Monday, July 31, 2006

Last Day Luxury

Hmmm, what to do for our last full day in a hectic crazy city? Lets go to Odaiba Onsen, an onsen 'theme park'!

First stop, check in our shoes, get our 'e-tags' and yukata and it was time to relax.

The rules of the onsen - no clothes allowed past the change rooms. Everyone there had to wear their underwear only under a yukata, but that was all. The onsen itself, all you were allowed was a bare butt and a tiny towel.

Having never been to an onsen before and growing up in a country where the only place you would find a large group of naked people is in the changerooms after a footy match, I found this a little weird!

We did the safest onsen option first - a foot onsen. A nice false stream through beautifully manicured garden. Relaxing our aching feet in a warm stream. This was wonderful, but tame, so we decided to upgrade our onsen experience.

Next stop - Doctor Fish! We paid an extra 1000 yen ($12) to sit with our feet in a small warm pool so that some small fish could nibble all the dead skin cells on our feet. OK, so everyone thinks this is disgusting, but it was actually really ticklish and fun. I had to concentrate to make sure I didn't giggle, as every giggle or twitch made the fish swim away, and well you know me - I wanted value for money. The doctor fish provided a very relaxing 15 minutes.

(These are my feet and the 'doctor fish', and no I don't have cankles - it is merely the angle the photo was taken from!)

We were on a roll, so next we thought we would try a sand bath. Another 1000 yen and we were in a heated barn like building, laying in a giant sandpit being buried up to our necks in heated sand. Another bizarre experience. The weight of the sand combined with the heat of the sand (someone said something about 40 degrees?) allowed you to feel the blood pump throughout your body. I couldn't get my wedding ring off before the sand bath, so my hand had to be wrapped in a towel before it was buried to prevent swelling of my fingers and being burnt by the metal. Another strange but very relaxing encounter, but after 10 minutes I was almost cooked.

The real 'normal' onsen was amazing. Heated mineral pools, spas and saunas of all temperatures both inside and out. Once I was accustomed to the 'get naked with a bunch of strangers' concept, the onsen was amazing.

It is amazing how exhausting it is just relaxing all day long....

Oh well, back to reality. It is now time to pack and tidy, ready for the journey home.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Night Lights

Last night was spent with a relaxing night lights tour of the city. We started with a delicious dinner in the Washington Hotel, on the 21st floor, with a beautiful view of the city. This was followed with a short bus ride to the Statue of Liberty. It is a life size replica of the French statue (not the American one) so it is much smaller but still pretty.

A trip over the rainbow bridge followed and then through Ginza to view the most expensive real estate in the world, filled with some of the most expensive shops in the world. The tour finished in an observatory 250 meters above sea level with an amazing view of the city, from Tokyo Disney, to the Tokyo Tower, the Rainbow Bridge and more lights than you can possibly imagine.

Thank you so much Yoshi and Ritsuko for giving us the chance to see Tokyo by Hato Bus at night!

Those Crazy Kids!

Any guide book will tell you that a trip to Tokyo MUST include a Sunday afternoon in Harajuku, to see all of the young people in their Sunday finest. The area around the station is filled with a 'freak show' and hundreds of tourists taking photos of the freak show.

Their parents must be so proud! I guess most kids leave home for the day in normal clothes and take with them a suitcase for their costume and makeup!

The guidebook was right; the parade at Harajuku is well worth a visit!

Saturday, July 29, 2006


The predictions were true. To get a front row viewing position for the fireworks, you would have had to waste a beautiful summers day. Instead, after we enjoyed our delicious meal, we wandered along the river toward the fireworks. We only had to walk for 5 minutes before we could see the fireworks.
We walked as far as we could before traffic stopped us. We were still miles away, so far away that you could not even hear the noise. Fortunately for us, fireworks is a visual thing, and we were both tall enough to see from far away!
Even from such a distance, the fireworks were spectacular. A beautiful way to spend a balmy summers evening!

Picnic on the Roof

There was a huge fireworks display over the river tonight, but we heard that if you want to get a really good viewing spot, you have to set up camp early in the afternoon. We didn't really want to waste the best part of the day doing nothing, so instead we planned on walking along the river that night, hoping to see some of the fireworks.

It was great planning, just as we arrived back, to get organised for the fireworks, Ritsuko invited us to join them on the roof for an early dinner before the fireworks. We set up the table and helped Ritsuko bring the food upstairs (via the lift) as Yoshi went out to get some tempura.

