Trains

St. Petersburg!

Naval ShipOne of the main reasons we chose to embark on a nine night Baltic capitals cruise was to take advantage of the opportunity to visit Russia. Obtaining a Russian tourist visa on your own is actually quite difficult, so we decided to make it easy on ourselves and book shore excursions organized by Norwegian Cruise Line for our two days in the old Russian Capital of St. Petersburg.

Immediately upon arriving in St. Petersburg we started to hear talk of Peter the Great. He is the founder of the city which he modeled off other European cities like Amsterdam. Because of this, it doesn’t have a lot of traditional Russian architecture, and instead has several canals, fountains and brightly colored buildings reminiscent of old cities in Western Europe. We learned so much in our two days and only wish we would have had some time to explore it on our own.

Originally called St. Petersburg (after Saint Peter, not the Russian Czar Peter the Great), this city has been known by a few different names. It was called Petrograd for about ten years in the early 1900’s, until the name changed to Leningrad when Russia became the U.S.S.R. and was ruled by the Bolsheviks. It stayed Leningrad until 1991 when the local government finally decided to let the people decide on the name. Apparently there was some surprise that the people voted for the name to be changed back to St. Petersburg. Our tour guide quipped that her grandmother was born in St. Petersburg, lived in Petrograd, also lived in Leningrad and died in St. Petersburg and she never even moved homes!

Our first day began with a river cruise through the center of the city. Everywhere you turn there is another museum, cathedral, park or historical monument. Most notably is the Hermitage, the largest art museum in the world with over three million pieces of art. We would have loved to see it, but each excursion included a visit allotted 4-8 hours inside, and that is just a bit too much art for us. The museum was originally built for the nobility, but has become public over the years. It is housed in the Winter Palace, and its surrounding buildings where the Romanovs as well as other nobility used to reside. It is said to be impossible to see it all in two days, but we met several art enthusiasts who were willing to give it a try.

Entrance to the subway. We were actually allowed to take pictures of this!

We did not go to the Hermitage, but after visiting other landmark institutions we discovered that they are very particular about people taking photographs here. All of the museums charge tourists an additional fee to take pictures – once you have paid they give a colored sticker to place on your camera, otherwise you are liable to get fined or have your camera taken. The policy is even more strict on the subway – here, photos are not permitted in any of the stations! You can take them on the train, but none on the platform or in the buildings. This is such a shame, because their subway stations are absolutely beautiful. They are artfully designed, with huge marble columns and detailed decorations along the ceilings. It reminded us a lot of the beauty of Grand Central Station in New York City. There is even a large sculpture of Peter the Great which is set up like an art exhibit, blocked off by a velvet rope. Phil and I couldn’t help but think that this would last all of two hours (tops) in a New York subway without being vandalized and ultimately destroyed.

Probably the most iconic place we visited taught us an important lesson: It is very dangerous to be a czar. Sure, there is something appealing about the idea of being the leader: you get to rule the country, you have power and money and influence, but I don’t think it is worth it. Every other story we heard was about the killing of one czar or the brutal murder of another. One of the most notable stories is the centerpiece for the Spilled Blood Cathedral. Among a small number of buildings in St. Petersburg to look “Russian”, it was constructed on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated. Inside the cathedral, visitors can see a memorial directly above the spot where his blood was spilled–hence the colloquial name Spilled Blood Cathedral. The building itself is magnificent. It’s walls are lined with painstakingly detailed mosaics telling the stories from the Bible. In fact, this cathedral holds the largest square footage of mosaic art in the world. There was a notable absence of pews and when we inquired we were informed that parishioners are expected to stand or bow on their knees throughout the length of the service. Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.

