Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Another engrish sign I saw today. I think a trend may be emerging.

You know what's strange? Japanese TV. Tonight, while I have been writing this, I've seen several different programs. The most interesting of which is was a TV show that was a semi-game show that involved people (who I assume are celebrities) guessing the outcomes of certain social situations in percentage form. For example: "How many celebrities have caviar in their fridge?" (33%), "How many attractive Japanese women have had eye-enlargement surgery?" (44%), and "How many groups of people pass comment on someone who farts when sharing an elevator with them?' (2% at tokyo tower, 58% in a more youth-oriented district). Fascinating stuff. In the background of the show, they also had women in glass cubicles repeating the same actions over and over again in quite a robotic manner. One woman pretends to load a gun and shoot herself, one is playing with a kid's toy, one is playing with a mini slot machine. Strange, but not really noticeable until you actually stop and look at them.

Anyways, today we visited three places. Firstly, we headed to the Imperial Palace east gardens. They were super pretty. Full of cherryblossom trees just on the precipice of blooming. I can't wait to see Osaka and Kyoto - it should be amazing. I really admire the Japanese for having so many natural areas within their bustling city. Yes, Central Park in Manhattan is one giant park, but it's pretty much their only green space for a very long while. Tokyo, while not boasting a single park as large as Central Park, has several other breathtaking nature areas scattered throughout the city.

Next up, we caught some lunch at a noodle bar in one of the train stations. The food ordering system was great - you chose your food from a vending machine, and you are issued a ticket. You then take that ticket to the counter, and they make your food on the spot. I had the tempura prawn and udon noodles. I'm not a very big fan of noodles, but I found this quite tasty and definitely good for an on the go lunch.

We then headed to Ueno park, to have a look through the Tokyo National Museum. The park itself was fantastic - definitely a more family-oriented park than a formal garden, but it had a great atmosphere nonetheless. Unfortunately though, by the time we had reached the museum, it was closing for the day in 30 minutes. As such, Emma decided that we shouldn't go in.

Instead, we went to have a look in an art museum also in the park. Upon reaching the entrance, it was apparent that it was undergoing rennovations and wouldn't be open until April. 2012. Fail.

We then went to look at the zoo. By this stage Emma and I weren't expecting it to be open, and I can safely say that the zoo lived up to our expectations. It was closed for the day. This was probably due to the earthquake or power saving measures. That being said though, I've already seen my fair share of zoo's. The only attraction to this one was the promise of baby Giant Pandas, which would have been brilliant to see.

So, Emma and I decided to just wander through the park, and take in what we could. Along the way, we were stopped by two young Japanese women. From what I could gather, they wanted us to take their photo together. I gathered wrong. They actually wanted a photo with us! Emma and I happily obliged, showing our best peace signs and giving them our best smiles. No idea why they wanted a photo with us - maybe because we were foreigners in a mainly foreigner-deserted city.

We then headed down to a nearby lake boardwalk area. I had my first cup of Grape Fanta. For some reason heaps of people were telling me that this drink is the best thing since forever. To me, it tasted just like the generic grape candy flavour, just slightly less sweet. By no means awful, but I doubt I'd get it again in a hurry. Manao Soda is far better. I also tried a "Crunky" ice cream, which was far better than I expected. Similar to a Gaytime, yet also quite different.

When walking along the boardwalk, we noticed many types of birdlife, including tiny little sparrows that would eat bread from your hand. We also noticed that this whole boardwalk was once again lined with cherryblossom trees. Even though they weren't in bloom, I took plenty of photos anyway. Who knows, I may be able to photoshop some cherryblossoms in to them!

Emma and I then took the Tokyo Metro Subway to the Shibuya district. It's a famous area to anybody who has seen the film "Baraka". It contains Shibuya crossing, which as our lonely planet guide describes as a place that demonstrates a "Surge of humanity" every two and a half minutes. According to wikipedia, it is the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. And boy does it show. Every two minutes, literally thousands of people accumulated at each of the four corners of the intersections. And, when little man turns green, all hell breaks loose. Well, to be fair, this hell is quite organised actually, as most people stick to the zebra crossing paths. May god help those who don't though, as you'll either get trampled, or you have to stop and start to avoid people so many times that you'll still be in the middle of the crossing by the time the little man goes red.

