we went way up into the mountains where few people go (we were the only ones) with a nice view of Kyoto. Too bad about the rain. The place was Shogun Dzuka's garden (将軍塚庭園 しょうぐんづかていえん.) It was a really nice garden, had some great views (or would have if it wasn't so foggy due to the rain) and would have been great to walk around at more. We had an appointment for lunch though.

Lunch was at a fancy looking yuudofu (boiled tofu) place. It had a nice garden between the multiples buildings with a koi pond. The place is called 順正 じゅんせい。They do have an English website. I took a bunch of pictures, but didn't post them here. They are on Flickr if you really want to look at more food. Alan really enjoyed watching the Koi in the pond. I'm really excited about when he gets a bit older and we can go to Zoos and stuff. He doesn't really know animal names yet, but we do read a book every night with some animals in it.

Tea and tounyuu to start with a small goma tofu. Some ginnan and miso flavored tofu kushi. Lots of tofu. Some tempura, rice, pickles, and other vegetables.

After lunch we went to kinkakuji, the Golden Temple. It was nice. There was a group of French people in kimono. You definitely should go at least once if you haven't been. I prefer some of the other temples (Kiyomizudera primarily) but this place is so famous you just can't pass it up. It is always insanely crowded though. Still, that is one impressive temple they have there.

After that we picked up our luggage from the hotel and hopped on a train back home. On the way Alan and I spent some time reading. Well, he didn't actually read with me for all that long before he started throwing his magazine around the train, but still. Cute picture I think.


September 29, 2012

"That traditional walk"

A bit after lunch today, Lisa mentioned that there was a festival not too far from our house today and tomorrow. I asked her what the festival was for, and she said it was a festival for the local area, and specifically the Shinagawa Toukaidou area that used to be a stop on the tranditional road from old Tokyo (Edo) to Kyoto. We used to be about a (very) easy day's walk out of the Edo capital, so people would stay here.

Anyway, I didn't really know what the festival was about, but the timing was right: we could walk there, and have dinner. Dinner at a Japanese Festival is a super inefficient thing, but useful for one or two reasons: there are lots of types of food, so everyone can find something to eat, and you can drink while you walk around. Also, it is a great chance to walk around the area that the festival is in. It is not really the best in terms of actually eating though: the food is usually expensive (single appetizer type things only for about $5 each, basically carnival or county fair kinds of food) and the quality isn't that great.

We walked over to the place (a bit of a hike actually, maybe about three quarters of a mile away) and grabbed some food at a section that is sponsored by some local hotels. The food there is actually pretty good. Then we walked on down the road (the festival spanned the distance of three train stops, so quite a long route) closer to where the parade was going to start.

I didn't know there was going to be a parade so I asked Lisa about it. It actually wasn't a parade as much as just some people walking. Walking in the "traditional Oiran style". I didn't know what an Oiran is, or how they tradiationally walked. So I tried to clear that up. I asked Lisa what is an Oiran. She said that they are prostitutes, and they traditionally walk in a distinctive style where they kick their legs out. I was pretty sure that I didn't understand some of those words, so I asked her again, particularly to clarify on the prostitute part. She looked it up, and told me in English "You know, prostitute." Two surprises: huh, I knew the word for prostitute (I figured I was wrong, but the word comes up in history a bit.) Second, prostitues have a particular distinctive style of walking where they kick their legs out.

I told her I was pretty surprised that they would have a parade for prostitutes, and that we definitely wouldn't do that in America. Lisa said that she was surprised because America has prositutes everywhere, and they are held in high regard! They have them in the windows in the parts of town where prostitution is allowed! I'm pretty sure she is thinking of Amsterdam, since as far as I know prostitution is illegal in the US (outside of parts of Nevada.) So hopefully I cleared up her understanding of that.

Talking a bit more about it, Oiran are actually courtesans, similar to Geisha, with years of training in entertainment. It seems like they might also be open to some additional entertainment options, but this is all back a ways in history. The culture of the Oiran has been preserved up to today, and we got a chance to see them today.

The parade started in the evening, and was opened by some priests (their sashes read "Overnight staying place festival".) Three small girls were walking in front of every Oiran, but I don't know if they are actually in training or just cute local girls. They looked like they were having fun though. And some crazy make up.

The Oiran had amazing hair. I don't know how long it took to make up, but it must have taken a while. I don't know if I could actually tell the difference between the different type of courtesans in Japan. I know of Geisha, Maiko, and now Oiran.

I did take a video, so check that out. You can see the distinctive walking style of the Oiran. Look at that sexy walking! I don't know how I managed to resist. It must really take skill to walk in those shoes though - they are like a foot high! Amazing.

All in all, it was lots of fun. We walked way too far, and I'm exhausted from carrying around Alan all night in the Baby Ergo, but it was total worth it.


June 10, 2012

Shinagawa Tennousai

On Friday, the Shinagawa Tennou Festival began. It runs through Sunday. Lisa and I took Alan out this morning for a walk through the local neighborhood and headed down to where the festival is going on. Alan's still a bit young for these things, but probably when he is three or four I think he's really going to enjoy the festival atmosphere. A lot of kids are always running around at these things buying food and playing some games at the different stalls, trying to win goldfish or candy or little trinkets. The adults are usually eating (overpriced) street food and drinking beer. The closest thing to these kinds of festivals in the US would probably be a street fair, but you mix in some real traditional sorts of elements.

