So, in my last post I’d promised to try to get another one out before I left for Tokyo. Unfortunately, for my last day and a half in Kazunari’s house, the internet slowed to a crawl. I mean, really a crawl: 20-50kbs. Nearly unusable, except for slowly checking e-mail. So that last post will have to wait until I can play catch up on previously omitted Sapporo trivia. I hope that you feel reassured.
In the meantime, I’ve been down to Tokyo, Taipei, back up to Kyoto, and returned home to Sapporo a couple of days ago. I’ve had a chance to catch up on things a bit, and to pretty much do nothing for a day, so I guess it’s time to get back to this. I’ll try to cover it in 3 posts, one for each city, and we’ll see how that goes: the Tokyo leg may have to be split in 2, it was pretty busy.
My trip down to Tokyo was originally planned for around July 24th, the end of my stay at Kazunari’s. That was going to give me 2-3 days in Tokyo, and I’d get to Taipei — part of my medical plan’s Southeast Asia coverage area — just before the plan’s 7 week limit on out-of-area trips expired. I wanted to take the train, to see more of the countryside (maybe Mt Fuji?), and to avoid the usual repacking of my backpack at airport security, and also to take a sleeper car, which I had faith would be much better than the one I’d taken in Thailand.
Japan has a JapanRail Pass that tourists can buy, giving you pretty much unlimited travel on the JR lines for free. While this doesn’t cover city subways, it covers a whole lot, especially in a city like Tokyo with many JR lines. Unfortunately, you can’t buy it in Japan; as it’s meant for tourists, you have to buy it outside of the country. (There’s some poor logic at work in that restriction, but whatever.) But the various sellers of the pass will happily Fedex your paperwork to wherever you happen to be, including your hotel in Japan, so I had mine shipped to Kazunari’s house, and it arrived about a week into my stay. You can get 1, 2, or 3 week passes, in regular or first class; 3 weeks would cover my trip, with a few days to spare, and I splurged on the first class pass, about 40% more expensive, for the nicer cars and the likelihood of more available seats when the train’s were crowded. Net cost: about $650 — not saving me much over regular class tickets, based on the traveling I was going to be doing, but giving me the class upgrade. I don’t care much about class upgrades in almost any area of life — except for transportation. I don’t know why: maybe travel is just stressful enough that making it extra comfy and happy feels more worth it. Regardless, having the pass meant I could just walk through the ticket gates, without having to stop and figure out the ticket machines for my destination each time, and that was an extra happy thing.
The day after my paperwork arrived, I went to the Tourist Information Center at the train station and they issued me the actual Green JRPass (first class), stamped to begin on the 22nd, 2 days earlier than my original plan. I’d decided to leave Sapporo a couple of days early, to give myself extra time for Tokyo day tours, one around Tokyo the day after I arrived, and one to Mt Fuji and the surrounding area. Sadly, I had to give up on the idea of a sleeper car. It seems they’ve been slowly getting rid of those in Japan, and what they had left gave you a choice of 4 or 8 bunks to a room. Nuh. Uh. Not doin’ that. But traveling in the day would let me see more anyway, at some cost to romanticism it’s true, but really for the best. And the longest part of the trip was by Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train, so the whole trip was going to take less than 10 hours. I have zero objection to sitting and reading in a comfortable spot, with occasional watching of scenery and nibbling of nibblies, for 10 hours, and have done so in the past with — well, I’d say far less reason except the activity on its own is reason enough. So, I was in.
As it turns out, 2 of my 3 reasons for taking the train were eliminated this trip. No sleeper cars was the first. And the second: even if I’d flown to Tokyo, I wouldn’t have had to deal with the airport security repacking. Kazunari had suggested something that I’d planned to ask him about, namely that I could leave stuff at his place for my return. (When I come back to Sapporo, I’m staying at his place again for 3 weeks, and then I go back to Kenta’s, before returning to Chiang Mai in mid-September.) So, I left most of my stuff behind, including both laptops and my gaming gear, packed everything I needed for 3 weeks into my small daypack, and left the bulk of my gear in a corner of K’s storeroom, hoping it would all be there when I get back. (Annoyingly, I bought a backpack zipper lock, and then forgot to use it. But I was sure it would be fine and — spoiler alert — it was.) The side effect of leaving most of my stuff is that I was without laptops, and without Elder Scrolls Online, for the 3 weeks until I return. Honestly, I’m kind of relieved. I’ve been enjoying the game, but I’ve been playing it almost every day, if only for the few minutes needed to collect daily in-game mail, for 16 months (and longer, counting the intense beta testing weekends before the game was released). It was high time for a break.
