Alan Taylor -- November 2005 - Tokyo Disneyland (Offiste)
I love how a trip like this comes together! You sort through so many options, and then one day it just gels.
This trip was on-again, off-again for several years. Last year a coworker went and loved the country. She said flat-out: "Go for 3 weeks."
Okay, easy for HER to say that. She's very clever and managed to snag free airfare.
That airline promotion is long-gone, and for me, well let's just say I signed my bank account over to the airline. I get custody back some time next year.
So I was looking at some of the parts of Japan I wanted to visit. "That looks nice." "Ooh, this place looks like fun." Then I added it up, and it came to about 5 grand. No, no way.
I almost gave up on the idea, and then I tried scaling it back to the bare minimum: 5 nites in Tokyo in a really cheap hotel, do a few days at Disney, get a quick tour of the city, and come home. This I could afford.
So then it was a matter of expanding it a little, to the point where the trip seemed more worthwhile. Here's how it ended up: 12 nites of hotels in all, and they are "middle path" (neither extreme of cheap nor expensive; think Sheraton).
I'll start in Tokyo, for 5 nights. Day trips to Disney.
Then 5 nights in Kyoto (everyone's second city, the first time they visit Japan), doing some day trips from there by train. Then back to Tokyo for 2 nights.
One night I was flipping back and forth between Hotels.com and tripadvisor.com. Get a listing, read the description, switch over to read the reviews, back to check on availability, look at photos, check reviews, etc. Faster and faster and faster until it was all a blur ... it became a Perfect Storm of internet information and the answers appeared:
Shinjuku New City Hotel in one of the entertainment districts of Tokyo for 5 nites, about $150 per. Hotel Royal Kyoto for 5 nites, about $125 per. Then a splurge for my last 2 nights in Tokyo, at the fabulous New Otani for about $240 per. All booked very simply thru Hotels.com.
Traveling solo, a guy in his forties, armed with a sense of adventure, and let's see if we can manage with the language barrier and everything.
And I'm off!
Day 1: Wednesday, November 2, 2005:
Empire State Building to Tokyo Tower
The car service had a Russian driver to start my Japan trip. I got to the airport in plenty of time for the noon flight, and changed some money. I'll be using a hybrid money form in this report. Japanese Yen are basically pennies. The exchange rate is a little more favorable for Americans, so you might get 100 Yen with, say, 94 pennies. I'm just going to pretend the rate is exactly 1 Yen = 1 Penny.
Then I'm going to quote things in dollars, so I might say "you buy a $1.30 train ticket." This is more relevant than saying a $1.22 train ticket, because when you get there you will buy a $1.30, only without the decimal point, i.e, you'll buy a 130 Yen ticket.
This is honestly the way I thought about money - I never really thought in Yen, only in dollars. A bottle of water is listed on the vending machine as 120 - okay, that's $1.20 to me.
My flight was on Japan Air Lines - might as well start with a themed ride! What I discovered is that when you step on that plane, you're basically in Japan. It is a reasonably bilingual part of Japan, with the most important information being given both ways. However, most of the printed materials are in Japanese, so if you want reading material, bring it along. Fortunately there is a mini-TV on the seat back.
The staff speak "tourist English" and are very professional and helpful - it's just that, given the language barrier, you will notice the Japanese customers are having a little more substantial transactions with the staff. I think this is reasonable to expect.
Now this is a 13 hour flight going from New York over western Canada and Alaska. You go through many time zones and pass the International Dateline, which isn't one of those internet scams, it has something to do with time zones. You do a Twilight Zone flight where you take off at noon on Wednesday and land at 4 pm on Thursday in Japan!
Now to put those 13 hours in perspective, it's enough time to watch Airport, Airport 1975, Airport '77, Airplane!, Passenger 57, Red Eye, and Flightplan in one sitting. Of course if you did that, you'd never get on another plane, and you'd have to book passage on a boat home!
I did find the time of the trip to be a pain. It's an AWFULLY long time to be just sitting there. Of course you must get up every so often and exercise. This was tricky for me in my window seat, because the person next to me was Mr. Iron Bladder who didn't move, I swear, for about the first 7 hours of the flight. So I always had to excuse myself over him and his mother, both Japanese, to get out.
The best way to think about it is that it's not a flight, it's a day. And you break the day into chunks. Now I'm reading, now I'm watching a movie. Now I'm going for a walk and a bathroom break. Now I'm watching a different movie. Now I'm eating dinner, now I'm listening to classical music ... And the individual activities are pretty pleasant, so you just have to be very patient and focus on whatever you're doing at the time.
The food was above-average for an airplane, and it was real meals plus snacks. They've mastered the art of serving food and drinks at the same time. I wish they'd give JetBlue a seminar on this.
I found the seatback entertainment system very useful, because I'd brought little reading material. Some of the films were in Japanese, so this was my first chance to see how well my language study had gone. Unfortunately I understood very little of it, because people were talking so fast and not asking "Where is the train station?" It was even movies I knew, War of the Worlds and Batman Begins for example. So this didn't bode well for my understanding of ride dialog later. Cinderella Man was in English, so I enjoyed that.
Every so often they would show little videos on the master screen up front. One of them suggested exercises you could do, little neck rolls, hand movements, dancing your feet around, etc. They omitted the most relevant one, which would be standing at the side of the plane, pounding your fists against the wall and screaming "LET ME OUT OF HERE! I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE!"
Eventually, 9 hours into the flight, Mr. College Graduate in the window seat figures out that the remote has a "LANG" button which switches a program to English. "OH..."
Well that's better. Also, the announcements are bilingual. The staff gives you your food choices in English.
So we land, and honestly it was a little amazing, to think that this huge machine lifts off, then stays aloft for 13 hours, then just touches down on the other side of the world. It really is pretty profound.
I did a little "Ja - Pan!" as I put my 2 feet on the tarmac, happy not so much to be in Japan as to be ANYWHERE BUT ON AN AIRPLANE.
From the airport I took the Narita Express train to Tokyo Station and on to Shinjuku Station. You have to "reserve" this train ($26), but you often can do so about a half hour before the train leaves.
I saw this as a slightly better choice than the Limousine Bus which is about the same cost. Gotta come to terms with these trains at some point.
Arriving at the platform, you see the first evidence of the Tokyo train system. Spaces are marked out on the platform for various trains, and various cars in those trains. Everything is VERY orderly. The train was pretty nice, not too crowded at this early evening hour. Tokyo seems to be a city with a lot of neon, neon that moves. It's quite Vegas-y in spots.
Now Shinjuku station is THE BUSIEST TRAIN STATION IN THE WORLD. I step out and it just seems like complete chaos. The station seems to have more sides than are possible in geometry. It's beautiful and dazzling, an explosion of color and light. People are moving in a million directions at once, and I really have no idea of where to go. I have a map but it's buried somewhere in my luggage. And with blurry eyes after a 13 hour flight and another hour or so in the airport and another hour on the express train, I'm really not in a mood to dig through my stuff.
So I ask a cabdriver if he knows the hotel. He doesn't. Then I ask another. Same story. What is this, I thought this was a relatively small district? Anyway, here's where it really became interesting.
A young guy, maybe 20, overheard this, and stepped in to see if he could offer some help. His English was so-so. And he was with 3 friends, who didn't seem to be as interested in getting involved but allowed him some leeway.
Anyway, he offered to help me try to find the place on foot, so off we went. Now he broke off from his 3 friends to help me, and we walked for maybe 6 or 7 minutes all around this crooked station, and he presented me with a building and did the international "Voila!" body language.
Only problem was, it wasn't the right hotel. It was like, CityView Hotel or something. I needed New City Hotel. So I communicated this to him, and he didn't know what to do. Then he pulled out his cell phone and contacted someone I could talk to in English. Now there was a great commotion all around, and I could barely hear the guy on the phone. I really couldn't make any headway, and told them both this. So we hung up, and at this point out of desperation I said "chizu" (map) and spent about 5 minutes searching through my luggage (honestly I had a bad reaction to the dry air on the plane, and staring at a little TV screen so much - my eyes were stinging and I could barely see). I eventually found the map and we were able to locate the hotel - it's right near Shinjuku Central Park or Shinjuku Chuo Park (which is the same thing). He said in effect, "Ah yes." And then he walked with me for another 6 or 7 minutes - remember he's broken off from his group to do this - and we arrived at a better part of the station, and he was able to communicate to a cabdriver where to take me.
Now in America at this point, I'd be thinking about paying the guy something. However, I knew from research that in Japan they don't want tips and are even insulted if you try to suggest one.
You think I'm being cheap; this is really the system, I didn't want to offend someone on my first night in Tokyo. So I just thanked the guy profusely and got into the cab. It was just a minimum fare, $6.60, and there we were at Shinjuku New City Hotel.
I checked in, and went up to my room overlooking the park. Nice room, I'm happy to see a decent amount of space. Hotels.com rates this place 2 1/2 stars, and I agree. There are 2 twin beds. Bathroom is fine, and it's clean and quiet here. It's basic rather than luxury; it suits my needs.
The service at this hotel is terrific, and the location is fine. It turns out to be a pleasant 15 minute walk from the station - or you can take a shuttle bus. And they have a very nice English-friendly restaurant.
I unpacked, showered, etc., and my head was still spinning from the treatment I received from that young guy. You hear stuff like that all the time about Japan, but when it actually happens to you, it's still a surprise.
I went down and had my first Japan meal in the hotel restaurant: spaghetti with clams and a spicy soy sauce flavoring - quite delicious. This plus ice cream was $19. Had first experience with the "no tipping" rule in restaurants. This is tricky, especially when the service is good. I wanted some kind of flashing sign in 5-foot high letters to tell me "No tipping. Really. It's the culture. It's true. Everything you've read is true. Just leave without tipping, it's okay, really."
Anyway I went over to the front desk to confirm this, because it really is awkward the first time. He laughed and confirmed it. I pre-paid for tomorrow's breakfast buffet, $14. He tells ME my 4-digit room number! This is good to know; if I forget my room number I can always check at the front desk. Also if I forget my name.
I didn't actually see Tokyo Tower yet.
Day 2, Friday
"Ii otenki, des'ne?" (Nice weather, isn't it?)
It's a beautiful day for a trip to Disney! I specifically targeted November as a month with relatively little rainfall. And, though you tend to think of Tokyo as being in that New York - Boston - Detroit kind of belt, it's actually about 7 - 10 degrees warmer (thank you www.weather.com).
It's a crisp 55 degrees and sunny as I step out, and it feels like it'll warm up some. My clothing for this trip is all based on layers. I have a white T-shirt plus a "Henley" (heavy weight T-shirt a little more formal, perfect for "dress casual" and a great all-around shirt, I live in 'em).
Around the waist, I have a cotton sweater. And in the backpack, a sweatshirt.
Still it's a little chilly, and I debate going back to the hotel room and bringing the parka. If need be, I can presumably locker it.
Being alone, you don't have to debate with others. The only danger is if you self-debate, and I did this, literally going back and forth over the same block 3 or 4 times. I finally decided, "time's wastin', stay with what you have." So I headed on to Shinjuku station.
Incidentally, the breakfast buffet was quite good, mostly Western food with a few Japanese items you could try to spice it up a little.
As I'm walking to the station through the "skyscraper" (i.e, business) district, commuters are coming in the other direction. They're like New York office workers, but more consistent in their dress of gray suits. They don't look very happy about starting the work day. Again like New York.
Arriving at Shinjuku, this station can certainly be intimidating for a newcomer. I have to figure out the ticketing system (all the pre-trip info I received still left me pretty in the dark) and find the right train. Fortunately I find another non-local (they're easy to spot) and they help me out. They even give me a $1.30 ticket "on the house." They have a British accent, maybe Australian.
Well thanks, mate.
As for riding the Tokyo trains, here's what it comes down to, for a newbie.
First, find a fellow Anglo.
OK, failing that, first find the train machine as opposed to the subway. Press on the machine "English" (if you can find it; and if not, it isn't really crucial), "JR" (Japan Rail), and put in your $1.30 in coins. (Actually the machines seem to accept bills fairly readily, unlike in the U.S. Still I'm a creature of habit and trusted coins a lot more.) Then when various numbers light up, press 130. Out pops a ticket and any change due you.
P.S. ignore the writing which says "Insert Suica card first." This doesn't mean you need a Suica card; it only means IF you have a Suica card ... Jeez, language is a tricky thing.
