Wednesday 14 August 2013

Day 10 - Wind Down

Today I had hoped to get a full day in.  The weather, however, had other ideas.  At 33 Celsius, we decided it would be too hot to actually try to do anything.  We resolved to barricade ourselves in the comfort and safety of Kyles air conditioned appartment.  This at least gave me some free time to sort out a few things like making sure my bags are packed (except for a few supplies I will need today/tomorrow and checking in online)

Eventually, we succumbed to hunger and ventured out inn search of food.  Given the conditions, every time I stepped in to the sunlight I pictured a "Mass Effect" style "Shield Overload" warning (think the Tali rescue mission in ME2 - I'm such a nerd!).

The search for food at least proved to be a useful opportunity for Kyle to point out a local shrine he recently discovered.  Yes ladies and gentlemen, he's lived here for a year and only just noticed it!

The plan for lunch was to sample a rare delicacy, tomato ramen.  This unique dish is available at only 1 local restaurant.  As usual, the best laid plans of mice and men etc... They were out of tomato.  While this was a little disappointing, we were able to order some Saitama style food - I'm really going to miss this in the UK.

Lunch taken care of, we stopped off to do a little more shopping.  Among other things, I procured a bottle of locally produced sake (local - even down to the rice used in its production!) and a plush Nekobasu (catbus).

On the way back, I decided to take a photo of the local "Sunkus" convenience store.  Look at the logo and tell me what you think it looks like - what were they thinking?
That which has been seen, cannot be unseen!
Bags are packed and everything is ready for my return.  I'm still amazed that it's passed by this quickly but this has been a very eventful and enjoyable trip.  There was less idle time than last years trip and I managed to see more (even though this was a day shorter).  With the number of omamori I picked up this trip, my plane is going to be a flying good luck shrine!

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Day 9 - Akihabara Again

While Kyle was working, I decided to make another trip to Akihabara as there were a few more things I wanted to check out.  First order of business was lunch.  Once again, I opted for the UDX building as I know the area and there is a wide selection of restaurants.  In some instances, however, the quality of the signage did not exactly inspire confidence.  Then again, thinking back to last year I remember this isn't unusual for the UDX building.
I've never been to a Restrant before!
As I went to a Ramen place last time, I opted for a Tonkatsu place on floor 2 (if not floor 2, there was only 1 such place at the time of writing).  Tonkatsu is a nice little lunch that certainly hits the spot.
As my Japanese is still a little flaky, they also have an English menu.  There were a few variations on the standard Tonkatsu available, including crab meat and a mince katsu filled with cheese.  All of them are served with shredded cabbage, rice and soup.  If you would like any more cabbage, the staff are happy to provide extra.  There is a dipping sauce available at the table.  I'm not sure how this one was made but it was definitely oil based and had a rice wine vinegar flavour - quite nice.  The complimentary cold tea was nicely refreshing given the heat of the day.
At one of the shops I noticed some "Tsundere" themed cookies which I decided to get as a present for a friend (although I think she may murder me when I do)             
Reminds me of someone...
All has gone well so far, it's just a shame that tomorrow is my last full day.

Day 8 - Ginza, Sushi and the Amazing Kobayashi Sensei

Today involved a fairly early start.  We were meeting Kobayashi Sensei (the previous phonics expert from Kyles school) and had planned to make a full day of it.  The plan was to meet in Ginza station and go for lunch at a very exclusive restaurant.  On to Ginza!

The journey to Ginza took a little while, but this was partly due to an overly complicated route.  Travelling at a busy time, conditions were crowded to say the very least.  I'm glad I don't make that journey every day!

After meeting in Ginza, we headed to the restaurant.  This is the best sushi restaurant in Japan and has 3 Michelin stars.  Unfortunately, we didn't have reservations.  Fortunately we had a "Plan B", there was another very good restaurant nearby.
The Michelin * * * restaurant we were planning on going to
And the one we actually went to
As I'm not used to sushi, this was going to be quite an experience.

I like sashimi!
Overall, it was an enjoyable meal.  The thing that surprised me most was that I preferred the sashimi to the dishes with rice.

