Japan : April 28 - May 1

28. April

Tatami mats and slippers


Written by Alex

One of my favorite things about Japan is the vending machine: the ones that with the push of a button deliver a can of piping hot tea, with milk and sweetened just right. The same ones that also supply Poccari Sweat and unsweetened, cold green tea. I couldn’t wait to show Patrick and we did not need to go far to find one.


We arrived at Narita Airport and knew we had one mission: drop the bags off at luggage storage, get some cash, figure out where the train was and get to our ryokan (guesthouse) before 10pm. With little hassle at customs or passport control, we knew we were right on time. At luggage storage we pulled a few items out of our big bags and minutes later were headed to the train, direction Tokyo. I sighed with relief when I realized the train station stops were now numbered and most written in English as well. In an attempt to make Japan more “user friendly” – English translations and numbered signs are evident everywhere.


With computer in hand (and the directions showing), we made our way to the Andon Ryokan and were delighted to find it tucked away in a residential neighborhood. A fusion of ultra modern and traditional, this little spot introduced visitors to the elements of the ryokan: shared bathrooms, tatami mats, slippers, futons and minimalism. The room, barely wider and longer than the futon we rolled out to sleep on, was charming. Though we had been travelling since 7:30am this morning, this would be our only night in Tokyo, so we accessed some stored energy and got back on the subway. I grabbed a milk tea before boarding the train and still don’t quite understand how it stays so bloody hot.


We meandered into one 5 story electronic game bonanza – full of video games of every sort. Young men in blacks suits and a young woman in petticoat and pleather boots were the only customers. The neon and the barrage of sounds was overwhelming. We watched as many of the local men and women, many of whom were clad in black suits, seemed to gently stumble a bit as they walked to the subway. Just before midnight, most were headed home after a long work day and perhaps a few beers. Our energy did not last long – and soon we were returning from whence we came. The futon, the down blanket and the perfectly firm pillows soothed our exhausted bodies.

[This is a playlist with several videos, click on the film strip button (next to the play button) to see all]

29. April

Tokyo in a day


Written by Patrick

We had a little less than 8 hours to see Tokyo but had an interest in soaking up what we could. Since we had left our baggage at the airport we were very mobile having only our day packs to carry. Once we checked out, we visited the Sensoji Temple in the Asakusa neighborhood. There Alex found this little vending machine that allowed her to get a "Hello Kitty" ball that would have a little "Hello Kitty" bag inside. According to Alex, you've got to love Japan..Miss Kitty is everywhere. From the temple, we went to a central point on the Metro grid and stored our day packs in the lockers for the few hours that we had to explore the city. The Shiodome district with the Tokyo Tower was next. The Metro Day pass allowed us to get there within a few minutes. Getting oriented upstairs was a little more challenging but nothing we couldn't figure out after a nice coffee from "Excellsior Coffee" (a local Starbucks like chain.) We decided not to go up on the tower but rather go see it from the observatory at the top of the World Trade Center. We arrived there via the Zojoji Temple that had these really interesting little stone figures outside that people had dressed up with little caps and toy wind wheels. Soon there after we stepped out on the observatory and checked out Tokyo from atop. Despite some haze the views were awesome and we even got to see the the high-speed trains (Shinkansen) leaving Tokyo to Osaka and other cities. Lunch was consumed in the food court of the world trade center and we would have not mentioned if the process had not been so interesting: before you enter the diner, you buy a ticket for your food of choice at a vending machine outside and then go inside to sit down and order your food with the ticket. Japanese curry, the only thing this place served, was good and strengthened enough for our last stop, the Shibuya area.


This district is known for being a shopping paradise for the younger Japanese population, mostly teenagers. Right after arriving we went straight to a mall that featured thousands and thousands of young Japanese teenagers shopping. Both Alex and I were wondering how is it possible that on Tuesday all these people can hang out at the mall? The answer came later to us: it was actually a public holiday that day. After checking out several floors of the mall (called "Syibuya 109") we decided we'd seen enough and left the place to head for a pretty interesting intersection in Tokyo. From the viewpoint of a second-floor Starbucks cafe we were able to observe how hundreds of Japanese people cross the intersection at the same time while all traffic is stopped. It was a really interesting piece of city life to observe; it almost felt like you coul see the city's pulse.

[Click on any picture to view full screen slideshow]



Unfortunately now it was time to head back to pick up our backpacks and then take the train to the airport to catch our six o'clock flight to the city of Osaka. Everything went very smoothly and we did arrive sometime after eight o'clock in Osaka. The only thing that made us very aware of the fact that we were in Japan was a little feature that JAL airlines offers: in the cabin, on the video monitors, we were seeing live feeds of the plane moving over the taxiways and ultimately the runway right before take off. The same thing happened when we were approaching Osaka airport. One could actually see the runway approaching at high velocity on those media screens. I'd say that's typically Japanese.


Both Alex and I were very excited to get to see friends again. And we felt very special that Gatson (a friend of Alex's from college) was actually waiting at the station of the monorail transport system that took us from the airport to Gatson's home. His home was actually very close and so soon we found ourselves in his apartment with his family enjoying the good taste of Japanese beer. Chie, his wife, in addition to attending to the needs of their new 4 week old son, served us the most delicious home-cooked food - I don't think she knows how wonderful that was. We finished off the evening catching up on old and new stories.

