April 6, 2018
The Garcia Girls visit Japan
Table of Contents
1 Arrival, 2018-03-27, Tokyo
On Tuesday, March 25th our cousins, the Garcia Girls, came for a visit to Japan. We often stay at their parents' place in Washington state when we visit, so we are super excited to show their kids around Japan. Their flight was supposed to arrive at about 5pm, but it was delayed by an hour and didn't get in until 6pm. When I asked them for the reason of the delay, I was pretty surprised: they had been in the air for almost an hour, then turned around. The airline said that they let off a sick passenger before they got going again. I've never seen such a thing happen myself.
I was happy that I recognized the girls, and they seemed to know who I was, so there's that. We headed down to the train station and waited in line to change in the vouchers for the JR Rail Pass. Anyone coming to Japan to visit should at least look into getting a JR Rail Pass. For about the price of a round trip Shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto you can get a ticket that lets you ride JR trains for free, even including the Shinkansen (except for the fastest service, "Nozomi" trains, which sadly are also the most frequent). It is an amazing deal, which probably explains why we had to wait for about an hour to exchange the voucher. Once we did though, we were able to go to the Narita express and they could ride that for free.
We met up with Lisa and Alan, and then had Ramen for dinner.
We had a busy evening planned, although that was, to some degree, an accident. I knew that they left on the 24th, and told Lisa that is when they would get here, but of course the flight lands a day after it arrives. Since we were going to travel with them, we thought it would be fun to make it unique, and also do some things that we would enjoy. Alan really loves trains, so we made a reservation on the Izumo Sunrise Express, which is an overnight sleeper car train. They have various classes of service, and we reserved four individual berths. Each berth was super tiny - I could only stand up in the doorway, the rest of the berth was the bed, and my shoulder could almost touch each wall when in bed. It was longer than I was though, for which I was grateful. Lisa and Alan slept together - and the mechanics to get that to work must have been pretty difficult. She said she didn't get much sleep with all his moving around.
The Sunrise Express does have a shower on it, but you have to pre-purchase tickets for the shower from a vending machine. By the time we had settled in the tickets were sold out. Too bad. I hear that the showers are only six minutes long, but I'm sure the girls would have appreciated a shower after the long flight from Seattle. Sadly, they didn't get one.
I changed into the Yukata provided with the berth, prepared for bed, and then laid down. It was a strange feeling, trying to sleep on a moving train. We stopped every once in a while, and I realized that, but I feel like I got some refreshing sleep all the same.
2 2018-03-28 Okayama, Kurashiki, and Hiroshima
We woke on the train. Somehow, overnight, the train had been delayed by about an hour. I'm not sure how. Some train somewhere had struck an animal apparently, and that slowed down all the other trains. Originally we were supposed to get out at Okayama at about 6:30am, but we ended up getting off the train at 7:30am. Okayama is where the 16 car Sunrise Izumo splits up into two trains to head for different directions, so Alan got to watch the trains separate.
After that, we stashed some of the larger luggage in a coin locker, and took a train to Kurashiki. Lisa found a nice coffee shop in the area, so we took a bus out to it. Motomachi Coffee was a large coffee shop, and they had a nice breakfast set. I had nice fluffly French Toast, and was suprised to find some melted cheese inside the french toast too. It was good though. I learned that Vienna Hot Chocolate is different from regular Hot Chocolate because it has whipped cream on top. The reason we went to Kurashiki is because, a long time ago, my friend Eric lived in Okayama and told me that nearby there is a cute town that has a preserved historical district called Kurashiki. So I told Lisa we should try to visit there if we had a chance. The coffee shop was three or four bus stops away, but we decided we could walk there. We headed off in the general direction that we thought it was in.
Okayama and Kurashiki are out in the countryside, so people use cars to get around much more than in Tokyo. We ended up on a big road that didn't have any crosswalks to where we wanted to go. Eventually Lisa found an underpass and we made it across, but I'm pretty sure we took a roundabout path to get to where we were going. On the way though we did find some nice irrigation canals, and also a nice old building with nice Sakura in bloom.
We made it to the historical district, and walked around a bit. Did some souvenir shopping, and as always in places like that we got some ice cream (or gelato as the case may be). We definitely could have spent more time there - or money at least. They had people offering human-pulled cart tours, and they usually give a lot of information about the place as they haul you around. There were also boats in the canals going around places, which would have been fun. We had a schedule to keep though, and headed back towards the station.