Besides the plethora of cathedrals, museums and stories about Peter the Great, one of the most prominent topics of discussion was the weather. It is drab, dreary and depressing much of the year. Both of our tour guides emphasized the fact that St. Petersburg is on the same parallel as Anchorage, Alaska. Of course, it gets extremely cold and snowy, but even worse than that, they have less than 55 days of sunshine per year. Yikes! In the winter there is very little daylight, therefore finding distraction is important for the local people. Stereotype or not, drinking vodka seems to be the favorite distraction of most of the people here, and we got to experience it first hand.

Our shore excursion on the second day in St. Petersburg was called “St. Petersburg through the eyes of the locals.” So, we did what locals do–we shopped at a mall, went to the farmer’s market to sample pickles and cottage cheese, and rode the subway. However, the most distinctly local thing we did was have a vodka tasting. That’s right! At the end of our tour, we went to restaurant where three shots of vodka were set up for each of us. There were three different kinds–horseradish, walnut, and cranberry vodka. They also set out some small pieces of toast and pickles to help wash it down. We had about 30 minutes to down all 3 shots, which was not a problem for most of us. However, it became apparent pretty quickly that some of the people in our group hadn’t done a shot of liquor in a while (not to mention three). The vodka was decent, I personally liked the walnut flavored one the best. However, what surprised us most is that there was no water on the table. No soda, no juice, nothing to wash the vodka down. This is so much different than it would have been at a tasting in America with all of its rules and regulations. Once 15 minutes had passed, most of the shots were gone and the stacking (and crashing) of shot glasses began. The crowd was certainly livelier after the shots, feeling warmer in both body and spirit, and we all understood the important role vodka plays in a country that can have such depressing weather!

All in all, St. Petersburg was a blast. We especially loved getting to see the magnificent subway system and learning a bit more about Russian history than we knew before. I’ll leave you with one more interesting note. One of the men on our tour asked the guide if Russia is a democracy. She said, “We are supposed to be a democracy, but are we? I don’t know.” She continued to talk about Vladimir Putin and extended term limits with cynicism and candor. It definitely showed us that perhaps the country has not progressed as far as Russia would have the world believe.

-Brooke

This is the ceiling of the Spilled Blood Cathedral. There was very little space on the interior walls which was not covered with some colorful artwork.

Here’s a sampling of the mosaics which cover the walls and account for the largest square footage of mosaic art in a single building in the world.

The bronze equestrian of Nicholas I s unique because it is the first horse statue in Europe to have only two support points, its rear hooves.  Impressive?  Apparently.

To celebrate St. Petersburg, the cruise ship hosted a “Taste of Russia” complete with borscht and stuffed cabbage.

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Categories: City Visits, Customs, Destinations, Differences, Diversions, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Museums, Russia, The Cruise, Trains, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Many Differences and Surprises of Japan

Downtown TokyoDuring our time in Japan, we have naturally noticed that there is just so much that is different.  Different than we expected and also different from what we are used to.  Some of these things are small surprises, like the crazy numbers of ferris wheels and sky-reaching towers.  Some are more obvious differences, like the fact that we haven’t seen any places of worship besides temples and shrines (though we did see Mormons on riding around on their bikes).  And some are probably just silly–like how seeing an overweight Japanese person is so unusual you actually take notice.  With all of these differences and surprises, we thought we would take some time to highlight some of the more interesting things we’ve observed.

1.  Eggs, eggs everywhere–That’s right, believe it or not, the Japanese love their eggs.  This may seem like a strange thing for us to notice, but seriously, you can’t miss it.  One of the first quick meals we had here was an egg salad sandwich from the convenience store at the airport.  We figured they were just catering to Americans and didn’t think anything of it.  Since then, we have seen egg salad everywhere, from sandwiches to fillings inside of pastries.  In addition to that variety of egg, we are constantly finding sushi rolls filled with steamed egg and vegetables.  I thought it was tofu at first, but was surprised when the chef told me I was wrong.  Our ramen noodles had the optional hard boiled egg on top and the Okonomyaki (savory pancake) has an egg making up one whole side of it.  I’ve been to Japanese restaurants in the states and I swear I’ve never noticed a proliferation of eggs.  On a related note, we’ve seen no chickens.  Curious.

