My Second Trip To Japan

Another year, another conference. Four years ago I went to Kobe, Japan, with a side trip to Kyoto. This time the trip was more wide-ranging, from Tokyo to Sapporo in the north, to Tsu in the south. A conference, a workshop, and a couple of hours in Tokyo.

That 20 hours is the car time. Train time is less than 12.

That 20 hours is the car time.
Train time is less than 12. An equivalent distance in the US (Portland, ME, to Charleston, SC) is 24hrs by train.

Day 1
Since MJ’s shoulder would not let her drive, a good friend picked me up at 4:30AM to take me to the airport.

Security was no worse than usual and soon I was in the air flying southeast to Denver. In Denver there was a four-hour layover and then I flew back northwest, passing within a hundred miles of Spokane on the great circle route from Denver to Tokyo.

The immigration and Border Control process at Narita was very easy and then the rest of the procedure was pretty much as I thought it would be: up to the 4th floor to get my wireless repeater, over to the bank to change money, down to the basement to pick up my Japan Rail Pass, and since Japan Rail to Tokyo was broken because of the typhoon I had to take Kaesai railroad which was $24 but which was faster. About 40min from plane to train.

In less than an hour, we go from the flat rice fields surrounding Narita

In less than an hour, we go from the flat rice fields surrounding Narita

...to the Sky Tree Metropolis

…to the Sky Tree Metropolis

When I got to the station I went directly to Japan Rail ticketing for the Shinkansen and found that I could not get my 6 a.m. train, but that I could get a 9:40 train out of Tokyo Station which was one stop south, the biggest and most complex railroad station in the country.

The weather in Tokyo, only be described as hellish. It was in the mid-to-upper 80s with a hundred percent humidity because of the recent typhoon and of course I was dressed for Spokane and a chilly airplane and very nearly died getting to the hotel.

Typhoon Mindulle hit Narita the day before I arrived

Typhoon Mindulle hit Honshou the day before I arrived at Narita

Tropical Storm Kompasu hit Hokkaido the day after I left

Tropical Storm Kompasu hit Hokkaido the day after I left Sapporo

The hotel was strangely built. Think of a standard multi-story motel with an external walkway to get you to the rooms, and then take that hotel and wrap it around in a square so that the walkways are facing in and build some building supports around them so that you would think you were in a building except that the center park was open to the sky and it did not feel like you were outside.

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The room was very small — about the size of a double bed with enough room to sit on the side of the bed and rest your arms on the dressing table. It had nice HD TV, but they used the what appears to be the now-standard approach of having to stick your room card into a slot in order to get electricity. Which means that the air conditioner is not on unless you’re in the room so you can’t cool it down, and the plugs don’t work so you can’t plug in your electronics and leave them to charge while you go to dinner. The bed itself was okay but it was the pillows that were interesting — one side was like a multi-segmented rice bag as if they wanted to keep it up off the bed so that the whole pillow stayed cool.

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Of course both that night’s reservation and one I had made to stay there when I came back down South was messed up but they very graciously offered to put me up for the night and make a another reservation for my Southern trip at standard room rates, not at the hotels.com rate.

I went out to get dinner and could not stand the heat so I went across the street to a Lawsons and bought a bento box, brought that back, and ate it in the room. Then I collapsed into bed about 8 o’clock and slept through until 6.

Day 2
Up early and ate an $8 hotel breakfast which was mostly rice with little tablespoon size servings of garnishes like chopped daikon or pickled ginger.

The walk to Ueno station was relatively pleasant because it was only about 75 degrees at 8AM. The ride, one stop to Tokyo Station, was crowded, as Japanese trains tend to be during rush hour. I found the right platforms but the wrong track and if I hadn’t asked I would have seen my Shinkansen disappear into the tall grass.

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The Shinkansen ride was pleasant but not as good as it might have been. They could only get me into standard reserved seat instead of the first-class seat the Japan Rail ticket authorize me to get, and in fact my seat was not even a standard JR/airline seat with the tray in front of you — it was one of a set of 6, 3 and 3 facing each other, and the other five occupants was a set of 5 middle school boys who sat down and linked their Gameboys and played Super Mario racer for 4 hrs.