The Japanese page linked here: Shingawa Tennou Festival page (Japanese) says that the festival is held primarily between two temples, Shinagawa Shrine (I can't find any English pages for that) and Ebara Shrine (Japanese). Some portable shrines are carried between the two temples, accompanied by priests, drums, and flutes playing a special Shinagawa-themed tune apparently.

From out point of view we just walked around, got some food, and watched some people walk by. On the way home we also took some pictures of the parked portable shrines. I always enjoy these kinds of festivals, even thought he stall food is too expensive, you see lots of people, there are people in Yukata and Jinbei (kind of traditional summer clothes) and it is just fun walking around. I'm looking forward to going to some of these things in the future when Alan Yoshiyuki gets older!


April 9, 2012

Cherry blossoms and Saitama Shrines over the weekend

Last week I was in the US after a business trip and had a day to visit with family. Due to the international dateline, coming back to Japan you lose and entire day, so I had two days at work (and groggy ones at that) and then the weekend hit. What a weekend it was!

During the weekend the Cherry Blossoms around Tokyo are just starting to come into full bloom. They aren't there yet, but it is really close. Usually, due to the timing of my twice-yearly business trips to America, I miss the Cherry Blossom season in Japan. This year though, due to the weather and trip timing, I'm here for the Cherry Blossoms! Hooray! The Japanese love the Cherry Blossoms. Something about the transience of time and impermanence of beauty, the passing of seasons. So people love to go out and sit in under the Cherry trees and watch the blossoms fall. Whatever your reasons, it is very pretty. So we decided to take Alan out to a nearby park, Eastern Shinagawa Seaside Park, a good ten minute walk from our house. The weather was very nice, a little bit chilly but comfortable in a t-shirt and hoodie.

The park was playing host to a Cherry Blossom festival, so there were lots of people around and nice little stands selling food, candy, and of course beer. You can't have a proper Cherry Blossom viewing party without alcohol, and you can't have a proper festival without beer. That means a Cherry Blossom festival definitely has beer on the menu.

We wandered around a bit, found ourselves a spot under a tree, and had some nice food. Overpriced for what it is - in our case some fried chicken, yakisoba, and grilled clams, but super good. The clams were so good we bought a bag of them to use in the next night's dinner (kim-chi hot pot, which was delicious.)

It was Alan's first trip to a park, and first time to see Cherry Blossoms. I'm not sure that he noticed, but we had a good time. I know that Alan likes taking trips in the baby carriage, so I think he enjoyed that at least. We had a really nice time at the park, and I'm really glad I had a chance to see the Cherry Blossoms with the family. I know Alan won't remember this, but we got a few pictures and at some point we'll be able to line up pictures of Cherry Blossom parties every year. Maybe.

On Sunday we had a plan to visit some friends in Saitama. We decided to drive. It has been ages since I've been to Saitama (perhaps only once?) so it was a bit of an adventure. It was also Lisa and Alan's first time! The trip took about an hour (I drove on the way there - on the way back it was about 40 minutes, but I wasn't driving...) We stopped by our friend's place, and visited for a while. Alan was sleeping almost the entire time. The purpose of the visit was interesting; my friend's younger brother is in grad school for biology, and has to give a talk (in English!) at a conference coming up in two months. I've given talks before, so his sister thought I could help out with the translation. The talk itself wasn't ready, but I did get a chance to listen to his research work, give some pointers on research presentations, and learn a bit about high fat diets and mouse pregnancy. Pretty cool actually!

After a delicious homemade lunch, we went out of a walk to the nearby Hikawa Shrine. It was a nice walk away, maybe twenty minutes or so. Alan was a good kid on the way there, and we walked around the temple for a bit before heading back. On the way back Alan started to cry because it was about time for his milk, but we weren't prepared to walk and feed him at the same time, so it had to wait until he got back to the car. Alan's actually had a cold or something so his voice sounds funny, and just sounds so painful for him. I hope he gets better soon. He isn't crying or anything because of it, but when he does he sounds like a confused chicken.

So, in two days we had two firsts for Alan: first Cherry Blossom viewing, and first Shrine visit (along with a trip to Saitama to visit some friends!) It was a great, but busy weekend. I was really happy with how it turned out, even though I think both Lisa and I are tired from all the prep work it takes to travel with little Alan. Still, lots of fun!

Happy Cherry Blossom viewing to all of you!

March 4, 2012

A visit to the limited-time Koyama Sweets shop

My friend Akihiro Oyama's family has run the Koyama Western Sweets shop in Kessennuma for 120 years. His older brother is the 5th Oyama to run the Koyama sweets shop. Last year in the March 11th Earthquake and Tsunami, their town and shop was completely wiped out. Since then Akihiro has been involved in various charity and other efforts to bring attention to the Kessennuma area.

On Saturday and Sunday his older brother opened up, for two days only, the Koyama shop in the Takanawa Prince Hotel in Shinagawa. Since we were out and about for the day, and Shinagawa isn't all that far, we took a trip out there. We all bought a bunch of stuff - prominent among things the "Kizuna" (bonds / community) Sponge Cake. The box for the cake has messages from all their supporters, a delicious honey flavor, and appreciative feelings for all who have supported them (and other recovery efforts in Japan.)

