Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Fast and Furious time in Japan

To say my time in Japan was exhausting is an understatement.  I collectively had 21 hours of sleep in the 5 days we had, which added to the 2 nights of no sleep before port because of the rocking makes for one tired SASer! Cassie, Amanda and I woke up around 6 the morning of port to catch the sunrise, and we could not have been luckier. We were able to get great pictures of the sunrise on one side of the ship, and pictures of Mt. Fuji on the other (Dad should be proud because we caught it at the “golden hour” (; ). Getting the chance to see land after such a long time was like Christmas morning. It was about 30 degrees outside, but it didn’t matter because there were tons of us on the deck taking pictures of anything solid.

 Because of the “Perfect Storm,” as the captain liked to call it, we were late getting into port by about 2 hours. When we finally pulled in, there was a full-on marching band with flags playing for us with an entire slew of people watching and waving to us. I don’t know if it was just so awesome to see people waving us into port or the fact that I was seeing land after 9 days at sea, but either way it brought tears to my eyes.  Apparently, the marching band is a tradition when welcoming the MV Explorer to Port. A few years ago, there was a terrible storm, and the good ol’ Explorer was the only ship brace enough to cross the Pacific and port in Yokohama, so now they celebrate us coming to port. A few friends had purchased tickets to the final match of Sumo wrestling up in Tokyo, so they booked it out of Yokohama as soon as they cleared customs, and both Cassie and Amanda had field labs for class, which left me and Nicole to hang around for the day.
We had no rush to get off the ship and clear customs, which was backed up from people with field labs, so we had a relaxing lunch on the ship with other people in the same situation. We decided to team up with two guys, Braden and Justin, who had the same plan of just walking around Yokohama and seeing what there was. With no set plan, we headed out with our first task; finding an ATM that took American cards. In Japan, most post offices and 7-Elevens have ATMs that will take cards from overseas, so we were able to find one quickly (7-Eleven in like Starbucks in America; there is one every two blocks or so).

Nicole lived in Japan for 3 years, so it was like having a personal tour guide who could tell us all the cool “local” things to see. First stop- the vending machines. As weird and lame as it sounds, the Japanese have invested some awesome time and technology into their vending machine industry. A lot of them had cool theme songs, anime characters and bright lights, and sold a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t think to find. The greatest success was finding hot chocolate, yes, HOT chocolate in some. There were also juice boxes full of Sake, assorted flavors of odd Japanese drinks, and some even had cigarettes. We then walked roughly 3 ½ miles into down town (which my feet were unhappy about, because the boots I was wearing was not meant for such distances.) We ended up in a random part of town which seemed dead and closed down, until we realized it was a clubbing district and we found cool club names to take pictures next to. My favorite was the Rainbow International Club.

On our way back to the general area of the ship, we stumbled across what we think was main street. There were stores which sold cheap and cute clothes, but I resisted the urge to buy anything. What I was willing to spend every penny on was the pet store which had the cutest puppies and kittens I have ever seen. The woman working at the pet store saw we thought these were the cutest things ever, so she took a kitten out and we got to play with it. Unfortunately, she then took it back.  (If pets were not a prohibited item on the SAS list, I would be writing this post while on my bed, cuddling with 10 new furry friends.) All of the dogs I saw people had were small (no bigger than a Yorkie) and they were very fashionable with little doggie sweaters. After the pet store, we found a rinky-dink sushi place which was the kind with the conveyer belt that you pull off the plates as it goes by and then add everything up at the end. It was amazing and not at all like American sushi, but surprisingly the first and last of sushi restaurants I saw the entire time in Japan.  We left to restaurant then hit up a street vendor who sold strawberries which we were advised to try because they are in season. Another great investment of Japanese time and technology because these were the best strawberries I have ever had. If you go when they are in season, I HIGHLY recommend getting a few dozen boxes of them.

