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Josiah's Japan Travelogue #3
Part 1: June 2013
Sunday and Monday (9th and 10th): Off to Tokyo!

Ever since my last stay in Japan got cut short by the big earthquake and ensuing nuclear worries, I've been wanting to return for a while. It didn't work out last summer, but I was determined to try again this year. In the end, I was able to work out a five week trip for a reasonable price and there's no telling how long I'll have the time, freedom, and money to do these kind of things, so I decided to go for it. Incidentally, while this will be the shortest of my Japan trips so far, it's also the only one on which I don't have to work most of the week (I'm here on vacation, mostly, though keeping up with some online classes I'm teaching and my own projects as well), so I'll likely be doing quite a lot.
So, Sunday morning it was off to the LA airport. The whole trip went really smoothly. For some reason, it was cheaper to fly to Seattle then go to Tokyo from there, rather than taking one of the many direct flights from LA itself (airline ticket prices rarely seem to make sense). That added a couple hours to the trip, but we flew over Crater Lake on the way, which was pretty cool. The plane from Seattle to Tokyo was a nice one, with pretty impressive in-seat entertainment centers and quite a lot of food. It even had in-seat plug sockets, so I was able to play Virtue's Last Reward on my Vita pretty much the entire time.
Once the plane landed Monday afternoon (due to the massive time difference), I was able to get my suitcase and get through costumes without issue. My cellphone worked as well, which was good. Instead of renting a phone or SIM card like in the past, I decided to just try Verizon's global roaming this time around, since the pricing isn't that much different and I could potentially be getting some calls I don't want to miss. To make things even more convenient, I decided to spring for the international data plan, incase I needed to look up maps or other info while out and about. Also, to keep in touch via e-mail (which is free, data costs aside, unlike calls and texts). That worked really well...right up until I left the airport. While Verizon's data access map for Japan shows most of the country, I haven't been able to get a data connection anywhere outside of Narita Airport. I'm going to have to contact them and see what's up with that...
Anyway, I put some money on my SUICA card then hopped on a train to Shinjuku to get my apartment keys. Yes, I decided to rent an apartment again (from Sakura House, the same company I used last time). The main reason being that it's quite a lot cheaper than five weeks in a decent hotel. Plus I get a kitchen (well, as much of one as you get in these tiny Japanese apartments) and all that. And, without a daily commute to worry about, I was free to choose my location and ended up right in downtown Tokyo, only about a mile from Tokyo station. It's really convenient.
By the time I made it to my apartment, it was starting to get late in the evening, but I did have time to walk over to my friend Yehoshua's restaurant and catch up with him. Got a decent view of the Sky Tree tower on my way back too. Speaking of which, expect an entry on that Sky Tree itself sometime over the course of this trip.
I had originally been planning to update Pebble Version but then I ran into the only real snag of the entire trip. I forgot to bring a 3 - 2 prong plug converter for my laptop. That meant I was running off limited battery power and it was too late to go out shopping for one. Other than that though, the trip over went about as smoothly as can be.

Tuesday (11th): All Around Tokyo
What did I do on Tuesday? More like what didn't I do? My original plan was to settle in, shop for essentials, and explore the area around my apartment building. And that's what I started out doing, anyway. While the apartment is furnished, it was missing a few basics and, of course, I needed food too. Fortunately, there was one of those always awesome 100 Yen stores nearby and there's also a grocery store by the nearest subway station. Plus, I stopped by a gyudon (beef bowl) restaurant on the way, got some gyudon, a Japanese salad, and miso soup for breakfast for only 500 yen (~$5). Then it was back to shopping. I didn't have any trouble finding the things I needed (and some things I didn't). I also stumbled across a local shrine (which looks to have a big festival every year) and a really fancy (if rather modern) Buddhist temple as well.
There were some more things in the area I wanted to check out after that, but I really needed to do something about my computer. While I'm sure there are a number of places in Tokyo that sell the kind of adapter I needed, I didn't want to run all over looking, so I decided that, due to its sheer size and selection, Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara would be my best bet. I was going to just run over there and come back to resume my local explorations, but a light rain had started up so I decided that, since I'd be going over there anyway, I might as well just hang out in Akihabara and do some shopping afterwards, since that would keep me mostly indoors. Except that I then decided that, since Akihabara is only a couple miles from my apartment, I should just walk there... Well, so much for the whole staying out of the rain part. Fortunately, it was rarely more than a light mist.
The walk was pretty nice actually, and ran right through Ningyocho, which has a lot of good restaurants and stuff around. I stumbled across a taiyaki place I remembered from last time, so that made for a nice quick lunch as I walked. Now if I can just find that 100 yen per plate kaitenzushi restaurant I remember being in the area...
Despite a few detours along the way, I eventually reached Yodobashi Camera. As I hoped, they had the adapter I needed. With that taken care of, I decided to check out headphones as well, since I've been having trouble finding the kind I want back in the US. That was a good call too. In addition to having a huge selection, Yodobashi has it set up so you can plug many of the different models into your MP3 player, phone, etc. and try them out to check the sound and feel. In the end, I found a set I really like to replace the crappy cheap ones I've been using since my last good pair died. Since I was already in the store, I couldn't resist browsing the games, music, and figurines as well, though I didn't end up buying any. While I love Yodobashi for its selection and point card, I can get better deals on those type of things elsewhere.
Leaving Yodobashi, I moved into Akihabara proper and began some serious shopping. Some things have changed since my last visit. For example, a building I really liked has been demolished to make way for a new one (fortunately, I found that most of the stores had just moved to a nicer building a couple blocks away). Also, maid cafes seem more popular than ever. Despite it being a weekday afternoon, there were at least half a dozen girls out there advertising one cafe or another.
I actually didn't buy nearly as much as I could have. For one thing, since I didn't get there till mid afternoon, I didn't have time to check out all my favorite stores. Also, I wanted to regain a bit of my sense of what various items are worth, since the prices for used items (especially figurines) can sometimes vary wildly by store. I did make some progress on my shopping list though, and had a lot of fun browsing.
Then, as it was getting dark, I figured I might as well wrap up the day with kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi), which is just as awesome (and affordable) as ever.
So, in one day I saw shrines and temples, ate gyudon, taiyaki, and sushi, and did some shopping in Akihabara. Kind of a nice refresher course in a lot of the things I like about Japan.
Oh, before I forget, here's a couple pictures of my apartment. It's a lot like the last one. Certainly can't compare to any of my apartments in the US, but for five weeks, it'll work (I've done much longer in the past) and the price and location are good.

Wednesday (12th): Nikko with a Friend

A lot of people I know are in Japan right now. Some live here, others are here to teach English like I did, some are in study abroad programs, and some are just traveling. But anyway, I'm trying to meet up with some of them while I'm here. Though my chances of seeing all of them are pretty slim since they're spread out all across the country.
Anyway, my friend Aika is touring Nikko at the moment, so we made plans to meet today and see the shrines and temples.
I've already covered Nikko and its amazing collection of shrines and temples multiple times in the past (see Sept 17 and Jan 1, among others), so I'm not going to retread it. But this was Aika's first time, so I got to play tour guide a bit. The only thing we did that I hadn't before was follow a small path around the back of the area with the shrines. It was nice, but nothing amazing. After seeing the shrines we walked around the town, ate, looked at souvenirs, and the like. It was lightly raining all day, but we had a good time regardless. Not too much to talk about really, without overlapping my old coverage, but here's a few photos to make this entry worthwhile. The breathtaking Toshogu Shrine and one of its walls of carvings; the nearby pagoda; and the iconic Shinkyo Bridge. You know, in retrospect, I probably should have gotten Aika in some of my pictures...

