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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Japan trip - day seven - Tokyo

Woke up at 8:30am to have breakfast at 9am. Then remembered that the hotel served breakfast till 11am, and check-out was at 10am, so decided to sleep in till 9:30am. After checking out, walked opposite to the hotel's annex for breakfast.

It was a "continental" breakfast consisting of toast, Japanese soup and coffee or tea, 320 yen with unlimited refills of any item. Surprisingly, waitress spoke English fluently and without a Japanese accent. (Later, I asked her if she was Japanese, to which she said yes, and she chuckled when I complimented her English.)
Toast and tea

Just when finishing breakfast, saw that a group of office workers were gathering outside the adjacent building. Apparently, there was a fire drill. An old man from the fire department led the drill, issuing instructions and other pointers. Some of the office workers even had a chance to try their hand at using a fire extinguisher, something we certainly don't practise in Singapore. Later, another fire department official led another session, though I couldn't tell what it was.
Fire drill at building next to Sakura Hotel Ikebukuro in Tokyo

Stayed till 11:30am, then took the train to Shinjuku. Still had about two hours to kill before taking the Narita Express to the airport. So walked around the shops outside to see if anything caught my eye for last minute gifts. Also took the opportunity to take some photos of Shinjuku in the daytime.

First, deposited my luggage and some items from my backpack in a locker at the train station, then went out. Weather was warm enough to be without a jacket, but I brought it along just in case. Sky also looked cloudy, but guess I'll be out of Tokyo before it rains.
Shinjuku at daytime in TokyoShinjuku bus terminal in Tokyo

Happened to walk past a Bic Camera and an ad caught my eye: a Sony Ericsson "Bravia" phone. Never having heard of one before, I went in to see what it was. Apparently, it's a phone that lets you watch TV as well, but since the menus are all in Japanese, I couldn't try this out. It also had a five-megapixel camera, but picture quality was soft even under bright light, so that was a disappointment. Also saw a Sharp solar phone, which could be useful for me in Singapore if I weren't indoors almost all the time and since work forces me to hardly see the sun.

Then, since I still had some free time, I went to Uniqlo to see if there was anything suitable, but looking at the prices, I think I can get the same items in Singapore for about the same price.

Returned to the JR Shinjuku train station at 1:50pm. Collected my luggage, repacked some items, then went to board the Narita Express. Slept on the two-hour ride.

Then, at Narita station, I did a stupid thing by tossing my train ticket into the recycling bin before exiting. Luckily, I could reach in and retrieve it!

The counter for United Airlines featured its Easy Check-In system. I've often wondered why Changi Airport doesn't have this, and after today, I'm glad it doesn't. Easy Check-In, the automated kiosk system that allows passengers to check-in themselves rather than through the counter assistant, was basically useless. It frustrated passengers who weren't used to dealing with it. And since passengers on international flights almost always luggage to check-in, you still need to have a counter assistance check it in for you. In the end, Easy Check-In wasn't so easy and took as much time to check-in, if not longer.

I thought of browsing the airport mall for a while, but it was already about 4:15pm and boarding time was at 5pm. So I went into the immigration area. And then, this moment reminded me of what George Clooney's character had said in the movie, "Up In The Air".

First, I waited for a while behind a young American guy (probably his first time flying international) who struggled to get his passport and boarding pass out, before I just passed him by. Then, when going through the X-rays, I stayed away from groups and old people and made a beeline for the shortest queue with -- you guessed it -- Asians. It helped my ease of passage too that I had already put my wallet, handphone and key in my jacket, so I wasn't held up at the X-ray unnecessarily.

Then it was time for a snack. I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast, which I finished at 11am, and dinner would probably be served two hours into the flight. I bought a sushi handroll and chocolate milk, the latter which, at airport prices, cost an outrageous 400 yen for something poured from a packet. But what to do? I hadn't bothered to buy food from outside the airport.

So then it was 5pm, time to say farewell to Japan. Tried to sleep on the plane when I could, but found myself not able to enter into deep sleep, somehow just couldn't find the right position (woke up with a cramped neck) nor that quiet moment. Anyway, also watched "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and the ending of "When Harry Met Sally".

There was a medical emergency on the plane. A young Japanese woman apparently had complained of shortness of breath. Flight attendants gave her one oxygen tank, then moved her to an empty aisle (after asking the other passengers there to change seats). Later, I saw her being given another oxygen tank, while attendants asked for doctors or nurses to assist. I saw a Caucasian woman helping, assumed she's a doctor, based on her "take charge" manner. Later, I also heard a Singaporean couple who offered their asthmatic medication say that this woman had advised against giving any drugs in case of further complications. Anyway, when disembarking, I saw the woman sitting upright without any oxygen tank. Guess she was feeling better, otherwise a medical crew would've helped her off the plane before the rest of us could leave.

