Tokyo is on the way to Vancouver… right?

So we are off to Canad for Christmas with the family, and as it turned out they were going to be in California pretty much right up a few days before Christmas.  We had, however, blocked aside to go from the 15th, but there was no point in going to Vancouver Island when the people we were going to visit weren’t going to return until the 21st… so what to do?  Stop over in Tokyo it is.

Our transit yesterday was pretty ordinary – I am not fond of this budget airline nonsense.  Our TA is great, but she had us on Jetstar for this leg of our trip, and to be honest, it feels like a theme park – you pay the entrance fee and then the costs keep piling up… Want a drink? $$$ Want a meal?  $$$ Want to watch a movie?  $$$ Want a blanket for the flight? more $$$..!  Maybe if the flights were super cheap.  Maybe.  But this wasn’t because it’s Christmas and for the travel industry – that is kinda like flying a wedding flag at the function industry.  Prices are up, up, up!  Anyway, we got here safely and I guess that is the bit that counts, and other than a ridiculous cock up with our train tickets to Shinjuku (the stupid woman at the counter at the airport only sold us half a ticket, one to Ueno where we got off the Skyliner train and had to switched to the JR, but not a ticket that also included the JR portion of the journey.  Much confusion and angst ensued as the English-challenged JR employee was trying to sort us out at the other end, and there is never enough patience to go around after a 14-hour commute.  :/

Finally found our hotel after much getting lost; the Google map really struggles in among the tall buildings, and we checked into the tiniest hotel rooms ever.  Slept pretty good – thanks to sheer exhaustion I dare say.

Next morning up bright and early to hang out with Amane, a friend our son had met on our cruise around Japan two years earlier.  First stop was the Imperial Palace.

The Tokyo Imperial Palace was built on the grounds of an old Edo castle.  It is surround by 3.5kms of gardens and is smack bang in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate in the world. One one side of the moat is the serene gardens and castle grounds, and the other – Tokyo CBD highrises.  It makes for an interesting juxtaposition, to say the least. Most of the leaves have dropped from the trees, but some in happy warm spots are still in lovely fall colours.  The fortifications of the old palace are seriously impressive – that large block in the bottom left is taller than I am. After a wander around the palace grounds (the palace itself is not open to the public as the current Imperial family still reside there) we took a train to Asakusa to see the markets and visit the Senso-ji temple. The Asakusa temple is Tokyo’s oldest temple and considered one of its most significant. It is dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy The markets leading up to the temple are full of fun touristy stuff and yummy street food. Hozomon gate. The temple with it’s five storey pagoda. A couple out buying good fortune charms… many focused on health, money, good fortunes, passing exams, fertility – you name it.  Need a charm?  They have a specific one for you. We decided to get our omikuji fortunes.  You put your 100Y donation into a slot and pick up a steel cylinder to shake out a numbered stick.  Then select your fortune from the drawer of the same number – and voila!  Your fortune told is told. 

Mr K got 12, I got 25 and the Teenager got 34. There are seven results for omikuji, ranging from the best daikichi (大吉excellent fortune) to the worst daikyou (大凶terrible fortune).  Naturally, Mr K picked a Best Fortune, I picked a Good Fortune and the others got a Regular Fortune… I actually want to go back and find a bad fortune too!  🙂
Dad fortune; best Fortune!  Apparently.

After getting our fortunes, we visited the temple proper, starting with the rituals of drawing good health and good fortune to our persons by waving incense smoke towards ourselves and ‘bathing’ in the smoke. We then went to the fountain and washed our hands and face before approaching the shrine – the water was freezing.


At the shrine, we made our offerings and said prayers to Guanyin and Buddha.   Afterwards we wandered the markets for a while and saw lots of ladies walking around in their yukata.  Amane says she only wears her yukata for holidays like New Years and festivals, but some Japanese young ladies like to wear them out on special shopping trips – and given it’s a week until Christmas there were plenty of people out shopping. From Asakusa we jumped another train and head to Ueno.  This area is popular shopping district (though I think that phrase could be applied to nearly all of Tokyo’s well known precincts.