We again decided to walk, and again probably took the long way around, but made it in time to catch the train back to Okayama and pick up our luggage. We made it in time for our 12:32pm Evangelion Themed 500 Series Shinkansen to Hiroshima. This was something that I really wanted to do, and I thought Alan would enjoy it too, even though he doesn't know about Evangelion. The Evangelion themed Shinkansen has been running for almost two years now, and it was recently announced that this year would be the last year, so I wanted to make sure I could take it at least once before it ended. We had about an hour and a half on the train, and it was cool. I really like the 500 series Shinkansen - this was my first time on one though. I think. At the end of the train, in car 8, there was a little cockpit area that kids could play in. Alan really enjoyed though. The Garcia girls didn't even try it out! In the front of the train the entire first car is devoted to a little display of Evangelion and Shinkansen stuff, with a little gift shop. There is also an "Evangelion Cockpick" that you can try, but you need to make a reservation for that, and of course it is a lottery since we just bought day of tickets. I did buy Alan a model of the Evangelion themed train, and a gift for a friend, so that is pretty cool.
The train even has special Evangelion themed announcement chimes (not my video, but they got the music), and the announcements are done by one of the voice actors from the show apparently. So cool.
We got to Hiroshima and then tried to send our luggage on to the hotel. We got to the luggage counter at 2:01pm, and were told that since they could only accept luggage until 2:00pm, we were out of luck. That is a completely Japanese experience. So we decided to head to our hotel - the Hiroshima Prince Hotel - check in, and drop off our luggage before seeing if we could rally the girls for additional sightseeing. The hotel was a bit far - out on the port - so we took a bus for about 20 minutes to get there. When we checked in, as we headed to the elevators, we saw a Sumo wrestler. Not just any Sumo wrestler - a Yokozuna, the highest ranked wrestler there is! It was, Lisa believes, Hakuhou, a very popular Sumo wrestler. He was super tall, and super larger. The girls were impressed. He didn't look like he wanted people asking for pictures, so we didn't. It was pretty cool though.
Our hotel room was great - huge by Japanese standards, a corner room with two beds, and a couch that slept two, as well as a shower and another shower/bath. We dropped our bags off, and then headed out. The hotel was attached to a pier that just by luck had a high speed ferry that went from the hotel to Miyajima, the famous temple island with a huge "floating" temple gate in the ocean (when the tide is in). The ferry took about 20 minutes to get there, after which time we walked around and took pictures. We stopped for some Starbucks, and the barista even got Miriam's name right. I can't believe that she drinks coffee. I can't drink coffee and I'm 43!
Deer were wandering all over the island, as they always have, but I noticed signs saying not to feed them, which I didn't remember from last time. It was very nice, wandering around, and the Sakura were beautiful.
We took the JR ferry on the way back. The Garcia girls got to ride that ferry for free, since it was run by the Japan Rail company, which I always think is funny. The ferry ride was only about 10 minutes because it just went directly across the bay to Miyajima. From there we took a trolley back to Hiroshima, which took an entire hour. The trolley stops a lot. We got off and walked to the "Okonomiyaki Forest", a building that houses lots and lots of Okonomiyaki restaurants. Okonomiyaki is generally called a savory pancake, but these ones in Hiroshima were not like the ones I'm accustomed to from Tokyo. They used very little batter. We ordered a total of five okonomiyake dishes, which was probably one too many, but had a great dinner. I think the girls liked the spicy Pork-Kimchi combination the best, but they also liked the one with cheese in it. I drank a bit more than I usually would (3 beers!) and we chatted with a couple from Ireland who were next to us. Lots of fun. We ended up taking a taxi back to the hotel because we missed our bus and I didn't want to wait the 20 minutes it would take for the next one, but we all fit in one taxi and the prices here aren't as bad as they are in Tokyo.
We cycled people through the shower, and everyone fell asleep pretty quick.
3 2018-03-29 Hiroshima to Kyoto
I woke up at about 6:30am, but wasn't able to connect my computer to the hotel network due to the way our networking policy is set up. I did get some work done on my phone, but not enough.
Alan and Lisa went to the hot springs at the hotel, and I got the others up and moving so that we were able to check out at about 8:30, and caught a bus to the peace park a bit after nine. We had a nice breakfast - ice cream on waffles sounds good to me - and then walked over to the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park. I think this is somewhere that everyone should visit if you get a chance. I can't understand why people would want to push for war to resolve problems when the consequences are so severe. We visited the museum, and I was a bit concerned because Alan at six years old is still young for a lot of these discussions, but we seemed to get through things ok. We walked around the park, and visited the A-bomb dome.
