Japan Travelogue ToC

For those not interested in reading fifteen consecutive posts about the vacation of a friend, acquaintance, or stranger, here they all are at a glance, including a quick teaser so you can choose the ones of interest.

2016 Japan Trip - An introduction with a bit of this and that
Renewing Connections - Covers a tour of the National Museum of Japanese History with some old friends
Windmills and Wild Finishes - Features an in depth write up of one of the best live baseball experiences in my life
Local Tour - On the pleasures of visiting minor tourist sites closer to home in Sakura, Chiba
Hakone Haiku - The shortest post, yet one of my favourites
Transportation Celebration Vacation - Exposes what vacations are really about
Hakone Honesty - The infamous lost iPhone story
Gatchaman Day - A humble suggestion for a new observance
Family Ritual Time Machine - Backyard fireworks spark nostalgia
Old Friends, New Friends - Partying at an izakaya beats shopping any day of the week
In The Teeth of the Typhoon - Discretion may be the better part of valour, but it's less interesting
Tokyo: Shogun Bookends - A travel piece on a few Tokyo neighbourhoods worthy of a newspaper commission
Sucking in Sakura - Local Tour, Part 2
Departures - On the Narita Airport Shopping Experience + Capsule reviews of two Japanese movies
Mistakes and Miscommunications: On the joys and frustrations of being an intermediate Japanese language student

Mistakes & Miscommunications

I thought my 2016 Japan travelogue would end with the last day in the country. The day I returned to Canada though, I realized there was more to say.

Three years ago, I was acting spoiled in the sense that time in Japan no longer seemed like an exotic vacation but almost a domestic experience. This time, I didn't have that sense at all, thankfully, even if this was the most comfortable and familiar Japan has ever felt to me. While I am far from claiming any sense of assimilation, there was a feeling akin to slipping on a second skin while I navigated my way through physical and cultural pathways.

The most remarkable experience for me this time was how my confidence in my Japanese ability fluctuated daily like a penny stock market. High points included my first day when I felt so locked in that I was understanding customs officials, phone rental clerks, and my in-laws. I felt like a master translator able to interpret for my mom and kids and share their thoughts when necessary. A couple days later I was decoding train announcements with deadly accuracy and kibitzing with baseball fans at the Marines game while ordering fast food in such flawless Japanese it left the cashier in shock. Seriously, her jaw hit the counter with the impact of a foul ball.

After this initial surge of confidence, something weird happened that I can't quite put my finger on. There were good days and bad days. I translated some thoughts almost in the opposite of what my in-laws intended and had to be corrected by my wife. With other friends I immediately switched to English when I knew they were proficient. Not that there weren't some other good moments along the way. I think the later highlight was when I went for coffee with a friend and we spoke almost entirely in Japanese, completing a transition over the 18 years of our friendship from when we spoke exclusively in English. Still, by the time I reached the airport on the last day, I was using English the moment I was greeted by a store clerk in both languages.

At first I wondered if my Japanese knowledge was almost like a finite resource that I had built up over three years, only to watch each word and phrase slip away as I spoke it. Later it dawned on me that by the end of the trip I was experiencing a bit of culture shock and retreated into English as my safety zone. Supporting this theory was the realization that when I was feeling sleepy or fatigued I was less likely to speak Japanese and more likely to rely on my wife to communicate when she was available.

The other possibility is that my confidence was shaken by a karaoke clerk's indecipherable spiel about all the pricing options available to us and the conditions of sale. That event was a reality check, and it seemed like it took me a few days to recover from the stumble. After that experience, I had moments when I thought I had expressed myself correctly and clearly only to be misunderstood. This led to me making uncharacteristic mistakes with similar sounding vocabulary. The irony is that when I made mistakes (or was I finally saying the right word?), that is when it seemed like people understood what I really meant anyway. Who knows? Perhaps it's as simple as who you're talking to and when.

Mistakes and miscommunications aside, my overall sense is that my Japanese is better than I had given myself credit for, so it is worth studying more consistently before the next trip because the brain will recall the lessons when the time is right—even when there's little opportunity to use the language regularly in Canada. The trip also helped me identify some conversational blind spots which a book I bought conveniently addresses. It's early days, so we'll see if I follow through once the reality of work demands hit, but the sense of realism I'm feeling right now about what I can reasonably accomplish makes me cautiously optimistic that I can follow through on an often stated but seldom worked on resolution.

If you've never been to Japan, I encourage you to visit, especially if you have never travelled overseas before. It's safe, public transport makes it easy to get around, and the mix of old and new suggests there will be a travel experience to suit every taste. If you don't go, hopefully this travelogue gave you a small taste of what it's like there. Thanks for reading.

Previous: Departures


August 25

Our flight wasn't until 5:30 PM, so there was a sense that we could squeeze a little more out of the day and not sacrifice it solely to travel. After packing and double checking that we had everything, there was time for my wife to take the boys back to the windmill they had been pining to see again, and for me to show my mom the Finnish cafe and Scandinavian retail shop in its unlikely location on the main road half way between Sakura and Usui Stations. I had meant to blog about this great discovery three years ago, but never found the time to do so when Over a Hedge was still a going concern.

