Thursday, May 30, 2013

RTW Trip: Day 92-93 (5/26-5/27) - Japan, but Reall just other Musings

I didn't do too much the past two days that I can really write about, since they were spent either eating sushi, eating Japanese Korean BBQ, and hanging with my friend. By the way, I realize that I've basically only alternated from Japanese Korean BBQ and Sushi during my trip in Japan, and that's because I basically have. The other Japanese food isn't my style, and these two things are. Anyway, in lieu of doing that, I'm going to do some rankings now that the real adventurous part of the trip is done. I'm headed to India for another little trip and then the 18th hole in Singapore before the long haul back home.

The genesis of most of these lists was one night back in Cape Town (which seems like it was a decade ago, at this point), during a milk & honey session, I started writing down some random lists like 'Favorite Airports', and 'Favorite Airlines', you know, dumb stuff. Well, now that all the airlines and airports and cities I will be traveling to on the duration of the trip are all repeats, I feel like I am finally able to do this.

I'll start with the one I've already done, which is my Favorite 20 International Cities, which instead of bumping off some good cities I'll just make into 25. The ones that make the cut from this trip, outside of Cape Town which already was on my first list, are Tokyo, Melbourne, Sydney, Phom Penh (a real surprise) and Georgetown.

Anyway, on to my random, aviation inspired rankings:

My Favorite 10 International Airports (again, non US)

*Obviously, these are affected by when I went to the airport, what airline I was flying when I went there, what time of year and other stuff. Having a longer layover gives a better experience, but if its too long, it can really hurt the ranking*

10.) London Heathrow International Airport

It may be because I've only once flown into their new, gigantic, luxurious Terminal 5, but I find Heathrow maddeningly crowded, with a ridiculous amount of people shoved into old terminals. They have a giant overcrowding problem on the air side as well, with only two runways and enough flights to warrant five or six. 

9.) Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport
8.) Hong Kong Chep Lap Kok International Airport
7.) Seoul Incheon International Airport

I've put these three together because they are all kind of similar. They are giant airports, housed in one terminal (Seoul has two concourses, but still), with giant glass walls and cavernous insides, but they are hollow, soulless buildings where way more attention was paid to making the airport look nice than actually be nice in terms of passenger experiences. They have far too few food options, and far too many luxury store options. I'm spending six hours on a layover in Bangkok, so it has a chance to rise, but I have serious doubts. Bangkok is last out of the three for now because it isn't even all that pretty, with way too much concrete and way too few windows. Also, the way the windows are tilted, it is almost impossible to look outside. Hong Kong I've only been 10 years ago. I'll assume there's more to do inside now than there was then when it was quite new. Seoul is easily the best of the three, but there are six that I consider better to go.

6.) Abu Dhabi International Airport

It is the large honeycomb connected ceiling that is famous in Abu Dhabi's airport, and it is more unique than almost anything I've seen in airport architecture, but it the newer area of Abu Dhabi's airport that makes it rank this highly. It doesn't have great food options, but has an insanely good and convenient duty free area and free Wi-Fi, as well as large windows for some great plane watching.

5.) Munich International Airport

I've flown through Munich twice, and while it is the only one on the list lucky enough to not be that countries main airport (making it far less crowded), it is good enough to overcome that knock. Beautiful airport, really efficient, really well made. Typical German efficiency. Frankfurt is nowhere near as good of an airport, but that may be because it needs to be the Germany that was ruthlessly efficient.

4.) Zurich International Airport

I've spent way more time in Zurich's airport than I should, and I am basing this mostly on its newer Concourse E which is an underground train ride away from the main building, but that airport is a work of art. Beautiful hallways, placed well above the tarmac giving a great view of the planes below. Good food options. I've had some lengthy layovers there (most recently on my way to India in the summer of 2011), and wasn't bored at all. Free Wi-Fi as well, which is rare in airports.

3.) Madrid Barajas International Airport

I could have grouped the last two and Barajas together, as they are also similar. Barajas is actually strikingly similar to Zurich, with its main international flight area on its own concourse. What I love about Barajas is the food options in the airport, and how accessible it is from the city (of course, that is unfair since many of these airports I've only used on layovers). Barajas is far busier than its seems, which is a great credit to how streamlined the airport is. You never feel crowded or rushed. I also give credit to their unique roof designs which goes against the concrete that is so present in the more reputed Asian airports.


2.) Tokyo Narita International Airport

I couldn't really find a nice picture of Narita, but the size of that check-in hall does serve to show just how efficient they make things in Japan. Narita Airport is actually built in a very American style, with low ceilings and hallways, but ones that offer way more options for food, drink, and shop near the gates than those mammoths in Asia do. Narita rarely has delays (partly because most domestic flights go out of Haneda), and has enough Asian touches like artwork and sculptures to make sure you know that just because it looks like an American airport, it really isn't.