We then decided to walk on the other side of town and came across an amusement park inside of the city. Braden and I chose to ride a roller coaster, and by the time we got back to Nicole and Justin, there were already a few other SASers with them. We then walked across the street so they could have dinner at the mall, and then walked to yet another restaurant to find Sake for people to try. It didn’t have any, but we felt bad because the wait staff went through some trouble to seat our large group, so one person ordered pasta and someone else got a beer. After that side trip, we went back to port because it was about 10 pm, and Amanda and Cassie were getting back soon.

When we got to the terminal, they were both sitting in the main building searching for Wi-Fi, but we couldn’t find any so we decided to go on a long walk looking for a place that had some. We walked for about half an hour in the cold without any luck before we decided to turn around head back to the ship. On our way back, we passed a hotel and picked up its Wi-Fi from the middle of the street, so we stood there for about 20 minutes. I was able to FaceTime my sister which was really exciting and so good to see her J When our fingers felt like they had frostbite, we called it a night and headed back to the ship just in time to see some snow flurries. We got back to the ship, packed our bags, set our alarms and went to sleep. That was the first day. I told you- exhausting.

On day 2, Amanda, Cassie and I woke up at 7, grabbed some breakfast on the ship with a friend Mike who decided to tag along, and left for the Yokohama train station. The train system on Japan is very overwhelming at first glance, especially if you are only used to a few different color lines. The Tokyo Subway is complex, and you have to jump a few trains (paying different fares for each one) as you go. The lines are different colors, but some are also different shades of the colors, so you have to know if you want the light blue, medium blue or dark blue line. It also didn’t help that all of the maps were in Japanese and as we got closer to the city, less and less people spoke/understood English. The train ride took roughly an hour, and was completely silent. They don’t talk at all on the train, so it felt a little awkward a first. It is also frowned upon to eat and use your phone on the trains.

When we reached the train that would eventually lead us to the hotel the sumo group was staying at, we had no way of communicating with them, so it felt like a wild goose chase through the streets looking for the hotel and crossing our fingers hoping they were still there. We got off the train about 5 blocks too early, and walked from there to the hotel, stopping along the way to show people the address. My feet were yet again not happy with my or my choice of shoes- boots again.  It is advised to try and find young business men and women to talk to because they are generally the ones who are educated in English and can help you out.  We finally found the hotel, which is apparently the nicest one in all of Tokyo; the ANA Intercontinental. (One of our friends’ parents own 18 different hotels and have stocks in different chains, so he was able to get the employee discount) Right as we walked down the lobby, the Sumo group came out of the elevator which was perfect timing. Mike decided he was going to head back to the ship because he was staying on it while it was in transit to save money, and then we quickly went upstairs, dumped our bags, and headed out with Kayla and Ben to Shibuya which is a district of Tokyo similar to Time Square. We found the famous cross walk that 3.2 million people cross every day, as well as the famous statue of a dog. I couldn’t tell you the significance of this dog, but I know whoever put it there had poor judgment because it was right next to a smoking area.

We found a hole in the wall restaurant where you pick what you want from a vending machine type thing and the food is brought to you. The pictures were hard to decipher, so we all punched random buttons and hoped it wasn’t anything gross. I ended up with a dish that I think had chicken in it with rice on the bottom.  We then walked around the shops of Shibuya, and then took a train to the Imperial Palace across town. We got there at 4:03, but it closed at 4, so we could only take pictures from the outside. Then we took another train to Tokyo Tower, but when we saw the prices we agreed that it was cool enough from the outside. One of the ticket options was a ride to the top and then a tour through the Magical Dungeon. We still aren’t completely sure what that is…?