More Shrines2.  Super Polite People–Okay, perhaps it is no surprise that the Japanese people are super polite.  In fact, this is pretty much a stereotype that many Americans have of this country.  However, we had no idea how far this behavior would extend.  We already mentioned that people line up at the train doors rather than all crowding around in a mass.  Okay, that helps things be more organized, we can understand.  But even when the train is crazy-crowded, there is no shoving or shouldering past one another to get on or off.  People here are constantly saying “Domo” (thank-you) and bowing to you in greeting or departure.  But our favorite example came when we heard a fire truck barreling through a crowded intersection.  They were shouting over their loud speaker for people to get out of the way.  Of course, since it was all in Japanese, we only caught some of what he was saying, but he started the whole thing with “Konnichiwa,” essentially saying “Hello, good afternoon” before telling them to get the hell out of the road.  We thought that was the perfect exemplar of their incredibly polite behavior.

So many people crossing the street!3.  People, People Everywhere–Okay, we knew Tokyo would be crowded.  It is a big city with tons of people and Asia in general has the reputation for being overpopulated in many areas.  Fine, we get it.  What we didn’t get was that the entire country would be jam packed with people.  Whether it is a small town or a major city, it seems there are people everywhere.  We didn’t really realize how crowded it is until we were on Miyajima, a small island outside of Hiroshima.  Here, a ferry boat ride away, was the first place in Japan (other than a temple garden) where we found ourselves with some room to breathe.  We’ve lived in New York City for six years so we know what crowds can be like.  A typically crowded New York street is nothing compared to what we’ve seen here.  It is like Christmas at Rockefeller Center all the time, especially at the train stations.  We are not saying it is a bad thing that there are people all over, but it certainly has made us take notice and appreciate the quiet moments.

Kimonos in Kyoto!4.  Fashionistas–First, let me remind you that it is crazy hot here right now.  There is a ton of humidity, the sun is always shining, and people here walk a lot.  I am always a sweaty disaster looking like I can barely breathe.  On the contrary, the Japanese women look totally unfazed.  No matter where we are, whether it is a major tourist attraction or a small coffee shop, Japanese women are so well put together with nary a drop of sweat anywhere.  They are always wearing full make-up, quite often cute skirts, and 75% of them are wearing high heels.  (In order to keep themselves looking dry and fresh, most of them carry “sweat towels” to dab their faces.)  These are not all women who are going to and from work, either.  This is just part of the culture here.  Interestingly, almost all of the women wear some sort of stocking or hosiery all summer long.  It is completely normal to see a woman wearing stockings in the middle of summer with her open-toed sandals.  However, if they choose not to wear full stockings, many of them wear some sort of cute sock with their high heels and sandals.  It looks strange at first, but it is really cute and I bet it makes those shoes much more comfortable.  They sure look better than I do!

If this looks confusing, imagine the toilet!

If you think this Air Conditioning remote looks confusing, imagine the toilets!

5.  Awesome and Confounding Bathrooms Experience–The public bathrooms here vary from being completely awesome to totally disgusting.  I guess this is true in most places.  However, there are a few things that make their bathrooms particularly unique.  The first is the amazingly high-tech toilets found in some of the nicer restrooms.  These toilets are hooked up to a panel on the wall and they do all kinds of fun things.  The toilet seat can raise automatically, they spray water to clean you (you can adjust the pressure of the spray and the temperature), it will blow you dry with warm air, spray deodorizer and give you  multiple levels of flushing.  These are very refreshing bathroom visits.  In addition, even if the toilet isn’t this fancy, almost all of the restrooms I went into have a sensor on the wall so as soon as you sit down, a fake flushing sound starts happening.  This allows for a little background noise and some privacy to prevent any possible stage fright.  (Note:  Phil said the men’s restrooms were not this fun.) With all of these cool gadgets, you would think they would have amazing sinks and high-tech hand dryers.  To the contrary.  The bathrooms everywhere here do not have any air dryers or paper towels to dry your hands after you wash them!  We don’t understand.  Why can’t there be something to dry our hands?  Why do you want us dripping wet as we leave the bathroom?   Phil kept forgetting about the lack of towels and he would splash water on his face and have nowhere to dry it.  It’s very frustrating, but also kind of amusing.