My train left Sapporo station Wednesday morning (the 22nd) at 6:37am, so I just needed to catch the local train to Sapporo at, say, 5:30? That would get me to Sapporo Station at around 6-ish, giving me 1/2 an hour to get hopelessly confused before finding the correct 6:37 train, and that should be enough. But my JR Train app, Hyperdia, chose the night before to get weird, insisting that if I wanted to get to Sapporo by 6:00am, I needed to leave my station (Zenibako) by 11:50pm on Tuesday. This was clearly nonsense, and I spent half an hour trying to find other sources of Hokkaido train info before piecing together the answer: the first morning train didn’t pass through Zenibako until 5:57. This would get me to Sapporo at 6:25, leaving me only 12 minutes for confusion. Gaaagh! I was worried that this wouldn’t be enough time to locate the correct train and board it — I screw *something* up on a good 20% of all my train trips, and I really didn’t want to mess this one up. But then I realized that the Hyperdia app also showed me the platform the train was leaving from! Yaaaay! Piece of pie!
From this point, all went swimmingly. I woke at 4-ish (earlier than needed, but what’s new?), walked to Zenibako station, waved my pass at the stationmaster, caught the train, arrived at 6:25, checked the boards to confirm the platform, and found my rather excellent seat in a single-seat row.
The train ride to Hakodate at the southern tip of Hokkaido took almost 4 hours, where I switched trains (only 7 minutes to do this, but it only involved walking across the platform to the other train 15 feet away, so no great hardship), then 2 hours to Shin-Aomori where I switched to the super-high-speed Shinkansen (drama(!), with the train arriving 6 minutes late, leaving only a slightly panicky 11 minutes to navigate a larger, unfamiliar station without any clues from Hyperdia on the platform number), and then I was comfortably seated for the remaining 4 hours of high speed, bullet train excitement. Much of the first hour was underground, cutting through mountains, which made me fear that I’d have no awesome views after all. But then it opened up a bit and we got some very nice views of the Japanese countryside. It was all lush landscapes like the one below, whipping by pretty fast in the last leg.
I took some video of the whipping-by part, but I was sure that YouTube would have better and I’d end up linking to one of those instead. Turns out, the videos I take on my phone look way better on my computer than they do on said phone. So here’s a good one:
I tried a couple of times to take a picture of one passing me (at a train station, when it didn’t stop at that station), but I could never react fast enough. By the time I realized one was coming, it was already there and passing me. So, YouTube for that:
That looks exactly like the station I tried to a shot of during my trip (though I’m pretty sure it’s not). Shinkansen madness! Madness, I tell you!
I arrived at Tokyo Station, switched trains easily to get to Shinjuku station (thanks again to Hyperdia for the platform info), and was soon walking the streets of Shinjuku, home of the… um… wait, let me check Wikipedia… ah, yes, home of the busiest railway station in the world! (More on that later.) Also a big center of nightlife in Tokyo — fat lot of good that would do me, but it was there — Tokyo’s only remaining geisha district, and many other things that I would never experience directly (though I did get invited to a few clubs by enterprising street hawkers). As I took very few particularly impressive pictures of Shinjuku itself, I will direct you to Google for better documentation. I will say that it is the sort of neighborhood in which you may encounter couples staggering home at 9am after a long night of drinking, so it has that going for it.
It took me about 25 minutes to get to my Airbnb, although half of that was getting out of Shinjuku station. Seriously, that place is a warren of intersecting JR and metro lines, shopping corridors, and underground passages to stations blocks away, and only the most modest air conditioning. I could get in fairly easily about 50% of the time, but getting out was always a crapshoot of how long it would take me and where I’d end up. In fairness, it is billed as the busiest railway station in the world, so perhaps getting lost is not unreasonable, but I can’t help but think they could have laid the thing out with a *lot* more clarity.
