Return to the Rising Sun, Days 11-13: Kicking Back in Kyoto

Day 11

It was time to bid farewell to Hiroshima and begin the next leg of our journey.  So we hopped on the bullet train to begin the trip to Kyoto.

Kyoto was once the capital of Japan and is famed for its numerous shrines (in excess of 1,000!!!)  We had comfortable reserved seating on the Shinkansen which almost felt like a first class trip this time and made it to Kyoto in short order.  A brief ten minute walk led us to our new temporary home.

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Our home in Kyoto.

This was easily the favorite of our lodgings, though we still have one more to visit before this trip is done.  This house was luxurious and could easily accommodate 4 people.  We had a den which held a massage chair to soothe those sore muscles.  A nice living room/dining room area with TV.  A laundry room with a combo washer/dryer unit.  We even had an electronic bathroom with a talking tub.  This tub will fill a hot bath for you at the push of a button and recycle the water to keep it hot during the duration of your soak.  We also had a comfortable upstairs loft.

It was a relief to set down our things and unwind for a bit.  Then some bad news hit.  Mat was ill.  With our guide and resident translator down for the count, I became the de facto guide for our journey for the next couple of days.

In the evening we walked to Aeon Mall, a high-end shopping center near our house to find some dinner.  They had a food court on the fourth floor with a wide variety of food which I was glad of.  I’ve enjoyed the food over here, but I’ve noticed that the menus tend to be similar from place to place unless you hit up a fast food joint.

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Aeon Mall

I found a curry restaurant and ordered chicken in a spicy curry with rice and water for my dinner and enjoyed a tangy, tasty meal.  Afterwards we found yet another arcade and Dave won some more prizes and was now in dire need to buy a new suitcase since he had purchased or won so much stuff on our trip.  Getting one at Aeon Mall was out as its high-end nature made the cheapest bag a mere $200.

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Spicy chicken curry and rice

We put that problem to the side and returned to the house for a well deserved rest.

Day 12

Another Sunday in Japan meant another day without church.  But, again, our little group of 3 (Mat was still unwell) went to a couple of Kyoto’s famed shrines and temples.

We found a little one at first and it seemed like a christening or blessing was taking place for a newborn.  When the new family left, I walked into the area, but the monk held up his hands (a local sign for no) and I stepped right back out.

It was a quick exploration and then we came to Toji Temple.  Now this was an impressive site and dwarfed Meiji Shrine in terms of size.  The hallmark of this Buddhist temple was a 6 story pagoda.  They also had some worship areas and it was very calming to hear the chants and intonations as the worshippers sent prayers to Buddha.  Due to the holy ground, photos were not permitted inside the worship areas, but they had some beautiful statues and art pieces.  They also used a very potent incense which quickly drove me back outside.  Strong incense and I are old foes as I’ve had some fainting spells when exposed to it especially when combined with my other nemeses, high heat and humidity.  I was feeling a little heady and sat down for a moment to clear my head.

When we were done looking around, we stopped at a little restaurant near to our house called Tenkaippin, which ended up being another ramen restaurant.  I had a light and refreshing Assari soup which was made from chicken stock and vegetables and a soy sauce broth.

We returned to the inn after picking up some soup for Mat and relaxed for the afternoon.  As I feared, my exposure to the incense played havoc with my head and it was pounding.  I took a pair of aspirin from Dave and then collapsed for a 2 hour nap.  The combination of aspirin and rest did the trick as I felt remarkably better after I awoke.

It was dinnertime so I led the group back to Aeon Mall where we ate at Kitano Grill and this was probably the best meal of the trip due to its variety.  This menu was unlike those of other restaurants and I ended up choosing a delicious chicken and rice casserole which hit the spot.

With full stomachs, it was back to the house to close out the night.

Day 13

Mat had a little of his vim and vigor back and it would be needed as we would be taking a half-day sightseeing tour that morning.

We went to our meeting place and hopped on a bus that took us to Nijo Castle to start the tour.

Nijo Castle was once the home of the shogun, head of all sumarai and the de facto leader of Japan.  The emperor ruled politically, but the shogun was viewed as the true ruler due to military might.  Nijo Castle really wasn’t a castle, just two sets of large buildings called palaces.  The inner palace was being renovated so our tour was limited to the gardens and outer palace which were both quite impressive.