Brooke and Gate at sunsetOf course, in any foreign country there are tons of differences both big and small, and getting to discover these is part of the fun of travel.  We were surprised to see both men and women dressed in traditional kimonos.  We figured this was outdated, but as it turns out this is common for formal occasions like weddings, funerals and fancy parties.   Another small surprise was the overwhelming number of vending machines.  They are everywhere, even in people’s front yards.  And they sell both hot and cold drinks.  Hot coffee in a can!  Genius.

We look forward to continuing our journey in Asia to see how these countries compare with one another and with the U.S.  No matter what, we will leave all of them with some amusing stories and having learned a lot about a new culture.  And that is what this is all about!

–Brooke

One of Brooke’s new favorite Japan snacks: Asparagus Biscuits!

As seen on Japan Rail

We saw this sign in a few places on the Japanese train line. I believe that when translated, it reads, “If you’re a small child who drops her hat onto the tracks, please wait for a man with a long, long pole to retrieve it instead of going down there”

What's Beef Kyoto

Sign on a restaurant in Kyoto. This one of Phil’s favorite photos from the trip thus far. As Brooke said at the time, “Well, if you don’t know what beef is, I’m probably not going to eat at your restaurant!”

Categories: Clothes, Customs, Destinations, Differences, Exploring, Japan, Random Thoughts, Reflections, Surprises, Temples, Tokyo, Trains, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Climbing Mt. Fuji

“Why Climb Mt. Everest? Because it‘s there!” -Explorer George Mallory

“Why Climb Mt. Fuji? Because we’re in Japan!” -Phil

The Summit of Mt. Fuji!We did it! Brooke and I conquered and vanquished Mt. Fuji. We managed to climb all the way up and all the way back down Japan’s tallest peak/largest mountain/giant dormant volcano. There are no two ways about it: it was a hard climb. Leg muscles churning, cardio flowing as we hiked from 2,700 meters to the summit at a whopping 3,776 meters  We figured that this was a can’t miss excursion –especially since we were lucky to be here during the brief Fuji climbing season of July 1st– August 31st.  Check that one off the list. The day has been hard on the feet. And the calves. And the shoulders. Brooke said it was the most strenuous hike she’s ever done and it was the biggest climb I’ve done in many years. We’re tired, sore and a bit exhausted, but thrilled we were able to complete the climb.What a way to end our visit to Japan!

Fuji from a distanceWe set off early in the morning to make our way from Sagamihara  to the Mt. Fuji area which involved four trains, a bus and an angry station agent who yelled at us in Japanese. On the long ride out, we watched the landscape change from big city to scenic, hilly countryside. We had a glimpse of Fuji from the train window; our first chance to size up what we’re going to be up climbing in the hours ahead. We rode the bus up to the fifth station which, at an elevation of about 7,800 feet, is where most hikers begin their climb. It was packed with some people just completing a sunrise climb, to others getting started to even more who were just hanging out. But to be fair, it seems to be packed with people just about everywhere in Japan. Onward! We began our mountain climb with a walk down the trail to the lower section of Fuji. Brooke and I both managed to dodge any symptoms of altitude sickness of which we had been warned. And the weather, which can change on a dime, held up wonderfully during our entire time on the mountain.