Alana's friends Wendy and Lizette also bought a few goods from the store and between the three of them we will be spreading the word about the Koyama Western Sweets shop throughout Austin and San Diego. Probably not much further than that, but I'll tell you what: the stuff is delicious, they deliver from their website (linked above) throughout Japan, and you can't go wrong trying to support recovery efforts in Eastern Japan by eating cake.

Aside from France, when has eating cake every gone wrong?

Professional Family photos

As my loyal readers know (all one of them - myself, potentially twenty or thirty years down the road when I start to forget things) that my sister, my father, and two friends have been in town for the Tokyo Marathon. Well, back before Lisa and I had our son Alan Yoshiyuki Tanaka-Evans, we went to Happy Birth Photo studio to take some professional Maternity photos. We thought that went really well and we liked the studio so we decided to go back when my sister and father were in town. This time we had a lot of people - Myself, Lisa, Alana, Gary, and our son Alan Yoshiyuki as well as Alana's son Scout.

I think the pictures turned out great. Initially our son was tired and most of his pictures show him crying, but by the end of the session he started to cheer up a bit, and we got some nice photos throughout the shoot. We have a bunch of photos with my sister, father, and I with out medals we received for finishing the Tokyo Marathon - those are great! We also have a few pictures with me and my twin sister as well as our sons. They all turned out great.

Growing up we never really took too many professional photos, but these have really turned out great so far, and I think that we will treasure them for a long time to come. Assuming our digital data storage strategy keeps them from being deleted at some point or other. I'll have to get started on setting up some sort of secure backup for the important data, but for now at least I have them on two machines with one backed up nightly.

March 2, 2012

A trip to Hakone with the family

After running the Tokyo Marathon, I was a wreck. My legs were shot, and I was just barely able to hobble home with the rest of the group. When we decided to actually run this marathon, I thought it would be a lot of fun for us to go to Hakone, a traditional Japanese hot springs resort.

It is about an hour and twenty minutes from Shinjuku via the Odakyu (private railway) Romance Car train (which has nothing to do with romance.) The ride up to Hakone from Shinjuku is quite nice; you get a nice view of Mt. Fuji, and also Odawara castle near the end of the trip. You end up in Hakone Yumoto, and from there can take a very small train further up the mountains.

Before continuing on the trip, we went to get lunch at a soba shop that we often go to. Hakone Yumoto is a small little town with a nice shopping street aimed heavily at tourists. On the walk up, we stopped at a little shop that outside lets you grill some of the fish that they sell. For free. I don't know how they make money because every time I have gone to Hakone I have stopped there and had some fish (it is delicious) but I have never bought anything from that store.

The soba shop is just up the road and across the river. We ended up going to the "new" building of the same shop, around the corner and a bit further down the river, but as always the soba was great. We then took a walk back down the shopping street and headed to the train station, where we were able to get on the small mountain train that takes us up to the small station closest to the onsen we were going to, The sound of Water (水の音.) I've been there a few times with Lisa's family before and it is a nice onsen. They've got I think five different hot springs (ten really, since they are segregated by sex, and switch who goes where each day) both inside and outside. We got there in the afternoon, and had time for a trip to the onsen before dinner. I stayed in the room and looked after little Alan, and dressed him up in the cute Yukata that everyone wears there.

Dinner was a great 12 course meal that is half cooked at your table. Our bunch took over two tables in the place, and with Scout walking around, and sometimes Lisa or I would take Alan for a walk (it was a long dinner) the people at the tables near us struck up some conversations about how our kids were cute. I agree! But they were probably only getting that because our kids are double American and Asian mixes. I won't turn down a compliment though.

After dinner, we entered the hot springs again. Of course, it is a little strange getting naked with your dad and father-in-law and hanging out in a bath for a while, but once you do that, it does help break the tension and make things more informal. It is a pretty good way to build up personal relationships and break down barriers actually.

The next day we left and headed up the mountain more. We took the train to one of the stops, and then from there took a special cable car train. The cable car climbs up a steep mountain, so the car itself is canted and has stairs in the car. Neat.

At the end of the cable car ride, you can take a ropeway ride to another station where they make black onsen eggs. You eat one of those and your life is extended by 7 years. The eggs are black because they are cooked in a sulfur pool. A bunch of us hiked up to some place where they made the eggs - which was really tough because my legs were still jelly from the Marathon. The eggs are pretty good. We also had some awesome sweet potatoes. It was pretty cold though, so we hurried back and caught the ropeway down the mountain to Lake Ashinoko (or really just Lake Ashi, since no ko just means it is a lake.)

At Ashinoko we rode a boat. A pirate boat. They were announcing stuff that was on the lake, but we were just taking it easy after all the hiking and various modes of transportation. When we got off of the boat - and why there are fake pirate boats in a lake up in the mountains I will never know - we just took a bus back to Hakone Yumoto, did a little shopping, and hopped back on the train back to Tokyo.

It was a great trip with great food, and we saw a bit of natural Japan. We road all sorts of different types of transportation, and had some eggs that increased our lives by seven years. If you want a nice relaxing getaway from the city, Hakone is always our go-to place.

February 29, 2012

Tokyo Marathon

About a year ago my father made a joking suggestion that we run the Tokyo marathon together. My twin sister ran the new York marathon in 2010 so she wanted to run her second marathon. So we planned to run the marathon. By early October our application results were in and all three of us made the lottery. We were committed. I had never ran a marathon before - the closest I got was a half we ran as training in high school cross country once. I started training.

