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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Japan


TOKYO

I flew out of Atlanta on a 777 to Narita on Saturday morning. My friends Dave, Justin and Nicola had left on the Thursday before, and I was to join them in Tokyo.

After a 14 hour flight that landed on Sunday afternoon, I found my way from the airport to Shinjuku station where I was to change trains to Iidabashi station. Shinjuku station blew my mind with the many travelers walking very fast in every direction, the huge station with many train lines, and me having absolutely no idea where I was going, and with people speaking little, if any, English.

After I finally got to Iidabashi, I thought I would have it made as Justin had told me to meet them at the Tokyo International Hostel on the 18th floor, just above the station. I walked around in the rain with my luggage but did not see a building that seemed to be a hostel. So then I walked around to the other side of the station for a while before asking a policeman. He didn't speak much English, but pointed me in a direction and showed me where to go on his map. It was a bit of a haul, particularly with the luggage, and when I arrived, it was a "hospital" and not the "hostel." By then I was soaked, as were my bags. When I finally found the right place, it was the first set of buildings that I had been to, but the hostel was only on the 18th and 19th floors.

After finally getting there, probably four hours after my flight landed, I took a nap before venturing out for dinner. We ate in a small place that had a counter that was not much bigger than the four of us. Two little ladies cooked on a small electric grill.We had corn, squash, giant soy beans, and a grilled Spanish mackerel, which was sweet and delicious. Here we are my first night there at dinner:



Afterwards, we walked back to the hostel where we had a beer from the vending machine before retiring for the evening. Vending machines were all over the place, and my morning 'can of coffee' became a routine.






On Monday, we got up early (7:30 or so) showered up, and went out for breakfast. We found another small place (though bigger than the night before) where you paid in a vending machine, received a ticket and gave it to the cook. I had cold udon noodles in a broth with seaweed and something that was kind of like creamy grits, with tempura, all for 480 Yen ($5.00 or so.). Ticket machine and my breakfast udon:






After breakfast we packed and checked out of the hostel, leaving our bags there while we went to Yebisu Tower. (More Tokyo trains!) We went to the top to explore the view, then had a beer at the Beer Station down below, adjacent to the Sapporo headquarters. The view from the top of the Yebisu Tower:




Then we returned to the Top of Yebisu for lunch, where we had miso soup and chirachi-don (a bowl of mostly raw fish over rice). Yebisu is also a beer, which was quite good. We enjoyed a few of those as well.



NAGOYA and KOMAKI

After returning via train and getting our things, we trained it again to the Tokyo station, where we left for Nagoya on a high speed train, reaching 160 miles per hour. On the way, I caught a glimpse of Mt. Fuji.



We must have taken five trains to get there, but finally we arrived at the station near Nagoya where we were to meet our friend Tak. We walked (again in the rain) for probably a half hour from the station to the Komaki Kinro Center, a hotel with cute rooms and modular paper walls. We even had showers in our rooms this time. The main room had traditional tatami floors. It was very important to never wear shoes on the tatami. The room:





After we showered, we met Tak for dinner at a restaurant where they had "shabu shabu." Basically, each seat has a hot pot of boiling water, and you select greens, tofu, different mushrooms and such to go in, and then they bring out raw beef which you add to the mix. It was kind of like "Japanese fondue" as you are cooking it yourself and then dipping it into a soy sauce or a ginger sauce.



After dinner we walked over to Tak's place before taking a taxi back to our hotel before their 11 pm curfew.

On Tuesday morning, Nicola knocked on my door and convinced me to go for a run. It was really interesting to see all the trees and flowers. After the run it was time for some of the delicious canned coffee from the vending machines. That was a treat that we would have several times a day.

After showering up, we headed back to the train station to go into town. We had unagi-don for lunch for only 500 Yen, walked around, spent some time in an internet cafe, had a snack and beers (Asahi) in a little bar, then bought a bottle of sake before returning to our hotel. (Unagi-don is basically cooked eel over a bowl of rice:



On the trip back, we had an impromptu hash where we did down downs with sake.

That afternoon, we also enjoyed the traditional Japanese sauna and bath. Later, Nicola, Dave and I had dinner downstairs in the hostel (I had a pork cutlet) then I took a short nap before meeting Tak at a bar. We drank Kirin and had more sake, this time Nigori style (unfiltered.)

On Wednesday, July 1, Tak rented a car and came by to pick us up. We checked out of our hostel and drove to see Sumo wrestlers on the grounds of a kindergarten in a rural suburban area.



It was very hot and humid, reminding me once again that I had packed entirely inappropriately for this trip.

