Monday, March 31, 2008

New visa application process

If you want to be able to work in another country than your own, you usually need some kind of working permit. I have a one-year working visa for Japan, but I’ve already been here for more than 10 months and soon I’ll be transferring to Osaka for one more year of work in Japan. So I need a renewal for my visa. First step was applying for a new visa at Nagoya’s immigration office. If you get off at the right train station near the immigration office, you’ll find various signs leading you to immigration in more than one language, just to make sure that us dumb foreigners don’t get lost. Actually, it’s a very easy trip, but you don’t know when you’re going there for the first time I guess.

When I arrived at the office I was walked right into a huge crowd of foreigners, all trying to get information as to which line to join to get what they were there for. Somehow, us foreigners aren’t as good as the Japanese in lining up and I had to pay attention to make sure people behind me were not cutting the line.

After actually handing them your application papers, they give you a postcard on which you have to write an address where they’ll send a notification of your visa being ready for pick-up. And then you wait, for a very long time, in order to be allowed to hand them back the postcard and for them to return your passport. Two hours, several naps and dozens of yawns and sighs later I was finally free to leave the hot and stuffy office filled with hundreds of non-patient non-Japanese. Next step, is pick up the new visa and a get a new re-entry permit, I can’t wait to return.

More pictures

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Little World Museum of Man

Today I met up with Kumiko again, and this time it had nothing to do with Bon Jovi. We were going to pay Little World a visit. It is one of Inuyama's three small theme parks, the other two are Monkey Park and Meiji Mura and I’ve already been to those, so this was the last one I had to see before moving away from this town.

Little World is an open-air exhibition where you can enjoy a trip to very different parts of the world without an airplane. A 2.5 km road through the park leads you to many imported and reconstructed houses from all over the world, from Germany to Burkina Faso and from Indonesia to the States. There are little souvenir shops everywhere, and you can try on traditional costumes from several countries. I’m not one for dressing up, especially not when you have to pay for it, but I do enjoy donning weird headwear usually for the sake of a picture.

Taiwanese hat complete with black braid

There are also different kinds of animals dispersed through the park, we found some saliva spitting lamas, sleepy camels and Koi fish that would fight each other to slurp up some food:

Unfortunately, The Little World Museum of Man (the park’s official name) hadn’t imported a house or windmill from The Netherlands, but I found some Dutch things in the park nonetheless. A traditional Toba-Batak House from Indonesia (used to be a Dutch colony) was colorfully decorated among others with images of Dutch soldiers and their battle against the Japanese soldiers.

Sumatran Toba-Batak House

The Dutch on the floor battling the Japanese in the air.

Also when we were browsing a souvenir store in ‘Germany’ I actually found Dutch stroopwafels (syrup waffles) on the shelves, with actual Dutch writing on them. I bought some because I wanted Kumiko to try this famous Dutch treat and she liked it so much that when she was shopping for omiyage at the end of the day, she actually picked up a package of stroopwafels for herself. They also sold Gouda cheese, but it was actually manufactured in Japan and I know from experience that Japanese Gouda tastes like plastic.

Kanjers stroopwafels

Besides the Dutch stroopwafels, Kumiko tried some other foreign snacks, like a smoked sausage from Germany, a taco from Peru and krupuk (deep-fried shrimp crackers) from Indonesia. Being half-Indonesian, I’ve encountered a lot of krupuk in my life and even though they are shrimp crackers like many crackers here in Japan are, they taste very different from each other. Kind of like the Japanese nikkuman and Indonesian bapao, they’re both white steamed buns with a meat filling both originating in China, and they taste very differently. I prefer the Indonesian ones.

Indonesian krupuk

German sausage

I tried something new too. In the park’s African regional center, they sold special skewers, one kind with ostrich meat and one with alligator meat. Ostrich is nothing new to me, when I was a student I often cooked ostrich for dinner because it was healthy, tasty and cheap. But I’ve never tried alligator though. When I visited New Orleans a couple of years ago they sold a lot of alligator meat (gator-on-a-stick), but I was too chicken to try it out. I’ve always regretted that and now I had another chance. So I ate some alligator meat and even got a certificate with it! It’s very tasty, kind of like chicken and it’s texture is a mix between chicken and fish, it reminded me of frog meat.

Eating gator-on-a-stick

There were a lot of interesting things to enjoy in Little World, the park kind of was like an international Meiji Mura. But Meiji Mura bored me somehow, it kind of feels like a huge ghost town, with nothing going on. And Little World seemed much more happening, even though it rained badly most of the day. The rain made it hard to take decent pictures, and when my camera gave up halfway through the park I had to use my cell phone instead, which made the photographic part of our visit even tougher.