We then had a look around the various shops in the area, including an eerily Japanese-themed Disney store. It definitely had that Walt-Disney feel to it, but it wasn't quite right with most of the merchandise having a definite Japanese influence that is missing in their US stores.

Emma and I then headed back to Shinjuku. Unfortunately, we didn't have the energy or the perseverance to try and find a decent English-friendly Japanese restaurant tonight, so we had KFC. My stomach now regrets it, but I suppose we were bound to try it some time during the trip.

Now, a note. Tonight was our last night in Tokyo. Tomorrow, we head for Shibu Onsen, a small town near Yudanaka. Our reasons for travelling here are to see the Snow Monkeys in hot onsens. As this is a fairly remote part of the world, I may not be able to access the internet for several days, and as such may not be able to update this blog. When I can update this, I will, but don't expect daily updates for a while.

Up Next: Shinkansen! Snow Monkeys! David possibly seeing snow!

Monday, March 28, 2011

28/03/11 - BRUSH UP! A woman is weathercock. the next chapter My favourite collection

The title of this blog I saw on a t-shirt today. My first genuine sighting of engrish!

Anyways, today we decided to check out some of Japan's popular shopping districts.

Our day started with us grabbing a quick bite at the local McDonalds. We both had a potato and bacon pie, which was interesting to say the least. It looked like a typical McDonalds apple pie on the outside, but was filled with creamed potato and chunks of bacon. On the whole, not bad, but not exactly worth salivating over. I suppose you can't expect too much for 120 yen.

First on our list of shopping locations was the humorously named "Takeshita" (Tak-Eh-Shit-Ah) street in the Harajuku district. This street is popular with the young adult demographic of Japan and it was certainly an experience.

Firstly, the street was jam packed. You had to walk with the flow, and any deviation from your current track could lead to a rather severe trampling, or at the very least, having approximately over nine thousand people bump into you, and all you have to offer is your pathetic english apologies to the people who can't understand you. Thankfully though, Emma suggested an excellent system as to how to survive this: If you're going slow, make sure that you're in contact with a wall at all times. That way, you're definitely out of the way more, and you can travel at a more leisurely pace.

The range of shops on offer were mainly clothing stores, with the occasional souvenir/random stuff store. Also, there was a lot of dessert stalls, which sold crepes filled with ice cream and other delicious looking fillings. Unfortunately, as it was just after breakfast, I didn't try one, although the lengthy queues leading back from them showed that they were popular, regardless of what time of day it is.

Emma looked through several of the clothing stores in Takeshita street. Unfortunately, she nearly always ran into the same two problems: the clothes were far too small for her and/or were a cream tone that matched the exact colour of her skin. Both were obviously problems that couldn't be helped, as the Japanese seem to be on the whole significantly shorter, and the cream colour of the clothes compliments their slightly different skin tone much better than it does Emma's. She did strike jackpot at a souvenir store, buying many a crazy Japanese-themed odds and ends, including a stanley knife shaped like a fish.

I took a break from the madness of Takeshita street by taking a detour into a 7-Eleve- Wait, SEVEN AND I-NET HOLDINGS. Yes, that's right, the 7-Elevens in Japan are called Seven and I-Net Holdings - talk about a mouthful!

Inside, I found quite an interesting mix of convenience foods. Including sandwiches with fruit in them! Upon seeing these, I freaked out a little bit, as such a simple idea had ***never*** even thought of crossing my mind! I suppose it makes sense when you think of strawberry jam and what have you, but I truly found this discovery eye opening!

I ended up purchasing some creme-caramel flavoured Kit Kats and a Croissant filled with the cream you get in jam and cream donuts. On the whole, both items were very tasty, and definitely agreed with my western palette.

We then went for a stroll through a foodcourt on the top level of one of the buildings along Takeshita street. It was a strange experience... Lots of shops all selling fast food that I had never seen before. Also, we got a lot more stares in there than usual, as it clearly was not a western-oriented food court. Thankfully most of the stares were accompanied with smiles, which was nice, as we didn't feel shunned - just slightly out of place.

