Monday, September 15, 2008

Home again

We had a good tailwind and made it back across the Pacific in just under 8 hours. Karen and I had a couple hours sleep, Alden at least 6 hours and Elwyn a restless (and often too hot and itchy) 4 1/2 hours. The new Narnia movie played, which was disappointingly confusing if, like me, you have forgotten the details of the first movie or the books.

We got to the Vancouver Airport at about 11:30am Vancouver time and headed to customs and immigration. As we came down the stairs, we could see the long, winding lineup of at least 8 international flights having arrived within the last hour. Alden was basically still sleeping on my shoulder though Elwyn had a spark in his step, excited to be home. A YVR staff member noticed us coming down the stairs, pulled us out of the line and walked us up to a special fast-track immigration counter. A couple questions later and a glancing look at our passports and we were picking up our baggage from the luggage rack. Brilliant! At least 2 hours of waiting eliminated!

We had been booked on the 6pm flight from Vancouver, but because of our early flight arrival and ultra-fast customs check-in, we were able to get seats on the 1:15 flight. Karen took us to the Maple Leaf lounge in the domestic departures wing. She and the kids had a free lunch while I had a refreshing shower (still salty from having spent 2 hours walking around carrying Alden in hot Tokyo the day before). Though our luggage somehow lagged behind (delayed in the shuffle between international and domestic flights in Vancouver), we arrived in cool, green and sunny Ladysmith. The boys dashed around the house looking at all the ripened tomatos, dark green cucumbers, and the aquarium fish. Had a great ukranian supper (borcht, perogies and beans) with grandma and grandpa and fell easily asleep by 8pm.

In all, it was an excellent trip. Elwyn and Alden have recounted a number of times about the distinctive food (espcially zaru soba and nori), the humid-hot air, the tatami rooms, the use of seperate indoor and bathroom slippers, the fancy electronic toilets and the great rail system.

I think we could have packed at least 1/3 less and have been every bit as comfortable, and definately have to use a better fitting backpack for Elwyn in the future (note to travellers with kids, ultra-low volume, proper fitting, proper weight distributing small backpacks (just enough for a few small toys, a few snack, some hand wipes, and a bottle of water) may be the most important thing I can recommend).

Squeezing time into the last day

Woke up early enough this morning to feed the boys and get a cab into Kyoto Station by 7:30am. This went remarkably smoothly and we managed to book reserved seats on the 7:45am shinkansen to Tokyo Station. This was another Hikari 300-series train, but fortunately we were nowhere near the smoking car, so the ride was much more pleasant. Karen had packed enough food (and I had plugged enough coin into the machines to be stocked with canned coffee) that we had quite a relaxed three-hour trip. As the Sunday-morning train got busier (passing through big cities like Nagoya) The boys and I ended up sitting near a young woman, likely just out of high school. She had passible English and shared a whole blister pack of mild lemon sours with us. About 2 1/4 hours into the trip, I pulled out the USB key that I had loaded several episodes of (80s) Scooby Doo and (60s) Spider-man onto, and the four of us enjoyed them right down to Shinjuku station in Tokyo. We got off at the next stop -- the same station we started our trip at -- Tokyo Station.

We headed down to the lockers that we had used twice before now and found that on this busy Sunday everything was filled. After about 10 minutes more exploring (which Elwyn was getting quite irritated at the disappointment of full lockers) we finally found some key operated ones which worked just nicely. We all used the clean public washrooms, booked our afternoon seats on the Narita Express train and then headed up to the tracks to spend the rest of our time in Tokyo in Akihabara.

Akihabara is located just two stops north of Tokyo Station and is a place I've wanted to visit for about as long as I've known anything about Japan. It is the centre of computer geeks, nerds and otaku of all kinds. We walked out of the station and headed to the corner of town where all the computer and electronics vendors have their store stock exploding on to the streets, with shop owners standing outside calling out about the latest wares. Everywhere we went, we noticed that Karen's net Acer Aspire One lap top was being celebrated as the latest must-have machine. The pricing in Akihabara was about 50,000 - 55,000 yen, much more expensive than the $399 Karen bought it here for on Vancouver Island. It was cool to be so cutting edge.

Elwyn noticed a cool car parking garage, where a big ferris-wheel robot machine loaded cars into a multi-story building, rotating them around so they could be parked into extremely tight spots. Alden fell asleep in my arms for about an hour while we walked around. He had stayed awake too late the night before (having had his first ever bowl of chocolate-covered cereal (the only kind we could find in a small box at the grocery store) before bed the night before). It was a hot, sweaty hour for both of us!