Bought a bottle of Bailey's from the duty free store, then had a cup of tea (which came out bitter even though I asked for it to be sweeter) at Killiney Kopitiam while updating this blog entry. Figured I might as well make use of Changi Airport's free wireless service while I could, hehe.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Japan trip - day six - Tokyo

Woke up at 8:45am, fortunately, had set my alarm at 7:30am, so was already roused from sleep then. Had packed most of my things last night, and just needed to pack my toiletries and backpack. Still had some time before 10am check-out, so ate the bun I had bought yesterday (for a snack during the sumo tournament).

Already had my shinkansen ticket for 1:30pm, so thought I'd kill time by taking a peek at Osaka Castle. According to the map, it's supposed to be just at the next block. But as Peter MacIntosh had said, Japanese maps aren't drawn to scale. At the next block, still couldn't see any sign of the castle. So took the subway to Shin-Osaka.

Thank goodness for the rail pass, I obtained another ticket to Tokyo, this time at 11:13am. It was only 10:50am, so browsed the stores and bought a Japanese snack souvenir. Then went up to train platform to wait for the shinkansen.
JR Shin-Osaka in OsakaShinkansen arriving at JR Shin-Osaka in Osaka

Random thought while at JR Shin-Osaka: I can see myself living and working in Japan due to the seeming politeness and harmony that I've witnessed so far. Of course, that would also mean that I have to wear a white-and-black suit every working day!

After arriving in Tokyo, for a moment, I was disoriented because I thought I needed to exit the station before boarding a JR train for the Tokyo metro. Turns out that I could just go straight on, so I did, and went to Ikebukuro station. From there, I headed straight for Sakura Hotel. There were some other people checking in, so I browsed the available tourist brochures. Found one that mentioned the Akihabara Electric Town, thought that might be the more famous electrical appliance area rather than the one I had wanted to go to at Shinjuku on my first day.

But first, I wanted to get a ticket to visit the Ghibli Museum. The last admission for the day was at 4pm, and by the time I had entered my room, it was 3:30pm already. Checked the website and found that the last entry time was 4:30pm. Next challenge was to find a Lawson's store to buy the ticket. Found the nearest one through Google Map and headed there.

As I went in search of it, found a lot of "girls bars" and other nightspots. Then I saw some "casual hotels" offering a 3-hour "rest" for 4,000 yen. Wow, I didn't know my hotel was just two blocks away from this nightlife! I swear that I didn't know this when making the booking, my concern then was to get a cheap hotel that was near a Japan Rail station.

Found the Lawson's store and proceeded to get my ticket. Alas, all tickets for the day had been sold out. Bought a sushi snack and chocolate milk, since I hadn't eaten since the bun in the morning, then walked around the sort-of red light area while eating, and also because I got lost finding the main road.

Since I couldn't enter Ghibli Museum, the least that I could do was take a look at it from outside. I'm not a big fan of Miyazaki, though I've seen some of his films, so this wasn't a big loss. Took the train to Mitaka, about half hour away, then took the local, yellow-coloured bus to the museum. Arrived at 4:45pm, so even if I had bought my ticket, I never would've entered anyway, and then it would be 1,000 yen down the drain.
Bus sign for Ghibli bus at Mitaka in TokyoGhibli bus in Mitaka in TokyoDown a road in Mitaka in TokyoMap of Ghibli Museum in TokyoGhibli Museum entrance in TokyoGhibli Museum attendees in TokyoGhibli Museum exit at TokyoFigurine outside Ghibli Museum in Tokyo

Turns out the museum is just a small building surrounded by a residential area, a school and a huge park. Went around taking pictures of the museum, then went to explore the park. Realised that it's more of a dog park, where locals (residents?) bring their dogs to run and play.
Park outside Ghibli Museum in TokyoDog park outside Ghibli Museum in Tokyo

Finished walking around the museum building in under 10 minutes. By then, was about 5:30pm already and sun was setting. Not much else to do in Tokyo. So first, I went to Shibuya, apparently the fashion area where teenagers and women go to shop. I'm not a shopper, so this was really just a chance to see what Shibuya is all about. But there wasn't much eye candy, mostly office workers going home for the day. And only a handful of schoolgirls. Maybe I had gone on the wrong day and time.
Shibuya at night in TokyoHachinko mural at Shibuya in Tokyo