There is a new building near the A-bomb dome, the Orizuru tower. It was a very interesting building from a design perspective. I love that it had a huge, wide-open, and open to the elements on three sides staircase with ramp going up to the 9th floor. We walked all the way up it. It also had slides going down from floor to floor, which Alan was super excited to try on the way down. The ninth floor is a wide open area, open on three sides without any walls, overlooking Hiroshima and the peace park. They have a wide-open sloped area with astro-turf that you can relax on and get nice views of the city from. It was a great place to relax for a while after walking all over the Peace Park museum and park.
After we recovered a bit, we headed down a floor where there was an exhibit showing how to make a paper crane origami. There is the well-known story of Sadako Sasaki a two year old who was exposed to radiation at the time of the bombing, who later became ill with leukemia at twelve years old. She thought that if she could fold 1,000 paper cranes she would get better. She did not. Her classmates worked towards a memorial for her, and there is now a memorial to all the children that died in the bombing at the peace park. Because of that, or maybe not, paper cranes are symbols of peace. So this exhibition taught you how to make a paper crane, and then there was a part of the building where you could drop you paper crane down, and it collected with others in a visible part of the building. They have about three stories of paper cranes in there now.
We took a streetcar back to Hiroshima station, and got lunch there. I had some nice Curry Soba, and the girls had Tempura on rice. They seemed to like it. We then picked up our luggage, which we had sent ahead from the hotel, and got on a 16:22 Sakura Shinkansen from Hiroshima to Shin-Osaka. We'll change trains at Shin-Osaka for a ten minute Shinkansen ride to Kyoto (it is about an hour on a normal train!) and then check into our hotel there. The plan is to visit Kiyomizu-dera tonight.
Update: the next day! So what happened? We did change trains at Shin-Osaka, for our ten minute ride to Kyoto. It was a bit hurried, but we made it. I found a seat to put the heavy Boston Bag down (or up, on the luggage rack rather) and waited out most of the trip sitting. When we got to Kyoto, I went back to where Lisa and Alan were standing (Alan likes to look out of the windows in the door when the Shinkansen is going) and we took off. A few minutes later Marly asked me "Hey, where's your big bag?" and then the panic ensued. I had left it up on the luggage rack. Lisa called in to the lost and found, and they said they would check for it and call us back.
In the meantime, we rushed to catch our bus to our hotel, Kyoto Traveller's Inn. It was super crowded at Kyoto station at about 6pm, and fighting through the crowds was interesting. We caught the bus, and rode that for thirty minutes or so. We are staying at a Japanese style inn with Tatami rooms, and there is plenty of room for all of us. We eventually heard back from JR, but the process is that they mail things out, and they wouldn't have been able to get the bag back to us that night. It went all the way to Nagoya where they intercepted it, then quizzed Lisa on the content to make sure it was really ours, and then said they would mail it. Since it wouldn't reach us in Kyoto in time, it went on to our house back in Tokyo. Lisa and Alan will have to make do with what was in the smaller travel packs. I need to work harder at remembering luggage. The problem this time was that my backpack was down on the floor in front of me, and the large bag was up on the rack. If they both had been in the same place I would have remembered both of them, but in this case I just got my backpack and that was it.
4 2018-03-30 Kyoto and Kimono
We woke up in the morning and headed over to 7-11 to get breakfast. We ate and got ready, then headed out at 9:30am to catch a bus to take us to the Kimono Rental shop. We had arranged to rent Kimono for the day, and headed to the shop to pick them out and try them on. The shop was pretty busy when we got there, but they had a whole system down for efficiently letting you pick a Kimono, and then helping you to get dressed in it. About an hour after we had arrived, our party was ready to set out.
Because walking in Kimono is difficult, we also rented a taxi service for the day. Our taxi driver knew a lot about the city, and helped us plan a few portions of what we wanted to do. First, we asked for some recommendations for places for lunch. He brought us to a buffet where you could choose sushi, noodles, or other dishes on rice. The lunch was really good. I had some sushi as well as fried pork on rice (katsu-don) which is one of my favorites. I didn't eat too much, because they put the belts on those Kimono pretty tight. I think the girls had the same problem.
