Monday, June 30, 2008
Accustomed to American airports, I commented that we needed to be there one to two hours ahead of time. Mo’s uncle, who was driving us to the airport, said that 10-15 minutes was sufficient. When we got to the airport, I saw he was right. With a bullet train from Osaka to Tokyo taking just over three hours vs. a plane ride of one hour (not including tarmac time), Japanese airlines compete with bullet trains by getting people through security quickly. There were about six screeners handling minimal traffic. We said our final goodbyes to Uncle Masao and headed towards our plane.
The flight was short. The bus ride across town the same, except for when our boys saw Mickey Mouse and asked if we could stop and go to Tokyo Disneyland. With about three hours until we would board, we checked in and grabbed lunch. Christopher really liked the restaurant we found, telling Mo, “Mommy, I want to come back here when we come back to Japan.”
We boarded our flight later than afternoon. The flight time would be nine hours, 20 minutes, over an hour less than the flight to Japan (owing to the jet streams). We were delayed an hour or so due to engine trouble, but got away eventually. Whereas we had flown to Japan in daylight, we would fly through the night to get home. When we arrived in Los Angeles, we had crossed the International Date Line. It was Tuesday morning all over again.
As planned, I was going to catch a flight to Atlanta while Mo and the boys were going to stay in L.A. with her parents for a week. We spent a few more hours together in LAX. I then caught my flight home. When I walked in my door, it was just before 1:00 a.m. Wednesday morning. I called Mo to let her know I was home and began, once more, adjusting to jet lag.
In addition, we told Mo’s aunt and uncle we would bring home dinner. So we went to a large department store. Most major department stores have groceries on their first floor. Some stores have a number of food stalls, selling ready-to-eat hot food. We picked up what we needed and headed out.
Before we headed home, Christopher needed to go to the bathroom. We were at the train station. I stopped an employee and asked where one was. After I heard the directions, Christopher asked me, “Daddy, did she say down the stairs and to the left?” I was floored. Had he picked up that much already in two weeks? Mo, however, thought the woman probably made hand signals that Christopher interpreted. She may be right.
We did realize one mistake. For 2-3 days, we had started culling our photos, even deleting some of them that we didn't like. We should have brought a second memory stick for the camera.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
Day 11 would be a day for history. On this day, the four of us and Cousin Mina went to Himeji to see Himeji Castle. Himeji was just under an hour's ride by express train from Osaka. (It's only 15 minutes by bullet train.) However, we still had one day left on our Japan Rail Pass, so at least it was free.
Those of you reading may not have heard of Himeji, but you’ve probably seen it. Himeji was featured in the movies The Last Samurai and You Only Live Twice. Its claim to fame, though, is the castle. The number of castles in Japan is more than a hundred. Most of them, as I wrote a couple of days ago, have been destroyed and rebuilt. Only seven, I think, remain. Himeji Castle is one of those and considered the best or the original ones. The castle is also referred to as the "white heron castle," as it is believed to resemble a white heron in flight.
My boys loved the castle, particularly the old-style armors on display.
Friday, June 27, 2008
It’s no surprise then that my boys love baseball, too. We’ve been to a number of Braves game since moving to Atlanta and saw minor league games when we lived in Portland. In Japan, we watched a few games on TV. Therefore, when we planned our day in Tokyo, we included a trip to a Japanese baseball stadium, as several of the teams play in Tokyo or one of the neighboring prefectures.
Our tour guide for Friday was my friend, Dave. Dave, 18 years in Japan, had spent his last 10 years in Chiba Prefecture, the longest he’s ever lived anywhere. Chiba lies just east of Tokyo and Dave knows it well. He suggested visiting Chiba Lotte Stadium, home of the Chiba Lotte Marines, and then Chiba Castle.
Before leaving, however, Dave and I walked with the boys to a nearby shrine in order to check it out. We told Christopher the shrine would be a good place to find ninja ghosts and he met us at the door. The place we were going wasn’t a large shrine, visible blocks away like most we had seen. Instead, it was small and, like many shrines in Japan, set within the neighborhood and known only to locals.
This main part of the shrine appeared to be as big as a one-room house.