I initially started daily 5km runs and worked up to 10km per day. Up until the end my standard run was a 60 minute 10km run at 6am before work. On the weekend I would run longer distances, usually between 20km and 35km.

I started training in October, and it just started getting colder and colder in Tokyo. It was hard to get up at 6am and go for a run, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that I really needed to complete this marathon. I was expecting a son in December, and I thought it made a lot of sense to try to show him that you can accomplish difficult tasks if you set your mind to it, make a plan, work hard, and stick to the plan. That is the main thing that kept getting me up and out into the cold to train for this marathon.

During training, I usually listen to a bunch of podcasts. Mainly some NPR Cartalk, APM Marketplace, This American Life, Marc Maron's WTF podcast, Freakonomics, NPR Planet Money, and a few Japanese podcasts (news and economics.) I was on target through most runs for a four hour time. My longest training run was about 35km, and through the first 30km I ran it in 3 hours, but then the last five kilometers went a lot slower. I estimated based on that run that my final time should be around 5:30, since basically I would end up walking the last few kilometers. Still, my goal was to finish, and beat the Tokyo Marathon mandated 7 hour (gun time, not chip time) limit.

The day of the race, we woke up early (I believe 5:30am) and headed down to Shinjuku, where the start is at. We went through all the procedures (drop off the bag, line up) and probably had about an hour until the 9:10am gun. Alana and Dad said the process went very smoothly, at least compared to the New York marathon, and the line up went well. We chatted with some of the people around us, and before you knew it, the gun went off. It was cold, but we had enough people around us that it wasn't too bad. Alana and Dad were amazed at how quickly we proceeded through to the start line after the gun. I think we were about fifteen minutes behind the start, despite being very far back. They made us line up in order of how long we thought we would take, and I entered the slowest time of 6 hours, so we were in the six hour block.

I don't have much to say about the Marathon, aside from how much fun it was to run with Dad and my sister. We went through some really interesting parts of Tokyo that I know well, and it is very strange to have the whole road to yourself without any car traffic. The first twenty or so Kilometers went pretty well. The time between twenty and thirty is about when Alana and I went a bit ahead of Dad. After about thirty five kilometers it was very tough. Perhaps the last three kilometers or so we ended walking at a fast pace, but that was ok.

Oh, I will note one amazing thing that happened during the race. Alana's husband (coincidentally named David) didn't come to Japan because he was very busy at work. But secretly he flew in at 5am on the day of the race and surprised Alana at the 11km point. It was amazing. There is video proof of how amazing it is.

Near the very end, with a kilometer left to go we started running again. The crowds the whole way along the route were great with supporting us. They thinned out a little bit near the end, but were still there and trying. At the very, very end Alana took off like someone had lit a flame under her. I took off after her. Later, she told me that her husband was always telling her during training: "You're at the very end! It is you, Twin A, and Twin B. Who is going to win? You can't let Twin B win!"

She beat me by 2 seconds. So I need to run another marathon so I can run it three seconds faster than this one.

For posterity sake, here are out times:

  • Alana Evans: 5:34:22
  • David Evans: 5:34:24
  • Gary Evans: 5:41:09

February 3, 2012

Setsubun - throw beans around for good luck!

Today is Setsubun, a day that marks the traditional start of Spring. Well, I hope it does because it is super cold out here, and getting up and running every morning has been a challenge.

What Setsubun really means is that you buy a bunch of beans of some kind, and throw them outside your house, chanting "Demons go out, good luck come on in!" Or something to the effect. I took a look around our house, and oh no! We had a demon infestation!

We corrected that with the traditional bean throwing, and even little Alan Yoshiyuki helped out (although he does look suspiciously similar to one of the crying demons I caught on digital film just a little bit earlier.)

Anyway, happy Setsubun to you all, and I hope that all the demons in your house flee your violently flung beans and make room to let in all the good luck for 2012!

March 20, 2011

Dinner and a Movie in Tokyo after the Earthquake

For the past week, R. and I have been at home. I have been working from home (it is great that I work at a company where this is possible) while R. has been off of work because Tokyo Disneyland is currently closed. I have not been getting out and about the city much, I really have only been visiting the local supermarket and a few stores around where we live. We have generally been eating stuff that we have on hand - I've made a bunch of omelets since we were able to find eggs. We cooked up a batch of Curry on Monday, and have had that for dinner and lunch quite a few days. Curry is great because you can make a lot of it at once, it keeps for a long time, and you just need rice to go with it.

On Saturday, I wanted to take R. out to do something, and coincidentally the movie Tangled just opened in Japan on Saturday. She wants to see Tangled, I'm interested in getting out, and so we had a plan. A normal sort of thing that people do everywhere: a movie and then dinner.

Note that actually this isn't something we do a lot here in Tokyo. I used to see two to four movies a month (hi Carl!) but since moving to Japan I have not seen many movies at all. Tickets here cost about $30 (given the current crazy exchange rate) and just are not as common of an activity as they are in the US. Still, it is still a pretty normal thing to do. So R. reserved us some tickets for a 3:30pm showing over in Roppongi Hills.

That got me to thinking about dinner. One thing I want to do is to support the Japanese economy and get things back to normal. Sitting around at home eating curry for a week (while it is economical on our end) is just not going to do that. I've been hearing good things about Union Square Tokyo for the past few years since it opened in 2007, so I wondered if they would have an opening for us. This place is a nice restaurant, not say Michelin three star or anything, but it is a nice place where a main dish will run from $40-$60 or so. Normally I would try to get a reservation a week or so in advance just to be sure, but I called them up Saturday afternoon and they took our reservation for that evening.

