Josiah's Japan Travelogue #6
May 21 - June 22, 2023
|May 21st (Sunday) - May 22nd (Monday): Back to Japan|
A little hard to believe it's been six years since I last went to Japan. I never intended there to be such a big gap. In fact, we were originally going to do a family trip to Japan in 2019, but then my parents and my brother's family moved to Hawaii that summer so we delayed it to 2020. And then all the COVID lockdowns hit, at which point Japan blocked out most international travel. A ban that was only fully lifted this past winter. That said, we still don't aren't doing that much delayed family trip. The reason? As of March 31st, Connie and I have a new baby. So the big family trip will have to wait another year. I however, am back in Japan for another reason.
Back in 2019, myself and another professor at my university put together a plan to take a group of our students to Japan for tour that would combine sightseeing and learning about the Japanese video game industry. Students loved the idea and we were all set to go in the summer of 2020. And then the lockdowns... So we planned again for 2021...and 2022... And now, finally, in 2023, we got our chance (fourth time is the charm, I guess). New baby or not, I couldn't really bail on a trip I'd spent four years organizing. Fortunately, Connie has both her parents and my mom to help her with the kids. And, since my dad really wanted to come back to Japan, and get a bit of father-son time in (unlike my brother, who lives in Hawaii, he doesn't get to spend that much time with me), we ended up tacking a bit of vacation on after the tour as well. So, the first two week of this travelogue will focus on the student tour and the second two weeks will be sightseeing with my dad.
I left Virginia late in the morning of the 21st. Unfortunately, I had a bit of a tight connection in Canada. Still, it probably wouldn't have been an issue except the guy whose job it was to park the runway that connects the plane to the airport didn't seem to know what we was doing and we spent around 20 minutes waiting for him to line it up properly so we could leave the plane. That led to a bit of a mad dash through the airport. Fortunately, I made it in time to board my flight to Tokyo...only to get stuck on the runway for two hours because the plane needed a systems reboot... Once we actually took off, things were mostly fine other than a bit of turbulence during the last hour or so. By the time I got to my hotel in Tokyo's Asakusa district, it was late and I was exhausted so I decided to just settle in and grab some sleep. Japan, and work, could wait until the morning.
Random Japan Comment: Visit Japan Web
|May 23rd (Tuesday): Here Come the Students|
|I didn't sleep as well as I'd hoped. Possibly due to jet lag (though it usually doesn't bother me much), but it could just be that my body has gotten into the habit of sleeping for less time and frequently waking up due to the new baby. Anyway, I woke up a bit earlier and I could tell that I wouldn't be getting back to sleep so I decided to go for a walk around Asakusa. Since it was early, nothing was open yet and the streets (normally packed with tourists), were almost empty. Unfortunately, it was also raining, which continued throughout the entire day. On the bright side, the weather for the rest of the week is looking great. Despite the rain, I walked around a bit and snapped a few pictures, though I'll have to do it again one morning when the conditions are better. That said, rain can lead to some great photos as well.
After an hour or so wondering around, I went back to the hotel to get breakfast and meet up with my colleagues from the university. The students were all going to be arriving in the afternoon, and we had prep work to get done before hand. That led to a trip to Ueno, which was mostly spent waiting in long lines in the train station to get SUICA cards and such. After all that was taken care of, I still had a couple hours before I needed to head to the airport and wait for incoming flights, so I took another walk through Asakusa now that all the shops were open. I mostly just meandered around and explored a bit, while making sure to hit up a kaitenzushi restaurant for lunch and grab a couple taiyaki afterwards. I'll get some more pictures of the area another day, when I don't have to deal with an umbrella, but it was a lot of fun, and somewhat nostalgic, and made me realize just how much I missed spending time in Japan. On a random note, while Japan's cat cafes never interested me that much, this hedgehog cafe is a little bit tempting...
After that it was back to Narita Airport. While waiting for students, I spotted a Nintendo display. Seems they're doing a cross-promotion for visiting Japan. That aside, the next few hours were spent standing around waiting for the students, getting them their JR Passes, and then taking them to Asakusa to get them checked into their hotels. Due to more flight delays, it was a little after 9 by the time everyone was settled in and ready to grab a (very late) dinner. The other professor and I weren't too positive about our options at that time of night, especially with so many people, but we got really lucky and stumbled across Toriyoshi Syoten, a restaurant specializing in various chicken dishes (though they had a lot of other things as well), that was not only open late but could actually seat our entire group (instead of splitting up between several restaurants like we thought we'd need to do). The food was good (and much of it rather unique), and it made for a great kick-off celebration for the tour.
Random Japan Comment: Masks Post COVID
|May 24th (Wednesday): Keywords and SEGA|
|Today was the first full day of our student tour and we got an early start for our first game studio visit. (As a note, for privacy reasons and such, I'm going to be somewhat limited in the amount of photos and info I post in relation to the studio visits.) Students got their first experience with the Tokyo rush hour (crowded trains and all) on our way to Sasazuka, a mostly residential area of the city. Our first stop was Keywords (formally known as Wizcorp). You've likely never heard of them, but they're a company that does contract work for other developers. They're can handle pretty much everything except game design (art, sound, localization, marketing, customer service, etc.) and have worked on the vast majority of notable games released in recent years, from mobile to AAA titles. The presentation they gave us had a particular focus on translation and localization, as they often help developers who want to release their games in other countries. Being a writer and somewhat bi-lingual, that's always been an area I'm interested in. The presentations were great and there was a lot of time for Q&A and such.
After that, it was off to Osaki (a business focused part of the city) to visit Sega (the most famous name on our itinerary). As expected of such a big company, they had a big, sleek presentation. It started off going over some details about Sega themselves and the types of jobs they hire for (which I'm sure got the students excited). Then we had a very interesting presentation from one of the main people behind the Phantasy Star Online series, which focused on topics such as player retention in online games. A little technical (the type of thing I'd expect at the Game Developers Conference), but also very interesting with a lot of good information. We were also given a brief tour of Sega's Tokyo offices. Or at least a couple of sections. Naturally, there were lots of areas we couldn't visit, and most of what we did see we weren't allowed to photograph. I'll just say that their office space is both creatively arranged and decorated, though it's probably not what you'd expect (neither dreary offices or in your face SEGA branding).
Once we finished, it was time to head back to Asakusa and dismiss the students for the day to explore and get some dinner. I, however, headed over to Ueno to reserve train tickets for our trip to Kyoto next week. However, JR passes have changed a lot since my last visit to Japan and that introduced some complications to the process. As it turned out, I needed not only the rail passes, but the passport numbers, and they all had to match up to each other. Neither I (or the other professor I'm working with) expected that and, as a result, I had to spend two hours trying to match up rail passes with passport numbers, which basically involved entering one number after another from a long list until I hit a match. Over and over and over... Ugh... At least I happened to have a list of everyone's passport date, without that I would have been completely stuck. That aside though, it was a fantastic day and a great way to really start off the tour. I kept thinking how amazing it would have been if I'd had something like this as a student so I'm glad I'm able to help bring that experience to others.
Random Japan Comment: Japan Rail Passes
|May 25th (Thursday): Skytree and Akihabara|
|I was still having trouble sleeping so, after waking up early, I decided to take a walk and snap some pictures of Kaminarimon gate and Sensoji Temple before the usual flood of tourists showed up. I got a number of nice photos and even caught a bit of the morning service at the temple. There's also a path along the river so I followed that for a while and took some morning photos of the Tokyo Skytree. It was a pleasant way to pass the time, though I probably could have used the extra sleep.
After a while, it was time to head back to the hotel for breakfast and to gather the students for the day's activities. With yesterday being focused on educational studio visits, today was for sightseeing. We started with a walk to the afore mentioned Skytree to give everyone some good views of the city. And views of the ground far below. Once they got tired of the view, the students were given a few hours to explore Skytree Town, the mall at the base. It was always a pretty cool place, with lots of restaurants, a Jump store, Pokemon Center, and a Ghibli store, along with a wide variety of other interesting (and non anime and game related) shops. And it's added some neat new places over the years, such as the Kirby Cafe. The Cafe itself, unfortunately, is in such high demand that you need to make reservations around a month in advance and all the slots tend to get booked almost immediately after they're opened. I tried to grab one myself but failed. However, the cafe store it open to everyone. The students had fun browsing the mall and so did I. In fact, I'll likely slip back there again at some point to check out a couple more stores and restaurants.
Then it was off to Akihabara, which everyone was very excited about. The shops there always tended to change fairly often and the lockdowns only made it worse, but I was glad to see that at least some of my old favorites had survived, including the always popular Super Potato and the giant Yodobashi Camera. Time was limited so there were a number of stores and areas I didn't get to, but I had a lot of fun browsing and managed to pick up a few items I'd been really wanting. After so long though, I had sorta forgotten just how overwhelming the sheer volume of stores and products can be. Anyway, it's another spot I'll definately have to get back to once or twice more before this trip is over. For dinner, we took the students up to Yodobashi Camera's 8th floor food court, which is my go-to place to eat in Akihabara. It's as awesome as always, though it appears that a large number of the restaurants I remember got replaced over the past few years (likely due to the lockdowns).
Random Japan Comment: A Little More Modern
|May 26th (Friday): FuRyu and Historia|
|I finally managed to get a full night's sleep, leaving me ready for another big day of game studio visits.
We began by taking the train to Shibuya. We'll be sightseeing there another today, but it was fun to pick out one familiar spot on the way to our destination. The last time I visited Shibuya Station, it was under a lot of construction. At this point, most/all of that seems to be finished. As such, the station is bigger and more modern than ever...and also even more confusing to navigate. Doesn't help that there's still a ton of construction going on outside the station and we had to make our way through some long twisting corridors like this one. Fortunately, we still managed to find our way to FuRyu. You may not be familiar with the name, but they've developed and/or published a number of good (if not overly famous) JRPGs, such as Monark and Trinity Trigger. I actually own a lot of their games, so I personally was rather excited. The students got to learn about the company, demo and give some feedback on Trinity Trigger, and also play around with Japanese photo sticker booths. If that last one seems a bit odd, the reason is that FuRyu doesn't just do video games. They're also one of Japan's biggest photo booth developers and they create a lot of anime figurines, UFO catcher machines, and anime as well. It was a really fun time for everyone.
We probably could have spent even more time at FuRyu, but we had to hurry back to the station and catch another train so we could make it to our next studio, Historia. They're essentially Japan's leading experts on Unreal Engine and, as such, are often contracted by other developers to help created Unreal Engine games and software. Their most recent, and famous, title is Square Enix's Live a Live remake (which I highly recommend). During our time there, the students learned a lot about Unreal, what it can do, and the efforts Historia makes to promote its use in Japan (it's used by most major studios in the US, but is far less common over here). It got a bit technical at times, but was very interesting (especially since I teach some classes on Unreal) and the students asked good questions.