Shinkansen North

Shinkansen North

I called my brother from the train because how often do you get a phone call from a Shinkansen? We had a nice little talk until we hit the tunnel and were cut off it was the tunnel from northern Honshu to Southern Hokkaido and it’s like 33 miles long and even at 85 miles an hour you spend an awful lot of time underwater.

Northern Japan. Bigger fields, fewer towns

Northern Japan. Bigger fields, fewer towns

We changed trains at Shin-Hakodate station from the Shinkansen to a local milk run that stopped at every other fishing village along the coast. Five years ago, Google Earth shows Shin-Hakodate as a wide spot in the tracks, and today it’s not much better. Surprising as a Shinkansen terminal.

The view from Shin-Hakodate

The view from Shin-Hakodate

and then cut across the island next to a very pretty volcano, which I did not get to photograph, and finally arrived two hours later in Sapporo. There, a very nice JR lady who had studied in America in Los Angeles help me to get my suitcase and tickets for the trip back on the 28th.

It was getting late so I took a taxi to the hotel. It’s an obscure little hotel, and the driver got lost several times. He did manage to clip two bicyclists made a turn across traffic and a good time was had by all. It was getting dark by the time we finally found the hotel.

Day 3

My hotel was a standard hippie dippie youth hostel crossed with a traditional Japanese inn. You left your shoes at the front door and there was almost no furniture in the rooms.

Khaosan Sapporo Family Hostel

Khaosan Sapporo Family Hostel

I had a standard six mat room with a six-mat antechamber. The room was designed for two. It had a bunk bed with a top bunk but the bottom bunk was a floor bed with a futon (a 1 inch thick cloth pad) plus a duvet and a couple of pillows. The furniture was one low Japanese style table and two Japanese style chairs. That is to say if you took a straight-back chair and sawed off the legs and let people put a cushion on it and sit on that, that was their concession to Western sensibilities.

My room. Hugin Panorama Creator had a hard time with my camerawork

My room. Hugin Panorama Creator had a hard time with my camerawork

The partition between the rooms was exactly 6ft high. I am 6ft one half inch tall in my stocking feet.

The place was full of youth and family groups and everybody cooked their own meals in the communal kitchen and hung out in the coming with dining room living room with a big TV. I spend most of my time either in the room or out and about.

Between sleeping on the floor and the summer heat (they have a window air conditioner in the room but it only worked in fan mode), I almost died. My back and hip bones never did recover for the rest of the trip.

The next three days were spent attending the conference, wandering around Sapporo, and returning to Tokyo. I’ll be talking mostly about Sapporo.

My first meal there was a nabeyaki dinner — thick udon noodles, tempura shrimp, vegetables, and a lump of mochi flour (I thought it was a potato dumpling) in a bubbling broth in a stone pot. When I say bubbling, I mean it was still venting steam bubbles minutes after they brought it to the table.

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There are little specialty shops like this all over. Nothing but noodles. As with many such small places, they only take cash.

Sapporo has lots of places to shop, including a covered market that morphs into a covered shopping mall. Hokkaido is where Japan grows much of its produce, including softball-sized peaches, on sale in the market.

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Since a yen is very close to a penny, the peaches are $3.00 each, and the apples only $2.50.

Since a yen is very close to a penny, the peaches are $3.00 each, and the apples only $2.50.

The city has a fair amount of snowfall. As they put it, yes, they get close to twenty feet of snow per year, but there’s rarely more than three feet on the ground at any one time. To ameliorate this, they’ve built a vast underground shopping complex, attached to their underground. You can walk from one station to the next, with shops all around, including specialty shops like Hello Kitty and Mr Donut.

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My last night there was the Conference Dinner. It was a half hour walk from my hostel, through a warm Saturday night filled with couples of all ages, romantically out hunting Pokemons. The dinner was a multi-course affair, involving Japanese, Chinese, and Korean dishes. We also had speeches, and drumming. The drumming was the only noteworthy thing.

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Up early, cab to the train station, and off on another whistle stop tour of the villages of rural Japan. I managed to get a nice photo of a volcano within a volcano.