Sooooo, if you ever find yourself in Sakura, or more likely in Narita on a layover, make an effort to visit Cafe Sokeri and Kirkas. Are the prices high at Kirkas? You bet, but if you have the taste and money to afford luxury goods, you'll get an extra thrill from shopping at this hidden gem so far from Tokyo. Even if you are more of a browser like me, you might still like a branded sponge dish cloth as a memento. I didn't make it to Cafe Sokeri this time, but my last visit was well worth it. Prices for a coffee and cake set are a little high, but included in the price is the freedom to linger and visit as long as you'd like in a little slice of Helsinki.

The second part of our pre-flight experience was a planned shopping tour in the mini mall that Narita Airport has become. We remembered from our previous visit that there were enough stores like Muji and Uniqlo to make it worthwhile to arrive early, but we didn't realize the prices of souvenirs would be so high. I know airport prices tend to be higher in general, but I guess I was accustomed to Japanese prices being so consistent from store to store to assume that this would extend to the airport as well. To be clear, the big chains don't jack up their prices, but the airport-only shops do charge a premium, likely to make up for higher rents. We were able to pick up a few small items without getting gouged, but I'd strongly suggest completing your souvenir shopping before coming to the airport while still budgeting for last minute items that might catch your eye.

My only regret is that we didn't split the time better to allow for shopping on the other side of security. I'm not talking about the luxury goods or duty free stores either, but such cool shops as the kabuki store that was as much a mini museum showcase as it was a gift shop. The stage costumes on display were amazing and I wish I had more time to take a closer look instead of snapping a few quick pictures from the passage way. Speaking of duty free, I should note that they are not all created equal, even if many of them are branded as FaSoLa shops. The best of the bunch was FaSoLa Akihabara, which had the widest selection and price range of sake for sale. It could have been my first and only stop had I not been rushing to reach the gate for the beginning of boarding time.
Narita Airport Kabuki Store
I thought my Japan trip ended when we got on the plane, but that wasn't quite the case. I managed to watch not one, but two Japanese movies on the return flight. The first was a modernized samurai drama based on the life of Oda Nobunaga called Nobunaga Concerto. It was a fun, but ultimately lightweight throwaway type of film. The next was the family drama Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary) by the well known director Hirokazu Koreeda. The story is about three sisters who adopt a younger half sister whom they've never met. The sisters fight among themselves in a believable fashion, but ultimately the movie is a tribute to the mystical bonds of sisterhood, a message which is underscored by making most of the men who appear in the movie seem next to useless.

Watching the movie was the perfect ending to the trip, because it was set in the Japan I had just lived in for two weeks; that is, domestic Japan in the middle of a hot humid summer. Near the end, the sisters watch a fireworks display, then finish with a backyard fireworks show of their own. I was not only reminded about, but felt the connection to my own backyard fireworks experience, participating in a kind of cultural communion that tied an emotional bow on the trip. The movie might not be perfect, but I think it has become perfect for me, for what it will represent for this summer's trip.

Previous: Sucking in Sakura Next: Mistakes & Miscommunications

Sucking in Sakura

August 24

It was our last full day in Japan and we were too tired out from the previous day's adventure in Tokyo to take another shot at it, even with the promise of summer Kabuki beckoning. We turned inward and borrowed the family car for a final tour around Sakura.

The day started at Yac's (see Local Tour) and this time the baskets filled, the wallets opened, and the money flowed freely. It's such a quirky store I never regret picking up a few things from their broad product mix.

I also took the time to pop into a family owned sporting goods store up the street in search of an elusive pair of batting gloves for my youngest son. The visit was an example of small town shopping at its finest. Did they have less selection of batting gloves than the Sports Authority locations at the two malls we visited? Yes. Did they have the style and size of gloves we were looking for anyway? Yes. Did we receive personalized service unseen at SA, including having the package opened for us so that the gloves could be tried on? Of course. To top it off, we were offered a discount on the purchase without even asking.
Sakura Samurai Houses
Our next stop was the samurai homes of Sakura. I have blogged about them elsewhere, and wasn't sure how much I would get out of the visit on my third trip. Fortunately, I saw things I had forgotten about, viewed the gardens through fresh eyes, and was able to experience life in a samurai house during a heavy rainfall. The rain was beautiful and my eldest enjoyed having extra time with a kabuto mushi (rhinoceros beetle) he had befriended. Yes, I say befriended as he seemed to be interacting with it like a cat or dog owner would with a furry pet.
Kabuto Mushi
Hunger pangs convinced me to brave the rain and flood-like conditions to retrieve the car. I eventually escorted everyone to the vehicle by running back the extra umbrella for the next person. Wetter for the wear, but game for more activity, we proceeded to one of our favourite local restaurants only to find it closed for the day. From there, it was off to a gift shop and some box stores to make some purchases to complete everyone's wish lists. Errands done, we returned home for the last family dinner.

Without even trying, there is always something special about these family gatherings. Everyone senses it is the last dinner, more stories and memories are shared, and family bonds are strengthened and reinforced through some subtle alchemy that would fail should the effort be forced.

