Friday, September 30, 2005

September 30, 2005

Strangely enough, we started today with breakfast at Subway. It seems so strange that I’m halfway across the world eating my usual Tuna Sub on Whole Wheat. And even here I had to ask for no cheese – why do people assume I want cheese on my tuna fish sandwich?? UGH.

After breakfast, we headed across the street to the Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi. Dad stayed out for a smoke while I began asking for my draft to be cashed. By the time he came in, the bankers were frazzled trying to explain that they couldn’t help me. I was upset, seeing as how my check says clearly on it “To: Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi LTD, Tokyo, Japan” and to charge the Toronto account of the TD bank at the Tokyo office. It seems that none of the banks in this country care what the checks say, without an account, they refuse to help me. But, they also won’t let me open an account with my passport, driver’s license, etc. Those documents aren’t quite legal here – only the forms from the Japanese government will do. So check in hand, but without any cash, any help, and any patience left, Dad demanded to see the bank clerk’s manager. He and the clerk actually raised their voices, he wanting the manager, she trying to explain that he didn’t speak any English. Finally, she gave up, most likely trying to save face, and brought her manager over. She then had to play interpreter between him and Dad.

First, we tried calling the TD bank in Vancouver, but for some reason, couldn’t get through. Then the bank manager tried talking to someone at another branch (I assume head office). Finally, he gave us an address for the TD bank in Tokyo. Surprised, Dad and I quickly left, headed to what we hoped would be a familiar sight after all of our banking frustrations.

As our taxi pulled into the financial district, the cab driver tried to explain that she didn’t know where the bank was, but that we were at the address we’d given her. We decided to ask at the post office, thinking they would be able to help us. One of the mail clerks actually showed me on a map where we were and where we were supposed to go. I vaguely understood – for those of you who don’t know, addresses here in Japan are random and not on any sort of gridline, so finding an unknown address is nearly impossible for foreigners, and still quite a feat for the locals – but we headed off in the right direction. Along the way, we passed a koban, police box, and I asked the police man inside. He showed me on a similar map, reassuring me that I was headed in the right direction. At a second post office along the way, I double checked that we were going somewhere nearby, and then Dad & I wandered around the buildings on the street we were supposed to be on, but couldn’t find the bank anywhere. Finally, I sat down in one of the phone booths and found the TD bank in the phone book. Luckily, someone at the bank spoke English and was able to explain which building they were in. Heading across the street, we found the building and caught the elevator up to the 11th floor where the bank was located.

It was not what we were expecting. Instead of the cheery receptionist and ticket windows we were used to, the bank wasn’t really a bank at all; the reception area had a telephone with a list of numbers to dial, but no secretary. There were doors, closed and securely locked, and 2 chairs beside a table with magazines about Vancouver. I tried reading the phone list and chose what I thought was the help button. A lady came into the room from the other side of the door, and tried to understand what we were doing there. She informed us that this particular TD branch dealt with only business matters, and they had no infrastructure in place to help individuals with personal banking problems. Seeing our frustrations, she decided to help us anyways. She took my check and went into her office, where she spent time on the phone with someone in the nearby Mitsubishi bank. After getting the help of 2 other women, they finally found someone who agreed to cash my check, despite the irregularity (apparently) of the request. Thanking her, we took the elevator back down to ground level and walked over to the Mitsubishi bank. Inside, it was a mad house. We had no idea where to go, but realized we were in the wrong place. I asked one of the bank workers and they explained we needed to go next door. At the next building, we went up to the 7th floor where we were told to find the bank, but when we got there, there was no bank whatsoever. Asking an office worker on the floor, she again told us we needed to go next door. Back at ground level, we took the third door to the building, and on the 7th floor, finally found the right place. We asked for the woman whose name we were given, and after greeting me, she took my check into the back to process. I was finally relieved at the though of getting my money. It should be no surprise then at how upset I got when she called me up to the window and explained that “the money wasn’t there”. Somehow, and her English skills were not strong enough to explain to me, the money that I used in Canada to buy my cheque on September 19th, was not in the account to be withdrawn on September 30th. If I ever have to deal with these banks again, I swear I am going to shoot somebody.

Stressed out and not in the mood to deal with anything, Dad & I crossed the street to cool down at Starbucks. He had a drink, I just glared at the bank through the window. He told me that he could afford to lend me the money I needed to buy my electronics, and after all the banking nonsense is figured out, I can pay him back. With this in mind, we headed to Akihibara, the famous Tokyo electronics district.

The district was incredible – everywhere we went, there was electronic after electronic, of every sort and brand name imaginable. Laptops, cameras, cell phones, dictionaries, mp3 players, stereos, hair dryers, appliances, etc. etc. etc. If only more people had spoken English… We ended up at a department store of types, called Llaox. There was a man named Suzuki-san, who had lived in California for years and spoke fluent English. Despite the fact that he actually worked for Yahoo BroadBand trying to sell internet, he took the time to help me find my electronic dictionary (Canon word tank G55, with the following dictionaries English, English-Japanese, Japanese-Japanese, Japanese-English, Katakana, Kanji, and both an English and Japanese thesaurus. The best feature is the English menu that saves me time when I’m not sure which dictionary to use), my laptop (Toshiba Dynabook Pentium M, 512 MB memory, 100 GB hard drive, 15.4 inch screen, Japanese operating system with Office 2003), and my power cord adaptor for electronics from back home. For Stephen, Dad got a new 60 GB IPod with an armband carrying case, and for himself, Dad got a new digital camera. Electronics here in Japan are so much cheaper due mainly to the fact that they are not imported and there are duty-free shops for all of the tourists (yay). With all of the money we saved, Dad & I were both happy to head home with our new purchases.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

September 29, 2005

I’m not entirely sure why, but today was a day that Dad let me sleep in. Normally, we have so many things planned in our days that I’m up at 8 am, to be down in the hotel restaurant by 9. Today, it was closer to 10 that I groggily sat up in bed, wondering what had happened. Knowing the chore that lay ahead of us, I guess he just decided to cut me a break; it was going to be laundry day in Kyoto.