So, here are my main reasons for trying to get out and go do dinner:

  • A week after the earthquake, I think it is time to get back to normal life (not that we are always going out to high class restaurants) and stop sitting around at home.
  • I wanted to see how well mass transit could serve us. Roppongi Hills is usually about 30-45 minute trip from our place on a train and a bus.
  • I thought after a week of sitting around, Risa and I deserved a bit of a treat after surviving the largest Earthquake in Japanese history. If anything deserves a bit of a celebration, that is it.
  • I love curry. But I love me a good steak a bit more, if I can get an excuse to put out the money they cost in Tokyo.

Click the "read more" link to see how well we fared.


read more (3240 words)

March 17, 2011

Why I am not worried about Earthquakes or Radiation in Tokyo

In the past few days there has been a lot of confusion about what has been going on. I wrote a bit about my experience in the big earthquake and then later a bit about food shortages, and strange things I am eating. I touched a bit there on the supply problems and issues with nuclear reactors in the north east, but I'll focus a bit more on that in this post.

So first, initially I was wearing my anti-earthquake hat (+1 for saving throws vs. falling rocks.) Friday was crazy with earthquakes. The first was very scary, but Tokyo pulled through very well. Friday night there were many earthquakes, but none as powerful as the first one. Saturday there were also lots of earthquakes. Sunday there were fewer. I started noticing more in the news about the nuclear power plants in Fukushima. There were still tremors, and Tokyo is feeling the side-effects of the earthquake. Really the problems we have faced are with transportation and electricity. Trains are running at reduced capacity. There are scheduled blackouts for much of Northern Japan. Areas around Tokyo have also seen blackouts but the main center of Tokyo, the "23 wards" have been spared. That would be like all of New York state having scheduled blackouts, but Manhattan being spared due likely to concerns about business and population density. In fact, we are going to reverse evacuate my sister-in-law to Tokyo from a place that is about an hour and a half out of Tokyo further away from the North East because they have been having two blackouts a day and we have had none. Trains are pretty much running now, although at slightly reduced capacity, and at least the major parts of Tokyo have regular electric, gas, and water service. Our elevators are even back at home, although the escalators and elevators at the local shopping center are off to conserve energy.

The other issue is food and gas. Gas is tight right now. Mostly people were panicked and trying to get fuel to get out of Tokyo. That has made it hard for the emergency workers to get fuel to go help out where there is real trouble - up near Sendai and further north east. I think that has taken care of itself now though since people are less worried about radiation and are just staying in Tokyo trying to get back to business as usual. Most companies still have people going to work. Amazon is a bit rare in that we can work from home (that it is allowed, and that we have a kind of job where that actually works well.) I have seen some other email from other friends in Japan saying that if they want to work from home, they can, but they will need to fill in a form and get it stamped by one or two people. That sounds like Japan to me. Everything here needs to be stamped to be official. So yay for Amazon Japan, they have just been really amazing throughout this whole thing.

So I can attest that while we might be a bit inconvenienced and eating strange foods, day to day life is fine. My wife is home because Disneyland (where she is a nurse) is closed for an indeterminate amount of time. What has been more concerning is people over-reacting to the fear of radioactivity from the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plants, about 300km away from Tokyo. The news here has been pretty good about getting information out. As of right now (2011-03-17 10:40am JST) I do not think there is any danger to Tokyo from the Nuclear power plants.

Here are some resources I have been using to get information:

  • MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub. A curated blog by MIT students and professors with a lot of information. I trust MIT, and their stuff seems to be very informative with a science (not fear) bent.
  • As of the 15th, this post by Paul Atkinson makes it seem like Britain has no fears of radiation.
  • As of the 16th the US Embassy also says there is no danger to Tokyo. They also say that TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Corp.) has been upfront about the disaster and their information accurate. This reassures me that there are international orgs watching the situation and that we are getting good information.
  • The Australian Government has some advice for Australians in Japan. They suggest expanding the exclusion zone from 30km to 50km. Tokyo is 300km from the power plant sites.
I've kept an eye out on Facebook where friends in Japan are posting up relevant information as they see it. I like this pictures showing radiation readings in Tokyo. Right now the level is at about 0.2 microsieverts per hour. Eating one banana is 0.1 microsieverts (assuming you eat one banana a day for a year.) Andy Heather has a good blog post about this.

I am convinced that unless there are disastrous changes in the situation, Tokyo will be fine. We are getting good information on the situation on the news, but even a worst-case scenario, a meltdown like at Three Mile Island, we should not see any negative effects in Tokyo. Of course, if you are within the 30km exclusion zone around Fukushima, there is danger. It isn't going to instantly kill you, but the professionals are on the situation and taking care of it.

There is no way there will be problems in the US from this. As long as we are careful about not eating food from the surrounding area - which is what I gather a lot of the problem from Chernobyl was from - there should be no problems. Chernobyl did not even have the external containment vessel that these power plants have. Lots of eyes are on this, and the professionals are doing their best to keep the radiation contained. I have my tv on, and am watching a few sources, but I think things will be fine.