It is also where you find the Ueno Park district.  Ueno Park was established in the late 1800s and is now home to a number of major museums, marketplaces, the Tokyo Zoo and is famous for its cherry blossoms when they are in season. The history of the park (it was built on the site of an old temple and was the site of a battle during the Boshin war is really interesting) but also long, so check it out on Wikipedia if you are interested.

We went to the zoo first, as it was likely to close earlier than the museum, and our day was made infinitely better by panda, otters, tigers, lions, monkeys, polar bears and cranes etc.   The otter enclose had this clever contraption on the outside of the cage that the otters could access by climbing a ladder and swimming through a tunnel.  They had been carrying stones back and forth but all swam back into the enclosure as we approached. This guy was staring intently at something just outside their enclosure – but we couldn’t for the life of us figure out what it was.  I doubled back around on the otters as we were leaving the park and was interested to see they were feeding them live fish.  The otters spent about ten minutes chasing their dinner down which I think is probably better for keeping them active and stimulated than just being fed.  They were also given clams to eat, which they had to smash open with their stones.  Alas I have no photos of their feeding – they were moving too fast and the lighting conditions too low.  

There was also this guy – a Secretary Bird, which now seems to make all Pokemon make sense.  It has the head of an eagle, the body of a goose and the legs of a stork!  It looks like a living breathing wild Pokemon.  😛 

There were also rhinoceros, hippopotamus, lemurs, prairie dogs and yes even kangaroos… but the most thrilling exhibition must have been the Bin Chicken enclosure.  Yes, the humble Bin Chicken is here for the world to enjoy – only weirdly, here they are called Sacred Ibis. 

After leaving the kids to chase more African animals – Mr K and I went back into Ueno Park to check out the markets.  The markets pop up for 3-4 days at a time and have different themes.  At the moment, there was a homewares market on with loads of lovely ceramics, tools, knives, chopsticks, woodcrafts, artworks etc.

After the markets, we went to the Tokyo National Museum to see some of the country’s treasures.  The museum itself is in an impressive building but was very oddly laid out (in my experience of museums at any rate). It was supposed to be in some sort of chronological order but there were some artefacts that were in the ordered layout of the museum, with a sign beside them saying ‘to see more of these Edo period samurai suits, go to Gallery X’. Same beside the sword exhibit.  I think it was done purposefully to get guests to go through the entire museum, instead of just heading for the samurai exhibits and then leaving.  🙂

Keman – Buddhist ceremonial ornamental pendant with design of Kalavimaka birds (mythical birds).  Bronze, Showa era, 20thC reproduction of Heian period 12thC orginal.Gosuku type armour – with two-piece cuirass and white lacing.  Edo period, 17thC.
Okitenuagui Type helmet with dark blue lacking – Azuchi-Momoyama Edo period, 17thC. Yoroi Type Armour with red lacing. 20thC reproduction of 12thC Heian period original. Gusoku Type armour – with two-piece cruirass and red lacing.  Edo period, 17thC Gusoku type armour – with two-piece cuirass and bear fur, Edo period 17thC. Pillows.  Baku (mythical beast) and nandina design in maki-e lacquer.  Edo period 18thC. Pair of Boxes for Shell Matching Game Pieces – Designs from scenes of ‘The Tale of Genji’. Edo period, 17thC. Boxes like these held painted seashells for a shell-matching game.  They were important in the wedding rituals of feudal lords, as shells with two hinged parts symbolised fidelity. Karaori (Noh costume).  Pine bark lozenges, peon and pheonix roundel design on red and light blue checkered ground. Late Edo period, 18thC. Sobatsugi (Noh costume). Dragone and cloud design on dark blue ground. Edo period 18th-19thC. Nuihaku (Noh costume).  Seigaiha waves, mandarin duck, and water lily design on red ground.  Edo period, 18thC. Chukei (Noh fan).  Old pine and sun design on gold ground.  Edo period 18thC. Japanese print.  Blindman’s Buff:  Allusion to Yuranosuke at the Ichiriki Teahouse.  By Chokosai Eisho (date unknown)  Edo period, 18thC.
The print alludes to a kabuki play based on the story of the forty-seven ronin. In the scene being referenced, the hero indulges himself in amusements to fool his enemies into thinking he has given up on avenging his master’s death.
Detail: Standing Daikoku Ten (Mahakala) by Kaiken.  Wood with polychromy and inlaid crystal eyes.  Nanbokucho period, dated 1347. Mokujiki Self-Portrait.  Wood, Edo period, 1804. Shallow bowl, Kingfisher design in overglaze enamel.  Imari ware. Edo period, 17th century.  Interestingly the museum makes no note whatsoever of the beautiful kintsugi repair work done to this dish. Inscriptions of Antique Compendium of Sword Inscriptions over Ages, Edo period dated 1717.