We walked down most of the Chou-dori, but unfortunately none of the Sunday street markets or festivals had established themselves on this particular day. Stopped to have some very nice and cold ice cream on a stick before making our way to Yodobashi Camera a 9-story super-futureshop-like department store. Drawing on the tradition of the street vendors, as you waked from department to department -- toys to vacuums to laptops -- staff would be standing at a promotional table with a small megaphone in their hands shouting out to the customers about their products. The acoustic effect of these salesmen along with the crowds of Sunday shoppers was bewildering. We made it around the toy department for a little while (picking up some neat candy toys and some celebratory 30th anniversary Space Invaders (1978-2008) items, but eventually had to make our way out of the store to maintain our sanity.

Back to Tokyo Station for lunch and a tiny bit of final shopping. We found a tiny noodle shop which had a vending machine in front of it selling tickets for menu items that you could redeem with your prepaid transit card. There was lots of great looking soba dishes on the menu, so we decided to go there. As I approached the counter (three 30-40 year old guys working in a narrow little kitchen) the one guy turned to the other and basically said "oh, oh, does anyone here speak English?" They all laughed and said no, and then proceeded to joke and have fun with me as I ordered everything in my amusingly flawed Japanese. They really thought I should be eating more wasabi and gave me a large side plate full to enjoy! We did have some great noodles though, beautiful rich soba broth. I wish I could make that at home. Karen poked around in the Tokyo Station underground shopping mall for a few minutes, wandering down the "Character Street" which is basically a string of shops dedicated to various TV/Movie characters.

Then, we made our way back to the baggage lockers, caught the Narita Express for an uneventful hour-long ride on the speedy limited express train back to Narita Airport.

Check-in, security and customs was as beautifully efficient exiting the country as it was entering. Karen got to check-in in the fast business class line because of her Elite Aeroplan frequent travel status, and at security and customs there were no line ups and very friendly, smiling staff. We spend an hour in the ANA Business Lounge (a Star Alliance partner with Air Canada), enjoying free food, free drinks and free wireless internet before our 8 1/2 flight home.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Exploring Kyoto

Woke up again this morning looking forward to a full day in Kyoto. We opted for a simple breakfast in the room of fruit, juice, yogurt and canned coffee. It was sprinkling rain by about 9am, but had stopped entirely by 9:30 when we met Oki again in the Holiday Inn lobby.

We were headed for Nanzen-ji, a massive temple complex in the eastern part of Kyoto. Instead of taking a taxi, we decided to take the local trains. It was about the same price to ride the trains as take a cab, and it took quite a bit longer (having to transfer three separate times), but the local lines are very scenic, almost perocial.

We walked through the cool but humid morning to the Chayama Station, an open air station in a mostly residential neighbourhood. Just before our train pulled into the station, we heard the sound of several police cars, and at least six of them parked with lights flashing outside a corner apartment complex on the next block, voices going over their loudspeaker. As we boarded our train and pulled out of the station Karen saw a women standing in front of the police, hands and shirt covered in blood.

We got to our second stop at the municipal subway (covered with dark velvety green benches) we had for the first time in Japan an entirely empty car to ourselves.

Nanzen-ji temple was a short walk from the final train stop through an ancient (and clearly affluent) neighbourhood. Stately manners and beautifully constructed small run-off drainage canals lined the windey streets. The approach to the temple is a large tree lined set of stone stairs. The outer gate is a massive two-story heavy-timber construction, with very steep stairs that for a 1000 yen donation to the temple, you can climb up to. It was worth it for the view. You could see over the treeline to the elaborately oranted roofs, the now hot sun evaporating the morning rain ff the thick bamboo thatch. Several Buddist morning ceremonies were being performed in different buildings in the temple complex, so from the roof we could hear the solemn chanting, powerful drumming and the chiming of heavy copper bells.

We walked through a large brick and stone waterworks, which provides some draining from a river that whose source is Lake Biju, an area which I am told many of the immigrants to Canada came from before WWII. We then went through a large formal garden-meeting room complex. A shoes-off boardwalk provided great views of the garden, which had elements of rock gardens, moss gardens, tea rooms, and so on. It was breathtaking. Elwyn remarked about three-quarters of the way through that it was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. Oki told us about a number of the Buddist philosophies which underwrote the garden and some of the ancient paintings on the walls of the inner building. It was great to have such an informed guide!

We hesitatingly left Nanzen-ji and had some lunch in a small restaurant just outside the temple. Oki helped Karen order a tofu set-meal (I had the prawn tempura teshoku), Alden ate two kinds of zaru soba (plain and green tea) and Elwyn ate his favourite hiya-yakku tofu (tofu on ice) and white rice. We bid farewell to my old friend who unfortunately had to work, and then made our way downtown for a day of shopping.

