Friday, April 17, 2009

Japan 2009: The start!

Well, we made it to Tokyo without any hitches! We got on our first plane at 9:00 am, 14-April, which took us to Detroit in about an hour. There was a considerable layover in Detroit, with our next plane taking off at 3:00 pm-ish, so we found a nice internet cafe & got Brendan online for a bit while we ate & relaxed. We were not prepared for the 3:00 plane to begin boarding at 2:00, so last-minute potty stops were nerve-wrackingly last-minute :( But all three of us got on board the enormous plane for our 12-hour trans-pacific flight in time. (A note about the length of the flight... I’d been under the impression that flying from Detroit would take an hour off the 11-hours from Chicago, but was mistaken... although it didn’t hit me until we got to Japan, so at least I was dumb & happy on the way here :)

And it was a long flight, but Brendan, at least, managed to sleep for about 3 1/2 hours of it. Charlie was armed with a mild sedative to help him sleep, but it didn’t do much for sleeping. However, it did seem to help with the restless legs problem he had last time we flew to & from Japan, so that was a relief. I was armed with knitting, a puzzle book, & an electronic sudoku game, none of which did anyhing for sleeping, but it passed the time :)

And the next thing we knew, we landed at Narita at what our bodies thought was 3:00 am (& was, locally, 4:00 pm). Customs & immigration was easy, as it was last time (although Charlie & I were photographed & electronically fingerprinted- a first for us), & we found our train & bought tickets (first time we needed to speak Japanese!) with no trouble. We were pretty spacey, though, & didn’t quite get that we had reserved seat tickets, so it took some time (& traversing 4 train cars) to get us & our luggage settled in the same place. Luckily it was about 50 minutes from the airport to Ueno, where our ryokan (traditional-style Japanese inn) was located, so we had time. We weren’t sure if the station we debarked from was big enough for a taxi stand, but lucked-out to see a taxi stand just as we exited. We found the address tucked away in our bags = & the taxi driver actually phoned from the taxi for directions, all of which took no more that 15 minutes. Yay!!

The gentleman at the ryokan was all ready to send us out again for dinner, but we were exhausted rather than hungry & ready for showers & bed. Our room is pretty small, with all 3 futons taking up 3/4 of the floor space, but we have a private bathroom, a hot pot for tea, the floor is covered with tatami matting (very elegant) & breakfast is offered on site. The futons are really confortable (we discovered this morning that they have foam mattresses underneath them) & we all slept well- but, of course, everyone was wide-awake by 4:30 am (5:30 pm home-time). Brendan read by flashlight while I dozed & Charlie shaved & filled the ofuro (big bathtub) for Brendan to have a soak.

We were scheduled to have breakfast at 8:15, so we went out at 7:00 for a walk around the neighbourhood. And what a neighbourhood it is! It’s called Shitamatchi (which means “lower town”) & is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Tokyo, having escaped fire-bombing during WWII. Last time we were in Tokyo we stayed in Roppongi, which is where the non-Japanese living in Tokyo tend to settle (our apartment was next to the Russian embassy) & it was difficult to even find a Japanese grocery store, so we wanted a different experience this time. We succeeded! The streets are narrow & crowded with buildings, trees, flowers, & bicycles. At 7:00 am we saw mostly older folks out for a walk & schoolkids on their was to school. It was neat to see the students in their “seifuku” school uniforms (“seifuku” is japanglish for “sailor suit”, & many of the girls’ uniforms still have sailor suit collars & scarves, while the boys’ are channelling Prussian dress uniform). None of the businesses were open & everything was quiet. We were following a map from the ryokan, but couldn’t figure out how to indentify the streets at first, so we got lost, retraced our steps, & found where we wanted to be. Brendan counted vending machines & Charlie found our first sakura tree- sadly, they’re at the very end of their blooming, so are very sparse. But, hey, we have seen sakura blooming in Japan & that was one of our wishes, already granted!

