Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Loved the Trip, But It's Good to be Home

Yes, we are home; we actually got home on Monday, June 28, but between jet lag, catching up with stuff, doing laundry, etc., this is the first time I've had to visit the blog.

Our last morning in Japan (Monday, June 28) we went with Jeff to take the boys to school. And we were able to get packing tape at the 7-11 where we parked (the school's parking lot is not available as there is construction going on). The tape is for the box of books we're checking as luggage (guide books, books we read on the trip); my suitcase was borderline overweight on the trip over, don't want that to happen again. Once we got the box taped up, we walked to the grocery store and picked up food for lunch (that we would eat on the train). There are some photos of the fish and octopus we didn't buy.

Jeff got us to the train station, our train showed up (trains are never late in Japan), and we were on our way from Mishima to Shinagawa. Once there, we found the correct platform for the Narita Express and a few minutes later our train showed up. A smooth hour later we were at Terminal 1, Narita Airport. Even the airports in Japan are quieter, cleaner, and easier to navigate. Checking in was easy (ahh, the joy of being silver elite!) which left us plenty of time to buy last minute omiyage (Japanese for gifts). Mostly we bought food (some more green tea Kit Kat bars, another box of wasabi Kit Kat bars) and water and tea for the flight.

Flight wasn't bad, a few bouncy spots. As expected, the food wasn't quite as good as on the way over. This time I watched "Lost in Translation" (not a great movie, but great scenes from Japan and very true depiction of what it's like); the first half of "Gone With the Wind" (decided it was fine to end with Scarlett declaring that she'd never go hungry again), and two more episodes of "The Big Bang Theory".

We were near the front of economy, so we were off the plane pretty quickly, which meant almost no line at immigration. Our luggage came out fairly early (Kate's suitcase was the second one out), which meant we got through Customs quickly as well. Nancy's husband Mike was waiting and helped get everything out to the car. Amazingly, we were on the NJ Turnpike heading home within 40 minutes of landing.

We wound up going to Nancy's parents' house for a welcome home BBQ. Tuesday morning was breakfast with Mike's mom, followed by lots of laundry. Kate and her cat headed home to Virginia Wednesday morning.

Here are photos from our last morning in Mishima and a few photos of stuff I brought home from Japan. The glass items came from Kurashiki, as did the mobile and the little cat pitcher.

It was a great trip -- Japan is a beautiful place. Kate and I agreed there are still many parts of it we need to explore, but not for a while. Next trip we do together will be someplace else (we're thinking about Vancouver). But for now, we're tired of airplanes, hotels, and crowds. It's good to be home.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Rain's Not a Problem, but a Monsoon? Day 13 in Japan

It was our last full day in Japan and the plans were to do something fun and see some new things. Yuko had a trip planned to the Hakone region. It's about one-half hour from Mishima (at least the start of the area) and has museums, a lake, hot springs, boat rides, and other things to see and do. It was cloudy when we left the apartment but as we climbed the road into the mountains it got foggier and foggier, making it hard to see the road. And then it started to rain. By the time we got to our first stop, Hakone Sekisho, the Hakone checkpoint, it was pouring and the wind was blowing. It wasn't really a monsoon, but it sure felt like one.

The Hakone Sekisho was built by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1619 as one of 53 checkpoints throughout Japan. This was during the Edo Period (Edo was the original name of Tokyo). The Hakone checkpoint was considered to be the biggest and most important one. The primary purpose of the checkpoints were to control arms entering Edo and women attempting to leave Edo. This checkpoint, known for its strictness, was primarily responsible for keeping women from escaping from Edo. My photos include restored areas of the checkpoint (complete with rain and mist) and at least one misty photo of the lake. Our next stop was for lunch at a very nice restaurant, La Terrazza (Life Art Museum, Italian Restaurant, Select Shop, Book Store). Here the pizza was much more authentic, although some of the toppings and some of the descriptions were a little odd (see the photos). And the order of fried zucchini had no resemblance to what we're used to -- it was done tempura style and included two small fish (again, see the photo). The pizzas were good (and I even got to have anchovies!)

