Wednesday 31 December 2014

Japanese New Year Trip 2014 - Day 3 (Reunions)

At the start of the day, Ryan and I had arranged to meet with Masami. We both knew Masami from Leeds Met where she was one of the Japanese students involved with the study group we joined. Last year, after finishing her course, she had returned home to Japan so we were looking forward to a reunion.

With both our very busy schedules, today would be the only day we would get to meet, so we seized the opportunity after some careful planning. The weather did not start out so great as the rain did not stop all morning. This proved to be a little problematic for Ryan and Kyle who ventured out to buy much needed supplies. Sure enough, upon their return they resembled survivors of Noah's flood (bringing with them a breakfast of hamburgers - we haven't really had a Japanese breakfast yet).

But true to form, Ame Kami (Rain God) answered our prays and the rain stopped. Unfortunately this came too late for Ryan and Kyle who were looking at me with with worryingly angry expressions.

And now for something completely different (Miis with cat ears)

 Upon arriving at the station, and successfully navigating the stations, we made it to our rendezvous. This did involve a little heated debate regarding whether we needed to get to the east exit or the Seibu east exit. Ikebukuro isn't quite as complicated as Shinjuku (that station has more exits than any other station I've seen, I wouldn't be surprised if there were more exits than lines!) but still has enough exits to make it difficult to arrange meetings at. Sure enough, Ryan was proven correct although in my defence, the two exits are next to each other (okay, that's not much of a defence).

It wasn't long after lunch time and none of had eaten yet (well other than our "breakfast" of hamburgers) so lunch was the first order of business. Masami suggested a ramen restaurant called Hakatta Ippudo ( In stark contrast to some of my previous trips, I'd so far avoided the ramen diet so it seemed like a nice change.
I can strongly recommend Hakatta Ippudo, I've been told by Masami that they've opened a branch in London, definitely going to have to check that out some time.

We chatted about how things were going and what we all had gotten up to over then past year. After finishing our noodles Masami offered to show us around Ikebukuro. Our tour started with shopping, Masami suggested checking out the Hello Kitty shop (yes, there is such a thing!). We had to see it to believe it, seriously, I don't think I've ever seen so much Hello Kitty related merchandise in one place! Next on the tour were an electronics store and an alcohol shop. The latter was quite interesting, there was an apple flavoured sake and a sparkling sake available to try. The sparkling sake was nice, I decided against buying a bottle after being told that it's popular with young women (a point that Ryan and Masami found hilarious) but did opt to buy a bottle of the apple flavoured one.

Ryan was interested in buying a sushi cover for his suitcase (I'd love to see a baggage carousel filled with those!) so Masami suggested the Tokyu Hands in Sunshine City. Unfortunately the covers in question were nowhere to be found, Masami seemed to think that they might only be available in Haneda Airport.

Time was running out (we needed to return for the evening activities Kyle had planned) so we finished up at an arcade where we were treated to a display of Masami's Mario Kart skills. I was introduced to Taiko no Tatsujin. This is a music game that involves beating a drum to the players choice of song (think drum version of guitar hero/rock band, with cute drum mascots). Let's just say that I have absolutely no rhythm whatsoever.

Before parting ways at the train station, a kind gentleman helped take a group photo. We said our goodbyes then Ryan and I left Ikebukuro for Minami Koshigaya and the evening of entertainment Kyle had planned. Hopefully we'll be able to meet up again sometime, it was a nice afternoon.

In Minami Koshigaya we met with Kyle and his friend Mizushima San (a friend from the local reading circle). Once again, I had met Mizushima San earlier in the year whereas this was a new introduction for Ryan. Kyle was hoping to get a drink and some food at the standing bar (I don't think this was it's name but that's what he called it). Unfortunately they were full so they helpfully suggested that we try Yamachan for some yakitori.

The food at Yamachan was great and the restaurant had a great atmosphere. We chatted for a while over food and drink, the next activity was Karaoke (something that I required a little liquid courage for). Readers, you may consider yourselves fortunate that I'm typing this and not singing this. You see, I have absolutely no singing abilities whatsoever. The fact that Kyle insists that I try to sing a few songs each trip suggests to me that he must be a complete masochist.

Karaoke did provide an opportunity for a little humour. Mizushima San is doing very well with English but doesn't know much about the cruder side of the English language so we decided that he needed to learn more about English (or at least British) swearing. Bearing this in mind, I opted to sing "Going Underground" by The Jam but with some... different lyrics. The lyrics in question were "London Underground" by Amateur Transplants (I pretty much had the lyrics to that particular song memorized). Here's a video of the song in question, please be aware that it contains very strong language.

After my ritual humiliation (and the punishment of the eardrums of all present), things had become a bit quieter at the standing bar so we went for a drink there (it was close to last orders) before returning home.

