Japan 2012

posted by : Jon Kroupa on 03/28/2012
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Related Photos: Japan 2012 (like all trips some photos are meant to be viewed in sequence)

I traveled to Japan for my Aikido Shodan test and sightseeing. The trip was from March 17th to March 26th.

The Accommodations:

The first hotel was a capsule hotel. I had stayed in one previously on my first trip to Japan. This one was different in that it was only for men, and it had no private showers. By no private showers I mean there was a room with little stools next to stations. Those stations were the showers and there were no curtains, walls, or anything with which to make the experience even remotely private. This hotel also had bedbugs, which gorged themselves on my flesh and blood. Sam (who was in a capsule next to mine) was completely untouched.

Tuesday it was time to move, and it couldn't come fast enough for me. Monday morning I noticed a few red spots on my chest, but since I had recently had an allergic reaction on account of a diet I just figured I might have had some nuts or something. By Tuesday I was convinced that bedbugs were devouring me in my sleep. We took a train to Hiroo station and met up with my Japanese friend Akiko. She helped us get situated at our new home, the LDS Temple Apartments, adjacent to the LDS Tokyo Temple. While the showers were not attached to the dorm room we stayed in, they were at least private individual shower rooms. Our room had six bunk beds, but there was only ever one other person in the room with us. That guy was visiting from Osaka was obsessed with noodles. It was the only thing he talked about.

Friday we were allowed to keep our luggage at the apartments while we were out during the day. After in the evening we retrieved them and then took a couple of trains to our one night stay at a different hotel. This hotel also had bunkbeds, but also had two iMacs in the lobby for internet access. Overall it was a decent enough hotel. At this hotel I took an extremely hot shower in an effort to kill the itching in my body. This didn't work.

Saturday was the day of my Aikido test. The primary reason for a second trip to Japan was for me to test for the rank of shodan (black belt) in Aikido. I hadn't pre-arranged a hotel in the town of Sakura, but I figured it would be easy enough to do once we got there. It wasn't quite that easy. First we walked all the way across town not finding any hotels. Then we had to go into the tourist information center three times to try and find hotels. The first two hotels were tried were completely full, on account of a marathon taking place the next morning (Sunday). That was a little discouraging. Finally I asked the tourist information lady (who was quite helpful) if she wouldn't call a hotel for us so we didn't needlessly walk there. She found us a hotel on the other side of town (the side we originally were on) for a good price which was actually convenient. Remember how all the hotels were full from the marathon? This hotel was about a 10 minute walk from the start of the race (unlike the 40 minute walk for the other hotels) and as far as we could tell it was basically empty.

The Experiences:

We flew out Saturday and arrived Sunday afternoon in Narita Japan. There is a 16 hour time difference between Utah and Tokyo, so we traveled into the future. Once we arrived (after a 10.5 hour flight from Portland) we then took a 1.5 hour train ride to get to Shinjuku station. Our hotel is advertised as a five minute walk from that station, but that is only if you already know where the hotel is. I think it took us around an hour to actually locate it. According to my travel log the first night I only slept for 5 hours, but the other nights I slept from 8-10 hours each night.

Monday night the restaurant we ate at had a large frying pan instead of a table. Food arrived raw in bowls and we cooked it right there on our table ourselves. The food was pretty good, but as a person with little tolerance for heat, and who had just done an hour of Aikido, it was a little much. I was drenched in sweat throughout most of the meal. It didn't help that my glass of water had a maximum volume of 6 ounces and was only refilled a few times. I stopped for a quick ice cream afterwards, in an effort to recover. The first half of our trip was like this, we got very little water. The second half of our trip the places we ate at had pitchers of water available, so I could drink as much as I wanted. Lastly, little cafes do not distinquish between smoking and non-smoking. Sometimes while we were eating a person at the next table would suddenly decide to take up chain smoking.

Tuesday with Akiko and eventually her friend we toured a few areas and had lunch at a little buffet place. We were foolish not to buy the one day pass for the train to Odaiba Island, but we ended up spending more on train tickets than the cost of a one day pass.