The Airbnb place was run by Min, a 50-year old, very friendly, Korean guy who spoke great English. He was an artist who’d lived in England many years before, met a Japanese sculptress there, married her and moved back to Japan 25 years ago. Here’s a piece of Min’s artwork that particularly caught my attention:
Those of you who follow my Twitter may recognize those equations from a recent Tweet of mine, where just a few weeks before I had posted the surprisingly simple equations explaining why two objects of different masses fall at the same rate (written for a friend):
Clearly, I was staying at the right place.
Min and his wife lived elswhere, but the top 3 floors of this building are one oddly shaped condo that he rents out for Airbnb, with general space on the 9th floor (shared kitchen, living room, bathroom), 3 bedrooms on the 10th, and other bedrooms that I never saw on the 8th. Min kept the place super neat and clean and it was really quite nice, although way too hot in the Tokyo summer when the AC wasn’t on (each room had its own AC, thankfully). I did take a set of pictures of the place, but his Airbnb listing has more and they’re just as good, and there’s other related data, so it’s probably better and easier to point you there. You can stop browsing the pictures when they start showing people; they are, after all, the least interesting part of a place. (And there are very many of them.)
Min had suggested a sushi place half a block away, so I went there for dinner, having my first Japanese sushi (and sake, of course).
The place was pretty busy, and there were some folks waiting for tables, but it turned out that they had separate sections for smoking and non-smoking and there was no wait for the smoking section. I’m not generally too bothered by cigarette smoke, thanks to being raised around smokers — with caveats. If you light up next to me at a tranquil coffee house patio, I’ll bristle, but in the smoking section of a restaurant I’m not bothered at all. (I’ll think you’re an idiot, but I probably think that anyway so no harm done.) But it struck me after I ordered that breathing cigarette smoke was going to screw with my appreciation of the subtle scents and flavors of sake and sushi, so I probably should have waited for nonsmoking. (The business people around me eating and drinking while actually doing the smoking had it even worse, and I don’t know why they even bothered. But then, they’re idiots.) Smoke aside, the sake and sushi were Ok but not great. And a couple of pieces of the sushi were cooked, which seems to defeat the point, but what do I know? Perhaps they were raw in a more existential sense.
Thursday was the day of my first tour, booked via Viator, a trip around Tokyo to hit some of the highlights, take a boat ride around Tokyo Bay, and generally give me a sense of how the whole place laid out. The tour departed from a bus terminal across the city, but they offered hotel pickups at selected hotels and I’d picked the closest one. The tour started at 9:00, and my confirmation email said to be there 20 minutes early. I just made that, and got there pretty sweaty on that warm, humid morning, and then wasn’t quite sure where the pickup point was so I called the tour company: the polite Japanese lady informed me that I was supposed to be there at 8:05! I told her that no one had told me that, I’d been told 8:40, and she said, basically, sorry it’s too late and I should contact Viator about it.
This was rather annoying, and I trudged back to the Airbnb acutely aware of how clearly my fancy, techno, wicking shirt was showing every patch of sweat to the well dressed Japanese business people passing me on their way to work, work that was doubtless purposeful and gainful and reached (mysteriously enough) with little or no sweating on their part, their morning thereby proceeding as the mirror opposite of mine. I got home at 9:30 and sat in my room drinking water in front of the A/C and composing a friendly but firm complaint to Viator about the misleading instructions that requested a refund (optionally as credit that I would use to book my Kyoto tours, implying that said tours would only get booked if I at least got the refund as credit). To cut to the chase, they replied within a day or so that, since I’d clearly tried to be there and tried to figure it out, they’d refund my money, but they also pointed out a sentence buried in the electronic voucher’s text that said hotel pickups should contact the tour operator for pickup times. This left me slightly conflicted. I wasn’t keen on being refunded if it was really my fault (for not spotting the line in the fine print of a voucher that I thought I was just meant to show to the tour operator). But, on the other hand, why wouldn’t the tour company send me an instruction email based on my pickup location? And why did they prominently say “It’s at 9:00, be there 20 minutes early,” and then bury counter-instructions elsewhere. Why not include that info at the top in big letters, for people who select hotel pickup? I mean, I’m calling this my fault — the counter-instructions were there, however buried they may have been — but could you not tell me two different things? I was sorely tempted to refuse the refund based on my own fault in the matter, but I could see that being rather a procedural hassle, for something Viator clearly saw as just the costs of doing business. Instead, I resolved to book more tours with them and reward them for good customer service, which seemed a fair trade and, as importantly, seemed like a lot less hassle.