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Japanese New Year Trip 2014 - Day 2 (They maid me go!)

This story is entirely non fictitious, names have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent

After a good night's sleep Ryan and I felt refreshed and ready to take on the day (at least Ryan was, I resembled an extra in The Walking Dead). Being the only one of us who was fully awake, Ryan offered to venture out and bring us breakfast. Because Ryan and I were interested in trying more Japanese food he brought back... McDonalds (sometimes I wonder what goes on in that guys head).

After a breakfast of egg mcmuffin (covered in maple syrup - what's with that?) we got ready to leave. The plan was to meet A San outside the Tsukuba Express station in Akihabara. We arrived early so we took the opportunity to do a little shopping. The main reason for this was that Ryan was interested in buying a Sheriff Woody figure, aka "Hentai Woody". Clearly I've not been a good influence on Ryan
Some of the things Ryan will be able to use his "Hentai Woody" for

Things in Akihabara had changed a little since I was last there (the promotions on the sides of buildings, the themes of arcades and other thjngs change to reflect the latest media) but the place can still be recognised as Akihabara.
Some of the latest promotions
One thing that did confuse (and slightly worry) me was the new promotional image from Sega, featuring a woman hugging sonic. I don't think there are words.
So I guess Sonic is popular with furries?

With shopping complete, we returned to the station to meet A San. This was my second time meeting A San (we met during my last trip) but for Ryan this was a first time introduction.

With introductions complete it was time for lunch. As we were in Akihabara, where else would we go other than a maid cafe? In my defence, the maid cafe wasn't my idea! (I suppose you could say they maid me go).
As expected, cute adornments to beverages etc
It was all pretty standard maid cafe fare (from what I've been told, don't get the wrong idea - it's not like I'm an expert in maid cafes or anything) with cute pictures being drawn on food/drink and playing a random game with the waitress.

I've come to the conclusion that the waitress took a particular dislike to me for two reasons: Firstly, we ran out of time so I didn't get to play a game (not the end of the world and not worth noting on its own). Secondly, when I provided my name for the loyalty card (before you ask, something they provide to everyone - I didn't specifically ask for it) they wrote profanities instead.
Judging from the name they wrote... I don't think they like me very much
Next stop on the tour was Tokyo Station. This wasn't because there was anything in the centre of Tokyo that we wanted to see, we just went to see the station. Don't worry reader, this wasn't a train spotting trip, we were just interested in the architecture. Tokyo station (currently celebrating it's 100th anniversary) is designed in a European style of architecture which actually reminds me of Leeds.
It's just like being in Leeds
Tokyo station was only a flying visit so it was soon time to move on to our next destination: Asakusa (and Sensou-Ji temple). Asakusa is easily one of my favourite locations in Tokyo,

As always, the shopping district next to the temple was incredibly busy. The hustle and bustle add a certain charm to the area but I suggest caution if travelling in groups as it's very easy to become separated (this almost happened to us a few times).
Marketplace in Asakusa
A new year speciality available at the time was amazake, a sweet, spiced sake. As this is only available around new year, I strongly advise trying it if you have the chance.
Enjoying some amazake
By the time we finished in Asakusa it was almost time for dinner. Kyle had made reservations "The Lock Up", a horror themed restaurant I went to 2 years ago. One of the quirks of the restaurant is that one member of the group gets nominated to be handcuffed by a waitress, dressed as a police woman, when the group are taken to their booth (designed to look like a cell). We nominated Kyle for this and judging by the look on his face he appeared to be enjoying it.

Food and drink options have a horrific/monstrous/mad scientist theme to them. This and the setting all contributes to create a fun atmosphere.
Unusual selection of cocktails
There's a reason this guy was banned from the science lab when we were at school

There are "Russian Roulette" dishes available. These consist of 4 dumplings, sushi rolls or a few other assorted dishes. 3 of the 4 are normal. 1 of them contains lots of wasabi or chilli. Be sure to have a 2litre jug of beer on standby for the loser of the game! We tried a few rounds and I soon started to feel guilty as A San lost 3 out of the 4 rounds we played (I lost round 4 and can confirm that these are not for the faint of heart!), As Kyle had tricked A San in to thinking that he had lost and the other 3 were safe, Kyle grudgingly accepted to try a round of Russian Roulette nibbles by himself as a forfeit. He soon learned the true meaning of pain when he found that the batch he tried were a little more powerful the the previous ones (maybe the chef was wondering why we had ordered 5 of them?).
As added entertainment, every so often the staff will stage a monster escape. A member of staff in a ghoulish costume will enter random booths and "shoot" the occupants (with a pop gun, the kind you get at western events as a kid) until the "monster" is shot by one of the waitresses. It may sound a little strange but it all made for a really fun evening.