We then headed back to Shinjuku to our hotel for a quick recharge. After our brief intermission, we were off to the Hamamatsucho district to visit the world-famous Pokemon centre store.

Unfortunately, after the 30 minute train ride, we discovered that it was closed for rennovations until March 31st. We're leaving Tokyo on March 30th. Rage. Thankfully though, a quick google whilst I write this has confirmed that there is one in Osaka as well, which is apparently the world's largest. Hopefully I'll get a second chance to satiate my need for random Pokemon merchandise.

Thankfully, our trip to Hamamatsucho wasn't wasted, as across the road from the Pokemon Centre was a simply divine public park. Admission was Y150 and was worth every single yen. Inside, there were rolling hills, a massive koi-carp filled lake and plenty of cherryblossom trees, just days away from blooming. I could only imagine what the park would look like in a week's time, but we'll get our opportunities for cherryblossom viewing further along in the trip. The upside to the cherryblossoms not being in bloom is that the park was virtually deserted. This was fantastic, as it gave the park a feeling of serene beauty in an otherwise hectic city.

Our next stop was Akihibara Electric Town. Those of you who have travelled to Tokyo in the past will know that this name is synonymous with what Tokyo is famous for - crazy electronics, blazing neon signs and crowds of thousands of people. It certainly did live up to it's name. Unfortunately though, due to the earthquake, most of the neon signs were switched off to conserve electricity, but that didn't lessen the impact to a first time traveller in the slightest.

Inside of one of the many buildings that lined the street, the range of technology and other geeky paraphernalia was astounding. I saw shops full of cables, individual electronic parts (down to the capacitor level), PDA's, Laptops, Phones, iPods, Gaming Systems, TV's and other fantastic devices. I even saw a massive 40 inch 3D TV that didn't need glasses! Now that was impressive!

Heading up a level in the building, and the merchandise on offer switched from electronic devices to thousands of figurines (mostly of large-breasted anime women), collectable busts and other popular culture merchandise. In one of these stores, Emma and I stumbled upon the Studio Ghibli section. Seeing as we were unable to go to the museum, we splurged and bought several different souvenirs. I got a Totoro keychain, a plushie Totoro and a ceramic statue of Totoro. Did I mention I liked Totoro?

We then went and explored the upper levels of this building. There appeared to be a disturbing trend as the floor number increased - the higher level the store was on, the more depraved the items stocked were. The floor above our figurine shop was filled with trading cards and other geeky items, ranging from pokemon merchandise all the way through to once again, pictures of large breasted anime women. The next level was filled with creepy "dress up" anime dolls. The next level had an entire store devoted to the creepy "pillow girlfriend" thing that some Japanese men had going on. Not just a section of a store, AN ENTIRE STORE. And a lot of these pillow girlfriends were once again pictures of large breasted anime women.

What I found quite interesting was that all of these floors, regardless of perceived levels of depravity, were full of customers! So even if these things appeared quite disturbing to a foreigner, obviously it is quite a socially acceptable pastime. Well, at least in the confines of Akihabara. If it makes their customers happy, good for them! At least nobody is getting hurt in the process.

From what I glimpsed of the top level, it appeared to be a comic store. But, given the increasingly worrying trend we had observed, we decided to pass on looking inside.

After a quick browse through a games store, where I saw an unopened copy of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater for ~$15, Emma and I headed off to dinner and our last destination for the night.

It is a place spoken in legends among travellers who have visited there - it's food is almost as good as the movie it is based off of. Yes, I speak of the legendary Bubba Gump's Shrimp.

Ok, to be honest, while the food was great, the long journey *to* the restaurant put a severe downer on it, as by the time we got there, we were starving. Still, the food was very tasty, and like in San Francisco, I had the firewall of shrimp - the dish with like four different types of shrimp on it. Delicious as always. We also had a delightful waitress who cottoned on pretty quickly that we didn't speak much Japanese. She instantly switched to fluent English, and was a great waitress throughout our meal.