We enjoyed what could be described as the Japanese equivalent of a barbeque; tempura, edamame, salad, cold noodles and pickles. It was a delicious meal. I will have to try and introduce some of the delicious foods we ate for our barbeques back at home.

Japanese Tea

Over the past few months I have begun to acquire a taste for some tea varieties, but I have to say I am not a huge fan of your normal, every day black tea varieties. Well I can now say that I am not a fan of traditional Japanese green tea.

Picture mowing the lawn in summer, and then hosing out the mulchy grass that is still in the catcher. Then boil this grassy mixture and make tea. The tea looks bright green, with foam on top. It smells like grass and to make it worse, this tea tasted like a huge shot of hot wheat grass that was flavoured with seaweed. Interesting, but not a flavour that I have acquired a taste for at this stage!

We stopped for a traditional tea at the Hamarikyu Garden boat house. Fortunately the tea was accompanied by a traditional sweet. The sweet looked amazing, and the best way to describe the taste would be sugar coated refried beans! Strange but delicious.

Surprise Gardens

After the fish markets, we had no real plans. The map we have been using has a limited number of interesting places listed on it, but does have some of the major parks. We found a park nearby, Hamarikyu Garden, and decided that it might be a nice place to wander.

After paying our 300 yen entry fees, we wandered in just in time to see the beginning of a performance where a Japanese lady balanced items on an umbrella and made them run around the rim of the umbrella. No mean feat I hear you say. It went from really cool to amazing when she made a square box run around the edge of an umbrella!
After the performance, we wandered around the gardens, finding lots of amazing sights. We even stopped for a spot of traditional Japanese tea at a tea house on the lake. A lovely way to finish the day, if you excuse the fact that traditional tea really isn't very nice!

Fishy Bits

Yet another first for me, I chose to go to a fish market. When we first arrived I was thinking that I don't really like this place, it stinks. All those glassy eyes, peering out of the ice at us - EEEWW.

It was interesting, and I took a pile of photos, some will be classified as 'Things I Eat' and another that will be titled 'Never in a Million Years Would I Eat That'. Naturally the first grouping was the smaller of the 2; a fish market really doesn't sell much other than fish! There was the odd pickled vegetable stall, as well as a few fresh produce stalls. We did manage to get a peach each as a snack, they only cost 500 yen (we have seen them as much as 800 yen - almost $10 each!).
Things I Eat!

After our snack, we accidentally found the real fish market, the wholesale market. Surprisingly enough I really enjoyed this section. There was no smell, the floors and benches were continuously being hosed down and it was very clean. Some of the fish there were monsters. It would have been nice to see the auctions as one fish we saw (and we only saw half of it) cost 8000 yen. It was a massive tuna that weighed about 160 kilo.

'Never in a Million Years Would I Eat That'

The people at the market thought we were crazy, wandering through taking photos of fish guts. I never though I would ever enjoy something so fishy!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Happy Birthday to Me

"What!" I hear you say, it was your birthday and you chose not to spend it with your family - how rude! It wasn't my real birthday, it was just an excuse to be handcuffed and dragged through a dungeon to be locked in a tiny cell. It really wasn't as horrible as it sounds, it was a theatre restaurant where all diners were prisoners.

We were in Shibuya and met up with a friend of Ellen's and together they dragged me up and down tiny streets to find the secret restaurant! Once inside our cell, we were quite comfortable if not cosy where we ate and drank Japanese 'pub food' to our hearts content. This pub food is similar to Aussie pub food - chips and pizza, but also included chicken knuckles and edamame. Not a big beer fan, I drank Japanese vodka sours instead.

A very nice way to spend my 'birthday'!

Shopping in Tokyo

Where to start...

Akihabara - The electronics district where you can buy any gadget imaginable. Unfortunately it is difficult to work out what most gadgets do when you cant read or speak Japanese! In the electronics district you could always fill your day by playing games in a 5 level electronic game building.

Loft - Picture a really nice department store crossed with Ikea, add with a splash of Brunswick Street 'fun but not exactly useful gadgets', toy stores (for kids and adults!) and a fabric shop! Shopping heaven.

Mitsokoshi - A giant upmarket department store that has everything from exclusive restaurants, toys, clothing, boutique foods and a fun zone for the kids. Everything you could ever need, and then some!

