#TBT: Japan Trip April 2005: Johnnie Hillwalker’s Johnnie Kyoto Walking Tour

Another day filled with not so much stress. Hehehe…now we’re even starting to talk like Japanese people.

We took the 8am shuttle bus to Kyoto Station and had breakfast at Starbucks.


Figure roughly 100 yen to the dollar…look at those prices! (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Those were 2005 prices. I just looked at their site and, as an example, a Tall Coffee Frappuccino (top item on the far right of the sign) is now 420 yen, Grande is 460 yen and Venti is 500 yen).

I’ll tell you…even somewhere as familiar as Starbucks is an adventure when you’re in another country. Japan is VERY big into recycling and trying to throw out your garbage when you’re done with your meal can take nearly as long as the meal itself:

  • Leftover liquid and ice go into the “liquids” garbage (where it sounds like it goes into a garbage disposal).
  • Plastic cups and clear lids go into the “clear plastic” container.
  • White plastic lids and plastic cutlery go into the “white plastic” container.
  • Paper cups, cup holders, napkins and wooden stirrers go into the “paper and combustibles” container.
  • Dishes and trays go onto their respective piles.

I almost took a picture of it all but got too self-conscious about taking picture of, well, GARBAGE! (grin). You know, after 4 days of coffee in a can (they sell it in ALL the vending machines, hot or cold, VERY milky and VERY sweet, just the way I like it) or bad coffee from restaurants, it sure was GOOD to drink some REAL coffee for a change!

MODERN-DAY NOTE about the following paragraphs: in the past few years, Johnnie Hillwalker (now age 87ish?) has retired and the WaRaiDo Guide Network has taken over the walking tours. However these notes are from 2005.

Anyway, after breakfast, we went on Johnnie Hillwalker’s Johnnie Kyoto Walking Tour. Joe had found Johnnie’s website (MODERN-DAY NOTE: website updated. Original website is a dead link) during his thorough-bordering-on-obsessive search of the internet of things to do in the cities in Japan that we were visiting. When I heard about “the little old man who does walking tours of Japan,” I decided we HAD to go on it.

Johnnie is a 70-something year-old man who leads people on a 3 kilometer walk around Kyoto in about 5 hours. We visited several Buddhist and Shinto shrines and temples, places of local commerce (fan makers, pastry makers, ceramics, tatami mat producers, etc) and Johnnie explained about all of them. It was a VERY interesting tour.

OK, so I just realized that I managed to explain a 5-hour tour in about 3 lines of print. How about some more stories and some pictures…

We met Johnnie at the designated place, just outside Kyoto Station. There were about 30 of us on the tour that day…about 20 were from countries that spoke English as a primary language (mainly the US, but I heard British and Australian accents too) and the rest spoken German an another language or two I didn’t pick up on.

Our first stop was at Higashi Hongan-ji Temple, which is only a block or two away from Kyoto Station. It was originally built as a Buddhist temple in 1602, but due to frequent fires, the current buildings are “only” from 1895.


Overall view of Higashi Hongan-ji temple, except for the “big” building.


HERE’S the big building (wink). The “Founder’s Hall” of Higashi Hongan-ji, which you may enter after taking your shoes off (you can see people doing that in the background of the picture…they even give you plastic bags to put them in), is one of the largest wooden structures in the world. I like the guy with the Playboy bunny hat, don’t you? He was on our tour. Guy was from Long Island. Remember him…I’ve got a story about him in a minute.


A small fountain can be found outside all Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. It is considered to be “holy” water of sorts and you’re supposed to rinse your hands and mouth with it, in order to purify you inside and out. Mr. Playboy Bunny, upon finding the fountain, took the opportunity to fill his water bottle with it. Typical clueless American.


A somewhat fuzzy view of the Amida Buddha (as per Johnnie, there are lots of Buddhas but Amida is the most important Buddha), inside the Founder’s Hall. 80% of all Japanese people are Buddhist and 70% believe in Shinto so there is a lot of overlap between the two.


Johnnie showing us how one prays to Amida Buddha.


One of the sleds that was used to carry felled trees from the mountains to be used to build the temple.


An example of the rope, made of human hair, that was used to help build the temple.

The next part of our tour was to walk through some streets in Kyoto that are home of the “industrial” people…those who, for generations, have made goods on the first floor of the buildings, while they lived on the second and third floors. Specific neighborhoods or blocks would be well-known for their paper fans, prayer beads, etc. Some of the old traditions of local commerce are dying out, especially with the younger people wanting to work with computers and other more technologically-advanced, higher-paying careers, but those who still make such products keep going.


A typical “industrial” street in Kyoto.


Making Buddhist prayer beads.


Producing fresh tofu.


Making fans.


Putting the gold paint on the ends of the fans. This guy is more anal-retentive than ME!


The final results. For sale, of course (grin).


Making tatami mats. Yeah OK, these people didn’t let the Industrial Revolution pass them by (grin).


Making ceramic bowls. They were all hand-painted and VERY expensive (think $30+ per saucer), except for the “Seconds” that were for sale for $2 to $10 each.

Our next stop was the Shosei-En Garden. It is a strolling garden that belongs to Higashi Hongan-ji Temple, although the two properties are separate and not connected. It dates back to the ninth century, when it was built by Prince Minamoto Noturu.


Shosei-En Garden is a typical Japanese manicured garden.


These carp were HUGE and boy, did they like the lunch that Johnnie brought them!


Joe enjoying hanami (cherry blossoms). Or maybe he was just reading one of his maps (grin).


Closeup of hanami.

Our next stop was to visit a Shinto shrine. You can tell that it’s Shinto because of the rope hanging from the doorway (the rope designates the boundary of a sacred place).


This particular shrine we visited is the one that Johnnie is a member of, and he has made a donation to have a paper lantern with his name on it.

Next stop was a small Buddhist cemetary. Each grave site is small because Buddhists are traditionally cremated, so they need less space. They usually place the ashes of several family members underneath one stone grave marker.


The wooden sticks are made by loved ones and are left at the grave site to show that they visited. They also often leave flowers or plants and/or burn incense at the grave site.


Johnnie said that leaving a jar of sake, like at this gravestone, is NOT traditional (grin).