At the end of our meal, I asked her, feeling somewhat embarassed, "How do you say 'excuse me' to somebody if you need to move past them in a crowd?". She replied with a smile, "Ohh, you just say 'suimasen'. It means halfway between 'sorry' and 'excuse me'. Here, I'll write it down for you!" Our waitress was really awesome!

We then caught the crazy-efficient Japanese railway system back to our hotel. I've noticed that their trains are absolutely spotless! Not a single scratch of grafitti to be seen anywhere. Not a mark on the floor, not a fingerprint on the windows. Very impressive stuff. They also seem to play strange sounds at train stations, such as bird calls and synthesized music-box sounding chime tunes when the doors are about to close. Obviously a very different way to do things, but it certainly gives their stations a unique ambience.

Speaking of music box tunes, when we got back to the hotel, we looked at our swag of Studio Ghibli loot that we bought from one of the shops in Akihabara. It turns out that my ceramic Totoro statue is also A MUSIC BOX! Appropriately, when cranked, it plays the Totoro theme. Thusly, this object is ranked as the fourth most awesome thing in the world, behind monkeys, jetpacks, and monkeys wearing jetpacks.

Tomorrow: Not entirely sure, but probably more exploration of Tokyo!

Sunday, March 27, 2011


On December 4th, 2010, my girlfriend and I, as a present to each other on our 7 year anniversary, decided to book a holiday to Japan.
As you all will be aware of, everything in Japan was just peachy fine, until March 11th, 2011, when northern Honshu was devestated by an 9.0 Magnitude Earthquake and subsequent Tsunami. Additionally, the Fukushima dai-ichi nuclear power plant sustained major damage and is now teetering back and forth from "relatively stable" to "verging on meltdown" on a daily basis.
With our departure date approaching, this terrible situation weighed in on our hearts and minds as we decided whether or not to continue with our trip. After a long period of decision making, Emma and I decided to go forward with the trip, albeit spending less time in Tokyo, to lessen the risks associated with our travel shenanigans.
Let it be known that I will not be divulging our reasons or justifications of why we decided to go ahead with the trip. What's important is that we're here now, experiencing this amazing country, and helping their economy recover, too.

March 26th, 2011

The morning of our departure had arrived. Lucky for us, Emma's parents, Jen and Gerry were heading down to Melbourne for a few days, so we were able to catch a lift with them to the airport. Apparently they were flying Tiger Airways, equally famous for their low fares as they are their poor customer service and nigh-non existent schedule reliability. We, on the other hand were flying Singapore Airlines, a high quality international carrier. It turns out that while Jen and Gerry's flight *was* delayed, it was still more on time than our flights...

Emma and I have been quite nervous about mentioning the "J word" to anybody over the past few days, as it is generally accompanied by looks of bewilderment and shock as to why we'd want to travel to such a stricken place. However, passing through check-in and immigration was a relative breeze, with the check-in agent not really caring, and the immigration lady not even batting an eyelid. I did have a good chat to her about traffic levels and the A380 and such. She was nice.

Then, we had a browse through the duty free areas of Brisbane's international terminal. Well, by we, I mean Emma. All of the electronics in the terminal didn't really interest me as you'll generally find it all cheaper at a JB Hi Fi than at Duty Free these days. As such, I went and did my plane thing, looking at the various metal tubes with wings that would carry people to far flung places around the globe. Although, really this is a lie, because at Brisbane International Airport, you're pretty much either going to New Zealand or Singapore.

Speaking of Singapore, just before boarding our flight to Singapore, I got a phonecall from Singapore Airlines, telling us that our flight departure time had changed from 11:30pm to 3:30am the next day. Rage ensued.
Anyways, enough ranting about the airport, here's the arbitrary flight details:

Singapore Airlines flight SQ236 BNE-SIN
Airbus A330-300 9V-STJ
Seat: 48K
Pushback: 1428
Arrival: 2020

One of the plus sides to re-scheduling our flights to a few days later was that some exit row seats became available for our flight to Singapore. I jumped on this opportunity straight away, paid the extra $50 each and grabbed the exit row seats. Definitely money well spent. The extra space you get is worth every penny if you're a tall bastard like me.