On to another major subject. Why am I not worried about earthquakes in Japan? First, read this blog post by an engineer in Japan. It is a really good description of how things went right. I totally agree. We have an earthquake warning system. I usually see a warning about 10 seconds before an earthquake hits, assuming I have my TV on. Realistically, this isn't too helpful, but it has helped me get on my hard hat or put down a bowl of burning soup before the shaking starts. That is really impressive though: advance warning for a natural disaster.

The other thing that makes me feel safe is the building engineering. I'll use the building that we live in. It was built two years ago, just about. This website lists the safety features of our building. You can run it through Google's translation service. Actually that doesn't really help, but we've got 56 230cm diameter pylons driven very deep (28 meters) into the bedrock, and the whole building is made to sway with earthquakes. Why does our small two bedroom apartment cost half a million dollars? Because the entire building can dance with an earthquake. This video shows skyscrapers swaying in the earthquake. By design. It feels very, very strange when you are in one, but they do this by design and Japan has poured lots of research and effort into building design. This site has some general information on earthquake and building design. I should see if my architect friends have more information. I know most skyscrapers in Japan use base isolators.

At any rate, Tokyo is doing pretty well. The north east is horribly devastated and could really use more of the focus an attention that is currently being spent on the Nuclear power plant. It seems like that is not as big a problem as people fear. I'll still keep my anti-radiation hat handy though, so please don't worry. I can make all sorts of hats as necessary, and possibly radiation-proof my earthquake hat as well.

March 16, 2011

You know it is bad when you are eating Nude Crunky Balls

With a city of over 15 million people, food can run out fast. I just wen to the local supermarket and they still don't have any staple foods (but they have had deliveries of other non-staple foods.) It could be that there was just a buying run, but since we don't have much rice and pasta at home, I'm waiting to buy myself. The government now is telling people that we have enough stock of food, and not to panic and hoard food. I think that has happened to some extent - we ran out of rice last week and just put off buying new rice (5kg bags are heavy - almost 5kg!!) and now we don't have a major staple food. We are also almost out of pasta. So I would like to stock up, but there is nothing in the store. See my previous post.

So we go to the store, and they do have some things, but the selection is strange. They still have lots of beer and wine, which we also have plenty of at home, but those don't really help when you need hydration. Could be worse though I suppose. But you know things must be getting back when you are reduced to eating Nude Crunky Balls.

Ah, who am I kidding? Nude Crunky Balls are chocolately and delicious. I love them.

Yesterday (Tuesday JST) I went to work for the first time since the earthquake. Transport was not running reliably, but I've been biking to work for a few months, so that wasn't a problem for me. On the ride in to work I noticed about three times as many people as normal were on bikes. I think other people were worried about getting stuck somewhere without transportation, so busted out their infrequently used bikes to get around the city. None of them were as cool as my bike though, a nice Raleigh that I put some clip-in pedals on (thanks Dave S.!) and have been commuting on for a few months. I got some work done, but as things developed with the Fukushima nuclear power plant (more on that later if I have time - the big take away is that things are working as designed and we are all safe, as long as no small turtles named Gamera snuck into the containment vessel) we were told to go home by 2pm. Today (Wednesday JST) was declared a work from home day, which I can do as a computer professional. Kind of. I'm glued to the tv, and trying to find rice. And eating Nude Crunky Balls.

The interesting thing though is that on my ride home yesterday I saw massive lines at the pump on my bike ride home. I passed 3 gas stations. One was sold out of gas, the other two had lines of 60-100 cars. I'm more afraid that if there is a panic, people won't be able to get out of Tokyo easily and there will be large traffic jams. Trains work great, but right now trains are on irregular schedules, and were very crowded today (according to friends who took the train into work.) So I worry that there might be a panic in Tokyo with people trying to get out of town because of unfounded fears of nuclear radioactivity. If you have the time, please read this take from an MIT engineer on why things are not as bad as the media might lead you to believe. 日本語版もあります。

I am joking around a bit here: we do have enough food for a few days, and supplies are getting better. I don't think we will have a problem in Tokyo. But if I am forced to eat delicious nude crunky chocolate balls, be sure that I will not let my blog go uninformed. Also, we are running out of truffles and foie gras. Please send more forthwith.

March 13, 2011

I hope you like broccoli, because that is what is for dinner

So this evening my wife and I stopped by the local (very large) supermarket to pick up some toilet paper and something for dinner tomorrow night. Turns out, we could get neither because almost everything was sold out. We did get a few snacks and some beer (of which there was plenty) but there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in the way of staples and easy to make food. No potatoes. No rice. Few vegetables, few fruits. No meat. Few fish. Really the place was running out of just about everything.

I kind of thought that might be the case; on Friday evening just after the earthquake when I stopped by it looked like they were starting to run out of things. I don't think they had seen any replenishment since then, and of course a lot of people were trying to stock up on stuff. I anticipate that pretty soon, in the next day or two, they will get deliveries of what they need to continue business, but it really strikes home that in a city of about 16 million people, without consistent and reliable transportation and supply chains, things can dry up very fast.

Also, the Japan Electric is announcing that they might have rolling blackouts in Tokyo starting tomorrow due to the shutdown of two nuclear power plants in the northeast. More than just a shutdown actually, one of the reactors went critical and there was a minor explosion and later intentional venting of mildly radioactive gasses. It sounds like it isn't a very dangerous situation, but it certainly reduces capacity and it isn't like Japan was rolling in capacity before this (although I haven't had blackouts here, like I did a few times in New York.)