The last of the smaller shrines proved to have a story behind it. Next to it was a ceramic snake, apparently representing the spirit of one of the wives of Takeda Shingen, a famous warrior from Japanese history.
Upon our return to my friend’s place, we headed to Chiba Lotte Stadium. We figured we could see whatever museum the stadium offered and buy some team items in the gift shop. However, upon arrival, we were surprised to find the place closed, with only a few employees walking around. We stopped one to see what was up, as well as to find a possible open bathroom.
From there, we headed to Chiba Castle, one of the many castles that dot the Japanese landscape. Like most castles in Japan, the original was destroyed through fires, feuding, or bombing, and the current was one was rebuilt as a local museum. Chiba Castle was rebuilt in the 1960s. Five years ago, workers dug under the castles and put in rails to make the castle earthquake proof.
Yes, I reminded her of it.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
I've tried watching soccer, but I have trouble getting into it. It just seems to go back and forth without a lot getting accomplished, often ending in a low scoring tie, even zero-zero. And then they go into those sudden death kicks when the game can't be settled in regulation.
What really gets me, though, is the fact that a game can have its lone score created by a referee. When you get to international level, games seem to be decided by a difference of one point.,,and that one point is many times a penalty kick. Ref makes a call, good or bad, a team receives a penalty kick, and that is the difference in the game. Sometimes, it's the only score. And soccer doesn't distinguish between goals scored during the game and goals scored on penalty kicks.
In my opinion, soccer could improve itself and make games more exciting if it could adopt one change: goals scored during action should count for two points, not one. Leave the penalty kicks at one. However, if you have goals counting two, it leaves open the possibility of a game changing score at the end.
And for goals scored from 30 yards or more out, those should count for three points. I remember when USA played Germany in the quarterfinals. America lost 1-0. Germany had a great goalkeeper. However, there was one point during the game where he stopped a score, then walked about ten yards out and tossed the ball another 30 yards down the field. American scorer Alex Lalas (I think that was his name) intercepted the throw at about 35-40 yards and made an accurate kick back towards the German goal. The German goalie looked scared, rushing back to deflect the kick. He barely made it, knocking away what would have been an embarrassing and devastating goal.
What are your thoughts? I think these are good ideas. I suggested these once to a former British co-worker of mine, a soccer fanatic that takes time off to watch tournaments like these, and was told what I could do with my suggestions.
First, however, a little sightseeing in Hakodate. This city, on the southern edge of the island of Hokkaido, has a famous morning market, stocking all kinds of seafood and stretching out several blocks. We split up, with Mo and her Mom looking around by themselves and the boys and I looking for what trouble we could find.
One store had a pool filled with squid. Christopher got close to watch the storekeeper pull out one for sale and nearly got squirted on. Other stores had live king crabs and octopi. The boys got us close as they could, wanting to study and asking questions about where everything came from (crabs-Russia, octopi –around Japan, squid – across the street in the bay). We could have stayed longer, but had a train to board.
We arrived in Tokyo just after 5:00 and said goodbye to Mo’s Mom, who was continuing on to Osaka while we spent the night with friends of mine: Yoshi, his wife Naomi, and Dave. Yoshi, Dave, and I were in the same grad school class at Wake Forest in the late 80s. Yoshi and Naomi were already married at that time. When we graduated, Yoshi and Naomi returned to Japan, while Dave and I moved to Japan to take jobs. I returned to the U.S. after four years. Dave eventually started his own business, which he still runs.
The plan was to meet Yoshi at Tokyo Station and go with him to his place, meeting Dave along the way. We set the meeting place as the Maronouchi Exit, but realized there were three when we got there. While calling Yoshi’s cell to work things out, the unexpected happened: our cell phone went dead. I began looking for a pay phone, while my wife made snarky comments about what happens when you let men plan things. Things were made difficult by our inability to find a pay phone. However, like in the U.S., pay phones are disappearing due to cell phones. Eventually, however, we located one and arranged a new meeting place.
We met Dave and headed out to Yoshi’s place where Naomi was cooking dinner. We ate, played with Yoshi and Naomi’s dog, Boon, and talked until late. We also made plans for the following day. Below is a picture of my boys playing with Dave.
