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.