1.) Singapore Changi International Airport

Despite my pleasantly surprising love for Narita, it, and nothing else, comes close to Changi. They make life so easy, with gyms, pools, layover hotels, waterfalls, a walking tour of various gardens (butterflies, orchids, cacti, birds), movie theaters, and so much more. Their large entrance halls are so well kept with their floral walls. The airport when you get closer to the gates is also in an American style. It doesn't need the giant window walls and cavernous main terminal areas of Bangkok and Hong Kong. No, it lets its ridiculous amenities speak for itself. Also, just a random note, but the approach into Changi is great, over the Singapore bay, passing over the East Coast Seafood Center, just inviting you into Singapore.

My Favorite International Airlines (again, non US; then again, as if they would qualify)

10.) British Airways

Their intra-Europe service wasn't bad, but the one time I flew BA out of Europe, it was a disaster where the back-of-seat Video didn't work for basically the entire flight. By the way, that is it didn't work for anyone, not just me. The food is average, the service is average, their planes don't even look all that nice.

9.) Thai Airways

This might seem low, but the gap from 9 to 8 is a lot. My favorite part of Thai Airways is the traditional Thai dress they make the flight attendants wear. The food was slightly disappointing, since they didn't really offer anything Thai. They didn't chill the beer, either, which matters when you get this high. I'll give them credit for their livery, which looks really nice on their planes. They have one of the few A380's that actually looks decent, unlike most which look like monsters.

8.) Iberia

I actually only took Iberia once, and it may be my love for anything Spanish affecting this ranking, but I really enjoyed my experience on Iberia. They had great food, great drink (and they didn't care that I was only 18 at the time), a good movie selection for what was there at the time (it was 2010). It was also my first experience on an Airbus A340-600, which is probably my favorite plane. Just to reinforce that last fact, I've taken three of them, and those were the only flight routes I've taken on those airlines, and they all make the list.

7.) South African Airways

My SAA flight was also an A340-600, from New York to Johannesburg. It is the 14th longest flight, by mileage, in the world (soon to be 12th, after Singapore stops their Singapore to Newark and LAX flights), but the seventh longest by flight time, a discrepancy I haven't really figured out. Anyway, it was the longest flight I've ever taken, clocking in at 16 hours and 10 minutes, but incredibly enjoyable. They had good food, great service, and although this has nothing to do with the airline, with a more-than-half empty plane, there were at least three seats per person in our little corner of coach.

6.) Lufthansa

Except for one airline to come (which happens to be very closely linked to Lufthansa), I've taken the German machine more than any on this list. I've enjoyed it every time. They have very new planes, great seats, better food than I would have thought, and really comfortable blankets (yes, I remembered this extremely random fact). I'm giving Lufthansa credit for holding value across more than one or two flights.

5.) All Nippon Airways

All Nippon is regarded as one of the world's premier airlines, and I can see why. I took far from their prestige flight, in a morning Tokyo-Bangkok sector on an older Boeing 767-300. Still, the flight was great. Their Asahi beer was ice cold. Their food was OK, but I probably made a mistake going with their Japanese food option. Their movie selection was good, and their seats were really, really comfortable. I can only imagine what they are like on their priority sectors.

4.) Swiss International Airlines

I've taken Swiss more times than it makes sense for me to have, and I've enjoyed their service every time. I loved the chocolates they give throughout the flight, the food that is always quite good. They had touch screens before most European airlines. Swiss is to me, the best EURO airline, and I'm happy I've been able to take it as much as I have.

3.) Cathay Pacific

I took Cathay Pacific a long time ago, and I might be forgetting some of my experience, but it was great. They gave more food than any airline I have seen. Now, times have changed since 2003 in the aviation industry, and cost consciousness as it comes to food is a larger factor, but they gave two full meals and two decent sized snacks on the 15 hour JFK-Hong Kong route. Their movies were good for the time, and they just gave a wonderful in-flight experience.

2.) Singapore Airlines

There is a chance that after I finish the 20 hours aboard a plane for Singapore to New York, via Frankfurt, on Singapore's A380 that I might rank them 1st, but still, Singapore was as good as advertised. A ridiculous movie and TV selection (complete seasons of quite a few shows like Mad Men, Game of Thrones). Their food was good, but slightly disappointing, which is why they rank 2nd and not 1st. Their alcohol selection was the most generous I've seen, offering a variety of cocktails along with the usual fare. Their seats are excellent. I was lucky to take their two best planes (A380 and B777-300ER), but their fleet is modern enough that I'm sure they're all as good. My dad swares by Singapore Airlines, and I can see why.