Naomi also has a blog, called Boon’s blog, after their dog. What she wrote about our visit can be found by clicking here. It is in Japanese. Any picture of Yoshi and Naomi has a dog's face superimposed. The blog also includes a picture from my wedding (where Yoshi was a groomsman), a picture when Andrew was 18 months, and our most recent trip. My boys still talk about the dog.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Upon arrival, we headed downtown, stopping first at the Otaru Music Box Museum. The lower floor was a shop filled with various intricate and fascinating music boxes, many made with glass and quite expensive. My first thought: I have two young boys that love to get on each other’s nerves and often go at each other, regardless of location. I did what any parent would do: I told them, “Stay close and DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING.” The second floor was where the museum was located and contained much more space. The boys loved all of the designs.
The museum has a steam clock in front of it. Click here to see it.
From there, we walked around the city. We passed by a local chocolate shop, with an employee on the street offering samples of green tea chocolate. (And, no, the employees weren’t yelling at people “try sample” like you see in a mall food court.) I liked the chocolate, but it was a definite thumbs down for the boys. A shop down the street was offering wine tasting with wine so sweet I could have mixed it with espresso and ice and made a frappaccino out of it. After that, the boys and I watched artisans at a local glass shop, K’s Blowing, do its work, while my wife and her Mom shopped inside. The boys watched the glass blowers, totally enthralled. The shop offers kids a chance to make glass themselves. Unfortunately, a school class had taken over the shop for the near foreseeable future, so the boys would have been unable to get in for a while.
The big hit of Otaru, though, was lunch. We ate at a sushi restaurant. Our boys experience with sushi consists primarily of the Thai Diner at Discover Mills Mall. So, we ordered them miso soup and rice. However, Andrew noted that the cucumbers looked good, while Christopher looked at what was on Mo’s Mom’s plate and wanted to try it. Leave it to my boys to discover sushi in an expensive restaurant and start begging for seconds.
Even now, Christopher asks for tuna, calling it “the pinkfish.”
After Otaru, we headed south. Our trip to Hokkaido was an all-day affair. The return would be split over three days. Our first stop would be Hakodate and a traditional Japanese hotel with a hot spring. It was the boys’ first time to visit such a place. I took them to the hot bath after dinner that night. They didn’t adjust to it that evening, but then requested another hot bath the following morning and did fine. Below the boys are dressed in the hotel robe, ready to go to the hot bath.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
For Day 6, we planned an all-day tour through the central part of Hokkaido. The main part of tour was a visit to Asahiyama Zoo. This Zoo is one of the most famous in Japan and is known for its attempts to recreate the animals’ original habitats. This Zoo differs from the Atlanta Zoo in that it has animals from colder climates, possibly due to the latitude. (Atlanta weather, even the humidity, is similar to Osaka, the city we had left on Monday morning.)
When we arrived at the zoo, we headed towards the animals my boys wanted to see first: penguins and polar bears. When we lived in Portland, my boys saw these animals often at the Portland Zoo. They were their favorites, so they jumped at the chance to see them again. We got to the penguins first. The boys watched raptly, as some obviously not so camera shy penguins stood and posed.
We headed to the polar bears next, but the seals were on the way so we stopped by. After that, we went to the polar bears, staying there until I looked at my wife and noted ironically, “Penguins. Seals. Polar bears. We’re going up the food chain. It’s making me hungry.”
From the zoo, we headed to a local viewpoint to gaze at a mountain range. One of the things that differentiates Hokkaido from the rest of Japan is its wide-open spaces, giving it a feel similar to the U.S. Roadsides stands were nearby, offering food and bathroom break. I was taken with the scenery. My boys were taken with the food at the stands and couldn’t care less.
From there, we went to a popular Japanese resort and headed back. We’d been touring nearly 11 hours.
Nighttime found us taking a walk in downtown Sapporo, one of favorite Japanese cities. We ate at a Genghis Khan-style eatery, a popular restaurant style where the patrons prepare barbecued lamb at their table. After that, I made a stop at The Fruitscake Factory, a local dessert chain. (Yes, the place is ripping off the name, but their stuff is delicious. If you click on the link, click on the third strawberry in the column on the right hand side to see the menu.)