Sunday 28 December 2014

Japanese New Year Trip 2014 - Day 1 (I'm rushed, I'm stressed, is this going to work?)

Boxing day marks the start of my trip to Japan to celebrate new year. This was a pretty last minute trip (only booked around 2 weeks ago) which only became possible due to a change in work schedule. I'd been looking at the possibility of a new year trip previously, so Ryan (already flying out to visit Kyle) suggested joining him.
Without my usual (almost a) years worth of planning (and such close proximity to Christmas), this was a little more stressful to organize than usual. Now that the trip is underway I think I can say that a trip like this does't really need a years worth of planning. It certainly makes it easier, but it is possible to plan a trip like this in a shorter space of time.
The thing that surprised me the most was the price of the flights. Pessimistically, I had expected flights to cost an absolute fortune and be completely impractical but was pleasantly surprised by the prices I found. The tickets were cheaper than what I used to pay with Lufthansa and certainly cheaper than Finnair/JAL (JAL are still my favourite for service and a 2 bag allowance in economy class). The only catch is that I'd be trying another new airline, in this case Virgin Atlantic so I at least have an opportunity to review another airline.
The main things I needed to sort out were:
  1. Getting to the airport
  2. Foreign currency (didn't need much as I already had some left from last time)
  3. Phone rental (in some situations a lifesaver)
  4. Travel plans with Ryan to get to Kyle's (I didn't put together a plan for which trains to use as I have the route memorized)
  5. Some preliminary discussion with Kyle and Ryan about what to do
Beyond that, there wasn't much else to do.
Getting to the airport on Boxing Day required a particularly early start time of 02:00 (this is early even compared to previous trips), so it's safe to say I wasn't drinking much on Christmas day (at least my weight loss was being assisted). Ryan and I opted to share an airport taxi as the options were limited for boxing day (I might factor this in if I go back for new year again).
With Ryan's flight due to open baggage drop off at the same time mine was due to depart we took the opportunity to grab a coffee for an hour (after I'd dropped my bags off) before I went through to the gates. Fewer people appeared to be travelling as there were few queues at security, I probably managed to get through the whole process in less than half an hour. This left me with plenty of time to spare - waiting in airports is not something I particularly enjoy.
It's not like there's anything else to do in Terminal 2, is there?

The flights were pretty uneventful, consisting of a short hop from Manchester to London Heathrow then on to Tokyo.
The first flight was from Manchester Terminal 3, which was new to me (having previously flown from T2). Terminal 2 is a little bit... small and there wasn't much to do. On the plus side it was quiet so the whole experience was quite pleasant. The only thing that particularly annoyed me was the idiotic passengers at the gate who insisted on talking over all the announcements. This does not help when the boarding rows are being announced! There isn't really much I can say about a 1 hour flight. I was offered a mini bacon sandwich and a cup of tea, can't complain.
The second flight was from Heathrow to Tokyo Narita. This is only the second time I've used Heathrow and it's been okay so far. Virgin Atlantic passengers with connections were able to take a shuttle bus to Terminal 3 and proceeded straight to the gates. That certainly sped things up! With over 3 hours to kill, I went in search of free charging stations (I really didn't think the S3 battery was going to stand up to being used on a 12 hour flight, even in flight safe mode) and grab a quick bite to eat (plain ham sandwiches from Boots - I like simple sandwiches, don't judge me!)

