Account of travels across the world. This blog provides descriptions of travels in different parts of the world. Pictures related to many of the blogs can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/7330879@N05/ and for more information I can be e-mailed at ananda@wfu.edu

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Japan Blog

March 25, 2007

We left from home about 10:00 am and the drive to Greensboro airport was eventless. The flight check in at Greensboro was done by a rude person leading to some angst. The car got a $5.00 ticket too. Anyway, I left the car at long term parking and came back to the terminal. We went to the cafeteria and had a quick lunch. Caught up on a few phone calls as well. Flight was delayed about 30 minutes, but after boarding it went smooth. Got to Chicago about 3:30 pm local time. Bags arrived quickly and went to catch the Dollar bus for the rental. No bus was in sight so rented from National (note: make two car reservations for each trip and catch the bus that arrives earlier, it is very irritating having to wait for the bus). The car was a SUV. We got to pick the vehicle and Bebo picked a luxury vehicle which we did not rent! There was a Gujrati guy who was at the rental counter and was very helpful. We drove down Kennedy to the Circle. Even on a Sunday afternoon it was a 20 minute ride. Went on to Sears Tower and circled the block. Took a walk around the tower. Chicago was pleasant and windy. Then drove down Michigan Avenue and tool Lake Shore to Sheridan and then to Devon Avenue. Did the necessary shopping and drove back to the Residence Inn in Rosemont. Good location right on Touhy off North Manheim. Checked in and hung out in the room. Eventually got food from the Chillis close by. Called it a day around 10:00 pm.

March 26, 2007 (USA)/March 27(Japan)

We got out of the hotel after a nice breakfast. The Residence Inns have a nice breakfast buffet and Srijoy enjoys that a lot. We then put the bags in the car and drove off to the airport. Turned the car in and took the bus to the airport. There was a little confusion about the terminal. It is useful to note that All Nippon Airlines (ANA) flies out of Terminal 1 in Chicago (although most other international flights go out of Terminal 5). The check in process was lengthy, but there were no issues with the weight. After the check in we went to the United Admiral Club. This came as a part of flying on ANA Business Class. The club gave us some time to relax. Eventually went over to the gate area and were boarded right on time as is expected with a Japanese air lines. The aircraft was a Boeing 777-300. The business class seats were comfortable but I have seen better. The good thing was that the power supply had a normal plug outlet and did not require the airplane adaptor. The LAN port was not working. The service was very good. There were little Japanese innovations that made the flight nice. The overhead compartment had a mirror inside so that you could see inside the compartment even if you were not unnaturally tall. There was also a neat step ladder built into the seat side, the food was OK, not the best, but that was because it was mostly Japanese food which Srijoy and Mikku enjoyed. They served sufficient amount of booze. The video was good and had the individualized movie choices with the stop, rewind and other functions. The air map was quite good, but mostly in Japanese. The flight left on time and was 13 hours long. I got some sleep on the plane, watched part of “2001 A Space Odyssey” while Mikku and Srijoy watched some other stuff. Bebo worked on his homework a little bit as well. They served another meal before landing. The arrival was on time at 1:40 pm of March 27. Of course, we gained about 14 hours but lost a day having crossed the International Date Line.