By the time we finished, it was getting close to dinner time so we took the students back to the train station and dismissed them for the day. As for me, I headed back to Asakusa to grab dinner (monjayaki, a type of pancake thing made of cabbage, flour, and dashi, along with various toppings, that you grill on the table) and catch up on some stuff. Though my night was interrupted by an earthquake. It shook a moderate ammount and lasted a decent length of time, but fortunately wasn't really at the level where it could cause any notable damage (the main warning was for things falling off shelves) and it didn't cause a tsunami or anything. Doesn't seem to have alarmed the students too much either, which is good.
Random Japan Comment: Fun Frappacinos
|May 27th (Saturday): Hiking to Lake Yunoko|
|This was a free day for the students, which meant that it was a free day for me as well. Since I try to not shop and stuff on Saturdays, I decided to go hiking instead. While I did bring my old Tokyo day hikes book, my results with it have been kind of mixed (see some past travelogues) so I decided instead to re-do a favorite hike that I did years back. Specifically, the one to Lake Yunoko up past Nikko.
There's a couple of different ways to get to Nikko from Tokyo. Using the JR lines would be the most cost effective since I have a rail pass, but the Tobu line is faster, simpler, and stops right at Asakusa Station so I decided to do that for speed and simplicity's sake. It's a nice ride and it doesn't take too long to get out of Tokyo and into the country. Fortunately, it arrived at Nikko just in time for me to catch the bus further into the mountains. Like before, I got off at Ryuzu no Taki, a really nice waterfall a little bit past Lake Chuzenji (and about one hour from Nikko). After two hours on the train, and one on the bus, I was ready to get going so after enjoying the falls for a bit I got on the path and started climbing the hill next to the river. Once at the top, the trail levels out and follows the picturesque Yu River as it meanders through the forest. There's a lot of small waterfalls along the way and the entire area is just really beautiful so I enoyed the sights and the sound of the wind blowing through the plants. There's also the occasional mountain view when the trees thin. Last time I came, it was a bit later in the year and things were a little greener, but this time there were still some wild flowers, which was nice, and I didn't run into as many other hikers. There was the occasional fisherman and even a few painters though. Eventually the trail enters the Senjogahara Marsh, which provides a change of scenery and more mountain views. Then back into the forest for the stretch leading to Yudaki, which is really spectacular. From there it was time for one last climb to reach Lake Yunoko, which was just as beautiful as I remembered. While busses do stop at the falls, I wasn't in any big rush to end my hike so I continued around the lake towards the town of Yumoto Onsen. According to my previous travelogue, I took the right (east) path around the lake last time, so I decided to do the opposite. Got to say, the left (west) route is definately the best. It's a narrow forest trail, lined with flowers, that hugs the steep moutainside on the edge of the lake. Really pretty. As I neared the very end of the trail, and Yumoto Onsen proper, I was pleasantly surprised to spot some wild monekys. While I know that Japanese snow monkeys live all through the mountains in these parts, the only times I've ever seen them was when visiting Jigokudani (the monkey hot springs) near Nagano. These monkeys, however, were far less tame and seemed to think I was in their territory or something, despite being on a proper walkway within view of multiple buildings, and started lunging at me to try and drive me away. I wasn't really scared (I'm a lot bigger and was pretty certain I could nail them with a good kick if I wanted to), but I certainly didn't want to get scratched or bitten either (which would probably require a hospital visit to check for infection). Fortunately, I remembered the old advice for wild animals. Stretch out to make yourself look big, yell at them, and slowly back away while maintaining eye contact. The yelling in particular would cause the monkeys to back off a bit, though they kept coming back again and again for quite a while until I had left the walkway and was a moderate distance down the road at the end. I wish I could have gotten some better photos or videos but didn't want to give the monkeys too much of an opening. In the end though, I got a rather interesting experience and didn't suffer anything beyond a couple of scratches on my shoes.
Yumoto Onsen itself is a very small and not especially picturesque town (unlike Nikko or Chuzenji) made up primary of a collection of onsen hotels (which are probably pretty nice). Other than the lake, there isn't much to see there but you can walk around the swamp where the local hot springs come from and there's a small temple dedicated to the hot springs as well. I had been thinking of taking another hike from there. Unfortunately, the busses in that area don't run very late so by the time I'd finish any of the other hiking routes in the area I'd end up stranded with no way back to Nikko. And I had already gotten in around 4 hours of hiking anyway, so I gave up on the idea and, after walking around Yumoto Onsen for a bit, caught the next bus for a long and curvy ride back to Nikko. Unfortunately, it got in a bit so I had to wait a while for a train, but that did give me a chance to walk around Nikko a little (albiet just the area by the train station).
It was dark by the time I got back to Tokyo, so I swung by Akihabara a bit to hit a few shops I missed the other day. Then it was back to the hotel to prepare for the next day of touring.
Random Japan Comment: Google Maps
|May 28th (Sunday): Shibuya and Nakano Broadway|
|Being a weekend, game studios weren't open so this was a pure sightseeing day. We started out by heading to Shibuya where I led a bit of a walking tour of some of its most famous sites including the Hachiko statue, the scramble crossing, and Shibuya 109. And, while not part of the tour, it was rather fun to compare the real life locations with the spots in Neo The World Ends With You. We eventually ended up at Harajuku's famous (and crowded) Takeshita Street where we gave everyone a few hours to look around and shop. While I'm not especially into fashion, it is kind of fun to walk around (despite how packed it is on weekends) and see the all the crazy shops. And it's not just for trendy clothes, there's also trendy food, such as bubble tea (known at tapioca milk tea here), which hasn't entirely caught on in Japan yet. There's a place there where you can watch then make their own boba, They also use a little blow torch to carmelize the top of the your drink. It was really good. That said, I spent most of my time there wandering around the various side streets, which still have interesting shops but are a lot less crowded. Following the animal cafe trend, I even find a mini-pig cafe, an otter cafe (that could be interesting), and a bear cafe. Well, sorta. Basically you order via a touch screen and a "bear" reaches out to hand you your drink or snack. I don't exactly see the appeal but it seemed pretty popular. There was also a nice little nature park for people who wanted a break from the surrounding city.
After a while we met back up and I led everyone to Nakano Broadway, one of my favorite shopping areas. The mall always strikes me as a bit of a strange mix. You've got regular stores like clothing and (strangely named) cosmetics, lots of anime, game, and manga merchandise, rare old books and toys, assorted other collectables, and even a whole lot of fancy watch stores for some reason. It's a lot of fun to browse and I made a few good finds while we were there. And you can't forgot the side streets, which feature a lot of cool restaurants. On that note, I stumbled across a place specializing in Hokkaido style soup curry, which was really good and made for a pleasant end to the day.
Random Japan Comment: Google Translate
|May 29th (Monday): Liona and Odaiba|
|We kicked off the day with another game studio visit. This time we went to Liona. Formally known as iNiS, they specialize in music games (thought they develop a number of other types as well), including the Elite Beat Agents / Ouendon series, which was a favorite of mine back on the DS. The presentation there ended up focusing heavily on Q&A with a whole lot of great pratical advice for the students.
Then it was off to Odaiba for the rest of the day. There's been some changes there since the last time I visited. The Diver City, Decks, and Aquapolis malls are still more or less the same (which is great), but Pallet Web, which included the car showcase and Venus Fort, is currently being completely redone so it's closed and will likely be very different when it returns. And the awesome Oedo Onsen Monogatari didn't survive the lock-downs, though I'm holding out a little hope that it may get revived now that tourism is booming again. Anyway, the students were free to explore on their own, but a bunch wanted to see the full size Gundam statue outside Diver City so I ened up leading them over there. Another change is that, since my last visit, the original statue was switched out for the Unicorn Gundam. And it doesn't just look cool, it also changes forms every so often and, after dark, has periodic light and music shows. Speaking of Gundam, what used to be the Gundam Museum, is now The Gundam Base, a large store / display area dedicated primarily to Gundam hobby kits.
But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. On the way to the Gundam, I noticed that Cirque du Soliel was currently doing a show just across the plaza. If you read my travelogues, you probably known I'm a big Cirque fan so I swung over there to take a look. Turned out there was a performance starting in about 40 minutes and they still had a few tickets left so I couldn't resist checking it out. The show was called Alegria and apparently it's a remake of an old Cirque show of the same name. Anyway, it was what I call classic Cirque, without any special gimicks like Ka or O. And, like all Cirque shows, featured utterly fantastic, music, costumes, and performances. There were some types of acts I hadn't seen before, such as one with people bouncing off long flexible poles and a rather amazing hoop performance. Not entirely sure what the story or theme was supposed to be (supposedly something about youth vs tradition according to the web site), but it gave me vague Midsummer Night's Dream type vibes. Overall, it was fantastic and I glad I got the chance to see it.
Once the show ended, I headed into Diver City to check out the shops (including the afore mentioned Gundam Base) and get dinner. Unfortnately, by the time I was done there wasn't really enough time to visit the other malls, but Alegria was worth it so I didn't mind too much.
|May 30th (Tuesday): On to Kyoto|
|After a week in Tokyo, it was time to move on to our tour's second stop, Kyoto. We had reserved shinkansen tickets ahead of time and while some of the students had a bit more baggage than anticipated, we managed to make it to Kyoto without any serious problems. There was a bit of a mix-up with the hotel that I (and some of the students) were staying in but that was resolved without too much trouble as well. Eventually, after stowing our bags at the hotels, we met back up at the train station and headed to our first Kyoto sightseeing spot, Fushimi Inari Shrine. It's the famous one with all the tori gates. This is the third time I've visited, and I wrote about it on both previous occasions, so I won't go into too much detail. But the hike behind the shrine is still very scenic with all the gates, small shrines, and views of Kyoto. I didn't think that I'd end up doing the whole trail this time but I was pleasantly surprised to find that a number of students not only wanted to go, but were also able to keep up a good pace. Not the whole tour group, by any means, but more than I would have expected.
Once we finished the hike, our hotel rooms were ready so we split up to relax and eventually get dinner. As I previously mentioned, I'll be doing a bit of traveling with my dad after the tour ends. Well, he actually came to Japan early and is in Kyoto as well so I met up with him and a friend for shabu shabu then walked around for a while before calling it a night.
|May 31st (Wednesday): Osaka|
|Depsite having just arrived in Kyoto, we spent our first full day there in Osaka. Though, considering they're only a 30 - 40 minute train ride apart, perhaps it doesn't make much difference. Anyway, speaking of trains, we ran into a lot of trouble with them after getting to Osaka Station. It's important to note that, when it comes to the Osaka Loop Line, the signage in the stations doesn't always match Google in terms of which directions the trains are going. The loop line also has some rapid trains that skip stations, and even some that leave the loop entirely and go off in other directions. This can be a problem if you're treating it like Toyo's Yamanote Line. In the end, we did make it to our destination, albiet later than I'd planned. Then it was a pleasant walk to Osaka Castle. I've written about Osaka Castle in the past so I'll keep this short. The main castle tower is, unfortunately, a modern recreation, but it houses an interesting museum about the history of the castle and its most famous inhabitants. There's also some nice views from the top deck. We gave the students time to explore the castle and get lunch in the nearby building (I got roast beef and mashed potatoes...arranged in an ice cream cone).