1.) Etihad Airways

They were the first airline I took to have a touch screen. They were the first airline I took that had three meal options for their main meal. They had more rounds of drink service than any airline I've been on. They're lam biryani was about as good as any lamb biryani I've had. And they had this cool mood lighting with purple and green lights all flight long on the night flight from JFK to Abu Dhabi (and it was light enough that it didn't effect people's sleep). Emirates gets all the praise, but as reports of Emirates service slipping continue to come in, Etihad is poised to take their mantle. Just a great experience.

*All picture credits to the brilliant photographers that upload their photos at*

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

RTW Trip: Day 90-91 (5/24-5/25) - Kyoto

Day 90-91:

Kyoto was sold to me as the anti-Osaka, a secondary Japanese city with a more traditional Japanese style. With its many temples and shrines and traditional Japanese fair, it embraces the Japan that modern technology has left behind. Kyoto is probably the second most famous and oft-visited tourist destination in all of Japan, and from reading reviews, for good reason. I left by train late on Thursday and got into my hotel in Kyoto around 10:00 PM. My hotel was near the glistening Kyoto Station. While that sounds nice, it would have been nice if the Kyoto station was near most of the sights in Kyoto, or even the nice restaurants. Anyway, being close to the station at least gives me some options.

I slept in after a quick meal that first night as I had to leave early morning to get to my scheduled Toyota Plant Tour in Nagoya, about 90-minutes away. The factory tour is free, of course it would help if the Toyota Factory was reachable by public transport. It isn’t, so I had to go by cab, which basically ruined the whole ‘the tour is free’ thing, since cabs in Japan are muy expensive. The factory isn’t located too close to the main train station in and out of Nagoya, either. I reached the tour in decent time, tired after little sleep. Thankfully, the tour would wake me up well.

The Toyota Factory tour was quite well attended, as we were in a group of around 30, and extremely well done. The guide spoke great English, was far more humorous than I could have imagined (though that may be simple stereotyping at work). The tour was quite thorough, necessitating most of the two hours allotted for it. The tour took us through many different large rooms that were all as clean and efficient as I imagined coming in. Toyota’s infamous production system, utilizing Just-in-Time inventory management was  something I had studied before, but it was great to see it in real action. I have a feeling, much like they do with the Wine Cellar Tours, the real production goes off in busy, crowded, steamy warehouses that are not the same ones that we were shown. Before I knew it, the tour was over. I never once felt bored, or that the guide was dragging us along. And as a person who isn’t a car nut (though in a family that owns multiple Toyota’s), to say that is quite good.

I didn’t really want to eat in Nagoya, a place that isn’t known for its food, so I had some quick Ramen Noodles, which I learned are a real thing in Japan, not a convenient excuse to eat salty noodles cooked in a microwave as they are seen as in the US. It wasn’t very filling, and by the time I reached Kyoto, I was starving, so I decided to go to one of Kyoto JR Station’s many eating options. Like how Tokyo Station has a Daimaru basically built into it, JR Kyoto has an Isetan, the same department store that my Mom and I visited in Kuala Lumpur. I went to their basement, but was quite disappointed as they had almost only desserts and alcohol, along with the usual grocery fare which was useless to someone in my condition. The station does have a slew of restaurants on its top floor, floor #11. The station really is an Isetan which just so happens to have a JR Station inside it, rather than the other way around like in Tokyo.

From the top, I got an amazing view of the staggering size of the building, as the middle area is open, with a long, multi-tiered stairwell patio leading down to its Ground Floor railtracks. The restaurants at the top offered a good mix of food, with everything from sushi, to traditional Japanese lunch food (noodles and fried meat), to Italian food. I, because of price considerations, chose the Italian place, which in this case was the cheapest. Their Pizza Lunch special (and considering the place was mostly full around 3:30, it’s fair to say it was still lunch time) was quite good, as they made a brick-oven seafood pizza of a decent size and more than decent quality for 1,200 Yen. They also had draft of Asahi’s black beer. Asahi is the largest of the three main Beer distributors in Japan, with the other two being Sapporo and Kirin, and is by far the most commonly served on tap, but their dark beer is rarely served. This placed had the ‘Super Cold’ (which they kept cooled to under 0 Celsius on tap) dark, which was served in the chilled beer mug, standard operating procedure in Japan, making it about as good as conventional draft beer can be.

Because most tourist sites in Japan close at 5, and most of those only allow entry until 4, there wasn’t much time to do anything else of note. I had mentally scratched away this day completely towards Nagoya, so I wasn’t disappointed in the inability to do anything else touristy, but still a little dismayed to have this much time and this little to do. I had already set my dinner plan, to eat at Chifaga, Kyoto’s best chain Japanese Korean-BBQ place, with their 2,800 all you can eat menu (and a 500 all-you-can-drink combination special), which will finally allow me to eat at a Japanese Korean-BBQ to my hearts content.

