Sunday, April 19, 2015

Preble County Meets Japan

Leaving Dayton was a bit of a slow start as the tsa wanted to check something suspicious in one of Becky's bags.  Turned out that Becky was doing a favor for a friend - she collects those smashed pennies where you put a penny and a quarter in the machine, crank the handle and a smashed penny with something stamped on it comes out.  She had heard Japan has these machines too.  So Becky had a roll of quarters and a roll of pennies.  That tagged Becky's bag for inspection.

After the TSA tore through the bag and satisfied themselves that Becky was not a currency smuggler, she repacked and we were on our way.  Later we found that this was partially true.  The machines exist in a few touristy spots in japan, but they use copper discs and you just put in a 50 yen coin.  I was skeptical - seemed odd that there would that there were that many American tourists in Japan that the machines would pay for themselves.

Chicago is where we caught the international flight, thankfully the gate was right next door to the flight we flew in on, so no dashing through the airport to get on the plane in time. The seats were uncomfortable, at least for a couple of old folks like us.  My hip hurt after a spell and I had to keep shifting myself around to stay comfortable,  Becky's back hurt and she was in the same boat as me.  We joked that we should just take sleeping pills and snooze blissfully on the return trip.

The flight itself wasn't bad.  Not much turbulance during the flight and we watched a few movies and I read a little. The landing was a bit much.  Apparently it was windy in Tokyo and we must have ran into some cross winds.  So the landing was a bit rough and we were thankful when we finally touched down.  The pilot actually apologized for the landing. 

Joe and his wife Sam met us at the airport.  It was a little over 2 hours to get to Joe's place. And we had to drive thru Tokyo to get there.  Some of the highways are numbered, and some of the signs have english subtitles, but if you can't read Japanese you have to rely on the GPS.  Which with tall buildings and tunnels - it adds to the level of difficulty of navigating if you lose your signal. Oh and did I mention that they drive on the opposite side of the road.  So Joe did all this on the wrong side of the road - at least according to us.  

We did pass by Disney at night which was really nice all lit up - as was the rest of the city.  We couldn't enjoy the the night view from the plane when we came in, gripping our arm rests in terror and all. 

The next day we spent at a local park.  Joe promised that the first week of April was the best time to see the cherry blossoms.  And he was right, they were all in full bloom that day.
There was a light breeze and we stopped on one of the streets on the base to check out the tree's and take a few pics.  It was like being in a gentle snow flurry with the petals falling from some of the tree's.  Sam picked up a handful from curb and threw them on Joe's back.   But was like being in a tunnel of cherry blossoms with all the tree's in bloom on each side of the street.  Very scenic and a lot of people were walking under the tree's and taking pics.

The city park was good sized and lots of people were there to see the tree's and flowers.
We had some ice cream - cherry flavored of course.  We were people watching and snapping pictures.  People love their dogs. The majority had little doggie coats on them, and some were even being pushed around in strollers, pampered pets indeed.

I think the land belonged to a famous person who had a farm,rice mill, and rice warehouse - which had all been restored. There were even a few rice paddies. Close to that was a huge open area where some people were flying kites, and around the perimeter were vendors selling treats, and most of the people were picnicking in the perimeter of this area.  Various gardens were scattered about the property and most were in bloom or close to blooming. So it was very colorful and springlike in the atmosphere, a fun way to spend the first day.

The next day was our trip to Kyoto to see the original Imperial palace and also the temples.  Looking at the map of Kyoto you can see a liberal sprinkling of temples and shrines about the city. So we easily could have spent a week there taking in the sights.  But the plan was to hit the highlights and then move on. 

Navigating the subways, railways, and buslines in an English speaking city is hard enough - figuring out schedules and which line to get on and whatnot. So add to the complexity of all the above - in Japanese, but Joe and Sam have done this before.  Thankfully in Japan they have a lot of English subtitles in their signage.  But we did have to make a few trips to the information booth when all else failed.  They have learned to allow extra time on their trips to allow for getting on a North bound bus instead of a South bound, etc. As always the kindness of strangers helping lost Americans is a blessing and the Japanese that we met were gracious and helpful.

