Monday, June 15, 2015

Japanned, Day Five

My Wife and I went to Japan for ten days. We had a blast. I took notes.


Day Five. Our last day in Yokohama. Our first day in Kyoto.

We wanted to make the most of our last morning in Yokohama with Will and Kelly. We wanted to have a good meal, and then take a spin on the big Ferris wheel, so that's what we were gonna do.

But first... we had to pack, and check out of our hotel. Packing was more difficult than I expected, mostly due to the massive amount of souvenirs Ela had picked up over the last few days. Check out was at 11. We were on a clock. The plan was to leave all of the souvenirs with Will and Kelly and then ship it home at the end of next week when we met back up in Tokyo, but first we had to get it all downstairs. At this point, we had gotten used to living in our cozy little closet room, but its tiny dimensions really hampered our last minute, high-speed, organizational efforts. Scooting between the bed and dresser and the chair, scooting by each other, while trying to fold clothes, lay out, arrange, and pack everything, all the while right on top of each other... this is the type of shit that tests marriages, people.

Somehow, we managed to pull it off, get downstairs, and then get checked out. We left our bags at the hotel, and met up with Will and Kelly. Priority One... coffee, maybe a weird green tea scone, and then a quick trip over to Sakuragicho Station to activate our Japan Rail (JR) Pass.

The train is far and away the easiest and best way to get around Japan. They're fast, clean, on-time and go just about everywhere. In a word: Convenient... as is Japan's way. Yes, the stations are packed and pretty fast-paced, and yes, the signage can seem crowded and confusing, but once you figure out the rhythm of the place, it's not that big a deal. Japan Rail is one of the main transport companies (there are many, so be aware of that), and this pass was a special deal tied to the 50th anniversary of the Shinkansen (Bullet) train. It gives you pretty much unlimited travel on the Shinkansen, as well as any express and local trains JR runs as well. It's access to their Terminal in every train station, basically. It was expensive--200 or 300 hundred dollars--but it turned out to be a really good deal. You just show them your pass and they wave you through the turnstiles, smiling and nodding, no fuss, no muss. But it's only good for seven days, so we waited until we were going to be on our own and doing more cross-country travel before we activated it.

With that all done, we headed to the Ferris wheel, spotting some very friendly graffiti on the way...

It says: "Welcome B-Boy" and points to a tunnel... I'm for it.

The Ferris wheel is called The Cosmo Clock 21. There's a whole bunch of questions that immediately pop up in your head as soon as you hear that name, and I have an answer for none of them. What names do you think they rejected?
"What about... Galactic Wheel 75?"
"Eh... No."
"What about Cosmo Clock 20?"
"Cosmo Clock 20? COSMO CLOCK 20!?!? What the fuck? You're fired!"
"Wait! Wait, boss ...what about... Cosmo Clock...21?
Slowly looks up. "That. Is. Genius. You've done it again, Takahashi, you mad bastard."
And... scene.

Apparently, The Cosmo Clock 21 was the World's Tallest Ferris Wheel at one time, standing tall at an impressive 107.5 meters--that's about 352 feet--but then those sneaky southern bastards down in Okinawa built a giant-ass Ferris Wheel of their own, 5 meters taller. Unwilling to allow themselves to be so weaseled, and with the world watching, holding its collective breath, the Yokohamans simply relocated Cosmo Clock 21 to a new base... which added an extra 5 meters.

Game. Set. Match, Okinawa!

Okinawa, upon hearing the news...

Unfortunately, since they are now both the exact same height, no one can really trumpet the title of World's Tallest Ferris Wheel anymore, because saying: "1 of the 2 largest Ferris wheels in the world" just seems to lack oomph, y'know?

Now they advertise the Cosmo Clock 21 as the world's biggest clock...


I don't even know what that means. I mean, yeah, it's big. And yeah, there's a very large digital clock in the middle of it, but... so what? It's just a digital billboard, there's nothing special about that. You can't brag about that, can you? World's biggest digital clock? Who cares? It's not like the whole thing is a giant Ferris Wheel filled with gears and springs, slowly spinning people around its circumference AND keeping incredibly accurate time, as long as it stays wound. I could put a giant digital billboard on my house, it wouldn't make it a tourist attraction.

