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.