Packing up all of our dirty laundry, we proceeded down to the lobby where our friendly doorman explained how to get to the coin laundry shop. Not clearly understanding him, and not wanting to carry our laundry down the streets of Kyoto, we took a cab. It was a good thing we did, because the laundry shop was located in the midst of an alley shopping arcade, as they call them in Japan, and we never would have found it on our own. The machines inside were of course, written completely in Japanese. Some handy pictures helped us guess what all of the settings were, and we started our washes, silently praying that everything would come out alright.

During our wash cycle, Dad & I explored the shopping. Instead of the usual souvenir vendors and tourist traps, this shopping street was geared towards locals and features vegetable marts, fresh fish, barbers, and all of the normal every day type accessories. It was nice to wander around, but we were finished with our shopping, so we left most of the store fronts empty handed. (I think Dad bought a coffee somewhere, and I had to buy a pencil & a notebook).

When we got back to our laundry, the wash cycle was stopped and we had to open and re-close the lid. I guess it waits to see if you want to put in fabric softener before the final rinse cycle, but we sat back and waited for the wash to finish. While we did so, a man came in with a laundry bag full of wet clothes. He put them into one of the 2 dryer machines, and disappeared. Unimpressed, Dad & I had to wait, sharing one drying for our two loads, making our laundry stint in Kyoto a 3 hour process instead of 2. As a result, by the time we got back to our hotel room, we had a message on the phone reminding us that it was our check out day. Glancing at the clock, Dad & I re-packed in record time, making it back down to the lobby ready for check out within 5 minutes. Besides our rushed pack and check out, I think I need to mention that our clothes were also still wet. Each drying cycle lasted about 20 minutes. I put mine in for 2 cycles, and Dad put his in for 2 as well, but stopped the load half way to take out some of the items. Neither of our clothes were dried after 2 cycles, and we had to deal with soggy clothes during our re-pack, and had to hang them up in the hotel room in Tokyo when we got there.

The trip to Tokyo was uneventful, other than the fact that the train ride from Kyoto to Tokyo is a popular one. The train was stuffed and we weren’t lucky enough to get a window seat, so we couldn’t even enjoy the scenery - the business man who was sitting beside me decided to close the window shade and nap during the trip. At Tokyo station, we had to transfer to the JR line, which took us to Yostuya station. From there, we were expected to walk to our hotel, which would have been fine if we’d had any idea where it was. Like usual, when there seemed to be no other options, we took a cab. The first thing Dad & I noticed was that cab fare in Tokyo, unlike everywhere else we’d been so far, began at 640\, an increase of nearly 100\. We drove past the imperial grounds, although all we could see were the trees, planted so close together than anything beyond them was imperceptible. Check in at the hotel was interesting, mainly because we checked in at the front lobby desk, and had to walk the 1 km THROUGH the hotel to the tower lobby, where a concierge helped us up to our room (on the 24th floor) of the tower. We were told that we could get everything we needed from the tower lobby, and that there would be no need to make the walk back through the hotel. What they forget to mention, was that in the tower, the lobby is on the 6th floor, and that after taking our elevator down to the lobby, we needed to leave the hotel via the convention center ped-way, and take either the escalators or elevators down to the ground level. This wasn’t such a big deal for me, but it seemed to cramp Dad’s style for his morning cigarette outing.

Our first hour in Tokyo, after checking in, was spent exploring the Hotel New Otani. The walk from the main lobby to the tower, where we were staying, was lined with glamourous shops, a restaurant/bar/lounge, and hundreds of hotel guests milling around. The convention center attached to our hotel made it a popular choice for business visitors to Japan, and the famous Zen Garden in the hotel’s back yard, made it popular among the tourists. The Zen garden featured a chapel, where daily services were offered and weekend weddings often took place.

Not wanting to venture far into Tokyo in the dark, we explored Akasaka Mitsune, the area near our hotel. We had an interesting dinner in a restaurant where nobody spoke a word of English, and the entire menu was written in Kanji. We ventured into our first Pachinko parlour, making it as far as the front entrance and then backing out again, and we visited a store specializing in African clothes & souvenirs – the last thing I expected to visit in Tokyo.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

September 28, 2005

Today was spent shopping in Gion. Considering the amount of time we spent there (six hours!!) we actually didn’t spend very much money. Mainly, our goal was to do some antiquing. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any idea where to start. Settling for what we knew, we returned to the Gion shopping district and wandered through the streets that looked strangely different during daylight hours. After a while, we veered down a new alley and found ourselves in front of the Royal Hotel Kyoto. Being daring, we went in and asked the hospitality desk staff for directions to some good antique shopping areas. They were helpful, pulling out a map and tracing our route for us. We thanked them, and headed across the river to an older section of the city.

The antique shops were gathered together across 2 streets. Each store was unique in the items inside, and the treasures were crammed one on top of the other. We took our time, milling our way through each store, searching for something special. Dad found a really old figuring made out of ivory, but the price was just a little too high for his tastes. Finally, after the stores all started to look alike, we found one specializing in antique screens. Climbing the stairs to the third floor, a sales clerk followed us up and helped us browse through their collection of nearly 100 screens. It was the best shopping we’d done all day – dad & I sat back in 2 comfortable chairs, and the poor salesman ran back and forth across the room grabbing various screens that seemed to match our requests, stretching them out across the room. Dad ended up choosing one of the first screens we’d seen, bringing us down to the main level, where we sat for another 1/2 hour waiting to hear about shipping and insurance for the screen. It was a great deal, and a beautiful screen. It will look great in Dad’s living room, and will be a permanent reminder of the 2 weeks he spent in Japan.

Following our antique shopping excursion, we had a quick lunch at Dad’s favorite, kaiten-zushi (rotating sushi), and then went back to the hotel to put our feet up. 6 hours of shopping may not sound exhausting, but we had no car with us, and we walked everywhere, something we were slowly getting used to.

Deciding to stay close to home, we spent the rest of our day planning out our trip to Tokyo. We took a dinner break, heading to the small ramen restaurant behind the hotel, but otherwise, we just sat in our hotel lobby, making ourselves comfortable.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

September 27, 2005

After our usual stint at the breakfast buffet, Dad & I headed off across the street to Nijo castle. Trying to be funny, we asked our friendly doorman for directions, and he seriously explained to us how to cross the street. Thanking him, and simultaneously rolling our eyes, we found our way to the front entrance and paid our entrance into the castle.

