I'm not sure when exactly I came up with the idea of taking my niece to Japan for her high school graduation, but I'm pretty sure it happened around the time when she first entered high school. That summer, I'd taken the girls on a Disney cruise to the Bahamas and since I always think bigger- well, an overseas trip would be the next logical, if crazy step. High school graduation seemed like a good milestone to celebrate with a big trip- it's would be good age for her to be exposed to more of the world plus it would be an opportunity to enjoy some special times with my niece when she is on the cusp of leaving home for college.
I have a deep love for Japan, and if I'd had kids of my own I'd surely have taken them there. Instinctively, I knew that Julia would love the idea. So I planned an elaborate trip reveal for New Years Eve 2015. If you recall, I spent most of December 2014 on an adventure to Antarctica. I made sure to prepare everything before I left on that trip- this included ordering some trinkets online (eBay rocks!) and wrapping everything up with special messages. The last package contained a packet of soy sauce and a Mothra postcard, but she didn't immediately get the significance of those items (from a Book of Mormon lyric). Once I nudged her in the right direction, she was speechless. After getting over the shock, she confirmed that she'd love to go.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that I started seriously planning this trip the day after I returned from Antarctica. I'd done some rough planning in October to determine an itinerary and hotel budget, but I made my first actual reservation on January 1 at 1am. That's when I went on the Tokyo Disney Resort website and snagged a room for the first 4 nights of the trip. Over the next 2 months, I finalized the basic itinerary, purchased airplane tickets, and reserved hotels for the length of our stay. Eventually, I made plans for each day of the trip- these are meant to serve more as a starting point more than an exact checklist. It's a lot more work planning a trip to Japan than one to Disney World, but I loved every minute of it.
As the big day approached, my excitement level went through the roof. I've traveled a lot, but this trip is probably closer to my heart than any previous travels (though the first time I took the girls to Disney World in 2009 is a close second). Julia is getting old enough that it feels a lot more like traveling with a friend more than traveling with a kid in tow. That said, she's still my niece- which means treating her to an array of surprises!
I don't expect Julia to develop a lifelong interest in Japan. I'll be very happy if it just opens her mind to seeing the world a little differently. It was important for me to include Hiroshima in the itinerary because of how profoundly moved I've been at such sites. The people of Japan have been among the most friendly and helpful I've encountered in my travels, and I can't wait for Julia to see for herself how smiles can transcend language barriers.
Most of all, I want her to have an awesome time. In addition to visiting iconic temples, we'll be enjoying some fun activities such as theme park visits and musical theatre performances. And there will be plenty of Hello Kitty whimsy along the way- admittedly, that's more for me than her, but I'm sure she'll enjoy nonetheless. On the threshold of seeing my long held dream become reality, it's amazing to think of all the memories that we'll be creating together and sharing for the rest of our lives. I feel so incredibly lucky that I've been able to craft this fantastic trip to share with someone who is so very special to me.
NOTE: lines written in green are from Julia's perspective, from her journal which she kept faithfully throughout the trip. Most of her commentary was written "live" as things were happening so they are fabulously raw and honest thoughts.
It was essential to plan for an early arrival in Japan in order to maximize our time at Tokyo Disneyland, so I'd ended up booking a 9:40am flight from JFK airport. While our flight would work out great in terms of our time in Tokyo, it meant having to wake up super early to be ready by 5am to leave for the airport. There was a small amount of drama about the early hour after I'd booked the flight- well, there was a some talk about staying overnight by the airport the evening prior to departure; however, any murmurings about a hotel were quieted when I said I'd be amenable to the idea- if someone else paid. Subsequent to my booking the trip, I'd joined Julia and her father, Brian, on a college orientation trip that required us to leave at a similarly insanely early time. So by the day of departure, we'd all proven we could do it.
It's very rare for me to be planning a trip in my head for 4+ years, and it was weird to wake up and know that this long-held, beautiful, crazy, shining dream was now crystallizing into a reality. As always, I was beyond excited to be returning to Japan, perhaps myfavorite country in the world. But there was also a tiny voice of trepidation whispering in my head, making me wonder whether taking someone else's kid on such an expensive trip was really the right thing to be doing. I dismissed that voice as much as possible; I'd had similar doubts creep up whenever I've taken the nieces anywhere and I reminded myself that it's always worked out fabulously so far.
Soon enough, Brian and Julia had arrived. My inner debate of right or wrong was of course moot- and even moreso once I said my goodbyes to the furricanes as we headed out into the dark of morning. After a quick stop at a Wawa (convenience store) for some breakfast/snacks, we were soon on the turnpike watching the sun rise. It was surreal, but beautiful.
Even with a stop and some traffic, we arrived at JFK airport at around 6:45 am. The screens at the check in desk said that it opened 4 hours before flight time but I guess they lied. Or maybe that policy just simply didn't apply to morning flights. So we stood in line with our gaggle of purple luggage until the JAL staff came out at around 7.
Check in and security were a blur- both because it was so early and also because I was too psyched to care about details. Once we arrived at the gate, the first order of business was to present Julia with a printed itinerary booklet that I'd been perfecting for the previous several weeks. This is a tradition that goes back all the way to the first trip to Disney World in 2009. I'd already told Julia about the highlights of the trip, and explained any information that would be helpful to prepare (including giving her a book about Japan culture and lending her 2 works of fiction by Japanese authors). However, she'd never asked for details so this would be her first time discovering many of the specific activities I'd planned. I was super excited about 2 huge surprises that were included: an excursion to Universal Studios Japan (which has a Harry Potter area) and tickets to see Les Mis in Japanese. She seemed thrilled about both- yay! It's really not an "Aunt Faith" trip unless some magical surprises materialize.
I'd made Julia a gift bag in the image of the Japanese flag; it was super easy to accomplish this by just gluing a circle of red paper onto a white bag... but it had been surprisingly hard to locate a plain white gift bag! Inside were some useful items like band-aids and duck tape as well as some gag gifts. I tried not to include too many things that would be annoying to carry around for 17 days but I couldn't resist including a roll of toilet paper and a tiny Dora the explorer coloring pad. Many laughs ensued.
Despite all of my obsessive packing over the previous week, I'd somehow neglected to pack any kind of chapstick or lipsmackers- even though I have literally tons of them at home because I am addicted to that stuff. So I went on a mission to check out all the stores near the gate in search of some kind of lip blam. I found some Blistex which wasn't exactly ideal, but it would do. I also bought a pack of M&M's in case I got hungry on the plane or somewhere else on the trip. (note: they ended up returning home with me) It's fast becoming a tradition for me to buy "Emergency M&M's" when I travel.
At around 9am, we were able to board the plane- it was another flight for me on a Boeing 787. For an economy seat, I found the layout to be really nice- though not quite as nifty as the seats on the (not-787) Cathay Pacific plane I'd taken a couple years ago. The most important thing was that each seat had an outlet and a USB port for charging devices. (although the outlet didn't work until after takeoff). There was also a convenient mesh area on the seat back to store a bottled beverage; it also worked remarkably well to stow Julia's plush Grumpy Cat.
As we took off, I gazed out the window looking for any identifiable sign of either Manhattan or the Statue of Liberty, but it was too overcast. This was it- the absolute point of no return; I was really taking someone else's 17 year old to Japan. In just 13-14 hours, I'd be back in my favorite country, with a budding adventurer at my side.
The food we were served was decent as far as airplane food goes. I was eager to try the JAL Sky Time Kiwi beverage, but it was somewhat disappointing- I thought it tasted like lightly flavored water. First impression of kiwi juice. It looks like pee. But tastes better. (duh) I enjoyed the rice crackers that we were served instead of pretzels; they totally fed into my "Whee, we're going to Japan!" mentality. Rice crackers tastle like-- rice crackers. SHOCKING. For dinner, which was served about 2 hours into the flight, I had the chicken teriyaki.
The seatback video system allowed you to select a language. This was all well and good, except for the fact that it also applied to the flight map. So I could no longer see place names change from English to Katakana as I had on previous trips- the display had to be either one or the other. Way to go, technology, to make things less interesting! ;)
There were some movies I could have watched on the on demand seatback videos, but I wanted to be as un-dead as possible when we arrived in Japan so I tried to get some sleep. I was concerned that knowing Julia was next to me would distract me but fortunately that wasn't a problem. I always feel that once a flight is at least 6-7 hours long, the exact length doesn't seem to matter much to me. I just know I'll be there for quite awhile and there isn't anything else to do but accept it with a zen-like attitude. And try to sleep.
It's finally here. Holy crap. Where in the heck did the time go? It feels like last month was New Years Eve and I was busy pretending to be a stereotypical teenager (a video that is downloaded on my tablet and probably will get watched on this ENDLESS FLIGHT-I know it's not endless but it'll feel that way). But here I am, 6 1/2 months later, at the beginning of a journey of a lifetime. It's have ups and downs but it will be unforgettable. Time flies and so do airplanes... to the land of soy sauce and mothra... JAPAN.
A little over 2 hours before we were to land, we were served a breakfast that included chicken fried rice. That was my cue to get up and set my mind focused on the fact that OMG, all the amazing stuff I'd been planning was actually going to start happening! Adrenaline can be an awesome thing.
Less than 2 hours! Woo! This flight will end. It's 9:10pm at home but it doesn't feel like it.
Still an hour 20 until landing. Possibly going to be the longest hour of my life. Also, I have like no circulation in my ankles. Oh man. This'll be fun.
Some announcement in Japanese. Probably that we're starting our descent. But then again, I DON'T SPEAK JAPANESE. Also, I spilled green tea on my seat... A 14 hour flight is kinda like an 8 hour work shift. It feels like forever, but the time sorta just goes away. Which is pretty good I guess.... I think I'm awake enough to survive another 12 waking hours. I think. And we're not going back to the hotel for sleeps.... We land at noon. ONLY THE WEAK SLEEP AT NOON ON VACATION.
It's too hard to think in Eastern time, so repeat after me: It is 11:33am. 11:33am. Ignore the haters. 11:33am.
As we approached Japan, I took out my good camera to capture the layer of fluffy clouds that blanketed the sky in a linear pattern. I kept it out to take photos as we landed. I was thankful that we'd be touching down at around noon, 40 minutes earlier than scheduled.
This endless flight has an end in sight! It's so weird though. It doesn't feel like noon, it doesn't feel like 11pm. Limbo awkwardness.
I see the country. It doesn't look very different... It's so green! And there's so many fields!... WE MADE IT! THIS IS REAL! THIS IS HAPPENING! THIS 14 HOUR FLIGHT IS OVER!
Once we left the plane, there was the usual business of immigration and baggage collection. But those flew by which meant we had plenty of time to change money, confirm that my ATM card worked (see my 2012 blog for details of my tragic problems with my old bank ATM card) and have time to spare before embarking on the 1:05pm bus to Tokyo Disney Resort. Not bad at all!
As we pulled out of the airport, we could see one of the EVA airlines Hello Kitty planes taxiing to the gate. I really want to ride one of those someday- it had been one of the options I'd investigated for this trip, but the pricing just didn't work out. It was definitely a better idea to fly non-stop, anyway.
We're on some mostly empty highway going somewhere with a little kid babbling in Japanese on an otherwise dead silent bus. It's kinda soothing.... It doesn't look THAT different but it's different enough. You don't even notice you're on the other side of the road until you do. And there's a lot of the same cars in America. But since a lot of said cars in America are Japanese, it makes sense... Also, lots of left entrances onto the highways... I guess the right lanes are the passing lane then... Japan loves its toll roads- possibly more than New Jersey.... Also, there is a surprising amount of English lurking around.
Dear Japan: Thank you for using Arabic numerals. Sincerely, the American who appreciates being able to read them.
I also feel like I stick out like a sore thumb on this bus full of Japanese people. I'm an innocent American. Please ignore me. I'm not going to do anything, promise!
Aunt Faith has not going nappy night like I thought she might have. I have been wearing these clothes for 20 hours. Yikes... And it's going to be another 10. Give me an L? L! Give me an O? O! Gimme the whole damn word because I said so? LONG DAY! Woo! Yeah, no. Shoot the peppiness... I'm tired but WEEKS OF STAYING UP LATE HAVE PREPARED ME FOR THIS MOMENT.
After about an hour on the bus, we entered the Tokyo Disney Resort. Pulled into Tokyo Disney! #AWESOME!!!! There were a few stops before ours, but it really didn't matter since it still wasn't quite check in time. When we arrived at the Tokyo Disneyland hotel, we queued up in a short line while all of the stations behind the registration desk were unoccupied. Check in time is supposed to be at 3pm, but the front desk agents came out around 2:30-2:45 so we didn't have to wait very long at all. Once we got the business of check in completed, we headed to the desk where we could buy theme park tickets. I wanted to buy them at the hotel because the Disney hotels sell special tickets that allowed for park hopping on all 4 days- instead of just the last 2 like they do on normal park hoppers. We probably would have been ok with the regular tickets (especially since we wouldn't be park hopping on our first day) but I really like the flexibility. And, in the context of such a massive dream trip, the extra expense was trivial.
I was in heaven when we got to our 7th floor room, which was one that had recently been converted to have a Beauty and the Beast theme. Beauty and the Beast is probably my favorite Disney animated feature, so as soon as I heard about these rooms, I knew I'd have to stay in one. There were so many little touches that I kept discovering during our stay! I loved how the wallpaper had pictures of books, and yet I didn't immediately realize that those books were labeled with the French titles of Disney stories. And I nearly dropped my jaw in amazement at the sight of the door to the shower which was decorated with a replica of the stained glass that ended the movie. It was such a whimsical, cheerful and bright room- plus there was plenty of space to comfortably spread out.
When I looked out the window, I had another surprise- we had a (slightly obstructed) view of the parks! I'd thought that none of the character rooms had a park view but apparently I was wrong. We could see Space Mountain and Mount Prometheus, as well as monorails circling the tracks. Awesome!
Hotel is nice. Room is HUGE and Beauty and the Beast themed. View is amazeballs. (Can I get any more American?! How will I function for the next 2.5 weeks?) My feet kinda hurt and nap time would be nice, BUT SUCCUMBING TO JET LAG IS FOR THE WEAK.
When I'd checked in, a package was waiting for me with the mifi device I'd rented online- this would allow both me and Julia to connect to the internet using any of our devices wherever we went. An internet connection can be especially important for accessing maps and checking attraction information, as well as for the fun of posting selfies for our friends and family back home. I was able to configure the mifi device pretty easily from the provided instructions (I did have to hit the reset button), and it worked out very nicely.
We spent almost an hour relaxing, enjoying the room, and unpacking. But then it was time to head out to Tokyo DisneySea, the most gorgeous Disney park in all the lands! The monorail at Tokyo Disney is an actual form of mass transit (ie it isn't free) but the Disney hotels provide their guests with free passes to ride for the length of their stay. We were so excited when the approaching monorail turned out to be the one which had recently been redecorated in honor of the upcoming Stitch themed attraction. Stitch has always figured prominently in our Disney trips (mostly thanks to Julia's sister, Megan) so it was fun to see all the decorative touches of Stitch and his friends.
My original plan had been to head directly to the Tower of Terror since that's always been our first ride. However, it was almost time for the 4:30pm Tanabata Greeting show so we headed to scope out spots on Mediterranean harbour. Our trip coincided with the Toyko Disney Resort's celebration of Tanabata, which is a festival in Japan that celebrates a myth of star-crossed lovers. If you want a more detailed explanation, Google is your friend. One of the unique aspects of this season in the parks is that it's one of the only times you can see Mickey and Minnie dressed in kimonos. The greeting show was short, but it was very enjoyable and certainly unique.
We were hungry so I checked with the restaurant where we had a 6pm dining reservation, but it was crowded and there wasn't a way to check in early. Tower of Terror had a ridiculous wait so we agreed, to our chagrin, that we'd have to forego the tradition of having it as our first ride. Instead, I led the way to "Sindbad's Storybook Voyage" since I knew it never had a line and it's one of my favorites. The attraction isn't thrilling in any way- it's a calm boat ride much like It's A Small World. But what elevates it to "must do" status are the great audio-animatronic figures that include Chandu the tiger, who is one of the most adorable Disney ride sidekicks ever. Also, it has a gorgeously melodic score written by Alan Menken. I was glad that Julia- a.k.a. miss "I want to go on every super duper looping barfing coaster of death"- seemed to enjoy its simple charms. Sindbad was really cute. This whole place is awesome, especially with the theming.
After seeing an orange cat scurrying through some bushes, I bought my first souvenir- a stuffed Gelatoni, who is a fairly new character at Tokyo Disneysea. He's a grey and white cat who is an artist friend of Duffy, the bear. If you haven't heard of Duffy, don't worry; although they sell Duffy merchandise in the US parks, his popularity stems mainly from Japan where he's practically a rock star. If you look in any direction at the Tokyo resort, it's very likely that you'll see someone with Duffy merchandise; they even have stands for guests to pose their plush Duffy in front of a scenic background of the park. The most avid Duffy fans buy the various (expensive) seasonal outfits that the resort offers for sale or even make their own.
Finally, it was time to head over to Restaurant Sakura for dinner. I chose to eat there because it was the most Japanese option (at least in terms of the actual cuisine; the restaurant itself has a very American vibe since it's located in the American Waterfront section of the park) and I thought that would be a fitting start for our trip. I'd made a good decision to book online- the park was packed and it would have been hard to enjoy a sit down meal without having a reservation.
I ordered the seafood dish, thinking it would be like the meal I'd ordered 3 years earlier which was basically a variety of sashimi over rice. But it was kinda different- and it also came with a bunch of side dishes, and I wasn't sure what they all were. Julia ordered the same thing I did- I'm not sure if it was culture shock and wanting to play things safe or if it actually was most appealing to her; normally, she is a much more adventurous eater than I am. Either way, I was pretty hopeless at helping her figure out what the side dishes were. Ordering food in a foreign country. It's a learning curve.
At some point during dinner, Julia fell down off the chair. It was fantastically clumsy- and pretty much the type of goofy thing that needs to happen in order to make a trip official. I can say this fondly because I can be an amazing klutz myself. Things we will not discuss: the falling off the chair. The food was good.
After dinner at a little after 7pm, we unanimously decided to wait for Tower of Terror even though the ride was still posting an 80 minute wait. We were practically shivering as we entered the queue since it was unseasonably cool. Julia put it best in her own brand of sarcasm: "April called. It wants its weather back." At least once we made our way to the inside part of the queue, it wasn't as cold. However, the line moved incredibly slowly which made me feel powerless to fight the wave of fatigue that began to engulf me. I literally thought I might drop down on the floor at any moment, but I tried to mask my tiredness as much as possible- both for my own benefit at taunting away jet lag, and also because I wanted to be strong for Julia.
The amount of people in heels is surprising. Why would you wear anything beyond sneakers or comfy flip flops is beyond me. I'm going to fall asleep on my feet... It's been 17 hours since I got a good night's sleep. I don't know how I'm standing right now. Kill me.
Once we made it on the ride, we were re-energized and it was well worth the wait. The theme for the Tokyo version of Tower of Terror is unique from the other parks since the Twilight Zone series isn't well known in Japan. Instead, the ride deals with an explorer, Professor Hightower and the cursed Shiriki Utundu idol he brings back. I think Julia enjoyed the alternate take on the story as much as I did. Awake now. Shiriki Utundu does that to you.
It's interesting riding a (well known) ride in a foreign country. You can't understand anything anyone is saying but we all scream in the same language. I think that's one of the things not everybody understands. Language is not the only way to communicate. Screaming on Tower of Terror is one of those things that reminds me that you can fly 14 hours over 10,000 miles, and the people around you are fundamentally not any different. We all scream, laugh, cry in the same language for the same fundamental reasons. We just don't relate enough to understand, living in our own bubble instead.
We walked toward Journey to the Center of the Earth and got in line at just before 9pm since the sign said it was only a 45 minute wait. Plus, the queue was entirely indoors so we wouldn't get chilled. It's a unique and fun ride, with just a touch of thrill at the end. I was glad I could take Julia on it.
The park didn't close until 10, but we were ready to leave a little before then. On our way out of the park, I bought some cappuccino popcorn which I shared with Julia. When TDS had opened, cappuccino popcorn was a much hyped snack that I'd enjoyed. However, sometime before my 2012 trip, it had gone the way of the dodo bird and was nowhere to be found. I'd been glad to read that it was back and I wanted to be sure not to miss it. Julia doesn't like the taste of coffee, but the popcorn doesn't have enough of that taste to offend her tastebuds. Or maybe she was just tired or hungry enough to eat anything.
When we arrived back to our hotel, I suggested checking out the convenience store to pick up some food for the next morning. But it was a madhouse in there and I don't think either of us were in the mood to deal with the crowds. So we quickly ducked out of there and headed up to the hotel room to finally get some much needed sleep.
Because we were staying at a Disney hotel, we had passes to enter the parks 15 minutes early each day of our stay. It's called the "Happy 15" program and since the parks are seriously crowded, the extra time does help. There's only one ride open in each park during this period, but they're super popular rides. And even if you don't ride them, it's nice to have a bit of an edge over the remaining crowds to get to whatever attraction you want to experience first.
We managed to get ourselves in line at Tokyo Disneyland at around 8:40am, so we only had a short wait until they opened the turnstiles. Somehow it took Julia a couple minutes longer to get through the queue and into the gates- I think she was just being too nice and letting everyone in front of her, whereas I've been a NYer and know how to maintain my spot.
Once we arrived, we marveled at the festive Tanabata decorations at the center of World Bazaar (this area of the park is analogous to Main Street USA at the US parks, except it's under cover). We headed directly to Monsters Inc Ride and Go Seek which is supposed to be open early... only to discover that it was closed. So we got Fastpasses to return later and then headed to line up to the Winnie the Pooh ride, which we were able to enjoy with little wait once the park opened. The Tokyo version of Winnie the Pooh has nothing to do with the US versions and totally blows them away.
Then we headed to one of our favorites, Splash Mountain, which barely had any wait. It's not much different than the version in Florida, but the ride is so much zip-a-dee-do-dah fun that it's worth doing. Many times.
Julia said something about being hungry (which was reasonable since we hadn't had breakfast) and she wasn't into any of the Japanese style foods we passed because they didn't seem very breakfast-like. Not too worry- I told her that I had just the place that would hit the spot... and I headed directly towards "The Great American Waffle Company", which is a must-visit place for me during any trip to Tokyo Disneyland. It was perfect! She had a Mickey shaped waffle with strawberry sauce while I had one with chocolate sauce.