Go to the turnstiles and pop the ticket in the machine and retrieve it about 1.6 seconds later - just like a Disney park pass. Continue on through the turnstiles, then try to find the train going to your destination.
Hold onto that ticket. Don't even crumple it up or anything, like someone I heard once did. Just hold onto it until the end of the ride. I found it best to always put it into a specific pocket.
When you think you have the right train, verify by asking someone on it. If he nods yes, get in with the other sardines and hang on for dear life.
(I had considered taking a dedicated Disney bus instead, but decided it was better to "go with the locals" and have the full Tokyo experience.)
Now this train, Chuo line, does about 4 stops from Shinjuku to Tokyo station. Someone on the train confirmed that Tokyo Station is the last stop, and warned me that the Keiyo line to Maihama (Disney) is a 15 minute walk connection.
Inside Tokyo station, the signs directing you to the Maihama train are pretty clear. You have about 6 turns and some long straightaways, some of which utilize moving walkways. Keep following the signs to Keiyo Maihama. I believe they switch near the end to calling it "Musashino" then return to "Maihama" on the platform. There are 2 trains on that platform and I believe they both go to Maihama - but it may be possible that one of them sometimes doesn't, so it's best to confirm verbally.
The station is bright and colorful. It's not really like my conception of a train station in that there's no soaring cathedral ceiling, and you never really get a sense of what the "station" looks like. You're just in a series of hallways. However, the overall vibe is pretty pleasant. You have A LOT of company in your marathon walk.
Now you're still holding this $1.30 ticket in your pocket. Guard it with your life.
I was comforted by seeing a guy holding his son who was wearing a Pooh T-shirt. This is really the BEST method for finding a destination in a strange place. Tag along with someone you know is going there.
Expect to do a lot of standing if you take the local trains in Tokyo. I'd say I got a seat for roughly half the time I was riding.
At the end of the ride, dig out your ticket (this is a GIANT pain). Go to the manned window, don't bother with the machines in the beginning. Hand the guy your ticket and he'll tell you how much more you owe. In general he'll actually show you the amount, displayed on a hand calculator.
The other way to work this is if you buy a larger amount ticket, say $4.50. Then when you get to the end, the guy will either waive you through, or give you a slight refund in most cases.
In theory it's possible to know in advance the exact fare from point A to point B; I found it just about impossible to do this. Shinjuku to Disney was about $4.50 each way.
Now alot of this advice gets thrown out the window if you have an active Rail Pass. Then you just show your pass to the guy at both ends of the trip.
We arrive at Disney / Maihama, and as soon as you get on the platform, you can see the castle, and it's like "We're home." It just strikes a really strong chord, and it's rather amazing to be able to "commute" by train like that. By the way, the best map I saw for showing where Disney is, relative to the city, is on the official Tokyo Disney site. Navigate to Getting Here / Rail Line Map.
I had trouble communicating to a film vendor that I want a disposable camera. These are strangely hard to find around here. You can get em; you just have to hunt a bit. I walk away empty handed, and over to the ticket lines.
I decide on a 1-day pass for flexibility. The multi-day passes lock you into consecutive days, apparently.
All in all, I had arrived at the park, i.e. the ticket line, at 9:30. This was a little over an hour from my hotel. Incidentally this was a holiday weekend, because yesterday, Thursday, had been Culture Day, and I was warned just before the trip that many people would extend it to a 4-day weekend.
Now, if you're outside a Magic Kingdom park in the ticket line, at 9:30, and the park opened at 8:30, and it's a holiday weekend, do you know what you are? YOU'RE A DEAD DUCK!
Fortunately, I have a modest agenda: really if I JUST ride Pooh's Hunny Hunt and 1 or 2 other E-tickets, I'll be okay. Pooh is going down for refurbishment TOMORROW for the duration of my stay. Though I'm not really into the whole "Pooh-niverse," the out-of-sight reviews for this ride make it a must. People have used words like "psychedelic" and "hallucinatory" to describe the ride. Thus, it's been high on my to-do list.
Anyway, I only found out about this refurb about a week ago, on the official Disney site, and it totally rearranged my visit order. Now this thing better be worth it!
So I head over and I'm thinking Fast Pass. Indeed, it has Standby = 110 minutes, and Fast Pass Return of 12:30 - 1:30. Great! (really). I ask the CM where to get a Fast Pass, and she explains "35 minute wait" for FP, and points me over to the area.
I get on line for a FP (this is a new concept for me; in Florida it's never been over a minute or 2 to GET the pass). And the line seems to be barely moving. I can see the machines, but at this rate it's hard to believe 35 minutes. Still, ya gotta do what ya gotta do.
After a while, though, I realize I fell for the oldest trick in the book. This isn't the line for Fast Pass, this is the line for popcorn! Aarghh!!
So now I race around trying to find the Fast Pass line. Trouble is, it's so large, so different from my conception of a Fast Pass pickup point, I just can't make sense of it. Meanwhile the Return time has already shifted to 3 - 4 pm. This thing is a little out of control. I get on the end of this line, and something makes me think this is the line for USING your Fast Pass. So I try to ask, and here's the problem with knowing a LITTLE language. Because as soon as people would hear "Fast Pass", they would nod Yes. I found it impossible to differentiate between "wait for" Fast Pass and "have" Fast Pass (even though somewhere in my notes was the difference).
Anyway, I heard enough "Yes" or "Hai" (same thing) to get the idea these people HAD Fast Passes, so I went running around, trying to find the true line for SEEKING a Fast Pass. I was getting very worried now, the one thing most "must see" for the trip, and I was just hopelessly lost.
I soon abandoned "Eigo ga wakarimasu ka?" (Do you understand English?) and just asked the group "Does anyone here speak English?"
No response at all. CM's weren't really any better for me. Whichever way I asked about Fast Pass, they answered Yes.
Finally, I did what a logical person would do. I went to the machines, then followed the trail backwards - the LONG trail (maybe 50 to 60 yards, winding around along a path). And wound up, of course, right where I was before.
But at least I knew this was the right spot, and clearly they hadn't cut off distribution yet, so I was very relieved. Also the line moved nicely. God help me if I ever want popcorn.
Phew! Picked up Fast Pass, and it was like "Mission Accomplished!" The day is a success right there. I'd kinda blown all my options, with a return time of 4:15 to 5:15, meaning no other FP's till then.
But wait, I'm saved by the 2-hour rule. And it's nicely printed ON the FP, in English. Shortly after noon, I'll be eligible for another FP, even without riding Pooh yet.
This was a relief, as clearly the park was quite crowded. Fantasyland was just mobbed.
Anyway I head down towards the "Main Street" area, World Bazaar, seeking a Mickey waffle to hold me over while I tour Pirates, etc. And here's a time to deviate a little from the party line on the Tokyo CM's, this perfect image and all.
I asked one, outside one shop in World Bazaar, for "Mickey Waffle ... Mickey Waffle?" and just got kind of a confused shrug.
Okay, I'll walk around, how far can it be? I mean she was polite, just not very well-informed.
I walk 6 seconds, and it's staring me right in the face. Come on.
Okay, a little quibble. Maybe just a language thing.
At any rate, I soon have my Mickey waffle and here's a more significant quibble: it's lukewarm, especially with the cooling berry sauce.
Now, I really should have brought it back for reheating.
However, this would mean digging out my dictionary, looking up "hot" and "more", and bringing it to her attention. Plus I noticed the standby line for Pirates was growing before my eyes. And I still hadn't ridden a single attraction!
So I made do, gobbled it down. Coffee was very good, at least. Then I headed over to Pirates.
I found the attraction similar to Florida's, slightly longer, not really any better though, just different.
My overall first impression of the park as a whole was VERY favorable. It's uncanny how similar it is to the Florida park, with a few changes to make it interesting. It's like they put the Magic Kingdom on a silver platter and just transferred it over here and plopped it down. It's surprisingly tropical, with a good many palm trees. Then they also have a lot of soothing pines. The covering of Main Street really isn't an issue, at least on a sunny day, because it's a glass covering kinda like Crystal Pavilion. Overall the park is just really, really pretty.
When they do write English in Japan, it's often quite amusing. It's either weird nonsensical expressions, or things that do make sense but are overly specific or in some way are just different from the way we would phrase it in America.
One example: on back of a T-shirt, while waiting for Pirates: "Deliciously spends / When it is happy / When it is enjoyable with you"
Next ride was Western Railroad - nice because there's no equivalent in Florida, not really. Florida train goes all around the park, but you don't really see all that much that's specific to the ride, as I recall.
This Tokyo version is fun. Nice little AA (AudioAnimatronic) scenes of Indians, horses, etc.; then a prehistoric dinosaurs diorama, etc. Nice little ride, also weaves around near Splash Mountain.
I eventually work the 2 hour rule, picking up a Fast Pass for Splash.
In general, it was hard to pick out much of the Japanese I heard, either on the rides or coming from the CMs. There was one phrase: "onegai shimasu" ("If you please" or "Could you please," at the end of sentences). The "u" at the end is silent. (I'll have more on language tomorrow.)
This phrase stood out, because you heard it after practically everything the CMs would say. They would go rat-a-tat tat, speaking a million words a minute, ... "onegai shimasu."
It's the magical phrase that softens everything that came before it.
"Sit behind the rope, filling in all available spaces, onegai shimasu."
"You brought too few layers of clothing, you're gonna freeze, onegai shimasu."
"I'm gonna steal your dog and run away with your husband, onegai shimasu."
It did cool down quite a bit in the evening, and I was one of the people with too few layers. I bought a hot dog and cocoa, and this helped some.
A few more impressions: Space Mountain is nicely old-school: it's dark, it's fast, and not too rough. Thumbs up. In fact, one overall impression about Tokyo is that they do "dark" really well.
I quickly followed with Star Tours. Ya gotta just jam these attractions together like this, boom, boom, boom sometimes. They each give you a little different experience and you want to feel a sensory overload. I don't know if it's a new film or not, but it seemed fresh.
Lunch near Splash - rice pilaf with chicken and seafood - just okay, not very choice cuts of chicken. Seafood seemed like a mix of octopus/squid and little scallops.
Incidentally, I had tried before the trip to arrange for someone to come along and do some translation help. This is from a service that arranges "free" sightseeing guides and you just pay their food and expenses. Of three people I asked: one didn't respond; another wasn't into Disney; and the third expressed concern about doing simultaneous translation as being something disturbing to other guests (and, I think, reading between the lines, it was more than these guides bargained for).
Anyway, I realized during the day that simultaneous translation really wouldn't work. The timing would be just about impossible to do, especially with the difference in sentence structure between Japanese and English, and the fact that you're moving through the attraction. As soon as the translator finds a way to phrase it, you're on to the next scene. And in the Castle Tour attraction, anyone trying to translate would sprain their mouth.
For most of these Magic Kingdom rides that I was quite familiar with, dialog wasn't really the point anyway. The rides are mostly visual, and most of the dialog, such as it is, you can kinda figure out by observing body language and tone of voice. Well, kinda.
Daytime parade - quite fun, good music. At one point, performers invited kids from the audience to come out and dance with them. All-around good vibe. Some of these "kids" seemed pretty old, too.
Night-time parade: really quite good I suppose, it's just I think I've seen this type of parade too often by now.
Cleanliness: as advertised. Everything is immaculate, even the restrooms. This is a lost art in Florida. In fact the restrooms throughout Japan were clean. You can go into one in a train station or fast food place, without wearing a Hazardous Materials suit. Very refreshing change from the U.S. And the darn thing is, it COULD be that way here, too. It really could.
CMs: on the whole, they were helpful and amazingly energetic.
Splash Mountain: pretty much a clone from Florida. Again, very satisfying drop/splash at the end.
Crowd levels: enough to feel festive and to feel a part of a group experience. Not overwhelming, it turned out I wasn't a dead duck at all. I was able to do most of what I planned, with a late start and only minimal Fast Passing. This speaks to how well the overall park is planned and run.
Show in Tomorrowland Terrace (yay!): One Man's Dream II: here they do a nice job of blending English and Japanese, even matching the respective rhythms of the languages to the rhythms of the music. The show builds satisfyingly in that Disney way.