Like Toji Temple, pictures were forbidden inside Nijo Castle, but there were some beautiful paintings inside and the most interesting thing were the nightingale floors.  Nightingale floors were a security system of feudal Japan and they sing like nightingales when you walk on them.

We spent an hour at the castle before heading to Kitano Tenmangu, a Shinto shrine.  I was surprised to see that, in structure, there is little difference between a Buddhist shrine and a Shinto shrine.  The only real difference is that prayers in a Buddhist shrine are offered to Buddha and in Shinto they are offered to nature.  Again, we enjoyed the beautiful architecture for an hour before heading to our last stop.

Our last stop was the Golden Pavilion, known for its lush gardens and a golden pagoda.  Once more, we spent an hour admiring the gardens, especially a 600 year old bonsai and the gorgeous structures on the grounds.

After this stop, a hard rain began as the result of another typhoon working its way across the country though it’s supposed to clear in a short time.  Our bus took us back to our starting point and Dave took advantage of the shopping center to find a third piece of luggage to lug his swag back to the States.  He was able to find one for the more reasonable price of $98.

Lunch was next on our minds and we found a kaiten belt (conveyor belt) sushi restaurant, not only to have something a little bit different, but would be fair to Mat.  Since you are only charged by the plate, Mat would pay only what he felt equal to eating since his appetite was still tanked.

I enjoyed salmon, shrimp, and roast beef variations of sushi which perked me up.  A veritable cloudburst erupted during lunch so Mat and I walked home in the rain while Amy and Dave went to visit Aeon Mall and the shopping center at Kyoto Avanti respectively.

Mat rested while I conducted some business for my impending return to the States and wrote up this article.  The rain seems poised to keep us indoors for the rest of the night, so only 1 full day left to go before this epic journey reaches its conclusion.

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Return to the Rising Sun, Days 7-8: Beautiful Kawaguchiko & A Climb on Mt Fuji

Day 7

The final day in Shinjuku.  We packed up our belongings before heading to Shinjuku Station where we said good-bye to Andrew.  And then there were four.

Mat, Dave, Amy, and I hopped on a train and began the two hour trek to Kawaguchiko which lies at the base of Mt Fuji.  Traveling by train was a very pleasant way to see the country and it was neat to see the crammed buildings of the city begin to give way to foliage and open countryside.  Heck, I finally saw my first gas stations by taking the train.

Kawaguchiko is a very pleasant small town, not unlike the many I’ve visited for my B & B reviews.  And, would you believe it, we actually stayed in a B & B called Koe House.

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Koe House

Koe House is a dormitory style B & B not unlike a hostel.  Because of this, you may room with strangers.  For our first night, we briefly had a roommate from Malaysia who was going to climb Mt Fuji from the very bottom.  He was not in our room for long and left at 11pm.

The room was a little uncomfortable.  My roommates didn’t like the hard bunk beds.  The room was stuffy due to the humidity and the little fan mounted on the wall didn’t do much for circulation, though we got a nice cross breeze going once we opened the windows and the temperature dropped dramatically at night to a very pleasant level.

We had our lunch right across the street at a little ramen joint.  I had a soy sauce and pork ramen which filled the hole nicely.  We then walked off our meal at Lake Kawaguchiko which made for a lovely afternoon.  Afterwards we returned to our room to relax and get cleaned up.  Be certain to bring your own towels as Koe House charges a rental fee for them and for using the laundry (300 yen a load).  There is also no dryer, though there is a rack outside to hang your clothes.

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Soy sauce ramen

We didn’t do too much for the rest of the night except stop at a 7-11 to pick up some light snacks for dinner.  I had a rice ball with some sort of spicy sauce in the center as well as a surprisingly good ham sandwich with the best mayonnaise I’ve ever tasted.  As Mat explained, Japanese mayo uses more vinegar which explains the wonderful tang I got off of it.

Day 8

It was an overcast day, but the temperature was fine.  Ironically, the terrible weather set to plague the area never manifested so we would have been able to climb Mt Fuji, but a decision had to be made and there are no regrets.

