My Trip To Japan
This is the full collection of the blog entries I made as part of my trip to Japan in November, 2012. I wrote the original entries on handheld input devices like my Nexus 7 while in Japan. I then fleshed them out and added photographs, in a leisurely fashion, over my Christmas break.
Table of Contents
I have had two papers accepted for the SCIS-2012 Conference in Kobe. This will be the first in a series describing my trip and observations. I’ll post it as I go, using the totally inadequate keyboards of my Nexus 7 and Inspiron 10. In some places I’ll stick a placeholder for a photo to be filled in later — my phone takes 2MB pix, and I don’t intend to use up my WP allotment in one go.
As with any trip, getting there is half the fun. My plane left GEG for SFO at 5AM. To make things more fun, MJ wasn’t getting back from an AKC trip ’till 11PM. I parked the car at the airport and left it with a white towel tied to the bike rack.
The flight out was a typical 21st Century flight. TSA was no more intrusive than they usually are. SFO to KIX (Kansai International, built on an island off Osaka), was on a B-777 Dreamliner. Comfortable, with a surprising amount of leg room. Food was just like Mother used to make — when she was in a hurry and there was nothing fresh in the house.
Got in at 4PM, and it was 5PM and dark by the time I’d cleared everything. The most direct route KIX to Kobe is to take the high speed ferry, but they said I’d have to wait an hour and suggested I take the bus. I was surprised at the length of the trip — 90min — but then I realized this wasn’t just a jaunt around Osaka Bay, this was a run down the coast of the Inland Sea.
The hotel isn’t the con hotel, which is a big, modern, expensive place out on the port island. Sannomiya Terminal Hotel is run by Japan Rail and sits right on top of the railroad station. The room is small – think cruise ship cabin – but cheap, and convenient.
A while back I did a post on The Smell of the Country, talking about what smells hit you when you first arrived. Japan…doesn’t smell. KIX is clean, modern, antiseptic. The bus had a faint air of fresheners about it. The hotel doesn’t have the typical hotel smell, the city streets don’t smell of diesel, and there’s not as much smoking as I thought there’d be. UPDATE:Finally, a smell. My room is non-smoking, but someone who just moved in on this floor is a smoker.
The view out my hotel window is interesting, be it day
And if you stand across the street by the big office building, this is what the hotel looks like:
My room is in the bottom row of windows, about sixth from the left. Back to Top
Day two started with a comedy of errors. I took the Portliner train out to the conference center about 9 o’clock, but I could not find any sign of the conference. Well, I found one sign.After fighting with my MiFi and my mobile phone I discovered that the con didn’t start until 6 o’clock that night.
So I spent the rest of the day wandering around Kobe. Kobe is an interesting city. You have the usual wide thoroughfares
but instead of medium sized side streets you have a collection of very small 1 way streets designed for tiny Japanese vehicles. In between those is a maze of twisty passages, all alike. The only vehicle you can get down them is a motor scooter.
They are home to hundreds of small bars and restaurants. I wanted an authentic Japanese experience for lunch so I went to Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The highlight of the afternoon was the visit to the Ikuta Shrine. It’s right in downtown Kobe and is one of the oldest in Japan, almost two thousand years old. It is dedicated to Wakahirume, younger sister of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu.
The sign out front said something about a 753 Pilgrimage, and their website talks about a 753 ceremony, blessing the children. That might be what this was about:
There are other shrines on the grounds of the main one. This one is dedicated to Inari, a gender-neutral god of rice and good fortune. The gods messengers are kitsune, foxes, and they are often shown holding scrolls.
I ended my visit at a little gift stand run by this shrine maiden. She convinced me to buy a number of charms for luck and health and protection for children, to send to various relatives, but I drew the line at the one that ensures successful pregnancy.
On the way home, I saw my first Japanese high school students in uniform. The boys were wearing very severe Navy Blue uniforms that make them look like junior versions of Admiral Yamamoto standing on the bridge of his battleship. Of course some of them are wearing them in the most slovenly way possible, with their jacket sleeves pulled up so they can show their shirt sleeves rolled up, shirt-tails out, and trousers pulled down far enough to be baggy and draggy. The girls were more Catholic school girl look than sailor suit. Knee-high socks or hose with short plaid or navy skirts and dark navy blazers. The layered look was in for women in general — high-heeled boots, long socks , leggings , hose with short skirts that could be anything from frilly to denim, topped with jacket over sweater over sweater vest. The men wore guy-stuff and suits that looked like the business suit version of the student Navy uniform. Back to Top
After the opening of the conference, which I will report on separately, I skipped out, caught the train back to downtown, and wandered around some more.