My youngest and I went for a short walk after dark and explored a part of the neighbourhood I had never seen before, despite the fact the route was but a short left turn away from home. We saw a community garden, unique houses (some traditional, some Western), and a view of the rice plain below we never knew existed. Solitary cars crossing bridges in the distance evoked feelings of loneliness, and after a long wait we managed to see a lit up train rattle by below. How many weeks and months have I stayed in this area without ever knowing this route? But for a desire for one last walk before leaving…

Previous: Tokyo: Shogun Bookends Next: Departures

Tokyo: Shogun Bookends

August 23

The typhoon moved north and caused floods in Hokkaido. Meanwhile in the Tokyo area we were treated to mostly clear skies with a forecast of intermittent rain that turned out to be absolutely correct.

Our deferred day trip into Tokyo started by waiting out a cloudburst under a Sakura bus shelter. We paid the small premium required to take the Skyliner to Nippori Station so that we could explore the unique low rise neighbourhood of Yanaka. Yanaka is well known for its cemetery, which is open to the public so long as the rules on the bilingual signs are followed. (My favourite was that no playing catch is allowed. I was so fixated on that rule I didn't notice the no photography rule, but fortunately didn't break that one since others in my group read all seven rules.)

The suggested walk in Monocle's Tokyo city guide provided a direct route through the cemetery, but once I learned that Japan's last shogun was buried there, I couldn't resist deviating from the course to see it. It's not a must see for all visitors since spotting the mon (family crests) on the gravestones and soaking up the atmosphere of the cemetery would be enough for most. After a somewhat lengthy detour we returned to the planned route and enjoyed the narrow streets and occasional wooden building that seemed to date from the Edo Period, as unlikely as it seems that any would have survived the fires and earthquakes since then.

The short car-free Yanaka Ginza shopping path smacked a little bit of a tourist trap, but prices compared very favourably to the airport gift shops, so if you are ever in the area and see something you like, don't hesitate. Our favourite shop on this street was Kanekichien (金吉園), a green tea shop with an ample product mix of tastefully chosen souvenirs. It's about half way down and easy to locate on the corner of a narrow alley.
We used Monocle's suggested walk to find the Kikumi Senbei shop known since 1875 for its square rice crackers. Samples are quite cheap (¥65), and a bag of them would make a nice gift if you are staying with friends or family in Japan. We stopped at the Oshimaya (大島屋) soba shop on the nearest corner to the senbei shop. Make sure you look up as it is located on the second floor with parking underneath. The atmosphere inside is quite nice, as it looks recently renovated and has a small koi pond. English menus are available and vegetable tempura is available as a ¥300 side with any noodle purchase. The noodles themselves are nothing special compared to the fresh made ones at Boshuya in Sakura (see Local Tour entry), but we fed our party of five awfully cheap for Tokyo. Incidentally, it started raining almost as soon as we sat down for lunch and ended before we were done. It was the last rainfall of the day and we had avoided both by coincidence.

Back on the Monocle tour, we went to the tiny but fantastic paper shop, Isetatsu Paper (f. 1864) which also sells furoshiki (carrying cloths) and store-branded handkerchiefs. My wife has received gifts from this store before, adding to the sense that we were in a place for Tokyo shoppers "in the know." We got lost a bit trying to find Tabi Bagel, but it wasn't really due to any poor navigation on our part. It turns out that the place closed a few months ago and the Hebidori (Snake Street) mentioned on the itinerary wasn't drawn on the Monocle map. Fortunately, this turned into a happy accident of discovery as we followed the zigzag street back to more familiar territory and saw a cool architect-designed house that appeared to be clad in corrugated aluminum siding.
Hebidori House
We were quite tired at this point and ignored the remaining part of the suggested route to head back to the station. Along the way we passed a nice looking temple with an area honouring Oban, one of the three famed Edo beauties who once lived and worked in the area, and we got to see the line up for Himitsudo, a cosy sweets shop.

After Yanaka we still had time and unlimited train travel thanks to the Shitamachi Day Ticket, so we headed to Ueno for some shopping and history. While three members of our group headed straight to the famed Marui Department Store, my youngest and I walked through Ueno Park to see the Toshogu Shrine. The way it had been described to me, I was expecting a pale imitation of the main Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, but this smaller version was in great shape and featured elaborate wood carvings similar to the ones for which Nikko is famous. I also enjoyed walking the path of lanterns which I correctly surmised were donated by the daimyo who needed to stay in the good graces of the shogunate back then.
Ueno Toshogu Shrine
Having completed the circle of visiting memorial sites of the first and last Tokugawa shogun, it was time to head back to the busy Ueno shopping district to see if we could find anything. Marui was used more as a rest stop before heading into the (perhaps) infamous backstreet shopping arcade. Once one of the main post-war black markets in Tokyo, this area maintains a reputation for offering shoppers a mix of bargains, exclusives, and even the occasional item that "fell" off the back of the delivery truck. I once got a great deal on a pair of running shoes here and surprised sales people and friends by throwing the pair I showed up with in the garbage after completing the purchase. Even though I didn't need shoes on this day, I had high hopes of finding a deal for at least one family member.