Anyway, this fucking clock is so god damned big, it takes 15 minutes to go all the way around. 15 minutes! It sounds slow, but you have to be quick getting on and off or you're out of luck. The thing just keeps on spinning. Luckily, Ela made it without tripping. From the top, Yokohama looks like a futuristic Space Port, like something from a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode.

Oh no! There's been a cultural misunderstanding and now the aliens are going to put Wesley to death!

Surrounding the base of the Cosmo Clock was a little amusement park thing with a log ride and a small roller coaster, some putt-putt, some ring tosses, that kind of stuff. We wandered the arcade for a little bit, and saw a cool taiko drum based video game. It made no sense at all.

Watching kids play it was like a complete encapsulation of The Essence of Modern Japan

I also tried to win a plastic sushi key-chain for Ela, but that Grabby-Claw game was obviously rigged. Defeated, and having been siphoned of most of my 100 yen pieces, it was now time for lunch. We didn't have time to go to the Ramen museum this time around, so we decided to have some ramen for lunch instead. Ramen is a different thing in Japan then it is in America, it's serious business, people, real food, not just the cheap and easily-made stuff broke college kids (and broke post-college movie theatre employees) survive on.

Above, is a good example of what I ate, and an actual picture what I looked at from the restaurant window. That was the only picture I took of that lunch, because I was too busy inhaling my ramen. Steaming, thick noodles, greasy broth, pork slices, onions, ginger, white fish, hard-boiled eggs, and some slowly dissolving nori, on and on... it was a big bowl of scrumptious, my friends. I scarfed it down, and for the first time, ate my noodles in what the Japanese consider to be the correct way. Y'see, apparently the Japanese think we eat our noodles wrong. I know, I know... it's a super weird thing to be concerned about individually, let alone as a nation, but this is Japan. Biting off long noodles while quietly eating? That's wrong. Rolling up a ball of noodles and neatly placing them in your mouth? That is also wrong. You have to slurp, and slurp noisily, the whole long noodle too. No biting it off and letting it fall back into the bowl. Loud and wet, people, that means it's good Ramen

And, man... it was.

And that was it for Yokohama.

We dragged our lunch out as long as we could (luckily the Japanese don't encourage you to eat and leave), but eventually we had to get up and go, so we could catch our train. We picked up our bags at the hotel and went to the station. We were planning to see Will and Kelly again on our last day in Tokyo, but it was still hard to say goodbye. They were really great, and accommodating of their time. They showed us lots of stuff, cluing us in on the intricacies of Japan, translating for us, and teaching us useful phrases. Plus, they're fun and funny and smart and interesting and easy to be with, so it was really great hanging out. I don't think we'd seen each other since Dad's funeral, so it was good to get together and have a good time. Which we did. We had a blast. But the Kyoto end of the trip was just gonna be Ela and I, so we waved good bye, said see you in Tokyo, and we were off for our train.

The Shinkansen are super comfortable. They're fast and quiet, with plenty of leg room... Oh, shit...

We're on the wrong train.

Ela was all for just staying on the train we were on. I thought that was a terrible idea. We were both kind of sure that the one we were on would eventually end up in Kyoto, but we weren't yet familiar enough with the trains and traveling on our own to be 100% sure. "It'll be an adventure!" she chirped. And I just sighed and crossed my arms. Y'see, kids, I'm all for that idea, I like adventure. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my All-time Favorite movies (Okay... maybe not Top 5, but Top 10 definitely...). I'm into: Let's see what happens. I like that idea. Besides, it's not like we have to be anywhere at the moment. It sounds like fun... except that I have my bags with me. I hate my bags. I want to get rid of my bags. I want to get where I'm going, drop off my shit, and then... oh, and then... then I'm all: "Whatever's clever, baby." But until that moment, I just want to focus on getting where we're going and getting rid of this damn Rolly bag. I just hate carrying shit around, man.