Wednesday we tried to get an early start and some internet access from the library (by the way, Japanese wifi systems do not work with US phones). Sadly, the library was only open from 10:00am to 4:30pm. So we skipped the library and did other things that day. Thursday we were up and ready to go before 8:00am. Unfortunately we needed internet access so we had to wait 2 hours for the library to open. This library was a bitter disappointment. First it had disabled the ability to change windows to English mode, making it impossible to type anything. Secondly it would not allow access to any email or social network sites. Both the Sony and Panasonic buildings were a bit of a disappointment, because there really wasn't a lot of exciting new stuff. It was basically just a place to try out a lot of phones and TVs and stuff. We tried to go to a Drum museum in the area, but it was closed on account of a recent fire. At this point we were becoming pretty discouraged about trying to see museums.

Thursday, invigorated by our success at a museum the previous day, we decided to try the Sword museum again (the one closed on Mondays). The information packet said it was over 400 swords. Unfortunately their tiny room can only display maybe 40. For 600 yen there was about 10-15 minutes of content to view. This is on par with the Portuguese library and the Japanese rock garden. I guess on every trip you need at least one disappointing experience. We have pizza for dinner . We got back to our apartment around 8:30pm and were in bed by 9:00pm.

That evening we found a little restaurant and had what I consider to be our best meal in Japan. We each had miso soup with noodles and a seasoned soft-boiled egg. It was really good. This is also the day we walked so much that eventually Sam was very eager to take every opportunity to sit down. We got back to our accommodations around 7:30 and at 7:48 Sam declared he was too tired to do anything but brush his teeth and go to bed. I stayed up a little longer to try and figure out the next day and then went to bed.

Friday we saw a host of things. We should have listened to the lady in the Sunshine City Tower that said the weather was too poor to pay for the observation deck, because she was right. It was a nice place to just sit and rest for while before finding dinner and then seeing a how at the planetarium though. Perhaps not 600 yen nice.

Saturday was hotel and Aikido related stuff (see the appropriate sections).

Sunday after all the Aikido was done one of the dojo members was nice enough to drop us off at some Samurai houses in the area. We toured those, then walked through a park that at one time had a castle, but there is basically nothing remaining of it. Then we decided to get dinner. There weren't really many restaurants near our hotel, I was kind of worn out so we just stumbled into the first place that looked like it served food. This place was more of a bar than a restaurant. The waitress spoke virtually no English, and it was with some effort that we eventually ordered yakisoba dinners (at one point the waitress called a friend of hers who speaks English to help explain we would need to wait a little for each order). After our food came the waitress continued to try and make conversation despite the significant language barriers. There is a chance that she was hitting on me in some capacity. At one point she asked me how old I was, and then immediately asked if I had a girlfriend. After 10-15 minutes of awkward conversation we said our thanks and headed to our hotel.

The second Monday morning was our last day in Japan. At about 9:00 in the morning or so the marathon started. There were thousands of people paricipating. We had a great view from our 4th floor balcony. All those people, and none of them wanted to stay in our perfectly good hotel which was close to the race starting point. Strange. We checked out and headed to the airport. The flights were not looking too good, but we managed to get first class from Narita to San Francisco.

Read the Standby All Passengers post on to hear all about flying standby to and from Japan (and other places).

The Aikido:

The first Monday morning I trained for an hour at the Hombu Dojo, which is the headquarters of Aikikai Aikido (the original). It was taught by the founder of Aikido's grandson. It was a good class, but it was also the most crowded class I've ever attended. In the evening I came back for the 5:30pm class. Afterwards we had dinner with my SLC Aikido instructor and another guy who was in town from SLC.