Compared to Himeji castle, which we’d visited only days before, Nijo-jo was not nearly as impressive. It had wooden floors that were built to produce sounds like singing nightingales when walked on. These floors were pretty cool in that they squeaked in an un-annoying way, and they probably worked well as an alarm system. After walking through the castle and getting over my initial excitement over the musical floor, I decided to be deviant and reach over the roping to touch one of the tatami mats. I’d seen them before, but never felt one. I was actually surprised at how smooth it felt. I’ll have to think about getting one for my room – they are supposed to help cool and de-humidify a room.

After the castle, we wanted to spend some time seeing something different, so we took the bus to the Japanese Botanical Gardens. Famous around the world, the gardens were incredible. Flowers and plants of all varieties were flourishing together with the gentlest of care. Japanese people of all ages were spread out throughout the gardens each appreciating the flora in their own way; some were drawing them, others photographing, and even others just picnicking in the park setting. One woman that seemed to get our attention was yelling out random things into the apparent space around her. We weren’t sure what her problem was, but it was a relief when she finally left and we could return to enjoying the surroundings.

Knowing that our tour at the Imperial Palace would be beginning at 2 pm (there are only 2 English tours available each day, at 10 am and 2 pm), we left the park with enough time to catch the bus and make it to the imperial grounds. Unfortunately, on my map it showed he imperial palace and park, but failed to point out where the main entrance was. When we got off our bus, we found ourselves at the far end of the Imperial Gardens, and had to hike across gravel paths for nearly a mile to reach the front gate. Once there, we were directed back to the street where an information desk issued us our permission forms to enter the grounds and then re-directed us back to the entrance. We met up with nearly 40 other tourists waiting for the tour to begin, and had just enough time to drink a bottle of water before the tour left.

Our tour guide was a Japanese woman, and despite her attempts, many of her English words were difficult to make out. Rather than listening to what she had to say, I just enjoyed the sights and tried to imagine what things were like back in the Heian era, which I learned so much about last year. It was crazy to think I was standing in the park where once upon a time, poetry contests were taking place. The tour lasted an hour, and afterwards, both Dad & I were exhausted from all of the walking and exploring we’d done that day. Deciding to splurge, we took an air-conditioned taxi ride back to the hotel. The cab driver was a man that spoke English, and engaged us in conversation for the car ride. We didn’t mind, but were happy to get back to the hotel and have time to put our feet up.

The rest didn’t last for long however, as we headed back out to Gion for a night of window shopping and searching for souvenirs. The Gion shopping district is famous for Pontocho alley, where souvenir shops are stacked one after the other between haute couture and pachinko parlors. We must have walked into every shop we passed, but managed to walk out with over half of the souvenirs we needed to purchase. The shopping was a nice change from sight seeing, and included people watching, as even the locals seemed to flock to the area for its booming night life and numerous restaurants.

Our evening ended with a traditional Japanese style dinner back at the hotel. We didn’t get to sit in the saiza style that the menu pictures suggested, but our meal was served by a kimono-clad woman and the meal itself included a number of traditional dishes. Neither Dad nor myself left the restaurant feeling very fulfilled. Our dinner, besides it’s beautiful presentation, was not very large, nor was it the type of food we’ve grown accustomed to here in Japan.

Monday, September 26, 2005

September 26, 2005

Rather than spending a mini-fortune at the hotel breakfast restaurant, we decided to grab something small (and delicious) at the bakery instead. Goodies in hand, we found seats in the hotel lounge where we shared a quiet breakfast with a bunch of business men working away at the next table. I’m not sure if I mentioned earlier or not, but while we were the Ana hotel in Hiroshima, we took advantage of the English speaking staff and had them book hotel rooms for the rest of our vacation. Therefore, when we headed back to the train station, it was with a sense of relief that we had a place to stay when we arrived in Kyoto.

The train ride did not take long, but because we had only had a small breakfast, Dad & I had different ideas of what we should do at the Kyoto train station. I wanted to find a good bento box, and he wanted to find a taxi to take us to the hotel. I decided to let him decide, tired of making all of the decisions. It turned out to be a good choice, because after checking in at the hotel, we went to the restaurant for lunch. I had the chef’s special, which was delicious. I wish I could read the kanji (Chinese characters) on the menus so that I knew what I was eating, but none the less, I enjoyed my meal. Afterwards, we went to the hotel’s information desk and a cute Japanese girl dressed up in her Kimono helped explain the Kyoto bus system to us. For 500\/day, we could buy a bus pass that would let us ride unlimited busses throughout the city, and each of the cities many attractions were on at least one of the bus routes. Deciding to try public transit, we bought bus passes for the day, and headed out into the city.

I need to take a moment to describe the doorman at the Ana Hotel Kyoto. The friendly Japanese man had spent 5 years prior in Southern California, and therefore took it upon himself to greet us at every opportunity. He happily shared his advice on where we should go, the best ways to get there, and usually offered us step by step directions. Whenever Dad would go outside for a cigarette (he never smoked in the hotel rooms), the doorman would chat with him, keeping him entertained. What we couldn’t get over, was his accent. I’ve been to southern California, on numerous occasions, and I can categorically say that the doorman’s accent was one I’ve never heard before. I could understand his English, but only after taking a moment to absorb the words. They seemed to come in a slew of sounds, and only after my brain took the time to separate them and make syllables could I make any sense out of them. The man was extremely helpful, and obviously good at his job, but still worth the mention because his bizarre accent was the last thing I expected to hear in Kyoto, the city of culture and history in Japan.

The first place we decided to visit in Kyoto, was Kitano Tenman-gu Shrine. Known for its shrine of the deity of learning, I was excited to go and start my year off at Chiba University with a bang. Dad was looking forward to the flea market that takes place in front of the shrine on the 25th of every month. Those of you on the ball will have realized that we were going on the 26th, and therefore couldn’t find the flea market. In all of our traveling and time changes, we had lost track of days and thought we were in Kyoto one day earlier than we were. Oh well, flea market aside, the shrine was an interesting experience. Dad performed his first Shinto ritual, and I prayed for success at school.