Harajuku - freaky fashions. Do you want a maid outfit, a giant bunny suit, gothic attire or just something else completely insane? I am sure you will find it in Harajuku.

Ginza - the place to shop when you have more money than sense. The most expensive real estate housing the most expensive fashion. It kind of makes sense. A great place to window shop!

Transport Madness

Very few people in Tokyo seem to drive. There is a logical reason for this - public transport in Tokyo is amazing.

Over 20 million people pass through a single subway station in a single day. When you get off the train, signs tell you how far via subway it is to other train platforms (in some cases up to 1km away). Signs also show what is near each exit, so that you go to the correct exit. Essentially one Metro station in Tokyo is larger than the entire subway system in Japan!

We avoided 'peak hour', yet the trains were still full at 9pm.

The good things about Tokyo Metro and Japan Railways
  • Trains run every 5 or 6 minutes, so it doesn't really matter if you miss your train.
  • The trains are always clean.
  • You can get from one area to another without having to go into the 'city'.
  • If you didn't get the right ticket, you can change the ticket within the station with no hassles.

The not so good things about the trains

  • Even at 9pm, some trains are packed (standing room only) with business men.
  • Train fillers are used - to push even more people onto the trains. (For some unknown reason, we decided to avoid this phenomenon!)
  • You can't buy a daily ticket, just buy per journey or prepay cards to pay per journey.

Fortunately, the transport maps had English versions, so even tourists could work out how to travel! Somehow we managed to work out how to follow maps like this!


Picture Times Square NY, except all of the neon signs are in a language that makes absolutely no sense to you (unless of course you read Japanese) and you are in Shibuya. The sights and lights, the humidity and for the first time, the smell - hot and festery, not exactly smelly yet, but far from being perfume!

An afternoon in Shibuya can be easily filled sitting opposite the station people watching, wandering throught amazing alleys and laneways and shopping.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Exploring Yokahama

On the way back from Kamakura, we decided to stop at Yokohama. The plan was to try and find Chinatown. We left Yokohama station and instead found an amusement park. Hmmm, dilemma time. Do we try to find Chinatown or enjoy what we already have? The answer was simple really, the waterfront amusement park was right there, so why not visit.

Yokohama was a beautiful city. It reminded me of a sleeker version of Docklands in Melbourne or Darling Harbour in Sydney. A wander through the area and a quick bite to eat and it was dark - just in time for a ride on the ferris wheel.
The view from the top was amazing, the photos do it no justice.

With our wander through Yokohama finished, it was time to head all the way back to Tokyo and bed. Maybe it was our overconfidence or just that we were both exhausted after walking for almost all of the day (12 hours at that stage), but we got off at the wrong station and then had to work our way back to Suitengamae, the station closest to home. It didn't take too long to work out where we went wrong. Maybe we will be more careful in our next adventures!

Missing Home?

Today was a beautiful day, exploring the area of Kamakura. We stopped for a drink in the shade of an old dirt-floor cafe to cool off before heading to another shrine.

The shrine was an amazing place. In one area there were hundreds and hundreds of small statues all in perfect rows alongside the path. It wasn't until I left that part of the shrine that Ellen told me that the purpose of the shrine was to remember children who have died or were still-born.
The area is referred to as Sentai-Jizo or One-Thousand Jizo. Jizo is believed to be a guardian deity of children, both alive and dead. Parents can dedicate the statuettes to thier lost soul and pray that the god may protect the poor little ones wandering in the netherworld, making offerings of clothing, hats and toys. The effect is rather heartbreaking, but a beautiful tribute to such a sad occasion.

I couldn't help but imagine the pain of being in such a terrible situation, and one thought lead to another and all I wanted to do was to be with my family and kissing my kids. I was sad that I wasn't with my kids, but happy that I was fortunate enough to be blessed with beautiful children. I love you AJ and Milla!


Up bright and early Thursday morning to head to Kamakura to visit the giant Buddha and local temples. We left at around 8, to give us plenty of time to get lost on the way to Tokyo Station. Fortunately we didn't need so much time, we made it dare I say easily and managed to find the right train to take us on the hour long joruney to Kamakura.

After an hour exploring shops and local temples in Kamakura, we met up with Misao (a friend of Ellen's whom I had met in Ascot Vale). Misao had been travelling for almost 4 hours to meet us!
It was a beautiful day, still very hot but not unbearably humid. We wanted to conserve our energy, so we jumped into a taxi.