En route, we saw that there is a Hooters in Ginza.  Moving on.
NOT on the agenda for today!

Next up was a tour of the "House of Representatives" of the Diet of Japan (the lower house, the House of Councillers being the upper house).  Kobayashi Senseis language skills (having a native language speaker) came in very handy.  Plus he is the one who suggested the tour, so Kyle and I are very grateful.

Following on from this, we had a look around Ikebukuro and the Sunshine 60 shopping complex and tower.  Unfortunately the weather limited the view from the observatory somewhat.

Sunshine 60.... yeah, about that...
In the arcade we tried our luck at the House of the Dead 4 game.  Kobayashi Sensei further demonstrated his all round awesomeness as we actually managed to win against that damn thing.  What originally started as a 3 man rotation (2 playing, the 3rd swaps in whenever someone dies) turned in to just Kobayashi and myself.  My finger joints ached, some skin was starting to peel off my trigger finger but it was totally worth it!  Unfortunately, the sheen of victory was tarnished a little when I found out which character I'd been playing as.
I was player 2 - why do I have to be the girl?
Dinner was at a ramen restaurant, because my love of ramen is legendary!  Kobayashi Sensei recommended a great place, but warned that it's small and there is always a queue.  Queueing for what must have been half an hour or more in hot, humid conditions made this a feat of endurance.  Fortunately the ramen was outstanding.

So many thanks to Kobayashi Sensei for an incredible day.  I've already said that if he's ever in the UK I'll be sure to show him as many sights as I can.

Day 7 - Koshigaya Lake Town and Meeting Sakarada Sensei

Today we spent the morning/afternoon exploring Koshigaya Lake Town, a large shopping centre in Koshigaya.  Actually, I take that back.  It's not large, the place is frigging huge! I'm pretty sure it's larger than the Trafford centre (to put it in context).  Unfortunately this meant that it was a little to big to be practical, if that makes any sense.

From Misato, it's a fairly short train ride on the JR Musashino Line to Koshigaya Lake Town, which has its own station.  Today was another blisteringly hot day, fortunately it's only a short walk to the centre which is fully air conditioned.

There is a cinema complex in the centre which we were planning on visiting.  The one thing we didn't take in to account was that this is a Sunday so it was packed.

To illustrate just how big Lake Town is, there's a Starbucks outside (next to a nice little artificial stream and some trees) that Kyle only jut found on the day.  He's been living here over a year and has been to Lake Town on a few occasions!

In the evening, I had the opportunity to meet another of Kyles colleagues.  Sakarada Sensei.  Meeting in Koshigaya, we would go out for a meal and a few drinks.  Sakarada managed to secure us reservations to a very difficult to get in to restaurant (Kyle works with some great people!).

Fast forward:  After good food, good drink and good conversation this proved to be a great evening.

Day 6 - Asakusa

Firstly, sorry for the delays in uploading this and the subsequent blog entries.  What can I say, I've been out having too much fun and haven't had time to write.  Here goes:

Today was another opportunity for some solo exploration.  This time I had the opportunity to go back to the Asakusa district in Taito.  Those who followed my blog last time will likely already know that Asakusa is known for the large Budhist temple (the Senso-ji temple).

Senso-ji Temple

The temple complex is incredible and definitely worth a visit. There is also a nice market near to the complex (the picture above is in the market, approaching the temple gate)

In the complex there is also a garden, this includes a small pond with some Koi.


One word of warning, being a an old district, the layout can be confusing to say the very least.  While I managed to find the market and temple easily enough, I did need to use the portable Wi-Fi hotspot and Google maps to find my way back to the station.

Asakusa is served by both the Tobu Skytree line and the Tskuba Express (which I used as I was staying close to Minami Nagareyama on the Tskuba Express).  While there is also a Tokyo Metro station, this is a little further afield.