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Rolled into Ueno Station in the late afternoon, unloaded at my favorite Tokyo hotel, and headed for Akihabara, the technical heart of the world — think of Frye’s, spread out over an entire city district.

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Unfortunately, it was hot, Sunday afternoon, just dripping with sweat and otaku. I managed to spend $60 or $80 on light novels and such, but drew the line at spending $100 for the Girls und Panzer movie, with no subtitles.

Day 7
Up early and off on a run to the south. First leg was Tokyo to Nagoya via the Osaka Shinkansen. I could really get used to that way of travel.

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Nagoya to Tsu was by local train again. I sat up in the first car, and got to watch the driver. Like many Japanese workers, he’s trained to physically enact all his decisions. When he came to a branch in the rails, he would first point straight ahead, and then at the branch he would take. When he changed speed, he would first point straight ahead, then at the speedometer, and then reach for the throttle. Same way when passing checkpoints — physically mark them off on a board. His whole body was involved, not just his brain.

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I’ve seen platform attendants doing something similar when walking the platform right before the trains came in. Point at a gate that should be closed. Put your hand on it. Say ‘yes’. There’s less chance of forgetting that way.

If Sapporo was like upstate Maine, Mie Prefecture was like South Carolina. Rice was still growing in the north. In the south, it was harvested, and the fields were plowed in anticipation of a second crop.

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The hotel was, finally, a big, modern building, with roomy rooms, and a nice lobby,

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and a good view, front and back. In the view to the east, over the harbor (click to embiggen), you will note what looks a little like a tree-lined lagoon to the left of the centerline on the coast. That’s actually a large solar array. Tsu is very big on renewables, with solar and wind power sites popping up all over.

View to the east

View to the east

View to the west

View to the west

Tsu, by the way, is the capital of Mie (pronounced mee-ae). The kanji is 津, which means sanctuary, or harbor. It’s part of the word tsu.na.mi, which means harbor wave.

That night was dinner with students and faculty from Mie University. Everyone ordered what looked good to them, and we all shared. I found out that burdock root is normally served shreded, and is pretty tasteless.

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Day 8
We had a tour of the Mie University campus. Very nice, in a subtropical sort of way.

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Student Services

Student Services

Student Workshop

Student Workshop

Then we had the workshop, with grad students talking about their proposed projects. Very interesting work being done there.

That night was dinner with students and faculty from Mie University. Dinner was a set piece affair, delivered in increments. Seven or eight courses. Very good. Many of the ingredients were identifiable.

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We each had a glass of ninja sake, which is served in a glass in a traditional square sake drinking box. The glass is filled until it overflows into the box.

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Day 9
Two superb grad students from Mie, Yamada Koji, and Takigawa Yuma, gave us a tour of inland Mie, including the famous ninja town of Iga. We had demonstrations of ninja techniques, and visited the ninja museum.

Ninja walkers, for walking in swamps

Ninja walkers, for walking in swamps …

The History Club knows how to find old things

… not walking on water.

Ninja crafts

Ninja crafts

Afterwards, we visited a crafts shop that let you make your own accoutrements. I didn’t buy any, because they (a) were expensive, and (b) would only take cash. No Suica or credit cards.

Non-ninja crafts

Non-ninja crafts

Iga beef. The only meal where they offered extra salt.

Iga beef. The only meal where they offered extra salt.

Lunch was the world-famous Iga beef, and the students ate like grad students the world over. It makes one’s heart glad.

They ate their own, and part of mine

They ate their own, and part of mine

That night was dinner with students and faculty from Mie University. In the most traditional Japanese …er… tradition… it was all laid out on the table when we arrived.

Last meal

Last meal

Day 10
Up early, and home. One last wave to the local schoolgirls. One last local train from Mie, one last Shinkansen from Nagoya, one last JR train from Tokyo to Narita.

Last schoolgirls

Last schoolgirls

Last shinkansen

Last Shinkansen

Went through customs at Denver, which meant we had to claim our bags and re-check them. That happened without leaving security, but TSA Denver still decided they needed to loot my checked bag to make sure the bottle of Plum Sake wasn’t something nefarious. I hope they enjoyed unwrapping the used underwear I padded it with.