Haunted Mansion with "Nightmare Before Christmas" overlay: far more than an overlay, it's like the imagineers totally rethought the design of the ride, just using the same building. I must be the only person in the universe who hasn't seen the movie, but I like what I saw. This ride seems to have more of an up and down movement component, don't know if that's true or just an illusion. I fell asleep that night dreaming of pumpkins and skeletons floating through the sky.
Oh, and what about Pooh? Well it is indeed a must see. It's the one attraction in the park that's just in a totally different class from its Florida counterpart. The designers were in a very, uh, creative, mood when they planned out this ride. Anyway a great attraction, just laughing and smiles all around.
Walking around the park, especially at night, the clear impression is that pixie dust travels. Something as simple as a carousel can be just magical. You can build something according to specifications, and not really know how it will turn out. It worked out really well here.
I took the train back and walked around Shinjuku a bit. Some of the area is fun and quite entertaining; some parts are a little sleazy. It's an unusual place because it has 2 very different sections: the "nightlife" part and the "skyscraper district", as if you had Times Square and Wall Street next to each other. Frighteningly, I once again got hopelessly lost. After wandering around the huge station several times trying to find my bearings, I eventually got help from a traffic officer who pointed me in the right direction. After getting lost like that it's SO satisfying to reach your hotel, take a shower and sink into bed.
Overall impression from the first day was very positive. Walt would be proud.
Still haven't seen Tokyo Tower.
Day 3, Saturday
"Ii otenki, des'ne?" (Nice weather, isn't it?) Part II
Okay, let's talk language a bit.
Part of the idea behind this trip was to experience the Japanese culture and people, and part of that meant learning the language. At least a little.
I'm not gifted with languages. So it was with some trepidation that I undertook to learn some Japanese. Plus I didn't want it to seem too much like homework; so I only started 7 weeks before the trip.
Now every language has some aspects that are hard for a foreigner to comprehend. (This includes English. Excuse me, "ough" rhymes with "Duff"?)
Japanese has a different order of words in a sentence, compared with English. For example, the verb generally comes at the end of the sentence ... comes.
Then they have all these little "particle words" like "ga" and "o" - which don't really have direct equivalents in English.
The biggest obstacle for me was the writing. True Japanese is written with a combination of three kinds of characters: two of them represent syllables, and the third is a set of even more elaborate characters borrowed from Chinese. They are beautiful and quite intriguing. Sometimes you want to frame them, you just don't want to have to learn them!
And naturally, a Japanese child spending about 8 hours a day in school can eventually straighten it all out. But for me, I decided to completely skip the Japanese characters. Not enough time to make any headway there.
That means you're dealing with romaji. This is basically a cheat, a system of writing out the approximate sounds of Japanese using English or "Roman" letters. This turns out to be a very workable solution, albeit since it's a cheat you don't really know Japanese. In fact you pretty much can't read anything once you're over there, unless it's in English. You could be looking at a package in a food store, and the writing is all in Japanese characters. And you can't tell if it's sauerkraut or shredded octopus. This is why you have to learn the spoken part of the language, so you can say, "I want shredded octopus," and they can set you up.
Well a book caught my eye in the book store, "Japanese in 10 Minutes a Day." It has nice color pictures and seemed to be pitched right at my learning level (approximately Sesame Street but with a little more sophistication).
Having used it now for 7 weeks, I'm pretty pleased with the book. Among other things, it was fun to use. And that's a very important thing, after all. I think that "10 minutes" is in the metric system or something, because at 10 minutes a day you're barely scratching the surface.
I spent about 45 minutes a day with it, and practiced every single day for 7 weeks. And it worked out pretty well. The book is very well designed, with flashcards you can cut up, and labels you take out and attach to things in your house. So you are associating a Japanese word with a thing, not another word. I think that's a great principle for learning any language.
So I was motoring along, relentlessly doing my 3 pages a day, and about midway through it occurred to me that something was missing: the way things SOUND. Because you don't really get that from a book, and you certainly aren't exposed to the SPEED at which people talk.
Well my prayers were answered when I saw an internet ad for a method called Pimsleur. This is a totally verbal method, no written materials at all, except for a brief explanatory pamphlet.
Normally I'm skeptical of this kind of "it's so easy" method. However, the more I read about this method the more it made sense. And certainly it would complement Japanese in 45 Minutes a Day. And the introductory disks were only $20 - what could go wrong?
Eventually I picked this up at Barnes and Noble, and what a discovery! This Pimsleur method is really genius. Everything is repeated in a certain rhythm which keeps you guessing JUST enough so you don't just fall into a rut of repetition. It's very enjoyable to use too. If Japanese in 55 Minutes a Day is "Jungle Cruise" level fun, then Pimsleur is "Splash Mountain" fun! I give it my strongest recommendation to any newbie attempting a trip to Japan. It even makes the particle words more comprehensible, because when you hear them in a sing-songy tone of voice, they almost seem to follow a pattern.
If you had to pick just one of these 2, I'd go with the Pimsleur, just because it's so much more true to life in the way people actually speak. However, the vocabulary is quite a bit larger in Japanese in an Hour or So a Day - so they really work well together.
Eventually I rewrote most of Japanese in an Hour and a Quarter a Day into a booklet, organized a little differently for my purposes, and by omitting the pictures and explanations, got it down to about 60 pages. This had sections on "train vocabulary", verbs, and so forth. Towards the last few days with the trip approaching, I really drilled those verbs.
Ultimately the language study was a big help for enjoying Japan in general, even if 7 weeks is far too short to really help much with ride dialog.
The language study was one of the lasting pleasures of the trip, and I plan to use similar methods before travel to other countries.
Anyway I awoke today at 7:30, which was pretty much the pattern thruout the trip. And jet lag wasn't really a problem - I'll have more on that later.
It was another gorgeous day, and the weather forecast in the English language paper Japan Times called for "one umbrella" tomorrow. Since I was basing park days on weather, today was the day for DisneySea.
I walk over to the station, carrying one extra layer, a t-shirt. Somehow it's tricky to replicate yesterday's route to the train platform - this station has SO many entrances and train lines and whatnot. With the help of an information person, I find the platform for the Chuo line to Tokyo station.
The trains are noticeably less crowded than yesterday. For some reason, the stations seem even MORE crowded (this is Saturday).
Nice to be able to sit partway to Tokyo Station. Some critiques: 1) the signs at each station are a little hard to pick out visually. 2) The seat arrangement of benches along the sides of the train, means you're facing inward if you have a seat. Views are limited. Nice to have padded seats though, as the JR trains in Tokyo largely resemble subways in the way they function.
Something has confused me, and I think I have it straight now. You go to the platform where it's Chuo for Shinjuku, and there's not 1 track, there are 2. Me, I want it simple, I want 1 train. So I'm forever checking to make sure the train I get on is going in the right direction. Well they both are, dummy, one's local and the other express. Duh. Took me about 3 days to figure that out.
Language sometimes deserts me under pressure or fatigue. Today, in Tokyo Station, I "verified" the right train by just saying "Maihama?" while pointing down. The guy looked at me quizically, then eventually nodded his head yes.
One word, that's really lame. If I was in New York and at Wall Street, and someone came on and just said "Grand Central?" while pointing down, I'd either say "No" or think the guy was pretty dense.
(In the evening I managed "Kono densha, yuki Shinjuku?" which is pretty good, about half a Japanese sentence. It's equal to "this train, to Shinjuku?")
Anyway, we arrive at Maihama and by the way, the part where the train breaks out into daylight and you approach the bay area is quite attractive. DisneySea involves a transfer to the "Disney Resort Line" for the very cute monorail ride over from Disneyland. A lot of people moan about the $2 fare. Jeez people, you paid a grand for airfare and you're bitching about $2? And it's a VERY cute, very Disney monorail, and after all you haven't really been at Disney until you've ridden a monorail, so I happily hand over the $2.
This is a WAY simple train because it's just one direction, one loop. I almost want to give them a bonus for that.
Then we arrive at DisneySea and this is the part where your jaw drops. "Oh, look at THAT ... " were the first words out of my mouth, spoken to nobody in particular. It's just amazingly beautiful, especially at the entrance and then the "beauty" theme continues thruout the park. Parts of it recall EPCOT, parts recall Europe actually, parts recall Animal Kingdom, a few parts recall MGM. And yet the overall arrangement is unlike any other theme park.
Each land is beautiful and totally transporting and immersive.
Now I can quibble. I'm at the age where I notice "theme park rocks," "theme park 'aged' walls," etc.
On the surface detail level, I found the park a little below the hype level.
On the whole, though, when you step back and take in the overall vista, it's just amazingly well done. Mediterranean Harbor, which is "Main Street" sideways and in Italian, gets things off to a great start.
The park is substantial, yet a very manageable size. The walk around and up to Mt. Prometheus and the twin threats of 20,000 Leagues and Journey to the Center of the Earth is just dazzling as you look back over the lagoon, and you can really pretend you're in Italy.
Then INSIDE Mt. Prometheus and with Nemo's lagoon and all, is one of the few times in the English language the word "awesome" is really called for. There's amazing people-watching here too.
Then you think, well this is a really beautiful park - and then you keep walking and you get to Mermaid Lagoon and especially Arabian Coast, and your jaw drops again.
This is an absolutely first-rate park for just strolling or sitting by a fountain and hanging out. And I imagine if you had someone with you, it could be very romantic.
Now - on to the rides and here I agree with previous assessments - the rides are a bit disappointing comparatively speaking.
We start with a Fast Pass for Journey and standby for Leagues (I'll use the editorial "we" occasionally, sick of writing I, I, I).
After about 30 minutes of the 75 minute wait for Leagues, they allow me to break off into a Single Rider Line, and I'm in the sub in no time flat. I get a side view (I later read my notes and see that the front view is apparently much better). Anyway, the ride was a letdown after all the hope of being able to "resurrect" the WDW version. It just isn't as good, it's not nearly as "sea" worthy, and what you "see" is a little too new agey for my taste. Give me the old-school stuff. Anyway, this was not a total shock, because the reviews on the ride have been mixed.
So we wander away from the ride (and it wasn't just language issues, because Japanese riders seem to have that same look of "I waited 75 minutes for THAT?" on their faces).
I'm thinking "I hope it gets better."
Meanwhile I have a bonus Fast Pass for Sinbad over in Arabian Coast, so I amble over in that direction, after stopping in Italy for delicious and very Italian pastry and coffee.
Here I think language was a major issue because this ride has A LOT of talk. It's a variant on Small World but dialog-driven, not musical. You have AA figures gesticulating and you can sort of half-follow it, but not really. It's fairly colorful but again a let-down. I actually prefer the Mexico boat ride at EPCOT.
So I mosey around and hit Raging Spirits, which is Big Thunder on steroids and clearly an attempt to get more of a thrill ride element into the park. Pretty solid success here, it definitely shakes you up, mostly in a good way. My neck was a little sore after I mishandled a loop by tensing up instead of relaxing my head against the rest.
Unfortunately this distracted me for a while. Didn't really think it was injured, but just had to keep moving and twisting and testing it and like "that doesn't hurt." "that's okay, isn't it?" etc.
This distraction lasted thru the Indy Jones ride next, and I made it a point to get back later in the day and re-ride it.
Even with the distraction, the ride was enjoyable. This was my first Indy ride, and I liked it way better than Dinosaur at Animal Kingdom. This was another single-rider line (this and Raging Spirits, maybe 5 minute wait each).
Okay, continuing around the park, my Journey Fast Pass window was approaching, so I strolled back there.
I can't really tell you how big the place is, because the shape is just so unusual and you never really see an overview. All I can say is, it's satisfyingly substantial, yet it's always easy to get from A to B.
Now Journey I liked quite a lot. Again, a little new-agey and they maybe are over-using the "crystal" effect (must've bought in bulk). Still a fun ride. Similar to Test Track overall - a lot of "pretty good", then a brief flash of speed near the end. No real language issues here, which was nice. Maybe the best part about this ride is how it looks to non-riders. It's like this streak that keeps disappearing into Mt. Prometheus. And they've thoughtfully put a light on it, so you can't miss it.
Some notes on other attractions and shows:
Mystic Rhythms: very much Tarzan (Animal Kingdom) meets new agey Cirque du Soleil-ish acrobatics. When I say Cirquish I don't imply the same caliber of performance; just that they are trying for the same type of effect. Builds pretty well towards the end. Language not really an issue. 2 1/2 out of 5 jungle vines.