The bullet train ride was surprisingly smooth.  From Tokyo to Kyoto the scenery whips by at a blazing speed.  Sort of like riding shotgun with a nascar driver.  And it's not like they run a bullet train once an hour - while we were there they going about every 10 minutes - so there is an assembly line of these speed demons tearing across the country side.

Maybe it was the rail line attracting the population, or maybe the country is just crowded period, but it felt like every place that you could put a house, there was a house.  There were some plots of ground for farming, but they were small and surrounded by houses. Now the steep hill sides and mountains were bare of houses, but the rest of the countryside we saw on that trip was crowded - at least for a country boy like me. And many of the mountains were pretty with cherry tree's randomly blooming all the way to the top.

It was cool and wet our entire stay in Kyoto - it was t-shirt and shorts weather the week before, but of course when we arrive the weather turns.  Still our stay was pleasant and we were lucky.  They only open the Imperial residences for a few weeks each year and so we got to see buildings and objects you ordinarily do not see.  Just seeing the grounds, gardens, and buildings were impressive enough.

We met a fellow in one of the small temple areas on the Imperial grounds.  Joe knows some basic Japanese and this fellow knew basic English. Together they were able to cobble together a conversation.  He was super friendly - turns he knows where Ohio is as he has a cousin in Michigan.  But we did not hold that against him.  I told him about catching Pike in Canada when we found out that we both liked fishing. Anyway it was fun to converse with him and find our commonalities.

We visited a building where a Shogun Leader lived along with his fellow warriors. And throughout the trip we had been utilizing wheelchairs for Becky in facilities where we could find them. She can get around, but not very well.  So as we are going around the living quarters, I keep hearing squeaks and chirps.  I am thinking that this wheelchair sure could use a little grease.  As it turns out they used what is called nightingale flooring, wood flooring that purposefully is made to chirp when walked on so that no one could sneak upon them at night.  I will have to google how they do that so that no ninja's sneak into our house.

 And the main temple that we wanted to visit had a festival that they timed to go along with cherry blossoms. So vendors were selling food and and woman dressed as geisha's as well as men who wore old style robes. It was like the Preble Country Pork Festival with an Asian twist.  Lots of vendors of all sorts - food, religious items, souvenirs, kids toys and the like.  The food was a bit different - one girl walked by that was eating a whole fish on a stick, another vendor had octopus, and so forth - a bit different by Western standards. 

We asked a passing geisha girl and her boyfriend if they would hold Ryker for a picture. Turns out the couple was from Thailand.  They both spoke fluent english and were in Japan studying for several months.  I felt like the dumb American - I speak only one language and my abilities with it are questionable.

The next day got an unexpected start.  We got to the subway station and Becky had to use the lavatory.  So Joe and I waited nearby and chatted while waiting.  Suddenly an alarm went off nearby.  A guard rushed by -"Wonder what all the ruckus is about?  Say, it couldn't be Mom could it?  No I wouldn't think so..."  And about that time a red faced Becky emerged.  Turns out that some toilets in Japan have multiple buttons - a spray of water like a bedoit (sp), perfume, and of course an emergency button - all written in Japanese and poor Becky selected the wrong one.

She was a good sport through it all and we got a good laugh about it later. We made to a temple complex where the theme was about foxes.  And there were thousands of orange wooden arches that went up the hillside. They straddled the path and made an orange caterpillar circling the hill. We did not do the full circuit but did an abbreviated trip.  A bride and groom having wedding pictures taken inside the Torii gates were on this leg.

We visited some small shrines, then a Buddhist temple.  One thing to mention - if you plan to visit temples in the orient, then wear slip shoes.  Most temples will not allow you to wear shoes inside.  So its a bit of a hassle. but an easy price to pay for admission. One of our most relaxing experiences was going to a Buddhist temple and in the middle was a garden with small tree’s and a pool.  It was a place of quiet and tranquility in the middle of this city. There was something inexplicable there that made you feel at peace with the world.