After Kitano, we decided to visit a Buddhist temple as a basis of comparison between the Shinto and Buddhist shrines. Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) was the logical choice, both in its proximity to Kitano and its famous gold plating. The entrance to the Buddhist temple was surprisingly similar to the Shinto shrine we had just visited. The differences lay inside the gates, beginning with the approach along a tree shaded path, and finishing with Mount Kinugasa, serving as a backdrop to the Zen garden, laid out along the central pond (again, quoting from my tour book).

After our visits to the Japanese religious centers, we decided to delve into elements of Kyoto culture with a visit to Gion. Every night, there is a special show offered to English speaking guests at a building called Gion Corner. The one hour long performance includes an introduction to the tea ceremony, a demonstration of Ikebana, a koto (Japanese harp) performance, and scenes from both a Kyogen and Bunraku play. Afterwards, Dad & I signed up for the re-introduction to tea ceremony, which involved a tea master and tea master’s student performing the ceremony with us. We got to learn how to prepare the ceremony, make the tea, and enjoy it. It was a fitting ending to a day filled with history and culture, although I’m not entirely a fan of matcha (the powdered green tea used in the tea ceremony.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

September 25, 2005

After a final breakfast buffet at the Ana Hotel Hiroshima, Dad & I once again returned to the train station. This time, we were headed to Himeji, a Japanese town made famous by its ‘ultimate Samurai castle’ (quoting my Japan Tourist Book). This is the same castle that Kurosawa used for Ran, and it was continually built during the time span of 1333-1618.

From the train station, it was about a 1 minute walk to the hotel, where we quickly dropped off our bags and caught a taxi to the castle. Rather than driving up to the castle gate, the driver dropped us off at the souvenir street across from the castle grounds, and we easily took advantage, wandering around admiring all of the Japanese keepsakes. As we crossed the street, we first had to take a walk across the moat (via bridge), enter through a heavily armored gate (open for tourists), and climb a hill that had a gentle incline for approximately 40 meters. It was at this point that we actually reached the entrance to the castle grounds, and of course, the ticket window. After paying our entrance fee and walking through the gate, a man dressed in traditional samurai clothes was volunteering for photos.

The castle itself was amazing; standing at 6 stories high, the building had so many rooms and intricacies that it was obviously a secure home for the samurai. The stairs were unbelievably steep, especially thinking back to how much shorter the Japanese people were ~700 years ago, and by the time Dad & I had climbed to the top of the castle, I think we both needed to sit down. The view from the top was also incredible. Himeji, the city, lies in the valley amidst a Japanese mountain range. We could see the ocean, the mountains and civilization all at once.

After admiring the view, we slowly began our descent in the castle. The stairs going down seemed even steeper than those going up, and at one point, I lost my balance. To keep myself from falling, I grabbed the handrail, and in the process, dropped my camera. The lens cap popped off, but the camera was otherwise unharmed. With the help of 4 Japanese teenagers, we searched high and low for the lens cap, but to no avail. I think my cap-less camera is unique, and depending how much Casio charges for a replacement part, I might just leave it as is.

Besides my little episode, our time in Himeji ran relatively smoothly. That is, until we got back to the hotel and decided we were hungry. We decided to walk back to the hotel (about 2 KM) through a sidewalk mall in Himeji. There were lots of interesting stores along the way, but only half of them were open. We weren’t sure why, but maybe the shop keepers take turns? Anyways, by the time we arrived back at the hotel, the only open restaurants were on the other side of the train station. This wasn’t a big deal, except that it wasn’t possible to walk through the station to the other side; we had to walk around the station to the overpass. After our 2 KM walk from the castle, not to mention all of the stairs, we were tired, but with out tummies grumbling, we went for dinner.

Again, the language barrier seemed as though it might cause an issue, but the restaurant we found had a large display of plastic food in their window. When the waitress understood that we couldn’t read the menu, she ushered us outside to point out whatever we wanted. The meal ended up being quite delicious, and included my first taste of green tea ice cream. Afterwards, we ran over to the internet café which was closing 10 minutes later and caught up on email. All in all, our day in Himeji was fascinating, including some of my favorite pictures of authentic Japanese artifacts.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

September 24, 2005

After our early night, we began Saturday in Hiroshima fairly early. Catching the breakfast buffet at the hotel, we filled our bellies and then walked back to the Peace Park we’d visited the night before. As it was our second visit, we knew we wanted to start at the A-bomb dome and work our way south. The dome is a famous landmark in the park. It is located almost directly under where the bomb was detonated, and was one of the few buildings left standing after the nuclear attack. Before the war, the building was known for its green marble dome roof, marking it as one of the first western style structures in Japan. After the bombing, all that remains of the dome is the metal framework, twisted from the heat of the radiation, and rubble on what was once the floor of the domed building. The pictures I took barely express the devastation that is apparent by the remains of this building, but it makes it possible to imagine what is versus what was.

From the dome, we visited the children’s memorial site. When the bomb struck, thousands of children were attending classes and performing street clearing work in the areas surrounding the a-bomb dome. The monument is dedicated to these children that perished within instants of the detonation, as well as those that died in the hours and days that followed. Surrounding the monument are cases filled with paper cranes from around the world, and signs explaining that schools and children around the world continue to send paper cranes to Hiroshima as a symbol of peace and prayer for the children. The miniature bell within the monument is almost heartbreaking, while its size symbolizes the helplessness of the children compared to the larger memorial bell located across the park. I suppose it also stands to remind us of all the innocent lives that were ended during the war.

Wanting to take a break from the heat and sun, we headed underground to the Hiroshima/Nagasaki museum. Entrance to the museum in free, and pamphlets in over 20 languages explain the purpose of the museum, which is to memorialize the events of the a-bombings. The museum was filled with people reading each of the displays and examining the written diaries of the war victims. The rooms were also filled with silence, as we again reflected internally on the lives that were lost. The displays included diary excerpts that explained life in Hiroshima before the bombings. The city lived in constant fear of impending bombings, with air raid warnings continually going off and children taken from their classrooms to help clear streets to prevent the spreading of fires. Ironically, before the a-bomb, Hiroshima was left intact, allowing the fear to escalate while the destruction remained imminent. The testimonies of parents and children who witness the bomb’s detonation were horrific. They had no words to describe it, and no way to know what it meant. Their testimonies, however, included pictures, both hand drawn and photographed, of the devastation of Hiroshima. Amidst the destruction were bodies, crushed under collapsed buildings and melted from the heat of the bomb. Those that were left standing were scarred beyond recognition, with skin hanging off their bones and their features distorted by the radiation. Memories recalling the pain of the dying victims recalled dozens of them begging for water as they died, wanting only to cool their burning skin and throats in their last precious moments of life.