It's a thing. I know it's weird.

So, we got off at the nest stop and examined the signs.

Hmmm... There was some debate. Could we catch the right train from here? Probably, but where? We wandered a bit, squinted at some signs, took turns standing by our bags while the other went to the bathroom. Honestly, being lost in Japan doesn't feel all that different from when you're not lost, since you usually have no idea what most people are talking about, or what most the signs are saying. Just keep on keeping on, keep looking, something will become clear. In the end, we headed back to Yokohama, figuring that it was easiest to just go back one stop and start fresh from square one, and we were right. We found the right train, sat down, and settled in.

The Shinkansen are super comfortable. They're fast and quiet, with plenty of leg room, tons more than on a plane. There's outlets to charge your devices, and little hangers for your coats and hats. There's even a drink and snack service cart that a nice lady periodically pushes up the aisle.

I really loved watching the Japanese countryside rush past on these trips. I hate to say something as cliche as "it looked like a storybook", but it honestly did. Or maybe "it looked like an anime" is more apt. Either way, it's so beautiful and yet so strangely familiar. It was one of my favorite parts of the trip. There were many things I loved on this trip, many things, but riding the train is near the top of my list. Not just for the view, of course, but also because I really loved having the time to kick-back and relax and read my book. If you ask me, a vacation is just not a vacation if there isn't ample reading time provided. Ela snapped pictures and napped open-mouthed against me, while I read and powered through the last Coconut-flavored Chu-hi. It was a very pleasant two hours.

And before I knew it, we were in Kyoto...

For over a thousand years, Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan, at least until about 150 years ago, when the Emperor moved to Tokyo. It was almost one of the cities to have an Atomic Bomb dropped on it, a narrowly avoided fate. And it is known as the City of Ten Thousand Shrines, and yet somehow doesn't shove it into every single conversation... ahem, coughMinnesotacough...

Kyoto Station was huge and brilliant.

But we were over on the not-so-fancy end. We made our way through the crowds and hopped over onto the subway, headed for Karasuma Oike Station. Exit 6, specifically.

Downtown Kyoto reminded me a lot of a city like Chicago. It felt big and bustling, but still small and personable. There were a lot of people out and about, but it didn't have that "mad rush" feel that Tokyo does. Mostly, it was just a brand new and completely alien city, which is cool. And after an Everest-like climb up the stairs--with our bags--Ela and I emerged from Exit 6 right onto Karasuma Dori, right in the heart of Kyoto. Here's where we hit a snag. Karasuma Dori was our street... but where was the hotel? We were unsure, because Ela's phone was dead from all the pictures she took out the train window, and mine needed a wi-fi signal, which is wasn't getting.

Luckily there was a cab, so we hopped in.

This is pretty much what all the cabs looked like. Not the drivers, of course, they were different men each time, obviously, but they were all very nicely dressed. The cabs all seemed the same. It was the lace doily thing mostly. It was in every cab. Sitting in a doily-covered back seat only made me hyper-aware of how dirty/sweaty I might be at that moment.

Now, obviously Japan isn't exactly what you'd call an "English speaking" country. Yes, there was a lot of English, and yes, there were a lot of people who spoke some of it, but really not a lot. That shouldn't surprise any of you, since it is a foreign country with a language of its own. And really, the people we encountered who did speak at least some English, were really only in certain professions, mostly ones that encountered tourists. Most people knew zero English, which is fine, I mean, like I said... it's not their main language. Besides, with most people, we were usually able to understand each other at least somewhat through a kind of intensive game of pantomime.

Except for one group.

There was only one group who not only spoke no English, but simply couldn't, or wouldn't, understand a single bit of what we were trying to get across. We might as well have been doing an Interpretive Dance while speaking Aramaic. It always worked out in the end, but seriously... every time was like First Contact.