We had a taxi drop us off at Keihan-Shijo Station, a very centrally located place for shopping right on the Kamo River. We stared out buying a couple more canned coffees (Megatron in one, Optimus Prime in the other) and walking up the Shijo-dori to the Yasaka Shrine. There were very nice sweet shops and craft shops and restaurants and traditional japanese bricabrac shops. I found one in particular that I liked very much. It had some real Edo-period antiques including some samurai armour (all way out of my price range) and some lovely contemporary produced items (just regret that I didn't get a nice pair of sandels they had). I bought the boys some small buddhist drums, the kind that you put between your hands and spin to make the balls on strings make the sound. I believe they are used in prayer and chants. Elwyn and Alden made very good use of them for the rest of the time on Shoji-dori. As Karen went in and out of the different shops that interested her over the next two ours, the boys stood outside the door, one on their side of the passage, and used their drums, Elwyn calling out 'switch' every once in a while, when they switched sides. This caused a great deal of amusement from passers by, young and old, who were genuinely delighted to see the little buddist performance from these cute kids. At the end of the street I bought an interesting snack from a street vender -- sticky rice packed onto a stick, roasted over a flame, dipped in soysauce, flame roasted again, then wrapped in nori. it was cheap and tasty!

We then crossed the Kamo River (seeing cranes and carp and turtles from the busy bridge) and made our way to the Shin-kyogoku and Teramachi shopping arcades. These are covered shopping streets, closed to traffic and very popular with locals and tourists alike. We walked up one, had a picnic supper from a grocery store in a little square, and then back the other side. It was great shopping and interesting people-watching. The highlight for the boys was a store at the very end for bubble toys. This is a store that stocks in densely packed racks every imaginable toy that can be found in the bubble machines that you put one or two hundred yen into, turn the knob and get the toy out. There are premium prices for 'rare' toys, but an almost unlimited selection. The boys stocked up on tiny trains, Star Wars ships and unusual Japanese robots.

Caught a cab back to the hotel where we spend the last shopping hour of the day in a grocery store, getting supplies for our trip home. The boys went to bed while Karen and I packed for several hours, filling the new luggage Karen bought as well as the bags we brought.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Happy Birthday 40 to Karen in Kyoto

Woke up this morning before the kids and relaxed with Karen for a while before waking the kids up. Had the breakfast buffet in the Holiday Inn, which gave Elwyn the first time in days to have a North American-style breakfast. The boys presented Karen with her birthday presents and sang her happy birthday at the hotel breakfast room.

We met my old friend Oki Nakamura after breakfast. Oki is an archaeologist who specializes in the Japanese Jomon period. He was the student of the famous professor Kobayashi Tatsuo in the 1990s and organized my paid position as an archaeologist when I was here in the summer of 1992 in Akita prefecture. In the summer of 1994 Oki came to Canada to work on the archaeological excavations at Hatzic Rock near Mission, BC, where I was working as a teaching assistant. Oki now works for the RIHN, an independent, multidisciplinary research institute established by the Japanese government shortly after the Kyoto protocol talks concluded to work on problems related to the environment. Oki just returned from a conference in Portugal and has taken a couple days off to spend with us. It was absolutely great to see him again.

Oki made a plan to take us to a couple of very famous Kyoto temples: Kinkaku-ji and Ryoan-ji. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and are remarkable. Kinkaku-ji, the 'Golden Temple' was built by a Shogun in the 15th century (during the Maromachi Period) as his summer house, which was later bequested to a local Buddist order. The temple, which is plated in a lustrous gold, has a Noh Theatre at the bottom level, and some private rooms on the upper level. The grounds of Kinkaku-ji are an expansive classical Japanese garden, with a tea house and a small Buddist temple. At the exit gate there are some tasteful souvenir shops. It has the stately aura of a national treasure, not a tacky tourist site. The views of the golden temple reflecting in the central pond of the garden are quite remarkable.

Ryoan-ji is another place originally built in the 16th century and has a very famous japanese rock garden. The zen garden, which has carefully raked gravel and 15 expertly placed stones is clearly the main feature, though the surrounding landscape gardens are every bit as impressive, particularly the massive pond with thousands of brightly flowering lotus roots. One can not normally see all 15 stones at the same time, except from one particular viewing point. This point is said to reflect perfection, as 15 (the sum of the lucky numbers 3+5+7) is a very important number. It is also said that the placement of rocks behind others symbolizes the invisible, meaning one cannot know everything by merely looking but one must study to find the true answers.

The boys enjoyed running around the paths of the gardens, exploring the different little bridges and ponds with giant carps. At Kinkaku-ji the real star was a tokage, a small lizard that Alden spotted as we were walking toward the exit of the garden. The lizard was walking down the path and into a mossy patch, looking for some sunshine. Alden and Elwyn must have spend 20 minutes enjoying its little journey.

After the historic sites, we stopped at a tiny noodle shop run by an elderly couple. We had a lovely lunch of udon noodle soups, while the boys devoured their plates of zaru udon.