Next it was back to Osaka Station for our next stop. I walked around the area outside Osaka Station in the past to visit the observation deck in the Umeda Sky Building, and I remember it being a massive pain to navigate due to lots of construction. Took me something like an hour to find my way to the building even though I could clearly see it the entire time. Shockingly, all these years later, there's still quite a lot of construction there, though notably less than before. There's also much better signage and pedastrain passages, making the entire area far easier to navigate. As such, we had no trouble reaching Platinum Games, the studio behing such titles as Bayonetta and Nier Automata. I've been following Platinum since theie early days and am quite fond of many of their games (especially the Bayonetta series and Automata). We even got some photos with, and a breaf but very good speech from, Hideki Kamiya (designer / director of the early Resident Evil and Devil May Cry games, along with the Bayonetta series, The Wonderful 101, and more). That was pretty cool. We also learned more about Platinum as a company and the students had a chance to do some Q&A with a couple of Platinum developers, making for yet another great studio visit.
Once we finished, I led the students to Dotonburi, our final destination for the day, so they could explore and get some food. As for me, I couldn't stay out too late but I did have a chance to walk around a little, visit the ever popular Glico sign, and get kushikatsu (an Osaka specialty involving a wide variety of lightly breaded and fried items on skewers). I also spotted this little fishing park in the basement of an arcade, which was an interesting change from the bright lights and elaborate signs of the street level. I wouldn't have minded staying a bit later, but I needed to get back to Kyoto Station to help reserve shinkansen tickets for our eventual return to Kyoto (a process that went far more smoothly than last time) and prep for the next day.
|June 1st (Thursday): Universal Studios Japan|
|If you've read my travelogues, you probably know that I've been to a lot of theme parks both in the US (including all the major Florida parks, among others) and Japan (Tokyo Disney, Huis ten Bosch, etc.). But one that I never made it to was Universal Studios Japan. How come? First off, the location. If it was in or near Tokyo, I probably would have gone at some point. But it's in Osaka. I've spent a lot less time in that area and, when I am in the Kyoto / Osaka area, I generally want to spend my time seeing and doing things that are more unique to Japan. Plus, outside of the Harry Potter sections, Universal Orlando always ranked way below the Disney parks for me. So why include it on this tour? Three words. Super Nintendo World. There was absolutely no way the students wouldn't want to see it. (Side note, while Universal Studios Japan has the first Super Nintendo World, Universal Studios Hollywood just got one earlier this year (but it's on the opposite side of the country and in a city that is getting increasingly less fun to visit). Universal Studios Orlando will be getting one as well, but not until 2025.)
Anyway, due to high demand, the entrance to Super Nintendo World is time restricted. First you need to add your ticket (and those of the rest of your group) to the Universal Studios Japan app. Then, after scanning your ticket at the gate and entering the park, you can use the app to reserve an entry time slot for Super Nintendo World. Knowing all this, we got an early start and, despite a couple of slower students and an issue at the ticket gate (FYI: I would highly recommend printing your tickets) we made it in something like 30 - 45 minutes after the park opened at 9 AM. At that point, I immediately grabbed the earliest Super Nintendo World time slots available...at 3:30 PM. That tells you how high the demand is. And this was on a normal week day.
So, with plenty of time to kill, we all split up and I set off to explore the park. Since it was my first time, and I really wanted to get a good feel for the place, I decided to focus on exploration rather than going on rides. That started with some of the gift shops near the entrance (in a sort of Hollywood themed area). Especially because of all the cool Mario merchandise. I also couldn't resist popping into this Mario themed cafe, which had some awesome collectable cups. Next up was a section clearly aimed at younger kids, combining several different franchises, both Japanese and American. Nothing there that really appealed to me, but young kids would probably love both the rides and the play area. After that was Harry Potter's Hogsmeade. It's basically a smaller version of the one in Universal Studios Orlando, but still has plenty of charm and manages to squeeze in a number of the same shops and rides as the original. Though the mixing of franchises could be a bit odd at times... Continuing on, I came across an entire area of the park themed around the movie Jaws. That struck me as over kill, though the themed snacks were rather amusing and the view across the lake was nice. It was followed by Jurrassic Park and then more Hollywood (or maybe part of it was New York?), with one alley dedicated to Dispicable Me.
I should probably also mention that Universal Japan actually does play up its location quite a bit. Besides Super Nintendo World, it has a number of cross-over attractions focused on various Japanese anime, manga, and game franchises. Some (like Spy x Family) are special limited time events, while others (like Doraemon) appear to be permanent attractions. Fair warning though, the limited time events and attractions though often require a seperate paid ticket, some of which are rather expensive. Plus, buying those tickets requires either going back outside of the park to the main ticket windows, or using a special web site that not only lacks English but is pretty much impossible to create an account on if your phone doesn't have a Japanese language pack installed. So yeah, that whole process could use some work.
After making it all the way around the park, it was time for lunch so I headed back to Hogsmeade to grab some food. And, since the wait wasn't overly long, I went on the Hogwarts ride as well. Pretty much identical to the one in Orlando, but considering how great of a ride it is, I can't really complain. Then I headed back to the main street to watch the afternoon parade. Which, like the park itself, features an interesting mix of franchises from Dispicable Me to Mario (actually, about half the parade was Mario Kart themed). And, while there isn't a section in the park for it (not yet at least), Pokemon had a notable presence as well. That was fun, and I still had a little time to kill so I hopped on the Jaws ride, which ened up being much better than I expected.
Finally it was time to meet up with the rest of the group and head into Super Nintendo World. After showing our timed entry passes, a lot of us (myself included) waited in line to by power-up bands. (FYI: If you don't mind waiting a little bit to buy your band, every shop in Super Nintendo World has them and many have shorter lines.) While the bands (which are are themed after various Mario characters) aren't strictly neccessary, and cost around $23 each, they really do add a lot to the experience (more on that later). After buying bands, it was through the warp pipe and into Super Nintendo World proper... And wow... It's not really that big, but it's densely packed, full of neat little details, and looks absolutely fantastic. If you have a power-up band, you can wear it on your wrist like a watch and interact with all sorts of stuff in the park. Even wanted to punch blocks for coins (some of which you actually have to duck or jump for)? Look through binoculars for hidden Mario characters? Play music on note blocks? Get a present (hopefully containing a power-up) in a toad house? You can do all that and more. There's also four mini-games you can play which involve beating various enemies (goomba, koopa trooper, etc.). Completing each one earns you a key. Get three keys, and you can access a special bonus mini-game where you and a group of other players have a show-down with Bowser Jr. I tried the thwomp based tile flipping game first, but lost. Which you don't really want to do considering that each mini-game required waiting in line to play. After that, I decided to save the others for later and prioritize some other attractions. First up, the main event, an AR based Mario Kart ride inside Bowser's castle. You wear an AR visor and through a mix of digital characters and animamatronics, you drive, drift, and toss shells at the enemy racers. It's fun and really well done. Your band also tracks your score and progress. Yes, score and progress. Aside from letting you interact with things, your band has a QR code you can scan in the Universal Studios app which will then display your progress through the park. You can earn a large number of stickers (achievements) by completing different tasks around the park, on the rides, and the like. It even keeps a running tally of your coins. It's pretty cool, though trying to get all the stamps in one visit would be pretty much impossible. Anyway, the Mario Kart ride ended in a shop, one of several in Super Nintendo World, which have a bunch of unique merchandise not available in other parts of the park. By then, it was nearing dinner time so I got in line at Kinoko's (Toad's) Cafe, Super Nintendo World's restaurant, where I was joined by several other students. We had to wait for a while (though I got to pass some time trying to collect different power-ups), but it was worth it. The inside of the cafe is really cool and you can even watch the toads and various other Mario characters running around outside the windows. Plus a lot of the food is really creatively plated. Not to mention that, just like everywhere else in Super Nintendo World, the employees are really enthusiastic and always commenting on your Mario gear, encouraging you to strike a pose, and the like. After dinner, I headed to the other ride, which has a Yoshi's Island theme. It's rather slow and simple, but the animatronics are a lot of fun and you get some good views. Like the Mario Kart ride, there's a game element to it as well, albiet a rather simple one, where you try to spot several differently colored Yoshi eggs and push the correct button on the panel infront of you before you pass them (getting them all earns you a sticker in the app). The line for the Yoshi ride went faster than I expected, but at that point, there was still only about an hour left before the park closed. While I didn't think I'd have time to finish, I decided to try as many of the key mini-games as I could. Fortunately, the lines moved faster than I expected and I was able to attempt and clear the goomba, kooper trooper, and pirahna plant games. On a side note, I'd say the thwomp game is the hardest. The others are rather tough to fail unless you're very slow or have terrible timing (though my app mentioned something about multiple difficulty levels...). Thanks to that, I managed to get my three keys and take on Bowser Jr. in a final (and very fun) mini-game just before the park closed.
Despite the timed entry and the lines, Super Nintendo World was amazing. And, even without it, Universal Studios Japan was a lot better than I expected. I'd be happy to return some time to check out more of the shows and rides (and earn more stickers in Super Nintendo World).
|June 2nd (Friday): Ritsumeikan University|
|So far, we'd had pretty good luck with weather on this tour. The initial forecast for this week hadn't looked good but it improved quite a bit. However we couldn't avoid the rain forever and today it came down fairly hard from morning until night. Unfortunately, the day's plans required quite a bit of walking outdoors (honestly, this was one of the worst days for a heavy rain). To try and mitigate things, we started off by cramming everyone onto a public bus instead of walking (not the most comfortable option, but it worked) and made our way to Ritsumeikan University. It's a big university in the northern part of Kyoto and it features some video game related programs, include game cultural studies and a archive of old video games and hardware. While there, one of the professors treated us to a very interesting lecture on video game preservation and showed us the archive. We also got to eat lunch at the cafeteria there, which was pretty good and very affordable.
Out afternoon plans involved a walking tour of some of the more historic parts of Kyoto, but the rain showed no signs of letting up so in the end we reluctantly canceled it and, after a bus ride back to Kyoto Station, gave the students the rest of the day off. I ended up meeting my dad and checking out the International Manga Museum. It does have some some interesting displays about manga history and creation (in Japanese and English), but the big draw is its massive manga collection, all of which you can sit and read. The vast majority is in Japanese, of course, but there is an international section with a decent number of English titles as well.