Until then I strolled around the most urban but still traditional area of Kyoto, the Hanigabiyashi District (there is a nontrivial chance that I spelled that very, very wrong), or the Gion district. They are right next to each other, serving almost as a duo. I’m not sure which one takes precedence, but they are both located on the East end of Kyoto Central. Gion is the more urban area, with busy streets, but they are as far from the busy streets of Tokyo as you can get. Gion is really what traditional Japan, I’m assuming, looked like, with small houses, traditional craft stalls, geishas appearing every now and then to do little shows. It isn’t as touristy as it sounds. It isn’t the Kyoto version of Chowki Dadi in Jaipur (which seems like a lifetime ago). It is just a normal street with normal businesses, but one that also shows the older side of Japanese life.

Higabiyashi is a larger area, but the main attractions are all surrounding the large park that runs through it. There are the Yasaka Shrine and Yasaka Pagoda (along with a few other traditional Japanese buildings whose names I am forgetting). Higabiyashi park also has many of the things that the other large parks in Japan have, like fountains, ponds with scores of interesting looking birds, and even a few outdoor coffee shops, but it is the Yasaka shrine that is the real attraction. With my business in Eastern Kyoto basically complete, and my legs tired and weary and myself sweaty (the cool air of Tokyo was gone in this landlocked city), I returned back to my hostel, passing through the glowing Kyoto Station again. The station is located in a very average part of the city, but the station itself is beautiful.

My reservation for dinner was at 8:30. I wanted it at 9:00 or 9:30, giving me a little time to relax before I had to head back out, but the staff on the phone just kept repeating ’eight-zero-zero and thirty minutes’ over and over again. Either I was dealing with the most stubborn staff member ever, or they only had an opening at 8:30. I decided to relent and just assume it was the latter, because even I was getting tired with conversing with him in his broken English when his responses were that of a broken record. I left the hotel and returned to Kyoto Central, which isn’t a long walk, but just long enough for it to be a little annoying. I had good luck in both Osaka and Tokyo to be within five minutes of a train station, so the 10-12 minute walk here wasn’t great.

The restaurant was packed, so I think my man on the phone was justified in his sole ‘8:30’ response. I got my table, they lit my grill and so it commenced. I honestly don’t remember everything I ordered except that I decided to stray away from the cheaper and more unique innards and stranger meats that I feasted on before. Now that it was an all-you-can-eat setting, the more expensive but larger portion sized skirt steak, loin and tongue was on the table, and soon was on my table. This being my fourth or fifth rodeo with this type of food, I was at the point that I would consider myself rather talented at maneuvering the grill and the meat on it. The meat was good, and endless. The beer wasn’t great, as this was one of the few places in Japan that didn’t give you chilled glasses, but I wasn’t planning on having a lot anyway, trying to save space for the meat.

After a while I was pretty much done, ready to go back towards the station area and sleep early to get a good night’s rest. Tomorrow will be a busy day, with a lot of sites to see. I still wasn’t sure how I Sunday was going to play out, as I am supposed to return to Tokyo that day. My plan then was to see as much as I could tomorrow in Kyoto and play the hand I’m dealt the day after.

So what happened on Saturday? Well, a lot of things. I did see as much of Kyoto as I could, emphasis on the ‘I’ part because I’m sure if I was my dad, I would have seen more. Anyway, I got up around 9:00, avoided the urge to watch the Heat-Pacers game (Go Pacers!!!), and left the hostel to the furthest sight possible in Kyoto Central, to the Golden Pavillion (the real name is something in Japanese which translates to Golden Pavillion) on the North end of the City. The Golden Pavillion is a really secluded Pagoda area on top of a pond. The place is covered in a Gold layer. I’m not sure how pure the Gold is, but it has a beautiful sheen emanating off its exterior. There were few more gorgeous settings that I’ve been to on the trip. Nearby the Golden Pavillion are two smaller, less popular temples that are less popular for a reason, but even they were well maintained and secluded enough to be extremely peaceful. I always find it amazing that deep inside Japan, a country known, possibly unfairly, for its incredibly busy, work-centered culture, that there are these perfectly pristine, peaceful areas. I finally understand what zen really means, I guess.

From there I took the train back to the center of the city and went to a Sushi place for lunch. The sushi here wasn’t quite as good as the sushi in Tokyo, but in fairness Kyoto isn’t really known for its sushi. I only chose this place because it was close to The Nijo Castle, the other major site of Central Kyoto. The Nijo Caslte isn’t quite as large as the Himeji, and not as well preserved, but in that lack of preservation is a realness missing from the Himeji. This place isn’t famous for its beauty but for its authenticity.