30. April

One last day, before heading home


Written by Patrick

Today is the last true day of our trip: there is only traveling home to follow. And it was day that could not have been better. This spontaneos trip to Osaka, that had only been planned a few days before, landed during a week when Gatson had a few days off. He had a light itinerary prepared for the day and soon we set off with him and his daughter Sona. (Chie, Gatson's wife, stayed home to rest and take care of baby Ason). We took the train to the Osaka castle and hiked up the hill to the innermost circle of the expansive defense system. From there we went towards the zoo and had fantastic a Japanese lunch at a place Gatson had hand picked for us. And no it wasn’t sushi, but a interesting noodle dish and juicy potato paddies and bbq on a skillet built into our table. With full tummies we hit the zoo to go check out the penguins, tigers, lions, hippos and sea lions. All very exciting (especially for little Sona) and we even got to throw fish at the sea lions who happily snapped them up in mid air. Sona had a great time and we all had stinky hands, which got washed of fat the next restroom. We left the zoo to check out the interesting neighborhood around but all that walking had made us very tired. We ended up sitting down and eating deep-fried goodies at a local restaurant. To our surprise, Sona was the most hungry of all and she ate her healthy portion rather fintently. After a short break for ice cream we went straight back home, taking advantage of the excellent public transport system. Alex and I ask if we could go to a Japanese bath house and were very excited to find out that there was an osento in walking distance from Gatson's home. After paying the entry few of 400 yen (~$4) we entered the bath through our separate gender specific entrances and hopped into the hot tubs, sauna and cold plunges. There was even a hot tub charged with an electrical current. When inside your muscles would start to vibrate in a funny way. I did stay long in it. Ohh, and on the way out I made good use of the full body blow dryer. This was a little room or cabin that had warm air blowing at you from all directions. Pretty Japanese I say, but I was dry in matter of a few minutes. 

[Click on any picture to view full screen slideshow]

Since this was really our last day of the trip (the next day was just traveling home) we both felt what a great way to end such an amazing trip by relaxing in the hot waters that we like so much. (We realized in 10 months we visited over 9 hot springs all around the world. Pretty amazing). But the evening was not yet over. Gatson had decided to take us to his favorite drinking hole. And really you couldn't call it a drinking hole or even a bar because it was a mere garage on the side of the road with one table made of stacked crates and a hand made table top. But never the less Gatson went in and came back with a few beers in his hands. The owner was an older Japanese lady who didn't speak a word of English, but with the help of Gatson we got a good conversation going. This was a true local experience as we had been seeking where ever we traveled. Tired and super relaxed from the baths, Alex went back home, while Gatson and I stayed to indulge in the local flavor. Soon enough the guy who owned the bar across the came over to chat with us. He spoke a little English and told me that he had friends in New Zealand. Despite his reluctance he ended up with a beer in his hand as well. Not 5 min. later a Japanese man, wearing a fine looking business suit came cycling by and bounced straight into the bar owner from across the street. Turned out that he wasn't being rude but that he was actually a friend of the bar owner and stopped because he had never seen 2 white guys drinking at this place. He had to check it out. Well, of course he was offered a beer and when he declined he got solidly scolded about how rude he was to decline such an offer, in fluent Japanese by a white guy. Seconds later we saw him with a glass of beer in his hands. What happened next? We got invited to a beer over at the bar across the street and followed their invitation as soon as we finished the beer we had started. That actually gave us the opportunity to witness some really interesting behavior. A huge silver Mercedes-Benz arrived at the approximate height of this street side bar and the driver came out to talk to the old lady. She just nodded and waved her hand toward the other side of the street. The driver returned and parked the car in a driveway over there. Then he came back and bowed deeply toward the old lady (our host) and walked away. He was then followed by the passengers of the car. A very wealthy looking older man, who came and thanked her and walked a way and then yet another nicely dressed woman would come by and bow deeply to this old woman who merely ran a hole in the wall (and did not own the place across the streey). Do not ask me why they did that, not even the old lady would tell us. 


The beers in the bar across the street were already waiting for us when we arrived and soon we were drinking in a seated position. (I had to be instructed about the shoe less process of sitting down at a Japanese table but did not get any scowls from the locals.) The bicycle business man was sitting beside us and started talking to Gatson. Every once in a while he would get up and shout something out in a raised voice, but then after what sounded like appeasing words we would settle down again. After asking Gatson what these scenes were about he told me that he would shout: "What the f*** am I doing here? How did I end up here? I was just going to check out what these white guys are doing and now I am here completely drunk...What am I doing here". It was International Night in Gatson's neighborhood...he must not have gotten the memo. So the last day ended with a great encounter with locals. I don't think it could have been better.


It seems funny, but the business man from Osaka said it perfectly. We arrived at SFO the next day and walked back into #8 and we thought, “What am I doing here?”

[This is a playlist with several videos, click on the film strip button (next to the play button) to see all]


The end, and in the same breath...the beginning.


The real journey begins now.




next: Back home in San Francisco