Our next stop was in front of a store that made sushi. We all got to taste a piece of vegetable sushi. Not bad, but I still like California and eel rolls better.

Next was a brief stop at the former site of the Nintendo Card Playing Company, which eventually turned into the computer and video game giant that it is today.


Sign declaring the Nintendo Playing Card Company on the now-abandoned building.


Outside of the building. Notice that the architecture is very American.


A very poor shot of the inside of the building (Sorry…I had to take the picture through a glass window with a metal screen in it and not use a flash).


Johnnie preparing to give each of us a card as a souvenier.

The next stop on our tour was a local shop that sold candy made out of bean paste, as well as different types of Japanese tea. Like so many other businesses in Kyoto, the store had been in the family for many, many generations. We got free samples of the barley tea (yuck) and a bean paste pastry here (not bad, but, of course, not sweet enough and, as pretty and differently decorated as the candies were, they all tasted the same).


Outside shot of the tea and bean paste candy shop


Making bean paste candy.


Close-up of making bean paste candy.

Next stop was another shrine. This one was called Toyokuni Shrine. I don’t know about the guys, but by this point, I was starting to get “shrined out” (grin) so I didn’t pay as much attention to the history of it, nor (perhaps thankfully?) did I take as many pictures of it.


Johnnie in front of the Toyokuni shrine. Probably the best picture I got of Johnnie (grin).


Decent shot of the inside of the shrine.


Multiple Torii gates next to the shrine, in combination with the statues of the foxes, indicate that this shrine was an Inari shrine. There are several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari across Japan. Inari is the Shinto god of rice, and foxes are thought to be his messengers. Therefore, many fox statues can be found at Inari shrines (see picture of inside the shrine). The Torii gates are usually paid by individuals, groups and businesses…usually in the hope that their donation (and advertisement of their names on the gates?) will please the gods and, in turn, will help them in business matters. By the way, please note that this shot includes Mr. Playboy Bunny again…with a full bottle of water. Totally clueless. Thank heaven we visited all of those shrines, or he would’ve dehydrated!

Behind Toyokuni Shrine was the largest bell in all of Kyoto. Although hundreds of years old (it was built in the 16th century), it’s still in use for ceremonies and holidays.


Far-away view of the big bell


Close-up of the bell, including the hand-painted ceiling.

The end of the tour, where Johnnie bid us goodbye, left us near Kiyomuzidera Temple, which is a set of Buddhist buildings at the edge of the mountains on the west side of Kyoto. It was easily a STEEP mile up, with more hills and steps than we had done in all previous days combined, but according to Johnnie, the area was “most beautiful” (wink), with the buildings, many trees and plants and cherry blossoms in full view and, since we were so high, a gorgeous view of the city.


First thing we came upon when we got to the top of the hill was this HUGE cemetary. My guess is that it’s probably filled with all of the people who died of heart attacks after walking up the hill!


A short description of what we had climbed the hill for and were about to see. Brought to you by Fujicolor film! (grin)


First building in the temple area.


Back view of the same building, but it gives you an idea of how high up we were.


More buildings in the temple “compound.”


This temple is being refurbished for your future enjoyment! (wink)


Joe in front of the main building of the Kiyomuzidera Temple.


Shot of me looking at Kyoto.


Fountain for purification at the temple. Mr. Playboy Bunny must’ve been thrilled…he could get a refill!


There were several gardens at the temple site, as well as on the way down (we took a different path down the hill, for variety). During the walk, I found this small cherry tree in full bloom.


As the blossoms fall off the trees here, they go into the river and are washed away. Pretty, huh?

There were several shops on the long, steep hill going towards and away from the temple, though there wasn’t much “stuff” that we found very interesting in those. Since we were hungry though, we each got what we think is the equivalent of a cream puff, albeit with custard, not cream, on the inside. The wrapper for the pastry was another perfect example of Engrish:


Recently I have become very healthy. My hopes have begun to swell. Dreams have increased one by one.
WTF???

Took a bus back to the hotel and ate at a restaurant adjacent to it, called Die Gute. I had steak, Joe had pasta and Steve had a beef stew.


My appetizer/salad. I had no idea of what I was eating at that moment. Sardines, maybe? Well, the steak was good.


Can’t ruin beef stew.

Very good and definitely worth the price.

After dinner, we did some walking around a local supermarket (“Oh look, they sell Del Monte and Hershey’s products!”) and a 100 yen store. Didn’t buy anything yet, save for some small stuff, because we’re still at the beginning of the trip and will have to shlep it all with us for over 2 more weeks.

As of this writing, we’re in the midst of doing laundry at the hotel’s laundry facility…they have a whopping 2 small washers and 2 small dryers. For the whole hotel. And we’re 3 people. AND there’s another hotel patron who is doing HER laundry (she was from California, but originally from Long Island and didn’t like Japan at all. She liked Hong Kong better. More action. OK lady…whatever). It’s gonna take us forever for our stuff to dry (update…we were drying stuff until about 2am).

Tomorrow we see the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, then go on our way to Nagoya, to see the World’s Fair Exhibition. We’ll have internet access in Nagoya too, so my next message will be written from there. Until then, sayonara!

#TBT: Japan Trip, April 2005: Shinkansen, Hiroshima, Peace Memorial Park

I’m writing this on my PDA (MODERN DAY NOTE: A PDA. Wasn’t that CUTE?!?!?!) while on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) from Hiroshima back to Kyoto. If you can read it, that means I’m much more computer-savvy than I give myself credit for (grin).

Today was pretty stress-free, since we’re getting more of our bearings when it comes to trains, shuttles, scheduling, maps, etc.

After yesterday’s near-fast (grin), we made sure to make room for meals today. We took the 9:20am shuttle from the hotel to Kyoto Station and, after a quick detour to a touristy place under Kyoto Tower to buy postcards, we had breakfast at a restaurant in the Station called “Beef Stew.” And I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure that’s what Joe and/or Steve (our friend on this trip with us) had for breakfast (grin). I, on the other hand, had bacon and egg on French bread with a side of salad and Miso soup (Yeah, salad and soup with breakfast. That’s what they do here. Different culture).

So we made it onto the Shinkansen to Osaka (15 min ride), then switched trains to go to Hiroshima (90 min ride).