There's really too much to describe in the castle, and this is already long enough. Just make sure to go there, and get there early. Last entry was 4:30, and it needs a decent amount of time (ie, don't be the last entry)
After I finished with the castle, I returned back to Kyoto Central to scout out my dinner option. One of the treats of Japan in late spring and summer are the plethora or Beer Gardens, rooftop buffets with all-you-can-drink alcohol. Obviously, the draw is the beer, but most serve standard cocktails and liquor as well. Many hotels in Kyoto (or Tokyo) have these Beer Gardens, but from what I read through varied Google Translated websites, reservations are suggested on weekends. I finally chose the Kyoto Tower Hotel, for 3,000 yen (which is the standard late spring price – it usually goes up to 3,500 starting in June), with a view of the Kyoto Tower on top. I made my reservation for 7:30. These places are more of afternoon types, which open at 5:00 and close at 9:00, so 7:30 was about as late as I could make it and still get full use of what was offerend.

I’ll be honest, the food was disappointing. The reviews actually complimented the food, but maybe the real good food only starts in the Summer, when these places are at their most popular and most expensive. The beer was great too, but I only had two glasses of ice cold Asahi dark (up there with Milk & Honey as the best beer of the trip – and by far the best mainstream beer I’ve had), I tried the more Japanese alcoholic fare. I’ve never really liked Sake, but Sachu, their fermented grain alcohol was quite good, and far better than most of the unique hard grain alcohol I’ve had, like the cashew stuff in Goa.

I met an interesting group of Japanese guys and girls at the place. They knew English and I guess were intrigued with me eating solo. It started with them asking me some questions about what I was doing and what America is like, and then ended with them asking me to come out to drinks with them, which I gladly obliged. The night was interesting. I’ve decided not to talk too much about my night exploits, but Kyoto was a lot more fun than it seemed. The alcohol was cheap and flowing, the places weren’t too crowded, and given that this was a Saturday Night, was pleasantly surprising.

Friday, May 24, 2013

RTW Trip: Day 87-89 (5/21-5/23) - Tokyo & Mt. Fuji

Day 87-89: Tokyo, Just Tokyo (oh, and a mountain)

It started about four days ago. Each day, after hours of carrying a backpack that is perpetually heavier than it looks, by the time I return to my hostel, my back is paining. And this isn’t like a slight pain, but a splitting pain right on my shoulderblades. OK, ‘splitting pain’ might be a bit of an overstatement, but still, the pain has eventually forced me to not take my computer with me when I’m out for an extended period of time. If there is one thing I miss from the first part of my trip it is that little Netbook that froze all the time. It was a challenge to work with, and when I was using it I could not wait to meet my Mom and have her bring me my actual laptop, but now that it’s gone, and I have this huge screened Toshiba with me, I kind of miss that slow, archaic device. Nostalgia is a strange thing.


What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t have my computer with me during meals, and that’s kind of put my daily diaries on hold a little bit. There’s a lot to write about, since I did quite a bit in the last three days, and since my opportunities to write are a little limited, I can’t really do the last three days justice. Instead, I’ll just do some rambling comments on my three days in Tokyo.

The Sights

= Tokyo has a lot to see, and while their temples and shrines aren’t as well-placed as other smaller cities they still serve as nice oases in the middle of the desert of Tokyo. The best place for me in Tokyo was in Ueno Park, the sprawling Park in North Tokyo. It houses a few Japanese-style buildings and pagodas, as well as a great little promenade that leads to the Tokyo National Museum. I didn’t have time to go to the museum as of yet, but it’s imposing fa├žade serves as a nice bookend to the main promenade (fit with an outdoor Starbucks on one side, and a long fountain in the middle).

= The Tokyo Sky-Tree is like many CN Tower/Menara KL/Sydney Tower type buildings, but it is the first one that really felt like a tourist attraction. Why’s that? Because there was a ridiculous line that took about 45 minutes to buy a ticket to go up. That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. If we reserved in advance, we could have bypassed most of the line, but it seems that reserving in advance is at best a really well-kept secret. The line was filled with what seemed to be Japanese people, which makes sense since the tower is only a year old. Still, it was worth it. As I’ve said in almost every tower I’ve been to on this trip, Tokyo seems much bigger from the top. The building is also taller than it looks, with the main observation deck being about 1,000 feet up (an another observation deck is 300 fee higher). Tokyo is a giant city. The main financial district looks to be in another state.

= The Shen-So Ji Temple is the only one in Tokyo that I think compares to those in the oldes, smaller cities in Japan that are more known for their temples and shrines. The Shenso-Ji is located in a large complex right behind a really busy street in Asakusa, a northern district of Tokyo. Unlike many of the other temples, it isn’t really secluded, with its entrance gate on the main road. We walked by rows and rows of shops selling handicrafts and trinkets (but Moto – my friend in Tokyo – assured me that they would be better in Kyoto), and finally reached the main temple building. The Shenso-Ji is just larger than the other temples, and better preserved. It is visited by mobs of people each day, so that should make sense.