Since Fuji-San sticks out alone, we were quickly up higher than anything within sight. The mountain truly does tower over the country side. There are huts and stations at different altitudes up the mountain. For 200 Yen (about $2.50), each hut will “stamp” your walking stick (a simple wood stick purchased before starting the hike) with a custom wood burn. In lieu of views on the way up due to some morning clouds, we have stamped walking sticks to commemorate our experience. The further you go, you find that the climb becomes steeper and the bottled water becomes more expensive. We certainly passed people who were headed back down after giving up on reaching the summit.  By the time we even reached the 7th Station, that felt like an accomplishment in itself. One of the most surprising thing we saw were a number of people enjoying a cigarette during their climbing breaks. Come on, people! Fresh mountain air! Lung capacity!

So far below!When the clouds did clear, we could see back down on how far we’d already climbed. Whew! It became a little bit harder to catch our breath at 9,000 feet and breaks became more frequent, but we were not to be defeated! At about 1.5 km away, we could SEE the top. We found ourselves even more determined to reach the summit when we saw 7-year old children and grandmothers on the climb. Ego tends to click in when you start thinking there is no way that they’re going to climb the mountain and I’m not!

Eventually and with much rejoicing, Brooke and I reached the summit in about six hours – which is an about average time but it felt like a huge win. A true accomplishment! Going up station by station. Bit by bit. Man, we can’t emphasise enough how difficult those last 400 meters were. They saved the toughest climb for the end – that ascent from the 9th station is just a killer. Lots of breaks. Lots of slow going. But you start getting in the mentality of just putting one foot in front of the other to make it to the top (as inspired by here).

Amazing Views from Mt. FujiAfter a bit of resting and examining the top, we began our descent. On the way down, we met Yon and Sean – travelers out of Santa Barbara, California also visiting Japan. We were treated to some extraordinary views below as the sky cleared. Visibility for miles meant that we even spotted Tokyo’s Sky Tree Tower way in the distance. Contrary to what people had told us, coming down was NOT harder than climbing up. We were able to chat leisurely the whole way down while half-walking, half-sliding on loose rock (with many near falls) and curving, switch back trails. All in all, it made for a comparatively quick walk. Looking back up at the summit, I determined that hell would be being told to turn around and climb back up.

Going up at nightWe made the descent in three hours. Also not bad! We broke out the flashlights for the final kilometers as the sun set. Along the way, we passed large groups of people with headlamps who were just starting a night climb – which seems a bit miserable to us, but to each their own. Upon reaching our original starting point, we were exhausted but had made some new friends. Yon, Sean, Brooke and I ended our ten hours at Mt. Fuji sitting on a curb, toasting Kirin Beer fresh from a vending machine. That was one beer that went down easy. While waiting on the bus, Brooke gave me the best gift she has even given me: half of her cold, delicious beer.

Toasting with a beer!Riding the bus away from Fuji, we traded notes with some other Americans who made the climb. Wherever we go, we keep finding lots of well-traveled westerners to converse with which is kinda fun. Overall, today was a fantastic day that ended with us feeling tired but accomplished. And now we can say that we’ve climbed to the top of Japan’s tallest mountain. We climbed Mt. Fuji!And that’s pretty cool.

-Phil

PS- I had this catchy, funny, odd number from the video mash-up group Fall On Your Sword in my head the whole time I was climbing, so I thought I would share.

Brooke in the clouds

Brooke in the clouds high above!

Signs pointing our way to the top!

Burning the stamp into our stick at station 7

Categories: Hiking, Japan, Landmarks, Tokyo, Trains, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Riding The Shinkansen

Awesome train pulling into the station in TokyoThe number one benefit of purchasing the seven day Japan Rail Pass (that we mentioned earlier) is that it has allowed us to ride all of the JR trains including the famed Shinkansen (pronounced like “Wisconsin”) AKA the bullet train. Talk about a wonderful, lightning fast way to trek through Japan! We knew it would be a speedy ride, but Sweet Sassy Molassy! That train is fast! Amtrak’s Acela service crawls in comparison.