All told, a very successful trip. Except for the part about my hips and back having deteriorated to the point where my two grad students insisted on following me back to my room every night to make sure I made it. It was the hostel what done me in, and I’m in much better shape now than then. But I do appreciate the concern and assistance they showed.

I really enjoyed this trip. It was much more fun than my first one, perhaps because it was longer and covered more ground. But every trip has lessons learned and things one wants to do better and random observations. These are mine.

Japan Rail Pass

A must-have, if you are going to be there for a week or so, and are not in a tour group. A number of vendors sell the Exchange Orders, all at about the same price. I used Japan Experience. At the time I’m writing this, a week-long general seating pass is $275, while a reserved-seat green pass is $365 for an adult. You have to buy it before you get to Japan (they FedEx the order to you so it arrives fast), and you have to be there as a tourist. Some hints on use:

  1. Its primary function is to get you past the JR train station turnstiles and onto the platforms. You have to show it to the guard coming and going, so you don’t go through the turnstiles themselves. Then you are good to go on any JR car with general seating.
  2. If you have a green pass and you want a reserved seat, you have to go to the Midori-no-madoguchi (Green ticket window).
    Look for this sign

    Look for this sign

    and make a reservation. Then you show your JR pass to get on the platform, and you show your reservation (it’s a small, green ticket), and your pass, to the conductor on the train. NOTE: Midori-no-madoguchi is also where you go to swap your JR Exchange Order for a real JR pass when you first arrive.

  3. The pass works for Japan Rail trains only. There are many private train lines in Japan, and they don’t take the JR pass. For example, there are two ways to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo Ueno station. The JR train is free (with the pass) but is about 15 minutes slower. The Keisei Skyliner runs just between those two locations, and is faster, but it will cost you $15. In Tokyo, the JR Yamanote line runs a big loop around the heart of the city, but most of the suburbs are fed by local lines. Plus, you may find you have to pay an extra $5 or so on the train, when it runs over non-JR rails.
  4. It pays to plan ahead. I had a first class green pass, but couldn’t get a reserved seat on half the JR trains I travelled on, because I booked the individual tickets too late. That was my fault, because I kept changing my travel plans. If you need flexibility, the green pass is probably not the way to go.
  5. The company that sells you your JR Exchange Order may also offer some other products. I rented a portable Wi-Fi unit for about $10 a day. It was worth it. I’d turn it on, turn on my Nexus 7 tablet, and I had maps and translation services pretty much wherever I was. They also sold me a Pasmo card. More on that in the section on money.

Even if you are travelling the length of Japan, the JR pass can save you a lot of money on the long distance routes, at the cost of a little time. For example, the standard recommendation from the HyperDia train schedule site, for a trip from Sapporo to Tsu (equivalent of going from Portland, ME, to Charleston, SC), is to fly from Chitose to Nagoya and take the train from there. Time is 5 hours (plus security, which, admittedly, is a lot more efficient than TSA’s), and the cost is $470. If you take the Shinkansen, it’s 12 hours and $360, but JR pass saves you $350 of that, and you get to look at the scenery, instead of the tops of clouds.

Money

Bring cash. Yes, the hotels and big restaurants in the big cities will take credit cards (check with your card company before you go), and yes, many shops (mostly combini), and the train stations, take money cards, like Pasmo and Suica, but a surprising number don’t. I took $400 in cash, burned through that, borrowed $120 and spent most of that, all in 10 days of not living extravagantly. Meanwhile, less than $1000 went on the credit card, mostly for hotels. The crafts shop I visited in Iga on Day 9 sold goods that were in the $30-$50 range, and took only cash.

Exchange your money before heading off into the hinterlands. In 2012, my hotel in Kobe had no trouble turning dollars into yen. In 2016, the drug stores I saw in Sapporo had a machine that would do that for you automatically. In Tsu, a somewhat provincial city — about the size of Spokane, but on the unfashionable side of Ise Bay — the only place to change dollars to yen was the main bank, and it took three people and twenty minutes to do so.