After boarding I soon saw that the cabin interior looked rather... dated and the in flight entertainment looked a little... outdated (I don't think they've updated the cabin for a pretty long time). I was left with the feeling that the 90's called and they wanted their television screens back (seriously! turning the brightness up and down felt like I was doing it on a 90's television set!). Other than that, couldn't really complain. Despite the rather outdated interiors (and entertainment system which I didn't use this time, so can't comment on the quality yet) the flight was pleasant enough. One thing I will say about the Virgin Atlantic cabin (at least on the A340-300) is that there seemed to be a reasonable amount of legroom. The Finnair flight I caught last time did feel a little more cramped and didn't seem to have much legroom, this was pretty good.
Food was okay, for lunch, a Christmas lunch was offered (opted for a Japanese curry instead) and a full English served up an hour before landing. Beer selection was limited, but that's hardly the end of the world.
During the flight we were notified by the flight attendants that the northern lights were visible. I couldn't sleep anyway so the brief glimpse of the northern lights did make for a nice little moment. Other than that, I spent most of the time simply trying to relax or listening to Big Finish audio plays. These really do help pass the time!
After landing and going through the standard malarkey of immigration, customs, baggage collection etc I set about picking up my phone and establishing contact with Ryan. At this point my partially careful planning started to let me down as I had received no message from Ryan. Having ordered a week in advance, I had my allocated number sent to my email address so I could let Ryan and Kyle know what my number would be.
For some reason, we thought that Ryan landed before me and would wait in the airport for an hour or two before we headed out to Kyle's. Turns out that Ryan hadn't landed yet and (according to the arrival boards) was due to land half an hour after I collected my phone, Timing worked out quite well so I simply waited at arrivals for Ryan in the area I knew all passengers leave through.
With contact established, we were ready to head out to see Kyle. This is a route I remember well from previous trips so I had no trouble getting us there.
Surprisingly, neither Ryan nor myself needed much rest so after a quick catch up we headed out to get some Tonkatsu for lunch (clearly Kyle and Ryan intend on me gaining weight during this holiday).
On the way back we explored a little more of Misaso including the Mega Donkeyhotey, a mega store selling just about anything and everything.
I have absolutely no idea why they chose that particular name for it, the only conclusion I can reach is "because it's Japan".
You can see this from just about anywhere in Misato
Also of note is that the Ikea building can be seen from most places in Misato. I just thought I'd mention this as we also browsed LaLaPort and LaLaPort is next to Ikea.
After a little more exploration (and walking off lunch) we headed back to the apartment for a little gaming (there wasn't much point going further afield on day 1). By this point we were getting close to dinner time.
The plan was to go out for yakiniku (meat grilled at your table). We were joined at the restaurant by Sato San and Kojima San. After some food and drink it was time to head back, by this point exhaustion and jet lag were starting to catch up with me.
On the way back we noticed some graffiti, not something that I'd normally expect to see.
After getting back we decided to check Nintendo Street Pass and came to the conclusion that there are some very dull people out there. Health and safety information counts as a game? (then again I've seen a few people who's most recent game was System Settings)
That's all for now folks. Day 2 coming up soon.

Friday 8 August 2014

Operation Kairu ga Kaeru (カイルが帰る) Day 9 –Reunions

Once again, Kyle demonstrated his tendency to be utterly indispensable at work and was called upon to help out with the speech contest. Therefore, once again, I would need to venture out myself and keep myself entertained. This is something Kyle has felt quite bad about during this trip, we initially thought that we were going to have more time together but during this trip so far he’s shown me a new place pretty much every day so that more than makes up for it.
The plan for the morning was to go to somewhere like the Koshigaya Lake Town shopping centre.  As I had some catching up to do for the blog and it was an especially hot day outside, I opted to spend the morning in the apartment catching up on blog updates and performing some initial checks for online check in (for my return flight home, it made sense to check in as early as possible as JAL web check in opens about three days or so before the flight).
During the evening I was going to catch up with Graham. This requires a little background from last year’s trip so please bear with me: Bryan and Graham are two Americans Kyle and I met at the Zen Hostel in Nikko last year. We got on quite well at the hostel during the first evening so we all decided to explore Nikko as a group, we’ve kept in touch on facebook since then. Bryan was already working as an ALT in Niigata and Graham started working as an ALT this year. When Graham found out I was visiting Japan again he suggested that we meet up one evening as he was working close enough to Tokyo Prefecture that somewhere in Tokyo would be a good middle ground.
The venue we opted for in the end was Shibuya. This seemed like a good idea seeing as I hadn’t been to Shibuya for around 2 years (I stayed in Shibuya first time I was in Japan, during the February trip and I remember going to the horror themed restaurant in the August of that year).
The route I used to get to Shibuya involved transferring at Musashi Uruwa so I had a few minutes spare while waiting for my second train. There were two things I discovered at this station: Firstly, with this being one of the hottest days of the year, pretty much every vending machine in the station had sold out of water. I can only assume this applied to every vending machine as this applied to every one I tried. All four vending machines on the platform had sold out, the vending machines inside the station had sold out as well.  Wanting to avoid fizzy drinks, I eventually opted for some kind of iced banana drink as I needed at least some kind of cold liquid.
Secondly, there are some weird adverts.  For example, there’s this one I found on the platform I was waiting on.

I think I can safely say that I have absolutely no idea what’s being promoted here but, as expected, there is some kind of anime/manga style to the advert. I’ve noticed that a lot.
Eventually, my train arrived and I was able to complete my journey to Shibuya. Shibuya, as with many of the larger stations, has several exists (though not as many as Shinjuku). Here is one of the situations where having a local cell phone was a lifesaver, it would have been impossible to organise this without one. It also helped that I arrived early so I was able to scout out various exists and potential meeting spots. Being unable to locate the exit for the subway line Graham was using, I had to resort to using my wits (scary, I know). I could see that one of the station exists led to the Shibuya Mark City shopping centre and there was a balcony on the second level of the station leading to Mark City. This seemed like a good vantage point to spot Graham and standing on the balcony would make me easier to spot. With a little guidance over the phone Graham was soon able to locate me and we soon began to catch up on what had happened throughout the year.
After leaving the station Graham was able to point me in the direction of the Hachiko statue, I missed the opportunity to see this when I was in Shibuya previously. For those who don’t know the story, Hachiko was an Akita dog who belonged to a professor who lived in Shibuya and worked in a Tokyo University. Every day Hachiko would wait for the professor outside Shibuya station to greet him when he returned home from work. Years after the professor’s death, Hachiko was seen outside Shibuya station at the same time every day, expecting his owner to return home.