And that was day one in Tokyo done.  After this we head back on the trains to Shinjuku for some cheap and cheerful ramen dinners – misanthropes must love these cafes where you order your meal through a machine and then someone brings you food and you don’t have to talk to anyone!  And it was a very tired borys who, 21,946 steps later, hopped in the tiny (but deep) Japanese hotel bath and actually fell asleep in the tub!

Transit to China

OMG – today has been such a prick of a day.  First we had to get up early, pack our stuff, get out of the accommodation, say good bye to the Small Child and SaucyMary, lug our crap up to a main road, hail a cab, get to Shinjunku JR station, find the right platform and catch a Narita Express train all before 5:55am.  :/

Yeah, was about as much fun as it sounds.  

Tripit had informed us tht our flight had been rescheduled from 10:50am to 10:00am (thankfully) or we would have booked a later train and potentially missed our check-in time.  So yay for Tripit.

We get to Narita, go to check in and find that the China Eastern Airline counters are NOT EVEN OPEN at 7:00am in the morning… what sort of airline doesn’t have service counters open at that hour?  Anyway, we dutifully stood in line until they opened, and checked in our luggage without incident – except I noticed a sign saying that the gates were a 20 minute walk away, and the customer service representative told us there were no shuttles or anything to move people to the gates.  Le sigh.  At least we had a Qantas Club to look forward to once we walked out there.

Have boarding passes, make our way out to the Main Terminal where all the gates are located and rock up to the doors of the Qantas Club to be greeted by a sign saying they don’t open until 8:30am!  What’s with this place, does everyone sleep in or something?  Does no one fly for business purposes?   We walk back out and find somewhere to sit and find some wifi to talk to people back home before we think we are going to have to go dark in China due to shitty internet and data security risks.

Go back down to the Qantas Club at 8:30am – flight is still at 10:00am and MrK was dying for a coffee at this point – only to find out that the stupid travel agent hasn’t booked us on a proper code share flight… and the Qantas Club actually turned away a paid up member, who is flying with an affiliate airline because of a lack of code share codes.  First time I have used a travel agent in about ten years – last time I will use a travel agent if I can avoid it.  

So we wander out and look for coffee and toast.  Find a not so tidy coffee shop and settle for that until our flight is being called.  Eventually we board and do the overhead locker and shuffling in the seat thing and are all settled in around 9:50am, and then for some reason we get held up.  And, guess what?  Our flight ended up sitting on the tarmac until the original scheduled 10:50am departure.  FFS.  

Which meant that our 1hr 30min layover in Shanghai was gobbled up in being late.  We got shuffled off the plane in Shanghai by way of steps onto the tarmac, crammed into barely air conditioned buses and then pushed like cattle through the entire back end of the airport to clear customs, before being put back on the stupid buses and driven straight back out to the same damn plane and being shown back to same damn seats.  Whole exercise was about 30mins and we walked 3 KILOMETERS through the fucking airport in a disorganized shamble.  We kept losing sight of the person  who was supposedly shepherding us though this process and at one point he dumb bitch disappeared all together and I overheard the French couple behind us who were just as pissed off and bemused at what the hell was supposed to be going on.  Why couldn’t we just be processed into the country in Beijing?  As it was, in Beijing they singled out everyone on the flight who had come from Tokyo, to make us collect our luggage and go through customs screening again with luggage in tow, so why not just do the immigration processing at the same time.  Fucking bureaucratic bullshit.  I was so dirty with them – bad enough we left late, bad enough we got all hot and sticky again walking around on the tarmac and through the arse end of the customs world in Shanghai, but to be pushed through another customs screening after they had us enter the country in Shanghai – FUCK OFF.