The museum, more-so than the park, was a sobering experience. As we returned to ground level, neither Dad or myself had much to say, just trying to absorb everything we’d read and learned about the bombing. We passed by the eternal flame, which we’d seen the night before, and hoped that the peace museum would raise our spirits. For a nominal fee, we were each given a headset with English explanations of displays and models throughout the museum. The museum was crowded with people and we slowly worked our way through over 40 exhibits depicting life before, during, and after the bombing of Hiroshima, including a section devoted to Japan’s ever-growing request for disarmament and peace throughout the world. Every time a nuclear weapon is tested, the Japanese president writes a letter begging the country to cease their tests and disarm their weapons. A copy of each of these letters was included in the museum, as well as video footage of the 60th anniversary festivities from the Peace Park last year. As we left the museum, I was reminded of my own Babi’s struggles to share her wartime experiences in the hopes that future atrocities may be avoided, as well that the voices of WWII are slowly fading and the burden of change lies on our shoulders.

Friday, September 23, 2005

September 23, 2005

Friday the 23rd was a day spent traveling from Narita to Hiroshima. Beginning with the courtesy bus at the hotel, we went back to Narita airport, where we could catch the express train for Tokyo. We had no idea that there was a subway station in the basement of the airport terminal, but the concierge at the Hilton was helpful in explaining how to get down south. During our first exposure to the Tokyo Metro, we were thankfully only transferring from the Narita Express (N’ex), to the bullet train (Shinkansen), which were located on the same level. There was a ticket office on the way, and the girl at the ticket window spoke English. We ordered our tickets, choosing reserved seats in a non-smoking car, and we were shuffled into the waves of people heading from one train to another. After boarding our bullet train, we got to lie back and literally, enjoy the ride.

The train moved at near-lightening speed (it isn’t called a bullet train for nothing), and we made it to Hiroshima in less than 3 hours. There were a few stops along the way, but we were at each station for a maximum of 1 minute – just long enough for people to exit and enter the train. Between stops, a train employee walks by all the new passengers and checks their tickets, and others push food & beverage trolleys through the aisles. Despite our snack on the train, when we arrived in Hiroshima, we were famished. Unsure of where we would stay, we decided to find a hotel before finding lunch, and so we headed towards the first hotel we could see, the Hotel Granvia Hiroshima. The air-conditioning was a godsend, and we thankfully dropped our bags on the luggage cart that the bellhop rushed over to us with. We walked up to the counter, asked for a room, and were disappointed to hear that the hotel had no available rooms. They gave us a tourist map labeled “Guide to Downtown Hiroshima” and made it clear we were to leave the counter. In the lobby, there were a number of payphones, so after purchasing a 1000\ (10$) phone card, I sat in the booth calling hotels listed on the guide map. The first few had nobody that could speak English. Then, the hotel clerks that I could communicate with told me that their hotels were booked up. As the minutes ticked by, and our patience fled, we finally got through to the Hiroshima Green Hotel that explained they had a room. Hanging up the phone, we practically sprinted to the nearest exit and had the bellhop hail us a cab. Asking the driver to take us to the Gu-rin Hoteru and pointing the hotel out on the map, we sat back hoping we would have a place to sleep for the night. Neither of us had expected Hiroshima to be so busy in the end of September, but I guess Japanese families like to take weekend vacations down south.

On the map, our hotel looked like it would be a 5-10 minute drive. Therefore, after 15 minutes in the cab, we were naturally concerned, and asked the driver where the hotel was. He pointed to a palace up the road and said “Prince Hotel, there”. Dad & I looked at each other, me panicking, and him, upset. The cab driver could sense that there was a problem, but couldn’t understand as I repeatedly said GREEN hotel. I tried the Japanese word for green, Midori, but since he had no idea that the word green meant the colour green, that only complicated matters. Dad went into the hotel to see if they had rooms, which they didn’t. Although, judging by the outside of the hotel (I did call it a palace, didn’t I?), we couldn’t have afforded them anyways. Finally, one of the hotel clerks seemed to catch on that we were at the wrong hotel, and pulled out a Japanese version of our map. She and driver finally figured out which hotel we meant, and after getting back into the taxi, we were yet again, on our way. The cab driver had refused to take Dad’s money at the Prince hotel, and instead, re-started the fare as we left towards our initial destination. We were still frustrated, but glad to be on our way. As we pulled up to the green hotel, we were both relieved to see that it was in a central location (unlike the Prince Hotel which was so far off our map we weren’t sure where it was), but the cab driver again refused to take our money, making sure we were content with the hotel and then leaving before we could ask to go anywhere else. The free cab ride seemed to make up for the ‘detour’, and we were appeased.

Walking into the Green Hotel, we knew we were in for another adventure in our visit to Hiroshima. The hotel had two girls working at the front desk, one of which spoke English. We explained to her that we had called earlier, and wanted the twin room (room with 2 beds). She explained to her partner, and they apologetically explained that they did not have any available, and were we interested in a double room (one queen size bed). Explaining that we were parent & child, they looked appropriately embarrassed. We asked about 2 single rooms, thinking that it was better than sleeping on the street, and they quickly accommodated us, having us each fill out a room registration form. Taking our keys, we rode the elevator up to the sixth floor and headed to our rooms. In my room, I was relieved to put my backpack down, and enjoyed the few moments of air conditioning. Dad, however, was less than pleased with his room. Claiming that there was a ‘smell’, we went back down to the lobby and asked the girls to help us find a room where we could stay together. For over 30 minutes, the 2 girls phoned each of the hotels on our guide map, asking for rooms with 2 beds. There were rooms available at the Japanese style hotels (ryokan), but these did not have bathrooms in our room – they had communal bathrooms. Unimpressed, we had the girls continue calling the Western style hotels, until finally, they found us a room at the Hiroshima Ana Hotel. When the cab came to pick us up, Dad insisted on giving the girls a tip (there is a no-tipping custom in Japan), but after all the time they had spent finding us a room at another hotel, we felt we had to thank them.