Random Japan Comment: Feels like home?
I was talking to my dad on the phone and he asked if coming back to Japan felt like returning home. That got me thinking, where does feel like home for me these days? Grand Junction, Colorado certainly does. I lived there a long time, my parents are still there, and I really feel at home when I return. Phoenix, Arizona feels like home as well, though a bit less than it used to now that I'm not a student and a lot of the people I used to hang out with aren't there anymore. Pennsylvania, up where my grandparents lived, really used to feel like home but, over the last few years, there's been a combination of moves, deaths, and family problems and, the last couple times I went, it just wasn't the same. Florida...really doesn't. Never mind that I've lived there for two years now. I mean, my apartment feels homey, I guess, but not the area as a whole. The reason? Probably because I'm just not all that attached to it. The little town I live in is nice enough, I have some friends down around (though not all that close to me), and going to all the theme parks has been fun but, when it comes down to it, if it wasn't for my job it's just not a place I'd want to live. Ideally, I'd be out of Florida entirely but, even I was going to stay in the state, I'd rather be in Orlando or on one of the southern beaches. Other than that, I think Honolulu could potentially feel like home if I spend enough time there. Tokyo? Well, I've certainly felt very comfortable since returning, but I wouldn't say it feels like home either. Maybe it's because I've lived in a different area each time I've come to Japan. Maybe it's the drastic cultural differences. Maybe because all my apartments have been roughly the size of the nicer walk-in closets I've had back in the US... That said, given the right circumstances, I might be able to feel at home here. Maybe...

Thursday (13th): Exploring Koto-ku
The part of Tokyo I'm staying in this time around is a section of Koto-ku. I'd originally wanted to walk around and explore a bit on Tuesday, but didn't get a chance to finish due to that emergency Akihabara trip, so I decided to do that today. When I was out shopping before, I saw a map of the area and spotted a park and garden that looked worth checking out. So I stopped by Doutor (a Starbucks style chain) for a green tea latte (they have the best ones of anywhere I've tried) then headed to Kiba Park. It turned out to be really large and part regular park (with playground equipment and the like) and part botanical garden. It was raining a bit, but I was still able to take a nice stroll through the park and get some pictures of various flowers. The park ends at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art, but it's closed for a few days for exhibit changing or some such, and I generally prefer older art anyway.
Next, I walked to Kiyosumi Garden. It's a Japanese garden that belonged to a government official a long time ago but is now public property. Like the park, it was mostly empty (likely due to the rain), but I was still able to get some nice pictures of the garden, the flowers, and various birds. Kiyosumi isn't an especially large garden (I'd call it medium size), and there are nicer ones in Tokyo, but it's still a very pretty and relaxing place and the entry fee is a minimal 150 Yen, so it's worth a stop if you're nearby.
After that, I got some lunch (Indian, for a change, since there's a place right near my apartment) then headed back to my apartment for a bit to get out of the rain, sort through my photos, and get some work done on trip planning for future days (I have the basic ideas marked down, but need to work out train schedules and the like for many of them).
That evening, I headed out again, this time going towards the center of Tokyo, near the Imperial Palace. My destination was Hie Shrine, site of Sanno Matsuri, one of Tokyo's most important local shrine festivals, which is going on this week. Unfortunately, the festival is only at its best on even numbered years (it alternates with Kanda Matsuri in May, with each one only having a small festival in their off years). Despite that, it was still fun to visit. There was a beautiful lantern lit path of tori gates (which reminded me of Fushigi Inari Shrine in Kyoto), dancing, and a few booths with food (I got a whole grilled fish on a stick). So I ate, watched the dancing for a while, and had a nice time. On a kind of amusing side note, you won't notice this if you don't read Japanese, but the writing on those lanterns isn't anything festive or religious, it's all ads for various businesses.
On my way back to the subway station, I got sidetracked by an interesting looking street and ended up walking around the Akasaka area for a while. I've never been there before, but apparently it's a popular nightlife area, with lots of restaurants, clubs, and bars. There are some foreign embassies nearby too, like the Embassy of Canadian...something or other. I'm guessing it's not Canadian Grammar Teachers.

Random Japan Comment: The Rainy Season
This time of year in Japan (mid June through mid July, give or take) is known as the rainy season, which means lots of cloudy days and rain. It's generally acknowledged to not be one of the better times to visit. But, on the bright side, a lot of the rain is little more than a gentle mist, and can be quite scenic. Plus, is reduces crowds and helps keep the temperatures down, so there are some good points.

Friday (14th): Back to Akihabara
I didn't really get to finish my rounds of Akihabara on Tuesday, and I was still in a shopping mood so I headed back there today. The route between my apartment and Akihabara crosses over one of Tokyo's many rivers, and this particular one is often used by ferry boats going between Asakusa and Odaiba. Some boats are pretty typical ferries, some are made to look more like old Japanese crafts, and then there's this one. I seem to recall hearing that its design is based on a ship from some anime, but I don't remember the details.
As always, I had a lot of fun shopping in Akihabara. Running around to a zillion little stores in search of rare items and good prices can be tiring, but it can also be fun (at least if you find all the stuff in said stores interesting), and there's that moment of triumph when you track down something in particular or get a good price (like when I found the rare Infinity Plus collection for 1,600 Yen less than average). Since I had a lot more time, I was able to get through most of Akihabara and hit most of my favorite stores. And, while I still have a bit of spending money left, I think I'm about shopped out for the next couple of weeks. I'll probably go back to Akihabara at least once more one this trip though, and I've got to visit Nakano Broadway at some point as well.
Oh, as I mentioned a couple days ago, I can now confirm that Maid Cafes seem to have had a big growth in popularity since the last time I was in Japan. I mean, there were a number of them then, but there seems to be even more now and they're being advertised pretty aggressively. Before, I'd see a handful of costumed girls handing out flyers on weekends. Today, I couldn't walk a block without seeing at least a couple of girls in maid uniforms, cosplay, school uniforms, shrine maiden outfits, or some such, and this is on a weekday. Maybe I should try one sometime so I can do a write-up...

Saturday (15th): Catching U
The rain cleared up today, making for the nicest weather since I got here...but, being a Saturday, I had services to go to so I didn't really get to take advantage of it. However, I did get a chance to catch up with all my friends at the congregation, which was really nice. That night, a bunch of us went out for a bit. We started in Asakusa, but didn't stay long. Instead, we walked to the Skytree and looked through some of the shops around the base. I'll actually be going up the Skytree in the future, so I won't go into detail about the tower itself right now, but there's a lot of stuff around it including shops, an aquarium, planetarium, and even a blood donation room. That last one is a bit odd, isn't it? Anyway, we stayed long enough to watch the Skytree light up for the night then headed off to a restaurant. Nothing too exciting, but it was great spending time with everyone.
On a side note, I spotted some odd English when we were out. Like this menu board. I suppose the wording is technically correct but really, who uses tubular? There was also the Non Step bus. Personally, I'd be more curious to see what the step bus is like...