Next stop was Akihabara to see what was so great about Electric Town. About 7:30pm by the time I arrived and some shops were closing already. Saw that almost all of the small shops were selling security cameras, even the small "spycam" type. But as I progressed further out to the main roads, the stores were selling pretty much the usual computer stuff, i.e. hard disks, blank DVD-R discs, USB accessories, etc. Not very exciting to me since this was all available in Singapore, except probably for the USB AC charger. After this experience, I don't see why people say you can find strange electronics in Akihabara.
Akihabara at night in TokyoAn inner road at Akihabara at night in TokyoAlong the road at Akihabara at night in TokyoSome stores along Akihabara at night in Tokyo

Also saw a lot of girls in maid costumes announcing some service and giving out leaflets. There were quite a few in the area. Took a leaflet from one girl, who then proceeded to tell me something in Japanese. I couldn't understand her, unfortunately, so just smiled, shook my head, and walked on.

By 8:45pm, even the bigger shops were closing already. Went in search of dinner and ended up at a ramen place. Hot soup on a cold evening, yummy!
Pork slice and egg ramen

Started drizzling, the first rain I'd had here, though rain had been forecast for the whole week. Before heading back to Sakura Hotel, made another walk around the bar area. Found a lot of well dressed men in their white-and-black suits who were the bar promoters/touts. Only one approached me, think the rest ignored me because I'm not Japanese. Anyway, couldn't see much action anywhere, so just headed back to my room for the night.
Guests' countries at Sakura Hotel Ikebukuro in TokyoHotel room at Sakura Hotel Ikebukuro in TokyoBathroom in hotel room at Sakura Hotel Ikebukuro in Tokyo


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Japan trip - day five - Osaka

Took it easy today, after all, I'm on holiday. That meant going out in the late morning only to get something to eat… and to buy the ticket for today's sumo wrestling tournament!

First thing I did was to check for ticket availability at the sumo website. Unfortunately, it isn't updated in real-time. By 8am though, it had been refreshed to state that all of the 2,000-yen general admission tickets were sold out. That meant I would have to get the more expensive, reserved seating tickets, though those promised a better view.

To obtain that ticket, I had to buy online, but that required registering with the ticketing agent with a Japanese address and phone number, both of which I don't have. I could also buy a ticket at the Family Mart or Lawson convenience stores.

So I went out to the Family Mart nearby and enquired with the cashier about getting a ticket. For some reason, he didn't understand me, even when I said "sumo". I had assumed that it's sufficiently Japanese-sounding that he should know what I was referring to. But he didn't understand me, and I didn't know how else to describe sumo wrestling.

I then went to the Lawson store that was two blocks away. Made the same enquiry with the cashier. This time, a female employee who sort of understood me directed me to a kiosk. She entered the date for the tournament… and it showed that no tickets were available. That wasn't what I'd seen on the website, even from the online ticket purchase site.

For a moment, I contemplated skipping this more-or-less once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I went back to my hotel room and tried purchasing online, using the hotel's address and phone number, but no luck.

Then I did what I should've done originally: write down the Japanese words for the sumo wrestling tournament, including which seats I wanted. With that in hand, I returned to the Family Mart store and showed the cashier my note. He understood me now, though I think he didn't even know that there was a tournament on.

It took a while to find the right screen. Apparently, the tournament also doesn't show up as a prominent selection. Eventually, he managed to select the right ticket. And then it asked for a Japanese phone number. When I said that I didn't have one, the cashier proceeded to enter (I think) his own number. With that done, the purchase was completed, I handed over my money, and got my ticket. Yay!

I lounged around till about 2:30pm, then took the subway to Namba station and walked to the Osaka Gymnasium, venue of the tournament. I saw a crowd outside, with a noticeable gap. Apparently, I had arrived just in time to see a sumo wrestler arrive! He was greeted like a Hollywood celebrity at the Oscar ceremony. By the time I got my camera out, though, I only managed to take a picture of his back.
Rear view of a sumo wrestler at Osaka Prefectural GymnasiumSumo banners outside Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium

I entered the building and asked for the way to my seat, since the signs didn't seem too clear, or maybe they were clear in Japanese. I found myself seated about 25 rows away from the ring. With my naked eye, I could see the wrestling clearly. But with my phone camera and iPod nano, the wrestlers appeared as tiny, one-centimetre-tall figures. At least I could zoom in with my phone camera, but the pictures came out blurry.
Before the sumo tournament at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium

While waiting for the tournament to begin, two young Japanese men seated next to me started chatting with me. One spoke English and translated on his friend's behalf. When they saw my phone and iPod nano, they asked about it. I guess my phone is like a dinosaur next to theirs.