After that, we checked out some stores, got shabu shabu for dinner, and then called it a night.
|June 3rd (Saturday): Arashiyama|
|This was another free day for the students, which meant a free day for me as well. So my dad and I met up to explore Arashiyama, an area in the northwest corner of Kyoto that I hadn't visited before. It's a more rural area right on the edge of the mountains, though it's also pretty popular with tourists. On that note, we started off by visiting Tenryuji Temple. You can walk around inside the temple itself, which includes this impressively large dragon screen. Though the bigger draw is probably the gardens. They're fairly large, with a good bit of variety. If you're into plants, they even had signs with English names for many of them. We explored for a while then exited into one of Arashiyama's other big attractions, the bamboo forest. That was a little on the crowded side, but worth the visit. I don't normally see bamboo that thick and tall. From there, we followed a side trail up a nearby hill for a view of the Rankyo Gorge. After a bit more walking, we headed down into the northern part of Arashiyama. It seems to get a lot less tourists than the area south of the station, though there are still a number of popular shrines and temples. We went in one called Jojakkoji, which is set on the side on the side of the mountain. There's a lot of stairs, and several different structures at various points as you go up. There's also a stream, which turns into a nice little waterfall. And, if you go all the way to the top, you get a rather nice view of both Arashiyama and northern Kyoto as a whole. Once we had made our way back down, we decided to head to an area on the map marked as a historic street. Actually, walking through the residential area on the way there was rather pleasant in its own right. As for the street itself, it was scenic, with a number of old buildings and less tourist stuff than you usually find in those types of areas.
While there were more temples further down the road, we decided it was time to backtrack and visit the southern part of Arashiyama. By the time we got to the main road (lined with all sorts of shops and restaurants) it was just after lunch time and the area had been flooded with weekend tourists. Continuing on through the crowds, we came to the Katsura River (the same one going through that gorge earlier). It's surprisingly wide to begin with, but was even more swollen due to all the rain the previous day. Our destination was another of Arashiyama's major attractions, the monkey park. It begins with a 20 minute climb up hill which, other than monkeys, also leads to a fantastic view of Kyoto (one of the best I've found). As for the monkeys, they're Japanese snow monkeys (the same type I've seen both at Jigokudani and Yumoto Onsen). There's a pretty large wild troop that lives in the area and they're very used to humans so, as long as you don't bother them, they're perfectly happy to ignore you and go about their own business. They do get rewards for it though. Every now and then someone will come through with a bunch of food. You can also pay a small fee to feed them yourself, though you have to stand on the other side of a wire mesh and are just supposed to set the food (apples or peanuts) down for them to grab. Still fun though.
Once we'd taken in the view and watched the monkeys for a while, it was time to get back down the mountain. One more thing that Arashiyama is known for is its sightseeing train, and we still had some time so we decided to give it a go. It's an old style train running on what had been an old unused section of track that winds its way along the river and through the gorge. The ride takes about half an hour and, while you can get off in a small town at the end (which also serves as the starting point for a longer scenic boat ride), a lot of people just ride the train back again, which is what we did.
And then it was back to Kyoto proper to rest up, grab dinner, and pack up for tomorrow's trip.
|June 4th (Sunday): Back to Tokyo|
|The original plan for the Japan tour called for one week in Tokyo and one in Kyoto. However, because of the way the studio visits ended up getting scheduled, we had to cut the Kyoto time a bit short. As a result, Sunday morning saw us all getting on the shinkansen and making our way back to Asakusa. Everything went pretty smoothly and, after getting my part of the group checked into their hotel I let them head off for a last bit of free time. As for me, I met up with my dad, who had followed me to Tokyo, and we headed over to Nakano Broadway to do some browsing and get yakitori. And that was about it. Some days there just isn't much to write about.
Random Japan Comment: Foreign Tourists
|June 5th (Monday): Ueno and Reazon|
|Today marked the final day of the Japan tour. We started out with a walking tour of Ueno. I led the students through Ueno Park while visiting and talking about the various sites scattered throughout. While the zoo and museums aren't open on Mondays, there are still a lot of things to see, including multiple shrines and temples. Not to mention the pond, which is covered with lotus this time of year. Some of us also spent a while watching a grass snake climb through the trees. Not part of the tour, but kind of cool to see (at least if you're not afraid of snakes).
After that, we had extra money in the food budget so we did a big group lunch at a Chinese place near Uneo Station before giving everyone some time to explore the Ameya Yokocho market streets. They still contain a fun mix of all sorts of stuff, from acades, to clothes, to food, to luggage, and just about everything else you can think of. I also found a second location for that really good bubble tea place from Harajuku.
Once the group was back together, it was time for our final studio visit. This time, we went to Reazon. They're a Japanese company involved in several different types of technology and media. Their game development branch, Rudel, creates a number of mobile games which are pretty popular in Japan. We learned a bit about the company, got a great talk and Q& session with one of their lead engineers (programmers), and got some good gift bags as well. Honestly, I'm extremely happy with how well all of our game studio visits went on this trip. As far as I know, no other US university has done anything like this before and it has really been a massive success.
Finally, to close out the day, we had a big group dinner / wrap party back in Asakusa. This tour is something that myself and my colleague have been planning for the past four years, and it's an idea I've been bouncing around in my head for far longer, so it's feel fantastic to have finally done it. And, not to brag, but we really knocked it out of the park. Great sightseeing, great studio visits, and great students. I really couldn't have asked for a better run, especially for the first time.
While the party marked the official end of the day's activities, I wasn't quite finished yet. I'd been wanting to grab some night time photos of some of the sights around Asakusa such as Kaminarimon, Sensoji Temple, and the pagoda and, since I was already out late, this seemed like the perfect time. After that though, it was time for some sleep.
|June 6th (Tuesday): Asakusa and Roppongi|
|With the tour over, most of the students were scheduled to fly back to the US today. At this point, they were familiar enough with Japan's train system that we didn't need to take them all the way to the airport. But I hung around Asakusa all morning, browsing the shops and watching the boats, while keeping a close eye on my messages so I could help out in case anyone ran into trouble.
By lunch time, just about everyone was on their way to the airport so I met up with my dad and we headed over to the Skytree mall to get lunch. He hadn't gone up the Skytree yet (though we did Tokyo Tower together the first time I went to Japan), so we decided to do that next. We even paid extra to go up to the Tembo deck (100 meters above the regular viewing deck), which I had never done before. Outside of an airplane, it's certainly the highest off the ground that I've ever been, and the view was pretty spectacular (though it wasn't the clearest day). That said, the regular deck is already way above everything else in the city, so it's hard to say if the extra height is worth the cost.
We had plans that evening in Roppongi so, after spending a while walking around the Skytree mall, we decided to head over there early and look around for a bit. Roppongi is a part of Tokyo best known for its clubs. And, after walking around for a while, I can confidantly say that there are a ton of them packed into a fairly small area. Since I'm not really into the whole "nightlife" thing, I never really had much of a reason to go there in the past so it was interesting to explore. That said, outside of the clubs there isn't really anything else of interest and it's not very scenic or anything so I didn't really miss much by not visiting sooner.
Anyway, our destination was Abbey Road, a Beatles themed club which features nightly performances from various Beatles cover bands. While it didn't look like much from the outside, the interior was very classy and the band was quite good. They played a variety of songs, including some rather deep cuts. While my dad is a much bigger Beatles fan than I am, I enjoy most of their music as well and it was a fun night.
|June 7th (Wednesday): Kawaguchiko|
|One of the things my dad wanted during our portion of the trip, was to base at hotels with certain types of onsen. While looking into suitable locations, he became really interested in a hotel in Fujikawaguchi (not to be confused with regular Kawaguchi). Fujikawaguchi is in the Fuji Five Lakes area, a part of Japan situated just to the north of Mt. Fuji that features five lakes. The biggest and most developed of those lakes is Lake Kawaguchi. As a note, you'll often see it refered to as Lake Kawaguchiko. But, since the "ko" part at the end translates to lake, that basically means you're calling it Lake Kawaguchi Lake, so I'm going to stick with Lake Kawaguchi. Anyway, the Fuji Five Lakes area is known for its natural beauty (including the lakes themsleves and views of Mt. Fuji) and onsen. As such, it's a popular getaway spot for people from the Tokyo. However, despite the proximety to Tokyo, it's not a place I've ever explored. I've climbed Mt. Fuji (though I did so on the eastern side), visited Hakone (off the southeast end of Mt. Fuji), and even spent a day in Fuji Q Highland (an amusement park right by Fujikawaguchi), but that's the closest I've come. And I'm always up for visiting new parts of Japan so it was settled.
After leaving Asakusa, we made our way to Shinjuku Station to grab an train for the first leg of the trip. As a note, while you can take JR trains around halfway to Kawaguchiko Station (with the reserved Ltd. Exp. ones being the best option), you eventually need to switch to the Fujikyuko line, a local railway that runs a single route through the various stations in the area. Kawaguchiko Station is the last stop (most of the others aren't especially notable), after which you'll have to rely on busses or private transportation to get around the rest of the Fuji Five Lakes area.
The train ride was pleasant enough, and rather scenic. It's always a bit surprising that you can go from the heart of Tokyo into the country in such a short amount of time. We were too early to check into our hotel, so we dropped off our bags and started to walk around Lake Kawaguchi. As for Mt. Fuji? Well, so long as it's not too cloudly, it's pretty much impossible to miss. There's a walking path around much of the lake and we followed it for a while before taking a bridge across as a short-cut to our destination. One of the popular things to do in Fujikawaguchi is to walk around the lake (or take a bus if you have to) and visit the various museums and other attractions dotted around the area. We started at the Herb Hall which, although it does have a little garden in the back, is mostly just a shop. Still kind of interesting to look around, but my dad had been hoping for more live herbs. Right across the street was the Kitahara Museum. Named after its founder, the museum is primarily dedicated to old toys, both Japanese and American, but it also had some records and movie memorabilia as well. It was fun to explore and had a neat shop of its own.