= Tokyo isn’t the best city for people watching, but there are some nice areas to go around. Ginza is probably the most famous, and most centrally located. The first time I went was during the day, and it reminded me of Times Square during the day. The second time I went was at night, and it reminded me of Times Square at night. It wasn’t as crowded as Times Square at night (the allow cars back onto the roads), but just as lit up. They have a series of expensive brand-name stores and restaurants. The only thing I went in for was the Sony store, where you got to try out some of their new technology. Nothing was too fascinating. The best was probably a TV that responded to your voice (of course, their version only worked in Japanese).

The Food

= Sushi is everywhere. Sushi comes in all shapes and sizes, and all price ranges, from really cheap to $300 for a chef’s menu. The $300 place, by the way, is the sushi joint detailed in the excellent documentary ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’. It is a little cheaper if you are Japanese, but alas, I’m not. Anyway, I still had my share of sushi. Some places have all-you-can-eat options, or set options, but I gorged out at the Kaiten Zushi joints, where they go around on conveyor belts.

= There are a ton of those around as well, all with different rules and different prices. Some are a little more advanced, with the prices around 200 for basic sushi, going up to 500-700 yen for specialty sushi (like the fattest tuna, or the rarest fish). Some places have set prices where almost everything is about 150 yen. I mainly went to those. To someone who doesn’t eat sushi all the time (apart from the last week, that is), I really couldn’t taste the difference. For me, the only advantage of the more expensive places is their larger selection of sushi. So, I kind of alternated between the better places and the simple ‘all plates are 136 yen’ places, using the former to try different ones out and the latter to gorge for lunch after skipping breakfast.

= Most of the sushi places have charts showing what sushi is available, which is heavily used by locals to get the sushi they went made at the moment. I stuck to picking ones off of the conveyor because most of these places didn’t have English versions of these charts. Some did, and had the Anglicized pronunciation of the Japanese word, which gave me a nice opportunity to try out my Japanese. My favorites were probably Whelk (which is a rarer one that few places had), Cuttlefish (a basic one that any place will have), and Unagi (eel). Although almost all were good at every place I went to. I’m assuming the New York effect is in effect in Tokyo, where all sushi places that can stay open must be good.

= The other place I went to more than once for food were the department stores. I already talked about the first one that I went to, but I finally found the Daimaru, which I was looking for that first day. I’m not sure how I didn’t find it the first day since it is connected to Tokyo Station, but for whatever reason I didn’t. It wasn’t as good as the other, because the selection was less. Daimaru focused more on desserts and more stylish food.

The Mountain

= On the middle day I did my first real day trip from Tokyo (to me, Yokohama and Kamakura are too close to consider day-trips), going towards Mt. Fuji. I’m no mountain climber, and since the view of a mountain is always better from afar than on the mountain itself, I was told not to go to Mt. Fuji, but to one of the lakes or little towns on its perimeter. I chose Onsen, a lake town on the perimeter of Mt. Fuji, which was one of the 10 best viewing spots for the mountain. I was lucky that it was a gorgeous day, as the mountain was in perfect view from the lake.

= The ride over to Mt. Fuji takes a long time. This isn’t to say it isn’t worth it, because the path towards Mt. Fuji is a very interesting stretch of Japan, but still it takes a while to get there. In one sense, going all that way just to take some pictures seemed a little silly. Those feelings disappeared when I saw Mt. Fuji. The lake really was one of the best viewing spots that I can imagine. The snow-capped peak just towered in the distance over the hills at first (we had to drive further to the lake – an extra tour, but quite affordable). The view just gets better when you get to the lake, with the reflection of the mountain on the lake below. There aren’t many better sights that I’ve seen anywhere in the world, and as someone who went to Cape Town rather recently, that is saying something.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

RTW Trip: Day 85-86 (5/19-5/20) - Yokohama & Kamakura

Day 85-86: What Lies Beyond

Tokyo has a lot to see, but Japan, with its thin shape and fast trains, is as much about the day trips, the little locales one or two hours away from the bulging metropolises, the little temple towns tucked away behind miles of steel track and Shinkansens. Well, over the past two days, I got to see two different areas about 1-1.5 hours outside of Tokyo’s Asakusabashi station, where my hostel is tightly situated. Yesterday was Yokohama, Tokyo’s sister city. Today was Kamakura, a city farther out the same direction as Yokohama. Both gave me a different perspective on Japan, the old and the new, as it were.