We headed back to Mishima, as the wind was blowing even harder and the rain was pouring down -- not a day to explore gardens or lookout points. The roads were still very foggy, until we got through the mountains. Once we were back on the outskirts of Mishima, the rain stopped, except for a drizzle, the fog was gone, and the weather was nice.

Kate and I walked to the train station and made our reservations for tomorrow (Monday) for the Shinkansen from Mishima to Shinagawa and then the Narita Express back to the airport. It was, as usual, amusing as the two clerks helping us professed little knowledge of English (although they do take it throughout high school). The male clerk carefully went over our tickets with us, in Japanese, including the times (the tickets do have English letters and Roman numerals, so we knew they were correct). This caused even the female clerk to look amused as she knew we didn't understand him.

Back at the house, I read Hewitt two Little Bear stories and we read a Frog and Toad story together,alternating pages (these were the two books we have Hewitt for his birthday). I also got to read Hewitt and Jonah one Little Bear and two Frog and Toad stories for bedtime. Jeff made us another delicious dinner and we had birthday cake for dessert. We've started packing and are looking forward to our last morning in Japan.

Here are the day 13 photos.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Happy Birthday, Hewitt -- Day 12 in Japan

Yuko was off fairly early for her special Saturday morning classes. We were going to visit the park and do some food shopping but it started to rain so Jeff ran out and got some necessities for the party. We spent the rest of the morning tidying up and, once Yuko got back, decorating with crepe paper streamers. Snack/lunch was rice with seasoning and Japanese pickles. Meanwhile Jeff made the birthday cake. I brought a chocolate cake mix, birthday candles (including a 6), and decorating gel. Japanese kitchens don't usually have an oven; Jeff has a microwave/oven combo but also has a Rival Roaster Oven (purchased to cook his Thanksgiving turkey). He used that to bake the cake.

Guests were a little late to arrive as there was traffic but everyone was there by 2:30 pm. Yuko's mother, sister, and 12-year old niece came (they all live together; her father, brother-in-law, and nephew didn't join us). A friend of Yuko's (she also teaches English) also came, with her husband and two children (3 and 5 years old). Jeff made lasagna and Japanese pizza was ordered (I'm not going to try and explain it, look at the photo). Then we had the cake (see the photos) and some Japanese desserts. And finally it was time to open presents. We gave Hewitt some Legos (a big box of people and a set to make a gas station) and two books (the complete Frog & Toad stories and the complete Little Bear stories). He also got two different remote control cars (plus Jonah got one, which they promptly swapped), a new pair of sneakers, and a brand new bicycle (a present from his Japanese grandparents).

The children had great fun running everyone over with the remote control cars. Eventually the guests left and an attempt was made to calm the boys down, get them showered, into pajamas, and into bed. Yuko, Kate, and Nancy went out for a light supper to an Okonomiyaki restaurant about a block from the house. It's a very small place with a large "table" with a hot griddle in the center and stools around it. First the owner (a very nice women from Hiroshima who moved to this area 14 years ago to be with her daughter) shreds half a cabbage. Then she ladles a very thin layer of pancake batter on the griddle, laying the cabbage on top. After seasoning the cabbage, she lays some meat (probably bacon) over it. Using two turners, she flips the whole thing over. She heats some soba noodles (buckwheat) and lays the cabbage mixture on top of them. Next she breaks an egg on the griddle, flattens it, allows it to cook a little, and then flips the cabbage mixture on to it. She flips the whole thing again, adds some sauce on the top, and then cuts it in quarters. We each got two quarters (after they were sprinkled with nori (shredded sea weed, at home it would have been parsley). There are photos of each step. This is the Hiroshima version, other versions don't use noodles and add other things. In some restaurants, you get to cook it yourself -- thank goodness we didn't, I've never be able to flip them without making a real mess.

The boys may finally be going to sleep (sugar high and party excitement). In the distance we can hear drumming -- Yuko tells us there is a festival soon and the drummers are rehearsing.

Here are the photos from day 12.