Feeling much better after eating, we headed onto Pirates of the Caribbean since it was nearby and didn't have much of a wait. Before using our Monsters Inc fastpasses, we tried our luck with the automated lottery to get tickets to that night's "Once Upon a Time" castle light show. In order to get a good view of the show, you need to enter a lottery by scanning your party's admission tickets into a machine and hoping for the best. I really wanted to see it, especially since the show temporarily included a Frozen sequence that had been extended to early July. But alas, we did not win. You can only enter the lottery once per day, but at least we'd have 2 more days to try.
We wandered some more afterwards, spending a lot of time in the shops of World Bazaar. This is when Julia discovered that they sold giant plush Olafs (from the movie Frozen) and she vowed to buy one. Since we'd be coming back to Tokyo Disneyland on our last night, it made sense to wait until then to make the purchase instead of having to lug a huge plush around Japan for 2 weeks. For the rest of the trip, Julia referred to this planned acquisition as her "Impending Olaf."
The weather remained surprisingly nice during the day. It wasn't too hot, and it was quite pleasant to walk around. According to Weather Underground, it was about 5 degrees cooler than normal with a high of 77F. When preparing for the vacation, I'd expected it to be much warmer, so I was pleased.
We had lunch reservations for noon which happened to correspond to 11pm back home. Around this time, Julia started to feel a wave of fatigue and, to be honest, I felt a little tired myself. Waiting for lunch and forcing myself to stay awake for another 11 hours. WAKEY WAKEY, EGGS AND SHIRIKI UTUNDU- IT'S NOON. Our lunch was at Restaurant Hokusai, a Japanese restaurant on the 2nd floor of World Bazaar- I've eaten there on every single trip I've taken to Japan and it always feels a bit like an oasis from the craziness of the parks.
I decided to order the "Tuna, Crabmeat and Ikura Don" and once again, Julia also ordered the same thing I did. This meal was much more to my liking than the one the previous evening- mainly because it didn't include a ton of confusing side dishes. Some of the fish even formed a hidden Mickey! We both felt revived after having a nice meal.
Feeling more comfortable with the fact that people are speaking to me in a language I don't understand because I can figure out what they want. The other thing is that I'm gaining a perception for what's expensive and what's not. 100 yen is not expensive, really. 3900 yen for lunch isn't bad at all, especially in a tourist trap. It also helps that the exchange rate is 120 yen for a dollar... Still want to speak German. I AM IN JAPAN NOT GERMANY.
Since we passed the "Minnie Oh Minnie" theatre right before a show time, we decided to watch. It was a lot of fun- and there were no children gushing blood like there had been the last time I'd seen the show 10 years earlier. The one annoying thing was that the woman in front of me kept lifting her cell phone waaaay in the air to take pictures. So I had a pretty awesome view... of her viewfinder.
Afterwards, we went to the Enchanted Tiki Room since the version in Tokyo has Stitch in it. The show was shorter than I remembered but that seemed like the right length. It was cute enough- and since we love Stitch, we had to see it. Afterwards, I bought a bottle of water with Stitch on it; I totally can't resist cute things- which makes Japan a bit dangerous for my wallet.
We ran into the tail end of the "Happiness is Here" parade; it's a shame that we never managed to see the entire thing because the little we saw was excellent. I'd failed earlier at noting the correct time for the Tokyo Disneyland Tanabata greeting so we only caught the tail end of that, too. I guess I figured that parades had never been important to Julia so I hadn't worked on prioritizing them into the schedule as well as I could have. Since I do enjoy them (particularly in Tokyo), I probably should have done a better job at that. Oh, well.
After riding "It's a Small World", we decided to take a break at our hotel at about 3pm. We went back into the convenience store and bought some snacks and breakfasty items since it wasn't as insane as it had been the previous night. Once again, I was a sucker for the cuteness as I bought a small yogurt with Belle on it and a bottled water that was decorated with Frozen characters. Julia picked up a random beverage that ended up not being to her liking; it was mocked muchly for the rest of the trip.
As we walked through the lobby, I suggested stopping off at the Dreamers Lounge to enjoy some of the special non-alcoholic beverages for the Tanabata celebration. We also ordered an appetizer to split: Bacon-Wrapped Potatoes with Cheddar Cheese. The beverages (called Hikoboshi) were cute- blue with chewy blue stars in them. They were described as containing the following: pear syrup, passion fruit syrup, lime syrup, blue syrup, and club soda. They were very refreshing but they were definitely overpriced, especially since the ratio of ice to drink was way too high; the model at the front of the restaurant did not seem to be as overwhelmingly filled with crushed ice as the actual drink. The food was a better value- not exactly cheap (considering the small portion) but at least it was reasonable. Still, it was all worth it to be able to enjoy a nice break together in a lovely corner of the hotel: on one side, we could look out toward the monorail station; on the other, was the ornate hotel lobby with its chandeliers. I think Julia enjoyed the luxurious atmosphere of sipping cocktails in a hotel lobby, even if said cocktails were not alcoholic.
After about an hour in the hotel room, we left after 5pm to return to Tokyo DisneySea. Once again, we were able to ride on the Stitch monorail. This time, I walked to the back to take some photos because someone on Twitter had been curious if there were any special decorations there.
We went on Aquatopia because it only had a 15 minute wait and Julia thought it looked fun. I wanted to take a selfie on the ride, but they wouldn't let me take out my phone. Oh, well.
All the big rides had huge wait times but I had a secret plan: single rider line! And it really was "secret" because there were no signs for the single rider lines- you had to inquire with the cast members. Julia seemed a bit leery about this strategy but once we practically walked on Indy (which had an hour wait in the normal line), she was definitely on board to ride Raging Spirits using the single rider line. She was very excited that Raging Spirits had a loop, even if it was otherwise a very tame coaster. Rode Sindbad (again), Indiana Jones, and that looping roller coaster that's not a "super dooper looping barfing coaster of death" but still fun.
Since it was nearby, we took another cruise on Sidbad- I'll never pass up an excuse to listen to that theme song! I also caved and bought a plush Chandu, Sindbad's tiger sidekick from the ride. He's so adorable and the plush is very huggable. No regrets.
It was getting to be dinner time and Julia seemed inclined to eat something... that was not Japanese... so I suggested Zambini Brothers for some Italian comfort food. I ordered the Spaghetti Bolognese and Julia got a pizza. We both ordered the special Tanabata dessert which consisted of Warabimochi and brown sugar mousse in a colorful souvenir cup. Everything was delicious, especially dessert!
When we were done eating, it was almost time for the 8pm showing of Fantasmic, and we were able to get decent places to stand near the restaurant. The Tokyo Disney Fantasmic keeps the same basic Good vs Evil theme as the US versions, but its soundtrack and visual elements are completely different. Nothing is as magical to me as the California version of Fantasmic, but I enjoy seeing a different take than I'm used to.
Afterwards, all the rides still had long lines- what the heck?!? In past trips, the crowds had thinned out toward closing, especially on a weeknight. We walked around and took photos of the Toy Story Mania ride area, which had opened after my previous trip. Then we decided to leave the park at around 9:15 because we'd just had enough. I think the Tower of Terror line was already closed by then; it had a 70 minute wait and unlike at Disney parks, they close the lines off in Tokyo so that the rides will end operation at around the time the park closes. (in the US, you can usually get in line right up until closing time)
After collapsing into bed at 11pm the previous night, I woke up at 6 and simply couldn't fall back to sleep. Grrr. I finally gave up and eventually opened the curtains to get Julia up. ("the light... it burns!") As she got ready, I photographed some more of the cute details from our amazing Beauty and the Beast themed hotel room. Before leaving, we ate some of the food we'd purchased at the hotel convenience store the previous afternoon.
We made it to the entrance to Tokyo Disneyland at about 8:35am so we had a short wait until they opened the turnstiles for those who were eligible for the "Happy 15" entry at 8:45. Since we hadn't been able to ride Big Thunder Mountain, the plan was to line up toward the left side of the park toward Westernland so we could head directly there as soon as they opened the entire park at 9am. (I think it had been closed when we checked the previous day, and later it had long lines)
Since we weren't in a hurry, we took our time sauntering up World Bazaar. When we greached the hub, I quickly scanned the characters who were out greeting fans. Oooh, kitties! I saw Marie and Berlioz from the Aristocats. I'd never had a photo taken with the latter, so I had us pose for one - we had great timing because both cats soon left the hub. I found out later that a good friend who practically lives for character greetings has never seen Berlioz. So, basically, we rock.
We started our morning with the excitement of Thunder Mountain followed by Splash Mountain. Then we headed to Tomorrowland to take our daily chance at entering the lottery for seats to view the "Once Upon a Time" light show at the castle. Fiercely determined that my attire would bring my luck, I was wearing my purple Anna and Elsa T-shirt. (as mentioned in yesterday's entry, the show temporarily featured a Frozen themed section) Just as I had the previous day, I scanned our tickets into the machine. And just as the previous day, we... lost? Well, that's what I was bracing for- but actually we won! It was almost like hitting the jackpot on a slot machine- the machine spit out 2 tickets and a cast member excitedly congratulated us saying "Omedetoo gozaimasu!"
Then it was time to get something to eat, so we headed to the Sweetheart Cafe for some quick baked goods. I decided on a Mickey shaped Tuna and Corn Danish plus a Kirin Lemon soda in a bottle that was decorated with Stitch. I always choose my food in Japan with a keen eye to what is the cutest option.
Then we headed back to the hotel room to change into dressier clothes because we had tickets for a matinee of one of my all time favorite musicals, Elisabeth. It's never been performed in the US, or any other English speaking country, so it's rather obscure. I'd shown a DVD of the Vienna production to Julia and her family a couple years ago and they'd really enjoyed it. It's all sung, and I felt that Julia was familiar enough to be able to enjoy the show despite it being performed in Japanese; my mom had really enjoyed a Dutch production without even knowing anything about the show.
I didn't originally plan to see Elisabeth on this trip. I knew that it would be playing but I also knew that it's insanely popular and I didn't want to deal with the stress I'd experienced 10 years ago trying to get tickets. Plus, you can't even order tickets online from that theatre unless you can enter an address in Japan. However, one night in April I decided to check the online auction site I'd used to purchase skating tickets 3 years earlier just for kicks. As it turned out, I saw an auction listed for great seats and only slightly over face value for a day that would fit with our itinerary. I couldn't believe it! I placed a bid and, after no one bid against me, tickets were delivered to my office a week later. As they say in Staples commercials... "that was easy"
I wasn't really thrilled with taking a huge chunk of time out of one of our days at Disney, but heading into Tokyo proper would also give us an opportunity to exchange our railpass vouchers for actual Japan Rail Passes. We could have done this at the airport but there was a good chance it would have meant missing a bus. Plus, it would have been an extra hassle to drag all of our luggage to the airport train station.
Once we changed, we took the monorail to Maihama station where I figured out how to buy us Suica cards that you can scan at the turnstiles for JR transit. That way, we could just load them with money as they ran low and we wouldn't need to buy new tickets every single time we needed to take public transit. I'd done some research and knew that the Suica cards would also be valid in most of the other cities we'd be visiting.
My journal doesn't fit into the bag I'm bringing to Elisabeth. Will that stop me? No... My bag is held closed by the duct tape Aunt Faith gave me at the airport. Goes to prove you can never expect needing duct tape, but it's always good to have.
The train from Maihama took us directly to Tokyo Station; even though it's a short 15-20 minute ride, it took almost an hour in total because of the monorail and then having to wait for a train. Then we had to walk eleven miles, or so it almost seemed, in order to navigate to the office where we could exchange our passes. Tokyo Station can eat Grand Central for breakfast. Once we found the correct office, we had to wait in a line that was short, but slow moving.
Throughout this process, Julia was pretty much glued to her tablet and the wifi (which was provided courtesy of the mifi device I had in my bag). Part of me wanted to tell her to put the device down and enjoy being in Tokyo, but the other part of me was simply glad she found a way to occupy herself. Eventually, it was our turn to exchange our passes and we were also able to make our first train reservation for Thursday.
There was still plenty of time before the show, so I decided to hunt out the mythical shop at Tokyo Station that sells a variety of crazy Japanese Kit Kat flavors. We found a shop that had just a few flavors, all of which I'd seen before, where Julia bought a bag of strawberry cheesecake flavored Kit Kats. It may actually have been the correct shop based on the fact that I've subsequently found recent reports saying that that the shop hasn't had as good selection as expected. But at the time, I was convinced we still needed to look further.
Eventually, I gave up and directed us in a path following the signs to a train. And then I checked my notes and realized that it wasn't actually the train we needed. At this point, we were getting tired, bored, and over-heated. Not wanting to fall into a pit of frustration, I uttered 4 of the most profound words of the entire trip: "Let's take a taxi!" Julia enthusiastically agreed.
I knew the theatre was close to the train station; it was in decent walking distance (less than a mile) if you knew where you were going. After showing the white gloved taxi driver the theatre name from the itinerary I'd printed, he understood exactly where we needed to go. As we drove, I could tell we were on the right path because I had some basic memories of the theatre location from previous trips. 5-10 minutes and 750 yen (~$6) later, we pulled up at 1pm in front of a theatre with huge signs saying "Elisabeth" in Japanese. We'd arrived.
Despite the fact that I'd seen Elisabeth before in that very theatre (10 years earlier), I was practically trembling with excitement. It's so rare for me to be able to see the show; since I've only ever seen it abroad, it definitely has a strong association in my mind with my travel adventures. Plus, my 2008 trip to see Elisabeth in Berlin with Pia Douwes was part of a huge turning point in my life when I started being able to make some much needed positive changes. On top of it all, I was thrilled to be able to include this special show in the list of wonderful things I've been able to share with Julia.
Before the performance, we walked around the spacious lobby and took it all in; theatres in each country have their own unique qualities and character. From the ceiling, banners were hung with in costume shots of the 2 actors playing each character (the production was double cast, as is traditional in Japan). There were a variety of kiosks selling snacks. Finally, I found the stand that included souvenirs- I (still) wish there was a T-shirt for the Japanese production, but I settled for the 2 items I'd been planning to buy (based on having seen them on the website): a very kawaii little bear dressed as Elisabeth, and a DVD of the Japanese production of "Mozart!", another musical by the same composers. There were 2 different DVD's (with the alternating casts) and I was able to understand when the woman asked me if I wanted Inoue-san or the other actor; I chose Inoue mainly because I've heard of him- he's been in Elisabeth, though I've never seen him in person.
Eventually (it may have been during intermission), Julia bought an Elisabeth tote bag, which she used for the rest of the trip as her day bag. I successfully bought something kinda on my own. Language barrier isn't really so much of a barrier. They can also tell I don't speak Japanese so that's probably part of it. Still, I don't fail.
After being satisfied with walking around the lobby, we made our way into the seating area. I was thrilled with our seats- 10 years ago, I'd been in the last row of the front mezzanine which was rather far back. This time, we were somewhere around 10 rows back on the main floor, only slightly off center. Awesome! On a recent outing with my nieces, I noted that my phone had autocorrected my attempt at typing "lunch time" to "lucheni time" (Lucheni is a character in Elisabeth; my phone is apparently as much of a theatre geek as me)- now it really was Lucheni time!
In our seats. The set is beautiful and boy am I excited. This'll be awesome!! We're really close... I think we're probably the only foreigners in this entire theatre.
The show was great, and I was thrilled that Julia was genuinely excited about it, too. The staging definitely seemed different than the version I'd seen 10 years earlier. [warning- the following train of thought won't make sense if you don't know the show] One thing that made me totally WTF was how the staging before "Wie Du", showed Max fooling around with Elisabeth's tutor. Umm, that was different. Which is my polite way of saying "Why on earth would they make that choice and what purpose does it serve?!?"
One staging decision that disappointed me occurred at the end of act 1. In the original production, the character of Elisabeth is revealed within a giant picture frame, dressed as she is a famous portrait; after a moment of stillness, she almost magically steps down onto the stage, conveying the sense of a painting come to life. It's one of my favorite visual moments in any show I've seen- so simple, but oh so perfect. In the Japanese productions I've seen, they don't use the literal picture frame concept, although they still include a big reveal of her dressed up in the famous costume. I get the desire for originality- but that moment has the potential to be so wonderfully, fabulously theatrical. Then again, in the Japanese productions, Der Tod (and yes, the character is still named in German as "Tod" instead of a Japanese word for death) is more of a focus than the title character.
Speaking of Der Tod, we saw an actor named Shirota Yu in the role. He was very good, although I think I've yet to see an actor in this role (of the limited number I've seen) who was absolutely mind blowing to me. (despite the fact that I've seen a number of famous actors) My favorite memory of the character was when I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye and was all "Oh, hi Der Tod, walking up the aisle by us to the stage." I also enjoyed how his initial act 1 entrance was staged to show him descending from the sky on a winged platform-thing. Also, was cool how he was acting as a maestro conducting the onstage action- I think this was during "Am Deck der sinkenden Welt" in late act 2.
Unlike Der Tod, I have seen an actress who set the golden standard in my mind for Elisabeth- namely, Pia Douwes who originated the role. I didn't expect Ranno Hana (or any mere mortal) to live up to that standard, but she was good.
It really struck me how the characters had a distinct Japanese-ness about them, despite the fact that they were playing 19th century Austrians. The young version of Elisabeth (in act 1) and her son Rudolph (in act 2) definitely reminded me a bit of stereotypical Harajuku teenagers in their look and/or mannerisms.
We both adored the actor playing Luigi Lucheni. I always enjoy that role since it's full of cynicism and humor, and the actor we saw (Yamazaki Ikusaburo) was a lot of fun to watch and a particular standout of this production. Julia enjoyed how his character- who is timeless in the sense he narrates the show as a flashback- inserted himself in all the various scenes in different roles such as being a waiter at a cafe. He was also a Nazi in the "Hass" (hate) scene; I'm not sure I've seen that done quite so literally.
Hass: They acutally did it. I didn't think it was in the Japanese version. And then Lucheni dressed as a Nazi. And then the giant Nazi flag. It was kinda unnerving, actually, even if the point was a bit of foreshadowing, it's still a little weird and a bit of a touchy subject, especially a surprise.
At intermission, there was a seriously scary long looking line for the bathroom. We just wandered around the lobby again; I took some more pictures, this time with my hand-held camera instead of the phone. I wanted to be sure to get a clear photo of the cast list board for reference.
Elisabeth is awesome! I am seriously jealous of Death's outfit and Lucheni is my favorite. Note I didn't expect anything less. Actually, all the costumes are awesome, and the music. It's everything I love about the German version + the awesomeness of being here seeing it 7 rows in front of my face (minus understanding what they're saying, but I can still follow)... Another note, Franz Joseph's Seal of Austria pajama pants (they might not have been pajamas, but still). Death's authoritative exits- I love them. And Lucheni, Lucheni is perfect. Although I do not trust him as my milk man... The sets were amazing. Those chandeliers that dropped were awesome. Just really pretty and elaborate and awesome.
After the show, we headed for the Yurakucho subway stop in the basement of the theatre building, which was very easy to find. We decided to bypass Tokyo station this time and transfer at Shin-Kiba. At Shin-Kiba, I wanted to get on the first train that arrived, but Julia seemed to think that it wouldn't take us to Maihama station because it was a different line than the one we'd taken from Tokyo Disney. Since I was only 99% sure it would go there and since there was only a fraction of a second to decide, I heeded her caution. Of course, it turned out that I was correct- but we only lost about 10-15 minutes, which is just a blip in the scheme of a long vacation.
I love all the signs warning you to keep off the track/ away from the doors etc. They're so graphic. #Japanisforrealz
Upon arrival at Maihama station, it was around 5:30pm and we were both hungry. We scoped out some of the fast food-like options at Ikspiari (the shopping complex adjacent to the station), which included Ramen, but the menus weren't in English and it wasn't exactly clear what to do. Julia didn't seem so keen on them, and I was slightly reluctant myself. When food gets confusing, the most logical thing to do is to head to "Ben and Jerry's" to get some ice cream- very straight forward! I knew that there was a location at Ikspiari and I'd been dying to try the Murasaki Imotion purple sweet potato ice cream. That worked- at least until we could grab something more substantial later. Instead of taking the monorail back to the hotel, we walked with our ice cream cones.
After changing at the hotel, we headed to Disneyland. It was cool enough that I was wearing my yoga pants and a windbreaker. We arrived at the park at around 6:15 and ended up heading to the Plaza Restaurant in Tomorrowland for dinner. I ordered the chicken and scrambled eggs over rice and Julia chose the beef and vegetables over rice. I enjoyed my meal- except for the fact that it came with Broccoli. The solution to my dissatisfaction was to move my broccoli to Julia's plate since I knew she'd enjoy it. And thus, the "Great Broccoli Migration" was invented.
Most of the big rides still had long lines (Splash and Big Thunder were posted at 60 minutes), but we were able to enjoy the Haunted Mansion and Mickey's Philharmagic with minimal waits. While waiting for the latter, Julia sat down on the floor and wrote in her journal. Aunt Faith is taking pictures of me. She thinks I don't know. WELL NOW I DO. [ed. note- I didn't care if Julia knew; I clearly wasn't trying to be stealth with my big ass camera.]
As we sought out a restroom, we noticed that the Dreamlights Electrical Parade had started. I chased the Genie float down the parade route for a bit, since I wanted to show it to Julia. We were planning to see the parade in full at the end of the trip since some new and renovated floats would be added before then, but I didn't want to miss the chance for Julia to see the Genie and how the lights changed to different patterns, such as the Cheshire cat. We noticed that the Pooh ride had only a 15 minute wait, so we had to get in line to experience it again.
Then it was time to find our seats for the Once Upon a Time castle show. The tickets we'd won in the lottery had a map of the seating sections, but we still needed a cast member to assist us in locating our exact spots. Of course, once we were seated, I eventually realized that the seat numbers were marked on the rear of the benches. It started to drip a little and I was slightly nervous that the show would be canceled, but fortunately it wasn't. And fortunately, the rain didn't get worse. In any event, it was really nice to be able to sit in one place for a bit.