First stop, Daibutsu - the Giant Buddha. Now when I say giant, I mean giant, the second largest in Japan. The Buddha was over 13 metres tall and had survived a Tsunami in 1495!

The remainder of the day was spent eating and exploring - two of my favourite past-times and a great way to spend a beautiful sunny day. Eventually, it was time to say farewell to Misao and begin our journey back towards Tokyo, via Yokohama.

My Home

Well the place that I am calling home for the next week is amazing. Nao, a friend of Ellen's from Melbourne is actually from Tokyo and her parents have kindly offered to share their home with us. I was expecting a bed on the floor, or maybe a couch to share but no, we are very fortunate to have our very own 2 bedroom apartment within their house, to call our home for the week.

The house we are staying in is in a very new building that has its own carpark, a home office, 4 floors of apartments and a rooftop entertaining area! Nao's parents Yoshi and Ritsuko have an apartment, Dai and Chaiaki (Nao's brother and his wife) have another apartment, an uncle has a third apartment and we are staying in the 4th floor apartment as grandma is staying with Yoshi and Ritsuko.

All this and it is about 100 metres from the TCAT terminal and Suitengamae train station. All I can say is WOW!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Wonderful Hosts

Yoshi and Ritsuko are amazing. Not only are they sharing their home with us, they also took us out to dinner!

We went to a Ramen cafe. Now I have seen it, but I have never eaten ramen before. It may have something to do with it being made from pork, but I have done so many things that aren't normal lately I figured "why not!"

The cafe was interesting in itself. First you ordered and paid for the meal via a vending machine, then gave the ticket to the chef to prepare. They then cooked the meal in front of you. Each serve of noodles was cooked individually, with them being drained directly on the floor!

As we waited for the ramen, we snacked on pork slices. It looked nothing like pork as I know it, and was actually tasty. It was more like silverside than pork. The dumplings in the ramen were 'real pork' and not so great, but the ramen itself was yummy.

After dinner, we went back to the house and shared photos. Ellen and I showed photos and told stories of Australia, and Yoshi and Ritsuko shared their wedding and special day photos with us, telling us the stories behind the traditional kimonos worn and the festivals attended - so many festivals and amazing kimonos.

Thanks for a fantastic evening Yoshi and Ritsuko!

So Much to Do

After a quick shower to freshen up, it was off to explore the sights of Tokyo. First stop, trying to work out the public transport network. With some help from Yoshi and his new guide book, we soon found our way on board the TCAT, on our way to see the Imperial Palace.

To get to the palace, we had to cross a lovely wide and lush patch of beautiful soft grass. It was too soft to merely walk on, so we decided that it was time for a rest.

Eventually, we dragged ourselves away from relaxing in the shade of a twisted pine to go to the Palace.

After a wander around the outside of the Imperial Palace, we decided it was too hot to walk any further; after all it was 35 degrees and way past lunch time.

A short taxi ride took us to Ginza where we had lunch and continued exploring. We found a Metro train station, and then discovered that even if you can find an English version of the subway system, it is unbelievably huge and confusing.

Eventually we found the train that we were after and made our way to Asakusa for a relaxing wander through the market and shrine. It was here that I saw my first pretend Geisha.

After wandering aimlessly for an hour or so, enjoying the sights in all the local (not touristy) shops, we realised that once again, we had no idea where we were. We couldn't find where we were on our map (there were no street signs anywhere) and had to get a local who spoke some English to give us directions to a Metro station.

The station we were directed to was near a huge park in Ueno. The park was amazing, and home to hundreds of homeless people and even more cats. I say homeless people, but really they have a home, it just happens to be in a park, under a tarp! Often the homeless homes have more luxuries than you would expect in a temporary accommodation - a washing area, a kitchen (albeit communal), warm bedding and also room to store clothes and personal items. The people were friendly and clean, not at all like the homeless people in Melbourne!

It was in this park that we saw our only bit of police action - a couple of teenagers riding toy motorbikes through the park, successfully avoiding the police car that was following them! We only had a chance to explore a tiny corner of the park before it was time to head back towards home.

I Found Ellen!

Somehow, defying all odds, I made it to Tokyo in one piece. I even managed to be found by Ellen without too much trouble.

After a quick shower to cool down, that't right, I need to cool down as it is over 30 degrees and sunny. It is now time to go exploring. First stop (unless we get lost) is a temple for a touch of traditional Japanese culture.