Monday (16th): Harajuku with Friends

Yesterday, Une, Una, and Hanbee (three of my friends my the congregation) invited me to hang out with them in Harajuku and Shibuya this afternoon. I had planned to use the morning to visit that big flea market I've been to before but it was canceled due to rain (yesterday's nice weather didn't last). But, since I was already in the area, I figured I might as well stop by the Pokémon Center. There was a huge line outside for some kind of special event but, as a result, the Pokémon Center itself was surprisingly uncrowded, which was a nice surprise.
To kill time till the scheduled meet up, I decided to walk around Ikebukuro (another part of Tokyo). I was kind of curious since I've never been there before and some anime I've watched take place in that area. Ikebukuro reminds me a bit of Shinjuku, though on a somewhat smaller scale. There are a lot of restaurants, bars, and clubs near the station, making for what's probably a popular nightlife area. Though there's also a large university nearby, so a few streets over you get that atmosphere as well. Other then a few odd signs, I didn't see anything too impressive...until I stumbled across a cosplay event. I was running out of time at that point, so I couldn't stay long, but it was fun to watch all the different cosplayers, even if only for a few minutes.
After that, I met my friends near Harajuku Station and we ate, talked, braved Harajuku's crowded Sunday streets, and shopped. Well, more like they shopped and I tagged along, but I was ok with that. Hanging out with them was fun (and good Japanese practice) and, while fashion isn't really my thing, I like Harajuku for the people watching. You really see a lot of interesting styles there. Besides, following girls around on a shopping trip is bound to be good dating practice :-P

Random Japan Comment: Umbrellas
If there's even a chance of rain, you can bet that just about everyone in Japan will be carrying an umbrella. A lot of people in the US don't seem to bother, since it's often a simple matter of dashing from you car into your house, school, workplace, or wherever. But in Japan, where most people rely on public transit and shopping streets greatly outnumber indoor malls, a lot more walking outdoors is necessary. When it's raining, sidewalks tend to become forests of umbrellas. This happens even if the rain is so light that it doesn't really matter. Being able to navigate a crowded space while carrying an open umbrella is an important skill to develop if you're going to live in Japan. Being able to bike while holding an open umbrella in one hand can be quite useful as well.
As for the umbrellas themselves, traditional Japanese umbrellas have wooden slats and paper canopies, and you may have seen them in some old paintings or historical fiction anime. You can still buy those in some places, but they're used more as souvenirs than anything else. Most people use perfectly normal modern umbrellas. There are a variety of different styles, but the most common (probably because it's cheap) is a generic long handled umbrella with a hooked end and a transparent canopy (if you watch anime, you've probably seen lots of characters carrying them). They're hardly the only kind around though. Personally, I keep a collapsible umbrella in my backup whenever I'm out and about in Japan. It's more portable than the big ones, and it rains often enough here (even outside of the rainy season), that it's nice to have one handy.

Monday (17th): Asakusa and the Skytree

As I mentioned before, it's currently the rainy season here in Japan. And, while I'm not one to let rain slow me down when traveling (see some of the entries from my previous Japan travelogues), it does make certain activities rather difficult. But, the forecast predicted no chance of rain today or tomorrow, so I decided to jump on that and do a couple of things that really wouldn't be as good in the rain. First, I wanted to actually go up the Skytree. While rain wouldn't really prevent me from doing that, it would likely ruin the view. And, since the Skytree is near Asakusa, I decided to start there and make a day of it.
Since Asakusa is only about three miles from my apartment, I figured it would be nice to walk and see some more parts of the city. Gotta say though, the walk from my apartment to Asakusa isn't nearly as interesting as the walk to Akihabara or Tokyo Station. There was a museum, though not one I had any interest in visiting, and a random block or so of figurine shops, which slowed me down for a little while, but really the walk didn't get all that exciting until near the end when I just happened to pass a group of buildings belonging to Namco Bandai (their main offices, I think). It's not like I could do much there (they don't give tours or anything), but as a fan of many of their games, anime, and toys, that was still kind of cool.
Asakusa itself is pretty much unchanged from my previous visits, though I think it's a place that's worth coming to every time I'm in Tokyo. The shopping arcade and streets are just fun to walk around, and there are lots of interesting souvenir shops and restaurants. I decided to basically snack my way through a sort of late brunch (I kept expecting to pass a decent breakfast place on the walk, and never did). Fortunately, my favorite taiyaki place is still there and I also picked up some momonji, rice crackers, and soba ice cream (out of curiosity; it's not bad but not especially great either). That gelato place from my last visit was still there as well, though the flavors have changed a bit. I decided to try red bean (very good), satsumaimo (Japanese yam) (excellent), and umeshu (Japanese plum liquor) (mild but nice). Gotta say, it's also probably one of the cheaper gelato places I've ever been to anywhere.
Since I was there, I figured I might as well stop by Kaminari gate and Sensoji Temple. While it's not one of the older temples (sorta, it's been around for quite a while but kept burning down in the past), it's still quite impressive to see and the crowds can make for some enjoyable people watching. I saw lots of regular Japanese visitors, including some women in kimono, various foreign tourists, and a large group of junior high schoolers (in uniform), who were probably there on a field trip.
Leaving the temple, I walked down a few nearby streets. When you get out of the tourist areas, you run into some more practical shops and a number of arcades. I stopped in one to play a few rounds of various music games and look at the crane games (anyone want to win some plastic food?), then headed off for the Skytree.
So, I didn't talk about it in Saturday's write-up so let's have a quick overview. The Tokyo Skytree is a broadcast tower, built to take over Tokyo Tower's former role. The reason? While Tokyo Tower is very picturesque, it's also nowhere near the tallest thing in the Tokyo skyline anymore, reducing its broadcasting effectiveness. The Skytree, on the other hand, is not only the tallest structure in Japan, at 643 meters (around 2,100 feet) it's the world's tallest tower and the world's second tallest man-made structure (the tallest, BTW, is a skyscraper in Dubai, though I haven't been able to figure out why that isn't technically a "tower" as well). You can't go all the way to the top though, the main viewing deck is at 350 meters and the upper deck (which costs extra) is at 450. But either one will put you way above anything else in the city.
Now, back to my visit... The Skytree is, naturally, a pretty popular attraction. Unless you got your tickets ahead of time, you need to start by getting a number ticket, which lists the time and gate where you can go to buy your actual ticket. Despite it being early afternoon on a normal weekday, I still had to wait over two hours after getting my number ticket. Had I known that, I may have gone to the Skytree first, to beat the rush. Fortunately though, there's plenty to do. The Skytree is set again a large multi-story mall which features, among other things, an impressive food court, a Shonen Jump store, and a Ghibli store. Between walking around and getting an early supper of really good sukiyaki (I tried the slightly expensive but really excellent Japanese black wagyu beef), I didn't have much trouble killing time.
Finally it was time to go in...and wait in line to buy my actual admission ticket. Then I finally got to go up. Random trivia bit, the Skytree features Japan's fastest 40 person elevator (Is there a faster one with a different capacity? I don't know, but it specifies 40 person in the pamphlet.), which reaches a top speed of 600 meters per minute. The main viewing deck is quite nice, consisting of three floors along with a cafe, restaurant, gift shop, and some assorted exhibits. First, here's an old folding screen painting showing a similar view of Tokyo from the Edo period. Now, here are some modern views. Unfortunately, despite the relatively good weather, it was still a bit hazy, so Mt. Fuji wasn't visible (it can be seen from Tokyo on a really clear day though, I've done so in the past). I still got pretty impressive views, though my camera had some issues with the fog/haze (requiring me to run these pictures through Photoshop to reduce it). Here's a close up of Sensoji Temple back in Asakusa. And here's my apartment! Well, almost. The building is hidden behind some taller ones, but it's right near the left side of the middle of those three bridges.
Since I didn't get up the Skytree until around six, I figured I might as well hang out for a bit and get some shots of the night view as well (the sun is currently setting around seven). At one point, I decided to check out the cafe. Those dessert vinegar drinks made me really curious, so I decided to overlook my extreme dislike of vinegar and give the blueberry milk one a try. My first thought after taking a sip was something like "holy crap, that's real vinegar". The blueberry and milk helped a bit, but wow, there was a really strong vinegar taste. I managed to finish the whole thing, but I really wish I'd gotten something else instead...
Eventually, the sun went down and the lights around the city started coming on. I even got a shot of Tokyo Tower all lit up. Once I'd finished taking photographs (way too many of them), I took the elevator back to the ground, took a last look at the Skytree, then headed back for the night.