Waiting for the Bullet Train


Here it is!


The trains are VERY comfortable, with padded seats and foot rests. They have bathrooms, offer snack/beverage service, you name it.


This train is 8 cars long and each car has its own set of “rules”….reserved seats vs. non-reserve, smoking or non-smoking, “silence car,” etc.

At Hiroshima, we took a trolley car to the museum area that we intended to see. The first thing we saw was the Peace Park, which encases the remains of the “A-Bomb Dome.” That is a building that (sort of) survived the atomic bomb attack (“sort of” because all that’s left is the skeleton of the building and a few inner wall structurings…as opposed to all the other buildings in the city, which were totally obliterated).


The A-Bomb Dome as you approach from the trolley.


Information and history about the A-Bomb dome.


Beauty, destruction and modern times.


Information about the destruction of Hiroshima.


The Peace Memorial Park area. In the hours and days after the bomb hit, thousands and thousands of bodies floated in this river.

The park also houses several memorials (to the various thousands of people who perished), and the history museum. Here are a few of them, with explanations when possible:


Memorial Tower to the Mobilized Students (middle- and high-school students who were working for the government to help make fire paths. Over 3/4 of the mobilized students died from the A-bomb.)


Close-up of the base of the Memorial Tower to the Mobilized Students


Cenotaph for A-bomb victims (Memorial Monument for Hiroshima, City of Peace).


Short explanation of the Cenograph


Children’s Peace Monument. This memoriam is to Sadako Sasaki, a teenager who died of leukemia over a decade after being explosed to the A-bomb at the age of 2. Her goal was to make 1,000 origami cranes, in the hopes that doing so would cure her. She didn’t live to finish, and her grieving friends raised the money to erect this memorial to her. People from all over the world still bring thousands upon thousands of paper cranes to her memorial site.


The golden crane inside the Children’s Peace Monument.


Short explanation of the Children’s Peace Monument.


A small percentage of the thousands of cranes at the Children’s Peace Monument.


This mound of dirt is made from the cremated remains of the people who perished in the days, weeks, months and years after the A-bomb hit. Most of the people whose ashes are in the mound were unidentified.


(from front to back) Flame of Peace, Pond of Peace, Cenograph (partially obscured) and the center area of the Hiroshima Peace Museum.

The museum was amazing…it went through the history of the city of Hiroshima, the history of the invention of the atomic age, the events that led up to 8:15am on August 6, 1945, the immediate effects of the bomb, as well as the after-effects, some of which (birth defects, cancer, psychological, etc) persist to present-day time.

The museum houses thousands upon thousands of artifacts, from clothing people were wearing on the day of the bombing, to lunch boxes (melted, with burnt food still inside), to a pocket watch that was permanently stopped at 8:15am, to steps from a former bank that still had the faint shadow of the person who was sitting on them when the bomb hit and he/she was incinerated on the spot. There’s no way that my writing or our our pictures could ever do it all justice, but this website can give further information.

Besides the obvious tragedies of the loss and illness of thousands upon thousands of people, the one disturbing thing to me, as an American, is that the museum portrays not just the city, but the entire country as an innocent victim of the U.S.’s actions. Pearl Harbor and the rest of Japan’s part in WW2 was VERY minimalized in their presentation. Then again, as Americans, WE have learned an entirely different view of history. All depends on your perspective, I guess.

It was raining when we left the museum, but with umbrellas in hand, we checked out the various memorials within the park (see pictures above) and each took a turn ringing the Bell of Peace.


Me ringing the Bell of Peace


An explanation of the Bell of Peace

After that, we caught a trolley back to Hiroshima Station. In the months before we went on vacation, we had gotten a lot of “Japan advice” from someone we knew who had spent about 6 months living and working there, circa 2001-2002, and he recommended if we were going to eat in Hiroshima, to try to go to a restaurant that served okonomi-yaki style, since Hiroshima was famous for it. Okonomi-yaki is grilled ramen noodles, egg, vegetables and a batter, with meat, that you make into a sort of loose pizza in front of you (think of Benihana-style but smaller scale, the food comes all mixed together and you heat it up yourself). We found such a place near Hiroshima Station and had dinner there. VERY tasty!


Steve enjoying his okonomi-yaki.

After dinner, we got our tickets for the Shinkansen back to Kyoto (no changing trains this time!) and here we are on it (remember, I’m writing this on my PDA).

Tomorrow is our walking tour and I think it’s laundry day, as well. Until next time, sayonara!

#TBT: Japan, April 2005 – Kyoto & Nara (Shugakuin Imperial Villa, Nara Dreamland, Nara Station)

The first part of our day was stressful because of timing factors, the second part of our day was hysterically funny and the third part of our day was, well, hungry (grin).

Well, we THOUGHT we had it all figured out…how to get to the Shugakuin Imperial Villa. You have to get special permission to go and we had gotten that the day before. Joe, who had been obsessively planning this trip for the past 9 months, had every street, bus and subway map known to man, plus how to get from Point A to Point B throughout the country…but apparently only carried SOME of the written material we needed today…so today was the day of “miss the bus by ‘this’ much and have to wait 20 to 40 minutes for the next one.” We grabbed some pastries at a local bakery for breakfast (didn’t eat them yet because Japanese people don’t eat on the streets and we were traveling) and waited for the next bus.

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A shot of the pastry shop.

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This flamingo place was actually directly across the street from the bakery, so while we waited for the bus (the bus stop was directly in front of the bakery) I wound up taking a good half-dozen pictures of the flamingo. With a zoom. Without a zoom. Trying to not get a bus or car into the picture as they were passing by (grin). I have no idea of what this store was. In fact, it didn’t even look like it was open for business yet, but with how much I like flamingos, it gave me a good giggle.

