Sunday, December 28, 2014

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 11/5 - Day 20 - Ueno Park, Vintage Shopping and Curry

Breakfast today was again on the 30th floor dining room at the Grand Pacific Le Daiba hotel. This time we had a table that directly overlooked the harbour. With our remaining day in Tokyo we did a few less obvious things in the city...
We headed out to Ueno, another large neighborhood in Tokyo. Our original goal was Ueno Park, but we became sidetracked in doing some off-Ginza shopping in some of the side streets in the Ueno area. It was a little cooler and Sean hadn't brought a sweater, so he picked up a hoodie with some lovely bad English translations on it. I believe it says "Attention No Section GH University" Which I'm pretty sure is not a real place. (The closest thing I could get in a Google search was the University of Ghana.) Feeling slightly reenergized by shopping, we ventured off to Ueno Park.
Ueno Park is a large public park in the Ueno neighborhood, and home to several museums including the Tokyo National Museum, the National Gallery of Western Art and the Tokyo Science and Nature Museum. By now the leaves in Tokyo were starting to change a bit more, but they hadn't taken on the fiery oranges and reds that we had hoped for coming to Japan in the fall. It was still a very scenic place and worth a walkthrough.
Life-sized sculpture of a Blue Whale in front of the Tokyo
Museum of Science and Nature
We chose the Science and Nature museum as our musée du jour but as this is day 19 of our trip, we were pretty well exhausted going into it (the extra shopping energy had started to fade.) The rooms were warm, and there were a lot of examples of the geological and fossil history of Japan. I'm sure it would have been fascinating if A: anything had been in English, and B: we were touring it at any other time in the trip but the last day of the last leg. Still, one of the up-moments was a 360 degree movie theatre that presented two short films (both in Japanese of course), one of which was about the creation of the universe, big bang and all, and the other was about the rise of the evolution of man. They were both bombastic and spectacular, though the computer graphics were a tiny bit dated. We struggled through about half of the rest of the museum before retreating to the cafe for a coffee - a vain attempt to recapture some energy that failed. Sitting in the cafe, we decided that our best course of action was to continue to do the one thing that had energized us
A friend of ours spent some time in Tokyo last year and had recommended a shopping area known for vintage clothing, so we decided to hit up Shimo-kitazawa (charmingly ‘Lower North Swamp’). The vintage stores come at you right outside the subway stop, so we pretty much plunged immediately into shopping. Sadly, after a few hours of wandering in and out of little boutiques, neither of us came up with any treasure, but it was still a fun experience.
Tonkatsu curry with vegetables at CoCo Ichi
The last thing we had in mind for the day was eating some authentic diner curry. Diner curry is a staple of the Japanese businessman – much milder of spice, though often equal in spiciness, to Indian or southeast Asian curry. We decided on a chain, because it actually had pretty rave reviews in Trip Advisor, and went to CoCo Ichi, just outside of Shibuya station. I had a vegetable and tonkatsu curry at spice level 3, Sean had a vegetable and chicken katsu at spice level 2. The scale goes up to 10, but they won’t even serve you spice level 6 or higher until you’ve proven you can eat 5. While it was a little disconcerting seeing them cut open curry bags and tonkatsu bags and dumping things into pots and deep fryers, the end result was actually pretty darn good. Either the standard for fast food is higher in Japan (which is doubtful considering Burger recently released an All Black Hamburger there), or I don’t know good curry from shine-ola, or CoCo-Ichi makes legitimately good curry in their little plastic bags. Who knows?
Tomorrow is our last day, and it’s dedicated more or less entirely to travel. In fact, it’s really two days of travel, because we gain a day back when we cross the International Date Line. All in all our travel time door to door back home is going to be something along the lines of 20 hours. Needless to say I’ll be waiting until Friday to write my summary post.
Until then, goodnight good readers.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 11/4 - Day 19 - Old Wood and New Land

Anyway, our hotel is very nice, and we have a great view of Tokyo Harbour from our 24th floor room.  There's even a tiny replica of the Statue of Liberty sitting right at the edge of the water. Tonight we decided to stick around Daiba. Nothing in this town is at ground level except parking. Everything is accessible via 2nd or 3rd floor walkway, and its all modern malls and restaurants. There are very few mom and pop places around here. There's even a small replica State of Liberty sitting by the bay. For dinner we went to a branch of the famous Gonpachi restaurant, known for being the inspiration for the restaurant fight scene from Kill Bill. To be honest, while the food was good, the whole place felt like a sort of facade of a real Japanese restaurant - everything seemed faked - like the Rio Bravo of Japanese cuisine. The food wasn't *bad*, but it wasn't spectacular, aside from a lovely expensive chunk of wagyu beef we enjoyed (certainly not the highest grade of wagyu, but great nonetheless.)