We still had a bit of time so we decided to start making our way back towards the hotel, but skip the bridge and walk the long way around the Eastern side of the lake. Took a little longer than I thought it would, but it was pretty. Out hotel, Fufu Kawaguchiko, is up a hill on the north end of the lake. It is easily the fanciest place I've ever stayed at. It's a modern style Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn with a focus on hospitality) with only around 35 rooms. Each room has an excellent view of Mt. Fuji. (Which has been fun for photos.) Each room also has a private onsen, in addition to the main shared onsen. Plus you get breakfast and dinner. And, by the time we'd finished unpacking and settling in, it was time to eat. And wow... I think this is also the fanciest place I've ever eaten. Upon entering the restaurant, we were led past a dozen bowing kitchen staff to a private table (each table is seperated with walls for privacy and all have a nice view of the grounds) with a menu of the night's meal. Dinner itself was made up of nine different courses which were brought out one at a time over two hours. The individual portions weren't huge, but there's so many different dishes that it really didn't matter. And everything was really good. It was all rooted in traditional Japanese cuisine, though with some modern haute cuisine type twists. Both the flavors and the presentations were top notch. After dinner, I went to check out the main onsen while my dad used the one in the room. I've been to enough onsen hotels by now that I can say that the one at Fufu Kawaguchiko, while nice, is fairly typical. A moderatley sized onsen bath, a smaller cold bath, and a suana, with a view out into a small garden. No special baths, fancy tubs, or any other gimmicks or extra features. Though that's probably because everyone has their own in-room onsen as well so the public bath isn't especially highly trafficked. They do, however, provide a bunch of free drinks and popsicles for after your bath, which is a nice touch.
So far, our stay in Fujikawaguchi is off to a good start. I'm looking foward to doing some more sightseeing in the coming days.
|June 8th (Thursday): Lake Sai Caves|
|Unfortunately, the weather forcast for the next few days is rather iffy, so we decided to focus on the higher priority items on my sightseeing list on the better days, like today. Since this hotel is supposed to provide a slow, relaxing experience, breakfast isn't served until 9, which is a bit on the late side for us (gives you time to sleep in and appreciate the morning view). It's also a pre-set menu with a lot of small items but they bring most of them out at the same time so it only takes 45 - 60 minutes, rather than two hours. But the food was good and it's ok to take things slow sometimes. The hotel also asks you for estimated departure and return times for the day, what type of room cleaning you would like, if you need a taxi, and some other stuff about your plans for the day.
Eventually we headed out to catch a bus. The Fuji Five Lakes areas has a pretty nice network of sightseeing busses which stop at most of the more notable locations around the lakes. That said, the busses that go to the more distant and less developed lakes may only stop once every hour or two. As a note, while Google Maps has never given me incorrect information about a bus in Japan, it also tends to miss some of the scheduled times so there's often an earlier bus available that it fails to show me. Anyway, we headed over to the next lake to the west, Lake Sai (or Saiko). It's a lot smaller than Lake Kawaguchi and not nearly as developed. However, other than the lake itself, there's several popular atractions nearby, including a set of lava tube caves. The first one the bus reaches is the Bat Cave, so named because it's the home of several types of bats. They give you a helmet when you buy your ticket, after which it's a short walk through a very scenic forest to the cave entrance. As previously mentioned, it's more of a lava tube than a proper cave. So, like most lava tubes, it's a relatively straight and round passage without much in the way of formations, other than the waves of hardened lava. As we progressed, it soon became obvious why they gave us helmets. The ceiling frequently gets very low. Never to the point where I needed to crawl, but I did have to crouch down and shuffle for quite a bit. Personally, I enjoyed it, though some people would likely have issues. There was an alternate path marked something like basic course which had fewer low areas. We didn't see any bats, but there were some doors blocking off access to the deepest parts of the cave where they live (probably best if they don't have people interrupting their sleep). Aftering making a loop through the cave, we took a quick look in a little museum they have there. It mostly focuses on some local fish for some reason, but there's also a room of Batman movie posters, because "Bat Cave" and all.
Since the busses around Lake Sai only run around once per hour, it made more sense to walk to the other caves. Next up, the Dragon Cave. It was a bit out there and only had a couple small signs marking the start of the trail. You can't actually enter the cave itself (so there's no admission or anything) but you can go down in the crater where there's a small Shinto shrine. Continuing along the road for another 15 minutes or so, we reached the Wind Cave. While not as big as the Bat Cave, it seems to be pretty popular and we ended up arriving just behind a big school group. It's another lava tube, though a fairly short one that doesn't require much ducking or crouching. The Wind Cave also has a lot of ice in it, though most of that isn't naturally occuring but was brought in from the nearby lake and mountains during the winter for storage. In fact, the cave was once used to store silk worm cacoons and tree seeds in order to delay their growth and allow for multiple harvests during the year. Tickets for the Wind Cave are sold in a combination with the nearby Ice Cave (nevermind that the wind cave also had ice). You can get there via a short walk along the road, or a longer trail through the forest. Once again, we ended up in the middle of a big school group. Anyway, the Ice Cave also has ice, and the inside of the cave naturally stays at right about freezing all year around. It's another rather short one, but has steeper stairs and lower ceilings than the Wind Cave. While none of the four were more traditional caves with stalagmites and the like, they were fun to visit and made for an intersting way to pass a few hours. Though if you had to only pick one, I'd probably go with the Bat Cave, as it's the largest and most complex.
|June 9th (Friday): Nenba and the Herb Garden|
|The morning started off raining but it was supposed to clear up later so after breakfast we headed back to Lake Sai. But this time, we continued on past the caves until arriving at Saiko Iyashi no Sato Nenba. That doesn't translate very smoothly, but basically Nenba was an old village in the area that has since been converted into a tourist attraction. For a small fee, you can wander through the village and step inside the old houses, which have been converted into shops, museums, and the like. Many focus on traditional handicrafts such as silk, pottery, and glass work. There's even the option to pay extra to learn how to make various crafts of your own. We didn't end up doing any of those, but it's a very scenic place with some great views of Mt. Fuji. Browsing through the different shops and such was an interesting and enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours.
Once back at Kawaguchiko Station, we ran a quick errand for my dad then decided to walk to another place he's been wanting to visit, the Mt. Fuji Herb Garden. It is not to be confused with the Herb Hall (which we visited the other day), and the Herb Garden is the better of the two by far, even if it is a little off the beaten path (though you can get there with around 30 minutes of walking or a short bus ride). While the Herb Garden does have a shop (and a very fancy one at that), it also has a beautiful garden filled with a wide variety of herbs and flowers. There's a really nice green house as well, with even more impressive plant arrangements. Between the two, there's a good bit to see and it's all extremely picturesque. But that's not all. The far end up the garden leads up a hill towards a viewing deck with great views of Mt. Fuji. There's even a wide variety of props to spice up your photos. If that's still not enough, you can pay a bit extra to go up to an even higher level, though honestly the view at the base is so good that it seems entirely unnecessary.
We spent a while enjoying both the view and the garden, checked out the store, and then once again it was back to the hotel to rest and relax a bit before dinner.
|June 10th (Saturday); A Ropeway and a Boat|
|The way the weather report looked, this could very well be our last day of decent weather before we leave Fujikawaguchi so we decided to do a hike. To start, we took a bus to the Mt. Fuji Panoramic Ropeway. Note that, despite the name, the ropeway does not go up (or even get anywhere near) Mt. Fuji. It's also pretty popular and tends to get long lines. The line moved quickly, but we still ended up waiting for quite a while before we were able to ride up the mountain. From up top, you get some nice views of Lake Kawaguchi and Fujiyoshida (the next town over). Normally, there would probably be nice views of Mt. Fuji as well, but it was completely hidden in clouds for most of the day. There's also a couple of shrines and some gimmicky attractions. But the main reason we went up was to reach the start of the trail to Mt. Mitsutoge. It winds over forest covered mountains and eventually to the top of Mt. Mitsutoge, which is supposed to have great views. At which point you could backtrack to the ropeway or take one of several other paths down the mountain. Unfortunately, we didn't make it that far. The path is long and has a lot of ups and downs and may dad, while doing really well for his age, was a bit worn down after a couple of weeks full of lots and lots of walking. As such, we eventually decided to turn around. As a note, unless you're sure that you'll be able to go all the way, I wouldn't especially recommend the Mt. Mitsutoge hike. There don't really seem to be any views until you reach the summit and the forest you hike through, while fine, isn't especially scenic or anything either. Still, we had a nice enough time and we got to listen to the cicadas.
Since we didn't make it all the way to Mitsutoge, we decided to hike down instead of taking the ropeway (which would have involved waiting in another long line). And if you're wondering, yes you could hike up as well and avoid the ropeway entirely, but it would be rather steep. Once again, it was a forest trail (and not an overly scenic one) but the stretch of moss lined road near the bottom was neat.
Back down by the lake, we still had some time so we hopped on the neaby sightseeing boat, which takes you on a 20 minutes loop across Lake Kawaguchi. While it doesn't go all the way to the far shore, you still get a lot of great views of the lake, town, and the surrounding mountains. It's a pleasant ride, though if you'd rather explore the lake at your leisure, there were also places renting swan boats.
Once we'd finished, it was just about time to get back to the hotel for some onsen time and an elaborate dinner.
|June 11th (Sunday): Music in the Rain|
|The forecast said rain all day so we need some activities that would be mostly indoors. Fortunately, the area around Lake Kawaguchi features a very large number of museums (a few of which we visited on previously days). Though, depending on your preferences, a lot of them may not sound especially interesting. One of the more popular ones is the Music Forest Museum, which is also not far from our hotel. Just from looking at it online, I was having a hard time figuring out exactly what it was, but it looked like it might be interesting so we decided to give it a try. The museum features a large rose garden that leads into a picturesque Eurpean style village of sorts. Which also features a statue by Salvador Dali for some reason. While the museum does have some exhibits, a big part of the experience is the various performances, which run for around 20 minutes each and are timed so you can easily go from one to another. So, soon after entering, we headed into an elaborately decorated concert hall for a "Titanic Concert." At that point, we still didn't really know what to expect. As it turned out, the concert, and the museum as a whole, focuses on old automated music players. Music boxes, music playing automata, and the like. For example, in that previous photo, all the devices you see on the stage fit that description. There's a couple that are hand cranked, but most play on their own. They're generally around 100 years old, give or take. The concert featured an introduction to several of those devices, and it was explained how similar ones were used on the Titanic (there were monitors which provided a nice English summary of the Japanese speech). But the "star" of the show was a large automatic organ that actually was supposed to have been placed in the first class lounge on the Titanic. However, for reasons now unknown, plans were changed and it was left behind in favor of a live band. Pretty interesting stuff and the music players themselves are rather brilliantly designed. They all sounded great as well, which is impressive considering how hard it must be to maintain them given their age and complexity. Next, we headed to the nearby Organ Hall for the Sand Art Concert. Turns out that the Organ Hall is so named because the main chamber is basically a giant automated organ designed for a dance hall. That was cool, but it was just the opening act. The Sand Art Concet featued the story of Cinderalla conveyed via live music and some truly amazing sand art. Then it was back to the concert hall to hear some different automated music players, this time accompanied by a live opera singer. On a side note, it's kind of odd that the first time I ever saw Italian opera music performed live ended up being in Japan... Once that show was over, we took some time to look at the museum's collection of music boxes and automata, from the more traditional to the overly elaborate. We also took in the shops, including a small Ghibli Store (which honestly is a rather good fit) and a huge store filled with every type of music box you can think of (including ones that played JPop and the themes from Ghibli movies). And we didn't forget to stop and smell (and photograph) the roses and take in the musical fountain show. Over all, the Music Forest Museum really impressed me. From the atmosphere to the performances, everything was top notch and I'd say that it's really a can't miss attraction if you visit Lake Kawaguchi.