Narita arrival was smooth. The bags arrived quickly and customs was not a problem. Once exiting, the signs for the Airport Limo were quite clear. These are orange signs and quite visible. We bought the three tickets (3,000 Y for adults, conversion is 113 Y to a $). The people spoke very little English. The bus ticket indicated the time it would leave and the bus stand it would leave from. I checked on the Japan Rail pass exchange but it was a long line, so looked for an ATM and that was a little tricky. But found one and took out some cash. The weather outside was cool and cloudy. The bus arrived exactly on time, the porters put on the tags and gave us the receipts. The porters loaded the bags and we boarded the bus. No one spoke English. We were starting to realize that this was going to be a different experience. I had two 10,000 Y bills with me and no change to tip with. Felt bad about that and boarded the bus. The drive from Narita Airport is mildly boring. The landscape is made up of primarily industrial areas and buildings. We did see some cherry blossom on the way. There was some traffic as we approached Tokyo. All signage was in Japanese and it was difficult to understand where we were going. The bus driver was making a few announcements but everything was in Japanese. The bus made a few stops and eventually reached the Ginza Tobu Renaissance Hotel. It is a Marriot chain hotel. The bus driver unloaded the bags and the hotel bell boy picked up the bags. We walked in to check in. The people are polite, but somewhat robotic and emotionless. The check in process was smooth and I asked to change my 10,000 Y bill into smaller bills. The lady did it and then said that there was no tipping in the hotel. What she failed to mention is that there is no tipping in Japan! This is a society out of a science fiction novel. There is virtually no crime, everything is planned, the people dress exactly the same way, they behave the same way, and since everyone is exactly a duplicate of the other (as in most collectivist societies) there is no confusion. The system works like clockwork and everyone will conform to the system. There is some magical force controlling the system and everyone trusts the system. The worst disaster is when the system fails or when someone questions the system. More on that later. So the bellboy brought the bags upstairs. We settled down. Everyone was tired with the travel and the jet lag. Srijoy and Mikku ordered from the room service menu. It was mostly Japanese food. I had spotted an American Denny’s restaurant and I went and got a take out club sandwich from there. I had also gone down to the lounge to have a drink, but it was priced at $10.00 for a shot of Chivas, and chose not to indulge! Eventually we called it a day about 9:00 pm. The Internet was free and we were able to use Skype to make a few phone calls. Had trouble with Amex and had to call them to approve charges in Japan.

March 28, 2007

As expected we got up very early. This is what happens when one travels west, and the jet lag wakes you up early. We took it easy and took long showers, I prepared for my conference and we generally took it easy till about 6:30 when we went down for the breakfast. It was a nice spread, mostly normal breakfast food. There was some unidentified fish and since no one spoke English (it was beginning to get a little tiring) we had no idea what it was. There was a drink that was labeled in English as “Pokari Sweat.” That was intriguing. We later discovered it was the name of an electrolyte replacement drink and thus was called sweat. It turned out to be a very popular drink all over the place.