I was really excited to see this 20 minute light show and it didn't disappoint. Technically, it was brilliant to see how the projections were mapped onto the castle. But the most important thing to any Disney show is the heart and magic. I loved that the theme of the show seemed to be story books, and how it was loosely narrated by Mrs Potts to Chip; I obviously approve of anything with a Beauty and the Beast connection. The narration was in Japanese, but all of the music- including excerpts from movies and an original ballad for this show- was in English.
The stories segued from Alice in Wonderland- with its impressive scene of cards- to Tangled- which included the display of lanterns- as well as Cinderella and Peter Pan. Then it was time for the special Frozen sequence (which replaced the usual sequences for Snow White and Winnie the Pooh); there's really no escaping from a trip to a Disney park these days without hearing "Let It Go" but that's perfectly fine with me. I concede that Frozen is very much over-exposed these days. However, I adored it before any of the hype (I saw it in the theater on the night before the official release) and I'm not going to change my mind just to snub its popularity. So of course I especially delighted in the Frozen excerpts. Toward the end of the show, the theme shifted back to my other favorite, Beauty and the Beast (with an amazing projection of the stained glass rose), before the obligatory finale sequence that climaxed with flashes of fireworks and flames. This is the kind of show I could see over and over again... if only I had the opportunity. I'm very grateful to have won the lottery to see it during our trip.
The show was over at around 9:15pm and afterwards, we were able to ride Big Thunder Mountain again using Fastpasses we'd picked up earlier. We headed toward Splash Mountain at 9:55pm only to discover that the line had already been closed off for the night. I expected that outcome, but Julia at least wanted to try.
It's so convenient if you're able to just walk back to your hotel from a Disney park. My feet had really been killing me- thanks in part to the sandals I'd worn the first day not being as comfortable for long wear as I'd thought they'd be- but I didn't want to give into the pain because there was still so much I wanted to see and do.
I'm going to miss Disney. But onto other things. And we do still have a full day here, so just gotta make it count.
For our last full day at the Tokyo Disney Resort, I wanted to start at Tokyo Disney Sea for the "Happy 15" early entry since that would be the only way we'd get to ride "Toy Story Mania" which was still under construction during my last trip in 2012. It's basically the same interactive ride as in the US parks, but I at least wanted to experience it once. Its wait times tend to be on the order of magnitude I'd call "hell no, I'm not waiting that long for anything" plus Fastpasses run out ridiculously early. It's hard to get on the ride in Florida- but Tokyo takes that frenzy to a whole new level.
We left our hotel at 8:15 and arrived at the park a little before the 8:45 entry. The wait for the park to open seemed longer than it actually was because a steady rain was coming down, and there were no undercover areas where we could seek shelter. I was armed with my raincoat and Julia was wearing her poncho, but the rain was still punishing. Wet ponchos are so much fun. #notreally Once the gates opened, it was rather dreary marching on the wet pavement alongside hundreds of other people who had the same goal; I was looking down most of the time to avoid getting my face drenched. But it was worth it to be able to actually experience the ride, even though Julia beat my score. It's always a fun attraction, but it's not worth the excessive waits.
Afterwards, we stopped at the nearby Tower of Terror since the standby line was still short; on our way out, we picked up Fastpasses for a little later. As we were waiting for the ride, a cast member chided me to put away my cell phone even though I wasn't using it to take photos. It seemed odd because I've definitely seen Japanese people looking at their phones while in the queue; I sarcastically wondered if there was some special gaijin (foreigner) rule of which I was unaware.
We were hungry, so I led us to the kiosk where I'd seen Donald Duck shrimp buns. These are adorable- the bun itself is shaped like a life preserver, and the packaging makes it appear as though Donald is swimming in the preserver. So cute! We found a mostly dry table near mysterious island to sit down and enjoy our snacks. They were really yummy! Cute and delicious! After the misery of rushing through the rain to our rides, it was a relief to have a chance to take a little break somewhere that was relatively quiet.
We decided to ride the nearby Journey to the Center of the Earth since it had a surprisingly un-crazy wait time of 40 minutes, even though I was a little worried that it would make timing a little tight for making it to Disneyland for our lunch plans. Because Julia wanted a plush Chandu like mine, we squeezed in a stop on Arabian Coast. Before leaving the park, we used our Tower of Terror Fast Passes to take another ride to the realm of the cursed Shiriki Utundu and its wonderfully maniacal laugh. They need Shiriki Utundu plushes [ed. note- I have a small keychain plush Shiriki Utundu from my 2012 visit; I was surprised they no longer sold them.] By now the rain had let up, so it was only an occasional drizzle.
After just making a monorail at 12:10, we high tailed it to the Polynesian Terrace in Disneyland's Adventureland to check in for our lunch reservations. When I'd made the reservation (which can only be done in English if you are staying at a Disney hotel; otherwise, there's only a Japanese site), the confirmation advised that we needed to check in at least an hour in advance of our 1:30 seating. I'm not sure what would have happened if we'd been a little late, but fortunately we got there just in time that I wouldn't need to find out. We had a very special "Lost In Translation" moment as I tried to ask the CM at the front of the restaurant where to check-in for my existing reservation; she initially thought I wanted to make a new reservation and she was trying to kindly tell me that they were full for the day. But it was all good- everything worked out and we both smiled at our misunderstanding.
Greatly relieved that we'd made it on time, I could now relax. We admired the new Stitch popcorn buckets that debuted that day and then went in search of Green Alien Mochi, since I'd just read good reviews of that snack online. Based on the information online, we checked the stalls at the park hub in front of the castle. Instead of the Green Aliens, they were selling Scrump Mochi instead, in honor of the upcoming Stitch attraction. After taking a bite, I wondered how the heck I'd never tried these before?!? In addition to being beyond adorable (fashioned after Lilo's doll from Lilo and Stitch), they were quite tasty. Each one had a different flavor in the center, covered with a chewy exterior made of rice; that may or may not sound appetizing, but we both loved them. My favorite was the purple, which I couldn't immediately place but which I found out later was purple sweet potato; the other 2 were banana and mango.
We still had some time to kill before lunch, so we wandered around and decided to ride Star Tours since it was a walk on. Then we headed back across the park to the Polynesian Terrace for our lunchtime entertainment, "Lilo's Luau and Fun".. I'd debated whether to make reservations, but I had never seen any of the character shows at Tokyo Disney and I thought this one would be perfect since we've had such an affinity for Stitch on past vacations. I booked in the top price category, which gave us seats right at the edge of the stage. At first I thought that was awesome, but later I decided that sitting a little further back would have given me a better angle for photos. I only mention this in case anyone reading is thinking about booking the show- it's a small room and I don't think the top tier seats are necessary.
Although it was described as a stage show, "Lilo's Luau and Fun" felt more to me like a traditional character meal that was interspersed with interludes on stage rather than an actual show. But that was perfect for me! I couldn't understand all that was happening on stage, anyway, although it was adorable when they brought little kids onstage to teach them the hula. The finale, "Hawaiian Roller Coaster" (from the movie) was also a lot of fun. Even when I couldn't understand the humor at points, the stage performance was still cute.
I was pleasantly surprised with the food at this meal- it was delicious! We started out with a shrimp and salmon appetizer, followed by teriyaki chicken with a chili-tomato sauce, and finally a Hawaiian donut dessert. The staff was great at bringing us an English language menu so we'd know what we'd be eating. (everyone got the same pre-plated dishes) Lunch also included free beverages, including a tasty Polynesian Punch.
The best part of any character meal is having a chance to interact with Disney characters and get photos taken with them. I started getting very anxious when it seemed like our corner of the room was getting ignored by most of the characters- particularly Lilo and Stitch, the 2 I most definitely wanted to see. But of course, all my angst was for naught. When Lilo came to our table, she seemed to enjoy it when I told her (in Japanese) that my cat was named Lilo. Soon after, Stitch stopped by and was a total hoot! He loved that Julia and I were wearing Stitch T-shirts. Then, when he was getting ready to leave, he made like he was giving Julia a high-five only to move his hand at the last minute.
All in all, "Lilo's Luau and Fun" lived up to the last word in its title. It was a happy little break from the madness of the park outside. As a nice touch, they also gave us leis and a card "signed" by all the characters in attendance. I'd definitely recommend this experience, especially to anyone who enjoys Lilo and Stitch.
Tokyo Disney is particularly noted for its diverse varieties of popcorn offerings- Julia particularly enjoyed walking around the park and smelling the various popcorn scents in the air. Each stand has its own flavor- these range from the more familiar like Caramel to more exotic choices such as Milk Tea. After the show, both Julia and I decided to get Stitch popcorn buckets at the nearby kiosk. I had just read that you could purchase a bucket with a voucher to fill it up at another popcorn vendor, and we both chose that option since we wanted to try different flavors than the one offered at that particular stand. That's one of those things that you wouldn't really know if you hadn't done some research, although it turned out that the person in front of us was doing the same thing. Eventually, Julia got the curry popcorn she'd been dying to try and I filled mine with honey popcorn. CURRY POPCORN. I will find it. This I swear, this I swear by the stars.
I really wanted to see the Tokyo Disneyland Tanabata mini parade, so we decided to stick around and stake out places for the 4:10 show after we rode Pirates of the Caribbean again. Julia wanted to try to get Fastpasses in case we wanted to do Splash Mountain later, but my feet were not up for it so I let her go off on her own while I browsed the shops. I was excited to find a CD of the "Once Upon a Time" Frozen edition that we'd seen the previous night; obviously, that came home with me.
As we found spots on the parade route, we heard the standard announcement that the parade would start in 15 minutes. Yay! However, this was immediately followed by an announcement saying it might be canceled due to weather. Huh? And then 3 minutes later... we heard an announcement that it was indeed canceled. That was disappointing, especially since it was only misting outside. At least it wasn't as awkward as when we'd passed by "Minnie Oh Minnie" earlier and overheard the British lead singer telling the audience that they were stopping the show immediately, mid-show, due to impending bad weather.
We decided to take a little break in the hotel; I think it was mainly Julia's idea and I went along because it was her trip. We were planning to head to DisneySea later since we'd be back in Disneyland later on in the trip before returning to the US. As we were getting ready to leave, Julia mentioned the idea of running into Tokyo Disneyland just to use the Fastpasses she'd collected earlier, with some doubt in her voice, clearly thinking that it wouldn't be feasible. But what the hell, it's vacation!
Of course running into the park just to do Splash Mountain took a lot longer than it should have. A lot of that was my fault, because I simply had to find the new dispenser of Mickey shaped soap bubbles that had been installed in Critter Country that morning. (I'd read about it on Twitter) And then, once it was finally located, I had to stand in the queue to sample it. Imagine- a line to wash hands! LOL And then of course, I failed at getting the soap to look like a non-mutant Mickey in my hands so I had to do it again. And again.
So it was around 7:15pm by the time we actually made it to DisneySea. On the way into the park, we tried to stop at the bank so Julia could exchange some more money but unfortunately, you needed a passport and ours were in the hotel safe.
The first thing we did in the park was to get dinner from the New York Deli- I chose the bagel with salmon and other things and Julia ordered a reuben. We both ordered the Little Green Men mochi, which was one of my main reasons for checking that restaurant to begin with. These were similar to the Scrump Mochi we had earlier except they looked like the aliens from Toy Story and their flavors were chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Yummy!
Afterwards, we headed to the colorful and whimsical Mermaid Lagoon since we hadn't been inside the building at all and I really wanted Julia to see it. Also, I wanted to see how long the wait was for the new Little Mermaid show, King Triton's Concert. Since the wait was short, we decided to get in line. While we were waiting, two slight young women ahead of me caught my attention- they were clad in fashionable kimonos (some people wore kimonos for the Tanabata celebrations so it wasn't entirely out of the ordinary) and had their blonde dyed hair fancifully done up just perfectly. They were taking a lot of selfies, so I imagine I'm in some of them. I felt that they had a bit of a stuck up air, and they obviously commanded attention.
I hadn't been a huge fan of the original show at the Mermaid Lagoon theatre (which was also Little Mermaid themed) but I didn't think the new one, "King Triton's Concert" was an improvement. My main disappointment was the paucity of live performers- I recall the original having a large cast of puppeteers and acrobats. The new show had maybe 2 live performers. There were a number of mermaids depicted on screens around the theatre, but- in addition to not being live- I felt that they had a bit of a creepy, disembodied quality about them.
We were near Sindbad... and the rule says that if you are in proximity of Sindbad, you must ride. We actually had a boat entirely to ourselves. Then, we headed to Journey to the Center of the Earth which had a very short wait posted of about 15 minutes- woo hoo! I suggested going on 20,000 leagues under the sea since it was nearby and had no wait at all. It wasn't one of my favorites but I thought Julia should experience it. However, she seemed... quite underwhelmed. We tried to go back on Journey afterwards but the line was already closed. So we took our time walking out of the park for the last time... before finally boarding a Stitch themed monorail back to the hotel.
Back at the hotel room, we had to pack for the next stop on our journey. It seemed unreal that our time in Tokyo Disney had already flown by, but I was really excited to take Julia to some more authentic Japanese sights.
At one point during the day, the following conversation ensued:
Julia: I know we need to be out of here by noon tomorrow, but you'll probably want to leave earlier.
Me: Umm, we have train reservations for 10:30. You were there when we made them. And, umm, it's on the itinerary.
"It's on the itinerary" was a phrase I'd often use a throughout the trip as a friendly, teasing admonishment when Julia asked me about something I'd described in the guide that I'd worked so hard on creating. She eventually threw the same line back at me once, so it's all good.
Our Beauty and the Beast room had been a comfortable home for a magical start to our adventure. But now it was time to leave it behind so we could explore more of Japan beyond Disney. Even though we'd taken a trial run to Tokyo Station earlier in the week, I wanted to be absolutely sure that we left in plenty of time to navigate the station. Especially since we'd sorta gotten lost a few days earlier. I think we left around 8:30am for our 10:30 train. It's always a bit sad taking the monorail and not disembarking at a theme park, but at least we knew we'd be back for our last night of the trip. We swiped our Suica cards to get on the train at Maihama station and then we walked and walked... and walked some more to reach the Shinkansen area of Tokyo station.
I hate Tokyo Station. I don't know where the hell anything is and it's just a giant maze of halls, escalators and exits that aren't exits.
Before going to the Shinkansen gates, I suggested taking turns to make a run into a convenience store for supplies that would sustain us on our 4 hours of transit. That way, someone could guard the bags while the other person shopped. I went first and bought a tuna mayo onigiri, mint chocolate kit kat bites, a chocolate egg with a Frozen figurine inside, and some beverages. I think Julia was a little intimidated about going into the store by herself, but she did a fine job acquiring random food and drink.
Aunt Faith is in the convenience store while I guard the luggage. I'm not sure what she's getting. Train tickets that we apparently need? Breakfast? I hope breakfast otherwise when its my turn to Fetch the Thing, it will go better. #TokyoStationSucks... Aunt Faith! Come back! The wifi is being spotty. #whymustTokyobesocrowded
So in fact the convenience store run was for breakfast, which makes the most sense anyway. Ended up with some lemon pastry looking thing, some other pastry thing, a sandwich, something wrapped in seaweed, more of those baked potato straw things but a different flavor, and some cherry drink. Let's see what's safe and what's not.
When we entered the gates to the Shinkansen area, I tried to use my Suica card but they only needed my railpass and seat reservations. In the back of my mind, I figured that we might eventually run into some problems because we'd swiped our Suica cards to get on the train in Maihama without ever swiping them at an exit, but I figured that it would either sort itself out or we'd be able to fix it later. Meanwhile, it was time for us to take our first ride on a shiny bullet train! As we watched them clean out the train before it was our turn to board, I pointed out to Julia that shinkansen were at least 10 steps above New Jersey Transit trains.
We were taking the train to Kanazawa, on a route that had only recently opened; previously, it had taken a lot longer to travel by train between the 2 cities. The ride was very comfortable- even the toilets were quite nice! It was also cool to have outlets by the seats to charge devices.
This train is kinda like the Hogwarts express except not magic and they speak Japanese. Also, the guy next to me smokes. I can smell it.... Spent the train ride reading Paper Towns and checking Instagram, but mostly reading Paper Towns.
When we arrived at Kanazawa, we had 15 minutes to make it to our planned 1:15pm bus in Shirakawa-go. Luckily, we had no problem buying tickets and we made it onto the bus with a few minutes to spare; the next bus was about an hour and a half later so it would have been a pain to miss it. I swear the luck we have on this trip is crazy.
On the bus to Sh-go (abbreviated because I can neither spell nor pronounce the name of this small town). But it will be cute and I'm excited. Sad to leave Disney, but also grateful. This bus is currently mostly empty... There are 6 people on this bus and I'm 98% sure 4 of them are trying to sleep. But holy crap it is beautiful outside. We're in the mountains. I LOVE MOUNTAINS!
As we started to wind our way through the mountains toward the small town of Shirakawa-go, I was getting really excited. I've long wanted to include this picturesque village in my travel plans, but it had never worked out. The new Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Kanazawa definitely made things easier. I also really wanted to take Julia somewhere more rural, since she enjoys visiting more rustic areas at home.
Many visitors just visit the town for a day trip, but I definitely wanted to stay overnight at a traditional Gassho-zukuri guest house. I also thought it would be great for Julia to have the experience of staying in a traditional futon room once during the trip. It had been hard to choose from among the various guesthouses, but I was glad I'd ended up choosing the one closest to the bus stop. Once we arrived in town, we had to roll our luggage across a pedestrian bridge that spanned the Shokawa river to our guesthouse.
Once we found the Koemon guesthouse, the lady who ran it directed us to leave our shoes in cubby holes by the doorway and change into slippers. When we reached our room, she instructed us to take off the slippers to go inside because you always need to walk barefoot on tatami mats. Before leaving, she told us a little about the house- such as when meals were served- and the neighboring area. She didn't speak a lot of English, but the pre-printed flyers she gave us were certainly helpful. Most notably, I was surprised that she did not request any money. Payment was by cash only, although I'd had to supply the booking agency (Japanese Guest Houses) with a credit card to guarantee the reservation.
Our room was a very simple, traditional tatami room which overlooked a little pond. There was no furniture other than a low table in the middle of the room, although there were closets where we could store our bags. I was surprised at first that Julia seemed to have some culture shock with the surroundings since she seems to have such an affinity for nature- but of course, it's understandable since our lodgings were so very different from the opulent Beauty and the Beast hotel room. This room had no luxuries and in fact didn't even have a private bathroom. But there was beauty in its simplicity. Eventually, Julia seemed to embrace the experience, even figuring out a way to sit out on the deck to read.
When Julia came back from using the bathroom, I realized that I should have told her that she needed to change into special slippers at the bathroom. While not exactly sassing me, she asserted that she's 17 and was therefore able to figure it out for herself when she saw slippers at the bathroom entrance. Because when you're 17, you know everything.
Also the bathrooms are really nice- clean and smell nice, so win. Let's put it this way, it's significantly nicer than a glorified hole, and school bathrooms. In fairness, the rest stop on 209 that's a glorified hole is nicer than school bathrooms and it is a glorified hole. The glorified hole on route 6... not so much. Still 500000% better than an F Kenya bathroom (from the stories I've heard obviously. Never been to Kenya- that would be cool, but not sure I'm ready for that)
I hadn't been sure if our mifi device would work in Shirakawa-go or if it would be too remote, but fortunately it worked. After we got settled, I suggested going out to explore the area and perhaps check out the view from the scenic overlook. As we walked down the main street, I was struck by the number of places selling soft ice cream. There were also the obligatory vending machines. But mainly, we saw a sprinkling of brown buildings in the traditional gassho style and long patches of greenery punctuated by a smattering of colorful flowers and surrounded by distant mountains. After the hectic hustle and bustle of Disneyland, it was heavenly to find myself somewhere quieter, where I didn't need to worry about queues or Fastpasses or show times; we could just go with the flow. We really needed that chance to take a breath and reflect.
We had some confusion finding the way to climb up to the overlook, and if I'd been alone, I probably would have waited for the shuttle bus. But we ended up running into some other people who spoke English and together we were able to find the path. I'd done many hikes of similar difficulty before, but Julia said it was a new experience for her. The path was relatively easy, but it had some steep patches and it felt quite warm out. So I took my time- meaning that I was way slower than the people we met.
Once we reached the top, the bird's eye view of the town- a canvas of green freckled with pointy-roofed brown gassho houses- was well worth the effort. We stayed up there for a good 20 minutes, just embracing the serenity. Julia seemed moved, and indicated that she felt lucky to be able to visit a place that not many people get to see. While Shirakawa-go is definitely a touristy town, it is off the beaten path for most US travelers. I was very happy to see that she'd warmed up to the charms of this quaint town, since it was one of the places I'd specifically picked out for this trip because I felt it suited her.
Made it to Sh-go. HOLY CRAP IT IS AWESOME. Our hotel is really cute and Paper Towns is messing with my emotions... I think it's because of the parallels to my own life- growing up, leaving, not looking back (although that isn't applicable), trying to find yourself... So I'm kinda just an obsessed mess trying not to start sobbing over a book. I mean, it's ok at 1am in your bed but at 4pm on vacation in one of the most beautiful places ever, KNOCK IT OFF.
Steep paths are super-funs. I could sit up at this outlook all day. Forever. Build a house up here and never come down. Of course the tourists would come. And eventually I'd need money. And groceries. And toilet paper. It was nice to relax after Disney and it will be a nice, quiet night.
There were 2 paths indicated on our map, so we decided to descend by a different one than we'd climbed. This turned out to be a road with a gentle incline. Reflecting on the fact that we'd had to climb up some steep hilly areas, my first thought was "Are you kidding me?!?" But Julia was glad we'd taken the more challenging way up... and I wasn't really unhappy, either.
On the way back to our guesthouse, we stopped at Wada house, one of the traditional houses that was now partly a museum. The most interesting part to me was climbing up the steep staircase in order to explore the inside view of the angled thatched roof.
We spent some time just lingering around, enjoying the area and taking photos. When we entered a souvenir store, I practically died when I saw that there were Hello Kitty Shirakawa-go souvenir items! So incredibly cute- and the first of what I already knew would be many Hello Kitty souvenirs. There aren't words to describe how pleasant it was to just stroll around the little village, without any cares.