We walked from Tokyo Tower back to the hotel, which should have taken 5 minutes, but we ended up getting lost and took a detour, turning our walk into a mile long journey through the back alleys of Tokyo. When we caught up with the rest of the group, we were all starving and looking for sushi. The concierge told us it was a 5 minute walk down the street, but our navigator Matt took a wrong turn, and we ended up at the beginning of Roppongi, which is the clubbing area. We were tired of walking, so we cut our losses and picked the first Japanese restaurant we saw- which happened to be Chinese. After dinner, we wanted to see what Roppongi was all about and headed in that direction. A promoter came up to us and took us to the Green Land, a club which had fake ivy covering the ceiling and life-size models of cheetahs and tigers in plexy-glass tables.  It was nearly empty when we went in, but the 11 of us filled the space quickly. The staff really like us, and kept wanting to take pictures with us.  By 12:30, a group of 6 SASers came in, along with some more locals. I left to go back to the hotel at around 2 with Cassie, Kayla, Raj, Ben and Phil. Tired, I sat in the hallway for a while utilizing the Wi-Fi and calling my parents and talking to some friends. I eventually went to sleep around 2:30/3.

I got a startling wake-up call at 4:30 from Amanda, who had just gotten back from the club, who wanted to go to the Tokyo fish market. Struggling to move, Cassie, Kayla, Amanda, Phil, Lisa and I got ourselves together and somehow made it there by train. It was freezing cold, pitch black and altogether terrifying. The fishermen rode around on little carts and paid little to no attention to anything around them. Collectively, we neared death a dozen times, and kept getting yelled at because we were in the wrong areas. At around 6:45, we all decided enough was enough and we headed back to the hotel to take a nap. I had heard a ton of great things about the fish market, so don’t let my experience sway you if you ever decide to go. I’ve talked to multiple people on the ship that did go and said it was fantastic. I think we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We got back to the hotel around 8, and settled into bed. Keep in mind, there were 11 of us sharing 2 rooms, so finding any sort of soft place to sleep was a miracle, but I lucked out and was able to share the bed with 2 others. When we woke up around 10:30, we all showered, pulled our things together and checked out of the hotel. In the process, I lost a ring in the elevator shaft, so that was a sad note. We then took the bullet train down to Kobe, which took about 3 ½ hours to get to, and most of us tried to nap. When we got to Kobe, we checked into the hotel (ANA Crown Royal) and were able to sit and relax for a few minutes. At this point, it was Raj, Ben, Phil, Lisa, Julia, Kayla, Cassie, Amanda and I, so the 1 suite was able to hold us (The bathroom alone could have fit two of my cabins inside of it.)

We asked the concierge for a good place that sold Kobe beef and set out to try and master the Kobe subway. It was much easier than Tokyo, and we got to downtown Kobe in no time. The restaurant we went to, Steak Land, was hibachi style, and very expensive. Amanda and I decided to split a Kobe steak between the two of us, so the price came down to about 2,000 Yen (roughly $20). I was happy with the meal, but I would have been totally fine paying the $55 to have my own, it was just that good. It was the kind of meat that melts in your mouth, and all the hype is so true. It really is the best beef there is.

 After dinner, we wanted to see more of downtown Kobe, and decided to walk the streets. It was around the time when the drunken businessmen go home, so we ran into a few who were very excited to see Americans and wanted to talk to us. After encountering 3 different groups who all thought Cassie was famous because she lived in California and I knew the President, we decided to call it a night and headed back up to the hotel. I was able to call my dad and talked to him for a while. The sleeping situation was tricky because there were 2 beds and 9 of us. We pushed the two beds together and all 6 girls slept horizontally on the beds with our heads in the middle sharing pillows. Raj slept on the couch, Phil slept on the floor and Ben slept in the bathtub.

We didn’t set any alarms, so we slept in a little bit which was a nice change of pace. I woke up and was able to FaceTime with my mom and dad, which was so nice (as much as I normally don’t like to admit it, I do miss them). I even got to see Buddy! Kayla, Cassie, Amanda, Ben and I then took a train to the ship really quick to change shoes (finally!) and I dropped off all of my stuff.  We were then in search of an ATM and found a Canadian who lived in Japan that could help us out. After we pulled out some money, we went to the Kobe station and bought our tickets for Kyoto which was about an hour away. Kyoto is the more traditional part of Japan with multiple temples, shrines and Geishas.