After the hearty breakfast we got the camera and other stuff and took a taxi to Tokyo Station. No one spoke English. It was a challenge explaining to the taxi driver where we wanted to go (the problem is that Tokyo station is like a city, with numerous entrances, so just saying “Tokyo Station” is not sufficient, it is also necessary to indicate which of the 6 entrances you want, this was impossible to explain without knowing Japanese), but we eventually got it explained. Once at the station we started to ask around about the place where we could exchange the Japan Rail vouchers for the tickets. With very little English signage and with nearly no one speaking English this was a very difficult task. Tokyo station is large. There are two main entrances. It is laid out in a North-South orientation. The entrances are to the East and West. The east side entrances are called the Yaesu entrances. The west side entrances are the Marunouchi entrances. On each side there are three entrances – the North, the Central and the South. It took us a while to figure this out because all the station maps we were getting were in Japanese and trying to match a sign on a board with a pictograph on the map is a trick. Anyway, we eventually figured out that the JR pass exchange point was near the Yaesu Central Entrance (since we entered through the Marunouchi South gate this was a trick!) There is also a complete shopping mall in the station and a wrong turn could put you in the middle of a departmental store! For some reason people in Japan do not create any trash. So there is a woeful lack of garbage cans. It took us 7 days to realize that there was a system to that too. Unlike the wily nilly trash cans you would find distributed in a station anywhere in the world, the trash cans in Japan are located next to vending machines only. They have specific openings that allow you to throw in only things that fit. Thus, a Starbucks coffee cup can not be thrown into the one for cans (unless you crunch up the cup, which we creatively did!), but you have to find a trash can that accepts trash of that size. And everyone would find that specific trash can for that trash. Prozac! Anyway, doing the exchange for the ticket was a long-drawn process but we got our JR passes. This allowed unlimited travel for 7 days on any Japanese Train (except the Nozomi trains). The price of each ticket was $250 and it is necessary that these be bought outside Japan. But we really used this a lot and hardly paid for any transportation. Once we had the tickets, we headed out to see the Meiji Shrine. This was on the Yamanote Line (this is a circular line that runs around the central part of Tokyo). We took the train to Harajuku and the shrine was a five minute walk from the station. There is no English signage, so to get to the shrine, generally start saying “meiji” to any one you see and they will politely respond in great detail in Japanese, then say you understood nothing and ask for hand gestures, eventually you will find the place. The day was beautiful and sunny and we found a cafe by the shrine entrance and had some coffee and croissants and we walked into the shrine area. It was really pretty and very traditional. It was a really good experience to see the shrine. We then stopped at the souvenir store and did a little shopping. Given it was such a nice day we decided to go to the Imperial Palace area to see the cherry blossom (we were lucky to be in Japan when the cherry blossom was in full bloom). We took the JR back to Tokyo station. The system is so obsessive that each station is almost exactly 2 minutes apart. There is a computer screen in the train car that shows which coach one is in, the next station, and minutes to the next station. When we reached Tokyo station we saw the sea of Japanese men and women – dressed exactly the same way – dark suit, white shirt and dark colored tie. It was so eerie that you would think you were watching a real-life rendition of the movie “I Robot.” No one was different. This was like being in a school with a school uniform that everybody wore. In my work I teach about hegemony – a process where people simply conform without question – I saw it in real life. Yet, people from Japan have conquered the World financially. I suppose it comes from the extreme discipline that is ingrained in the culture. Tokyo is like New York with every person stepping out of the movie “A Bridge on the River Kwai.” In a moment, it suddenly occurred to me that what that movie shows is exactly what Japan is about – collectivist society which conforms! Amazingly efficient and desperately boring, at least during the working hours. So, we got out off the train and walked down a road (we have no idea of the name, no signage in English) and reached the outskirts of the Imperial Palace. It was a nice rampart and we walked around taking pictures of the cherry blossom and the bridge across the moat. We were starting to get hungry and so we walked a little more and then took a taxi from a taxi stand. We told the guy to take us to the Sony building in Ginza. We walked through the Sony showroom, somewhat reminiscent of the Sony showroom on Michigan Avenue in Chicago (which, alas, is not there any more). Some of the stuff was cool, but most of it was for the local Japanese market. Srijoy and I were somewhat under whelmed. We then walked down the main stretch in Ginza, the shopping district of Tokyo, and got to a restaurant for lunch. The menu was in Japanese with some pictures. Srijoy and Mikku ordered some exotic stuff, I stuck with what looked safest – a chicken noodle soup. The food was expensive, but was served very aesthetically. No one spoke any English. After lunch we walked down to the Kabuki Theater. Took some pictures there and then headed back towards the hotel. We strolled around the hotel and discovered a Starbucks Coffee Shop (hallelujah)! Since my routine at home involves a Starbucks nearly every morning this was a gold mine for me. Finally some comfort food! We also discovered a post office in the street behind the hotel. Mikku and Srijoy then went to the hotel and I went off to Meiji University for the conference. Again getting there was a trick since there was no English signage after I got off at the station for the University. It was really difficult to find things and it was beginning to get frustrating. Clearly these people did not care about the people who do not speak or understand one of the Japanese languages. You are on your own and your street smarts will have to help you figure out things. The conference went well and I got back to the hotel. We then took a cab to the Tokyo tower. This is a tower which is a copy of the Eiffel tower (the Japanese copy things very well – they have adapted the British transportation system in Japan, this made things simpler for us since we are very familiar with the British rail system, the Japanese system was easy to figure out even though they refuse to use English). The tower was really nice. We rode up to the top and got some fantastic views of Tokyo. The lights in Ginza looked really nice. We then took a cab back to the hotel. The Tokyo cabs are very efficient. Each has a GPS system built in and so if you can give them the address they will get you there. The price starts at 660 Y and then goes up with distance. You charge up if you get stuck in traffic. We were back at the hotel and Arijit called soon after. Arijit and I went to school together at Calcutta Boys School. He is now the country head and CEO of State Bank of India in Japan. He was running late and Srijoy was tired. So we dumped the plan of going out to his place. He came to the hotel (in his chauffer driven car, no less!) and we went to a pub in Ginza and hung out. It was great to catch up, particularly sitting in Tokyo. Our Calcutta Boys School network has been amazing. There is hardly any major city in the World where we do not have someone from our batch of 1979 graduating class of only 70 students. We do regular gatherings in Calcutta, but we have had smaller meets in other parts of the World. In the last month, one of my batch mates based in Calcutta (heads up a significant part of the IT giant called Cognizant) came to Charlotte and spent a weekend at our place in Winston-Salem, and two weekends later I was having a scotch with another batch mate in Tokyo! Anyway, we chatted till about 10:30 at night and we finally walked back to the hotel. Mikku and Srijoy were already in bed and I called it a day.