My Aikido test was scheduled for 3:00pm, so I made sure to arrive there by 2:30. After a few warm-ups the sensei called me forward. I think my test was about 20-30 minutes long. I don't think it was a super challenging test, but I sure got nervous after performing the first couple of techniques and then the sensei had another person come over and start taking notes. After my test was finished they had a normal class with an additional 45 minutes of practice. Then everyone packed up and headed off to a dinner in celebration. At the dinner my SLC Aikido instructor (who was also in Japan) presented me with a special embroidered black belt. I guess he had been fairly confident I was going to pass. Yamane Sensei (the one who tested me) treated us to dinner.

The dinner was at the American restaurant Coco's. The most impressive thing about this place to us (and our Japanese hosts) was the drink "bar." Which meant unlimited refills of fountain drinks, juices, hot chocolate, coffee, and teas. The Japanese people we were with thought this was a very impressive feature of the restaurant. I didn't really have to heart to tell them that basically every eating place in America has this. This was the only place in Japanese we went to that had this feature though, so it was nice. I had a number of cups of hot chocolate.

The next morning I had committed to training with them again. I don't normally train on Sundays, but I kind of felt like this was more of a requirement than an option. My knees were already a little mat burned from my test (which was about 1/3 suwariwaza). The first 30 minutes of the Sunday class were also on our knees. Even though I couldn't see my knees through my hakama, I had a feeling they were bleeding. When the class finally ended and took off my hakama my right knee had blood all along the gi pant leg. Between hurting my knees and the training I wasn't really up for the afternoon practice they also had planned, but they wouldn't take no for an answer. Yamane Sensei treated Sam and I to lunch at a nearby noodle shop and then we heard off for the afternoon weapons class. The class normally runs for an hour or more, but today they cut in short on acocunt of me being injured and for a special picnic. It was after this that I realized they probably wouldn't take no for an answer because they had already planned on having me at their picnic.

The Language:

Sometime in the middle of January I decided I would try to learn as much Japanese as I could in the two months leading up to my trip. How much Japanese can a person learn with a full-time job and host of other activities and responsibilites? Not enough. Most days I spent around an hour of study on the language. I used a combination of Rosetta Stone, internet sites, and a tutor I met with once a week for an hour each Saturday.

Rosetta Stone and my tutor helped me to learn basic sentence structure, a number of set phrases, and the ability to ask basic questions. Asking questions is all good and well, receiving answers is a whole nother story. "Where is there a convenient store?" is an easy enough question. "Konbini wa doko desu ka?" I think the answer I received didn't even contain any sounds that I was familiar with.

The most important phrase I learned was how to say "I don't drink X." Where X was alcohol, tea, and coffee. I used this phrase a lot. Some restaurants would automatically pour us cups of tea, which we had to send back. When I was treated to dinner the night of my test some of the people ordered beer, those that didn't got coffee or tea. It was something of an amusement to them that my friend and I drank none of those things. In fact everyone new we were introduced to after that by Yamane Sensei was told we didn't drink those things. As something of a novelty.

I came back wishing I could speak a lot more Japanese than I can, with the desire to continue learning more. So far this week I haven't done anything yet, I've just been too tired.

The Sightseeing:

First thing we learned immediately, tourist sites aren't open on Mondays in Japan.

Monday

  • Meiji Shrine
  • Metropolitan Government Building
  • Electric Street

Tuesday

  • Tokyo Tower
  • Odaiba Island
  • Panasonic Showroom
  • Toyota Showroom
  • Classic Car Museum

Wednesday

  • Imperial Palace East Gardens
  • Sony Building
  • Asakusa
  • Ueno Park
  • Science & Nature Museum

Thursday

  • Sword Museum
  • Harajuku
  • Akihabara
  • Electric Town (different from Electric Street)

Friday

  • Edo/Tokyo Museum
  • Sumo Museum
  • Toyota Annox
  • Tokyo Earthquake Museum
  • Sunshine City Tower
  • Sunshine Planetarium

Things we would have seen if they hadn't been arbitrarily closed (or we forgot about them)

  • Shinjuku Museum
  • Sword Museum (the first time)
  • Oriental Bazaar
  • Drum Museum
  • Asakusa Library
  • Tokyo Art Space
  • The Giant Transformer on Odaiba Island
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