We started with breakfast in the small restaurant on Koe House’s first floor.  Breakfast is included in the stay and we dined on eggs, cabbage salad, and thick slices of toast with butter and orange marmalade.  I had never tried marmalade before, but rather liked its taste.

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Koe House breakfast

We did hop a bus and ride to Mt Fuji’s fifth station.  It was interesting being up in the clouds which were so thick that it made getting a decent view difficult though it cleared up from time to time as a light rainfall dissipated the clouds.

After looking around the station (which is very touristy) we began a brief climb on Mt Fuji to get an idea of the experience.  The weariness on the faces of the people returning from the top clearly showed the difficulty of the trek.  You do need to be well rested and in fairly good cardio shape to attempt the climb.

We walked up about a half hour before a rainfall drove us back, but it was enough to get an indicator of the climb.  One would expect to climb for about 20-30 minutes, rest, then repeat the process all the way to the top of the mountain.

Our little group grabbed lunch at one of the restaurants where I had hot green tea, iced cocoa, and a lava ramen.  This was easily the best bowl of ramen I have ever eaten as it hit the spot after I spiced it up even more.  One thing that surprises me is that Japan is known for its small portions, yet the eateries always serve a good sized bowl of ramen.

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Lava ramen

With a good lunch in our systems, we wandered around the gift shops for an hour before returning to Kawaguchiko.  We would have an early start tomorrow so we relaxed in our room and played cards until bedtime.

A Journey Beyond Imagination, Day 6: Odaiba & Gundam & Tricks & Onsen

So the whole gang was together again for a visit to Odaiba.  After breakfast, we caught the subway to Odaiba and made our way to the Diver City Mall.

We had actually seen Odaiba from the top of Tokyo Tower back during the sightseeing tour on the first day.  Specifically, we could see Odaiba’s Statue of Liberty and Rainbow Bridge (a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge).  Seeing them again up close was just as awe inspiring as seeing them from a distance.  After soaking up the scenery for a bit, we headed to the top of the Diver City Mall which housed the Gundam Museum.

The museum is dedicated to Gundam Wing, a very long running anime series in Japan.  I’m not overly familiar with the series, but it has the vein of humans piloting giant robots to fight off giant monsters.  It was a very intriguing exhibit which showed the history of the series and had innumerable toys, clothing, and various other swag available for purchase.

After wandering through the museum, we headed outdoors to see the famed 60 foot Gundam statue.  It was truly an awesome spectacle and the statue had a light show later at night that we would watch.  From there we went back inside the mall and headed to the Tokyo Trick Art Museum.

This was one of my favorite events of the trip.  This museum has all of its walls painted in such a way that it almost seems 3D and allows people to become part of the art for photos.  We got pictures of myself showing my death defying martial arts skills as I balanced on the tip of a sword wielded by my ninja opponent, Mat suffocating under glass, and Dave holding open the jaws of a hungry beast to keep from being devoured.

When we had finished our tour of the museum, we got to split up and go off on our own for a while.  Mat, Dave, and I searched out a place for lunch and ended up being persuaded to eat at a ramen joint when the owner promised us free rice.  Now that I think about it, none of us got any rice.

From there we found a classic arcade in the mall and all of us enjoyed a little blast from our past.  Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Kung Fu Master (known as Kansu Master in Japan) were just some of the games from yesteryear that we played.  After funning ourselves out and a little more exploration, we met up with the group by the Rainbow Bridge to get ready for the second half of the day’s activities.

The group was given the choice of one of two activities:  going to the SEGA Joypolis amusement park or going to Tokyo Oedo Onsen Monogotari, a Japanese hot springs.  Now I love amusement parks, but I wanted to experience something indicative of the Japanese culture and had opted to go to the hot springs.  Dave was the only other person who opted to go to the onsen.  I suspect Mat would have preferred that activity, but he has a couple of tattoos and people with body art are not permitted in public hot springs.

