Our Trip to Japan, August 2008
Click on the pictures to enlarge. Pics are in order of trip
Pictures are in order of occurrence.
This was our first visit to Japan and my first trip out of the US! Kathryn was taking her son Ian to Tokyo to go to school at Temple University Japan (TUJ). She asked me to go with them and I jumped at the chance. One of my goals in my life before I die is to travel the world. What a better way to start!
We traveled to Japan between August 18th to the 25th. Our goal was to get Ian set up in his dormitory and to see as much of Japan as possible with a side trip to Mt. Fuji with the intention of climbing to the top. We traveled first from Narita to Kyoto via a four hour bullet train ride, to Mt. Fuji, back to Tokyo to drop Ian off, a side trip for two days to Hakone and then back to Tokyo for one last evening with Ian.
It was an incredibly moving experience as well as tiring trip. Japan is such a clean and efficient land. Just the language barrier and complicated transportation system made for some anxious moments for Kathryn and I. Ian, who speaks fluent Japanese was a Godsend for us during the beginning of the trip. After day three when Ian was situated in Tokyo, Kathryn and I were out on our on. Surprisingly, we did well. The key was to let life flow. Once we got over the initial cultural shock, everything went fine. But it did wear us down! We were both sad and glad to leave. For Kathryn, it was very hard as she was letting her son go on his own. It was truly a life changing experience for her to leave her only child in a foreign land 6,000 miles away. Very hard to do yes. BUT, Ian and Kathryn are very strong people with Ian being a brilliant linguist who has an incredible future ahead of him. He will excel in life. He is living his dream. Sure it'll be hard for him but something tells me he will adapt very quickly. He's already the "go to guy" with his schoolmates.
You go Ian! You're a lucky man to have a mother like Kathryn and grandmother and aunt like Edie and Nancy.
Long Beach, CA. before the flight to Narita, Japan
We traveled to Southern California for two days to visit Ian's grandmother and aunt, Edie and Nancy Chess. Edie and Nancy threw Ian a going away party for family and friends. Nancy has a beautiful condo near the beach in Long Beach. Edie and Nancy's love for Ian is obvious as they are so proud and supportive of his ambitions.
This picture is for a co-worker of mine who is always telling me to go to Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles when I'm in LA. No Craig, we didn't go but I had to take this picture for you!
We landed at 6:30 pm Japan time on Monday. Since we crossed the international date line midway across the Pacific, jet lag was quickly having it's affect on us. I in particular, was fighting a chest cold. It was what it was and I was determined to tough it out. I did.
After arriving in Narita International Airport twelve hours later, we had to go through Customs, exchange US currency to Yen and navigate Japan's complicated (yet efficient) train system. We took a four hour bullet train ride across the country to Kyoto, which has many Buddhist Temples. We ended up in Kyoto at 11:30 pm and walked the streets in search of our Ryokan (traditional Japanese style Inn). We all noticed how safe we felt in this foreign city and how clean it was. We found our Inn finally. Our Innkeeper had been waiting for us for a few hours.
A side note about packing. Since I am the world's worst traveler when it comes to over packing, I was determined to pack light this time. So, I went to my local REI (an outdoor clothing outlet) and bought three sets of wicking clothes that would dry easily and a pair of cross trainer shoes. The best decision I've made in years! Both Kathryn and I lived the whole week out of our backpacks. Definitely the way to travel!
The next morning, we had a traditional Japanese bath and breakfast (first time I've eaten salmon for breakfast without lox), checked out of the Ryokan and headed to the Buddhist temples. Very touristy but that was fine. The mere fact that they were built using no nails is amazing. We drank from sacred wells, placed a prayer on a wooden sign for the year of the Rat and saw monks as well as Geisha girls in training called Maiko's. We also passed through a Buddhist graveyard. Finally, heading back down the hill, we heard drums. We had to check it out. It was a children's drum corp rehearsing. Very cool.