Random Japan Comment: Political Advertising
I don't know about those of you in other countries, but in the US election season means a slew of TV and radio ads, usually consisting mostly of warnings about how horrible the other candidate is. In Japan, however, politicians actually aren't allowed to advertise on mass media. Yes, you heard that right. So how do they get their name out to voters? Believe it or not, they drive around in vans equipped with loudspeakers, telling everyone to vote for them. It's not just in the cities either, they even do it out in really rural areas.
I'm honestly not sure which method is more annoying. I mean, I really hate a lot of the political ads back home, but being woken up by a loud voice shouting for you to vote for so and so isn't all that great either.
On a side note, I assumed that, given Japanese culture, elections here would be a bit "politer" than the ones we often have in the US, without all the namecalling, mudslinging, and the like. However, a half Japanese half American friend of mine assures me that Japanese elections are actually worse in that regard. Weird...

Tuesday (18th): Hiking Mt. Mitake

For my second good weather day, I decided to get out of the city and take a hike. I have several hikes planned, and this one involved hiking up and around Mt. Mitake. I started off taking the train a couple hours outside of Tokyo to the tiny town of Kori at the base of the mountains. After walking through the town (which featured a few old buildings), I reached the trail head and started up. And up... It was very steep in places and, despite the cloud and tree cover, it was really hot and muggy for a while (though things eventually got better once I was higher up in the mountains). There were some nice flowers though, and the occasional wild raspberry. Judging by some of the pamphlets and souvenirs I saw later, some type of flying squirrel is supposed to live in the area as well, though I didn't see anyway.
Unfortunately, while it didn't rain, it was a bit cloudy and foggy, which hampered the views. Eventually though, I reached the town of Mitake. As a side note, the route I took is apparently an extra long (and much less traveled) back way. Seems a lot of people take the train to Mitake Station and either climb or ride a cable car from there. I stopped in Mitake for lunch and had a nice bowl of sansai soba (soba with mountain vegetables) then proceeded to climb a whole lot of steps to Mitake Shrine. The shrine was decent, and had a number of nice smaller buildings behind it, but there are certainly nicer ones that are easier to reach from Tokyo.
I had made pretty good time, so I decided to continue on to the top of Mt. Hinode, which is supposed to have really good views. Though, once again, the fog reduced the visibility a lot. After that, it was time for a very steep hike down to the bus stop. On a side note, there are supposed to be a few small caves in the area that you can visit, though the only one I saw was closed at the time.
Being way out in the country, the busses don't run all that frequently. Unfortunately, my timing was horrible. I missed a bus by 20 minutes, leaving me with around an hour and a half until the next one. So I thought I might as well start walking to the train station in the meantime. Maybe I could beat the bus. Well, I didn't quite pull that off, but I made it pretty far before finally taking the bus the rest of the way. As I walked, I passed through a number of tiny towns, a lot of fishing parks (you pay and get a certain area of the river assigned to you), and even ran into a couple of those annoying political vans. The scenery was actually quite nice but, by that point, I was pretty worn out, sore, and more than a bit annoyed about how long I had to wait for the bus.
All in all, I'm not really sure how far I walked (the hiking maps just listed estimated walking times rather than distance), but it was a pretty serious distance, and much of it uphill. The hike as a whole was pretty (though it would have been better on a clear day), though not of the best I've taken in Japan. Still, I enjoyed myself overall, despite the mishap with the bus.

Random Japan Comment: License Plates
This is especially random, but Japanese license plates are boring. They're a solid color, with a few words and a number. No design, no nothing. In a country where people go crazy for cute things and can't pass up all sorts of crazy special and limited edition items, this seems like a wasted opportunity. They really should institute a system of designer plates, like the various US states have. The plates would look nice, the government would get some extra money, and people would have one more thing to collect. Everyone wins.

Wednesday (19th): Odaiba - Gundam Style
Did I really just say that? Well, whatever. Due to the sudden end of my last stay in Japan, I didn't get to go to Odaiba so it's been something like four years since my last visit to that part of Tokyo. It's gotten some new attractions since then, and one of them really peeked my interest. Specifically, Gundam Front, a museum of sorts dedicated to the popular giant robot franchise. I've been a fan of Gundam ever since they ran Gundam Wing on Toonami way back when, so I've been wanting to go. The web site recommended buying tickets in advance, which I did (using the ticket machine at a 7-11 a couple days back), though seeing as I went in the morning on a weekday, it really wasn't necessary.
Anyway, Gundam Front is part of Diver City, a new mall that wasn't around last time I was at Odaiba. It's a nice mall, though it lacks the personality of Decks or Venus Fort. The bulk of it is clothing stores and the like, though there's also a very nice food court, Gundam Front, a large arcade, and an even larger entertainment center which includes an arcade, karaoke, bowling alley, and more, all of which you can get unlimited access to for a single fee.
Gundam Front itself isn't all that big. There are full size recreations of a crashed Core Fighter (from the original MS Gundam) and the torso of the Strike Freedom Gundam (from Gundam SeeD), along with a scale diorama of the pivotal A Baoa Qu battle from MS Gundam. There's also a few other things you can play with, like a touch screen system with information on just about every important Gundam series character you can think of and large screens where you can get your picture taken next to your favorite Gundam character or in a mock-cockpit. There's also a movie theater that plays a montage of clips from various Gundam shows on a 360 degree panoramic dome, which is pretty cool. And finally, the more proper museum area features original concept sketches and storyboards, a timeline of the various series, and an area where you can sit and read a collection of Gundam manga (in Japanese, of course).
There's also Shot-G. When I was buying my admission ticket, there was an option to buy a separate ticket for Shot-G. I wasn't sure what that was (for some reason, it got left off the English Gundam Front web site, though it's on the Japanese), but figured it sounded like a simulation ride or something, so I decided to get a ticket for that too. Turns out, it's actually a photo shoot. Basically, you get to pose in the cockpit of the Strike Freedom and you get a regular and a 3D photo. A bit expensive for a couple of photos, but it makes a cool souvenir.
Naturally, there's also a store featuring a wide variety of Gundam models (which you can also preview in a nearby gallery) and merchandise, along with some cool (and very expensive) Gundam inspired clothing.
Once I'd finished up in Gundam Front, it was about time for lunch. Fortunately, the afore mentioned food court has a pretty nice (and very affordable) kaitenzushi restaurant. They even have an English option for their digital menu. As to what "lost beef" is, I think they started out with "roast beef", got r and l mixed up (a common mistake, since Japanese uses a single sound for both letters), and then forgot that there's supposed to be an a in there.
After lunch, I took the time to walk through the rest of Diver City and play a few music games in the arcade. But I wasn't quite done with Gundam yet... See, right outside the first floor of Diver City is the Gundam Cafe, which has Gundam inspired drinks and an entirely different set of merchandise for sale. But, the really cool thing is this. Yes, that's a full-scale recreation of Amuro's RX Gundam from the original series and it is amazing. Now, if they just make one that can actually walk around...
Once I'd finished ogling the Gundam, I headed over to some of the other malls. Though I couldn't pass up this view of both Tokyo Tower and the Statue of Liberty (mini-recreation) on the way. Anyway, the Aqua City Mall seems to have a lot more stuff in it than it used to, including a nice food court and a Capcom store (I didn't know those existed, maybe this is the only one). Nearby, Decks still has its awesome old Tokyo themed area and has added a takoyaki (octopus ball) museum, some sort of mini Legoland, a wax museum, and a museum of trick art (I didn't go in all of them though, just the old Tokyo area).
Once I'd finished browsing the shops, I couldn't resist a visit to Edo Onsen Monogatari, Odaiba's awesome onsen theme park with an old Tokyo style flair. You can read the detailed write-up from my first visit (the October 20th entry) if you want to know more about it. It hasn't really changed since then, but that's fine with me. It was a really relaxing way to finish the day and helped a little with the soreness in my legs from all that hiking yesterday.
On a side note, I took a wrong turn at the train station on my way back and came across this rather awesome clock designed by Hayao Miyazaki.