The Ana Hotel was one of the hotels that I had originally called, but instead of a simple twin room, what they had available was one of their executive suites, which besides 2 queen size beds, included a working station (desk, drawers, chair), a meeting area (sofa & chair), a bathroom that was larger than our rooms at the Green Hotel, that included a state of the art toilet, an oversize bathtub, and a shower with 4 separate sprayheads. I wish I had the words to properly describe this bathroom, but I’ll have to make-do with “Wow”. The toilet, to begin with, had an automatic sensor that would lift the lid when you turned on the light. There was a button on top of the water tank lid that would have the seat raise up or down depending on your preference. The seat itself was heated, and included a panel on the wall with the following functions. Air freshener, auto-flush (大big, or 小small), bidet (with adjustable water pressure & temperature), air dryer (with adjustable temperature & speeds), and a number of other buttons that I couldn’t understand without a dictionary. The washing area had it’s own door, which opened into the showering niche and then the tub. The shower had an overhead adjustable sprayer, a hand-held sprayer that could be turned on at will, and 3 water sprayers that were wall mounted & facing out. The shower was glorious, and included water pressure that reminded me of home (Edmonton, not Calgary). Besides the amenities in our room, the hotel itself had 3 restaurants to choose from, English speaking staff, and was located 2 blocks away from the Peace Park. I promised Dad that I wouldn’t mention how much the hotel room cost us for our visit to Hiroshima, but it was well worth it.

Because of the time spent finding a room for the night, by the time we could begin to explore Hiroshima, it was already dusk. Our first goal was to find a place to eat, which we did at the hotel buffet restaurant, and then we were off to the Peace Park. I had no idea how large it would be, and we spent over an hour just wandering around reading all the signs at each monument and being awed by the serenity of the park. There were some Japanese musicians playing guitars and singing on one of the river banks, but otherwise, everyone was so quiet. I guess the reality of standing in Hiroshima inspires internal reflection, just thinking about the horrors of atomic warfare and the inspiring re-birth of the Peace Park. As we left the park, we both agreed to return in the morning to see it in daylight, and to walk through the museums. Thank goodness we had comfortable beds to return to – we were exhausted.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

September 22, 2005

After 14 hours spent sleeping in our Narita hotel room, Dad & I were raring to go. After a brief stop at the breakfast buffet, we hopped into a cab headed to the university dormitories. We had no idea where we were going, nor did we have any idea how far it was to Chiba University. As the cab driver maneuvered from one freeway to the next, we watched his taxi meter climb higher and higher. By 5,000\ (50$) we knew we were in trouble. When the taxi driver pulled into a police-guarded compound, Dad & I looked at each other not sure what was going on. As it turned out, the driver was looking for directions, since he was a Narita local and didn’t know the Chiba University area. By the time we finally found the University International House, the cab far was over 10,000\ (100$) and we were far from the one place we knew in Japan – the Narita Hilton.

Walking into the dormitory, a Japanese woman approached us, seeming to know who we were. She showed us a room where we could put my 2 suitcases, and then told us that there were “no procedures” for that day. Not understanding, and not wanting to leave my suitcases unattended in a room for 2 weeks, we pleaded for someone who spoke English to come and help us. A younger girl, probably one of the students, came down and explained to me that because they had expected us the day before, there was nobody available to go through introductory procedures. My suitcases would be put into the main office storage area while I was away, and she let me put my name on them for added security. We thanked her, and because she had to take a phone call from another student, all she could do was hand us a simple map to use to navigate over to the university as we walked out the door.

The university residence is a 3-5 minute walk to the train/subway station. The university is one station further away. Dad & I decided to use the train, but somehow, we missed a turn and ended up walking the 20 minutes to the University. We didn’t mind, since we got to experience what the walk would be like, but the lack of English on campus was a bit alarming. We finally found the International Center on campus and they helped lead us to the nearby train station, where we ventured on our first ever Japanese ‘outing’. At the train station, we decided to stop for a beverage at Doutour, a ‘gourmet’ coffee shop where I had to rapidly access sections of my old Nakama memories in order to order Dad’s coffee and my orange juice. I thought it was a bit strange when they had me specify hot or cold coffee, but we soon learned this would be a VERY common question.

After our coffee outing, we ventured into the train station. Finding our way around wasn’t as difficult as I’d been expecting, everything was written out in Kanji (the Chinese characters) and in Romaji (English phonetics). The tickets are priced according to the travel distance, and you pre-pay at automatic ticket machines that have English available to help. Above the ticket machines is a very detailed map, listing each stop and the ticket price to get there. We felt like pros as we purchased our tickets and followed the thrones of people headed down the stairs to the train platforms. We only went as far as the 2nd station, but at least our first JR experience was a pleasant one. The outing continued as we got off the train and headed towards the exit. To our surprise, the tickets that we had used to enter the train needed to be put through the machines to exit as well. Fortunately, we both still had them in our pockets, and after we inserted them, the gates let us pass. We followed the signs to the exit, and found ourselves in a pseudo-metropolis. The sidewalk level of the train station opened out into a mini-shopping mall. There were street vendors, and food counters, a flower shop and a convenience store. Not sure where to start, we walked through the food market, too unsure of ourselves to taste any of the free samples. We finally decided on ramen and walked through the curtain into the noodle shop. Ordering ramen in Japan is not as simple as sitting at a table with a menu – there is a machine, somewhat like the train ticket machines, where you pick your meal and purchase a meal ticket. Unfortunately, none of the options are written in English, and with my limited Kanji knowledge, our choices were reduced to the few Katakana items on the menu. Dad had the Yakisoba, and I tried Miso Ramen. It was delicious. I’d even go so far as to say that it has been one of the best meals I’ve had here in Japan, and thank goodness the station is in Chiba – I’ll be able to go back whenever I want.
As we finished lunch, we decided to find the nearest bank and open a bank account. Mizuho Financial, kiddie corner to Chiba station, was a zoo. From the moment we walked in, to the moment we walked out, there were 4 bank employees calling out Irashaimase (welcome) and running around like lost children. They were giving out numbers to everyone based on their banking needs. When banking windows became available, these women would usher the customers over and move on to the next one. They had very limited English, but the woman trying to help us was able to run into the back and find a man who could serve us. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much he could do, and worst of all, his English wasn’t strong enough to explain why he couldn’t help us. Frustrated, Dad & I left Mizuho and went down the street to Chiba Bank. We encountered the same problem at this bank, but instead, the man who helped us spoke flawless English and was incredibly helpful. All registered visitors to Japan are responsible for going to one of the political offices and obtaining an Alien Registration Card. Because I am getting one after I move into the University Dormitory, I didn’t have my ID card. Without it, the bank could not help me open an account. Without an account, there was no way they could deposit or cash my bank draft, and I was therefore S.O.L. I wasn’t happy, but at least I understood. I’ve since decided that I will do my banking at Chiba bank, but until October, my funds for Japan are very limited.