It is unfair to call Yokohama a ‘little locale… away from the bulging metropolises’ since it is a city of about 3 million people, making it the 2nd largest city in Japan. I’m not sure how a major country like Japan can have its two largest cities within forty five minutes of each other, but it works. From Yokohama, you cannot see Tokyo at all. It is a nice city on its own, a city of culture and a massive urban experiment. The drive from Tokyo to Yokohama took me through many different tunnels, all brightly lit with massive lanes, and highways that criss-crossed up and down over the Japan coast. We also passed the Port of Tokyo, which was about thirty times cleaner and more organized (at least from afar), than the Port(s) that lines the New Jersey Turnpike. Finally, we reached Yokohama, and in particular my dad’s old work colleague’s section of Yokohama, home of the experiment.

The great experiment is really what I’m calling a new part of Yokohama, built on reclaimed land. It is structured and organized to be a self-contained city within a city, with tall modern housing buildings across from office buildings whose bottom floors are mainly malls. Everything is in this little area, the place to work, the place to sleep, the place to eat and the place to shop. My dad’s colleague’s only real complaint was that there was no place to play, as he had a young daughter and there are few parks or play areas in this little district of Yokohama.

We parked his car at the apartment garage and then set off to the heart of the experimental district, to Queen East, a large office building and mall. The mall part rises about five stories from well underground to a long escalator above it, with restaurants and shops at every level. My dad’s colleague and I found a nice little Kaiten Zushi restaurant –the sushi restaurants where they go around in conveyor belts. I was a little unsure what was going on when I saw approximately no one take sushi from the belt, but he told me that in many of these kaiten restaurants the ones on the belt are essentially for show, and the customer tells the sushi chef which one they want. We had a bunch of sushi, all tasting far better than anything I’ve had in the US. My favorites were probably the Unagi (eel) and Sea Urchin. I have a favorite sushi place in New Jersey, but Sushi Palace mainly serves rolls. After eating at these sushi places in Japan, it seems like a farce to go back (though I know I will).

After lunch we went for a walk around the waterfront of The Great Experiment (the area has a name, but I’m not quite sure what it is), which gives a side view of the real Yokohama afar. Walking around this area it seemed to be like any posh waterfront area in the US, or more recently, Australia. Instead of walking to the other end of the city, the normal end, we decided to take the ‘Sea Bass’ speedboat that runs through three of the most popular areas in the city. From the water, I got a good view of Yokohama. The ‘Great Experiment’ area is really nice, even with its own mini Amusement Park with giant Ferris Wheel and decent sized Roller Coaster. We then sailed past a few ship docks and then a giant pier, where the boat stopped for the first time. In true Japan style, this pier had a long, glistening glass building that took up most of it. On the roof of this behemoth of a building was a park. Not a rooftop garden. A park. A long, grass covered park that even had slight hills.

After we went back around that pier, the boat continued further down the coast of Yokohama into the Central area of the city. When we get off, we entered into I guess the original downtown Yokohama (much of what we had passed was reclaimed over the last 50 years). Another large park was right off of the pier, which my dad’s colleague pointed out as being one of the advantages of living more centrally in Yokohama. We spent the next two hours or so just walking around Yokohama Central. We walked through one of the oldest hotels in all of Japan, then through Japan’s largest Chinatown, which was so dense and packed, with lines queueing up in front of every stall despite it being well past conventional lunch time. We walked through the well designed government buildings, and even a quick trip inside the Cup Noodles museum, which was almost humorously full and busy. Finally, we returned back to the Queen East and to his apartment high inside one of The Great Experiment towers.

His apartment building is designed like one of those hotels where all of the rooms are on the walls of the hotel, with a large open atrium in the middle. I was a little surprised that there was no roof, since rain water would be quite annoying, but hard to argue with how beautiful it was. We then met his wife and daughter. The daughter was quite shy, even after telling her mom that she was excited to practice her English with me. We were in the apartment for a bit, where I played a board game with her, which got her to open up a little. In her defense, she was four, and I was exactly the same around strangers when I was four too.

We left from there to dinner at a Japanese Korean-BBQ place, which I was told is the term used for those types of restaurants. Despite me having gone to a lot of them in Osaka, I told them I hadn’t been as to not create any doubt in their mind whether they chose a good place to take me. We settled and I laid back, letting him do the ordering and the cooking, and while I would like to think I did an adequate job when I went on my own, I quickly realized how much better someone who knows what they’re doing is. The first course was tongue, roast (which I called ‘normal meat’, much to the delight of my dad’s colleague and his wife) and intestine. The next round was pork, more intestine, and little bowls of different innards, like stomach, heart, and two others. All were quite good, and cooked better than I ever had. In my defense, it cooks better when you put more meats on the grill at once, which was hard to do when I was alone.