March 29, 2007

It was another glorious day in Tokyo. We did not get as much of an early start, but walked over to the Starbucks and had coffee and croissants. Although the hotel was offering a free breakfast it was only for 2 people so they gave us 6 coupons for 3 mornings. We used 3 the first day and saved the other 3 for the last day. After the Starbucks coffee we walked over to Shimbashi station for the Yamanote line. We took the train to Shinjuku (11 stops and so about 22 minutes, it was comical how systematic the process was) and got off there. By this time, we had acquired a map in Japanese and would point to our destination on the map for the taxi driver and he would take us there (interestingly if the map was in English the taxi driver was stumped, not because he would not be able to eventually figure out the place, but it was not what he expected and the normal script of his life was being broken and he was thus miffed, I wonder what would happen if the system ever failed. As Arijit said, if the system fails, the whole country would become neurotic!). We took the cab to the Goyen garden. The cherry blossom was fantastic. We spent the morning there and took a lot of pictures. We had some coffee (this is the first time I have had hot coffee served in a can) and then took a cab back to the station. There we took the train via one change to the Sensoji temple area. We got off the train and cabbed it to the temple area. It was a really crowded and festive area. Lots of rickshaws as well to serve the tourists. We walked towards the temple. Most places in Japan do not take credit cards and so I wanted to take out some cash. Walked into a convenience store that claimed to have an ATM. The instructions on the screen were in Japanese. Could not use the ATM. The girl at the counter was able to convey that there was a major bank down the street and so headed there. Was standing in line for the ATM and the guard came over and said in broken English that the ATMs were only meant for Japanese bank cards. The only place to use a foreign card was in a post office which he said was down the street. We walked over to the temple area and I had Mikku and Srijoy wait as I tried to find the post office. It was conveniently hidden again without any English directions. Some hand gestures from locals lead me there. Got out some money and walked back to where Mikku and Srijoy were waiting. It was a really crowded area and it was good that we were using the walkie talkie (most US cell phones do not work in Japan, they have a very strange system that is incompatible with the rest of the World, fits in with the general philosophy of Japan). We walked around the souvenir shops and then on to the temple. Really nice, and very similar to Hindu temples. Lots of use of incense, and there was also a pagoda next to it. Looked nice with the cherry blossom all around. Since Mikku wanted to stroll the shops I walked ahead and found a bar where I had a bottle of Japanese beer. It was quite good. Soon Mikku and Srijoy arrived (again the walkie talkie was a life saver) and we found an interesting Japanese restaurant for lunch. Very traditional where you sit on the floor and eat from a low table. Mikku and Srijoy were able to eat, I watched. My sense of food requires that meat and fish be cooked over fire, this is not necessarily true for Japanese food (particularly if you order “tuna” not realizing that it will be totally raw). I had another beer. I have also cut out beef from my diet, but I did eventually try the partially cooked Japanese beef steak. We left from the temple area and took a cab back to the station. We took the train to Akihabara which is renowned for the electronics shops. We walked around the “the Electric Town.” Very impressive collection of electronics. Nothing was necessarily cheap (as in Singapore or Dubai, Bebo and I agreed that those electronics markets were better) and nothing you buy there would work outside Japan. Asking for overseas products yielded weird looks as if there was no reason to sell products that would work outside Japan! We eventually got bored (which is odd for Srijoy and me in an electronics market) and we took the train and left the area to take the train to Shimbashi station. There we changed into the non-JR special train that uses an automated system to do a loop from Shimbashi out across the Tokyo bay, over the Rainbow Bridge and into the Daiba area of Tokyo. We took the train to the Daiba station and walked down to the water side. It was pretty with the sun setting over the Tokyo skyline. We went to the Aquacity Mall and hung out there. There was an interesting replica of the Statue of Liberty outside the Aquacity Mall. Had a quick drink there and then got back on to the train and took the entire loop. There was an amazingly large Ferris wheel that was beautifully lit up. We also got to see the excellent lighting of Tokyo Tower. We eventually got back to Shimbashi. The Ginza lights looked amazing and we took a cab back to the hotel. Did room service and called it a day after doing a little bit of repacking. We had reservations for the morning train to go to Mt. Fuji.