So Dave and I were off to the onsen where we became part of the traditional Japanese culture.  For starters, we had to take off our shoes before entering the hot springs.  We were also required to wear a yukata, a Japanese robe, inside the onsen.  The inside of the onsen was set up as a medieval Japanese village and market place.   There were places to eat and games to play, but the hot springs is what it was all about.  They were so peaceful and relaxing.  After luxuriating in the hot water for a bit, I went and had a 40 minute massage and then went to the enjoy the outdoor hot spring.  Dave and I both agreed the outdoor spring was the best as a light rain had started to fall and the combination of that plus the hot water really induced relaxation.  I really wish we had a couple of more hours to spend there.

Before we knew it, our time was up and we headed back to Diver City and took in the spectacular Gundam Statue light show before heading for our hotel.  My relaxing time at the onsen plus all of the running around we had been doing for the past week finally caught up with me on the subway as I dozed off on my seat.  Yukie said I fit right in with the Japanese businessmen who often take catnaps on the train.  Dave gently shook my shoulder to awaken me right before our stop and it was back to our room to unwind and sleep before our last day in Japan.

 

A Journey Beyond Imagination, Day 3: Of Shopping and Sushi

Day 3 of this expedition was an all day shopping tour.  Shortly after breakfast, our group of gaijin headed to the subway station and set on off to the Ginza district.

Our first stop was the Sony Building.  Sony was celebrating the 30th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Bad album.  A life-sized cutout of Michael was set on a stage outside the building and people were encouraged to take pictures.  I got a photo of myself doing the moonwalk while Mat took a before picture of himself giving “Michael” the bunny ears followed by a photo of himself sprawled out on the ground, unconscious.  I guess “Michael” showed him who’s bad.

After perusing and purchasing various knickknacks in the Sony Building, Yukie took us outside the restaurant of a legendary sushi chef.  I don’t remember his name, but he had recently been the focus of a documentary.  His restaurant is incredibly small, but reservations must be made a month in advance in order to eat there.  There is also no menu.  The food is whatever the chef feels like preparing that day.  If you want to eat there, bring lots of money as the cost is a staggering $300 per person to sample this legend’s wares.

From there, it was off to the Shinjuku district where we visited the Square Enix store.  Square Enix is a video game company best known for creating the Final Fantasy series of games.  It was a very small shop, but it had lots of interesting models to look at.  I ended up picking up some mystery monster toys for my niece and nephew. 

After our visit to Square Enix, we headed over to Harajuku where we enjoyed a late lunch at a ramen restaurant.  I ordered a Kanoban (spicy) pork ramen.  Dave and Mat ordered similar dishes, but theirs had eggs in them.  When we received our meals, they inspired the classic Matism, “I can smell the porky goodness.”  And it was a delicious meal.

Once we had recharged our batteries with the food, we explored the market in Harajuku which has a more underground feel.  I bought a t-shirt for myself that had a kanji which translated to “I’m in Japan” and bought a Hello, Kitty thingamajig for my sister-in-law.  I also caved to peer pressure as I bought a crepe along with Mat and Dave.  I’m usually not much for sweets, but this was an excellent dessert.

Soon our time was up and our group of merry wanderers made its way to Shibuya where we stopped at a bazaar.  I did most of my souvenir shopping at this place as there were all sorts of items to choose from.  I chose several beautiful items made out of ceramics for my friends and family like fish, lotus blossoms, and a few interesting stones.

Afterwards, we headed back to our hotel for a little bit of down time before our group headed out to a kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi restaurant for dinner.  The name is just what it sounds like.  We sat around a giant centerpiece that had all kinds of sushi being moved by conveyor belt.  If something caught your interest, you grabbed it and enjoyed it.  When you were finished eating, the plates would be counted up and that’s what you would be charged.  I seem to recall that the price was 118 yen (a bit over $1) a plate.  Mat, who has a superhuman metabolism, said he had polished off 18 plates of sushi when he had eaten at this place 2 years previously.  Mind you, the plates are about the size of a tea saucer with a just a piece or two of sushi on each dish.

Once we had dined, it was back to the Hotel Tokyo Metropolitan where we took it easy for the rest of the night.  We were going to need all of our strength tomorrow as we were heading for the centerpiece of the Tokyo Maximum Tour. . .the Tokyo Game Show.