After we finished dinner I headed to the train station deep in the basement of Queen East (the last part of ‘The Great Experiment’ which I guess does allow people easy access to leave it. I first took the subway to Yokohama station, then the train from there to Tokyo Station, and then the local JR train to the hostel. All those trips took about 40 minutes, another showcase of the breathtaking efficiency of the Japan Rail system.

My next day was a little quieter, as instead of going from Japan’s largest city to its 2nd largest, I ventured out in the same direction as Yokohama, but a little further out, to Kamakura. My dad’s colleague told me about Kamakura as an option if the weather was bad, as I had planned to go to Mt. Fuji, or at least get close enough to get a nice picture. Since the forecast was a little dicey, I decided to put off Mt. Fuji and do Kamakura instead. From the quick overnight research I did, Kamakura seemed to be a larger version of Nara, an Old-Japan city, full of temples and shrines.

Kamakura was about an hour and fifiteen from Tokyo Station, making this my first long-distance trip on a train that isn’t a Shinkansen bullet train. Still, the long distance JR trains are extremely reliable and comfortable. The hum along smoothly without ever having to stop ‘because of traffic ahead’, the omnipresent nuisance of American train travel. The trip to Kamakura allowed me to do a little more planning of my trip. The forecasts showed the potential for rain in the afternoon, so I wanted to get everything done first.

Kamakura has a ton of temples and shrines, so it was quite an assignment to limit it to the ones worth seeing. In the end, after doing my research on the JR WiFi available on their trains, I settled on the Hasedera Temple, the Great Buddha, the Shrine of Tsurugaoka, and the Kenchoji Temple. These four are not only, at least to me, the four best sites but are also easily reachable from each other. Unlike Nara, Kamakura is not a small walkable city, but a large one that happens to have a bunch of sites to see inside.

The first site was the Hasedera Temple, at the end of a busy lane deep inside Kamakura. Once you enter the Hasedera Temple grounds you escape the business of the lane and enter into a scenic garden area with the temple partially hidden by trees. It really is a beautiful setting, unimaginable when you consider just how cramped the city seems outside. This was a little paradise. The temple itself was large but a bit hollow. The real treat was the gardens around it, the little ponds, and the rows of stone people representing the dead.

From there, I had to walk about ten minutes back in the real world (the busy streets – I can’t describe just how cramped and un-Japanese the streets of Kamakura are) to get to the Shrine of Tsurugaoka (there’s a second name that’s even harder to spell). The shrine is in an ever more open area, housed behind a ornate wooden gate and side pagodas and up a steep bank of steps. The steps looked a bit daunting, but after seeing older Japanese men and women climb up I really had no other choice. The temple from the top had all of the things most of the shrines in Japan do, like the smoke that people wave on them to wash away their faults and bless them with good luck, the little area where you toss a 10 yen coin and pray before you enter inside. Most of these temples and shrines are a little barren inside, with some nice paintings on the roof.

After I left that I went to the Great Buddha, which is as it sounds, a ‘Great’ large Buddha statue, that had I would estimate 200 people around it, most of them not tourists. The ‘Great Buddha’ area also had a little idyllic pond next to it, and that was a good hideout from the mob at the Buddha itself. Strangely, they keep the immediate area next to the Buddha empty, which did nothing more than make my head-on picture of it less cluttered without any people.

The Kenchoji temple was next, but it was a little disappointing compared to the others. It was also getting a little cloudy, so my pictures were a bit off and I was trying to hurry through the last stop before heading back inside the train and back to Tokyo. I was able to get in right as the rain started to come down hard. I made it back to Tokyo and that rain had changed to a constant mist, which is more annoying in a way. At least it let me walk around.

I had a place in mind for dinner, another Katien Zushi place, this time in Asakusa, a northern district of Tokyo. In the rain, I ventured down every nook and cranny looking for this place, called Maguro-Bito, but couldn’t find it. Tripadvisor had reviews of the place as recently as May 13th. Of course, there is the fatal flaw with the site, you can review a place at any point. Hell, when I get back I want to go review everything I’ve seen throughout this trip. I have a recommendation for the people that run the site. They should make reviewers say when the visited that place.

Anyway, I finally gave up and returned to Ueno, which I know has another Gaiten Sushi place near Ueno station. This one is known for having all of its sushi 126 yen, which is a great deal. It doesn’t have any specialty sushi, but was still just way better than the sushi we get in the US. After, I walked around Ginza during the light mist that was subsiding, checking out the various bars that were still full near 10:00. Japanese work late (the trains are still full of suits around this time), but they party late as well, as most of the bars were full of suits at that time of the day on a Monday evening. I finally returned to my hotel around 11:30 ready to go to sleep after a long, long day, with an exciting one to come tomorrow as I get to spend a day with my long-lost friend.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.