Our last night in Kyoto we ate at a restaurant about a block from the hotel.  Some of the restaurants have English descriptions in their menu’s, but many times we just pointed to a picture on the menu to place our orders.  The place we chose had both Japanese and Western style cuisine – so that each could order to their liking. Still we had communication problems and it took like 15 minutes to get our order in, much to the amusement of the two Australian women the next table over.

Then after all the ruckus, the waiter comes back and gives us English menu’s!  We could have saved 15 minutes if he had brought them out in the first place.  We then looked at the English descriptions of what we had ordered, it turns out that Joe ordered snake!  He promptly changed his order and we sat back and chatted with the Australian women.

Turns out that they were teachers that taught Japanese in their schools and they were there for a conference.  And by a remarkable coincidence the one women’s husband was in the Australian air force.  So she and Joe talked shop a little bit. They kept on telling Joe and Sam that they needed to move to Australia!  Sounds like they do pay their people better and the duty is not so hazardous.  And the one speaking with Joe could mimic the call of the kookaburra bird to the delight of Ryker.  We thought they pushed a bit too hard as to how Australia was so much better than the US, but we didn’t make much of it.  Any way it was a delightful evening.

The next side trip was to Shimodo – a town by the Pacific ocean.  We took a wrong turn and so we had to turn around.  We took the first exit and found that there was no ramp to get back on at the toll gate.  We looked at the map and saw that we  could drive forward and there was a ramp at that exit.  But the operator said that it had been shut down.  So you could get off the expressway in that area, but you couldn’t get back on.

We figured it was the redneck area in the mountains of Japan and they wanted to keep it  isolated from the rest of the country.  We actually saw our first rusty cars and actually saw a car on blocks in the front yard of one home.  So the area definitely was not the best socio-economically.  If you have ever driven to Cade’s Cove in Rocky Mountain National park that gives you an idea of the two lane road we had to take back to the next entrance for the expressway.  Plenty of curves, cliffs, high bridges, but Joe managed it all.  We even saw a highway sign to watch for monkeys!  Finally though, we were back on track.

As we were coming out of the mountains and getting closer to our destination, Joe pointed out a sign, “Hey look guys they named this bridge ahead the spiral bridge – whats up with that?”  We found out in about 10 seconds when we began descending on a real spiral bridge.  I was joking that I was getting dizzy from going in circles. It was almost like some kind of ride.  And Joe had to pump the brakes when we smelled them getting hot. 

But the trip was worth it as we drove by the jagged coastline to the beaches. Reminds of some of the pics that I have seen of some of the California coastline. Very beautiful to view and there were a couple of pull offs that we kept in mind for our trip back home to stop and get pictures.

And the Hotel was a very nice one, right on the beach – it had a beautiful view.  The rooms were bigger than in Kyoto and more western sized.  Joe said that the rooms and beds in Kyoto were ‘Ryker sized’ but here the beds and rooms were more proportioned to our size.  I think I mentioned before about vending machines are everywhere in Japan – our floor had vending machines for both pop and beer!  And the first floor had all this and also the hot coffee vending machines and finally one that did food – including some heated rice dishes and even hot French fries!

We visited a temple or two, but the highlight of the trip had to be the aquarium.  It was off season and kind of  drizzling off and on, so the place was not crowded.  When we pulled up I figured we would go thru it in an hour or two and be gone.  Boy was I wrong. It was like a smaller version of Sea World – less the killer whales. They had the shows timed very well so you could see the local dolphin show, then the seal act, the penguins (at the end of the show, they held up a penguin egg), the sea lion, the bottle nose dolphins, and watch the guy feed the fish in the big 50’ tall tank. The guy in the tank actually hugged a Moray eel, we all shuddered thinking he would lose a finger or something.  There has to be an easier way of making a living.  Of course there was some time to look at some of the fish, jelly fish, sea turtles, etc.  So we were there until early afternoon. 