There were a few items on my shopping list this time.  First was an obi for my mother.  Last year I picked up a yukata for her so I suggested that this year I get an obi.  You never know when there might be a matsuri (festival).... right?....
Next up was 2 sets of wedding dolls.  I know a few people who are getting married and thought these would make a nice gift.  These proved a little harder to find than I initially thought but there are a few stalls selling them.  The ones I found are traditional style wooden kokeshi dolls.

On my way back to the station, I came across an artist who was using spray paint to create space scenes.  Being the first time I've seen this being done, it was interesting.  My parents saw something similar once in Australia.
It just goes to show you never know what you're going to encounter and what surprises are in store.

Later in the evening, Kyle and I decided we wanted to face walking in the gruelling heat to LaLa Port (the shopping mall in Shim Misato) for dinner.  It's not Tokyo, but it has a good food court (and a place that sells sweet potato/aubergine ice cream - really!)

Time for some curry!
Kyle, about to tuck in
As a combination of heat and being on my feet all day, this was a pretty tiring day but well worth the effort.

Saturday 10 August 2013

Day 5 - Back to Misato and a Nomikai

For the most part today was a fairly quiet day.  We spent around 3 hours getting assorted trains from Nikko back to Misato.  Combined with a long few days I was feeling tired and needed a rest.  So Kyle went in to work and I went back to the apartment in order to collapse.

Resting until the early afternoon, I finally decided to grab some lunch in Misato.  Wanting to practice a little more Japanese, I tried to start a little small talk about the weather when paying:

Me - *points outside* Tenkou wa totemo atsui desu (the weather is very hot)
Waitress - *agrees*
Me - irigisu no tenkou wa samui desu (the weather in england is cold)
Waitress - irigisu jin desu ka? (you are english?)
Me - Hai, irigisu jin desu (yes, I'm english)
The highlight of the evening was going out for a meal with some of Kyles work colleagues at a restaurant in Minami Nagareyama.  An evening of good food and interesting conversations.

Thursday 8 August 2013

Day 4 - Shrines

As we'd been cut down to 1 (full) day in Nikko, we tried to make the most of it.  The day was spent exploring one of the shrines in the area.  This particular shrine is a large complex dedicated to the first Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.  Unlike the Meiji shrine (Meiji Jingu) in Tokyo where he is only enshrined, Tokugawa Ieyasu's ashes are also here (Meiji was buried in his home city of Kyoto)

The complex is vast and the structures are decorated with gold leaf and ivory.
Enshrined within are Ieyasu's ashes and armor
Two interesting parts of the complex are the shrine of the crying dragon and the deep shrine of the sleeping cat.  In the main room of the shrine of the sleeping dragon, echoes in the right place are the sound of the dragon.

One of the great things about these shrines is that they are beautiful places, filled with nature.

Nearby there is also a bridge for the nobility.  It was built next to the regular bridge.  There were originally 2 guards, one stationed at either end.  Their job was to kill commoners caught trying to cross - I expect this served as an effective deterrent.

Interestingly, there is also a shop in Nikko which sells nothing but Hello Kitty themed products.
No matter what I do, I can never avoid that damned cat!

At the hostel we met some interesting people, including two Americans (one of who does the same type of ALT work as Kyle) who were interested in going to the shrines and went along with us.  With spectacular sights and interesting conversations, this was certainly an enjoyable day.

Bonus Feature - Kusoneko
That hat looks familiar...
I think, you'll find that's mine!
Take that! Thieving cat!

Day Three - Getting to Nikko

In preparation for Nikko we had to rise at a rather early hour.  Reason being, the journey takes a considerable length of time.  If you have a Japan Rail pass, the Shinkansen may be worth a look.
Because of the travel time I strongly recommend booking accommodation so you can get a full day.  We opted to stay at the zen hostel,  which Kyle has stayed at before.   The hostel is run more like a traditional guest house and some rooms are traditional Japanese style, complete with futons.  As it is quite rural,  the owner offers a shuttle from Nikko station.
Zen Hostel

There is a nice fish restauant within walking distance, run by a rather energetic elderly chap.  I enjoyed the food and service was friendly.
Local Restaurant
It's all a bit out of the way but it's set in a beautiful location and I'd strongly recommend it.
Stunning Views
Free Wi-Fi is provided along with some communal PC's so those who can't survive offline are catered for.