After lunch we taxied back to the hotel, did a bit of grocery shopping, and I left Karen and the boys so Oki and I could go to his research institute. There I met with the project director (a zooarchaeologist) and another archaeologial researcher (an expert in very early agriculture in China). We talked for a couple of hours about our respective research projects on 'landscape' and 'place'. The research director, a man in his 40s, told me about his wife's grandparents, who had moved to Canada before the War and who had narrowly escaped back to Japan during the period of the Japanese internment camps.

Wehn Oki and I got back to the hotel, the boys and Karen were playing trains in the room, having had a quiet afternoon.

We then headed downtown to Kyoto station for Karen's birthday party dinner. We met Oki's wife Naoko. It was good to see her again too; she and Oki have been together for nearly 20 years! They had make arrangements at a fancy tofu restaurant, including having pre-ordered a full multi-course meal for us. It was the most amazing tofu feast that can be imagined -- dish after dish of deliciously prepared tofu finished by green tea. They got Karen a nice birthday gift of hand-painted towels. It was a lovely evening.

Returned to the hotel by taxi happy, tired and over-full.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Our Neighbour Tororo!

Slept in for a 7am breakfast this morning, as Karen's conference was over. We were served in our room at the ryokan again our final meal there, which we followed by having a japanese bath -- boys in the men's bath, Karen in the women's. By about 10am, we checked out, saying many goodbyes to the staff, the owners and the fish. We had Karen's new large orange roller-luggage packed, which massively lightened the load. A much better way to travel (though a beast to carry down and up the stairs of the metro stations!)

We headed on the metro to Yokohama Station, where we transfered onto the JR Tokaido line to Tokyo Station. We managed to catch a Rapid train, so made the trip in good time. At Tokyo station, we headed back to the lockers we had used on the first days, hoping very much that our new super-sized hardshell bag would fit inside. And it did! One swipe of our Suica card (prepaid transport/services card) and off we went on the another rapid train on the Chou line to the Tokyo suburb of Mitaka to take in the Studio Ghibli Museum. A transfer on a tiny yellow totoro-painted bus, and we were at the famous site.

The Ghibli Museum is a theme park dedicated to a favorite movie studio of ours -- one the kids are also really familiar with (My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, Naussica, Princess Mononoke, Porco Roso, Howl's Moving Castle, all favorites). We had bought reserved tickets in Canada because they only let a limited number of people in a day. The museum grounds were lovely -- lushly planted and set inside a municipal park, and the architecture of the museum whimsicle but not tacky in any way. Lots of little places to explore, small doors, sneaky little bridges and so on. Inside, the exhibits show the art of animation spectacularly well. The boys (and parents!) were completely impressed with this 3-d sculpture thing that spins and then when put under a strobe light turns into an animation of its own. There was also a small theatre for a short film which we watched, and an completely organic cafe wher we had a good vegetarian (western-style) lunch with gelato icecream. The giftshop had lots of cute (and very expensive) stuff and was the only crowded place in the museum. Odd too, as there are lots of Ghibli-themed stores around Tokyo.

After the museum, we headed back on a very fast 'special rapid' train on the Chou line to Tokyo, where we went to the JR ticket office to reserve seats on the Shinkansen. We were able to get seats on the train that left in 20 minutes, so we grabbed two bento-box lunches (Karen found a japanese-style vegetarian one!) and three salmon umeboshi, and we were off.

The train was one of the older Hikari 300-series trains, a define step down in speed and style from the nice N700 series we had used the other day. We sat at the back of car 14 (of 16), which was right next to the smoking cars. It stank the whole way. We were glad to have had the bento boxs because no real food was offered on the 3 hour journey.

We did pass by Mt Fuji at sundown and managed to take a few nice pictures. Otherwise the time was passed with the usual window gawking, lego building, and book reading.

We got to Kyoto at about 8pm, 40 minutes before our shuttle bus to the Holiday Inn was scheduled to leave. Alden was a bit tired, so I perched him on top of the massive orange roller luggage and rolled him around the station, while Karen and Elwyn hunted for snacks and small souvenirs. The 30-minute bus ride was pleasent, driving along one of the rivers in Kyoto, looking at lots of beautifully lit buildings.

The Holdiay Inn here is standard, unimpressive even, particularly after 4 luxurious days in ryokan. At least it is mostly free.

An easy day in Yokohama

Well, weeks of careful pre-trip excursion planning bedamned, today we spent an unstructured day in Yokohama.

Woke up early again for another 6:30am Japanese-style breakfast to be served in our room. Today was similar to yesterday, with some kind of roasted rockfish being served with pickles, rice, miso soup, poached eggs, cabbage salad, fried mushroom-tofu, hijiki salad, crab cakes, nori, and a quite salty, unidentifiable dark green pastey thing, and tea. We augmented the meal today with some fried tofu that I had bought the day before at a local cottage-industry tofu-maker. The cooks warmed it up for us and Elwyn and Karen appreciated the extra protein.

