Stranger in a Strange Land
Trip Start Dec 15, 2009
92Trip End Aug 27, 2010
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We flew Vietnam Airlines and should have known that it would be much like the country itself. On boarding, first reactions were good; it was a very clean, modern aircraft with in-seat entertainment systems, nice blankets, pillows, etc and the movie selection was great. We settled in and the kids were soon asleep and Sarah had planned to watch Hachiko, the movie about a faithful Japanese dog. But, of course as with most things in Vietnam, it was a rip-off copy of a real aircraft…. They dimmed the lights for take-off and we were soon airborne when the lights came back on, and Sarah tried to find her movie, but alas the in-seat entertainment system didn’t actually work
So we had finally arrived in Japan, one of Derek’s most anticipated countries during the planning stages of this trip. Sarah had bribed Lauren to eat her (unappetizing) breakfast on the plane with the reward the first use of a toilet once we landed….as bizarre as it sounds, one of the things the kids were most excited about in Japan was the “high tech toilets” (more on these later). In the washroom, Sarah sent Lauren into the first available cubicle which was a standard western style toilet and patiently waited for the next available cubicle…imagine the dismay on discovering that it would be a squat! So much for high tech? We discovered at the airport that Japan has the full array of toilets from very basic squats to the normal western style toilets to high tech toilets with all the bells & whistles
We left the airport on a regular slow train from the airport into the centre of Tokyo, where the fun really began. There isn’t a lot of English either written or spoken in Japan, so everything becomes a bit of an adventure. The Tokyo subway system is quite complex with 13 lines and a large number of intersecting Japan Rail (JR) lines and being operated by three different companies, few maps show all of the subway/metro and JR lines. We managed to negotiate the system pretty well for first timers and made it to our hotel fairly easily. Having checked in to our (two) rooms at the Hearton Hotel, we returned to the subway to negotiate our next journey. It’s possible to buy pay-as-you-go “Suica” cards which automatically deduct the right fare each time you pass through a turnstile, handy when you have trouble reading maps and figuring out what the right fare should be. So, we decided to buy four cards and at the ticket office were given a form that was entirely printed in Japanese kanji….hmmmm, just exactly what do you put where???? So, we returned to the ticket master who kindly tried to help us and was almost as confused by English as we were by Japanese…. his deciphering of the kids passports led to their cards getting printed for “Lauren Elizabeth” (instead of “Lauren Moody”) and one for “Alexander Canada”
With a tough travel day behind us, we decided to keep it easy and give the kids a treat so headed for where else than the Pokemon Centre! Turns out it is just a huge Pokemon store, but if you want something with Pokemon on it, they have it, from Pokemon cards and DS games to stuffed toys to Pokemon shaped pasta! Alex was in his element and had a terrible time deciding just what it was that he wanted to buy, but settled on a stuffed toy and some cards. To keep Lauren happy we travelled a few stops more and found a massive six storey toy store….the Japanese certainly love their toys! Lauren bought a little electronic cat and so with two happy kids we searched for food…but what do you do when everything is in Japanese? Go to somewhere that has a picture menu! We found a little sushi restaurant and strolled in to be greeted by lots of cheering by all the staff…. kind of welcoming yet intimidating - were we special, maybe immigration forwarded our birthdates and this was a late “Happy Birthday”? We soon discovered it to be normal as cheering erupted with every customer arrival or departure. We played it safe with our sushi and ordered the things that looked like the sort of sushi we eat at home. The sushi arrived and looked great, but where was the wasabi? Apparently the process of adding wasabi to soy sauce and dipping the sushi in is not the way it is done here….the wasabi is already on the sushi (between the fish and rice which is why we couldn’t find it) and comes in surprisingly small quantities. The sushi was very good though and we returned to our hotel feeling good about our accomplishments (especially having negotiated the subway system four or five times and not gotten lost yet!).
Clearly our poor flight and first day in Japan had taken a lot out of us as we all slept until midday the next day
Next stop was Harajuka in hopes of finding some famed Harajuka girls, the weekend rebel youth who let go all of their inhibitions by expressing themselves in crazy and/or cute costumes (“Cosplay”) and hanging around in posing gangs. (Gotta think that much of the female youth of Tokyo is somewhat repressed). Upon leaving Harajuka station we followed the masses and soon found ourselves on Takeshita (you read it right) Street! We strolled down Takeshita Street (had to say it again) taking in the bizarre and the curious and soaking up the unique atmosphere. Somehow managing to get a little lost (and a little side-tracked by another toy store), by the time we found the area where the Harajuka girls hang out it was almost dark with barely a weirdo to take a snap of. We decided to go in search of food and found a small second floor food court and lo and behold, there were a group of about ten Harajuka girls dressed up like human-sized pink dolls with huge bows in their hair, OTT make-up, frilly dresses and boots! However, they were apparently “off-duty” as they wouldn’t allow us to take their pictures.
Next morning, leaving the boys snoring, Sarah and Lauren went investigating in the vicinity of our hotel and discovered a whole other world where there were office buildings, apartments, restaurants and shops, including a large department store with a basement grocery department – perfect! Finding a grocery store makes eating healthily so much easier and more affordable. Speaking of affordability, Japan comes with a reputation of being rather expensive, and with our hotel searching prior to arrival, we were expecting the worst. However, it’s not as bad as one might think, although maybe that’s in part due to the strong loonie. Most things are similarly priced to North America or Europe, which is expensive if you’re comparing to the rest of Asia, but not unreasonable if you hail from the Western world.
After a good lunch, we set off to the Tokyo bay area which is all built on reclaimed land via the monorail. We soon arrived at the Museum of Emerging Science where by doubling your entry fee you could also enter into their “Fear Experiment”, which of course we did! The fear experiment was a reconstruction of a haunted house that you could walk through with unexpected sounds, lights and movements
Still in the bay area we headed for one of the many shopping malls (it’s really quite incredible just how many opportunities there are to shop in Tokyo) for some dinner and found a small restaurant specializing in okonomi-yaki. Each table has a griddle in the middle of it and the food is cooked right in front of you on the griddle. We ordered a modan-yaki (i.e. the version of okonomi-yaki that comes with noodles and sat back to watch the action. It seemed to be cabbage, shrimp, eggs and some other unidentified ingredients mixed together and dumped onto the griddle before being carefully shaped into a rather thick pancake. This was left for a while before being flipped over and again left for a while. Eventually the noodles were added, another flip, sauces poured on top and our dinner was ready to eat…and it was yummy!
To burn off our dinner, we strolled across the street to the “muscle-park” – an activity centre where all of the games involve actually doing something physical rather than just twiddling thumbs at the Sega Joypolis (next door). We had lots of fun, kicking soccer balls and firing stuffy toys at targets, catching balls in baskets, throwing balls, etc
Things are certainly different here from elsewhere in Asia and from back home. But, you have to hand it to the Japanese they certainly know how to use technology to make life easier or simply more fun. Here are a few of things we’ve enjoyed so far;
- Trains are NEVER late, not even subway trains, even by a minute.
- Most toilets have rear-washing functions with adjustable pressure/temperature, and some have driers too!
- Heat-tracing behind the bathroom mirror so that the area above the wash basin never fogs up for shaving.
- Vending machines everywhere that not only serve chilled drinks, but also serve hot coffee in a can from the same machine!
And it isn’t all down to technology that makes life fun here the people are wonderful. So far, we’ve found everybody to be extremely polite and respectful to each other and to us and always willing to help even if they can’t speak our language. We have a few more days left in Tokyo and we’re loving every minute of it!