Mermaid Lagoon: more psychedelia here. Very cool indoor playground for the kiddies. Nice energy to the place. People of all ages head into the Little Mermaid show (Disney really likes to milk their hits, don't they?)
This one is, I think, no better or worse than Florida's, just different. Again we have a Cirque du Soleil-inspired production. This is very 3-dimensional, with much flying through the space. Singing and dialogue are maybe 80% Japanese, 20% English. It is rather funny to hear the American (?) Ariel actress break into rapid-fire Japanese. A wee bit too lip-synchy for my taste. 2 out of 5 shells.
Outside area here is very pretty, especially at night.
Encore!: Here is a rather good "Broadway medley" show in a very charming theater (in the way the American Showcase theater at EPCOT is charming). Broadway caliber song and dance, I'd say; at least, Broadway supporting players (the latter being very good indeed).
And it's in English.
Now here's an unfortunate thing. I'm a FANATIC about audience behavior being a key factor in my enjoyment of a show. I hate distractions, is what it boils down to. And it's fixed seating in that you aren't supposed to move once the show starts ("For the safety of blah blah blah ...")
Anyway, I have a kid, maybe 8, in front of me, and it's in the sharply raked balcony seats. Pre-show he seems okay, or I would have moved. But once the show starts, he starts moving almost more than the performers on stage, and it's right in my line of sight.
In situations like this back home, I will assess whether the offender seems to be crazy or Mafia, and otherwise try to encourage him to behave a little differently.
Here he clearly was no such threat, but the language barrier prevented me from even trying.
Meanwhile he was doing those "yawn" stretches where you interlace your hands above your head. He was rocking back and forth, etc. From reading his body language, it didn't seem to be a case of "I can't resist dancing along". It was just he was bored and fidgety, not into the show and desperately trying to survive the experience. I've been there (when I was 8), so I kinda knew where he was coming from. Still it was a giant pain in the butt.
Eventually I managed to find a hand position kind of cupped over the lower part of my face, which blocked him out yet allowed me to see the (paid) performers.
So I'm doing okay, getting into the show, and then the kid reaches up with a yawn stretch and STILL gets into my field of view! Which is pretty funny, in a sick sort of way.
Anyway I watched the second half of the 30-minute show with my hand cupped over my face, and it was manageable.
As for the show itself, there was a nice selection of numbers, mostly pretty traditional.
There was a bit in the middle with multiple pianos that was a marvelous piece of cheese. There was Beauty and the Beast (milk ...)
Encore! gets 3, maybe 3 1/2 out of 5 tap shoes, and if it seems I'm a little tough on these ratings, bear in mind a "5" is Fantasmic.
Nice rousing finish to the show, of course, and altogether a fun show which in the great Disney park tradition leads right into ...
BraviSEAmo!, the nightly lagoon show.
This is a thrilling success. It's like seeing IllumiNations for the first time. New stuff, even if you've seen other "water shows." This was one of the few times on these two days I was actually "zoning," to use Mike Scopa's term. Again, no real language issues. This one I would call a must see, and give it 4 1/2 out of 5 lagoons.
Stormrider: Pretty nice simulator attraction. I enjoyed the first part, just general flying effects, better than the "storm" stuff. Still, mostly a success. Pre-show has English subtitles. Rest of show is basically Japanese, but language not a big issue here.
Didn't ride: boat (too long a wait); train (wanted to, just didn't fit); Magic Lamp Theater; Aquatopia (water-based bumper cars, I think - down for renovation).
Food at DisneySea is a cut above most theme park fare. Lunch was at Chinese place inside Nemo's area - spicy shrimp entree; delicious mandarin orange cream puff for dessert.
Ended up having dinner there too, after most other places had closed. Dinner was a little less successful, bean curd with pork / dim sum sampler, beer, chocolate cake; but decent. I was in a hurry to eat and then rush over for 1 more ride on Indy.
By the way, menus thruout the parks have English listings.
Italian bakery is very good, but seriously understaffed and thus, it can be frustrating waiting to buy 1 or 2 little items.
Walking around at night there were several moments that caught me breathless, the beauty of the design really works on you after a while. Emotions build up when they hit you with that music.
Park must be rather well designed because again, I managed to see most of what I wanted despite substantial crowds and late start.
Only Fast Passed Journey, Sinbad and Storm Rider; used single rider line on Leagues, Raging Spirits and Indy.
I did manage to get one more ride on Indy (40 minute standby). Interesting experience because overall the ride was more satisfying than the Fast Passed one.
And then it was just a slow, leisurely walk out to the front of the park, and that usual heart-tugging feeling of leaving a Disney park for possibly the last time of the trip. (Actually I leave open the significant possibility of an "after 6 pm" ticket my last night. My last day's activities will depend on what I think of Tokyo per se as opposed to the Disney parks.)
Then home it was. I seriously would pay AT LEAST 20 dollars to trade places with someone and just go sleep in the Miracosta. Any takers? Come on, any?
Okay, then, back to the usual routine: monorail to the Disneyland stop. JR train back to Tokyo station. Marathon walk to the Chuo line train, train to Shinjuku, get HOPELESSLY LOST trying to walk home.
Tomorrow I SWEAR I'm gonna figure out how to not get lost here.
Overall impression of DisneySea: Walt would be pretty amazed.
Still haven't seen Tokyo Tower.
Day 4, Sunday, November 6
This day is all about down time, taking it easy and catching up on some really important stuff.
Priority 1 is to buy a compass. Priority 2 is to slowly walk all around the area, in daylight, and draw out my own very detailed maps.
I find my compass at a sporting goods store near the giant Takashimaya department store. Meanwhile I'm mapping like crazy. What I need, and what I'm getting, is landmarks. Mostly those neon signs, because road signs are annoyingly rare. And the neon has to be English; the Japanese ones are no use to me. I've already made a mental note not to use McDonald's as a landmark, because there are a gazillion Mickey D's in the Shinjuku area.
Eventually my map is very solid, and I'm fairly confident I can find my way home next time.
To give you an idea of why this has been so difficult:
There is Keio. OK, but Keio what? There's Keio Department store, and then there's Keio train line. That's the way it's set up - department store companies also run train lines.
So if you just see Keio Keio Keio you really don't know what you're looking at.
Then you might see, say, MITSUBISHI. Now this might be the corporate building, or it might be just an ad. So you have to distinguish, and you have to find things that are unique.
Meanwhile I eventually find out that there are about 4 or 5 things that are called Shinjuku Station (each involved with different train or subway lines). And the main Shinjuku station, the JR one, has a million entrances. There's East, Central East, South, New South - you think I'm making this up.
And there's West, which turns out to be ideal.
If you ever stay at this hotel, here's the skinny on getting home. If you can find the West exit, you will actually see signs pointing you towards the Skyscraper District, which is exactly what you want. There's even a covered walkway that leads just about down to the Keio Plaza hotel, which is about half way home and is a huge hotel everyone knows.
OK - barring that: find the South Exit (not to be confused with the New South Exit) and turn right. This will at least get you in the right direction.
Anyway - in the process of mapmaking, I find a Citibank (yay) and grab $300 from the ATM to hold me for a while. (Got to remember to punch in ALL the zeroes, plus recognize the Japanese symbol for yen, because that's all you get, even with the "English" option on the machine. The symbol looks a little like one of the monsters in Pac Man.)
Eventually I realize the compass is worth its weight in gold. No, it's worth MY weight in gold. Tokyo has no sense of uptown, downtown, east/west the way Manhattan does. And you rarely can see very far in any direction. My STRONGEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION is if you visit Japan, bring a compass.
Now the day is cooking, with my maps and compass.
I tackle the Takashimaya store itself, intrigued by some signs outside, advertising restaurants. This is 3 FLOORS of restaurants, mostly Japanese, some Chinese and even 1 Italian, on the top of Takashimaya. This building is comparable in size and scope to Macy's in NYC.
Now when I get up there, I realize that these 3 floors are like a food court, but with a huge difference: these aren't mere stands serving steam table food - they're a series of self-contained restaurants, casual yet pretty classy and elegant looking. They have "models" of the dishes out front so you can conceivably point to what you want. They also have prices there, about $15 - $25 for entrees.
Now the downside is I gradually notice each place has a line of people waiting to be seated. Very orderly, very Japanese "lines" of people sitting in a row of chairs outside each restaurant.
Each place seems to have 6 to 10 people waiting, and this discourages me from joining in the waiting experience, because I'm pretty hungry and impatient.
By the way I can not BELIEVE how hectic and rush-hour-y the whole area is today, a Sunday.
Anyway I remember what people have said about Japan: for cheap eats, head to the basement!
Here it wasn't so much cheap I was looking for, it was just fast.
So I head down to the basement, and find another kind of food court. This was as if you took a department store cosmetics floor, and replaced all the cosmetics with really elegant displays of food.
Lots of sushi and "lunch box sets." Some fried stuff. Lots of very elegant pastries and candies. I mean lots. And each counter was staffed by smiling young women who would beckon you over with some kind of mild sales pitch.
I was getting really lazy with language now. I know (sort of) the terms for "just a minute", "I'm deciding" "No thanks" etc. But at this point I'm pretty much just softly saying "No thanks" or "Yeah, let me look a bit" (in English) while gesturing with facial expressions etc. I don't really have to speak Japanese if I get the body language right, do I?
However, here's something that really bugs me. Consistently when I ask for something I will point and say "Ichi". That's one of the few Japanese words I use a lot - it means "one."
And they ALWAYS hold out 1 finger to confirm and say "One?" (in English). They're just not buying me as a Japanese speaker at all. Come on, give me credit for knowing one word and using it consistently. I want ICHI, dammit.
I settle on a little shrimp and broccoli and something casserole, and because it looks like it's been sitting there awhile, I ask her "atsui?" (hot)
She's sort of puzzled, but lets me touch the casserole dish. Well it's lukewarm, so I try to explain "motto atsui" (more hot) with a gesture for "please" (should've said onegai shimasu).
Anyway, with the help of a coworker they eventually realize I'd like it heated up, and pop it into a little oven for a bit.
Now - there doesn't seem to be an area for eating this basement food.
So, on the 1st floor, I ask the smiling uniformed Information lady about this. I do a pretty good Japlish sentence using terms like "I ... kaimasu (buy) ... food [point towards basement] ... doko tabemasu (where eat) ... seki (seat)"
She says, "One?"
No, I'm kidding. Actually she indicates the 12th floor, and I remember yes, there were also some loose tables out there in the middle of the other food court, so I head up there and eat my casserole. Pretty good, not really outstanding, served my purposes and way more interesting than McDonalds. Then I head back to the basement for dessert (very elegant pear and something mousse / pastry) and head outside to eat it, mindful to sit against a railing, as it's a faux pas to eat while walking in Japan, unlike the States.
And meanwhile I'm having fun just blending into part of an everyday Japanese day, observing people's mannerisms and whatnot. Nice low-key day.
After lunch, it's time to do some general-orientation type exploring on the trains.
I'm continuing a "to do" list from this morning, geared towards being able to get around Tokyo more comfortably.
Everyone talks about the Yamanote line. This is a circular route in the JR system of above-ground (and largely elevated) trains. It basically takes you on a tour of central Tokyo. It covers the major stations including Shinjuku and Tokyo, which are essentially at 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock of the circle, respectively.
Now, I've seen maps which imply the line has about 6 stops. This is bogus; it has about 30 stops, I know, I did the whole loop today.
Let me rant about maps a little. They pretty much suck, most of the ones I've seen lately anyway. They either have 6 stops where they should have 30, or they have 42 gazillion intersecting subway lines when all the mind of a newbie can process is 5 or 6. You should see these subway maps of Tokyo, or these maps which combine the subway and JR trains! They look like a Jackson Pollock painting, and the words "identifying" stations are impossible to associate with their station because they intersect about 6 subway lines each. I ended up skipping the Tokyo subway entirely, and just using the JR Chuo, Yamanote, and Keiyo lines.
The JR trains function like subways in that they are very frequent (about one every 8 minutes) and without conductors. The schedules are presented electronically on the station platforms, so you know how long your wait will be. The basic difference between JR and the subway is that the former run above-ground. And this is a million times better for my purposes, to scope out the city.
The other thing about maps is you need to see the train routes and stops superimposed over the general area map, which has marked hotels and places of interest. You need them together; two separate maps don't help much, especially when the train map looks like a plate of spaghetti.
