On My Way Home…

I guess another benefit of all the downtime yesterday was that I was essentially all packed. The first item of business for this morning was to run to the post office to mail my package of souvenirs and toys. It ended up being another ¥5,000 (yikes!) so I also took one last ATM withdrawal from the Post Office ATM since they don’t take credit cards. It also allowed me to go down to a local Sunkus convini and buy a ¥10,000 NetCash card—something I can’t get in the states and that I have to have to buy things on Japanese websites sometimes.

There ended up being a couple hours to spare, so I took the train into Shinjuku and explored the area and visited the huge Takashimaya/Tokyo Hands store there. I also stocked up on several N Gauge model train magazines that I hadn’t found (lucky!) and bought the last missing volume of Rough (ラーフ), a manga about Diving by the same author of Touch (about baseball). Just what I need, right? More manga. But I already had the first 5 volumes (bought used this trip) and the sixth volume is the last one and necessary to complete the 6-section illustration on the book spines!

Back at Nakano, I put the finishing touches on my packing then Makoto-san helped me back to Shinjuku to catch the Narita Express. It’s always kind of sad and even a little surreal to leave and have to go home. I really need to come and live her for a year or more, I think…

Right now I’m at the Narita airport waiting to board my 5:30 PM flight. I had one last delicious Tonkatsu lunch at a restaurant here and bought two last books at a bookstore (actual novels this time—the two volumes of Dive! about diving and a recent movie here that I wanted to see but ran out of time). The funny thing about going home is that I’m actually going to arrive in LA before I left (11:30 AM on July 29 PDT).

So there we have it. Doug’s Japanese Tour ’08 is at its end. Expect a couple more entries here as I wrap up my impressions and thoughts of my time here and work my way through the inevitable funk I’ll experience for a week or two.

A Somewhat Wasted Day…

I actually slept in for way too long this morning—until 10:30—some of the waste was my fault. But after finally hauling myself out of bed, I decided to make a visit to see the Ginza and particularly the Apple store there (of course!). At first I got a bit lost (I confused the Yellow Subway line with the Yellow JR line—oops) but finally found my way. It’s a very cool store with 5 floors connected by an automatic glass elevator. I even sat in for a while and listed to one of the Apple Experts teach a class about Final Cut Express. I was actually very proud of myself, because I could totally understand what he was saying, even if it did range toward the technical side.

After that, I wanted to get some more traditional-type souvenirs for everybody, so Makoto-san suggested I visit Asakusa. I did, and it was just the ticket. Of course, if I’d done my shopping somewhere other than here with the higher Tokyo prices it would have been better. Oh well—I’ll remember for next trip. I then had to zoom back to Nakano to the apartment where I was supposed to meet Makoto at 4:00. On the way, I bought a box at the Post Office to send home yet another package of goodies. There was a big line there, so I was a bit late getting back.

However, Makoto-san was also very late. First, an email saying he’d be there after 4:30 but then he finally showed up closer to 7:00. I spent the time packing my bags and watching TV. When he got there, he said the trains were all jammed up because of a “Human Accident”—a euphemism for that other thing in Japan I never want to witness: someone committing suicide by jumping in front of a train. He had to go out and investigate because it was near one of their other apartments.

By the time he finally got back, it was quite late so all we had time for was dinner. It’s too bad things turned out like this because I could have used the almost 4 wasted daylight hours doing something else. Shoganai…

I guess one bright spot was that I spent some time watching Japanese TV—always interesting. But there was this game show on where they were asking a panel of guests things about various very Japanese things. The first topic was about different kinds of Donburi—a delicious dish with various things on top of a bowl of rice. It was pretty interesting. But the really amazing one was the next topic with questions about what three artisans—one working with bamboo, one with wood and one with wagashi handmade paper—were busy making. Turns out that they were handmade traditional umbrellas. It was absolutely amazing seeing the level of skill and artistry going into them. I may have to buy one someday, though they’re understandably expensive (like on the order of $200.00). They’re absolutely beautiful though.