Anyway, after the bus let us off (we also had no idea of where to get off the bus. I gave the deer-in-the-headlights look to the driver and said, “Shugakuin, kudasai?” [Shugakuin, please?], so he would tell us when our stop was), we had to figure out which direction to go. Joe’s books just said to look for the place when we go off the bus. Well, it certainly wasn’t anywhere in sight. And we didn’t see any signs. Not in English, anyway. So I, being a female, was more willing to stop and ask for directions. I went into the local liquor store (I think that’s what it was) and asked the proprietor (who had like, 4 teeth), my now-obviously-helpful, “Shugakuin, kudasai?” (hey, it got us off the bus inn the right place, didn’t it?). His response was to point, give me 2 fingers, and said, “Left. Up.” OK, so when we go out of the store, we have to walk down 2 blocks that way, make a left and walk up the hill, towards the mountains. Gotcha. And sonofagun, it worked. Pity it took almost a half-hour because the “hill” was a half mile of a residential neighborhood with winding streets and a canal through the center of it.

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The neighborhood on the way to Shugakuin Imperial Villa

We finally made it to the Villa, albeit 15 minutes late and they were gracious enough to lead us to the rest of our 10:00am tour…which, as it turned out, was spoken entirely in Japanese.

Oh, great.

Well, the views of the outside/hills/farms were pretty and I guess it was an interesting tour…something about land that had been owned by the Emperor but then the emperor moved to somewhere else so the farmers took back the land and when the officials found out, they decided to allow them to keep their land because it wouldn’t be right to take it away from them. And some of the land is still used for farming. As you may be able to tell from my description, except for the English handout they gave us, I had NO idea of what this place was (grin). Since I’ve gotten home though, I’ve found this website, (MODERN-DAY NOTE: the original website I linked to no longer exists. This is a new one) which gives a decent history of the place. Not to be outdone though, here are a few of our own pictures of our visit:

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Everything on the walls were painted by hand.

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Some more hand-painted wall decorations. And “not orbs.”

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A different style of wall decoration inside of one of the buildings.

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Our tour group looking at the outside of some of the buildings.

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Me walking away from one of the ancient buildings. Or maybe it was the ladies’ room? I forget.

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A view of the rest of the property, and beyond, from the highest hill in the complex.

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A view of Kyoto from above, as seen at the Shugakuin property.

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Steve’s newest friend, who he met on the tour. Yeah, Steve really WILL talk to anybody (grin). (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Steve is a friend who went on this trip with us)

After the 90-minute tour, we stayed at the front gate and ate our pastries, then decided to go to Dreamland, which was in Nara, a 40-minute express train away. Saturdays in Kyoto are HUGE tourists days so noon was not the best time to be taking a bus. An hour and a half later, we were back at Kyoto Station, finding our express train to Nara. No time for food…we had to find our train! We eventually got it, as well as our bus to Nara, and there it was…Dreamland!

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Now, for those of you who never heard me talk about it, Dreamland (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Nara Dreamland closed in 2006, so its official page, which I had originally linked to, no longer exists. But you can read all about it with a quick search of NARA DREAMLAND) is a small amusement park that was built in the early 1960’s. It’s a total ripoff of Disneyland, complete with knockoffs of the train station, castle, Matterhorn, Jungle Cruise, Teacups, Main Street, etc., except with a budget of a carnival, with horrible upkeep and few visitors. It sounded wonderfully awful…the kind of place that you go to and just make fun of. I heard about it right after I got back from Japan in 1994 and, after learning out it, kicked myself for not going. So this was a “must see.” And see it we did…we got there at 2:45pm and the park was scheduled to close at 5pm…more than enough time, right? Here’s a photo review of the place, including the good, the so-bad-that-it’s-funny, and the ugly:

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The kiosks where you pay to park, if you drive to Dreamland. Don’t know if you can read it, but it costs almost $20.00 to park there (parking is VERY expensive all over Japan) (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Remember, this was written in 2005, when $20 to park WAS expensive). The kiosks look so friendly, so inviting, so well-themed…well, maybe if you’re going to a jail.

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The front entrance actually looks pretty darn nice, huh?

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The back of the train station. If you look carefully, you can see me doing my impersonation of Evita Perón.

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A walkabout character in the “town square.” I don’t know who he is or if he even has a name…his image isn’t ANYWHERE else in the park (whose logo seems to be a soldier). He just stands there and for about $1.00, he plays a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” with kids, who win a trinket if they outsmart the oversized Frito Bandito. He took one look at us and started picking his nose. No, really!

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The Dreamland fire department, right where you would expect it to be, on the left side of the “town square”.

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And every fire department should come equiped with a pink Cadillac and a Jeep, right? You can’t tell the angle of this picture, but the Caddy was being held up by cinderblocks.

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A view of their version of “Main Street” and their castle, far off in the distant background (it’s hard to do the forced perspective thing when the buildings and trees are all the same size).

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A closer image of one side of the street.

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Ooooooo….now THAT’S pretty. Yeah, this place really IS a DIVE (grin).

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Good emulation there, because Disney “Main Streets” ALWAYS have a utility truck parked on them, right?


Ewwwwwww!


Note the name of this restaurant on “Main Street”…Woody Garden!?!?!?

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This HUGE fountain encompasses most of “the hub” area (this view is looking towards the train station). It looks like it would be pretty nice, if they turned on more than just the one center set of water jets.

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The castle doesn’t look half-bad if you’re not CLOSELY close-up, even though it doesn’t have a whole lot of detail.

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Of course, EVERY castle in Japan should have a statue of George Washington in its moat.

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And Abraham Lincoln too!

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And a Joe (wink).

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Their “Matterhorn” looks like it’s made out of cardboard, doesn’t it?

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Or maybe it’s papier mache. I like how the Skyway goes right through the center of the thing, like Disneyland’s used to. The Dreamland Skyway was closed, by the way. It was constantly moving (maybe they were afraid if they stopped it, they’d never be able to get it started again?), but no one was on it and no one was manning either entrance.

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Here’s the monorail, with the Matterhorn in the background. The monorail wasn’t running either…just sitting there, collecting dust and dripping grease.

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I love what they did with their landscaping.


The Swan Cycle ride. You go in a molded swan boat that has bicycle pedals in the bottom and PEDAL your way around the ride! No, REA

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Teacups???

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European-made Carousel (American-made ones go counter-clockwise). The horses didn’t even go up and down.

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Sure, cuz EVERY Disney knockoff park should have an Octopus ride…

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….and swings…. (MODERN-DAY NOTE: This was before Disney’s California Adventure had  Flik’s Flyers, Golden Zephyr or Silly Symphony Wings…)


…and a Mirror Puzzle…

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…and Bumper Boats. Nice line of scum on the bottom of the boats, huh?