What I needed for the subway was to see ONE line, say Marunouchi, with all the stops listed in English (romaji). And for this to be superimposed over a general city map. Then I would need a separate map with another subway line again superimposed over the city map - give me 2 or 3 of these, and maybe I could use the subways a bit.
This was essentially what I built for myself, for the JR Chuo and Yamanote lines. My big project was to complete the Yamanote loop, writing down stations, then go to my official Tokyo map which lists hotels, etc. and try to locate these stops amid the clutter, and circle them clearly.
I started writing down stops and eventually realized this train has an electronic "info center" above the doors. It lists stops and gives general info, and it keeps changing what it's showing you. Some of it is in English, but unfortunately only about 6 seconds out of every 2 minutes. So there I was, trying to scribble down these stops each time they'd appear for 6 seconds.
Meanwhile I was trying to sightsee also. It was hard doing both, especially because I had to keep watching the info screen to see when my 6 seconds of English were coming up.
It was, on the whole, preferable to copy this down from the screen rather than simply writing each one as it appeared on the station platform, because the latter were often so hard to read. You're going too fast, or the sign's too small or gets lost in the clutter.
The info screen was exactly what the doctor ordered - I just wish it was for more than 6 seconds at a time!
Eventually, I did get a complete list, and then I could concentrate on sightseeing. The view was great from the very front of the train.
Overall this project was a big success; I highly recommend it.
Timing-wise, this loop is the slow way to traverse Shinjuku to Tokyo station: about 45 minutes, versus 15 to 20 minutes on the Chuo line which bisects the circle (Chuo means center; some of this is starting to make sense).
The full Yamanote loop takes about 90 minutes, and you can indeed do just that. And do it again, if you want to.
It's even a loophole in the payment system. You pay by distance, so theoretically the evidence shows that you went from "A" to "A" and thus owe zero. Honesty compelled me to tell the fare adjustment guy what I'd done; overall charge for the loop is about $6.
Incidentally, the Yamanote line is more English-friendly and tourist-friendly than other lines. Announcements were largely in English. And it runs in both directions.
I also rode the Chuo line back and forth, marking down stops. I realized this time that you can't tell local from express by which side of the platform it's on. You have to go by the electronic signs. I think.
Eventually I got home (a breeze this time, with my handwritten maps and compass). I charted out the stops and it was like Eureka! It was all coming together. In fact, one of the stops was a name I'd seen before. What was it?
Aah yes, it was the starting point for tours run by Sunrise Tours, several of which I'd been considering. I think I will try "Kabuki Night" tomorrow. A bit pricey at $98, but you get dinner included, AND English headphones, bless their souls. Gotta give this thing a try.
It did rain today, for about half the day. It didn't really matter, because I was on the train most of the day. At any rate, I've brought along a secret weapon in case it rains: "Protector." This is a giant umbrella my workplace gave everyone as a gift. And unlike most of those such gifts, this one is actually tremendously useful. It's almost insulting to call Protector a mere umbrella; it's in a whole different class. If I use this, it will keep me dry, plus other people in Japan, plus some in Korea.
Plus I'm hoping for the "Murphy's Law" effect. If I go through the trouble of lugging this huge umbrella for the whole trip, then it'll probably not rain at all anymore.
For dinner I went back to the hotel restaurant and tried the "Japanese box lunch" (see, don't call me chicken for relying on the hotel restaurant). This had soup and several kinds of fish, most cooked, one not, several pickle-ish things, some rice and whatnot. Pretty decent and definitely Japanese; not quite as good as the clams and spaghetti from a few nights ago.
And today, yes ... drum roll ... I saw Tokyo Tower.
Day 5, Monday
The plan today was 2 main events, with some rail pass administration sandwiched in the middle.
The first event was a trip on the Yamanote line to the Hamamatsucho station, to visit Tokyo Tower.
I've been a little silly about this, but anyway it is one of those very standard stops practically every first-time tourist makes.
It's modeled on the Eiffel Tower, painted red, and was about a 15 minute walk from the station. If you go, you might as well buy the combination ticket, which allows you access to the main observation level (150 meters up) and the highest level (250 meters).
Today was another beautiful day, sunny and in the 70's, and quite clear. Both levels give you an interesting view. The top one is a little more far-reaching, but from the lower level the buildings appear larger so each is really a worthwhile view. You get a sense of the vastness of the Tokyo expanse of concrete (at night it would be an expanse of light and neon). It gave me a better sense of where the various districts were relative to each other, because it's a pretty central location. You can see the parks and waterways, etc.
It's definitely worth doing, just don't expect real fireworks. (About $14). Now, if that top elevator had a really quick descent ...
The evening event was going to be a "Kabuki Night" tour with Sunrise Tours. Sunrise Tours will quickly be your friend in Japan if you want English accompaniment for anything. The tour was to leave from this same station, so I walked around to find the location.
Stopping back in Shinjuku for lunch, I went to the Travel Service Office to exchange my Rail Pass Voucher for the actual pass, as well as book a train for tomorrow to Kyoto. Very pleasant procedure, first-rate service from a typically polite, soft-spoken Japanese woman. She was just incredibly sweet. She declined my marriage proposal, but gave me the rail pass and reservation.
Then it was a quick nap and out the door, to head back up to Hamamatsucho for Kabuki. This is an ancient form of Japanese dance, music and drama that I only had a vague knowledge of.
It turned out to be interesting - more interesting than flat-out fun. It is very, very intense and serious, and that part I liked. It has the same sense as ballet, in that you get the feeling that the performers were born into it and would never consider any other career. It's also a little silly and more than a little slow. A good word to describe it is "hypnotic," I heard another member of the tour use that word.
I'd do it again. Can't really give it a strong recommendation because a lot of people would be unable to get into it.
I was a little sleepy and part of the show had me almost dozing, in the way good classical music sometimes does.
The tour is a nice, hand-holding way to see the show. The restaurant was very authentic and not especially English-friendly (by this I just mean language), so having the guide there allowed us access. And the meal was very good, with a choice of tempura, teriyaki or sashimi. However, some people in the group were a little slow with the chopsticks, and we got to the theater late, despite the guide's best efforts to get people to eat quickly enough.
The tour included English headphones (really a flimsy earbud thing) which helped clarify the stories somewhat. This actually is also available directly from the theater. The narration wasn't a full translation, just a plot summary interspersed with silence. It also explained certain symbolic points: "The drums, heard from offstage, symbolize blah blah blah."
It was an interesting experience: helpful yes, but also a bit cumbersome to be listening to 2 things at once.
Probably the coolest thing about Kabuki is that certain members of the audience are passionate fans who make "calls" at strategic moments. They will yell out the actor's generation, so, for example, if an actor is a 12th generation kabuki performer, they will yell "Juni-dai-me!" when that actor makes an entrance or strikes a cool pose. And this "call" is a loud guttural grunt; it's great to hear that the crowd is so into it.
From now on when I watch "24", when Kiefer Sutherland makes an entrance or a significant move it's gonna be "Ni-dai-me!" ("The second!")
The tour is somewhat pricey at $98. This does include the dinner which is probably worth $35.
Then you ride home thru the Ginza district with its dazzling lights, and they drop you off at or near your hotel.
I did one more walk around Shinjuku, much more enjoyable now that I'm confident of navigation.
It had cooled off sharply, to maybe 50 - 55 degrees. Very pleasant, actually.
I had a delicious freshly-made crepe with strawberries, bananas, ice cream, and whipped cream. This was bought from a little hole-in-the-wall shop. They had about 20 varieties, all represented by models in the window.
Then home to bed. Tomorrow - yuck, I gotta pack.
Day 6, Tuesday
Today is the train trip to Kyoto. I take the Chuo train to Tokyo station, where there is nice clear info directing me to the Shinkansen (bullet train) area.
The Shinkansens are very organized. You go to your track and the area for your car number (presuming you reserved a seat). Electronic signs tell you which trains are headed where, when. There's enough English on the signs to be manageable.
The train arrives and women in pink uniforms rush onto it and clean it. Then they let you board.
The train was sparsely booked (1:06 pm), and I had an empty seat beside me.
Some sources have exaggerated the "lack of space" for luggage. There's plenty of room in the overhead racks for several pieces of carryon-size luggage. Even my umbrella fit up there. You just wouldn't want to put a huge suitcase up there. (I believe they have a separate service to transport really large luggage.)
Once underway, the ride was super-smooth; I even could write okay. Half the announcements are in a lovely British-accented English. They have a limited food-and-beverage service via a rolling cart. They discourage cell-phone use - Nobel Peace Prize right there!
Some general observations:
In Tokyo, there are very few dogs. It's almost like nobody has time for them. In New York, nobody has time for them either, they just pay someone else to walk their dog. My neighbor is a professional dog-walker. He drives a Corvette.
Bikes are big in Tokyo, and ridden mostly on sidewalks, then parked there in huge clusters.
There are very few trash cans, yet no litter. And no graffiti or vandalism.
The money is pretty easy, once you get the hang of it. You have a $1 coin, which looks about the same as a U.S. quarter. Then there is a larger $5 coin. These are your main instruments for vending machines. You also have dimes, which are large and brass-colored. Then you have 50 cent pieces, which are small and have a hole in the middle. All the other coins are pretty much worthless.
Your main bills are the $10 bill and the $100. Because of the honesty and trust that's part of the culture, you casually hand a guy at Wendy's a $100 for your $6 meal, and you know he'll give you the right change. The guy pictured on the $10 looks a little like Charlie Chaplin.
With many train trips under my belt now, let me say that, Shinkansens aside, I think the saintly view many people have of the Japanese system is a little generous.
The ticket system requires you to show your ticket at the end of the trip, or stick it into a slot, in addition to using the turnstile at the beginning. This creates stations which are broken into 2 zones: you are "in the system" or you aren't.
You don't have the free sense of movement you have in the U.S. system. In Japan much of the stuff you have in any big train station is within the system - thus only for passengers. Once there, you can linger, and there's A LOT of stuff there - great bakeries and whatnot. However, you're conscious of being contained in a zone. You're particularly reminded of this when you decide to leave the station. You have to dig up your ticket.
Then once you leave, you can't go back except by buying another ticket.
I faced such a dilemma in Kyoto. The Tourist Information Desk, and the subway, were on opposite ends of the train station, both outside the system. So I pretty much had to choose 1 of the 2 to go to, although I could have conceivably gotten back to the other by walking around the building and finding it.
But the point is, you can't just go to the Information Desk and then turn around and walk over to the subway entrance.
(I eventually realized that having an active Rail Pass improves the situation here. You just have to show your pass to the guy on the way out, then on the way back in again. I realized this about 3 days later. Also I recall that "Iceman" suggested to me that I upgrade to a 2-week Rail Pass. You can make a case for this, because I only saved about $40 by buying individual tickets in the Tokyo area.)
At any rate, I decided on the subway, because I knew Kyoto had a simple grid system and from looking at my map, it appeared to be quite easy to reach my hotel.
Yes folks, this is a subway system I can deal with. An officer helped me buy a ticket and confirmed my belief about the correct route: one line for 3 stops North, then transfer and go 1 stop East. The train tunnels are interestingly high-tech style, and everything went very smoothly. Plus the subway seats are padded. You could not have that in New York because they would get torn to shreds.
Immediately upon reaching Kyoto, the change in tone from Tokyo was remarkable. If Tokyo is like NYC, then Kyoto is closer in mood to Phoenix or Tucson. The part I've seen so far is modern and vibrant, with little sign of the "temple theme park" that draws tourists. The city has a clean, almost mall-like feel to it.
Tokyo is clean in the sense of no litter, but it's an extremely messy city. I mean messy in the way it's physically organized or rather, sort of randomly thrown together.
In Kyoto, things fit a pattern you can grasp right away, starting with that simple subway system. It's also a lot smaller, about 5 miles by 5 miles. You can look at the map and figure the town out right away.
I find my hotel, a block from the subway stop which also houses an underground mall called "Zest".
This hotel, the Kyoto Royal, is a step up in elegance from the last one. That's not to say necessarily better; just more upscale and more formal in the way things are run.
Here is a good example of the legendary Japanese hotel staff behavior. As I'm bumping along with my 2 bags plus backpack and Protector the giant umbrella, a bellhop comes practically running over to me. I throw him a "Iie, kekko desu" (No, I'm alright, or No, thanks) and he's having none of it, practically kidnapping my luggage and putting it on a cart.