TAKAYAMA and SHIRAKAWAGO

After the sumo wrestling, we had lunch, then started our drive to Takayama. Along the way we went through the mountains, over many bridges and through many tunnels, with stunning views. One bridge we crossed was 110 meters high, the highest in Japan. We also were at the highest elevation of any highway in Japan at one point during our drive.

We toured around Takayama and had ramen for lunch after touring the Takayama Jinya, the "castle" that was the local government building.



Afterwards we drove to Shirakawago, a small mountain hamlet known for its "Gassho-style" buildings and rice paddies, steep thatched roofs to keep the snow off.



Along the way, we went through many bridges and tunnels in the mountains. One tunnel was just under 11 Kilometers. The village of Shirakawago was named a UNESCO World Heritage sight in 1995. Walking in the village:



Village from the mountain top:



After a trip to the viewpoint at the top of the mountain, we went to the hot springs before returning to Takayama to find our hostel, which was inside a working Temple.

Thursday morning we got up early and I took some pictures of the Temple, as it had been dark when I arrived the night before.



Earlier in the morning, I had heard the monks ring the giant gong outside our window.



After packing our things, we started the return to Nagoya for our flight to Okinawa. Going back to Tak's house, we packed our things and returned the rental car before having delicious udon and tempura at a restaurant that made its own udon noodles. Then, it was off to the train station in Komaki to head to the Nagoya airport.

NAHA, OKINAWA

We flew on Japan Air Lines on a 747 to Okinawa, rented a car, and checked into our hotel, the Rasso Airport. The room was a suite with a tatami floor. That night we drove from Naha, where we were staying, to Ghengis Khan for dinner. Ghengis Khan was a Mongolian barbecue place with a primarily American military clientele.

The next morning we got up early to go to Kadena Marina where we chartered a boat to go snorkeling and diving off of the Kerama Islands.



Definitely the best snorkeling I had ever done. We went with a hasher named Kung Fu Grip who the rest of the crew had met in Tokyo before my arrival.





On the way back from the islands to the marina, we went through a pelting cold rain. The tiny ship was tossed. I went from being hot and humid to freezing, and was really glad to get the hot coffee in a can after we reached shore. On the way home, we stopped for pizza at Shakey's Pizza. The most interesting one was the tuna and corn pizza:



That night we had the Okinawa Pub Crawl- lots of fun bars and a really good crowd, ending with us witnessing a dead lady being pushed into a cab, or at least an attempt before the Justin pointed it out to the cops. Pics from the pub crawl, with us in our Okinawa Hash gear:





Saturday morning my high school friend Hillary and her two kids picked me up at the hotel and we headed to Kokusai street and wandered the markets and shops. She had just moved to Okinawa six weeks before and happened to live next door to one of the Marines we went diving with.

I made it back to the hotel just as the Okinawa 3000 Hash was about to start its run, so I was a little late but found Dental Dam-zel lost on trail and quickly caught up to the rest of the pack. At the end, the traditional circle lasted four hours and included many great songs, raucous fun, and a real live Carolina style pig-pick'in. That night, we revisited the clubs on Kokusai street, ending at a disco that was really fun with great old music.

Sunday morning we met the hashers out in front of the hotel for sangria before the Okinawa 3001 "Running of the Bulls hash" - a short trail where some were designated as bulls to follow and "gore" us. Everyone got gored. We followed with circle, then Justin and Dave ran their own CLITWAAP hash #5, introducing Okinawa to a bit of Atlanta hashing.



After officially saying goodbye to the Atlanta contingent and ending circle, we had a nice late lunch with a lot of the hashers and spent the rest of the afternoon with Dental Dam-zel and her husband Dock Cousteau and their kid Brody (has name: Cougar Catcher). We went to dinner in their neighborhood (awesome Yake Udon in a hot skillet) and were joined by Gay Achin' and NCAA. We all went back to Dock's for some sake before heading out to the area around Torrii station, the Army base. We ended up at a Karaoke bar where we sang for hours (until they closed and we had to go.) A Japanese lady who I think either worked there or owned the place insisted on singing "Eternal Flame" with Nicola, and another Japanese guy told us he liked us because we were liveley and had good hearts.

Afterwards, NCAA signed us on to base (after drinking some beers just outside the base while waiting for him) where we got to see the beach slept for a few hours before Achin' drove us back to Dental's where we got our stuff, returned to Naha, and got everything out of our hotel to fly back to Nagoya.

On my last night in Nagoya, we decided to splurge and stay at the Nagoya Hilton. We had a really nice suite, again in traditional Japanese style with the tatami floors. With that and a really great last meal, we had a fitting end to a great trip.



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