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We never figured out if this was the entrance to a haunted house or to the Matterhorn.


Grand Prix Raceway it ain’t!

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The Flashdance ride. What a feeling!

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Screw Coaster, huh? Well, I guess EVERYONE is screwed when they come to THIS park (grin).

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I dunno. I guess it’s the “ride that used to be there but isn’t there anymore” attraction. Joe suggested it was a UFO landing pad.

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The one GOOD ride they have there….a roller coaster called Aska. I don’t “do” coasters, but Joe and Steve said it was very, very good, with LOTS of airtime. Meanwhile, look at the throngs of people in this picture!

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They had a lot of baby rides at this park.

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I like the white fences that they put around some of the rides. Really high-tech.


Someone called this the “ride that goes nowhere” ride. Walk up the stairs, go across, go down the stairs. Fun, fun, fun!

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And we complain about poor maintenance at the Disney parks…..HA!

By 4pm or so, Steve was starting to get hungry, so we stopped off at what looked like an abandoned picnic ground with an overhang. One of the food places nearby was open…
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…and Steve saw they had some sort of meat dish for about $20.00. He picked that and the owner motioned for us to sit down at a picnic table. The guy brought over an ashtray…”Smoke? Smoke?” (EVERYONE in Japan smokes) “No thanks, we don’t smoke.” He went back to (we thought) preparing Steve’s meal. By this point, I left to go in search of Dreamland souvenirs. By the time I come back, the guys had this portable hibachi unit on their picnic bench, which is connected to a gas line coming out from under the table. And they were sitting there, grilling the food!
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They said the guy was wonderfully nice….gave each of them a plate, utensils and dipping sauce (and a set for me too, for when I came back) and there was LOTS of food. The guy came over several times, to “help” them cook…I guess he figured they didn’t know what they were doing. He even offered to take our picture…
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He started talking with us more and more, asking where we’re from and how long we’ll be in Japan, His English was just slightly better than our Japanese, but we were still able to converse, albeit in a simplified way. At one point he looked at Joe and then at Steve and said, “Your son?” We burst out laughing at that (well, Joe and I did [grin]) and I pointed to Joe and said, “No, my husband!” The guy said, “Oooohhhhh!” But then he got this really confused look on his face, looked at Steve, looked back at me and said, “Who three?” We laughed again and said, “He’s a friend.” “Ooooohhhh!” Then he pointed to the woman behind the counter and said, “My wife!” The guy must’ve been embarrassed that he referred to Joe as Steve’s son, so he gave me an ice cream cone. Hey, who am I to say no to free ice cream?

Before we left the nice, unwittingly hysterical man, Joe said, “This food was very, very good. Thank-you very much. I would like to know the name of it, so that I can ask for it again. What do you call this kind of food in Japan?” And the guy looked at him and said, “Ahhhh…in Japan, we call this barbeque!” We almost wet out pants!

We bid out goodbye to the guy and his wife and took their picture before we left:
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They were just another part of the reason that Nara Dreamland became such a strong, strangely pleasant memory for us.

The one ride that the 3 of us went on was the Jungle Cruise. I think this one had to have been the worst of all. Take a look at this:

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The entrance to the ride.

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One of the boats. It didn’t look particularly seaworthy, but we figured if worse came to worse and we sank, the water couldn’t have been more than a few feet deep and w we’d be able to walk to shore. Of course, we’d have to fumigate ourselves after being in the scuzzy water, but….

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The boat was not on a track (I guess when the Dreamland Founding Fathers came to Disneyland to steal their ideas, they couldn’t see through the murky water of the REAL Jungle Cruise ride to tell that the boats were on a track) and the driver (the guy with the red windbreaker that says STAFF) just pressed a button to start a pre-recorded shpiel so he could drive the boat uninterrupted. Note that all of the “jungle natives” are, um, “people of color.”

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Ooooo….scary tiger! Well, scary he’s in that bad condition, anyway.

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The snake is in 4 or 5 pieces. I guess it’s cheaper to buy it that way. But they sure did a lousy job of hiding where one piece ends and the next piece starts!

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Oh give me a home, where the flamingos roam, and the rhinos stand behind them all day…

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The picture doesn’t do this justice at all. You see, it’s an action shot. The cheetah is on wheels on a track. The wheels move up and down the side of the log at a snail’s pace, which therefore SSLLOOWWLLYY rolls the cheetah to and from the embankment! We almost wet our pants laughing at that one!

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Watch out for that stationary elephant with the garden hose coming out of its trunk!

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Someone must’ve used a real gun to shoot the hippo, cuz it was deader than a doornail. It just laid there, half-in, half-out, not moving.

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And here, ladies and gentlemen, is where we have a pheasant, an ostrich, 2 parrots and some toucans, all living in harmony in the same place. It doesn’t matter than in real life they’d be on different corners of the earth…in Dreamland, anything can happen!

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Oooo…the suspense is killing me more than the ride is…here comes the dark, scary, cave!

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What was in the cave? 3 sets of bats. That’s it. This picture is set #1. Only 2 of them still flapped their wings. I especially like how they hang rightside up from the stalactites.

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Another “action shot.” This alligator had a stick coming out of its tail and the stick was connected to a motor that made the whole thing spin in circles. So that, my friends was the Dreamland version of an alligator in a death spin. Us Floridians prefered to call it gator on a spit.

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Shot taken after we exited out boat (nope, it didn’t sink!). Native #1 looks like he had a stroke. Native #2 looks like he’s scared of the bamboo that’s growing in front of him. And native #3 just looks…um…very happy with his lot in life.

it really is an awful park. But we turned it into a REALLY fun afternoon. By the way, this is an article some other people wrote about their trip to Dreamland in 2004. Their website also have some nice video links of the place. MODERN-DAY NOTE: Joe is positive we have some videos of Nara Dreamland too, but we can’t find them. As soon as we do, we’ll put them up on YouTube so you can share in the so-awful-that-it’s-great -ness.