March 30, 2007

We used the breakfast coupons to eat at the hotel. Checking out was smooth. We took a cab over to the Shinjuku station after leaving two suitcases at the hotel (leaving the suitcases was free). The cab dropped us off at the station and we had two suitcases with us. We found a Starbucks at the station and stopped for a cup of coffee. It was a little tricky negotiating the station but we eventually found the location of the tracks for the train to Otsuki. With the JR pass it is necessary to have reservations for the long hauls. The reservation is free but it gives a specific car number and seat number. The trains work like clockwork. There are indicators on the platform about where each car will arrive, there are signs on the platform that show how to queue to get into the train. We got on the train and stowed our bags. The trains obviously run on time and we reached Otsuki with no problem. There we had to change into a non-JR line (thus had to buy the tickets separately, it was about 1,000 Y per person) to take the narrow gauge train up to the town of Kawaguchi. It was a crystal clear day and we reached the Kawaguchi station. Naturally the ATMs did not work, so had to go to a bank across the street to change some dollars to yens. Srijoy was a big help running between the bank and the station to get the passport and other stuff. Traveling has become much simpler and easier as he can constantly help. He always pulled one of the suitcases and he can be relied upon to do things. Really is a different experience traveling with him as he grows up. Anyway, we bought the tickets for the sightseeing bus which allows one to hop on and off (500 Y per person for all day) and we went over to the Kawaguchi lake area. It was a picture postcard day and got many pictures of the mountain and lake. Strolled over to the boat house restaurant and had a nice lunch (finally I found something I could eat – a vegetable curry fully cooked, with rice). We were booked into a pension for the night. I should say that Arijit was kind enough to lend us one of their cell phones to use on the trip. This was quite useful. I used the phone to call the pension. Of course, no one spoke English at the bed and breakfast pension. Thankfully the restaurant owner spoke some English and he was kind enough to call the B&B and it was agreed that they will send a car to pick us up from the station at 5 pm. The town of Kawaguchi is tiny – a small hill town with Mt. Fuji as the backdrop. We eventually took the bus back to the station and then strolled over to the post office and the adjacent 7/11 store. Hung out at the store and did some snack shopping. Suspecting that there would only be Japanese food at the pension, I got myself a pre-packed ham sandwich. We also got some potato chips, salad and small bottle of sake. We walked back to the station and went to the information desk where the person was supposed to meet us. Our meeting time was 5:00 pm. Of course, being Japan I began to get agitated when no one was there and it was 3 minutes after 5:00. So walked over to the person at the information desk, and surprisingly he spoke English. He called the pension and sounded like he reprimanded them for being late (the system fails and thus there are consequences). It turned out that there was some miscommunication and they had not even left to get us. There was some strong Japanese words spoken and we were assured that the pick up would arrive in 20 minutes. And it did. The pension was owned by a couple. Bebo called it a Japanese Fawlty Tower in reference to the classic BBC TV show about the hotel owned by a couple. As we entered the house, we had to take our shoes off and we were offered sandals. The shoes were neatly tucked away in a cubby hole with our room number on it. The room was excellent. It was an interesting mix of Japanese and Western. There was an attached bath and a loft with a Japanese style dining space. The attached bath was a Western bath and not the traditional Japanese bath. There was a lounge downstairs with a piano. I went down there and quickly realized that we were in a place where no one knew English. It was also clear that there was no food to be had and there was no restaurant nearby. I had a drink and thought this over as Bebo played the piano. Srijoy and I eventually realized that the only way to communicate with the owner couple was through pictures. So we started drawing and they said “Hai hai” indicating that we were connecting. I have saved the pieces of paper that we used to do the drawings and we eventually agreed that at 8 pm the owner would drive me to a nearby Italian restaurant where we could get pizza or a chicken sandwich (imaging doing this when no one understands each others language!) However, by the time 8 pm arrived, we decided that we had had enough snacks and dinner was not needed. I simply went downstairs and drew one picture showing that we were going to bed! We soon did go to bed.