But we didn't know where we were going, plus we  had our bags, and it had been a long travel day, so we needed a cab. After much deliberation and attempted explanation and shared lamentation over Ela's dead phone, after the cabbie finally realized we wanted a hotel, and then realized he didn't know where it was from the letterhead we provided, and after several attempts on his part to call the hotel desk--for some reason he had a ridiculous amount of trouble figuring out how to use his own phone--he finally pulled away from the curb and took us to our hotel...

See that white dot with the blue square in it at the top half of the map, next to Karasuma Dori? That's Exit 6 of Karasuma Oike Station, that's where we caught the cab. See that red pin in the lower half of the map? That's our hotel. What's the map scale between those two points, you ask?

Mmmm... about a block and a half.

But, being that this is Japan, and the fact that we seemed to have shame-bonded, the guy didn't charge us. There were a lot of sumimasens on both sides.

And that is how we arrived at the Hotel Monterey in Kyoto.

A hotel that combines the best of Kyoto's stylish culture and Britain's traditional heritage. The design is based on the arts and crafts of Scotland, particularly Edinburgh, its ancient capital. In fact Kyoto and Edinburgh are not only sister cities in name, but they also share many traits such as the lively street atmosphere and traditional culture. This hotel expresses the relationship between the two cities through its traditional architecture and warm atmosphere.

Well, sounds fancy. I certainly won't begrudge them any of their assertions, because the place is totes fancy, but... red hallways are seriously unnerving. Other than that, the place was pretty great. Comfortable. Quiet. We had a vending machine right down the hall that sold beer and chu-hi. And after our cozy little closet in Yokohama, our room at the Hotel Monterey was absolutely palatial. The bed was big enough for four... but the wife wasn't really into that, so it was just us two...

Kyoto at dusk, from our window

It felt nice to unpack and to sit in air conditioning, and felt even better to shower. This was going to be our home for the next three or so nights, and let me tell you, I was not upset about that. Since today was such a big travel day, and since we had some big days planned, we decided to just get some dinner and relax. Our fancy hotel had a Concierge--talking to him is probably close to what being the Queen of England feels like--and he provided us with a map with all the restaurants and sights in the immediate area. It was broken down by food type, cost, and whether or not there were English options. Once again... super convenient.

Bless your heart, Japan.

We choose What's Steak House. It's a Yakiniku place.

There was no particular reason for this choice. Grilled meat sounded good, of course. It was close too, basically just one block away, behind the hotel. And while judging by the list, it was a little pricey, it didn't seem overly so, and we were on vacation, so why not? We strolled over.

The streets of Kyoto are fantastic. Karasume Dori is four big lanes, a main artery, but the streets leading off from it are often what you'd consider glorified alleys where cars and bikes and pedestrians share the tight space. I'm a big fan of the close buildings and the net of wires criss-crossing overhead. It was a beautiful night of cool breezes, as we strolled along, following our little map.

We almost walked right past the place. It was just a little store front, barely noticeable among all the small innocuous spaces. I forgot to take a picture of the entrance. Even stranger, I couldn't find a single picture of the front door on-line, so... it kind of looked a lot like this.

The place was delicious.

We took our shoes off at the door, and were led around, climbing up a set of stairs so steep they were almost a ladder, to find a small curtain-lined loft. Behind each curtain were incredibly comfortable booths, each with their own grill, of course. Best of all, there was a recessed area beneath the table, so you could sit like a normal person, instead of cross-legged on the floor. We ordered our nama beer and a variety of meat and vegetables to grill. Unbelievable. Incredible cuts of meat. Fresh veggies. So good. They make a hell of a Caesar salad too, surprisingly. But the best part was the fresh wasabi. We each got a short stub of wasabi root--which I had never even realized was a root--and a little plate with a circle of nubs in the center. You just rub the root on the nubs and... fresh wasabi. Delicious. Talk about clearing the sinuses. This was maybe our favorite meal of the whole trip.

So if you're ever in Kyoto...

And that was it, that was Day Five. It had been a long day, and so, full and happy and worn out, we went back to our hotel and passed out in our giant-ass bed.

Day Five Done,


the library bird said...

Magical adventure day ending with that incredible meal - well played you two!

Jon said...

Domo arigato