The original plan was to start exploring Nikko upon our arrival but it looked like the weather was going to turn (read - thunderstorm).  Since I've been caught in one downpour so far this trip, I wasn't eager to repeat the experience.

Tommorow, shrines!

Tuesday 6 August 2013

First and Second Days - Broken Brains and Anime Adventures

There was no blog update on day 1 (depending on whether you count the writing in Frankfurt), my brain was completely knackered!

After boarding, despite my best efforts, I managed to get maybe half an hour to an hours sleep.
Dan used "Inflatable Pillow"
It wasn't very effective
The pillow didn't help much, it seemed to deflate over time and in the end I resorted to my usual trick of crossing my arms over the table tray and try to get a little sleep that way.  With no way of getting sleep I decided to sample the in flight entertainment.

I'm not sure if I've said in previous posts that the interactive screens on Lufthansa flights aren't all that great.  It seems like I have to jab the screen quite hard to actually get it noticed.  Not all that good but it's still usable and it helps to kill time.  Consequently, I didn't spend very long using my music collection and still have movies on the tablet PC for on the way back.

On the way I opted to watch 2 movies: Oblivion and Iron Man 3.  Time for a movie review I guess:

Oblivion was entertaining.  I got the impression that it was trying to look smart but it left me with the feeling that I've seen this before.  I won't be unkind to I'll just say that this film draws inspiration from a few other films.  Without giving too much away, there are some similarities to Moon, Total Recall and possibly The Island.

Iron Man 3 I didn't consider to be as good as the first two.  I did like the way it was driven more by Tony Starks realisation that underneath the armour he's only human.  Since I've already talked about similarities to other movies, there is a television one that applies to this movie.  The idea of "the man behind the curtain isn't what you were expecting" seemed very... La Femme Nikita esque (watch the final season and you'll understand what I'm saying!).

Day 1

So anyway, upon my arrival my brain effectively tofu.  Strangely, this time round there was a much larger queue at immigration/customs so it took me 2 hours or more to clear it.  The baggage carasell (can't get a spelling suggestion for that!) had actually stopped by the time I got to collect my bags - definitely a first for me!

After renting a phone at the airport, I arranged to meet Kyle and check how to top up my Suica card for train travel (it still had 200 Yen on it - score!).  These days I've found the Keisei Narita Sky Access Line to be the best way of getting from the airport, but that's because when getting to Saitama, the Sky Access line gets me most of the way and I could take the Musashino line for the last few stops (Sky Access from Narita T1 to Higashi Matsudo then Musashino line on to Misato).  Carrying 2 bags, this was going to be a challenge.  Now I'm carrying 2 bags to get some new clothes to Kyle - so he'd better appreciate it!

Since I was wiped out and Kyle needed to go in to school to work, I spent a good chunk of the afternoon sleeping.  In the evening, we decided to go out for a meal to a Japanese steakhouse (as I enjoyed Stone Burg last time).  3 types of steak (beef, chicken and, I think, gammon) with some curry rice certainly hit the spot.  As usual, it didn't take long for us to start catching up like old times.  Once again, I think we picked up from the end of the last conversation we had when I was in Japan!

Day 2

Day 2 was a slight change to the plan.  Kyle was needed in school again.  It says a lot about him that he's in demand.  This meant that it was time to spread my wings and do a little exploring.  Kyle suggested I use the opportunity to do some exploring in Akihabara, as I was planning on going back again at some point during this trip.

After arming myself with details of getting to Misato eki (looking at Google maps to see what direction to go in) I began my journey to the station (not really that hard, just go in a straight line parallel to the train tracks).  Changing over at Minami-Nagareyama I took the Tsukuba express to Akihabara.  This is part of the reason I opted not to get a Japan Rail pass this time.  We weren't expecting to take the Shinkansen and Tskuba Express is privately owned so it's not covered by the pass.  25 minutes later I was in the heart of geekdom.