We spent several hours enjoying the Music Forest before getting a bus to the Yamanashi Gem Museum, which is down by the Herb Hall and Kitahara Museum. As the name implies, it's dedicated to all kinds of gems and features display cases showing various gems in their natural, polished, and cut forms. There's also a little bit of gem art and a few large crystals. I've seen museums with better gem and mineral displays elsewhere, but there were some nice pices on display and being able to easily compare and contrast so many different types of gems was kind of neat. I also thought this mineral map of Japan was rather clever.
Once we finished, we were still doing ok on time and it wasn't raining very hard so we decided to walk back to the hotel along the lake. Although it was too cloudly to see Mt. Fuji, the clouds did create some nice views of their own. Back at the hotel, there was time for relaxing in the onsen and another fancy dinner to wrap up the day.
|June 12th (Monday): Rainy Day Activities|
|It was another rainy day, so we needed some more indoor spots to visit. First up, the Monkey Theater. There's two or three forty minute shows per day, featuring monkeys doing tricks. The monkeys were well trained and the show was fun (though aimed a bit at the younger crowd, of course). I should note that the trainers tossed in a lot of jokes and banter throughout that was entirely in Japanese. I feel like most of it was fairly obvious from the context, but some people could have issues with that.
After that, my dad and I got a bus to Kawaguchiko Station. From there, we could have taken another bus to our next destination, but there would have been a pretty long wait and it was only a 20 minute walk. Plus, the rain has lightened considerably so we made our way through some residential areas to the Fujisan World Heritiage Center, a free museum focused on Mt. Fuji. One half is about the geology and such of the mountain while the other (which is the larger and more interesting section) is all about the historical and cultural significance of the mountain. It's all very nicely done and everything has English translations. It's an interesting way to spend an hour or so and the cafe had some very unique looking Mt. Fuji themed items (though I didn't get anything).
After walking back to the station we still had some time to kill so we decided to make one last stop at the Itchiku Kubota Museum, which is actually right by our hotel. You enter through a fancy gate which leads into a very pretty garden before reaching the museum itself. Unfortunately, photographs aren't allowed from that point on, but the buildings and grounds are very interestingly designed. Itchiku Kobuta was a famous textile artist, best known for his work designing and dying kimono. His later pieces are more works of art than they are clothing and the museum contains a number of his most famous creations, along with an ecclectic mix of art and artifacts from around that world that he had collected. It's a very nice museum, and the kimono are impressive, but it's also pretty small so depending on your tastes it might not be worth the ticket price.
In the end, we still ended up back at the hotel a little earlier than usual, but it was a pleasant and relaxing day.
|June 13th (Tuesday): Hiking Between Lakes|
|This was our last day in Kawaguchi and, fortunately, the weather had cleared up so we set out to do one more hike. We actually left a bit early to make sure we caught a certain bus, only for it to end up being extremely late, which made us miss the connecting bus and put us a bit behind schedule. Fortunately, we found a different bus route that went to the same location so we didn't have to wait for too long. Our goal was to hike to Panorama Dai, a popular viewpoint. Most people start from Lake Shoji and hike up to Panorama Dai and back, but it's actually in the middle of a trail connecting Lake Shoji and Lake Motosu so we decided to do the full route.
Lake Motosu is the most distant of the five lakes, the middle in regards to size, and also the deepest. It's rather famous for a photo of Mt. Fuji reflecting in the water, which has been used on Japanese currancy. However, it's also very minimally developed. There's a tour boat (that only runs in the latter half of the summer) and a few campgrounds, but not much else. That said, despite getting off the bus at Lake Motosu, we didn't actually get much of a look at the lake (the famous viewpoint was further on and we didn't really have time for that). Instead, we walked along the road for a bit until we found the trailhead. Then it was into the forest for a switchback filled climb up Mt Eboshidake. The forest was fairly nice and the hike, while it did just go up and up and up for quite a while, wasn't overly steep or intense. And, in a bit under an hour, we made it to the top of the mountain and our first viewpoint (that's Lake Kawaguchi in the distance). Another half hour or so, on a much flatter trail, brought us to Panorama Dai on the summit of...Mt. Panorama Dai. Yeah, the name needs work. Anyway, although Mt. Fuji was hidden by clouds, the view was fantastic. Here's the "sea of trees" surrounding Mt. Fuji. We also finally got a good view of Lake Motosu. And, of course, I had to take a panorama. After taking in the view we headed down on the Lake Shoji side (more forest and switchbacks, though a bit shorter and steeper than the Lake Motosu side). Lake Shoji is the smallest of the lakes by far and has a sort of horseshoe shape. Like Lake Motosu, it's not very developed, though it does have a couple of hotels. It looks like boating is pretty popular there (probably for fishing, though I couldn't tell for sure). We ended up having to wait a while for the bus (you only get them about once an hour at the more distant lakes) but still got back to our hotel in plenty of time for one last elaborate dinner.
I've had a lot of fun in Kawaguchi and the Fufu Kawaguchiko hotel has been fantastic, from the room, to the food, to the service. That said, it's not really a place I could afford on my own so I doubt I'll get to stay in such a nice hotel again for a while. Tomorrow it's off to Ise.
|June 14th (Wednesday): Moving On|
|My dad and I have one more week in Japan and we're spending it in Ise. That said, getting from Fujikawaguchi is Ise is a bit complicated. Basically, Fujikawaguchi is a dead end as far as the trains go, plus there's the issue with most of the trains in the area being the non-JR Fujikyuko Line. So we basically had to leave the Fuji Five Lakes area to get a JR train, take the JR trains back towards Tokyo to a station where we could get a Shinkansen. Take that to Nagoya, and then switch to a local train to get to Ise. Even knowing where to go and what to do, the whole process was rather time consuming. We left Fufu Kawaguchiko right after breakfast but didn't arrive in Ise until after 5. And at that point there really wasn't time for anything other than checking into our hotel and getting dinner. As such, I really don't have much to write about or any pictures to show for today. I'll note that our new hotel, while perfectly decent (and featuring an in room onsen bath) is a fairly normal one. Nothing against it, but it certainly feels like a big downgrade after Fufu Kawaguchi (so would most hotels, for that matter).
|June 15th (Thursday): Meoto Iwa and Toba|
|Our first day of sightseeing in the Ise area was also the only one marked for rainy weather. So we planned to spend most of it visiting indoor locations. We started out taking the train a couple of stops to Futami, a small town on the coast. Despite the coastline, it isn't really a beach area as the "beach" is all rocks and gravel. Though you can find some decent seashells there if you look. Our first stop was Hinjitsukan, a villa built in 1887 as a high-end guest house for important travelers visiting the Grand Shrines of Ise (which we'll get to another day). It even hosted one of Japan's emperors when he was young. Now it's a museum and you can explore the guest rooms and other chambers, including a large banquet hall, which even includes a stage for Noh performances. There's a nice garden as well.
Just a little further down the coast is Meoto Iwa, or Wedded Rocks, a Shinto shrine featuring the aforementioned rocks, and also a lot of frog statues. I visited there once with my mom back towards the end of my first stay in Japan (see my older travelogues) and it's still much the same. Very picturesque, though there's not much to do other than look at the rocks. We must have been there during low tide, and could have actually walked out to the rocks if it was allowed (it's not). But you can walk along the coast, going past the rocks and out the other side of the shrine, which puts you right near Ise Sea Paradise. It's a little indoor mall with some interesting shops and snack stands and a small aquarium. We were already planning to visit a different aquarium though, so we justed browsed the mall before moving on From what I could tell though, the aquarium is kind of old and not very big, but I believe that they let you touch a lot of animals, which could be fun.
After looking around for a little while we returned to the train station and rode a bit further down the line to the port town of Toba. As a side note, if you like eating oysters and other similar sea creatures, this is apparently the place to go, there was a whole line of little restaurants specializing in them just outside of the station. But we weren't there to eat, and a short walk brought us to the Toba Aquarium. Which, for some reason, likes to advertise itself as the aquarium with no recommended route. Not sure that's really something to proud of, but whatever. The aquarium is fairly large and divided into a number of themed zones, such as jungle and Japanese river, that feature appropriate fish and other wildlife. We started off watching the penguin walk which was, just was the name said, a bunch of penguins walking around. Then it was on to the nearby touch pool, which featured some surprising inhabitents including several octopi. I had never touched an octopus before, and it was kind of neat to have the suckers latch into my finger a little bit. The next area we went in was focused on unusual sea life, and had large number of strange and interesting creatures that I had never seen before in real life. But that was hardly the only part of the aquarium with rare exhibits. For example, this was my first time seeing a live nautilus, or a bright blue lobster. There were also some others that, while I had seen them before, tend not to show up outside of Japan like this cuttlefish or the giant king crabs. And then there were the otters (not really rare, but cute). We also saw a sea lion show (fun by fairly typical) and a walrus show. That was more interesting and the walrus had some rather unique tricks. At the end, everyone even got to pet the walrus as it waddled past. All in all, I'd say Toba Aqaurium is one of the best ones I've been to. Not quite at the top in terms of layout, exhibits, and shows (though those were all pretty good), but it certainly wins out in regards to rare and unusual creatures.
Once we'd finished working our way through the aquarium, we still had some time left so we swung by the nearby Mikimoto Pearl Island. As the name implies, it's an actual island (with some nice views of the bay) though these days it's connected to the shore via an enclosed bridge. In the distant past, the area was known for female pearl divers, who would swim underwater to hunt the local oysters and the natural pearls that would rarely be found inside. While pearl diving is no longer needed, they still given demonstrations to show how it was done. If you're wondering about the Mikimoto part of the name, it's named after Kokichi Mikimoto, the "Pearl King", and the man who developed pearl cultivation. Prior to that, in Japan and all over the world, pearl divers would often harvest millions of oysters every year but only come away with a very small number of pearls, most of which were tiny and mishapen. Mikimoto figured out a method for both ensuring that an oyster creates a pearl, and also drastically increasingly the likelyhood that the resulting pearl will have a good shape and size. He's basically the one to thank for the entire modern pearl industry. In addition to the diving demonstrations (and the obvious jewelry shop and oyster restaurant) the island features two museums. The first is everything you could ever want to know about pearls, including how they're formed naturally, how the cultivation process works, and then how they're harvested, sorted, and talked into jewelry. There's also a large section on the history of pearls and their uses in various countries. Not to mention some fancy pearl based works of art. The second museum if about the life of Kokichi Mikimoto himself, who started out working in his family's udon restaurant and eventually became the world's foremost pearl expert, jeweler, and merchant. Honestly, the entire pearl island ending up being much more interesting than I expected.