Real-size stone money from Micronesia, imagine the size of Micornesian wallets

Murals on a South-African house, my Dutch University was also decorated with these South-African murals.

I enjoyed the maze-like Kassena Compound in Burkina Faso the most.

It was a nice day, despite the rain trying to ruin our day and I learned new things about the world. Like it’s the duty of South-African wifes to be excellent artists and decorate the outside of the house, rain depresses camels, Tanzanian and Burkina Fasoan males like to have two wives and keep them in their own separate houses, Koi fish can fight even without having limbs, the Dutch and the Japanese used to fight each other in Indonesia, Micronesian probably have wallets larger than their cars, alligator is tasty, lamas pace like crazy when they have no one to spit on, and modern-day Japanese love to play dress-up. I just hope they import and reconstruct that windmill soon.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sakura by night

Maiko is about to start her new job at Japan’s largest banking company, but first she has to endure a month-long training in Kobe. She’s leaving for Kobe tomorrow, and tonight was her last night in town. We had a small farewell dinner at Shirokiya, after we did some nighttime viewing of Inuyama’s sakura. In Maiko’s street there are dozens of cherry trees and they’ve all started blossoming recently, and it was my first time to see some of those famous white flowers. It’s not easy to admire them in the dark though, but the pink lights were romantic.

I’m not so in touch with nature, so normally I wouldn’t pay much attention to any kind of blossoms, but the sakura is always such a big deal in Japan, so I guess I’ll head out later this weekend to go see some in daylight, and see what the fuss is all about.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Hucklebuck

So I’m organizing the video files on my computer and I stumbled upon a video, which had me laughing out loud here all alone in my Japanese shoebox. It’s a video of my boyfriend, my brother, my stepsister and my mother dancing the Hucklebuck in our living room last Christmas vacation.
We had just come back from Gy’s dance examination where they had picked up the steps to some line dance. Basically a line dance is when a group of cowboys dances to country and western music in one or more lines. Actually it’s a lot of fun and also very popular at dance schools. I remember doing many line dances at my old dance school and always enjoying them more than the actual ballroom dancing.
Anyway, these four people were still doing the Hucklebuck steps when we got home, so Gy played the song on YouTube so that they could all dance it in the living room. My stepdad and I had not bothered to learn the steps at the dance school, so we wisely chose to just observe and of course I recorded it all on my camera. I can imagine this video is not as immensely entertaining to others as it is to me, but I think it’s absolutely hilarious so I felt the need to share.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Bon Jovi karaoke marathon # 2

Today it was time for Bon Jovi karaoke marathon number 2! Which means 9 hours of interrupted singing of Bon Jovi songs in a karaoke room at Shidax Komaki, with several other Bon Jovi freaks, for a very low price as it’s all free time karaoke! This time Kumiko and I were joined by Kyoko, who was also their for karaoke marathon number 1, and a new participant named Aki, unfortunately Yuko couldn’t make it this time.

Aki, Kyoko, Lou and Kumiko's winking

Last time, we sang all 66 Bon Jovi songs (and 22 more) on the Joy Sound karaoke machine. This time our goal was all 126 songs (including Jon Bon Jovi’s solo work) on the UGA karaoke machine. UGA has many more Bon Jovi songs than Joy Sound but we prefer Joy Sound nonetheless, because it has a few live versions, meaning Bon Jovi actually appears on the screen to sing with you and the sound of the karaoke music and the lyrics are way better. The UGA machine sometimes even seemed to make up whole chapters of lyrics all by itself, without Jon or Richie having any influence on it, which thoroughly confused us while singing. Next time, we’ll try the DAM karaoke machine, which also only has 66 songs, but some different ones than the other two brands.

Before we started, we knew we wouldn’t be able to sing all 126 songs in 9 hours, so we started singing all the songs that Joy Sound doesn’t have in its repertoire from A to Z. After that we randomly sang as many of the leftover songs as we could. We ended up singing 113 songs, which is 25 more than last time because this time we didn’t take any breaks, we took the marathon very seriously ;).