Made it back to Nara Station…a tiny train station, so no food there, but we figured we could get something at Kyoto Station when we got back there. Not. The restaurants were PACKED, with lines outside every restaurant. SO…we decided to catch our shuttle bus back to our hotel and eat something there. Shuttle arrived on time at 8:40pm and we got back to our hotel at 9:20pm…and EVERY restaurant AND room service closed at 9pm. By this time, with just a noon pastry and 2 bottles of soda (Fanta sweet grapefruit…mmmm!) in me, I was hungry and hypoglycemic. And the guys were hungry too. And so, with chowing down on the “Take Five” candy bar that I had bought during our stopover in Chicago 2 or 3 days ago, we went to bed at 11pm.

Between the walking and the steps and the lack of most snacks, I’m gonna lose a LOT of weight this trip.

Tomorrow is Hiroshima. And food. We will make sure to leave time for food .

#TBT: Japan April 2005: Kyoto: Kyoto Station, Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle, Seeing Beauty & The Beast

So after waking up at 4:20am (yes, 4:20 in the morning. Jetlag sucks!) and catching up on our internet/computer stuff, Joe, Steve (MODERN-DAY NOTE: Steve is a friend of ours) and I started our day by using the hotel’s shuttle to go to Kyoto Station. Lesson #1 is get to the shuttle at least 15 minutes before it has to leave because it fills up FAST:
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We made it onto the shuttle bus, but there were a LOT of people who didn’t. My favorite was when the driver had squeezed in every single body he could, there was no room to breathe, people had suitcases on their laps, and someone came up and said, “Do you have room for 4 more?”

Arrived at Kyoto Station around 10:00am. Re-built and expanded around a decade ago, that place is HUGE…besides being the main bus, train and Shinkansen (Bullet Train) center for Kyoto, it also encompasses a few shopping malls, a department store, a hotel, the theater where Disney’s Beauty & The Beast was playing, and I forget what else…I mean it’s HUGE.
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This picture of Kyoto station, which shows how cavernous is it, is only a tiny piece of the whole complex.

We wandered around for an hour, getting our bearings and looking for a place to eat. Found a noodle shop that opened at 11am and had a good breakfast/lunch of stuff that we mostly knew what it was (wink). The shop, which was within the confines of Kyoto Station, gets a lot of tourists (and non-tourists too), so one of the workers helped Joe and Steve with what they had to do with their food (“put these spices in this liquid, mix and dip your food into it”…that sort of stuff). I apparently “won” the “Stupid American” contest…the guy only helped me once…told me to pour the broth over my noodles and shrimp and then he left me alone (wink).

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Front of the noodle shop. Notice the display of plastic food on the left side of the store. Besides showing potential customers the type of foods they offer, those who don’t speak the language can go outside with the person who is taking your order and you can point to what you want.

So after several stops at several information booths, we found our train and made it to the Imperial Palace. It’s a group of very big, old buildings inside a park. Actually, it’s much more than that. The Japanese Imperial family lived in these buildings before they moved to their Imperial Palace in Tokyo in 1868. It was built and rebuilt (ten times due to fire) between 750 and 1855 A.D. The do have free guided tours, but you need to apply in person (not by mail or phone) to be able to go on one. That didn’t work for us logistically, since we had just arrived a day and a half before, plus the tours are only conducted in Japanese. We were only allowed to stand outside the buildings and, at best, peer inside.

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One of the more ornate buildings that is in the Imperial Palace complex.

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Looks like Epcot, doesn’t it?

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General description of what we’re seeing in this particular building.

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Close-up of what was described. And no, that’s not an orb.

Since we made it to one tourist spot without incident, we decided to take our chances and took another train to Nijo Castle. Another “big ol’ opulent house where someone important used to live.” This one began construction in 1601, as a residence for the Shoguns and, like many old Japanese buildings, was burned down and rebuilt many times over the centuries. We were allowed to go inside this one, albeit after taking our shoes off to protect the centuries-old floorboards. Nijo castle was built in such a way that the floorboards always squeak if someone stands or walks on them…it was done that way on purpose, so guards could hear intruders at nighttime. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the buildings but took shots of the outside and the gardens.

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Main building of the castle

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Main gate before the castle (taken from the castle courtyard, looking back, after you’ve already gone through the gate)

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Visitors are allowed to climb the (VERY STEEP!) stairs to just one of the guard gates. This is the view from there.

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A very photogenic building in the Nijo Castle complex [wink]).

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A view of the moat

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Nice shot of the Nijo Castle garden.

By this time it was about 4pm. Beauty & the Beast was scheduled to open their doors at 6:10pm so we trained it back to Kyoto Station and found a sit-down place to eat called Toh Sai. Joe and I both had the pork cutlet in curry with white rice (before we had gone on this vacation, someone told us that when in doubt, get the curry platter) and Steve had a beef dish. Decided to get dessert…Joe and I shared a chocolate parfait, which was chocolate soft-serve ice cream with whipped cream, chocolate syrup and frozen raspberries on top, and a layer of mandarin oranges, pineapple chunks and more frozen raspberries on the bottom. I’ve never been a fan of chocolate and fruit, so all I’ll say is that the ice cream part was good (wink).

Made it to B&TB…the show is exactly like the Broadway and/or traveling version, though, of course, all in Japanese (“Ohayo Belle!” instead of “bon jour”). We were able to follow the storyline without a problem though…between the 3 of us, we’ve seen it 20 times between Broadway and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (grin).

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Posters advertising the show. Photo taken at Kyoto Station. Notice what show is coming next…Aida!

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Stairway that leads to the main entrace of the theater. The opening to the right leads towards a hotel that is also in Kyoto Station.

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A picture of the inside of the theater. Very plain, undecorated black walls and ceiling, with these BRIGHT pinkish-purple seats.

Japanese audiences are very different from American audiences…besides a few nuances that wouldn’t translate over (i.e. when Belle sings the line, “Madame Gaston, his little wife, UGH!!!”, the “Ugh” is MUCH less accentuated in Japan…because people generally just aren’t that mean to each other in Japan where they would say something that bad about someone else [grin]), their applause between songs is polite and short-lived, there was little-to-no laughing at the parts we Americans always laugh (i.e. when Gaston knocks LeFou to the ground), but they clapped for 5 minutes straight, non-stop, for TEN curtain calls at the end of the show! Now, this COULD be because the show was scheduled to close the next night, but even so, it is, by far, the LONGEST applause I’ve EVER seen!