So, two three hour flights – that took us from 5:00am to 4:40pm later and we eventually arrive in Beijing and are met by our China Tours guide, Kelli.  Thankfully we were welcomed into the warm embrace of someone who knows what the fuck is going on and whose job it is to make sure we are comfortable and having a good time.  Some ice tea and a drive to the Novotel Beijing Peace Hotel, and we were finally pantless and trying to get over what was quite a traumatic day.

  If I had my way I would never fly China Eastern Air ever again – they were disorganised, the communication was sadly lacking and the staff, both on and off the plane seriously didn’t give a shit that so many foreign passengers had no idea what was going on.  Fuck them.  Fuck them with a rake.

Unfortunately however, our idiot travel agent who booked these open jaw flights has us flying with them again from Shanghai to Hong Kong at the end of this tour.  *grump*

 

Japan Weirdnesses

I have absolutely loved Japan, the people are lovely, the history is fascinating and the culture is incredible.

First thing to note for me personally is that I should only come to Japan in shoulder season or in the winter.  I’m from a subtropical climate, but NOTHING could have prepared me for the humidity here – it’s phenomenal.  People are walking around with mops, sponges and hand towels to constantly wipe the sweat off themselves.  It’s positively stifling… the men in particualr are just about wearing Monty Python hankies on their heads to stay cool, and yet there are plenty of ladies walking around in stockings, heels, blouses and CARDIGANS!  WTF is with that?  Wearing a sweater or cardie when it’s 34C out.  Urgh.  Even when playing tourist in their own country, the Japanese women are teetering around on uneven pavement and cobblestones in stilettos, stockings, skirts and a twin set.  Makes the rest of us in our sneakers and capri pants look excessively dowdy, but in comparison, we also look extremely practical.

Another thing we noticed was all the people wearing face masks to protect themselves from germs and toxins and what not.  This is nothing new, we’ve all seen it in news reports, people have genuine concerns about the air quality so they’re trying to filter what they breather.  But I have seen so many people wearing a face mask who have only got it on covering their mouth and not their nose.  🙂  Which hardly seems effective.   Not to mention we have also seen plenty of these self same people, happily walk into aa crowded smoking room, drop their protective face mask to dangle around their necks while they have a cigarette.  Absolutley absurd.

Some other things we haven’t quite been able to fathom is when to keep left, and when to keep right. It seems that in Japan, you drive on the left, but keep right when walking along streets or pedestrian access areas, EXCEPT when you get on an escalator… at which point you need to stand on the left.  Go figure.

The public transport is excellent for the most part.  Super fast, exceptionally clean, no bums begging for money in the subway (I’m looking at you fucking NYC and Washington DC) and people cram in here just as tightly as they do on the Tube, but with a bit more courtesy.  I don’t take public transport much at home so I probably have no proper frame of reference for this – but nearly EVERYONE is playing little mobile phone games for their transit.  Little Tetris type games, or puzzle games seem to be favourites, though I did sit beside one Japanese lady who was reading Pride and Prejudice on her phone in English (I saw fleetingly that Mr Darcy was asking Lizzy to dance and she had sworn she would never dance with him!) which kinda tickled my finely tuned sense of the absurd.