After we got back to our room, we relaxed for a little bit before heading to the common dining area. There was apparently only one other room that was occupied- the couple there was from Australia, which was fortunate because we were able to converse with them in English. I think Julia was particularly glad to be able to communicate in our native language with someone other than me. The couple was very nice, and I really enjoyed talking to them, especially because they were interested in the arts and theatre.
[The Australians] are nice, but I thought Americans were the loud ones... Let it be said, though, that I think I like them well enough. It certainly was nice to have a conversation in fluent English after speaking in broken English, limited Japanese, and body language for the past 5 days. So that counts.
We sat by a low table, which was already set up with a variety of foods on small plates- I didn't really know where to start! We were both very intimidated by a piece of fish that seemed to be looking at us (Yes, he did have eyes to look at me. It was weird. Not gonna lie.), but we tried it after the Australians assured us it was delicious. And it really was. Our hostess told us that there was beef with a miso paste being cooked over a flame in a ceramic container. Once that was ready, I thought it was extremely tasty- though Julia didn't really care for the miso paste. I'm not really sure what everything was, but I at least tried most of it and ended up feeling satisfied with my meal. Julia had the honor of mixing up green tea for the both of us using the Winnie the Pooh hot water dispenser on the table.
When we returned to our room, the table had been pushed aside and 2 futons had been set up on the floor for us. I suggested taking another walk outside so that we could enjoy the setting sun. We'd already walked the length of the town, but it was still really wonderful just to be outside with nature, without a particular destination.
The other couple we met were going out to one of the Japanese communal baths. In all my trips to Japan, I've never tried one even though I know people rave about them being a wonderful, not-to-be-missed experience. I was skeptical, and Julia didn't seem to be interested at all. However, I tried the family bath at the guesthouse; that was a bit of an interesting experience. It was private, which was good. In public baths, multiple people enter the tub at the same time. For a private bath like this one, other people could share the same water but at a different time. Either way, it is of utmost importance not to taint the bath water with any dirt so you clean yourself off at the shower before entering the tub. I was really nervous about rinsing myself off well; my unrealistic goal was to be cleaner than I'd ever been in my life (never mind the fact that there wouldn't actually be anyone else using the tub since the other couple had ventured out!) I also wasn't sure of the most graceful way to move the plastic cover off the bath. But once I was immersed in the hot water, it was definitely a very relaxing way to end my day in the small town of Shirakawa-go.
There is nothing more weird than walking around in a dead silent hotel at 10pm and wearing loud shoes on creaky floors. Oh gods. It's awkward? Embarrassing? I feel like a lumbering elephant drawing attention to itself. [ed. note: I hope those were slippers not shoes...]
So impressions of this town... it's like it's ancient and traditional and stuff so it feels very old, but there's cars and lights and a nice TV and some of the residents probably have wifi. So it's like a mix of modern and ancient and timeless and timely (like that TS Eliot quote)
This is bacially a tourist trap disguised as a little town. (ok not THAT extreme but...) But it is so beautiful and perfect I never want to leave. It's so nice to be away from the city... I will miss the crap out of this place.How many Westerners see this kind of thing, do this kind of thing. How many people in general come to a little of town in the middle of nowhere where they don't speak your language. And how many chances does someone have in their lifetime to do something like this? The answer: NOT MANY
Breakfast was served at an early 7:30am, but we were able to get ready in time. Once again, we sat at a low table in the common room which was already decorated with trays full of a variety of small dishes. In the middle of the room, a pot was cooking on the hearth. There was plenty to fill me, even though I'm a picky eater.
There is something about eating rice crosslegged. Especially when it falls off the chopsticks onto your ankles. And then you need to eat the rice off your ankles. #sentenceIneverthoughtIdwrite
After eating, we packed up to leave our luggage until we were ready to take a bus back to Kanazawa. At this point, I settled the bill and thanked our host for her hospitality. Julia's tablet charger had died and she was a little annoyed with her mom for not letting her take a better charger on the trip. Despite our efforts to revive the tablet, it was dead for the rest of our time in Japan with left Julia without internet. Unfortunately, she didn't get a smart phone until after the trip which was slightly poor timing. In any event, I lent her my small camera since I was barely using it.
Our first stop of the morning was the Heritage Museum, which was located across the bridge near the bus stop. I figured we'd see how long we spent there and then we'd be able to decide what time we wanted to book bus tickets. The museum was really a collection of buildings in the local style of gassho zukuri which means "constructed like hands in prayer", because the farmhouses' steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer.
Because we arrived early, it wasn't very crowded and it was pleasant roaming around the scenic grounds; practically every angle tempted me to take a photo. Inside one building, we were given free soba tea which was refreshing. Outside another building, someone took our photograph and gave us a tiny copy while saying we could buy a larger one; I knew it was a total tourist rip off, but I treasure photos and it came out well... so I bought it. No regrets.
We were done with the museum at around 10, and we decided to take the 12:25 bus. That would give us a little more time to roam the jewel of a town, but wouldn't give us so much time that we'd get bored. I had a little trouble figuring out where to reserve the tickets, but I worked it out without too much trouble. I was starting to run short of cash, and unfortunately there weren't any ATM's around.
We crossed the bridge back to the main area of town... along with bus loads of tourists. Once we were walking around the town, it didn't seem as crowded as I'd expected after seeing the number of people headed there. Nonetheless, I was glad we'd been able to stay overnight- especially since we'd been able to wander around after the day tourists had all left.
We found our way to the Doburoku Festival Museum, which I thought would be interesting because it displays costumes from an annual local festival. However, it was more notable for a couple incidents of hilarity. I actually missed seeing the first one but there was no way to miss the laughter of both the museum staff and those who had witnessed the incident:
When you walk in, they have slippers for you to wear. Well, this Australian guy was doing it wrong. The slippers are stacked inside of each other, so one pair is kinda like a package... Australian guy had one "package" on one foot and another "package" on the other. It was REALLY funny. Me, and the staff were laughing so hard.
On the way out of the museum, the staff offered us tiny bowls of the special sake used in the festival. Before Julia drank hers, I warned her that it was alcoholic. She was ready to give it back because she was underage, but I assured her that it was ok to try if she wanted. So she did. And then her face contorted itself into the most epic expression of disgust. Once again, everyone was laughing- including Julia. I wasn't that keen on the sake myself (I'm not that big a fan in general), but I thought it was ok.
To erase any possible lingering taste of sake, it was necessary to finally indulge in one of the many stands selling soft ice cream. Both Julia and I decided on a twist of green tea and vanilla. Perfect- especially since it was getting to be warm out.
As we wandered around enjoying the scenery and flowers, I stopped at a vending machine to quench my thirst. It's fun to try different drinks in Japan, so I chose something in a cute little purple bottle that I could tell would be grape flavored. I untwisted the cap and took a swig... and holy hell, there were globs of grape jello floating around in my mouth! To be fair, the label design depicted an image of jello; I just didn't expect it to be so literal. There was a visual instruction to shake the bottle; I'd done that but Julia suggested perhaps I needed to shake it some more. No change- still bits of jello randomly floating around in the beverage. It wasn't bad, it was just... amusing. Very amusing. Also, that bottle seemed to last freaking forever before I finally finished it. It was like the bottled drink version of a clown car.
We continued wandering trying to capture with our cameras the beautiful scenery as well as occasional elements of whimsy. I didn't really want to leave the village, but there really wasn't much more to do there. At around noon, we returned to our guesthouse one last time to collect the bags. I almost left my sunglasses there but fortunately I noticed in time and I was able to send Julia back in to retrieve them. (mainly because she was wearing flip flops and it was therefore easier for her to change into the indoor slippers)
There was some slight confusion when our bus arrived because someone else had the same seats we'd been given on our tickets. But since there were some empty seats, it all worked out.
One of the things I've noticed is that nothing changes on the internet. It's the same melodrama back home. It's just like life continues without you. Sure, you can put yourself back in, but the building of your home and the lives of everyone around you can stand without you. It's like they don't know you're gone (but they do. Mom and Dad probably miss me.)
The ride didn't seem very long, and soon we were pulling into the same Kanazawa bus station we'd briefly visited just a day earlier. It took me awhile to get my bearings as to where to hotel was located relative to the station. I knew it was almost directly adjacent, but it was hard to determine which direction. When we arrived, the front desk staff let us drop off our luggage but we wouldn't be able to get into the room until the official check in time of 3pm.
In the meanwhile, we decided to explore a little. But first Julia still needed to exchange money and I needed to withdraw some; we followed the directions in the train station and found a post office where both tasks were accomplished. Only certain ATM's in Japan currently accept foreign ATM cards: post offices and 7-11's are among the most reliable and easy to find.
When we walked out the station, we admired some sculptures and also a fountain in which little streams of water could turn on such that they spelled "Welcome" or "Kanazawa" (in English and Japanese) Knowing that most Japanese department stores have a floor of restaurants, I suggested going into the nearby Forus department store. The 6th floor indeed had a huge array of dining options and it was hard to make a choice. Finally, Julia advocated for a conveyer belt sushi place and I agreed.
Having never tried a conveyer belt sushi restaurant and being a picky eater, I was a little reluctant. I'm not necessarily keen on paying to eat something that might make me gag... especially if it might have been going around on a conveyer belt for who knows how long. But this restaurant also let you choose your own custom orders from a touch screen menu which that be accessed in English. So you really got the best of both worlds- you could pick up something that looked tempting as it passed by or you could place an order. When you ordered, your sushi would be delivered on a separate conveyer belt and it would automatically stop in front of your seat. Sometimes, it would come out on a container shaped like a shinkansen. I don't know how I managed to not take a picture of that. Epic fail.
Each order of sushi was served on a colored plate that represented its price; at the end of the meal, the clerk could calculate the bill by summing up the values of the plates on your table. Julia and I collected quite the stack! We had about 7 plates total- the prices ranged from around $1 to $4 per plate. There were a few options for rolls, but in most cases each plate held 2 pieces of traditional sushi- that is, fish over rice.
Julia kept eyeing the inari sushi because it looked like a dumpling. I knew it wasn't to my liking, but I finally gave in and told her to take a plate and try it for herself. Well, she wasn't too thrilled with it either. But I compelled her to eat both pieces (usually we split it) because she's been so insistent on trying it. Other than that, we really enjoyed everything that we tried and we resolved to try more conveyer belt sushi during the rest of our trip. It was definitely a fun place to eat.
On our way out of the department store, we stopped in the basement where we discovered a kiosk that sold flavored mochi filled with cream- these were similar to the alien/scrump mochi in Tokyo Disney but a little more refined. I bought ones that were purple sweet potato and chocolate.
It was past check in time, so we returned to the hotel to complete our check-in. It turned out that our room was... very cozy. OK, it was tiny- but it was very nice and clean. I didn't think much of it (even though you basically had to climb over one bed to get to the 2nd one), but Julia seemed taken aback by just how small it was. And that's when I realized- I have spoiled these children to an incredible degree! During my travels, I've stayed in all manner of accommodation ranging from sleeping on the floor of a hostel full of loud Croatian youth up to 5 star luxury. They've stayed mainly in Deluxe Disney properties, with an occasional moderate room such as the Days Inn in suburban Pittsburgh. Julia claimed to be "ok" with the room for one night- but honestly, I didn't think it was that much of a hardship.
After we took a short break, we headed out to the Kenrokuen garden. I wasn't sure if the bus that pulled up was the correct one, but Julia was more adventurous and urged me to get on. I followed along on my phone GPS to confirm that we were headed in the right direction, although I waited too long to get off so we had to backtrack a little. As it was late in the day (we arrived around 4:45pm), the garden wasn't very crowded- except for a couple places were tour groups were hogging up the photo ops. We wandered around for about an hour, and it was very nice. I would probably have appreciated the ambiance a bit more if we hadn't just come from a tranquil, rural village.
Since it was a Friday night, the nearby 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art was open until 8pm so we headed over there. I'm not generally a huge fan of museums, but the exhibits I saw on their website had piqued my interest. In particular, there is a work entitled "The Swimming Pool" which plays with perspective as it allows guests to look down into what seems to be a deep pool... when in reality it is just a thin layer of water under which there is a room in which you could also wander to view the work from an underground perspective. We had fun posing like we were swimming in there.
The museum included a lot of seriously cool exhibits. My favorite was a room in which a huge number of toys that originally came with fast food kids' meals had been assembled into an awesome looking universe; they were grouped by color so if you stood back a bit, you might not realize that the resultant artwork was made of toys. It was very disappointing that photography wasn't allowed for that exhibit and that there were no postcards of it for sale, either.
Another memorable exhibit was also a room that housed a maze of trees that were supposed to be costumes from a children's show; they had ovals cut out where faces would be. Because of the video being displayed as well as the density of the trees, it was a little creepy wandering through there- but in a good way.
We spent about an hour and a half wandering through the small museum and taking in everything we could see. When we were finally done, we decided to walk back towards the hotel instead of taking the bus since it really wasn't all that far- about 1.7 miles. On the way, we admired a gorgeous pink sunset.
As we wandered down the streets, I saw a sight I'd been hoping for- it was the "Mr Donut" that we'd passed on our way to the park! I'd been regaling Julia with tales of how, on previous trips, I'd come to the conclusion that Mr. Donut was my friend- and now it was finally time for him to become her friend as well. We entered the small shop and made some tough decisions as we each picked out a donut. We sat down for a bit to relax and eat our sweets.
After stopping at convenience stores to load up on supplies for the next day's breakfast (convenience store hopping is a thing) and making train reservations for the next day, we returned to the hotel room at about 9pm. And then, much silliness ensued. In particular, I'd been amused by a photo on Julia's instagram which showed how her crochet Daleks were stuffed in her Stitch popcorn bucket; to me, it looked like Stitch was puking up the Daleks. So as she took some of the Daleks out of the popcorn bucket, we laughed about the activity which would eventually be known as The Ceremonial Puking of the Daleks. (note- Daleks are apparently alien beings from the TV show Dr. Who that basically want to exterminate everything.)
In my fit of silliness, I was thrilled to see that the hotel had a toothbrush. I'd already snagged one from the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel and I decided that we ought to give Julia's sister, Megan, toothbrushes from all of our hotels as part of a massive gag gift. Of course, I also planned to get her real gifts as well. We also sent Megan a photo of toilet paper in the hotel refrigerator; that's an in-joke from one of our previous Disney trips. It's sometimes scary to me that I am supposed to be the quote "responsible adult" because I can quickly break out in fits of giggles and silliness if the mood strikes. Meanwhile, Julia had us both in fits of laughter as she came up with the plot and song list for "Convenience Store Raid: The Musical" featuring such sure-fire hits as "Another City, Same Convenience Store" and "What the hell does this say in Japanese (I'm so confused").
The only time in my life when I can actually wake up early is when I am on vacation; if I could bottle that energy up for my "real life", weekdays would be so much easier. We didn't even set an alarm this morning but I still got up at 8am. I lazed in bed for about an hour before taking my shower and waking Julia up; if I'd been alone, I would probably have gotten ready more quickly.
After eating some food we'd bought the previous night, we headed out to catch the 10:56am train to Kyoto. Actually, the hotel room was small enough that it took a little bit of creative choreography for us to be able to exit with our luggage. It was just a quick walk to the train station. This time, we wouldn't be riding a shinkansen, which is the fastest and most luxe of the trains in Japan; however, our limited express train was still a bunch of steps better than NJ Transit.
On the train. It's really quiet. I like it. Back out in the suburbs. It's pretty much just like an American suburb except with open fields and a different style of architecture.
Things that are universal
Laughing at people when they do something funny
The bored waiting stance
Dogs are cute
So are baby monkeys
Once we arrived in Kyoto, it was super easy to find our hotel... because it was right on top of the train station! I was pleasantly surprised that we were able to get in our room right away, at 1:30pm, even though it was before the official check in time. Most hotels in Japan are very strict about check in times, but some- like this one- are more like Western hotels that will let you get into a room early if one is available.
I'd been able to score a fabulous deal on the room (45% off) and it was perfect for our needs- both convenient as well as comfortable. Our window overlooked the tracks, so we could gaze outside and watch the constant action of trains coming and going. I could sometimes hear the faint noise of track announcements, even though we were pretty high up. But the benefits of the almost hypnotic view outweighed the small amount of noise.
When I went through the drawers to figure out where I could unpack, I found something I don't think I'd ever seen before- a "do it yourself" desk lamp with instructions on how to set it up. That definitely got us laughing, which admittedly is never a difficult feat.
Our pillows are not beanbags. This is important. Fun fact: Japanese hotel rooms have "The Teachings of Buddha" and "The New Testament" both in English and Japanese... Japanese people are not big on sheets you cover your body with, in favor of one blanket that is both sheet and comforter. At least that's what I've gathered from hotel rooms.
After getting comfortable with the room, we headed out to see our first temple, Kiyomizu-dera. It was really easy to find the tourist bus in front of the station. As we got off after a very short ride, we tapped our Suica cards since they are supposed to be accepted on Kyoto buses. When the machine flashed red, I figured that it probably had something to do the fact that we never properly exited with the cards in Tokyo a few days earlier; I'd suspected that might happen. I started digging through my wallet for some change, but the driver just waved us off.
It wasn't completely apparent which direction we should head, so we struck up a conversation with a couple of Americans who were also looking for the temple. One of them was wearing a St Louis Cardinals baseball T-shirt, which evokes painful memories of the 2011 playoffs to any Phillies fan. But with some effort, I succeeded in not taking my bitterness out on them; after all, it was a rare chance to engage in an English language conversation. It was interesting to find out a little about them, although we ended up splitting up before we actually reached the temple.
The path to Kiyomizu-dera went up a small street that was lined with little shops. Some of the store windows looked tempting, but there were just way too many people to battle; since it was a Saturday, it was probably way more crowded than it would be during the week. Once we reached the temple, it started to rain... which would become a recurring theme of our time in Kyoto. But it wasn't too bad and we were still able to enjoy the vermillion structure and the dramatic veranda that overlooks the city.
Saw our first temple and it was really cool. Loved the view of Kyoto.
Afterwards, we navigated the packed pedestrian streets of Higashiyama with one goal in mind: making a pilgrimage to the Hello Kitty Tea House that I'd discovered online a few months before our trip. It was only a short walk away although it seemed longer because the rain started to come down more steadily. It was about 3:45 and we were both very hungry.
I was practically dying at all the cute touches that were everywhere. It was amazing. Everywhere you looked, there was something new to "ooh" and "aah" over. The most adorable touch was that the restaurant had several giant stuffed Hello Kittys seated on chairs. Since it was empty, they placed one at our table. So we literally were able to dine with Kitty-chan.
My expectation was that the food at the Hello Kitty Tea House would be gimmicky: totally cute of course, but not nearly as tasty as it was adorable. I was therefore pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed my entree! We both decided to order the Hello Kitty Happy Ribbon Pasta box set with miso soup. My beverage, the green tea latte, was even better than my meal- it was to die for; the floating Kitty marshmallow was an irresistibly cute touch. Julia ordered the iced green tea latte which wasn't nearly as good (despite also being accented with a kitty marshmallow). The cold green tea was interesting... We both ordered one of the colorful sweets for dessert, but that had a bit of a funny taste to our Western mouths.
On the way out, we obviously had to spend time in the adjacent store. My eventual haul included: a sparkly purple Hello Kitty scarf, a small plush Hello Kitty clad in a kimono kneeling on a purple pillow, a purple change purse that I used for the rest of the trip (and continue to use at home), a Hello Kitty cell phone charm (I'd decided to get one from each city), and a bottle of Hello Kitty Yuzu soda. (Purple + Hello Kitty = happy me!) We were also given chopsticks and a coaster as souvenirs from the food we'd ordered. All in all, it was a very fun excursion and well worth a stop. We even planned on returning if we could work it into the schedule.
We ended up walking back a different way than we'd come. In doing so, we stumbled across a jewelry store where I found a ton of colorful earrings that were totally my style. It took me forever, but I finally decided on a pair that was perfect for me- they were a shade of green matching my eyes, with delicate floral accents. The man running the store was nice, although he kept trying to show us clip-on earrings which are apparently more of a thing in Japan than they are at home. I am pretty sure that in the process of his well meaning gestures, I ended up losing one of my Mickey Mouse stud earrings. Oh, well- I'd had them forever so it wasn't a huge loss.
We found a train stop that would take us back to the hotel. When we entered, we were able to sort out our troubles with the Suica cards so they wouldn't give us any further problems. I'm not sure if the attendant completely understood my explanation, but I'm sure he realized we'd made some silly gaijin mistake.
Found pretty earrings, walked in the rain. Also bought an umbrella- It's pretty, like a sky blue, that is now drying in the bathtub with Aunt Faith's poncho. Hello Kitty stores are dangerous. Had a raid on a 7-11 which does not sell Slurpees- Shame!
After dropping our purchases off at the hotel room, we decided to explore the station and its shops. Every time we saw a jewelry store, we'd get completely distracted by the shiny; it was a weakness we shared. In the course of our explorations, we also came across a cool Lego model of the station.
From our hotel, I could see a set of stairs across the way that led to the roof of the station. At night, they were lit up and animated. The shininess was irresistible, so we headed over for a closer look. However, we didn't actually ascend to the rooftop because it was still damp out.
Although we found a Mr Donut inside the station, we decided to get ice cream instead. I had the soda flavor which was... interesting. I wasn't really all that hungry after a big, late lunch. We also stopped at a convenience store before returning to our hotel room- among our purchases, we both sampled the melon Fanta which turned out to be a hit. That stuff is amazing. Just saying.
Back at the hotel room, I checked the Japanese-only website which sold tickets for Universal Studios Osaka. Virtually ever review I'd read about Universal Japan highly recommended buying Express Passes so I wanted to double check that they were still available for the day I'd planned to go. Since there was no English language website to purchase them, I'd been hoping that a store would magically materialize in Kyoto with a neon sign saying "We sell Universal Express Passes"; failing that admittedly unrealistic scenario, my backup plan had been to simply buy them when we got to the park. However, to my dismay, it looked like the good Express Passes (ie the ones which included Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey) were sold out for quite some time into the future. In all my obsessive preparations and "what if"s, I'd somehow never considered that possibility. I felt a little (ok, a lot) mad at myself for not having ordered in advance, and I felt very anxious about the possibility that we'd have a less than ideal experience at Universal- and it would be all my fault.
But that was a problem for another day; for now, it was time to sleep... and hope for the best.