Our first stop was an English style pub (not the Hub) that Graham occasionally goes to. This also provided the opportunity to get a real Brit to comment on their “fish and chips”. The fish wasn’t a bad approximation (small fillets in a batter that’s a little bit like tempura) but the “chips” were basically potato wedges. They do get points for having malt vinegar though. While at the pub, I was also able to try a rather hoppy American IPA.
With food and drinks finished we did a little window shopping in Shibuya and general wandering around. While wandering around I noticed the infamous “Information Centre” from the first trip. Graham had never encountered this type of “information centre” before so I had to explain the whole comical story.
Ah, an "Information Centre" (see "Invader Zim")
Graham also suggested that it may be a good idea to move on to Akihabara afterwards. Although I’d already been to Akihabara previously in the trip, there were a few other shops I wanted to have a look around and it was only a few stops away (plus it’s a really easy and fast route for me to get back to Misato from Akihabara ).
The theory of a quick journey to Akihabara was undermined a little by a few derp moments. First, we got on the wrong subway line and had to double back. After switching to the correct line, we went in the wrong direction and had to double back AGAIN (D’oh!). I think it’s safe to say that we were the omnishambles.
Eventually, we arrived at Akihabara.  It was a cool evening (well cool by the standards of a Japanese Summer) so the maids were out in force (unlike the last, roasting, day I chose). Shortly after leaving the station we passed the figure shop I normally use so I pointed this out to Graham who was interested in having a quick look.

Besides figures we were also planning on checking out Super Potato. Sadly Super Potato had closed for the day by the time we got there so it was time to move on to other places. We also had a browse through some of the shops such as “Animate”, which was great as I hadn’t had much time to check them out last time. One of the more comical items I noticed in Animate was a box of Russian Roulette Cookies. These were basically the same as the “Tsundere Cookies” I picked up last year but with much more favourable odds (two out of twelve laced with cayenne pepper rather than the then out of twelve from the other box).

Thursday 7 August 2014

Operation Kairu ga Kaeru (カイルが帰る) Day 8 – Tokyo and a Nomikai

With Kyle needing to work in the morning, it was once again time for me to do a little exploration. This time, my travels would take me to the centre of Tokyo. It was an area I had wanted to see again and a friend of Kyle’s was asking for a Domo Kun plush (Domo Kun being the mascot of the broadcaster NHK), we’d heard that these could be found in Tokyo station so it seemed a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.
Fortunately, there is a direct service to Tokyo that runs once an hour so this avoided the need to change services at another station.
The large shopping centre “Tokyo Station City” comprises both shops within the station (past the ticket gates, so they’re accessible right after leaving the train) and outside of the station.  Much of the complex is underground and the many exits to street level will take you to several of the surrounding streets.

Following my arrival, my first task was to locate Domo Kun. Sadly, this proved a more difficult task than I anticipated and Domo was nowhere to be found. While in the station I at least had the opportunity to pick up some more Pensta merchandise. Pensta is the penguin mascot for the Suica card used for rail travel in this part of Japan.
The Suica Mascot - Pensta
Venturing further in to Tokyo Station City there was still no sign of the elusive Domo. After writing that task off, I decided to have more of a wander around downtown Tokyo (I think it may have been Maronouchi). What I found to be different about this part of Tokyo than some of the other areas I’ve been to (such as Akihabara or Omiya) is that there are more skyscrapers and they were noticeably larger than those I’d seen elsewhere.
One skyscraper in particular (or should I say 2 skyscrapers) is the GranTokyo. The GranTokyo is comprised of a North tower and a South tower with Tokyo station nestled in between them.
Even in the hustle and bustle of the central business district, you can still find the occasional shrine if you look carefully enough.

I must have wandered further and for longer than I had first thought as, to my surprise, I noticed Kanda station. Kanda is near Akihabara, so that was… a rather long walk.  Beginning my trek back to Tokyo station, I took some comfort in the fact that I was probably walking off some of the large amounts of katsu and melon bread I had been consuming during this trip.
At nearly 4PM, it was time to head back to Misato. There was a slightly scary moment when I found that the destination list at the platforms for the Musashino line only included the first 10 or so stations. Not all of those trains would get me back to Misato. At times like these, even my broken Japanese can be useful for survival.
Once I had gotten back to Misato, the plan for the evening was a nomikai (lots of food and lots of drinks) with Kyle and Sato Sensei. The plan was to meet Sato Sensei in Minami Nagareyama and go to a restaurant we had been to for a previous nomikai (if I remember correctly, it was one of the first days I was in Japan last year).