After lunch we went to Ryoanji, a nice temple up in the mountains that has a very nice garden. It is well known in Cherry Blossom season for their cherry blossom trees, and it did not disappoint. They also have a very nice lake that we walked around. I'm sure there are all sorts of interesting historical stories about the place, but they were all beyond me. I enjoyed the nature.
From Ryoanji, we went to the Golden Pavilion. This is very likely the most famous Japanese temple in the world, and not without cause. The famous Golden Pavilion is a sight to see. The temple was crowded, but it wasn't too bad - we were visiting on Friday, a weekday, so the crowds weren't as bad at they are on a weekend. We walked around, and took some pictures from other angles, and got a few good group shots. By one of the parts of the temple was a rock that courtiers used to wait at, and it is said that women who sit there become more elegant. We got some pictures of that too.
On the way out, we stopped at a ice cream shop and got some soft serve ice cream. Alan got green tea (he really likes that flavor) but I got vanilla with gold flakes and shared that with Lisa. I thought it was funny that they were serving gold flakes, but the capitalistic opportunity is clearly there.
We had planned to visit the Silver Temple as well – that always makes a nice comparison to the Golden Temple – but it was approach 4pm, and the temple closes then. We also had only rented the taxi service until 4:30pm, so instead we headed back to the Kimono rental shop to return the Kimono. Kyoto seems to have more vehicle traffic to me than Tokyo, so it took quite a while to get there. We finally arrived, bid out Taxi driver farewell, and got changed.
Lisa took us over to a historical district not too far away called the "Pontocho" district, which has traditionally been a nightlife district with restaurants, bars, and plays. The part of town was very cute, running alongside the Kamogawa river, with a very narrow main street and super narrow alleys shooting off of it. We walked around and looked for a restaurant for dinner - if we got in before 6pm it was likely we wouldn't need a reservation. We settled on a Kushi-age place, basically a place that does various things fried on sticks. I figured you can't go wrong with fried food, so the girls should be ok with that. They also were a wine bar, which was a plus for me.
The restaurant was super cute, it had a nice upscale atmosphere, played quiet jazz in the background, and had a nice view of the river. Like the district itself, the shop was very narrow and long, with room for a counter of about 10 people, then opening up a bit in the back to a few tables. The food was very good. I really liked the opener, a fried shrimp with a lemon you squeezed onto it, as well as the fried Japanese beef, and the Japanese bean croquette. I ate a bit more than I should have, even though I was the second person to call it quits. The way the restaurant works is that they bring you fried things on sticks until you say stop. Alan stopped first, then me, and then the other three. It was a very nice dinner.
We left at about 8pm, and had time for perhaps one more thing. Shoren-in temple was near our hotel, so we went there. They had a special event where they lit up their garden at night, and since it was our last night in Kyoto we thought it would be a shame to miss it. We stopped back at the hotel quickly to pick up some jackets, and the walked the 15 or so minutes to the temple. It wasn't very crowded at all - Friday night and a bit cold, also, this temple isn't as well known as others I think. They have a very nice garden, and they have a tea room that overlooks the pond and garden. You can get a tea service there for 500 yen which I would have done if we had the time. The attendant was telling people about how there is a current commercial for people to travel to Kyoto which actually shows people in that tea room enjoying the view, so they have enjoyed a surge in popularity.
We walked out around the garden, and they had a really great bamboo forest that was lit up nicely. They had some nice Cherry blossoms and other trees as well. It was lots of fun walking around, and I think the paths were very well designed. They used light itself in a way that both illuminated the view, and showed you where to go.
We walked back to the hotel, and Alan and I enjoyed the large communal bath - the water was super hot and felt great.
5 2018-03-31 Kyoto to Tokyo
This morning we woke up a bit later - I think the girls are getting used to the time zone change a bit, and I'm just getting tired. Lisa and I have both been fighting off a cold, or both had a cold for the past few days. At any rate, we didn't get going until a bit past 8am. We left our luggage with the hotel, and went out on a 20 minute walk up to Rokudani, a temple that has been around for over 500 years. Lisa's family has had a gravesite (multiple actually) there for the past 500 years. In Japan, people are cremated, and the remains are often interred in a generational grave. So we visited the main one (there are a few others, maybe 5-7 or so right in the same vicinity) and cleaned it up a bit, and offered our respects. They also have a gravesite in Tokyo that has been in use for the past 500 years or so, which is just mind boggling to me.