I wanted an authentic Japanese lunch experience, so I stopped at a noodle bar, the kind where you stick coins in a machine and it gives you a ticket that you give to the heavily made-up counter lady, who gives you your udon. For 280yen I had something called ‘kitsune’. kitsune means ‘fox’, but I think it was really beef. I later learned that it’s a Kobe region specialty. It was very good.
My main target was ShinKobe, the Shinkasen station for Kobe.
It’s about a 20 minute walk from the hotel. One of the interesting things about Kobe is that they have lots of pedestrian walkways,
so that you don’t have to wait at the intersection, and some of them are quite complex because if you have 6 streets meeting, you need a bunch of different walkovers.
Walking up, I took the main street, Flower Street.
It’s a typical Japanese thoroughfare (he said, based on 36hrs of observation), with typical stores and shops and public art.
Japanese stores remind me of old junk stores, only much cleaner and brighter. Narrow aisles stacked ceiling-high with an incredible array of goods,with everything marked bright signs with big block letters. Most of the places I went into were in narrow narrow buildings, and the shop went up four or five stories of 15×15′ display rooms. I bought a couple of kids manga, nothing ecchi, to practice my translating on.
Other buildings are not what they seem. According to other blogs, many of the buildings that look to be Christian churches are really just commercial shells, available for rent by couples who want a Western Style wedding, presided over by whichever of their foreign friends owns a black suit. Here is a fake Greek building. You’d think it might be a bank or something. It’s not. It’s another wedding center.
The Shinkasen station backs right up against the hills. From that aspect, Kobe reminded me a little of downtown Portland. The building to the left is the start of the Mt. Maya ropeway, of which more tomorrow.
The station was a little confusing because nowhere could I find a map of the system to tell me what train to take to Kyoto. It turns out it was the Tokyo train, I think. I figured I would find out on Friday. Returning to the hotel, I wandered the back streets and residential districts. You can get a car in here, but from one direction only.
Side Note: At this point in the blogstream, I had an entry on oatmeal and wine, that I wrote a week or so ago and scheduled for autoposting early on Day 3. It popped up between the Japan Trip Da y 2 and Day 3 entries, and I thought I’d best add a note to that effect. I did so, but when I looked at the entry, it had changed to the Day 3 text! just to be sure, I checked on my cellphone. It had changed, and the original, witty, essay had gone away.
I was working on my Nexus 7, which really is not designed for production — its whole essence is consumption. Back to Top
I did get to surprise MJ by calling her just as the clock at the con site let out a peal of bells.
Not only did they have a bell tower, but they also had a collection of figures that marched around in a little house at the base of it
I wanted an authentic Japanese lunch, so I went to the nearest Lawson’s kombini and bought a collection of bento items, including three different kinds of rice balls (really triangles), and a small loaf of curry bread. The rice balls were about as I expected, except that one of them had a tomagoyaki roll inside. The curry bread was a flat loaf, curry-flavored, stuffed with a small hot dog and curry paste. Sadly, there were no photos.
At the banquet I found out that Kobe is also famous for sake and for Japanese wine. Their red is a not-very-full-bodied Cabernet; the sake was mild-tasting and inoffensive, certainly better than the brands they carry at Safeway, but nothing to write the world about….um.
As the banquet was in the final stages of preparation, I noticed a kimono display.
That reminded me that I had promised to buy my grand-niece-in-law one. Well, I’m not prepared to shell out what’s needed for a kimono, but I can afford the lightweight summer version, the yukata. There was a nice hotel lady seeing to the preparations. I asked her if she knew of any places I could find yukatas, and she said she’d see what she could do. Half an hour later, she dug me out of the banquet. She didn’t have a list of places. She had a couple of samples and wanted to know if this was what I wanted. We then slipped up to the hotel shop that sold them, and I made my GNiL happy, along with the shop staff. That’s the highly helpful Nishio san on the right.
Part I A Train Ride
This is as multi-parter, because so much went on. I took the Shinkasen from Kobe to Kyoto and spent the day being shown around by one of my former students — sometimes perfesserin’ really pays off.
The Shinkasen is everything they said it was. The train was more like an airplane inside, with comfortable 3+3 seating (and little rubber bedknobs on the aisle side of the seatbacks for the standees to hold on to). The trip up was extra-crowded, because it was the start of a three-day weekend. I was the last person on, and ended up standing next to the door in the connecting compartment for the first part of the trip. This was no problem, because the train is fast.
The front end looks like a fast racing car
It spends two or three minutes in the station
Before accelerating away
And the back end looks like a racecar as well
Hey, did I just miss my train?