Pretty quiet in here tonight... Chillin, looking out our nice window at our nice view of Kyoto. I also enjoy seeing the Shinkansen outside... Aunt Faith said something while I was drinking which caused me to spit soda onto my chest. Temporarily broke the silence. Quiet again, but I suspect THAT won't last long.
Showers are nice. Nice, warm and cleansing. Even for the floor. I fail at haldheld holder things, so it ends up spraying the wall, I turn it, then out of the curtain, then the wall again. I did find a good spot for it, but a wet floor sign is in order. I hope Aunt Faith doesn't need to go in there tonight. #IKnowSheWill #ItllBeInteresting
Eveywhere we've stayed feels like a home, even if it's a tiny hotel room for one night. Japan's really not all that different. Sure, they don't speak English, but a lot of people actually do, and I'm perfectly comfortable buying things and ordering food. (depending on the situation with the food) It's a learning curve, for sure. Also I will miss the vending machines on the street. But after dealing with yen for the past week, handling some familiar American money is comforting. Also, Japanese people seem to pay a lot more cash than credit.
[some content pulled/ paraphrased/ inspired by/ from other sources]
We tend to think of those we do not understand as "them" and us as "us", thus separating us from them. It is very easy to do this when you are separated by oceans, countries and language. When we cannot decipher the words of another, we tend to dismiss it as having no bearing on our lives. That is not true. When we leave our homes and travel or live among "them", we begin to understand that we are "them" and they are "us" and that we are not different. Not fundamentally. Our language, culture and customs may be different, but we are all people, with the same wants and needs: Love, family, food, shelter, to obtain our dreams, reach our goals.
So while we may not understand another's goal, or why they want to achieve it, what do we have to gain by cutting them down if it literally has no bearing on our lives? Why do we start wars when we do not want wars started with us?
A mother wants to protect her child, no matter in China or Japan or America or Luxemberg or New Zealand or Iceland. Why do we divide into worlds? First world, third world, second world? Why do we not want the same for everyone: success and happiness in their own way?
A cow herder in Africa does not want the same things as a computer analyst in England. Yet the society of the world wants everything to be modern and standard. There is no standard. We have a common type of goal but the specifics are oh so very different. But that still needs reminding that there is no "us" or "them" because those which we do not understand are the ones we need to understand. To understand others is to understand ourselves.
I wanted to get an early start because there is so much to be seen in Kyoto. But since neither of us are morning people, that didn't exactly happen.
I had planned out an itinerary for each day of our trip, but I'd fully intended the plans for cities we'd visit for multiple days- particularly Kyoto- to have some flexibility in terms of the order of activities. This was one of the days when I decided to shuffle the plans around and head to the Arashiyama district, which had originally been planned for the following day. There were several reasons, but ultimately it just felt right; I'm big about trusting my instincts when I travel.
We took a short train ride to Saga-Arashiyama Station. When trying to get my bearings, I was surprised to see an English language sign pointing the direction to the Bamboo Forest, which was our first destination. It proved to be extremely easy to find. Walking along pathways lined with a seemingly infinite number of narrow bamboo shoots reaching toward the sky was definitely a unique and peaceful experience. I was inspired to pose for a picture in the tree pose from Yoga; however, my shorts were really not ideal for stretching so it proved to be less comfortable and more challenging than usual.
Since Tenryu-ji temple was nearby, we spent a short time exploring its lovely gardens. As we strolled, we shared some questionable jokes along the way. At one point, Julia complained that it seemed like her Yennies were breeding... Julia had been referring to the small, lightweight 1 Yen coins (worth about 0.8 cents each) as "Yennies" for the duration of the trip, and she often complained about having so many. While she'd been in the shower the night before, I'd stealthily snuck most of my remaining one yen pieces into her Grumpy Cat wallet (I often remarked that her wallet seemed disgruntled). There was much laughter as the truth was revealed. Good times!
As we walked through the charming Arashiyama district, I saw the cutest sight: a dog dressed in a purple and red kimono! We crossed the iconic old Togetsukyo bridge en route to our next destination: the Iwatayama Monkey Park. We knew we were getting close when we started to see signs with pictures of monkeys. I'd been warned that reaching the monkeys involved a bit of a climb; thankfully it wasn't too hot or sunny out or I imagine the walk could be tortuous. It seemed like our uphill path might never end, but once we reached the plateau, it was all worth it! There were adorable snow monkeys peppering a small clearing which overlooked the city of Kyoto. It was breathtaking.
After wandering around and enjoying the park a little, I asked someone who worked there to take a photo of me and Julia. He put some food on the ground in order to lure a monkey into the photo with us- that was awesome! We spent almost an hour just enjoying the surroundings, and taking photos of monkeys. At one point, we saw a little baby monkey which was presumably with its mama- so cute! Julia got some food to feed the monkeys- an activity which can only be done from inside a shelter through a fenced window.
The monkeys were cute and I enjoyed feeding them. I initially wasn't going to, but then I decided that YOLO was applicable. Those monkeys are greedy little buggers! The climb was kinda sucky but we made it up and back down safely.
By the time we descended from the monkey park, we were pretty much starving! After wandering around and checking a few menus, we finally settled on a small, simple, traditional looking restaurant just across the road from the Katsura river. We both decided on the chicken katsu-don set which provided us with a bowl of breaded chicken with egg and onion, as well as sides including udon noodles and a small salad. It was a delicious meal in a very nice, homey setting.
Kyoto is beautiful. There's a bridge over a really pretty waterway and the restaurant is right next to it.
Before it was too late for visiting temples, I decided we should head to the Sanjusangen-do temple which was near our hotel. The sites in Kyoto are very spread out so it required a decent amount of travel time to get there. Sanjusangen-do is famous for its 1001 statues of Kannon, goddess of mercy. It's amazing to walk down the long hall that contains row after row of these life size figures. But alas, you are not allowed to take photos. There is also a cute little garden outside.
After we took the tourist bus to the station, we inquired at the hotel about laundry facilities since neither of us had packed enough for the entire trip. When I'd emailed the hotel months prior to the trip to ask if there were any coin laundries nearby, not only did the hotel send a very nice reply- they'd also included a photo! After asking in person, they gave us a map so we could find our way there.
As soon as I started to plan out our laundromat excursion, it suddenly dawned on Julia that we'd actually have to wait for our clothes to be washed and dried. And just as suddenly, she seemed ok with good old fashioned hand washing in the hotel sink... an idea which she'd scoffed at when I'd initially proposed it before the trip. Fortunately, I always travel with Woolite packets. Let's just say that our bathroom was quite decorated in dripping clothes.... And would remain so for the rest of our stay. Doing laundry now. And by "doing laundry", I mean washing it out in the sink as sitting in the laundromat for 2 hours does not sound fun.
After we'd both done our washing, we decided to head out to do some shopping. On the way, we got distracted by exploring the rooftop of the train station. Since it wasn't raining, it was time to explore where the sparkly lit up steps led. While the rooftop was nowhere near as amazing as the rooftop bar I'd been to in Hanoi, it was still an amusing diversion. And, really, how can you not like a place that bears the sign "Happy Terrace"?
Eventually, we walked to the nearby Aeon mall. This is where we were finally able to achieve our quest of visiting a 100 yen store. And it lived up to all the anticipation... and then some! In this large mecca of inexpensive everything called Daiso, we found quite the bounty of gag gifts for Julia's younger sister. I was literally in tears with laughter when I picked up a frog shaped light up ear pick; it just seemed to be the epitome of absurd. I swear the people at the 100 yen store thought we were crazy. News flash: we are. At another store, we found toilet earrings, which were almost as ridiculous- and yet, also rather cute. Never let us go to the mall unsupervised. We also headed to Toys R Us where Julia picked up the requisite sippy cup gag gift (with scary Japanese children's characters), and I bought a tiny Bing Bong from Disney's Inside Out (titled "Inside Head' in Japan) for myself.
After we were satisfied with our haul (and the laughter it inspired), we stopped at a food court ramen place that was much like the one that had intimidated us in Tokyo Disney after Elisabeth. We both got bowls of ramen with sides of tempura; we piled tempura flakes and chives in our bowls. (they were supplied to be self serve, like the grated cheese or garlic that is available at US fast food pizza joints) After looking at other people's meals, I'm not exactly sure we were supposed to be adding the accents to what we ordered. But hey, we're stupid Americans... and it tasted good.
I decided to move our Universal excursion up to the next morning, Monday, so I wouldn't have to keep angsting about the fact that we weren't able to get Express Passes. I was still hopeful that we'd be able to purchase them at the gate, but we'd definitely need to get an extra early start in order to arrive well before the 9:30am park opening.
We awoke early (for us) before 7am with one goal in mind: conquer Universal Studios Japan. Got up at 6:40. Oh man that sucked. To get there, we had to take a train to Osaka station for 30 minutes and then 2 short subway rides. Japan Rush Hour is CRAZY. How do people deal with that everyday?! After we reached Universal City station, we walked through Japan's version of City Walk toward the Universal front gate that both looked familiar and yet different.
We arrived an hour before the park opened, but alas there still were no Express Passes to be bought. (Express Passes are Universal's version of FastPass with several key differences: 1- they aren't free, 2- Other than special things like the Harry Potter area, they aren't timed and 3- they come in a set of 3, 5 or 7, each of which are each good for one ride on either a specific attraction or a one that you select from a list of options) Julia sat and wrote in her journal while I stood, since no one else was really sitting. By this point in the trip, my feet were killing me- I'd been soaking them in warm water in the tub at night, like an old person. I hated this, but it was necessary.
Once they let people into the park (slightly before the official opening time), we followed the masses to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter which looked very much like the version at Islands of Adventure in Florida. I was excited because I'd read that you often need to get a timed ticket to enter the Harry Potter area, and we were able to walk right in- admittedly shoulder to shoulder with tons of Japanese theme park enthusiasts.
The signature ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, already had a wait time posted of 90 minutes, but we headed there anyway, figuring the line would likely get longer later in the day. Fortunately, we only had to wait about 60 minutes. The Osaka version of the ride is essentially the same as the one we enjoyed in Orlando except it had recently been upgraded to 3D. I was surprised that we didn't get our 3D glasses until we were already seated in the ride vehicle; usually, these types of rides dispense them somewhere in the queue. The 3D effect was surprisingly cool- I'd expected it to be gimmicky at best or, at worst, to make me feel motion sick. It was awesome! And I was so happy and relieved that we actually got to experience it. I'd been worried that without Express Passes, we might be doomed to a day without Harry Potter- it's awesome sometimes to be wrong.
The ride was scarier than I remember... Dementors- the fact that the ride is in 3D means those guys are RIGHT IN YOUR FACE. All of the critters (dragon, spiders, etc) were freaky. But I have no problem with dragons and I LIKE spiders... I think it's the concept of dementors taking away your happiness and all your happy memories. That's legitimately terrifying, especially since that's basically my goal in life. So those happiness suckers, in the dark, in my face, yeah. Scary. Sure, it's just a ride, and they are only books, but books have their own magic. So while I may never encounter a dementor in real life, there's still something about a fake one all up in your face.
After making sure we had our photo taken in front of the castle, our next stop was obviously to drink a round of Butterbeer, the tasty beverage of the wizarding world! Despite the fact that all the stores were extremely crowded and claustrophobic, we spent a good deal of time getting souvenirs for ourselves and for friends back home since you can't usually freely enter the Harry Potter area. (there are usually timed tickets) The shops are too crowded for comfort. On a related note, I discovered that I could fit a heck of a lot more than you'd think into my purse.
One of the distinctive touches of the Japanese Wizarding World was that you could see a live, white owl perched near the Owl Post. That was cute. Before finally leaving Hogwarts, we enjoyed a second round of Butterbeers- this time, we imbibed the Frozen variety which are a bit like slurpees.
Our next stop was to check out Space Fantasy, an indoor spinning roller coaster which was unique to the Japan park and which seemed to get great reviews online. It only had a 40 minute wait posted, so we got in line. Again, I was nervous about possibly getting motion sick- but I needn't have been. My biggest memory of this ride is the huge smile that spread across my face as our vehicle twisted its way through a whimsical environment that could only exist in a theme park ride in Japan. It was a lot of fun and, although I couldn't discern the specifics of the storyline, I really liked the cute pixie characters. We couldn't understand why there was no merchandise for sale with those characters. At least they were depicted on the souvenir pre-ride photo we took, which of course I bought.
One of the unique aspects of the Japanese version of Universal compared to the US versions is that they have a children's area, Universal Wonderland, which is filled with 3 character themed sections: Peanuts, Sesame Street, and- most importantly to me- Hello Kitty. As it started to rain very lightly, we headed over to Hello Kitty Fashion Avenue, a very pink area of Universal. As you may have predicted, I was in heaven!
It felt almost like I'd arrived at one of the wonders of the world when I finally saw the sign for "Hello Kitty's Cupcake Shop", a mecca that epicly combines 2 things that are guaranteed to make me smile. Unfortunately, the cupcakes themselves (I had one with Raspberry frosting), though tremendously adorable, had an unremarkable taste. But not to fear- we also found a delicacy that was as yummy as it was cute: the Hello Kitty bun with cheese and pork filling.
Of course, I had to go on the Hello Kitty Cupcake Dream ride, which is just like the typical teacup ride only the ride vehicles are colorful cupcakes. This attraction is sponsored by Mr. Donut... which should prove once and for all that Mr. Donut really is my friend. We also visited "Hello Kitty's Ribbon Collection" where you could go into a building to admire cute things and ultimately say Hello to The Kitty herself; there was absolutely no line which made it more pleasant- especially since we could enjoy the Hello Kitty slide without battling a bunch of kiddies. I enjoyed the various Hello Kitty shops, although I didn't actually end up buying anything. However, I was slightly disappointed that there were no Hello Kitty themed restrooms.
We headed next to the Jaws ride, which used to exist in the US. The posted wait time was 50 minutes, but we were boarding in less than 30. I liked the ride and the fact that it wasn't ALL automatic and the fact that the guide/ operator lady was actually acting. For those of us who don't speak Japanese, it made it easier to follow.
Afterwards, we took an extended break to shop and to search out Minion foods that I'd seen online! We were able to sample the Minion Roll Cake, Minion Bun with stewed pork filling (Julia) and Trio de Minion Custard (me), the latter of which was a lot like the alien mochi at Tokyo Disney. All were incredibly cute and yummy- total win! Later, Julia tried the Chocolate Banana minion popcorn.
We noticed Space Fantasy had a short wait, and we had to take an encore ride- so much fun! As we were walking around, I noticed a Moppy character on the street. An adorably pink friend of Elmo, Moppy is a muppet who only exists in Japan- specifically only in Universal Osaka. I'm quite fond of characters that don't exist at home so I had to have a photo taken with Moppy. Later I bought a small plush Moppy, who I personified as a baby girl when we were being silly in the hotel rooms. Eventually I looked on the internet and was surprised to discover that Moppy, the very pink muppet with a heart on the palm of one hand, is actually supposed to be a boy. Ooops.
The day was flying by- it was unfortunate that the park was scheduled to close at 7pm. When we checked the wait board at around 4:45, we were shocked to see that Forbidden Journey had a 30 minute wait time; we'd a wait time posted in the triple digits just a couple hours earlier. Needless to say, we high tailed it over to Hogwarts to see if the almost unbelievably short wait time was legit. It was, so we enthusiastically entered the queue- so much fun! We were also able to ride Flight of the Hippogriff, a bit of a kiddie roller coaster that we'd skipped earlier because it had too long a wait. And of course, no visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is ever complete without another round of Butterbeer!
With an hour to go before the park closed, we returned to Universal Wonderland to look at some of the cute kiddy rides we hadn't had a chance to check out earlier when it was raining. I remarked that Elmo's Skateboard ride looked fun, so we gave that a whirl. While it wasn't marketed for anyone with a driver's license, we still went on, had a lot of fun(and didn't feel out of place!) One of the... interesting... things about the Wonderland area of the park was that the background music featured children singing songs like "We are the World"
I really wanted Julia to have a chance to ride the Hollywood Dream roller coaster, but when we passed it, the line was already closed. Whenever we'd checked earlier, even the single rider line had over an hour wait! So unfortunately that never happened.
Throughout the day, Universal staff complimented me on my Hogwarts Alumni T-shirt. The first time someone mentioned it, I thought they were motioning that I was doing something wrong, LOL. I think someone also complimented me on the Hello Kitty wallet I'd bought in Kyoto.
On our way out of the park, we naturally lingered at the shops by the entrance street- which, much like World Bazaar area at Tokyo Disneyland, was under cover. We had a big chuckle at the Hello Kitty tote bag that had the phrase "Who Am I" on it; because of course, Kitty is not Jean Valjean.
By the time we left the park, my feet were seriously killing me and I was slightly exhausted. I also felt like it would be a good idea to sit down and eat something- if only to take a break. We stumbled across an Italian restaurant at City Walk which had an intriguing menu as Julia waffled on whether she wanted to eat something right then. By the time she was amenable to the idea, the restaurant only had smoking tables available. (we saw people enter as we were debating) Perhaps I should have been more forceful about my need to stop and eat, but I really wanted Julia to have a say in decisions we made. In any event, it was very difficult for me not to feel frustrated at that moment- I'm sure Julia sensed my mood despite my best efforts not to lash out at her. I'm pretty sure I told her that I was feeling tired and not to take my mood personally.
We ended up heading back to Kyoto. This is the slowest train on the face of the Earth. Kyoto? How about KyoNO. Once we got in, we ate a little restaurant in one of the malls connected to the station. We were lucky to get there just before their "last order" time. I had spaghetti with eggplant and basil which totally hit the spot.
After we ate, I think we made a convenience store run. By the time we got back to the room, I was drained. But I was happy that (other than the episode of frustration at City Walk) the day had gone far better than I'd feared. There were definitely things I wished we could have done- such as Julia riding the roller coaster or going on the Back to the Future ride which always had a long wait. But, ultimately, we were able to experience all of the most important highlights and it was a fun break from temple hopping.
Universal was actually really awesome. I never got to ride the roller coaster but that's ok. The wait was like an hour, single rider, so we decided to wait. And it jumped to 90... Overall, the fact that we got into Harry Potter World TWICE without timed tickets is crazy. We had 3 rounds of butterbeer (Awesome!)... And the lines were overall not bad as we did not wait in any lines over an hour as we were kinda prepared to do, as we did not have Express Passes. The weather was great. Not too hot, not really sunny, drizzled, but not cause to dig out the umbrella. Admittedly, I was kinda dreading it, thinking it was going to be a nightmare, but it was perfect and amazing.
Meanwhile, the 10:19 Shinkansen to somewhere has left the station. Aunt Faith is in the foot bath and everything is peaceful. Even down in Kyoto station. Nights are nice. Nights are quiet and tranquil. And I like observing the station from this chair by an 8th floor window.
The laundry is still not dry. #NotASurprise #LaundryEverywhere
Everything we've done and seen so far has been awesome. Even the cities, even though I'm not really a city person. Kanazawa was so peaceful at night when we had our walk back to the hotel (that was the one thing I'd like to change). Kyoto is awesome and has the hills in the distance which I love and the historical district is so interesting. There is no way in hell I'll be able to go back home. Japan is really different but it feels like a home, somewhere I'd love to come back to at some point in the future, to plan other adventures of my own, to see more of this country, to witness the customs and festivals and appreciate the thousands of years of history.
It's somewhere that is vastly different and surprisingly similar and amazing in every way (even the amount of people that shove themselves into an already full train is pretty amazing.) I wanted an adventure. Here it is.
There is nothing like being in another country. Nothing.
In some way, I'm a different person. I can't put my finger on it, but something has changed. I like it.
Watching friom the window.
from the same chair and the same way.
Watching the trains from above
In the station down below
Watching the ant-like people
Swirling or trickling to and from where they go.
The people change
And the time
Trains go and come
Yet always watching.
The station rebuilt, trains faster, different
Children and grandchildren
A different skyline
But always watching
Watching rise watching fall
Watching summer watching rain
Watching birth watching death
It is all the same storywrit in different fonts and languages
Yet always watching. Unmoving, unchanging, unyielding.
They are unaware
they are being watched
It does not matter
they are being watched all the same.
We started the day by heading to Fushimi Inari, a shrine which is best known for its much-photographed series of iconic torii gates. There are literally thousands of these gates that outline a winding uphill path. Despite its fame, I hadn't visited this site on my previous trip to Kyoto so I was excited to finally have a chance to go there. Of course, we didn't get quite as early a start as I would have liked; we didn't leave until around 10am.
Once we arrived at Inari station, it was very straightforward to find the temple. I was a bit surprised that, despite the rain, there were tons of people visiting. However, as we continued to ascend the pathways through the gates, the crowds started to thin out. I kept asking Julia if she wanted to continue climbing; I was pretty much ok either way after a certain point. After about 45 minutes to an hour, we agreed to head back down.
That's when the fun started. You wouldn't think that someone could get lost following a path through tons of big ass orange gates. And yet... I somehow managed to lead us completely off the path... onto a mud filled track, as rain slowly beat down upon us. By the time we found our way to somewhere resembling civilization, we were closer to a different train stop than to the one where we'd alighted. We also probably bore a close resemblance to drowned rats. Despite being in a miserable situation, we really kept our spirits up as much as possible. The moral of this story (as well as my infamous hike through Kata Tjuta in Australia's outback) is that you really do not want me to lead any hikes no matter how obvious the path might seem to be.
The temple was really cool. I like the color of the gates. If it hadn't been raining, it would have been fantastic to take pictures. But rain. Yay. It had some hiking so while my legs were burning, it was worth it.