It was starting to get close to dinner time but even though our hotel is near Iseshi Station, there really isn't a very good selection of restaurants around. While Ise is a popular tourist destination due to the grand shines and all (once again, more on those another day), it seems like most people just come for a day trip while staying in Nagoya, Kyoto, or Osaka, so the town really empties out (and many of the shops and restaurants close) by around 5 or 6. So we ended up taking the train a bit past our station and stopping in Matsuaka, a town known for its beef (Matuaka Beef isn't as famous as Kobe or Wagyu, but is still considered one of Japan's high-end beefs). It's not really a tourist stop, but the area near the station does have a number of yakiniku restaurants featuring the local beef. Not the cheapest meal, but very good.
|June 16th (Friday): Ise|
|This was the first really sunny day we'd had in a while, though thankfully it looks like the good weather is going to hold for the rest of the trip. Anyway, now that there was no more rain, it was time to spend the day outdoors and see the major sites in Ise itself. We started with Geku, the Outer Shrine of the Ise Grand Shrines, which was just down the road from our hotel. As with Meteo Iwa, the Grand Shrines were something I first visited with my mom many years ago when we stayed in Nagoya. Geku is set in a forest near Iseshi station. Both it and Naiku (the Inner Shrine) are among the most sacred shrines in Shintoism. Gaiku enshrines Tokouke-Omikami, god of agriculture and Naiku the sun goddess Amaterasu. One especially unique element of the Grand Shrines is that Geku, Naiku, and all the little shrines and shrine buildings in their complexes are dismantled and rebuilt on adjacent sites, using new materials created with traditional building techniques, every 20 years (next set to happen in 2033). As such, the smaller shrines around Geku are rather simple in design and even the main shrine, while impressive in its own way (and mostly inaccessable to the public), lacks the elaborate ornamentation found in many of Japan's famous shrines and temples. Still, Geku and its accompanying shrines are interesting to see and the walk through the forested complex is very scenic. One new addition since my previous visit is the Sengukan Museum (set by a pond and iris field), which is all about the shrines and especially the rebuilding process. It's a nice and intersting museum that unfortunately lacks English signage. However, the clerk did give me an English pamphlet which summarized the key information for each area, along with a very nice booklet that goes over the basics of not only the Grand Shines but Shintoism itself.
After we'd finished looking through the museum and enjoying the scenery, we started towards Naiku (the Inner Shrine). However, it's all the way across town. There are frequent busses between the two, but we decided to walk instead. It's a bit over 2 miles and takes 45 minutes or so, but it's a pleasant stroll though a mid-sized Japanese town. Nothing too exciting along the way, but I always enjoy walks like that here in Japan. As we neared Naiku, we first reached Okage Yokocho an old-time shopping district full of interesting stores, restaurants, food stalls, and the like. It's a lot of fun to browse and, if I had the time to kill, I could probably just hang around, look through the stores, and snack all day. At the very end of the street is the entrance to Naiku. While much of the complex is in the forest, like Geku, it's set on the bank of a river and has some nice gardens as well. Also like Geku, I'd visit more for the grounds than the shrines themselves, though they're certainly worth a look. One particular small shrine, dedicated to an aspect of Amaterasu, was especially popular, with a long line of people waiting their turn to pray, something I've only ever seen before on certain holidays. We had a nice walk through the Naiku complex then back through Okage Yokocho, where I got this interesting looking snack. If you're wondering, the purple stuff on top is Okinawan purple sweet potato that was run through a noodle maker. Beneath it is a scoop of ice cream and a slice of Japanese yellow sweet potato.
We were making good time so I decided to fit in one more stop. After taking a bus back to Iseshi Station, we wealked northeast to the Kawasaki district. It's set by a river and used to be a major trade hub a couple of hundred years ago due to all the Japanese people making pilgrimages to the Grand Shrines. A number of the old warehouses still remain, though it's not really a tourist area so many of them are private businesses or residences. A few have been turned into shops and restaurants though and one, Kawasaki Shoninkan, serves as a museum about the history of the area. It's interesting to walk through and you can see some cool items, like early paper money that was used in the district before Japan as a whole adopted paper currancy. However, almost nothing was in English and the museum is a bit out of the way so I wouldn't really say it's a must see.
When we were done, we walked along the river for a bit then ended up taking a train back to Matsuaka for more yakiniku.
|June 17th (Saturday): Meiji Mura|
|On Saturday we headed back to another place I originally visited with my mom back during my first stay in Japan. That required my dad and I to travel to Inuyama, a town a little bit north of Nagoya. Traveling between Ise and Nagoya ended up being more complicated than I thought it would (I'll write something about that another day) and we had rather bad luck with connection times so we ended up arriving a bit later than I'd hoped. See, for a lot of my day plans this trip, instead of marking down specific times for each train and connection, I just went with the lines and some notes aobut how often they run. That worked fine for most days, and helped keep the day plans more flexible. But there were a couple of times when it ended up being problematic and this was one of them.
Anyway, we eventually made it to Meiji Mura, a museum / theme park centered around Japan's Meiji era (from 1868 - 1912). It was a time of rapid change and progress across all parts of Japanese life as the country worked hard to catch up to the rest of the world after centuries of isolation. Meiji Mura contains dozens of buildings from that time period (along with some from the later part of the early 1900's) which were brought there from other parts of Japan and reconstructed. Surprisingly, Meiji Mura has been around since 1965 and has continued to grow ever since. The park isn't showing its age in the least and everything is very well maintained. Since I first visited with my mom, they've also added a lot of additional dining options, some more things for kids (though I would say it's best suited for teens and up), and assorted other activities for older visitors. I think there's even a couple of "new" buildings.
The variety is impressive. You've got everything from large western sytle government buildings to traditional Japanese houses, such as this one where the famous Japanese author Soseki Natsume (who you might be familiar with from The Great Ace Attorney, even if you've never read his books) once lived. Everything is in a beautiful rural setting with forest, gardens, and recreated streets. So what's in the buildings? Many contain museum style exhibits, generally related to the building's original fuction. Others have been left as they were when they were inhabited, to show how people lived and worked at the time. Unfortuantely, while the signs explaining the origin and history of each building are in both Japanese and English, most of the exhibit signs inside the buildings are only in Japanese. While you're free to explore inside most of the buildings at your leisure, some are limited to guided tours which take place at various times throughout the day. Those are in Japanese as well, so we didn't end up doing any, since my dad wouldn't have been able to understand them. Though if I ever end up back at Meiji Mura on my own, there are some that interested me.
Meiju Mura is huge and the paths can be a bit of a maze at times. To the point where they actually have old time busses and trains running through the park that you can ride for an extra fee. But we had fun just walking around and seeing what we would find next. There's also some nice views of nearby Lake Iruka. My dad seemed particularly interested in some of the medical buildings, and I'll admit that the old x-ray equipment was pretty cool, in a mad scientist sort of way. I enjoyed the exhibit of industrial revolution era machinery as well (which was one of the few with full English translations). And while nearly all the buildings were brought to the park from other parts of Japan (both near and far), a couple even came from overseas, having been built by Japanese immigrants to places like Brazil and Hawaii. Many of the buildings were quite fascinating and there's a number of them I could write quite a bit about if I had the time. There were even some that you would never think belonged in Japan, such as this large Euopean style cathedral. It's hard to imagine just how difficult it must have been to dissassemble, transport, reassemble, and restore such large and complex structures. Though there are some that, due to the size and other factors, are only a portion of the original building, this being the most obvious (and striking) example (and also a great viewpoint). It's not all houses and offices either. For example, you could spend some time in jail, or perhaps a sake brewery (you can still smell the alcohol in the air). And, of course, I can't forget Meiji Mura's most famous building, the lobby of the old Imperial Hotel, which was designed by Frank Loyd Wright.
We spent sevaral hours making our way through Meiji Mura and managed to see nearly all the buildings before getting a bus to Inuyama Station and beginning the trip back to Ise. But add in time for food, the guided tours, and some of the other activities, and it could easily fill an entire day. Once again, I wouldn't exactly recommend it for younger kids (though there are a few things specificially for them), but for teens and adults it's a visually striking and extremely interesting place to visit.
|June 18th (Sunday): Nagoya|
|As on his previous visited to Japan, my dad wanted to go to a Japanese baseball game so we got tickets to see Nagoya's Chunichi Dragon's play Sapporo's Nippon Ham Fighters this afternoon. Since the game wasn't until 2 PM, we started off with a visit to a flea market, which was fun to browse though a lot smaller than the one I used to occasionally visit in Tokyo (I would have liked to go there on this trip, but couldn't fit it in my schedule). It was right by Nagoya's main shopping streets and arcades, which were also fun to explore. There's even a small stretch filled with anime and game type stores. Plus, I spotted some unusual vending machines.
After wandering around for a while (and getting more yakiniku) we headed to the Nagoya Dome (aka Vantelin Dome) for the game. And it was packed. While the stands weren't totally full, I'd say they came fairly close. We actually ended up with seats right in the midst of the cheering section for the Ham Fighters. As always, I'm really impressed by the fervor, dedication, and energy of Japanese baseball fans. The flags, the chants, the cheers, it just doesn't stop. And this was for the visiting team (and from Sapporo, no less, which is at least 10 hours and a very expensive train ticket away), That said, it would have been a bit more relaxing if I'd managed to get tickets in the center of the stadium, a bit away from either of the hardcore cheer groups.
We didn't end up staying for the entire game (while my dad likes going to baseball games from time to time, he never actually seems to stay for more than a few innings), but the Ham Fighters were in the lead when we left (and it looks like they want to on to win). We walked around a little more on the way back, but didn't want to stay in Nagoya too late due to the train situation.
Random Japan Comment: Ise, Nagoya, and the JR Pass
|June 19th (Monday): Ninja Kingdom Ise|
|Back during my first stay in Japan, I visited Nikko Edo Mura, and old Japan theme park up near Nikko. At the time, I leared that they also had one in Ise, but never had the chance to go. Well, it's still around, though it's been renamed Ninja Kingdom Ise, and today I finally got the chance to check it out.
