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!

Operation Kairu ga Kaeru (カイルが帰る) Day 4 – Figures for All

Being as indispensable as ever, Kyle had been called in to work and would be indisposed for most of the morning.  This wasn’t an issue as I had been hoping to check out Akihabara (and pick up a few new figures for my collection) so this seemed like the perfect opportunity.  The plan was that I would go to Akihabara during the morning, then meet up with Kyle when he had finished work.  I knew Kyle wouldn’t be in work for long so I decided to set off early so I could maximise my time.  After leaving the apartment around half 8, I arrived in Akihabara at around 9.
At that point I realised the flaw in my plan.  Most of the shops open later than someone in the UK would normally expect, many of them opening around 10 or 11 (but closing much later).  With few other options, I opted to turn the situation to my advantage and took the opportunity to do a little recon.  In previous years I’ve sometimes had difficulty locating the figure shop I normally use.  This time round, finding the shop was relatively straightforward (found it within five minutes of leaving the station) and noted the Manseibashi police station as a landmark as this was close the main junction.
The Figure Shop I've Used Previously
Having already found the place I was looking for and walked around the area, it was still only 09:30 and I had some time to kill before the shop opened so I clearly needed something to do.  The morning heat was already building up and I knew I had to get indoors and get something cold to drink before I melted.  Having reached the plaza surrounding the UDX building (you can see it if you leave the JR Akihabara station from the exit next to “Gundam Café”) I decided to give Excelsior Caffe a try.  At times like this I’m grateful that my Katakana is improving and even more grateful that I was carrying my trusty smartphone.  Even in airplane mode, the Obenkyo application helped to fill in any gaps in Katakana words that I couldn’t quite figure out.  For those who are not familiar with Katakana, it’s a writing system used for foreign words.  Since coffee shops have almost the entire menu in Katakana, it’s pretty useful to know.
With a little stumbling I was able to order an iced coffee drink and enjoyed the nice, air conditioned, surroundings until I was sure the shops would be open.  Iced coffee drinks are very popular in Japan in summer and I can confirm that they’re much more refreshing than hot coffee.
With the Hobby Figure open for business, I set about choosing some figures to add to my collection.  One thing I was taking in to account was that I have a Revoltech Sheriff Woody “creepy woody” (do a search for “hentai woody” on google and you’ll see what I mean) figure on preorder – so I’d need some figures that I can make it look like he’s harassing.  I'm going to have a lot of fun ruining peoples memories of Toy Story with this!
This is why the figure is sometimes called "Creepy Woody"
After much deliberating (and cursing my lack of suitcase space – even with two suitcases on the way home) I opted for a figure of Leafa from Sword Art Online and a Nendoroid of Hachikuji from the Monogatari series.
Leafa From Sword Art Online (2nd arc)