The flight was pretty good actually, good food and good entertainment. The flight attendants were a little bit lacking in some areas (I had one flight attendant turn away to serve a meal to somebody else mid-sentence while I was asking her a question - a basic customer service no-no), but on the whole, the flight was great. What's more, with the exit row seating, the usually painful 7 and a half hour flight flew by (geddit), and Emma and I were soon sauntering around the impossibly large Changi Terminal 3. Our first stop was the butterfly garden, which seeing as it was around 9pm by this time, was significantly disappointing as all of the butterflies were pretty much asleep, or dead. I guess I'll have to pay them a more proper visit on my journey home.

Given that it was getting quite late in the day, and that we now had ample time to kill before our next flight, Emma and I tried to book a 6 hour room in one of the transit hotels. No such luck for us. We then staggered over to Terminal 1 to see if there were any available rooms there. Yes! There was, but there was also construction works right next to the hotel, so the chances of sleep were slim. On a side note, Terminal 1 is a real mess at the moment. A literal maze of shops, construction zones and various lounges. Difficult as hell to find anything in there except for confused passengers and eager salespersons.

We eventually found our way back to the transit hotel in Terminal 3, where we booked a "nap room". This was a bad move. We got talked into buying some "nap deal", wherein you get a three hour nap in a room, as well as lounge access and a shower and what have you. While this sounds great in theory, when you actually get into the nap room and try to sleep, it becomes quite clear that you've been swindled, unless you are a very heavy sleeper (which if this is the case, you probably caught a decent enough amount of shuteye on your flight *to* Singapore!)

The rooms are small, and have a single bed in them. The bed is quite hard, but this is no issue as most tired travellers by this stage don't care what the bed is like -- you just want to be horizontal. The problems arise when you realise that the walls are paper-thin, and they don't go all the way to the ceiling, so you can hear everybody else in this corridor coughing/snoring/answering their phone AT THREE O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING. Then, every 20 minutes or so, you get one of the hotel assistants coming in to give somebody a wake-up call to let them know that their nap time is up, subsequently waking up everybody else in the process. To make matters worse, the floor is paper thin, too, so you can hear all of the boarding/page announcements from the many flights that leave Singapore at this time of night.

I have thought long and hard about this, and I have thought of the perfect litmus test to see if the "nap room experience" is right for you next time you visit Singapore Airport:

Firstly, go to your nearest large shopping centre. Find a Jay Jays or some other equally awful clothing store. Then try to SLEEP IN ONE OF THEIR CHANGING ROOMS. - you have all of the distractions of the shoppers around you trying on clothes/exuding other bodily functions, and then you have the shop assistant asking someone near you every two seconds if someone needs another size of the tank top they're trying on. If you can successfully sleep through that, then this facility may be right for you!

Needless to say, I didn't get a wink of sleep, and I found it to be one of the most frustrating three hour periods of my life.

One very good thing did come out of our trip to the transit lounge - we met a lovely American woman called Wendy, who lives in Japan. She was on the same flight as us, and turned out to be a great help at the other end of our flight to Japan.

Anyways, my already foul mood was made worse when I discovered that our aircraft had been changed from an Airbus A380 to a Boeing 777-300ER. Scandal! I hear you all shout. To be honest, this wasn't all that much of a drastic change, but my major gripe was that we were seated on the top deck of the A380, and as the 777-300ER doesn't have an upper deck, we weren't going to be sitting on it. Every time I've had the opportunity to sit on the upper deck, it seems to have been stopped by forces beyond my control. One of these days though, one of these days...

Singapore Airlines Flight SQ632 SIN - NRT
Boeing 777-300ER 9V-SWL
Pushback: 0332
Arrival: 1014
Seat: 35A

This flight was largely uneventful. Emma and I did our best to try and sleep, with little success. One of the other downsides to our equipment change was that we were now seated over the wing, and as such we had a brilliant view of everything *on* the wing, and nothing else. Still, as most frequent flyers will know, sitting over the wing generally means you will be buffeted the least by turbulence. As such, this was one of the smoothest flights I've ever had. Although Emma claims otherwise, because apparently I was asleep. Oh, also, the 777-300ER is one noisy bastard of a plane, but I guess that's because it has very large engines.