Turns out Ueno has changed a bit since the last time I've been through. In short, the backstreets are going upscale. There was an exclusive denim store selling jeans for the price of a wardrobe, and it seemed like every shoe store had been absorbed by the ABC chain. So, while we got to experience the feeling of walking through a shady market, we left empty-handed.

Having lost a day of travel to the typhoon, we made the somewhat foolhardy (or masochistic) decision to push on to Akihabara to show my mom the loud, lit up version of Tokyo she'd seen in the movies. Our travel worn legs made the walk seem a little farther than I remembered, and faulty memories led us off course before we realized that it was the new Yodabashi Camera on the other side of the station that we were looking for. Once we arrived, our children were in their glory in the toy section while the adults glanced around in vain for a bench. Thankfully there was a restaurant level at the top of the store with an inexpensive kaitenzushi, so we were able to rest and eat before catching a late Skyliner back to Sakura.

We were worn out but satisfied, having squeezed out a day and a half worth of experiences out of our Tokyo Day Trip. Who travels to relax anyway?

Previous: In the Teeth of the Typhoon Next: Sucking in Sakura

In the Teeth of the Typhoon

August 22

Kids, don't try this day at home.

Our plans for a Tokyo day trip were kiboshed when a typhoon sweeping up the northeast coast of Japan led to heavy rains and wind in our area. And yet the prospect of staying cooped up in the house all day while on a short vacation was just a little too much to bear. Sure, we could have used the day to help my in-laws clean out a dresser filled with empty day planners from 1989 while the kids wiled away the day on their screens, but we were not to be denied.

Our children are not immune to the appeal of Pokemon, so even if we have dodged the Go fad for now, they weren't going to turn down a chance to see the new Pokemon movie in the theatre. Due to vehicle space limitations, my wife went ahead with them to make the show time. I received a ride to the train station where the foolish nature of our decision started to dawn on me. A metal garage door was in tatters, flapping in the wind as though the gremlin from the Twilight Zone movie was dining on it. Trains weren't running on time, Limited Expresses were stopping at stations they normally breeze by, and even though I only needed to go one station over, we were delayed twice while the train sat on the tracks between the stations.

In an effort to find one of the few sports stores in the area we stumbled on one of the region's newest malls (which happens to be a part of the same chain as the one we went to Sunday). Walking around the pristine shopping centre, utterly protected from the raging storm, I couldn't help but feel that something was being lost in the utter disconnection from the outside world. There is a generic quality seeping into the Japanese shopping experience with indoor and outlet malls widening their footprint in a process familiar to North Americans over the last thirty years.

Mind you, I don't begrudge Japanese consumers from wanting similar retail experiences to those embraced here. I just wonder what happens to the famed Japanese department store concept that seemed more successful to me than similar stores in North America, not to mention the unique mom and pop stores that dot the shopping strips in older parts of town. Looking at our family spending it was probably divided 45/45/10 between small shops/box store retailers/and malls. Basically, we were motivated by a combination of unique products and price—neither of which the malls seemed able to deliver.

When we left the cocoon of the mall to walk back to the train station, it was with the knowledge that the local monorail had stopped running. Stronger winds had us walking backwards at times to beat the weather. By the time we reached the station, trains were no longer running either. Fortunately, my father-in-law was able to pick us up and shuttle us home to safety. Along the way we saw objects large and small, heavy and light, blown onto the road. If there had been any doubt that we were not on the outer fringes of the typhoon like we had hoped when the day started, they had been pretty much been erased by now.

On our last day in Japan, my youngest cited braving the storm to see the movie as one of the highlights of the trip. Was it worth the effort? Yes. Would I risk it again? No.

Previous: Old Friends, New Friends Next: Tokyo: Shogun Bookends

Old Friends, New Friends

August 21

The cancellation of a baseball practice one of my sons was supposed to attend allowed us to piggyback onto a trip to what must be one of Japan's largest shopping malls, the AEON Mall Makuhari in Chiba. It was big, expensive, and a world unto itself. I ended up watching my kids more than anything else, allowing the other adults to visit, so it wasn't a wasted trip by any means. Still, I can't see myself hurrying back there in the future.

When it was time for the families to part, we started to make our way over to Makuhari Kaihin Park, passing numerous concert festival goers who were there to see Weezer and Radiohead among others. It was kind of funny how often Weezer popped into my consciousness this trip. I had always known about the band and liked the two big singles I was aware of, but had never really listened to their music before the trip. Back in July a friend had alerted me to a theme running through their album Pinkerton regarding the lyricist's relationship with a Japanese woman. I jokingly texted to him that I would look up a Weezer ex-girlfriend on the trip. Little did I know that they were playing two shows in the Tokyo area while I was there. I guess it would have been perfect if I had attended one, but in the end I settled for the series of coincidences that led to Weezer providing the unofficial soundtrack of the vacation.
Hiroshige Ukioye
Within Makuhari Kaihin Park, there is a pretty Japanese stroll garden called Mihama-en, which was far nicer than I expected, and a bargain at ¥100. I would recommend the ¥500 tea service, even if you have had it elsewhere because the tea room offers a beautifully framed view of the pond. The matcha is available hot or cold, even on a sultry summer day, and to my youngest's credit he drank the hot, bitter tea eagerly, and decided that he wanted to buy a fancy clay cup to drink with back home.Makuhari Kaihin Park
After the park, my mom went on ahead to my in-laws' house, while we joined two Japanese families for dinner at an izakaya. We didn't know one of the other families, but thanks to the relaxed, raucous nature of the izakaya it wasn't long before we were all talking up a storm, enjoying all you can drink booze, and generally leaving the children to their own devices—even if it meant crawling under tables, climbing on ledges, or rattling dividers between diners. I'm proud to say that I did stop socializing long enough to suggest to one child that it was not a good idea to lean out a second story window that had no safety device, let alone a screen on it. That craziness aside, the party atmosphere made relaxing at the izakaya one of the highlights of the trip.