Fuel for the throat

Of course, it was a lot of fun again, but I know most people will declare us totally nuts and you have to be a true Bon Jovi fan to be able to enjoy this, which is one of the requirements to get invited. The only I don’t like is seeing the same annoying background videos with some Western girls walking around New York or L.A. over and over again, if they can’t fill the screen with Bon Jovi or the corresponding official video clip, then just leave it blank is what I think. Also, voices seem to be made to only cope with 8 hours of karaoke, because in the last hour all our voices seemed to have broken and we were no longer able to sing the higher notes. But our voices have some time to recuperate because the next marathon will probably be in April, which might be my last one… As I’m moving to Osaka in 2 months, what am I going to do there without my fellow Bon Jovi freaks?

The list of Bon Jovi songs we sang:
1) Always Run to You
2) Any Other Day
3) Back Door Santa
4) Bang A Drum
5) Blame It On The Love Of Rock ‘n Roll
6) Blood Money
7) Blood On Blood
8) Breakout
9) Captain Crash & The Beauty Queen From Mars
10) Burning For Love
11) Come Back
12) Dry County
13) Everybody’s Broken
14) Fear
15) Hook Me Up
16) I Believe
17) If Could Make A Living Out Of Lovin’ You
18) If I Was Your Mother
19) I Got The Girl
20) I Love This Town
21) Joey
22) I Want You
23) King Of The Mountain
24) Last Cigarette
25) Let It Rock
26) Little Bit Of Soul
27) Lonely
28) Love Lies
29) Love Me Back To Life
30) Neurotica
31) Misunderstood
32) Mystery Train
33) One Step Closer
34) Only Lonely
35) Put The Boy Back In Cowboy
36) Right Side Of Wrong
37) Prayer ‘94
38) Roulette
39) Say It Isn’t So
40) Secret Dreams
41) Save The World
42) Seat Next To You
43) She’s A Mystery
44) Social Disease
45) Silent Night
46) The Hardest Part Is The Night
47) Summertime
48) The Last Night
49) The Price Of Love
50) Till We Ain’t Strangers Anymore
51) Two Story Town
52) Whole Lotta Leavin’
53) Without Love
54) Wild In The Streets
55) Woman In Love
56) You Had Me From Hello
57) Midnight in Chelsea
58) Ugly
59) Please Come Home For Christmas
60) Born To Be My Baby
61) We’ve Got It Goin’ On
62) I’d Die For You
63) I Am
64) If That’s What It Takes
65) Undivided
66) Always
67) It’s My Life
68) In & Out Of Love
69) In These Arms
70) Bed Of Roses
71) Complicated
72) Last Man Standing
73) Make A Memory
74) Bad Medicine
75) I’ll Be There For You
76) Runaway
77) Lay Your Hands On Me
78) Lost Highway
79) All About Lovin’ You
80) Living In Sin
81) Blaze Of Glory
82) Sleep When I’m Dead
83) Wanted Dead Or Alive
84) Never Say Goodbye
85) Bounce
86) This Ain’t A Love Song
87) Story Of My Life
88) Thank You For Loving Me
89) Someday I’ll Be Saturday Night
90) Always
91) Welcome To Wherever You Are
92) Have A Nice Day
93) I Want To Be Loved
94) Bells Of Freedom
95) Lie To Me
96) These Days
97) You Give Love A Bad Name
98) Livin’ On A Prayer
99) Novocaine
100) Miracle
101) Diamond Ring
102) Dirty Little Secret
103) Hearts Breakin’ Even
104) Hey God
105) (It’s Hard) Letting You Go
106) Just Older
107) Keep The Faith
108) As My Guitar Lies Bleeding In My Arms
109) One Wild Night
110) Real Life
111) She Don’t Know Me
112) Something To Believe In
113) Something For The Pain

Friday, March 21, 2008

Penises, balls, meat and bubbles in Komaki

Someone named Aaron left a comment on my blog about Hounen Matsuri at Tagata Jinja in Komaki. He used to live near here and he told me that it would be a nice cultural event to experience before I leave Inuyama and something interesting to blog about. I had no idea what he was talking about and looked it up online. I found out he was talking about a fertility festival at an actual penis shrine in Komaki. And apparently they lug around a huge wooden penis through Komaki with Oogata Jinja as its final destination, which is a vagina shrine! Seeing pictures of normally so polite and proper Japanese people praying to a huge phallus and taking it so seriously was a bit disturbing but mostly a lot amusing to my Western sensibilities.