Hachikuji from Monogatari

With a little time to spare before meeting Kyle, I decided to do a little more exploration and check a few more shops (and pick up a few more goodies). This was close to midday, the time I usually try to avoid being outdoors.  In Akihabara, I found there was a significant advantage to this time.  At the hottest and brightest point in the day, only the hardiest maids dared venture outdoors.  The end result – I only saw a single maid. You see, I’ve been asked before if I don’t like cute maids.  The answer is that getting pestered to visit maid cafes does get very old, very fast (although I will admit that the initial novelty is part of Akihabara).  Among the tokens and trinkets I picked up, one I was particularly happy with was a Sword Art Online “Immortal Object” flag T-Shirt.  This time I had the good sense to order a Large size – the Medium sized Evangelion shirts I picked up last time are just a little on the small side (though they are a good motivator to lose weight at least)
With everything I wanted to check in Akihabara sorted, it was time to meet Kyle at Akihabara station.  Upon meeting Kyle, a surprise was revealed.  Kyle was with Sato Sensei (from his previous school)  and she had kindly offered to show us around our choice of museum in Ueno.  Before heading out to Ueno, the three of us got some lunch (this was especially good news for me as I’d been on my feet all morning so I was looking forward to food).  The plan was to go to Sato Sensei’s favourite sushi restaurant (in Akihabara).  It was already known that I’m not a particularly big sushi fan but the restaurant also had a choice of hot and cold soba (buckwheat) noodle dishes.  I opted for a hot noodle dish, Kyle and Sato opted for an assortment of sushi.  Over lunch we chatted and discussed the differences between the education systems in the UK and Japan.
With our hunger abated we departed for Ueno.  The museum we opted for was the National Museum of Science and Nature.  We chose this as there was a special exhibition of fossils of prehistoric Japanese mammals.  This is something for which there is very little documentation/material available outside of Japan so it was a great opportunity to see a very rare sight.  The museum didn’t have many English translations available, so Sato Sensei’s translations of exhibit notes were much appreciated.
National Museum of Science and Nature
The fossils showed various, now extinct, mammals including elephants.  It was quite amazing to see how the elephants had changed in the time since Japan separated from mainland Asia.  Part of the exhibit included a model of how this process is believed to have happened.  From what I was able to gather, much of it involved changes in the sea level.
Some of the Fossils on Display
Among the many exhibits in the main area of the museum, there was an exhibit showing how modern humans evolved.  This exhibit showed mannequins/models of an early man and woman.  These models were… shall we say… anatomically correct.  Being adults with an interest in science and learning, the three of us thought nothing of this.  After walking away, we heard a kid yell “Oppai”.  I knew I’d heard this word before, unless I was mistaken it was “boobs”.  So I asked Kyle “did he just say what I think he said?”, before Kyle could answer we once again heard “oppai, oppai”.  None of us could keep a straight face at this point.
After absorbing so much information that our heads were at risk of exploding, we headed over to the museum café for a coffee and a snack.  This being Japan, the deserts were in cute shapes and I couldn’t resist the panda parfait.

Following an enjoyable museum tour, we thanked Sato Sensai and parted ways, with Kyle and staying to have a look around Ueno park.
Compared with Yoyogi park, which Kyle and I visited when we were staying in Shibuya, I can safely say that I prefer Ueno park.  This is, of course, a subjective opinion so do try to visit both.
Ueno Park
There’s also a shrine in Ueno park, so it provided a perfect opportunity for Kyle to add another shrine to the list of (400 or so) shrines he’s visited since he first stepped foot in Japan.  I found that shrine to be a particularly interesting one as there was a line of Torrii… what is the plural of Torii?  Anyway, I found it to be an interesting feature.
What's the Plural of Torii?
By the time we had finished looking around the shrine, we could tell it was going to get dark soon so we thought it would be safer to head back to familiar territory.  I should note that this wasn’t because we were afraid of crime or anything like that, it was simply that the area wasn’t familiar so could be problematic for Kyle.  Since we were attempting to cram as many activities in to the day as possible, we headed back to Akihabara.
While in Akihabara we made a rather sad discovery.  Kyle suggested that I buy an artbook from the “Panty and Stocking” series and that K-Books would be a good place to buy it.  K-Books is a well known bookshop in Akihabara that offers the usual manga and artbooks along with a wide selection of doujinshi (fan made comics).  The sad news is that we found that K-Books was nowhere to be found.  The 2 floors of the building it occupied were vacant.  There was no sign suggesting they had moved.  Could this be the shape of things to come?  I’ve heard that the “New Akiba” is trying to shake off the image of the otaku haven.  It does make me worry that Akihabara will become just another shopping district.
To console ourselves, Kyle took me to his favourite curry restaurant where I was introduced to “Home Run” curry.  This is the curry equivalent of “The Works” for pizza.
More Curry Than I Can Eat!
With that, we decided it was time to head back to Misato.  Leaving it until around 22:00 meant that the Tsukuba Express was at it's busiest, the same applied to the Musashino line as well.
It was a long day but I got to see some great sights and try great food.  See you later folks.