After our disappointing banking experience, Dad & I caught the express train from Chiba to Narita. It wasn’t a very exciting trip, but way cheaper than the cab ride. At Narita station we were able to catch a bus which took us back to our hotel. We did so after exploring downtown Narita for a while and strolling through a street which we dubbed ‘Souvenir Alley’.

All in all, our Narita visit was more functional than entertaining, but it was a necessary stop on our transition from Canada to Japan.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

irashaimase

One day down, a whole bunch more to go. Dad & I arrived in Japan after a long day of travel. Up at 5:30 am, and across the street from the airport hotel to stand in line at the United Airlines counter. We were some of the lucky ones - the 7:40 flight to Chicago was delayed until 10. I can't imagine being up and at the airport that early to find out you were stuck there an extra 4 hours. We got through check-in without any hassles, and we were surprised by the help we got placing our luggage on the baggage conveyer belt. (Did I mention my insanely heavy suitcases?) As we approached the customs line-up, Dad detoured into the duty-free shop to buy his carton of cigarettes for the trip. While I waited, I emptied my pockets, remembering past airport moments of beeping when I walked through the metal detectors. What I didn't count on, however, was that when I got through, they would want to look through my carry-on bag. I didn't mind, in fact, I'd rather they looked through any bags they thought looked suspicious, but when the lady insisted my sewing kit scissors were a threat to the airplane security, I couldn't help but roll my eyes. Let's hope I have no sewing emergencies before I hit a 100 yen store. Waiting for the plane was uneventful, and boarding was too. The flight to San Francisco was about 2.5 hrs, and I managed to get some sleep while Dad browsed the sky-mall magazine. When we landed in San Fran, he'd picked out a bunch of stuff he wanted to buy. Thankfully, he forgot the magazine on the plane.

At the airport, we had almost 2 hours before our next flight, so we headed over to the food kiosk for breakfast. We each had a bagel & cream cheese, not realizing it would most likely be my last for the next year. We walked the mile or so to the international terminal, stopping once again at duty-free, but this time, I walked out with the purchase - sort of. I bought myself some clinique make-up remover and they wouldn't let me have it until boarding. I guess they're worried about the massive numbers of people trying to screw the system with their duty free makeup remover products. Waiting to board the Japan bound flight, we people watched and tried to figure out how full the flight would be. Dad managed to talk one of the air flight attendants into changing our seats - we got updated to Economy Plus, (an extra 5 inches of leg room between rows) and we got a row of 3 seats for ourselves. Thank god, because it was a 10.5 hr flight. I made good use of the seats, as a tossed and turned through 1 cheesy movie, one good movie that I'd already seen, and one terrible movie. The airplane food was to be expected, terrible, and after 4 cans of pepsi, the bathroom experience was about the same. I think it might have been my first time brushing my teeth on the airplane, but it needed to be done. By the time we arrived at Narita airport, Dad & I had been travelling for nearly 24 hrs, and we still had to make it to the hotel.

We thought the walk in San Fran was long, and we were wrong. 2.5 miles or so walking behind many tired old co-passengers, and we arrived at the Japanese customs desks and a line up of nearly 200 people. I didn't count, and I didn't have to. The sign we passed only 2 minutes into the line let us know we had a 45 minute wait ahead of us. Standing with our carry on luggage, sweating in the heat and humidity, the line up was not a pleasant experience. After 10 hours on a plane, the collection of body odours in line up left something to be desired, and the escalating length brought a police-style guard to the front of the line to make sure everyone had their customs form filled out properly. He thankfully moved the line along faster than it was moving otherwise, and by the time we got through, we had cooled down. Our luggage was already off the baggage racks and waiting for us, so it was easy to put it onto a stroller and walk through the baggage claim desks. By the time we finally crossed over to Japanese territory (outside of the international terminal), our travelling time had surpassed 24 hours and we were both cranky and disoriented. For some unexplaining reason, I decided to not take a taxi, and made Dad wait with me to take the hotel courtesy bus to the hotel. Unfortunately, the first Hilton bus that showed up was for airflight crew only. The second was for crew and passengers from Korean Air. By the time a bus arrived that we could take, another 45 minutes had passed, and the bus was long overdue. Ahead of us were a Korean tour group, and although we tried to by-pass them at the hotel front doors, they beat us into the check-in line and once again, we had to wait. As the front desk clerks whisked through the tour group, we patiently waited for our turn, and thankfully, were upgraded to a deluxe room for our Narita stay. The deluxe room, as it was described to us, had 10 square feet more space than the regular rooms, and was only an additional 17 dollars a night. Dad decided to splurge. For the record, the regular rooms are 25 square feet. Total.

The tiniest little Japanese girl helped us with our luggage. She put it all onto a luggage cart, and tried her hardest to maneouver the beast of a thing around the corner and into the elevator. Feeling sorry for her, Dad helped her push the cart to our room, and we each grabbed a suitcase after we'd gotten inside. By the time the girl had explained the rooms intricate light and heat operations, neither of us had the energy to unpack. Wanting nothing more than to sleep, we forced ourselves to stay awake long enough so that I could take a quick shower and we could eat dinner. Too tired to leave the hotel (and not to mention scared of getting lost in Japan) we ventured into the Japanese style restaurant. Given the choice of restaurant or sushi bar, I chose the bar, where we spent a half hour alone with the sushi chef eating to our hearts content. I think we amused the man as he patiently explained what each of the items in the window were and prepared our selections for us. When I tried to ask if we'd ordered enough for 2, our first language mishap was apparant when he called not only one, but two hostesses/waitresses in to try and figure out what we'd asked. Dad made things simple by ordering a side dish of rice, and we left it at that. We drudged our way back to our room, and into bed we went. Dad was out like a light instantly. I read about a page of my book and was likewise, and all by 7:30 pm.
Dad was up at 3:30, and went back to sleep around 4. I slept through the night except for a minute or two when he came into the room after a venture down to the lobby. At the door to our hotel room is a slot with the instructions to "please insert room key". When dad took the key out and headed downstairs, the power to the room was disconnected. By inserting the key back into the slot, the power came back on, and it came on with a vengeance. Every light in the room came on at full brightness around 4 in the morning, just long enough to wake me up and for Dad to rush around turning them each off again. I rolled back over and was out until 8:30 that morning, and Dad was up shortly afterwards at 9.