Joe wanted to get some flip flops and we stopped at this sea side surf shop.  It had surf boards, wet suits, and the like. The owner was very nice and allowed us to park there to visit the shrine across the road by the sea. He and Joe had a conversion, again Joe knew some Japanese and the fellow knew some English and so they were to converse well enough.  We wanted to find a good local restaurant and he gave us a recommendation that we went to later that night.

But first up was the shrine by the ocean.  We walked across the road and visited the small temple that was right there, but you had to walk around a couple of buildings and there was a torii gate on a sloped rock rising from the beach.  Then there was a huge rope that went from that rock with the torii gate to a sea side clift about 50’ feet away.  It had to be symbolic, but we were not sure of the meaning. On the clift was a rock with inscriptions on it. 

For some reason Becky felt compelled to walk up the incline to cliff.  Mind you there was no safety fences or anything.  And she wanted to power walk up – almost dragging me along.  And Joe was telling her to slow the heck down and take her time.  It was a long fall if any of us took a wrong step. And the path up was narrow in a couple of places. We had to walk up a ledge to get to the cliff face. But it was a nice view once we arrived at the top and the opposite end of the cliff had a cave.  The tide was coming in and each wave boiled into the cave making all kinds of churning spray.

Last stop of the night was at the South Surf – a local restaurant, the one recommended by the shop owner.  It was a small place, but had an ambitious menu – Japanese, Italian, American, and Indian dishes.   We were skeptical – were they over reaching, trying to do too much?  We ordered a variety of things, each according to their taste and it was all good.  And the prices were reasonable. So we were impressed, even my Samurai Surfer beer tasted great. 

Oh, at some of the nicer Hotels in Japan they have hot spa’s.  Sort of a public bath.  And by bath, that means everyone goes naked – but at least there is segregation by the sexes.  They do have a shower area where you rinse off before going in the water.  So we figured when in Rome… 

Joe and I had the place ourselves when we first got there.  It was roomy area and the bath area was made of marble and there was hot water constantly running thru the bath which was like 10 feet wide and maybe 50 feet long.  About 15 minutes after we got in some more guys came in and I would imagine that there were 7 or 8 of us in there at one point. It was pretty warm so we had to sit on the sides to cool off and after about a half hour, we were cooked. But after a day of walking, it did help to relax tired muscles.

We compared notes with Becky and Sam, Joe’s wife.  On the women’s side there were a lot more patrons and not much modesty.  They were walking about openly.  I told them they should have taken pictures to verify this…  Also Sam said that they were ‘all A-cups with gorilla bushes.’  Well anyway we can say that we have been there and done that – went skinny dipping with the Japanese.

The pace of our explorations changed the second week, we went on shorter day trips in the area.  Sam and I went to the Tokyo fish market which bills itself as the largest in the world. Joe didn’t like seafood and Becky didn’t want to travel that day.  The market shuts down early, so we had to leave during rush hour to get there in time.  And we definitely felt like sardines during the trip.  Sometimes the subway cars are so full that at some stops the new riders turn their backs to the crowd and push backwards to force their way into the cars. You get very familiar with your travelling companions.

Sam was a magician with her smart phone.  It has the Tokyo subway and train system and so she mapped out our route and kept us on track as we had to change lines several times – again just like the roads, some of the info is in Japanese and some in English. So she has become quite the navigator while overseas.  Google maps is a great travelling companion.

By the port side, there are larger warehouses, but by the city are rows of narrow streets with all kinds of vendors.  Mostly fish and seafood of course, but also some small restaurants, and other types of food.  And to add to the chaos there is the occasional fork lift or motorcycle zipping by, so you have to be nimble of foot.  

About everything that could swim was found in the market.  Huge shrimp that you could almost saddle up and ride.  Ok, maybe not that big – but some were easily as long as your hand.  Every species of crab. Tons of fish of course, some of the vendors had tubs full. Octopus, squid, shellfish of all sorts. One display had a huge tuna head – bigger than a horses head, and on display were cuts of meat from that fish.  One of the cuts of meat was a huge chunk as big as a thanksgiving turkey – I was impressed.  