Friday 1 August 2014

Operation Kairu ga Kaeru (カイルが帰る) Day 3 - A B and feck Ive lost my passport

Following the usual mornings awakening, provided heavy traffic (seriously, why did Kyle have to get an apartment right next to the main road through Misato?), it was time to settle in to the usual routing of fighting over the shower followed by finding a secluded place to get dressed, it was time to make plans for the day.  For this particular day, the plan was to visit Omiya – a city known for its restaurants, festivals (matsuri) and red light district (how Kyle knew this, I do not know and did not ask).
After gathering together most of the things we needed for the days expedition, I went to look for my shoulder bag/messenger bag.  After a few minutes of not finding it I started to get annoyed.  After a few more minutes fear gave way to panic.  I couldn’t find my bag.  I stored my passport in the front compartment as I needed to keep it with me at all times.  Oh s*&#!  Loss of passport is one of those nightmare scenarios that no traveller ever hopes to face.  It was time to build up a mental map (which means it’s one of those fancy, holographic, ones with expensive looking effects).  Where was the last place I saw it?  Was it the Apartment? I couldn’t remember 100% whether I had it there or not.  Was it the Ramen restaurant? I remembered not just having my bag, I remembered where I put it down and even in what way I picked it back up again.  Where else was left? The 7 11! Reconstructing the scene from my memories, I remembered putting it down when paying for my purchases, but not picking it back up again.  That must be it!
The day was particularly hot, making the trek to the 7 11 that much more arduous.  Would it be there? Would I have to call in assistance from the embassy? Arriving at the 7 11, I relied on Kyle to explain to the best of his abilities.  After managing to explain more or less that I’d lost a bag, they produced a bag that looked identical to the one I was looking for.  Was this it?  I nervously checked the front compartment and… there it was.  After thanking the staff and adding 私はとてもばかです! (I really am an idiot) we headed back.  As we already had everything we needed and would therefore be able head on out, next stop was Misato station.  An important lesstion had been learned, always keep your passport on your person! (that’s it, I don’t think I can call myself a seasoned traveller anymore)
The journey to Omiya isn’t particularly short but involves transferring at one of the busiest stations in the area – Minami Uruwa.  The route involved taking the Musashino Line to Minami-Uruwa, then changing to the Tohoku line for the rest of the journey to Omiya.
Upon our arrival at Omiya, we saw that a Mikoshi was being prepared.  This could only mean one thing – preparations were being made for a matsuri (the Mikoshi allows a shrine’s Kami to be present at the Matsuri, well it’s not quite that simple but it’s as good an explanation as any).  Given that Kyle can’t get enough of Matsuri, he made enquiries about the dates and noted them in his calendar.
Preparing the Mikoshi
With Kyle’s hunger for Matsuri satisfied, it was time to satisfy my hunger for food.  We surveyed some of the many restaurants available and I noticed that not all of the establishments offered… food.  Yep, the red light district was right next to the restaurant district.  Well, I guess that’s… efficient?
Eventually we settled on a Ramen restaurant, as I only had shiro (soy based broth) ramen and was hoping to get tonkotsu (pork bone broth)  ramen while I was in Japan.  Tonkotsu is pretty much impossible to find in the UK, real tonkotsu broth involves slowly simmering bones to get as much flavour as possible out of them.  Once you’ve had real tonkotso, nothing else compares!
Anyway, we decided on a small restaurant and ventured in.  Studying the menu, it looked familiar.  We managed to pick a restaurant from the exact same chain as the one we went to last night in Misato!
After finishing enough food to feed an army (2 sides and ramen – that’s it, I’m not letting Kyle take care of the ordering again!), we began our journey to the major shrine in the area.
Not exactly what I was expecting to see after seeing a street filled with restaurants - no, I did not go in
An interesting thing about this shrine is that the path leading to it has a row off trees on either side.  On a particularly hot and bright day, the shade this added was a lifesaver!

The shrine was situated in the middle of the park so it was a particularly beautiful location.  The shrine buildings were beautiful, as I would normally expect, but with all the preparations for the upcoming matsuri there were a lot of vehicles and machinery.  This diminished the beauty of the setting somewhat.
The setting for the shrine
The main shrine buildings

The high temperature of the day had obviously taken its toll on Kyle.  He was feeling hot headed and not his usual bombastic self.  Kyle almost fainted on a few occasions, I’m not sure which was scarier: Kyle fainting or the possibility of me being crushed as a result.  Given this situation, I recommended that we should head back to Misato to get some rest.
See you all next time.