It makes me wonder what the temples were used for or who looked at a hill and said "I've got a crap ton of supplies. Let's stick 1000s of gates on it." And why did they build so many temples? And if they weren't tourist attractions, do people still worship there as their "usual" temple
And then getting down was fun. We went the wrong way. Took a rainy walk through the back woods and then through some Kyoto suburb and finally found a train station... between Kyoto and Inari. Fail. At least we found a train station, and it can get us where we need to go.... Also my legs are gross from this morning's nature hike. I wanted an adventure and boy did I get it this morning. #ButNotTheWayIExpected
We rejoiced as we finally were able to board a train to Nara. However, our joy was short-lived once everyone was unceremoniously kicked off at Joyo station because our train was going out of service. On the plus side, we were able to change to a rapid train instead of a local. Plot twist. Our train wasn't going all the way to Nara. I saw it said somehwere other than Nara but I figured it was just after Nara. We both wanted to get on a train and I figured Aunt Faith knew what she was doing. Except no, we're sitting in Joyo station, waiting for the next train
Finally, a little after 1pm, we arrived in Nara. We took a bus to Todai-ji temple- and once again, we got off later than we should have. Julia was delighted to see the deer that were roaming freely on the path leading up to the temple; she'd expected them to be confined to a specific area like the monkeys in Kyoto. Julia also embarked on a new hobby: trying to take selfies with deer. I love all the deer roaming. When I read "deer park" in the itinerary, I thought it'd be like the monkey park, and all the critters contained. No. I like it this way. We enjoyed the temple, especially its famous large bronze Buddha.
We'd been hungry since we arrived in Nara, if not earlier. So finally we found a small, inexpensive local place to have a very late lunch. We ordered before we were seated by pointing to the food replicas in the window. I chose a bowl with chicken and egg, and Julia decided on a tempura bowl. I think this was the place where a fan kept annoyingly blowing directly on me- but other than that, it was a satisfying meal.
We walked back to the train station by way of Kofukuji temple and a covered shopping street. All the while, we enjoyed seeing deer roaming on the paths. Of course, by the time we reached the shopping area, the weather had cleared. After browsing the souvenir stores, we stopped for a snack at Mister Donut. Because, as noted earlier, Mister Donut is our friend. Picked up a cute deer pen with the kanji for Nara (I hope. And not like "I am a stupid tourist" Considering I've seen the kanji before on license plates...)
We took the train back to Kyoto when we were ready to call it a day. I do not think we will ever get back to Kyoto. That city should be called Kyonevergetbackto... I just want to get back to Kyoto...
Jumped onto the rapid train as it was sitting in Uji station. Managed to find seats, but thanks to me trying to find two seats together, we might have spent too much time(and could have had the doors close before we got in). And we DIDN'T find two seats next to each other... So while it didn't cost us anything, Aunt Faith was right that we should have stayed on the local train because we saved a whopping 5 minutes. Yeah, 5 minutes I didn't have to spend being bored on a train, but...
I think the guys next to us were speaking/ are German... 4 years of German has prepared me for overhearing strangers on a train in Japan. Yep.
On the way back to our hotel, we decided to stop at the nearby Avanti mall. I spotted a cute Rapunzel T-shirt that I was about to buy until I read the text which said "Most people agree that Belle is beautiful but a little strange". WTF?!?
We stocked up on snacks from a 100 Yen store, but they wouldn't let me purchase one of my selections since it was 2 for 100 Yen and I only wanted one. Among my wacky haul were Elsa and Anna mini donuts, and some kind of sugary mix thing. I was able to follow the instructions on the latter to add water and mix to one side, and I ended up with a very sweet, sticky purple glob with colorful sprarkles that I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I enjoyed.
When we got back in the hotel room, it looked like the maid had just given up on doing Julia's bed. It was pretty funny, since she hadn't left it in a state of total messiness; she just had a number of plush occupying it. I decided to eat the chocolate wand I'd bought at Universal so it would be one less thing that I'd have to pack. It was definitely yummy; I'd bought another to bring home for my mom and I knew she'd love it.
Quiet night down in Kyoto Station, or at least so it appears. One train down there on like track 6 or something... I could sit here forever and never go back to America. I could get on a train to somewhere and never stop. And when the line ends, get on a plane and never stop. Moving. Never go home. Then again, I cannot live on convenience store raids and random "real meals" for the rest of my life. There is a world out there. A world that is crazy and random and beautiful and an adventure untold. This is the first leg of the adventure that is and will be my life. I don't know where I'm going, I don't know how I'll get there. I don't know what lies in the way. It will take years. My whole life. But I'd like to do so much in those years I'm not sure how I did it.
"Everyone, everything has a story. The question is, what is it? And then how do you tell it. Do you tell it?"
It was hard to believe that this was our last full day in Kyoto. Our spacious hotel room, with its bird's eye view of the trains, had become a bit like home... Albeit a home that was still decorated liberally with damp, hanging clothes.
Our first stop of the day was Kinkaku-ji, the famous gold temple. I'd been hoping for a sunny day when it would really shine, but that was not to be. When preparing for this trip, I'd decided to pack an old shirt to recreate one of the few photos that exist of me on my first trip to Japan. (before digital cameras, I took a heck of a lot fewer photos) I was also able to get someone to take a photo of me with Julia, and that one turned out great, too. After walking around the complex, Julia decided to light some incense.
This morning, I lit some incense at the Golden Temple. Most people lit it and had some kind of prayer to the Buddha. But while I think Buddhism is a nice religion and agree with some of its ideas, I am not Buddhist nor do I intend to be. So instead, I just lit it with blessings of peace and happiness and success, wishing well those who smelled its nice fragrance. Still honoring the meaning without being a cultural appropriating Westerner. Hopefully nobody was judging me, and if there is a Buddha, he would not bring his wrath down on me for disgracing his temple with my Westernness.
Next we decided to walk to the Ryoan-ji temple since it was only about 20 minutes away. I still remember the serenity of sitting and admiring its famous rock garden on my first trip. It's very simple, as per the Japanese aesthetic. One of the nifty things about its design is that, although there are 15 large stones, you can only see at most 14 from any given angle. We sat on the veranda overlooking the garden for awhile, just enjoying the peace. I was glad that Julia seemed to enjoy the spirit of this unique temple.
At the rock garden. It's neat but not terribly interesting. Still it's a nice place to sit. Maybe just hanging out, I'll find some meaning in it.
There's SOMETHING interesting about this rock garden but I can't quite place it. It's so simple, so peaceful. It's calming.
So the thing about this rock garden is you can't see the whole thing/ all the rocks from any angle. That's got some interesting implications. How you can never see the whole picture of an event's situation, and by changing your perspective, you see differently or more, but not everything you once could.
There was some thought about heading to Northern Higashiyama to walk the one mile Philosopher's Path, but we decided against it because it was really humid as well as being rather overcast. Plus, we really wanted to head back to the Hello Kitty Tea House. I think we also ended up getting on a bus that made the Kitty a more convenient destination (although it still did require a transfer... and since we were headed to the opposite end of town, it wasn't exactly quick). The cafe was more crowded than last time, but we were able to get seated immediately.
Once again, we both ordered the Hello Kitty Happy Ribbon Pasta set. We also each savored one of the wonderful green tea lattes with floating Hello Kitty marshmallows. Julia definitely prefered the hot version to the chilled version she'd ordered last time. On our way out we stopped at the gift shop for some more souvenirs. Of course.
We wandered around Gion a bit and then walked across the Kamogawa river to what seemed to be a central shopping district. On our way, we stopped at a lot of little stores- there were so many kawaii trinkets that I would have loved to have taken home with me, but I knew they'd probably collect dust in a closet so I (mostly) resisted. However, when we came across a Disney store in the Takashimiya department store, I succumbed to temptation and bought a Little Mermaid shirt, some Stitch candies, and 2 pairs of earrings that were on sale for 50% off- one set depicted Belle from Beauty and the Beast, and the other had one earring with Olaf and one with Sven from Frozen. There were so many cute things! We picked up a significant amount of stuff including earrings, cute Disney stuff.
After browsing through a Sanrio store in Daimaru (another department store), we went downstairs to check out if there were any interesting treats to be found. I was shocked to stumble across a Kit Kat Chocolatery shop! We were able to buy small packages of some rare Kit Kat flavors such as Butter, Strawberry Maple, and Sakura Green Tea. (But alas, I never did find the Purple Sweet Potato flavor I'd been hoping to spot.) Before leaving the sweets area, I bought an inexpensive snack from an enthusiastic vendor; it was like 3 different colors of mochi on a stick. Very yummy!
With some bittersweet thoughts, we made reservations for our trains the next day. It would be hard to say goodbye. I'm sad to leave Kyoto. I love this city and there's other things we totally could have done if we were staying, but I am excited for the rest of the trip to see what's in store.
After the requisite convenience store raid, I was too worn out to go anywhere else once we got back to the hotel. More importantly, my feet would not be happy moving elsewhere. But I was definitely ok just hanging out in the room- talking and laughing. When I was in the shower, Julia hung one of her crochet daleks from the ceiling as a joke; unfortunately, I am rather blind without my glasses and I am generally focused straight ahead, so I didn't even notice. The "Aunt Faith is in the shower" pranks would have been much funnier if Aunt Faith had been able to see when she got OUT of the shower.
The laundry is mostly dry. Because it had help. From the hair dryer. #NoExperienceLikeHairDryingYourLaundry #LifeHack
I had my alarm set for 8:45, but I awoke before it went off. So I showered and then woke up Julia... who resembles Grumpy Cat if you try to get her moving in the morning. It was super convenient staying on top of the train station because we could practically roll out of bed and onto the train.
While sitting in the Shinkansen waiting area, I noticed an oddity- there were a ton of paparazzi like people nearby photographing a police dog. I never did figure out what that was about.
Because we were using rail passes, we couldn't travel direct to Fukuoka; we had to make a connection. Our first Shinkansen ride was only 14 minutes, but we had a 59 minute layover at Shin-Osaka. I really wish we didn't have a layover. I get why and there's nothing we can do but it's still annoying. I wanted to walk around to get some snacks; I recall Julia not being thrilled with this idea for some reason. While wandering a bit, I found a shop that sold Shinkansen souvenirs, including water bottles in the shape of the bullet trains. They were very cute, but not really worth 378 yen. I'd been craving an onigiri so I was glad to find a convenience store that sold them. I also bought a bottle of Pocari Sweat, a Japanese sports beverage that tastes way better than its name would imply.
While on the 2nd train, I reflected on our trip and wrote the following: I can't believe we're nearing the last quarter of our trip. It's flown by, with mostly amazing memories. (Except some skary private jokes LOL) We've been very lucky in so many ways and I know it is something that we'll remember forever. I can see Julia already having more confidence in foreign travel. I may be planting the seeds of an expensive addiction, but it's a rewarding one.
When we arrived at Hakata station in Fukuoka, our Southern-most destination, we headed across the street to our hotel. There was a strange looking yellow mass in the sky which we hadn't seen during our rainy days in Kyoto. Unfortunately, it was also noticeably warmer, which would be a trend for the rest of our trip. We'd been very lucky to avoid extreme heat thus far.
Our room was very basic, but it was a nice size. Our hotel room LITERALLY looks like it walked out of the 70's. Not a cool retro "Let's have a 70's hotel", it's a LEGIT 70's, like it hasn't been updated in 40 years. That aside: A) It has bright windows and a decent view. B) It is twice the size of the Kanazawa hotel room. After settling in a bit, we changed and walked back to the station to get our tickets for the next day's train.
We'd been dying to try another conveyer belt sushi place and there seemed to be one in the station. Sounds like we were set up for a great meal, right? Not so fast... the train station was extremely confusing with several different shopping wings attached to it. After walking around, seemingly in circles, I pretty much insisted that we stop at a small Italian place in front of us because I really needed to eat something. ASAP. Julia was disappointed, but she understood. My Spaghetti Bolognese was most welcome, and I would have enjoyed it even if I hadn't been so desperately hungry. I ordered a green tea latte, which was good though not as exemplary as the one at the Hello Kitty Tea House in Kyoto.
I felt much better after eating, which was a Good Thing because I was just 2 subway stops away from living a dream I've had for more years than I could count- namely, to see the musical Les Miserables in Japanese. I have 4 of the 6 recordings that have been released of the show in Japanese and I enjoy listening to them; I like to think that listening to Japanese cast recordings helps ensure that my language skills will not become totally stale. I've seen the show an insane number of times in various locations throughout North America and Europe, but the timing had never worked out to see it in my favorite foreign country. Actually, I didn't think I'd be able to see the show on this trip either; when I'd originally researched theatre performances scheduled for summer 2015, all I saw was that Les Mis was closing in Tokyo before Julia's graduation. Soooo close- and yet, impossible.
Obviously, that wasn't the end of the story. I'm nothing if not obsessive about researching travel plans, especially when I am taking other people along. A month before I left for Chile in late 2014, I stumbled across the fact that Les Mis would be playing in other Japanese cities beyond Tokyo. In fact, it was scheduled to start performances in Fukuoka around the same time I'd already been planning to be in Hiroshima, just an hour away by train. Perfect! Especially since we'd have rail passes.
As the day approached for tickets to go on sale back in May, I stalked the Fukuoka theatre's website frequently. I placed test orders for other shows (without going to the final step of submitting payment, obviously) to assure myself that, unlike my experiences with Tokyo theatres, it would be possible to order from them with a foreign address. On Monday morning the week tickets were scheduled to go on sale (Friday night local time), I woke up with uncharacteristic excitement; I knew that I was starting a week that would include the moment when I could finally purchase my much desired tickets. Failure was not going to be an option. I'd decided to wear Les Mis T-shirts every day that week to give myself extra good luck; my closet is full of an assortment of shirts from the musical, the only problem was deciding which ones to wear.
You know that you're a hard core theatre fan when you've registered for an Internet pre-sale in a language you barely know. That's exactly what I did as soon as I saw a link on the Hakataza theatre page. I thought the pre-sale was to be Tuesday night US Eastern time, but I later realized, that was just when they'd send the link with the pre-sale password. No, the actual pre-sale was Wednesday at 7pm Japan time... which translated to 6 am my time. You know you're really a hard core theatre fan when you wake up before 6am for a presale in a foreign country.
Normally on the ticketing site, you can choose your seats from a map but that ability was disabled for the pre-sale. So when the system offered me row E, I had to poke around a bit to find a general seating chart to check that they were not off to the side before completing my transaction. After verifying that there was a pending charge on my credit card (and incidentally thanking my luck for the great exchange rate), I poked around a bit more on the site and found a seating chart that was specific to Les Mis. Holy shit, our seats were actually front row center! They'd apparently removed some of the first rows for this production. I'd wanted to see the Japanese Les Mis for so long- but it seemed so perfect that when I finally got to see it, I'd be with Julia who also loves the show. Plus, we'd be front row center. For the past several weeks, my anticipation of that moment was sky high.
So when we arrived at the Hakata-za theatre and saw Les Mis signs, I could hardly believe it was real. But before we could go inside, we were distracted by what seemed like some kind of demonstration on the street featuring lines of men wearing diaper-like loin clothes. So we obviously had to take a look... and a photo or 2. After doing some internet research after my trip, it seems possible that they were actually practicing for a local festival.
When I'd placed the order, I'd selected the option to retrieve our tickets from machine, which was probably the only one suitable for international orders. It was easy to find the machines when we entered the lobby. It was also super easy to use them- I just inserted my credit card and the machine spit out the tickets. (I'd printed out the email with my confirmation number but I didn't even need it) This was really happening!
We arrived an hour before the 6pm show, so we had plenty of time to walk around and check out the souvenir stands. I decided to buy a T-shirt, even though I didn't love the design and even though it didn't say "Japan", because I felt I should have one to go alongside my shirts from other cities. I obviously bought a souvenir brochure. As I made that purchase, a nice gentleman tried to tell me... something. I was apparently entitled to... something... for buying a program. Alas, I couldn't understand what he was saying or where he was directing me to go.
They were also selling little charms, and I wanted the one that represented Jean Valjean because it said "24653" which is the number that is used in Japan instead of "24601". There was just one catch- there were 5 different charms and it was a mystery which one you'd get. I scientifically decided to trace the charms through the packaging with my fingers in order to make an educated selection. When I went to the bathroom, I couldn't resist tearing open the wrapper surrounding my mystery trinket. I let out and audible "YES!" when I saw that I'd succeeded in my quest. Julia ended up with the Javert charm, which was apparently the one she wanted. We also noticed that they were selling a multiple volume Japanese manga version of Les Mis- they had 4 volumes, with more to eventually be published. We each got a different one because they were really cool.
When we entered the auditorium to get to our (front row) seats, I noticed that there were a number of people eating Bento meals in their seats. That would never go well in the US, but in Japan, you didn't hear a peep of noise from food (or anything else) during the show. Once in the U.S., I'd been distracted by the smell of French Fries during Eponine's death because students sitting behind me had snuck in fast food during intermission.
At the theater, in our seats. LES MIS. (Did I mention I'm excited? I'M EXCITED)
During intermission, we wandered around the lobby. There was an large Cosette logo on the stairway that, as you approached, you saw that it was comprised in a bit of a pointillistic way of head shots of people involved with the production (at least that's who I assumed they were). I was eventually able to find someone to take a photo of Julia and me by this version of the logo.
There's not a lot I can say about the show itself. First of all, I'm not typically the type to notice minutiae of performances. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the current Japan tour staging was based on the Broadway revival which I'd only seen once, over a year earlier. So it was impossible to tell if anything that seemed different to me was just something that I may not have noticed or simply forgotten. I was actually very disappointed when I found out that the Japan production be using the Broadway revival staging- although there are some positive changes, there are more epic moments that I miss from the Trevor Nunn's original direction.
I did love the show- there were no weak performances; but there also weren't any that completely blew me away. It's just amazing how Les Mis is always Les Mis in a way that transcends language or race. It was worth the wait.
LES MIS is AWESOME!! I was expecting awesome. I was kinda slapped in the face with super mega awesome. And even though I can't understand anything, I still know exactly what's happening. Also, the acting is great, both in the emotions and the little things like Marius trying to make a sneaky entrance hiding behind his book.... The downside to seeing Les Mis in Japan is I can't look forward to seeing Les Mis in Japan anymore. Which is a little sad, but it's ok because I'll remember how awesome Les Mis is.
After the show, we went back to Hakata station to try to find the conveyer belt sushi place. Again. This time we succeeded. Ironically, it was just down the hall from the Italian place where we'd eaten; We'd surely passed it earlier. Unfortunately, it was now 10pm and the restaurant was already closed. There wasn't much open- but, fortunately, there was a Mister Donut that served actual food. So once again, Mister Donut was out friend. I ordered some kind of pasta... that was the epitome of mediocre. But at least it was food. We also got donuts, of course.
I have been in Japan almost 2 weeks . Yet, I do not understand the functions of the Japan toilets, nor the purpose, nor have attempted to use one to figure it out.
We had to get up early the next morning, so I didn't want to stay up too late. There was a blue light on the hotel room ceiling that distracted me at first. But it wasn't too long before I fell asleep.
I'm really glad and grateful to have seen [Les Mis], especially with Aunt Faith, especially since her love of musicals kinda influenced me (and probably Megan, no doubt) and has given us a love that we can share in any language or country in the world. It's special. I'm so grateful to have had the experiences and opportunities I've had, both on this trip in in the past. I'm so blessed. It's just amazing.
A couple days before we saw Les Mis, Julia either made a comment about how the show might be different in Japan, or else she asked me if it was different. Being the smart-alek I am, I snarkily responded that in the Japanese version, Valjean and Javert hug and everyone lives happily ever after. Well, that started us off on creating an alternate version of Les Mis that was based in the reality of the Binder, a world of fan fiction in which my 2 nieces have collaborated to bring characters of many fandoms together. That wasn't enough to satisfy our crazy brains, so we started creating other alternate versions of Les Mis as well.
So now, based on notes from Julia's journal, I present for posterity some highlights from our alternate versions of the show... Read on, if you dare...
The Japanese/ Binder (alternate world fan fic) version
Valjean stole a piece of garlic toast
The barricade boys are cute Japanese characters
The ABC cafe is a department store basement
In the finale, everyone is happy. Valjean and Javert sing "It's a Small World", and it's revealed that Fantine is alive.
The joy is short lived, as a whorde of Daleks (from the TV show Dr. Who) exterminate everyone. It turns out that Gavroche is also alive and he controls the Daleks
Gavroche ousts Henry as Mayor of Storybrooke (alternate version of the TV show Once Upon a Time)
Gavroche turned evil because he was buried in a Pet Semetary (Stephen King book)
The German Version
This version is similar to the standard versions, but it is narrated by Luigi Lucheni (from the musical Elisabeth) who blends into all the scenes
After Javert says "I am the law and the law is not mocked", Lucheni proceeds to mock him
Whenever anyone dies, they are greeted by Der Tod (also from Elisabeth). The barricade scene makes Der Tod very busy and happy.
Students at Hogwarts are the barricade boys
Voldemort kills Javert in the middle of "Stars"
Voldemort defeats all the wizards and becomes the ruler of the wizarding world
The Nara Version
All parts are played by deer. Well, actually, it's more like deer wandering around in costume.
The Miyajima Version
Like the Nara version, but the barricade is a giant orange Torii gate
The Antarctica Version
Like the Nara version, but performed by penguins
The Cat Version
All roles are played by cats
There are numerous intermissions while the cats take naps
The Orange Crocs Version
All parts are played by orange crocs.
The finale, with orange croc ghosts, is terrifying
The Skaro Version (Dr. Who)
Valjean Dalek steals a loaf of bread; Javert Dalek exterminates him.
Cosette Dalek exterminates the Thenardier Daleks and goes off with Eponine Dalek to join Enjolras and Marius Daleks
Gavroche Dalek and his Dalek army annihilate Javert's army; Javert Dalek feels and jumps off the bridge
Marius Dalek and Cosette Dalek get married, and all of the Barricade Boy Daleks take over the universe
The Gulag/ Inside Joke version
Kermit the Frog is Valjean
Tina Fey is Javert. And wears orange crocs
Instead of a night stick, Javert wields Luna Lovegood's wand
We woke up super early- the alarm was set for 6:40am- because this was our only day in Hiroshima and there was a lot to see. My original plan had been to spend 2 nights in Hiroshima. But then Les Mis happened and I realized it would be tight to make it from the show to the last train back to Hiroshima. So, in order to minimize stress, I changed the plans to stay overnight in Fukuoka; it just meant that we'd have to get up super early the next day.
Our room came with free breakfast, which was a good motivator for Julia to get up and moving despite the early hour. The meal wasn't fancy, but it served our purposes. Japanese people eat some different (or as I tactlessly called it- weird) stuff for breakfast. It was good overall though.
The only seats we could get on the train I wanted were across the aisle from each other, but it was only about an hour ride so it didn't matter.