After de-planing, we made our way through the busy Narita airport. We then headed to immigration and customs, where there was very little of a line for foreigners, probably due to the current situation, and also that our flight was probably 90% japanese citizens heading home from Singapore.

Upon clearing customs, we met up with Wendy, who we had seen at the transit hotel in Singapore. She was kind enough to help us buy the correct train ticket into Tokyo. We exchanged details and I told her to have a read of my blog. If you're reading this, HI WENDY! THANKS FOR YOUR HELP!

We boarded the Keisei Skyliner, and I promptly smacked my head against a luggage rail that was clearly not designed for eight foot people. After a short time of sitting down, we had a japanese family ask us why we were sitting in their seat. So apparently the seats were reserved. We then looked at our tickets, and saw that our seats were aaaaaalll the way at the other end of the train. Embarrassment ensued.

After a short trip on the Skyliner, we were at Nippori station, where we managed to decipher the way to Shinjuku. We then struggled through Shinjuku station, the busiest station in the world, with our large suitcases and found our hotel.

So far, our hotel has done nothing but impress. The room is quite small, but it has everything you need, and the staff are brilliantly helpful, speaking fluent english, and going out of their way to make your trip easier.

We then went to locate the nearest "Lawson", a convenience store similar to 7/11. We needed to book tickets to the Studio Ghibli museum for the following day. After doing battle with the ticket booking machine about three times (carefully pressing buttons that we were guided to by a web printout), we came to the conclusion that no more tickets were available for that day. Also, seeing as the museum is closed on Tuesdays, and we left Tokyo on Wednesday, it looks like we aren't going to be able to go...

Emma and I then had a look through Lumine, a shopping centre attatched to Shinjuku station. We had a look through a store called "Tomorrowland". Given the promising name, I was expecting a land full of fancy electronic gadgets and other futuristic doodads. Instead, it was a clothing store. Fail. On the top level of Lumine, they had a series of eateries very similar to the one we experienced in Bangkok's MBK mall, "fifth". Unlike in Bangkok, we decided not to eat there tonight.

It was now getting very cold in Tokyo, around 5 degrees celsius. So, we decided to go back to the hotel, rug up and make plans for dinner.

We ended up on the eastern side of Shinjuku station, in a bustling shopping and restaurant district. We ate at a restaurant called "Tsunahachi", which was a highly regarded Tempura restaurant. The food which we had was interesting, to say the least. It ranged from delicious, such as the tempura prawns, to the strange, such as the tempura cuttlefish, to the "what the hell am I eating", such as the shot glass that was filled with vinegar, and something that had the taste and texture of snot. Needless to say, it was a gastronomic experience, and somehow I doubt it will be the last of the trip.

After dinner, we had a look around the shopping district, and went in to stores such as "Forever 21" (which I last saw in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York... I swear that store is following me!), Top Shop and "Mega Fun Time" (possibly not it's name), a bustling arcade full of skill testers, arcade games and strange colourful gambling machines. Emma found one of those "candy tipper" games, wherein she wasted a significant amount of Yen trying to get some Godovia chocolate and other tasty looking chocolates. Unfortunately, we walked away with nothing but a need to play "one more round" to get that tasty, tasty chocolate.

We then headed back to the room, where we watched some Japanese TV. Yes, it definitely is as weird as people talk about. I had no idea what was going on on ANY of the programs. EVEN THE NEWS. Maybe I was just too tired to understand. I'll try again tomorrow.

And with that, we went to bed.

Thoughts on the Japan situation:
It appears as though (Central) Tokyo has been barely affected by the crisis at all. The streets are still bustling, and the lights are still mainly on. The only things we have observed are that most shops close a few hours earlier, and that supermarket shelves seem to be a bit empty. There also appears to not be very much bottled water in any of the vending machines, although our hotel has a vending machine on our floor that is fully stocked, so we will be fine.

Next up: MOAR TOKYO!