Friday, February 25, 2011

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

she said:

We've been spoiled by the simplicity of using the Tokyo Metro system.

Getting from Tokyo to Kyoto was straight forward enough, via Nozomi (fastest) Shinkansen (bullet train). We bought our tickets at Tokyo station with just enough time to find the right train platform, and as you please, we were off.

Kyoto Station though, is a huge building with access to rail (local and ongoing), its own smaller metro system, and several different categories of bus line. We knew we needed to catch a bus to our accommodation, but unfortunately not which one, or at which stop we'd need to get off.

he said:

The city of Kyoto is surrounded by hills on three sides and the station is meant to be an artificial fourth hill side.  The station is intriguing. It's designed to simulate the walk down a mountain pass for people who just got off of their train.  Conceptually, I loved it.  you can see a lot of the skyline of the city as you leave your platform, but practically, with a 22 kilo pack on my back, I have strong (read negative) feelings for the architect.

she said:

After turning in circles trying to follow the many different signs for buses we were approached by one of the stations "tourist helpers" who provided us with maps of the area and various bus/metro systems. He took a look at our destination address, bobbed his head, and said "ahh, city bus, very hard, very hard, follow me."

He then took us on a trek from one end of the station to the other, stopping at the bus station office to make sure we got the correct day passes and to check schedules, and left us at our bus stop with clear instructions on how and where to make our transfers. Then before you could say Arigato, he was off to help the next lost wanderer.

So Thank You:
To the city of Kyoto for having such a great network for travellers (including a very thorough international visitors office which we visited later), and for hiring people like the one who found us. Otherwise we might still be walking in circles around Kyoto station.

He said:

This guy was actually a volunteer.  Which reminded me of what my grandfather always said,
"If you're going to do something you might as well get paid for it."
You could tell that this guy was getting a huge amount of satisfaction, not from money, but still a payment of sorts.  He had all sorts of pins on his messenger bag from here and there.  I was able to chat with him a bit and it seemed like he had visited quite a few places including Toronto, Niagra falls, and some places in Europe.  I really wish we had something to give him but the only gifts we brought were post cards and at the time everything was tightly packed away on our backs.

If i was going to rate my top 5 modes of transportation starting with the most favourable it would be: train, boat, airplane, car, bus.  Our bus ride reminded me exactly why bus is at the bottom of the list and after that ride I'm considering bumping animal up from the sixth spot.

On the bus I experienced some sensory overload.  There was no English, not even the  phonetic English written underneath which was standard in Tokyo.  It was packed shoulder to shoulder, or in our case shoulder to mid-section, and it was smelly.  On top of all that the trip was like wrestling a (pedo) bear. 

Maybe it was the driver or maybe it was the traffic but whatever the cause we were constantly stopping abruptly for seemingly no reason at all, would jerk enough for everyone to stumble, and then resume.  Furthermore, the whole bus seemed to be shaking from side to side (which I didn't even know was possible on a four wheeled vehicle).  Once we got off the bus I noticed that the bus had a manual transmission, and here I was thinking we had a driver in training or something. 

she said:

Once off the bus it took us some time to get oriented. We walked, unfortunately, in the wrong direction for quite a ways before deciding we hadn't seen any buildings that looked even remotely like the picture we had of our accommodation.

Luckily we did have an address which we were able to pronounce in passable japanese, though each person we asked would tell us "two signals and left" and point us back in the direction from which we'd come. Eventually this brought us back to the stop where we'd originally disembarked, and low and behold, the building we'd been looking for was ahead and around a corner.

Hello Kyoto, and hello bed.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tokyo Drift

he said:

We started touring Tokyo with an informal theme. Our main interests during the day were gardens, temples, shrines, and other places dependent on daylight and normal hours of operation.

she said:

At one of the shrines, Meiji Jingu, we were able to see some of the traditions belonging to Shinto.
"Shinto is called Japan's ancient original religion… [it] has no founder, no holy book, and not even the concept of religious conversation, but values for example harmony with nature and virtues such as "Magokoro (sincere heart)".
- Meiji Jingu Guide Pamphlet, "Magokoro", Dec 2010 - Feb 2011
Traditional wedding in progress. Before praying it is customary to rinse
the hands and mouth with water using bamboo dippers.
People write out their prayers on small scrolls or votive tablets made of wood
which they leave at the shrine.

Please let this prayer come true:

he said: 

These historical environments tend to be frequented by a serious crowd and without realizing it we were only encountering a limited sampling of the population. Based on this sampling I came to the conclusion: the most obvious difference between me and the people in Tokyo (aside from being rude, tall, white, and having light colored eyes) is the dress.