With the boys tired, we headed back to our hotel. Andrew went off with Mo’s Mom. Christopher went with us to our room. I helped Christopher get a bath and then he went to sleep. And there, in our first quiet moment of the day, my wife looked at me, kissed me, and said, “Happy 13th Anniversary, Honey.”
The trip to Japan had been our present to each other.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Yesterday, my and I took our kids to watch the Braves and the Mariners. The Braves won 8-3, behind Mark Texeira's three HR outburst. My kids are Braves fans, so they cheered nearly every moment.
However, my younger son ended up slightly disappointed. He is a fan of Ichiro and wanted to see him "do something," but the Braves pitchers kept him off the base. With the score 8-0 at the top of the ninth and it being Sunday afternoon (i.e. Kids run the bases at Turner Field), we left in the top of the 9th to get in what was already a long line, stretching from the lower level entrance to the field to the top of the upper deck ramp.
Somewhere in that 9th inning, Ichiro got on base due to a Gotay error. He reached second on catcher indifference and scored on a single by Willie Bloomquist. My son was sorry he missed it, but did have a blast running the bases.
I had fun as well. It was my second Braves - Mariners game, as I lived in Portland when the Braves visited Seattle and I caught one of the games that weekend. It was only one of the three game series that the Braves won. Hampton threw eight great innings of three-hit, one run ball and the Braves won 8-1. (I saw the Braves play a year later in LA against the Dodgers. Hampton pitched again, meaning that I probably saw his most recent two pitching performances.)
In other news, the Chiba Lotte Marines are off until Friday, when they will play the Seibu Lions.
If visiting Japan, one of the things you need to plan on getting is a Japan Rail (JR) Pass. Trains run everywhere in Japan and the JR system runs across the country. (There are a number of smaller railways and subways available, but those run within cities or between two nearby cities.) The pass is only available to non-residents. You pay for the ticket in the U.S. and exchange it for a pass after you reach Japan. (Yes, a plane would be quicker, but this was an opportunity to show our kids how big Japan is. For more details on the Japan Rail Pass, click here.)
Monday promised to be the day of the train. Mo, the boys, Mo’s Mom, and I were traveling, by train, to the northern island of Hokkaido. Our objective was Sapporo, the island’s largest city. (Please click here to be taken to a map.) We would have to catch four trains to make the journey.
One of our concerns was how the boys would handle it. They both love trains, especially Christopher. However, it was going to be a long day. They had their books, their toys, and, most importantly, their Gameboy and DS. Still, we didn't know how they would do on what would be a nearly a 15-hour journey. The length of time, though, was only part of it. We had another concern: food. We had brought some rolls and stuff with us to eat on the first leg of the trip. However, our layover times would be between 12-40 minutes. We had to buy lunch, dinner, snacks, and drinks, etc., prior to each train ride. We could buy food on the bullet train and other express trains we were taking; however, it was like buying food on a domestic airline flight, available but expensive. In addition, we had to find stuff the boys would like. In the train stations, we could buy various box lunches and these box lunches would be fine for the adults. Finding stuff for the kids, even for kids like ours who eat Japanese food all the time, was a concern.
After a short, early-morning subway ride, we caught a bullet train in Osaka at a little after 7:00 a.m. The train's destination was Tokyo. Below is a picture.
After a three-hour train ride, we had a 40-minute layover in Tokyo. This gave us sufficient time to acquire some nice box lunches and board our next train. The boys loved posing for pictures with the sleek trains in the background.
From Tokyo, we caught another bullet train to the northernmost destination of Hachinohe, on the northern part of Japan’s main island. This took another three hours. We had about 12 minutes here, buying snacks quickly on the platform before boarding the next train. We easily found juices and water for them to drink. Soft drinks were also available, but we didn't want the kids drinking too much of those.
The next train was an express to Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido. It would take just under three and half hours. (See map below.)
Looking at the map, you will see that part of the train ride is through water. The two islands are connected by the Seikan Tunnel , currently the longest underwater tunnel in the world. The total tunnel length is over 33 miles with nearly 15 miles under water. My boys were looking forward to this trip as they like tunnel, (particularly the noise made when a train passes through). However, the noise grated on them after so many miles and they were just glad to be out of it. The better part of the train ride is the scenic view of the Japanese coastline along the Pacific Ocean. My wife and I did our best to show them the views. They liked it, but preferred the mountain views on the other side of the train as the mountains were touching the clouds.