Here's the beauty of the no-tipping system. He can't be doing it for a few bills; it has to be sincere and also there's no downside for me in letting him do it. So I realize this and relax and relinquish my bags.
Soon I'm checking in and you should see their system, where one person checks you in, explains things to you, then leaves a little folio with your key card in it, in a row on the desk with several others. Then they direct you to have a seat, and eventually a bellhop grabs your folio and comes over and takes you up to your room.
Mind you, the staff at New City Hotel was first-rate; it just was more of a behind-the-desk situation there; once you left the desk you were on your own.
Now at the Royal, I'm going down to look around for dinner and a uniformed young woman helps me with directions to a coin laundry. Later in the evening when I return from dinner, she's standing in the lobby and gives me a bow. Presumably she's just there to greet guests and attend to whatever they need.
And this isn't an overly expensive place; around $125 a night.
The room is about the same as the other one: larger bed, though only 1. Not that I need a second one, it's just nice to have, to throw your clothes on.
Food prices in Japan are just all over the map. The Royal has a Chinese restaurant in the basement (so it should be cheap, but it's not). I could get a fish and vegetables entree for about $26, which is passable if it's really good Chinese. Now if I want soup, that's another $21.
This hotel has a room-service breakfast for, are you ready, $29.
Yet this same hotel has, in the lobby, a nice little patisserie with Parisian-looking goodies in the normal range, about $2 - $5 each.
The Royal is directly on a major shopping street, with tons of restaurants. I settled on a casual Chinese place where a complete dinner was $11.80 (soup included). I had shrimp in a spicy red sauce, 2 dumplings, a cold shredded chicken and vegetable dish, rice of course, egg drop soup, and fruit cup.
Restaurants in Japan are in 2 categories: those that somewhat cater to non-Japanese speakers, and those that really don't.
What I'm looking for is picture menus or food models in the window, so I can just point and mutter something in English.
Kyoto is really bike-crazy, again with people riding on the sidewalk. People do lock their bikes, but with locks that a New York thief would laugh at. It's typically just a thin wire, or a little donut thing that loops around the back wheel.
I had hoped to book a bike tour for tomorrow. Unfortunately all I got was a busy signal. Looks like tomorrow will be a general orientation day, and maybe I'll self-guide myself to 2 or 3 sites.
Day 7, Wednesday
Breakfast today is from the bakery in the mall. I pick out a hot-dog-and-cheese pastry along with a croissant, OJ and coffee. Coffee in Japan is consistently good. I ask if the hot dog thing can be "motto atsui" (more hot) and, with the help of another customer, the idea is communicated. However, the answer is no. Japanese seem to be very comfortable eating cold or lukewarm things.
I give it a try, and it's quite tasty.
The concierge helps me contact the bike tour place. Unfortunately, I ran into the "old minimum participants rule," as Maxwell Smart would say. As the only biker, they wouldn't take me (and anyway I'd rather do it with more participants). So I will simply rent a bike and explore free-form. I will be doing the Kyoto thing, because everyone rides here, old and young, sometimes old and young on one bike. Mostly on the sidewalks, and without helmets. They glide along at 7 - 10 miles per hour, then park their bikes in gigantic clusters outside the train stations. They ride right up through the evening.
Meanwhile that will be tomorrow, because I want an earlier start. I switch gears and book the "Nara afternoon" bus tour thru Sunrise Tours.
Lunch is Wendy's. I'm settling into a routine whereby breakfast and lunch are Western, and dinner alternates between Japanese and Chinese, for the most part. I try to communicate a desire for 2 beef patties in the sandwich, and the guy thinks I want 2 complete meals. Language ... Eventually we settle it. The key thing is, if you can mention the price, that targets what you want.
I also had a stroll over to the "Gion" district which is a nightlife area just across the river. I was looking for the laundromat based on directions from the hotel staff. Couldn't quite find the place. Still a nice look-around. The river area is extremely pretty, almost like Paris. Along the river are wide banks where people sit, stroll or bike. In the middle of the river are marshes where seagulls and egrets hang out.
The tour leaves, and it's nice to see a good crowd on the bus - maybe 25 people. As we ride to Nara, a small town an hour away, the tour guide fills us in on Japanese family life, culture etc., cracks corny tour-guide jokes, etc. We arrive in Nara and go to Todaiji Temple, a massive Buddhist temple. This is the kind of place that automatically lowers your blood pressure. The temple is a gigantic wooden structure (maybe half the size of a basketball arena) and it's the kind of place that pictures can't do justice. It's inside a wooden-walled area with big lawns, etc. Inside the temple is a giant brass Buddha. Outside is a park where tame deer roam freely and people pet and feed them.
Then we head over to a Shinto shrine. Shinto is a religion more concerned with an appreciation of nature, and having a good life now, whereas Buddhism is more about reaching enlightenment, as I understand it. Anyway, the interesting thing about Shinto is that parents bring their kids who reach a certain age, like 3 or 5, for some kind of prayer ceremony, and dress the kids up in these elaborate costumes. It's adorable, everyone was crowding around taking pictures whenever we'd see one of these kids.
Now, I would say the pleasures of Kyoto and Nara are pretty subtle. It's a mellow place. It's hard to compare with other "entertainment" options or say "Is it worth it?" (the tour is $63) - but nobody seemed to want their money back. I was glad to have the tour, because the guide pointed out a lot of little things, that would have been missed otherwise. The deer, for example, are considered messengers from God.
Anyway, back to Kyoto on the bus, and I had time to review my Pimsleur language notes. You are under instructions NOT to take notes or pause the disks while doing the lessons. I listened one more time and took notes, because I wanted something to review during the trip.
Dinner was at a conveyor-belt sushi place. You pick whichever plates appeal to you as they go by. It was a fun type of presentation; however the sushi was just okay. You do get 2 pieces on each plate, and it becomes surprisingly filling after a while. I think I had 6 plates for $12. Then I had 2 more pastries. You really should only come to Japan if you like pastry.
And I walked around the Gion district again - bear in mind street signs are rare in Japan. Sometimes you think you see a street sign, and it turns out to be a district sign instead. This time I found the laundry. It's small, just 3 or 4 machines.
Day 8, Thursday, November 10
Breakfast was the hotel buffet, $23 in the restaurant. A little fancier than the other hotel. Items included pancakes and waffles, plus almost identically the items of the other one. Then it was a 5 minute walk across the river to a bike rental place. There actually are 2 places there that rent for $10 - I went to the larger place, mainly because it was staffed. I got a single-gear bike, which is all you really need around here. It has a basket in front, and one of those donut "locks" around the back wheel. This lock actually is super convenient, because you don't have to move the lock at all - you simply lock or unlock it, and then take the key with you.
I'm destined for the "Golden Pavilion," otherwise known as Kinkakuji Temple, one of the main tourist sites, which happens to be on the extreme other side of town. The historic sites are, in general, around the perimeter, except for the Imperial Palace which is central.
My ride goes up a major North/South artery, past the Palace grounds, and past the Palace Side Hotel, a budget option I'd considered. Looks nice enough, but I prefer my hotel's location in the middle of the action and near the river. The sidewalks are very smooth and the riding is easy, except it's rather stop-and-go sometimes with pedestrian traffic.
Eventually I turn left and head out towards the foothills. The road narrows and the sidewalk disappears, so I'm out in the road. Pretty soon I'm dodging cars, Vespas, grannies on bikes, and utility poles. I love it!
Seriously, this is some of the most fun I've had on the trip. I'm becoming a real fanatic about biking as a vacation activity. You see things much better than in a car, and you're much more connected to the world around you.
I reach the general area of the Pavilion, and it's obvious because all the tour buses and pedestrians are converging on this site.
Once inside the grounds, it's immediately apparent that this will be the highlight of the day. This is a building coated in gold leaf, set in a garden area with a pond and little islands surrounding it. In the pond are colorful fish. On the islands and in the surrounding grounds are beautiful "oriental" trees. Seriously beautiful spot. The Pavilion was once a wealthy person's home, then it became a Zen temple, now it's a tourist site. They don't let you inside; they only have a few pictures showing the antiques and artworks inside.
The main building is surrounded by smaller buildings showing the tea room, etc. Nice stroll.
Sign on vending machine: "Lady Borden Premium Ice Cream. Just choose your favorite one, and its delicious taste will take you to the world of happiness."
I had a vanilla.
Then it was back into the middle of town. Now it was apparent how hilly this area was, because going downhill I easily picked up quite a bit of speed. Almost too much, as the street was so narrow. Anyway I made it back to the Palace area. All the reports say the Palace isn't such a great site, so I skipped it; rode through a park a little, then continued towards the Eastern part of town. My destination was the "Philosopher's Path." I stopped for a bite at McDonalds, and got a "Filet O", which is like a Filet O Fish but also with shrimp in it.
Now I never quite found Philosopher's Path - I later realized my East-West street was off by one. I tell ya it's tough when the streets are rarely identified. I stumbled on a nice temple anyway, Kurodani (I think). This is a compound of several buildings, very low-key, no tour buses at the time I went, just a few other pedestrians.
I removed my shoes per the sign out front and entered the temple. I was padding about in stocking feet on straw mats inside the temple. It was cool in both senses of the word. Very nice feeling walking that way on those mats.
The temple interior was very ornate, with things I'm sure have great significance to the followers of the religion. I noticed two women kneeling before an altar and apparently praying. I just hung out there a while, then walked back outside and enjoyed a partial view of the town below.
I also biked alongside the river, right on the banks. This is a seriously nice spot, with amateur musicians, people sitting and reading, etc.
Weather today was a clone of the basic day we've had so far: starting at about 55 degrees, warming steadily to maybe 70 or 75, then back down in the evening. And brilliant blue sunshine all day. So far there only was one rainy day - it looks like November was an excellent choice. I hear Spring is nice too. (Pretty much everyone agrees that Summer is overly hot.)
After cheerfully returning the bike - I managed a "tanoshii" (fun) which brought a smile to the proprietor's face - I had a chore to do: lug my laundry over to the laundermat and do it. This is something I try to minimize on trips. However, it's pretty inevitable at some point.
Dinner was tempura in a very English-friendly restaurant in the mall. (For those who don't know tempura, it's a very lightweight fried form of chicken, shrimp etc. And, uh-oh, here we go again, I'll get letters - it's rather bland, at least until you put some sauce on it.) Japanese food is largely about the presentation. You get a large tray with many small dishes on it. You don't so much eat your meal as look at it. This wasn't quite as good as the tempura meal in Tokyo. Surprisingly filling though.
In walking around Gion at night, I was conscious of being a bit of an outsider. You see tons of tiny little restaurants and clubs, and there's a very lively nightlife. Everything takes place behind scrims and curtains which hang halfway over doorspaces. Every so often you see a Geisha, a woman highly skilled at "something" which is always hush, hush, nudge nudge wink wink and you never know exactly what's the story. Gion is like a secret society. You're welcome to walk around the tiny alleys and cross the tiny canals. It's just you get the feeling, as a Westerner, that you're not getting the full experience.
Day 9, Friday
"Yana otenki, des'ne?" (Bad weather, isn't it?)
Our run of good-luck weather ended today, as it was overcast to start, and forecasted to rain. The plan was a day trip to Okayama by train, to see a beautiful landscape garden called Kora-kuen. It holds significance for me because I first saw it on a postcard at EPCOT, my only souvenir purchase of that trip. I thought it would be nice to visit there some day, and here I am.
To go or not to go? The forecast for the next few days is a little dodgy. Actually Sunday looks best, but that's for traveling back to Tokyo.
So I will try the garden today and bring along Protector.
If I end up using the giant umbrella, at least it'll justify lugging it around the whole trip.
This is a short hop on the Shinkansen (bullet train), 1 hour 20 minutes. This time I go non-reserved, and it's really quite simple. Just show the Rail Pass and enter the platform area. Look at all the signs, check train number against my schedule, check the electronic board of departures, etc. (the one thing I'd like, that they don't seem to have, is the train number (ie 384) ON the train).
But at any rate, it's pretty clear which direction you'll be heading in. And you need to make sure it's not a Nozomi, the one type of Shinkansen excluded to passholders. Hikari = good, Nozomi = bad.