Tomorrow is our last full day in Japan -- we are going to the Hakone area, a resort area in the mountains about an hour away.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Heading Back to Mishima, with a Last Look at Kurashiki, Day 11

We started at the breakfast buffet again. A gentleman behind me asked where we were from, he's from Winnipeg, Canada. He's with a tour, although he and his family arrived in Tokyo early so they could go to Tokyo Disneyland. After this they only need to go to the newly opened Hong Kong Disney and they'll have been to all of them. We head upstairs, pack, check e-mail, and go check-out. Of course we get our morning dose of TV -- news, children's shows, etc. The announcers are ecstatic telling about Japan's win at the World Cup and advancement to the next round.

The hotel happily watches our luggage while we set out for a last look around Kurashiki. Behind the hotel across the street is the Ohashi House, built in 1796. It belonged to a very well-to-do rice merchant and is actually built in the style of a samurai house, a great honor for the Ohashi family. There is a tape that tells about the house, in Japanese, of course. So one of the ladies carefully explains some things in English (along with the sheet in English in the brochure). We take off our shoes so we can wander around the rooms of the house. It is very impressive. There is a lovely garden that can be seen from various parts of the house. The warehouse area is now a small museum with various artifacts. There are lots of photos.

It's a gray day, which at least means it's not as hot. We stop in one of the shops and find the elusive glass shop finally. Turns out it was near the beginning but because there was no glass in the front, we'd missed it. Besides buying a few things, I was able to take photos of some of the lovely and colorful pieces. By the time we leave it's started raining, but, as the guide book explains, this only adds to Kurashiki's tranquility. A family (grandparents, parents, and small child) are getting ready for a boat ride on the canal. The boat people give them lettuce to feed the swans, who oblige by coming right up to the boat.

Then it back to the hotel to get our luggage and a quick walk to the train station. We get the local to Okayama. We're surprised by the group of school girls (high school) who get in and chatter the whole trip. Not sure if they got a half day or what, but there were also a lot of school children at the Okayama station. We buy obento boxes and find the track for the Shinkansen heading to Tokyo (it is the Hikari Superexpress). This is about a 3-1/2 hour trip. At the Kyoto station, there are again lots of school children heading back to Tokyo. We notice the schedule shows the train as being "out-of-service" but for a group. Kate says she can't imagine schools in the US using trains to go on field trips (Amtrak anyone?) We were able to get seats in the unreserved car with no trouble, as Okayama was the start of the trip, but after stopping in Kyoto, the car is quite full. The Shinkansen is the next to the fastest train. The fastest is the Nozomi -- when they pass our train we shake; if you're standing on a train platform and one whizzes by, you really feel it. We're traveling with JR Rail Passes, which aren't good on the Nozumi, so we'll have to settle for traveling at about 120 mph, instead of the top speed of the Nozomi of 187 mph (300 kmph).

At every station there are large parking lots (or even, as in Kurashiki, parking garages) for bicycles. Bicycles are used for going to school, going to work, going to the store. Everyone rides from children to older folks (and don't ever get in the way of a little old lady on a bike -- she'll run you over). In addition to baskets, child seats, and umbrella holders, many women have "hand protectors" that go over the ends of the handlebars.

I took a lot of photos from the train. As we went through Shizuoka (capital of the prefecture and the stop before Mishima), we could faintly see Mt. Fuji through the haze. Unfortunately it didn't come out in the photos. Jeff and the boys did meet us at the station and drove us back to the apartment. Dinner was cooked by Jeff and was recognizable (fried fish fillets, potato pancakes, salad, and yellow watermelon for dessert). Yuko, Jonah, and I walked across the street to a Japanese sweet shop and brought home a variety of treats.

And here are today's photos.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Market Town of Many Charms, Day 10 in Japan

Today was a quiet day in Kurashiki. The Frommer Guide book, in addition to calling it a "market town of many charms", says "If I were to select the most pictureque town in Japan, Kurashiki would certainly be a top contender". There is a willow-fringed canal that runs through the historic district. In the 17th century, Kurashiki prospered as a market town, in particular in the rice industry. Large granaries/warehouses were built, using a black and white design. Today many of these old buildings house museums, galleries, restaurants, and shops.