Friday (21st): Washinomiya

You may be wondering what happened to Thursday. Well, it was one of those days where nothing really goes right. Electronics, touring, directions, everything was giving me problems. I did go out for a bit but didn't really see or do anything worth writing about. On the bright side, I made reservations for what should be a really cool overnight trip late next week and found some cool stuff at a Book-Off. But that's about it.
Moving on... Today I decided to do visit Washinomiya Shrine. It's one of the oldest shrines in the area and has some popular festivals at different points during the year, but it's most popular these days for being the place where the Hiiragi twins from the Lucky Star anime and manga work as shrine maidens. Here's a shot of the path leading to the shrine from the anime...and here's a picture I took of the same area. I didn't have a reference image with me, so my photo doesn't match up exactly, bit you can clearly tell it's the same place. The nearby train station also has a Lucky Star mikoshi (portable shrine) and quite a lot of the prayer boards at the shrine were adorned with Lucky Star characters. That said though, unless you really want to try and recreate scenes from the anime, there really isn't much to do in Washinomiya. It's just not a particularly exciting or scenic town. The shrine is nice, but not especially fancy. Though they do keep a live peacock for some reason... Anyway, unless you're a huge Lucky Star fan, I wouldn't really recommend visiting unless it's for a festival.
On the way back, I stopped in Shinjuku to pay a visit to ARTNIA, Square-Enix's new shop / cafe, which is right in front of their main building. They have a nice selection of merchandise from their various games (though you can find the non-exclusive items for cheaper in Akihabara or Nakano) and a cafe with various Final Fantasy inspired desserts and drinks. I got a High Potion (one of the non-alcoholic options), which was primarily made of ginger ale, lime, and mint. Way better than those potion soda they occasional release... And that was my day, at least the parts worth writing about.

Random Japan Comment: Omikuji
Omikuji are fortunes you can draw and shrines and temples in Japan. You start by making a small offering (a 5 Yen coin is considered lucky). After that you usually shake a container and draw a lot, which tells you which drawer to draw your fortune from. A typical omikuji contains a general fortune (ranging from great blessing to great curse) and one or more fortunes about specific aspects of your life (health, romance, career, etc.).
Where ever you can get omikuji, you'll see a nearby tree or wire rack with a bunch of folded ones tied to it. The tradition is that, if your fortune is bad, you can avoid it by tying it up like that (the reason behind this is a pun that won't make sense unless you know some Japanese). Though, oddly, if you get a get a good fortune you can also tie it up to increase its effectiveness. Or you can hang onto it as a charm, either way.
On a side note, it's possible that omikuji served as a partial inspiration for fortune cookies, which aren't actually Chinese.

Saturday (22nd): Night Out

I don't have too much to say about Saturday, but that night I went out for BBQ with friends. Well, Korean BBQ. Which, other than involving grilled meat, doesn't have all that much in common with typical American BBQ. Personally, I like the Korean style better. The main reason? While I love grilling meat back in the US, I'm not a big fan of BBQ sauce, which is kinda what makes grilling BBQ. Korean BBQ involves grilling thinly sliced pieces of meat on a grill on/in the table and then eating them with a teriyaki style sauce, wasabi, and the like. But anyway, here's a picture of everyone (except me, since I took it). From left to right it's: Yunsoo, Yehoshua, Shin, Une, and Una. Those are Korean names, BTW, not Japanese. After the meal, some of us went out to karaoke, which was fun too.

Random Japan Comment: Ema
Since I talked about omikuji last time, let's cover ema as well. Ema are the wooden prayer boards you'll find at Shinto shrines. Unlike omikuji, which also show up at Buddhist temples from time to time, ema seem to stay firmly on the Shinto side of things. Anyway, an ema is a wooden plaque you buy and then write a wish on. The wish can be anything you might pray for (health, good grades, a girlfriend, etc.). You then hang your ema up at the appropriate place at a shrine for the local god(s) to read and answer them. Picking the proper shrine can be important, since some gods are particularly known for granting certain types of prayers.
The ema you buy at the shrines themselves tend to have some sort of Shinto related image drawn on them though, as you can see from the photo, they can have pretty much anything on them, including anime characters. You won't find those for sale at the shrine, but there are ema stores where you can buy ema painted with all sorts of different designs. If you're artistically inclined, you could also buy a blank one and draw on it yourself.
Of course, you could also just pray normally at the shrine, but leaving your prayer on an ema is supposed to increase the chance of it being answered. I suppose that makes sense. I mean, with all the prayers some of those gods get, it must be hard to keep them all straight. Having a reminder hanging around could be convenient.

Sunday (23rd): Yanaka
Yanaka is a section of Tokyo not too far from Ueno that I somehow missed on my previous trips. Not that I didn't get around to going, but I just didn't know about it. Fortunately, that oversight was corrected. So, what's so special about Yanaka? Read on to find out.
Upon arriving, I left the train station, climbed a hill, and found myself at the picturesque Tennoji Temple, the first of many. After looking around the temple grounds, I set off for a leisurely stroll through the cemetery. Yes, you read that right. Yanaka is home to a massive cemetery. It's over 25 acres of tombstones, old and new, and has a number of roads and paths winding through it. Many important historical figures are buried there, with their tombs marked with information signs in both Japanese and English. Here, for example, is the resting place of Tokugawa Yoshinobu Haka and his family. He was the last shogun to rule over Japan, before relinquishing power back to the emperor. You might think it kind of odd, but walking through the cemetery was both interesting and rather peaceful. There are a number of other nice little temples in and around it as well.
On an interesting note, the cemetery is bordered on several sides by a nice residential area. I wonder if that affects property values here in Japan. Actually, it might be seen as a plus, at least if you have family buried there. Speaking of the residential area, here's something you'll probably never see in the US, a playground in the middle of a cemetery.
There's more to see in Yanaka than just the cemetery. The whole district is riddled with temples (many with their own small cemeterys) (not many shrines, though), little museums, and the like. After leaving the cemetery behind, I had lunch at a very interesting curry restaurant. It was probably the most expensive curry I've ever gotten (Japanese curry is generally a really cheap meal), but it was made with a special mix of herbs and vegetables that's supposed to be very good for your health. Not my favorite curry ever, but certainly unique. Shortly after that I stumbled across a nice and somewhat old fashioned shopping street. Then it was off to visit some more temples and little museums. One temple that especially stuck out is Jyomyoin, which is supposedly home to 84,000 Jizo statues. I think that's an exaggeration, but there were a lot of them. The inside of the temple was quite impressive too.
I finished exploring Yanaka around mid afternoon (though I probably could have visited a dozen more temples if I wanted to). Since the weather was nice and I had plenty of time, I decided to walk at least part way back from there. I passed through Ueno Park on the way, getting some nice views of the lotus plants and paddle boats on the lake. I also stumbled across something at yet another temple. Want to guess who this tombstone is for? Actually, it's more of an it than a who. See, there was a noble two or three hundred years ago who was known for painting insects. Of course, it's generally rather hard to get a good look at an insect while it's alive. So the guy had this tomb commissioned to honor the insects that died for the sake of his art. Make of that what you will...
I plan to actually spend a day or so in Ueno later on, so I didn't stay too long. I walked for a while, did a little shopping, then hopped a train the rest of the way back to my apartment when it started to rain (I'm glad the weather stayed nice for most of the day). Gotta say, I really like Yanaka. The temples aren't as impressive as some, but they're very picturesque and the whole district (cemetery and all) is fun and interesting to walk through. Somewhat reminiscent of old Japan. And if you get tired of that you're right by Ueno with its huge park, museums, and more modern shopping areas.

