September 12, 2016
Family trip to Kobe
Friday, 2016-09-09: Arrival in Japan
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
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.