Well the goal was to get some seafood for Becky and prepare it for Becky.  Most seafood in restaurants is sushi but she did not want to try it. We found some decent sized shrimp, some crabs, and some salmon so that she could sample it.  Sam cooked it all up and we had a feast.  All was good – I would imagine that it was caught that morning and it tasted great.

Becky wanted to see the statue of the dog from the movie where the owner dies and the dog loyally shows up every day by the station waiting for an owner that will never return.  It was a popular attraction, there was a small crowd around it and you had to wait your turn if you wanted your photo by it.  That is also close to an intersection that is billed as the busiest in the world, well at least the busiest in Japan.  The sea of people walking by rivals what we saw on Time Square.

We stopped at a Brazilian Steakhouse for lunch that one of Joe's friends had told him about.  It had a very nice buffet for your salad and veggies.  Then the staff came around to your table with different types of beef, pork, chicken and would slice off a portion for you.  Quite the feast, we finally had to wave them off after we were all stuffed. Then they had a several desserts that you could indulge yourself with.

Our last full day there was the most demanding as far as walking.  Joe had warned us coming in that there would be a lot of walking and I am glad that we had the first week and a half to get us somewhat in shape for this last day trip.  First up was a giant bronze Buddha statue that was created like 750 years ago.  It survived a tidal wave – which must have been a giant one as the statue is up a good 150 feet (or more) from the sea. It has also survived massive earth quakes and there was also a fire which burned down the original temple.

Next Joe had done some research and there was an island (connected to the mainland by bridge) where they had built some shrines and temples inside the caves.  Now to reach the caves you had to climb up to the peak of the highest point of the island and back down again.  I am guessing it was like 200 feet tall.  But it was scenic and there was a smattering of statues and shrines sprinkled around the island.  So we could stop and rest at each one.  In other words, we did not have to make the round trip in one long sprint.

Again Ryker was a rock star, Joe and Sam got a new back pack carrier and I soon volunteered to carry him around for a bit to give Joe a rest.  I had a couple of people stop me for pics and I saw people out of the corner of my eye taking pics of me and Ryker several times. So I got a small taste of the Ryker effect - Japanese cannot get enough of light haired, blue eyed babies. 

The descent down to the caves was steep and twisted.  It took its toll on Becky, she had to stop several times to rest and catch her wind.  But the caves were interesting with ancient statutes and shrines within.  Hard to imagine that a lot of it has been there for hundreds of years. 

On our way out we were going downhill and all of a sudden Ryker started laughing, and laughing – he must have laughed for a good 5 minutes.  He seemed to be looking off to his left steadily, but we couldn’t spot anything that could be cause.  We kind of looked back in bewilderment and wondered if maybe some playful spirits may have somehow had him laughing with joy.

That night Joe took us to a nice restaurant close by the base, this was our last night in Japan.  In this one, you cook your own meat. There are actually burners built into the table with a small grill on top.  You order your raw meat and sides, then you cook your meat and then they have 3 types of sauces if you want to spice things up a bit.  I found that the food tasted very good.   And they didn’t gouge you on the beer – I ordered a $5 (ok 590 yen) beer and I got a $5 sized bottle – about twice the size of an average sized beer bottle.  It was a good way to end our visit.

Before I detail the trip home, some random observations of Japan.  There are many Western brands there.  7/11 and Lawson stores feel like they are on every corner.  And unlike here in the US where you have to be brave to eat a sandwich or a hot dog from a convenience store, the sandwiches and heated up foods actually taste good and have flavor.  Oh, yeah and they allow open containers there.  So you can go to a 7/11, buy a tall one, and walk down the street sipping on it.  Which Joe and I did a couple of times. I drank the main local brews – Kirin, Sapporo, and Ashahi and liked them all. 