We noticed that our tour guides for the various city and ship tours we did, appear to be multi-talented … or wanted to appear to be multi-talented or something – but either way they wanted to show us what ever it was they could do. Not quite sure what was going on with this one, but the tour guides always wanted to ‘exhibit’ towards the end of the tour.  One sang us a traditional Shinto wedding ballad in a very operatic style, another played some local music on a weird little Japanese style ocarina type thing… but the true highlight was the strange little dude who was doing magic tricks on the bus on the way back to the ship.  LOL.  I have no idea what all this was about.
Flip phones!  Yeah, what’s with that????  Clam-shell mobile phones seem to be incredibly popular here (thse and iPhones of course).  Haven’t seen many people with clam-shell phones for ages at home, and when you do they tend to be low on features, but here, loads of people have them.  Didn’t bother going shopping to see what brands they were, but they seem to be everywhere.

Ummm… what else.  Trains stations are fun.  Like, literally — fun.  Every time a train pulls in, various ding dongs and bells and whistles go off – they sound just like pokie machines.  And I swear each station has it’s own different noises so that all the people dozing off on the train don’t miss their stops!  🙂   The trains here come in really fast to the station. I am not sure why they do – it’s kinda bizarre that they pull up so hard, but surely it must be a ‘person under the train’ risk.  If you wanted to jump on the tracks as a train was pulling into any station, it would certainly do the trick, they’re coming in that fast.

 We also loved the ‘No up skirt photos’ warning posters on a lot of escalators in train stations.  Particularly prevalent around the Shinjuku and Akhiabara area where cosplayers are frequently spotted around the place.  Mr K fell in love with escalators that went up… then go flat… then go up again.  Sort of a blend of escalator/travelator/escalator type thing.  Should be more of it I say.  Some of the older stations that obviously haven’t been updated or renovated have only steps still, but most of them were very accessible (Not like the NYC Subway I might note).

One of my biggest peeves with Tokyo is the complete ‘no public seating’ policy that seems to be in effect.  You can be at a station waiting for the next train, at a shopping centre just escaping the heat in the air con or even in a public park, and there will not be any seats anywhere that you can just pull up a pew and rest for a minute.  I was told by one of the guides that this is due to the habits of salarymen who have a tendecy to stay in town after work and get drunk, then sleep in the city in their clothes and go straight to work again.  Apparenlty it is quite common (and semi-acceptable) to crash for the night on a park bench… so no benches forces them into cheap tiny hotels or to pack themselves off home.

We have seen a bit of strange behaviour from the business end of town – one night in Shibuya when we were out for dinner with some of Mr K’s work colleagues, it was pissing down rain… and next thing you know the train stations and squares are full of businessmen in suits and GUMBOOTS.  They look so ridiculous, but how tediously practical is that?  To keep a pair of gumboots in your office for just such occasions.  I love it.  The other weirdness that business men are seen doing quite frequently is bowing while having their conversations.  They will stand around and bow constantly at each other, deference flying in all directions, which is lovely and polite and there should be more of it I say… but man does it look strange to see a man on a mobile phone repeatedly bowing to someone unseen on the other end of the phone, just because he habitually bows saying the words he is saying.  Plenty of bowing to invisible/absent people going on.

 What else have we got?  Loads and loads of push bikes everywhere, and hardly any of them are locked up… crime is very low.  BUT, when you got to a restaurant, reception centre, or even some temples, there are long boxes for people to put their umbrellas while they are inside – and those have individual locks so no one can walk off with your umbrella!  Yep, no locking up the bicycles, but definitely lock up your umbrella.  🙂  Speaking of umbrellas, Japanese cities are incredibly clean, but the one thing you can and will find littering the street from time to time, are broken umbrellas.  You can pick them up from any train station kiosk for about $5-6, so it seems these sorts of umbrellas are sort of disposable.  They are as cheap and nasty as they sound, but they do the trick for a while, so when they die, they get discarded and don’t stay in rubbish bins very well.

I noticed that the Emergency service vehicles here sound like air raid sirens – much like air raid sirens from WWII movies that depict people rushing around London grabbing their gas mask boxes, and heading for air raid shelters.  It’s a little disconcerting.
Oh, this one is definitely weird.  I took a cruise on the harbour around Tokyo while the others were climbing Mt Fuji, and I saw a Tokyo city ferry.  The Tokyo ferries look like a UFO fucked a submarines.  Weird. They look very weird.