A sensational, practical, relaxing and enjoyable way to travel, the Shinkansen rail network spans the islands of Japan from tip to toe providing the fastest, smoothest and among the most comfortable train ride that I have ever enjoyed. Shinkansen service is near legend in Japan and it’s easy to see why. These trains are a technology and transportation achievement that should have other countries drooling.

Brooke checking out the departure time for our trainThe Shinkansen trains themselves have a fierce and futuristic look – even though the trains have been around for years and years. Their signature look embodies speed. Each sleek car is white with a signature single blue line that streaks down the center of the outside. These aerodynamically shaped trains are also considerably longer than most other trains I’ve seen with some running up to sixteen cars. Each train can hold over 1,500 passengers; when they pull in the station they seem to keep going and going. The interior is equally as nice: comfortable quiet cars, and reclining seats. They are very clean trains with attentive in-seat service from an ever-bowing crew. In that regard, we’re starting to expect nothing less from the Japanese! And there are just so many Shinkansen are on the schedule running each day! The frequency is surprising: wait ten minutes in a station and you might see a half dozen Shinkansens zoom through. It’s a little thrilling each time one roars into the station.

Long Cars

But above all else, it is simply a wonderful way to see the country. Sit back, tilt the chair a bit, and gaze through the oversized window. And these suckers are fast and getting faster. Each generation of engines are apparently a touch speedier than the previous. Speeds of up to 180-200 MPH makes looking out the window a little challenging. Traveling at this new speed, closer objects are hard to focus on before they are out of sight. We rode the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto and then Kyoto to Hiroshima and finally back to Tokyo. It would have been great if we had just a smidge more time to head north, but that’s becoming our mantra lately: If only we had a bit more time!

Top notch servicecBut buyer beware – these Shinkansen tickets can be expensive! That handy-dandy Japan Rail pass included our fees, but we estimate our three train tickets could have cost upwards of $500 each. The costs seem justifiable when you start to add up all of the infrastructure that must have been required here. Riding the line on elevated tracks (no ground level track-crossings here), curves on a very small grade, and through endless tunnels & bridges, it breaks my four-function brain calculator to add up what the infrastructure demands must have been. And it looks like it is paying off- most trains we rode on were sold out and it seems to be the preferred method of travel through the country. Who needs airports when a Shinkansen stop is likely a short jaunt from your home! Hmmm…I wonder if there is a Shinkansen route that will take us to the top of Mt. Fuji tomorrow? Man, what a cool ride.

-Phil

Yes please!

Zooming into Kyoto

 

Categories: Destinations, Japan, Tokyo, Trains, Transportation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Trains in Japan

JR Line TainAfter five days in Japan, we’ve noticed a million examples of how things are slightly different here. From the insanely loud Pachinko parlors that resemble slot machines on crack to the ubiquitous bowing. But the one that strikes us over and over is that train travel in Japan is both astounding and outstanding. The traveling Kollineisers have been continually in awe of this vast and extensive rail network that runs smoother than seems possible. In fact, aside from the power of our own two feet, train rides have been our sole mode of transport since arriving. I really, really wanted to avoid throwing up this tired cliched mantra, but it is unavoidable: the trains in United States look like a half-hearted joke when compared to those we’ve seen here. (And yeah, probably Europe too, but we haven’t made it quite that far yet).

Before arriving, we purchased the seven-day Japan Rail Pass (the JR Pass) that must be purchased outside of Japan in advance of arrival. At around $350 per person, that pass wasn’t cheap, but it has already paid for itself twice over. It has been easy to use and one of the best purchases made to date. In fact, short of subway rides, it is the only transportation cost we’ve incurred. And to be candid, it helps that I love trains. I always have.