 It was lunchtime when we got off the train and we were starving, so we got lunch in the station before heading out. There was a huge temperature difference between Kobe and Kyoto, and I am not sure if it was because Kyoto is in the mountains or because it was cloudy, but I was not as warmly dressed for Kyoto as I should have been.  We went to two different temples within walking distance of the train, both uniquely different, but also very similar. The first one we went to, Amida Hall, was built in competition with the second temple and is the largest wooden structure in the world. The second one was overall better and more intricately decorated. By the time we finished with the two temples, it was close to 4:30. We weren’t able to see the Bamboo Gardens or the Botanical gardens, which I know Cassie was bummed about. On the plus side, it was super cold, so I don’t think we would have seen any bloomed flowers.

We walked to Gion which the guidebook said had one of the prettiest streets in all of Asia. I could see the potential, but because it was winter, the cherry blossoms weren’t in season, so it looked like a typical street. It was also dark out, which probably didn’t help the situation. We didn’t want to risk missing the train back to Kobe, so we headed back at around 7:30 and got back to the hotel by 9. On the train back, we ran into another group of SASers and compared stories. When we got back to the hotel, we were starving but most of the restaurants were closed, so we ended up finding the equivalent to a Taco Bell, but with Japanese food. This means that it was cheap and quick service. Our poor server couldn’t speak or understand any English, so it was a struggle to communicate what we wanted to him. There was a lot of pointing, and a little miscommunication. Amanda thought she ordered a bowl of noodles and was brought out a plate of cheese.  I had planned to go back to the ship that night because I had and field lab the next day , but it was too late and I didn’t want to take the train alone so I stayed at the hotel again.

Day 5, I was woken up, not very kindly, by Ben who slapped my legs until I sat up at 6:30. Raj, Ben and I all had field labs, so we headed back to the ship by train and got there by 7. Raj’s lab met at 7:15, so Ben and I went up to breakfast before I went back to my cabin and had a quick shower. My field lab was for Mass Com, so we started out in the classroom by watching The Cove, a documentary about Japanese fishermen who trap and kill 23,000 dolphins a year in a small fishing town called Taiji. The dolphins trapped are first looked at by dolphin trainers all around the world who buy them for $150,000 or more, and then they are shipped out to the different “swim-with-the-dolphins” centers. The rest are then herded into a discreet cove and killed, turning the water red every day from September-March, which is the migration season. These dead dolphins are then sold as food, the problem being the ppm of mercury in a dolphin is 2,000 when the safe limit of consumption is .04. This meat is labeled as whale and tuna and sold to schools, and the entire operation is being covered up by the government. It is an incredibly sad and moving documentary, and I highly advise you watch it.

After watching, our class went to an aquarium where we watched a dolphin show and were able to explore. The other awesome thing about Japan is their photo booths that Photoshop automatically and has cool backgrounds. Ben and I did one, and I hope there is a scanner on the ship that I can upload them, because I want to show you how cool it is! We then met up with students from the Kobe University and hung out with them for a while before coming back to the ship and giving them a tour of the Explorer. Once they left, Ben and I met up with Kayla, Cassie, Amanda and Nicole and we had dinner before all of us went back to the room and crashed.

One thing that struck me was it is normal to wear surgical masks there. I was told they are used if they are currently sick, or if they have a big event that they don’t want to get sick for, such as a wedding or a vacation. There also are not many trashcans in any of the places we were. This is because you are expected to keep your trash with you until you get home, and the streets are very clean. The toilets are a mix between bidets and squatting holes, and the toilet paper is scented (so I’m told). The best part is there is this really good ice cream that is inside of a waffle cone with a layer of chocolate in the middle. Amanda and I are making it our mission to find a way to get it in the states. I really enjoyed Japan, but it was not what I was expecting. I’m not sure what I envisioned it to be like, but I was pleasantly surprised. Everyone was so friendly and excited to see us, they were also very willing to help us out if we were lost. I had a great time in the 5 days I had, and now am recuperating in the 2 days between there and China!


PS- sorry that post was a novel, and if you made it all the way through, congrats! I wanted to condense it, but I did so much and didn’t want to leave anything out. Thanks for reading J

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