Generally cars 1 - 5 are for non-reserved people. You just get on and find a seat. Both ways, there was sufficient seating. Bear in mind some of these cars are smoking, if that's an issue for you.
Once on board, they eventually have an English announcement in that lilting "British Airways" voice, so by then it's crystal-clear you're in the right place.
"Ladies and gentlemen ... the train will make a brief stop in ... Shin-Osaka, in a few moments. The doohs will open on the left side of the train."
Okayama was a surprisingly big city, and it was hard to believe an idyllic garden could be fairly close to the station as the guidebook said. I got a nice map from the Information person, and confirmation that it was about a 30 minute walk. There are other options; I prefer walking for simplicity and to see more stuff along the way.
By now it's drizzling, so out comes Protector. I should say that the Japanese are serious about umbrellas. As I'd soon find out, they ride bikes while holding umbrellas, then park the bike and leave the umbrella attached. They have umbrella stands outside many shops and restaurants. Even so, several Japanese were impressed with Protector. One even asked what it was.
After a pretty simple walk I arrive at the park. Once inside, it's immediately apparent the trip was well worthwhile. I won't say pictures don't do the park justice, because they do. It looks exactly like that, which is to say it looks like something from another planet. All the views, whichever way you look, are beautiful and sort of utopian. Some views ... you can't put it into words. The park really affected me. Bear in mind this park was designed in something like 1700.
The design makes great use of water, hills, paths, stepping stones across the water, etc. It's maybe half the size of the Magic Kingdom, and in the middle is a little hill you can climb for a great vantage point.
I can only imagine what this place could look like on a beautiful day, and with more color in the plants. Even so, on a day like today, with rain gently falling straight down and no wind, it's a great experience, especially for fans of Disney-type landscaping.
There's a great stillness, a quiet, in the park, and little groups of people are strolling along the paths with their umbrellas. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves a lot.
Sign on coffee vending machine: "A moment of relaxation, How about taking a rest around here? A moment to rest and refresh yourself is necessary somewhere during the day. At such a moment, how about a highly delicious drink?"
Okay, then you head outside the park, down a path, and take a bridge to cross a moat, and you are at Okayama Castle. Well I guess I'm more of a garden person than a castle person. It's hard to say the castle is really "worth it" ($8, versus $3.50 for the garden), but you might as well do it if you're here.
It's rather impressive from outside. You go inside, and they do let you walk up all the floors, six in all. On each floor they have museum exhibits showing the living quarters, clothing or battle armor people would have worn, etc. At some areas, they have a soundtrack, as if someone who had lived there is talking through their everyday life. All in Japanese, of course, as is 90% of the written material.
You get some pretty good views from the top floor. You also get a sense of history here, and some of the artifacts are kinda interesting. It's just anticlimactic after the garden.
Then it was back to town and the train home. The station at Kyoto is rather dramatic, especially at night, so I took the opportunity to wander around. You have to get into the main part of the station, to the North, whereas the Shinkansen tracks are in the South part.
Then I hit the subway for the ride home.
Some of the food models in windows make you NOT want to eat there. There's a fine art to making plastic food look appetizing.
Dinner is back at the Chinese place, same exact meal as the first night in Kyoto. Then I strolled around. The clash between old and new Kyoto is jarring. My hotel is on a main strip, which intersects another main strip about 10 blocks away. All along these strips are neon-lit restaurants, department stores, pachinko parlors (like pinball with gambling), etc. And these strips are hopping at night with young adults rushing around in nightclubbing clothes. There's a different feeling to the behavior of young Japanese compared to Americans. There's kind of a giddiness, a lack of cynicism, and a lack of any really "tough guys". Nobody shows attitude to anyone else. And meanwhile, it's just impossible to reconcile these young people with the ancient temples and historical artifacts sprinkled around the area.
I found an alley, maybe 6 feet wide, parallel to the river. On both sides of this alley are a million little restaurants and clubs. The ones on the right side overlook the river. One, a French place, advertises "English menu available." I may find my way back there tomorrow.
At yet another bakery, I pick up a pastry made of a crepe, sponge cake, cream and several pieces of fruit, for a hotel snack, and then head home.
Day 10, Saturday
Last full day in Kyoto
It's gray and drizzly as I start the breakfast buffet. Fortunately, just about the time I get seconds of pancakes, the sun pokes out.
I go to the concierge after the meal, to ask about a certain "Walk in Kyoto, Talk in English" tour. This is a famous tour and unfortunately, I find out it's not offered today, only Monday, Wednesday and Friday. So here's the advantage of doing more thorough planning. It's a shame, because what I wanted was more of an explanation of what I'm seeing. Oh well. Have to change plans - so let's rent a bike again and see how many spots we can discover on our own.
I get the same bike from before (starting to bond, this is dangerous). I head out towards the Northeast of town, for the "Silver Pavilion," which is actually brown. It's no match for the Golden Pavilion, but it does have some nice gardens. You walk through moss-covered woods. The leaves are just starting to turn color. Some pretty views.
Then this leads directly into the famed "Philosopher's Path," so named because long ago, a certain philosopher used this route for his daily stroll as he contemplated the universe. It's alongside a little canal, maybe 8 feet wide, on which float leaves and in which floats a kind of seaweed.
Pleasant enough, though to be honest, after the first 5 minutes it doesn't change a whole lot, and it goes for a mile or so.
Mostly I was contemplating the philosophy of how some tourist attractions are over-rated. I saw signs advertising a shrine down below, and I'd mostly seen temples so far, so wanted to keep going and see that (Buddhist = temple, Shinto = shrine). This turned out to be an odd little shrine, with sub-shrines dedicated to animals, like one was for monkeys, one was for mice, etc. Quite bizarre. Not a whole lot of tour buses near that one.
So I headed all the way back up the walk, to retrieve my bike. The whole area is extremely touristy and quite crowded today.
Let's see if we have better luck with the next item on the agenda. We navigate a route towards the South, going partially on the river bank as it is both beautiful and fast (less stuff to dodge).
We arrive in the general vicinity of Heian Shrine, but it's not marked very clearly. I head into a parking lot, thinking it's there - and there's definitely SOMETHING there. I ask a gentleman, "Heian Shrine ... Jinja (= shrine) ... Koko? (here?)"
He gestures frantically, and eventually I realize he wants me to follow him. We leave the parking lot and he points me to a spot maybe 30 feet down the sidewalk.
I head there and, upon turning the corner, it's instantly apparent that THIS is the famous Heian Shrine. This is massive, ornate and very grandiose. And there are lots of people streaming into it through a large gate. Many families have junior or juniorette in highly elaborate costumes for their ceremony (kinda like a Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation, but for kids 3 and 5, I gather).
Walking through the gate it's clear this is the highlight of the day. It's a series of buildings ringing a huge, sun-splashed plaza. At the back is the main building, where the ceremonies are held. And throughout the plaza here and there, are families posing their kids for photos. The kids are incredibly cute, though a few have the expression of "Mom, isn't that ENOUGH photos?"
I snap a few myself, it's irresistible.
Strangely, two separate times a Westerner comes over to me, and asks if I'm "Mark."
After a while, I start to wonder, "What's in it for me, if I pretend to be Mark?"
Entering the back building, it's clear a ceremony is about to begin. Families sit on 3 rows of benches, and very formal-looking guys in elaborate costumes come out and give speeches, accompanied by the occasional drumbeat or flute. It's all very serious and somber and dignified, and then the people get up and file out the other end of the building, and the kids pose for more pictures.
Again I snap a few, until it's getting ridiculous and I tell myself "Put the camera away. Put the camera away."
Then there are a series of gardens you can stroll through. I would say more impressive than the Silver Pavilion, even if they are no match for yesterday at Korakuen.
All in all, a very satisfying stop on the tour.
We then have 1, or possibly 2, more stops, though time is running out, the bike needs to be back by 5 or I turn into a pumpkin. We go to Koda-iji temple, a place that's hard to find and again, extremely crowded with tourists, most Japanese. By this time I was pretty tired, from "riding" my bike through the throngs, and maybe this was 1 temple too many for the day. I was pretty burned out, and can't say I really had a fair appreciation of the place. Things are blurring, but I think it was at this place that we at one point all took off our shoes and walked through a series of straw-matted rooms. We carried our shoes in a plastic bag, and then put them back on after the rooms. That was pretty fun; the few times I've been in such rooms are my substitute for staying at a ryokan (Japanese-style inn).
The last stop on my list will have to wait till tomorrow morning.
After returning the bike we go to the hotel for a shower and nap, then walk across the bridge to the Gion district for dinner. I've chosen Shanghai Cafe which, coincidentally, was the name of my birthday restaurant when I was a little tyke.
This is a nice little unpretentious dim sum shop. I just didn't feel like anything more formal.
I sat down in a room with maybe 10 other diners and had a delicious meal of 3 kinds of dumplings, plus a terrific mango pudding for dessert. I was very happy with this choice (oh, they have an English menu too, that was the key). About $20.
I made a subway trip down to the train station to reserve tomorrow's Shinkansen to Tokyo, and then walked around, pre-viewing the huge Buddhist center nearby, where I'll be heading tomorrow.
Then back to the hotel once again, after some last looks at the river in nighttime.
Day 11, Sunday
This is a day of contrasts. We start by completing the last stop on yesterday's agenda. This is Higashi-Honganji Temple, a large Buddhist center near the train station. Significantly, it's the first stop on the Walk in Kyoto, Talk in English tour. I wanted to see if I could get anything out of it, without the narration.
Well, no. Here's where you see how important a guided tour in English is for some things. Almost everything here is in Japanese. It's an educational center as well as a place of worship. All they could give me was a small pamphlet which explained the life and philosophy of the founder of this branch of the religion.
I did observe part of a ceremony. The room was smoky with incense - that part I liked. Some of the leader's sayings are printed on plaques along a hallway, with English translations. Still this was a disappointment - a superficial exposure to a deep subject.
Anyway ... we headed back to the station to catch the train to Tokyo. A policeman stopped me and quizzed me on some Passport details - my job (computer work), etc. He tried to be polite and explained it was his duty to do so - but frankly I was rushing with 3 bags and a huge umbrella to catch a train.
Eventually, I made it onto the train and settled in for my ride back to the big city. Do the Shinkansens live up to the hype? I'd say yes. Once they get out into the open spaces between towns, they really zoom. And they're super-smooth. They keep to an exact schedule; in fact, you will see on the platform that for instance one is leaving at 13:06 (they use the 24-hour schedule mostly in Japan), and then the next is leaving at 13:14. If you're scheduled for the 13:14, don't dare get on at 13:05, because that will be a different train.
They have some food and beverage service by rolling cart, with typical polite Japanese service. I underpaid once by mixing up the coin values, and the guy was almost apologetic to me in explaining the difference.
They also are very tourist-friendly, with announcements in English as well as Japanese. It's just a nice way to travel.
Unfortunately I witnessed the downside of a reserved seat, because there was a crying kid (really not a baby, maybe 4) right nearby. Of course he was Western; you almost never hear Japanese kids cry, and you don't hear that pained, explosive tantrum sound that's so common in American kids.
Think it's almost better to just go non-reserved.
At any rate, 2 hrs. 45 minutes later we pull into Tokyo, and I make the easy transfer over to the Chuo line, still using the Rail Pass (this is cool!). I get off at the Yotsuya station, and it's a short cab ride ($6.60) to the New Otani Hotel.
This was my splurge hotel, and what a splurge! I normally aim for Sheraton-level hotels. A Sheraton would be bowing down and going "We're not worthy, we're not worthy!"
This was the one place on the trip that is unquestionably better than my own home.
I enter the room to soft classical music from the radio.
The room is soothing and comforting. Plenty of space. Elegant bathroom. If I see things correctly, the shower has a precise temperature control to the degree.
The show actually began upon entering the lobby, and seeing the teamwork of the desk staff and bell people. Like at the Royal, just stepped up a notch.
Everything about the room is designed to give a feeling of being pampered. I can even order up an in-room massage, just like Bill Murray.
My room is way up in a tower, with quite a view. The hotel is a massive complex with its own Japanese garden and 35 restaurants. I almost want to make a quick post on the internet: "My hotel has 35 restaurants, help me decide!"
Actually it's pretty easy to narrow down, based on price. Some meals would run me over $150.
I briefly consider the French place, because if I skip the $90 appetizers I can get a fish main course for $65.