Tagata Jinja in Komaki

Unfortunately the festival is always on March 15th, and this year that was on a Saturday, so I had to work. But yesterday was a national holiday, to celebrate spring or something, so I had the day off. And Maiko and I went to this Tagata Jinja in Komaki to check out this unbelievable (to me anyway) penis shrine. When we arrived it looked like a normal place of worship, like any other I’d seen in Japan so far. But a closer look inside the first shrine, revealed two huge penises. And the further we ventured upon the shrine’s premises the more penises we discovered, small and big, made of wood, stone or marble, natural or carved, brown or black, sprawled about or properly displayed. My favorites were the big penis bell and the tiny penis with huge marble balls (which you’re supposed to rub for safety and prosperity) which says ‘ching’ (ching ching is Japanese for penis) when you insert a coin. It was a very interesting shrine, to say the least, thanks for the tip Aaron!


'Oooh, look at that huge....'

'Aah, it's way too big!'

'Come to mama!'

Maiko demonstrating the talking penis

Wall of wishes for healthy babies or cute girlfriends

We were also supposed to pay a visit to the nearby vagina shrine, but after all the penis sighting, Maiko got really hungry so we decided to have some lunch first. There was a Japanese steakhouse across the street from Tagata Jinja, where we had an extensive, cheap and delicious lunch. Unfortunately, lunch took so long that we ran out of time and we didn’t make it to Oogata Jinja. Maybe another time, penises are more interesting to us anyway.

Orange smile at Bronco Billy's

Why were we in a hurry, because we were supposed to meet Maiko’s friend Pon at Komaki station. Apparently, he’s very interested in foreigners and when he found out that Maiko had a Dutch friend, he wanted to tag along on our next outing. After picking him up at the station we headed straight for Shidax for a couple of hours of cheap and quality karaoke. We weren’t the only ones with that plan and we were told to wait for about 50 minutes, one really needs to be patient in Japan. The first time I went to Shidax with Kumiko we also had to wait for 40 minutes, but what had come after that had been totally worth it. And I hadn’t sang karaoke for a long time, and I really needed a fix, so we waited, for a long time.

Pon and Maiko in the Shidax lobby

Obviously, we weren’t the only people waiting for a karaoke room, and there were also a couple of small kids waiting with their mommies. One the mommies brought entertainment for her daughters in the form of thin plastic tubes (like really tough and short straws) and a tube of glue. She would put a small amount of glue on one end of a plastic tube and then gently blow into the other end, effectively blowing a beautiful plastic bubble. At first, I thought she was blowing bubbles with a regular bubble blowing wand and some soapy bubble mixture, because that’s exactly what the bubbles looked like, those shiny soapy bubbles that snap as soon as you touch them. But these bubbles behaved in a very different way, they were much more like balloons, just weaker. After the kids played with such a bubble for a minute or two, it would start to deflate. I was totally fascinated! And the kids were fascinated by some strange foreigner ogling their bubbles. After they were summoned by the Shidax staff to go to their karaoke room, these nice kids donated some bubbles to us so that we could play with them too!

Big kids playing with a bubble

After our bubbles died we waited some more until it was time for us to go to our own karaoke room for four hours of free time karaoke. Meaning you can sing as much as you want and drink as much water as you want until 8 PM for only 1100 yen (they’ve recently increased their prices with 10%, but it’s still cheap), which is exactly what we did. I knew another 9 hour Bon Jovi marathon is coming up this weekend at the same karaoke place, so I tried to sing as many non-Bon Jovi songs as I could. But it wasn’t very easy, so halfway I gave up on other artists and fell back to singing Bon Jovi, which I can actually do and is the most fun anyway. Maiko and Pon sang a lot of Japanese songs, and sometimes even performed a little dance:

Dinner was yakiniku somewhere in Komaki, which is the Korean version of BBQ with a grill in the middle of the table where you cook (or occasionally burn) your own meat and/or vegetables. The weirdest and least enjoyable meat I ate was some kind of animal’s tongue, and the most delicious meat I had were strips of pork. I really love meat, but it’s very pricey here. But yesterday I may have had more meat (first the steakhouse and then yakiniku) than I normally have in a whole week here in Japan, and it was cheap too!

Yakiniku in Komaki

It’s great to have a national holiday fall in the middle of your workweek, it gives you a nice break from all the hard work… Of course, I also had Tuesday off this week, so I’m only working three days this week, what a tough week!

More pictures

Thursday, March 20, 2008

My new fridge

About a month ago, I came back home from Amagasaki to find that my fridge had broken down. There was a big pool of brown water on the floor and everything in the freezer section had thawed. I cleaned up the mess, dried the inside of the now dysfunctional freezer and got rid of my spoiled freezer. The cooling section of the fridge still seemed to work, so the machine wasn’t totally useless. I alerted my manager of the broken fridge and later that week she came over to check if the fridge was really broken, or to perhaps discover some secret switch only visible to Japanese eyes which would fix everything. No such switch was found and after a short inspection she also concluded that the fridge was indeed broken, and a new one needed to be ordered. But apparently, there were some leftover fridges (?) in other AEON schools in the area so my new fridge was going to a be a secondhand one. I waited for a long time and they finally switched fridges on me yesterday, before work.