Phil has no clue where the hell he's goingWe’ve had a chance to ride the regional rail, Subways in Kyoto and Tokyo and even the Shinkansen (aka the famed “bullet train”). Our first experience was on the regional rail – the line of trains that connect city to city in and around Tokyo and continues through the rest of Japan. It starts with a never ending rail map that seems to have infinite possibilities and infinite stops. It took some time and patience, but with the help of some stop names in English, we were able to decode the rail map sufficiently. I’d rather not mention that this was a map that included only PART of the Tokyo system, but I’ll include that admission for the sake of accuracy. So far, we haven’t had to wait on a train for more than, say, seven minutes at most. At first, we chalked it up to some solid train luck, but the reality is that they just always seem to be pulling into the station. All of the train schedules – and even all of the seemless connections from line to line – are planned to such a methodical timetable that it would make the most dedicated clockmaker cry like a baby.

On all the trains we’ve ridden, people line up directly behind the space on the platform where the doors will open. Polite and organized. (Keep in mind, we haven’t been on the subway during rush hour which sounds like it could be much different.) While everyone has a mobile device in their hands, everyone avoids talking on their cell phones. My absolute favorite part is that each train line has their own unique, fun jingle that plays when the train doors are about to close. No boring chimes here, more like friendly little tunes that sound like you just hit the jackpot on a slot machine. And with so many trains, you end up having not just express service, but some crazy, multi-station skipping service called “Rapid Super Express” service. On top of all that, the trains are all remarkably clean. It’s possible we’ve just been riding at the right times, but we’ve seen no graffiti and no trash.

Directions are so clear!Brooke and I spent the last six years riding the NYC Subway just about every day, so we were interested in comparing the two underground labyrinths. To start, each car ends with a giant glass door that allows you to see into the next car. When everyone is seated, you can literally see from one end of the train to the other which makes for a more exposed experience. We’ve also seen doors and sometimes full walls that are on the station platform. They line up with the train doors and, in theory, prevent a rush hour passenger from falling onto the tracks. Finally and probably more importantly, each station has a designation like “N5” or “A10” (letter for the line, number for the stop) and a sign indicating which direction the train on these track will go and what the previous and next stop will be. Genius! That already saved us going in the wrong direction before we even got on our first train! Thanks, Japan!

Ticket Machines are a little trickier when they are in JapaneseSimilarly, the stations have maps indicating the time in minutes to the future stations on the line. Seriously, these are such simple, amazing ideas that Brooke and I need to import ASAP. In the stations, we’ve even managed to see a few women (and a handful of men) wearing traditional Kimono outfits. We’ve seen signs that during rush hour times, there are trains that are “Women Only.” Pretty sure that one is to dissuade the icky gropers. As if that weren’t enough, each station on the regional rail (JR lines) have a nice set of shops and in some cases giant malls attached to the buildings.

I am a train riding giant!For the nerd in me, It has been a giant thrill learning and mastering a complicated new train system, exploring the trains themselves, and discussing complicated routes with Brooke. Talk about getting some insight. I became dangerous when I finally scored a quality map. It’s been my new best friend. However, we should point out that there is no 24 hour rail service in Japan. We haven’t found any trains that run much past midnight. I guess NYC’s 24-hour subway scores a win in that category. Well, that and you have a more intriguing set of smells on American subways. Overall, it is a simply amazing system. Sensational! But beyond all of that, the single most impressive thing is that Brooke and I haven’t gotten on the wrong train once yet. Trust us, it hasn’t been for lack of trying. Give it time.

-Phil

PS – We’ll do a full write up of the Shinkansen in a few days!

Categories: Doccuments, Japan, Tokyo, Trains, Transportation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Yokohama, Japan

Yokohoma!There is no doubt about it…we are definitely in a foreign country. Sure, in New Zealand there were cute little differences like saying “toilet” rather than “restroom,” but that was nothing compared to Japan. Okay, it’s true that Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC are almost inescapable, but otherwise the vast differences have quickly thrown us into sensory overload. It has been great, but very intimidating.

Ito's hideout

On the base of Camp Zama, Gaye showed us this: A secret (unused) bunker for the Japanese Emperor during World War II. When Americans claimed the based, this was found!