You see, I've been kicking around in my one pair of jeans, my smelly sneakers, a single tee shirt and my orange pull over - Thank You Mom! - for the past 4 or 5 days. All of which have accumulated some dirt spots from garden roaming, soup droplets from the ramen and udon slurping, and whatever else I manage to gather in my track of being a slob. Everyone we've seen here is generally dressed very plainly and professionally; slacks and shirts with a large black overcoat, generally black shoes and a lack of extra details such as cuffs, hem lines, buttons, etc. Until yesterday, I think we had pointed out only a half dozen people who had any sort of colored accessory. The green and orange jackets we brought made us hard to miss in any crowd...

Stumbling across Takeshita-Dori was like the first eruption of fireworks on the Fourth.

she said:

After the austerity of the shrines and temples, and the sea of black tan and gray we'd seen thus far, Takeshita-Dori was bursting with life. And we were no longer outrageously dressed.

But even though our colour choices, height, and features, make us stick out, people here generally ignore us. Sometimes on the trains I think I see someone glancing our way (or even taking a picture with their phone), but they're always too quick to catch, and it's impossible to tell from their (non) reaction whether that is actually the case.

In Takeshita-Dori, though, the same conservative Japanese who've carefully ignored us, stare openly at the brightly dressed teenagers, who in turn stare openly at us. When a group of girls in school uniforms caught me taking a picture of what I can only describe as Japanese Beetlejuice, they giggled and pointed. Maybe because they wished they had a picture, or maybe at me for being a silly tourist. Either way, I got the picture, and I am a silly tourist, so it's kinda of nice to be recognized as such.

Hello Japanese Beetlejuice and Rabitt/Donkey Mannequins:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Finding (and Grinding) Nemo

he said:

Before coming to Tokyo I was expecting a bustling city with lots of lights and people walking the streets at all hours of the day and night. I've heard claims that this is one of the most crowded cities on the planet. People say first impressions are everything and I was thinking " Please let there be more and let us see it."

We arrived to Narita International Airport approximately twelve hours after leaving LAX. Factoring the dateline and all of that timezone jibber-jabber it was about 17:00 local time. We took some time to orient ourselves and purchased our train tickets. After an uneventful train ride to Ueno Station we made the transfer from the train system to the Metro. Here's where I started to be confused. Once on the metro there were some people but it was by no means packed up like sardines. After the short subway ride we disembark and the streets were empty; think 28 days later. There's few street signs, not much in terms of cars and an even less impressive showing from street lamps.

But that was last night...
What does all that have to do with the horrible butcher-fication of a beloved animated character? I'll leave a more detailed description to my lovely photographer.

she said:

When a first night's sleep proved elusive we decided to get an early start. Since the guide book described it as the place for early risers we hopped on the Tokyo Metro and found our way to the Tsukiji Fish Market. We followed the smell through loading areas while avoiding motorized vehicles which looked like oil barrels attached to carts.

Thank You to the drivers for avoiding us as well.

Eventually, we found the fish. And once we had it seemed amazing that we could have ever wondered where to look, because the stalls never seemed to stop...

Next stop was Ebisu Market, where we'd heard the food was cheap and delicious. But we'd forgotten that it was more of a lunch and dinner hang out, and arrived to a ghost town.  With no food to be found there at 8 am, we moved on to an area called Rappongi Hills, where we took in some outdoor sculptures, napped in the sun, and visited the Mori Tower Observation deck and Art Gallery. On display: Phantom Limb by Odani Motohiko.

After making our way back to the hostel we went out on foot to find Senso Temple and Asaka Shrine. We found them and realized the camera was out of batteries after being left in the on position, so a return trip is called for. In the meantime we took in a completely different side of Tokyo and got ourselves some Sushi before calling it a night.

he said: 

We'd walked a mere six or seven blocks to get to Sensoji Temple. But what a change. This was exactly what I had imagined Tokyo would be. Good thing too, I was about to demand a refund.

she said: 

Tomorrow we'll see what else we can get to. Probably everything now that we've said hello to the incredibly efficient Tokyo Metro. The only drawback so far is that makes sounds I imagine a baby dinosaur would every time we pull into a new station. Either we're the only ones who can hear it, or just the only ones who think it's funny.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Away We Go

she said:

A lot of people put travel somewhere on their list of things to do before they die. For me, so many list items revolve around foreign destinations that I finally combined them into one complete goal: to visit at least 50 countries before my end of days.

So – with a partner in crime, our combined savings, a few good opportunities for work abroad, and 9 countries under the belt – it's time to make a serious attempt.

Please let this be a good idea.  Thank You to everyone in California who made our time here so memorable and difficult to say goodbye to. Hellooo Tokyo...

he said:

Partner in crime and co-saver here. We've had the going away party and we've just about packed our bags. We're both very nervous but not about being away or a getting around a foreign country or any of the logistical issues. Actually, I'm not sure what we're nervous about. Perhaps we've just had too much time in the past week or two to think and re-think about the trip as a whole.

So I just ask that this anticipation please subside. I want to say  thank you to all of our friends and family for their support and advice. And finally, Hellooo Tokyo...