In Kyoto, the bus drivers have a headset microphone on so they can address the passengers on the bus without raising their voice, which is fine seeing people enter the bus from the rear doors and exit by the front and pay as you get off.  Only problem is that the bus drivers either forget they are wearing them or they just don’t care and when you hear the amplified snorting of a Kyoto bus driver hacking up a loogie from six different speakers, it really makes you wish they didn’t have them things on.

Somthing else we have been often amused and confused by is the ridiculous amount of over packaging that seems to come with every purchase. You might want to buy two lapel pins or three handkerchiefs, that are already in their manufacturers packaging and the store clerk will either wrap each, already plastic wrapped, item in paper, or place each item in another individual plastic bag and then put the whole lot in another plastic bag. Even if you are carrying a backpack or other plastic bag to put it in, they will still insist on giving you yet another bag.

Speaking of shopping – fucking no one, and I mean NO ONE, bar the local Seven-11 or Family Mart, takes credit cards. While many western countries have embraced using Visa or Mastercard for small purchases, Japan seems to flow on a cash economy. Yes, many departent stores, boutique stores and large chains will take your credit card, but most bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, musuem gift shops even, only take cash. Weird. So unless you’re spending a lot of money in expensive stores, or eating in a semi-western restaurant or picking up a few groceries, we found ourselves having to pay for nearly everything with cash.

We noticed that the bus drivers and taxi drivers all seem to favour white gloves while working.  I have no idea why, but they’re often wearing white cotton gloves, like out of place mimes.  Additionally, I reckon nearly all the Taxi drivers are Japanese.  Which is unheard of in the UK, or Australia or the US.  I didn’t meet any obviously foreign taxi drivers (though in fairness, some of them could be Chinese and I wouldn’t necessarily know from the back seat).  Oh, this is gorgeous – most taxis seem to be quite old or rather modeled on an older style of vehicle, but are extremely well maintained and very well presented… I mean doilies on the seat and head rests and sometimes on the inside of the door frames.  Pristine white doilies.

Get out of Toyko where most people rely heavily on the very fast, very clean rail, and you start to notice a few things about the Japanese people and their relationship to cars. Firstly – they’re all tiny, and the ones that aren’t are disproportionately narrow… I mean when you stumble across a Mini Cooper S and think ‘Wow that looks like a big car for some reason’, you know how small most of the cars on the road are.  And because the population is so dense, parking is really creative.  Many residential properties have car lifts so people can park one of their cars on top of their other car. There are so many of these double decker parking lift things in some residential areas you get the impression they must be a really affordable option for parking problems.  Others have taken a different tactic and park their cars INSIDE what are/were shop fronts and restaurants… they initially appear disused but once the car is driven out it looks like itcould be business as usual.

The other car weirdness is peoples’ preparedness to stop anywhere.  In Kyoto, we went down to Gion and a guy in a Mercedes was parked on the side of a busy road (near our favourite okonomyaki store) and when we came back after checking out the lights, the shops, the hanamiachi… he was still parked there!  The driver was gone, but his buddy was in the front passenger seat watching baseball on an in-dash TV system.  No one seemed to think he should move on, and people will just stop seemingly anywhere regardless of how busy the road is.

We had one ‘it’s a small world’ moment in Kyoto (I mean once we were on the ship there were Australians everywhere and we were meeting people from just across down every other day), but the first people we ran into was on a tram in Kyoto.  There was a kid sitting opposite us wearing a Brisbane Lions cap and I pointed it out to the Small Child, who said, “I think he goes to my school”.  I said hello to the familyl and yes, it turns out they are from right around the corner in Cannon Hill and the kid in the Brisbane Lions cap does go to the same school as the Small Child, just a grade level up.  It is a small world… you always seem to run into someone when you are travelling.