After we got into the station and I was leading us to the taxis, Julia saw a sign for the post office and wanted to go there to change money. I agreed, even though I was sorta dying lugging my bags in the heat and humidity. When we entered, Julia originally thought there wasn't a place to change money and she kept apologizing for having us walk there. But I wanted to encourage her to make her own decisions, and if I really couldn't have managed it, I would have vetoed the idea. More importantly, once we were there, the decision was moot and it really wasn't worth a thought. We did find a counter to change money, so it worked out.
When we walked back to the taxi stand, I had a hard time explaining where I wanted to go. However, I was able to point to a copy of the hotel logo on the itinerary; having a quick reference for hotel logos and names can definitely be useful when traveling. After a short 1100 yen ride, we'd arrived at our hotel which was really nice. Unfortunately, we couldn't get into our room that early- which was to be expected from a Japanese hotel.
So we dropped off our bags and walked toward the Peace Park, which was close to the hotel. When I'd originally come up with the idea of the Japan trip, it was immediately imperative for me to include one of the atomic bomb sites. It's so important to remember what happened, and you can get a whole new perspective on historical events by standing in the place where they happened. At some point in high school (after I'd had the idea for this trip but years before she knew of it), Julia told me about a report she'd done on Hiroshima. So I knew a visit would be meaningful for her.
From the time we passed the A-Bomb dome, I could see that it would indeed be a moving experience for Julia. The bomb dome is chilling. Just outright spooky. In fact, that morning was an exceedingly rare period of time that was devoid of any giggles from us. I have only a vague memory of seeing the museum on my first trip, so all the details seemed new to me. I was particularly moved by a tricycle that had originally been buried with a young child who died soon after the bombing. Seeing actual artifacts and reading personal stories of individual victims, especially children, is deeply affecting. Being at the place where the bomb exploded makes the after-effects seem much more real and tangible than reading about them in history books. It was important to go there, and I was glad Julia agreed. I checked in with her a couple times in the museum just to make sure it wasn't too much for her; I didn't think it would be, but I'm not a parent so I wanted to err on the side of caution.
After we were done with the exhibits, we sat in the cafe- both to pause and reflect as well as because it was time for a meal. I ate some halfway decent pasta that basically served its purpose in making sure that I wasn't running on empty. We also bought T-shirts for everyone in Julia's family.
The museum is very intense. I got a lot out of it. They have objects of victims and survivors. Seeing these objects makes it that much more REAL. They have this one child's tricycle. If that does not hurt, that this three year old died horrifically, then what is wrong with you?... It's important to go there. It's important to remember the events. As an American witnessing something my own country did, it's horrifying. To realize the human cost of what happened 70 years ago. That's the thing people don't always understand about war. There are children in thiose cities you're destroying. How many lives did you destroy? Innocents will get hurt, sure. But this was a new scale. Why do we wage war and destroy when we see what it can do? Why do we continually bring upon destruction? Why do we NEVER learn? Let Hiroshima be a lesson. Never again.
And a message to any country amassing nuclear weapons: DON'T. It's not worth having them if you're not going to use them. And they should not be used. Not now, not ever. Why can't we have peace? Why do we have to fight? People are not all that different from each other; the differences aren't worth fighting over.
One last thing about Hiroshima: Yes, they were decimated by tragedy. The inspiring thing is that they rebuilt and the city thrived. I think that speaks to humans in general and our ability to overcome and forgive, even in the face of horrific tragedy. The city could have just been abandoned. But it was rebuilt and expanded and dedicated to peace.
[Addendum after being home for a month] On nuclear war. I realize my strong opinion on dropping the bombs and how we should have never done it is too strong of an opinion. As an American with family who had ancestors who fought in the war and would have died in the war if we had not dropped those bombs. Was it the right way out? Maybe. But history is what it is. We can't think of it in terms of what could or would have been. Were the bombs right? Maybe. It's written in history and we can't change it now. Saying we never should have dropped the bombs maybe isn't the right opinion. There really was no good way out.
As we were walking back out through the Peace Park, we noticed a group of school children. Some of them kept asking us where we were from. It's a little awkward telling anyone at an atomic bomb site that you're from the US. ("Hi, it's because of us that you have this museum commemorating a real event that is worse than a horror movie!") I'm not sure how they reacted; there seemed to be some laughter but who knows if they were laughing at us. Julia just wanted the random kids to go away.
We walked across the way to buy tickets to a ferry to Miyajima island. We could have taken a tram to catch a ferry that would be free with our railpasses, but it made more sense to me to save some time and energy by taking the direct route. We had several minutes to kill, so we enjoyed some soft serve ice cream while we waited; I think mine was caramel. Have I mentioned that it was hot and humid? Ice cream definitely hit the spot.
The first thing we noticed in Miyajima was that, like Nara, there were deer roaming freely. So Julia had another opportunity to add to her collection of "selfies with deer" These deer were a little more aggressive; we noticed one trying to eat someone's map and another trying to eat the Itinerary that was in Julia's bag.
We really enjoyed walking around Miyajima- it was so scenic, with the calm water almost always in sight. As we walked, we encountered a Hello Kitty store as well as a display of the largest rice paddle in the world. Julia also found some new Kit Kat flavors to try.
Our main destination on Miyajima was Itsukushima Shrine, most famous for the orange O-Torii gate that appears to be floating on the water during high tide. (there is a replica of this gate at Epcot near the Japan pavilion) On my previous trip, I'd visited at low tide, which has its own benefit since you can walk close to the gate then. However, I was glad to be able to view the gate from its more classic high tide perspective this time. The O-Torii was really beautiful rising up out of the water, especially since it was a sunny day.
As we wandered through the temple complex, we passed what appeared to be a wedding party posting for photos. I joined the other random people in snapping a couple shots myself- why not?
When we were done touring the temple, we just sat out on the ground with a view of the water (and the O-Torii) for about a half hour. Sometimes, it's nice to just sit and take in the scenery... especially when you feel grateful to be somewhere so special.
Eventually, we decided to walk back toward the ferry. On the way, we took a lot of photos. I was excited that I could finally capture a picture of a deer with the O-Torii in the background. We passed by a place selling beef steamed buns so I suggested we try them. Good idea- they were delicious! And I'd been getting hungry again.
Miyajima was really pretty but it was pretty hot for awhile. Also. DEER... I wish we could have stayed until sunset, but we were kinda out of things to fill up two hours.
We took the free ferry back this time and then transferred to a train to head to the main station to make reservations for the next day's trains. There was a long line at the counter to make reservations. We need fastpasses for this line. Seriously. Unfortunately my first choice of train had no more reserved seats left. On the plus side, at least we'd get to sleep a little later.
Unencumbered by luggage, we took the tram to our hotel, where we were now able to check in. Our room was fabulous, large with a view of the Hiroshima castle (as well as a distant McDonalds) Our hotel room is beautiful. The view is amazing and the bathroom is huge... I just wish we had more time to enjoy it, but oh well. It was so nice that Julia said she hoped that our final hotel in Tokyo wouldn't be a let down in comparison. My lips were sealed, but there was one more surprise to be in store...
After researching online, I'd discovered that there was supposed to be a conveyer belt sushi place right by the hotel so we headed over there. Apparently we really suck at finding sushi places- but at least this time, we ultimately found it relatively quickly... after first passing right by it.
This restaurant didn't have an automated ordering system like we'd seen in Kanazawa, but you could place a custom order if you could get the attention of one of the sushi chefs. We did this a couple times, but we mainly sampled plates we saw on the conveyer belt. Our favorite sushi ended up being a variety of salmon with mayo; it may not sound special, but it was fabulous. We ended up grabbing plates of that variety 3 times. By the time we were done, we'd accumulated a stack of 12 plates. It was a lot of fun, and great food.
It had been a long day, full of a variety of emotions and experiences. We'd be heading back to Tokyo the next morning, and it felt like the heart of the trip was really over now that we'd seen the atomic bomb site. But there were still 4 days left, and plenty of experiences to anticipate.
I feel like I stick out less/ or more comfortable in general being among people who are mostly [homogenous] and, more importantly, not like me. That kinda happens when you're immersed in it for two weeks.
"How could it possibly be time to travel to our final hotel?" I wondered. And yet, we were headed to Tokyo for one final 3 night stay. Because this required about 5 hours of transit and because we were leaving at 11:53am (an hour after I'd originally hoped), we'd be spending the bulk of the day on trains.
Returning to Tokyo means the trip is almost over which isn't something I want right now. I enjoy waking up in the morning and seeing all these awesome things and experiencing what this country has to offer. It's truly been a blessing... The past two weeks have been two of the most amazing weeks of my life and I'm not ready for it to end.
We were able to sleep in a bit, but nonetheless I awoke before the 9:30am alarm. We left at 11 to give us plenty of time to get a taxi to the station. Once we arrived, there was ample time for a convenience store raid where I picked up a salmon onigiri and citrus soda for the train ride. I noticed that Hiroshima seemed to be especially proud of their baseball team, the Carp; there were souvenirs everywhere. To my great amusement, the drawing of one of their mascots looked suspiciously like the Phillie Phanatic. This was enough to motivate me to get a Hiroshima Carp souvenir for a friend who is a baseball fan; unfortunately I couldn't find any cute plush of the aforementioned mascot.
We had to change trains at Shin Osaka; there are direct trains between Hiroshima and Tokyo but railpasses don't cover them. We only had 15 minutes between trains, but our next one would be on the same platform. Julia wanted to run downstairs to the bathroom, which probably would have worked out fine, but it would have been really stressful for me since we'd have no way to communicate with each other if we were separated. Japanese train bathrooms are perfectly fine- and as good as even the best ones on the roads of Kenya.
Our 2nd train passed right by our Kyoto hotel. It was slightly tempting to get off and make another stop at the Hello Kitty Tea House. I miss Kyoto.
It was a little frustrating knowing that we could be doing something other than spending a precious vacation day in transit. But, sometimes you just have to go with the flow. And the one good thing about a day full of train rides is that it felt good for me to sit in one place for awhile. I was still upset that my feet had been having so many problems, but there wasn't much I can do other than soak them each night and try to have some down times.
En route to Tokyo, I spent a lot of my time on my phone doing research. In particular, I checked out reviews of the Robot Restaurant; I'd seen trip reports mentioning it and it had piqued my interest. OMG, it seemed so hysterically over the top that, after consulting Julia, I made a reservation for the next night. Despite mediocre reviews for the food, I ordered a boxed meal- the more sushi, the better!
After disembarking from our 2nd shinkansen at Shinagawa station, we had to transfer to a subway to Shinjuku station. I decided to transfer at Shinagawa because it surely wouldn't be as crazy as Tokyo station, Julia's nemesis. Once we arrived at Shinjuku, I decided that we should take a taxi the short distance to our hotel.
I succeeded in being low key at check in, and it wasn't really until we saw a familiar bow on the outside of our hotel room door that Julia realized something was up. That "something" was the fact that I'd reserved one of the handful of Hello Kitty themed rooms in our skyscraper of a hotel. It wasn't cheap, but I was powerless to resist the cute, even though I'd already stayed in a totally different Hello Kitty themed room in a Taiwan hotel. "Told you that you didn't need to worry about our Tokyo hotel room" I said, pleased with myself and my powers of planning fun trip surprises.
The Hello Kitty room was a surprise. Now, I saw on the keycard holder something about Hello Kitty, but figured it was only a standard advertisement. However, you kinda can't hide the pink bow on the door.
The pink and purple room had so many little extra touches, and it was even more adorable than I'd imagined from the pictures I'd seen. We spent some time exploring the room and oohing over all the details, including a set of souvenirs for each of us: a small plush Hello Kitty and a bottle of water shaped like Kitty's bow. (we received fresh water bottles each day) Spending a few nights in such whimsical and luxurious surroundings would be the perfect exclamation mark to end our travels.
The nice thing about our room is there's a sink outside the bathroom, so I can brush my teeth while Aunt Faith is doing her night time stuff in the bathroom... And it's big. I think it's bigger than Hiroshima/Kyoto but not as big as Disney. (but nothing is bigger than Disney) And it is very pretty. And has a couch. And a decent view.
At around 6:15pm, we left the hotel to head for Shibuya. I knew that it would be super crowded anywhere we went on a Saturday night, but I still wanted to explore after spending all day on trains. During my internet research on the train, I'd discovered a conveyer belt sushi restaurant which would be a fun option for dinner. After checking out the Disney store, we made our way to Genki Sushi. There was a crowd outside waiting to get in, and it took me awhile to realize that we had to give our name to someone to get on the list; when I later overheard some other Americans wondering about waiting, I gave them a heads up about the checkin process.
Shibuya is interesting and cool. I guess. It's too crowded for my taste though.
After about 20-30 minutes, our name was called and we were escorted to 2 adjacent seats by a counter. Unlike the previous 2 conveyer belt sushi restaurants we'd experienced, there was no sushi circling around on conveyer belts. Instead, each seat had an electronic touch pad where you could place your order. A few minutes later, a light in front of your seat would illuminate to indicate that sushi was on the conveyer belt en route to your seat. After you picked up the plate, you hit another button which would signal the tray to be spirited back to the kitchen. Pretty nifty.
One of our first orders was a Bacon Cheese Roll; I mean, how could we not? Every time we'd see the alert that more sushi was headed our way, we were excitedly hoping for bacon. But every time, we were disappointed. Eventually, I heard other people asking the waitress about an order they hadn't received, so I decided to ask as well. That (finally) got the job done.
We enjoyed sharing 18 plates ranging from varieties of tuna and salmon to more exotic choices like conger eel and squid. Nearly everything we tried was delicious- there was just one exception. Julia was eager to try to cuttlefish so I eventually said "sure, why not?" She thought it wasn't bad (I found the taste interesting, but not really very likeable.), but as for me... just... NO. There was something about the texture that totally displeased me. But at least it was different and I tried it. And now I know to never ever order cuttlefish again. Despite that one "miss", it was a lot of fun and also quite a bargain. (the grand total was just $26)
Shibuya at night is a vibrant place- lots of people walking under a mosaic of colorful neon signs. Nearly everywhere you look, you can see the katakana for "Karaoke", which I hadn't previously tried in Japan. Julia agreed to join me - because why not. I mean, we had no other plans for the evening. So we went inside the nearest Karaoke place and stood in line.
Karaoke in Japan, and much of that part of Asia, is different than the version that you typically see in America. Instead of performing to a large room of strangers, each group gets their own private room. My cousin, who aspires to do Karaoke in every country he can, doesn't enjoy that arrangement. But was great for me and Julia since it would be much less intimidating.
We chose to reserve the room for 30 minutes, but I feel like we spent almost half of that just trying to figure out how to use the device to choose songs in English; the system wasn't exactly the most user friendly thing ever. But once we got the hang of things, we enjoyed it. We started with "Let It Go" because it was the first thing that popped into my head. Then I chose to reprise my very first karaoke song from Patagonia, "Dancing Queen." I had fun with the latter, especially when I pointed to Julia every time the song featured the lyric "You are the Dancing Queen, young and sweet, only seventeen". After some Queen (in the form of "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions"), I was inspired to lead us in a spree of Les Mis songs: "On My Own", "Stars" and "I Dreamed a Dream." The Les Mis songs were so perfect for us- but they had the most WTF visuals of beaches and palm trees. I mean, couldn't they have at least found a random night image- any night image- for "Stars"? "There- out in the darkness... (which is actually sunny, but just ignore that...)" We were kinda bad but it was fun so it's all good. I know I don't have a great singing voice... or even a good one, so I try to put a lot of energy into my performance to make up for it.
We may have overstayed our limit by a couple minutes. The phone in the little room had been ringing but no one was there by the time I picked it up. In any case, they didn't charge us any extra so it was all good.
I was glad to see a Baskin Robbins nearby; after using my voice in ways it wasn't used to, ice cream definitely sounded soothing. Fortunately, we got there just before it closed at 10. The line was out the door but it moved quickly. I decided on the "31 party" flavor which was a berry and mint flavor that was pastel swirl of pink and blue accentuated with little candy stars.
We walked around Shibuya a little more so I could show Julia the statue of Hachiko, the famously faithful dog who continued waiting for his owner at the station even after he died. We also spent some time looking down on the famous (or infamous) Shibuya crossing where incredible masses of people transverse the streets at once.
Back in the hotel, we relaxed. I experimented with using my iPad app as a remote for my camera to take some "selfies" of myself in the amazing Hello Kitty room. Even though we'd made it to Tokyo rather late in the day, I was glad we were able to take advantage of our evening to experience a little of the modern Tokyo... and to create more memories.
If you're a cat lover- or even a cat liker, you really can't go to Japan without visiting a cat cafe. Julia loves cats almost as much as I do so it was pretty much a no brainer to include one in the itinerary. After some research, I discovered a really adorable looking place that was just a short train ride away from our Shinjuku hotel. So we headed there first thing after we finally got up.
The directions I'd seen on the internet were terrific for finding the Temari no Ouchi cat cafe from the rail station. I was a little surprised that it was located on the 2nd floor of an ordinary building because the pictures of the entrance make it seem like it was housed apart from any other tenants. But, since this is Tokyo, virtually every business is part of a multi-story building and isn't in its own free-standing structure. That photos of its entrance could give the illusion of being a little country house was ultimately a testament to how well themed the cafe was.
Once we checked in, we were escorted to a table which would be our base. This process was different than the previous cat cafe I'd visited, but it ensured that everyone would have a place to eat if they wanted to order food and also that it would not be over-crowded. You could still roam freely around as much as you want to see the cats, although there were standard rules against picking them up or filming them with flash.
I'd chosen this particular location because the interior was whimsical, like something out of a fairy tale. The cats were all adorable and friendly, and seemed quite happy. My favorites were probably the 2 who had short, stubby paws- the way they waddled around was so cute. Unfortunately, I didn't get to entice them to play with any toys because there was one guy who had totally monopolized all the toy poles; he'd have one in his hand and the rest in his back pocket. But that was ok; I could still admire and pet the cuties. At one point, someone gave Julia their left over kitty treats so we were able to actually feed them. (I hadn't been sure how to order the treats)
The cats are so cute!! I want to hug all of them... One of them spent time lying on the table while another attacked my bag, which has nothing interesting for a cat... There are only 3 problems I could see if I were to work in this cat cafe: cleaning litter boxes, waiting tables, speaking Japanese.
I noticed someone eating cheesy garlic toast so I suggested to Julia that we split some; I also ordered a green tea latte. Somehow Julia got the idea that one and a half pieces of garlic toast was supposed to be lunch. Even though she had her own money, she was annoyed; I guess she thought I'd turned into an Evil Aunt or something. Eventually, we were able to talk it out- I told her that I actually considered it a snack since we'd just had a semblance of breakfast in the hotel room, and that I thought it made more sense to do a proper lunch later since we were having a late dinner at the Robot show. She felt better once we discussed it, and I encouraged her that she needs to say something at times like these so as to avoid any potential hostility that's based on a misunderstanding. After the mistaken impression that was lunch (whereas it was only a snack) was corrected, all was well. That this tiny blip of an episode was the biggest problem between 2 people traveling together for 2+ weeks speaks volumes to how well things went overall.
We enjoyed our relaxing time surrounded by cats so much that we stayed there for a couple hours. It was such a cute place, and well worth spending some time there. On our way back to the train, we stopped and walked through a department store basement, partly because I wanted to give Julia a chance to buy a snack if she was hungry but she didn't do so.
Our next stop was Odaiba, an area of Tokyo I'd never seen before, which is actually a man made island in Tokyo Bay. It was extremely hot out, so we spent most of our time inside a couple of malls. When we entered the Diver City mall, someone handed us a flyer. I usually ignore such things, but it turned out that this was for a Hello Kitty cafe! And it had a coupon! Hello, lunch plans! Visiting the Kitty and saying "Hello" is a daily routine.
We both ordered pancakes, green tea lattes, and Hello Kitty shaped mochi. As you might expect, everything was extremely cute: Kitty's face was on the pancakes and the lattes were served in an apple shaped cup and had an outline of Hello Kitty in the drink. It was also delicious. Julia agreed that it was a better option than having more food at the cat cafe, which was noted more for its felines than for its cuisine.
After eating, we headed over the Aqua City mall across the way. From there, we were able to get a view of a replica of the Statue of Liberty which is something I wanted to see. It was really hot out so we were glad to go inside and wander into stores such as The Disney Store and, of course, a Sanrio store. We also saw a pet store that had little kittens on display- so cute. Also, I raided a candy store and have 3 different flavors of Kit Kat and two boxes of mochi. (in fairness, one mochi box, the chocolate, is for my family.)
We were both getting exhausted, so we decided to head back to the hotel for a bit. I suggested that we go to one of the bars on the 45th floor because I'd read online that they served non-alcoholic Hello Kitty beverages. I was surprised not to see any information about these at the hotel, but I figured it was worth checking. It was a little confusing to find the right place, but we eventually found ourselves seated at Sky Bar Polestar with a breathtaking view of the sunset over Shinjuku. I ordered the drink named "Pretty" that was described as "a mixture of strawberry and caramel syrup with cream, sprinkled with cocoa powder forming the Hello Kitty Face." Julia has the "Lovely", described as "fruit juices with Grenadine syrup."
Travel tip: always be wary if you see a menu without prices. I was extremely surprised when I got the bill for our small drinks, but I wasn't exactly upset. Which leads to travel tip #2: Sometimes, you just have to let go of thinking how much everything costs and just enjoy the moment. I really enjoyed relaxing at the glamorous bar- especially since we were basically the only people there for most of the time. After the heat and crowds, it was the perfect way to chill out.
When we headed back to our room for a short time, I checked the email account I'd used to reserve the Robot Restaurant and found an email saying that if I didn't confirm my reservation, it would be canceled. WTF?!? I'd received an email the previous day saying that everything was good, so I was seriously confused. I clicked the link to confirm but it had already expired, which was unsettling. I suggested that we head over there early, just in case there was a problem.
In my somewhat angsty state, I led us over to the other side of Shinjuku to the Robot Restaurant. I was greatly relieved when they said that everything was ok, and we were able to check in. Since we'd arrived so early, we had some time to walk around a little. I pointed out some places I'd been on my previous trip, including another cat cafe. I'm pretty sure I'm going to die. Or get mugged. This area of Shinjuku/Tokyo is seriously freaking me out.