Monday (24th): Noh
In the past, I've mentioned that there are three kinds of traditional Japanese theater, kabuki, bunraku, and noh. Well, I watched some kabuki during my first stay (see the entry for the 26th) and went to see bunraku last time (see the entry for the 11th), so this time I really wanted to see noh. Fortunately, there's a theater in Tokyo that hosts regular noh productions and it's easy to check the schedule and order a ticket online.
Noh is the oldest of the three theater styles, dating back to the 14th century. Traditionally, noh plays were often performed at Shinto shrines for various festivals, and you'll still find a number of shrines with noh stages. The performers don't wear makeup, either going barefaced or wearing masks representing women (noh is traditionally performed by an all male cast), oni (demons), and the like. Unlike kabuki, which is all about sweeping exaggerated movements (and bunraku, though it's a bit different since it's done with puppets), noh actors tend to move very stiffly and only when necessary. They speak, however, in a very exaggerated way, often more of a chant or song than straight up speech (which sounds interesting but makes the old style Japanese dialogue even harder to understand). Like kabuki and bunraku, noh often features music provided by onstage performers. However, while it's still what most people would call traditional "Asian" music, the noh music I heard today differed from what was used in kabuki and bunraku in that is entirely lacked shamisen, focusing entirely on percussion instruments and a choir of sorts.
Another thing that sets noh apart is that the plays are relatively short. An entire noh play is often 15 minutes to an hour or so, which is only enough for a single scene of your average kabuki or bunraku play. As such, I actually got to see an entire play. Two, in fact. One full on play about a pair of traveling monks who encounter a disguised demon and one shorter humorous "sketch" (known as a kyougen) about a servant who tries to trick his master by pretending to be an oni. I did pretty good following the Japanese in the kyougen, but the main play would have completely lost me. While the kabuki theater and bunraku theater I visited in the past let you rent an English audio guide so you could listen to a translation as the play was going, the noh theater didn't have that. Fortunately, they had a good alternative. Each seat had a screen in the back (like the nicer airplanes), which you could set to display subtitles in Japanese or English.
Surprisingly enough, the theater was packed. Though about half the audience seemed to be high schoolers on a fieldtrip. Speaking of which, before the play started, a guy came on stage to talk about noh for a while and, as part of his explanation, he brought two of the kids on stage to try on some noh masks. The main reason was to show just how small the actor's field of vision is while wearing the mask. They must really have to be careful not to walk too far and fall off the stage...
Anyway, I enjoyed watching the noh plays, though if you want to go to one traditional performance in Japan, I'd probably recommend kabuki or bunraku instead, since they're a lot more dynamic.
After the play, I walked around a bit, ended up passing through Shinjuku (I seem to be ending up there a lot lately), and decided to pay a visit to Nakano since I was in the general area. It hasn't changed too much since my last visit. Nakano Broadway is still an awesome places to shop for figurines and other collectables, and that's all I have to say about that.

Tuesday (25th): Walking Around the Palace
I had plans to meet a friend for lunch, so I hung around my apartment in the morning and got some work done. The weather was a bit iffy after lunch, but I wanted to do something, so I decided to walk all the way around the imperial palace complex, something I never go around to doing in the past.
First off, I had to cut through Tokyo station so here's a shot of its western (and far more photogenic) side. Moving on, the palace and its grounds are surrounded by by a moat. While a lot of the area is completely closed off to the public, there's a path all around the edge of the moat (which is quite popular with joggers) and you can walk through various gardens and parks along the way. Though the main highlights of the circuit are this view and the East Garden, which is open to the public for free on most days. It has a number of different sections including traditional Japanese fruit trees, some botanical garden like areas, and a more traditional style Japanese garden. There are nicer gardens in Tokyo, but not for free, and you can get an up close look at some of the walls and old buildings near the palace, so that's cool.
On my way back, I spent some time walking around in the underground mall beneath Tokyo Station. While it's mostly clothing and restaurants, there were some more interesting things as well like a Jump Store and a Gundam Cafe (while the Gundam Cafe at Diver City has a lot more stuff for sale, you can actually sit and eat in this one). I was sorta looking for a specific shop I remember from my last visit to Japan, but I never did find it. Not sure if it's not there anymore or if I just missed it (Tokyo Station can be a bit of a maze).
And that was about it for the day. Not too exciting, but I can't be doing big things every single day

Wednesday (26th): The Toei Animation Gallery
I had originally hoped to do some hiking today but, with the weather forecasts predicting high chances of heavy rain everywhere, that idea was out. And since I've got something big planned for the next couple of days, I decided to keep my touring plans simple and spend some time getting work done.
My one touring destination for the day was the Toei Animation Gallery. If you watch anime, you're probably familiar with the name. Toei Animation has been around since the 60's and is behind many of the most popular anime of all time including Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, Digimon, and One Piece, just to name a few. Despite that, their building is very unimpressive. But they do have a free animation gallery / museum that you can visit. It's not all that big, but they have an extensive timeline of all their works, some production art, and the like on display, and a few videos showing parts of the animation process and/or various series. That said, it's pretty much all in Japanese (I did ok for the most part, but if you don't know much Japanese, you won't be able to understand much of anything). They've also got a replica of a giant robot from one of their older shows (though it has nothing on Diver City's Gundam). In that picture, you can also see the life size statues of the girls from one of the Pretty Cure series off to the right. If you haven't heard of Pretty Cure...I can't blame you, hardly any has been released outside of Japan, but over here it's a very popular magical girl franchise.
Anyway, I had originally been thinking of making another stop after the gallery but the rain was only getting harder so I decided to just call it a day. Fortunately, the weather is supposed to be much better over the next couple of days.