Geek Heaven, Mount Fuji and an Onsen

Today was essentially a “make it up as you go” kind of day. I was supposed to meet up with the apartment manager guy, Makoto-san, for some interesting sights and a visit to a real Japanese Onsen hot spring bath. Because of his work schedule and other logistical problems, it wasn’t exactly the most productive day I’ve spent here. We did a little shopping, he took me through the “Otaku Heaven” of Nakano Broadway mall where there is so much manga and anime stuff I thought my head would split! Speaking of which, since in the apartment the air conditioner blows right down on me at night, I seem to have developed a cold.

After a little rest while he went out to take care of some other business. he picked me up in his car and we were off to the Hot Spring. It ended up being quite a ways away, so we drove for what seemed like forever. BUT, there was an absolutely beautiful sunset and at one point I had my very first view of Mount Fuji—AWESOME! Two years ago the weather was so bad it was always either cloudy or raining so I never saw it. It’s truly inspiring and I’ve GOT to come back and tour Hakone next time—and someday climb to the top.

The hot spring was also awesome. I think the Japanese really understand how to bathe. It was so relaxing and actually helped my cold a little. I wish we had these back home—I really enjoyed it. Of course, most americans would blanch at the idea of getting naked and soaking in a tub with strangers (the sexes are separated), but I thought it was great. I think I lost that fear after my time living in Europe. Anyway, after a lovely soak for over an hour, I finished off with the traditional bottle of milk, drunk with one hand on my hip (see any anime with a hot spring visit in it…). On the way home, we stopped for Yaki-niku (grilled meat) which you do at your own table. It was tasty and the restaurant was a really cool, modern design. When I got home, I dropped off to a relaxing sleep, though it was pretty late.

Now that I’ve discovered the relaxing time that can be had at an onsen, I’m even sadder that it’s almost time to go home…

Back to Nagano

Well, this is it—the final day of my week-long JR Rail Pass. I was thinking about taking a full-day trip back west to Nagoya and from there to visit the Sekigahara battlefield, but the schedules just didn’t seem to be working out. Instead, I opted for a return to one of the places I enjoyed two years ago, Nagano. After arriving, I decided that what I really wanted to do was visit the Kawanakajima Battlefield. It was yet another place I’d heard about both through my Military History reading and anime (Mirage of Blaze again).

It was a fairly quick bus ride there (after I broke down and ate lunch at the Nagano Staion’s McDonalds…) and there were some interesting shrines, displays and information. At times like these, it always make me realize just how primitive my level of Japanese really is. I felt like there was so much more that I could be learning.

It was HOT there and I was slightly disappointed that the actual museum site wasn’t particularly close to the river (where the critical crossing and flank attack came at Third Kawanakajima) so I asked one of the volunteer gentlemen there how I could get there. I was instructed to get back on the same bus and continue my journey to a specific station then walk from there. As I was waiting at the bus stop, another gentleman came up to me and said he would be glad to take me in his car to see the site of the old castle, the river and some other interesting places. Suemitsu-san was very kind and drove me to see some things that with the heat and limited weekend bus service would have been impossible. It’s that kind of thing that shows just how kind and helpful Japanese people are. It was fun conversing about various topics and I was very grateful. I only wish I’d had something with me to give as a present—because of my train schedule, I didn’t even have time to buy him something to drink. Arigatou gozaimashita!

The reason I had to get back in the evening was because I had arranged to meet my Conversation Partner Yasu-senpai from two years ago. He works for the JAL Credit Card business unit in Shanagawa and I was really happy to see him again. It was fun chatting about the good old days and what’s going on with us now. Afterwards, we fought through some heavy crowds near Asakusa because it turns out that in the evening was one of Japan’s largest fireworks displays anywhere. It was pretty crazy and we never really got to a particularly good viewing point but BOY could you ever hear the sound echoing through the concrete canyons of Tokyo! It was pretty impressive. Even more impressive, though, was that here I was after dark in the middle of literally 10,000 or so Japanese people out on the street packed together like sardines and I felt completely safe. The sad truth is that if I were anywhere but here, I’d be worried about getting pick pocketed, mugged, trampled, punched or otherwise annoyed. But Japan is just so safe. Another thing that makes me love it here…

I got back and turned in late after a full day. Sadly, there are now only three days until I’m flying home again…

Visit to Nikko

Today’s big event was a trip to see the famous shrines, temples and forest at Nikko. It’s also where the great Tokugawa Ieyasu—unifier of Japan—is buried. The buildings are spectacular and pretty unusual for Japan because of the incredible ornamentation and color on everything. Interestingly, the JR Train station was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright—obviously a very early work, because it actually seemed a bit ordinary compared with the typical Wright—but it was interesting anyway.