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Family Ritual Time Machine

August 20

The day started rather slow. My sister-in-law's family was driving in from Shizuoka, giving us time to catch up on some shopping and buy a tatami style rug for our living room back home.

No sooner did they arrive and we started to enjoy the initial excitement of reconnecting did I slip out to meet an old friend for coffee. Back in the day, he was my Aikido senpai and English student of a friend, so we enjoyed hanging out while he worked on his English skills. Over the years, the language of communication has switched, to the point where I only use English if I'm searching for vocabulary. This limits the range and depth of our conversation to an extent, but we were still able to catch up on the essential developments in each others' lives.

From there, it was off to the studio for the BIG FAMILY PHOTO. Of all our visits, this was only the second time we've done this—no doubt to commemorate my mom's visit. Our kids kept the mischief to a minimum so the session went fairly smoothly. When the photos arrived a few days later, that was all the evidence we needed that taking time out for the portrait was a good idea.

After a short break at home, we piled into two vehicles and made our way to the local kaitenzushi—the only restaurant that could reasonably accommodate the varied diets of every family member. It made for a relaxed dinner in an informal environment. Despite being split up in different booths, somehow it all worked.

We finished the day with hanabi in the backyard. Backyard fireworks are like nothing compared to the displays you see at parks in southern Ontario. In fact, they consist of little more than the lighting of sparklers and tiny flares. And yet this was the ultimate family moment of the day as three generations and four families shared flames with each other and tried to keep at least one going at all times. While I watched my mom participate for the first time, I also recalled my first experience when I watched my now high school-aged niece express her delight as a two year old. I saw the echoes of previous family celebrations where the past and present seemed to merge together, the younger and older versions of loved ones crouching side by side, their faces reflected in the light of controlled flames.

Previous: Gatchaman Day Next: Old Friends, New Friends

Gatchaman Day

August 19
Gatchaman Gitch
I declare August 19 to be Gatchaman Day. Acknowledging that is a little presumptuous—not to mention obscure—and unlikely to ever be repeated again, but for one shining moment in 2016 it was true for me.

Readers of my retired blog, Over a Hedge, might recall that one of the highlights of my previous trip to Japan was a visit to the ill-fated Tatsunoko Bar & Restaurant, but I never explained the source of my enthusiasm for Gatchaman. Back when my age was still expressed in single digits, I watched the heavily edited version of the show known as Battle of the Planets every day after school. More importantly, my brother and I were being minded by the mother of three children with the right gender mix to role play each episode after it finished. I was always Ken the Eagle, a.k.a. Mark. He was the leader who had to deal with a hotheaded underling challenging his authority while trying not to let the attentions of Jun the Swan (Princess) distract him from completing the mission at hand. My family moved soon after and the improvised storytelling ended, but there was always a part of me that remained more attached to that franchise than any produced by DC or Marvel.

So, perhaps in an attempt to connect with lost youth, I did some on-line shopping research early in the trip during a sleepless night and turned up a couple surprising items in my failed search for a Gatchaman T-Shirt. Both products were ordered the next day, but scheduled for delivery the day after our return from Hakone.

The first was a rather unexpected piece of clothing—underwear. A novelty garment maker known as Underking has developed a one sized fits most style of underwear and joined forces with a number of Japanese anime studios to produce sold out runs of their product. Near as I could tell, I got my hands on the third edition of their Gatchaman line, and despite the steep price (compared to my typical utilitarian purchases) I have not regretted buying for a moment. In fact the sense of ikki—knowing that I'm enjoying a hidden luxury—only confirms the decision.

The second item was a pin with the Gatchaman logo in a wordmarked box that I got for a steal of a price considering the necklace version of the same product was being listed at eighteen times the price. The underwear will be in tatters one day, but I should always have the pin.

There was not a lot going on that day, to be honest, as everyone seemed content to recharge after the three days in Hakone. This opened a window for my wife and I to head to karaoke for a couple of hours of self-indulgent singing. I largely stuck to Japanese tunes, with a couple Weezer songs thrown in (more on them later: Old Friends, New Friends).

The best part of the night was finding and singing the theme to the original Gatchaman theme song to close my portion of the night. I gave it everything I had and tried to imitate the voice of the recording artist to boot. No doubt I missed a few notes, but there was no shortage of enthusiasm. It was the perfect end to Gatchaman Day 2016.