This left me with the rest of the day free. I’d arranged to meet with Liu, my Chinese flat mate from Sapporo, for dinner that evening, but I’d also managed to contact a local Shiatsu massage practitioner, whose website described him as both a Shiatsu teacher and an English speaker. My neck and back had been bothering me for awhile, and this sounded perfect. I’d set up the appointment for Sunday, and then when I missed my tour I e-mailed him again and got a session that afternoon. Our appointment was at 2:00, and I left at 1:15 for the 22 minute trip that Google predicted. Unfortunately, Google also predicted that my subway train was leaving from a platform that, in fact, carried me in the opposite direction. I won’t burden you (or my typing fingers) with the navigational horrors that ensued as I tried to find my way back through the metro system (you’d think I could just walk a few yards to the return train, but it was mysteriously not that easy), but the result was that I was 40 minutes late to my appointment.
Fortunately the practitioner, a bespectacled, slender, elderly gentleman in a yukata and wooden sandals, looking every inch the classical Japanese scholar, had no one booked after me. The massage, however, was a bit disappointing. He clearly came from the “I’m going to align your subtle energies with the lightest touches” school of healing, as opposed to the “I am going to push right into your blocked nodes, manually unkink your lines, and break down any damns until it all flows freely again” school that I find works much better for me. I ended up seeing him again on Sunday — that session was already set up, and I didn’t want to cancel after inconveniencing him by being late for the first one — and that went maybe a little better, but it didn’t really fix anything for me and he clearly wasn’t the guy for me.
The Irish pub where I met Liu afterwards, however, was clearly more my style, and the Guinness and fish and chips did much to make up for the shiatsu’s failings.
Liu and I caught up a bit, to a backdrop of early 80’s music videos on the TV (Jackson 5, Madonna, Video Killed The Radio Star, etc, which allowed me to continue my process (begun in Sapporo) of amazing him by correctly identifying every single song that we heard. I claim no great ability here, but Japan seems to be importing a lot of the music that I’ve had forced upon me during my life, from ABBA to Eminem, and I was starting to appear quite the expert.
After the pub, we wandered a bit, and then took the train to Akihabara (pronounced “Akiba” by the locals), a commercial Mecca for electronics, game, music, DVDs, and a vast array of geek gear (t-shirts, toys, models, statues, tchotchkes) — heavily dominated by the flavor of the month, One Piece.
Unfortunately, it was getting towards 8:00 and Akihabara doesn’t seem to be a late night sort of place. A lot of stuff was closing or closed, so our browsing was more limited than I would have liked. But the conversation was nice, and Liu and I may be able to meet again in Kyoto, later.
Friday, my experience was completely different. In that, it managed to disappoint me in new and unique ways. I wanted to go to the Eisei Bunko Museum and took a necessarily sweaty route to get there, only to find no sign of it where Google predicted it would be. I assumed another Google error, since a link on the museum’s web page (in Japanese) showed me a completely different map location. But when I researched further the next day, it turned out that Google was right — but that the museum was in a large private residence currently closed for renovations (which I had stood in front of at one point, but looked so non-museum-like, with blocked gate and construction and workmen, that it looked like I must be in the wrong place). This was rather disappointing: that museum had provided the pieces for my favorite San Francisco Asian Art Museum exhibit ever, and I’d really wanted to see the home installation. At least I had a nice walk getting there, filled with unintelligible sights.
So, frustrated at the apparent (and practical) lack of museum, I moved on to my next target, the Tokyo Pokemon Store, a large shop in a very large mall called MegaTokyo that, as malls go, was well worth visiting.
Alas, while the Pokemon store was well stocked with Pokemon-themed gear, it did not have what I specifically wanted – a Tokyo Pokemon Center pin. (My Pokemon Center New York pin having been popped off somewhere in Beijing, much to my dismay.) I was sorely tempted by this, though:
I did have a pretty impressive sashimi lunch in the mall, which helped, but both of my planned landmarks for the day were a bust.