Ultimately I decide on the Chinese buffet, a real splurge for Chinese at $70 with a cocktail, but what the heck? It's on the 17th floor, and it's a restaurant that slowly revolves, giving a full view of nighttime Tokyo.
Nearby is a party, some kind of family reunion or something, with maybe 50 or 60 people. They're having a LOT of fun.
And so am I, as I sample dim sum, soup, crabmeat omelette, fried rice and various shrimp, prawn and vegetable dishes. Plus several desserts.
Mostly I linger and nurse my martini, and enjoy the changing view while listening to the jazz soundtrack. Totally the best meal of the trip.
I take a stroll in the garden, and it's no chump garden either - it's really an excellent Japanese garden, with a waterfall and everything. At one point I see the very last thing I would have expected - a stray cat walking around the garden. You should have seen this cat eyeballing the koi fish in the ponds.
I head up to my room and realize: It's 9:30 pm in Tokyo, I'm staying at the New Otani, and tomorrow I'm going to the Disney Resort. This is pretty good!
I walk back to the train station (it's only an 8 minute walk; compass comes in handy; solid gold I tell ya). Then it's a two-leg hop over to the Ginza district for a lookaround.
Both Ginza and Shinjuku are riots of colorful neon. But their tones are completely different - Shinjuku is very funky, while Ginza is very elegant. Shinjuku is a back-alley craps game; Ginza is gentlemen in tuxedoes playing baccarat. Very fun time just strolling around, listening to some street jazz with the saxophone bouncing off the buildings, before heading back - you have to bear in mind the trains stop running at about midnight. You are aware of that tick, tock, tick, tock as you get around 11 pm.
Tomorrow, rain or shine, it's Mickey Mouse.
Day 12, Monday and Conclusion
Well it's neither rain nor shine, which is okay. It's overcast and a little cool. I just hope the rain holds off for most of the day. Sometime over the last few days, I decided this would be a full day at the parks; an "after 6" just isn't going to cut it.
With a brief stop in the garden, plus a detour in Tokyo Station to reserve tomorrow's train to the airport, plus a quick stop for pancakes and coffee, all in all I reached DisneySea at 10:45. Both parks were pretty crowded for a Monday. The classic group seemed to be Mom with her preschool kid, but really there were just a lot of people.
I was thrilled the weather worked out so well - rain had been forecast and it turned out to be maybe 7 drops all day. The whole day was just a lot of fun. It was low-pressure, since I'd covered the attractions pretty well already. It was a day for soaking up atmosphere and repeating a few favorites, plus filling a few gaps. I was "zoning" most of the day, even while just sitting waiting for a parade to start.
I began with Fast Pass for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and 60 minute standby on Journey to the Center of the Earth. Journey is a little better with some wait, I think. It's a well-done queue, with music and some artifacts related to your expedition. The ride itself was even a little more fun than before. Though the flash of speed is brief, it's quite a rush if you're in the right mood. Teen girls up ahead were giggling like crazy. One had a laugh a little like a donkey. Still, nothing could really bother me today.
I wandered over to American Waterfront, to see the ship which I'd missed last time - S.S. Columbia. I was very impressed. It's just like "Titanic" only without the iceberg. I thought it might be nice to dine here if time allows.
Then I sat down for a little Christmas show in front of the ship. Unfortunately, after about a minute I knew it wasn't going to float my boat. It was a very average Christmas-song medley with a lot of forced cheer. (It was in English and I would have preferred Japanese.)
Unfortunately you're kind of trapped there. I tried to get up and leave, offering my seat to someone milling about - but the CM motioned for me to stay put. Here's where a little more language might've helped.
Eventually some characters entered into the show, and it improved somewhat. I managed to sit through the thing.
Then I hightailed it back into the mouth of the volcano to use my Fast Pass on 20,000 Leagues. Here my mission was to secure a front seat, based on that trip report which said it was "10 times better than the side."
Here I pulled off some pretty good language. "Onegai shimasu ..." (If you please).
This cut into the CM's routine, and he hastily motioned for me to kinda wait my turn.
When I got his attention again, I tried to gesture and speak at the same time: "Chuo (center) ... furonto" (which actually means front desk at the hotel, so this may have thrown him a bit).
He said "No. Side."
At this point I reached down and came up with the magic word: "Machimasu (I will wait)."
At this he smiled, probably impressed with my language skills. He let me wait a round, then motioned for me to take slot 1, which is indeed the front. Mission accomplished; this pretty much made the day.
Yes, the view is much better from there. It's way more panoramic, and the thing starts to resemble a story. Here I'll paraphrase a Spoiler I've read, because it's useful to at least have a synopsis on these rides: You travel along in your sub, and then encounter a giant squid. You use your laser-weapon to subdue the beast, but run out of power in the process. You're sinking and in trouble, then you encounter an Atlantis-like city, and the residents of that underwater world help lead you to safety.
This ride is going down for refurbishment soon. I think they should retro-fit the subs so everyone has a front view. It makes it a passable, kind of interesting ride, instead of just a waste of time.
As it stands now, you only have a 1/3 chance at a front seat. Your best bet may be to do pot luck once, and then come back right near closing time, when you can probably get an empty sub.
I was craving protein, and found it at the stand for world-famous Gyoza Sausage Buns. The craze over these seems to have cooled off; they once boasted hour-plus waits on line. Mine only took about 10 minutes; they have an efficient system for selling them. I found it a little bland, basically like eating 2 dumplings. Nicely atsui (hot), though. They needed a little something, so I walked down to the Japanese counter-service place and grabbed some soy sauce and mustard, which helped.
Anyway ... at this point it was a little late for my planned Indy ride, so that got bumped till this evening.
Time for my unofficial 1-day park hopper, which means buying a separate 1-day ticket at Disneyland.
The Magic Kingdom parks all have a particular vibe that's different from the other parks, and this was immediately apparent upon entering. This place was REALLY crowded today, more than the first Friday for sure.
Believe it or not, the main attraction for me today is gonna be Small World, no irony, no sarcasm. I happen to like the ride, and it was down for refurb last weekend.
I head back there, thinking Fast Pass. The return time is too late; I'll be going back to DisneySea for the 6:20 show of BraviSEAmo! Meanwhile standby is an hour, which'll wreck the parade. What to do, what to do.
I decide to just stroll the park for a bit and grab a snack. I'll hit Small World after the parade.
The snack is a Mickey waffle and coffee, a little warmer than last time. "Plain" (which has syrup) seems a better choice than berry sauce.
So I soak in the scenery of this beautiful park - a tad less so, without the sun, but still I'm glad it's not raining. I wait, seated, for maybe 25 minutes for the parade, and it's fun to just people-watch and vicariously be a kid again.
This is now a Christmas version of the parade, and honestly not quite as good as the standard one, in my opinion.
Then it's time to wait for Small World, now at 50 minutes. This is a pretty nice queue, out in the middle of Fantasyland. The lights twinkle on midway thru the wait - there's no sight quite like a Disney park with the lights on!
The ride is a pleasure. They've managed to overlay some Christmas elements while retaining the classic song too. All the little vignettes are fun - I always think "I should go there," "I should go there".
Now there's time for only 1 more ride (the early 6:20 time for BraviSEAmo! has really forced my hand). Pinocchio or Jungle Cruise?
I've been intrigued by the consistently long lines for Pinocchio. Yet usually Fantasyland rides don't really appeal to me much now.
Jungle Cruise may be fun, or maybe not. The corny jokes will sail right over my head. So I opt for Pinocchio, and it's a little better than average for a Fantasyland ride.
Then it's a nice long stroll around the park and out for the last time. I find the heightened sense of time running out really amps up the intensity of the last day of a Disney trip.
My ultimate conclusion about Tokyo Disneyland is that, in its own way, it's every bit the great park DisneySea is. Certainly don't discount it. I know, I know, I only spent 3 1/4 hours there today. Look, I had no choice.
So it was back on the monorail for the short hop over to DisneySea. This clearly is a more "adult" park, yet has plenty of appeal to the wee ones as well.
This park at night really has to be THE most beautiful of all the Disney parks. Certain vistas are just unparalleled.
I want some more protein, and find it at one of the Italian counter-service places. I have rigatoni with pork meat sauce, salad and red wine. Solid food, about $15.
Then it's time for BraviSEAmo, the nightly lagoon show. This didn't hit me quite as hard as the other night - still a great way to cap the day. I teared up a few times.
But wait - there's more! We head over to the Broadway medley show, determined to get an unobstructed view this time (distracting audience member last time). My seat is deliberately at the back and off to the side, with virtually nobody else around. Then, under cover of darkness, I move up 1 row, part way through the show.
This one is just terrific, and turns out to be the highlight of the day. I need to get to more Broadway shows back home.
Upon leaving the theater, it's apparent another show is going on outdoors, Mickey's Nutcracker. I watch for a while, then move on. Enough is enough, and anyway I want to squeeze in a quick meal on the ship.
The restaurant has a 30 minute wait. I consider skipping it, but ultimately decide to wait it out. You need a few just really comfortable sit-down meals now and then on a trip. Even so, this will be quick because time is running out.
Inside the restaurant and seated, it hits me that I've been waiting too long for this kind of experience. The thing to do with the Japanese is to let them pamper you, because they will and do it really well, if you let them (i.e. pay them). The restaurant is so atmospheric, and unfortunately I'm in a hurry so it will be hurried pampering. I do the "appetizer and dessert" thing - and here's another subtle effect of the "no tipping" rule. You don't feel at all bad about doing such an order.
The service is really great, and the food is just edible art. The appetizer is a fish and lobster salad with fruit sauce, and dessert is cream puffs with fruit and ice cream. Both exhibit the Japanese passion for elegant design. I'm able to do some pretty good language with the staff during the meal, eventually offering up "oishii" (delicious).
My waitress actually says to me at the end, "Joseu desu" (You are skilled).
And I actually get to reply "Demo mada joseu j'arimasen." (But yet, skilled I am not).
You have to do Pimsleur to understand what a thrill this was!
Time is running out so it's "all hands on shore" for the walk over to Indy. I have another good time there, then head over to catch the "Magic Lamp Theater" show. This is a multi-media 3D presentation and, while they put a lot of effort into it, it really doesn't do a whole lot for me. The language barrier is an issue once again, and I'd say it's just an average 3D show.
Meanwhile, I exit there at 10 minutes to closing, so you know there's only one thing left to do! Rush over to Indy for one more ride. This time I get the front seat and it's marginally better than other seats, I'd say. A thrilling way to finish up! Then a really slow walk over through Mermaid Lagoon, up into the volcano, then back down to Italy.
And there it is: Game over. Disney day over. Vacation over. The rest is just getting home.
Oh, one thing: on the monorail, they have these little display cases with artifacts in them. Tonight I have a view of these figurines from the 1940's, Mickey and Donald driving little cars. That really old design, it's pretty priceless.
And the flight back was somewhat better. One, I managed to switch to an aisle seat. Much better. Also this was in the center section, with seats 4 across. Only the two aisle seats were occupied, so we each had an empty seat next to us, and a spare tray table. There's another word for this: Heaven.
And I had a few American magazines ($8 each) from the airport gift shop.
I also used Visine about every 4 hours, which helped a lot for my eyes. And of course, I was able to watch movies in English this time. I sort of did a big exhale, all the studying was over, no need to use Japanese now. Even so, I squeezed out an "arigato" (thanks) or two.
Now, what about jet lag? Well it wasn't really an issue going over from the East Coast. You get there at 4 pm, and it's your 1 am. So if you can stay up 2 more hours, you go to bed at 6, and if you sleep 12 hours you can wake up at 6 am, ready to go. I napped a little on the plane, but nothing you'd really call sleep.
Now on the way back, it's a little weirder. Here we go to Bill Murray again, because you leave at noon, and arrive ON THE SAME DAY an hour earlier. This one played some tricks on me. I had to take some long naps over the next several days before I was back to normal.
Well there you have it - Japan: a delightful visit for you to enjoy!
The thing about Japan is, it's a lot of little things about the culture that are just so different, it adds up to a cool experience.
If you're considering a trip, I'd say if you can at all afford it, go. Disney fans owe it to themselves to see these 2 parks, because they're a very interesting interpretation of what Walt set out all those years ago.
Just remember, Disney! Pimsleur! Compass, compass, compass! ... onegai shimasu.