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Joe and I and a lifesize cardboard cutout of Lumiere.

Overall, we had a very nice time and the only disappointment was that they didn’t have any Japan-specific, or Kyoto-specific B&TB merchandise…all of their shirts, mugs, etc., all had the generic “B&TB: A Broadway Musical” logo. Only thing they had was an ornament for a cell phone that had “Kyoto – Finale!,” to commemerate the closing the show, so we got one of those. I would have bought the CD but, of course, I got that YEARS ago (wink).

Took a city bus back towards our hotel and amazed ourselves at not getting lost between the bus station and the hotel. Was in bed by 11pm, with plans to meet Steve at 8:30 Saturday morning, to go on our next adventure.

#TBT: Japan, April 2005 – Osaka to Kyoto: Shuttle Bus Ride, Holiday Inn Kyoto, Jet Lag

We arrived yesterday afternoon and after a 2-hour shuttle ride from the airport in Osaka to our hotel in Kyoto, we fell into our beds at 9pm Thursday (Japan time), after being awake since 4:30am Wednesday (Orlando time). All told, we were awake for probably 26 of the past 28 hours. I’m getting WAY too old for this (grin).

During our shuttle bus ride to the hotel, we already stared seeing lots of Engrish. A factory that made ice products had a logo that said, “Always to make your life the best!” I saw an establishment called “The Glory Hole” and laughed. Don’t know what it was, though I doubt it was what I thought it would be if it was in the US (grin).

The hotel, Holiday Inn Kyoto, is nice. Apparently it’s a “hot spot” for Americans (mainly older ones on tours…but I love old people [grin]) so the 3 of us are not the only ones who speak Japanese. We’ll appreciate that more as the days go on and we understand NOTHING [grin].

MODERN-DAY NOTE: If you look at their website and compare my photos from 2005 and theirs that are copyright 2017, you’ll see that the building has not been change AT ALL. Same carpet in the lobby, same furniture in the room).

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Our hotel’s lobby
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Our floor (7th floor) – a view from the elevator

The rooms are small…about 11’x20′, bathroom included, but it’s just Joe and I in this room (Steve [MODERN-DAY NOTE: Steve is a friend of ours] has his own room for this leg of the trip) so we’re using the 2nd double bed as an extension of floor space (wink).

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Joe and Steve at the computer (my laptop) in our room
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Duck on bed in his and Steve’s room. The radio is composed of 6 pre-determined stations and the red thing on the bottom shelf of the nightstand is a flashlight, in case of emergency (earthquake). No Gideon Bible in the nightstand, though some places had the works of Buddha.

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You can’t see it, but you have to step over a 4″ rise in the doorway to get into the bathroom. They also give you slippers to wear in the bathroom (since it’s customary to take your shoes off when you enter the hotel room and you don’t want to run the risk of getting your feet wet in the bathroom). That dark, rectangular thing on the floor between the toilet and the shower is a drain. They don’t use caulk as often (or as much?) as we do, so water from the shower is allowed to drain/drip/pour onto the bathroom floor, which is oh-so-slightly graded towards the floor drain. It’s probably a cleaner system, since caulk gets dirty and moldy, but it really messed with the minds of us stupid Americans who were trying to put down floor mats and couldn’t figure out why they were getting SO wet during our showers! (grin)

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The toilets in most of our hotels were made by Toto, which is a Japanese company but they sell them in the United States, as well. They were awesome…all the ones we experienced had heated seats (with adjustable temperatures), automatic closers (so you don’t slam the seat down) and a bidet. Some of the fancier ones also had “odor neutralizers” (automatic scent expellers), “courtesy flushes” (automatic half-flush when you sit), noise cancellers (computerized sound of a toilet with the press of a button, so no one hears you “going”), etc. Steve hated the heated seat and both of the guys thought the bidet was scary (grin) but I thought the whole setup was GREAT! I want one. No, really. I do. I don’t think we can do the bidet thing because our water is too hard and the sprayer would be chock full of calcium deposits within 6 months (and Joe is wonderful about letting me buy stuff but he’s already drawn the line at a water softener for the benefit of a more efficient bidet [grin])…but all we need for the warm seat is a plug…which I think we can do…woohoo! (MODERN-DAY NOTE: I did get my own Toto Washlet in 2008, when we gutted & re-did our master bathroom. Calcium deposits are not an issue and it still ROCKS!) That thing under the toilet paper, with the round hole, is the smallest garbage can known to man. Two tissues and it was all filled up.

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Our complimentary bath sponges from the room (grin).

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They also gave us disposable toothbrushes, toothpaste, things to pull our hair back and razors, but none were as funny as the bath sponges.

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The view outside our window. I like the contrast of the parking lot on one roof, tennis court on the other roof, residential area across the river, and then mountains.

We don’t have many solid plans today, since we don’t know if jet lag will hit us later in the day. We’re seeing Beauty & The Beast tonight though…all in Japanese (we know the story, so it’s OK)…I can hardly wait!

Anyway, it’s past 6am and I’m gonna go start getting ready to take a shower. This hotel has free DSL in the rooms (WOO HOO!) and we’ll be here for the first 5 days, so y’all will get reports here and there.

My most embarrassing travel mistake

When you travel, you’re eventually going to make a mistake. It could be as simple as forgetting to pack your toothbrush or leaving your credit card at home. People who travel for a living will always have the story of how they’ve showed up at the wrong airport or hotel, or even booked a trip for the wrong day.

This is the story of my most embarrassing mistake.

In 2005, Sharon and I traveled to Japan with our friend Steve. It was a very ambitious trip for us as it was the first time we made all of the travel plans ourselves. We had purchased a Japan Rail Pass and planned on traveling from city to city on the JR Rail Shinkansen (a.k.a. The Bullet Train).

We had just finished staying in Nagoya. We had been there to see the Expo 2005 (World’s Fair) and were heading to a town called Hakone where we were going to stay at a ryokan. A ryokan is the equivalent of a Japanese Bed and Breakfast. It’s actually a Dinner and Bed and Breakfast.

I had several really fun email conversations with them about our stay, like this.

Thank you very much for your inquiry.