Today, we took care of a little bit of necessary business before really sinking our teeth into Japan. Gaye, my cousin who is the most gracious hostess ever, drove us around Sagamihara City and took us over to Camp Zama, the U.S. Army Base where she has taught for the last 25 years. Here, we visited the tourism office, stopped by the ATM and had a nice lunch by the golf course. There were far more Japanese working on the base than I expected, but overall US dollars could be used and in a lot of ways it did feel very American. We can understand why Gaye has chosen to stay here for most of her adult life–it is the perfect balance of living in a foreign country, but still having your own culture close by. However, this American culture stopped as soon as we said sayonara to the guard at the gate.

One of our biggest feats today was figuring out, at least a little bit, the train lines. Our pre-trip research led us to the JR pass – a train pass which allows us unlimited access to the national JR train line for seven days. This isn’t a subway, it is more like a combination of regional rail and Amtrak. The train line will get us around Tokyo and its suburbs, but also travels to all areas of Japan. Luckily, Gaye lives right next to the Sagamihara stop on JR Yokohama line. We decided to venture to Yokohama, a city of 3.5 million just south of Tokyo. Gaye walked us to the station and pointed us in the right direction, which actually turned out to be the wrong direction (to her credit, she usually uses a different train line–there are SO MANY trains here). Luckily, Phil and I checked the map, and even though most it is written in Japanese, the station names are also written in English and everything is well marked with arrows and time tables.

Donut Plant Tokyo

Amazingly, we never made it inside the Donut Plant in New York City, but to our shock we saw this store at the ShinYokohana Train Station!

Once on the train, it wasn’t much different from riding the train in New York–it is filled with people weary from a long day of work or tired out from the heat who just want to get where they are going. Except for us, of course. We were bright eyed and smiling, reading every sign we could to make sure we were headed in the right direction. The train moves fast, so catching the one word written in English on the sign was not as easy as we thought it would be. Luckily, we made it into Yokohama with no problems at all–we didn’t even have to ask for help!

Once off the train, we did what we do best–we wandered around looking for interesting things to see. It took us all of two minutes to happen across a large crowd of people gathered on steps watching a street performer. This wasn’t the same crappy dance group you see in the Times Square subway station who spends 15 minutes gathering a crowd to watch their performance but they never actually do anything. No, this guy was pure entertainment. He was cracking up the crowd, telling jokes, singing little bits–sure, we had no idea what he was saying, but we laughed when everyone else did and joined in clapping when it seemed appropriate. Adding onto his joke telling, he began juggling–of course. But then he lit the juggling sticks on fire, then he juggled fiery sticks while balancing on a rolling cylinder, then he spit fire! It was awesome! Being a part of this crowd of all Japanese people, and having no idea of the words but still getting the message just the same, was really neat.

Crazy Street Performer below Landmark TowerWe left the performer and wandered around Yokohama taking in the sights, the coolest of which was Yokohama Stadium. We know the Japanese love their baseball, and man was it obvious just walking by the stadium. A game had just begun and already the crowd was chanting, cheering and singing. The energy from the crowd inside was electrifying the air outside–it was almost contagious. As we walked around, we saw a big screen set up outside the stadium with tables, chairs and food vendors where people could sit and watch the game without having to buy a ticket and go in. The atmosphere was awesome, and got us even more excited for tomorrow when we get to have our experience at a Tokyo Yomiuri Giants baseball game at Tokyo Dome. We can’t wait to tell you about it!

For now, we go to bed with Japanese phrases swimming in our head, yen conversions fogging up our brains, and the question of how we can possibly retain all that we’ve learned confounding us.

-Brooke

Japanese Vending Machine

There are vending machines everywhere! For Cold Drinks, Hot Drinks and more. All sorts of unique goodies stocked inside

Categories: Destinations, Discounts, Diversions, Family, Japan, Self Guided Tours, Tokyo, Trains | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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