Thursday (27th): Hakone Day 1
Hakone is a region in the mountains to the south west of Tokyo, not all that far from Mt. Fuji. It's a really popular vacation spot in Japan, especially for people looking to get out the city for a day or two. I had originally planned a visit to Hakone the last time I was in Japan but then there was the earthquake and, long story short, I had to cancel. So naturally I was determined to make it there this time.
If you want to travel in Hakone, the first thing to do it by a Hakone Free Pass at Shinjuku Station. Why? Well, the regular JR trains don't cover much of the Hakone region. The free pass (which can be purchased in two or three day versions), gives you round-trip train fare from Shinjuku Station, free use of most of the major public transit systems in Hakone, and discounts on tons of attractions, shops, and the like. All for a decent bit less than what the train and other necessary transit tickets would cost you separately.
While it's possible to make a nice day trip out of Hakone, there's easily enough things to fill two or three days, so I got a two day pass and booked a hotel room about a week back. And, since I went on a Thursday - Friday, I was able to avoid the weekend crowds (which I've heard can get really bad). For my trip to Hakone, I opted to spend a little extra and take the special Romance Car train, which is faster and more comfortable than the standard trains (much like a shinkansen). The ride was nice, going through a mix of city, towns, and rice paddies.
I took the Romance Car all the way to the end of its track in Hakone Yumoto. There are a number of onsens and some museums in the area, but I only stayed long enough to grab a quick breakfast before switching to the Hakone Tozen Railway, which takes riders up through the mountains for the next leg of the journey. This particular train line is known for all the switchbacks (something train tracks don't normally have), and for being lined with hydrangeas this time of year. You don't get much of a view, between the trees and the tunnels, but the forests and hydrangeas make it very pretty ride.
I got off the train at Kowakidani and headed for my first major destination. I could have taken a bus with my free pass, but decided to walk instead since it was only about 1 kilometer away (mostly uphill, of course). Before too long I arrived and Yunessun, an onsen theme park, though very different from Edo Onsen in Odaiba. It's divided into three sections. Yunessun and Yutopia are the more unique sections and make up what's called the "swimsuit zone". As in, genders are mixed and everyone wears bathing suits. Mori no Yu, on the other hand, is a traditional Japanese onsen (amusingly dubbed "naked zone" on the English map). You can get a ticket for either zone or a passport combo ticket for both (which is what I did).
Let's take a look at the different baths... I started off in Yunessun where they have this giant Aegean Sea themed bath/pool. It's warm (nearly all the pools are), shallow, and has plenty of space to play around or sit and relax. There's even a kids' water play tower and some water slides outside. As a side note, the temperature in Hakone was considerably cooler than in Tokyo, so I'm glad the water was warm (hot springs, and all that). Anyway, there were also fake caves with baths inside and some baths that give you views of the mountains. Then you get to the more interesting baths... There's an assortment of smaller baths themed after those in different countries, an aroma therapy room (a not especially hot sauna filled with what smelled like essential oils), and a pool of doctor fish, those little fish I've seen at a couple other places that eat the dead skin off your feet. My dad keeps bugging me to give that a try and, unlike at Edo Onsen, Yunessun lets you do it for a free so I figured I might as well. Basically you just sit down, dangle your feet in the water, and let the fish do their thing for a few minutes. It doesn't hurt at all (though it tickles a little), but I have to admit that it feels kinda creepy... Moving on, there's also the first few of a long series of baths with special ingredients added in. There's a salt bath where you can float like you're in Salt Lake or the Dead Sea. Well, I assume it's salt because it stings a bit and you float really easily, but that one wasn't marked in English and I couldn't read the kanji. There was also the honey and royal jelly bath which, like a number of the special baths, I could see as being potentially good for your health and/or skin. But then there's the pudding bath... Yes, you read that right. Speaking of which, many of the special baths have a sign nearby listing "show times", which are times when the staff comes by and dumps some of the special ingredient into the water (though I'm sure plenty is piped in during the interim as well). For the honey bath, they come along with big buckets of honey and ladies and slowly scoop it into the water. For the pudding bath, they literally dump a really large flan like pudding into it. Speaking of which, any given bath is always most crowded around show time.
Next, I moved to the Yutopia area (passing by a large normal indoor pool which can be used for playing, swimming laps, and the like). It's an outdoor section and is all about those special baths. First, and probably the most popular, the coffee bath. If you like the smell of coffee, this one is for you. Right behind it is the waterfall bath, in case you want to bath while sitting under a waterfall...well, more like a mild water spout. Then there's the wine bath. I have to wonder if they dye the water a bit to get that shade... I mean, the green tea bath certainly looks like it was dyed, though I have some some natural and very green green tea, so maybe not. And here I am in a less colorful tea bath. There's also the sake bath, old fashioned Japanese bath (no special water here), the lucky bath (I couldn't figure out what they put in it, but bathing in it is supposed to give you good luck), a waterfall (not a bath, just a nearby waterfall you can look at), the charcoal bath, and the much less impressive (and completely unheated) water bath, which is just ordinary water. Finally, there's the walking bath. Walking over all the stones is supposed to be good for your feet. Edo Onsen has one of those as well, though theirs can really hurt, while this one wasn't too bad. If you're wondering whether people actually use all these crazy baths, yes they do. Though a lot of them just hop in each bath for a couple minutes, get a picture, and move on. Some baths, however, do cause a lot of people to linger (the coffee bath, for example).
After I'd finished experimenting with the different baths I got some lunch then headed over to Mori no Yu, to wrap up my bathing experience by relaxing in the onsen. It's a nice onsen, by the way. Mostly outdoors, with a number of different pools. Though there isn't any practical difference between most of the pools, outside of cosmetics. Of course, being a regular onsen, I naturally couldn't bring my camera in, so no more pictures.
Once I'd finished bathing, I left Yunessun and walked towards the next station. Along the way, I reached my next stop, the Hakone Open-Air Museum. It's a mostly outdoor museum with a focus on modern sculpture. It's a very pretty setting, though your enjoyment will depend a good bit on how much you like the sculptures (I had mixed opinions). There are some galleries as well, including one devoted entirely to Picasso, and some art that doubles as play areas for the kids. Then there's a neat stained glass tower that doubles as a view point for the best mountain views I'd gotten all day.
A little further down the road from the museum, I reached the next train station and took the Hakone Tozen to its final stop, the town of Gora. I made it with enough time to see Gora Park before everything started shutting down for the evening. It's a nice western style garden and, considering the time of year, there was a big focus on hydrangeas of all different kinds. There was even a snack shop selling hydrangea flavored ice cream (which was quite good). Of course, there were other types of plants and flowers as well and the garden made for a nice little final stop for the day. Plus, my Hakone Free Pass got me in for free, so you can't beat that.
Afterwards, I checked in my hotel (which was right by the park and much fancier than I expected for the price), got some food (which proved a little difficult since most places shut down at 5 or 5:30 once most of the tourists leave), took another bath (for the heck of it, since my hotel had an onsen), and just relaxed for the rest of the day. At that point, I kind of wished I'd brought my laptop so I could get some work done, though the thought of carrying it around all day makes me glad I didn't.