At 3:30pm, an announcer entered the ring with a few wrestlers to welcome the spectators to the tournament. A short while later was the dohyo-iri, the wrestlers' entrance from two ends. When some wrestlers' names were announced, the crowd cheered loudly. Following this was the yokozuna's entrance, which the crowd enjoyed.
Welcoming the spectators at Osaka Prefectural GymnasiumYokozuna's entrance at Osaka Prefectural GymnasiumReferees' entrance at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium

During the 10-minute break before the start of the matches, some spectators took the chance stretch their legs. The two Japanese youths next to me went to get a meal from McDonald's.

And then the matches began! There were about 20 matches for the day. While recording these, I would learn that each match lasts slightly more than five minutes, from the time the announcer announces their names to the rewarding of the victor. Nearly four minutes of that time is spent when the wrestlers eyeball each other. According to the free guide book (given to non-Japanese only, apparently), this helps the wrestlers size up their opponents while also waiting for the right moment to strike.

The wrestle proper lasts about half a minute, or a minute at most. That, of course, is when the crowd cheered the loudest, especially when popular wrestlers were competing. Even after today, I still can't figure out the technique behind sumo wrestling. It just seems like a lot of pushing to get the opponent out of the ring or lose his balance and fall. But I guess there are proper ways of sumo wrestling that won't be known to the untrained eye.

Also, before wrestling, the wrestlers toss salt in the ring to cleanse it and supposedly protect them from injuries. In between matches, sweepers would sweep away the salt and smoothen out the clay (which the ring is made of). I wonder how much these sweepers get paid.

In between matches, I would also see some people parading banners around the ring. I thought that these were to announce the category or house or something similar. According to the Japanese men, these were actually advertisements by the sponsors! No wonder I kept seeing the same banners!

The whole tournament ended at 6pm. During this whole time, I saw a lot of empty seats, especially in the general admission sections. I overheard a Japanese woman explain to her American husband that the banners above the stage stated that all of the tickets were sold out. If so, it seems that spectators attend only portions of the entire tournament.
After the sumo tournament at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium

Also, unlike American sports like football, sumo wrestling doesn't seem very popular, or at least in Osaka. There were no large crowds in the streets around the gymnasium. There were, as mentioned, empty seats. And the two Japanese youths were watching this tournament for the first time in their lives (though they knew who the wrestlers were and the common chants). I couldn't help but feel like this illusion of sumo's popularity in Japan had been shattered today.

After the tournament, I decided to walk around Namba, since I wasn't too tired and hadn't really explored this southern end of Osaka. There are a lot of shops with many bright, blinking lights. Nowhere near as glitzy as Times Square or even Shinjuku in Tokyo, but still quite colourful.
Namba at night in Osaka

Craving for noodles again, I ate udon at an eatery before heading back to the hotel.
Udon with tempura and rice

Strange thing happened to me while bathing: the water suddenly shut off! Fortunately, I had already finished bathing. Still, it was weird. I don't know if a pump had been accidentally turned off or there's a water limit per room or something else. Anyway, after drying myself, I tried the taps again and water flowed as usual. So that was a weird experience.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Japan trip - day four - Kyoto

Once again, slept past my alarms and finally woke up at 10:30am. Ate the sandwich and drank the chocolate milk that I'd bought two days ago, while catching up on my Internet stuff.

Rushed out of room at 12pm so that I could get the 12:42pm train to Kyoto from Shin-Osaka (I had realised that this station was a better bet than Osaka because there are more trains to Kyoto from here). Got my ticket and asked for the platform, ticket seller said, "Check board." I did and couldn't find my train platform! Anyway, went down to a platform that had trains going to Kyoto. Showed a passenger my ticket and asked if this was the one I was supposed to be at. He shook his head.

A train arrived at that moment, bound for Kyoto. It was the Special Rapid Express. Since there were spare seats (this was a non-reserved seating train meant for regular commutes between cities), I got in and took the half hour ride.

At Kyoto station, I used another exit and found myself in the Kyoto mall, The Cube. I had seen it from the outside yesterday, but thought nothing of it till now. It's just another up-class mall anyway. Found my way to the subway station. Called Peter McIntosh regarding the geisha walking tour, but a Japanese message came on, ending with a beep. Assumed to be voicemail, so I just left a message.