We visited the Ohara Museum of Art which includes both western and Japanese art. Ohara Magosabutto, a successful businessman, founded the museum in 1930. He provided the funding for a Japanese artist to go to Europe and purchase beautiful examples of art. Although we couldn't take photos in the museum itself, you'll see in and around it (including the pond of water lilies). In addition to the Western art work (Matisse, Picasso, Warhol, Chagall, etc., etc.) there were folk crafts, and also ancient Chinese art from prehistoric (the neolithic) times to around the Tang Dynasty (600 to 900 AD). Amazing to think of works of art that are that old.

We purchased mats and coasters made of igusa (rush grass), a local specialty, textile items, and other fun things. One shop was everything cats (and dogs), including having two real cats. The CD playing was cats & dogs doing Christmas Carols -- even worse than Alvin & the Chipmunks. Lunch was at the Kiyutel, where they grill steak and seafood (see the photo). After more wandering through various arcades, we went back to the hotel for a rest. Early evening we went back to wander by the canal and find a place to eat. We wound up at a restaurant out of the historic district, down a flight of stairs. It featured sushi, sashimi, and "sets" -- lots of small dishes of various seafood related things. We both got the Kurashiki Gosen, which you will see from the photos had lots of things, some of them strange. There was a pond and fish tanks in the center of the restaurant, which is where dinner came from (we think if we had ordered the octopus-themed Gosen, they would have taken one of the octopus from its tank).

We couldn't find any World Cup highlights on tv but did watch some interesting cooking shows. This morning (I'm writing this Friday morning) the country is deliriousl6y happy as Japan won their game and advanced. At breakfast this morning we met a man from Winnipeg (Canada) who's here with a tour group. We're going to stroll a little bit more in Kurashiki and then take the local train to Okayama where we'll get the shinkansen back to Mishima. Jeff and the boys will pick us up on the way home from school.

Here are the day 10 photos.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

From One "Palace" to Another, Day 9 (Wed., 6/23) in Japan

After another nice breakfast buffet (check out Kate's "hush" brown potatoes), we did a short walk, passing a nearby temple, the local police station, and a few other sights. Many people commute via bike -- you say them in their regular business clothes, no bike helmets. When it rains they either bike while holding their umbrella or they use an umbrella clamp on the bike. Bike seats for children are either on the front or back of the bike. The best is watching ladies in lovely dresses with heels riding their bikes.

We checked out of the hotel but had them hold our luggage. The concierge gave us a bus map and explained which buses go to Nijo Castle. This is where the shogun had his seat of power, rivaling the Emperor, whose Imperial Palace was nearby. (This is when Kyoto was the capital of Japan.) Along with many schoolchildren, we arrived at the castle. The castle actually contains two palaces: the main one (a national treasure) is Ninomaru Palace (originally built in 1603), the Inner Palace is Honmaru Palace (originally built in 1626, although various parts burned down and it was replaced by a part of the Katsura Imperial Palace which was built in 1893). We were allowed to tour the main palace (having placed our shoes in cubbies), but no photos were allowed. This palace has "nightingale floors" -- the shogun was very concerned about being caught unaware, so the floor boards creak (or sing) when you walk on them. The palaces are surrounded by gardens and moats (see the photos).

After taking the bus back to our hotel and reclaiming our luggage, we re-entered the train station, bought bento box lunches,and found the track for the Shinkansen heading to Okayama. Apparently many school children came to Kyoto this week -- it looked like there was going to be a train just for them heading back to Tokyo. You'll see photos from the train including apartment buildings and rice paddies. In Okayama we changed for the local express train going to Kurashiki station. We walked the few blocks to our hotel, where we stayed last year. Much to our amazement, we are in a suite. We think much of the hotel is taken up by a business conference (the dining room was full in the evening with businessmen listening to a lecture). We have a living room and bed room with a tv in between that swivels so you can watch from the sofa or bed. Then there is a little hallway with the toilet room on the left and the bathroom (tub, shower, counter) on the right. In Japanese homes there is often a separation of the toilet and the bathing facilities (when we're back in Mishima, I'll show you Jeff & Yuko's apartment), but I'd never seen it in a hotel before.