First task was to go figure hunting.  Surprisingly it didn't take me long to find the shop I went to last time - this must be my lucky day.  After much browsing, I settled on 2 figures from 2 shows I am quite familiar with.
Rei Ayanami and Anarchy Panty
Following the success of that first mission, lunch was the next order of business.  I was walking past the UDX building and saw the adverts for the various restaurants in the building.  After wandering around the 2 floors of eateries a few times (a little easier since the place is air conditioned) I opted for a noodle place (although I was tempted by the Tonkatsu place).  Like many small restaurants, you order by vending machine.  you make your selection and pay at the machine to get a voucher/receipt.  You use this to get the food.  This time I opted for a bowl of Kake Ramen.  This didn't have any meat in, I thought this would make up for the many steaks I had the previous night.

Suitably sated, it was time for more shopping.  There is an anime merchandise shop in the UDX building, it forms part of the anime museum.  I knew I couldn't stay too long in that place - there was so much stuff I wanted to buy.  By the time I made my escape, I'd already purchased 2 Evangelion T-Shirts (I'm going to wear the hell out of those when I get back to the UK!), a similarly themed metalic mug with the NERV logo and slogan on it (my new work mug, I think) and a stuffed "Jiji the cat" from Kiki's Delivery Service.

On the way back the mental map I built up (noting key landmarks) proved useful in getting back (remember which station exit to use and which side the train tracks need to be on) and I made my way back.  Just as would be expected for the kind of luck I normally have, a thunderstorm broke out on my way back.  Only a few minutes away from the apartment the paper bag my figures were in started to structurally fail.  With a bag in one hand, a partial bag in the other arm and rushing I must have been quite the comical sight.  Moral of the story - Bring an umbrella, these downpours can catch you off guard!

A little bit later on we're going to go out for dinner and prepare for the trip to Nikko tomorrow.

Incidentally, I've found that roaming in Japan isn't as problematic as I previously thought.  After taking the Galaxy S3 out of flight safe mode (in order to connect it to a Wi-Fi 3G dongle) I found that it had a cellular connection and could receive SMS messages.  It reports that the connection is "NTT DOCOMO giffgaff".  Strange, as I thought that Japan used CDMA so a GSM phone should not be able to get a connection out here.

Sunday 4 August 2013

4th August 2013 – The first blog entry (of this trip)

Today is the start of my latest trip to Japan.  So far things are getting off to a good start although in some ways things are less familiar than before.  Previously, I’ve used BMI to get to Frankfurt and Lufthansa to get to Tokyo.  BMI no more, so it’s Lufthansa all the way.
After checking in, I looked up the flight# and seat allocation on SeatGuru.  According to the seating chart they provided, it looked like a business class seat.  Score!  Joining the frequent flyer programme has definite advantages.  That satisfaction was short lived, it turned out that the seatguru chart was incorrect and I was only in economy class.  Bugger!  (mental note – being at the front of the plane means boarding last)
Back to the details.  I opted for a 09:00 flight rather than 07:00, so I only had to get up at 04:30 – thank the Kami for small mercies!  I noticed in Manchester Airport that Starbucks now have a strawberries and cream Frappachino.  It’s not bad, but not as good as the vanilla ones I used to have last time I was in Japan.
The last 2 times I seems to set off from Frankfurt from the exact same departure gate – it was the same pretzel shop I went to on both occasions!
Lufthansa, in their infinite wisdom, decided to break with tradition and made me walk across the entire length of the terminal! (I’m pretty sure they parked the plane in such a way that I would have to walk even further).  It seems this part of the terminal is a little thin on eateries.  There are a few places but they are such a distance from the departure gate (and I had a much shorter layover) that I decided not to chance it.  I’m so hungry now that I’m actually looking forward to an aircraft meal!  HELP!
This also means that I don’t have enough time to justify paying for Wi-Fi access, fortunately Frankfurt Airport provide 30 minutes free access.
At least soon I get to see Kyle again.

So not much to update on so far, I think they’re going to start boarding soon.
Not long now