The Arizona Chronicles, Days 5 & 6: Chillin in Cooperstown & The Glowing Grails of Golfland

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Very little happened on day 5 of this adventure.  As always, I woke up early and had another bowl of oatmeal.  During my breakfast, Arizona Mat walked into the dining area and gave me a hard glare as he noticed me deftly shuffling a deck of cards with one hand.  I mustered up my most innocent expression, but failed to completely hide the smug grin on my face.

Tall Square needed to lay in some supplies, so Arizona Mat drove him to a nearby gas station, while I went to the clubhouse to work on my laptop for a little while.  A few hours later, we had thrown our gear into Arizona Mat’s car, said our goodbyes to Barry, and began our trek back to Phoenix.  I kept myself occupied with a mystery game on Arizona Mat’s 3DS, while Tall Square and Arizona Mat sniped at each other with alphabetical insults.

We decided to have a late lunch when we reached Phoenix and Arizona Mat decided we would eat at Alice Cooperstown, owned partially by rock legend, Alice Cooper.  It is an interesting meld of music and sports (Cooper co-owns the restaurant with a professional athlete and is a sports buff, himself).  I marveled at the rock memorabilia, but was disappointed when a bass guitar signed by Paul McCartney was not on display in its case.

The food was terrific.  The portion sizes are normal sized and not the inflated portions one tends to see nowadays.  So it’s filling, but not bloating.  Tall Square and I enjoyed Kate Upton Burning Love burgers while Arizona Mat indulged in a sampler platter that had BBQ brisket, port, sausage, and turkey.  After a satisfying meal, we returned to Arizona Mat’s home and spent a quiet evening doing our own things.

On day 6, Arizona Mat told me it was time for the Icy Plunge he had alluded to on day 1.  Since a picture paints 1,000 words, I present the following video to explain it.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUopbhlvHLc

Fortunately, Arizona Mat had hot towels ready for us after that experiment in idiocy and I wondered how I let myself be talked into it. 

After drying off, Arizona Mat took us to Republic Ramen for some lunch.  This place comes as close as one can get to enjoying authentic Japanese style ramen in America.  The servings are ginormous as Tall Square’s bowl shows you.
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He had opted for the original Republic Ramen, loaded with vegetables and pork, but he requested an additional serving of noodles, eggs, and beef to be added to it.  For myself, I ordered the original Chili Pepper Ramen with chicken as my main course.  Needless to say, I couldn’t come close to finishing off the bowl, but stopped at that perfect level of full.  Arizona Mat chose the traditional Miso Ramen.  The difference between the traditional and the original is that the traditional ramen is prepared Japanese style with traditional Japanese fixings, while the original is Americanized ramen with vegetables like spinach, shallots, etc.

After lunch, Arizona Mat challenged us to a battle of precision and skill:  miniature golf.  He took us to Golfland, a three course park in Mesa, Arizona.  This is actually a good place to while away the afternoon.  Being winter, the water park and one of the courses were closed, but I gladly dueled these two on the remaining courses.  I won the contest by over ten strokes.

And, no, to answer your unspoken question, I did not cheat.  Not that I wouldn’t have, but their aim stank so much, I could have putted blindfolded and done a better job.

Mysteriously, we did manage to unearth some artifacts while we were there.  Whilst golfing, we began to discover clues referring to the Glowing Grails of Golfland.  It was said that he who could prove himself with intelligence and dexterity would be deemed worthy of the treasure.  I handled the solving of riddles and trusted my almost magical luck in a game of chance to discover one grail.  Arizona Mat’s steady eye and reflexes resulted in the netting of the remaining grails.  Tall Square. . .well, he was there.

To celebrate our discovery, we ended the night, eating a meal at In and Out Burger.  This fast food chain is located pretty much in this region of the country and has a simple menu (and a secret one, as well).  I ordered a cheeseburger, animal style, as suggested by Arizona Mat.  Animal style is a fancy way of saying the works which makes it a bit messy.  Arizona Mat and Tall Square devoured triple cheeseburgers done animal style from the secret menu.  Their eating of those burgers was nothing short of miraculous as I’m still working out the physics of how they fit their mouths around them.

Tomorrow, my chronicles come to an end, but I still feel one more adventure may get squeezed out of this.