There's a few ticket options but you really want the one day passport, which gets you everything, including costume rental. For my friends and family who are wondering, my dad decided to stick with his regular clothes. Anyway, Ninja Kingdom is divided into an lower and upper section. The lower section is designed like an Edo era village. While ninja are the main theme, there's also an extensive bonsai collection and a really nice garden running through the center. My dad and I wanted to make sure we caught all the shows so we started out watching a traditional Japanese performance using a straw mat to create shapes from different rhymes and stories. There was also a ninja show (with lots of well choreographed fighting and no cameras allowed) and a comedy show featuring the legenday Japanese thief Ishikawa Goemon. The shows were fun, but there were plenty of other things to do as well. Actually, before anything else, if you have a passport, you really should join the RPG. Yes, I said RPG. There's two parts to it. First, there's a story about a kidnapped girl that you're trying to save. To do so, you first have to track down some clues hidden around the village and use them to figure out where to go next (as a note, the story and most of the instructions are only in Japanese, but there are English versions of the clues). While you're looking around for the clues, you can also challenge the various ninja employees stationed around the town to "battles," which take the form of simple games like rock paper scissors and coin flips. Win the game and you get a sticker (you can also get stickers for going to shows and doing various other attractions). Get enough and you can "level up" which earns you some discount tickets for the shops and restaurants. There are also minimum level requirements for certain parts of the story. Over the course of day, we reached level 2 and made it most of the way to level 3. In regards to the story, we found the clues, which led us to a puzzle (fortunately available in English) and a game challenge in order to complete the first stage. The second stage of the RPG, however, required that we earn a certain amount of chips playing a traditional Japanese gambling game. Unfortunately, games of chance have never been my thing and we ended up going broke. We could have earned more currancy by leveling up, but by then we were about ready to leave the park so we ended up stopping there.
While we were doing all of this, we were also checking out the various games and attractions around the park. The passport gives you one free go at several games (shuriken throwing, archery, and darts; there's also a blow gun game as part of the RPG) and you can even win prizes. The buildings hold a variety of other attractions as well including museum type displays on things like ninja and gardens and a trick house. If you take the escalator to the upper area (the RPG will eventually lead you there) there is also a hanted house, horses, and sort of maze / infiltration that involved going through a bamboo forest and a masnion full of hidden doors, among other things. There was a cool looking castle a bit further up the hill, but it's currently being rennovated. Oh, and I can't forget the adventure courses. They're obstacle courses, mostly taking place up in the trees (high ropes style), that involve crossing rickety bridges, swinging ropes, zip lines, and the like. There's three courses and the passport gives you one free round. Since that's really not my dad's thing, I ended up going twice, completing the medium and hard couses, and had a lot of fun doing it.
Since we were at Ninja Kingdom on a Monday during the school year, there were very few other guests so we were able to do everything we wanted pretty without any real waiting or crowds. That said, a number of the shops and restaurants were closed as well, so there were pros and cons in that regard. I should probably mention that the amount of English is rather limited (which could be a bit of an issue for parts of the shows and RPG), but my Japanese was good enough that it wasn't really a problem (there was one part in the RPG that tripped me up for a bit but we worked it out). We ended up spending a little under 6 hours going through the park (though you could rush through it in half that if you're in a hurry and don't get involved with the RPG) and we could have spent a bit longer if we wanted to try and fully clear the RPG. But there's still a bit left to do after finishing with the park. Ninja Kingdom Ise also has an onsen (it's included with admission, or you can buy an onsen only ticket for a much smaller fee). It's not super fancy, but it's fairly nice with half a dozen baths including a banana leaf bath, atomized charcoal bath, and carbonated bath. It has longer hours than the rest of the park and is a nice way to relax after a day of ninja adventures.
After the bath, we got a bus back to the area around our hotel and grabbed and early dinner, leaving me with time to get caught up on some work and such. Ninja Kingdom Ise was a lot of fun. The village is very scenic and the shows, exhibits, and such are fun. Plus the RPG does a great job of tying things together and encouraging you to explore the entire park. And the onsen is a cool bonus. It's a little off the beaten path, but I highly recommend it.
|June 20th (Tuesday): Hiking Mt. Asamagatake|
|It's our last day in Ise. Tomorrow, my dad and I head to Tokyo and then on Thursday it's back to the US. At this point, we'd run through a lot of the things on my sightseeing list for the Ise area and my dad didn't really want to go back to Nagoya or Inuyama with how long the trains took, so I did some searching to figure out the day's activities and we settled on hiking Mt. Asamagatake. I originally spotted it when looking around on Google Maps, but found a bit additional information afterwards with a bit of web searching. Enough that it seemed to be worth a try.
We started out by taking the train a short distance to Asama, a small town with a tiny unmanned train station, a post office, some houses, and not much else. Surprisingly, there were a number of clear signs in Japanese and English pointing the way to the trail, which even has its own decent sized parking lot at the base. Apparently, it's more popular than I realized (at least among Japanese people, I didn't see much mention of it on most English web sites), and we passed a decent number of people along the way, especially for a weekday. The trail goes through a fairly scenic forest as it ascends the mountain. Despite being a steady ascent, it's not especially steep most of the time. It's also dotted with a number of stone markers and jizo statues. When we got to the top, things opened up a bit with a viewpoint but that's not really the end. There's a paved path that continues through the trees. There are a few side trails along the way (we ended up making a wrong turn and found this collection of stone lanturns), but it eventually leads to Kongosho Temple. It's a surprisingly large temple with very pretty grounds. And, although we didn't spot it until the way back, it also has a cemetary with strangely tall markers. While the temple looked like it might get a lot of traffic on weekends, we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves. But that still wasn't the end of the trail. Going a bit further brought us to the Mt. Asama Viewpoint. There's a gift shop and cafe there, along with some fantastic views of both the nearby coast and the town of Ise. That was the end of the trail but, while there are busses that go up to the viewpoint and Kongosho Temple, they only run on the weekends so we had to hike all the way back down to where we started. That said, the entire hike is only around 3 miles each way (including the walk to the train station) so it wasn't super long or anything. All in all, it was a very nice hike, especially when combined with the temple and viewpoint, and made a nice way to wrap-up our stay in Ise.
After riding a specially themed train back to Ise, we got some beef skewers and I had one last dip in the onsen. Tomorrow will mark the beginning of the end of this Japan trip, but I do have one more thing planned...
|June 21st (Wednesday): 84 Hashi|
|Well, here it is. My last full day in Japan. Tomorrow afternoon I'll be flying back to the US and ready for a fun (though busy) summer in Virginia. To prepare for the tomorrow's departure, my dad and I left Ise and returned to Tokyo, which is an easier (and safer) bet then trying to cram a long train ride and the departure flight into the same day. But getting to Tokyo wouldn't take all day so, a while back, I managed to get a reservation for this afternoon at 84 Hashi. If you're not familiar with the name, 84 Hashi is a small bar in Tokyo run by Toru Hashimoto (aka Chokan), a former Nintendo programmer who primarily focused on balance and debugging. He was involved in a large number of classic Nintendo games and is friends with many people from Nintendo and the Japanese game industry as a whole. 84 Hashi used to be a complete secret, open only to game industry professionals, but recently it's been opened for tourists, albiet under some strict guidelines and outside of regular business hours.
First off, 84 Hashi's location is still very much a secret. After making my reservation, I was told to wait at a certain spot were someone would meet me and show me the way. My guide was one of Hashimoto's employees and we chatted for a bit before heading to the bar. I won't say anything about where it is, other than that it is extremely well hidden and pretty much impossible to find if you don't know right where to go. The bar itself really wasn't very big, but the inside is packed with signed artwork and games from all sorts of famous game developers from Nintendo and elsewhere. There's also a whole lot of Nintendo memorabilia, books, and hardware, some of which is very rare. It's essentially a small museum. It was all really cool to look at, but the best part was meeting Hashimoto himself. I ended up being the only visitor during that time slot and, when he learned that I'm a game professor, we spent much of the time chatting about video game history, old Nintendo games and toys, and the like. He only speaks Japanese, but this trip has helped get my conversational Japanese back to a reasonable level and one of the employees spoke enough English to help out when needed. Hasimoto and his staff were extremely friendly and I really enjoyed the conversation. If I do another Japan game studio tour next year, I'd love to bring the students.
After my time at 84 Hashi was finished, I decided to do a little bit of shopping. I had to get a gift for someone, plus I'd been wanting to visit the Nintendo Store in Shibuya's Parco mall (which I never got to in the past), so I headed over there. While most of Parco is trendy clothing stores, one floor is dedicated pretty much entirely to game related shops. There's the Nintendo Store, a Pokemon Center, and a Capcom store, among others. None of them are especially huge (for example, Tokyo Skytree has a bigger Pokemon Center), but there's some unique items and it's certainly a fun place to browse. After making my way through the stores and picking up a last couple of items, I headed back to Ueno for dinner and a final Japanese bath (though not an onsen this time) before repacking my bags for tomorrow.
|June 22nd (Thursday): Wrapping Up|
|While this was my departure day, my flight didn't leave until late afternoon, and my dad's not until after that, so we had time to kill in the morning before heading to the airport. Since the weather wasn't the greatest, we ended up going to the Tokyo National Museum. I've written about it multiple times in the past so I won't rehash here, but it's a great museum if you want a variety of all types of traditional Japanese art and handicrafts. Statues, paintings, swords, lacquerware, etc., etc. They change up the contents of the exhibits every so often, so it's a bit different every time I go. This time, actually, there was a big special exhibit on Mexico which took up the entire second floor of the main building so there was a bit less to see of the regular contents. But we were still easily able to fill the morning. After which we went out for shabu shabu one last time before getting our bags and heading to Narita Airport.
I ended up in the same terminal I always fly out of in Narita (Terminal 1), but my dad was in a different one. Anyway, Narita is a nice enough airport. There's some decent shops and restaurants (I ended up buying one last thing) so it's kinda fun to look around. My first flight (to Montreal) went pretty smoothly, without any real issues. Plus, unlike on the way to Japan, I actually had a working power outlet so I was able to pretty much use my Switch the entire flight. The Montreal airpot though, wasn't all that great. I had to go through security and customs and, while that did let me skip that stuff back in the US, they ignored my pre-check and global entry and the line was pretty slow. By the time I got through that, I was pretty tired and really wanted a matcha latte but despite having two Starbucks I had no luck; one was closed and the other one had a couple employees who really didn't know what they were doing (they might have been having some equipment issues as well, but it was hard to tell). While there were other places with coffee, none of them had tea. Nothing too interesting in terms of restaurants either. And then my flight got delayed. Not as bad as my flight from Montreal to Tokyo at the start of the trip, but it still ended up about an hour late. Finally though, I made it home (pretty late at night) and got to sleep.
Over all, it was a great trip. The tour went about as well as I could have possible hoped, and traveling with my dad was a lot of fun. We got to spend some time together and I got to revisit some areas I hadn't been to in many years and check out some new places as well. And, most of all, it was just great to finally go back to Japan. I didn't quite get to do everything I wanted, but I never really do. If I was single, I wouldn't have mind staying for another two or three weeks but with my family waiting for me, it was time to get home. So, until next time. Which hopefully won't be a very long wait...