Friday (28th): Hakone Day 2

Before leaving Gora to continue exploring Hakone, I stopped by the nearby Hakone Museum of Art. The galleries were decent (consisting mostly of old Japanese pottery), but the real reason to go is the beautiful moss garden that the galleries are set in. As a note, there's one part of the garden that's only open on weekends and holidays. Of course, I wasn't there on either, so I can't really say anything about it.
Now, I mentioned that the Hakone Tozen train line ends in Gora, but there's a good bit of the Hakone loop left from there. So what to do? Well, you could take a bus (you can actually take busses just about everywhere in Hakone), but that's no fun. The "proper" continuation is to get on the cablecar. It's really not all that different from a train, except that it's towed directly up and down the mountain by a thick cable. The cablecar route really isn't all that long, just stopping at different parts of Gora, but the Hakone Free Pass covers it, and walking would be nothing but a steep climb. Then, from the top of the cablecar, you switch to the ropeway (a gondola) which takes you up over the mountain and onward to Owakudani. You need to switch ropeways there, but I stopped to look around first.
Owakudani is an area famous for its thermal activity. I think a lot of the water for the nearby onsen is piped from there, and there are numerous places where steam and hot water rise up from the ground. There are a couple of full on hikes up there, which looked nice but I had a lot I wanted to see so I had to pass. I did, however, look around the souvenir shops and take the short (and very popular) nature trail up to this hut. See, that hut is where they make Owakudani's speciality, black eggs. Basically, it's a normal egg hard boiled in the water from the hot springs. Supposedly, they're really good for you and eating one will add seven years to your life. On a side note, if you don't want to fight the crowds, you can get the same eggs for the same price at the souvenir shops near the ropeway station, they're just a little fresher at the hut. Anyway, despite the black shell, the eggs taste pretty ordinary. Also, for some reason, they're only sold in packs of five (along with a packet of salt), which made me wish I had some friends along to split them with. Oh well, I got all 35 years of extra life for myself, so that's a plus (no, I didn't eat them all at once, hard boiled eggs keep fairly well).
After that, it was time to take the ropeway down to the shore of Lake Ashi, where I switched to yet another mode of transportation, a boat (and a rather fancy looking one at that). I arrived at a perfect time and was able to go straight to the boat (also covered by my free pass) and set off across the lake towards Hakone Machi. It was a pleasant ride with some very nice views. On a side note, the Hakone Prince Hotel building looks amazing, though it's probably really expensive to stay there.
The boat took me all the way to Hakone Machi on the opposite end of the lake. It's got a nice little street lined with old style shops, which leads to the Hakone Checkpoint (aka. Hakone Sekisho).
Time for a little history lesson. Back in the early 1600's, the Shogunate created a series of checkpoints on the major roads all throughout Japan. The one in Hakone was the biggest and most important. Any travelers passing through had to stop and undergo inspection at the checkpoint. There were a number of reasons for this but the two most important were to regulate the passage of weapons into Edo (what Tokyo was called back then) and to regulate the passage of women out of Edo. Before you ask, no it wasn't that women weren't allowed to travel. See, to help keep the daimyo (lords) that ruled the different parts of Japan in-line, the Shogun required them to keep two residences. One in their home province, and the other in Edo. For one, maintaining two lavish dwellings and frequently traveling between them cost a lot of money, which made it difficult for any of the daimyo to bankroll a large enough army to try and overthrow the Shogun. Also, while the daimyo traveled back and forth between Edo and their home provinces, their wives were required to live in Edo full time (essentially making them hostages). The checkpoint's job was to make sure none of them managed to sneak out.
So, back to the present, the checkpoint was restored in 1999 and turned into a museum. You can look inside the buildings and learn about how it used to operate. It was quite interesting. The admission ticket also gets you into a nearby museum, which has more information on the checkpoint and various old items that were used there. Oh, as you may have noticed, the weather was really starting to get nice when I reached the checkpoint. On a good day, you have some great views of Mt. Fuji from this entire area. Unfortunately, that was the one part of the sky that never really cleared up.
From the checkpoint, I stopped at a snack stand for some dango (mochi on a stick, basically) then walked to the nearby Detached Palace Garden (so named because it surrounded a former Imperial retreat). As far as gardens go, it wasn't all that impressive, but there's some nice views.
From there, I walked down a scenic cedar lined road (part of the original highway to the checkpoint, which was lined with trees by the Shogunate to help block the summer sun and winter snow) to the town of Motohakone. It has yet another art museum, which also offers a room where you can sit and admire the view. Of all the art museums I stopped at in Hakone, I liked the art here the best, though I think they periodically change the exhibits. The other main attraction is Hakone Shrine. You can follow the road, but there's also a nice path along the side of the lake that will take you there and you can stop and see this tori gate on the way. The shrine itself is pretty nice as well and has a long history, dating back to 754 (though the current building is from 1667).
After that, it was time to finish up the loop and head back to Tokyo. You can actually follow the old road quite a ways towards Hakone-Yumoto, but I didn't want to get back too late so I took a bus instead, going all the way to Odawara. Odawara, by the way, is the place you reach shortly before Hakone-Yumoto when you're coming from Tokyo. That said, unless you need to change trains, there's not much reason to stop there. It's the biggest town/city in Hakone by far, but not all that scenic compared to the others. I did stop to walk around for a little bit though. There are some museums there, as well as a reconstruction of the donjon (tower) of Odawara Castle. It's worth a look if you're there but I'd say that when you're visiting Hakone it's really not a big deal if you pass through Odawara without stopping.
So, overall I really enjoyed my Hakone trip. It's a very pretty area and there's a lot to see and do (I could have easily added some hiking and museums and filled up a third day), I can see why it's such a popular weekend getaway for people in Tokyo.

Random Japan Comment: Rankings
Japanese people have a bit of an obsession with ranking things. Want to know what the three best views in Japan are? The three best gardens? (On a side note, I've been to two of both.) Onsen? Maybe the best curry restaurants? The nicest train stations? There are official rankings for all of those things and many many more. On the one hand, it can be rather useful when planning trips, looking for a place to eat, and the like. Sometimes though, it can get a bit ridiculous. During my time in Hakone, for example, I walked across a bridge with a sign declaring it to be one of the hundred best bridges in the region. Did someone really visit every bridge in the area and rank them all? Well, I guess everyone needs a hobby...

Saturday - Sunday (29th - 30th): Visiting Ishinomaki

My friend Yehoshua is friends with a Korean missionary who started a church and tea house in the town of Ishinomaki shortly after the big earthquake and tsunami two years ago. Yehoshua was invited to speak there this Sunday and wanted me and some others to come along. So Saturday night we got in a van and started driving north. The drive there wasn't especially eventful. It took about five hours so we got in fairly late, met our hosts, and went to bed.
The next morning was the church service followed by lunch with some of the members. After that, we ended up doing a bit of touring. First off, the church happens to be about three minutes away from a manga museum, which Yehoshua insisted I go see (I've been kinda typecast). Anyway, the museum was devoted to the works of Shotaro Ishinomori. While he's not especially well known in the US, he holds the world record for most comics published by a single author, with over 128,000 pages spread over a variety of different series, many of which were highly influential. A few of his titles include Cyborg 009, Kikaider (the anime adaptations of both of those ran on Cartoon Network a while back), and Kamen Rider (the live action adaptation of which more or less birthed the transforming hero vs. rubber suit monster genre). The museum had some information about him (all in Japanese), original sketches, and a lot of displays related to his work (for example, a mask from every single Kamen Rider series and statues of all the cyborgs from 009). It's a nice museum and I found it pretty interesting, though if you're not somewhat familiar with Ishinomori's work then you'd probably get bored pretty quickly.
After that, I met back up with everyone and one of the church members showed us around a bit. While the majority of Ishinomaki was far enough inland to avoid serious damage, the areas on the coast were devastated by the tsunami. A lot of it has been cleaned up, but there are still destroyed buildings, wrecked cars, and other trash scattered about. Some things, you might not even notice. For example, what's now an empty field once held over 1,700 houses. We also stopped at the docks, which are used by a lot of fishing boats (look at all the seagulls waiting for scraps). While Ishinomaki wasn't hit as hard as some areas, and a lot of cleanup has been done, there's still much more to do. For example, many people in the area are still forced to live in low end temporary housing, which is rather sad.
After that, we drove back and that was the trip. I do want to talk a bit about driving long distances in Japan, but I'll save that for the following RJC.

Random Japan Comment: Driving Across Japan
While many people who want to travel long distances in Japan take a train, bus, or even plane, driving is always an option. Though not necessarily the most cost effective one. Japan's cross country expressways are all toll roads which charge by distance traveled. Depending on the type of vehicle, average tolls can run somewhere between $0.32 - 1.08 per mile (assuming a rough 100 yen per dollar exchange rate). That can really add up, especially when you consider that gas is a lot more expensive in Japan than the US (at present, it's a bit over $5 per galleon). If you have a lot of people, or need to transport something that would be difficult to carry on a train, it can make sense. But for one or two people traveling normally, it could be cheaper to just stick to public transportation.
One nice thing about Japan's expressways is the frequent rest stops. Unlike the ones in the US, which usually consist of nothing but a restroom and some picnic tables, Japanese rest stops tend to have restaurants, convenience stores, souvenir shops, and (of course) a large collection of vending machines. The restaurants and shops tend to stay open pretty late and some of these stops can get very busy. They may even include other amenities like coin operated showers, which I'm not entirely sold on.

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