March 31, 2007

The morning was a little dismal. It was cloudy and foggy outside. We went down for the breakfast which was really nice. I had gotten up earlier and had gone downstairs to use the computer. The gentleman was setting the table. People in Japan frequently use masks to either prevent infecting others when they have a cold (so we quickly realized that people wearing masks were most likely ill with a cold) or to make sure that they do not pollute things with their breath. For instance, the gentleman (about 50 I would say) was setting the table for breakfast and was wearing a mask. I asked for a cup of coffee. This was not expected and sent him into bit of a rush and he scrambled to make the coffee. The expectation is that coffee is had with breakfast which does not start till 8:00 am, and it was only 6:00 am then, and why would someone want coffee then! Anyway, after a shower and all we all came down for breakfast. It was a very good breakfast and we enjoyed it a lot. There were just 5 rooms in the hotel and all the guests sat down and had breakfast together. After breakfast, we were driven back to the station. There we took the toy train down to Otsuki. From there we took an express train to Hachujio. There we changed into a local train to get to Sin-Yokohama. The journey took us first through the hilly area around Mt. Fuji (which was invisible because of the clouds) then from Otsuki to Sin-Yokohama (sin means “new”) we went through the industrial complex of Japan. It was one unbroken city with numerous factories and then the port area of Yokohama. At Sin-Yokohama we had to change to the bullet train to Kyoto. This was a new experience for Srijoy (Mikku and I had ridden on the French equivalent of the bullet train the TGV many years ago). Naturally the train arrived on time and we boarded it and got to our assigned seats. It was really fast (at the fastest it goes at 270 km/hour) and we relaxed for the rest of the trip to Kyoto. We arrived in Kyoto on time at 3:30 in the afternoon. We dropped the bags at the station. The station was huge and had a shopping mall with it. We took a cab to the Teji Pagoda and temple. It was a cloudy day so the cherry blossom did not look very bright. We spent some time in the pagoda, the adjoining temple and the Japanese garden. It was really a nice serene place. This was principally a Buddhist temple and had great overtones of the Hindu tradition. Srijoy and we had a very interesting discussion about religion there. We then strolled through the back streets of Kyoto to return to the station. I called the Holiday Inn and they said that there would be a shuttle bus to pick us up at the station at 6 pm. This gave us sufficient time to pick up the suitcases and walk over to the place where the sign said “Holiday Inn shuttle.” We noticed a rather unruly group of American teenagers near that area too with numerous bags. The bus arrived on time and the American kids waved it down. This is something that should not happen in Japan. The driver should have come to the exact place where the sign was, where we had qued up. The system failed. The Japanese driver broke out of script and stopped where the kids were and proceeded to load them. We, who were in line, got screwed. The bus got full and some of us who were in the correct line were left without transport. I called the hotel and yelled at them for a bit and realized it was pointless since they did not understand English. Those who were left over (us and a Japanese family where the gentleman spoke English) took two cabs and went over to the hotel (about 1,900 Y). My first reaction was very American – kind of yell at the hotel guys to get my cab money back. However, that does not work in Japan. When we got to the hotel the Japanese gentleman and I approached the manager and I let him do the talking. One thing we had done was take pictures of where the bus had stopped to prove it was at the wrong place. The Japanese gentleman did not yell, and so I did not either. We showed the manager the pictures I had taken and the manager apologized profusely and refunded the cab fairs to us. I realized that yelling would not have worked here, what was needed was a rational proof that the system had failed and thus the manager was shamed into compensating us! Face and shame is really important in this culture. Meanwhile Mikku had completed the check in process and we got to the room. Relaxed and eventually Bebo did a room service and we got food from a Chinese restaurant downstairs. I could eat that food. We eventually called it a day.