Overall, a pretty eventful day but sorry there wasn’t that much to write about.

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Operation Kairu ga Kaeru (カイルが帰る) Day 7 – Yokohama

After a busy and eventful previous day, there was no rest for the wicked.  Our next excursion would take to Yokohama where we would meet Kyle’s friend Mizu San.  I hadn’t met Mizu San before but we had previously talked on the phone when I helped him out with a programming problem (finishing off the solution I had devised provided some useful in flight distraction).
The Chinatown in Yokohama
The plan was to start off with Chinatown and then the bay area.  Having only seen Chinatown in Manchester, Yokohama came as quite a surprise.  It’s certainly bigger than what I had previously seen.  As we were in Chinatown, it was a great opportunity to sample street food.  Mizu San’s suggestion was to try food from various street vendors rather than go for a sit down meal, the would allow us to try a wider assortment.  I certainly had no objection to sampling a wide assortment of steamed buns.
While exploring Chinatown, we did see some rather… unusual sights.  The sign for one shop featured Chairman Mao as a panda, I kid you not! Another building featured what appeared to be a Santa Claus sign.  Exactly why that would be on display in August is something I guess I will never know. My only theory is that they’re trying to say that there are a limited number of shopping days until Christmas and they want to get in early.  Who knows?

We were getting close to midday and the outdoor temperature was rapidly increasing to the point of being able to melt rock, we went to get something to cool off. We found a small café type establishment specialising in iced drinks.  We each opted for an iced drink and a sundae to help cool off.
As we had reached the end of Chinatown, we headed down to the bay.  Something that caught our attention was an old ship docked. The ship was the Hikawa Maru, a liner launched in the 1930’s and now preserved as a museum ship. The sounded interesting to we decided to have a look around.
Hikawa Maru
On our way to the Hikawa Maru, I couldn’t help but notice a large number of jellyfish in the water (I sure wouldn’t want to fall in there) and a water taxi featuring Pikachu. As expected, Pokemon is still very popular.
I wonder if it's electrically powered?
When buying our tickets we had the option to buy a combined ticket that includes Marine Tower (an observation tower). If the tower doesn’t interest you, just buy the Hikawa Maru ticket as it’s very cheap in its own. The combined ticket offers a nice saving if you do wish to visit the tower.
Rather than follow a guided tour, we had a look around at our own pace. Most of the exhibit notes included English translations to they were quite easy to follow. Areas of the ship that are open to the public form the marked off tour route and this is linear so you don’t have to worry about getting lost.
The interior of the ship was restored to the original 1930’s art deco design when the ship was converted in to a museum back in 2008.  I recommend the Hikawa Maru to both those who are interested in maritime history and those with an interest in classic art deco design.
The restored 1930's interior
One word of warning I do have is for when you get to the engine room. It appears that Hikawa Maru had a rather short crew back in the day, so if you are tall at all, watch out and make sure you don’t bang your head on the ceilings.
After touring Hikawa Mari, it was just a short walk to Marine Tower. It’s a short walk in theory at least, in practice I was having to stop for water frequently – with a distance of 500m or less that was rather embarrassing.
Marine tower itself offers some great views of Yokohama and has observatories on two floors, there is no significant distance between them so it’s not like the 150m/300m floors in Tokyo Tower.  Entry to the tower is through what I call “the great glass elevator”.  One word of caution, if you’re not particularly good with heights I should point out that there is a slight draft which can be a little… disconcerting.
The Great Glass Elevator
The lift took me to the upper of the two floors, this is for entry only.  The lower floor is used to enter the lift to return.  I expect this is simply to aid in “traffic management”.
Views available from the tower

By this point the temperature had started to lower a little so we were able to explore a few more areas, including a famous market.  There is a sizable outdoor market along with some indoor sections in old brick warehouses.  The warehouses were constructed in a European style not long after the port of Yokohama was opened to international trade.
We also noticed a music festival on so there was some added entertainment.  I'm not sure what they were singing, but it certainly was unusual.
A... Concert
As we didn't have much longer before we were due to return to Misato, the three of us headed back to Chinatown for a sit down meal.  The restaurant we opted for was squirrelled away in one of the side streets. It's not somewhere we would have been able to locate on our own but there are many "promoters" for such restaurants on the main street.  With the restaurant we chose, they actually had their menu available on a board on the main street the the restaurant employee/promoter was able to show us where it can be found.  It's an unusual strategy but I suppose it's a necessity if the smaller restaurants (and the ones on the side streets) want to compete with the main street.
After eating enough food between the three of us to feed a reasonable sized army, it was time to return.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Operation Kairu ga Kaeru (カイルが帰る) Day 6 – The Road Trip