It was about time too, because the cooling section had started to freeze all its contents in its final days, which resulted in me having to throw away two batches of precious and expensive strawberries, which turned into a not so delicious sticky goo after thawing.Two delivery men showed up at my door, took away the broken blue machine and escorted a new and improved silver one into my apartment. They removed all of the packing material, plastic, Styrofoam, and sticky tape and connected it in a few effective minutes and then left me to admire my new fridge. Which I believe is new and not secondhand at all, as it arrived in the factory box, was perfectly clean and in excellent shape. It has a lot of shelves and even a fruit drawer, I love it! Oh, and it works like it should! Stuff in the freezer is properly frozen, and stuff in the fridge is properly cooled. My strawberries are safe. It’s just a shame I can’t move my new fridge to Osaka with me.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Yokohama

High expectations lead to disappointment, so we should try to avoid disappointment by never setting too high expectations. Even though I’ve always known this, I still had high expectations of Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city, a port city, the largest Chinatown in Japan and so many people telling me how awesome and beautiful the city is. Before going there, I seriously believed Yokohama was going to be my favorite city in Japan.

Yokohama's Chinatown at dusk

Almost all of our time was spent in an area named Minato Mirai 21 (Port of the Future), which is the most beloved part of Yokohama by many locals and tourists. Most of the buildings there are huge, new and modern, like the Landmark Tower, the Queen’s Square shopping mall, the Pacifico convention center, the Intercontinental Hotel and the Yokohama museum of Art. But to me it lacks character somehow, there’s no warmth, it all feels artificial, it’s hard to explain. Minato Mirai is built largely on reclaimed land, but half of the area is still unoccupied, which makes the area very quiet, peaceful and uneventful, aka boring but maybe I’m too much of a city-girl. It is one of the few places in the Tokyo-Yokohama area where the seashore is accessible, which I do think is an attractive feature of the area as I love the water and the cool temperature it creates.

Minato Mirai 21

After the unlivable crowds in Disneyland, the peace and quiet in Yokohama was certainly welcome. Monday night, after we checked into our Yokohama hotel, we walked over to Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse, which is a historical building that is currently used as a shopping mall with several restaurants. We enjoyed a European style dinner, complete with Apfelstrudel for dessert, at one of its restaurants with a beautiful view of Yokohama Bay, which was definitely better than waiting in a long line to buy some overpriced Mickey burgers or something.

Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse

They like to break records in Yokohama. The Landmark Tower is Japan’s tallest skyscraper (295.8 m) equipped with the world’s second fastest elevator to travel the building’s 70 floors. Minato Mirai also had a small attraction park called Cosmo World which features a huge Ferris wheel, which was the world’s largest when it was built in 1989 but the clock on the Ferris wheel, Cosmo Clock 21, is still the world’s biggest. Nearer to Chinatown there was the Yokohama Marine Tower (106 m) which is the tallest lighthouse in the world. And of course Chinatown itself is Japan’s largest and one of the largest in the world.

Chinatown's East Gate

Our time in Chinatown was mostly spent trying out the many Chinese snacks that were on sale every few meters. The most popular snacks were nikkumans, they were sold in all sizes, colors and with many different fillings cheap and expensive. A nikkuman is a steamed (usually white) bun with a filling, usually pork. It’s very similar to the Indonesian bapao (which actually has a Chinese origin too), but the Indonesian filling is different, tastier and therefore better. We tried several nikkumans, small ones, huge ones, and even pan-fried ones with sauce and onions, which were our favorite.

Take your pick of nikkuman

We did spent some time in the city part of Yokohama but that was just to find ourselves some dinner. Maybe if we’d spent some more time exploring that area, my opinion of Yokohama would have been very different, but right now it just feels like a pretty but unconscious place that needs a serious injection of life in order to become a vibrant city. But I also realize I’m probably one of very few, if not the only one, with this opinion. Perhaps I need to return sometime and check out more than just Minato Mirai and Chinatown.

Yasu had been craving ramen for more than a day, so now he was a happy man

It’s always great to spend time with Yasu, and I had a great time just enjoying the sunny weather in Yokohama and the various snacks in Chinatown. But unfortunately Yokohama has not made my favorite list, so I scratched it off the list of cities I’ll be visiting with my family when they visit Japan.