And a list of Japanese weirdnesses wouldn’t be complete with an observation or two about the unusual toilets that you find here.  Yes, they are very fancy, and they have a multitude of functions.  The most amusing of the functions in my opinion would be the ‘water sound’ button.  It seems hearing other people pee is so offensive that the toilet will play water running or flushing noises for you so you can empty your bladder and no one has to hear it.  *rolls eyes*  The other thing I noticed is that it can be 35°C and disgustingly humid and sticky, but someone will have the toilet seat warmer on for reasons beyond my ability to comprehend.  Bizarre. And I think there is two types of toilets in Japan – the ultra fancy bidet with massage and spray and works and jerks, or the dreaded squat toilet with no paper. No in between.

And other than that – the only other thing I found truly, wonderfully, absurd was a Japanese man singing karaoke on the ship… he really should have chosen something other than ‘The Crocodile Rock’.  We were laughing so hard we had to back out of Club Fusion quick.

Tokyo Transit Cluster Fuck

Well, there is no doubt about it – transit days always suck.  But this one sucked even worse than usual.  

We felt pretty well sorted – everything was planned well.  However the best laid plans of mice and … Meh. you know the drill.  First thing to happen to us on this transit leg was for our accomodation to get cancelled on us.  Only downside of Airbnb, if something happens, and your booking gets cancelled on you – then you’ve got to scramble.  So the apartment we were going to stay in – something happened, no idea what, and we had to find a new place.  Airbnb were great, they transferred our credit amount and gave us another US$50 to help us find another place on short notice and we did.  It wasn’t in the same part of town, and we had somewhere to stay, but it was a bit of a pain in the arse.  Luckily that was sorted a couple of days ago, but it came back to bite us a bit.

We took a late disembarkation off the ship time so we would have heaps of time to get from Yokahama Pier to Shinjuku where we were now staying.  All good, slept in a bit, went up for breakfast and pottered around to be getting off the ship around 9am.  There was a free shuttle to the JR line, so we jumped on that waited around a while and found ourselves at the train station – whereupon a rapid panic ensued.  The Small Child, the only one with a free hand, had been carrying the stamped walking poles that Mr K, SaucyMary and himself took all the way up Mt Fuji and back… and he had accidentally left them on the shuttle bus in the hustle to get off.  FUCK.

Mr K, ran back to the shuttle stop to try and see if another driver could radio the other drivers and find out where they were.  No go – language barrier BS.  He then decided to taxi back to the pier in the hope he could head off the shuttle before it started his rounds again.  Got half way up the pier, got stuck in a traffic jam, decided to get our and run up the rest of the way (if you’ve ever been to Oshanbashi Pier, you’ll know this is NOT a good plan, expecically not in 34C heat).  He got to the shuttle stop and was trying to communicate with other shuttle bus drivers when one of the pier staff found him and said ‘Are you looking for Fuji poles?’  They had been handed in immediately – much to his relief.  Another taxi back to where I was stuck looking after four suitcases and four backpacks and an hour lost to find poles.  Poor youngin’ felt so guilty about leaving them behind, and I kept telling him that ‘shit happens’, but he was distraught until Dad turned up with the poles in hand.

  
Next we finally made it onto our trains, then switched trains, then found a pair of taxis to take us to our accommodation – and neither cab driver knew where the place was.  It took us a full 30 mins of wandering around tiny back streets and around corners to find the right building let alone figure out the comibination mail box lock BS to get the key out.  Eventually squared that away and dumped our stuff so we could go out for the afternoon.  That took us up until about 1pm of fucking around in the ridiculous heat.  :/

We were going to go do some last minute wandering around at Asakusa … but changed this plan due to the whole ‘well, it’s an outdoor market and it’s blistering hot and humidity’ thing.  Decided to go to Akhiabara instead and try to find the Anime Information Centre and a huge well known shop called, Mandarake, which was shut the last time we were here.  More trains to Akhiabara.  More wandering around in the heat – only to find that the goddamn Anime Information Centre which tells you where all the English anime stores are was CLOSED ON MONDAYS.  Arrrggghh!  So not having a good day.  Expending way too much energy in disgustingly hot conditions for very little reward.