We ate at a Frisches – but the menu is definitely oriental.  No hamburgers (they do have a hamburger patty with sauce on rice), but lots of curries and rice dishes. I liked it.  Denny’s is there (also has oriental menu), but Joe said that it isn’t good.  McDonalds was pretty much the same there as here. Saw KFC but did not stop in, but Joe says that it is popular.

I did eat some mystery meat on a stick (it tasted good)  and squid (so-so).  Ya gotta expand your horizon’s and not get stuck too deeply in a rut. Several times we were travelling by subway and wanted something to eat – you spotted something that looked edible in a vending machine or a small food stand and took your chances.

We felt safe where ever we went and the streets did seem to be pretty clean. I like the culture, a blend of oriental and western. On the subways the dress code for workers seems to be a dark suit and tie and the women wear dark dresses and heels.  So apparently it is very formal in the work place.  Oh and the subway trains are ghostly quiet as far as chatter – people are quiet out of respect for their fellow passengers is what Joe told us.  Now we did hear some noise, several of the trains had braking systems that sound like a distressed cat.  The first couple of times I heard it, I was looking around to see if someone had a cat on their lap and was twisting its tail.

There are enough Japanese that know English that you can find someone to help out. They do have some restrooms with squatters – oriental style toilets that are more or less a hole in the floor.  And you can find western style food, but obviously you are not going to find it everywhere.  I had to talk to Becky after the second day – we are wasting too much time trying to find the right food to eat and the right restroom, we just need to go native or we won’t be able see half the stuff we want to see.

The timing was right for the Cherry Blossoms.  The first week of April is the time to go.  By the time we left the blossoms were pretty much gone.  

Well now we are ready for the trip home.  Of course it was a tearful goodbye, Becky was happy to be going home but was going to miss the 3 of them.  I got a little misty eyed myself, we won't see Joe again until next summer. Sam and Ryker will be taking a trip stateside later this year, so we will be looking forward to seeing them.  The base runs a bus to the airport and there was room for us and although we had to pay a fee, it beat trying to catch trains or subways to get there.  The driver though went strictly by the speed limit.  And many stretches are 60, that is 60 kilometers per hour which is like 37 miles an hour.  Even 80 kph works out to about 50.  So the drive seemed to take forever.

We got thru the airport alright, went thru the exit process, and got on the airplane.  The trip went fairly well.  Still couldn’t hardly sleep, so we both arrived in Chicago exhausted.  We had to go thru the lines all over again. We were waiting in one line and a USDA lady with a beagle walks up to us and asks if we have any fruit.  Turns out that Becky got a banana from the stewardess to eat during the layover.  And the beagle alerted on that.  We turned in our contraband banana and were dismissed. 

Next up was the TSA.  We were herded into line – ‘go on down, down to the next one, keep going… yes go in line there.’  It was a line where we didn’t have to take out laptops, take off shoes for some reason. The guy says ‘don’t take anything off, don’t take anything out of your bag.’ OK fine, I think. But it was also a line where they ended up inspecting both of our bags and I had to have a pat down.  Thanks guy.

Becky had put a bottle of water in her bag and had forgotten about it.  So yet again we had been caught with contraband – I am sure that we are some list somewhere by now.  Not sure what the deal was with my bag, they went thru it quickly – it had the laptop, tablet, and camera in it. 

Next up was me – I had some change in my pocket that I had forgotten about.  So I had to have a pat down.  A female was running the station and apparently I needed a male for the pat down.  It took like 5 minutes of her hollering to finally get someone over.  And the guys feels my left pocket, the outside of my left leg and I am done – it took like 2 seconds.  No probing, so I felt a bit disappointed.  I was going to complain to his supervisor but I thought better of it.

We make our flight to Dayton and we were home sweet home.  Still recuperating from the jet lag of course. But it was great trip and well worth it.  Joe and Sam were excellent hosts, tour guides, and travelling companions.  We are hoping that Joe gets assigned to Europe next go round, maybe we have recovered from our jet lag by then!