Windy kiss at the seashore in Yokohama Bay

Yasu is very busy with his work lately and the still significant distance between us in Japan makes every moment spend together special. Especially when it’s three whole days discovering new parts of Japan. I can’t wait to move to Osaka in two months and see him more frequently.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tokyo Disneyland

Ah Disneyland, who doesn’t like spending a wonderful day in the Magic Kingdom? To me it sounded wonderful and I’d wanted to go to Tokyo Disneyland for quite some time now. Of course you want to go in the off season, because you don’t want to spend all your time waiting in line, and the Japanese are terribly good at lining up for hours, I’m not. So we went yesterday, on a Monday in the middle of March, months before the summer starts and when kids of all ages are occupied with school on a Monday. Well that way of thinking would have worked when planning a trip to Disneyland Paris or one of its American counterparts, but not in Japan. What we failed to realize is that Japanese kids are in their end-of-school-year vacation now, as Japanese schools start somewhere in April and end somewhere in March. And apparently Disneyland was hoping to make a lot of money this time of year by offering (junior) high school kids special discounts, which seemed to have worked very well as the place was literally crawling with groups of teenagers.

There were so many people in Disneyland, I couldn’t believe it, there were long lines for literally everything. Do you want to go for a ride on ‘Big Thunder’, ‘The Big Splash’ or ‘Space Mountain’? Sure, no problem, please wait in line for 3 hours and 10 minutes. Do you want to eat lunch? Sure, no problem, please wait in line for 1 hour. Do you want to take a picture with Mickey Mouse? Sure, no problem, please wait in line for 45 minutes. Do you want to pee? Sure, no problem, please wait in line for 25 minutes. Do you want to cross the street when some parade is going on nearby? Sure, no problem, please wait in line for 10 minutes. Do you want to buy a turkey leg at one of the mobile food stalls? Sure, no problem, please wait in line forever, because the lines at these food stalls literally didn’t have a visible end.

Who does Mickey think he is?

Donald was more approachable

We had already waited in line for ‘Pirates of the Carribean’, ‘Jungle Cruise’, ‘It’s a Small World’ for somewhat less than an hour, mostly because these rides operate with big boats that takes many passengers at the same time, so the line goes quicker. The rides weren’t terribly exciting, and ‘It’s a Small World’ is a bit creepy with hundreds of little Chuckies waving at you and creepily singing ‘It’s a small world after all’ in English and Japanese, but they did have a Dutch display. The longest we waited was for ‘Haunted Mansion’ which was 1 hour and 45 minutes, and that’s what killed my Disney spirit for the day. The ride would’ve been enjoyable in other circumstances. But my feet were killing me, after hiking through Tokyo the day before in what turned out to be horribly uncomfortable shoes and standing in line for the other attractions. I was hungry because we had to postpone lunch for many hours due to the long lines (when we returned later there were only 2 people in line before us but it still took 15 minutes until we got our ‘fast’ food). And the ride just wasn’t great enough to justify 115 minutes of waiting. When I wanted to pee after lunch and saw the lines I just couldn’t take it anymore, and we ended up leaving about 6 hours before closing time. I’m just not blessed with Japanese patience.

My pirate of the Carribean

Our belated Toon Town lunch

Disney has this Fast Pass system, where you can insert your park entrance ticket and then the machine spits out a time for you to return to the ride so you don’t have to wait in line. A great system in theory, because that way you can spend your time enjoying the park instead of waiting in endless lines. You can only have one fast pass at the time but when your return time is more than two hours away you can go ahead and collect another attraction’s fast pass. Of course there were also long lines for the fast pass machines, which is quite ironic waiting in line to avoid having to wait in line. When we finally got our fast passes for ‘The Big Splash’ it told us to return at 21:15, when it’s really dark and cold and we probably wouldn’t really like to get splashed with water anymore. But at least the return time was more than 2 hours away so we got in another long line to retrieve a second fast pass, this time for ‘Haunted Mansion’. But the fast pass machine didn’t spit out a fast pass, instead it told us that we had recently gotten another fast pass and that we had to wait for another two hours before we were allowed to get another one. Oh. I guess we’d misunderstood the fast pass rules. We did return two hours later to get that desired fast pass, but the machines were closed then as all fast passes had already been given out. So unfortunately, the fast pass system did not work for us, and we never even got to use the ones we had for ‘The Big Splash’ because we left the park about 5 hours before we were allowed to use them. I hope we have better luck next time.