Previous: Hakone Honesty Next: Family Ritual Time Machine

Hakone Honesty

August 18

Everywhere you go, time must be spent getting back. After a tiring day on our feet, no one complained about a day spent riding trains home, with more than half the trip on the comparative luxury of the Hakone Romance Car. It also afforded an opportunity to reflect upon the best aspects of the getaway. Through the good fortune of having a father-in-law with corporate connections, we were able to stay in a hoyoujo (something like a ryokan without the fancy exterior) for a discounted rate. We had a brilliant view of what I believe was Mt. Ashigara (Kintoki-san) with its long, flat peak. The two dinners and breakfasts featured a never-ending rotation of Japanese cuisine and there was a hot spring on site. Not only was it relaxing, refreshing, and recharging, but it also afforded the feeling of living on the set of an Ozu movie.
Mt Ashigara
The highlight though, came the first night we arrived. By a stroke of inexplicable luck, the typhoon-related rain hitting most of eastern and northern Japan largely missed us and the annual lighting of the daimonji proceeded. While the in Hakone does not seem as large from a distance as the one in Kyoto, it is still the only other one in all of Japan (at least that is what I was told that night—I learned of another one in Akita while fact checking). Seeing its burning image in the distance was the fulfillment of a wish I've had since first learning of the practice almost two decades ago. The lighting of the daimonji was accompanied by a long fireworks show in the valley below. Given our location on the mountain slope, the fireworks exploded at eye level and resounded off the mountain walls.

I would be remiss in closing off the Hakone section without telling my lost iPhone story. In an effort to keep my suitcase light, I was travelling with a slim wardrobe which required me to wear my pocketless running shorts on a non-running day. When we reached Hakone-Yumoto Station on the last day, I made a quick pit stop and put the phone on a short shelf almost right in front of me—where of course I left it. Less than five minutes later I realized that there was something missing from my hand and ran back, if not in a panic, then at least in a serious state of apprehension. Having a rail pass, I was able to breeze through the gate and head to the washroom only to see the phone was no longer there. I steadied my breathing, knowing there was still a good chance that it had been turned in to lost and found. Still, the knowledge that I would be on the hook for a major expense was starting to concern me.

I stopped the closest stationmaster and he directed me to the ticket booth. No sooner did I start explaining what happened than I spied the phone out of the corner of my eye. After I was able to describe where and when the phone went missing, they handed it to me without another thought. I felt obligated to prove it was mine anyway by successfully entering the PIN code only to learn that they had courteously shut it off to preserve battery life. After proving to myself at least that I had the right phone, I joined my family relieved not to be on the hook for the $500 fee if it was lost or damaged. Only in Japan.

In an unrelated note, upon returning home for an afternoon and evening of slow recovery, I popped over to the local convenience store and noticed the last issue of Sports Graphic Number (Japan's Sports Illustrated) on the magazine stand celebrating Ichiro's 3000th major league hit. As expected, it offered great photography and a career retrospective on Japan's favourite son, but in a sports geek twist you might only find here, there was also an insert that listed all 3000 hits and the teams he achieved them against.

Previous: Transportation Celebration Vacation Next: Gatchaman Day

Transportation Celebration Vacation

August 17

It occurred to me at some point in the late afternoon that our family trip to Hakone was as much about experiencing as many different forms of transportation in one day as it was about sightseeing in the famed tourist trap itself. In fact, the balance of our day was spent going down and up a funicular, up and down a cable car, across a lake on a ferry disguised as a gaudy pirate ship, walking, riding a city bus, back on a ferry, only to finish with a ride on a charter bus. It was the charter that was the ultimate giveaway. It only took us fifteen minutes to get from the ferry terminal to Sounzan Station where we started the day. Of course the view from the cable car was more panoramic, but all told, the day was more about travelling as many different ways as possible than it was about actually doing anything at the destination.Gora Park Tea Houses
I exaggerate to an extent. There was a nice stroll around Gora Park, the children in our group enjoyed an exhibit of stag beetles and the like, and the tea house section of the park evoked a feeling of the atmosphere at Shisendo. Between ferry rides, most of our group went to an aquarium while I joined my wife on a hike down a historic section of the Tokaido road known as the Hakone Kyukaido.
Hakone Kyukaido
We traversed a stone paved section of the old highway that had been lost to history until it was uncovered a few decades ago. In less than an hour, we arrived at an authentic rest station, Amazake Chaya, and enjoyed green tea and sweets while sitting on a red cloth covered bench in an experience right out of a Zatoichi movie. Of course a modern road runs by it today, allowing for a quick return by bus, but for a brief hour when we were the only two on the path save a single couple we encountered along the way, we were immersed in history and a sense that we had travelled back to another time.

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Hakone Amazake Chaya

Hakone Haiku

August 16

Steep walk to mountain retreat
Sudden rain--clouds lift
Pasted Graphic
Gunpowder flashes
Viewed from under umbrellas


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Local Tour

August 15

We got to experience Japan's newest national holiday, Mountain Day, which meant most things were closed. This did not deter us, since everyone seemed to be in the mood for a low key day of local tourism.