Back to the ryokan for a light breakfast (delicious orange juice, tea, & 2 big slices of toast with jam) & practiced our Japanese on the lady who brought us our breakfast- she seemed charmed, especially by Brendan speaking to her :) The plan afterward was to walk back to the station (which turns out to be a less-than 10-minute walk, but who knew last night...) & take the train one stop to Ueno Park, to see the sights & go to the science museum there. A nice lady at the ticket booths helped us to remember how to buy regular train tickets from a machine (unlike the reserved-seat train we took yesterday) & it was a quick trip to the park. We picked up a follower on our way out of the station- another nice lady who had sat across from us on the train, took a shine to Brendan & told us about her 16-year-old grandson in high school. I told her that Brendan was a 13-year-old middle-school student & wished madly I could have understood her better & said more. Sigh...
These are strings of origami cranes hanging next to a statue in Ueno Park.

We walked through Ueno Park to the museum, & it was obvious that this is a popular place for school trips. We lost count of the groups of schoolkids of all ages roaming around. The science museum was particularly popular. There was fun stuff to do: the physics-type hands-on exibits were neat, & we walked through halls of dinosaur fossils & stuffed animals (I don’t think Brendan realised they were the real thing because my animal-loving kid had nary a reaction except “my feet are beginning to hurt”). We did think the exhibit showing a cow’s entire digestive system spread out & under glass ( absolutely huge) was poorly placed on the way to the food area, though.

We had nice onigiri (rice balls) & obentou (lunch box) at the museum, then wandered back to the station through the park, stopping at a Buddhist temple, where I bought a couple of omamori good luck charms (this may become my souvenir of choice... friends be duly warned :) & Charlie found the best sakura tree of the day (see the top picture). Here is Brendan at the Kannon-Do Temple:
There was also a huge group of grade-school children in identical yellow baseball caps, all eating identical box lunches, which made for a striking sight. Charlie said they looked like a field of daffodils... :)
The train trip back to the ryokan was easy & the difference in the streets was noticeable. Everything was open for business, & we found some yummy melonpan (a roll with cookie dough baked on top), a sweets shop (Brendan bought conpeito- the star-ish candy from “Spirited Away” & I found candies made from green tea & honey), & a book store (Brendan spotted the Samurai Shinkenger magazine first, then I found Bleach volume 38- banzai!!!). Then, back to nap, read, rest- as I type this, my computer clock says it’s 1:20 am home-time. My body is trying not to believe it...

In the evening: I actually slept this afternoon, according to Charlie. Brendan was feeling restless so they went out while I was resting (Charlie rested while I was typing earlier) & found a convenience store & paper store. We got our acts together by 5:30 & headed out to find a tempura restaurant for dinner. Our Japanese teacher, Shizuka, told us the Ueno is known for its tempura, so we convinced Brendan to try it. Wonderfully, he was up for it & so we found a tiny place (seated 12 at 3 tatami tables & maybe 6 more at the counter) & were warmly welcomed in by the owner/chef & seated at one of the tatami tables, which was a real challenge for our knees... .
He had a map of the world on the wall with little stickers on all of the cities he’s had customers from, so we added our town in northeastern USA to the map :) He spoke some english, but seemed very pleased that we could speak to him in Japanese, & his wife told us we were “jyozu”, which means really good at it (the customary response is to deny it, which I did :). We ordered 3 vegetarian tempura meals, & he started us with some delicious ocha (not even a close relative of the restaurant green tea we get at home) & boiled vegetables with dipping sauce. Absolutely delicious. Brendan actually tried a bite of most of them :) His patience & endurance were wearing thin, after strenuous travels & body being off by half a day, but we were able to distract him until the very end of the meal & had a really fun time. He took loads of pictures & then showed us the ones he’d taken during the day (many of which will be posted in his blog, so look forward to it- he found some wild stuff :). The tempura was amazing & Brendan managed to eat some rice & miso soup, but he was really running out of steam by then & getting harder to distract from OCD “fleas”. We paid & said “gochisosama deshita” (“it was a feast”- the traditional thanks for a meal) & got out right before things got too intense, & got back to the ryokan in record time. I fooled with the computer in the lobby (managed a quick post but no luck getting into my hotmail) while Charlie put Brendan to bed. The kid was asleep by the time I got upstairs. I think I’ll follow suit :) We’re riding the shinkansen to Kyoto tomorrow, then on to the next adventure!!



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