Karen attended the conference again today, and was away early before 8am. It was her day to have the poster presentation on the traditional foods contaminants study she has been working on over the last several years, and dressed smartly, bringing her poster down to the massive Pacifico Yokohama conference centre. A successful presentation in all, though she was not overwrought with interest -- over 130 other simultaneous posters to compete with in the three-hour block.

Brian and the boys stayed in the ryokan for a few extra hours, playing with the new toy trains, doing laundry (though Brian forgot Karen's bag -- uh oh!) and playing out in the courtyard with the lovely Japanese Garden. Alden and Elwyn thoroughly explored all the little nooks and crannies of the ryokan complex, appreciating the beauty of the winding rock paths, fish pond and little tree nooks in the gardens. The maid staff seemed to find these guys running around amusing, and chattered with them a bit, letting the boys feed a kind of rice pellet to the fish. They were ravenous, slurping (literally) up all the food thrown in.

The we made our way out into town. Our mission: to buy Alden new shoes. His old sandals were rubbing badly on his baby toe, leaving an unwanted blister. So we headed away from downtown on the metro to Kamiooka station, the site of a large shopping complex where we were assured to get kids shoes (kodomo no kutsu).

On our way, we stopped by to chat again with the old lady who runs the tiny store, buying canned coffee, water and ice cream (another hot morning). We had a mutually unintelligible conversation, but laughed a lot at the age, gender, culture and language barrier that melts with the two boys to entertain. She gave them another gift: these strange sticky candies, some shaped like sushi rice pats, some shaped like various sushi toppings, none bigger than the smallest gummy bear (but much stickier). The kids are to peel them off their molded packaging, stick them together to eat the 'difuku sushi'. Yuck! (but fun!) Again, I got an Autobot with my canned coffee.

Picked up some more french pastries on the way into the big mall, and found the shoe department right beside another toy floor. Browsing only today though, boys. Buying Alden's new shoes was a demonstration of the superior Japanese attitude toward customer service. It was just great. This area of town is clearly for the locals, not the tourists. I showed up with little curley haired guy and showed the first shop girl Alden's blistered toe. A quick staff meeting was instantly organized with about six workers conferring with themselves and a manager. One shoots out to another department and brings back a worker who had lived one summer in Australia and spoke the best English of the lot. She had been given licence to do pretty well anything to help. She gave bandages to Alden's toe, measured up his feet, got copious samples of shoes and doted over each one until Alden finally chose the one he liked based (mostly I think) on the shiny glitter tape on the side. They were very good fitting shoes though, wide and comfortable. We all left happy and entertained (though Elwyn was sad that he didn't get new shoes too!)

We headed to the top floor for a bit of lunch to discover that this mall (like most others in the Tokyo area) has a massive roof-top children's playground. The 6-and under set had taken over today, and the boys joined in for an hour of hard play. We snacked on our pasties, some apples I had bought, and water before trying to head out of the mall. On our way out, we encountered a remarkably charming little traditional-japanese-stuff store, where we put together what I and the boys think is a beautiful gift for Karen's 40th birthday, which we will celebrate on Friday.

By now we were really hungry, and were attracted by the numerous plastic food models to a soba shop, where Alden gave the kids menu a miss and ordered (and ate!) the adult portion of zaru soba and a fruit bowl, Elwyn a bowl of rice and a fruit bowl, and myself the tempura zaru soba set meal. Fed, we were all happy again.

Dropped the bags off at the ryokan and headed out to meet Karen after her conference had finished. We were about an hour late, and even later because Elwyn spotted a Lego store on the way through the Landmark Tower to the conference site. We made rendevous with Karen there, and headed to the Kannai station for supper after giving me a few minutes at the guest computers at the conference site to upload the blog from previous days. This meal was OK too, fried noodles with vegetables for the parents, kids ramen soup for Alden, and (surprise!) rice for Elwyn. I'm hoping he doesn't get scurvy or something. Good thing I'm not a dietitian.