I showed my family around the parts of Sakura I used to haunt in my bachelor days, when temperament and a lack of wheeled transportation kept me shopping in the smaller shops around Keisei Sakura station. Our first stop was Yac's, my favourite pharmacy/snack/stationery/fishing/outdoor equipment store in the world. I picked up a few personally indispensable items, but the charms of Yac's seemed largely lost on my family if their lack of spending was any indication.
Old Sakura Home
We moved on to the Sakura Ginza, the lightly ironic nickname given to the main shopping street by some of the locals. Fortunately, a gift shop specializing in area foods and teas was open. In a typical example of traditional Japanese customer service, we were all treated to cold green tea made from their finest blend as well as a few food samples. Their efforts did not go to waste either, with my Mom and I both leaving with full shopping bags and lighter wallets.
Boshuya Interior
We proceeded to what is still for my money one of the finest soba restaurants in Japan, Boshuya, where my Aikido senpai used to take me between Sunday practices. The restaurant has been smartly renovated since the last time I was there, but the open kitchen and home made noodles remain the same. If anything, the pickles and presentation is even better than I remember it when it seemed more like a mom and pop restaurant catering mostly to locals in the know.

I took my sons to the neighbouring Makata Jinja, which one member of our group refused to enter for religious reasons. To my mind, it was a wasted opportunity at a cultural travel experience, but it saved me from suggesting anymore itineraries that involved Shinto Shrines or Buddhist Temples. One can never know the opportunity cost of a missed experience, so there is really nothing more that can be said about it.

We concluded by walking the grounds of Sakura Castle Park, where also stands the National Museum of Japanese History (see Renewing Connections). Without planning or forethought, we all ended up sitting on a bench in the corner of the park, where my sons and I sat with their Japanese grandmother on a similar adventure three years before. It was hard not to savour an echo of the moment.

All in all, it was a well-timed day of local tourism which allowed us to explore yet still recharge for the days ahead.

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Windmills & Wild Finishes

August 14

My in-laws live so close to the Dutch windmill in Sakura that it has become a family tradition to visit it early in our stay. Every time I go, I find myself wondering how many surprised tourists view it while taking the train in to Tokyo. While short term visitors probably don't give it a second thought, I can't help but imagine longer term residents thinking to themselves, "I'm going to have to come back here and check this out at some point."
Sakura Windmill
Over the years, the gift shop has slowly improved its range of offerings, and now they have some actual Sakura branded souvenirs. This is a nice improvement from when I lived in Sakura and could do no better than a set of postcards. It is also possible to rent bicycles here (kind of a heavy duty "mama chari"), and I experienced this for the first time, going about 5.5 km around the eastern portion of Inbanuma marsh.

The highlight of the day was attending the Chiba Lotte Marines baseball game against the always potent Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. We made sure to leave early enough so my son could enjoy the pregame activities and the photo ops available inside the team museum. The main gift shop was jammed to the point that it was impossible to buy anything without missing the start of the game. The silver lining of this first failed attempt at shopping was meeting the bilingual event coordinator outside the store and getting a few extra tips for navigating the ballpark.

This was my fourth game at QVC Field, so I was unprepared for the full house we experienced. This was a problem because we bought general admission tickets and couldn't spot three seats together on the home side of the field. We ducked back down the stairs to head to the visitors' side when we were saved by a member of Team 26 (the team fan club). He offered us the seats he had been saving three rows up from the front of the second deck. I tried to repay him with a beer, but he insisted that he didn't drink. When my mom offered him a Canada pin he responded with a snack bag. As we left after the game he also gave my son a "Team 26" tenth anniversary pin. As my mom said, "He wins." It really is hard to show gratitude when your "host" is determined to get the last kind gesture in.

The game itself was one of the best live contests I've ever seen in my life. The atmosphere for the twilight game was electric, with the supporters' section leading the enthusiastic packed house in all the cheers. Whereas in the previous three games I couldn't make out most of the cheers and didn't participate, this time I was able to pick up the chants and bring my family in on them too. The stadium was rocking as we were treated to eight innings of scoreless ball. The Hawks threatened more often by bunting a greater number of players into scoring position, but starting pitcher Wakui managed to keep any of them from crossing.

The outlook was nervous heading into the ninth. Wakui's pitch count was on the wrong side of a hundred, but his manager seemed determined to leave him in. Predictably, the Hawks started to make solid contact for the first time that night, and Wakui was unable to finish the inning having given up two runs. Going into the bottom of the ninth, admittedly there was little cause for optimism based on the limited production from most of the order. If there was a faint cause for hope, it was that the Hawks starting pitcher, who had made it through eight with a far smaller pitch count, was pulled in favour of the team's closer. He managed two quick outs, but was unable to retire the two best hitters on the Marines, Kakunaka and Despaigne. Aging star Fukuura came to the plate and hit a sharp, but routine grounder to first base. That is when the miracle happened. The first baseman dropped the ball not once, but twice, ensuring that the Marines would get a bonus chance with the bases loaded.

The Hawks closer was visibly shaken and his arm was stressed, having already thrown more than twenty pitches that inning. Still, it was up to Daichi to cash in the runners. He responded by hitting a low, sinking liner to centrefield. The fielder tried to win the game in one valiant, diving play, but it was not to be as the ball squirted under his glove, ensuring that two runners would cross the plate and send it into extra innings.