Finally, we headed back to the train station for the trip to Mt. Fuji. Little did we know we'd get lost on the train system getting there...
Mt. Fuji, Japan
Ah, Mt. Fuji. I'd been told it was an easy climb. Nothing could have been further from the truth! It is a two day climb. Our original plan was to get to Fujinoyama before 5:30 pm which is when the last bus goes up to Station Five which is the staging point for the climb to the summit. The elevation at the summit is 3
Here are the facts. It is not a paved road as I was told. It is very steep and rocky. The "rocks" is actually pumice, volcanic rock because Fuji is a volcano. Inactive for the 3-4,000 years yes, but still, it is a volcano. Also, you would be climbing at night. We forgot the flashlights. Also, as mentioned previously, we got lost on the train system to Fujinomiya. We missed the bus so it was not to be. We decided to head up the next day on the first bus at 9:05 AM which meant we would be starting our climb up after 10 AM. Since we HAD to be back in Tokyo the next morning for Ian to get checked in at his dorm, which was the principle reason we came to Japan, we decided we would climb until 2 PM and then head back. The last bus left back for Fujinomiya at 6:10 PM.
Reality check! We were not ready to climb at this elevation. If we had climbed the two days, our bodies would have acclimated at the sleep point at Station Seven. Also, since my chest cold was raging, I was not able to continue on. After climbing 1,300 feet vertical in the cold, wet weather, I was ready to head back down at 12:30 PM. We headed back down carefully but I think each of us fell at least a couple of times on our rears on the slippery rock. Also, to validate our decision a bit more, the whole time we were climbing, we could hear thunder booming near us. I had heard a rain front was coming though. It did and rained for three more days until we left Japan.
Funny story on us getting back to Fujinomiya for the return trip to Tokyo. Since the bus was scheduled to leave Station Five at 6:10 PM, we assumed that there were buses all day making the trip up and down the mountain. We got to Station Five at 2:30 PM. We decided to eat at a tea house there at the staging point and head out to the parking lot were our bus would be. NOT! There was only one bus making the descent at 6:10 PM. We decided to take a cab and Ian asked the cab driver how much. We had already decided it would be good to get into Tokyo early and that 10,000 yen ($100) would be our top price for a cab. The cab driver told Ian the price was 90,000 Yen! That is $900!!!!
We decided to wait for the 6:10PM bus. Kathryn made the comment that we should wait there, keep the faith and we would find a way down early. I then asked Ian to ask the cab driver to reconsider as $900 for a twenty mile ride was real pricey. Ian came back and said, "whoops, I misunderstood what he said and it was 9,000 Yen ($90)". The Gods were looking down us and bottom line, Kathryn was right (as she almost always is ;-)
We made it back to Tokyo at 7:30 PM and thanks to Ian, navigated through the various train stations to the Sheraton Miyata Hotel. Finally, a western style hotel...to a point. Even though food prices were quite pricey, it was good to be back to the rat race for a while. The next day, we woke up to send Ian on his way to his new home for two years. We would hook up with Ian in a couple of days for one last set of goodbyes. Kathryn and I decided to head out to Hakone, which is in the hills 60 miles southwest of Tokyo and also close to Mt. Fuji. The concierge at the Sheraton recommended the area and found a fabulous resort for us. But before leaving, we decided to take in Tokyo for a while.
After eating at the Hard Rock Cafe , we decided to walk off the food a bit and visit the Tokyo Tower (celebrating it's 50th year) which is the tallest structure in Tokyo. It is a copy of the Eiffel Town in Paris but is a few meters taller...of course! As you can see in the pictures the weather was starting to deteriorate rapidly. We also visited Rangooni Square which is a very ritzy part of Tokyo. Soon, we were headed on a bullet train out to Odawara, which we would get a shuttle to the Hakone Prince Hotel.