To regret, we don’t have an internet access facilities in our room.
If you have a laptop computer, you can access to it though telephone line from your room.

It take about 30 minutes – 1 hour from us to Odawara JR station.

Best regards,
Hotel Taiseikan Hanakajika

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Hotel Taiseikan
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This was how we used to look up information before we had smartphones.

Ahead of time, I planned out the time needed to get from the hotel to the train station in Nagoya, then the train to Odawara station and then from that train station to the hotel. Remember this was before Google Maps could tell you in seconds which train to get on at what time and how to get to the train station. Instead, I had all of these notes about travel times planned out on paper. At the appropriate time, we asked for directions to the station from the hotel front desk, walked with our luggage to the train station, got our tickets and boarded our train.

It was about 15 minutes into the Shinkansen ride that I realized my mistake. I forgot to add the time of one of the trains into the schedule and that was going to add at least 60-90 minutes to our travel time. If we were checking into a hotel that would have not been a big deal. However this was a ryokan where we had a full Japanese style dinner waiting to be served to us in our room shortly after our arrival. All the information I had read on the internet and guide books spoke of how the Japanese pride themselves on punctuality and now I made us late because of poor planning. The website and information I had from them stated that the last serving time for dinner was 6:30 PM and there was no way we were getting there by then.

I was totally freaking out. I went to Sharon and Steve to tell them the dilemma. I decided that I had to call the ryokan and tell them. Remember, this was 2005. While cel phones were prevalently used, they were not cheap and international usage was unheard of. Steve had rented a phone that worked in Japan because he needed to be in contact with his job, if necessary. US phones weren’t compatible back then so this was the only way to make sure you were connected.

With the help of someone on the train, I learned how to call a Japanese phone number with the cel phone. I used phrases from our English-Japanese dictionary to try and describe our situation.

I remember the conversation going something like this but with me trying to speak Japanese.

Hello. I am Mr. Joseph. We are still arriving today.
We will be late at least 1 hour. I am very sorry. This is my fault. I am sorry.
We will still be there. We know that we are late for dinner. I am sorry.
Very sorry, Do not serve us dinner because we are late.
Thank you. Thank you. Good day. I’m sorry. 

Whatever replies I got from them were in Japanese. I was happy when I got a “hai” (Japanese for “yes”) back, hoping that meant they understood my message, but I was not really sure anything I said was getting through to them.

As a precaution, we picked up some prepackaged bento boxes at the train station and completed our journey to Hakone. I was completely ready to hang my head in shame as the ugly American who couldn’t even show up on time.

Instead of being treated as the group who inconvenienced them, when we were checked in at 7:50 PM they told us to go right to our room as dinner would be served at 8:00 PM. They had made up our room so that our dinner could be served and they also prepared our beds for the evening. This is not typical and we later learned that they even had one of their staff who spoke the best English stay to help us settle into our room.

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It turned out that we even were given the best room in the ryokan. They treated us wonderfully the entire stay. The second night we had our dinner as planned. Instead of the first night where all the food was presented as once, this was a many course affair with plates brought out in a succession, like a parade. It was amazing and seemed to be never ending.

Here are some pictures of our Ryokan. We had a truly wonderful stay there, despite my unwitting attempt to mess it up. Situations like this is why Japan is one of our favorite places to visit.

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If she wants a unicorn, it’s my job to make it happen. (a.k.a. “Our” Travel Bucket List)

Disclaimer: I love my wife very much. So much so that I asked and was given her permission to write this post.

I find myself amazingly lucky that my wife Sharon and I agree on so many things. One of those things is that we do not need to heap presents on each other to show our love and affection. That notwithstanding, there are some occasions when Sharon wants a particular item and it is my job to acquire it. It may be a larger item, or one that might take some time to find. It’s never been impossible (yet) and I enjoy the challenge and the pleasure when I deliver.

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As we’ve started to try and declutter our lives, our lists of “wants” has changed from things we want to have to places we want to go.  Like a bucket list. But one which we tend to fill up just as quickly as we empty it.

At first, we needed to go to the Grand Canyon. I accomplished this at first by a day trip by plane from Las Vegas and then again several years later as part of an Adventures by Disney tour of the southwest.

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Our first trip to the Grand Canyon (2007)

As my points and miles knowledge grew, Sharon learned that the things she could ask for could be increasingly difficult to accomplish. Like going back to Hawaii for our 10th anniversary. Of course, this time was in business class.

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Then wanting to go to London to see the musical The Book of Mormon and visit the Warner Brothers Studio London – the place where they filmed the Harry Potter movies.

This last year for her 50th birthday, she had only a few small requests. Cuba and Salzburg, Austria. How could I let her down?

So what’s the problem you might ask? Well, the requests are starting to get more……difficult. giphy

Our Current Travel Bucket List Items

1. Try to see the Northern Lights……from a glass igloo.

Ever since reading about Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Finland, I’ve wanted to go there. I didn’t even know where it was. Turns out it’s in an area called Lapland and that’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. I don’t care. I want to stay here. Before I even showed this to Sharon, I knew she’d want to go there, too. And I was right.

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Glass igloos at Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort. Photo from Instagram @kakslauttanen_arctic_resort

2. Go to Tokyo to see the Summer Olympics in 2020

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Given, I have some advance warning for this one. But getting to Japan using miles, in the best of circumstances, isn’t easy. Now on top of that, I have to somehow figure out how one gets tickets to the Olympics. Hopefully an event we somewhat care about (Sharon did mention that she’d like to see the opening ceremonies. That’s not difficult, is it??).

There is one more thing Sharon keeps mentioning.

3. Go to Sydney, Australia for New Year’s Eve.

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We’ve been to Australia before and love it there, particularly Sydney. It’s like New York City, Los Angeles and London all mashed up together but with a different accent and attitude. We only got 2 days to visit on our tour and we said that when we go back to Australia, we’d spend more time in Sydney. It was Sharon who then said that if we were going to go back to Sydney, she’d really like to go there for New Year’s Eve. I mean who else would want to ring in the New Year there?  Um, apparently, like everyone. I guess that’s why Sydney has their own website devoted to doing just that.

So this is my quest. To dream the impossible dream. To plan the unplannable trip. To reach the unreachable star. (#headdesk). Guess I better get started…