Day 6 (Saturday) was set to be the busiest day so far – Yamashita San’s road trip. With plenty planned and a long journey ahead of us, this required a 06:00 start.  While waking up  at such ungodly hours is what I do during weekdays when I’m working, the plans we had for the day would certainly make it worthwhile.  The previous evening, Yamashita San came around and ran through the plans for the day.  Courtesy of my laptop, and HDMI cable, Kyles large screen TV and Google Maps we were able to view the route in all its glorious detail and pull up details of the various places we would go (that last one courtesy of Wikipedia, mainly).
On the morning of our grand quest I was my usual cheery self.  By that, I mean any attempts to wake me were met with comments such as “Feck Off!”.  After getting washed and dressed, I made sure to gather a few supplies for the day and we met Yamashita San in the nearby car park.  Prior to setting off, we took the step of gathering a few bottles of water from the vending machine outside the local Book Off, those who have experienced a Japanese Summer will understand why (though air having an air conditioned car made the journey more survivable).
The journey was part of the adventure, at times like these we were able to see more of the Japanese countryside.  Rice fields as far as the eye can see, the Kanto Plain is a very agricultural area.  I guess this makes perfect sense, there is very little flat land available in Japan so it makes sense that much of it would be used for agriculture.  We were told by Yamashita San that around 40% of food in Japan is grown locally, for such a small and densely populated country that’s quite an achievement.
The Kanto Plain
First stop on our quest was the beach.  Surprisingly, in the two and a half years Kyle has been working in Japan, he hasn’t been to the beach.  Seeing the coast may not seem particularly important, but I find that there is something significant about seeing the boundaries of an island nation.  Maybe it’s because I'm from an island nation, I’m not exactly sure, but it was an enjoyable sight.

Before we could head down to the beach, we first needed to find a place to park.  In this instance, we were determined to find somewhere free to park.  There was no way we were going to pay to leave the car for, what would at most be, 30 minutes or so.
While looking for places to park, we at least managed to look at a few interesting areas.  We saw houses by the beach (I imagine those would command a hefty price), what looked like abandoned houses and structures that more closely resembled modern art than houses.  I still have no idea exactly what that concrete cube was.
I don't think it's a house, some kind of government installation perhaps?
Eventually, our mission was accomplished and we could start exploring the beach.  While descending to the beach, Kyle appeared to start sinking.  Exactly how could this be happening? That wasn't even quicksand! Either way, there’s no way I'm letting Kyle live that one down any time soon.

While walking along the beach, we noticed a warning sign.  The sign warned swimmers of deep water and strong currents at the coastal defences (bringing back memories of geography lessons and long shore drift).  Kyle, ever the English teacher, pointed out numerous grammatical mistakes in the sign.
Grammar Lesson From Kyle
The next stop on the journey was the Kashima Shrine (Kashima Jingu – Jingu as it has a connection to the imperial household).  The city is Kashima (Ibaraki Prefecture) I have to say is an especially beautiful city.

Yamashita San was able to arrange a tour of the shrine with a guide who was able to speak some English.  For some of the more complex details that she was unable to translate, Yamashita San was able to help out with translation.  It was certainly a very informative experience.  Besides the great amount we were able to learn, the grounds were absolutely beautiful.  I’d say quite similar to the Meiji Shrine.

No rest for the wicked, next stop was a mini Edo style village.  Although most of the buildings were modern in construction, it was interesting to see the style they were constructed in.

While wandering around, we found a small museum dedicated to Ino Tadataka.  He, in 1785, began using western astronomy (which he learned at the age of 52) to begin a process of mapping Japan until his death in 1818.  Surveying continued after his death, producing a map in 1829.  Seeing a comparison of his map and a modern map was quite amazing, there were only relatively minor errors in his map, a considerable achievement for someone with no access to GPS and other modern technologies (a sextant and maths were the only tools available).  That was certainly worth the 500 Yen price of admission.
After the Edo village, it was time to head back to Misato.  This wasn’t the end of the day or the adventure, we had plans to meet Yamashita San at a local fireworks festival (by local, I mean in Matsudo).  It was incredible the number of people who were attending, the train station was certainly not a pleasant place to be (hot, humid and crowded) and it didn’t help the Kyle and I arrived early (embracing the Japanese concept of never being late).
The Fireworks Festival Is A Very Popular Event
After some initial difficulties in communication (don’t you love cellphones?) we rendezvoused with Yamashita San and followed the crowd to view the fireworks.  Compared with the fireworks I've seen at school and in Roundhay park, these were in another league altogether! In the distance, we caught glimpses of similar fireworks festivals organised in other cities.  Hanabi are indeed popular in Japan!