In Hakodate, we caught out last train, a three-and-half hour one, to the city of Sapporo. With it being after 5:00 and knowing we wouldn't arrive at our destination for several more hours, we knew the boys would get hungry again. Unfortunately, this station offered the least appetizing food menus, due to the lateness of the workday. We did find stuff the boys wanted and headed out. It was around 9:30 p.m. when we finally reached Sapporo. Luckily, our hotel was next door to the station as we were beat.
By the way, the boys did great!!
Sunday, June 22, 2008
The plan for the day was to split up. Mo, her Mom, and her uncle were going visit the cemetery and spruce up the graves of ancestors. As for the boys and I, we, with the help of Cousin Mina, were headed to a park north of Osaka and then out shopping for toys. The boys had each received a present of ¥5,000 from their great uncle and were looking to spend it.
The park was a long distance from the station, but we had visited the slide on our last trip to Japan and knew it was worth it. We carried cardboard to sit on as the slide hurts your rear. On the way, Mina noted a large black bird and asked, in Japanese, what kind it was. “That’s a raven, Cousin Mina,” Andrew responded in English. I paused at Andrew’s response. Had he understood the Japanese? Andrew had shown flashes of understanding Japanese before and I thought this was one of those times. It’s also possible that Mina pointed at the bird and Andrew just responded. Still, it made me happy.
I have pictures below. The boys went down several times. I only went down twice, ripping the cardboard each time due to my weight. Though parents often come down with their kids, the slide wasn’t designed for anyone my size.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
When the boys rose that Saturday morning, maybe ten seconds elapsed before they turned on the computer games, something that they spent the better part of the morning playing. Of course, I had to count myself among the boys because I spent a good amount of time that morning playing as well. Lunch arrived, after which Mo and Naoko asked the scary question, “Can the two of you handle the kids?” We assured them that we could as they disappeared for a couple of hours to walk around the neighborhood. As for Naoki, the boys, and I, as the French would say, Wii wii wii.
The boys, Daiki, and a kid from the neighborhood enjoying themselves. They eventually went outside and played in the empty lot next door. The kid came over as he wanted to meet foreigners. He brought two extra Wii sticks with him.
A picture of the family
After dinner, we returned to Mo’s uncle’s place. I made sure Christopher got a bath and got ready for bed. Andrew took a shower and got himself dressed. Once again, we counted ourselves lucky that Mo’s relatives had the space to put us up and I fixed the futons so the boys could hit the sack. Though sleeping on the floor may not seem like much fun, futons are quite comfortable. (They can also be folded up for easy storage in a closet.) We had five of them laid out next to each other, one for each of us. The boys went to sleep and we eventually did, too.
Friday, June 20, 2008
We were a little slow getting away that morning and it was almost noon before we reached Kyoto. The city is extremely close to Osaka and the two of them, along with the city of Kobe, form essentially a single metropolitan area. Kyoto is one of my favorite cities in Japan due to its history. Founded in the 8th century, Kyoto is a former capital of Japan. It is an historical treasure, well known for its temples and shrines, and is of such importance that the Allies purposely chose not to bomb it during WWII.
We stepped out of the train station and focused first on finding a place to change money. Mo’s Mom noticed a large post office nearby and we headed there. That may sound strange, but the Japanese postal system offers financial services (though many smaller post offices do no have these services available). The line was long, but we changed our traveler’s checks (the preferred option, as exchange rates are better than cash).
Welcome to China
From the post office, we headed to Kiyomizudera, or as it’s translated, the "Clean (or Pure) Water Temple." Like Kyoto, this temple has been around since the 8th century, though most of the current buildings were constructed in the 17th century. Kiyomizudera is one of the most famous temples in Japan and known for its three running springs, which people drink from, praying for health and good fortune. You can drive to the entrance, though it is slow going due to the crowds. Most people walk up the long hill to the entrance, taking time to peruse the shops lining the street.