We did a brief stroll through Kurashiki (photos will be included in day 10), picked up dinner at the Family Mart, and settled in for some World Cup review. We did go to sleep before the US game started. Another oddity in this room (which we did encounter last year in some of the hotels), the key card goes into a slot just inside the room. This turns on the power for the room, lights, a/c, etc. This way they make sure you turn everything off when you leave the room.

Here are Day 10 Photos.

Catching Up, Days 7 and 8 in Japan

When we were last heard from, it was Sunday and we were in Mishima. It's actually now Wednesday evening -- we left Mishima for Kyoto on Monday evening, spent Tuesday in Uji and Kyoto, spent Wednesday morning in Kyoto, and we're now in Kurashiki. In this blog, I'll cover Monday and Tuesday.

Monday, June 21, Day 7

The week begins and everyone is up early -- Yuko leaves around 7:30 am to go to the high school where she teaches English. She takes a 15-minute commuter train ride and then rides her bicycle from the station to the school. Jeff usually drives the boys to school around 8:30 am. This is Hewitt's second year in a Japanese nursery school, Jonah just started going to school last month. This morning Nancy and Kate go along to drop them off -- great exitement at school to see more Americans.

Back to the apartment and then we walk into Mishima. We visit the local shrine and see other sights within the city. Then it's back to the apartment to get the car so we can drive to the mall. Lunch is at Mos Burger -- the Japanese chain trying to rival McDonalds. Interesting burger and glass of iced green tea. We look at various shops in the mall -- in the photos you'll see a display of Fire King mugs (not even Jadeite) for about $50 each! At the foreign goods store we see a variety of things we take for granted at extraordinary prices (you'll see them in the photos). Then the regular food store where there are familiar and strange things. And finally we stop at Mr. Donut (check out the green tea cream-filled donuts). Then it's back to school to pick up the boys -- Hewitt's classmates were happy to pose for a photo. Jeff made us a very Japanese dinner -- minced magura (tuna) over rice with Japanese pickles (some made by Yuko's mom), tofu, and Jeff's home-made Japanese omelet. And then it's off to the train station to catch the shinkansen to Kyoto.

We are staying at the Hotel Glanvia (where we stayed last year). It is located above the Kyoto train station and is considered a luxury hotel -- it is lovely. We have a "bell boy" walk us and our suitcase to our room (good thing, the room is quite far from the elevator, for which he apologized profusely). We stay up watching World Cup. In tomorrow's photos you will see the greeting when we first turned on the tv -- very impressive. Day 7 photos.

Tuesday, June 22, Day 8

We sleep late, 8:30 am, a combination of staying up late, having the full curtains shut so we're not woken by the light at 4:30 am, and sleeping on real (and very comfortable) beds rather than futons. The hotel is very proud of its new shower facilities. You will see it in the photos. We managed to master the use of the shower. Showers are not in the bathtubs (though sometimes there is a hand-held faucet in the tub). The shower had a shower head, a hand-held faucet, and "body nozzles" along the pole. There was also a small stool and bowl, so you could sit and wash off before entering the tub (bath tubs are for soaking, not for washing). Then it was down to the breakfast buffet -- a fascinating mix of Japanese, other Asian, and "western" food.

We took the train to Uji, about 20 minutes southeast of Kyoto. In ancient times it flourished as a crossroad that connected Nara and Kyoto over the Uji River. It is also a big tea-growing area. As we walked along the road towards the Byodoin Temple (also known as the Phoenix Temple and pictured on the 10 yen coin), there were many shops featuring green tea and things made from green tea. We bought some tea and some green tea Kit Kat bars. Because we visited the Byodin Temple last year, we didn't go in but strolled along the river. We went to the Taiho-an, Uji City Municipal Tea Ceremony House. After buying tickets, Nancy got to hit the gong to let them know we were there. We of course took off our shoes and sat on the tatami mat watching a lovely older woman prepare the tea. First the bowl is warmed with hot water, then the powdered tea (known as matcha) is put in the bowl, hot water is added, and it is mixed with a bamboo whisk until it's frothy. We each had a bowl of tea and a small jelly-like sweet.