Horyuji Kondo with 5-Story Pagoda in the background
We needed to be back in Tokyo at some point today, but didn't really want to spend two entire days exploring there again, so we opted to take a side trip to the little town of Ikaruga, halfway between Nara and Osaka, to visit Horyuji Temple, the world's oldest surviving wooden structure.
Horyuji was created by a rich old dying emperor, as a way to heal himself. He died shortly after it was finished, so I guess it didn't work out for him...or perhaps it did, in an existentially ironic sort of way. Anyway, the end result is impressive nonetheless, as Horyuji has survived for more than 1300 years and was fairly untouched by war and fire. There is an interesting museum there, housing hundreds of priceless cultural artifacts, and the grounds are extensive, having two unique precincts, east and west, and covering about 187,000 square meters.
The most impressive structure is probably the main hall, or Kondo, which houses several bronze statues and some original wall paintings which are in pretty good shape given their pronounced age. The Kondo also features intricately carved wooden gargoyles in the shapes of dragons and lions on the awnings and columns. Horyuji as a whole is very well maintained. It certainly looks old, but it doesn't look delapidated. It was definitely worth the hour it took to get out there.
Replica Statue of Liberty at Daiba,
 with Rainbow Bridge in background
Horyuji viewed and appreciated, we went our way back to Osaka to retrieve our bags from their storage lockers at the train station, then proceeded back on the Shinkansen to Tokyo. Three hours later we arrived in the city and spent the next half hour trying to figure out how to get to our hotel in the neighborhood of Daiba, which is right on Tokyo harbour. The most efficient route to get there is on a private train line and after wandering the JR station for a while, then scouring their website, we discovered through a series of pictorial clues, that there was a completely separate station for the line, called the Yurikamome. We left the JR station and figured out our route. The Yurkiamome or Tokyo Waterfront New Transit Line is known for having a big loop midway through it. We can only guess that this seemingly inefficient design is due to the need to align the track both horizontally and vertically to a large bridge that crosses the harbour, but it seems like a waste of construction and time.
Daiba is built on reclaimed land from the harbour and is a brand new area compared to just about everywhere else in Tokyo. Until the 1990's Daiba was a series of more or less disconnected man-made islands in the harbour. But in the early part of the 90's the governor of Tokyo began an initiative to turn Daiba into a futuristic concept city called Tokyo Teleport Town. Several years and more than 1 trillion yen later, the governor's successor shit-canned the project, and Daiba remained unfinished and underpopulated. Daiba is still pretty empty compared to the rest of Tokyo, but it's slowly starting to develop, and is part of Japan's bid for the 2020 Summer Olympic games.
Tomorrow is our last day in Tokyo. We don't have any solid plans and we're both pretty exhausted at this point, but we're determined to do something with our last full day of our time in Japan. Until then, it's time for a nap.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Hawaii and Japan, 2014 - 11/3 - Day 18 - Osaka On-Day

Osaka Castle - Bigger on the Outside
We ate breakfast in the apartment, having purchased eggs, ham and bread at a convenience store nearby the night before. We discovered this morning that Sean's iPhone had been damaged in a freak...bathing...condensation...accident and was no longer functioning properly. This is never good news, but particularly frustrating on a long overseas trip. He took the catastrophe fairly well, and we'll get it replaced when we get back to the states. In the meantime, I have the only working source of maps and information.
We took the subway to Osaka castle, one of the other major sights we had in mind for the Osaka leg of our trip. Osaka castle is the most *castle* looking of the castles we've seen so far. When we arrived at the castle grounds,  we discovered that today is a national holiday! Happy Culture day, Japan! Culture day is a national day of celebrating culture, the arts and academic achievement. People have the day off and are encouraged to go to cultural sites. Needless to say, we were not alone at Osaka castle. The grounds were full of locals and there was even a performance depicting the struggle between the Tokogawa and Toyotomi families over the castle starring a famous female performer, who flubbed her lines several times, but was nonetheless entertaining.
After the performance we went up into Osaka castle itself, which, to be honest was a little disappointing. The interior has been turned into a museum, which was *kind of* interesting, but I would have been much more interested in seeing the actual interior of the building, which was more or less annihilated in World War II. There was a nice view of Osaka from the top floor, and if you're in Osaka, it's more or less a given you're going to go to Osaka castle. Just prepare for the lack of interior.
Lunch today was takoyaki at the autumn festival on Osaka castle grounds. Takoyaki apparently originated in Osaka, and these last takoyaki of the trip were probably the best we've had so far.
We spent most of the morning and part of the afternoon getting to and hanging out at Osaka castle. Afterward, returning to the subway station, we ran into a culture day parade, with people on carts carrying fans, shouting orders to other people pulling said carts, while others within the carts played drums and bells. There was a line of these carts, each with varying levels of energy being put into their performances.
We headed to Shinsaibashi, a large shopping district in Osaka, where we wandered, stupefied by the enormity of the shopping area. There were so...many...stores. We walked about 1/4 of the length of the entire main street of Shinsaibashi before deciding to take a break and head back to the apartment before dinner.
Yum yum Okonomiyaki at Fukutaro
Dinner tonight was at an awesome okonomiyaki restaurant called Fukutaro. There was a line out the door, which we've experienced at every restaurant we've been to in Osaka, so I guess we picked well, with the help of Trip Advisor and our hosts. Okonomiyaki, for the uninitiated, are a type of pancake made from burdock root flour, cabbage, and usually pork. Osaka is famous for Okonomiyaki, and this restaurant, called Fukutaro, makes it exceptionally well. We had two types - the traditional version, made with pork, and a beef and onion version. Both were awesome. We also had some plum wine made from distilling plums, instead of infusing sake with plums. It wasn't nearly as sickly sweet as the plum-chu we've been having, and I actually much preferred it.
After dinner we went to Dotonburi, a nightlife area right along the Dontonburi river in Osaka. We checked out a bar called Space Station, run by an American ex-pat, that has classic video games at the bar and a bunch of video game themed drinks. We tried a "Hadouken" shot (which was cloying sweet and lit on fire) and a "Triforce" which tasted like cinnamon and was also pretty brutally sweet. To be honest, the drinks at Space Station were a little too college bar feeling to me. I wish they were a little more sophisticated with their choice of mixes. It's a neat idea for a bar, but I feel like it could be a lot more than it is.
After a few rounds of Street Fighter 2 and some Mario Kart on the Super Famicom, we walked along the river, past all the Love Hotels, night clubs and late night takoyaki joints, and wound up back at the subway station bound for home.
Tomorrow we're headed to one more temple, one of the oldest in the area, before heading back to Tokyo for a few more days.