Arriving at the temple, our sons noted the some of the buildings had a bright orange color. “China!” the boys called out, pointing at some of the buildings which, to them, resembled some of the temples they’d seen in the previews for the movie Kung Fu Panda. We assured them we hadn't change countries in the middle of the night.
Outside the entrance:
A picture of myself and the boys. The main hall of the temple is to the right and the city of Kyoto is in the background.
A couple of places to get water. In the second picture, it is pouring into a pool and I’m standing behind the boys, making sure they don’t fall in.
Long shot view of the temple grounds. This doesn't capture everything.
As it drew towards evening, we headed back to Osaka. Our plans were to get changed and head over to visit Mo’s friend’s, Naoko, where we would spend the night. Unfortunately, Christopher zonked out and became impossible to wake up. Knowing he and Andrew were both still worn out from their trip, we let them sleep as long as we could, calling to let our friends know the situation and that we were running late. Eventually, though, we had to get them up and get going. Christopher slept on the train ride over, but eventually woke up after we arrived. (Mo claims I was zonked out along with them and has said she will produce witnesses, if necessary.)
Mo and Naoko have known each other since the two were in kindergarten. Naoko and her husband, Naoki, have two boys: Daiki (age 9) and Shigeki (infant). We visited them on our last trip to Japan and they had visited us when we lived in Portland. We worried whether the boys would be able to play together, but it was needless. Andrew and Christopher brought their DS and Gameboy. Daiki had a DS and a Wii.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Our trip was to be on two airlines: Delta to LAX and then a six-hour layover before taking Japan Airlines (JAL) to Tokyo and on to Osaka. There were several reasons for this, but cost and convenience were biggest factors. My wife’s parents live in Los Angeles and Mo’s mother was coming with us for part of the trip. The layover gave us time with them. Also, on the way back, Mo and the kids would stay in L.A. for an extra week while I headed home to Atlanta and went back to work. The long layover ensured that I wouldn’t miss my flight home on Delta.
After the short visit in LAX, we boarded our JAL flight. (That second flight surprised Christopher. He thought we were already in Japan when we landed at LAX and did not want to get back on a plane.) The flight to Narita (the larger of Tokyo’s two airports) was just over 10-and-a-half hours. After take-off, we settled in to watch the in-flight movies on the personal screens in front of our seats. I first selected “Charlie Wilson’s War,” a movie I wanted to see for its historic value. However, when I turned it to the proper channel, the first thing I noticed was some half-naked, surgically enhanced women and a nude Tom Hanks, all playing around in a jacuzzi. It was then I remembered that U.S.-based carriers edit films for content and to fit the screen. Japanese carriers only edit to fit the screen. I switched and watched “The Gameplan,” with the kids, as Christopher was excitedly repeating the name of the film’s star: Duane “The Rock” Johnson. I watched Charlie Wilson’s War later while the kids slept. Though daylight continued outside the plane, inside the lights were dimmed to simulate night as most of the cabin slept. Somewhere, we crossed the International Date Line.
When we finally landed in Narita, it was Thursday afternoon. Customs went quickly. They took Mo’s and my picture and fingerprints, but opted not to take the boys. That evening, we caught a one-hour flight from Tokyo to Osaka. At Osaka, we were met by Mo’s Uncle Masao, who drove me and the baggage to his residence. Mo, her Mom, and the boys took a cab. Mo's aunt was waiting at home. Her cousin, Mina, arrived home later that evening.
After arrival, Mo unpacked and pulled out some of the gifts she brought her aunt and uncle. Mo had spent months searching for gifts and one of our suitcases contained almost nothing but these items. One of the items Mo picked for her uncle was a special Café du Monde brand coffee, based on the famous New Orleans eatery. Mo had never seen it before and, when she found it at Whole Foods, thought it perfect for her coffee-drinking uncle. However, Mo didn’t count on Mister Donuts. The donut chain, with many locations across Japan, offers a beignets menu. To complement this, the chain was importing Café du Monde coffee. It was more available in Japan than in the U.S. Mo laughed in disbelief when she found out.
Everybody talked for a while, but we finally hit the sack and tried to put ourselves on the current time zone. It had been about 28-30 hours, since we left our house in Buford.