While nothing is inevitable in baseball, there was a feeling that this game belonged to the Marines. Reliever Minami reinforced the feeling by making quick work of the Hawks in the top of the tenth. The stars continued to align as the Marines loaded the bases with one out, bringing their hottest hitter and batting champion in waiting, Kakunaka, to the plate. He quickly got down two strikes, but it was as though he was only trying to increase the drama. After fouling off a couple pitches, he drove a fly ball to centre. It was not decisively deep, but a good break from third combined with an off line throw guaranteed the win and a vocal explosion in the stadium.

The party vibe continued as the game's "heroes" were saluted and interviewed, before they went out to right field to salute their cheering section. They followed by doing a victory lap for the adoring crowd. If that wasn't enough, the encore was a display of a thousand fireworks for an appreciative crowd, of whom approximately 80% stayed. The fun continued outside the stadium as some of the players sprayed soap bubbles and water on excited fans while the rest of us joined long lines for the shuttle buses that shrunk with somewhat surprising efficiency (I say somewhat, because this is Japan after all. If any country knows how to move a large group of people in an orderly, effective manner, it's Japan).

I went to bed that night with the chants still echoing in my head, and I could still hear them the next day. What an exhilarating day of sports.

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Miracle Marines of Chiba

Renewing Connections

August 13

Thanks to jet lag, I was up early, so I caught up on some reading with the Olympics on in the background. I had long had a sense that Japanese TV commercials as a genre are distinct from North American ones, but never bothered to analyze it too deeply. One thing that finally struck me is that a matte camera filter is very popular and helps give many of the commercials here a distinctive look. Of course it's also fun to identify international celebrities endorsing products who have no endorsement profile back home outside of print ads at the most (I'm looking at you Neymar Jr. and Cristiano Ronaldo). Now whether it's true or not from the limited sample I saw—who knows?—but it seemed like there were a lot more close up shots than I'm used to as well.

The main part of the day was spent at the National Museum of Japanese History in Sakura—a fine museum that blends artifacts, reconstructions, children's activity areas, and special exhibitions. Perhaps because it was a Saturday, it was the busiest I've ever seen it, but the building is spacious enough to comfortably handle everyone. Having been there a few times, the larger purpose was social, as we had three families join for a total of twelve people aged 1-64. Coordinating so many people inevitably led to some separation and down time, but we still somehow managed to renew friendships, start new ones, and learn a little more about Japanese history.

The highlight for many in the group was seeing the Siebold exhibition. Philipp Franz von Siebold was a nineteenth century doctor and botanist who lived in Japan for two extended periods and collected a number of gorgeous artifacts that he exhibited in Europe and which helped launch the Japonisme craze there.

My personal favourite was seeing a temporary exhibit of elaborate daimyo helmets, including one which had the most ferocious set of rabbit ears I've ever seen in my life. In fact they were so stylized, I wouldn't have realized that they there were inspired by rabbits without the museum's information board. They were also improbably long, making me wonder how the daimyo wore it without his head tilting back. I would assume they were hollowed out lacquered attachments that weren't as heavy as they looked, but still, they were awkward enough to give one pause.
Daimyo Helmets
The only bittersweet part of the day was seeing that my friends are getting older, which made me realize that I am their visual reminder of mortality. Fortunately, there were plenty of cute interactions filled with laughter between adults and children who bore such strong resemblances to their parents that one could not help but reflect on the ways we dodge and weave the inevitable by bridging the path between past and future generations.

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2016 Japan Trip

In an effort to freshen up the content on my website, I'm going to share a journal of my most recent trip to Japan. There will be fifteen posts in all that will be published as they are ready over the next few weeks. I will link them up as they go live so that it will be easier to read them as a series. At the outset, I had no real vision for what the posts would look like. As you will see, the style changed from day to day depending on the situation.

August 11-12, 2016

Started out with one of my most comfortable international flights in a long time. Kudos to Air Canada for treating Economy passengers with nice seats, enough leg room, and a variety of in-flight entertainment options. Past memories of indifferent customer service when the unions were battling management in a seemingly never-ending war were replaced by courteous and attentive service from every flight attendant I met.

On advice from a friend, we're renting an iPhone through SoftBank. Rates seem reasonable so long as you don't insure the phone. Just don't lose it or damage it! [Funny thing, I almost did lose it a few days later. That would have been about a $500 mistake since I hadn't bought the insurance that would have lowered the penalty to under $300. Here's the link to that story: Hakone Honesty.]

My Japanese skills are surprisingly good so far, but there are still some blind spots. I understood most of what the Customs Agent and SoftBank rep explained to me, but I wouldn't have managed the change machine on the public bus without my wife there to help. Go figure. For the record, when travelling by bus have no fear of not having exact change. The first machine can change coins or bills, but then you deposit the exact amount in the fare box closer to the windshield.

It's hard to form too many impressions on the first day in Japan. Late afternoon arrivals and jet lag see to that. The one big memory from today is seeing the rice fields again from the air. Given the low ratio of arable land in Japan, every square metre is used with the utmost efficiency. Nineteen years after my first flight to Japan, the precise layout of the rice fields still impresses me.

Next: Renewing Connections