Anyway, I'll be headed to work tomorrow where I expect to spend a lot of time cleaning up, and probably not much time getting quality work done - this situation is just so abnormal that I'm pretty sure the whole city is a bit on edge, and still trying to come to terms with things. Risa and I donated to the Red Cross, but there isn't much we can do to help those in the North East, which is really in a horrific situation. Still, I'm a happy pessimist; I expect the worst and I'm very happy when things turn out to be not that bad. I mean the worst that we are facing is maybe a lack of tasty food (we've got canned and frozen stuff that we can last on for a while) and while we were facing a lack of toilet paper (visiting Alana while she was in Morocco taught me a few ways to deal with that situation, not that Risa is willing to accept them as viable alternatives) we were able to get a bunch from Risa's family who had stocked up a while back. So things are looking pretty good from where I sit. In a chair that sometimes shakes, and makes me wonder whether it is an earthquake, or just me.

Lately it has just been me. Unlike Saturday, when it was earthquakes. ;-)

March 12, 2011

The Great Miyagi Earthquake of 2011

On Friday, as usual, a group of us from work went out to Beacon, a favorite lunch place. Lunch was great, a nice filling burger, as usual. Then back to work for the afternoon. At about three o'clock sometime (amazingly, I feel like I should know exactly when this started, but I do not) I started to feel some minor tremors. We have those frequently in Tokyo, and had had a few in the previous days. I checked with my co-workers to make sure it wasn't just me (when a loaded-down cart goes down the nearby hallway, it can shake the floor in a way that feel similar to a very minor earthquake) and they commented that they felt it too. Usually we would just sit and wait things out, but this one kept building. Usually these things start out as small vertical fluxuations as the ground moves up and down. This time, the vertical bumps started to get larger, and then started to change into a swaying motion. That is when we knew it was getting bad. We got under our desks - which I am not really sure would help in a ceiling collapse, but would probably be better than not being under the desk - and started to wait. The earthquake now was clearly a swaying motion. Perhaps the ground was moving up and down, but the building itself started to sway. We are on the 16th floor. The shaking went on for maybe five minutes. I really don't have a good sense of the time, but it went on for a very long time.

The building itself felt like a boat, swaying forward about three meters, then back, then perhaps to the left, then to the right. It literally felt like we were on a boat in rough seas. I didn't see out the window, so I had no real frame of reference, but the movement was amazing, and very unsettling. Our friends who have a very wide window view said the movement was sickening, you could see the entire building move, and move a lot. Our shelves fell. Other things fell. I was glad to be under my desk, in case the shelving fell my way. It didn't.

The swaying finally started to slow down. I checked my laptop, grabbed my stuff together, and led some of the guys down the stairwell. The stairs were littered with plaster, I assume from the walls of the swaying building. Our building was completed sometime in the 70's, very old by Japanese standards. I think it is rated for a stronger earthquake, but it was still unsettling. I would have preferred to be in a newer building. I'm curious to see how my friend at Google in Mori Tower faired.

We exited the building to the area around the tower. There were some small aftershocks. We were warned to stay away from the building in case of falling glass. That is a good warning, until you realize that there are skyscrapers all over Tokyo. Smaller building are likely less well designed for earthquakes. We were probably safer inside the tower than outside if another large earthquake struck, but that swaying feeling is just so unsettling that I think a lot of people just wanted to get outside, myself included. There was a lot of checking around, trying to see who was still inside, who was outside. Everyone was ok, and after a while the company president announced that people who could go home should go home.

That itself was quite a difficulty. You see, none of the mass transit systems were running. Everyone here uses mass transit. I live about 10km from work, and usually bike to work. Today, of all days, I decided not to bike since I was sore from playing basketball the previous night. I decided instead to take the train. That means I had no easy way home, except 10km isn't really all that far. So I started to walk home. I had my GPS watch, and also unusually decided to bring in my camera today (perhaps thought I would walk around Shibuya at night and take some pictures.) Looking back, I really should have headed into the Shibuya city center to see what things looked like, but I was more concerned with getting home and making sure that Risa was safe. I sent her an email earlier, but knew that networks would be overloaded. I did eventually hear from her, she was fine, but still at work (at Disneyland.) Satisfied that my family was ok, I set out to head home. Before doing that though, I snapped a few pictures of the people around the office. I was also wearing my Amazon Japan hard hat the entire time, and asked a group from the Merchant@ team to model their beautiful headgear for me.

I set up my GPS watch and headed home. All told, it took 1:54 minutes, 9km, and 620 calories. On the way though, I took a few pictures. First, let me just say that for the most part, the Tokyo that I know did not suffer major damage. I heard that one building, the Kudan Kaikan, close to where I used to work, had a portion of the roof collapse and there were some injuries. Otherwise there was nothing major that I knew of (I learned of some other things later) - I was listening to one-seg TV for a lot of the time I was waiting outside the building trying to get in touch with Risa. On the walk home, there was no major structural damage either. This is Tokyo though, up north near the epicenter the damage was horrific, and on the news they were talking about a Tsunami that was coming.

So, I set out walking. See the link for the map of where I walked, but basically it was a two hour walk that I knew fairly well from riding it on a bike every day. On the here are some interesting things I saw.


Very close to work there is a small temple hidden off the beaten path. There were lots of people there taking refuge. When you think about it, one of the few places in Tokyo that isn't high density living, working, or shopping spaces are temples. They have small buildings and some open grounds. A good place to go when you want to get away from large buildings. You can just see a whole bunch of blue hard hats in the background of people all from the same company presumably.