By this stage we were all shattered, so we went looking for somewhere cool to just sit and recuperate for a while. Would you believe we couldn’t find a single place to sit in the air con that wasn’t McDonalds or Starbucks?  There are shopping centres everywhere and large department stores – but not a single one of them has any seating.  None at all.  So McDonalds and Grape Fantas all round while we regrouped and waited for evening booking.

About six weeks ago I booked some tickets for the Robot Restaurant, and we didn’t tell the Small Child, thinking it would make a great suprise for his last night in Tokyo.  It is everything that you expect from Toyko Pop Culture.  Lights, flashing neon, music, dancing, scantily clad wait staff and performers and all the bells and whistles.  We get lost trying to find the place.  I eventually ask some staff members at an electronics store if they know where it is – they don’t, but htey have internet so they look it up for me and set us up in the right direction.  We get there and find a lonely French man wandering around saying ‘I can’t find out how to get in.’  And… neither could we.  

Eventually some staff type people show up and tell us the show is not on.  Langauge barriers again raises it’s ugly head and I’m waving a ticket at them going, ‘what do you mean it’s not on?’  It turns out the Robot Restaurant show was cancelled for four days – our day being one of them – and the booking agent I had purchased tickets through said she had been trying to contact me for a few days to switch our dates.  Oh ferfuckssake.  Could this day get any more screwed up.

So instead of seeing all the lights and fun and weirdness of the Robot Restaurant… we ended up walking around Shinjuku looking for a restaurant that I hadn’t just seen an enormous rat run into.  We landed at a Japanese BBQ place, which was lovely, but it was very quiet and certainly not what we had in mind for the evening.    Yay, another transit day tomorrow.

   
    
   

Grand Japan – Aomori Nebuta Festival

Doing the back to back cruises means we get a second stop in Aomori. Last time here, we did a day trip out to Lake Towada and the Mt Hokkado Ropeways, so this time we decided to go down town and check out the famous Nebuta Museum.

Now there is a ship tour that takes you to this museum, but after a tiny bit research, Mr K found out the Nebuta Museum is marked on the map contained in the Aomori Port Guide supplied by the ship’s Port Expert, not as the Nebuta Musuem but as the ‘Wa Rasse House’… and it is spitting distance from where the free shuttle bus drops you off in town. So passengers can get there easily and cheaply without taking the ship tour. Hmmm. 

Anyway, the entire town is wrapped up in the Nebuta Festival which is occurring all this week and culminating in a large parade that runs all next week. The Nebuta Festival is thought to be a combination of the Chinese Tanabata Festival and the local customs of the Aomori farming community. Both involved lanterns and are believed to have naturally blended together over time. The name ‘Nebuta’ comes from the adjective for ‘sleepy’ in local dialect as the primary goal of the festival is to wake people up during the long hot draining days of summer! We can certainly voucher for that. The festival attracts about 3 million people each year and runs along a parade route of about 3.1km with up to 22 enormous handmade floats.   

  

The Nebuta Museum currently houses about five floats from the most recent festival, and the museum was created to allow people to get a closer look at the floats, as during the chaos of the festival, there is no chance to get up close to them to appreciate the artworks. Each float is nine meters wide, sever meters long and about five meters high.

The creators of the Nebuta floats are actually known as Nebuta artists – this is a full time occupation, and is not a job done solo. The Nebuta artists have a team of craftsmen and electricians who help them turn their artistic visions into reality. It takes an average of three months to make a Nebuta float – sometimes more for the larger, more elaborate floats.

  
    
 
   
    
    
    
    
    

The Nebuta masks on display at the museum were all made by current Nebuta artists, and these apparently are abstracted self portraits, but I am no sure about that. The Festival also engages the ‘haneto’ dancers of region who do plenty of jumping and chanting in time to loud music and lots of drums.

    
    
    
   The entire place is quite amazingly beautiful and so unique, and considering it was barely AU$6 per person in entry fee, was very interesting and well worth stopping in. Due to the festival at the moment there was a large market of street food happening right outside the museum… selling grilled octopus, chicken on a stick, tempura vegetables on a stick, shaved flavoured milk, apple spring rolls (yes, you read that right and they were delicious!), and all sorts of yummy things.