Exhausted, we made our way back to the ryokan, packing up for the next leg of our journey tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

When Mom's away, the boys will play

Had breakfast served in our room at 6:30am this morning. Another Japanese breakfast feast with rice, pickles, miso soup, a very tasty roasted fish, some raw small-fishes' roe, pressed fish cakes, raw squid with shedded cabbage, poached eggs, salad, fried tofu & mushrooms, packages of nori seaweed, and a chinese tea. With breakfasts like this, you really don't have to eat much for many many hours. Again, Alden hoovered back most of the meal, and Elwyn enjoyed the soup and rice.
Karen headed out for her conference and wasn't seen again by the boys until 6pm. She came back stimulated andengaged from a day with people of her own ilk.
The boys got ourselves ready for a trip back to the massive mall at the Shin-Yokohama train station. We walked through our neighbourhood, passing a quiet school yard, and all of the local food shops (tofu makers, fish stores, moki (a kind of rice cracker) stores, etc etc, all opening up. I bought a nice cold can of coffee from a very old lady running a super-tiny convenience store (window?) She liked Alden and Elwyn and chatted with them in Japanese for a while, laughing all the time, as Alden performed his tongue-on-the-nose trick, and his snorting-like-a-pig. She gave them each little bags of seaweed flavour puffed corn-potato chips! Lucky kids.
Being up so early, we went to the municipal subway during the morning commute. Though it was busy, it was nothing like the legendary Tokyo sardine can experience. Something about the one blonde curly haired guy on the morning commute that seems to attract alot of attention though. The kids got seats and lots of friendly cross-cultural chatter from women commuting into work.
We got to the super-mall before it was open, so went for a walk in the area between the large JR station and the big baseball stadium. It was a mix of office buildings, massive apartment complexes (projects?), medical offices, pachinco parlours and restaurants. Everyone was taking their bicycles and scooters around to work.
We got back to Bic Camera and indulged for a couple of hours. Boys got some cool japanese train toys, dad got a new Gontiti CD and some books, and we bought mom a new piece of luggage (as she has been suffering with the full 70litre backpack this trip). I also signed up (using the Ryokan address) for the Bic Camera points card, giving me points worth 10% of the purchases. So on the way out I picked out a free toy surprise for the boys, being this very cool Japanese lego-like building toy called LAQ. They had played with a table of while I looked at books in the book stores. After a cheap lunch in a very high quality french patisserie, we headed back on the subway to the ryokan.
The late afternoon needed one more adventure before we were to meet up with mom. So, we decided to head back downtown Yokohama to ckeck out Japan's tallest building and the world's fastest elevator. On our way, we did a bit of exploring, checking out a school yard, where the grade ones (all in uniform) were practicing coordinated flag moves with their teacher. They looked amazing! Alden said that they were leaning to be jedi. Their blue flags, one in each hand, swished through the air as they did different moves, marching around the playground. As we left, we had a snack of yogart and canned coffee, the later of which was packaged with a small Deceptecon. We also befriended an elderly mono-lingual gentleman who worked as a flagman on a construction site. He thought they boys were funny enough that he gave them both little chocolates!
At the Landmark Tower, the elevator was indeed quick, getting us going up 70 stories in less than 40 seconds. The view was breath-taking over the whole city, giving some perspective on just how dense and huge an urban environment it is. Complete with huge developments in the bay on man-made islands, the city was a spectacular site.
We headed down and met mom, having a vegetarian supper of gnocci, pasta, pizza and salad at Italian restaurant with great harbour views, near the Landmark Tower. We ended the night with a few rides in Cosmo world, Elwyn going on a stomach dropping log-ride roller coaster (once with each parent) and Alden having another round with his mom at the Family Banana coaster.
Back at the Ryokan by 8:30pm, boys fell fast asleep, Karen sat on the deck looking at the japanese garden in the courtyard of this Inn and dad typing the blog into notepad, hoping to find Internet access sometime tomorrow, so the last three days can go online.

