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.