Of course, it picked today to rain, so it was wet and muggy the whole time. It was also filled with about a gazillion elementary school kids on class trips. But I’m SO glad I went this time—I missed it two years ago. I also once again experienced a sense of déja vu during my visit since I’ve seen these sights before through the wonder of anime (in this case from Mirage of Blaze, which has the climactic ending in and around Nikko). It’s pretty fun when that happens, and just because it’s a “cartoon” doesn’t mean there isn’t any value. I’ve learned a lot from anime…

But I digress (I’m such an otaku). The scenery and temples are a LOT to see and I’m sad to report that I actually didn’t visit all of the shrines on my ticket. That, and towards the end of my visit, it absolutely began to pour down torrentially. I made my way back to the station on a very crowded bus, grabbed a sandwich and hopped on the little, 2-car train—which then immediately broke down! Very strange—I seem to be having trouble with Japanese trains this time. Since it’s only a single-track line, after they got it fixed we had to wait for the uphill train to arrive before we left.

But, there was no particular hurry, so I just said “shoganai” (essentially “it can’t be helped”) and made it back to Tokyo a little later. I had a little dinner and relaxed. Only one day left on my rail pass!

Disaster Strikes Twice? A Visit to Matsumoto

Okay, so the first thing to report was that as I was up late working on the computer and stuff, I felt at 12:40 or so a fairly strong earthquake which hit northern Japan (in Iwate prefecture). It actually shook the building here in Tokyo pretty well, though it was quite a long way off. Turns out the epicenter was right under Hachinohe, which is where I actually boarded the Shinkansen yesterday! It was pretty scary—today all the Shinkansen to the north were stopped for inspections, so I would have been trapped up there if I didn’t leave when I did. Later in the news it looks like there were some injuries and quite a bit of damage—it was 6.8 in strength, after all.

But enough about that. I managed to get up fairly early and was excited to take one of my favorite trains (the E257 Azusa) to Matsumoto. The city hosts one of the remaining original castles in Japan, and it’s really quite beautiful. The day was pretty warm but still gorgeous (actually, it was noticeably cooler than Tokyo, though), and the train ride goes right through the “Japan Alps”. You’d swear that you were traveling through Switzerland if all the street signs weren’t in Kanji. That, and the bamboo growing in the forests alongside the pines.

The castle is stunning. It’s a short walk from the station in a lovely park right on an existing moat. you can see the photos in my gallery if you don’t believe me. It was one of the Takeda Clan’s castles which was extra interesting to me. Inside is an amazing collection of old Japanese firearms that were unfortunately difficult to photograph. It was also nice to be able to go through at my own pace instead of the break-neck one we had to follow at Himeji a couple weeks ago.

I strolled through the really lovely city center enjoying the cooler mountain air and thinking once again how much this place reminded me of Salt Lake City or maybe Denver. I guess it’s the mountains. I dropped into some random restaurant for what turned out to be an extra-delicious Tonkatsu lunch before heading back on yet another interesting train the Super Azusa. It’s the purple one in the photos and I’ve had a model of it for years and was glad I could finally ride it. The ride back was about 40 minutes shorter because it stops at fewer stations and it’s also a “tilt train”, allowing it to go much faster around curves on the mountain grades.

So I got home, had dinner at Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara (where I also did some last-minute shopping) and that was pretty much it. It was kind of nerve-wracking to go through the earthquake—one of the two things I didn’t want to experience here—but was otherwise a fun and interesting day.