Round-trip cost was ¥5,400, or about $66. Road distance and travel time direct from Kobe to Kyoto is 73km / 1hr 17min, Kobe to Kyoto via Osaka is 90km / 1hr 45min. Coming back on the train, it was 10min to Osaka, and another 20min to Kobe. We left at exactly 5:30PM and got in at exactly 6PM, so our average speed was 180km/hr. Stops for trains passing through Kyoto were about 2min each. I got home and called my student to let her know I’d made it OK. She was still shopping in ShinKyoto Station.
While ShinKobe was simply a train station,
ShinKyoto was quite a bit bigger
With Christmas decorations
and lots of people
My only complaint is that between standing jammed into the connecting compartment on the way up, and coming home after dark, I never got to see the countryside whiz by at 180kph. Back to Top
PART II Kyoto
At the Kyoto Station I was met by my friend and former student Ayu-chan, and we went on a walking tour of the city.
Now, I’ve read a fair amount of Japanese history, about how Kyoto was the national capital for a long long time, and how it had many historic buildings that were spared the bombings of WWII. I had a picture of Kyoto as a quiet, tree-lined, almost university-town-like atmosphere. Not at all.
It’s a bustling city that just happens to have a bunch of shrines and temples, and those are so scattered that it takes days to see them all on foot. We had an afternoon, so we saw two. The Higashi Hongaji, near the station, and the Kiyomizu-dena, on a tall hill complex in the center of the city.
The Higashi Hogaji was mostly closed for renovation. Covered with a large metal shed, it looked more like a light industrial complex. There were a couple of sub-temples that were worth photographing. One with me in the frame, somehow.
The Kiyomizu-dera was a goodly walk, across the Kaomagma River and up a fairly steep hill.
It being a national holiday — Labor Thanksgiving Day, killing two with one weekend — there were thousands of locals and tourists who took the trek with us. At the top were more temples,
and a beautiful view of the city.
A view which many others appreciated as well.
Part I Another Walk
My last full day in Japan, and I was still worn out from Kyoto. I went out at eight, and it was raw and windy and no fun at all. Back inside, to hang out in the room until the stores opened at 10. Bought gifts for almost everyone.
They had lots of manga, but very little anime.
They did have a whole section of the store devoted to candy. More floorspace than the books.
For lunch, I decided to do something that the average Japanese would consider out of the ordinary, so I went up to the hotel restaurant cluster for lunch. I found that about a thousand Japanese had the same idea, and all the venues were packed. All except the maid cafe. Well, not a real ‘Welcome Back, Master’ Kaichō wa Maid-sama-style maid cafe. This was a tea-and-cakes shop, with real English tea-shop style maids. With the help of a nice Japanese lady, the first one I’ve met who could speak English better than I speak Japanese, I ordered a Japanese pasta plate. It was one of several similar, and the alternative was pizza. It turned out to be tuna casserole, with broccolirab-like greens. Not bad at all, for what it was.
Then off up the hill to Kobe’s main claim to historical fame, the foreign quarter, with homes built by the various commercial counsels back when the city was just opening up to international trade. Did I say up the hill? I meant UP,
Each counsel built their home in the then-current style of the home country. So you have a multi-gabled German home of the mid 19th Century,
and a more modern-looking home from a century later.
I had some matcha soft ice cream (green tea powder — an acquired taste, and not at all sweet), and climbed further still, to the Mt. Maya cablecar.
The view from the top was sweeping, if a little misty,
and the biergarten played stein-clunking German music, mein Schatz.
A brief stop to play German drinking songs into MJ’s voicemail, and to take some pictures, and I was off down the hill through the herb garden. Back to Top
Part II The Herb Gardens
So after one final look at the panorama, I started downhill, through the herb garden.
Past the gardener
and lots of flowers I don’t know the names of
and lavender beds
and the kitchen garden, with really big asparagus
…and a melon you can almost see
…and some squash
…and I think Rosemary
…missing the turnoff to the greenhouse
but finally making it to the awaiting mid-mountain cable car stop, and so home. Back to Top
Final day and so home. Got up early, went out for one final walk, and stumbled onto the start of the Kobe 2012 Marathon.
Hundreds of people running past, helicopters overhead, dozens of semi-uniformed crowd control workers with batons and traffic cones and bullhorns.
Also found a complete shopping mall — two parallel streets that had arched roofs installed on top, and pedestrian pavers laid down underneath — that I hadn’t seen before. It being a Sunday and 9AM, nothing was open. Another missed opportunity
Checked out of the hotel at 10AM, caught the Portliner to Kobe airport (a small regional field, similar to Tri-Cities, WA, or Santa Maria, CA), and transferred to the high-speed ferry trimaran.