Then took subway train to Imadegawa station and then a 10-minute walk to Nishijin Textile Centre. Arrived at 2pm, just in time for a kimono fashion show. Lots of mainland Chinese tourists already surrounding the small stage with cameras ready. Whipped out my brand spankin' new iPod nano and video-recorded it. (I knew there was a reason I bought the iPod nano!) Show lasted about 15 minutes.
Nishijin Textile Center at KyotoPurplish kimono on show at Nishijin Textile CenterBlue-green kimono on show at Nishijin Textile CenterWhite kimono on show at Nishijin Textile CenterRed kimono on show at Nishijin Textile Center

Browsed around the store and bought a few gifts, while also viewing the live kimono making demonstrations. Also browsed the selection of teas and desserts. Left at 3pm to walk back to the train station.
Kimono workshop at Nishijin Textile CenterKimono craftsman painting a design at Nishijin Textile CenterKimono craftsman weaving the threads at Nishijin Textile Center

Along the way, stopped by Shiramine-jingu Shrine. Built by a late emperor, it is now a temple for the ball sports deity. While there, saw some Japanese writing their wishes and praying at the altar.
Shiramine-jingu Shrine at KyotoSports balls with prayer notes at Shiramine-jingu ShrineDevotees at Shiramine-jingu Shrine

Took the train from Imadegawa station. Stomach growled a bit, hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. But thought it better to first find the Minamiza Kabuki Theater for the geisha tour. So walked from Kawarachi to Shijo-dori, took almost 20 minutes. After finding the theater, went in search of an eating place. But it was already close to 4pm and tour starts at 4:30pm. So stopped by 7-Eleven, planning to get a sausage bun and chocolate milk. Found instead some sushi. Also thought a bottled drink might be easier to carry, so bought milk tea. Finished the sushi at a small resting point nearby.

While searching for food, saw a "Love Beach" sign, and outside was a board with pictures of a hotel room. Hmm, was this one of those love hotels? A man in a suit saw me looking and said something about "no reservation". While I was curious, I didn't have time to explore further. I would walk past there later in the evening, saw the same man, but this time he didn't approach me. Oh well.

Went back to Minamiza Kabuki Theater to wait for Peter MacIntosh's geisha walking tour. Saw a burly Caucasian in black whom I had seen at 7-Eleven and speaking fluent Japanese, knew it had to be him. Confirmed his identity and made small talk. While waiting, an old Japanese man spoke to me and asked if Peter MacIntosh was my friend. When Peter replied in Japanese, the old man knew better and laughed about it.
Minamiza Kabuki Theater at Kyoto

Rest of group soon showed up and we began our tour. First went to Minagawa district. Stopped by Peter's bar where he gave quick introduction to geisha, explaining the two different types (maiko and geiko), what they do, what they wear, and stressing that they are not prostitutes. Gave us some postcards bearing pictures that he had taken.
Peter MacIntosh introducing some geisha-related items

Rest of walking tour took us along the narrow alleys, explaining along the way some sights, such as:
  • identifying the geishas who lived in a particular house, based on the names listed outside
  • bamboo structures at the foot of some houses to prevent dogs from getting a good position to pee
  • symbols on the red lanterns to identify the districts, e.g. three linked rings for Minagawa, chain of eight circles for Gjon
He also showed us the training schools in each district. The one at Gjon was built for 800 students, but only had 120 now. Upon graduating, a geisha works for 5-6 years -- with no pay! All of her pay goes to the house that she belongs to. On the other hand, she gets to wear the most expensive clothes and have all of her expenses paid for. Which is why Peter thinks girls as young as 15-16 years old would want to become geishas (with their parents' permission).
Down a road in the Minagawa districtGeisha house in Minagawa districtGeisha training school in Minagawa districtMaiko in Minagawa districtDown an alley in the Minagawa districtTemple just outside the Gjon districtDown a road in the Gjon districtGeiko in the Gjon districtTea house at the Gjon districtGeisha class schedule at the Gjon districtHeron in the creek at the Gjon districtHaiku at the Gjon districtLamp post with geishas' stickers at the Gjon district

The tour lasted till 6pm. By then, the sun had set already. I took the opportunity to retrace our steps, seeing what we had seen but at night. As expected, it was still too early to see geishas shuffling between houses for the night's entertainment. Peter mentioned that 8:30-9pm was the best time. But I'd had a long day and didn't feel like being on my feet longer.
Sanjo-dori at nightDown a road at night in the Gjon districtGeisha training school in the Gjon districtMap of the temple just outside the Gjon districtMenu for geisha services at Minagawa districtPhotos of geishas inside a bar at Minagawa district

On the way back to the subway station, stopped by a bakery to pick up a bun and donut for tomorrow's breakfast. Then took subway back to Kyoto station. After three days of eating rice and craving for something warm, I looked around for a cheap noodle restaurant, but couldn't find any at Kyoto mall. So got a ticket for the shinkansen (bullet train) back to Osaka and had dinner at the station there. Then headed back to hotel.
Noodles in soup with sesame oil and chilli flakes