We continued along the river, crossing a bridge to an island in the center where there is a stone pagoda. Although the river was calm between the island and the western bank, on the eastern side the river runs much stronger. We found a large cage of cormorants on the eastern side. They are used for fishing (there are some photos showing posters about this). We stopped at two shrines, the smaller Uji Shrine and the larger (and World Heritage Site) Ujigami Shrine. Note also in the photos some of the houses along the way. Our last stop on the eastern side was at the Tale of Genji Museum. Wikipedia tells us that the Tale of Genji "is a classic work of Japanese literature attributed to the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the early eleventh century, around the peak of the Heian period. It is sometimes called the world's first novel . . . ." The story consisted of 54 chapters, with the last 10 chapters taking place in and around Uji.

Then it was back across the bridge. We had a lunch at a lovely restaurant on the third floor of a building right by the bridge. We at overlooking the river. And talk about trusting -- we were given a slip of paper showing what we'd ordered which we had to take down to the cashier on the first floor. No one was there, so we had to push the bell button to summon someone so we could pay. Then it was back on the train to Kyoto. We did walk around a little bit in the evening (you'll see photos of the Kyoto Tower lit up).

Photos for Day 8

Tomorrow (Wednesday, June 23, Day 9, we'll spend the morning in Kyoto and then off to Kurashiki.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ahh, to be Royalty and Live by the Sea; Day 6 in Japan

We slept fairly well on our futons (Nancy had a foam pad under hers so it felt almost like a very firm bed, but on the floor). Jeff made us a wonderful breakfast of pancakes with fresh fruit -- bananas, kiwi, and strawberries (ichigo). The boys and Kate also had yogurt -- aloe vera flavored.

We drove to the Numazu Imperial Villa -- the former summer home of the Imperial family. In the photos you will see various rooms of the house, the garden, a museum with fishing items from the past, and the overlook of the bay. The sea breeze was lovely. From there we drove across the Kakita River to Numazu Port. There is a huge structure which is the sluice gate across the mouth of the Nakita River and the observatory. Unfortunately it was very cloudy (with a little rain), so the views from the observatory were limited.

We saw the warehouse where the fish are brought in and auctioned off. Lunch was at a sushi restaurant above the warehouse. Nancy ordered the daily special -- never has she had so many eyes looking back at her during a meal. The two large shrimp weren't so bad (although raw); it was the very tiny shrimp and fish that were a little disconcerting. Nancy traded Kate a few pieces of her raw fish (sashimi) for her tempura shrimp. We then wandered through the market where there were many fish related items as well as a booth specializing in tea and other specialty booths. I won't spoil the surprise of what flavor sorbet Kate had -- you'll have tolook at the photos.

We did have a few melt-downs -- Hewitt wasn't pleased with the choice of restaurant (he's not that fond of fish) and Jonah really needed a nap but instead cried much of the way home. Once home Jeff & Yuko worked on dinner (a delicious Japanese curry). Jeff, Nancy, & Kate walked to the food store to pick up a few things (those photos will be included in tomorrow's exploration of Mishima). The onions and potatoes in the dinner came from Yuko's father's garden plot.

And now for the photos.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Going for the Gold -- Chasing the Olympic Dream in Nagano, Day 5 in Japan

Today's food adventure started at breakfast; the poor waitress at the breakfast buffet wanted the meal coupons we didn't have. Eventually we figured out we could charge it to our room. Checking out of the hotel was easy as the desk clerk spoke great English. As usual with Japanese hotels, they were happy to watch our luggage while we went out.

Back at the train station we were directed to the correct bus stop to wait for bus number 8 which would take us to M Wave, originally the speedskating venue at the Nagano Olympics. It's now used as a skating rink during the winter and as a general purpose arena the rest of the year. It does, however, have an Olympic museum and gift shop. Kate loves the Olympics, winter more than summer as she is an ice skater. She has been visiting Olympic cities/sites around the world and this would be another one for her list.

It's a very impressive building, as you'll see in the photos. The museum has photos and various things from the Olympics (uniforms, medals, bobsled, etc.) as well as things from the Paraolympics. And the gift shop not only had things from the Nagano Olympics (pins, shirts, towels) but also stuff from the more recent Olympics and the current World Cup. Kate did leave a few things for other people to buy.