April 1, 2007

The day was somewhat dismal with a cloudy sky. The Holiday Inn stay did not include the breakfast and we left early from the hotel after buying the three bus passes (500 Y each). This allowed all day travel on all city busses. We walked out of the hotel and took the bus from the hotel to the Gion area of Kyoto. It was a long ride but was pleasant. Desperately needed coffee and was able to find a Starbucks. After breakfast there we walked into the Gion area and park. There was a great display of cherry blossoms and we visited a shrine similar to the Meiji shrine in Tokyo. We then walked through the park. Being a Sunday there was a local market that was selling all kinds of wares. We walked through the park. What was interesting was the lack of garbage cans in the park (we had not yet figured out that the trash cans are next to vending machines!) and we eventually handed our used cups to a store owner who threw them out for us. We then walked through the back alleys of what is called the Eastern Hills of Kyoto and went to one of the most important temples in Kyoto called the Kodaiji temple. On the way we had tea at a small Japanese restaurant and did some souvenir shopping. The temple was very pretty and we had to take our shoes off to walk through the temple. We also were able to stand and watch a traditional Japanese wedding with the accompanying tea ceremony and the people dressed in traditional Japanese clothes. We then walked out of the temple and walked along the back roads of Gion to eventually catch the 206 to Kyoto Station. Srijoy was hungry and wanted to eat Sushi. The station has a huge mall with an incredibly large food court. We found a Sushi bar and Srijoy and Mikku had sushi made right before them by the sushi chef. I had a beer. We then walked down to find a sandwich place and I had a turkey club. After spending some time at the station we took the JR train to the area called Arashiyama. This is a part of Kyoto which is set next to the Hozu River. The train ride is about 15 minutes from Kyoto station. A series of small lanes with cafes and stores leads to the temple and the river with the wooden bridge. It was a pleasant walk. Srijoy and I decided to do the hike up the mountain to see the monkey park. Mikku wisely decided to browse the stores by the river. It was an arduous hike up a very steep hill to reach the top where we were accosted by numerous monkeys. They have a system (remember it is Japan) where you can safely feed the monkeys and Srijoy really enjoyed that. We then took the hike down the hill and it was starting to drizzle a little. It really was fun to do this hike. Mikku was waiting for us at a café and we had coffee and cake and then walked back towards the JR station. On the way we saw the station for the Keifu railway and we bought the inexpensive tickets to connect us to the JR station and avoid any further walking (I was dead after the hour hike up and down the hill). We connected up with the JR line and got off at Nijo. It was getting dark and rainy and so we decided to simply take the 206 back to the hotel. At the hotel we stopped by in the Mall and Srijoy purchased a Japanese computer game for the PS2 system (which eventually did not work on his PS2 at home!) and we eventually got the take out from the Chinese place and called it a day.