Travel time from the hotel to Kansai Airport was about an hour (including half an hour on the boat).
They didn’t allow us up on deck, so it wasn’t as much fun as it might have been.
Kansai is a huge barn of a building, like being inside an unfinished transport aircraft. It’s all metal, with lots of exciting industrial art — mostly flat surfaces that reflect sound efficiently, and garble announcements beyond recognition. I packaged up the phone and WiFi and sent them back. The WiFi package was so thick it almost didn’t fit through the slot in the Japan Post mailbox.
I wanted something in the way of a Kansai regional dish for lunch, so I went to a restaurant that specialized in okonomiyaki – o.ko.no.mi (whatever you want) + ya.ki (grilled food). It’s a savory pancake in which (to extract from Wikipedia) “the batter is made of flour, grated yam, dashi, eggs, shredded cabbage, and lots of green onion, topped with okonomiyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce but thicker and sweeter)”. The place was crowded, so I left my big bag out front, with all the others left there by diners. The Japanese have a less hysterical approach to airport security than does the US.
The flights home were uneventful. I rode in a Dreamliner again and was very comfortable. Flying west we had head winds and took 12 hours. Flying east we had tailwinds and took 9 hours. At SFO, the TSA helpfully found and confiscated the juice box I had bought in Osaka airport to drink on the plane and which had slid down inside my backpack. They also presumably saw the tag on my checked baggage, showing it had originated at KIX, and decided to do an inspection to see if there were any dangerous lootables. I found their greeting card inside when I got home.
But that’s OK. My dogs were happy to see me.
Not the traditional style,
but the more modern ones. That is, more modern than they have in countries like, say, the U.S.
My limited experience is with the simple toilets you will find in an economy-class Japanese hotel that caters to travelers more than tourists. This one had three knobs on the side. One to start the hot water (otherwise you get quite a shock), one for the bidet function, and one for the …er…standard…cleansing.
Here is what the setup looks like inside.
If you bend down and turn one of the dispenser knobs, a funny little arm pops out from the square extension at the back of the bowl and sprays hot water in your face.
When used as directed, it has a surprisingly good aim. The difference between the stream and the bidet settings is that the bidet produces a softer spray, not a high pressure needle sharp stream. Consider yourself warned.
Does it work? Not particularly well. Maybe for … um … post-wipe cleanup, but if you do that, you find the cheap hotel toilet paper dissolves on contact when it comes time to dry. I think I’d rather use the old-fashioned kind. And maybe the U.S. isn’t missing out on that much after all. Of course, I might just have been doing it wrong.
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Telephones in Japan
Most US cellphones don’t work in Japan. Some can be modded with a different card, but my Verizon Droid X couldn’t. For me, the best solution was to rent a phone for the week I was there. There are a number of companies that will do this for you. Some have offices at the airport, where you can pick up and drop off the phone. Others, like the one I used, would deliver it to your hotel and provide a pre-paid shipping carton for the return. You pay for the rent of the phone, and you also pay for the connection minutes.
Prices vary widely, as do costs. The airport-based companies have low rental rates, but high per minute charges, while the company I went with was higher on the rent side and lower on the per minutes. More on that anon.
By all reports, most Japanese are still in the flip phone era, and it shows in the range of phones offered. Since I had my Nexus 7 with me, I wasn’t concerned with smartphone features, and was happy with a simple flip phone. I didn’t use it all that much — a couple calls to my student to organize the Kyoto trip, a longer call to my brother, because how cool is it get a call from Japan, and a few calls to my wife to play music into her voicemail. That, by the way, didn’t work out too well. The cell phone mic was quickly overwhelmed and just sent static. Usually enough got through to make it worth while.
In addition to the cell phone itself I also rented a wireless hot-spot, AKA MiFi. It was a slab not much bigger than the phone (wider, flatter), that would make a link to the cell phone network and provide a wireless signal. Well worth it. I used it more than I used the phone. I’d turn it on, stick it into my pocket, and link to it with the Nexus 7. That gave me live map and translation support while walking around the city.
Cost for these (after currency charges, etc) was about $50 for a one week rental, $50 for the connection time, and $50 for the MiFi. Back to Top
I like Japan. I’m not the weaboo Japanophile that some otaku are (possibly because I’m not into anime, etc., enough to be an otaku), but I find the country and the people appealing and enjoying. I even like the language, although it gives me fits learning it. What follows here, in no particular order, are things I didn’t know, or hadn’t thought through prior to visiting.