After retrieving our luggage, it was back to the train station where we were able to change our reservations to an earlier train. We took the Nagano Shinkansen back to Tokyo Station and then found the Shinkansen that would take us to Mishima.

About an hour later we were in Mishima where our friend Jeff and his younger son, Jonah (3-1/2 years old) met us. We walked to their apartment. A little later Yuko (Jeff's wife) and their older son, Hewitt (almost 6 years old) came back from the dentist. [For those who haven't heard this story before, Kate went to college with Jeff who then met Yuko in grad school. They lived in the US for a few years, went back to Japan for two years (where Hewitt was born), and Kate visited them twice. Then they came back to the US for about 2-1/2 years, where Jonah was born. Then they moved back to Japan.]

Dinner was at a cook you own restaurant -- we grilled beef, chicken, and veggies on a grill in the center of the table. Back at the apartment, our futons were set up (photos of those later).

Here are the photos from Day 5. We're getting ready to go see some sights around Mishima.

Friday, June 18, 2010

It is the Rainy Season, Day 4 in Japan

Up early this morning, a quick breakfast (things we picked up the day before at the 7-11), check out, and to the train station. We take the shinkansen to Tokyo Station where we change to the Nagano Shinkansen. It's about 1-1/2 hours to Nagano and only a few blocks walk to the Holiday Inn Express. The hotel was built for the 1998 Winter Olympics, so it is new but it's typically Japanese, small rooms, etc.

We set out for lunch, another food adventure as we windup at the top floor cafe at a department store. It is sort of an Italian cafe where we only semi-understand the menu. This means we wind up with three separate meals instead of two, which turned out to be okay. Nancy thought she was ordering a combo meal of a salad and spaghetti with a tomato veggie sauce while Kate ordered a casserole thing with cheese and mushrooms. After a very long wait two large bowls arrived -- salad over spaghetti and the tomato veggie sauce over spaghetti, both served cold. The casserole, however was nice and hot, cheese, mushrooms, cream sauce over rice.

We walked to Zenkoji Temple, a 1,400 year old Buddhist temple. The street leading to the temple is lined with interesting shops. We also passed a Ryoken, the older style Japanese inn; we were amused to see it had free WiFi. After only spitting, the rain became heavier (not to worry, we had our umbrellas). We did a little shopping on the way back including omiyage (gifts for friends).

Dinner came from the nearby Lawson's (like a 7-11) and included soba noodles, a specialty in this area as the buckwheat is grown in the mountains. We're watching World Cup again. This morning, as we watched Argentina vs. South Korea, I asked Kate if it was yesterday, today, or tomorrow -- with all of the time differences it's hard to tell.

Tomorrow we go visit the Olympic museum, torch, etc., and then it's back on the shinkansen to Tokyo and then a different shinkansen to our friends' apartment in Mishima.

Here are today's photos.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

It's the Heat & the Humidity, Day 3 in Japan

It is officially the rainy season in Japan. Of course today it didn't rain -- it was just sunny, very humid, and hot. Many Japanese ladies were still carrying umbrellas to keep off the sun; some Japanese men carry fans; lots of people carried small towels to wipe their faces.

We headed off fairly early to visit the Imperial Palace area. We didn't actually get to see the palace, it's only open to the public on Dec. 23 and Jan. 2. There are several moats (complete with swans). We did get to wander the Eastern Garden where we saw old guardhouses, the moats, flowers, and other things you'll see in the photos. We tried to stay in the shade as much as possible. We also visited the National Craft Gallery, they have many things but only a few on display. Lunch was in the food court area in a shopping mall within an office building. We visited a smoothie shop (there's a photo); I had a lychee lemonade smoothie, neither of us had any of the smoothies with kale.

Back at the hotel we chilled in the a/c, watched some World Cup, and rested for an evening adventure. We took the train to Shimbasan station to take the monorail to Odaiba. This is an area built on landfill in the Tokyo Harbor. There's housing (apartment buildings), shops, restaurants, entertainment (ferris wheel, movies, etc.), and even a small beach. Also the Tokyo Statue of Liberty (yes, we have photos). Dinner was at a sushi restaurant. Did I mention they don't have daylight savings time here? So it does get dark fairly early.