Blog later, Del

I Made It!

9.00ish Wednesday morning in Japan
Well I made it and miraculously so did my luggage! I am now in Japan sitting on an 'Airport Limousine Bus' on my way to TCAT - Tokyo City Air Terminal to try and find Ellen.
The flight again was no dramas, although it was interesting going through immigration trying to explain that I don't know where I am staying! Luckily they were happy with Ellen's name and telephone number instead. I have to admit that I wrote the number from memory so chances are it is wrong! OOPS, too late to worry about that now, let’s just hope that I find Ellen!
One of the many beautiful views from the Limousine Bus window.

The Flights

Well so far so good. The first flight to KL was all but empty so I had plenty of room to stretch out and relax. The food was edible and I was able to watch movies uninterrupted, both of which are pretty much a first for me on a plane!

I somehow managed to get to correct connecting flight so here I am on my way to Japan. Again the flight is very empty so I have an entire row of seats to make into my bed for the night. Next stop Japan!

The Bathroom Experience

I don't think I am in Kansas anymore!

OK so the whole different language and the difference in appearance did register with me, but what made me really realise that I am in a whole new world was the 'Bathroom Experience'.

I wanted to freshen up to kill a bit of time, but mainly to stay awake, so off I went in search of a toilet and fortunately the signs for toilets seem pretty universal! The first cubicle I looked in was pretty much a hole in the floor, with 'footprints' on either side. Naturally I wasn't sure of how they work I just figured it would end in tears and wetness. If I didn't fall in I was band to squirt myself!

(OK, so this isn't the actual toilet I found, but the concept was very similar!)

Fortunately I kept looking and found a 'normal' western toilet. I say normal although it was self-flushing and did have some sort of shower hose and tap on the wall. I have no idea what it is for, it is probably safer that way!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Not Really Me

Sitting alone at KL airport, around 11pm Australian time, 9pm local time.
Well this trip has been very 'not me'! Starting with wanting to go to another country, travel alone, spend an exorbitant amount of money I don't have and be away from all I know for such a long time. Yeah I know it is only a week, but it is a week with almost no contact with my family. Before this, the longest I have been away from the monsters was 2 nights! As well as all of these things, there is the whole comfort zone to contend with; I am already way out of any comfort zone!
The whole 'not me' process began months ago, when I was given the flight tickets. I had months to do my typical research, planning and obsessive compulsive behaviour, but NO, I didn't. I merely accepted that I was going to Japan and it would work itself out, by magic if nothing else!
I guess knowing that I will be meeting Ellen in Tokyo is some help, but it still doesn't explain my behaviour. For any other trip, whether local, interstate or international, I know how to get there, what transport to use (and how to find it) and have a backup plan. Hell, normally I would have a timetable and fare costs worked out as well as a daily itinerary planned!
All this and here I am, alone in Malaysia with absolutely 'no clues'! All the announcements are in Malay or heavily accented English. The ticket info I have says that my luggage has been forwarded directly and I just have to go to the gate and wait. My boarding pass says gate 35, but already it has been changed to gate 26, of course that is assuming I have interpreted the departures board in an accurate manner!
Well I don't have much to do now except kill time, although I don't know how much time - I don't have a watch! Perhaps I should go find a clock somewhere or even do some shopping with the Malay $ that I don't have!

The Crying Doors

The day of departure was preceded by a restless sleep. I don't know if it was a case of being over tired, nervous, anxious or sensitive to the noises of the kids (and the loud snoring monster who shared my bed!) I imagine that it was a combination of them all.

When the kids went off to Tia's it was finally time to pack. It didn't feel real, even though it was only a few hours before I had to go to the airport. I was antsy and edgy, trying not to be too nervous and think that this was my first ever trip alone and I am under-prepared.

Eventually we picked up the kids and we went to the airport. I could feel the tears threaten. I had to swallow lumps in my throat and blink back tears a few times, and quite successfully too. My success slipped away as soon as I saw the 'crying doors'. I don't even know why I was crying then (or why I am trying not to cry now). After lots of hugs and kisses, as well as looks of confusion from the kids it was time to go through the crying doors. Even AJ gave me lots of hugs and a rarity - kisses too, as well as patting my cheek as you would pat a cat.

Lots of promises were made to have fun and to be good for dad and then I was off. The adventure was about to begin for real...