Geysers in Atami and the Bullet Train

Woke up early again with the boys. We played lego and built pillow forts in the tatami room for over an hour while we waited for our reserved private family time at the onsen (hotspring). The hotspring bath was delicious. We washed up in the shower, sitting on the traditional little wooden stool and cleaning off out of a shallow wooden bucket, before dipping into the hotspring pool. The pool was entiely lined in wood, with the hot natural spring water burbling out of a pipe in a rock on the wall. We all relaxed in the water for about 20 minutes before heading up for breakfast.
Like the supper before, our breakfast was a feast. Yakko tofu (on ice), hard boiled eggs, salad, miso soup, raw squid, oshitashi (marinated spinach), aji masago (some kind of tasty roasted fish, assorted pickles, tea and rice were all served up. We all ate quite a bit, which tied us over for much of the day.
After checking out, we explored the resort town of Atami for a few hours, looking for a park to play in. We followed the river for about 30 minutes walk down the hill to the ocean-front. We never made it to the huge sandy beach, but instead found a couple of small playgrounds to get sweaty in. Palm trees, massive anti-tsunami concrete walls and rip-rap, and large resort hotels were planted all along the waterfront, but it was quiet and not unpleasant in anyway.
We all kept better hydrated then yesterday and made our way back up the hill so we could make the bullet train. The river has been completely 'contained' by the urban mass of Atami, the course being boxed in with concrete and stone. The boys played a bit on the built-up riverbanks along the way up the river. On our way, we checked out the fabulous Ohyu Geyser (also the location of Japan's first public telephone), and nearby Yuzen shinto shrine, paying respect to Jizo-sama before leaving Atami.
We caught the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Shin-Yokohama station. It was an n700 series on the Tokaido line. It cut an impressive figure as it dashed into the Station and was a very comfortable ride, though Brian was painfully disappointed that they served no canned coffee. The boys feasted on daifuku (sweet chewey cakes).
We were in Yokohama in just a tiny fraction of the time it took to get here on the local train. At this Shin-Yokohama station, we stepped into a large mall, with a big uber-Futureshop-like store called Bic Camera. 9 floors of Brian heaven, but I was mostly restrained from spending any time there. The boys spotted a toy department on the 9th floor and are determined to come back. Karen spotted an Indian restaurant also on the 9th floor and we had lovely vegetarian Indian food -- including two very well priced children's meals -- all served by perfectly English-speaking staff. Our main waiter took to Alden, gave him everything he wanted (including making him a custom order of Indian Cheese pizza) and took him and his dad on a tour of the kitchen. It was great to see a pro kitchen during a 3pm lull. The apparent calm before the storm.Made our way from the big JR Station at Shin-Yokohama on the local municipal subway line 12 stops to our Inn, the Matsushima Ryokan. This ancient inn is tucked away in a residential neighbourhood, in a labrynth of streets that reveal the antiquity of the design of the city. The Inn has a beautifully developed garden with over a dozen mature koi, a dining hall, two japanese-style hot bath rooms (mens' and womens') and between two attached buildings, probably around a dozen tatami-style rooms. Our room is big and comfortable, easily fitting our four futons, our private dining table and all of our gear.
After checking in with our younger and very friendly hosts, we made our way downtown to the newly developed Minato Minari 21 district, where Karen's conference was being held. Getting off the municipal subway, we went on a very long moving sidewalk and in through four super-sized luxurious malls/hotels/office complexes (one being a Pan Pacific Hotel, and one being the hulking 70-story Landmark Tower). The waterfront is home to a huge amusement parks with several brightly lit permanent rides. We went on one, the highly overpriced (and very short) Family Banana Coster (the only ride Alden made the hight requirement for). Fun, though brief.

Crashed happy and tired back at the ryokan by about 8:30pm.

It started out well enough...

Went down to the lobby of the National Children's Castle this morning as soon as it was open and were welcomed warmly to the large empty "Enfants" cafe, where starving played out children are fed during the day, and the few early-rising hotel goers are given a hearty breakfast. The 'teshoku' plates are from the "set menu", where you are simply given the food to eat without worrying about having to order anything. When a semi-standard western breakfast of scrambled eggs, artfully garnished with a sweet katsup, thickly sliced white toast, salad with thousand island dressing, pasta salad and several extra-wide slices of bacon were brought to the four of us, Alden stood up on his chair, and loudly declaired "Yuck! Pig!".

After two wonderfully sweet and icy canned coffees, we made it up to the Harajuku shopping district, where we went to a 6-storey Toystore Kiddy Land. We arrived a few minutes before the store opened and watched the young staff prepare the store for opening. Then they put on wireless headphonesa and lined up four deep on either side of the door and, when the lead had received word from the manager inside, she stepped to the front of the store, bowed deeply to the waiting customers and made a little welcoming speech. The staff inside were lined up at the top of every stair case and bowed deeply to the first customers of the day as we walked around the store. These awkward teenagers seemed for the most part comfortable with their relationship to the store's guests. The boys were reserved and reasonable and got a couple toys with the money from their 'pigs' at home.

We decided that we would go for a walk -- about 8 blocks through Harajuku to Harajuku station. Being Sunday, it was pakced with people. We rested at a Starbucks about 1/2 way through and made it to a Daiso (dollar store) near the train station without too much fatigue. We got on the train after buying several little hand fans at the dollar store (it has been sticky hot and humid) and went the one stop to massive Tokyu Department store at Shibuya station. We were all hungry and bought take-out food from the "foodshow" court in the basement, but couldn't find a place to sit anywhere. Ended up eating on a planter outside the mall, which was OK.

By this time, we should have taken our rail passes to the exchange desk at Shibuya station and headed back to the Children's Castle, got our bags, and made away for Atami. Instead, we went window-shopping a bit more in the department store, pushing our time for the train, went back to load up with our rather heavy backpacks (we should have brought wheeled luggage) and tried to navigate the bewildering train station (over 3 million people a day use this particular station) fully loaded with overhot and tired kids. It was really not fun. We booked cheap tickets on commuter trains for the 110 minute trip to Atami. The kids and Karen got seats but for the most part I had to stand with the massive bags. It was a bit of a torture session with impatient children as we finally made it to our Ryokan (japanese-style inn) in the Hotsprings resort town of Atami.