Trash cans

There aren’t any. Japanese friends of mine say there’s two reasons. First, the Tokyo subways were subject to a nerve-agent gas attack, back in 1995, and many of the devices were placed in trash cans. Bureaucratic solution, remove all the trash cans. Second, Japanese cities are big on recycling. They do this by forcing residents to buy multiple trash bags, one for each kind of recycling. For those who resent this, the easy solution is to take a bag along when they go to work, and drop it in some public trash can on the way. Shop owner solution, remove the trash cans. Workaround for foreigners, go into a combini and ask them to dispose of it for you.

Children

A note on children in Japan. They have remarkable freedom of movement, unthinkable to US helicopter parents. These five boys were doing the equivalent of taking the train from Washington DC to Portland, Maine. No parents, no conductors checking up on them, they just got on, found their seats and sat down. Presumably their parents dropped them at the ticket turnstile and let them find their own way two levels down to the Shinkansen platform, but having seen younger children navigating the system, they might have just bid their mothers goodbye at the front door and headed out.

Not a parent in sight

Not a parent in sight

There’s an anime currently running called Sweetness and Lightning, about a young child and her single parent father. In one episode he gets sick and she goes to a friend for help. The friend’s house requires a trip across a good chunk of the city, not just to a neighbor. Here is how Michael Vito, over at Weekly Review of Transit, Place and Culture in Anime characterized it. The article is pretty far down a pretty big page, so when you get to the link, hit <Find> and search for Sweetness.

Nobody minds

Talk about free range kids…

The point is, she’s a pre-schooler, walking alone in an urban environment, and nobody is bothered, nobody is worried. It’s a normal thing. For all our talk of independence and spirit of adventure, that would never fly in today’s America. I note that in the first half of an earlier century, I was allowed to ride my bike anywhere, with the only requirement being that I had to make it home in time for dinner.

Weather

In November of 2012, Kobe was cold and damp, but not freezing. In August of 2016, Tokyo and Tsu were around 90 and humid, and Sapporo was in the upper 70s. Not sure how much of the humidity was due to the two typhoons that pounded everything from Tokyo, north while we were there. My conclusion is that August is not the time to be visiting Japan, unless it’s the far north.

Language

You really need to know some Japanese phrases, and being able to identify some key kanji also helps. Much of the time, only one person in a shop speaks English. At the hotel in Tsu — big hotel, right next to the central train station — nobody at the desk spoke any. If you have a little Japanese, it gives them something to hang their answer on.

Japanese TV

Japanese TV is, to my western taste, terrible. Every program, even the news, seems to have a panel of C-list actors commenting on it, with their pictures in little inset frames off to the side. Here’s the reporting on the typhoon-induced flooding on Hokkaido

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And here is what is available in my hotel room at 8:30 on a Sunday night.
1. An infomercial for some sort of cleaner
2. Coverage of a boat race that took place in January with a male sportscaster, a male color commentator and another fat male commentator who looks like me might have been an entertainer of some sort, and then a woman who was another sort of announcer.
3. Some reality show police procedural semi-documentary with shaky cams and hidden cams and all kinds of discussions of evidence, and real life chase scenes and so forth with faces blanked out.
4. A reality show where it looks like they have taken a family of New Guinea Aborigines and have brought them to Japan to see how they react to modern life. Right now the aboriginal father has just had his first experience with with chopsticks and what he did was put them through his nose.
5. Another reality show where we see cars crashing on security cameras and shots of race cars turning over right out of the gate.
6. What might be coverage of the Sapporo Marathon, with the news announcer and a support group running along in the rain and the usual collection of commentators looking at them from the from the corners of the screen.
7. Some sort of historical artistic docudrama like you might see on the History Channel. Looks like it was a perhaps a history of Christianity in Japan. And finally,
8. Another historical docudrama with lots of re-enactments of things that went on in the samurai era and now we’re looking at everybody’s gravestone to the modern era. When I first saw it I thought it was a regular Samurai Western if you will but it appears to be educational instead.

Only 7 and 8 did not have the Greek Chorus off to the side.

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