The view from up in the cemetery is very nice. You can look down on a lot of Kyoto. We walked down and then decided to try to find a cafe or something for a light breakfast. We had passed the Smart car dealership on the way, which for some reason also has a fashionable cafe attached. So we went there. The place was a very nice space. I guess if you are a car dealership and don't have a huge number of sales every day, using a portion of your space as a cafe is a nice idea. There is a steady stream of income, foot traffic, and customers which are also exposed to the Smart brand. It still seemed pretty strange though.
From there, we walked back to the hotel, got our luggage, and then walked to the train station. We didn't take a bus because the busses were super crowded with all the people coming in from all over for the Cherry Blossom related parties and festivals.
Once we got to Kyoto station we showed the girls around for a bit. I can't believe that marvel of (post?) modern architecture has been around for twenty years already. We picked up some lunch boxes for the train, and then got on a 1pm train to Tokyo, and will arrive at Shinagawa at about 3:30pm.
We got back home, and had some time to relax. Alan and Lisa went over to the in-laws place, and we went over a bit later. Dinner was at Lisa's gradma's house, and was Sukiyaki. Sukiyaki is essentially a hot pot of meat in a sweet sauce, and there is a raw egg that you dip your meat in. It tastes really good, and usually is a special meal - meat is expensive! The meal went on for a long time - there were eleven of us when you include Lisa's parents, Lisa's sister, and her two kids with us, the Garcia's, and grandma. We headed home after dinner, and went to bed in our own beds. The Garcia's slept in Alan's bunk beds, and Alan came to our room to sleep in his old crib. I'm glad he still fits!
6 2018-04-01 Tokyo Hanami-party in Ueno Park
We went shopping at 11am at our local supermarket with Alan's friend's family that was joining us, and then headed to Ueno park to meet up with others for the Cherry Viewing party, more or less a picnic. The park was packed, as usual for hanami events, but Lisa's friend had already reserved a place for us. A few others joined us, Lisa's parents, some friends of hers, and we had a big picnic. Unlike an American picnic we didn't have any picnic furniture, we had some tarps and people just sat on those. For me, it is always hard to sit on the ground without furniture for a long time. So after a while I got up and took Alan and the girls around the park for a walk. We say the people dressed up in 50s clothes doing swing dancing, and then walked around some more. We were in time to catch the start of a Kimono fashion show, which was interesting.
Later on in the afternoon, there was a fistfight between some people in a group. There almost always is at least one fistfight at one of these things.
We headed home around 5pm, and since we had been eating all day didn't need to get any dinner.
7 Running around in Tokyo
The rest of the time was spent back at our place in Tokyo. On Sunday we all had dinner at Lisa's parent's place, a "Sukiyaki" dinner, which is basically meat grilled in a sweet sauce along with other vegetables and things. You also usually take a raw egg, beat it up, and then dip your meat and stuff in the egg. It is generally considered a very nice meal in Japan, and reserved for special occasions. We had dinner with Lisa's parents, her younger sister and her two children, and Lisa's great grandmother. Lots of fun, and delicious!
For the rest of the week, I was working, but Lisa was kind enough to take the Garcia Girls and Alan around Tokyo. On Monday, the girls went to Harajuku for some shopping, and Shinjuku for Doctor Fish. Doctor fish is a place where you can get a pedicure from fish, who apparently have doctorates in pedicures. I've never been, but it seems like fun. Harajuku is a well known shopping around particularly popular with young and fashionable people. I also don't know much about that.
On Tuesday, the girls went to Disney Sea. Lisa dropped them off there at about 10am, and I picked them up at 7pm. I don't have any pictures from that, so you will have to talk to them about that. They were tired and said that they had a lot of fun though, so that is great.
On Wednesday, Lisa took the girls around to a few different places, but mostly it sounds like they went to a Cat Cafe and an Owl Cafe. They also got lunch and had Monjyayaki (kind of like a soupy Okonomiyaki) and some other things. They also went out to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. You can't view the residence, but the park in the surrounding area is very nice. When I got home in the evening we went out to convery belt sushi, where a bunch of sushi rolls by on a conveyer belt and you pick up what you like. You can also order things from a tablet at the table, and then the tablet will play a little tune when your order arrives on the conveyer belt.
Thurday the girls went out shopping at Uniqlo in the morning, got some more gifts at the grocery store, and then I took them to the airport. Have a safe flight back, we loved having you here!