The hosts of the Okawa Ryokan, all older people, speak mostly Japanese so my language stills were employed to the max. We were served our dinner feast -- more food then anyone could possibly eat -- of fish, and fish and more fish. Karen and Elwyn were challenged (Elwyn eating almost nothing but a bit of miso soup and rice, but Karen amazingly making it through the better part of course after course (it was probably 6-8 courses in all). Alden liked almost everything.
By 7:30 the kids had collapsed asleep, so the inn keeper moved our table aside and laid out their futons. While they slept, Karen and I went and enjoyed a 40 minute soak in the hotspring. A very nice way to end a hard day.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Sleepless in Shibuya

Not having had any jetlag on the first night, it came to haunt us on the second. Elwyn and I woke up at 3am. After lying in bed looking out of our panoramic windows for an hour, I we finally had a little snack and played with spaceships. We watched the sun rise over the cloudy Tokyo skyline at 5am.

It feels like it will be a long wait until our 7:30am hotel breakfast.

Hot, Humid and Happy

The flight finally arrived in Narita 9pm Tokyo time, cutting into our holiday by six hours. The flight, once it got off the ground was uneventful, the boys sleeping well and Karen and I catching a few hours of shut-eye during the nearly 10 hours in the plane. Narita airport is a masterpiece of efficiency, cleanliness and orderliness. We breazed through immigration, customs, baggage and shuttle busses as easy as riding on BC Ferries.

The Holiday Inn in Narita was also amazingly welcoming. We got there, and a bellhop dealt with our bags (no tips allowed), toy gifts were given to the boys and we got a corner view suite on the top floor. Lovely. We all slept again, getting into the local time zone.

We took the free shuttle back to the airpo rt and bought our train passes, boarding the express to Tokyo Station. I had a great second breakfast of ice cold canned coffee and umiboshi (rice in seaweed with a salmon surprise in the middle. Yum! We found huge steel lockers to store our bags for the day so we could explore downtown before heading to the hotel.

There we met Karen's old friend Neil and his daughter Koyuki. She's 2 1/2, bilingual and knew the boys from earliet this summer in Vancouver. We went for a walk around the east grounds of the vast Imperial Palace. It was very hot and humid, with our clothes sticking to us everywhere. There was not enough ice cream in Tokyo to keep us cool.

After walking through the various fortifications, fish-and-turtle-filled moats, stables, gate houses, and other royal buildings, we ascended to the old Royal castle, which is now just a ruin from some 19th century wars and polished off all the crasins Karen had thought to bring.

Back to Tokyo Station for lunch, where Koyuki and Alden finally warmed up to each other a bit. She was long past her nap time and they headed back home, so we carried on to our hotel in the National Children's Castle.

This large building is a publically built facility for kids, with art rooms and music halls and play areas (etc, etc), with a small hotel attached. We were lucky enough to get a room with great views to the bustling Shinjuku area of Tokyo.

We played in the facilities for most of the afternoon, and other than the humidity (which bothered Elwyn more than anyone) the kids had a blast in the 5-story playground. They 'swam' in massive plastic ball-pits, ran around on stilts, motored on hand-cranked steel carts, zipped around an indoor wood-and-steel playground thing (air conditioned!), and wound down in a fun arts and craft room. They were complete tired by 7pm.

We turned in early (settling for a simple pasta meal and enjoyed the sites out our window.

Tomorrow, a bit of shopping and then the train out to the hot-springs resort town of Atami.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Flight AC3 Grounded

Got up this morning and took the float plane from Nanaimo Harbour to the Fraser River and then caught the free shuttle to the airport. Clear skies, and a pleasant HarbourAir flight, as usual. Alden and Elwyn appreciated the earplugs in the noisy small Turbo Otter plane. At YVR we wizzed through check in and security, given Karen's "Elite" traveller status with Air Canada. We had a free lunch at the Maple Leaf lounge (everything from food to drink to magazines to internet is free here in the lounge) and then we made our way to board flight AC3 for Narita.

Elwyn noticed from the window before we boarded that one of the engines was not running like the other one was. He asked about it with Air Canada staff, but they didn't pay him much attention. We got on the plane and it started to take a long time to get going. We kept hearing discouraging sounds of he engine winding down. Finally the pilot got on the speaker and said the mechanics were not able to fix the old 1999 vintage aircraft -- it was grounded. After another long wait (about 2 hours in all on the plane sitting on the runway) we finally taxied to another gate, got issued $50 worth of free dinner tickets, and were issued back to the Maple Leaf lounge.

We're all very happy that a good selectionof lego was packed for the trip. Already it has saved the day. Hopefully the next aircraft that has been assigned, another old 1990s era Airbus 333, takes off as scheduled tonight at 7:30pm.