April 2, 2007

We took an early morning walk from the hotel to the Mister Donut store and had breakfast. We then checked out of the hotel and took the 9:20 am hotel shuttle back to Kyoto station. After a quick stop at the station Starbucks we found our way into the station to get to the platform for the Hikari Bullet train back to Tokyo. Things worked smoothly. We got some snacks where the lady refused to sell me AA batteries because she saw that my walkie talkie only takes AAA batteries and she was confused as to why I wanted to AA batteries. It was impossible to explain to her that I had a camera as well and that needed AA batteries. This had happened many times. Since the store owner would not understand the word battery I would show them the battery in my walkie talkie. They would gladly sell me the AAA batteries (which they saw in the walkie talkie) but would be reticent about selling AA batteries. It did not make sense to them why I would want to buy batteries that did not fit the gadget in my hand! Anyway the bullet train put us in Tokyo (again exactly on time) at 1:15 in the afternoon. The plan was to leave the bags at the station and then go to the Sumo Museum, come back pick up the bags and then go to the hotel near the airport, check in and return to Tokyo to meet up with Arijit and go to his house for dinner. I did not assume that it would take me an hour to locate the left luggage point in Tokyo station. This was perhaps one of the most frustrating hours in my life. The map I had showed the location, but every relevant signage was in Japanese with some English translations but not for the luggage service. I asked a bunch of people but all spoke or understood no English. This was a surreal experience, and eventually, I was standing in the middle of the milling crowd of identically dressed Japanese businessmen in Tokyo station, and basically just said, very loudly, “doesn’t anybody f*&*^ speak English here?” and there was one Japanese man who stopped and said he did. This kind person showed us the carefully hidden luggage service place where we could leave our bags. Having wasted nearly an hour doing this, we were tired and we decided to change our plans and rebooked us into a hotel in Ginza (same one we stayed in earlier) and took a cab out towards the Sumo Museum. By this time we had gotten an English train map, but because we were so tired, we decided to cab it to the museum. Naturally, the cab driver did not speak or read English and so when I showed him the location on the map he did not understand where we wanted to go. My pronunciation of the place was inadequate and I eventually told him of a place near our location whose correct Japanese pronunciation I knew. This helped, then we computed that as soon as the cab price hits 1,400 Y we would be near the place we actually wanted to go to. So, as soon as the price hit 1,400 Y I asked the cab driver to stop. This was confusing for him, it did not fit the system since we were still not at the location he was supposed to take us. It took us another 400 Y in cab price before he reluctantly dropped us off. We got out and we were exactly by the Sumo museum where we wanted to go! It helps to spend 18 years of one’s life in one of the biggest cities in the World. Eventually, all cities work the same, once you know the system, you can work it! I feel apprehensive for Srijoy who is not getting the city smarts that can only come from years of living in a large city, hopefully he will learn it later in life, and through these trips. Anyway, we walked over to the JR station that was supposed to be close to the Sumo Museum and were unable to locate it. A really helpful old lady walked us over to the museum. It was a small museum but was connected to the stadium where they have Sumo wrestling. We browsed the store for a little bit and then took the JR back to the Tokyo Station, picked up the suitcases from storage and took the JR to the Shimbashi station and cabbed it to the hotel. Interestingly the hotel had been changed to a Courtyard (from Renaissance) Hotel on April 1 and so Internet was no longer free in the hotel. But as with all Courtyard Marriot hotels there was a lounge and a free drink was offered. We settled in and at 6:00 Arijit came over. We all got in his car and we drove to his place (it was about a 40 minute drive). Being the country head for State Bank of India he lived in a really nice home. We sat and chatted through the evening. I think this was one of the high points of the trip to see a school friend from years ago in Tokyo. His wife, Nandini turned out to be related to another very old friend from Mikku and my neighborhood in Calcutta. We had known that our neighbor (Shyamal Kar) had moved to Tokyo many years ago. Just by chance it turned out that Nandini was related to Shyamal’s wife and we so got a chance to chat with Shyamal da and his wife on the phone. Had we known this connection (and how small the World is) we would probably have met up with Shyamal da’s family as well. Srijoy spent the evening with Arijit and Nandini’s sons – Joy and Jeet. We eventually ate a sumptuous Bengali dinner and Arijit and Nandini drove us over to the Megura JR station, we took the train back to Shimbashi and were back in the hotel by about 10:30 pm. Quickly called it a day and went to bed.

April 3, 2007 (USA and Japan)

We got up early and after a quick breakfast in the room got our bags loaded into a taxi and headed for Tokyo station. It was a rainy day in Tokyo. We had reservations on the Narita Express JR train from Tokyo station at 8:00 am (April 3, 2007, Japan time). Train was on time and we reached Narita at 9:00 am. Check in took a long time, so we had to rush to the plane without too much time at the duty free stores. The plane left on time at 10:45 am (April 3, 2007, Japan time). I had a couple of drinks, breakfast and went to sleep. Srijoy and Mikku watched TV. I slept for about 5 hours. At about 8:00 am (April 3, 2007, USA time) the plane was over Chicago (after a 10 hour flight). The weather in Chicago was bad and so the pilot took the plane to Washington DC. There we sat on the plane on the ground for about 1.5 hours as the plane refueled. We then flew back to Chicago and landed at Chicago at about 11:30 am (April 3, 2007, USA time). So we had effectively spent about 15 hours on the aircraft. Chicago O’Hare was a mess since the storm had disrupted all flights. We eventually got onto a plane at 5:30 pm (by then we were traveling for about 21 hours) and reached Greensboro at 8:30 pm. Two of the bags did not arrive. We got back home after picking up Snowy and entered home at about 9:30 pm on the same date that we had left from Tokyo! But after traveling for more than 24 hours.


posted by Ananda  # 12:42 PM


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