Walking on, you started to see people lining up for pay phones. The cell infrastructure was overwhelmed of course. I got a few emails out, but voice calls were just impossible. I also started to see people lining up for buses. Note that these early lines are short. An hour later the lines for phones and bus stops were huge.

Near Ebisu station there was a group of girls in Kimono for a Graduation Ceremony. That must have been a rude interruption to their ceremony. They were waiting for a friend who was apparently across the street near Ebisu station. I was curious what the mass transit situation was (my cell phone tv was telling me that no trains were running) so I swung by the station. Indeed, no trains were running.


The station was full of people, but the gates were close and the signs all said "Under Preparation". Walking out towards home there were some stores with tvs, and those got a lot of attention. People were intent on finding news, but all the news was saying is that there was an earthquake, a tsunami is coming, and where people should be evacuating. My cell phone has a digital tv tuner, so I would check occasionally with what was going on. Tokyo at least didn't come out of it too bad.


Over closer to Gotanda, much later, there were massive crowds at Gotanda station waiting for buses. I don't think they are going to get anywhere anytime soon. I kept walking, only about 3 kilometers from home now. I passed some large apartment complexes which had set up temporary chairs for people that lived there who I presume didn't like being up high in the building. I could understand their feelings. I think they probably are safer inside the building that outside, but maybe the ground floor would sway less than the higher floors. That is probably a good idea, and I might take that route in the future myself. There is one tunnel I have to take that looked a bit damaged. As I walked up to it, it made a horrible noise. Still, seemed ok, so I went through. I'm curious whether that will be repaired in coming days. There were also some construction workers taking down scaffolding. I would not have wanted to be in their shoes; there were still aftershocks and that scaffolding did not look very safe.

Closer to home near Aomono Yokocho, I finally started seeing buses with people in them. Lots of people in them. Going slowly. Traffic was just jammed by this time. Anyone that could drive was. I bet taxis were charging extra.

Walking by Aomono Yokocho more people were waiting for the trains to start running. The station was also closed. By this point, I was pretty close to home. My feet were killing me, my shoulders were sore from carrying my heavy backpack and laptop, and it was getting cold. On the way home I stopped by Aeon, the local supermarket. They were starting to run out of stuff. I bought some simple things for dinner, and headed home. At home, things were fine, but the elevators were out of action. So I had a 14 floor hike up the stairs before getting back to the apartment. The most amazing thing is that I only noticed one or two things fallen over in our place. Our building was built two years ago, and is supposed to be very safe in earthquakes. The place was a mess, but that is just because I haven't cleaned recently; you would not have known that there was an earthquake just looking at the place.

At home, I turned on the TV and spent the next few hours trying to get in touch with friends (everyone is ok) and sending out some email and facebook updates. I didn't feel tired, so I started playing Mass Effect (1, a game I've been playing lately.) There were lots of small aftershock earthquakes. I lost count. More than ten. More than twenty probably. They kept happening, although our building handled them like a champ. None of this crazy boat stuff (I am really curious how the main earthquake moved the building, but I'm happy not to find out.) I watched a lot of tv. I tried to find out what my wife was doing. She said she was ok, but that she would not be able to come home. I stayed up until 6am. I also finished Mass Effect - very good game. I think that kept me up, but I also just was still unsettled, and didn't feel like sleeping.

I finally got to sleep at 6am, and now on Saturday have written this us. Right now Risa came home. Here is how her day played out: after the earthquake at Disneyland lots of people were motion sick from the earthquake, and there were people that were scared and with minor injuries. She works as a nurse there, and all the nurses were busy. They worked through the night and she got off at 11am Saturday morning (after starting a 10am shift on Friday morning) and then had to walk to the Rinkai line Shinkiba station, about 6km. She is going to hop on the computer for a bit and then go to sleep.

So to sum up: we are safe, our house is fine. We have enough food for today and tomorrow, and I anticipate that most of Tokyo will be relatively back to normal by then. I'm worried and concerned about northern Japan, and I have a few friends that are stuck outside of Tokyo due to the transit system shutdown, but everything seems fine. It should be an interesting few days. All sorts of things are coming out now, the major one being concern over some nuclear reactors and possible problems there, but I think Japan will be able to get through this.


January 23, 2011

Monjya-yaki and the Lion King's Simba

Last night my wife and I went to the house warming party of some friends of ours. They had just moved back from New York, where the husband was studying law at Columbia University. They rented out the lounge on the 37th floor of their building near Tsukishima. It had an excellent view of Tokyo Tower, which I forgot to take pictures of. We hung out for a few hours, and later one those of us that remained went out for Monjya-yaki (the Tokyo specific version of Okonomi-yaki that is more soupy and has less flour) in nearby Tsukishima, which is well known for Monjya-yaki shops.

It was only the second time I've ever had Monjya-yaki, but was quite nice. We had a lot of fun. The most unusual aspect of the night is that one of the people at the party is an actor in "The Lion King" - he plays Simba. Just by chance when my friend was in New York, he sat down next to this guy who was also in New York at the time, and they became friends. So we had a good time talking about plays and musicals and the like.

R. and I actually had tickets to see the Lion King, but due to a comedy of booking errors, ended up giving the tickets away to other friends. So we're going to have to try again to see it in Tokyo. It will be a lot more fun thinking that an acquaintance of ours might be in the show!


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