I decided to salvage the day by picking up one of my other landmarks, the Tokyo Tower, but it started to rain as I was leaving the mall and was pouring when I got off at my Tower-adjacent destination, and for once no nearby shops were selling, umbrellas. (I had chosen that day to leave mine at home. Of course.) I turned about and rode back to Shinjuku, figuring I could buy one there and at least get home, but of course it had stopped raining by then. Aaaaargh! Sweaty and frustrated, I was really done with the day. But then I remembered that a theater near Shinjuku was still showing the latest Avengers movie, with a showtime sometime around 3:30-ish. I hadn’t been able to see that and had really wanted to, so I did, and it was fantastic! The day was very much redeemed. I returned home with 7-11 food for dinner, and vegged with Youtube videos in front of the A/C.
Saturday, I had my next tour, a day trip out to Mt Fuji. I’m not going to dwell on this one. The short form is that, while the pickup from the hotel went fine (I made sure to arrive super early), the tour itself was so dull that not long after we left Tokyo’s center, a *lot* of people started talking to their traveling partners or disappeared into their devices and seemingly stopped paying attention to the tour guide. This includes me (though I did listen to her). The guide, Miho, was a nice enough middle-aged Japanese lady with adequate English skills, but seemed very stressed and a bit fearful, and couldn’t tell a lively story to save her soul. The tour bus was nice, but it was a long bus ride to Fuji, made longer by excessive traffic, which made us late enough that we had to skip a couple of (minor) places on the tour. After 3.5 hours, through admittedly lovely countryside, we skipped the planned Fuji info center and went straight to lunch:
I’m debating whether to include my photos of Fuji or not. Honestly, Fuji, in the summer when it doesn’t have the white cap of snow, is not super impressive. I guess I should include one, at least, if only to show that I was there:
Honestly, Fuji is much more impressive on Google. I’ll have to go back when there’s snow on the mountain. We drove up to what’s known as the 5th Station, which has a collection of buildings chock full of tourist stuff and is where hikes of Mt Fuji typically begin. I’d really wanted to do that, but with my back a bit out and my knee a bit troublesome, I knew better than to do a hike that was 10 hours up, 10 hours down. So the 5th Station may well be as close as I’ll ever get to the top. Sadly, from there, in the summer, Fuji just looks like a big, dirty hill. I’m glad I went, but the “hop off the bus, spend 25 minutes browsing shops full of tourist claptrap, and then hop back on the bus” is not much of an experience. Maybe next time.
Fortunately, there was a nice view of the Japanese Alps from here.
From there we drove to Lake Ashita (where I bought a local nigori sake that later turned out to be middling-ok), and took a boat ride across the scenic lake to a cable car that took us to the top of Mt Komagatake, where we had precisely 10 minutes before we had to ride back down. The cable car was packed, hot, and sweaty both ways, without the benefit of having time to visit the shrine at the top.
After returning down the cable car, sweating profusely, we got back on the bus and drove an hour to the Shinkansen, and took the train back to Tokyo. Where I walked home through Shinkjuku, tripped across a local Yosakoi street performance, and, once more, made it to 7-11 for dinner.
So, the day ended fairly well after all. I admit, I felt rather drawn to say something in a review about how disappointing this tour was, but I ran right up against my unwillingness to say something that gets this poor, stressed tour guide fired (or contributes to that). And it’s not like she was to blame for the excessive traffic, or for what is probably the intrinsically disappointing nature of visiting the 5th Station on a hot, humid, summer day. But I’ve gone on several tours since that day, and the guides were all much more entertaining than she was, even when their English was no better, and they were able to keep up with engaging content during long bus rides, so a lot of the problem really was her. Well, I’ll leave it to crueler folks than I to mark her down, if they’re so inclined.
This has already run way long, and I’m not done with Tokyo yet, so I’m going to break here. But, in the interest of completing my “Tour de Fail” theme, I’ll get a bit ahead of myself and say that within the next couple of days, the first of my two Taipei tours, the one that was going to take me around the city and show me the major highlights, got canceled due to not having enough attendees. Fortunately, that tour agency was much more proactive about getting and staying in touch than the Tokyo tour agency was, so I was informed well in advance and made alternate plans. But, these days were not a testimony to the virtue of organized touring. (More an object lesson in tour agencies’ need to be better organized.)
Tokyo Part 2, coming soon!