We traveled about 35 minutes on a bullet train to Odawara, where we would catch a shuttle into the hills that would take another 40 minutes to get to our our final destination, the fabulous resort, the Hakone Prince Hotel. One thing about Japan timetables, they don't slip! We got to Odawara, a blue collar working town at 4:30 PM, so we had time to kill. We decided to walk around. We found a Denny's and I had to take a picture of it for Edie Chess, who loves Denny's for breakfast. This one's for you Edie. We ran out of time, or we would have checked the menu out. We also were not very hungry as the heavy food from the Hard Rock was still with us.
We caught our shuttle and soon we were headed up! Talk about small roads! But beautiful! Our goal was to relax! When we got there, we felt overwhelmed. The service was impeccable. Sure, it was expensive, but in our opinion, worth every penny. As soon as checked in, we decided to make it a two night stay as we had a day to play with that we had not booked yet. The only requirement was that we were booked back in Tokyo on the 24th at the Sheraton again to say our final goodbyes to Ian before heading back to home.
The next day we woke up to a very cloudy day but the rain had not yet started. We had a great breakfast and took in the beauty of the area. We decided to rent some bikes (everyone rides bikes in Japan. Did I forget to mention that?). But before doing that, we decided to take a ride on the ropeway which is a gondola up to the top of the mountain at 1300 meters. On a clear day, the summit has incredible views of Mt. Fuji. Not today! It was cloudy and 13' Celsius. We decided to go up anyway. What we found was an incredibly spiritual place. There was a Buddhist temple there. We were very glad to have visited it regardless of not being able to see ten feet in front of our faces.
We headed back down, had a bite to eat (Kathryn had a great Tempura dish), and then proceeded to rent bikes. We originally were going to hike some, but you know me. I gotta ride! We rented these cool electric shifting bikes that apparently many people use in Japan. And they work.. as long as your battery stays alive. I tried to ride with the battery turned off to get a better workout and it was tough. The bikes probably weighed 40-50 pounds. We rode on the hiking path (paved) and ended up at the top of Lake Ashi, which is where our resort was situated at.
Then, it started to rain...and rained hard. We returned the bikes, loaded up on pastries and food for the night (we did not want to pay $160 person for dinner!) and headed back. Kathryn scheduled a much needed massage and trip to the onsen spa. I was going to read the New York Times and watch the Olympics in our room. It was so relaxing listening to the rain pound down. It was a truly relaxing two days.
We headed back to Tokyo. After checking in once again at the Sheraton Miyata, we took a cab to visit Ian at his dorm and to take him to dinner and visit Tokyo. Ian was pleased to see his mom. I, unfortunately forgot to get a picture but it was a small room, typical by Japanese standards. Kathryn and I had made a bet. She thought Ian would want to have Japanese food for dinner but I thought he'd rather have Hard Rock Cafe. I won :-).
We headed out on the train system again. We visited a real cool shopping district where we would visit the Yamaha Building. Since I play Yamaha drums (among others), I wanted to visit it. It was a retail outlet for orchestra instruments but it was interesting to see. We also visited the Sony Roaming Aquarium on the street that had a couple of sharks and many other varieties of fish in it. Kathryn and I also had our palms read by a palmist on the street. Very interesting! We got general directions to the Hard Rock Cafe as it was getting dark. On the subway headed toward Rangooni Square, we sat next to this man from Delhi that overheard us talking about getting more specific directions to the Hard Rock. He chimed in that he lived near there and would glad to take us there. This would not the first time people would offer to help us. For the most part, people were extremely helpful. Imagine a foreigner in New York trying that?
After finishing our totally western dinner (Ian had a huge burger, I had a pulled pork sandwich and Kathryn had a great salad) at the Hard Rock, we headed back to Ian's dorm.
I'll close by saying Kathryn and Ian said their tearful goodbyes and that will remain private. All I can say is that I was touched. This was an unforgettable trip for all of us.
If you ever have the chance to visit Japan, by all means do it. You will not be sorry!