This morning we're off to Nagano. We have to go to Tokyo Station to get the Shinkansen.

And here are the photos.

(I was too tired to write last night -- getting this finished before we leave for the train station.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Have Some More Soybeans, or Day 2, Eating in Tokyo

We actually slept until about 7:30 am, we might be adjusting to the new time zone. Then is was off to breakfast where Nancy learned to look at the photos more closely before pointing (she got beef instead of chicken). Then we boarded the train and headed to Ueno-koen (koen means park).

Ueno-koen was the first public park in Japan and one of Tokyo's largest. There are many museums, temples and shrines, and a large pond (Shinobazu Pond). We started by finding the pond, much of which is covered with lotus plants. On a small artificial island in the center is a small temple. The fish in the boating pond seemed ready to pull us in. We saw several other temples, watched an interesting magic show (there were a number of "street" performers), found a totem pole erected by the Lions Club of Tokyo, and found a monument to General Ulysses Simpson Grant (he and his wife visited Japan after he was president and planted some trees in the park). We were amazed at the number of homeless people sleeping on the park benches and the "camp" they'd constructed with blue tarps near the Grant monument.

There are several museums in the park -- we chose the Tokyo National Museum. Two stories with lots of interesting Japanese arts and objects (you'll see some in the photos). When we finished in the museum gift shop, it was 1:30 and time for lunch. We decided to head back into the park to find the restaurant we'd seen earlier. Initially everything was written in Japanese, but they were able to give us a menu with English. After taking off our shoes we were led to a nice table overlooking the park. We chose two different lunch sets -- Nancy's turned out to have four parts (didn't think there was going to be a 3rd). Our poor server kept trying to tell us what she was bringing but the only thing that really came out in English was soy beans. Many of the parts of our lunch (including the tea) were made with soy beans, lots of different types of tofu (and we weren't supposed to eat the green leaf wrapped around part of the dessert, we sort of knew but luckily the server showed us how to unwrap it). She never was able to explain the little dish on our table with the number 602 on it. Turns out we had to bring it to the front to the cashier, were she figured out the bill, and they retrieved our shoes from their cubbyholes.

We got back on the train and headed to a station that Kate thought was relatively close to Roppongi Hills, a major shopping and entertainment center. It was farther than we thought (part of it up steep hills). And although the rain did clear, it was hot and humid. We did make it, wandered around a little, and then took the subway back to the train station where we caught the train back to Shinigawa. We have JR rail passes which give us unlimited rides on the JR trains (but not the subway).

Dinner was again purchased at the food market under the train station. As there is a little fridge in our room, we now have enough leftovers for tomorrow's dinner. Tonight's tv included World Cup soccer, some baseball, and the very hilarious Beverly Hills 90210 dubbed in Japanese.

And here are the photos.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Arriving in Japan

It's a little like following Alice down the rabbit hole -- you get on the plane in Newark, NJ, the plane takes off around 11 am on Monday, you fly and fly, the plane lands, and it's Tuesday afternoon at Narita Airport (about an hour from Tokyo). As usual, I took several naps during the 13-1/2 hour flight. We were served lunch (for Monday), a "midnight" snack, and breakfast/lunch (for Tuesday). I watched two movies -- Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" (delightful!) and "Up in the Air" (really, really good plus George Clooney being adorable) -- and two episodes each of two tv shows (30 Rock and The Big Bang Theory), read a book and a magazine, and got up and walked numerous times. One of the tricks I learned from Kate was to have control of the aisle.

We took the Narita Express to Shinigawa, location of a big train station; our hotel is right across the street. Along the way we saw many rice paddies and other small farm plots. After checking in and dumping our stuff in our room, we went back across the street to the food market that is under the train station. We bought various sushi, pickles, noodles, yakitori, and iced green tea to eat in our room. In an attempt to stay up relatively late we were going for a walk, but it is raining. Japan doesn't do daylight savings, so it gets dark early, by 7:30 pm; it also gets light very early.

Here are photos from today. Tomorrow I will try to sound more awake (and coherent). To make things interesting, Google keeps giving me the Blog page in Japanese.