1. Speaking of anime, based on my aniblog reading, discussions with my students, and limited personal observation, it’s not as popular in Japan as one might think. I had perhaps ten channels on my hotel TV, and never saw an anime. I saw ice skating, news, sumo wrestling. No anime.
Looking in the department stores, there were miles of manga, for all ages, including stuff that would probably get me arrested if I tried to bring it back to the States. There were other stores that just sold manga, and music CDs, and some anime DVDs. The market is apparently split between afternoon anime – kids shows like Dragonball Z and other thinly disguised commercials for toys – and the late night anime, marketed to the young adults who can afford to pay the equivalent of ten dollars per episode.
2. Not as many people smoke as I thought. Most of the restaurants I visited were smoke-free. The one all-smoking cafe we stopped at in Kyoto was reasonably well ventilated. The hotel was smoke-free enough that when one of the guests on my floor snuck a smoke, it was obvious to anyone in the hallway.
3. If you are in a sit-down restaurant, you apparently have to call for your bill. They’re not like US establishments, that will figure you are done and bring it over. I spent half an hour in one of the back rooms of one of the hotel restaurants, with the waitress bringing me tea, before I realized she was waiting for me to check out.
4. Outside of the tourist districts, nobody seems to speak English. Folks who have been to more popular areas, and areas around US bases, say there’s plenty of English speakers there. In a port city like Kobe, with perhaps a day’s worth of tourist attractions, not even the hotel desk staff speaks it. Only in the Portopia Hotel — on the Port Island next to the International Conference Center — did I find even one staff member. My Japanese is abysmal. As in, half an hour to translate one page of a manga, 70% score on stuff I’ve been studying for three years abysmal. Still, I found myself communicating in Japanese better than in English (and it’s amazing what you can do with pointing). Of course, Japanese visitors to the US are in even worse straits.
5. Associated with this is the fact that very few signs are in English. None of the temples and shrines had anything in English. None of the stores. Even the train station had minimal English signage. Highway signs are bilingual, but of course, American tourists can’t drive in Japan, and that tradition is left over from the Occupation. Japan has reciprocal licensing agreements with most countries, but the US doesn’t have a national driver’s license, and it would require fifty separate agreements for US tourists.
6. Not only are there few signs in English, the signs, labels, instructions, and so forth, are almost all in kanji. I know roughly fifty kanji, but most of them were not particularly useful. I could tell what stores sold sake and that was about it. In addition, most of the kanji translation tools just don’t work in the field. I got a hand-held one called “Word Tank”, and I tried a couple of on-line apps for mobiles. Most are terrible at recognizing hand-drawn kanji, even simple three stroke ones. Many depend on getting the stroke order right. If I know enough about a kanji to know the stroke order, I probably know the meaning. Word Tank was OK at translating ‘kana to English, and English to ‘kana/kanji, but terrible at finding the meaning of a kanji.
To get a feel for the problem, try this. Google Earth into some commercial area in Japan, or stop by Danny Chu’s Culture Japan website and look at his various walkthroughs. Now, how many of the shop signs can you read, using whatever tools you like? See? Learn kanji.
7. The stores close surprisingly early. In the daytime I was at the con, or walking around, not thinking about shopping. Sometime between five and seven, I’d eat a leisurely dinner. When I got back out, everything was closed. Entire shopping malls, at the height of the Christmas season. And they wouldn’t open until ten or so.
8. Downtown Kobe is a very cluttered city. If you look at some of the back street shots, you see boxes and barrels and bicycles and all other manner of stuff. Not so much trash — it’s not a dirty city — as things that there’s no room for elsewhere. And of course you can leave it out without it being stolen, because that just isn’t done.
On the other hand, I didn’t see that staple of anime home life, the futon draped over the apartment balcony. I think I saw a number of them on racks inside the balconies, but nothing draped over. That deprived the view of that tenement effect.
9. It’s not as crowded as I thought. Of course, this is based on very limited observation of street crowds at specific times in two cities. Kobe didn’t seem as big-city crowded as say Seattle or DC. More like Portland. Yes, the train station could get crowded, but it’s a train station. Kyoto was extremely crowded, but it was a tourist city at the heart of a three day weekend. As an aside, it was nice to be American-tall and see over the heads of the entire crowd.
10. Overall, I enjoyed the trip immensely. I enjoyed the country immensely. I want to go back, when it’s warmer, and maybe see some of the more rural parts. Unless I go on a package tour, I’m going to have to get a lot better at my Japanese, both written and spoken.