The fireworks, in total, lasted almost two hours. At the conclusion of an incredible spectacle, it was time to part ways.  As Kyle and I were still a little hungry, we decided to get food at the traditional restaurant in Misato before heading home.

Many thanks to Yamashita San for an absolutely amazing day!

Monday 4 August 2014

Operation Kairu ga Kaeru (カイルが帰る) Day 5 – The Asakusa Man

This day started off with a lie in.  During this trip I’ve tried to avoid wasting too much time in this way but with a busy few days it’s become an occasional necessity.  My original plan was to spend a second morning in Akihabara then meet Kyle in Asakusa.  Since I was feeling particularly tired, I skipped the first part of the plan and head out to Asakusa after an extended sleep.
The Asakusa district is one of the places in Tokyo I love to visit.  Rehashing what I’ve written in the blog for previous trips, its streets are a winding maze leading to the Sensou-ji temple and a nice marketplace.

I had two objectives when visiting Asakusa this trip.  The first was to find a set of wedding dolls for my cousin who is getting married shortly after the UK.  The second was to replace the worlds unluckiest charm.  The first August I visited Kyle (back in 2012), he bought me a purple omamori from the temple.  Part of the reason for this is that it’s a Buddhist temple so the omamori has a Buddhist swastika on it (Kyle, as you already know, has a warped sense of humour). I carried it with me until the August of the following year(2013) when it fell out of my jacket pocket when I put my jacket in to the overhead storage locker on the plane (that must have confused the crew when it turned up!).  During that trip I visited Asakusa again so I decided to buy a replacement.  About a month after my return to the UK, I had that omamori in my bag at work.  The omamori was subsequently destroyed when a fire broke out at work.  At that point I did start to wonder if this was an “unlucky charm”, but I’m probably just being paranoid.  As for the second objective, my plan was to look for a few different styles of wedding doll.  I’d previously bought kokeshi dolls (wooden) for friends who were getting married so I thought I’d go for a different style if possible.
After the market, Kyle and I decided to explore a little more of Asakusa.  We eventually decided that this wasn’t such a good idea as the days weather forecast could easily be confused with that of Hell.  We clearly needed to get indoors.  With that, we decided to return to train station and head back.  That wasn’t the end of the day’s expedition.  On the way back we decided to explore Kita-Senju, another station on the Tsukuba Express line.  Kita-Senju is two stops away from Asakusa (in the direction of Tsukuba) and was therefore part of our journey back to Misato (well via Minami-Nagareyama) anyway.  It should also be noted that Kita-Senju is in Tokyo Prefecture but outside of the Tokyo Ward (the metropolitan area of Tokyo).
Arriving in Kita-Senju, we decided to check out the large shopping centre next to the station.  Before exploring many floors of shopping (the centre is 9 floors) we headed to the food court on the 9th floor as neither of us had had lunch and our stomachs were starting to become a serious noise violation.  As is the theme of most trips to Japan, I was insistent on having Ramen (despite Kyle’s groans).  After a particularly good ramen, I’d have to say nicer than the ramen in Misato, Kyle grudgingly conceded that ramen was indeed a good idea.
Tasty Ramen!
With our stomachs full (and sufficiently fuelled) we set about exploring the assorted floors of shops.  One of the floors had a Tokyu Hands store, providing me with the perfect opportunity to stock up on stationary.  The stich line notebooks available in Japan (they have little spaces along each horizontal line, breaking up lines in to “cells”) are very useful for writing up notes in Japanese class as they provide the right amount of horizontal space when writing Kanji/Hiragana/Katakana.  In addition to this, B5 format notebooks are popular in Japan and I find these to be the right balance between A4 and A5.  They are more convenient than A4 but offer more space than A5.  I also took the opportunity to get a new 0.3mm mechanical pencil (I haven’t seen them at stationary shops in the UK for a while but I have a massive box of 0,3 lead) and some folder cases for A5 notebooks.
After we’d browsed enough, we decided to have a look at the rooftop garden.  I don’t exactly have a head for heights but the views were spectacular and it was nice to visit such a peaceful space.
The Rooftop Garden - With Mandatory View Of The Sky Tree

With our exploration of Kita-Senju complete, it was time to return to Misato where Yamashita San was coming round later in the evening. Yamashita San had kindly offered to drive us to some of the outlying areas we can’t normally visit so we needed to work out the details of the plan in the evening.  As Yamashita San was offering us to much help, it was only fair that I supply the beer for the evening.  Having a laptop with an HDMI port proved very useful as we were able to check the route and destinations (via google maps) on the big television.  Unfortunately, using it to show Yamashita San our hometown of Bradford made the poor man despair.

Tomorrow – road trip!