The Fast Pass machine telling us to come back in two hours

But of course we also had fun in Disneyland despite the insane crowds. The thing that amused me the whole time I was in Disneyland, were the Disney ears. Sets of Disney character ears are for sale everywhere in the park and there was a nice variety, ranging from Mickey and Minnie’s mouse ears to Dumbo’s huge elephant ears, I chose a pair of Stitch ears, and Yasu chose to look at my ears instead of wearing his own. The ears were surprisingly comfortable and I forgot about even wearing them most of the time, of course Yasu didn’t have that luxury because they were very prominent on my head, but he said they looked cute, so. The ears are very popular and every other person in Disneyland was wearing some, and for some reason it was a continuous source of joy for me. Even when I was standing in line for over an hour and my feet were killing me, seeing some cool high school guy wearing a pair of Winnie the Pooh ears, or a tiny version of Donald Duck’s hat pinned to his hair made me smile, sometimes even laugh out loud. And even though we didn’t get to ride any of Disney’s big attractions, we did get to join Alice at her Tea Party and spent a few very fun minutes wildly rotating in one of her teacups.

Mickey and Minnie

Stitch in a teacup

Yasu getting ready for some rotating fun

The park actually looks wonderful and all the different lands are decorated into the minute detail which makes the Disney illusion complete. And I’m definitely going to return there one day to visit both Disneyland and Disney Sea, I’ll just make sure to time my visit according to the Japanese school calendar not the Western one. Some people I know have had way better experiences at these parks, because of a lack of the endless crowds. And one of my Japanese friends actually told me that when she went in October once, the average waiting time was 10 minutes and she got to ride all the attractions in the park! That sounds more like it! I can’t wait to go again.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Tokyo

This Tuesday, I'm taking the last of my 5 personal days at AEON turning my 2-day weekend into a 3-day weekend, so Yasu and I could take a little trip east. On Sunday we met up at Nagoya station where we took the Shinkansen to Tokyo. Since my arrival in Japan I’ve been on numerous Shinkansens, but this was my first time to travel on one together with Yasu.

Getting comfortable on the Shinkansen to Tokyo

The highest and most impressive mountain in Japan is Mt. Fuji. It’s 3,776 meters high and is classified as an active volcano, but with a low risk of eruption. Its last eruption started on December 16, 1707 and ended on January 1, 1708. I’d never really seen Fuji-san, except when I took the Shinkansen home after the Bon Jovi concerts in Tokyo in January, but I only saw the base of the mountain because the rest was all hidden in a blanket of clouds. So I got really excited when Fuji-san suddenly appeared in full view on our way to Tokyo! And I wasn’t alone. There were even some tourists almost climbing on other passengers, who really couldn’t care less but happened to sit on Fuji-san’s side of the train, to be able to take some pictures of the giant mountain.

The first place we went to in Tokyo, after dropping off our suitcases at the excellent Mitsui Garden hotel near Tokyo Tower, was Shibuya. Last time I was in Tokyo I’d really wanted to see the busy crossing I saw in the movie ‘Lost in Translation’, but I got confused about its location and only found out it was in Shibuya when it was too late. This time I was going to see it for sure! And the place did not disappoint! It’s the world’s busiest scramble crossing just outside of Shibuya station (I came so close without knowing it last time), and when it’s time for the pedestrians to cross vehicles in all directions are stopped. Here is a movie I made standing outside on the crossing, but the poor quality of my digital camera makes it look like it was taken from behind glass or a curtain of plastic. Still it gives a nice impression of what’s it like to cross the street in Shibuya.

Next was Omotesando. Which is supposed to be beautiful avenue stretching from Harajuku station to Aoyama-dori, lined with pretty trees on both sides and is referred to as Tokyo's Champs-Élysées. I’d read a lot about it in a novel about a Japanese-American hitman, which had made me really curious. On the way there we passed by the entrance to Yoyogi Park, which is a popular hangout especially on Sundays. People gather to play music, create art, do street theater, or to be seen while being dressed very differently. Some of them looked pretty intimidating or simply creepy, but there was one girl (not even as weirdly dressed as some of the others) who looked harmless enough and really willing to have her picture taken:

Me with perhaps a Himegyaru

I had imagined us having lunch and doing some people-watching at one of Omotesando’s sidewalk cafés I had read about in that assassin book. But this was badly timed because apparently a big green St. Patrick’s Day parade had just taken place on the avenue so it was immensely crowded. We walked down Omotesando for a while in search of any sidewalk cafés, but I guess they’d taken all the furniture inside for the parade or we were simply not in the right place. After some time we were too hungry to be picky and ended up in a small underground Hawaiian restaurant on our way to Takeshita-dori in Harajuku. There were only 3 edible things on their menu, the rest were all colorful cocktails, and I ordered some Loco Moco. And it was absolutely delicious, but maybe I was too hungry to be unbiased though.