So much more to share, but I'm tired of typing, and have to be up early tomorrow morning to leave for Hiroshima. Maybe there will be internet on the train tomorrow, or else I'll catch everyone up later.

By the way, I got ahold of Mariko & she sounds good. She and her boyfriend are going on a vacation to Okinawa next week and we'll get together sometime afterwards!

Monday, September 19, 2005

destination: nippon

In less than an hour, Mom will be here to pick Dad & I up and drive us to the airport hotel. Our adventure begins tomorrow morning at 4 am, and neither of us wanted to waste 45 minutes driving from home at that time of day. I can barely believe that in 24 hours I'll be somewhere over the Pacific, hopefully fast asleep. My luggage for the trip consists of 2 giant suitcases.. One holds the majority of my clothes, some old Japanese textbooks, and miscellaneous accessories. It weighs about 3 tons, and I'm glad Dad's coming with me or I'd be royally screwed. The second suitcase seems as stuffed but weighs much less. Inside, it's got a huge backpack - packed for Dad's & my 2 weeks vacation. I also stored some towels & other goodies for my dorm room, and a few pairs of shoes. I'm only taking 6 pairs with me, which may seem extravagant, but try to remember that it will be impossible for me to buy shoes in Japan, and I'm there for an entire year.

My carry on has some books for the plane, my first aid kit, toilettries (toothbrush, toothpaste, etc) and a sewing kit. I also included my new digital camera, and my MP3 player, in case the on-flight music selection leaves something to be desired. Because we're staying at the hotel tonight, I also included a change of clothes for tomorrow, and some other day-to-day necessities.

After I blog this entry, I will not have computer or internet access for an indeterminate amount of time. I hope everyone will keep me up to date on what's happening in their lives, and when I'm back online, I'll do the same. The time difference between Alberta & Japan is +16 hours, so when we arrive there at 3pm Wednesday, Japan time, it will be 11pm Tuesday so don't plan on hearing from us until Wednesday afternoon at the earliest.

Other than that, Stephen will be at home taking care of Brandy & Karma. He's still working 6 days a week, so anyone that wants to help take the dogs for a walk, let him know.

~Sayonara~

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

ahhhhhhh

So much to catch up on, so little time. I have to leave for work in less than 10 minutes so here goes...
  • Got my filling at the dentist yesterday - I'm not sure what all the fuss is about? The freezing was a bizarre sensation, and I didn't feel a thing afterwards. The hardest part of the whole thing was keeping my mouth open wide enough for him, but the whole procedure took less than 5 minutes so even that wasn't so bad. The cavity may have won this round, but somehow I think I still came out on top.
  • Today is my last day of work.. There's a few people I've met at the cup that I'll miss this year, so a quick shout out to them. *I'll send postcards*
  • After the second flood at dad's, we're waiting for the insurance company to come through yet again. My closet was unharmed so tonight Dad & I are assembling the Home Depot project. If everything goes well, I should be able to unpack (from June) and repack in time for Japan. I don't really have much choice so cross your fingers for me!
  • Wednesday the 14th is confirmed-- I'll be in Edmonton around 2-ish, but I'll be at my old condo doing a little more packing (sigh). Jonah's bris is at 5 at the synagogue on Jasper, and after that I'm having a dinner party (in my honor) at 6. There have been ZERO suggestions as to where to have it, so I get to pick. I'm thinking Julio's on Whyte. Also, I'll be spending the night in a hotel somewhere around there, and anyone who wants to crash is welcome - marguaritas + driving = NONONONONONO!
  • The Saturday open house (on the 17th) is in Calgary. I was unclear in my email, and need to explain. It will be at my dad's house in CALGARY, and while everyone is invited, I don't expect friends from Edmonton to drive in for it. That's why you all have to come to dinner on the 14th, Wednesday, at Julio's on Whyte. Say, 6 o'clock?
  • Eeep, I just saw the clock, I gotta dash. Miss you all!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

oh

and by the way, Mom's move was totally successful, she's all settled in to her new place which is fabulous, and Steve & I are both back at Dad's. The carpet is in, the walls are painted, and baseboards are going up today & tomorrow - which means we can set up our furniture. Woohoo!!

It's a boy!

Yesterday afternoon, after 30 hours of labour and 4 days after her due date, Marnie gave birth to an over 8 lb baby boy. He was so large that they had to make a last minute C-section decision, but everything went smoothly, or so I heard. No word on the bris yet, but according to my calculations, the bris will fall on Wednesday the 14th. As soon as I get confirmation, I'll announce officially when I'll be in Edmonton for a visit.

I finally got my certificate of eligibility from the international center. This is the form I needed to go and apply for my Japanese visa, and after 2 weeks of waiting for it, I called Rania (my contact at the I.C.) and asked where it was. "Oh, I'm so sorry Cori, I thought it went out weeks ago but it's still here on my desk. I'll fed-ex it to you right away."

Grrrr.

So I expected it the next day - it didn't come. This morning, I came upstairs just before noon, and as I was about to call Rania back again a purolator truck showed up. With my eligibility form in hand, I was off to the consulate's office. I'll have to go back next thursday to pick up my Visa & Passport (which I had to leave there for them to process the visa), but that still leaves me 5 days before I leave the country. Here's to not leaving things to the last minute. *cheers*

Finally, I wanted to say to everyone that I won't be seeing in Edmonton - September 17th between noon and 5 pm, I will be having an open house at Dad's place for farewells & other goodbyes. Come and go as you please, and all family/pets/friends are welcome. I hope to see everyone there!