Finally, it was time to return for the show. But first we had to go upstairs to wait in a small pre-show area that was seriously over-the-top. In your mind, picture a snapshot of stereotypical Las Vegas glitz... and then take it up a notch... or 10. A rare place which makes Vegas seem understated, the room was shiny, ornate, and wild with large video screens on the walls. Even the stairwell and bathroom carried off a similar opulent but wacky vibe. I was ready for some craziness. Julia seemed slightly skeptical, but definitely interested in seeing what would happen. I feel this is the kind of place people who are desperate work at. Like do you want to dress up in a robot costume and play saxaphone every night? I don't think so. [ed. note: apparently, it pays very well and is a sought after job]
When the theatre was ready, we were led down to the main show room, which consisted of 2 tiered seating areas that faced each other, with the performance space in between them. Although it's called the Robot Restaurant, the venue places way more emphasis on the entertainment, and food is a secondary option. I'd ordered the sushi boxes, which wasn't the best sushi ever, but it certainly wasn't as bad as some reviews said. It was good to have something to eat during the show. A lot of people just ate snacks but you had to buy tickets in advance if you wanted any; I was content with the sushi box.
Eventually, the lights went down and we saw the show, which was performed in 3 parts with breaks in between when snacks and drinks were available. The first part had a lot of percussion and was almost disappointing to me in its lack of craziness. But the 2nd part... oh, the 2nd part. I can't even imagine acid trips being that crazy. The apex was the Panda that was riding a Cow. Yes, you read that right- a Panda on a Cow... it doesn't get more random than that, kiddos! That vision almost made the lady on a giant armadillo seem normal in comparison. There was actually some sort of warped good versus evil plot going on- but, well, it would never be nominated for a Tony award for best book. Still, I couldn't help laughing so hard at times at the ridiculousness; it was definitely fun... in a seriously weird "WTF am I seeing" way. Part 3 was also crazy, albeit with more of a party atomosphere, and featured songs like "Dreamgirls". At one point, everyone was given a colored flashlight to wave as performers did breakdancing in black light. Yeah, good times. Truly, words can't even describe it so you'll just have to trust me. It definitely lived up to my crack-fest expectations. I was very glad we went; I'm not sure if Julia felt likewise.
We were promised robots and trauma. We were not disappointed.... They are banking on, relishing, and making money off the cheesiness of this place. I am enjoying myself whilst being scarred for life... Dancing robots, robots riding on futuristic technology, robots with American flag caps, scantily clad women, dancing scary woman robots, and sheer confusion. That's the ending. Oh, and a giant snake.... "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" is tame compared to thar robot show.
After we walked outside, Julia was writing intently in her journal. This was not the best thing to do in a very crowded not-so-great area of Shinjuku, so I chastised her to put the book down. (note: the bad parts of Tokyo are probably way safer than the good parts of many cities; I was more concerned about the danger of not looking where you're going in a crowd) We had a bit of a hard time finding the way back to our hotel and had to resort to GPS. Part of the problem was that some of the underground passageways we'd used earlier were now closed. I already knew from my last trip that Shinjuku streets can be confusing, so I shouldn't have been too surprised. We were so happy when we finally saw our hotel!
How had we reached our last full day in Japan? Part of me was ready to go home- far readier than I'd been a week earlier. Physically, I was getting exhausted especially now that days were way hotter than earlier in our travels. But mentally, I was also getting ready to return home to my furricanes; It was getting to be time.
It's pretty crazy that today is our last full day. It seems like just yesterday I was rejoicing to be off the airplane. Actually, no, that feels like 5 years ago. It's been an adventure and it's been fantastic and as much as I don't want it to end, it has to. And in a way, I'm a little glad I'm going home. Just kidding. No, I'm not.
But we still had more to do, including a visit to Sanrio Puroland, which is basically a small indoor children's theme park dedicated to the various Sanrio characters including my favorite, Hello Kitty. Although I've been curious about it, I'd always been hesitant to go there by myself since it's really geared to little kids. One of the big draws was that we'd be spending time in A/C, which was definitely welcome on hot days like we'd recently been enduring.
There was a direct train line to the park from Shinjuku, which made it very convenient for us. Once we disembarked, it was just an easy short walk to Puroland. As we drew closer, we could see the iconic rainbow arches of the park facade. Time to be a kid again!
I'd figured we could eat a breakfast type meal when we arrived, but I hadn't counted on all the food service places being closed until an hour after the park opened. Ooops. We ended up wandering around in a delerious haze and admiring the cuteness while waiting desperately for the Food Machine restaurant to open its doors. Once it finally did, I was tempted by all the cute items going around the various conveyer belt stations in the cafeteria. I finally settled on spaghetti, melon soda, and Hello Kitty mochi; for once, I didn't totally opt for the cutest option, at least for my main course. The food was good- and most definitely welcome since we were both very hungry. The atmosphere was pleasant, with some characters wandering around the restaurant. The oddest thing was that the sound system kept playing an endless loop of "Happy Birthday".
There were only 2 rides in Puroland: a My Melody slow car ride and a boat ride with all the classic characters that was definitely cuter. (think: a scaled down "It's a Small World" with Sanrio characters) Both were geared mainly to the pre-schoool age crowd and had a bit of a wait, but they were cute and at least we were inside. We also saw the energetic parade/show from a mediocre vantage point above the action. Saw the cute parade and acrobats. Yikes! They were so cool (and crazy). The highlight of our time was another chance to meet with Hello Kitty herself, though we had to wait quite awhile in a very slow moving line. Once we got into Kitty's house, there were a lot of cute photo opportunities. Our photo with the Kitty... wasn't the best, but it was still fun meeting her.
Before we left, we were hungry and searched for something to eat before finding the perfect snack: gyoza meat buns with Hello Kitty on them- another example of cute, satisfying food. I'm definitely glad I finally visited Puroland- especially given the weather outside. It was cheerful, with a lot of very cute, delightful touches. But it really isn't somewhere I need to revisit anytime soon.
We left at about 4pm to head to spend our last evening at Tokyo Disneyland. But first we really needed to stop at a ticket office in Shinjuku to reserve seats for the Narita Express train to the airport the next day. The maps of Shinjuku station were a bit confusing to try to decipher. When an older gentleman offered to help us, I figured that it was just the typical example of Japanese trying to be helpful- even though he seemed a little odd. I figured the polite thing to do was to follow him, even though I'm sure we could have figured it out on our own without too much trouble. At first, he kept trying to lead us to the counter where you exchange your voucher for a railpass which we obviously didn't need. I thought (and hoped) that might be the end of the encounter, but he still insisted that we follow him. Eventually we did get to the correct ticket office- at which point he demanded 200 yen. Hell, no! Even though he was asking for a tiny sum (less than $2), I detest the idea of being extorted. There were plenty of people around so I was confident that he couldn't do anything to us if I resisted and walked determinedly into the office. And sure enough, he left us alone. Julia said that she found the whole thing to be creepy. But I guess it was good for her to experience firsthand some of the potential dangers of travel- especially since the incident ended completely innocuously.
Once we'd secured our reservations, we headed back to Maihama station and Tokyo Disneyland for a few hours of fun- my goals were simply to ride Space Mountain (which had been closed for maintenance at the start of our trip) and to see the new floats in the Electrical Parade Dreamlights which had recently debuted. Once we got to Maihama, we stopped in the large Bon Voyage store. I was excited to see that they had a bunch of new Stitch souvenirs and I wanted to know if they'd still be open after the park closed. Somehow, between my horrible Japanese and their limited English, we came to an understanding that yes, they would indeed be open.
Tokyo Disneyland sells discounted "After 6" passports, which allow you to visit the park on weekdays from 6pm until closing. A lot of people had the same idea, and there was a bit of a line at the ticket booth, but it moved reasonably quickly.
Something we'd noticed earlier is that there is a trend for couples and friends at Tokyo Disney to be "matchy-matchy", a term I invented that indicates that people are wearing matching outfits (or at least shirts), typically Disney themed. I've seen this sometimes in the US parks but it mainly seems to be an exception and seems to be done more with larger groups than just a couple people. Julia and I just happened to be "matchy-matchy" in our peach Hello Kitty T-shirts from Kyoto; our attire wasn't Disney themed, but it still felt appropriate.
When we walked into World Bazaar at about 6:15, we could see that the park was now decorated for the summer seasonal event. All remnants of the Tanabata festival had been removed. One of our first stops was to allow Julia to buy the large stuffed Olaf that she had been planning to purchase. We were also able to get Space Mountain Fastpasses which was amazing; I'd been sure they'd be out of them by the time we arrived.
We have returned to Tokyo Disneyland. Back to where it all began, 2 1/2 weeks ago. It's crazy how much has changed. Initially skeptic and nervous, I have grown and become more confident in a country in which I cannot read or understand the language. I have experienced things I never dreamed of, and seen how sometimes things work out perfectly even if they seem to get worse before they get better. I'm sure this will be far from my last adventure. It's been a wild ride.... It's been filled with laughter that I will miss above all else. This outpouring of love Aunt Faith has shown me has been amazing.
We tried to get scrump mochi at the kiosks by the central hub, only to discover that they'd already closed for the day. That was annoying! But at least we found the little green men mochi in Tomorrowland. Julia also got a chicken and tomato calzone; she let me have a bite and it was quite tasty. But somehow I was too hot to feel like I could eat an entire meal. I just wanted something to drink. I must have been feeling quite fatigued by the weather since I didn't even take a photo of her food.
As we found spots to wait for the parade in Tomorrowland., we noticed a magical sunset swirling in amazing shades of purple and orange. It was seriously breathtaking. The parade itself was worth waiting for; Dreamlights is a plussed up version of Disney World's Electric Parade and the newest changes only improved it. The one totally new float- themed to Rapunzel- was gorgeous. Some of the other existing floats had been revamped and were more dazzling than ever. After looking at someone else's photos later, I think we missed out on the updated Peter Pan float; maybe it was malfunctioning. It looks great so I'm sorry we missed it.
After the parade, we successfully found scrump mochi thanks to a tip I'd seen online. Yay! We also used our Fastpasses for Space Mountain, and they actually let us enter the queue a few minutes early. We wanted to get another ride on Splash Mountain so we hustled over there. Thankfully, the line wasn't closed off yet. All we want to do is ride it again. And we have accomplished the important part- getting in instead of them closing it off in front of us. We entered the queue just after 9, with a wait time posted at 40 minutes. After about 42 minutes of the standby line barely progressing, I had a sneaky suspicion that the wait would be more than 40 minutes- just call me psychic or something. I think the line had probably exploded after the Once Upon a Time show which was unfortunately the same time as when we made our way over. But things picked up and we were finally boarding about 10 minutes later, right before the park closing time. One last ride on our Laughing Place was probably the best way to end our Disney adventure. Splash Mountain, as usual, was awesome, and fitting as our last ride in Tokyo Disney.
It was quiet walking out of the park since it had already closed by the time we got off Splash Mountain. On our way out, we stopped in a store on World Bazaar. I think this was the time that I determinedly burst in just as they were closing the doors, but my memory is a blur and that could have been a different time. In any event, I finally got myself a Once Upon a Time T-shirt- they still only had an extra large, but I figured I could wear it around the house.
By the time we headed back to the hotel, I was exhausted. It was a long hot day, at the end of a long (but amazing) trip. And even though it was after sunset during most of the time we spent outdoors, it had still been very warm and humid. All in all, I was glad when we I could finally collapse in bed.
I never want it to end, but I know it must. At some point, you have to go home. But the next adventure is on the horizon, and more after that. The future is bright... It was awesome. All of it: Disney, Kyoto, Les Mis, everything. I am so lucky... It has been a dream, but unfortunately I must wake up.
It was the last morning of vacation. Wow. On the one hand, I felt like it all passed in a blink. On the other hand, my aging body told me that it was time.
I think, despite it all, I want to go home today. I think I'm ready. At least I have made peace with leaving.
We had to pack everything up for the airplane ride, so we definitely didn't get an early start, especially after the late evening we'd had the night before. I was sad to leave our beautiful Hello Kitty hotel room. But eventually we checked out and left our luggage to pick up later.
Our destination for the day was Harajuku; we didn't get there until around 11:15 and we had to catch the Narita Express at 2:40pm back at Shinjuku station so unfortunately, we didn't have a ton of time. Our first stop was the new Disney Store because I'd read online that it was geared to adults and had exclusive merchandise not available at other stores. But I was disappointed since it seemed to basically have the same merchandise we'd seen many times before. We browsed in some of the other shops nearby, paying special attention to the jewelry, of course. Julia bought a few cute things.
We walked to the end of Takeshita street, the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Harajuku and then headed for a cupcake store. Yay, cupcakes! They all looked so adorable and it was hard to pick just one; I couldn't get more to take home because, even if I could magically fit them in our already jammed bags without getting squashed, they'd probably melt in the day's brutal heat. The guy at the counter gave Julia a beverage for free just to be nice to us. That wasn't quite fair since I was the one who paid, but whatever. The only place to eat our goodies was by standing at a high table outside, where it was hot (but at least in the shade). I ended up choosing a Vanilla & Chocolate cupcake which was fabulous. Julia had a White Chocolate Peppermint one.
I had to make a stop at the nearby Kiddy Land toy store; on my last trip, it had been in a temporary location so I wanted to see the real store. There were a ton of cute things, but nothing I felt compelled to purchase. On the other hand, when we ducked into a store called Candy Show Time, I somehow found myself coming out with a ton of cute homemade candies as well as earrings shaped like a multicolored lollipop. The earrings are totally fun, and I wear them more often than I would have imagined.
It was a fun (but sweaty) morning in Harajuku. We visited shops and Disney Stores (one that was supposed to have unique stuff but DIDN'T) and a thriftish store (4 pairs of earrings and a tank top under 2000 yen. WIN) It was a used stuff shop. The only issue with it was figuring out what size the stuff was. Also, met my goal of hoping to see a Harajuku girl.
When we got back to Shinjuku station, I figured we had (barely) just about enough time to head over to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which was close to our hotel. We wouldn't have a ton of time to dawdle, but I thought it would be cool to go up to the observatory and take a final look at the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo. Especially because it was free.
We had no problem finding the building, although the walk from the station never seemed to end. There was a short line to get through security, but nothing bad. The view was indeed worth it- it was impressive to see how far the city spanned in all directions. We made good use of our time to get some more souvenirs- I finally found a watch I liked after having looked for quite awhile. Of course, it had Hello Kitty on it, but it was sophisticated enough for an adult to wear.
As we made our way back to the hotel, I started to get nervous about the time. I freaked out a bit for a second when I thought we were lost. But, fortunately, it all worked out. In fact, after going back to the hotel, retrieving our luggage, taking a taxi to the station, and searching out the Narita Express tracks... we still had a good buffer of time before our train arrived. I was relieved. If we'd missed the train, the next one would probably have gotten us to the airport on time, but who needs the hassle of trying to get new reservations at the last minute?
Speaking of that... once the train finally did arrive, it seemed like there were guys seated in front of us without a reservation for those seats. There was a bit of a cluster blocking traffic in the aisles while they tried to work it out. I'm not sure what exactly happened; I think they just moved. The train is reservation only so they may have gotten lucky, if indeed they did not have a reservation at all.
Once we got to the airport, I changed into fresh clothes and we found the counter to check in for our flight. The lady checking us in got on the phone for awhile. I started to get a little nervous; I've had some issues before with codeshare flights making mistakes on my reservations, but I'd booked this trip directly with JAL and had no problems checking in online. Eventually, Julia said something to me which prompted the lady at the counter to tell us that Economy was full so she was trying to upgrade us to Premium Economy. What an awesome, final treat to end the trip! The only downside is that Julia is probably really spoiled now for future flights.
Excited about our upgrade, we walked around the airport to get some final souvenirs. There were some Kit Kat flavors we hadn't seen, and I also found a cute Narita Hello Kitty trinket. I picked up Red Bean, Strawberry Sakura Maccha, Cheesecake, and Rum Raisin. Converting excess change to Kit Kats.
Although it was sad to board the plane that would take us away from my favorite country, it was exciting to be able to take our seats in Premium Economy. We had a lot more space and everything was just a little nicer. Julia liked the fact that there was a remote for playing the games on the seatback videos; you had to use the touch screen in economy. Premium Economy is so nice- noise canceling headphones and a remote for the touch screen. During the flight, we got an extra snack (Hiroshima Catalana which was pretty yummy- almost like a frozen creme brulee) and were able to order Ramen noodles on demand. I'd be really happy if I could fly in premium economy all the time!
After we took off, I shot the requisite photo of Julia's giant Olaf strapped into a seat on the plane. Then I started watching Penguins of Madagascar on the on demand video. Julia decided to watch the movie too, so I paused mine and made it sync up to her screen. The result was that, despite wearing headphones and watching on our own screens, we could look at each other and laugh together. We also both watched the live action Cinderella (which I'd seen before) but at different times; I actually put mine on an extended pause when I got drowsy and needed to close my eyes.
Julia wasn't able to sleep at all during the flight, and she was getting overtired and emotional as the hours passed. I can't sleep at all- it's so hot and dry. Kill me before I kill someone... I am a stringy haired, sleep deprived monster who has been up for 17 hours and that's not a long time but I'm exhausted and it feels like 4am... I think I might cry out of sheer frustration and tiredness... I envy Aunt Faith's ability to sleep. "You're welcome for booking a direct flight" I said, reminding her that I'd spared her the horror of my LAX layover from 2012. She was definitely grateful not to have to think about getting on another plane right after this one!
Before we landed, we were given a "make your own hamburger"; I ignored the toppings that were not to my liking and just used the meat sauce. It was actually pretty decent for airline food.
It's been a crazy ride. And I am sure as hell ready to get off this plane in 15 minutes.
After landing in JFK, we were able to use the automated kiosks to scan our passports. Everything went smoothly and we were soon reunited with Julia's family. The car ride home was punctuated with us sharing a small fraction of our stories. Presents were bestowed when we got home- including the epic gag gifts for Julia's sister, Megan. And then I was left alone with my furricanes. Travel always brings you back to where you started; but if you're lucky, you're never quite the same as before you left. And after this trip, I was exceedingly lucky.
[Note- we each wrote up our trip thoughts independently; I didn't even look at a word Julia wrote until I had finished an entire draft of the blog, including this conclusion.]
Several months later, and Japan seems a bit like a dream. In the meantime, Julia has gone off to college and is just starting to carve a path for her own life's adventures, including (much to my delight) making plans to study abroad at some point. I'm hugely grateful that I had a chance to spend some time with her on a special trip between high school and college. No one can ever take these special memories away from either of us, and it's a bond we'll share forever. Hopefully, it helped her to have another trusted adult to talk to as she struggled with the initial adjustment to college life.
Just about everything on this trip went as well as could be expected, given the fact that we had to travel at a time when I knew the weather wouldn't be ideal. And as much as planned this trip to share my love for Japan and travel with Julia... I also learned from her, as well. There were times when I was hesitant to get on a public bus because I wasn't sure it was correct or I wasn't sure about hiking to an overlook, but she urged me forward. I recall Oscar Hammerstein's lyric from "The King and I" where he nailed this thought: "It's a very ancient saying,
But a true and honest thought,
That if you become a teacher,
By your pupils you'll be taught."
I think my biggest regret was that Julia didn't get to ride the roller coaster at Universal Osaka. I also wish I'd timed things to better be able to see the parades at Tokyo Disneyland. We missed some temples in Kyoto that I'd planned, but those didn't really bother me. During the course of a major 2+ week vacation, you're going to have some bumps- and if these were the worst of it, then we were extremely fortunate!
I loved all of my hotel choices; I'd stay at any of them again, even the Kanazawa hotel whose extreme compact size horrified Julia. Our longer stays were very comfortable, and I'm glad I had could splurge on whimsical rooms themed to Beauty and the Beast and Hello Kitty.
I'm also pleased that I finally made it to Shirakawa-go, which was well worth a stop. I know Julia prefers rural areas, and I wish I could have planned more of those, but there are too many city sights that were worth seeing. I think we had a good mix of destinations, which showcased various different sides to Japan. While the trip was peppered with fun excursions to theme parks and musicals, it was also important to take Julia to see Hiroshima, and it was good for me to visit there again.
It may be crazy to take someone else's kid to Japan... but if you don't do something crazy every once in awhile, then you'll be stuck in an eternal rut. The laughs and memories are worth every "yenny" that I spent. And if this summer's adventure changes Julia's life a little- if it gives her more confidence to travel overseas or even if it's just that random thoughts of Japan make her smile sometimes- all the better.
I've been home for a month now and it's been the fastest and longest month of my life. I miss vacation. I miss the bliss of early summer, the endless sundrenched days stretching infinitely before me. Now with two weeks left [until college], I look back to the keystone of the summer, the whirlwind adventure that was Japan.
17 days. 14 hours in the air both ways. No small undertaking. Going into it was weird. I liked the idea of it. The story I never imagined what it would actually be like to live through. It was spectacular and I can remember it but it feels long, long ago.
Something changed in me. Maybe it was being somewhere that no one spoke my native tongue, which admittedly was slightly discomforting. I think I was always a tiny bit on edge when we were out and about but then again, that's not completely wrong. There was a bit of a shock the first day when I realized just how homogenous Japan was. I felt that my skin put a bullseye on me- for the first time in my life, I was truly a minority. And that's no small feeling. As time went on, I obviously felt more comfortable and less self conscious. I did things I'd never expected to do and there are other ways I've grown and changed as a person that I can't even measure right now, and maybe never will, but in little ways, I'm not the same as I was 2 months ago.
I did so much and it means something to me. Something that has an indescribable place in my heart. To share someone's love of something, to have someone who selflessly shares their love of something is so rare and special and I'm so incredibly lucky to have this in my life. Going forward, there are no free rides. It was one last real opportunity for something free. It was a gateway to summer and being an adult (legally). It was a bridge.
I'm not sure I'm happy it's behind me. I miss it. I love the memories but there was something about looking forward to it. I know there's other things to look forward to, but still. One last big adventure before leaving into the big wild world where adventures might not be lighthearted and carefree.
I went somewhere and did something crazy, something I never would really have considered as readily as I agreed to this trip. 2 1/2 weeks somewhere with a different language and culture is daunting. But after this adventure, I feel like I can do anything, face any challenge, win any battle.
One great adventure over. Another one will come. And I can truly handle anything this world throws at me. So pitch it to me, world. I'll hit it out of the park. (unlike the Dead Bats)