After lunch we strolled down Takeshita-dori, which was crowded too, of course. This part of Harajuku is home to many Japanese crêperies, which are usually food stalls serving crêpe (really thin pancake) cones with dozens of different fillings, from whipped cream with strawberries to salmon with seaweed. I had seen them the last time I was there and since then I learned Harajuku was famous for it or something, so I wanted to do the crêpe-thing too. But we weren’t very hungry anymore after our Hawaiian lunch, yet I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t do it. Yasu decided not to join in the crêpe fun because he was too full, but I know him and if I would offer him a bite of my crêpe he would end up eating most of it anyway, he just loves food. So I knew I wouldn’t have to eat one all by myself and that he’d share it with me, so I bought one with chocolate ice cream and bananas. We ate it in some back alley with others doing their best to eat their Japanese-French snacks, it’s not easy to eat a crêpe without spilling stuff everywhere, around garbage cans. This whole experience may sound weird and disgusting, but it actually was one of my favorite moments of our trip!

Yasu taking a bite of crêpe

After a quick look around Roppongi (another neighborhood I had read about in that book) which wasn’t as spectacular as I had imagined, we walked to Tokyo Tower. Tokyo Tower looks like an orange version of the Eiffel Tower because its design is actually based on the Paresian tower. I wanted to see Tokyo from far above, and the tower would be the place to do it as it is 332.6 meters tall, making it a bit taller than the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, by the time we finally got there it had already started to get dark, which means good pictures of the view with my camera were no longer possible. But seeing the city colorfully light up the dark the way it does, was something worth seeing anyway.

Tokyo's orange Eiffel Tower and the moon

The view from the main observatory

For dinner we met up with one of Yasu’s friends from college, Yuppian. She now lives and works in Yokohama and had wanted to meet Yasu’s girlfriend for quite some time now. She even did some research into Dutch culture and told me that Dutch people are supposedly modest and don’t like to waste things. Always interesting to hear what foreigners think of us, not sure about it’s accuracy though. Anyway, we had dinner in a cute izakaya (which I had spotted last time I was in Tokyo), where they grilled our food right in front of us at the bar. I tried some Japanese thing I hadn’t before like grilled squid and oden (stuff stewed in a soy-flavored dashi broth eaten with mustard). The latter always scared me a bit so I never tried it before, but it’s not bad at all. It was great to meet Yuppian and the food was great.

Yuppian biting into some garlicky fried chicken

Another thing I had really wanted to see the last time was the Tsukiji fish market. I had once seen a Kyushu fish market on a Dutch travel show on TV, and it looked really interesting, with hundreds of different kinds of fish everywhere and nice sushi places where you could eat the freshest fish ever. The Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market (which is the market’s official name) is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, so my expectations were high. But our visit was disappointing and almost life-threatening. Maybe if we’d had a guide, the visit could have been awesome, but when we went there on Monday morning, we almost got lost in some kind of factory with boxes full of food (not fish) and hundreds of men riding around on scary vehicles in such a hurry that they didn’t seem to mind running over some lost tourists as we were probably extremely in the way. Luckily Yasu saved himself quickly enough on some occasions, and after we escaped from the scary parts of the market, we tried to stay in the area crowded by foreign tourists, where we felt safer.

Tsukiji fish-less madness

So far we hadn’t seen any fish except for the sushi pictures in front of the tiny restaurants. Besides wanting to see the fish auction, eating fresh sushi for breakfast was our reason to make a pit stop at Tsukiji on our way to Tokyo Disneyland. But of course the lines for the sushi restaurants were long in true Tokyo style, and the restaurant that didn’t have a line were way too expensive (hence the lack of a line). So we gave up on seeing any fish auctioned off and decided to get our breakfast elsewhere (which turned out to be hot dogs in Disneyland). But on our dangerous way back from the fish market, I encountered these Styrofoam boxes of fish on the ground, so at least I did see some fish there:

Our trip to Tokyo was certainly different from what I’d expected but I still had a great time. It was crowded and hot, but I saw a lot of the things I didn’t get to see last time, even if they were not what I had imagined them to be. I left the place very satisfied and ready for our next stop: Tokyo Disneyland.